Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Challengers of the Unknown Archives Volume 2: written by Jack Kirby, Ed Herron, and others; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Roz Kirby, and others (1958-59; collected 2004): Jack Kirby's early run on DC's first Silver-Age superhero team concludes here, as a falling-out with series editor Jack Schiff sent Kirby to (not-yet) Marvel, where he'd soon help create the Marvel Age of Comics.

The Challengers, non-powered adventurers, take on a wide variety of supernatural and super-scientific menaces here. They're abducted by aliens, develop powers of their own, and have to deal with various supernatural menaces unearthed and unleashed upon the world. It's a lot of fun, and a template Kirby's Fantastic Four would soon be following over at Marvel. Heroes vs. giant monsters = awesome.

Legendary comics artist Wally Wood supplies some of the inks over Kirby's pencils, and the results are spectacular -- Wood is one of the two or three best inkers Kirby ever had, and it's a shame they didn't get to work together more often. It's beautiful stuff. Recommended.

Possums of the Unknown

Mark of the Vampire: written by Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert, John L. Balderson, Tod Browning, H.S. Kraft, and Samuel Ornitz; directed by Tod Browning; starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor), Elizabeth Allan (Irena), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto), and Henry Wadsworth (Fedor) (1935): Enjoyable, concise (61 minutes!) remake of Browning's mostly lost silent film, London After Midnight.

Lionel Barrymore clearly has a hoot playing a vampire-fighting professor called in by the police somewhere in Early Hollywood Europe, where none of the accents match, to solve the murder of one man and the harassment by vampires of his daughter and her fiance. Lionel Atwill is his usual sturdy self as the inspector in charge of the case, and Jean Hersholt does some version of a European accent that could be German, could be Russian, could be almost anything. As everyone else in the movie has either American or British accents, it's a bit anomalous.

Bela Lugosi appears in several scenes, but doesn't speak until the last one of the movie. There are some nice special effects for the time, and an enjoyable atmosphere of menace and decay. The ending is a humdinger. Also, dig that possum incongruously wandering around a European castle! Maybe he's looking for the armadillo Browning put in Dracula's castle in his version of Dracula (1931)! Recommended.

The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951: written and drawn by Chester Gould (Collected 1970): The nostalgia boom of the late 1960's and early 1970's led to a lot of comic strips from the 1930's and 1940's being collected in hardcover. This is one of those collections.

Dick Tracy's Golden Age, which this collection covers, was one of the finest and most popular in the history of dramatic American comic strips, with a readership that may have been up to 70% of the American reading public at its peak.

By the late 1930's, writer-artist Chester Gould had reached his stylized peak of artistic form. And it's quite a peak for the dramatic comic strip, one matched perhaps only by Milton Caniff and Harold Gray.

Tracy now fought increasingly grotesque villains with increasingly descriptive names and increasingly horrifying actions. The graphics are amazingly, well, graphic, and this in a collection that actually censors the more violent endings of some villains, including one in which a Nazi spy ends his life impaled on a flag pole waving the American flag. Tracy's Rogue's Gallery is a clear influence on Batman's similarly twisted foes, while Tracy's use of forensic methods also foreshadows the Batman's expertise in that area.

The reproduction of these strips is mostly competent, especially later in the run. The large Sunday panels are missing, which means certain key events are referred to but not shown. A serious reader would want to track down some of the excellent contemporary reprint volumes of Dick Tracy, but this is certainly worth picking up used as a sampling of the great detective. The stories are clever, suspenseful, and very entertaining. Recommended.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Holidays In and Out of the Sun

Total Recall: adapted by Kurt Wimmen and Mark Bomback from the screenplay for the 1990 film of the same named adapted by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill, and Kurt Wimmer from the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell (Quaid/Hauser), Kate Beckinsale (Lori Quaid), Jessica Biel (Melina), Bryan Cranston (Cohaagen), and Bill Nighy (Matthias) (2012): Surprisingly enjoyable, relatively non-campy remake of the 1990 film that was itself a very loose adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story. Neither film has the courage to go all the way with the mind-fuck that Dick's story ends with, but it's Hollywood, where Inception is the height of reality-bending.

This Total Recall leaves out Mars entirely and instead posits a future Earth where chemical warfare has reduced the world to two liveable zones, one a British Federation (though few have British accents) and the other the Australian Colony that supplies the Federation with manual labour. Travel between the two zones is with a massive and fairly nifty elevator through the centre of the Earth. Admittedly, I'm pretty sure a civilization capable of building a massive elevator through the centre of the Earth would probably find a little chemical warfare clean-up to be an easy task. Oh, well.

As with the first film, a visit to Rekall, a company that imprints false fantasy memories into the minds of people looking to escape their humdrum lives, causes Doug Quaid to discover that his own memories are false. Or are they? Much shooting and exploding ensues.

The original was funnier, and there's no substitute here for Kwato, but the three-breasted hooker does have spectacular breasts. Three of them!!! Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale are decent as good and bad love interests, while Colin Farrell invests his character with humanity and a seriousness of purpose that actually make one care about what happens to him. Recommended.

Chernobyl Diaries: written by Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke; directed by Bradley Parker; starring Ingrid Berdal (Zoe), Dimitri Diatchenko (Uri), Olivia Dudley (Natalie), Devin Kelley (Amanda), Jesse McCartney (Chris), Nathan Phillips (Michael), and Jonathan Sadowski (Paul) (2012): Oren Peli, patron saint of the second generation of found-footage horror movies, here supplies some of the writing for a conventional narrative horror film that nonetheless borrows all its camera tricks (by which I mean shaky-cam, and lots of it) from Peli's Paranormal Activity movie.

Six stupid twenty-somethings and one Russian guide visit the area around Chernobyl, long evacuated of people, still somewhat radioactive. You know hilarity will ensue. And it does! The stupidity quotient is quite high here -- for everything to happen as it does, the guide has to do something inexplicably stupid in the middle of the night.

I'm pretty sure I know more about the effects of radiation than the people who made this film. Disappointingly, none of the film was actually shot around Chernobyl. Serbia apparently has a lot of abandoned stuff. The characters range from unlikeable to just plain stupid. And the shocking climax lacks both shock and horror. If you figure out what the 'Diaries' of the title refers to, please contact me. Not recommended.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: adapted by Gideon Defoe by his book of the same name; directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt; starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Brian Blessed, and Salma Hayek (2012): If not for Paul Meahan, I would have gone to my grave believing this was another one of those crazy-ass Christian Veggie-Tales movies. Instead, it's an enjoyable romp from the people at Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run).

Much pirating, Charles Darwining, and poking fun at Queen Victoria fills the movie. It's not the greatest animated movie I've ever seen, but it's funny, with a number of fine set-pieces and some nice voicework from everyone involved. There are also a surprising number of gags based on the reaction that occurs when baking soda meets vinegar. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

All Judgement Fled

The Central Park Five: written and directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon; starring Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise as themselves (2012): Harrowing documentary about how police and bureaucratic incompetence, if not malevolence, put five African-American and Latino teenagers in jail for a rape they didn't commit in 1989, the rape being the headline-grabbing Central Park Jogger case.

This is unlike any documentary Ken Burns has worked on, as it eschews narration for a direct cinema approach of testimonies, period footage, and voiceovers from the people involved. It's a sorrowful and mind-bending thing.

With DNA evidence, a timeline, and a suspect the police never bothered following up on all pointing away from the five teenagers, only confessions by the five -- solicited and coached through fear, intimidation, their own youthful misunderstanding of what was going on, and exhaustion brought on by two days of grilling -- would convince two separate juries to convict them.

This despite the fact that the confessions themselves didn't make any sense in relation to the case, and that a fairly rigorous timeline put them far away from the scene of the crime. Physical evidence was either ignored or spun by the prosecution. Meanwhile, the press coined a term for the alleged gang rape -- "wilding" -- that ultimately referred to nothing that had happened. The teens were reviled as mutants, monsters and wolves in the mainstream press before the trial ever got underway. And the victim remembered nothing of the crime when she finally woke up from her coma.

The Five were eventually freed, in one of those twists that seems like something out of The Shawshank Redemption. Their civil suit against the City of New York drags on, as the City refuses to admit any culpability. Anyone who comprehensively says 'The police are your friend' should be forced to watch this. It's chilling. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

Carrie by Stephen King (1974): King's first published novel still has zing. Or zip. Or whatever. It's not particularly representative of his work as a whole, though its telekinetic namesake is representative of a lot of King novels from the first ten years of his novels.

Carrie gives us a powerful telekinetic; The Shining gives us a boy and a man who are both telepathic and precognitive; The Dead Zone gives us a precognitive man; Firestarter gives us a pyrokinetic girl. King's interest in psychic abilities seems very much a product of the similarly interested 1970's America. I'm surprised he didn't do a novel involving pyramid power.

Carrie also features atypical King narration, a combination of third-person omniscient and 'clippings' from fictional books, magazines, and letters. It works, though just barely: some suspense is leeched out of the text by our knowledge that something extraordinarily dire is going to happen from pretty much the first page onwards. Of course, the movie strips these documentarian elements away, leaving only the high-school narrative that is Carrie's greatest strength.

King himself noted that in going back to Carrie after Columbine, he found her much less sympathetic than he remembered. Pitiful, perhaps, and warped by persecution and a loopy, homicidal mother, but not sympathetic. Anyone who has been an outcast can feel pangs of horror at Carrie's sad life, but she's ultimately no more sympathetic than John Gardner's Grendel, and much less so than Anthony Burgess's Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

This is still a tight, fascinating read (it may be King's shortest novel). Separated from high school as a student by a few short years and as a teacher not at all, King conjures up a world that's a nightmare for students who are low in the pecking order, where even a good deed can lead to horrible consequences. Recommended.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King containing the following stories: The Mist, Here There Be Tygers, The Monkey, Cain Rose Up, Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Jaunt, The Wedding Gig, Paranoid: A Chant, The Raft, Word Processor of the Gods, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, Beachworld, The Reaper's Image, Nona, For Owen, Survivor Type, Uncle Otto's Truck, Morning Deliveries (Milkman#1), Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman#2), Gramma, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, The Reach (1968-1985; collected 1985):

Stephen King's second short-story collection ranges from the beginnings of his published career as a writer in the late 1960's to stories that were not published until the release of this collection. As always with his collections, King rewrites a lot from the originally published versions. Indeed, "The Raft" is entirely recreated: King has never been able to locate the original published story from the late 1960's, a story he was paid for but which he's not entirely certain was actually printed.

The result is a collection with more range than the first collection -- Night Shift -- but a certain drop in intensity and consistency. One negative is the inclusion of two of King's science-fiction horror stories, "The Jaunt" and "Beachworld," neither of which are particularly scary or well-imagined. The science fiction of interplanetary travel and robots and alien planets is not an area in which King is especially good. But by God, he's going to keep trying to write it even if doing so kills either him or us or possibly both.

Thankfully, both the straightforward horror and the darkly fantastic are handled a lot better. "The Reach" is probably King's best tale of non-horrific supernatural doings, a meditation on mortality set off the coast of Maine. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut", a more Bradburyian effort, is also a lot of fun, while "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" is a solid examination of madness and writing.

On the horror front, we get the Lovecraft-by-way-of-the-drive-in romp "The Mist." "The Monkey" and "The Raft" are the best of the horror stories here, turning the mundane (a wind-up monkey toy, a popular swimming destination just a bit out of season) into the terrible. That wind-up monkey is one of King's best distillations of strange, explanation-resistant horror. I'd like to see it go a few rounds with the more benevolent wind-up Chattery Teeth of the much-later story of the same name.

Other stand-outs include the understated story of supernatural revenge, "Uncle Otto's Truck," and the murderous road-odyssey "Nona." The latter works beautifully as a gender-flipped companion to King's earlier novel Carrie, as it deals with many of the same gender and social issues from a different perspective. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

Night Shift by Stephen King, containing the following stories:
The Woman in the Room, One for the Road, The Man Who Loved Flowers, The Last Rung on the Ladder, Children of the Corn, I Know What You Need, Quitters, Inc., The Lawnmower Man, The Ledge, Strawberry Spring, Sometimes They Come Back, Trucks, Battleground, Gray Matter, The Boogeyman, The Mangler, I Am the Doorway, Night Surf, Graveyard Shift, and Jerusalem's Lot (Collected 1978):

Stephen King's first collection of short stories spans a decade of his writing life, more than half of it before he broke big with the sale of the novel Carrie. Overall, it's his best collection of pure horror, though there are also studied, moving, non-horror outliers contained here, "The Woman in the Room" and "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

King shows his early range, as the horror stories range from the Lovecraft pastiche "Jerusalem's Lot" through the fairly straightforward thrillers "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge" to the loopy tale of beer gone bad, "Gray Matter." There's also a quasi-sequel to Salem's Lot, "One for the Road," and a dry run for The Stand, "Night Surf," inspired in part by a line from a Bruce Springsteen song ("The kids are huddled on the beach in the mist").

The scariest stories showcase King's early mastery of fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's committment, all those years ago, to trying to come up with a formula for new horrors for the industrial age in the 1940 short story "Smoke Ghost" and subsequent efforts. In stories like "The Mangler" and "Sometimes They Come Back", a matter-of-fact approach to the supernatural that recalls Leiber's Conjure Wife is super-collided with modern technology.

So we get a possessed industrial steam-press in "The Mangler" or magic that partially relies on recorded sound and visual effects in "Sometimes They Come Back." "Gray Matter," while straightforwardly horrific, has as its sinister contaminant a bad can of beer -- this itself a play on a 1970's incident involving beer that had seaweed extract intentionally put into it, with dire (but non-lethal) results.

The scariest story here, and maybe the scariest story King has ever written, is "The Boogeyman." It works perfectly on the surface level of horror, but it also could be a case study for King's occasionally misguided belief that horror is really all about subtext: the monster seems to be a metaphoric stand-in for a child-abusing, wife-hitting husband. But it also isn't. Or is everything in the protagonist's head? In any case, the damn story has made me afraid of closets ever since. All in all, I think this is probably one of the ten best, non-best-of horror collections in English ever assembled.

There are occasional stretches of clumsy prose and a couple of laughable mis-steps in the description department ("The Last Rung on the Ladder", otherwise excellent and understated, gives us dimensions for a barn that would roughly be the size of NASA's vehicle assembly building. Coupled with the ladder shenanigans in The Shining, this makes me wonder if King has never actually climbed a ladder, or at least been told how high those ladders actually were). But like Robinson Crusoe's amazing disappearing-and-reappearing pants, these mistakes simply add a bit of rough charm to an otherwise terrific performance. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Superman and...

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-ups Volume 1: written by Martin Pasko, Cary Bates, Len Wein, Paul Levitz, Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway and others; illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Joe Staton, Ross Andru, Murphy Anderson, Dick Dillin, Jim Starlin, and others (1978-1980; collected 2011): Back in the Bronze, Pre-Crisis Age of DC Comics, this was the first new regular Superman title to be released in about 30 years.

As heroes still didn't cross willy-nilly over into one another's books all the time (even over at Marvel), the team-up book was still a viable concept. Indeed, long-running Superman/Batman team-up book World's Finest had briefly turned into a Superman/everyone-else book in the early 1970's.

Reading Superman comics from the late 1970's and early 1980's, I'm struck by what a beating the Man of Steel takes during what revisionist comic-book history has portrayed as his 'too powerful to be interesting' phase, a phase which supposedly led to the John Byrne reboot of Superman in 1986, a reboot that radically depowered the Man of Steel. He's still very powerful in these stories, but he can be knocked out, chained up, and even frozen. And this is a good thing -- there should be a sense of peril, especially when one needs two superheroes to solve a problem.

A lot of the art contained herein is terrific, especially those issues illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, an artist's artist whose work seems to be more famous among fellow comic-book artists (the aforementioned Byrne is a big fan) than among fans. It's fine-lined, detailed, exquisitely composed art (DC is releasing an all-Garcia-Lopez Superman reprint volume in the next month or so, a great idea). He's also the sort of artist whose work looks incredibly good in the black-and-white Showcase format.

The only reason he didn't draw more comics was that Warner made him the main Superman artist for non-comic-book material, which is to say everything from Superman lunchbox art to Superman French Fries (!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

There's other solid work here from Jim Starlin, Joe Staton, and others, and the writing is generally solid as well, with most of the writers having a firm grasp on Superman's personality and morals. The only real misfire collected here is a Superman/Swamp Thing team-up written by Steve Engelhart and illustrated by Hawkman and Superman veteran Murphy Anderson. Engelhart makes Superman terribly dense, while Anderson simply cannot draw Swamp Thing. But other than that issue, the book is very enjoyable, maybe never moreso than when an amnesiac Superman teams up with Sgt. Rock and East Company. Recommended.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

100 by 54

100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories: edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin Greenberg with stories by Washington Irving, Chet Williamson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Donald A. Wollheim, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Al Sarrantonio, Henry Slesar, Richard T. Chizmar, Avram Davidson, Gary L. Raisor, E. F. Benson, Saki, Frances Garfield, Mark Twain, Phyllis Eisenstein, William F. Nolan, Ed Gorman, Eric Frank Russell, Melissa Mia Hall, Joe R. Lansdale, Ruth Berman, H. P. Lovecraft, Edward D. Hoch, James E. Gunn, Robert Sheckley, Barry Pain, Fritz Leiber, Richard Laymon, Jerome K. Jerome, Ramsey Campbell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Norman Partridge, Juleen Brantingham, Barry N. Malzberg, Thomas F. Monteleone, James H. Schmitz, Frank A. Javor, E. G. Swain, Bernard Capes, Nancy Holder, Charles Dickens, William Hope Hodgson, David Drake, Mort Castle, Bill Pronzini, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Susan Casper, Rudyard Kipling, Sharon Webb, F. Paul Wilson, Manly Wade Wellman, and Stephen Crane (1993).

Fun, long anthology of horror stories of ten pages or less, arranged alphabetically. The book covers a range of about 150 years, starting with Dickens and Poe and ending up in the early 1990's with Norman Partridge. It's entirely inevitable that I'll find some of the selections odd and some of the omissions odder.

What I do like, though, are the multiple selections from Donald A. Wollheim, known much better now as the founder and name-giver of DAW Books, but also a fine short-story writer. "The Rag-Thing" is a terrific little piece, as is "Babylon: 70 Miles." In a perfect world, I suppose one could ask that every story be written by a different person. And in my perfect world, the parodies would be in their own anthology, as neither a Twain nor a Jerome K. Jerome piece raise any hair at all (nor are meant to, as they parody the form and content of ghost stories).

I've noticed this penchant in a lot of horror anthologists -- there's always a couple of parodies that aren't scary and were never meant to be. But there they are in something labelled 'horror.' I actually don't get it. There are great humourous horror stories of various types, and there are extremely subtle parodies that can still work as a horror story.

However, the overt 'ha-ha' stuff just seems out of place in a horror anthology because it isn't actually horror. Is there some unconscious nervousness about horror's respectability that causes the insertion of the parody into a non-parodic anthology? I don't know. I also dislike not knowing the year a story was published, but I seem to have grown resigned to anthologies generally omitting what I think is a necessary piece of editorial machinery. In any case, recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Animal, Man!

Kamandi Volume 2: written by Jack Kirby and Gerry Conway; illustrated by Jack Kirby, D. Bruce Berry, and Mike Royer with Joe Kubert (1975-76; collected 2012): Kirby's last lengthy comic-book run was a popular post-apocalyptic saga that occasionally seemed like a funny-animal version of The Road Warrior. DC's second new Omnibus volume finishes Kirby's run on the mid-1970's series that saw young human Kamandi making his way back and forth across a radically changed "Earth After Disaster."

Animals are now intelligent. Really intelligent. And occasionally bipedal. Various kingdoms occupy the Earth, from relatively benign pockets of apes and tigers and dogs to extremely dangerous groups of ... well, flying sharks, for one. Some animals, including dolphins, work to preserve the endangered species known as man; others, like the bizarre lobster/clam coalition, collect humans for their 'Air-quariums.'

Kamandi's quest for knowledge -- he ultimately seeks the cause of the Great Disaster -- takes him from place to place, each offering both action and some form of commentary on our own world. Action sequences and general weirdness abound. Two standout issues feature a cult of apes who worship Superman's costume as they wait for the Day of His Return; another puts Kamandi and friends on-board a Soviet space station with a hideously altered cosmonaut who's somehow survived the unknown stretch of centuries since the Great Disaster.

Plausible much of this is not -- but it is fun. Canada's become a wildlife haven defended by the united species of Europe against poachers, a haven that's home, among other things, to a seemingly endless parade of giant, mostly benign insects. If you've ever wanted to see a talking, bipedal bulldog in 19th-century British military dress leading a boy, a metal man, and a giant bipedal ant into battle, this is the comic book for you.

It's interesting to note the tonal shift as Gerry Conway takes over the scripting duties from Kirby in the last three issues collected here. Kamandi becomes much more self-pitying, and the animals become much more stereotypically villanous. Narratively speaking, it's a bit jarring. All in all, though, highly recommended -- and probably really enjoyable if one is six or seven years old.

The Daredevil Inside (What a Feeling)

Daredevil: Lone Stranger: written by Ann Nocenti; illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson (1989; collected 2011): Good old Marvel, putting together a reprint volume that begins with a story set in a much larger company-wide crossover (the 1989 X-Men Inferno storyline) and ends without resolution after teasing a somewhat bizarre and imminent crossover between Daredevil and the super-powered race of the Inhumans.

Ann Nocenti's writing is pretty sharp here, though one wonders whether she made the decision to pit super-acrobat and super-sensed blind (former) attorney Daredevil against supernatural menaces that don't really seem all that comfortable in the mean-streets world of Daredevil. Marvel's Lucifer, Mephisto, makes several appearances, along with the supernaturally transformed Manhattan of the Inferno storyline and another demonic presence whom Daredevil fights alongside longtime bud Spider-man.

Daredevil himself, fresh off some embarrassing screw-up or another, is in full mope mode here, wandering around the countryside for a few issues feeling sorry for himself, fighting a couple of mutant jerks (The Blob and Pyro) who now work for the U.S. government, and reluctantly helping an animal-rights activist dressed in Flashdance apparel liberate a bunch of animals from a factory farm. It was the 80's!!! Scientists genetically engineered chickens with larger wings and perfect women with larger boobs in the same laboratory all the time!!!

John Romita Jr.'s art is generally fine here, the action well-choreographed and his design for Mephisto genuinely weird and disturbing. Veteran Al Williamson does a fine job inking Romita Jr., giving the appropriate characters a lightness of line that makes some of the action sequences appear more balletic than the pencils might otherwise have shown. Lightly recommended.

Fantastic Four: Beta Version

The Challengers of the Unknown Archives Volume 1: written by Jack Kirby, Ed Herron, and Dave Wood; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Roz Kirby, and others (1956-58; collected 2003): Jack Kirby's foray into a four-person, jump-suited team of heroes who fight weird menaces predates the Fantastic Four by 5 years -- and almost directly led to Kirby going to Marvel where he'd co-create the FF, as a conflict with series editor Jack Schiff caused Kirby to leave DC for a decade.

The four Challengers are Ace Morgan, Prof Haley, Rocky Davis and Red Ryan; blonde June Robbins becomes the distaff honorary member a few issues into the team's existence. The four men, who are already adventurers or various types, survive a plane crash they believe they should have died in and decide afterwards to become a team of heroes because they're "living on borrowed time."

Technically, the Challengers are the first new superhero team of the Silver Age of Comics. While they usually lack (super)powers, they fight a wide variety of monsters, aliens, and supernatural menaces. They'd be one of the early success stories of that Silver Age, with the first run of their adventures lasting until the late 1960's, with sporadic revivals ever since.

Kirby and company seem to be having fun here, what with all the scary monsters and superfreaks threatening the world. The Challs (as they get called, even now) take awhile to become truly differentiated in character, but it does eventually happen -- script-writers Dave Wood and Ed Herron are competent comic-book writers, nothing more, at least here. Kirby's visuals and visual inventiveness do the heavy lifting here, and it's some pretty good lifting. A Kraken is especially awesome-looking. Recommended.

The Shade

The Shade: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Cully Hamner, Jill Thompson, Javier Pulido, Fraser Irving, Tony Harris, and Gene Ha (2011-2012; collected 2013): A 12-issue limited series with five different story artists and Starman artist Tony Harris on covers, The Shade looks to have been in production before DC made the abrupt decision to reboot its superhero line in September 2011.

As there was never a WWII-era Golden Age of Superheroes in the Nu52DCU, the continued existence of Starman supporting character Shade seems pretty doubtful, as Starman (as also written by Shade writer James Robinson) was a reluctant "legacy" hero whose father fought crime in the 1940's and 1950's, also as Starman. So this series may be the last go-round for the pre-Nu52DCU. Until they bring it back, anyway. It's an infinite universe. I'm sure it's still out there somewhere, regardless of what DC editorial tells us.

Shade, a long-lived villain/thief who has gradually become somewhat heroic since he gained his powers in 1838, sets out in this series to find out who's trying to kill him, and why. The series also gives us more history for Shade than ever appeared in Robinson's Starman, including an origin in the final issue of this series.

Shade's an interesting, long-winded fellow with somewhat nebulous powers that involve control of a mystical shadow-force than can do almost anything, but generally functions like an extremely grumpy version of a Green Lantern power beam. Robinson takes the reader on a tour of both Shade's world and of the lower heroic and villainous levels of the DC Universe, as we meet heroes and villains in Spain, England, Australia, and France. It's all a lot of violent fun leading to a city-ravaging climax in London, England.

Robinson has always had a knack for imagining heroes and villains in a world that's a bit more realistic than that found in children's comic books without creating a book that's either too grim or too glib. Shade's more glib than grim, but even he has to get serious when confronted by supervillains and ordinary people with more of a penchant for harming the innocent than the Shade had on his worst days.

The roster of artists is a nice one, and Robinson seems to have structured the story to take advantage of their particular talents. Cully Hamner handles the more traditionally superheroic chapters, Javier Pulido the fantastic action ones, and Fraser Irving the almost psychedelic ones involving alien gods and weird hieroglyphics.

Jill Thompson and Gene Ha do great work on single chapters set entirely in the past -- the Decadent Age aptly for Thompson, and a photo-realistically depicted, gritty 1838 London (complete with Charles Dickens) for Ha on the final chapter. It may be the most interesting assembly of art styles DC has assembled on one 12-issue story since...I don't know. The DC Challenge? Robinson makes sure the story is intelligible to non-Starman readers -- one doesn't have to have read that title to enjoy this one. Recommended.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Bedtime for Gonzo

The Great Shark Hunt: The Gonzo Papers Volume 1: written by Hunter S. Thompson (1956-79; collected 1979): Ridiculously long and curiously arranged, this collection of essays and excerpts by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the America of the 1960's and 1970's.

Or the America of now. Because the scum also rises, still.

The early pieces demonstrate a Thompson in the process of developing that occasionally fictional non-fiction style known as Gonzo, where the Journalist Is There, though he may rearrange events to more cogently make a point. The normal undergrad thing to do is to latch onto Thompson's tales of drug use, ether-quaffing road trips, and general bad behaviour.

But he's a keen observer and commenter upon social and political topics. Much of that near-stream-of-consciousness prose still crackles, as do his observations from the underbelly of America. And by underbelly, I really mean all of America. Presidential campaigns are as scum-soaked and vile as any crime scene or ordeal of police brutality. Watergate is a doomsday that never quite gets to wipe the slate clean. Viet Nam is a horror.

Thompson's bete noire was Richard Nixon, but the Gonzo bile also spews on career Democratic political hack Hubert Humphrey, the idiots of the Democratic Party establishment, Gerald Ford and his soul-destroying decision to pardon Nixon without a trial, fat cats of all types, and bastards, bastards, bastards.

It might be nice to have Thompson around today to peer agog at American politics and American society, but it wouldn't necessarily reveal anything new. Sucking scum like Mitt Romney are eternal in their existence, changing only in their names and appearances. Highly recommended.

Superman Who?

Superman: Reign of Doomsday: written by Paul Cornell; illustrated by Axel Jiminez, Pete Woods, Kenneth Rocafort, Jesus Merino, and others (2011): It wasn't until I found out that writer Paul Cornell has had a long professional relationship with the Doctor Who franchise that it all clicked: his Superman is a super-powered Doctor Who. Or perhaps vice versa.

In any case, Cornell's Superman refuses to kill, has hope that even his enemies can change, and tries to solve problems without violence. And he occasionally explains himself to both enemies and allies in somewhat lengthy speeches.

This is really Cornell's riff on the Bronze Age, pre-Crisis Superman of the late 1970's and early 1980's, a hero who was the smartest guy in the room but didn't rub it in anyone's face. Superman even holds out hope that Lex Luthor and even the creature that killed Superman in 1992, Doomsday, can learn to be better beings. It's a much more expansive vision of Superman than that seen in the rebooted Justice League or across much of DC's New 52. Of course, this collection, along with the Chris Roberson-penned conclusion to the Grounded arc, is the last adventure of the post-Crisis, pre-New 52 Superman. That we know of, anyway.

The art is solid throughout on the main story, despite the rotating cast of artists. Superman must first deal with a Luthor who's achieved infinite power and then clean up the mess left by Luthor -- namely, several clones of Doomsday, a bizarre inter-dimensional spaceship, a kidnapped Superman Family, and a world-killing object heading towards Earth at near-light velocities. All in a day's work.

Cornell's Superman is a pretty interesting fellow, but not in that vengeful, dark way that so many of the world's aging superhero-comic-book readers crave from the distorted versions of their favourite heroes of childhood. This Superman really would probably have a great adventure with one Doctor Who or another, though there'd have to be one episode or one issue that would basically play out as the science-fictional equivalent of My Dinner with Andre.

There are also some short stories penned by other writers and artists from the 700th issue of Action Comics. They're interesting in parts, but it's Cornell who really shines here, along with his collaborators. Recommended.