Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In Flight from Lost Time

A Small Killing: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Oscar Zarate (1991): Oscar Zarate's art, lovely and grotesque and colourful, really adds layers to the this odd story of a successful designer of advertising campaigns and the demons that haunt him. Alan Moore works on a much smaller scale than he does in better-known works such as Watchmen or From Hell. This move away from the epic may explain why this sometimes seems to be Moore's least-discussed major work. No explosions, no heroes, no villains, and no real fantasy elements. Well, maybe.

An ex-patriate Englander in New York starts to see a mysterious little boy on the eve of his trip to Moscow to design an ad campaign for an American soda-pop's first foray into glasnost-era Russia. memories of past failures and betrayals begin to haunt him, always counterpointed with his own justifications and evasions -- we're shown the past and given the protagonist's often wildly off-base commentary upon it. And then, prior to travelling to Moscow, he returns to England to visit his parents.

The telling of the story is much more compliated than the above synopsis makes it, with flash-backs and flash-sideways, numinous 'normal' objects become mythic in memory, fragments of dialogue to sift through, panel composition and colouring to mull over. Zarate does some marvelous things as he moves back and forth from subjective to objective, from crowds to solitude, from the grotesque to the everyday. A fine piece of work that deserves more recognition. Maybe Moore should have stuck a superhero in it. Highly recommended.

Closing Time

Hitman Volume 7: Closing Time: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea, Garry Leach, Doug Mahnke, and others (2000-2001, 2007; collected 2012): 11 years after the series ended, DC finally gets around to finishing its collections of Garth Ennis and John McCrea's Hitman. And it's a wild ride to the end, complete with side-journeys to the hilarious Hitman/Lobo one-shot and the melancholy 'coda' to the series, JLA/Hitman, published in 2007 but taking place before the end of the regular series.

Tommy Monaghan's life as a super-powered hitman-for-hire who only kills bad people moves inexorably towards what seems like an inevitable climax. Along the way, the body count will be just south of ludicrous. Had the series not concluded with issue 60, I'm not sure how it really could have continued -- by that last issue, we're down to about three surviving regular characters.

Before the 8-issue closing arc, we get the Doug Mahnke-illustrated Lobo 'team-up', in which the inexplicably popular alien bounty hunter gets literally and figuratively de-pantsed when he bugs Tommy and the boys at their favourite bar. It's taking the piss out of a popular character in pretty typical Ennis fashion, reminiscent of his takedown of Wolverine and Spider-man during his later run on Punisher.

Ennis, of course, really hates superheroes. Except for Superman. And what he really seems to hate are grim, gritty, 'realistic' superheroes. The short arc involving Six-Pack and Section 8, the bizarre quasi-superheroes who frequent Gotham City's more rundown areas, ends with a tribute to the idea of a superhero that also informs Ennis's take on Superman both earlier in the series and in the Hitman/JLA epilogue. Someone should hire Ennis to actually write Superman. It would be a hell of a ride.

In any case, the seven volumes of Hitman mark a fascinating bit of ultraviolent comic-book story-telling that runs the gamut from slapstick to tragedy to odd, quiet moments of uplift. John McCrea's art is gritty and violent and cartoony when it needs to be, with the inks of Garry Leach adding a real gloss to the later issues. Highly recommended in its entirety.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ancient History

Year's Best Horror VII: 1978: edited by Gerald W. Page and containing the following stories: "The Pitch" by Dennis Etchison, "The Night of the Tiger" by Stephen King, "Amma" by Charles R. Saunders, "Chastel" by Manly Wade Wellman, "Sleeping Tiger" by Tanith Lee, "Intimately, With Rain" by Janet Fox, "The Secret" by Jack Vance, "Hear Me Now, My Sweet Abbey Rose" by Charles L. Grant, "Divers Hands" by Darrell Schweitzer, "Heading Home" by Ramsey Campbell, "In the Arcade" by Lisa Tuttle, "Nemesis Place" by David Drake, "Collaborating" by Michael Bishop, "Marriage" by Robert Aickman. (1979):

Solid but unspectacular Year's Best Horror from DAW, Gerald Page's last volume as an editor. Robert Aickman is weird and unnerving as ever, as are Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell (though Campbell's story is intentionally funny in a Tales from the Crypt way, with a punning title to boot).

Historical fantasy occupies a surprising amount of this volume, with "Amma", "Sleeping Tiger", "Divers Hands" and "Nemesis Place" all occurring in exotic locations of history and legend. Lisa Tuttle goes to the future instead in a story that's quite unnerving, though improbable once one thinks about it too much. Manly Wade Wellman offers another adventure of his ghost-buster Judge Pursuviant; the Schweitzer and Drake stories are also tales of recurring ghost-facers.

The Stephen King story is a curiosity insofar as King hasn't reprinted it in any of his collections. It's not a particularly memorable King offering, which may explain its omission from his collected short stories to this date. Recommended.


Year's Best Horror III: 1972: edited by Richard Davis: containing the following stories: "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal" by Robert Aickman, "The Long-Term Residents" by Kit Pedler, "The Mirror from Antiquity" by Susanna Bates, "Like Two White Spiders" by Eddy C. Bertin (aka Als Twee Grote Witte Spinnen), "The Old Horns" by Ramsey Campbell, "Haggopian" by Brian Lumley, "The Recompensing of Albano Pizar" by Basil Copper, "Were-Creature" by Kenneth Pembrooke, "Events at Poroth Farm" by T.E.D. Klein (1973).

Feast or famine in Davis's third and last Year's Best Horror volume. On the plus side, one has Robert Aickman's astonishing vampire story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal", a fitting companion piece to Sheridan LeFanu's seminal "Carmilla" and one of Aickman's sharpest and most keenly observed psychological studies. One also has an enigmatic story from Ramsey Campbell's transitional phase, a somewhat obvious gross-out from Brian Lumley, and a funny but slight and distinctly unscary story about the cut-throat politics of the publishing industry from Basil Copper.

One also gets the first version of T.E.D. Klein's marvelous "Events at Poroth Farm," a novella that would grow to become Klein's epic and towering The Ceremonies by the mid-1980's. The novella has its own hideous and unnerving charms, along with some fairly unusual intertextual play with the stories and novels that helped shape horror fiction in English up to the point at which Klein wrote his novella. It's like a snarky graduate seminar class and a horror story! Recommended.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

God's President

Gabriel Over the White House: written by Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch, based on the novel Rinehard by T.F. Tweed; directed by Gregory La Cava; starring Walter Huston (President Jud Hammond), Karen Morley (Pendola 'Pendie' Molloy), Franchot Tone (Hartley 'Beek' Beekman), C. Henry Gordon (Nick Diamond) and David Landau (John Bronson) (1933): 

Made by William Randolph Heart's production company in 1932, this movie was held back by its Hollywood distributor until March 1933 because the studio head, Louis B. Mayer, was a staunch Republican who didn't want this movie released during Herbert Hoover's presidency. It's certainly one of the oddest movies of the 1930's, a paean to fascism and socialism in the service of the Greater Good.

Walter Huston plays Jud Hammond, a corrupt President who does whatever big money and the leaders of his (unnamed) political party tell him to do. But then he gets in a car accident and, instead of dying, emerges from his coma as Super-President!

After firing everyone in his Cabinet except his personal secretary "Beek" Beekman and his former lover Pendula (!) Molloy, Hammond leaps into action to save America from despair, starvation, civil unrest, and organized crime. He declares martial law, making himself the de facto emperor of America, and then puts all the unemployed men to work in his new peacetime army of the unemployed. Soon, the President has opened up all manner of cans of whoop-ass on the forces of evil in this world.

Does the newly energized President have enemies? Sure. But he's also got help. Angelic help. Though we never see the archangel Gabriel, the movie makes it pretty clear that the President has divine help in his campaign to save America and, indeed, the world. Apparently, God is a socialist with fascist tendencies. Who knew?

Huston. always a fine actor (father of John Huston, grandfather of Anjelica) makes a convincing President here under the circumstances -- indeed his acting is finer and subtler than the film itself. Huston makes Hammond slightly off-kilter while he's possessed by Gabriel (or getting advice from him, or whatever's going on) -- he really does seem to be receiving direction from outside his body, direction only he can hear. The rest of the cast is liveable, with a young Franchot Tone solid as idealistic secretary Beekman. All this in less than 90 minutes!!! Recommended.

The Great McGinty

The Great McGinty: written and directed by Preston Sturges; starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine McGinty), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss) and William Demarest (Skeeters) (1940): Zippy political comedy from the great writer-director Preston Sturges. Indeed, this was his first directorial effort, and it won the Oscar for best screenplay.

Set in a city that seems an awful lot like Chicago but is never named, The Great McGinty shows the rise and fall of, well, Dan McGinty. We first see him as a grifter and a drifter. But once he attracts the eye of backroom political power The Boss, McGinty's rise to the governorship of his state is assured.

Political corruption is taken as a given in this movie, which may surprise people who are unaware that political corruption wasn't created in the year 2000. Sturges was something of a cynic, though he held out hope that a person's good nature could be put to decent use, just so long as that person didn't end up owing the wrong people money.

Brian Donlevy is solid as the tough, hard-luck McGinty, and Muriel Angelus is mostly fine as his secretary/wife-of-convenience, though her odd mid-Atlantic accent can occasionally distract one from what she's saying. Akim Tamiroff blusters, sweats, and yells entertainingly as The Boss, the Eastern European mobster with a heart of lead. This isn't Sturges' best film performing double duty, but it is fun and entertaining and blessedly short and fast-moving, clocking in at under 90 minutes. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I've Come To Talk With You Again

The Year's Best Horror XXII-1993 edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1994) containing "The Ripper's Tune" by Gregory Nicoll; "One Size Eats All" by T.E.D. Klein; "Resurrection" by Adam Meyer; "I Live to Wash Her" by Joey Froehlich; "A Little-Known Side of Elvis" by Dennis Etchison; "Perfect Days" by Chet Williamson; "See How They Run" by Ramsey Campbell (aka "For You to Judge"); "Shots Downed, Officer Fired" by Wayne Allen Sallee; "David" by Sean Doolittle; "Portrait of a Pulp Writer" by F. A. Pollard [as by F. A. McMahan]; "Fish Harbor" by Paul Pinn; "Ridi Bobo" by Robert Devereaux; "Adroitly Wrapped" by Mark McLaughlin; "Thicker Than Water" by Joel Lane; "Memento Mori" by Scott Thomas; "The Blitz Spirit" by Kim Newman; "Companions" by Del Stone, Jr.; "Masquerade" by Lillian Csernica; "Price of the Flames" by Deidra Cox (aka "The Price of the Flames"); "The Bone Garden" by Conrad Williams; "Ice Cream And Tombstones" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; "Salt Snake" by Simon Clark; "Lady's Portrait, Executed In Archaic Colors" by Charles M. Saplak; "Lost Alleys" by Jeffrey Thomas; "Salustrade" by D. F. Lewis; "The Power of One" by Nancy Kilpatrick; "The Lions in the Desert" by David Langford; "Turning Thirty" by Lisa Tuttle; "Bloodletting" by Kim Antieau; "Flying Into Naples" by Nicholas Royle; "Under the Crust" by Terry Lamsley.

This was editor Karl Edward Wagner's last Year's Best horror-short-stories volume for DAW Books before his death at the age of 49 due to complications caused by chronic alcohol abuse. His was a tragic end long foretold, based on most accounts I've read, a slide that went on for more than a decade. Through that slide, he edited more than a dozen volumes of this annual collection (the only such annual collection for horror at the time), and while his writing petered out over that awful span, his editing remained sharp and idiosyncratic right up until the end.

Wagner's editorship tended to focus on short stories rather than novellas and novelettes, which meant that his volumes -- especially the later ones, with much-increased page counts -- sometimes have a ridiculously large table of contents. I think sometimes there must have been one novella out there that year that was better than three of the included short stories, but Wagner's committment to a certain level of volume introduced readers to a lot of writers who might otherwise have remained mostly unknown.

This isn't Wagner's best Year's Best volume. There are a few too many gimmicky punch-line stories for my taste, and a few too many generic stories with generic titles. But there's also excellence here from Dennis Etchison -- maybe the least well-known great horror writer of his generation due to his concentration on the short story.

And there's a concluding double-punch of fine novellas by little-known writers, "Flying into Naples" by Nicholas Royle and "Under the Crust" by Terry Lamsley, that highlights Wagner's career-long strength as a finder and provider of excellence from unexplored corners of the publishing world. When Wagner died, the DAW series was buried with him. Poor Wagner, but what a legacy he left, singing out of darkness. Recommended.

Ragged Glory

The Complete Crumb Volume 15 by Robert Crumb (1983-1985; 2001): By the early 1980's, cartoonist and writer Robert Crumb was considered a has-been by a lot of people in the comics business, a relic of the Underground Comix of the 1960's and early 1970's whose time had come and gone. Crumb was well aware of this judgment.

And boy, were those people wrong.

What would instead soon happen would be Crumb's gradual and astounding Renaissance, one that has continued to this day. He'd work out new and commanding art styles, writing subjects, and obsessions. He'd co-edit the uneven but always fascinating and boundary-pushing Weirdo with young Turk Peter Bagge. He'd even release an album with his band of old-time blues aficiandos. And be the subject of a successful documentary. There's never been a second act in an American artist or writer's life to match it.

This volume, comprising material mostly from the years 1983-85, captures the beginnings of Crumb's recrudescence. Along with posters and book illustrations and covers for Weirdo, Volume 15 of the Complete Crumb also reprints the adventures of Mode O'Day, Crumb's take on early 1980's social climbing. Other media satires and commentaries appear, including Crumb's jeremiad against all post-1930 popular music and an unhinged Reagan-era take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

We also get his foray into the history of psychoanalysis, in which Crumb begins to work out the style he would refine and use over the next decades in his historical pieces, fine-lined and rigorously realistic without being photo-realistic, a style that would help make his recent adaptation of the Book of Genesis so compelling.

There's never really been anyone quite like Crumb in American art, comics, or letters. I suppose Mark Twain is the obvious comparison, but by the time he was in his 60's, Twain's best work was behind him. Crumb sometimes seems to be only getting started. He's a global treasure, and if any cartoonist should be the first to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, it's him in all his sweaty, fetishistic, frustrating, curmudeonly, humane, satiric glory. Actually, now I know who he reminds me of -- Neil Young, who also keeps trying to expand and improve while his contemporaries coast on past glories or slowly fade away. Highly recommended.


The Flash: Rogues: written by Geoff Johns; illustrated by Scott Kolins, Doug Hazlewood, and Brian Bolland (2001-2002; 2003): Relatively minor Flash volume of transitional stories between one big arc and another, leaving us with a cliffhanger to end this volume. That odd (and among comic geeks very popular) Geoff Johns mix of Silver Age reverence and extreme violence directed against supporting characters and villains is on full display here, to increasingly grotesque effect.

Turning Gorilla Grodd -- that Silver-Age-born-and-bred telepathic gorilla villain from Gorilla City, home to a race of otherwise benign super-gorillas -- into an astonishingly un-fun villain who enjoys eating human brains (you know, like gorillas are wont to do) shows some sort of talent, but it's the sort of talent that's made mainstream superhero comic books into the increasingly marginalized entertainment product they've become when they're not being adapted into movies.

Scott Kolins is a serviceable member of the 'throw lines on the page until something sticks' school of cartooning. Inker Doug Hazelwood works wonders in trying to get all that busyness under control, but there's only so much he can do. The clean, striking covers by Brian Bolland are nice, though, and a lot wittier than the interiors. Not recommended.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Doomsday Books

The Year's Best Horror Stories: XX-1991 (1992) containing Ma Qui by Alan Brennert; The Same in Any Language by Ramsey Campbell; Call Home by Dennis Etchison; A Scent of Roses by Jeffrey Goddin; Root Cellar by Nancy Kilpatrick; An Eye for an Eye by Michael A. Arnzen; The Picnickers by Brian Lumley; With the Wound Still Wet by Wayne Allen Sallee; My Giddy Aunt by D. F. Lewis; The Lodestone by Sheila Hodgson; Baseball Memories by Edo van Belkom; The Bacchae by Elizabeth Hand; Common Land by Joel Lane; An Invasion of Angels by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; The Sharps and Flats Guarantee by C. S. Fuqua; Medusa's Child by Kim Antieau; Wall of Masks by T. Winter-Damon; Moving Out by Nicholas Royle; Better Ways in a Wet Alley by Barb Hendee; Close to the Earth by Gregory Nicoll; Churches of Desire by Philip Nutman; Carven of Onyx by Ron Weighell.

Horror was in a boom period in 1991, with splatterpunk rising to the fore. Wagner's selections here in the tenth volume he'd edited of DAW's annual Year's Best Horror is solid and occasionally eclectic and broad of range, with M.R. James-influenced 'traditional' ghost stories rubbing shoulders with splatterpunk, existential horror, sexual horror, and surreal, unease-making entries by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and D.F. Lewis. Alan Brennert's story is a fine bit of Viet Nam horror, while Ramsey Campbell's story suggests that some Greek islands should not be visited by tourists. Recommended.


The Year's Best Horror: XVII-1988: edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1989) containing Fruiting Bodies by Brian Lumley; Works of Art by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; She's a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother by Harlan Ellison; The Resurrection Man by Ian Watson; Now and Again in Summer by Charles L. Grant; Call 666 by Dennis Etchison; The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison; What Dreams May Come by Brad Strickland; Regression by R. Chetwynd-Hayes; Souvenirs from a Damnation by Don Webb; Bleeding Between the Lines by Wayne Allen Sallee; Playing the Game by Ramsey Campbell; Lost Bodies by Ian Watson; Ours Now by Nicholas Royle; Prince of Flowers by Elizabeth Hand; The Daily Chernobyl by Robert Frazier; Snowman by Charles L. Grant; Nobody's Perfect by Thomas F. Monteleone; Dead Air by Gregory Nicoll; Recrudescence by Leonard Carpenter


1988 was a transitional year for horror in general. Slasher movies were on the wane, while the ultra-violence of splatterpunk was on the wax in written horror. Wagner's selection here is mostly solid, though two pieces by the usually solid Ian Watson are startlingly ineffective as horror. Three novellas -- "Fruiting Bodies", "The Great God Pan", and "Recrudescence" -- are the high points here, along with one of the better NuCthulhu stories I've read in awhile, "Souvenirs from a Damnation", and one of Elizabeth Hand's first published stories, "Prince of Flowers." Dennis Etchison is solid and disturbing as always. Recommended.

The Demon in The Exorcist was from Iraq, after all.

Paranormal Activity 2: based on the film Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli, written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst; directed by Tod Williams; starring Brian Boland (Daniel), Molly Ephraim (Ali), Katie Featherston (Katie), Sprague Grayden (Kristi), and Micah Sloat (Micah) (2010): Watching the first three Paranormal Activity movies out of sequence over a 4-year period really made things extra exciting.

While watching this second installment, it took me about half the movie to figure out when the third movie occurred (18 years before the other two) and who it involved (the sister-protagonists Katie and Kristi as children and their family). Much of the second movie takes place before the first movie and focuses for the most part on Kristi, the demon-plagued sister of the demon-plagued woman in part one, Katie. I'll give the (now) tetralogy bonus points for wild and wooly non-linear narrative order, especially as four different directors and about eight different writers worked on the first three installments.

While this movie begins to offer some explanations for the occasionally self-destructive behaviour of the sisters-as-adults, it isn't until the third film that one finds out why two characters plagued by verifiable, hostile supernatural activity are so goddamned awful at finding ways to combat it.

As a crucifix proves pretty useful towards the end of this film, I'd expect the rational Dad and the most reasonable person in the film given the circumstances, Kristi's step-daughter Ali, to be wearing clothes made entirely of crosses, rosaries, and handguns when we catch up with them at the end of the movie. Seriously, folks. Paint giant crosses on your doors and windows. And stop going to that one occult site on the Internet that didn't really help Micah in the first movie. There are five million websites devoted to ghost- and demon-busting on the Internet. Jesus, these people are terrible at using search engines!

Thematically, these omissions of reason make a fair amount of occasionally frustrating sense. The adults in the three movies aren't very bright (the teenagers and the older nanny are much smarter), have absolutely no religious beliefs, and are apparently incapable of expanding their demon-busting beyond the Exorcism for Dummies level.

This is a portrait of a terminally stupid and ignorant segment of the American population pretty much doing everything either wrong or in half-measures when confronted by real evil and exposed to real fear. You can apply that to the real-world political situation as you see fit, but while it may be accidental, it's also quite telling -- and makes some of the characterization absurdities seem much less absurd. These people don't know where or when to shoot and can't shoot straight when they do open fire.

Nothing in this second movie approaches the great oscillating-fan shots of the third movie, or the 'standing around' sequences in the first one. The scariest things in this movie are actually an automated pool vacuum and a hot tub. Make of that what you will. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Planetary Bodies

The Guardians of the Galaxy: The Power of Starhawk: written by Steve Gerber, Roger Stern, and Stan Lee; illustrated by Al Milgrom, John Buscema, and others (1975-77; collected 2011): Marvel's original Guardians of the Galaxy hailed from the 31st century, something I'm pretty sure the movie is going to avoid in favour of the more contemporary version of the team. Oh, well. This volume collects some of the grooviest science fantasy comics of my youth, most of them written by the inimitable Steve Gerber and pencilled by Al Milgrom.

Chronologically, this is the second collection of the team, picking up the story after they've liberated the solar system from Marvel's most underwhelming interstellar empire, the Brotherhood of the Badoon, with the help of the 20th century's Defenders. After quickly winning the peace by striking a bargain with the Sisterhood of the Badoon (the lizard-like Badoon having split into two competing cosmic empires along gender lines; the women are a lot nicer), the Guardians find themselves out of place on Earth.

This anomie makes sense as the team comprises a genetically engineered pair of men who are the last survivors of the Jupiter and Pluto colonies; the mysterious space-faring Starhawk; Major Vance Astro, a thousand-year-old American astronaut condemned to life inside a metal shell so that he doesn't disintegrate; the last survivor of the dominant species of the Alpha Centauri system; and, almost immediately, the last surviving genetically engineered woman from the Mercury colony.

Under the direction of Starhawk, they take to space in the starship Captain America to travel to the centre of the galaxy and confront a nihilistic super-planet shaped like a person and dubbed The Topographical Man. It's several light years across and has suns about to go supernova at each wrist. Along the way, they fight one of the Topographical Man's energy-gathering animalcules, a planet-sized, energy-eating space frog. And then things really get weird. Steve Gerber was fucking bananas in the best possible way.

Steve Gerber's ability to write really, really weird stories seems even more remarkable given the context -- this was the mid-1970's, after all. A story arc that involves the giant astral projection of a woman having sex with the possessed body of the Topographical Man...well, it's not something that would happen with any other writer. Roger Stern takes over for the last couple of issues collected here and does a pretty good job of following Gerber's lead. All in all, this really is a weird and enjoyable comic book. Though I'm still not sure how people settled on Jupiter, genetic engineering or not. Gerber didn't come up with that implausibility; he just has to deal with it. Recommended.

Welcome to the Hot Zone

Army@Love: The Hot Zone Club: written by Rick Veitch; illustrated by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine (2007): Rick Veitch's hilarious, bleak look at modern warfare and modern love is great satire that seems almost plausible.

As the endless American occupation of/war with the Middle Eastern country of Afbaghistan goes on and on, U.S. military recruitment levels drop to zero. The domestic economy collapses. People get really pissy. So begins this first collection of Army@Love, the title itself a play on the old Sgt. Rock comic Our Army at War.

Desperately seeking solutions in a world where pop-music success is measured solely by how many ringtones a song sells, the U.S. government decides to rebrand...well, warfare itself. By making it sexy. Really sexy. Periodic retreats allow for orgies of the armed forces. Sex is a recruiting tool. The Hot Zone Club welcomes any military personnel who manage to safely fuck during a firefight, one's success in this endeavour commemorated in a Hot Zone patch on one's combat fatigues. Drugs and alcohol are rampant. Actually, the soldiers are also rampant. Boy, are they rampant.

So too the bureaucrats, the civilian employees, and all the assorted family members, acquaintances, native citizens, and hangers-on. A PR expert and his secretary daily, mechanically work through the Kama Sutra as if it were a How-To guide for Power Point. It's that kind of book.

Quickly, the war becomes a success. It still shows no signs of ending, but now the cool kids are all excited about it. It's a Middle-Eastern Vacation! In this brave new world, soldiers carry their cellphones with them on the battlefield and have mundane conversations while mowing down 'insurgents.' Media coverage of the war is micromanaged and megacontrolled. There's no longer anything resembling 'real' reporting. Just the way the government likes it. Welcome to the Hot Zone. Crisis of confidence averted.

Gary Erskine adds a cleanness of line to Veitch's work that makes this stand apart from much of Veitch's pleasingly shaggy, self-inked pencilling jobs. The writing is sharp, the characters alternately sympathetic and pitiable, the war extraordinarily familiar and almost plausible. Truly one of the great comics of the oughts. If only there were more than 19 issues! Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Drums of Heaven

Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury: written by Mike Mignola; illustrated by Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart (2011-2012): The Duncan Fegredo-drawn 'middle section' of the main Hellboy saga (as opposed to the time-and-space-ranging standalones and miniseries, drawn by many) apparently comes to an end here. The last part of the saga begins in December with the first issue of Hellboy in Hell as Mike Mignola returns to the drawing board.

Fegredo really did a marvelous job over the last five years or so on the main sequence, his style similar to Mignola's without slavishly mimicking it. Fegredo really became a master of grotesqueries as he went along, though his Hellboy and others always seemed a bit skinnier to me than some of Mignola's blockier creations.

But it's been a heck of a ride, and probably not an easy one to illustrate: the second act of Hellboy left the more familiar plots of the first act behind, moving Hellboy from being a paranormal investigator with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence to a wandering hero whose quest never seemed entirely clear because Hellboy himself wasn't clear about it -- or sober for long sections of it.

Mignola and Fegredo supply a handy bit of summary towards the beginning here, voiced by Hellboy himself, before moving to the main action. And what action it is, as Hellboy and his giant hand of doom must stop the end of everything or die trying.

Unlikely allies arise, including Queen Mab and Baba Yaga and a mysterious little girl. Loose ends, signs, and portents set up in the previous 11 volumes suddenly start to make sense, often in startling fashion. There is Ragna Rok and King Arthur and the last weird battle in the West. There is an evil badger and a repentant pig. There's a dragon that bleeds molten gold.

And there's Hellboy, perhaps overmatched but always game for a fight. He doesn't know when to stop punching, and while he was born a demon, he's ultimately humanity's best friend. Or fiend. And boy, can that guy take a punch!

Everything comes to a crashing conclusion which is really only an intermission between one important battle and what will ultimately be the war for humanity. And I'm excited to see what's next. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Et Tu, Brain?

Black Friday: written by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor; directed by Arthur Lubin; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Ernest Sovac), Stanley Ridges (Kingsley/'Red' Cannon), and Bela Lugosi (Marnay) (1940): A relatively late Karloff/Lugosi team-up marred by the incredibly stupid decision of the producers to re-cast the movie, putting the little-known Stanley Ridges into the 'monster' role originally intended for Karloff. Lugosi got moved from the Karloff role into a supporting bit as a gangster.

Why? Theories abound. Lugosi was having problems with heroin addiction at the time, and in this B-movie he flubs several lines that nonetheless remain in the final cut. However, it's generally believed that the studio didn't like Karloff's performance as the dual-brained Kingsley/'Red' Cannon figure. So it goes.

Karloff is apparently an Eastern European surgeon with a slight British accent (yes, they didn't change the character name when they moved Lugosi out of the role). His English professor buddy gets run over by a gangster. The gangster breaks his back; the professor breaks his brain.

So Karloff replaces part of his friend's brain with gangster brain. Or maybe all of it. The movie is a bit shifty on the whole issue of how much brain goes where. In any case, I assume Karloff used the screw-top brain surgery method on his pal, given that he's back to looking completely normal two months later.

Soon gangster and English professor war for possession of the same body. One of the side effects of the brain surgery appears to be the ability to control one's hair colour. Man, brain surgery is awesome! I wish I could have brain surgery so that I could figure out why this movie is entitled Black Friday.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak would return to this sort of exercise in human duality in the much better Donovan's Brain. Here, it's pretty hard to believe that the professor can go on a killing spree. I might be able to believe that Karloff could beat the hell out of half-a-dozen hardened criminals. With Ridges in that role, one can only assume that having half your brain replaced gives you super-strength. Ridges is OK in the role -- he's just a disappointment compared to what Karloff might have done with it. Lugosi is completely wasted, never sharing a scene with Karloff, and never convincing in any way as a gangster. Lightly recommended.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dial 'V' for 'Vagina'

Videodrome: written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring James Woods (Max Renn), Sonja Smits (Bianca O'Blivion), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Les Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O'Blivion) and Peter Dvorsky (Harlan) (1983): David Cronenberg's career-long obsessions with bodily transformation, sex, and altered states of consciousness pulsate through this movie.

James Woods is razor-sharp as a Toronto television programming director at a thinly veiled version of early 1980's City TV (here 'Civic TV', complete with boss 'Moses' [Znaimer?]). One of Cronenberg's unexpected strengths as a film-maker has been getting career performances out of actors in what would once have been considered second-tier genre movies: Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, and Jeremy Irons have all benefitted from the Cronenberg touch, as does Woods here. Blondie's Deborah Harry holds her own in scenes with Woods, but it's clear he's the star of the show.

One of the in-jokes in Videodrome involves the early City TV's fondness for late-night 'Baby Blue Movies', softcore porn the Toronto station showed to boost ratings after the kiddies had gone to bed. Woods is basically searching for new sources of these things when he comes across Videodrome, a mysterious television signal emanating from deepest, darkest...Pittsburgh.

Videodrome broadcasts violent sexual fantasies that may or may not be staged. Woods has to find out who's really making and distributing this stuff. And woven through his investigation are the theoretical musings of the self-named Professor Brian O'Blivion, a guru of the new media with more than a passing resemblance to Cronenberg's old college professor Marshall McLuhan. The reclusive O'Blivion -- who can only be interacted with through cameras and TV screens -- has a daughter (Sonja Smits) who runs the Cathode Ray Mission for the homeless and the indigent who have been cut off from TV's cool, transforming light.

But there's a really big problem. Weird things are alive, and yet another conspiracy against the human race is in the process of unfolding. Behind the TV screen there are some forms of consciousness stalking the abyss, warring ideologies on the electromagnetic frontier with contrasting plans for humanity.

And then James Woods grows a giant vagina in his stomach and things get really weird. And the vagina plays VHS tapes. Sweet!

In its concerns with bodily transformation, strange new vistas of reality, and ideologies grown real and conscious and hungry for new minds to conquer, this is perhaps Croneberg's most Lovecraftian movie (the giant vagina sort of seals the deal). It's not a perfect movie, but it's a darned impressive one.

Is it ahead of its time? Yeah, yeah it is. Just imagine that Facebook, Skype, texting, and endless cellphone usage are all iterations of that devouring digital leviathan Videodrome and you'll start to get the idea. And only the new flesh can save us from an increasingly brutal and dehumanizing culture. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Those Who Battle Monsters

The Boys Volume 2: Get Some: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and Peter Snejberg (2007): The Wrath of Ennis turns to teen sidekicks, millionaire playboys who are really dark-night avengers, and the former Soviet Union in the second collection of The Boys.

Here, the covert group seeking to stop superheroic abuses of power sets its targets on the Tek-Knight and his former partner Swingwing during an investigation into the mysterious death of a gay teen. Celebrity culture takes its punches here, as does the often hypocritical world of celebrity charity endorsements. Well, that and dressing up in a high-tech costume to fight crime. And asteroids with vaginas.

After that, the Boys truck off to Russia to find out what a mysterious corporation, a Russian crimelord, a hyper-patriotic Russian politician, and a drug that creates unstable superheroes have in common. And by unstable, I mean physically unstable: these heroes have heads with a tendency to explode.

Loveable former Soviet hero Love Sausage helps the Boys uncover a conspiracy between capitalism and Russian patriotism, one that could plunge the entire planet into World War Three. All that and Little Hughie discovers the joys of alcohol made from Soviet-era brake fluid. MMM!!! Recommended, not for the squeamish or easily offended.

Violent Cases

The Boys Volume 1: The Name of the Game: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson (2006-2007): Even though Irish comic-book writer Garth Ennis has done a lot of work for Marvel and DC over the last 20 years, he hates superheroes. Boy, does he hate superheroes. Well, except for Superman.

The Boys is Ennis's superhero hate made manifest, a scabrous series about superpowered beings and the people who hate them and the people who want to be them and the people who try to control them. The Boys bears a thematic resemblance to the great Marshal Law series by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill, another world of superheroes gone terribly wrong. Ennis's superheroes may sometimes superficially appear to be like the beloved characters of pop culture (indeed, they often do in both costume and name, anyway). But for the most part, his superheroes are corrupted by fame and power, nearly as bad as the supervillains they have violent, super-destructive public battles with. Sometimes worse.

And so a mysterious former CIA operative puts together a team to monitor superheroes and, when necessary, destroy either their public image or, if possible, their existence. Collectively, these are the Boys (though one is a woman). They have super-powers because that's pretty much necessary to survive conflicts with super-powered beings. And their leader, Butcher, really hates superpowers. And he's got an agenda of his own.

This first volume introduces the Boys and sets them on their first case, an investigation of a teen superhero group (think Teen Titans or Young Justice). The horrible world just beneath the surface of jaunty, colourful superheroing fairly firmly puts one on the side of the Boys, even if they're no angels. Darick Robertson's clean, straightforward art lays everything out in almost clinical detail -- he's about as normative as a modern-day (mostly) superhero artist can be. That the most sympathetic member of the Boys, Little Hughie, has been drawn to look almost exactly like Simon Pegg adds a whole other layer of sympathy. Well, as does the origin of Little Hughie's antipathy towards superheroes, an event that brings him to the attention of Butcher.

Terrible things happen. So do funny things. Sometimes they're the same thing. Ennis's satiric vision is as sharp as ever, the character names often sadly appropriate (in this world, the Superman stand-in is named The Homelander. And boy, is he a prick). Early throwaways seem to promise later development (the existence of fundamentalist Christian superhero groups seems somehow logical and creepy, though no creepier than the 'Extreme' super-teens the Boys try to take down).

The deforming capability of power (and the will-to-power) seems to be Ennis's main target here, as torture and sexual cruelty come esaily to most super-beings. And they're never punished for their cruelties and murders because, hey, they're part of the Establishment. People like them. They're cool. They've got power. Well, here comes the Butcher. Recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Time Loop

Looper: written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Joe), Bruce Willis (Old Joe), Emily Blunt (Sara), Paul Dano (Seth), Jeff Daniels (Abe), and Pierce Gagnon (Cid) (2012): Rian Johnson's Brick was an idiosyncratic gem, a high-school drama played like a hard-boiled film noir, complete with 1940's inflected dialogue and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his first defining dramatic role after years on Third Rock from the Sun. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt re-team here for another genre-buster. Looper is at least nominally science fiction, but it's also a Western. And another crackerjack film noir.

The major influences for Looper seem to be Shane and that terrific modern noir of the early 1990's, After Dark, My Sweet (though that film was based on a Jim Thompson novel from the 1950's). Then throw in time travel and, um, telekinesis -- more specifically, Jerome Bixby's Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life." This is nothing if not a mash-up.

Organized crime in the 2070's sends its targets back to to the 2040's to be killed by a 'Looper.' Why? Something about bodies being difficult to get rid of in the 2070's. Frankly, this is the shakiest part of the premise. Some of the other problems with this use of time travel could be explained by the disintegration of organized government, which would explain why there aren't Time Cops running around the 2040's. But then, who's discovering the bodies in the 2070's?

We'll give them this as a starting point. The rest of the movie is pretty smart, with nice background details that sketch in the decaying America of the 2040's without throwing it in one's face. There's also an automated flying crop-duster that made me smile -- it looks like the country cousin of the Imperial Probe Droid from The Empire Strikes Back.

But having seen Brick before seeing Looper also helps explain certain things, as Looper is equally stylized and non-mimetic, if not anti-mimetic: for one, the stuff with Blunderbusses and Gats seems more like a commentary on movie gunmen than a realistic categorizing of weaponry. Because these guys are all carrying big guns with which they're only intermittently able to hit something other than their own feet.

The movie plays out with some deft twists, turns, and at least one major reset button. Time travel is a tricky thing. Bruce Willis, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's future self, is tough and ruthless; Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls off the difficult feat of playing a monster who develops a soul. He's developed into a fine actor. Pierce Gagnon does some fine child acting, and Emily Blunt pulls off an American accent. Time folds in upon itself. The rules the movie sets out for time travel make a sort of sense right up to the climax, at which point...well, you'll see. Recommended.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Return of the Space-Gods

A Celestial gives one thumb up...

The Eternals Volume One: written by Jack Kirby; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and John Verpooten (1975-76; collected 2007): Jack Kirby's return to Marvel brought this tale of space gods and god-like humans to the company. At first, it may have seemed as if Kirby had simply continued his New Gods storyline in another venue, but The Eternals quickly established itself as a different kind of thing about many of the same things that have always occupied Kirby.

The most interesting of these new things are Kirby's Celestials, 2000-foot-tall space aliens whose powers are god-like and motives mysterious. While mucking about with human genetics millennia ago, they created two spin-off races of humanity: the noble, man-like Eternals and the protean Deviants, who produced offspring in a wide assortment of shapes and powers.

In this Chariots of the Gods scenario, the Eternals have provided humanity with the model for many of its gods while the Deviants have provided the model for many of its demons. The Deviants even managed to enslave humanity for a time in some antediluvian past, before the Celestials destroyed their empire in a massive flood.

The Eternals begins with the return of the Celestials, who will stand in judgement over humanity and its off-shoots for fifty years prior to deciding their fate. Politicking and warfare between the Eternals and the Deviants soon breaks out, with humanity finally discovering its siblings. And things get weird very fast.

Most of the Eternals have names that echo those of human gods and figures of myth -- Ikaris, Thena, Zuras, Makkari, Ajak -- though in all cases, they turn out to be models for many different figures from many different cultures. The Eternals get around when they're not hiding out on mountaintops. And they neither age nor die.

One of the oddities for the time of publication was that The Eternals soon establishes that it's a wide-ranging group book without a clear, single protagonist. The stolid Eternal Ikaris initially seems to be the hero, but he vanishes for lengthy sections of the narrative. This sort of storytelling would be much more commonplace ten to fifteen years down the road; in 1975, it's downright peculiar to shift focus from group to group (or sometimes away from all recurring characters entirely) for entire issues at a time.

Art-wise, the Celestials are the stand-out here, one of Kirby's most bizarre and foreboding bits of design, with elements of Aztec and Mayan art mixed in with Kirby's expressionistic take on computer circuitry and high technology. Also, they neither speak nor have thought balloons. Later writers, when using the Celestials, would introduce both speech and thought balloons to these cosmic giants, rapidly removing all mystery from them. For now, though, they're cool and sublime, as is the book itself. Recommended.

Some are born to endless night...

Batman: The Court of Owls: written by Scott Snyder; illustrated by Greg Capullo and others (2011-2012): DC's line-wide reboot, the New 52, has yielded a number of lengthy storylines right out of last year's gate. A case in point would be the Court of Owls storyline in the regular Batman title. It occupied the first 11 issues of Batman along with an annual and a crossover into all the Bat-titles, and its repercussions are still being felt.

A lengthy 'Everything You Know is Wrong' story, The Court of Owls posits that Gotham City has been run from behind the scenes for centuries by a cabal of the rich and powerful called the Court of Owls. They even have their own nearly unkillable enforcers, the Talons, to wipe out any opposition. Batman has remained unaware of them until the storyline begins. Then, he finds out that they've been behind many of Gotham's woes -- and possibly killed his parents.

Snyder keeps things moving along quite briskly, and Capullo's art is a really pleasing take on the Dark Knight, clean-lined and filled with shadows. The story starts to bog at the end, undone by too much length and a few too many surprises.

The real villain of the piece, an obscure character introduced in the 1970's and then quickly consigned to the Now Let Us Never Speak Of This Again Bin, is a bit underwhelming. Nonetheless, there are a lot of good Batman moments here. If only DC were still capable of producing standalone stories instead of endless event storylines. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Aaron Burr in Space

DC Showcase Presents Green Lantern Volume 5: written by Denny O'Neil and Eliot S Maggin; illustrated by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Mike Grell, Dick Dillin and others (1970-75; collected 2012): The classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories herein, mostly by writer Denny O'Neil and penciller Neal Adams, are available from DC in a variety of formats. I like this one because B&W is a nice way to appreciate Adams' art. Also, Adams doesn't redraw the work in this volume for contemporary publication, making this the real deal as it was when it was published.

By 1970, DC's Green Lantern title was foundering in sales. Along came editor Julius Schwartz, O'Neil, Adams, and a mandate that could really only come in comic books: team Green Lantern up with another character whom he shared a dominant colour with. Thus was born the somewhat oddball pairing of cosmic policeman and non-super-powered bowman.

O'Neil and Schwartz decided to make the series "relevant" by having the characters confront social problems that include racism, over-population, and pollution. These social problems were often rendered melodramatically or even parodically, but they were nonetheless a departure for DC Comics and for Green Lantern, both of which had always been more comfortable in a more complete fantasy world.

The pairing didn't save the title from cancellation (though Green Lantern would be back on his own soon enough, first as a back-up in The Flash and then in his own book again). It certainly made for a historically interesting ride, though. How well do these things stand up now? Well, Adams' hyperrealism still looks terrific 40 years later. O'Neil's scripts creak and groan a lot under the weight of their own hyperrealism (which is not the same as realism) and melodrama, but there remain a number of strong moments of writing.

The social consciousness rapidly vanishes once Green Arrow is gone, while the straight-forward superheroics return. An O'Neil-penned tale about how aliens abducted Aaron Burr after his murder of Alexander Hamilton and made him their leader stands out in the later stories, though perhaps not for the right reasons. It's completely bonkers. All in all, recommended.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dracula's Quest

Seance for a Vampire by Fred Saberhagen (1994): Saberhagen's revisionist Dracula series began in the late 1970's with the delightful The Dracula Tapes, narrated by the bloody 'Count' himself, and continued through nearly a dozen volumes before Saberhagen's death in 2007. This is the third-last of these novels, and the second to pair Dracula with his cousin (in Saberhagen's world) Sherlock Holmes.

Dracula is something of a droll narrator of events, this drollness counterpointed by sections narrated by Dr. Watson, who doesn't entirely trust his best friend's cousin. But while Dracula is a master of violence, he abides by his own code of honour in Saberhagen's universe -- and part of that code involves stopping vampires from preying on humans against their will. The events of Bram Stoker's Dracula were, after all, narrated by pretty much everyone BUT Dracula.

A seance meant to draw forth the spirit of a mysteriously drowned young woman seems to call forth instead a vampire. Holmes and Watson are on the case, but once vampirism turns up, Dracula must be called in for assistance. Soon, the unlikely trio are jaunting around the early 20th-century countryside on the trail of a vampire seeking lost treasure from more than a century before -- and wreaking vengeance on the descendants of his long-dead nemesis.

Before it's all over, we'll visit pre-Revolutionary Russia and have an encounter with one of the early 20th-century's most notorious mystery men. It's a good thing Watson packed the wooden bullets -- no metals, not even silver, have the slightest effect on a vampire. While lacking the near-epic scope of The Holmes-Dracula File, Seance for a Vampire is a fun read with some poignant moments set off by comparisons between the never-aging Dracula and Holmes and Watson, now in their fifties and beginning to show it. Recommended.

Fast Company

Showcase Presents The Flash Volume 3: written by John Broome, Gardner Fox, and Robert Kanigher; illustrated by Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, and Murphy Anderson (1963-66; collected 2011): The Flash was always the jauntiest of DC's Silver-Age reimaginings of Golden-Age characters, sleekly drawn by Carmine Infantino and written with a flair for the oddball, mostly by John Broome. As with other DC titles of the 1950's and 1960's, psychology is mostly absent and rapid-fire superheroics are the norm. Also, there are a lot of aliens.

There is some Marvel-Age influence here as the volume moves to the mid-1960's. A cover with the Flash abandoning his uniform and his superheroing seems pretty clearly inspired by a classic Spider-man cover of the same time period. Some personal angst slips into a couple of the stories -- being the Flash does occasionally play havoc with the Flash's relationship with reporter Iris West -- but the overall tone is usually light. One story has the Flash participating in bizarre, tearful conversations with his costume. The mental stability of superheroes often seems pretty precarious.

And then there's the Flash's host of supervillains. Captain Cold, the Trickster, Captain Boomerang, Heatwave, the Top, Abracadabra, the Reverse-Flash, and numerous others may be occasionally homicidal, but for the most part they're either trying to steal things or seemingly obsessed with playing tag with the Flash. And there are a lot of aliens from both space and other dimensions trying to destroy the Earth, or conquer it, or whatever.

The Flash's superspeed, so advanced as to give him complete control over every atom in his body, comes in handy. Occasional 'Flash Facts' explain why our hero can do certain things (like run straight through a brick wall) that one might think would kill him. Thankfully for Earth, relativity doesn't seem to apply to the Flash, as his jogs at the speed of light don't make him so massive as to destroy the Earth. Seminal Flash artist Carmine Infantino draws everything with an angular, lunging quality that highlights the speed of the Flash and the occasional slowness of everything around him. Phew! Recommended.