Sunday, May 31, 2015

Soul Cages & Batting Cages

How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell (1976-1981; collected 1982): Thomas Boswell became one of our two or three greatest regular chroniclers of baseball in the mid-1970s when he was about 30 and has continued as such ever since. He manages something extraordinarily rare in sports writing -- a mix of the poetic and the carefully observed normative. 

He's also extremely but unfussily literate in these essays, most of them stories and columns for the Washington Post. And while he's a poetic fellow, he's also statistically inclined. One of the stories included herein has Boswell introduce one of the first new baseball stats in years at the time, Total Average, as a better indicator of baseball hitting greatness than the batting average, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage.

As these essays were written in the late 1970's and early 1980's, they at times shine a light on a baseball world that's still dominated by players that include Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose, and managers that include Earl Weaver. These and others are profiled sympathetically but occasionally critically by Boswell. So, too, owners, innovators, Cuban baseball, the enigmatic Steve Carlton, Boswell's own history in baseball, the vanishing adult hard-ball leagues which are being supplanted by softball leagues, the care and feeding of baseball bats, and many other topics. Boswell's style is a joy to read, and his subject matter never disappoints in the general or the specific. Highly recommended.

The Wild Night Company: Irish Tales of Terror (1971): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: 

A Wild Night in Galway (1959) by Ray Bradbury
'Hell Fire' [Section of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)] by James Joyce
Julia Cahill's Curse (1903) by George Moore
Legends of Witches, Fairies and Leprechauns (1919) by Lady Wilde
Teig O'Kane and the Corpse (1918) by Traditional
The Banshee's Warning (1862) by Charlotte Riddell
The Canterville Ghost (1887) by Oscar Wilde 
The Coonian Ghost (1970) by Shane Leslie
The Crucifixion of the Outcast (1897) by William Butler Yeats
The Dead Smile (1899) by F. Marion Crawford
The Fairies' Revenge (1970) by Sinead de Valera
The Friendly Demon (1726) by Daniel Defoe
The Haunted Spinney (1904) by Elliott O'Donnell
The House Among the Laurels (1910) by William Hope Hodgson
The Legend of Finn M'Coul (1830) by William Carleton
The Man from Kilsheelan (1923) by A. E. Coppard
The Man Wolf (1970) by Giraldus Cambrensis
The Moon-Bog (1926) by H. P. Lovecraft
The Parracide's Tale (1820) [Section of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)] by Charles Maturin 
The Soul Cages (1825) by Thomas Crofton Croker
Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling (1864) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Witch Wood (1947) by Lord Dunsany

One of those many Peter Haining-edited anthologies with a fundamental problem in the title. These are tales by or about the Irish. Many feature the supernatural, though not all. But there's not a whole lot of terror involved. Throw that false claim away and enjoy instead a pretty enjoyable mixture of folk tales, excerpts from novels, and short stories.

Haining certainly gets bonus marks for including the terrifically horrifying sermon from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a grimly jocular section from Charles Maturin's seminal 19th-century Gothic Melmoth the Wanderer. And if you know the Sting song "The Soul Cages," you'll be intrigued to discover a much less sinister Irish version of the story from folklore, recorded in the early 19th century, that nonetheless still involves the souls of dead sailors kept in lobster traps by a supernatural being. But it won't be "magical wine" that knocks the creature for a loop -- it will be Irish poteen. Oh, go look it up. I'll wait.

The anthology ranges from folklore to genre writers to the famous literary elite and back again. I can criticize Haining for his odd choices in titling, but I can't criticize his range as an anthologist or his enthusiasm as an essayist introducing the tales. The drollness of the Ray Bradbury story that concludes the anthology is something to behold. I'm pretty sure no other ostensive horror anthology selection has so hilariously undercut a brief spate of terror with the revelation that the story serves up as its epiphanic (or is it anti-epiphanic?) moment about just what a wild night in Galway entails. Recommended.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Perfect Hair Forever

Fury: written and directed by David Ayer; starring Brad Pitt (Collier), Shia LaBeouf (Bible), Logan Lerman (Norman), Michael Pena (Gordo), and Jon Bernthal (Coon-Ass) (2014): Enjoyable WWII tank movie with new-school gore but old-fashioned morality: there are good guys and bad guys, and the job of the good guys is to kill the bad guys. 

Our American heroes, led by Sergeant Brad Pitt and forced to train new addition Logan Lerman on the fly, staff a Sherman tank dubbed 'Fury' in the last month of WWII, somewhere in Germany. They're town-hopping prior to Victory-Europe Day, and things are bloody as all Hell.

The acting from everyone is solid and sympathetic, though maybe we could have used ten more minutes of characterization and ten fewer minutes of apocalyptic battlefield action. Some of the tactical goofs will make military buffs cringe. This is another version of the old story of Horatius at the Bridge. And that story is dramatically sound no matter what millennium one lives in. 

The representation of tracer fire does make some battle sequences look like Star Wars. Especially good is a running battle between four American tanks and one ridiculously (and historically accurately) superior German tank. The final, 20-minute battle at the crossroads is about as apocalyptic as any battle involving only one tank can be. Recommended.

When Harry Met Sally: written by Nora Ephron; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Billy Crystal (Harry), Meg Ryan (Sally), Carrie Fisher (Marie), and Bruno Kirby (Jess) (1989): Nora Ephron penned this romantic comedy and Rob Reiner directed in style and structure as an homage to, or swipe from, a number of Woody Allen movies. It's gentler and less neurotic than a Woody Allen film would have been, however. Can men and women be friends without the sexual element creeping in? The movie actually seems to answer that question 'No.' Recommended.

Stir Crazy: written by Bruce Jay Friedman; directed by Sidney Poitier; starring Gene Wilder (Skip Donahue), Richard Pryor (Harry Monroe), Jo Beth Williams (Meredith), Georg Stanford Brown (Rory), Barry Corbin (Warden Beatty), Craig T. Nelson (Deputy Wilson), Miguel Angel Suarez (Ramirez), and Jonathan Banks (Graham) (1980): Imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit, New Yorkers Wilder and Pryor must escape from a Southern U.S. prison by using... a prison rodeo? OK! 

Sloppy, funny, and occasionally thrilling buddy movie teams Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor at a point when Wilder was at his height as a box-office presence. You can tell the latter because he gets to sing the title song and gets the girl in a completely perfunctory romantic sub-plot. 

Pryor does what he can, though his massive talents are massively under-served by the script. Sidney Poitier directs (!) in an amiable but occasionally sloppy style. And who doesn't love Grossburger? The great Jonathan 'Mike Ehrmantraut' Banks plays a fairly significant role. Good luck recognizing him, though -- he's 35 years younger and hiding behind a cowboy hat and sunglasses. 

A remarkable-for-its-time sympathetic portrayal of a gay inmate gets undercut to some extent by an almost stereotypical confusion of 'gay' and 'transvestite.' I'm pretty sure this movie represents the first time I saw a naked woman's boobies on the big screen. Yay me! Recommended.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fighting 'round the World (1933)

Doc Savage: The Polar Treasure  by Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson; restored and edited by Will Murray and others (1933/This edition from Nostalgia Ventures 2007): From the first year of the adventures of pulp superman (and partial inspiration for Superman) Doc Savage comes The Polar Treasure, a fairly bloody voyage into the North Polar regions in search of a lost ship and a buried treasure. 

Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, was already a physical and mental marvel early in his career, as were his five compatriots. Doc's main chronicler, Lester Dent, had done a lot of research on polar exploration for other projects before penning this novel, and the research certainly came in handy: it's a compellingly eerie and dangerous landscape for a Doc Savage adventure.

These reprints from Nostalgia Ventures offer Doc's adventures in something close to their original magazine size of the 1930's, along with reproductions of covers from their original appearances and in some cases from the Bantam reprints that started in the early 1960's and ran until the early 1990's (!). Pulp Maester Will Murray and others also restore sections to the novels when there have substantive changes to Dent's manuscript dating all the way back to the original publication. Here, that adds about 1000 words to the novel. It's all good though occasionally racist fun, with Doc's violence not yet toned down by Dent. Also, Doc Savage beats up a polar bear. Recommended.

Doc Savage: The Pirate of the Pacific  by Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson; restored and edited by Will Murray and others (1933/This edition from Nostalgia Ventures 2007): Fairly bloody and somewhat racist Doc Savage adventure from Doc's first year of publication, lovingly restored and presented by the fine people at Nostalgia Ventures. Doc and his five merry pranksters foil the attempt of a modern-day pirate to stage a coup in a thinly disguised Philippines (here dubbed the 'Luzon Union'). 

All the stuff involving Mongols and 'half-castes' and 'yellow people' speaking pidgin English can be pretty tough sledding at times, and the narrative does get stuck on a ship (literally) for what seems like an interminable number of pages before we finally reach the Luzon Union. Maybe the weakest of the early Doc Savage novels, with an atypically un-weird super-villain behind everything. It really feels more like a job for the Shadow or Terry and the Pirates or those guys who fought Fu Manchu all those times. Lightly recommended.

Concrete Comics

Concrete Volume 2: Heights: written by Paul Chadwick; illustrated by Paul Chadwick, Jon Nyberg, and Jed Hotchkiss (1986-1995; collected 2006): My only caveat about this reprint format from Dark Horse is that it's too small (smaller than the original comic-book pages, that is) to do justice to some of writer-artist Paul Chadwick's work with the occasional tiny panel or series of tiny panels. But I also realize that this format is a commercial necessity. Volume 2 of the collected Concrete gives us issues 6-10 of Concrete's original title from the late 1980's, along with assorted short stories. 

Concrete was infamously called by Harlan Ellison the best comic book on the racks in an Ellison article on comic books in a late 1980's issue of Playboy. It really, really wasn't. It was an enjoyable and, for a marketplace dominated by superheroes, somewhat offbeat take on what was really a super-hero trope. 

Concrete the character was originally a U.S. political speechwriter. While on a camping trip with a friend, he was captured by aliens and had his brain placed in a 7-foot-tall, super-strong body that looked an awful lot like it was made of concrete (though it wasn't).

Concrete escaped, while his friend either died or was again taken prisoner by the aliens, who proceeded to leave Earth as rapidly as possible. After being studied by the U.S. government, Concrete was finally allowed to live his own life under government supervision, and with frequent evaluation and testing by scientist Maureen Vonnegut. His cover story was that he was the sole survivor of a mostly disastrous U.S. government cyborg program.

So Concrete, forever a creature of the mind, decides after his release to become at least partially a creature of action. He does have super-strength, super eyesight, a super-tough skin, and super healing abilities. He doesn't have a sense of touch or taste (he can eat rocks and stay healthy, for instance, and so he does), and while he can hear, he doesn't seem to have ears.

Also, no genitals.

In this second volume, the full-length stories show Concrete, Maureen, and his assistant Larry trying to help a rural family save their farm (Concrete accepts letters from people asking for various types of help); Concrete climbing Mount Everest; and Concrete dealing with the death of his mother (who believes him to be dead thanks to the government's desire to keep his original identity a secret) and a mysterious illness that no one can diagnose, given that his biology is completely alien to Dr. Vonnegut and the other scientists studying him.

Chadwick maintains a nice balance between the mundane and the dramatic throughout this volume. Concrete may be strong and tough, but that doesn't mean he never gets into tight spots. In its own way, Concrete is as much of an exploration of the real-world possibilities of a super-hero as were other late 1980's works that most notably include Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Concrete remains hopeful about human society in the face of the extraordinary, with a lot of qualifiers. 

The art of Concrete is pleasing and low-key, free of the standard superhero sturm-und-drang even in the loudest moments. It's about as naturalistic and unmelodramatic a take on a superhero as one could want. Chadwick does occasionally slip into network-TV-style moralizing at the end of a story, a tendency that would fade over the years as Chadwick became a writer more sure of himself, though it never entirely disappeared. Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Concrete and friends nearly 30 years after I first read these comics. It's a very warm and mostly gentle series, and there should be room in comic books for a series like that. Recommended.

Concrete Volume 3: Fragile Creature: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-1995/collected 2006): Volume 3 of the collected Concrete offers a selection of short stories about everyone's favourite alien cyborg with a human brain and, as the eponymous main feature, a reprint of a 1991 miniseries about Concrete's adventures in the film business. 

Fragile Creature draws upon Paul Chadwick's own adventures in the film business (among other things, he worked on Bob and Doug Mackenzie's Strange Brew!) as it shows Concrete accepting a job doing a wide variety of on-set special effects so as to get a movie based on a line of toys made without breaking the budget. Super-strength has its advantages. Problems arise, of course, thanks to some resentment of Concrete taking jobs away from the people who would otherwise have done such effects. There are various squabble on the film as well, primarily between the main actor and the director.

The whole thing works well as both a dramatic but low-key adventure for Concrete and as a primer on movie financing, production, and marketing. Concrete's personal life also undergoes some changes as his personal scientist Dr. Maureen Vonnegut starts a relationship with another scientist, to the perpetually lovestruck (and in his cyborg body, completely without genitals) Concrete. Recommended.

Concrete Volume 6: Strange Armor: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-2006/collected 2006): Writer-artist Paul Chadwick reworks a screenplay he wrote for a never-produced Concrete movie into a 150-page comic-book narrative, to mixed results. It's interesting to see his 10-years-later take on Concrete's origins and first adventures. Unfortunately, Hollywoodizing the story of Concrete also meant adding a prominent 'action' plot involving a corrupt CIA agent to the mix.

The Hollywoodized portions of the narrative don't add anything positive. Indeed, they make for a jarring contrast with the normal tone and content of Concrete, which was always fairly normative (or non-sensational, perhaps), even when our hero was dealing with aliens or Eastern Bloc secret agents trying to kidnap him. The Hollywoodization also turns Maureen Vonnegut, Concrete's government-assigned scientist, into a sort of action-movie/romantic-comedy version of herself, abandoning the organic growth of Concrete and Maureen's platonic relationship. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tales of (Mild) Interest

Tales of Twilight and the Unseen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922) containing the following stories: The Great Keinplatz Experiment (1885); The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892); The Lift (1922); De Profundis(1892); Lot No. 249 (1892); How It Happened (1913); Playing with Fire (1900); B. 24 (1899); The Usher of Lea House School (1899); The Brown Hand (1899); The Ring of Thoth (1890); and A Literary Mosaic (1886).

This handsome reprint of a 1922 Arthur Conan "Sherlock Holmes" Doyle collection looks swell and, with large print and lavish line-spacing, is darned easy to read. And the stories themselves are mostly easy to read, even allowing for changes in general style and idiom over the last 100 years. Alas, the main problem is that Doyle's two best horror stories -- "The Parasite" and "The Horror of the Heights" -- aren't here. Neither is the suspenseful "The Brazilian Cat."

We do get "Lot No. 249," which besides possibly giving Thomas Pynchon an idea (and me an idea for a Thomas Pynchon novel about vengeful mummies and the U.S. Postal Service), also gives us a dangerous revived Egyptian mummy. Later Mummy movies would seem to draw upon the story, which is aces at build-up but not so great at a pay-off: I've seen people compare the story to M.R. James, but James would have given the world at least twice the scares at half the length.

Other stories operate as either light satire ("The Los Amigos Fiasco") or non-supernatural suspense ("The Lift"). The other notable tales of the supernatural don't really involve horror at all, though "Playing with Fire" does offer us an extremely angry supernatural unicorn (!). "The Brown Hand" and "The Ring of Thoth" are instead relatively gentle supernatural tales, devoid of threat or menace. Most of these stories were written before Doyle became a believer in the supernatural himself. Make of that what you may. 

I certainly wasn't bored while reading the stories, but most of them were very effective at lulling me to sleep when read prior to nap-time. "A Literary Mosaic [a.k.a. "Cyprian Overbeck Wells") is the true outlier here, an amusing bit of play with the style and content of writers that include Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, and Jonathan Swift. People who want to sample the supernatural, non-Sherlockian works of Conan Doyle would be better served with a 'Best of' collection that includes "The Brazilian Cat," "The Horror of the Heights," and "The Parasite." Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tanith Lee 1947-2015

A fine writer and, for me, a welcome mainstay of virtually every horror anthology, new or reprint, published since the mid-1970's. Of the maybe 100 stories of hers I've read, I'd probably select "Elle Est Trois" (La Mort)" as the finest. She also wrote about a gajillion high and dark fantasy novels.

More from Tor here: 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Uncle Buck and Hercules: Together Again!

Hercules: adapted from the comic book written by Steve Moore by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos; directed by Brett Ratner; starring Dwayne Johnson (Hercules), Ian McShane (Amphiaraus), John Hurt (Lord Cotys), Rufus Sewell (Autolycus), Ingrid Berdal (Atalanta), and Joseph Fiennes (King Eurystheus) (2014): The late comic-book writer, mystic, and subject of an extremely odd but rewarding book by Alan Moore (Unearthing) Steve Moore got royally screwed out of what was a pittance of money (reportedly $15,000) when compared to the $100 million budget of this movie, based on his Hercules comic book. Moore re-imagined Hercules as a sort of proto-Doc Savage, complete with colourful sidekicks. There's a slight hint of such revisionist films as Robin and Marian in this one, as the myth of Hercules and the reality of Hercules are revealed to be quite different.

For all that, it's a somewhat retro and mostly enjoyable entertainment. It really feels more like a swords-and-sandals movie from the 1950's and 1960's than a modern movie, which isn't a bad thing at all. And director Brett Ratner doesn't embarrass himself. Dwayne Johnson and the other actors are an appealing bunch, and if you like watching long sword-and-spear battles, you'll probably be happy. History buffs should note that the film is set several hundred years too late, perhaps as many as 700 or 800 years. This Hercules could have helped out at the Battle of Thermopylae. Lightly recommended.

Uncle Buck: written and directed by John Hughes; starring John Candy (Buck Russell), Jean Louisa Kelly (Tia Russell), Gaby Hoffman (Maizy Russell), Macaulay Culkin (Miles Russell), Amy Madigan (Chanice Kobolowski), and Laurie Metcalf (Marcie Dahlgren-Frost) (1989): Decades of dire film comedies have made Uncle Buck, John Candy, and John Hughes loom ever larger in the comedic pantheon. 

Even the kids (including a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin and Gaby Hoffmann) are funny, and have funny things to do. But this is Candy's vehicle. His charisma and comic timing fix a lot of the rough patches. And I'd forgotten how strangely hyper-competent and assertive Hughes allowed Candy's character to be. He's a drill-wielding, death-threatening, door-busting one-man army. Even his golf balls are deadly weapons. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Your Penis is a Vampire

The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson (1976): Wilson mentions Canadian Golden-Age science-fiction great A.E. Van Vogt in this novel's acknowledgements section. That reference clarifies a lot of the zaniness of this novel's construction, not to mention its philosophizing. 

Even in his first short story, "Black Destroyer" (1939), one of two Van Vogt stories that allowed him to get a settlement from the makers of Alien (1979), the Winnipeg revelator combined horror, science fiction, and some exposition-heavy stretches of philosophizing about human society and social engineering. And a lot of Van Vogt's protagonists ended up as supermen in the end.

The Space Vampires starts off, much like the later Alien, with the discovery of a derelict alien ship by an Earth ship. We're at the end of the 21st century, and humanity continues to explore the solar system. These first fifty pages or so give us an effective shot of cosmic horror and wonder. The derelict is cyclopean in size and mysterious inside. Humanoid aliens rest in what seem to be tombs. But if the crew was human, why does the interior scale of the ship, like the exterior, suggest a dark cathedral made for giants? 

And what's up with the frozen, alien octopi?

So far, so good. The horror elements remain effective when the explorers return to Earth with three of the preserved alien bodies. A horrific event occurs in London, England, which for some reason seems to be the headquarters of Earth's space command (shades of the Quatermass series and Doctor Who!). 

And then Colin Wilson does the writerly equivalent of crapping his pants over and over again in an explosive diarrhea spout of increasingly ridiculous theories spouted by talking heads that only occasionally pause so that the plot can lurch along for a few pages in its inevitable path to a Deus ex machina.

What's impressive about Wilson is that his writing keeps one reading throughout the later stretches of the novel, even as one's suspension of disbelief fades and the tedious stretches of his philosophizing go on and on and on. 

To condense everything into a few lines, everything that lives has a life-force. Male and female life forces are like the negative and positive leads on a battery. 

The ultimate sexual characteristic of a woman is to submit to the male, which allows for a balancing of the male and female sexual forces. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Wilson's system means that men suck power from women at the moment of orgasm. Among other things, that last bit explains why old men with young wives are virile powerhouses who age more slowly than puny, ordinary men who are stuck with wives their own age (or, I guess, gay men). 

There's a whole lot more where that came from, all of it increasingly dire and laughable as the novel shudders to its close. The eponymous aliens can suck the life-force out of anyone, though the learned man can turn the tables on them. So of course our protagonist rapidly goes from alien food source to sex-powered Superman. 

Then he learns more about space vampires from an anomalously virile and sexy nonagenerian with three sexy young women living with him. He also realizes that all women are simply expressions of the Eternal Feminine, and that they're there to give him power because he's a man, and men receive power from women either telepathically or sexually because That's the Way It Is!  Ha ha whee. 

Even though the protagonist is married, he bangs one of the sexy young women because the space vampire is messing with his mind from a great distance because Telepathy! He also mind-melds with another guy's wife to such a level of intimacy while they're just holding hands that she contemplates leaving her husband. Also, she offers some of her life-force energy to him because That's What Women Do! They enjoy having their life energy drained by, um, a man's ejaculating penis. Or just a manly man reading their minds. That's enough. Oh, baby, take my lifeforce!

If nothing else, one can see why film-makers re-titled the movie adaptation Lifeforce. And the movie, wacky and bad as it was, is far superior to the book. By the last fifty pages of the novel, I was hoping the space vampires would kill the protagonist and that annoying nonagenerian (or maybe he was just a late octogenerian. Really, who cares?). Because they are so sexy and virile and hyper-competent. And they'll tell you all about it. 

Not recommended unless you stop reading at the 50-page mark and then go off and write your own, better conclusion to the novel. Or if you enjoy masturbating to weird metaphysical/biological fantasies of male sexual power as being an expression of the Infinite.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Supes in the 90's and Bat's in the 40's.

Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite!: written by Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, and Dan Jurgens; illustrated by Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Curt Swan, John Byrne, Bob McLeod, Brett Breeding, Art Thibert, Dennis Janke, Dave Hoover, Kerry Gammill, and Scott Hanna (1990/ Collected 1996): An entertaining, short story arc from the various Superman titles in 1990. Why they decided to go with a title that spells out 'KKK' in acrostic is a really good question, though. 

Coming four years after John Byrne and company had rebooted Superman into a less god-like version of himself, Krisis offers us a Superman who already seems as comfortable as an old shoe. And there's nothing wrong with that. The art is also solid, workmanlike, no-fuss stuff. The three writers give us a Superman who's as noble as ever, faced with a situation in which his powers have mysteriously vanished because of Red Kryptonite.

As there is no Red Kryptonite in the rebooted world of Superman post-1986, this offers an intellectual challenge for the Man of Steel. Not only does he need to find out why he's a normal human now, he also finds himself obligated to continue fighting super-villains by whatever means necessary. My only regret is that the writers didn't figure out how to bring back the Super-mobile, a toy from the late 1970's that was forced upon the Superman creators of the time as something that just had to appear in the comic books. See also the Spider-mobile. 

The supporting cast is likeably constructed here, from the tough Lois Lane to the mostly competent Jimmy Olsen and onwards to relatively new cast addition Professor Hamilton. The main villains of the piece are Lex Luthor and Mr. Mxyzptlk. Luthor is dying of Kryptonite exposure because he's been wearing a green K ring on his hand for several years to ward off Superman. Mr. Mxyzptlk has undergone an unfortunate redesign in the post-1986 Superman universe: the skinny, almost snake-like look wouldn't survive much longer, thank Rao. 

Along the way, we do get a terrific joke that brings Superman reboot co-architect John Byrne back to the Man of Steel after a two-year absence with a funny riff on alternate universes and Byrne's work on the Fantastic Four prior to his work on the Superman comics. Recommended.

Batman: The Dark Knight Archives Volume 2: written by Bill Finger; illustrated by Bob Kane, George Roussos, Fred Ray, Jerry Robinson, and others (1941/collected 1993): Bob Kane worked out a sweet legal deal in 1939 with what would become DC Comics. It got him sole credit in perpetuity as the creator of Batman. This also screwed over writer Bill Finger, who by all accounts came up with about 90% of Batman's recognizable features. 

Kane generally got full credit on art and story for Batman stories until the 1960's. It's not entirely clear whether he actually did anything other than supervise the stories included here from 1941 issues of Batman magazine. So it goes. 

The stories collected here are interesting in a historical sense -- this is not the hyper-competent Batman who has really only existed in comic books since Frank MIller's 1985-86 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns. Instead, he's more of a costumed adventurer with an incredible propensity for getting knocked unconscious by everyone he fights. 

Seriously, post-concussion syndrome should really be the Golden Age Batman's Kryptonite. That and Robin the Boy Wonder's ability to get taken hostage at inopportune moments. They're stories for kids (as, indeed, most stories about super-heroes should be), capably illustrated by Kane (?), Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, and others. 

Bill Finger's pulpy inventiveness was already in full swing by 1941. My favourite example here involves Batman fighting a professor who's been exposed to too much radium radiation. He may be a mad, highly radioactive scientist, but his heart was in the right place: he wanted to cure disease. The Joker makes three appearances in the course of the collection (which spans one year of comic books in 1941). Yes, he was already being over-used. But while he's kooky, he's also a homicidal criminal And, as always, something of a dick. Recommended.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Late-Early Robert R. McCammon Takes a Mystery Walk

Mystery Walk by Robert R. McCammon (1983): By the mid-1980's, Robert McCammon was a best-selling horror writer whose publishers very firmly positioned him in the tradition of Stephen King. He eventually got tired of being pigeon-holed and all but vanished for about a decade before returning in the early oughts. It's actually a brave moment for a writer -- McCammon could have kept writing contemporary horror for years, as he'd become a very popular writer when he changed. 

Mystery Walk is late-early McCammon, a big jump forward from his first few enjoyable but very pulpy novels of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Is it Kingian? Not consciously, I don't think, and McCammon was always interested in the nuts and bolts of things, whether those things were science-fictional or supernatural in nature. A fair bit of Mystery Walk explores how the supernatural powers of its linked protagonists work, and why, in a metaphysical sense.

The novel follows dirt-poor half-Choctaw Bill Creekmore and seemingly magical faith healer Wayne Falconer into their early twenties in the 1960's and early 1970's. Both hail from a racist, somewhat toxic small town in Alabama. Both must come to terms with supernatural powers: while Falconer can sometimes call upon healing powers, Creekmore can interact with the ghosts left behind by violent deaths and convince them to move on to the afterlife. Both are pursued by a malign supernatural other known to them as the Shape Changer.

McCammon's characters are finely and sympathetically drawn here for the first time in his career. There's a real sense of dread to the supernatural set-pieces that dot the novel. My favourite is a battle between Billy and a supernaturally infected carnival ride. McCammon manages to create sympathy for Falconer as well, as he goes down the wrong path for understandable reasons and ends up under the sway of a somewhat cartoonish Los Angeles mobster with a fear of contamination that makes Howie Mandel look like Pigpen.

Despite its scenes of horror, Mystery Walk occupies the borderlands between horror and dark fantasy. Even early in his career, McCammon resisted being just one thing, and the novel shows an affinity for Ray Bradbury as much as it does a resemblance to Stephen King. The Bradbury influence shows up in content, not in style, and it would again and again throughout McCammon's career. Billy's time spent working for a magician at a traveling carnival is the most Bradburyian stretch here, and it's the most enjoyable of the novel.

McCammon also does a fairly sensitive job of using Native American mythology (or at least the semblance of Native American mythology) to supply the underpinnings of the supernatural forces at work in the novel. The Shape Changer's motivations only come into complete focus in the novel's climax, and they make perfect sense. The journeys to self-awareness of Falconer and especially Billy are the eponymous 'Mystery Walk.' 

Certain things are problematic. The aforementioned mobster doesn't fit organically into the novel, and his almost cartoonish qualities make him seem like a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era by the time we're done with him. The set-up for the climax stretches credibility to its limits, even in a novel in which we must accept the presence of the supernatural. But you're watching a young but capable writer figure out how to put things together. It all ends up feeling like the somewhat uneven but ultimately rewarding start to a series of novels that never materialized. Recommended.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Half a Global Frequency is Better Than None

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Garry Leach, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Roy Martinez, John J Muth, David Lloyd, and David Barron (2002-2003/ This edition 2004): This collection of the first half of writer Warren Ellis' early-oughts 12-issue miniseries gives us six different artists and the most TV-friendly of all of Ellis' comic-book projects. Indeed, Global Frequency did get a TV pilot made, though it wasn't picked up for series. That's a shame because it's a solid take on a solid, much-used concept in TV. In a way, this is Mission: Impossible for the post-industrial, post-governmental, Internet age.

And the artists are all boss. Global Frequency (the agency) employs 1001 agents across the globe, though they're really more heavily compensated consultants than actual employees. Global Frequency (the agency) is sponsored by the G-8 countries (among other sources named or implied) but run independently by a mysterious woman. Global Frequency (the comic book) shows us six missions, rendered by six great artists.

Held together by phone and Internet, members of the team await the call to either consult on a problem or to jump into the fray. They're 1001 experts in thousands of fields, from parkour (no kidding) to quantum physics to assassination. The crises they face arise from both intent and neglect -- forgotten and now-malfunctioning Cold-War super-weapons can represent as great a threat to the world as crazed death-cultists, insane bionic men, or an invading meme from outer space.

It's all fast-paced and breezy, almost Warren Ellis-lite in terms of characterization and plot density. Done right, it would have made a hell of a TV series. As a comic-book series, it's still a lot of fun. Going with different artists each issue increases that fun, whether it's Preacher's Steve Dillon, V for Vendetta's David Lloyd, or the normally painterly Jon J Muth doing something a lot more sketchy. Recommended.

Action Allegories

The Purge: Anarchy: written and directed by James DeMonaco; starring Frank Grillo (Sergeant), Carmen Ejogo (Eva), Zach Gilford (Shane), Kiele Sanchez (Liz), Zoe Soul (Cali) and Justina Machado (Tanya) (2014): The second Purge movie ditches the name actors and heads to the streets for the near-future America's favourite annual pastime: raping and killing without consequence for one night of the year. 

Instead of one somewhat unlikable upper-middle-class family under siege, we get the tried-and-true Stagecoach formula of disparate strangers bonded by shared danger. It works beautifully. There's nothing subtle about the Purge movies, in which the poor are victims of violence and the State loves it. But there is something bracing about this movie, something very early John Carpenter in its angry protagonist, known only as Sergeant (for his former rank as a police officer).

Frank Grillo nails the frustrations of a man who doesn't want to be a hero but is forced to because of his own morality. The four people he leads on this little night-sea journey are appealing. We even get periodic left-wing civics lectures from Zoe Soul's Cali. The allegory is paper-thin but surprisingly sturdy: it all seems like a brand that's built to last, a similarly agit-proppy successor to Carpenter's Escape from New York and They Live. Recommended.

Snowpiercer: adapted by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson from Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette; directed by Joon-ho Bong; starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo), Ed Harris (Wilford), John Hurt (Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Mason), and Octavia Spencer (Tanya) (2013): Visually startling and dumb as a post. 17 years after a 2014 attempt to stop global warming freezes the Earth, humanity's survivors live on a train that never stops chugging along through an icy landscape that stretches throughout every continent on Earth (well, except Australia -- the train doesn't go there). Mad billionaire Wilford connected nearly 500,000 kilometers of railway track some time before everything got really chilly and then  got a bunch of people together on his train. 

At the front of the train, the engine and the rich people. At the back of the train, the poor. Captain America Chris Evans leads a rag-tag group of poor people towards the front of the train in hopes of overthrowing the existing social order. Shenanigans ensue, many of them very cleverly staged. Characterization and subtlety (not to mention science and engineering) aren't parts of the program. It's not science fiction. It's barely allegory. The dialogue thuds along. Tilda Swinton plays Tilda Swinton playing a Tilda Swinton character.

If Michael Bay had directed this rather than the critically beloved Joon-ho Bong, I think the movie would be reviled for being stupid eye candy. It's a movie that gets small, detailed things right within a much larger framework of gross unbelievability: those 500,000+ kilometres of track, for example, are needed so that it takes exactly a year for the train to complete one circuit while traveling at a relatively constant 75 kph. Why? Um, so they can celebrate New Year's Day every year at the completion of the circuit? So it goes. Lightly recommended.

Mad Max, or, There and Back Again

Mad Max: Fury Road: written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Zoe Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (The Splendid Angharad), Riley Keough (Capable), Abbey Lee (The Dag), and Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile) (2015): 

Gigantic in a way that the previous three Mad Max movies couldn't be because of budgetary restraints, Mad Max: Fury Road puts that money on the screen, and does an amazing number of things without CGI. When CGI does stroll in to dominate, it actually does so in a sublime way, as a dust super-storm that seems more true to Dune than anything that's ever been put on the screen as Dune.

A sort of soft reboot of the original Mad Max films, this one slots in after the original Mad Max, though some of Max's flashbacks suggest that the original film doesn't supply quite the same origin narrative for the series. Tom Hardy's Max, a former police officer, does have his familiar Interceptor from the first two movies, though. For awhile, anyway. 

Hardy is a much quieter presence than the young Mel Gibson, though at least some of that seems to be by design: Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa is the movie's hero, and a very compelling one. Max is along to learn to be heroic again.

Of the 110 story minutes of the film, about 80 involve various iterations of a car chase. Here in the post-apocalypse, the cars have been assembled from anything that works and engineered to be as dangerous to others as possible. Along the way, Miller throws in a visual homage to fellow Aussie Peter Weir's early film, The Cars That Ate Paris. And a nod to one of the iconic stunts in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar while chained to the front of a truck. There's a lot going on.

The chase, or The Chase, or whatever you want to call it, is dizzying at times but fully comprehensible. Miller and his storyboard people, including comic-book writer/artist Brendan McCarthy, who's co-credited on the script, have figured out everything and where everything needs to go. And go it does. 

Is this a feminist film? Well, when compared to pretty much every other blockbuster movie of the last 25 years, yes. The main plot riffs on Boko Haram and its kidnapping of young girls to be brides, on arranged marriages and institutionalized rape, and on the utter cruddiness of many men with power. 

The main antagonist, Immortan Joe, is a wheezing blob of a dictator who needs to be poured and prodded into a suit that makes him look fearsome. He keeps young women to produce offspring in the reproductively challenged future. Imperator Furiosa, who has worked for Joe for years, has hatched a plan to get the women and herself to safety. Max finds himself along for the ride, acted upon for about the first 40 minutes of the movie before he finally starts to act. 

Visually impressive and kinetic as hell, Mad Max: Fury Road also offers some clever twists and some nicely observed flashes of characterization and world-building along the way. It's a great action movie that doesn't insult the eye or the brain. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Don't Look Down

As Above, So Below: written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle; directed by John Erick Dowdle; starring Perdita Weeks (Scarlett), Ben Feldman (George), Edwin Hodge (Benji), Francois Civil (Papillon), Marion Lambert (Susie), and Ali Marhyar (Zed) (2014): Minor but enjoyable horror movie that would have benefited from not being 'found footage.' But I've got a soft spot for any movie that involves a descent into the Paris Catacombs in search of that Moby Dick of alchemists, the Philosopher's Stone. 

And they're the real catacombs! And there's almost as much graffiti down there as there are human remains! Also, in case you've got a bet going, the black guy does not die first, though he does attract an inordinate amount of attention from whatever's down there. Demerit points for referring to something from Dante's Inferno as being something from "legend"; bonus points for actually incorporating a number of concepts from the Inferno into the descent. My biggest complaint is that they don't end up surfacing in Australia. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Secret Originals

The Filth (Deluxe Edition): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine (2002-2003; this edition 2015): Those hoping for a completely uncensored reprint of Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine's racy, cloachal mind-bender of  science-fiction/conspiracy series will be only partially satisfied by some of the material included in the Extras section. People are still afraid of penises, or at least the erect depiction thereof.

But this slightly over-sized Deluxe Edition is still a good buy, even if only for the slightly over-sized pages and the Extras section. A Morrison blurb reprinted from the time of the first issue's release back in 2002 notes that The Filth is a "Gerry Anderson series on LSD." And it sort of is, at least in terms of Anderson's UFO, which even had its anti-alien defenders wearing wigs and odd costumes, especially on the Moon-base.

'The Filth' refers to several things in the series. It's a British slang term for the police, it's a slang term for pornography, and it's a term for, well, actual filth -- you know, dirt, shit, that sort of thing. 

The science-fictional level of The Filth shows us an increasingly odd secret organization named The Hand devoted to maintaining Status Q[uo] by almost any means necessary, with the help of high-tech, bio-tech, and some good old-fashioned violence. The last is often committed by an extremely angry and foul-mouthed talking chimpanzee who was originally created by the Soviets. He's one hell of a sniper!

The cloachal world of The Hand's secret base, its bio-tech, and the crises it seeks to prevent or truncate bleeds into the normative world of Greg Feely, a porn-loving office drone who loves his aging cat. But he's not really Greg Feely. He's actually Ned Slade, Hand super-negotiator. He's just taking a vacation away from the weirdness and doesn't know it. Or does he? Or is this all the fantasy of Greg Feely's increasingly deranged mind?

And who is Max Thunderstone? Who is Spartacus Hughes? What is iLife? Just exactly where is the Hand's secret base located, given the odd monsters that roam around it and the giant hand holding a pen that loom over them all? Has God died? Are superhero comics actually a good source of tech development? Will Tony the cat, pushing 18, survive? What's buried in Greg Feely's backyard? Will that goddam chimp ever shut up? What is the greater significance of the comic-book superhero named Secret Original? What disaster looms on a cruise ship built to hold over 100,000 people? Will Beverly Hills survive an attack by thousands of giant, flying spermatozoa? 

Well, read The Filth. It's good and it's good for you. You need to be distracted while they operate in the shadows to maintain Status Q. Just hope you aren't judged to be an Anti-Person. Or recruited by The Hand. Highly recommended.

Challengers of the Unknown: Stolen Moments, Borrowed Time: written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin (2004/ collected 2006): The stylish and provocative writer-artist Howard Chaykin gives us a re-imagining of DC's venerable Challengers of the Unknown team that plays with many of the same concepts as Grant Morrison et al.'s earlier The Filth. A world-wide conspiracy secretly turns people into super-agents. The super-agents don't know they're super-agents until they're activated. But something goes wrong, and several agents gain full self-awareness and begin to fight against the conspiracy -- here imagined as a Whites-Only group formed after World War One. It's stylish and enjoyable in the mighty Chaykin matter. The satire of Fox News and similar right-wing outlets and mouthpieces (including Ann Coulter) is savage. No series resulted from this miniseries, so it stands on its own with only partial resolution to the story-line at the end. Lightly recommended.

DMZ Volume 1: On the Ground: written by Brian Wood; illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Wood (2005-2006; collected 2006): Enjoyable start to the relatively long-running Vertigo/DC title (well, 72 issues) drops news intern Matty Roth into war-torn Manhattan. Yes, Manhattan. The second United States Civil War has been going on for years, and Manhattan is a point of friction between the United States and the rebel Free States, one of which is New Jersey. Riccardo Burchelli's art is realistic and occasionally startling, while Wood does a good job of beginning to flesh out the realities of life in fractured, fractious Manhattan. Recommended.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Don't Go in the Water

Beneath Still Waters by Matthew J. Costello (1989): Fast-paced, entertaining horror novel from the 1980's with flawed but sympathetic characters and some spooky underwater action. This was apparently made into a cheapie horror movie in the mid-2000's, so avoid that. On the other hand, the edition I read was a tie-in to that movie, so the reprint did result in me reading it. 

Costello writes in multiple genres (including TV and video games). This horror novel is very much in the Stephen King tradition in terms of setting (a small North-eastern town, here in New York state rather than Maine) and set-up (ancient evil invades small town; problem must be dealt with decades after the fact). The protagonists are both reporters, which gives them reason to investigate why a small town was hurriedly drowned by a hastily built dam back in the 1930's. 

I'm assuming there were edits made to get it to a required length, as the conclusion is a bit rushed. I'd have enjoyed more of the historical 'archival' research into the origins of the horror -- it's the sort of thing Lovecraft did perfectly in many of his stories, and which Stephen King made his own in novels such as It. Recommended.

The Boats of the Glen Carrig by William Hope Hodgson (1907): William Hope Hodgson's life was cut short in his mid-40's in the trenches of World War One. Nonetheless, he left quite a literary legacy, one that wouldn't really begin to take effect until the 1930's and 1940's, when lovers of the weird started to unearth and publish his out-of-print novels and short stories.

Hodgson spent years as a sailor, and many of his best works feature a maritime setting. His novels also tended toward the archivally inclined: here, the story is 'written' in 1757 by a former passenger of the British sailing ship Glen Carrig, with the recounted adventures occurring some time earlier  in the 18th century. We start with the action already underway, the Glen Carrig sunk and the survivors in two lifeboats. They're somewhere in the South Atlantic, and things are going to get weird.

Hodgson's model seems to be the works of writers such as Daniel DeFoe, whose Robinson Crusoe stands a sort of Ur-text for all tales of sailors and shipwrecks and strange islands. But Crusoe, while alone, faced nothing so weird as these sailors will face. Their odyssey takes them to a strange island or perhaps continent, unmarked on their maps, where extraordinarily odd plant life exists and menace seems to wait over every hill. They'll soon face storms and another strange continent. They're about to get trapped by a vast assemblage of sea weed. And in and beneath the seaweed, more strange men and monsters. 

The final third of the novel drags a bit as the sailors get stuck in the seaweed and plan to get out while being besieged by weird creatures of the sea and land, pretty much all of them with a whole lot of tentacles waving around. Still, this is a rewarding journey. Hodgson's description of the sailing life rings with authenticity. 

Characters other than the narrator are sketchily constructed; our interest in them instead comes from the horrors they face and their general bravery and resourcefulness in finding ways to escape from the problems they're presented with. The scenes set in the first place they land showcase Hodgson's skill at the creations of disturbing, uncanny landscapes while the later adventures in the land of seaweed focus more upon a sort of literature of grace under weird pressure, much of it expressed by detailed descriptions of the various plans the sailors enact to get home. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Captains of Action!

Mr. Baseball: written by Monte Merrick, Kevin Wade, Gary Ross, John Junkerman, and Theo Pelletier; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Tom Selleck (Jack Elliot), Ken Takakura (Uchiyama), Aya Takanashi (Hiroko), and Dennis Haysbert (Max) (1992): So-so Fish Out of Water Learns From Others As They Learn Also From Him comedy-drama. The laughs mostly come in the second half. Tom Selleck goes topless for about half the movie and looks pretty good for a guy in his late 40's. Lightly recommended.

The Equalizer: adapted by Richard Wenk from the TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindhelm; directed by Antoine Fuqua; starring Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Marton Csokas (Teddy), Chloe Grace Moretz (Teri), and Johnny Skourtis (Ralphie) (2014): A revenge action-thriller lifted by the moody direction of pulp-auteur Antoine Fuqua (whose Training Day nabbed Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar), Washington's quirky, OCD-tinged performance as a hardware-store employee with more specialized skills than ten Liam Neesons, and a very solid supporting cast in both sympathetic and antagonistic roles.

It doesn't really resemble the 1980's TV show (and Washington doesn't resemble in any way Edward Woodward's slightly foppish original Equalizer) until the very end, when it comes into full focus as an origin story. It's the sort of relatively low-budget, low-CGI action movie that now seems refreshingly old school in an age of superhero slug-fests. Bonus points for using The Old Man and the Sea and Don Quixote in a respectful and surprisingly relevant manner, especially the former. Recommended.

Hot Fuzz: written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright; starring Simon Pegg (Nicholas Angel), Nick Frost (PC Danny Butterman), Timothy Dalton (Simon Skinner), Olivia Colman (PC Doris Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Inspector Frank Butterman), Edward Woodward (Tom Weaver), and Paul Freeman (Rev. Philip Shooter) (2007): Really, pretty much on my top-ten of all-time action comedies, and closer to the top of that list than the bottom. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright riff on everything from Chinatown to Midsomer Murders to Point Break to Bad Boys II to Harry Potter to The Wicker Man and many, many others in this tale of a big-city cop (Pegg) shipped off to a seemingly idyllic small town because he's so good at his job that he's making all the other cops in London look bad.

Nick Frost plays Pegg's buddy here as he does so often, equipped with some ridiculous malaprops along the way. The lengthy, town-ranging battle that rages at the end sends up an almost infinite number of movies and TV shows while simultaneously being both thrilling and hilarious. The second movie in Pegg&Wright's Cornetto Trilogy (following Shaun of the Dead and followed by The World's End) , movies which use many of the same actors in different roles while nonetheless featuring the ice-cream treat Cornetto at some point in each. Flash Fact: In Canada, we'd call a Cornetto a Drumstick. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Guest-starring Congorilla and Dr. Phosphorus

Showcase Presents Superman Volume 3: written by Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, and others; illustrated by Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, and others (1961-62; collected 2007): Superman's Silver Age adventures move forward into more absurdity, cosmic happenings, and classic tragedy. 

The last is thanks to an Imaginary Story written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and illustrated by the great Curt Swan, who drew Superman adventures in five decades. It's The Death of Superman, and it puts all other stories about the Man of Steel's death on the back-burner. But it's Imaginary -- it didn't really happen, dear reader!

We also get non-Imaginary stories featuring the Man of Tomorrow battling the mischievous 5th-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, arch-enemy Lex Luthor, and various forms of Kryptonite. Ah, Kryptonite. Invented for the radio show back in the 1940's and meant to give Superman a weakness, by the early 1960's it had metastasized into a Krypton-sized headache. There seems to be more Kryptonite on Earth than actual Earth elements, and every two-bit hood has at least one chunk stashed in his pocket. Honestly, it's amazing that every issue wasn't The Death of Superman.

As a bonus, Krypto the Super-dog teams up with Titano the giant, Kryptonite-eye-beam-wielding gorilla back in dinosaur days because Why Not? Lois Lane tries to learn Superman's secret identity on a number of occasions. Superman reveals Supergirl's existence to the world after several years as his 'secret weapon.' 

The citizens of the Bottle City of Kandor, a Kryptonian city shrunk by Superman villain Brainiac and now housed in Superman's Arctic Fortress of Solitude, help out Superman on numerous occasions. And in the final story of the volume, Superman believes he's dying for real in a tale that heavily influenced Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman and Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Superman/Swamp Thing team-up, "The Jungle Line." Highly recommended.

Batman: Strange Apparitions: written by Steve Engelhart and Len Wein; illustrated by Marshall Rogers, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Dick Giordano, and others (1977-78; collected 1999): This Batman reprint volume spans the entire tenure of 1970's Batman greats Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics. And it really is great. And unlike other previous and subsequent reprints from this run, it starts with Engelhart's arrival and ends with Rogers' departure, neither of which were synchronized. Thus, Walt Simonson does the penciling chores early and Len Wein writes the last two issues included.

Despite the shortness of both their tenures (the whole volume spans about a year's worth of issues), Engelhart and Rogers generally get ranked as one of the top-five Batman creative teams of all time. And I think I agree. Engelhart writes Batman as a sympathetic hero who's not completely bonkers and not an absurd control freak (as he would become in the 1980's). 

And he gives us fresh takes on Batman villains mainly old -- in some cases really old. Engelhart brought back Deadshot, unseen for nearly 30 years and redesigned by Rogers with a costume that's pretty much used verbatim now in stills from DC's upcoming Suicide Squad movie. He also resurrected Professor Hugo Strange, unseen also for decades and one of the early Batman's pulpiest mad-scientist foes.

We also get nifty takes on old foes that include the Penguin back before movies and TV and comics started portraying the Penguin as a character only slightly less insane than the Joker. And the Joker himself appears in a great two-parter about... copyright law? Rogers and Engelhart nod to various Batman tropes throughout, most notably the Giant Versions of Ordinary Household Objects beloved by the late writer (and uncredited Batman co-creator) Bill Finger.

The art of the late Marshall Rogers was almost never better than it was here. I prefer this more realistic (though eminently stylized) Rogers to his later, more cartoony stuff. Moreover, Rogers' attention to the details of Gotham City is second to none. And in a full-page panel that may have imprinted upon a young JJ Abrams, Rogers throws in... a lens flare. Oh, that Rogers! 

The work in which Engelhart and Rogers aren't paired isn't quite up to the same standard, but it's still solid stuff. Len Wein and Rogers' legacy villain Clayface (III) is one of the most horrific creations in Batman's Rogues Gallery, beautifully and occasionally grotesquely rendered by Rogers and inker Dick Giordano. Terry Austin inks the rest of Rogers' run, and he's a perfect, sharp-edged complement to Rogers' style. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Crisis Times Two!

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 6: written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas; illustrated by George Perez, Don Heck, Adrian Gonzales, Jerry Ordway, Romeo Tanghal, and others (1981-82; collected 2013): When DC had multiple Earths the first time around, an annual team-up between the Justice League of Earth-1 and the Justice Society of Earth-2 started in the early 1960's. Earth-1 was home to the heroes regularly published by DC; Earth-2 was home to their counterparts who first appeared in the late 1930's and 1940's, along with a few 'legacy' heroes like Power Girl (Earth-2's Supergirl) and the Huntress (daughter of the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman).

This volume reprints two of the longest team-ups -- eight issues in all between the two. The second team-up also brings in the All-Star Squadron, writer Roy Thomas's ret-conned Justice Society of World War Two, when the Society was disbanded in favour of a larger assemblage of Axis-fighting superheroes.

In all, this is a lot of time and space-bending fun from the late Bronze Age at DC, which ended in 1985 with the Crisis on Infinite Earths. 'Crisis' is the keyword here, used in the titles of the very first JLA/JSA team-up and then forever after in the titles of subsequent team-ups. When someone says 'Crisis!' in the DC Universe, something big and bad is going down.

The great George Perez pencils the first story arc, one which pits the League and the Society against the Secret Society of Super-villains and the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3. Much punching and inter-dimensional travel ensues. Perez demonstrates his almost uncanny ability to make super-heroes seem distinct and different and razor-sharp in their delineation. Conway's script is full of cosmic absurdity and 'cosmic balance,' as the scripts of these team-ups should be.

The second story arc crosses over between Justice League of America and All-Star Squadron. The long-penciling Don Heck does yeoman's duty on the JLA sections, especially when he inks his own pencils in the last JLA issue. Over on All-Star Squadron, a young Jerry Ordway inks Adrian Gonzales in crisp, pleasing fashion. This arc jumps between worlds and times as Golden-Age Justice Society villain Per Degaton (love that name!) enlists the help of a variety of super-villains so as to rule Earth-2. Thomas and Conway's time-travel plot is a twisty one, and at one point takes us to Earth-Prime -- which is to say, to 'our' Earth, where superheroes appear only in comic books, TV, movies, and on Underoos.

In all, this is a fine collection of melodramatic, high-stakes superhero action. One of the funnier bits involves the heroes being shocked at the idea of a world without superheroes. A running bit in which the JLA's nuclear superhero, Firestorm, keeps trying to hit on Power Girl is a bit lame, though. Stop macking on Superman's cousin! Recommended.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Stately Boobs of Ireland

Playmates by J.N. Williamson (1982): J.N. Williamson is a nice story -- a writer whose published career began in his late 40's with what soon seemed to be about ten horror novels a year. I assume some of them may have been written years or even decades earlier, but he may just have been incredibly prolific. Until now, I'd never actually read one of his novels. 

Playmates alternates between crazy, purple-prose badness and long stretches of tedium which, if you're like me, you'll skim like crazy. Set in Catholic Ireland, it's a horror story about Fairies and an old family secret. Intentionally or not, it also veers into anti-feminism in its choice of who dies and who lives, among other things.

Only a minor character who seems to have been intended for more, based on his lengthy introduction, is remotely sympathetic to anyone who's not a dink. We instead get a couple of selfish men, a fantasy woman for all those who dream of a wife who's delighted to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and a callous and horrible child. One roots for everyone to die. Spoiler alert: one does not get what one wishes.

This is the sort of horror novel in which many terrible murders happen in a small town and no one outside that town takes any interest. Why should they? The people inside the town barely seem to notice. People do stupid things again and again. A child's fatness is short-hand for why he should die (and he does). Two young lovers die because of course they do.

Stylistically, Williamson throws some terrific howlers at us. The hills of Ireland are like many breasts being caressed by many hands. A naked woman's giant breasts remind our aroused protagonist of two scoops of ice cream with a cherry on top of each. Of course he marries her. Maybe he has an ice-cream fetish.

The greatest pleasure of the novel comes late in the game, with the revelation of the family secret that's been hinted at throughout the novel. It's a revelation so astonishingly unconnected to anything that's come before, and so ridiculous in its visual description and in its workings, that it helps end the novel on a high note of complete goofiness. 

The old SCTV show once did a skit called O. Henry Playhouse in which every story, regardless of its setting or content, ended with someone being killed by a tiger. Williamson's revelation of what's in the locked room of family secrets is at that level of unconnected shock value. Except that a tiger is straightforward. What's in the room makes about as much sense as The Devil's Coat-rack.

The fairies are pretty stereotypical when they show up. They're amoral and occasionally murderous. Hidey-ho. They also can't be fought in any meaningful way in the book's fantasy universe, so there's really not much point to any confrontation with them. In a move which gilds this awful novel with an extra layer of unearned pretension, every chapter ends with a lengthy quotation about fairy-riddled Ireland from writers that include Yeats and Colin Wilson. Got to use that research. Not recommended

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Holmes Vs. Evil

Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2008) edited by Charles Prepolec and J.R. Campbell, containing the following stories:

The Lost Boy by Barbara Hambly; His Last Arrow by Christopher Sequeira; The Things That Shall Come Upon Them by Barbara Roden; The Finishing Stroke by M.J. Elliott; Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World by Martin Powell; The Grantchester Grimoire by Rick Kennett and Chico Kidd; The Steamship Friesland by Peter Calamai; The Entwined by J.R. Campbell; Merridew of Abominable Memory by Chris Roberson; Red Sunset by Bob Madison; and The Red Planet League by Kim Newman.

The first of Canada's EDGE Publishing's anthologies of weird Sherlock Holmes homages is fun, for the most part, with a few stand-outs. When putting Holmes into supernatural situations, writers tend to either make Holmes a stubborn denier, regardless of the evidence, or to make his detection ethos flexible enough to admit any possibility. Sometimes writers go even further, generally by reimagining Holmes as someone who's always been a believer in the supernatural. 

The 'fantastic' herein involves a lot of stories that combine Holmes with other fictional or historical characters. Team-ups pair Holmes with Peter Pan ("The Lost Boy") , supernatural investigator Flaxman Low ("The Things That Shall Come Upon Them"), supernatural investigator Carnacki ("The Grantchester Grimoire") , and Arthur Conan Doyle's own Professor Challenger ("Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World"). Holmes also visits WW2-era Los Angeles to play a part in a horror/hard-boiled detective mash-up ("Red Sunset"). 

And it's a Holmes-homage tradition to have at least a couple of stories about cases briefly mentioned during Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories but never fully told. These references have always formed a sort of Black Casebook of Holmes adventures for later writers to imagine in their entirety. Here, "Merridew of Abominable Memory" and "The Steamship Friesland" develop these fleeting references of Doyle in unusual ways. 

Finishing the anthology is Kim Newman's blackly comic, Holmes-and-Watson-less adventure of Professor Moriarty and his right-hand man Sebastian Moran. Newman riffs on H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, but probably not in the way one expects. In all, an enjoyable anthology. Recommended.

Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2011) edited by Charles Prepolec and J.R. Campbell, containing the following stories:

Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell by Simon Clark; The Greatest Mystery by Paul Kane; The Adventure of the Six Maledictions by Kim Newman; The Comfort of the Seine by Stephen Volk; The Adventure of Lucifer's Footprints by Christopher Fowler; The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes by Tom English; The Color That Came To Chiswick by William Meikle; A Country Death by Simon Kurt Unsworth; From the Tree of Time by Fred Saberhagen (1982); The Executioner by Lawrence Connolly; Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game by Kevin Cockle; and The House of Blood by Tony Richards.

The third of EDGE Publishing's series of Weird Sherlock Holmes anthologies is solid and often deadly serious as these things go. The editors pay homage to one of Holmes's finest homagists, Fred Saberhagen, by reprinting a 1982 short story featuring Holmes and his distant ancestor and sometime-ally, Saberhagen's semi-heroic version of Dracula.

The rest of the anthology is new and, for the most part, ranges from enjoyable to excellent. Stand-outs include Stephen Volk's excellent chronicle of a young Sherlock Holmes in Paris, Simon Unsworth's horror story, and Kim Newman's comic adventure of Moriarty, Moran, and six dangerous supposedly magical items. Along the way, Holmes will also visit modern-day Las Vegas, hang out with Frankenstein's Creature, and battle Lovecraftian horror and Death itself. Recommended