Friday, June 23, 2017

Mournful Combat

Blazing Combat (1965-66/ Collected 2010): written by Archie Goodwin and others; illustrated by Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, and others: Having made its mark with B&W horror comics in a magazine-sized format with Creepy and Eerie, Warren Publishing turned to war comics with Blazing Combat. Freed from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), Blazing Combat was, like Eerie and Creepy, a return to the more studied and downbeat comics publications which EC Comics towered over aesthetically in the early 1950's prior to the implementation of the CCA.

A young writer-editor named Archie Goodwin wrote or co-wrote all the Blazing Combat stories that exist. Only four issues appeared, as sales were direly affected by a military PX boycott because it was felt by TPTB that Blazing Combat was anti-American. A lot of that weight fell on the single finest story in Blazing Combat's brief but potent run, "Landscape" by Goodwin and artist Joe Orlando. It's a brilliant, sad, reflective piece about the Viet Nam War and it stands as one of the ten great short-form American comic-book war stories.

The rest of the volume ranges from excellent to pretty good. As Goodwin notes in a previously published  interview included with the collection (Goodwin died a decade before Blazing Combat was collected), his one major slip-up was a panel in which a character loads a mortar upside down (!). But otherwise the marvelous artwork and terse, only rarely too-preachy writing make this volume a must-own for readers of comics and war comics especially. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alien Breast-feeding

Saga Volume 1 (2012-2013/ Collected 2015): written by Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by Fiona Staples: Saga has become something of a sales sensation since its first appearance. It's the sort of half-dippy, star-spanning science-fantasy tale that owes more to allegory than astronomy. 

A race of horned aliens and a race of winged aliens have been at war across the galaxy for millennia. They've outsourced the business of war to many other races in a variety of places. But two soldiers from the opposing sides have fallen in love. And she's pregnant. And a galaxy-wide hunt has been kicked off to find them.

If you require hard science fiction, or at least scientifically plausible science fiction, avoid Saga. The first volume is fun and breezy in that often anomalously snarky Buffy the Vampire Slayer way, though both the writing and the pleasant artwork from Fiona Staples rapidly evaporate in one's memory. Maybe you'll enjoy it more. A volume made semi-famous by an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which the nerds get all hot and bothered by the mother breast-feeding her baby on the cover. Yeah, hubba hubba. Losers. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Railsea (2012) by China Mieville

Railsea (2012) by China Mieville. "On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt." So reads one of the publishers' blurbs for this Young Adult science-fantasy novel. Never let it be said that Mieville would dumb things down for a younger audience!

A 'moldywarpe' is a term for a whale-sized mole, by the way.

Set on a future Earth separated from ours by an unknown but Sublimely vast Time Abyss, Railsea follows the young Sham's voyage from doubtful surgeon's apprentice to a mostly confident explorer over the course of what seems to be about a year. 

All his adventures occur on and around the Railsea, the vast and interconnected web of rail lines upon which the engines of many countries and organizations 'sail.' Mysterious machines dubbed 'Angels' maintain the Railsea. Gigantic versions of many of our smaller land fauna -- moles, ants, carnivorous rabbits, spiders -- hunt humans and are hunted in turn.

The Railsea is a great and intricate thought-experiment that seems perfectly believable. Mieville has invested this world with his terrific imagination, making it a startling yet weirdly familiar place. There's a quest, but it's for knowledge. There is our nominal hero, but he's joined by many others, all of whom serve a purpose (and all of whom serve Mieville's socialistic bent as a collective hero when taken in total). 

It's really a marvelous book in terms of imagination, characterization, and style. One of the narrative conceits is that this tale is being told at some later date by a narrator who occasionally stops, starts again, explains some arcane bit of Railsea lore or language, or even apologizes for leaving one or another strand of the narrative for a lengthy stretch of pages until something important happens.

There's a long tradition of such novels as Railsea, set on a future Earth so distantly future that it hardly seems like Earth, from William Hope Hodgson's early 20th-century quest The Night Land through the works of writers that include Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, and Gene Wolfe. Railsea is a worthy addition to their ranks, for young adults or anyone else. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) by David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) by David Foster Wallace, containing the following essays:

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Harper's, December 1991, under the title "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes"): Wallace reviews his youthful tennis exploits (he was pretty good) within the context of the flat Midwestern landscape of his childhood and his own obsessive relationship with geometry. 

Interesting, but at this point in his writing career, he's still irritatingly obtuse at point, a man who's swallowed a thesaurus and isn't afraid to barf it up on the page. Also, on a personal note, Wallace's essays on tennis are the least interesting part of his catalog for me. It's his favourite sport, so beneath all the sarcasm and pith, one is still stuck with a writer telling one why the sport he or she prefers is also the greatest sport that ever was. 

"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993): Wallace makes a number of fascinating and worthwhile critical observations about how TV influences contemporary fiction. 

As in a lot of Wallace's more theoretical work, the main flaw is his tendency to equate the tastes of himself and his friends with everyone's tastes, everywhere. Here, that means Wallace believes everyone in the late 1980's and early 1990's was watching TV in as cynical and 'meta' a fashion as the people in his living room, all of whom were graduate students in literature and creative writing. Um, no. Gross generalization.

"Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" (Harper's, 1994, under the title "Ticket to the Fair"): Wallace travels to the 1993 Illinois State Fair, and the trip gives us the first of Wallace's sublime pieces of reportage. A fine, funny, sympathetic piece.

"Greatly Exaggerated" (Harvard Book Review, 1992): A review of Morte d'Author: An Autopsy by H. L. Hix, including Wallace's personal opinions on the role of the author in literary critical theory. Boring but short.

"David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Premiere, 1996): Wallace makes a number of interesting observations about David Lynch's body of work. He also got to visit the set of Lost Highway, a fact that allow for observations about how Lynch's compulsive coffee drinking leads to a lot of bathroom breaks so the auteur can micturate. Really good work.

"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (Esquire, 1996, under the title "The String Theory"): Oh, God, more tennis. Though Wallace is at the 1995 Canadian Open, which at least allows for a lot of sarcastic culture shock, the Open being in Montreal. 

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (Harper's, 1996, under the title "Shipping Out"): Wallace goes on a Caribbean cruise. Hilarity and misanthropy results. Wallace's ability to be agog at both the weirdness of others and the weirdness of himself is in full flower here, producing one the the great travel pieces I've ever read. 

Overall: David Foster Wallace is not for everybody, but those who like him, like him a lot. An uneven but rewarding collection, and "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All", "David Lynch Keeps His Head", and especially "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" elevate it to Highly Recommended. Even with those goddam tennis pieces.

Friday, June 9, 2017


Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017): based on characters created and/or developed by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Jim Starlin, and many others; written by James Gunn; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill/Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Voice of Groot), Bradley Cooper (Voice of Rocket Raccoon), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), and Kurt Russell (Ego the Living Planet): Family, family, family, family, family is great. Mawkish bathos and bathetic mawkishness provide about 20 minutes of dreadful slop that stalls this sequel dead at certain points, all of written, I assume, by the Universal Plot Overlay Generator. 

There's still some cosmic fun to be had, but this is really the sort of comic-book movie that needs to be lean and trim. An initially clever opening credits action sequence rapidly devolves into an ad for Baby Groot merchandise. I was entertained for the most part, but I'm not sure how much more of this Marvel shit I can handle. The actors do a thoroughly solid job of standing in front of green screens and looking surprised. Kurt Russell looks good, but he's totally miscast as Ego, a character who really needs the plummy pomposity of an older English actor. Lightly recommended.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): adapted by John Michael Hayes from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Jimmy Stewart (Dr. Benjamin McKenna) and Doris Day (Josephine Conway McKenna): Relatively late-Hollywood-spectacle Hitchcock has sprung rhythms that derail its thriller momentum throughout. I'm not entirely sure this is unintentional -- the movie does seem more like a critique of Ugly Americans Abroad than anything else, with Jimmy Stewart as the ugliest and stupidest of all. 

A much-longer remake of a 1930's Hitchcock film that was superior (especially insofar as the 1930's The Man Who Knew Too Much had Peter Lorre as the Anarchist villain). Doris Day sings "Que Sera Sera" and it's actually relevant to the plot. The Albert Hall assassination sequence is a marvel. Jimmy Stewart is about ten years too old for his character, a fact that Hitchcock would put to much more effective use in the subsequent Vertigo. A sequence set in a Marrakesh restaurant is extremely funny. Too long by 20 minutes, but boy, when it ends, it just ends. Lightly recommended.

I Love a Mystery! (1945): adapted by Charles O'Neal from the radio program created by Carlton E. Morse; directed by Henry Levin; starring Jim Bannon (Jack), Barton Yarborough (Doc), Nina Foch (Ellen Monk), and George Macready (Jefferson Monk): B-movie ports popular 40's radio show to the big screen, with loopy results. There's Orientalism, decapitation, prophecy, and comic-relief Southernisms from 'Doc,' sidekick to private detective Jack. Apartment mate too -- they sleep in separate beds in the same room. 

This film contains some of the funniest 'slow pursuit' material played straight in movie history, as a one-legged man repeatedly catches up to his two-footed prey despite clealry walking much, much slower than they. Extremely odd and, as with B-movies of the time, incredibly short. Lightly recommended.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016): based on a true story; written by Nicholas Martin; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosme McMoon), and Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen): Delightful comic drama about the world's worst singer, New York socialite and philanthropist Florence Foster Jenkins. She thinks she can sing. Husband Hugh Grant humours her because he loves her. Actually, pretty much everyone humours her because she's a nice person who throws a lot of money around. 

This movie isn't quite the laugh riot it was advertised as -- it's also a bittersweet movie about folly and sacrifice. The cast is terrific throughout, Stephen Frears directs with unforced elegance, and the singing... boy oh boy that singing. Meryl Streep nails Jenkins' dementedly above-range 'coloratura,' as recordings of the actual singer played under the end credits demonstrate. Recommended.

Tom Hanks Playhouse

Inferno (2016): adapted by David Koepp from the novel by Dan Brown; directed by Ron Howard; starring Tom Hanks (Professor Robert Langdon), Felicity Jones (Sienna Brooks), Omar Sy (Bouchard), Irrfan Khan (Harry Sims), Ben Foster (Zobrist), and Sidse Babett Knudsen (Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey): I actually think this is the best of the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard/Dan Brown movies. Tom Hanks's Robert Langdon is tired and bleary for much of the film (for good reason). The historical clues are almost perfunctory, as if the film-makers finally admitted that the whole point of these things, like a James Bond movie, is the globe-trotting scenery. 

There's a decent twist at the two-thirds mark, the supporting cast is all solid, and Ben Foster finally gets cast correctly, as a squirmy, passive-aggressive billionaire who wants to kill 50% of humanity. Director Ron Howard even presents us with a couple of drug-induced visions for Langdon that are creepy enough to suggest that a Ron Howard-helmed H.P. Lovecraft movie wouldn't have been the botch that such a pairing initially suggested. A perfectly good time-filler. Recommended.

Sully (2016): adapted from the book by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow by Todd Komarnicki; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Tom Hanks (Sully), and Aaron Eckhart (Skiles): "Sully" Sullenberger successfully landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River in January 2009. This film is excellent when it sticks to the landing and much less so when the screenplay tries to grind some ideological axe about how awful bureaucracies and government are, courtesy I assume of right-wing brain-trauma survivor Clint Eastwood. 

The National Travel Safety Board investigation (nay, witch hunt) of Sully after the landing is pretty much entirely invented. It doesn't even make much sense: wouldn't the owner and/or manufacturer of the airplane want to roast Sully if anyone, given that the financial loss would be suffered there? Well, no, I guess, because Corporations Are People Too, and good people at that. Good, good people. Bad, bad bureaucrats trying to protect us. Bad! Tom Hanks is fine, as usual, and the landing sequence is tense and thrilling. All the other stuff is right-wing wankery. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Crais Crais Crais Crais Crais

Sunset Express (1996) by Robert Crais: LA PI Elvis Cole and Zen super-soldier Joe Pike take on a case with more than a whiff of O.J. Simpson in this mystery-thriller. A prominent LA businessman and philanthropist sits in jail, accused of the murder of his wife. The high-priced legal team defending him hires Elvis to track down any leads that might exonerate the businessman. And that's really just the beginning. 

Detective work takes the wheel for much of this installment of the Cole/Pike chronicles, though the ending moves effortlessly into thriller territory. An enjoyable, fast-paced read with a cynical take on justice for the rich, marred only slightly by the inclusion of Elvis' girlfriend Lucy Chenier, Louisiana lawyer and most boring recurring character in the whole series. Crais is great at a lot of things, but scenes of love and romance really aren't in his wheelhouse. Recommended.

Demolition Angel (2000) by Robert Crais: Carol Starkey died for several minutes three years before the start of this novel, caught in the explosion of a bomb triggered by an earthquake while she and her superior officer on the Los Angeles bomb squad were trying to defuse it. The medics brought her back; her superior, also her lover, died at the scene. She's off the bomb squad now, a detective with more than a small drinking problem and a chain-smoking habit that apparently allows her to survive never eating. 

But now a mysterious bomber-for-hire dubbed 'Mr. Red' has come to LA. And he's not working for hire -- instead, he seems to be targeting bomb squad personnel. As the lead detective on the murder-by-bomb of a former colleague, Starkey soon finds herself the object of Mr. Red's attention. 

There's a whiff of the Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter relationship in this, but only a whiff. Mr. Red isn't a literature-loving genius -- he's an obsessive bomber with hacking skills thrown into the mix. Crais makes the world of bombs and bombers into a fascinating study of technique and art. Starkey is a compelling character, as are Mr. Red and the ATF agent who arrives to consult on the case early in the narrative. Recommended.

Hostage (2001) by Robert Crais: Jeff Talley is a former Los Angeles hostage negotiator and SWAT member who's moved to a small town near LA to escape the mental anguish of a failed hostage negotiation. Three years have passed, and the small-town quiet has done little to allow him to patch things up with his wife and daughter, much less move beyond the trauma. However, an extremely screwed-up hostage situation in his small bedroom community is about to force him out of his shell.

This Robert Crais novel was made into an OK Bruce Willis movie. I think. In any case, it's an extremely good thriller. Crais is a whiz at piquant, short-form characterization for both minor and major characters alike. Talley is a nicely drawn portrait of despair, PTSD, and dogged commitment to protecting others regardless of the cost to himself. The lead hostage-taker is a squirmy, obsessive kid whose characterization wouldn't be out of place in a Jim Thompson novel. Plot twists blow up every fifty pages or so as the narrative rockets along to its conclusion. Recommended.

The First Rule (2010) by Robert Crais: Joe Pike's career as a military contractor comes back into play when one of his former team members is brutally murdered along with his wife, children, and nanny in what looks like a home invasion by the same murderous thieves who've been terrorizing the LA suburbs for months. It is and it isn't. So Pike supplies the hyper-competent muscle and his partner Elvis Cole supplies the detectiving acumen as the two search for answers and vengeance. 

20 years into the Cole and Pike novels, Crais and his characters show no signs of series exhaustion: this is one of the two or three best of those novels, with surprises, detection, and action set-pieces splendidly balanced. Joe Pike even has some refreshing moments of introspection, the big laconic lug. Highly recommended.

The Promise (2015) by Robert Crais: Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are back to detect and kick ass in Los Angeles. They're joined by Scott James and Maggie, the K-9 handler and dog who were the protagonists of Crais' Suspect. There's a lot of highly involving, extremely interesting stuff about how K-9 handlers and their dogs do their work. Like pretty much everyone in the Crais universe, James and Maggie are suffering from the after-effects of violence-related PTSD. But Maggie is a good dog. A very good dog. And a former Marine! Solid, diverting work. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


DC Comics Classics Library: Justice League of America by George Perez Volume 1 (1980-84/ Collected 2009): written by Gerry Conway; penciled by George Perez; inked by Frank McLaughlin and John Beatty: The big flaw with DC's quickly cancelled DC Comics Classics Library was their ridiculously high price for what was often less than 200 pages of reprints. This volume is a pretty good case in point. 

George Perez drew fewer than 12 issues of the Justice League of America back in the early 1980's. That should be one reprint volume. Nope. The DC Comics Classics Library broke that up into two volumes, padding this first one with Perez JLA postcards from the mid-1980's. The quality of the reprints is fine, though. And I bought this one for about 70%-off Canadian. So I can't complain about my deal. 

Gerry Conway's scripts are cosmic and very much Marvelesque in the amount of bickering among JLA members. Perez's artwork is already detailed as Hell and extremely strong in the characterization and action departments. He also assays a very nice two-page spread of Metron of the New Gods and some other nice visuals in locations that include the planet Apokolips, the JLA satellite, and Siberia. 

Perez's introduction notes that he didn't think either of the inkers assigned to him were a good fit. He's right, though neither John Beatty nor Frank McLaughlin is terribly misapplied. At least DC didn't assign Vince Colletta to ink him. It's an enjoyable, too-short voyage into superhero adventure. We even get a continuity-heavy explanation of super-android Red Tornado's secret origin. Bonus. Recommended.

Adventures of Superman: Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez (1975-1981/ Collected 2013): written by Martin Pasko, Gerry Conway, Elliot S. Maggin, David Michelinie, Len Wein, and Denny O'Neil; illustrated by : Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez with inking on some stories by Vince Colletta, Bob Oksner, Frank Springer, Dan Adkins, Steve Mitchell, Joe Giella, and Dick Giordano: 

Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez became the marketing face of Superman for a long time beginning in the early 1980's -- if it's a paper plate or place mat or bag of French fries with Superman artwork on it released between about 1980 and 1995, the artwork is probably by Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez. He also did a nice job on the early 1980's Batman/Hulk team-up.

Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez is also one of a handful of the finest Superman artists of the 1970's and 1980's. There's a fluidity, grace, and lightness to his superhero work that's a rare treat. He didn't always get the best inkers (he was really best inked by himself), but his work still comes through. Collecting stories from his early days as a recurring Superman artist, this volume also collects the enjoyable, rare Superman vs. Wonder Woman tabloid-sized comic from the late 1970's. 

There are a lot of other stand-outs here, including a three-parter in which writer Gerry Conway really tried to Marvelize Superman (for awhile, the Man of Steel even believes he's really a mutant) and a nifty two-part team-up with the Flash. Through it all, Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez draws everything with grace and precision and a balletic approach to action. Highly recommended.

Batman, Inc. Volume 1: Demon Star (2012-2013/ Collected 2013): written by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham; illustrated by Chris Burnham and Frazer Irving: Confusingly, this is really the second volume of Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc., but the first after the Flashpoint line-wide reboot of DC Comics back in 2011-2012. As the whole magilla is one storyline, this is not a beginning but rather a middle. And Batman, Inc. actually involved an overarching story that went all the way back to Morrison talking over the writing reins on Batman in 2006. This lovely fellow explains the seven years of the Bat here . In short, Batman, Inc. is really the end of a seven-year Batman story. Hoo ha!

If you're going to read the whole Morrison Batman run, then you're going to have to read this volume. By this time, the zany pomo Scotsman seemed to be running out of serious steam: this whole volume feels like about two issues stretched out to interminable length. It's still enjoyable enough, I guess, and Chris Burnham's art is mostly swell in its occasionally odd melding of Frank Quitely and Geof Darrow. 

That the overall arc straddles Flashpoint requires one not to dwell on the absurd continuity ramifications of this: Flashpoint said that what appeared to be about 15 years of the Batman when the previous continuity ended was now five years. But Morrison kept everything -- every previous Robin, every Batman imitator in a foreign country -- for that new five years. So don't think about it. It's too absurdly crowded to imagine. And DC's new, ultra-successful Rebirth reboot scrambles all that up anyway. Lightly recommended, but don't read it until you've read the previous volumes of Morrison's Batman.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Dispatches from the Sporting Life by Mordecai Richler

Dispatches from the Sporting Life (1960-2000/ Collected 2002) by Mordecai Richler: Enjoyable, uneven collection of sports essays nearly spanning the late, great, irate Canadian's entire writing career. The bulk of the essays date from the early 1960's to the mid-1980's. There's a sloppiness to the volume that's a bit annoying -- the book omits the original publication information for many of the pieces in favour of their first book publication info, leaving the reader to figure out when they were first published from internal evidence. 

The best pieces (surprise!) concern hockey, and include a lengthy piece on the early 1980's Montreal Canadiens, a profile of Gordie Howe (Amway salesman!), and a profile of Wayne Gretzky c. 1985 (to Richler, Gretzky is stunningly boring as a person). Some pieces, even long ones, seem to have been dashed off without much editing. For the record, Richler loves hockey, baseball, and snooker. He doesn't have much time for football, American or otherwise. 

Reminiscences of Jewish life in 1940's and 1950's Montreal abound. And Richler's contentious piece that floats his theory that a fear of anti-Semitic backlash caused Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg to stop at 58 home runs is as odd and unsourced today as it was when published in the 1960's; letters rebuking Richler's thesis appear as well with the essay. Recommended.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Disparate Four

Deadline (2002): written by Bill Roseman; illustrated by Guy Davis: Slight, interesting take on Marvel's New York as seen by an up-and-coming reporter. Major heroes like the Human Torch and Spider-man cameo, though the journalist's interactions are primarily with low-level heroes and villains. Roseman does a nice job of keeping things human-scale here, and Guy Davis is always a pleasure as an artist. Lightly recommended.

Terra Obscura (2003-2005/ Collected 2006): written by Peter Hogan and Alan Moore; illustrated by Yanick Paquette and Karl Story: Spinning off from Alan Moore's Tom Strong series, Terra Obscura revisits the alternate Earth inhabited by Tom Strange and a group of super-heroes. Moore co-plotted the series with writer Peter Hogan. It's a fun, slightly revisionist take on super-heroes who tend to resemble their DC Comics brethren moreso than those from Marvel. Strange, like Strong, is a sort of amalgam of Doc Savage and Superman. Yanick Paquette and Karl Story supply some lovely visuals throughout. This isn't revisionism in the mode of Watchmen, but more Alan Moore's version of Astro City. Recommended.

Wonder Woman: Earth-One Volume 1 (2016): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Yanick Paquette: If nothing else, Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette give us the gayest, bustiest Wonder Woman of all time. Allowed to give the Wonder Woman of DC's Earth-One universe her own distinctive origin, Morrison turns to the mythology and weird 1930's super-science that made the original Wonder Woman so strange, along with all that bondage and submission invested in Wonder Woman's world by original creator William Moulton Marston (and possibly his wife and their live-in, female lover). It's fun and weird and curiously thin. Recommended.

Speak of the Devil (2008): written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez: Blistering noir about a star gym student turned serial Peeping Tom. And she's a girl. And I really didn't expect any of the plot twists that come with this graphic (very graphic) novel. Gilbert Hernandez (Palomar) is in fine form as both writer and artist. He's got one of a handful of the cleanest, most expressive cartooning lines of his generation. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Through Time and Space with Warren Ellis

Stormwatch: Force of Nature (1996/ Collected 1999): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Randy Elliot, Pete Woods, and Michael Ryan: This volume reprints the first six issues of Warren Ellis' writing stint on Wildstorm's Stormwatch. Prior to Ellis, Stormwatch was an undistinguished superhero comic with an interesting premise -- its superheroes worked for a United Nations strike force. Ellis made the series more political and much weirder pretty much from the get-go, setting up a later transition from Stormwatch to The Authority. The art from main penciller Tom Raney is solid, but it's Ellis' cynical yet hopeful take on superheroes that is the main attraction here. Recommended.

Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes (1996-97/ Collected 2000): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Jim Lee, Randy Elliot, and Richard Bennett: The second volume of Warren Ellis' Stormwatch focuses on the new heroes Ellis has brought to the team, most notably Jenny Sparks and Jack Hawksmoor. Jenny Sparks is the "Spirit of the Century," one of a number of Ellis' Wildstorm characters born at the beginning of the 20th century to act as super-powered anti-viral agents for the Earth. Jack Hawksmoor has been remade by mysterious aliens to be the protector of cities. 

Ellis gives Sparks a clever career retrospective that homages a variety of different comics styles from the appropriate eras -- Jenny's 1930's adventures mimic the art style of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, her 1980's adventures the look of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Tom Raney does especially fine work here on the Sparks issue. Fan fave artist and Wildstorm publisher Jim Lee shows up to draw an issue linked to Wildstorm's WildC.A.T.S. superhero team. Recommended.

Stormwatch: Final Orbit (1998/ Collected 2001): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Bryan Hitch, Chris Sprouse, Michael Ryan, Paul Neary, Kevin Nowlan, and Luke Rizzo: The end for Stormwatch (and the birth of The Authority) comes partially in the last issues of their book, partially in the pages of the WildC.A.T.S./Aliens crossover. As those are the aliens from Alien and Aliens, you can probably guess at least some of the reasons Stormwatch ceases to exist. More of a tidying up than anything else, though the Aliens issue is compelling from writer Warren Ellis and artists Chris Sprouse and Kevin Nowlan. Recommended.

Supergod (2011): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Garrie Gastonny: Warren Ellis takes superheroes to one logical endpoint in this 2011 miniseries, using them as both metaphorical stand-ins for nuclear weapons and as quasi-realistically imagined horrors in and of themselves. It's bold, bleakly funny, and depressing as Hell. In a world where nations that include Great Britain, the U.S.A., India, Iran, the Soviet Union, and Iraq (hilariously in the latter case with funds diverted from post-Gulf-War-2 U.S. aid) race to develop superhumans, who will win? Well, not humanity. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Astro City!

100 Issues of Astro City!  (1995-2017): written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Alex Ross, and others: 100 issues of Astro City over 22 years and at least three publishers. That's quite a milestone in today's rapid cancellation comics marketplace. 

Writer Kurt Busiek helped implement a sort of 'soft' revisionism in superhero comic books with Astro City. The series has always paid fond homage to the super-heroes and pulp heroes of a hundred years (and more!) of publishing. But it's done so with character-driven stories and a meticulously worked-out history.

The basic set-up for Astro City was that the eponymous city, near the slopes of Mount Kirby, held within it super-heroes who paid homage to the super-heroes of American comic-book history without simply being slavish pastiches of those super-heroes. Samaritan, for example, is Astro City's nod to Superman -- but as established early in Astro City's run, he's his own man, with his own origins and his own dreams, day-time and otherwise. Nonetheless, he fights evil just like Superman: there's nothing cynical or calculated about Samaritan.

Other characters who hew close to their sources include the Silver Agent (Captain America) and Winged Victory (Wonder Woman). But both get to have finely observed, multi-issue stories about them over the course of Astro City's run. Indeed, the Silver Agent's fate is the thread that unites the entire year-long The Dark Age storyline. 

Astro City give us heroes with problems, but it also shines a sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant light on a world in which not everyone with super-powers or super-technology wants to be a super-hero (or super-villain). It travels to small towns to check out the hero life there. It tracks super-hero families over the course of generations. It examines how life in the different boroughs of Astro City works -- things differ, especially in the borough that's home to supernatural beings and watched over by the mysterious hero dubbed The Hanged Man. One of its most poignant characters is Steeljack, a small-time super-villain who basically fell into super-villainry and then spends a couple of storylines (and 20 years or so) trying to claw his way out of it.

It's been a great ride, one I hope continues. Busiek and primary Astro City artists Brent Anderson (interiors) and Alex Ross (covers) have created something that now looms, like Mount Kirby, as a testament to what good writing and artwork can do with super-heroes. One never feels cheated by Astro City on the writing or artistic fronts. Anderson, who started his career very much in the vein of Neal Adams, has become an artist now more in the role of long-time Superman artist Curt Swan, an artist who can comfortably depict both the mundane and the cosmic, sometimes within the same panel. 

And Busiek gives full textual value: unlike the vast majority of modern super-hero comics, an issue of Astro City takes more than three minutes to read. That isn't to say that Astro City is text-heavy -- instead, its text/art balance is more in keeping in line with mainstream superhero comics prior to the oughts, when 'decompression' became first the superhero buzz-word and then the stranglehold.

The richness of Astro City also lies in the way it comments on super-hero stories while presenting super-hero stories that work on a prima facie level. The Samaritan's arrival in 1986 corresponds to the year DC Comics hired writer-artist John Byrne to reboot Superman. The lengthy Dark Age storyline comments on the periodic veers of mainstream super-hero comics into grim and gritty territory. Various place names, including that looming Mount Kirby, celebrate comics creators. Nonetheless, Busiek's characters are their own people even as they also evoke famous super-heroes and super-villains.

Perhaps the greatest subversiveness of Astro City is that it presents hope (or perhaps Hope) and goodness as being valid concepts, no matter how bad things may seem. It's the finest long-form super-hero comic ever presented. Long may it run! Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Three Strikes

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016): based on characters and stories by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Louise Simonson, and many others; written by Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris; directed by Bryan Singer; starring James McAvoy (Professor Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/ Mystique), and Oscar Isaac (Apocalypse): Once you've got more than five X-Men in a movie, maybe you should make a miniseries instead. The bloat of X-Men: Apocalypse didn't affect me because I watched it over three nights on TV, thus making it into a CW superhero four-parter with a really high production budget. But it is bloated. And while Oscar Isaac's decision to underplay Apocalypse makes for an interesting arch-villain, it doesn't make for a very exciting arch-villain.

The acting from everyone who didn't date Aaron Rodgers is fine, and some of the visual effects are really lovely and sublime, though there are so many of them by the end that all effect is lost. Certainly not the 'bomb' that some critics suggested it was, however. Lightly recommended.

Light's Out (2016): adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short film by David F. Sanberg; directed by David F. Sandberg; starring Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Billy Burke (Paul), and Maria Bello (Sophie): Short, taut, and to-the-point supernatural thriller pits a family against a ghost-thing that only comes out at night. Or at at least when the lights are out. I'd have liked a scene in which the main characters hit a hardware store to buy every portable light source imaginable from flashlights to glow sticks. They do have enough sense to pick up a crank-flashlight, given that the ghost-thing can affect utilities and batteries, so Kudos! Recommended.

Patrick Dennehy
Disgraced (2017): directed by Pat Kondelis: Marvelously assembled Showtime documentary on the 2003 Baylor University basketball scandal that started with the murder of Patrick Dennehy, the team's best player, and then became a horrifying story of American university athletics spun entirely out of control, aided and abetted by a local legal system stacked with Baylor grads. Then-Baylor coach Dave Bliss, secure in some false sense of untouchability, is actually stupid enough to be interviewed by the film-makers in the present day. It's gratifying to learn that once the documentary aired, he was fired from his then-current job as coach at another 'Christian' university. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Sorrows of Young Warlock

Jim Starlin's Warlock: The Complete Collection (1975-77/ Collected here 2014): written by Jim Starlin; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Steve Leialoha, Josef Rubinstein, Alan Weiss, and Al Milgrom: The 1970's were a quirky age of growth for mainstream American comic books, with much of that growth occurring at the margins in a way we just don't see any more. Some of the greatest writers and artists mainstream comics have ever produced worked away on series that were mostly far from the big hitters like Spider-man and Superman

Names to conjure with included Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber and many others. And the great series of mainstream comics at DC and Marvel were either limited-run back-up strips (Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's brilliant, beautiful Manhunter at DC) or strange, genre-bending series located safely away from the normal mainstream universe (Don McGregor, P. Craig Russell and company's sprawling, poetic Killraven). 

And then there's Jim Starlin, a writer-artist who staked out his own peculiar corner of cosmic adventure. The only thing all that similar to Starlin's early 1970's Marvel work on Captain Marvel and Warlock was writer-artist Jack Kirby's gigantic, unfinished Fourth World saga over at DC. But where Kirby was ultimately obsessed with life (really, LIFE), Starlin was obsessed with death (DEATH). 

Having cut his cosmic teeth on Marvel's Captain Marvel in the early 1970's, Starlin would return to fringe heroes and outer-space sturm-und-drang in 1975 when he revived the Adam Warlock character. Warlock made his debut as a naive, genetically engineered superman known only as 'Him' in the pages of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four in 1967. Over the next few years, he'd gain the name Adam Warlock, have adventures on Counter-Earth, and fulfill his superheroic Jesus Christ arc by getting himself crucified and resurrected.

HIM! In his cocoon.
Returned to Marvel publication after a few years off (hey, everyone has to take time to recover from a crucifixion!), Warlock was now being written and penciled by Starlin, who never met a case of cosmic angst he didn't like. And Warlock would soon be the angstiest cosmic hero of all, easily surpassing the Silver Surfer for the number and rate of existential crises suffered during barrages of energy bolts and exploding stars. 

But it's fun. And very heavy metal (though not really Heavy Metal) in its adolescent mixture of self-loathing and super-powered punching. Starlin would bring the cosmically villainous Thanos over from his run on Captain Marvel, first as an unlikely ally for Warlock and then as a more likely antagonist. Nay, nemesis! For while Captain Marvel was a problem for Thanos, Warlock is his full-blown opposite: the Life Equation to Thanos' Anti-Life Equation, in terms of Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics for DC.

People talk a lot in Warlock. Boy, do they talk a lot. Starlin has learned to lighten things up a bit by giving Warlock a comic sidekick -- Pip the Troll -- and a female sounding board -- Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Starlin's fascination with the Church (and specifically the Roman Catholic Church) as an institutional Evil shows up here, to later be expanded upon in his Dreadstar series. And he gives Warlock one of the most fascinatingly twisted enemies to ever appear in an ostensibly mainstream superhero comic: The Magus, about which no more said.

But it's the battle against Thanos that dominates much of this volume, as it should. It's probably good that Warlock got cancelled when it did, thus forcing Starlin to end the Thanos saga in post-cancellation Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One annuals. Otherwise, Warlock's suffering might have gone on forever. Instead, Warlock rallies the Avengers, Spider-man, and the Thing to his crusade against Thanos. It's a smaller scale version of what would happen 15 years later in Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet miniseries: everyone versus Thanos. And Starlin throws in some lovely twists along the way. It's good, clean, angsty cosmic fun in the Mighty Starlin Manner. Highly recommended.

Against Infinity

Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel: The Complete Collection (1968-82/ Collected here 2016): written by Jim Starlin, Gary Friedrich, Steve Engelhart, and Steve Gerber; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Dan Green, and others: The 1970's were a quirky age of growth for mainstream American comic books, with much of that growth occurring at the margins in a way we just don't see any more. Some of the greatest writers and artists mainstream comics have ever produced worked away on series that were mostly far from the big hitters like Spider-man and Superman

Names to conjure with included Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber and many others. And the great series of mainstream comics at DC and Marvel were either limited-run back-up strips (Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's brilliant, beautiful Manhunter at DC) or strange, genre-bending series located safely away from the normal mainstream universe (Don McGregor, P. Craig Russell and company's sprawling, poetic Killraven). 

And then there's Jim Starlin, a writer-artist who staked out his own peculiar corner of cosmic adventure. The only thing all that similar to Starlin's early 1970's Marvel work on Captain Marvel and Warlock was writer-artist Jack Kirby's gigantic, unfinished Fourth World saga over at DC. But where Kirby was ultimately obsessed with life (really, LIFE), Starlin was obsessed with death (DEATH). 

Starlin would cut his cosmic, thanatophiliac teeth on Marvel's version of Captain Marvel, a not-particularly-popular superhero from the alien race of the Kree. Starlin would give Cap cosmic awareness (whatever that was) and, most importantly, a new villain: Thanos, the "mad Titan," which is to say, a crazy member of the race of demi-god-like Titans living on, well, Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

Starlin initially intended Thanos to be an evil riff on Kirby's Fourth World demi-god Metron, which explains why Thanos spends so much of his early life sitting in a chair just like Metron in his Mobius Chair, a tendency that seems to have persisted into Thanos' early appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Thanos soon grew into the Marvel Universe's biggest threat. Well, a big enough threat that Captain Marvel would have to enlist Iron Man, the Avengers and others of Marvel's mainstream heroes to thwart Thanos' plans.

In the Captain Marvel volume reviewed here, Captain Marvel and friends battle a number of Thanos' stooges before taking on the big man himself. The original Drax the Destroyer appears for the first time -- he'll be much mutated by the time the world sees him played by Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy. The object of Thanos' quest this time around is a Cosmic Cube, a doohickey from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's 1960's Captain America comics that confers nigh-infinite power on its user. It's no Infinity Gauntlet, but it's helladangerous.

Besides the assorted comic space adventures and battles inside the mind that Starlin deploys to generally enjoyable effect, Captain Marvel also allows for a lot of superhero philosophizing. Starlin doesn't script a lot of these stories, so that philosophizing hasn't reached its apex yet. But Warlock is coming, and it will. Boy, will it ever. 

An omnibus of the Starlin Warlock and Captain Marvel stories would make a certain amount of chronological sense. The last piece in this volume is a reprint of Marvel's first 'graphic novel,' 1982's The Death of Captain Marvel. It's really a coda to Starlin's Captain Marvel and Warlock. Captain Marvel, retired to Titan for years, discovers that he has incurable super-cancer. Fun stuff!

The graphic novel does illustrate, literally, that with Starlin, less is more. Given more time to render the art in a more painterly style, Starlin's work ossifies into curious, stilted poses at certain points. One of his tics -- posing characters knees partially bent in an anatomically puzzling partial stoop -- becomes distracting whenever it shows up. Given more time to work on the faces, Starlin elongates everything below the eyes, another distracting oddity.

Still, The Death of Captain Marvel is a fascinating piece, especially in its early 1980's context. It's not about fist-fights, which for Marvel remains a rarity. If one has purchased both of these Starlin volumes, leave it to the last -- otherwise, you're going to have the fate of Thanos spoiled. Well, the temporary fate of Thanos. In superhero comics, death is always conditional. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 1 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

Once he turned to fiction writing in his late 30's, Basil Copper was pretty much a professional's professional. He wrote a lot of stories of horror and the weird, collected here in their entirety in three thick paperbacks by PS Publishing. He also wrote over 50 hard-boiled detective novels set in a Los Angeles he never visited in real life, non-fiction books, and several continuations of August Derleth's Holmes pastiche, Solar Pons. Like I said, a professional writer.

And as a professional writer who wasn't a great writer, he's a good study for aspiring writers -- especially those who start publishing relatively late. Copper may not be great, but he wrote several great stories and many that were very good. Keep plugging!

This first paperback volume covers roughly the first 15 years of his fiction-writing career.

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 1) by Stephen Jones.

  • The Spider (1964): Creepy little gem involving arachnophobia.
  • Camera Obscura (1965): Excellent period piece with more than a touch of Ray Bradbury. Faithfully adapted for Night Gallery.
  • The Janissaries of Emilion (1967): One of Copper's most-anthologized works is a study in dreams and paranoia. You'll see the ending coming, but the details and vaguely dream-like quality of the story make it stand out.
  • The Cave (1967): A fine ghost story 'recounted' in the tranquility of a men's club. The story owes a debt to M.R. James, as it riffs at the end on a bit from James' "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook."
  • The Grey House (1967): The forgettable title is the only problem with this slow-building tale of misguided home ownership. Builds to a near-Grand Guignol finale with a touch of Jules de Grandin -- which is to say, flame-throwers versus the living dead!
  • Old Mrs. Cartwright (1967): Almost reads as if Copper were riffing on Roald Dahl in this cruel tale of an old aunt and her disturbing young nephew at the zoo.
  • Charon (1967): Less Bradburyesque than Serlingesque -- as in, a gentle fantasy that could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone.
  • The Great Vore (1967): A delightful romp that's a self-aware homage to Sherlock Holmes that also works as a satire of detective stories.
  • The Academy of Pain (1968): Cruel little story goes exactly where you expect, unpleasantly.
  • Doctor Porthos (1968): A deft revisionist vampire tale.
  • Archives of the Dead (1968): Solid tale of witchcraft in the modern world.
  • Amber Print (1968): A nice horror piece about movie obsessives and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Out of the Fog (1970): The first of what I think of as Copper's 'Paul Harvey' pieces, in which the story builds to reveal that it's about a real, historical personage. This one at least has a nice twist.
  • The House by the Tarn (1971): Straightforward, mysterious horror in the British countryside features another bad house.
  • The Knocker at the Portico (1971): Psychological horror and obsession collide.
  • The Second Passenger (1973): Over-long supernatural revenge piece seems like Copper's rewriting of A Christmas Carol at points.
  • The Recompensing of Albano Pizar (1973): Refined tale of revenge with a bloody climax.
  • The Gossips (1973): Chilling, very much M.R. Jamesian ghost story about a trio of very unpleasant Italian statues.
  • A Very Pleasant Fellow (1973): A bit of a science-fictiony dud that could have been published in 1913.
  • A Message from the Stars (1977): Twist is telegraphed in an unconvincing story about alien invasion.
  • Cry Wolf (1974): Weak twist story involving werewolves.
  • The Trodes (1975): See "A Message from the Stars."
  • Dust to Dust (1976): Solid but unspectacular ghost story involving messages from the dead written in the dust on a windowsill. 

Overall: The strongest of the three Copper Collected volumes has a few duds -- though all of them solidly written -- and many greats. The volume also offers Copper at his most chameleonic as the stories riff on a number of prominent antecedents, most notably the great English ghost-story writer M.R. James. Highly recommended.

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 2 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The second volume of PS Publishing's Collected Basil Copper is a solid effort with several stand-outs. Not as consistently excellent as the first volume, but well-worth buying for fine stories that include "The Flabby Men," "Shaft Number 247," and "Beyond the Reef."

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 2) by Kim Newman.

  • The Flabby Men (1977): Sinister post-apocalyptic tale shares characteristics with Shaft Number 247 (1980) and Out There (1999). A combination of the Lovecraftian and the post-atomic mutant story.
  • The Way the World Died (1978): Very minor sf story.
  • The Treasure of Our Lady (1978): A throwback to tales of explorers searching for treasure in the jungle, unironically told. Wouldn't be out of place in a 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
  • Justice at the Crossroads (1978): Ironic, non-supernatural tale of a 'real' vampire.
  • Mrs. Van Donk (1978): Minor bit of Hitchcockian social satire/thriller.
  • The Stranger (1980): A psychological horror story with a 'twist' you will probably see coming.
  • The Madonna of the Four-Ale Bar (1980): See "The Stranger."
  • Shaft Number 247 (1980): Copper's brilliant, vague novella written for Ramsey Campbell's New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. One of ten or at most 20 of the greatest post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian stories ever written. 
  • The Candle in the Skull (1984): Fun, slight tale of a creepy child and Hallowe'en revenge.
  • Wish You Were Here (1992): Excellent, slow-building ghost story doesn't quite have a workable ending. Still, the ride is a lot of fun.
  • Better Dead (1994): A bit of marriage-based horror that satirizes the too-committed film buff (the title comes from Bride of Frankenstein).
  • Beyond the Reef (1994): Neo-pulp follow-up to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth." Fun stuff, though far better as an homage than as actual horror.
  • Death of a Demi-God (1995): Weak, creaky story falls into the 'Paul Harvey' category enumerated in my review of Volume 1 -- Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories eventually reveal that they're about a real, historical personage.
  • Reader, I Buried Him! (1995): Fun little vampire story seems to exist for the sole purpose of its title's play on the last line of Jane Eyre.
  • Bright Blades Gleaming (1995): Another 'Paul Harvey' story, intermittently interesting but with an extremely telegraphed ending.

Overall: Recommended, though the stories start to sag after 1980. 

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 3 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The third and weakest paperback volume of the Collected Basil Copper does allow the reader of the previous two volumes to survey the writer in full, and here that writer is in decline but still intermittently strong and vital.

An Interview with Basil Copper by Johnny Mains 

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 3) by Christopher Fowler 

  • When Greek Meets Greek (1997): Vague, disturbing slow-burn revisionist vampire novella.
  • Line Engaged (1999): We've seen the twist more than once.
  • One for the Pot (1999): One of those 'The killer is really...' stories, short and mostly sweet.
  • In a Darkling Wood (1999): Absolutely loopy period piece involving black magic in the 18th-century English countryside. The last 20 pages are weird but utterly unconvincing.
  • The Grass (1999): A piece of juvenalia written when Copper was 14.
  • Riding the Chariot (1999): Psychological horror flips over and crashes over the last few hasty, unconvincing pages.
  • Final Destination (1999): Technically, the final line makes this horror story a 'Paul Harvey.'
  • The Obelisk (1999): Unconvincing tale of invasion from an alternate Earth.
  • Out There (1999): Until the last three pages or so, "Out There" is up there with Copper's superior, earlier stories along similar lines, "Shaft Number 247" and "The Flabby Men." The last three pages are startlingly rushed and ridiculous, but the rest of the story is very satisfying.
  • The Summerhouse (1999): A creaky tale of a child's revenge on a father completely loses its way as the events are explained to us over the last couple of paragraphs.
  • As the Crow Flies (2002): Mildly interesting tale of a crow that hates a guy, but so long.
  • Poetic Justice (2002): Almost a story fragment about the evils of vivisection.
  • Ill Met By Daylight (2002): Fun, M.R. Jamesian tale of a graveyard haunted by... what, exactly?
  • Charing Cross-Dover-Charing Cross (2010): Very much a Twilight Zone fantasy of revenge.
  • There Lies the Danger ... (2002): A real time-waster about rejuvenation treatments leads to a real dud of a final line. 
  • Queen Bee (2005): Mildly interesting tale of a bee that loves a guy, or maybe hates him..
  • Death of a Nobody (2005): Yes, another one of Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories that eventually reveals it's about a real, historical personage. Zzz.
  • Reflections (2005): There's an evil mirror in this overlong story about... an evil mirror that belonged to a real historical personage!
  • The White Train (2005): Holocaust revenge story is very, very familiar.
  • Hunted by Wolves (2005): Science-fiction background adds nothing to a story about a guy hiding in a tree from some super-wolves.
  • Storm Over Stromjolly (2005): Dud of a revenge story... with a twist!
  • The Silver Salamander (2005): Very slow thriller about a man, his mistress, her husband, and a piece of jewelry.
  • Voices in the Water (2005): Fine, building piece is technically Lovecraftian in its monsters. Not a bad story to finish a career on.

Overall: Lightly recommended, and best read after the first two collections.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Turned to 11

Sausage Party (2016): written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir; directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon; starring the voices of Seth Rogen (Frank), Jonah Hill (Carl), James Franco (Druggie), Michael Cera (Barry), Kristen Wiig (Brenda), Edward Norton (Sammy), David Krumholtz (Lavash), and Salma Hayek (Teresa): The film-makers reportedly really screwed over their animators so as to get the budget for this R-rated animated movie under $30 million. That's bad. The movie is pretty good and extremely filthy. 

In the world of Sausage Party, all food is sentient. I don't mean cows or chickens. I mean Twinkies and hot dogs. The premise is both bizarre and, by the end, what I assume to be an unintentional nod to the early H.P. Lovecraft story "From Beyond." The food in a supermarket believes it's going to Heaven when it's purchased. So you can see that expectations will be crushed. Along the way, Sausage Party makes a not-so-subtle endorsement of Atheism. One doesn't normally get an argument for Atheism and a five-minute animated orgy in the same film, so this is ground-breaking stuff. Recommended.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016): based on an ad in Craigslist; written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien; directed by Jake Szymanski; starring Zac Efron (Dave), Adam Devine (Mike), Anna Kendrick (Alice), Aubrey Plaza (Tatiana), Sam Richardson (Eric) and Sugar Lyn Beard (Jeanie): Amiable time-waster of a comedy advertised as a shocking laughfest but too timid and sentimental to actually be that shocking laughfest. 

I suppose it's instructive that the gross comedy 'shocks' all involve women having things done to them by men or other women; Mike and Dave emerge physically unscathed. Zac Ephron is affable, Adam Devine is annoying, and the three main female leads all seem to be acting in another, better, funnier movie. Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and Canadian Sugar (!) Lyn Beard really do the heavy comedy lifting. I'm pretty sure this is the first movie to be based on an ad in Craigslist. I'm shocked that it didn't get a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. Very lightly recommended.

Winter's Bone (2010): adapted by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell; directed by Debra Granik; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Ree) and John Hawkes (Teardrop): Set in the dystopic rural backwaters of Missouri, Winter's Bone  earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and announced the arrival of a teen-aged Jennifer Lawrence with a Best Actress nomination for her.

Most of the actors who surround Lawrence are amateurs tapped for their local authenticity. I didn't notice. The acting is fine from everyone, and especially so from Lawrence and John Hawkes. Everything seems authentic, though the movie is a Quest Narrative, about as long-standing a story structure as there is. The plot manages to avoid stereotypes in its depiction of its blighted rural areas and their impoverished residents. 

There's an almost dystopic feel to the movie. One can see how the producers of The Hunger Games franchise, seeing this film, would think to cast Lawrence as the heroine of that series. But her quest here, grounded in horrifying reality, is a far more compelling journey through the night. Highly recommended.

The Conjuring 2: Electric Boobooboo! (2016): written by Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, and David Leslie Johnson; directed by James Wan; starring Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren): The Enfield Poltergeist, famous in England in the 1970's, is a 'real' haunting so goofy it pretty much debunked itself. However, in the world of The Conjuring franchise, Ed and Lorraine Warren are tireless crusaders against supernatural evil and not con artists. And crap like the Enfield Haunting is, well, a real haunting -- but even moreso! Now with 100% more Zuul-level demons than in 'real life'!!!!

If you drink a shot every time the director and screenwriters swipe from another, better supernatural horror film, you may be dead by the second hour of The Conjuring 2. Everything from the basement in Evil Dead 2 to the Danny-throws-a-rubber-ball scene in The Shining shows up. The Amityville Horror itself occupies part of the film's first act, with the Warrens debunking the debunkers who dare to challenge the veracity of The Amityville Horror, one of roughly a million 'real-life' hauntings the Warrens 'investigated' over the years.

Then we're in Merrie Olde Englande in the 1970's. The Warrens ostensibly operate as stealth agents for The Church (it's not named, but simply strongly hinted to be the Roman Catholic Church) as they investigate The Enfield Haunting. See, the Vatican relies on the Warrens to vet supernatural occurrences before sending in their exorcists so as to avoid public embarrassment should the Church accidentally try to exorcise a demon who doesn't actually exist. What, you say? Yes! No, seriously, what???????

So some 12-year-old girl gets punished for holding her friend's cigarette by having the forces of Hell unleashed on her and her family. No, that's really how the plot works in its depiction of supernatural cause-and-effect. A lot of rote supernatural stuff happens. A reel-to-reel recorder plays a key part, as does some demonology that seems... goofy. People who debunk psychic and supernatural phenomena are the secret monsters of the narrative: how dare they point out moments of clear fakery! Oh, the temerity of these godless atheists!

Anyway, it's a shitty film made by dunderheads that plays to an audience of brain-damaged Christians and fellow travelers with its Christian iconography and utterly debased and impoverished version of Catholicism. Of course it made money. Not recommended.

Logan's Run (1976): adapted by David Zelag Goodman from the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson; directed by Michael Anderson; starring Michael York (Logan), Richard Jordan (Francis), Jenny Agutter (Jessica), Peter Ustinov (Old Man), Farrah Fawcett (Holly), and Roscoe Lee Browne (Box): Logan's Run is an enjoyable scifi action-dystopia made from a superior novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. 

In the future, the State kills everyone at 30. Prior to that they live sybaritic lives inside a giant Dome. What's outside the Dome? Well, you'll find out.  Michael York is typically fine as Logan-5, a Sandman (the name for the people who hunt down those who don't want to die at 30) who is assigned to find out where the fugitives -- dubbed Runners -- are trying to run to. Jenny Agutter plays Jessica-6, his initially reluctant love interest. 

There are some stunning, disturbing visuals once Logan and Jessica reach the realm of the cybernetic ice sculptor Box. Peter Ustinov shows up towards the end as a guy who lives with a lot of cats and keeps quoting T.S. Eliot. Clearly, he's a metaphor for Ezra Pound. Recommended.

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016): written by at least five idiots; directed by an idiot; starring a bunch of young, boring actors along with Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, Judd Hirsch, and Jeff Goldblum desperately hamming up a storm. Not starring the incredibly lucky Will Smith.

Oh, what a terrible movie is Independence Day: Resurgence. Maybe they could have improved it with the tagline THEY CAME TO STEAL EARTH's MAGMA! The first 40 minutes are a tolerable rip-off of the first 40 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as things happen around the world to suggest that the aliens of Independence Day are coming back. Note that I said 'tolerable,' not 'good.' 

Everything goes to Hell after that in a stunning combination of stupid writing, confusing aerial combat scenes, dull acting, and a fifteen-minute sub-plot involving Judd Hirsch, who doesn't seem to have aged since the first movie, driving a schoolbus full of abandoned children from the Atlantic Coast to Area 51 in Nevada so that the children can be threatened by the inevitable alien attack on Area 51 at the climax of the movie. Based on the amount of screen time Hirsch gets, Judd Hirsch fans were clearly the target demographic of this sequel. People have been musing for the last 20 years on the question, "Geez, what happened to Judd Hirsch's character after the end of Independence Day?".

The final battle is a lot like a Boss Fight from an indifferent computer game circa 1999. At one point, the filmmakers, led by King Idiots Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, no doubt, crib a concept from Ender's Game. Ender's Game! Actually, two concepts. Neither of those concepts involve sucking all the magma out of Earth's core, however. That's all Devlin and Emmerich and the half-dozen or so other people listed as having written this colossal turd of a movie. The ending promises a sequel. Please, God, no. Really not recommended.

9 to 5 (1980): written by Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins; directed by Colin Higgins; starring Jane Fonda (Judy Bernly), Lily Tomlin (Violet Newstead), Dolly Parton (Doralee Rhodes), Dabney Coleman (Franklin Hart, Jr.), and Sterling Hayden (The Chairman): Writer-director Colin Higgins hit it out of the park twice with Foul Play and then 9 to 5. And 9 to 5 still has the capacity to surprise with its unapologetically feminist vision of the workplace and the eternal cruddiness of so many men. 

Jane Fonda plays amusingly against type as a mousy divorcee forced into the workplace. Lily Tomlin is funny and acerbically fierce as a woman whose great ideas are stolen repeatedly by her horrible boss, played wonderfully by Dabney Coleman in a career-making role. Dolly Parton is also terrific as that terrible boss' terribly harassed assistant. You could remake this movie almost verbatim today. It's funny and sharp and witty. Highly recommended.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): adapted by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris; directed by Jonathan Demme; starring Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), and Ted Levine (Jame Gumb): More than 25 years later, The Silence of the Lambs still sings with the force and presence of Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Foster. And the plot sings too -- or at least hums from beginning to end with urgency and horror and sympathy and dread.

Overall, I think Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' first novel featuring Hannibal Lecter, Manhunter (adapting the novel Red Dragon) is the superior work. Why? Mann is a better visual director than Jonathan Demme, and he makes more interesting choices in terms of set design and terrifying set-pieces with unusual musical accompaniment. Demme goes for the obvious by making both Lecter's part of the mental asylum and the basement of serial killer Jame Gumb into dripping medieval prisons. And his Jame Gumb never comes into focus as a sinister character -- he remains a scary freak right to the end, unlike Tom Noonan's human monster in Manhunter.

Still, Jodie Foster deserved her Best Actress Oscar. It's harder to judge Anthony Hopkins' Lecter now, overlaid as he is by another 25 years of improbable, omniscient, omnipotent serial killers. 

The movie is relentlessly feminist in a strangely satisfying way for a thriller: even the best of men ignore women when they're not either hitting on them or using them as bait. Or murdering and skinning them. These 'bad man' moments are almost all peculiar to the movie, as screenwriter Ted Tally either omits or rewrites certain male characters to highlight Clarice Starling's embattled solitude in a Man's World. Jesus, though, Jame Gumb has the world's most anomalously large basement. Highly recommended.

Defendor (2009): written and directed by Peter Stebbings; starring Woody Harrelson (Arthur/ Defendor), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Dooney), Michael Kelly (Paul Carter), Sandra Oh (Dr. Park), Kat Dennings (Kat), and Clark Johnson (Capt. Fairbanks): This clever Canadian superhero movie straddles the realms of drama and satire expertly enough that even at the end, it's not entirely clear where its heart lies. Is Woody Harrelson's titular, mentally challenged vigilante heroic or a commentary on the stupidity of superhero movies? 

I don't really know, but wherever the truth lies, Defendor is far more enjoyable a superhero film, satiric or straight, than all but a handful of the big-budget studio productions. Kat Dennings is surprisingly tolerable as a hooker with a heart of gold. There's some funny stuff here, including Defendor's use of wasps as a crime-fighting tool. Somebody call the Red Bee! Recommended.

Lethal Weapon (1987): written by Shane Black; directed by Richard Donner; starring Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs), Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh), Gary Busey (Mr. Joshua), and Mitchell Ryan (The General): Screenwriter Shane Black set Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 at Christmas. Why? Not sure. 

In any case, Lethal Weapon holds up pretty well. It helps that the stunts have to be real and not CGI and that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover share a certain chemistry. Mel's mullet is a little distracting, though. The dialogue crackles for the most part and the action scenes stay just this side of possible. It's remembered fondly -- and spawned three sequels and now a rebooted TV series -- because it's better than it has any right to be. Recommended.

Natural Born Killers (1994): written by Quentin Tarantino, David Velez, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone; directed by Oliver Stone; starring Woody Harrelson (Mickey), Juliette Lewis (Mallory), Tom Sizemore (Scagnetti), Rodney Dangerfield (Mallory's Father), Russell Means (Old Indian), Robert Downey, Jr. (Wayne Gale), and Tommy Lee Jones (Warden McClusky): Still as bracing and fresh and horrifying and pertinent and exciting and revolting now as it was in 1994. Maybe moreso. 

From a story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers is the best movie either Tarantino or director/co-writer Oliver Stone was ever involved with. The often dizzying shifts in film stock and POV mark a progression for Stone from similar effects in JFK. They also anticipate Tarantino's Kill Bill, only here they're actually about something other than Tarantino's desire to wow while remaining substanceless. 

You could call it American Scream. You could call it American Dream. It's uncompromising in the most disturbing of ways, a restless meditation on a society's love of violence and the media's love of anything that secures ratings, no matter how vile or dangerous. 

I think it's a Top 100 All-Timer, a Juvenalian yawp of barbaric, cosmic, comic horror. The whole cast dazzles, though none moreso than Rodney Dangerfield as a monstrous father to Juliette Lewis' monstrous daughter. The soundtrack/score is also a triumph, highlighted by a repeated use of Leonard Cohen as a sort of mournful commentator-in-song on the horrors onscreen, suggesting that Stone may have actually read Cohen's Beautiful Losers. This is Trump's America. You're soaking in it. Highly recommended.