Friday, January 31, 2014

Morning Wood

Came the Dawn and Other Stories (The Fantagraphics EC Comics Library): written by Al Feldstein, Gardner Fox, and others; illustrated by Wally Wood and Harry Harrison (1951-53; 2012): These recent Fantagraphics volumes of legendary EC Comics material arranged by writer, editor, and/or artist are absolutely splendid. The black-and-white reproduction is crisp, allowing the details of the artwork to stand out. And detail is one of the keys to the greatness of that tragic giant Wally Wood.

This volume presents Wood's horror and suspense work for EC Comics, the 1950's American comic-book publisher that towered above all others in terms of the quality of its writing and art. Over the course of about three years represented in this volume, Wood rapidly becomes the detailed, evocative artist he would remain for the rest of his career. It's a stunningly fast development of an artist.

Despite the appearance of a few werewolves and ghosts early on, the volume mostly focuses on Wood at his most realistic. The lion's share of the stories come from EC's Shock Suspens-Stories title, which offered thrillers and pointed social critiques which often resembled the Warner Brother agit-prop movies of the 1930's. And while Wood was a gifted science-fiction and superhero artist, he really shines in rendering the (relatively) ordinary in all its detailed, shadowy, and often big-bosomed glory. No one drew women like Wood.

Many of the stories here are what the writers and artists and editors of EC themselves referred to as "preachies", stories meant to teach a point. The handful of anti-racism stories still pack one hell of a wallop because of both the writing and Wood's exquisite artwork, capable of both beauty and brutality in the same panel. The editors are correct in noting that EC did stories that television and movies wouldn't tell, at least in such graphic and wrenching detail.

In all, this volume is a wonder, as was Wood when he was operating at full capacity. This is marvelous stuff, and a revelation to anyone who believes that all American comic books ever did or can ever do is superheroes. Highly recommended.


Daredevil: The Man without Fear: written by Frank Miller; illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson (1993): What a dreadful piece of high-gloss hackery this miniseries is! Writer Frank Miller returns to the character he made essential reading in the early 1980's and pretty much carpetbombs everything that made Daredevil a sympathetic, tortured superhero in the process of completely rearranging and reimagining Daredevil's origins.

Events and characters become grotesque parodies of their earlier selves. Elektra is now crazy from the beginning, and has somehow gained so much heft that she resembles Jack Kirby's Big Barda more than her previous renditions. The pre-Daredevil Matt Murdock intentionally and unintentionally kills several people. Events that once occurred while Daredevil was actually Daredevil now occur before he adopted the costume.

Miller's guru-figure Stick, retconned by Miller into DD continuity in the early 1980's run, has now been retconned into an entire training sequence lasting months or even years for the young Murdock. And more Stick is not some sort of bonus -- he was already one of the most tedious Yoda figures ever inflicted on a hero. Now moreso.

John Romita Jr.'s art is a weird study here, as he occasionally evokes Miller's own artwork in certain sequences and panels. One really jarring panel sees Romita Jr. referencing Ronin-era Miller. It's jarring because Ronin-era Miller had just devoured French comics great Moebius's work and was in the process of regurgitating it all over the page; it's an homage of an homage. Romita Jr.'s work is competent, but it also isn't entirely 'him' -- and the Miller influences aren't organic at all, instead leaping to prominence on one page and then vanishing on the next.

It's the cynicism and meanness of this book that I suppose rankles the most. The characters are almost universally loathsome. A new, young, teenaged girl/sidekick gets added to Murdock's story, I'm assuming because Miller hadn't yet got his female Robin from 1986's The Dark Knight Returns out of his system. At least she doesn't suit up.

And boy, do Miller's previous tendencies to portray women as madonnas and/or whores get ramped up here. That and perhaps the world record for most uses of the word 'scent' in a superhero comic book. What a cruddy, cruddy book. Not recommended.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Expensive TV Movies

Captain America: The First Avenger: created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on comic-book stories by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Mark Gruenwald, Steve Engelhart, Steve Gerber, Jim Steranko and others; directed by Joe Johnston; starring Chris Evans (Captain America/Steve Rogers), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Hugo Weaving (Schmidt/The Red Skull), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Erskine), Toby Jones (Arnim Zola) and Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Philips) (2011):

Director Joe Johnston won an Oscar for his effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and directed the flawed but period-detail-rich Rocketeer movie; those two things seem to have informed this Marvel movie, which is flawed but rich in period detail, mostly old-fashioned in a good way, and possessed of a villain with a supernatural weapon that rivals the Ark of the Covenant, with Raiders alluded to early in the movie.

Like every Marvel Studios production I've seen, it plays as well or better on a TV screen that it did at the theatre. The stylistic blandness-bordering-on-inertness of the Mighty Marvel Movie Product makes the films into a series of really expensive TV movies, a fact which makes the failure of Marvel's actual TV series about S.H.I.E.L.D. somewhat baffling. Captain America entertains without leaving much residue in the memory -- like Johnson's Rocketeer, it's a competent gesture at adapting far superior source material. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book of Dredd

Judge Dredd Complete Casefiles Volume 4: written by John Wagner, Alan Grant, and others; illustrated by Ron Smith, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, Brian Bolland, and others (1981-82; collected 2012): The long-running Judge Dredd comic series exists in a sub-genre the British seem to do better than anyone else -- action-satire. Set in a post-apocalyptic 22nd century, the Dredd comics follow their titular hero as he seeks to keep law and order maintained in the American East Coast's MegaCity One, home to 800 million citizens and protected by the radioactive wasteland beyond by a giant wall.

For more than thirty years, Dredd -- one among thousands of MegaCity One's Judges -- has acted as judge, jury, and often executioner to those who threaten the peace. This can result in battles with gangs, mobsters, aliens, and seemingly supernatural beings. The body count is high, the punishments severe, and the smell of fascism almost overwhelming. Dredd is fair within the bounds of MegaCity One's laws. But you sure wouldn't want to live there.

This volume collects a lot of truly bizarre stories, including a story about how hideous ugliness becomes fashionable and chic which remains as biting in its critique of fashion and body-standards now as it must have been in the early 1980's. The volume also collects the entire epic Judge Child arc, as Dredd and a handful of other Judges journey into the nuclear wasteland (dubbed The Cursed Earth in) and into interstellar space to find the eponymous child, whom a dying precognitive Judge has claimed is the only hope for MegaCity One's survival.

Throughout, writers Alan Grant and John Wagner keep the action and the satire flowing. The stories, originally serialized in very short episodes, seem almost Silver Agey in the density of their plotting, but still very much contemporary in their sensibilities. As a science-fictional hero, Dredd is very much a dark mirror to that other British sf perennial, Doctor Who.

The art, from a rotating group of artists, is mostly solid and clean-lined throughout. Dredd is an art book, but one that stays steadfastly within the more conservative elements of comic-book layout. The reproduction of the pages looks great for the most part. The only problem is really that the volume would be better with a slightly larger page size, as the Dredd stories originally appeared in something closer to magazine than comic-book format. This really only means that the lettering can get a bit difficult to read at certain points. But it's a minor caveat. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Wendigo in the Willows

The Ithaqua Cycle: edited by Robert M. Price (1998), containing the following stories:
The Wendigo (1910) by Algernon Blackwood; The Thing from Outside (1923) by George Allan England;; The Thing That Walked on the Wind (1933), The Snow-Thing (1941), and Beyond the Threshold (1941) by August Derleth; Born of the Winds (1975) by Brian Lumley; Spawn of the North (1975) by George C. Diezel, II and Gordon Linzner; They Only Come Out at Night (1975) by Randy Medoff; Footsteps in the Sky (1986) by Pierre Comtois; Jendick's Swamp (1987) by Joseph Payne Brennan; The Wind Has Teeth (1990) by G. Warlock Vance and Scott H. Urban; Stalker of the Wild Wind (1993) by Stephen Mark Rainey; The Country of the Wind (1994) by Pierre Comtois; and Wrath of the Wind-Walker (1999) by James Ambuehl.

In addition to producing The Call of Cthulhu rpg and its offshoots (tendrils?), Chaosium Press also releases mostly reprint volumes of Cthulhu Mythos and Cthulhu-Mythos-adjacent short stories. So kudos to them!

This anthology focuses on one of the more minor Mythos beings, Ithaqua, added to the Mythos by August Derleth and not H.P. Lovecraft himself. It's a wind deity and a spirit of the North. It's also a weird and accidental illustration of how myths -- real myths -- can alter over time, represented in the condensed timeline of 80 years of stories.

Because it all starts with Algernon Blackwood's very European reconfiguration of the myth of the Wendigo, a story with variants among various Native-American peoples of North America's Northcentral and Northeast. As generally constituted in those myths, the Wendigo is both a legendary reinforcer of the taboo against cannibalism and a cautionary fable about the evils of greed and hoarding.

Blackwood, though, reconstitutes the being as instead a sort of embodiment of the dangerous appeal of Going Wild, of surrendering to a sort of Rapture of the Empty Woods and running away from civilization. Blackwood also beefs up the idea of the Wendigo's association with the wind.

And we're off.

Derleth takes some of his cues from Blackwood and further distances his Wendigo (known now also as Ithaqua the Wind-Walker) from its mythological roots. Now it's a malign wind elemental. And that, pretty much, is what the post-Derlethian stories in this anthology work with, to lesser or greater effect.

The stories are all enjoyable, though none are major -- most are pastiches of Lovecraftian style and structure rather than their own unique takes on the Mythos, and that's true of Derleth as much as anyone else. Great post-Lovecraftian stories in the Cthulhu Mythos tend to strike out on their own paths, finding personal approaches. Letting some air in.

Nonetheless, the anthology is quite enjoyable, as noted. The most startling story herein is George Allan England's "The Thing from Outside" -- it's basically a Cthulhu Mythos story before Lovecraft had truly begun the Mythos, a sort of bridge between Blackwood's proto-Lovecraftian "The Wendigo" and "The Willows" and H.P.L.'s "The Call of Cthulhu" and everything after. Recommended.


Reassuring Tales by T.E.D. Klein (2006), containing the following stories: Camera Shy (1988); Growing Things (1999); Curtains for Nat Crumley (1996); Magic Carpet (1976); One Size Eats All (1993); Ladder (1990); Well-Connected (1987); S.F. (1975); They Don't Write 'em Like This Anymore: A TV Treatment in Two Versions (1989); and The Events at Poroth Farm (1972).

Oh, T.E.D. Klein. One of the four or five great editors of horror of the past fifty years. Writer of a handful of the scariest novellas ever written. Writer of one great horror novel, The Ceremonies (1984), which should be read by anyone who enjoys reading literate horror. And so, so, so writer's-blocked since the mid-1980's, though rumour has had it for years that lurking somewhere in Klein's house is a lengthy, unfinished horror novel which may yet be completed and see the light of day.

This relatively recent volume collects pretty much every piece of short fiction not collected in Klein's cyclopean masterpiece of a collection of four novellas, 1985's Dark Gods. And Reassuring Tales is for Klein completists, really, and perhaps no one else. Though the great, early novella that Klein would expand into The Ceremonies, "The Events at Poroth Farm," is indeed collected here.

Some of the other stories are close to being juvenilia ("S.F.") while others are short gimmick stories ("One Size Eats All"). Klein's introduction to the volume is hilariously, almost troublingly self-deprecating -- if you've ever wanted to read a writer mercilessly trashing his own work even when it's decent material, then this is the collection for you.

But, "The Events at Poroth Farm." Pop pop! Some intelligent person at a publishing house great or small or in-between needs to publish a new edition of Dark Gods, with "...Poroth Farm" installed in its more reasonable place among those four other great novellas. Klein's output has been relatively tiny, but he still looms as a giant over American horror fiction for this exact handful of novellas and that one dynamite novel (and the editorship of Twilight Zone magazine for five years in the 1980's). Recommended for the novella, and for Klein completists.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Spider-man: Chapter One: written by John Byrne; illustrated by John Byrne and Al Milgrom (1998-99): Well, it's not as bad as I feared, this attempt at a retcon of Spider-man's origins that fared so poorly in the marketplace and among those who actually read it that Marvel subsequently ignored everything herein. Nonetheless, Byrne is not at the top of his writing or drawing game here. Not even close.

Basically, Byrne decided that Spider-man's first 20 appearances back in the 1960's constitute Year One. However, Marvel can't call this Spider-man: Year One because DC had already cornered that title extension. Hence Chapter One. Things are then updated so that everything occurs about eight years prior to the then-current Spider-titles, setting Spidey's origin around 1991.

Then come the changes. Stan Lee first posited in a never-produced screenplay that the same radiation experiment created Spider-man and Doctor Octopus. Byrne takes that and runs with it. He also has the radiation accident that created that little radioactive spider kill about a dozen other people and put Peter Parker in the hospital for weeks. Wow, what larks!

Then, with the benefit of hindsight that the Green Goblin was really crazy industrialist Norman Osborn, Byrne attributes the origins of many of Spidey's greatest foes to Osborn. And those he doesn't create, he enlists to attack Spider-man.

Furthermore, because Steve Ditko drew the Sandman and Osborn with similar Ditko-stylized hairstyles (hairstyles that would translate literally into the real world as some very out-of-place, out-of-time combination crew cuts and corn rows), Byrne has the Sandman and Osborn turn out to be cousins. I think. Norman thinks of the Sandman as 'cousin' in quotation marks at one point, perhaps suggesting that Osborn is lying, or perhaps suggesting that Osborn just likes making air-quotes.

Along the way, Byrne gives Electro a boring new suit, something the filmmakers of the upcoming Spider-man movie have also chosen to do. He comes up with a rationale for the burglar's murder of Spidey's Uncle Ben that is a marvel (or maybe a Marvel) of obsessive problem-solving of continuity problems that are not actually continuity problems. And he makes Peter Parker's relationship with Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant somewhat ickier by making it clear that she's a 20-something dating a 17-year-old boy.

There are some nice moments here, especially in some of the action sequences. But throughout the book there's an obsessive tying together of threads best left untied (did every super-villain work for Norman Osborn?) and some uncharacteristically sloppy artwork from Byrne (the low-point comes late, with a panel showing a Daredevil who is apparently either a very peculiar-looking dwarf or possibly a giant, costume-wearing fetus; the Green Goblin is the worst-served throughout, possessed as he is of a gigantic, grinning, orange-on-a-toothpick head).

That Byrne periodically draws Aunt May to look exactly like his version of intermittent Fantastic-Four nanny (and practicing witch) Agatha Harkness actually confused me a couple of times. And why does Flash Thompson's hair change back and forth between blonde and red throughout this compilation? Who's checking the colours for the reprint? Lightly, lightly, lightly recommended for Spider-man completists or those curious to see why this miniseries continues to be hated by comic-book readers 16 years after it debuted.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Strange Book-ends

The Unwritten Volume 9: The Unwritten Fables: written by Mike Carey and Bill Willingham; illustrated by Peter Gross, Mark Buckingham, and others (2013): With the last story arc of The Unwritten debuting in January 2014 in a whole new, restarted book, this volume brings the original run to an end in what is a bit of a curious fashion, a crossover with DC/Vertigo's other long-running series about myths and stories, Bill Willingham's Fables.

Despite not having read Fables for several years, I didn't have any problem following the basics of this crossover. But it still didn't exactly work. I have no idea why the antagonist of the series, Dark, is such a world-destroying badass, at the beginning or the end of the arc. I don't much care about any of the characters other than our Unwritten regulars, who only actually appear in the first and last issues. Well, technically only Tom Taylor appears. I think. Or maybe not.

There are still many fine moments herein, including some truly awful stuff involving a witch's last ditch gambit to save all of existence (Dark's arrival makes for strange bedfellows), and a very moving final sequence that sets up The Unwritten: Apocalypse with, well, a preliminary apocalypse. Still, this arc remains something of an oddity, the least satisfying storyline from The Unwritten's excellent run. Lightly recommended.

Astro City: Through Open Windows: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2013): Busiek's Astro City returns, complete with interior artist Anderson and cover artist Ross, in fine style. While a major story arc gets set up in the first issue, the book mostly focuses on stand-alone stories and short arcs.

Life in the superpower-filled universe of Astro City is a fascinating affair, both metatextual (Busiek creates analogs for virtually every comic-book character you can think of) and emotionally satisfying (the analogs rapidly become their own characters, while the lives of what would be minor characters in a typical superhero book are richly explored).

For instance, the first few issues deal with the exciting adventures of someone who staffs the Hot-line for this Earth's version of the Justice League or the Avengers. Busiek gets to world-build here in what seems to be a perfectly reasonable fashion (I mean, a hotline's going to need staff, isn't it?) while offering a groundlevel view of life on a world packed with supernatural superscientific shenanigans.

Brent Anderson's interior art, superheroic without being super-exaggerated, is as good as ever, which is to say absolutely perfect for the writing of Busiek. There's a nice balance of the mundane and the Super-loopy throughout Anderson's Astro City work.

We also get a look at what people with superpowers who don't want to either fight crime or commit crime do with their lives (find jobs that can use their specialized skills), and look in on a retired super-speedster. Meanwhile, the Over-Arc involving mysterious observer The Broken Man offers glimpses of some world-shattering Crisis to come. Recommended.

Left Behind with James Franco

This is the End: written and directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, adapted from a short film by Jason Stone; starring James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, and Michael Cera as themselves (2013): For an astonishingly raunchy comedy from the wags who brought us Superbad and Pineapple Express, This is the End is amazingly fastidious in its use of the Book of Revelation. It's certainly more "accurate" than end-times thrillers like The Seventh Sign, End of Days, or even the whole Left Behind franchise.

All the actors come together to play versions of themselves, attending a Beverly Hills house-warming party at James Franco's when The Rapture occurs. But only Montreal's own Jay Baruchel, visiting from Canada and disdainful of Hollywood, is initially aware that the Rapture has occurred. He and best-pal Seth Rogen were out buying cigarettes.

Rogen missed seeing the Rapture because he was lying on the floor of a convenience store after an apparent earthquake. Baruchel saw it, though. Then chaos erupted and they fled back to Franco's house, where no one noticed anything amiss because nobody at the party got Raptured up...

Well, it's literally One Hell of a Buddy Comedy, though who the buddies and who the damned will be is in question until the final minutes. The various actors riff, often hilariously, on their personae. Michael Cera shows up early to play against perceived type -- he's a coke-snorting, bathroom-threesome, ass-slapping monster. Jonah Hill is a schmoozing hypocrite who secretly hates Jay Baruchel because he wants Seth Rogen to be his own best buddy. Franco is, well, Franco. Craig Robinson is loveable but befuddled at first. Danny McBride is a complete jerk.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles burns. Pits that lead to Hell open up across the globe to suck up the damned. Demons and spectres roam the Earth. Under siege, the guys barricade themselves inside Franco's house. But they're running out of food and water, and nerves are frayed. Luckily, they do have a lot of booze and recreational drugs.

As with many Rogen/Goldberg movies, improvisation and a certain aversion to tight editing lead to scattershot scenes and lines. If the two ever got really rigorous about being funny, they might be able to make a real comedy classic.

Still, this is a lot of fun. And it has a moral. And very funny exchanges about, among other things, what gluten is, and what particular Deadly Sin dooms one of the characters ("What was that, Vanity?" "Wrath?"). And a great exorcism sequence featuring a crucifix made out of kitchen utensils and the worst use of a blanket to put out a fire ever recorded on film. Recommended.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Horrors Old and New

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24 (2012) (published 2013): edited by Stephen R. Jones with non-fiction material by Kim Newman, containing the following:

Witch Work by Neil Gaiman: It's a poem. And not a good one.

The Discord of Being by Alison J. Littlewood: Solidly written, but I actually can't remember what it was about. And I just read it a week ago.

Necrosis by Dale Bailey: Enjoyable, somewhat enigmatic "Club Tale."

The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath by Joe R. Lansdale: Lansdale creates a plausible new horror for the Zombie crowd. The disturbing elements build throughout to a truly gut-wrenching final few pages.

The Cotswold Olympicks by Simon Kurt Unsworth: Nice variation on the whole Town With a Secret sub-genre of horror.

Where the Summer Dwells by Lynda E. Rucker: Well-written but fatally inconclusive bit of what I've started to think of as Lifestyle Horror rather than The New Weird. Something Happened, but Not Much, and It Didn't Really Change Anything Anyway.

The Callers by Ramsey Campbell: Campbell makes Bingo scary, and is that Tubby Thackeray from The Grin of the Dark as the bingo caller?

The Curtain by Thana Niveau: Deep-sea horror builds to an apocalyptic climax.

The Fall of the King of Babylon by Mark Valentine: Nicely written but underplotted and underdeveloped bit of Magical History.

Nightside Eye by Terry Dowling: Interesting use of a paranormal detective with an extremely odd power within the long-standing trope of the Haunted Hotel.

The Old and the New by Helen Marshall: Nicely written but seriously underdeveloped bit of relationship horror somehow makes the bone-filled catacombs of Paris seem mundane.

Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem: Creepy bit of American Lovecraftiana with some startlingly odd images.

His Only Audience by Glen Hirshberg: Fun paranormal detective adventure riffs on The Deal with the Devil.

Marionettes by Claire Massey: Weirdly, this is basically a much better version of "The Old and the New." Compares favourably to the work of Robert Aickman.

Between Four Yews by Reggie Oliver: A prequel to M.R. James' "A School Story" works well in the shadow of James by dealing with a facet of the supernatural that James himself would have avoided because of era and inclination.

Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars by Gemma Files: Marvelous homage to The King in Yellow via Pitcairn Island.

The Other One by Evangeline Walton: Posthumous doppelganger horror.

Slow Burn by Joel Lane: Police detective investigating the paranormal; you'll wish it were longer.

Celebrity Frankenstein by Stephen Volk: Funny commentary on our current celebrity/reality-show culture.

Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon by Robert Shearman: Weird, not entirely successful piece starts strong and then takes the train to WTF?

October Dreams by Michael Kelly: Solid little mood piece tips a Halloween hat to Bradbury.

The Eyes of Water by Alison J. Littlewood: Build-up of mystery and suspense ends in a sort of nothing rather than the Sublime it seemed to be aiming for. Let-down.

In all: Lots of good and nothing really 'bad,' though the fatal inconclusiveness of the New Weird appears to be seeping more and more into the choices. As always, the Necrology listing of deceased writers, artists, actors, and others is comprehensive and useful. Recommended.

Witch House by Evangeline Walton (1945): Almost forgotten Haunted House novel reads like an odd sort of bridge between sub-genre Megaliths The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House. Walton's version of the supernatural would now be called New Agey, though it really draws on a long tradition of mysticism and pseudo-science that's been cropping up in horror stories and novels since J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Familiar" and "Green Tea."

What this means for the novel is that the supernatural, while not having a scientific basis, nonetheless obeys mystical rules rather than the basic rules of the Personal Haunting. Walton's psychic investigator herein has a solid grounding in both Eastern Mysticism and pseudo-scientific technobabble. He's also a little too infallible to allow for much suspense, a trait shared by Algernon Blackwood's similarly hyper-competent mystic John Silence.

Walton's interest in building a consistent mystical background to explain the goings-on at Witch-House leaves the novel oddly sketchy in the development of a historical narrative for the house in question. The horror doesn't really build -- it just flares up, only to be dealt with again and again by the psychic detective.

The engine of the plot is a little girl in peril who only sporadically seems to be really be in peril. But this is really a Novel of Ideas, expounded upon at length. Walton throws in reincarnation, Buddhism, telepathy, a brooding seascape, Orientalism, telekinesis, poltergeists, a couple of wizards' battles, ectoplasm, a giant black rabbit, a supernatural kitten, paintings that seem to look at people, a Family Curse, a malign Will, sadomasochism, and a bunch of other stuff. The novel might actually be twice as good at twice the length. Lightly recommended.

Two Christmas Stories and an Oscar

Brazil: written by Charles McKeown, Terry Gilliam, and Tom Stoppard; directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Jonathan Pryce (Sam Lowry), Robert De Niro (Harry Tuttle), Katherine Helmond (Ida Lowry), Ian Holm (Mr. Kurtzmann), Bob Hoskins (Spoor), Michael Palin (Jack Lint), and Kim Griest (Jill Layton) (1985): What's left to say about this scabrous, bleak, and jaunty sideways look into a dystopian future that looks a lot like the past? I don't know. Don't watch the studio's recut 94-minute version, for sure, with its bizarre happy ending.

How about the role of Christmas in this dystopia? Everyone's celebrating it throughout the movie, funny enough given the paranoid, joyless state of the State. Secret policemen carol in the basement of the Ministry of Information Retrieval (which is to say, the Torture Ministry). Everyone's got stacks of gifts on their desks to hand out to anyone who comes in. Everybody's shopping. Keep consuming, and put on a happy face, even if you need plastic surgery to do so.

This is Gilliam's masterpiece, filled with great performances by almost everyone (Kim Griest as the love interest is a bit weak, but she also doesn't have a lot to do). Jonathan Pryce, with his Stan Laurel face, makes a terrific bureaucratic Everyman, his daydreams making him also Walter Mitty in Oceania. Robert De Niro is amazingly loose and funny as a renegade duct repairman (there are a lot of ducts and tubes and pipes in the world of Brazil).

The whole enterprise gives us a burned out, crummy future in which the incessant terrorist bombings are really just another control method of the State. Weird motivational posters appear everywhere in the background. The mined-out countryside hides behind endless billboards covered with scenes of verdant nature. Pryce's daydreams give him a way out, but his fears of the State invade even them from time to time. Is there any escape from this particular Inferno? Highly recommended.

Iron Man Three: written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black; based on comic-book material by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Leiber, Warren Ellis and Adi Granov; directed by Shane Black; starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian) and Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin) (2013): Much better than the woeful second Iron Man movie, mainly thanks to co-writer/director Shane Black, of Die Hard fame. The whole movie seems to have been constructed around the problem of having Iron Man armor and Robert Downey Jr., unarmored, appear on camera as much as possible. The solution really boils down to Iron Robot and His Amazing Controller, Tony Stark. The movie is probably the campiest big-budget superhero movie since Batman & Robin, though here the lines are a lot funnier. Lightly recommended.

Klute: written by Andy and David E. Lewis; directed by Alan J. Pakula; starring Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), and Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin) (1971): Melancholy character study/film noir about a private detective (Sutherland's Klute) and the prostitute (Fonda's Bree) who may know something about the disappearance of Klute's businessman friend. Fonda deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her work here. Sutherland is also very good as the stoic, laconic Klute. Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis construct a film world occasionally dominated by looming shadows and a sort of run-down crumminess out on the streets of New York. Recommended.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Red List

Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012): Scalzi's metafictional ode to Star Trek and other television science-fiction shows starts as a discursive romp and ends on a somewhat unworkable serious note with three "codas" that are fatally undercut by what has gone before. I enjoyed it, but the metafiction of the main narrative made me incapable of caring about the characters covered in the Codas: sometimes drawing attention to the Storyness of Story makes empathy for the Story's characters impossible.

There are a lot of laughs here, many of them dependent on at least some familiarity with the storytelling tropes of Star Trek and its progeny, many based on a much more general appraisal of television production. You probably know who the Redshirts are already even if you've only got a passing familiarity with Star Trek; now, you get to meet them up close and personal.

A lot of people at the 2013 World Convention of Science Fiction must have really loved Redshirts, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2012. I didn't love it, and I kept waiting for more narrative and metafictional twists that never arrived, but Redshirts is still an enjoyable if slight and somewhat facile read. Like certain science-fiction television shows, it acts a lot smarter than it really is. Finding out in the acknowledgements that Scalzi worked on the woeful Stargate: Universe (which he praises here) really doesn't help. Recommended.

The Book of Lists: Horror: edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley (2008): Fun, mostly recent assortment of lists about the horror genre in film, television, movies, and other media. Most of the lists are heavily annotated, which is a good thing if you haven't seen, say, Cannibal Holocaust, but would like to know what it's all about. Some descriptions are not for the squeamish or faint of heart, with film-maker Eli Roth's list of favourite moments of genital mutilation in horror movies probably being the prime example of this caution. Recommended.

Secret World

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: based on the short story by James Thurber, written by Philip Rapp, Everett Freeman, and Ken Englund; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; starring Danny Kaye (Walter Mitty), Virginia Mayo (Rosalind van Hoorn), Boris Karloff (Dr. Hollingshead), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Mitty), Ann Rutherford (Gertrude Griswold) and Thurston Hall (Bruce Pierce) (1947): Hit film of 1947 follows James Thurber's short story almost verbatim for the first 20 minutes or so until it (necessarily) expands into a narrative involving spies, art theft, and a Nazi mastermind named The Boot.

The patience of some people (including James Thurber) was tested by the inclusion of several musical set-pieces for star Danny Kaye. Fast-paced, comical, tongue-twisting songs were Kaye's speciality, and he performs two here in their entirety. If you hate them, fast forward.

Kaye plays well-meaning, eternally day-dreaming Walter Mitty with real charm. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with Virginia Mayo as a love interest who pulls the engaged and somewhat infantilized Mitty into the world of espionage and, ultimately, adult-hood. Boris Karloff makes a great villain, as always, and ubiquitous character actor Thurston Hall sputters and fulminates nicely as Mitty's magazine-editor boss.

One of the things that marks this as a non-contemporary Hollywood movie is that Mitty's awakening doesn't turn him into a superheroic Everyman. He has to use his brains and a bit of luck when the plot reaches full boil. Adulthood didn't require hypercompetent ultraviolence in 1947. Recommended.

Farewell to Cleveland

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland: written by Harvey Pekar; illustrated by Joseph Remnant (2012): Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010, was one of a handful of the finest comics writers ever produced by the United States. His essential topic was his life and its interaction with the people, places, and ideas he came into contact with. He could be hilarious ("A Good Shit is Best" perhaps being the epitomal version of Pekar's deft hand at dialogue and the rhythms of story). But his role, in comics and in culture as a whole, often seemed to be as the champion and the chronicler of the mundane and the human.

This posthumous graphic novel, beautifully rendered by young artist Joseph Remmant (seriously, he looks like he's all of 12 in the back-jacket photo and boy, can he draw), takes us through a brief history of Cleveland, Ohio that also touches upon Harvey's life and times. It's poignant because of what it is (probably Pekar's last new work). It's poignant because of what it shows (the rise and fall of an American city).

Remnant's art uses a lot of photo references for the historical stretches of the narrative. Nonetheless, while exquisitely detailed, the art is also warm, with a nice sense of the cartoony when it comes to human beings. Robert Crumb was one of Pekar's long-time collaborators, and there's certainly some of Crumb in the approach to the human form. We're just a couple of ticks off representational.

Pekar's life and work were remarkable. The point of that work -- of the friends and lovers and casual acquaintances and historical moments and jazz legends and everything else showcased in that work -- was that the remarkable is all around people, not in some magical fantastic way, but in the various things ordinary humans say and do.

The observational moments worked organically with those in which Harvey railed against the anti-human policies of politicians and businessmen, and with those in which Pekar stood pretty much appalled at the breadth and heft and utter emptiness of popular American culture. But he could still laugh about it, and he could still reminisce fondly about the Cleveland Indians of 1948, who actually won a World Series.

Pekar's work helped create a sub-genre of comics -- the confessional auto-biographical independent comic -- that was something truly new on the American comics scene in the 1960's and 1970's. I'd say he looms above it like a Titan, but I think he'd find the idea insulting. He's down on the street somewhere, looking for a jazz record, looking for a new used bookstore. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dial Hard

Dial H (Issues 0-15, JL 23.3): written by China Mieville; illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli, Mateus Santolouco, and others (2012-2013): China Mieville's Dial H series for DC Comics would probably have lasted longer in the 1990's, when there was a certain commitment by DC to odd superhero books. In the second decade of the 21st century, it never really had a chance. But it was fun while it lasted, warts and all, as Mieville learned how to write comic books and the readers got to watch.

How odd was this series? Well, the two heroes are a 30-ish overweight man and a woman in her late 50's or early 60's. The villain is a Canadian. The Hero Dial, a concept from DC's Silver Age, works pretty much as it always did. You dial H-E-R-O and you become a different hero for a limited time every time you dial.

From this basic set-up, Mieville took off running with an exploration of how the dials work and where they come from. And even though cancellation came without much warning, the powers that be gave Mieville enough time to supply a mostly satisfying, though somewhat open-ended, wrap-up to what I would have marketed as the War of the Dials. Because by the end of the series, there were a lot of different dials (this a commentary on DC's recent obsession with there being a power ring for ever colour of the spectrum and more in the Green Lantern books). Dial to be a Sidekick. Dial for world-shattering Doom. And so on. And it's an analog Dial in a digital age. Why?

Mieville's characterization of his oddball (for superhero comic books, that is) protagonists was sympathetic and engaging, as was the depiction of the supporting characters who appeared throughout the series. If there were problems, they lay partially in Mieville's inexperience at writing comic books: the first few issues are a bit too murky in their proceedings, the engaging weirdness obscured by, well, just plain narrative weirdness and a bit too much off-putting narration from some deeply weird H-E-R-O characters.

Another problem lay in the choice of the first artist for the series, Mateus Santolouco. He's a lovely draftsman, but his storytelling sense wasn't all that strong (or Mieville was giving him odd instructions that he couldn't overcome). Alberto Ponticelli cleaned things up a lot when he came on-board, but the series might have benefitted from a bit more traditional, Silver-Agey grid-structure art. One of the things that made Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol (the DC book most like Dial H) so enjoyable in the early 1990's was that penciller Richard Case was a fairly straightforward storyteller. In some cases, the weirdness needs to be delivered 'straight,' especially weirdness in the post-modern Silver-Age school of metafictionally recursive superhero comics.

By the last few issues, Mieville and Ponticelli were really pretty much all there. Issue 13, in which one of the characters interacts with an alternate universe composed entirely of chalk drawings on walls, was the best single issue of the series, and a classic of post-modern superhero comics in any decade. I'd say it's the best single issue of any superhero comic book published in DC's mainstream New 52 line since that line started in autumn of 2011. It's a hell of a high point. No wonder the book got cancelled. Recommended.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Weed of Crime

The Shadow Volume 3: The Light of the World: written by Chris Roberson; illustrated by Giovanni Timpano and others (2013): Dynamite's regular Shadow series, set in the 1930's and 1940's, continues to be an enjoyable pulp adventure in comic-book form, with a lot more psychology and character development than the old radio and pulp-magazine Shadow.

The major difference between the comic book and the original pulp novels lies in the focus on the Shadow himself, who was often a supporting character in a book that focussed on his various lieutenants as they investigated whatever case the Shadow was pursuing. This left the Shadow as a mystery man. Dynamite's comic books have put him front and centre, to generally good effect.

Giovanni Timpano's art on this latest arc is fairly strong, especially when he gets to do sweeping long-shots of the Shadow on rooftops and bridges and what-have-you. Chris Roberson comes up with an interesting new villain who, like this revised Shadow, appears to be working for some mysterious organization aimed at punishing criminals.

However, the Light is fine with killing people before they commit crimes: she's pretty much going with the Biblical concept that thinking something sinful is the same as doing it. Oh-oh. Enter the Shadow: he may kill a lot, but he only kills killers.

The series (like the radio program moreso than the novels) continues to be very Shadow/Margo Lane-centric, for good and ill. I wouldn't mind seeing the Shadow step back into the, ahem, shadows for an arc or two, so that we can spend more time with lieutenants such as Harry Vincent, whose recruitment by the Shadow features in the first scene of the first Shadow pulp novel. Still, a very enjoyable series. Between this and the new Doc Savage series, Roberson is having quite a pulp-tastic year writing comic books. Recommended.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Horrors by the Dozens

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron, containing the following stories: The Forest; Occultation; The Lagerstatte; Mysterium Tremendum; Catch Hell; Strappado; The Broadsword; --30--; and Six Six Six (2010): Laird Barron's second collection of short stories shows a writer unafraid to broaden his reach and his grasp. He's a fine horror writer committed to his craft.

For example, this time around we get three female protagonists, two stories with gay protagonists, and one gay narrator. All are handled sympathetically, all ring true to my ears. Of course, even Barron's least likeable protagonists can be made sympathetic when juxtaposed with the horrific entities and situations they are set against. Barron's fictional cosmos is a cruel abattoir shot through with brief flashes of hope and defiance -- to quote Michael Ondaatje, very faint, very human.

Which stories sing the loudest? "The Lagerstatte" deals with mourning and depression subtly, though there's some nebulous form of cosmic horror amplifying the human loss in the story. "Mysterium Tremendum" grants the reader a greater understanding of the Necronomicon of Barron's fictional universe, The Black Guide. That The Black Guide is a malevolent guide to tourist sites that tends to be found in homey country stores is deeply hilarious and practical at the same time.

Really, all the stories are tremendous, whether dealing with mysterious insect intelligences ("The Forest"), rundown hotels formerly of glorious aspect ("The Broadsword"), or monsters wearing human disguises with detachable heads (a Barron staple, and an attribute of the horrible Children of Old Leech, about whom I will only add AIM FOR THE CENTRE OF BODY MASS!!!). "The Broadsword" may be the most weighted with tragedy, along with "The Lagerstatte," but both are tragedies of the loss of self, and whether or not one can stop that loss before greater horror sets in.

To quote a doom-fraught line from another Barron work, "They enter as slaves and emerge as kin." It's not just that characters in Barron's universe have to make decisions about remaining human or becoming monster -- it's that sometimes even that decision is stripped from them. Their transformations will be terrible. But what price has the reader paid to become what he or she is? Highly recommended.



Cults of Horror, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, containing the following stories: The Feast of St. Dionysus (1973) by Robert Silverberg; Devils in the Dust (1935) by Arthur J. Burks; The Questing Tycoon (1954) by Leslie Charteris; The Peacemaker (1983) by Gardner Dozois; The Legend of Gray Mountain (1979) by Emily Katharine Harris; Sword for a Sinner (1959) by Edward D. Hoch; The Shaker Revival (1970) by Gerald Jonas; The Red One (1918) by Jack London; The House of Eld (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson; Sticks (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner; Overkill (1990) by Edward Wellen; In the Abyss (1896) by H. G. Wells; and Fear Is a Business (1956) by Theodore Sturgeon (Collected 1990):

Fun and typically wide-ranging anthology from master anthologists Waugh and Greenberg. Boy, is it wide-ranging both in time and genre! There's an excellent novella by Robert Silverberg from Silverberg's artistic peak of the early 1970's. There's an adventure of Leslie Charteris's Saint. There's a story by science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. There's a weird bit of extraordinarily racism and misogynism from Jack London. There's Karl Edward Wagner's legendary "Sticks." And there's a piece from the 1930's by Arthur J. Burks about the Dust Bowl that reads like one of Robert E. Howard's fever dreams (if he had such things). Well worth picking up should you see it in a used bookstore. Recommended.


Just Behind You by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: Fear the Dead; Digging Deep; Double Room; The Place of Revelation; The Winner; One Copy Only; Laid Down; Unblinking; Breaking Up; Respects; Feeling Remains; Direct Line; Skeleton Woods; The Unbeheld; The Announcement; Dragged Down; Raised by the Moon; Just Behind You; and Safe Words (Collected 2009):

Strong collection of Campbell's early 21st-century short stories with the usual generous and explanatory afterword by Campbell. Cellphones become instruments of horror, though perhaps in "Digging Deep" there's as much bleak humour to the proceedings as anything. Homages to M.R. James (the title story) and Arthur Machen ("The Place of Revelation") work marvellously while maintaining that slightly hallucinatory Campbellian diction. "Safe Words" plays as non-supernatural comedy of embarrassment, as its narrator's life goes off the rails thanks to a few mistaken assumptions about a fellow teacher.

"Skeleton Woods" is also a marvel of narration, as it uses first-person present-tense in a way that amplifies the horror of the last few paragraphs. Teen-aged fears and social class help form the horrors of "Dragged Down," while "Fear the Dead" gives us a little boy with some very unnerving problems involving bullies, squabbling parents, and a grandmother who doesn't seem to want to stay dead. In all, another strong outing from Campbell. Recommended.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Deconstruction of the Fables

Earth-2 (Issues 0-16, Annual 1): written by James Robinson; illustrated by Nicola and Trevor Scott and others (2012-2013): James Robinson's revisionist take on DC's 50-year-old 'Earth-2' concept started strong but bogged down over the last few months of his writing tenure in what I assume was the editorially mandated direction for the title -- a set-up for a company-wide crossover in 2014 or 2015. DC forced Robinson off the comic (and out of the company, actually), giving writing duties to a scripter previously best-known for the comic-book spin-off of the DC-universe computer fighting game.

It was a great ride early, in which a world devastated by an alien invasion and the heroic death of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman repelling that invasion started to experience the dawn of a new age of heroes five years after those deaths. Altered versions of DC's Golden-Age, 1940's super-heroes The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkgirl, and others started to appear, just in time to fend off an invasion from within the Earth rather than without.

James Robinson's best work for DC over the years has come when he's had something resembling his own playground, whether as an alternate-universe take on classic heroes (The Golden Age) or on a self-created 'legacy' version of a classic hero (Starman). However, he also had an under-rated run on the Justice League, a run undercut again and again by DC's removal of The Big Three (Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman) from the Justice League roster. Robinson made do with Supergirl, Donna Troy, a 1970's version of Starman, and Congorilla (!) among others, and the result was a lot of fun.

On Earth-2, Robinson and artist Nicola Scott really hummed along as they re-imagined 70-year-old heroes with new costumes, slightly different powers, and slightly altered personalities. Oh, and Green Lantern was now gay. Oh, the buzz in fandom over that one! But this was original Golden-Age Green Lantern Alan Scott, a character most of the people complaining about retroactive gayness probably had never read before. Less buzzy was the creation of a Middle-Eastern Doctor Fate and a Canadian Sandman, both with slightly reimagined powers.

And then things started to gradually slide off-course. What began as a book about hope sprung phoenix-like from the death of the world's greatest heroes moved more and more into despair, death, and devastation. Robinson's last three issues featured defeat after defeat for the heroes, and for Earth's armies, concluding with a resurrection about as coldly, calculatedly shocking as an Apple ad. Then Robinson was gone, hopefully somewhere with at least a bit less editorial interference.

And so ends my interest in Earth-2. It was the best mainstream superhero comic-book from DC for about 12 issues, with solid, old-school art from Nicola Scott. Now, though, abandon hope. Once a new Batman showed up, the book pretty much tanked. Thanks, Batman! Recommended until the last three or so issues, at which point you need to be a masochist to really enjoy things.


Judge Anderson: Death's Dark Dimension: written by Alan Wagner and John Grant; illustrated by Robin Smith, Brett Ewins, and Cliff Robinson (Collected 2002): Fun 1980's battle with the Dark Judges and then some obnoxious demons, featuring Judge Dredd's psychic colleague Judge Anderson in the post-apocalyptic world of Mega-City One. Satire takes a bit of a back-seat to action-adventure, but there's still a lot of that patented British weirdness.

Dredd only shows up for a few panels, as Anderson must pretty much figure out on her own how to thwart yet another invasion by the Dark Judges, who have outlawed life itself. The four-page chapters of the original British comic format really ensure things move along at a rapid clip, by which I mean a climax every 4 pages. Nice Brian Bolland cover, too. Recommended.