Wednesday, August 28, 2013

5-Star

Starman Volume 4: Times Past: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen, Craig Hamilton, John Watkiss, Russ Heath, Matt Smith, J.H. Williams III, Lee Weeks, Phil Jiminez and others (1995-2000; collected 2001): Robinson and company tell tales of the history of the various Starmen who've borne that name over the decades, from Golden Age hero Ted Knight to his son, and eponymous current Starman, Jack Knight. Amoral occasional hero, occasional villain The Shade narrates in a series of prose pieces. A nice gateway volume for the series, and an eclectic mix of artists. Recommended.

Starman Volume 5: Infernal Devices: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Tony Harris, Mark Buckingham, Steve Yeowell, Wade Von Grawbadger, and others (1997-98; collected 2001): Starman Jack Knight must save Opal City from a truly mad bomber and a couple of super-villain henchmen. And he's got a new girlfriend, Sadie, whom he's totally in love with -- and who has her own secret reasons for first meeting him. Thankfully, new heroes are rising in Opal City to help out. Or new-old heroes, anyway. And the mystery of eternally resurrecting monster Solomon Grundy, who's been a great guy in this incarnation, is finally revealed in all its weirdness. Recommended.

Starman Volume 6: To Reach the Stars: written by James Robinson and David S. Goyer; illustrated by Gary Erskine, Gene Ha, Peter Krause, Steve Yeowell, and Tony Harris (1998; collected 2001): With his girlfriend Sadie's secret revealed, Jack Knight contemplates a trip into space in search of a lost and until now presumed dead hero of the 1980's and early 1990's. But first, we get a team-up of Starmen now and during World War Two with Fawcett Comics heroes Captain Marvel and Bulletman. And Bulletman is awesome. Also, he must have an incredibly hard head beneath that bullet-shaped helmet. Recommended.

Starman Volume 7: A Starry Knight: written by James Robinson and David S. Goyer; illustrated by Peter Snejberg, Keith Champagne, and Tony Harris (1998-99; collected 2002): Starman Jack Knight and former Starman Mikaal, a blue-skinned alien who fought crime during the disco era, take to outer space with the help of anti-hero The Shade and the Justice League on the basis of Starman's fiancee Sadie's belief that her brother, another hero formerly known as Starman, still lives somewhere out there, despite having been seen dying in battle with the dark god Eclipso several years earlier. Along the way, Mikaal and Jack will meet up with DC's space-faring heroes such as Adam Strange, old frenemies like Solomon Grundy, and an entire planet terraformed by a space-travelling Swamp Thing back during the 1980's. Meanwhile, back home in Opal City, something dark is rising. Recommended.

Starman Volume 8: The Stars My Destination: written by James Robinson and David S. Goyer; illustrated by Peter Snejberg, Keith Champagne, Stephen Sadowski, John McCrea, and Tony Harris (1999; collected 2003): Starmen new and old team up with assorted science-fictional comic heroes to overthrow a murderous dictator -- and solve the mystery of whether or not fallen Starman Will Payton still lives. Meanwhile, back in Opal City, things are starting to look very, very bad for everybody. Opal needs Starman Jack Knight back! Recommended.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Screwy

Hail the Conquering Hero: written and directed by Preston Sturges; starring Eddie Bracken (Woodrow Truesmith), Ella Raines (Libby), Raymond Walburn (Mayor Noble), William Demarest (Sgt. Heppelfinger) and Franklin Pangborn (Committee Chairman) (1944): Writer-director Preston Sturges had a run of movies during World War Two that may be unparalleled for quantity and quality among Hollywood comedy directors. Six years, about a dozen movies, and then a tremendous drop-off in quality -- but what a six years!

I'd rank Hail the Conquering Hero right up with Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story in Sturges' brief but mighty All-Star run. Eddie Bracken plays a young man with a war hero father from WWI whom he never met and a reputation to live up to. But his hay fever gets him kicked out of the Marine Corps.

Ashamed, Bracken tells his mother he's in the Marines anyway and hides out in San Diego for a year, until his kind act of buying a bunch of moneyless Marines drinks and food at a bar sets off a chain of events that leads his entire town to believe he's a war hero. And then a bunch of people decide to run him against the venial Mayor they already have.

Bracken is good as a kid who's pushed by events into worse and worse situations, and Sturges's crack team of character actors -- William Demarest as a sergeant who fought alongside Bracken's father chief among them -- are terrific as well. There's a moral at the end, a surprisingly pointed one that probably wouldn't make it into a Hollywood movie today. Throughout, the performances and the dialogue sparkle. Highly recommended.


Robocop 2: written by Frank Miller and Walon Green, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; directed by Irvin Kershner; starring Peter Weller (Robocop/Alec Murphy), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Belinda Bauer (Dr. Juliette Faxx), Tom Noonan (Cain), Galyn Gorg (Angie), Gabriel Damon (Hob), and Dan O'Herlihy (The Old Man) (1990): There's 25 minutes of good-to-great in Robocop 2 and about 75 minutes ranging from bad to embarrassingly racist, sexist, or just plain awful.

The movie features some of the worst acting I've ever seen in a major motion picture. It's truly astounding. Belinda Bauer and Galyn Gorg (!) are especially terrible as a mad scientist and a drug lord's main squeeze, but there's lots of other bad thespianism as well. The writing is intermittently dreadful, and the tone is so jarringly all over the place that the movie sometimes seems to have been made by three different groups. One group loves satire, another loves action, and the third keeps intruding with bits of mawkish sentimentality in inappropriate places.

But some of the satire is pretty good, especially that of corporate mores. Old Detroit is bankrupt! And its mayor is an unbelieveably awful Stepin Fetchit African-American who, in one of those mawkish moments, suddenly gives a rousing speech about community values before lapsing back into eye-popping a-scaredness. Ameliorating the racism is the basic fact that pretty much everyone in Robocop 2 is scum with the exception of most of the cops and a couple of other people. Otherwise, though, why Robocop bothers saving anyone is a question best left unasked.

Also, the movie looks like it was filmed on videotape for long stretches. It's hard to believe that the director is Irvin Kershner, beloved director of The Empire Strikes Back, the best-looking of all the Star Wars films when it comes to cinematography. This film looks awful. It makes the intentionally cruddy looking They Live look like The Godfather by comparison.

The stop-motion stuff, though, is a lot of fun, and the design of Robocop 2, who is actually the antagonist as well as the title, is pretty keen. The two Robocops have a lengthy, enjoyable superhero battle that will probably cause you to wonder why the police don't make their armor out of whatever Robocop 2's wearing. He's nigh-indestructible! I love stop-motion cyborgs punching each other! The battle is awesome!

Throughout, Peter Weller does his best to imbue Robocop with some semblance of character, much of it through body language rather than dialogue or facial movements (after all, with the helmet on, only Weller's mouth is visible). He's a trooper. As bad as much of it is, it's still better than about 75% of the CGI-heavy superhero movies released with increasing frequency and decreasing effect (and affect) today. Not really recommended, but I'll probably watch it again someday.


Beat the Devil: written by Truman Capote and John Huston, based on the novel by James Helvick; starring Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Robert Morley (Peterson) and Peter Lorre (Julius O'Hara) (1953): Oddball cult favourite that parodies movies like director John Huston's own The Maltese Falcon. Apparently, few realized it was a parody at the time, so its purposeful aimlessness seemed instead like accidental plotlessness.

The whole thing features a gang of criminals looking to acquire mining rights for uranium in Africa through a certain amount of skullduggery and offscreen murder. They've retained scoundrel Bogart to help secure these rights once they reach Africa. But when the film begins, they're stuck in Italy waiting for their ship's engine to be repaired. An impoverished Brit pretending to be landed gentry attracts Bogart's eye, as does his wife. And Bogart's wife has eyes for the Brit.

And then...well, the plot-oriented parody pretty much centres on the fact that things remain completely stalled for the first hour of this 90-minute movie. And then they stall again on the cruise to Africa. And then the movie finishes in a rush.

One's enjoyment of Beat the Devil will pretty much depend on how enjoyable one finds the actors (including long-time Bogart co-star Peter Lorre as a fugitive Nazi who's adopted an Irish last name) and the dialogue, and, finally, how much one appreciates the structural parody of movies focused upon the acquisition of an object or piece of land by competing groups of crooks. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I'd ever watch it again. Recommended.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Icons and Stereotypes

Icon: Mothership Connection: written by Dwayne McDuffie; illustrated by M.D. Bright, Mike Gustovich, and others (1994-95; collected 2010): This volume collects one lengthy storyline from the flagship book of the 1990's Milestone Comics line. Milestone Comics encompassed a far more multi-cultural, ethnically diverse superhero universe than the mainstream had ever seen before.

Icon was the African-American Superman figure of the line, an immortal alien trapped on Earth in the 1850's. His escape pod reconfigured his body to look like the first member of the dominant species it could scan. As the alien had crashed in the pre-Civil War South and was found by a slave, he'd soon learn first-hand about the problems of humanity.

Nearly 150 years later, the alien is a rich and successful lawyer who's been guilted into using his superheroes to help and inspire others by a 15-year-old girl who broke into his house. The girl is given alien technology by the alien so that she can fight crime beside them, and they become Icon and Rocket.

Here, Icon finds out he can go home again. And so he does, to be debriefed on what he's learned about life on Earth, and whether or not humanity should be allowed to continue, or be exterminated before it becomes more dangerous. So Rocket -- herself forced to take a superheroic leave of absence because of pregnancy -- recruits a new Icon, a 1970's blaxploitation African-American superhero previously encountered by Rocket and Icon named Buck Wild.

Late, much-lamented writer Dwayne McDuffie and main artist M.D. Bright turn Wild into a very specific (and hilarious) parody of the 1970's and early 1980's version of the Marvel superhero Luke Cage, Power Man.

But Buck Wild also becomes a vehicle of parody for a long list of often egregiously awful African-American superheroes from DC and Marvel: superheroes with comically ridiculous and incorrect 'street' speech patterns; superheroes who apparently absolutely positively had to have the adjective 'Black' at the start of their superhero names because otherwise one wouldn't know they were black; superheroes and supervillains with insultingly stereotypical African-American character traits and careers...well, the list goes on.

Through it all, though, Buck Wild is granted some form of relevance as an attempt at something, if not a particularly accomplished rendition of said thing. Though it's still a very good thing for Dakota City when Icon elects to return to Earth, though whether or not he'll stay is another question. Superior superhero stuff. Christmas! Highly recommended.

Astro-nuts

Astro City Volume 1: Life in the Big City: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (1995-96): The first Astro City collection immediately sets the template for the entire series, in which meta-commentary on the history of American superhero comics helps structure tales of Astro City, the New York of another world where super-heroes have been kicking around for decades.

Astro City stands apart from most such 'adult' examinations of superhero comics because it's not deconstructionist, it's not satiric, and it's not a 'realistically' hyper-violent reimagining of children's characters. Superheroes are, for the most part, good in the way they once were, but that doesn't mean they're uncomplicated.

And while annotations on the various homages and references herein could fill their own book, the 'meta' can safely be ignored in order to enjoy a good story. One doesn't need to know that Busiek has used a Who's Who of comic-book-creator names for the streets, subdivisions, and locations of his imaginary world. Or that characters and situations homage famous comic-book characters and situations, not to mention historical publication eras.

Busiek manages the tricky feat of filling an intensely meta-fictional book with sympathetic characters, cosmic moments, and pointed bits of commentary that stay just this side of satire. And he jumps right into the two-fold narrative approach that will dominate the book for its existence. The stories of Astro City will sometimes center on what ordinary, non-powered people feel like given that they live in a world teeming with super-powered beings. And the stories will sometimes focus upon what those super-heroes and super-villains are like not only behind the masks, but in the mundane aspects of their private lives. These two approaches made Astro City unique at the time it started, as did its lack of cynicism and hyper-violence.

The twinned artists of Astro City -- cover artist and designed Alex Ross and interior artist and designer Brent Anderson -- form a fascinating study in contrasts. Anderson still fits roughly into the Neal Adams school of hyperrealism, but he's tempered his approach over the years to become a fine renderer of the mundane and the commonplace. The faces of his characters are distinctive and unique, a necessity for this sort of book, and while he can portray freaky cosmic battles with some alacrity, he keeps the characters involved in those moments rooted in the real.

Ross, on the other hand, may model his photorealistic painted figures on real people, and he may obsess over how a costume would actually look if it were made from real-world materials, but he's nonetheless at his best setting these sometimes discomfortingly 'real' looking characters against gigantic, earth-shattering situations. He can do the small moments, but it's the uncanny effect of photo-realistic characters in the middle of events that couldn't possibly have been photographed that's his strongest suit. They are both in rare form here. Highly recommended.

 

Astro City Volume 3: Family Album: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Willie Blyberg, and Alex Ross (1997-98): One- and two-issue stories flesh out some of the world of Astro City. The mystery of what happened to good-guy The Silver Agent in the 1970's begins to deepen, but this occurs in the background for the most part.

We instead focus on the travails of generational superhero Jack-in-the-Box (partially a nifty homage to Steve Ditko-designed crime-fighters Spider-man, the 1960's Blue Beetle, and The Creeper, but with a distinctive personality and look all his own); the attempts of third-generation super-heroine Astra to find out what normal pre-teen girls do at school and in play; and the weird life of Loony Leo, a Humphrey-Bogart-like animated lion brought to life by a super-villain and then stuck living in the 'real' world for decades. In all, a perfect gateway book to the Astro City universe. Highly recommended.

 

Astro City Volume 6: The Dark Age, Part One: Brothers & Other Strangers: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2007-2008): Charles and Royal Williams were just kids when they lost their parents in 1959 to a murderous henchmen of the super-villain organization Pyramid. They've had a grudge against that henchman, and against good guy Silver Agent for not saving their parents the way heroes are supposed to, ever since.

Careers as a cop and as a minor criminal, respectively, parallel the descent of Astro City into what residents would later call the Dark Age, a period spanning the 1970's and early 1980's when heroes, villains, and the general population became increasingly violent and disaffected. And while we follow the Williams brothers as they gradually formulate a plan to find that henchman, we also finally begin to learn the tragic story of the Silver Agent himself, hinted at pretty much since the beginning of the Astro City series. Highly recommended.

 

Astro City Volume 7: The Dark Age, Part Two: Brothers in Arms: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2008-2010): The quest of the Williams brothers for vengeance against the man who murdered their parents builds to an apocalyptic climax, with their personal revenge drama interweaving with the increasingly dire state of Astro City itself. New vigilantes stalk the streets as the 1980's begin, happy to maim and kill criminals, while the older heroes either retire or seem to become irrelevant.

But the time-hopping Silver Agent has promised that everything will get better, even though he may need the help of the grudge-holding Williams brothers, who believe him to be a failure for not saving the lives of their parents twenty-five years earlier, to secure that better tomorrow. This volume probably marks the most pointed commentary of the entire Astro City series when it comes to 1980's and early 1990's trends in superhero comics -- the names get goofier and sometimes redundant ('Lord Sovereign'), the costumes get fussily complicated, and the heroes become ultra-violent.

The meta-commentary, and the complicated plot, both sometimes undercut the more under-stated strengths of the Astro City series, but Busiek and company nonetheless manage to satisfyingly conclude the 16-issue storyline. Recommended.

Friday, August 23, 2013

13 Steps Lead Down

13 Short Horror Novels: edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh (Collected 1987), containing the following stories:

"Jerusalem's Lot" (1978) by Stephen King: Fun riff by King on Lovecraft's horror stories, most obviously "The Rats in the Walls", told through a series of letters. Has nothing to do with 'Salem's Lot.

"The Parasite" (1894) by Arthur Conan Doyle: The creator of Sherlock Holmes indulges his love of the paranormal, specifically hypnotism, here. Boy, people thought hypnotism (or 'mesmerism') could do some crazy stuff in the 19th century. Here it allows for the telepathic takeover of other people's bodies!

"Fearful Rock" (1939) by Manly Wade Wellman: Excellent Civil War period piece from Wellman, as a patrol of Union soldiers finds itself confronted with supernatural evil.

"Sardonicus" (1961) by Ray Russell: Classic story from Russell is a blackly humourous character study written in a 19th-century epistolary style. Made into a movie called Mr. Sardonicus.

"Nightflyers" (1980) by George R. R. Martin: Once upon a time, the Game of Thrones creator was an excellent horror and science fiction writer. He combines the two here for a locked-room-in-space horror show. Made into a terrible movie of the same name.

"Horrible Imaginings" (1982) by Fritz Leiber: Weird, relatively late-career novella from the great Leiber riffs much more grimly on his years in San Francisco after his wife's death than similar works of the same period that include "The Ghost Light" and Our Lady of Darkness. Not great, but spellbinding nonetheless, with a completely bizarre conclusion.

"Jane Brown's Body" (1938) by Cornell Woolrich: Interesting combination of the horror and hard-boiled crime-fiction genres. Gangsters, mad scientists, and a tragic ending you know is coming, as inevitable as death in a world where death has been temporarily conquered.

"Killdozer!" (1944) by Theodore Sturgeon: Sturgeon goes full-on Basil Exposition here as he explains pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about how to operate a bulldozer and a backhoe. I kid you not. There's pages and pages of handy bulldozer operation knowledge here. An interesting premise (an electromagnetic monster takes over a bulldozer; hilarity obviously ensues) bogs down in interminable explanations of how everything works. If you're fascinated by the heavy machinery of 1944, this novella is for you. Made into a movie of the same name.

"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft: One of Lovecraft's least horrifying, most science-fictiony and sublime meditations on cosmic stuff and time abysses. The aliens here -- 12-foot-tall rugose cones dubbed "the Great Race" -- are probably Lovecraft's least threatening, most benign race of super-aliens. Also, they're socialists.

"The Stains" (1980) by Robert Aickman: Aickman is at his creepy, ambiguous best here in a story of a buttoned-down widower who starts a new life with a young woman who is...well, I don't know. Baffling, oblique, and utterly haunting, but not for anybody who wants some sort of minimal explanation of what is actually happening.

"The Horror from the Hills" (1931) by Frank Belknap Long: Gonzo Exposition from Long's Gonzo Exposition Cosmic Horror Period that also yielded such distinctive, Lovecraft-lecture-series gems as "The Space-Eaters" and "The Hounds of Tindalos." A man-sized, vaguely elephant-shaped idol comes to life and threatens all life on Earth. And only a museum director, a cop, and an occult inventor can save us in a final battle staged in...New Jersey! Paging Jules de Grandin!

"Children of the Kingdom" (1980) by T. E. D. Klein: I've read this novella at least ten times over the course of 32 years and find something new to ponder every time. This time around, it's the fact that in this story of racism and xenophobia in the decaying, crime-ridden New York of the late 1970's, the ultimate horrors that move literally beneath the surface are fish-belly white.

"Frost and Fire" (1946) by Ray Bradbury: Disquieting and propulsive bit of science-fiction-as-metaphor by Bradbury, as humans stranded on a highly radioactive planet by a spaceship crash are born, age, and die in the space of eight days (!). A telepathy mutation allows the children to rapidly learn, but can one determined man find a way to reach the last extant starship and find a way off the planet?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Weird!

Weird Tales Volume 1 edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: The Man Who Returned by Edmond Hamilton; Black Hound of Death by Robert E. Howard; The Shuttered House by August Derleth; Frozen Beauty by Seabury Quinn; Haunting Columns by Robert E. Howard; Beyond the Wall of Sleep by H. P. Lovecraft; The Garden of Adompha by Clark Ashton Smith; Cordelia's Song by Vincent Starrett; Beyond the Phoenix by Henry Kuttner; The Black Monk by G. G. Pendarves; Passing of a God by Henry S. Whitehead; and They Run Again by Leah Bodine Drake (1923-1939; collected 1978):

Solid anthology (well, the first half of a hardcover anthology, divided for paperback publication) of stories from the first 15 years of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine that got its start in 1923. This half is quite heavy on the novella-length story, with lengthy entries from Robert E. 'Conan' Howard, Seabury Quinn, Henry Kuttner, and Henry S. Whitehead.

The Howard piece is an interesting, intensely racist story of supernatural revenge set in the two-fisted South. Kuttner's story features his sword-and-sorcery hero Elak of Atlantis. Seabury Quinn's supernatural detective Jules de Grandin tackles Bolsheviks and suspended animation in a fairly un-supernatural outing.

Solid shorter stories come from H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and Edmond Hamilton (the latter Quinn's only real rival for the title of 'Most popular writer among the then-readers of Weird Tales). Clark Ashton Smith's entry is a grotesque humdinger. And the now-little-known Henry S. Whitehead contributes a truly bizarre piece about voodoo and...stomach tumours??? It's not a tumour!!! Recommended.

History!

Captain America: War and Remembrance: written by Roger Stern and John Byrne; illustrated by John Byrne and Josef Rubinstein (1980; collected 2010): One of the three or four highest of the high points for the patriotic Captain America's comic-book career. Some sort of bizarre (and typical) infighting at Marvel Comics in 1980 truncated Roger Stern and John Byrne's run on Captain America at nine issues, which is a shame, though Stern would move over to a fine run on Spider-man while Byrne would soon be writing and drawing the Fantastic Four.

Standalone high points include a retelling of Cap's origin that attempts to fix some pretty odd continuity problems that had accreted over the years, problems that Stern and Byrne also address in an earlier story in the volume. They send Cap out against familiar villains (Batroc, the French mercenary), villains commonly associated with other super-heroes (the Fantastic Four's Dragon Man and Thor's Mr. Hyde), and Cap villains from long ago (Baron Blood, a World War Two vampire enemy of Cap's from the then-recently cancelled WWII supergroup book The Invaders).

Everything included here is extremely good superhero stuff, but the Baron Blood two-parter is probably the finest thing in the collection. It's also one of the finest pieces of superhero adventure Stern and Byrne ever created together or separately. Josef Rubinstein's heavier inks are perfect here for Byrne's pencils in a way that a more fan-praised Byrne inker such as Terry Austin would not have been, making thing moody and shadowy when needed. Byrne and Rubinstein manage a real sense of menace throughout the two-parter, and the whole thing is satisfyingly dense on the narrative level. I'd imagine a 2013 retelling would run about 12 issues and be about 1/12th as satisfying.

Stern and Byrne work well together -- Stern is a master of keeping readers caught up with events of previous issues without bogging the story down in exposition, and he and Byrne structure some fairly stunning action scenes here, with the best being Cap's last battle with Baron Blood. Highly recommended.


Astro City Volume 4: The Tarnished Angel: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Willie Blyberg, and Alex Ross (1997-98): The fourth collection of Busiek and Anderson's great Astro City series focuses on a small-time supervillain dubbed The Steel-Jacketed Man, or Steeljack, as he gets out of prison after 20 years and tries to go straight. In a way, this is an extended homage to the Lee/Ditko Spider-man story "A Guy Named Joe," about a similar small-time hood, though Busiek's character actually craves some form of redemption for the disappointments his criminal life visited upon his now-deceased mother.

While the entire Astro City series is intensely metafictional in its characters, settings, and storylines, Busiek nonetheless frames the metafictional elements within stories of loss, discovery, redemption, and betrayal. It's a sort of metafiction of sentiment rather than commentary (ironic or otherwise) on the history of superhero comic books. Samaritan may be the Astro City analog of Superman, and his first appearance may coincide both in year and in event with John Byrne's Superman reboot at DC in 1986, but he's also his own character through whom Busiek can explore issues of character and motivation in a fantastic context.

Steeljack's story plays out as an homage to hardboiled detective fiction, but with superheroes and supervillains. Someone has been killing minor supervillains, so the residents of Kiefer Square, a slum area populated by supervillains and their families, decide to pay Steeljack to investigate the murders, hoping that his nigh-invulnerable living-steel body may keep him alive long enough to solve the mystery. A plot oriented around the killing of minor villains also riffs on the hero-killer plot of Watchmen.

The story then follows Steeljack, with the sort of copious first-person narration from his viewpoint that will be a familiar device to anyone who's seen a hardboiled detective movie or read a novel. Plagued by doubt and loss, Steeljack makes for a sympathetic protagonist even as he also functions as a fairly potent evaluation of mainstream supervillains. Why don't some of these people go legit and make money from their inventions and powers rather than endlessly robbing banks and getting caught?

Why indeed. They are trapped in a social loop of poverty and crime, as are criminals in the real world, but criminals in the real world aren't invulnerable or possessed of super-technology or super-strength. Some of Steeljack's most poignant moments come in pondering this fantastic problem: why did he allow himself to slip into the life of a sueprvillain? And is there any way out?

Brent Anderson's art is, as always, perfect for the series, fairly naturalistic (especially when compared to a lot of younger artists and artistic approaches at DC and Marvel), rooted in character and telling detail, but also quite dynamic when the story calls for it. Alex Ross's covers are their usual source of painterly goodness. Highly recommended.

Science!

Frankenweenie: written by Tim Burton, Leonard Ripps, and John August; directed by Tim Burton; starring the voices of Catherine O'Hara (Mrs. Frankenstein/Weird Girl/Gym Teacher), Martin Short (Mr. Frankenstein/Mr. Burgemeister/Nassor), Martin Landau (Mr. Rzykruski), Charlie Tahan (Victor Frankenstein), and Winona Ryder (Elsa Van Helsing) (2012): Enjoyable black-and-white cartoon fom Burton, in the animation style of other Burton-produced projects such as Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The whole thing is based on Burton's first short film for Disney back in the 1980's, before he got his first feature directorial gig on Pee Wee's Big Adventure. How time flies!

Burton and his writers recast Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a suburban horror-comedy in the vein of Edward Scissorhands. Frankly, it could be the exact same street. Copious references abound to movie monsters from Boris Karloff's Creature to Gamera the flying turtle. One of the oddities of the movie is that it offers a heartfelt plea for science education, painting anti-science citizens as dangerous loons.

The whole thing is set in New Holland, which while it has nothing really to do with Frankenstein novel or film, does apparently resemble Burton's childhood home. Perhaps more importantly, New Holland also allows for an explanation of why there's an oldey-timey windmill around to stage the climax within. Because Tim Burton loves windmills (though it's also an homage to the 1930's Karloff Frankenstein movies).

All in all, breezy and enjoyable and surprisingly non-misanthropic. And much, much better than a lot of Burton's recent live-action films. The reanimated dog is a real charmer. I'm still trying to figure out if the Dutch can sue for national defamation. Recommended.


Man on a Ledge: written by Pablo F. Fenjves; directed by Asger Leth; starring Sam Worthington (Nick Cassidy), Anthony Mackie (Mike Ackerman), Jamie Bell (Joey Cassidy), Genesis Rodriguez (Angie), Titus Welliver (Dante Marcus), Elizabeth Banks (Lydia Mercer), and Ed Harris (David Englander) (2012): Enjoyable heist film that's easy on the brain. Sam Worthington again makes for a somewhat bland protagonist, as he did in Avatar and Clash of the Titans. Ed Harris is suitably wormy as a Donald Trump-like real-estate mogul who frames cop Worthington for a crime he didn't commit. Genesis Rodriguez's bustline plays a major supporting role. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tunnel Vision

Gateway (The Heechee Saga Volume 1) by Frederik Pohl (1977): Gateway won pretty much every genre award for best novel of the year for 1977: the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the John W. Campbell, Jr. And it holds up well, 35 years later. Science fiction can date very, very quickly, and there are some dated assumptions here. No surprise is that one involves computers, which seemingly everyone in science fiction saw as remaining giant things in a room somewhere.

But anyway. Several hundred years in the future, humanity discovers a 10-km-long cometary nucleus orbiting the sun in a right-angle orbit to the planets. That nucleus is honeycombed with tunnels, possessed of a breathable atmosphere, and loaded with hundreds of faster-than-light starcraft left behind by a mysterious race dubbed the Heechee, who had also left artifacts on Venus which the residents there, in their terraformed tunnels, had previously found.

The ships can be programmed to go to pre-selected destinations. And at these destinations may be Heechee artifacts or scientific discoveries worth a lot of money. And so volunteers spend their life's savings to get to Gateway (as the nucleus is dubbed), there to become the high-mortality-rate guinea pigs who will take these ships out and maybe return.

Pohl, a fine science-fiction writer and editor from the 1950's onwards, constructs a fascinating and mostly plausible future Earth, with a hungry population of 25 billion and a fascinating and plausible means of feeding them that doesn't involve eating people. His protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, is a sympathetic Everyman with major psychological issues. And the mystery of the Heechee, which would somewhat disappointingly answered in subsequent Gateway novels, is here fresh and unexplained. Why leave all the ships but not identifiable records? Where did the Heechee go, and why?

Pohl also seems to anticipate hypertext in the novel -- the main narrative is broken up with different 'documents' comprising computer coding, wanted ads from Gateway newspapers, official mission reports, and excerpts from interviews, letters, and lectures about Gateway. There are certain 1970's tics here that someone who has read a lot of science fiction from that period will recognize. People still smoke, even in small spaceships that take weeks to get where they're going. And everyone seems to have become bisexual in the future.

One of the ingenious elements of the novel is also very 1970's, in a Woody Allen way. Gateway alternates chapters between Robinette's story of his days on Gateway, and Robinette's much-later experiences on Earth with a computer psychiatrist who is trying to get him to deal with the trauma of his childhood and of his final mission in a Heechee spaceship. It's genuinely brilliant and very, very 'Me' Decade. All in all, highly recommended.

Telepath Wars

Harbinger Wars: written by Joshua Dysart and Duane Swierczynski, illustrated by Clayton Henry, Clayton Crain, Pere Perez, Mico Suayan, Khari Evans, Trevor Hairsine, and Barry Kitson (2013): Writers Joshua Dysart and Duane Swierczynski do a fine job here on the reborn Valiant comics line's first multiple-title crossover event. The crossover is sharp and limited in focus, representing as it does one battle among many already fought and many more to come.
 

In just a year of issues, Dysart has turned the Harbinger title into something that actually is a superhero comic for adults. Powerful telepaths with as assortment of powers (dubbed 'psiots' here) and humans seeking technological weapons to use against those psiots have been battling secretly for much of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The powers are outlandish but not ridiculous, and there's an urgent morality to the proceedings, along with a lack of clear-cut answers.

Another nice thing about Harbinger, Bloodsport, and this crossover is that pretty much everyone involved thinks he or she is the good guy. Harada, the aging super-telepath whose Harbinger Foundation educates young psiots, wants to make the world into a utopia. But he's also a manipulative, fascist prick for whom the ends always justify the means. Peter Stanchek, the renegade psiot who is Harada's only rival in power, has done terrible things in the past, and in this series is clearly in over his head in terms of battle strategy and tactics. Bloodsport believes he's overcome his programming so that he can now help psiots escape both Harada and the non-telepathic arms manufacturer Operation Rising Spirit, but he may still be a pawn of various forces, his hard-won free will only an illusion. Or a delusion.

In any case, these 12 issues thrill, chill, and are heavy on the spills. The battle scenes carry real weight, involving as they do characters we care about in truly dangerous situations. It's a book where anyone could die at any moment. But there's also hope here, and an ultimately anti-cynical take on real heroism. Peter Stanchek and Bloodsport may not entirely know what they're doing, but they are doing it for the right reasons -- but as the old existential thought-experiment notes, that doesn't ensure that the results will be positive. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Horrors of the 'Me' Decade

Whispers II: edited by Stuart David Schiff, containing the following stories:

Undertow by Karl Edward Wagner; Berryhill by R. A. Lafferty; The King's Shadow Has No Limits by Avram Davidson; Conversation Piece by Richard Christian Matheson; The Stormsong Runner by Jack L. Chalker; They Will Not Hush by James Sallis and David Lunde; Lex Talionis by Russell Kirk; Marianne by Joseph Payne Brennan; From the Lower Deep by Hugh B. Cave; The Fourth Musketeer by Charles L. Grant; Ghost of a Chance by Ray Russell; The Elcar Special by Carl Jacobi; The Box by Lee Weinstein; We Have All Been Here Before by Dennis Etchison; Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole by Ken Wisman; Trill Coster's Burden by Manly Wade Wellman; Conversation Piece by Ward Moore; The Bait by Fritz Leiber; Above the World by Ramsey Campbell; The Red Leer by David Drake; and At the Bottom of the Garden by David Campton.

Stuart David Schiff's Whispers was the biggest little magazine of horror and dark fantasy in the 1970's, so much so that it became the Little Engine That Carried on The Tradition of the Mostly Defunct Weird Tales. Schiff couldn't pay a lot, but with weird fantasy markets in decline, he was able to assemble a Who's Who of then-contemporary greats, with careers sometimes extending back to the 1920's and 1930's.

Whispers II collects fine stories by names familiar and unfamiliar. I've got a real soft spot for David Drake's revisionist werewolf tale "The Red Leer," which also seems to act as a commentary on the sorts of manly men who once frequented the horror stories of Robert E. Howard. There really aren't any weak spots here, though Ken Wisman's "Archie and the Scylla of Hades" is bizarre in both tone (it's like a Jack Vance fantasy story as reimagined by Robert Service) and style (it's a long poem!). When you see these Whispers compilations in used bookstores, you should snap them up. Along with editor Charles L. Grant's hardcover original anthology series Shadows, Whispers represents the height of 1970's and early 1980's dark fantasy and horror. Highly recommended.

 
 

Tales of Fear and Fantasy by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, containing the following stories: Manderville; The Day Of The Underdog; The Headless Footman Of Hadleigh; The Cost Of Dying; The Resurrectionist; The Sale of the Century; and The Changeling (Collected 1977): Chetwynd-Hayes was amazingly prolific in the late 1960's and early 1970's. His learning curve was dramatically steep: six years after the release of his first, enjoyable, pulpy collection, this collection shows a writer rounding into top form.

 

Five of the stories mix horror with black comedy, with the most successful being one of the adventures of "the world's only practicing psychic detective" as he and his lovely, extremely psychic assistant try to solve the mystery of "The Headless Footman of Hadleigh." There are two non-humourous stories here, and they're both hauntingly excellent: "The Resurrectionist", in which a man falls in love with photos of a woman long dead, and "The Changeling", a creepy riff on pop-culture 'horror families' such as The Munsters or The Addams Family. This family, though, not so much fun to belong to. In all, recommended.


War Crimes

The O.D.E.S.S.A. File: adapted by Kenneth Ross and George Markstein from the novel by Frederick Forsyth; directed by Ronald Neame; starring Jon Voight (Peter Miller), Maximilian Schell (Eduard Roschmann), Maria Schell (Frau Miller), Mary Tamm (Sigi), and Derek Jacobi (Klaus Wenzer) (1974): Enjoyable conspiracy thriller set in 1963-64 sees West German journalist Jon Voight on the trail of escaped Nazi war criminals. They're members of the SS who have been given new identities by the ODESSA organization, which is itself made up of SS members.

And unbeknownst to Voight, he's on the clock: a technology firm headed by one war criminal is about to deliver missile guidance systems to Egypt to use in missiles to destroy Israel. Voight and Mary Tamm (the first Romana on Doctor Who) are very good as the leads. Maximilian Schell really only has one big scene as (real) SS officer Eduard Roschmann, while Derek Jacobi is at his squirmy best as a conflicted associate of the ODESSA.

Simon Wiesenthal appears as himself to help Voight in his quest, which also gets aid from the Mossad, who've been trying to infiltrate ODESSA for decades. This is an old-school 1970's style conspiracy thriller -- the ODESSA have infiltrated ever facet of West German government and business -- complete with a journalist hero who rapidly becomes a very competent action hero once he hears the call of duty. Recommended.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Platonic Concepts Gone Wild

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 1: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta, Al Plastino, and Neal Adams (1971; reprinted 2007): DC cleverly re-collected the various comics dubbed "Jack Kirby's Fourth World" (by DC, not Kirby) into chronological order, rather than by individual title. Doing so makes the shape of the saga much clearer.

Superman found himself drawn into the never-really-completed Kirby saga by virtue of the fact that Kirby started his 1970's tenure at DC by writing and drawing the Jimmy Olsen comic book. Things get super-scientifically weird very, very quickly, with sci-fi concepts such as The Cadmus Project and the Evil Factory becoming part of Superman mythology, though it would be fifteen years before writers and artists other than Kirby -- most notably John Byrne, Dan Jurgens, and Roger Stern -- would bring these concepts back into the Superman books.

The titles collected here are Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. They lay out Earth's fate as the battleground between the opposing forces of New Genesis and Apokolips, the planets of the New Gods who are either aliens who act like gods or gods who act like aliens. Or something. Later, non-Kirby interpretations would vary wildly on this question. Writer Grant Morrison suggested in one series that the New Gods are living, physical Platonic Concepts, which is as good a way to look at them as any.

In any case, Darkseid, the evil ruler of Apokolips and wielder of the powerful Omega Force, seeks dominion over Earth so as to find the key to the Anti-Life Equation, a philosophical concept that would give anyone who knew it complete control over all life in the universe. He's opposed by the forces of New Genesis as embodied by his own son, Orion, who wields the Astro-Force; the Forever People, cosmic hippies who can combine to form the powerful Infinity Man; and Mister Miracle, the son of New Genesis leader Izaya the Highfather who has escaped imprisonment on Apokolips to become a super-powered escape artist on Earth. Guiding and commenting upon all actions is the avatar of The Source, the energy field that suffuses the universe and possibly created it.

Kirby's level of invention here is extraordinary, though in some cases he was running so far ahead of the curve (with Darkseid, for instance) that it took DC Comics ten to 20 years to figure out what to do with the concepts. In Darkseid's case, that meant becoming the uber-villain of the entire DC Universe both in the comic books and in various iterations of the Justice League cartoon.

Kirby's writing is funky and bizarre and idiosyncratic. The art is explosive. Artistically, though, two problems plague DC's handling of Kirby from the get-go. One is that DC decided that Kirby's face for Superman didn't fit DC's House Style for the Man of Steel, leading them to have veteran Superman artist Al Plastino redraw the faces of Clark Kent and Superman throughout. It's a bit jarring, as all other faces are Kirby faces.

The other problem lies with DC's choice of Vince Colletta, who'd previously inked Kirby on Marvel Thor, as the inker for the various Fourth World titles. Colletta's virtue was that he was really fast. Unfortunately, he's also one of Kirby's two or three worst inkers, with a tendency to avoid inking backgrounds in certain situations. Steve Ditko famously expressed disgusted agogment at Stan Lee's choice of Colletta to ink Kirby. I imagine these pages would have provoked further agogment.

So it goes. It's still better than the Kirby-pencilled issue of The Avengers that Chic Stone seems to have inked with a crayon and a broken hand, but it would be a couple of years yet before Kirby took control of the inking process with his own hand-picked inkers, Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry. But despite Superman's head and Vince Colletta's hand, highly recommended.

Fathers and Suns

Starman Volume 1: Sins of the Fathers: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Tony Harris and Wade Von Grawbadger (1994): James Robinson and Tony Harris's extremely enjoyable take on 'Legacy' heroes, as the younger son of the Golden-Age superhero Starman reluctantly takes up the heroic mantle after his older brother dies on the first day on the job.

New Starman Jack Knight, son of Ted, eschews the red costume and finned head of the hero's traditional garb for a leather jacket and smoked-glass goggles. And he'd generally rather be working on his "real" life as a buyer and seller of collectibles. But his brother's murderer(s) must be caught, and his father really is too old for this stuff.

Starman was one of DC Comics' most acclaimed superhero series when it ran from 1994-2001. It's a humourous, heartfelt delight with a healthy helping of Father Issues. Starman's home base of Opal City, another one of DC's fictional cities for heroes, is an eclectic place. It's proud of its resident hero Starman.

Jack Knight, like his super-scientist father, has no superpowers of his own. He fights crime with the Cosmic Rod, an invention of his father's that store all sorts of cosmic radiation that can then be applied by the rod in various ways, though most usually to allow Starman to fly or to hit a villain with a blast of energy.

Opal City also has an occasionally heroic guardian in the person of Golden-Age villain The Shade, who now makes his (immortal, non-aging) home in Opal City and hates to have his peace disturbed. The Shade would grow to rival Starman in fictional popularity. In this first volume, Jack must face an old villain of his father's, The Mist, one of DC's odder Golden-Age supervillains. I mean, he's basically a guy who can turn into a fogbank. A murderous old man with a grudge against Starman who can turn into a fog bank, that is.

Tony Harris's art is quirky and expressive, though the faces sometimes lack a certain continuity when it comes to characters. Jack especially takes awhile to settle down into a recognizably repeatable presence. But there's also real energy to Harris's layouts, and to his depiction of the quasi-mystical abilities of characters like The Mist and The Shade. This really seems like Robinson's labour of love, though, a comic book about a superhero who collects and sells comic books, among other things. Recommended.


Starman Volume 2: Night and Day: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Tony Harris and Wade Von Grawbadger and others (1994-95): More fun with Starman Jack Knight as he runs across a sinister carnival, receives career advice from sympathetic anti-hero The Shade, and faces his first Legacy villain, the now-mist-powered daughter of Golden-Age Starman villain The Mist. Apparently, she's just Mist. No definite article.

One of the numerous minor characters to also be called Starman also shows up here, as does bizarre, long-time Golden-Age Green Lantern villain Solomon Grundy, here in dire need of a haircut. Fun art, mostly fun (though somewhat bloody) stories. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pulpy Goodness in Bite-Sized Chunks

The Unbidden by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, containing the following stories: No One Lived There; Why Don't You Wash? Said The Girl With œ100,000 And No Relatives; Don't Go Up Them Stairs; The Gatecrasher; A Family Welcome; Crowning Glory; The Devilet; Come To Me My Flower; The Playmate; Pussy Cat - Pussy Cat; A Penny For A Pound; The Head Of The Firm; The Treasure Hunt; The Death Of Me; Tomorrow Is Judgement Day; and The House (Collected 1971):

The prolific English horror and science-fiction writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes (possibly the most English writer's name of all time) came to professional writing fairly late, at about 40, but made up for lost time with fairly astounding productivity. His high point of fame probably came when a movie, The Monster Club, was adapted from several of his short stories.

I certainly wouldn't argue that he was a great writer, or sometimes even a very good one, but many of his ideas are fascinating. He also brought a black sense of humour to many of his stories. The horrors tend to the supernatural, though not exclusively, and many of his stories are so droll as to leave horror altogether for the sort of dark whimsy that Roald Dahl specialized in when he wasn't writing children's novels.

This collection, the first for Chetwynd-Hayes, is an enjoyable and quick read. Some of the stories deliver ironic supernatural vengeance upon evil-doers ("Why Don't You Wash? Said The Girl With œ100,000 And No Relatives", "A Penny For A Pound"), some visit horror upon the innocent and unlucky ("Come To Me My Flower", "Pussy Cat - Pussy Cat", "The Playmate"), some play as weird comedy ("Don't Go Up Them Stairs", "The Head Of The Firm"), and the final story, "The House", offers gentle fantasy rather than horror. Recommended.

Bar Sinister

I Wear the Black Hat (Grappling with Villains Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman (2013): The always entertaining pop-culture essayist Klosterman delivers a book-length meditation on how current American society decides who its fictional and real-life villains are, and why.

Klosterman loves to set up binary and trinary constructions as if they were the only possible ways to approach a problem ("There are two explanations for this..."), which aids in making the book a source of argument and debate. It's a lot like a really good and really rambling discussion one would have in a bar with someone more versed in popular culture than in the philosophy and literature of the past. There's a faint structure here, but for the most part this reads like about 15 essays on one topic, and not a coherent whole.

Many of the topics are fun and interestingly argued. And the occasional shagginess of the structure contributes to the feeling of this being a terrific bar conversation, wandering a bit as all bar conversations do. And the strongest section of the book, an examination of Batman as related to Bernard Goetz, spawns the best relatively new idea for a movie or comic-book representation of Batman that I've come across in a long, long time.

Also fascinating and bizarre is Klosterman's comparison of O.J. Simpson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as public "villains", especially as Klosterman discusses Simpson's bizarre "tell-all", If I Did It, which may be one of the few books in history to belong to a sub-sub-genre completely unique to itself.

Has anyone else in history tried and acquitted of murder subsequently written a memoir in which he or she convincingly and graphically describes the actual murder as a hypothetical in a memoir otherwise presented as factual? And was said memoir taken away from the autobiographicist prior to release and given to the family of one of the murder victims so that they could attempt to raise funds with its publication? Klosterman manages something extraordinary here: he makes me want to read O.J.'s book. Well, almost. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Lost Alan Moore Episode

Fashion Beast: adapted by Antony Johnson from the screenplay by Alan Moore based on a screen story by Malcolm McLaren and Alan Moore; illustrated by Fecundo Percio (2012-2013): Alan Moore's lost project, a 1985 screenplay for a never-produced movie, based on a story by music and fashion impresario Malcolm McLaren, here gets adapted into a 200-page+ graphic novel. The redoubtable Antony Johnson handles the actual adaptation, as he has for other non-comic-book Moore work adapted into comic-book form.

Artist Fecundo Percio really draws up a storm here. The art remains relatively representational throughout with two exceptions -- the creepy, wizened monkey-women who are the guardians of the gates of Celestine, a fashion house in a future New York. America fights a war against somebody never named. Fallout is everywhere. The world is collapsing.

And that's only the background to this reimagining of the story of Beauty and the Beast, gene-spliced with elements from McLaren's own life and with Moore's taste for outre philosophy.

Beauty would appear to be Doll Seguin, a transvestite whom we first meet dressed like Marilyn Monroe and working as a coat-check 'girl' at the Cabaret, a stylish blend of dance hall and performance space. The Beast may be fashion-designer Celestine, never seen by anyone but the guardians of the gates, giving his approval or diapproval to auditioning models from behind smoked glass. Or it may be Jonni, a butch, aspiring fashion designer who longs to overthrow the concealing, antisexual fashions of House Celestine and put in their place the freer, more liberated fashions she herself has designed.

And that's just the set-up of the first two issues, after which things get really weird.

Johnson preserves the distinctive style and structure of mid-1980's Alan Moore -- this really is of a piece with Watchmen and 'V' for Vendetta, a sharp and cynical work of action-philosophy over which looms the spectre of nuclear armageddon. It's involving and fascinating on its own. But it also adds to the fictional over-structure of Alan Moore's 1980's work in a pleasing, off-beat way. And Percio's art, as with the art of David Lloyd on 'V' and Dave Gibbons on Watchmen, works beautifully with Moore's colourful, metaphorical, expositional prose by providing it with a solid, seemingly representational counterpoint. Highly recommended.

Hawks of the North Star

Showcase Presents Hawkman Volume 1: written by Gardner Fox and Bob Haney; illustrated by Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, and Carmine Infantino (Collected 2008): While he was never an A-List hero at any point in comic-book history, Hawkman nonetheless wears one of the five or six best-looking costumes a superhero ever put on.

Initially designed in the 1940's by Sheldon Moldoff doing a fair imitation of Flash Gordon writer-artist Alec Raymond, the costume would be tweaked a bit by the great Joe Kubert when Hawkman was rebooted in the early 1960's. Every re-design after Kubert has been a falling away from greatness.

DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, the guiding light behind DC's 1950's and 1960's 'Silver Age' reboots of 1940's 'Golden Age' superheroes, does with the 'new' Hawkman something similar to what he had his writers and artists do with the reboot of Green Lantern: he switches the character's origins from magical to science-fictional. Instead of a reincarnated Egyptian hero, Hawkman is now a police officer from the planet Thanagar, which orbits the North Star.

He comes to Earth with his wife and police partner Shayera (then-Hawkgirl) in pursuit of a dangerous criminal and subsequently stays on Earth to study human police methods. Schwartz and company preserved some of the flavour of the Golden-Age Hawkman by having the new character's secret identity be a museum director, and by having Hawkman and Hawkgirl fight many criminals using ancient weapons rather than scientific ones, with the explanation being that the two police officers don't want to run the risk of having sophisticated Thanagarian technology fall into criminal hands.

So the Hawkman costume, once an emulation of the hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus, becomes the standard uniform of the Thanagarian police officer. Schwartz and Fox are to some extent borrowing from another of Schwartz's Silver-Age reboots, Green Lantern, whose one-off Golden-Age costume would be reimagined and redesigned to be the uniform of an entire galaxy-spanning Green Lantern Corps.

In several issues, they also borrow from the Silver-Age Flash's idiosyncratic method of costume storage, as Hawkman gains a ring from which can expand an entire uniform, wings and all. This last borrowing is one of those things that we should pretend never happened, and never speak of it again.

Fox's stories are his loopy brand of faux science-fiction that often works a lot more like fairy-tale magic. They're fun without being memorable for the most part. Kubert's art on the first ten appearances or so of the new Hawkman, though, is terrific -- he makes even fairly dopey concepts such as the Man-Hawks look believable and strangely menacing, and another Hawkman villain, the Shadow Thief, is a weird triumph of comic-book design and execution. Once Kubert leaves, the solid and dependable Murphy Anderson takes over. The flair is gone, and the series really becomes a fairly standard DC offering for the time.

One of Kubert's original designs -- that for Hawkgirl's costume -- is also quite striking, possibly because the eyes of her mask make the character look insane. It's a design that has persisted into modern-day comics and animated cartoons with fewer alterations than Hawkman's. Though she does wear more clothing on top than Hawkman's X-crossed, wing-bracing belts. Recommended.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Giants, Fat and Thin

The Harder They Fall: adapted by Philip Yordan from the novel by Budd Schulberg; directed by Mark Robson; starring Humphrey Bogart (Eddie Willis), Rod Steiger (Nick Benko), Mike Lane (Toro Moreno), Max Baer (Buddy Brannen), Jersey Joe Walcott (George), and Jan Sterling (Beth Willis) (1956): A remarkably pointed and cynical film about professional boxing in the United States, anchored by a weary, dying Humphrey Bogart in his last screen role.

Bogart's out-of-work sports writer takes a high-paying job as a press agent for a mobster with a gargantuan fighter from Argentina. However, the fighter can't really fight. But that's not a problem, as the mobster simply fixes every fight until the boxer gets a shot at the heavyweight championship.

And if this sounds implausible, keep in mind that this is the story many sports historians believe is the truth behind the improbable rise and fall of gargantuan, gargantuanally unskilled boxer Primo Carnera, who unsuccessfully sued the makers of this movie because he believed it libelled him.

Oh, boxing!

The cast is mostly excellent, with a young Rod Steiger under control and unmannered (and boy, would Steiger become mannered!) as the mob boss. Bogart is as world-weary and conflicted as he's ever been in a film, a good man who cooperates for a time in his own moral destruction. The role of Bogart's wife could use work, though -- she's a one-note Jiminy Cricket.

Mike Lane is lumbering and charming as the giant boxer who doesn't know he's a terrible boxer, or how hollow the endless promises of money are. This must be the first boxing movie in history whose stomach-walloping climax comes not in the ring but in a backroom, as the mobster's book-keeper figures out how much money the boxer is owed after the months and months of fights leading up to the big-purse championship bout.

Real-life boxer Jersey Joe Walcott plays the boxer's sympathetic, soft-spoken sparring partner, while the menacing Max Baer, who ended Carnera's championship career with a terrible beating, essentially plays the same role here as a champ who actually exults in the death of one of his opponents after a fight. Sharply written and smartly filmed. Highly recommended.

 


Alex Cross: adapted by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson from the novel by James Patterson; directed by Rob Cohen; starring Tyler Perry (Alex Cross), Edward Burns (Thomas Kane), Matthew Fox (Picasso), Jean Reno (Giles Mercier), and Cicely Tyson (Nana) (2012): Shockingly competent thriller based on novelist James Patterson's thrillers about detective/psychiatrist Alex Cross, previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and here played by Tyler Perry in a non-Tyler Perry production.

Perry is fine and fairly charismatic as Cross, and Edward Burns is competent as his long-time friend and fellow police detective. In what amounts to an 'origin story,' with Cross still working for the police department in Detroit and not the FBI, Cross and his team of investigators are tasked with stopping the assassination of a French tech magnate played by Jean Reno.

The really shocking thing, though, is how much weight Matthew Fox lost to play the role of the loopy, hyper-competent assassin whom Cross's team dubs 'Picasso' for the cubist sketches he leaves at each killing site. Fox nearly approaches Christian Bale Machinist territory for freakish attention to the physical. I think he's actually scary because his weight loss verges on the uncanny, and that weight loss makes Matthew Fox look like Michael Rooker's long-lost brother. Weird stuff.

The movie lacks one thing -- a second act. It has a prologue, a first act, a third act, and an epilogue. In the middle, though, it's as if the studio edited out 20 minutes of plot and character development. It's also a surprisingly cold-blooded movie, one that more evokes the thrillers of the 1970's than the more congenial thrillers of the 21st century. Recommended.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Imitations of Life

Tootsie: written by Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Don McGuire, Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, and Elaine May; directed by Sydney Pollack; starring Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie), Teri Garr (Sandy), Dabney Coleman (Ron), Bill Murray (Jeff), Charles Durning (Les), George Gaynes (John Van Horn), Geena Davis (April) and Sidney Pollack (George Fields) (1982): Ah, what a great comedy. The cast is terrific and in fine form in this fable of an actor (Hoffman) who learns to be a better man by pretending to be a woman in order to get a job on a soap opera.

It's really remarkable how zingy the dialogue is throughout, and how uniformly excellent is the cast (including director Pollack as Hoffman's long-suffering agent). The difficulty of working with Hoffman forms a subtext to the entire picture -- Pollack refused to direct him again despite Tootsie's massive critical and commercial success. Bill Murray drifts in and out to provide a loose, improvisational Greek Chorus as Hoffman's playwright-room-mate, Jessica Lange won an Oscar for her sweet, funny performance, and everyone else is also awesome. Highly recommended.


The Mummy: written by Jimmy Sangster; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing (John Banning), Christopher Lee (Kharis the Mummy), and Yvonne Furneaux (Isobel/Ananka) (1959): Enjoyable, atmospheric remake by British Hammer Studios of the original 1930's Universal horror movie The Mummy. This movie completed Christopher Lee's Hammer trifecta of playing three of the four classic horror-movie monsters originally made famous by those Universal movies of the 1930's -- Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy, but alas, no Wolf Man.

Lee hated the heavy make-up and costuming for the Mummy, and would avoid heavy make-up ever afterwards. Like Karloff before him, he towers over the rest of the cast (there's a funny moment in which a drunk English poacher claims that the Mummy is 10-feet tall, and it doesn't seem like that much of an exaggeration). Lee is again teamed with his Dracula and Frankenstein co-star Peter Cushing, here playing the son of the archaeologist who released the vengeful mummy into the world.

The Egyptian sets and costumes are really quite impressive, as are the moody scenes set on the moor and in the swamp nearby, with some nice staging for scenes in which the Mummy emerges from, and later descends into, the swamp. Cushing makes for an interesting hero here as he did in the Dracula films as Van Helsing, and Yvonne Furneaux is lovely in the dual role of Cushing's wife and the long-dead Egyptian priestess Ananka, whom Lee's high priest loved and was ultimately mummified alive for loving.

Lee does what he can with his eyes, the only expressive part his made-up face shows, and by the end achieves a sort of lurching, Frankensteinian pathos as the Mummy. That pathos is also partially obtained by having a cultist give the Mummy his murderous orders. The Mummy really looks like he'd rather not stir from his 4000-years' sleep. Recommended.

Multiple Earths


Showcase Presents Justice League of America Volume 6: written by Len Wein, Martin Pasko, Elliot S! Maggin, Cary Bates, Denny O'Neil, and Gerry Conway; illustrated by Dick Dillin, Frank McLaughlin, Dick Giordano, Nick Cardy, and Ernie Chan (1973-1976; collected 2013): Fun collection of 1970's Justice League stories that synchronizes with my own first JLA comic books.

While editor Julius Schwartz used a lot of different writers at this point on the title, penciller Dick Dillin was a constant throughout. Indeed, JLA only had two different pencillers for the first 17 years or so of its existence, Mike Sekowsky and then Dillin. Dillin was solid, straightforward, and dependable -- so far as I know, he never missed a deadline, and he only left the book because he died (!).

He's "the" JLA artist for people of a certain age, an emblem of professionalism who knew how to tell a story, and could occasionally startle with some effects (here, he does some really interesting and memorable things with a wisp of smoke that gradually resolves itself into The Spectre over the course of an issue, as well as a fascinating couple of pages in which supervillain Libra expands while also losing all materiality). Also, Dillin's clean pencilling really looks good in the black-and-white Showcase format.

The stories are a lot of fun as well, with the post-Marvel psychology boom resulting in a certain amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching on the part of the Super Friends. Three unusual inter-universal crossovers appear, including a trip to Earth-X, where the Nazis won World War Two, and to Earth-2, the home of the Golden Age Justice Society which comes under attack by...a super-powered DC Comics writer named Cary Bates, previously of "our" Earth, Earth-Prime. Oh, Meta! All this, and Black Canary knits Red Tornado a new costume to replace the purple-and-red horror he'd been stuck with since his first appearance! Recommended.