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

Retreads

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.