Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Flash of the Lightning

The Flash: Born to Run: written by Mark Waid and Tom Peyer; illustrated by Greg LaRocque, Humberto Ramos, Pop Mhan, Jim Aparo, Bill Sienkiewicz, Wayne Faucher, and others (1992, 97; 98/ collected 1999): Long-time Flash writer Mark Waid explores the origins of what was DC Comics' third Flash, Wally West, who started his super-speed career as Kid Flash, protege (and eventual nephew) to Barry Allen's Flash. 

This is an enjoyable Year One story-line made somewhat unusual by the age of the hero in question experiencing his Year One as a superhero. Wally West is about 10 when he gains super-speed powers in an accident almost identical to that which created Barry Allen's Flash. That this all seems like too much of a coincidence for a 1990's comic-book reader or writer looking at an origin story from the early 1960's is addressed throughout the story, though the origins of this 'coincidence' will only be explained in another book.

The super-speed action is fun and nicely thought-out, as it pretty much always was during Waid's tenure. Waid fleshes out the early back-story of Wally West with indifferent parents and a desire to flee his small Nebraska hometown. Waid's characterization of Wally, Aunt Iris West (soon to be Iris Allen), and Barry Allen is deft and sympathetic. The art is solid, meat-and-potatoes comic-book storytelling, though a story in which legendary Jim Aparo is inked by legendary Bill Sienkiewicz is a rare artistic treat. Recommended.

The Flash: Dead Heat: written by Mark Waid; illustrated by Oscar Jiminez, Jose Marzan Jr., Humberto Ramos, and Wayne Faucher (1995-96/ Collected 1999): What's really a one-year Flash story-line kicks off here with some major ret-conning introducing a whole new Flash villain who's actually been around for a long time. That's the self-named Savitar, a maniacal speedster who wants access to the Speed Force all to himself and who will kill everyone else with super-speed to secure that access.

Ah, the Speed Force. Introduced by long-time Flash writer Mark Waid, the Speed Force is a quasi-mystical energy/realm existing beyond the speed of light that gives super-speedsters their speed. Run too fast and you become part of it. Savitar and his ninja-like worshipers have to go after Wally West's Flash because he has the most direct connection to the Speed Force in their time period: basically, he's the reigning avatar.

Over the course of six issues, Savitar and his people force Wally to round up all the secondary speedsters of his time to defeat Savitar's plans and stop his killing spree. As noted, ret-conning abounds, but the explanations and exposition go down smoothly. The art by Flash artists Oscar Jiminez and Jose Marzan Jr is straightforward and pleasing, while the manga-influenced, big-heads-and-big-eyes of Impulse penciller Humberto Ramos (two of the six installments appeared in Flash spin-off Impulse, the Kid Flash of the 1990's) is really a matter of taste for the reader. Recommended.

The Flash: Race Against Time: written by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn; illustrated by Anthony Castrillo, Oscar Jiminez, Jim Cheung, Sergio Cariello, and others (1996/Collected 1999): The story begun in The Flash: Dead Heat concludes here. The climax of that story-line hurled Wally West millennia into the future, unbeknownst to girlfriend Linda Park and the rest of his loved ones in the 20th century. While Wally tries to make his way home, 27th-century speedster John Fox makes the moves on Linda Park after he arrives in the 20th century as a fugitive from his century.

Problems soon develop for both Fox and Wally as they struggle to adapt to their new centuries. With enjoyably straightforward art, we visit several time periods with Wally while Linda and Fox try to solve an on-going mystery back in the 20th century. Two old Flash villains, a mysterious new Flash villain, and the wife of deceased Flash Barry Allen, Iris Allen, figure into the mystery. And unfortunately for the 20th century, John Fox doesn't make a very good Flash regardless of his attempts to woo Linda Park. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Deep Time

Mythago Wood (1984) by Robert Holdstock: Transcendent fantasy novel about fantasy, legend, and myth. Englishman Stephen Huxley returns to his ancestral home of Oak Lodge after a year recuperating from wounds suffered in World War Two to discover his father dead and his brother, well, a bit bonkers. 

Huxley's brother Christian soon disappears into the encroaching Ryhope Wood, a relatively small stand of old-growth English forest, but only after explaining to Stephen that the woods are haunted by mythagos: avatars of English myths and legends given physical form by the woods and by the occasional interaction of the woods with a human mind.

Got that? The word 'mythago' is a portmanteau derived from 'myth' and 'imago.' Holdstock's concept, expanded upon at great and fascinating length throughout the novel, is intensely Jungian. The mythagos manifest and, in most cases, die after a time, to be reborn again and again. They vary sometimes depending on what version of a myth a human knows: Robin Hood, for instance, can change depending on what myth about him is relevant to the human. 

And the woods themselves are a pocket universe, much larger inside than out and well-defended against too much human incursion: most people are simply guided back out of the woods by labyrinthine, shifting pathways should they attempt to walk too far back into the Deep Time held within Ryhope Wood.

Holdstock soon gives Stephen a personal element to fuel his attempts to explore Ryhope Wood and discover the whereabouts of his brother. He'll also gain an ally, disfigured former RAF pilot Harry Keeton, whose plane crashed into a haunted woods in France similar to Ryhope. Together, they'll face the ancient myths and legends of England, and some more modern ones too, as they enter the maze. The deeper one goes, the longer the myths persist -- and the mythagos can be almost anything, from castles to walking corpses.

Mythago Wood is a marvelous meditation on the power and sources of myth, told as an entertaining and engaging work of fiction. Holdstock's greatest prose accomplishment lies in keeping everything clear while still poetically describing the events, creatures, and stories Stephen encounters. It all has the ring of real myth, whether it is or not. It's also a fantasy world that makes clear and reasoned sense. It's a triumph of fantasy. Highly recommended.

The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard: Deeply modernistic with its ideas of race memory and archetypal Edens hidden within human consciousness; deeply post-modern in its refusal to assert these systems as having any power to unite humanity in some universal whole.

J.G. Ballard's first novel is a John Wyndham global-disaster novel reimagined as a combination of Heart of Darkness and an extraordinarily odd journey into the disintegrating self. Dr. Kerans, a biologist attached to a biological survey team of the world government, is our protagonist. He first appears looking out onto the changed landscape of some European city whose name he's forgotten. 

No matter: the city has been drowned by the world-wide flood unleashed by terrible changes to the sun. The tiny remnant of organized humanity now lives at the poles, perhaps 5 million in number.

Kerans and the survey team catalogue the rapidly changing flora and fauna of the drowned metropolis. Species dead for millions of years seem to be returning, per the theory of Kerans and fellow biologist Bodkin that Earth is moving into a second Triassic Age. Giant alligators and iguanas and monitor lizards are everywhere, along with increasingly gigantic and exotic species of bats and insects and fish. All this in the 100 years or so since the seas started rising.

The book stays in the survey team's location, for the most part, bringing new characters and situations into a world in which a half-submerged Ritz hotel looms over the lagoon that drowns the cityscape. Kerans and several other characters suffer from lassitudinous dreams and visions -- of  a desire to head south into the super-heated tropics, and of an identity-destabilizing descent into some strange, returning group un-mind.

It's a hothouse book of mythic and psychological speculation, The Drowned World. Ballard's mastery of mood and mythically, psychological complex landscape description aren't much like anything he'd done in his short stories prior to this, which were more generally along the lines of Philip K. Dick as translated by a proper Englishman who's swallowed a thesaurus. Stunning, depressing, weirdly hopeful -- its images and questions stay with one after the novel's over. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jungles and Gangsters

Tarzan of the Apes: adapted by Robert Hodes from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; illustrated by Burne Hogarth; introduction by Maurice Horn (1972): Burne Hogarth took over the syndicated Tarzan strip when Canadian-born Hal Foster left in 1937 to create Prince Valiant. For roughly ten years, Hogarth honed his comics skills on the strip before leaving to do other work. This volume, illustrated by Hogarth in the late 1960's, is an unusually early American graphic novel. 

It's now available, together with its sequel, from Dark Horse. This volume is the 1972 version. It's an adaptation of roughly the first third of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that introduced Tarzan to the world. The illustrations are beautiful, the African settings lush, the panel composition charged with energy. Well-worth picking up from Dark Horse for any Tarzan fans, or fans of human anatomy in motion. Highly recommended.

In the Days of the Mob: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia, John Costanza, Steve Sherman, and Mark Evanier; introduction by John Morrow (1971/Collected 2013): Fun collection of stories written and drawn by the great Jack Kirby for an adult-oriented, magazine-sized crime comic entitled In the Days of the Mob that released but one issue in 1971.

The introduction details DC's complete incompetence at creating a B&W comics line. And this Comics Journal review details the production problems that persist in this volume. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating and enjoyable volume of stories that aren't much like any other Kirby stories. Recommended.

The Scar (2002) by China Mieville

The Scar (2002) by China Mieville: China Mieville's second novel about the steampunky, science-fantasy world of Bas-Lag marks a dramatic jump in his strengths as a story-teller. The first Bas-Lag novel was Perdido Street Station. It was a fine, dark, thrilling piece of work. But it also had pacing issues involving an exhausting, seemingly never-ending climax that occupies almost half the book's 500+ pages.

This time around, the pace ebbs and flows in a fairly expert manner. This suits the novel's tricky plot, which often resembles that of a John Le Carre novel more than it does any fantasy novel that comes to mind.

Magic and science co-exist on Bas-Lag. There are humans there, but also an awful lot of fantastic species intelligent and otherwise. We begin in the immediate aftermath of the events of Perdido Street Station, as our co-protagonist Bellis Coldwine flees the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon by sea. However, she and the other passengers and crew of the ship she's sailing on are captured by pirates from the floating pirate-city of Armada. And it's not just a regular pirate attack: they were after someone on the ship.

Armada, a city of hundreds of thousands of people comprising thousands of ships bound together, is after something. Luckily enough for Coldwine, Armada is also quite liberal with those whom it captures: she soon has a job in the great library of Armada as befits her bibliographic and translation skills. 

Things are even better for the prisoners in the hold of the captured ship: 'Remade' with terrible biological or mechanical modifications as punishment for various crimes, they too are now free. Tanner Sack comes from this group of prisoners, and becomes our other co-protagonist (or other prime narrative focalizer, if you prefer). 

And then things start to pop. Armada seeks something deep in the sea. But the politics of Armada are complicated. Coldwine's translation skills will soon come into play, as will Sack's Remade underwater abilities. We'll meet a host of other characters with radically different agendas. We'll get a mysterious mercenary swordsman, a pragmatic vampire king, and a horrifying race of human mosquitoes. And that's just in the first half of the novel.

Mieville's characterization is top-notch throughout. The plot is twisty and clever with reversals and mistaken assumptions. The city of Armada is fascinating, as are the goals of its nominal leaders, known only as The Lovers. There's thrilling, horrifying action involving naval battles. There are monsters whose goals are not as obvious as they seem. And there's a left-wing social consciousness at work throughout, an evaluation of the cost that the plans of the mighty have on those below them on the Class Pyramid. 

There's also a slight modulation of Mieville's often dazzlingly weird diction at work, a few less moments when one worries that Mieville may choke on that thesaurus. The result is something much more organic in its diction than Perdido Street Station. In all, this is quite a performance by Mieville, a witty work of epic science-fantasy with a moving emotional quality to it. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Giant Squid, Simon Pegg, A Dragon, And A Poltergeist Walk Into The Bar

20 000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954): adapted from the Jules Verne novel by Earl Felton; directed by Richard Fleischer; starring James Mason (Captain Nemo), Kirk Douglas (Ned Land), Paul Lukas (Professor Aronnax), and Peter Lorre (Conseil) : Jesus Christ but does Kirk Douglas ever get out-acted by a trained seal in this movie. Douglas is both terrible and miscast as harpooner Ned Land, a character one wishes would just die. He's the angry, stupid American. James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre seem to be acting in a different movie.

The biggest-budget, live-action Walt Disney film to hit the screen in the 1950's (and for at least a decade afterwards), 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea remains involving despite its occasionally torpid pace and that godawful performance by Kirk Douglas. The design of Nemo's Victorian-era super-submarine, the Nautilus, is superb and steampunky. James Mason as Nemo, Paul Lukas as Professor Aronax, and Peter Lorre as Conseil are all solid in their roles. And the squid fight still works, with the mechanical effects making the squid seem as unearthly as the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.

Made now, 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea would play Nemo as even more of a hero -- he's attacking the slave trade, after all, having been enslaved himself in some South Seas mining colony. Of course, Nemo was a native of India in the original novel. James Mason, not so much. The often languid pace can get a bit wearing at times, as does Kirk Douglas, but 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea still works for the most part. Recommended.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): based on the books by Cressida Cowell; written and directed by Dean DeBlois; starring the voices of Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Cate Blanchett (Valka), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrara (Astrid), Jonah Hill (Notlout), and Djimon Honsou (Drago) : How To Train Your Dragon was a lot of fun. So too this sequel, though its frenetic pace and much longer action sequences make it a far less charming movie than the original. Still worth watching, though, for the animation, voice acting, and story. The designs of the seemingly endless number of different dragon species remain a highlight. Recommended.

Run Fatboy Run (2007): written by Michael Ian Black and Simon Pegg; directed by David Schwimmer; starring Simon Pegg (Dennis), Thandie Newton (Libby), Hank Azaria (Whit), Dylan Moran (Gordon), and Harish Patel (Mr. Goshdashtidar) : Fun, amiable comedy takes full advantage of the good will Simon Pegg generates when playing hapless heroes. Hank Azaria seems like an odd choice as the handsome boyfriend, but he does a good job. Thandie Newton is lovely but stuck with being a straight woman to pretty much everyone else in the movie. Recommended

Poltergeist (2015): adapted by David Lindsay-Apaire from the 1982 movie written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor; directed by Gil Kenan; starring Sam Rockwell (Eric Bowen), Rosemarie DeWitt (Amy Bowen), Saxon Sharbino (Kendra Bowen), Kyle Catlett (Griffin Bowen), Kennedi Clements (Madison Bowen), Jared Harris (Carrigan Burke), and Jane Adams (Dr. Brooke Powell): It's probably a much better-acted film than the original, this Poltergeist remake. Sam Rockwell certainly does everything he can with his role, which actually seems to be modeled on the father in The Amityville Horror rather than Poltergeist (1982): financial woes occupy him.

The kids are much more front and centre here. The scares are pretty light. Perhaps most notably, the Tree and Clown scenes have been completely bungled. It also doesn't help that the gateway to the Underworld looks and acts like a Stargate, or that occult investigator Jared Harris is dressed like a leprechaun. It's a diversion, but just barely. Lightly recommended

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008) by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008) by Michael Chabon, containing the following essays: "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story"; "Maps and Legends"; "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes"; "Ragnarok Boy"; "On Daemons & Dust"; "Kids' Stuff"; "The Killer Hook: On Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!"; "Dark Adventure: On Cormac McCarthy's The Road"; "The Other James"; "Landsman of the Lost"; "Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner"; "My Back Pages"; "Diving into the Wreck"; "The Recipe for Life"; "Imaginary Homelands"; "Golems I Have Known, or, Why my Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon"; and "The Single Unitard Theory."

Enjoyable decades-worth of essays from American writer and Pulitzer-Prize-winner Michael Chabon. Throughout and even in the title, Chabon wears his affection for popular culture openly and proudly (the title comes from an R.E.M. song). He also discusses his time in an M.F.A. program, his childhood love of Norse mythology, the genesis of his first and second published novels, the Yiddish language, the history of golems, his family history, and the planned community he grew up in.

Along the way, Chabon will also express his love for Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, Howard Chaykin, M.R. James, Philip Pullman, and a host of other popular characters, writers, artists, and writer-artists. 

The history of the American comic book informed much of Chabon's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon has written for comic books. And he discusses them here, their modern faults (a need for entry-level comics for kids) and successes (the work of Howard Chaykin, especially his 1980's science-fiction series American Flagg!). 

There's a peculiarly American moment in which Chabon goes on at length of his admiration for comics legend Will Eisner because of Eisner's business savvy as well as his work. It's not something I would think of as a plus or minus except insofar as, you know, good on Eisner for making a better living at comics than a lot of his contemporaries. I suppose it's also a peculiar section because the Eisner section pretty much ignores the studio aspect of Eisner's comics work in the 1940's -- which is to say, the fact that much of it was written and drawn by other people. It feels a lot like congratulating Henry Ford on building all of his cars by hand personally...

For the most part, though, this is a fun and occasionally thought-provoking book. I've generally found Chabon's fiction to be about 5% too glib and/or too arch, a problem that essays can live with better than fiction. There's a weird moment in which Chabon seems to be suggesting that ghost stories aren't written any more (hunh?) which may simply be a result of space considerations in the original publication of the essay: for a space, he seems even dottier than Susan Hill on the topic of the contemporary ghost story. So it goes. Recommended.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spies and Aliens and Witches, Oh My...

Starman (1984): written by Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon; directed by John Carpenter; starring Jeff Bridges (Starman/Scott Hayden), Karen Allen (Jenny Hayden), and Charles Martin Smith (Mark Shermin): Not normally known as a director of warm dramedies, John Carpenter took on Starman to ensure he could keep getting funding for the horror movies and thrillers (and one never-made supernatural Western, Diablo) he preferred. The result was Starman, a science-fiction movie that nabbed a rare major Oscar nomination for an sf film -- a Best Actor nom for Jeff Bridges.

And Bridges is great as an alien being pretending to be human so he can make his way to a rendezvous in Arizona with his mother-ship. He takes on the appearance (and, thanks to a lock of hair, the DNA) of the dead husband of Karen Allen. Having watched the alien's rapid growth in her living-room, Allen knows he is an alien. Their relationship drives the rest of the film, as they drive to Arizona. Basically, it's ET meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

As noted, Bridges does fine work as the alien, managing comedy and pathos when required and doing an awfully good job of suggesting a creature learning to use a body (and language) on the fly. Allen is also solid, as usual -- as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, she makes for a non-cookie-cutter leading woman. The government forces are, as always, bad. However, the lead scientist played by Charles Martin Smith is sympathetic. It's politicians and the military and not the forces of science who are the bad guys. In all, this is very good movie that's aged surprisingly well. Highly recommended.

The Blair Witch Project: written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez; starring Heather Donahue (Heather), Joshua Leonard (Josh), and Michael C. Williams (Mike) (1999): Maryland: home of the Terrapins, the Ravens, The Wire, that weird state flag, and a homicidal witch. The Blair Witch Project is the most influential horror movie of the last 40 years, as it made the found-footage film the go-to vehicle for filmed horror pretty much up to the present day. It also suggested that less was more both in terms of putting graphic images on the screen and in terms of budget.

And despite a couple of verisimilitude-harming flubs (yes, it's those guys fishing in two inches of water again near the beginning), it's a fine piece of work. Of course, it's hard to separate the film from the hype surrounding it in 1999. But watching it for the first time in at least 15 years, I'm struck by what a fine piece of mounting suspense it represents.

The three actors we spend most of our time with, those three film-makers lost in the demon-haunted woods of Maryland back in 1994, are utterly credible. They're not all that good at camping or hiking. Their growing panic seems genuine -- The Blair Witch Project is a really fine study of how group harmony can disintegrate disastrously under pressure. There's even a tie-in to the 2016 presidential campaign, as the growing resentment directed towards director/group leader Heather by her male partners-in-film-making seems at least partially a result of sexism towards female leaders. And there's that witch, of course, that deadly metaphor for hidden female power revealed and aimed at the patriarchy.

There are problems, but forgivable ones, especially in a movie that cost about $10 to make. I'd have liked more scenes shot in thicker portions of the woods during the day-time to add some atmosphere and menace to those day-time hiking excursions. That they're traipsing through some very thin growth isn't a plot problem -- it's not like witchcraft is contingent on Old-Growth forests. But there is a dearth of mood in some of those day-time scenes. 

The night-time scenes are well-imagined, though. I especially like how the sounds that terrify the campers on the first three nights all seem to involve massive, unseen beings crashing through unseen trees. It gives an almost Lovecraftian feel to those moments, an idea of something much larger and much worse than a witch walking somewhere behind the trees.

And so we leave our campers, forever stranded in woods they can't seem to walk out of, no matter how long and how straight a bee-line they make in any one direction. Oh, sure, it's hard to believe that someone doesn't put down a camera (or pick up a weapon) as things get closer and closer to that much-discussed ending. So it goes. And those little hand-prints on the walls, when they come, are as awful as anything gory one could depict. Highly recommended.

Spy: written and directed by Paul Feig; starring Melissa McCarthy (Susan Cooper), Jessica Chaffin (Sharon), Jude Law (Bradley Fine), Miranda Hart (Nancy), Jason Statham (Rick Ford), Bobby Cannavale (Sergio De Luca), Rose Byrne (Rayna Boyanov), Alison Janney (Elaine Crocker), and 50 Cent (Himself) (2015): Hilarious spy spoof takes full advantage of Melissa McCarthy's outsized comic talents by making her hyper-competent, if occasionally a bit over-matched. 

The supporting cast is pretty much uniformly well-served as well, whether it's Jason Statham spoofing Jason Statham or 50 Cent supplying a winning cameo. Paul Feig, who did similar writing/directing duties on previous McCarthy movies The Heat and Bridesmaids, has become a gifted comic voice with a particularly appealing manner with women. If the new Ghostbusters is this good, people will be happy. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Piece of Crap

Kick-Ass 2: written by Mark Millar; illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Tom Palmer (2010-2012/Collected 2012): This is a dreadfully written comic book. The movie adaptation was bad, but its source material is much worse. One page may be a parody of super-hero comics, thud-footed in that parody though it is. Then there might be a moment of reflection on how real life isn't like comic books. But then we're back to tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl beating up or killing everyone she fights, or a former Russian security officer killing 10 cops with no problem whatsoever because she and Hit Girl really do operate pretty much exactly like R-rated super-heroes and super-villains. 

So much for life not being like a comic book. 

We also get the gang rape of a high-school student. Ha ha, what larks, Pip! What larks! 

The 'super-villain' keeps a shark in a tank as he tries to create the lair of a Silver Age comic-book villain! And the rape's just one lesson the titular Kick-Ass gets taught about how life isn't like a superhero comic, except for those sections of the comic when it's exactly like the sort of super-hero comic Mark Millar writes, over and over again, ad nauseum

John Romita Jr. does his usual professional job, though he struggles to draw realistic teenagers and really, really, really struggles with the depiction of Hit-Girl, a 12-year-old girl whose head is the same size as her torso. Actually, this may not be a struggle -- there's clearly an ironic depiction of Hit Girl as a Keane-Kid moppet who's also a killing machine, sort of like Funzo, which is not what I had while reading this piece of crap. I paid a dollar for this collected edition. It was too much. Not recommended.

The China Mieville Superhero Explosion

Dial H: Deluxe Edition (2012-2013/Collected 2015): written by China Mieville; illustrated by Mateus Santolouco, David Lapham, Alberto Ponticelli, Dan Green, and Others: That China Mieville wrote a jolly, funny, humane superhero comic book set off in a weird corner of the DC Universe seems as improbable as the events and characters in that comic book. But it happened! And while Dial H was cancelled after 16 issues, Mieville managed to bring things to a satisfactory enough conclusion that this volume is well worth picking up. 

The eponymous dial first showed up in a series of 1960's comic stories fondly remembered by Mieville in his essay in the collected edition. Dial 'H-E-R-O' on the dial and one becomes a superhero for a brief time. A completely random, often weird superhero. The dials don't repeat heroes, so far as we were ever shown in the original series.

Mieville takes this initial concept and builds up an architecture of myth, legend, conspiracy, and science-fantasy weirdness around it. Overweight, 30ish Nelson Jent accidentally dials one of the dials. He becomes a superhero just in time to save his own life from some thugs who are after a criminal friend of his. This first hero is Boy Chimney, strange wielder of smoke and soot. There will be many others, from Captain Lachyrmose to Open-Window Man. There will even be a Native-American stereotype of a hero so ridiculous that Jent will hide for the duration of the change.

Others are searching for the dials. One of these searchers is a dial auto-didact who has her own dial. She's really the co-protagonist of Dial H. She's also a woman in her 60's who calls herself Manteau. So the protagonists of the comic are an overweight guy and a woman in late middle age. And the ultimate villain of the second half of the volume is a Canadian superhero turned super-villain. Several issues take place in Ottawa, Canada. Mieville has pretty much up-ended all the norms of a superhero comic book.

There's a width and breadth of invention here that will be familiar to those who've read Mieville's fiction. Things are a bit lighter and more hopeful here than in, say, Mieville's New Crobuzon or his London of King Rat-- the weird heroes of Dial H really are heroic, despite their frequent misgivings. There are apocalyptic stakes and strange monsters. There's world-hopping and dimension-hopping. There's even an issue that tips a hat to Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawings.

The art by Mateus Santolouco, David Lapham, and Alberto Ponticelli doesn't always serve the story.  Mateus Santolouco, who illustrated the first few issues, is a fine and detailed renderer of weirdness, but his panel-to-panel progressions and in-panel storytelling can sometimes get confusing. Lapham cleaned things up when he took over for a spot. 

Alberto Ponticelli, working with inker Dan Green, took a couple of issues to hit his stride. When he did, though, the book managed the combination of weirdness and easily followed graphic storytelling that it needed, peaking with that Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawings homage, an issue in which Open-Window Man spends most of his time talking to a sentient chalk drawing on a wall.

As satiric, ironic, and critical as Dial H can be of certain superhero maxims and stereotypes, it nonetheless concerns itself with the basics of superheroing more completely than an awful lot of non-weird superhero books and movies. Nelson Jent and 'Manteau' diligently protect innocent bystanders at every turn, no matter how awful the enemy they face. They don't destroy cities to apprehend one person. 

And they're primarily motivated by curiosity about the dials and a desire to do good. Jent initially has a personal motivation, but that's resolved fairly early in the series. After that, it's all about the joys and responsibilities of superheroing, even when the superhero you're going to be for the next few hours is a sentient colony of plankton or a giant rooster with wheels for legs. People need you. Dial H. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen; edited by S.T. Joshi (2011)

Pan Sold Separately

The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen; edited by S.T. Joshi (2011), containing the following pieces:

Foreword: The Ecstasy of St. Arthur  by Guillermo Del Toro: Nice, brief appreciation of Arthur Machen by the film-maker, whose works often refer directly or indirectly to Machen's work and concepts.

Introduction by S. T. Joshi: A usual excellent historical overview from Joshi.

The Inmost Light  (1894): Pseudo-science based horror with ties to the longer, creepier "The Great God Pan.".

Novel of the Black Seal  (1895): 'Novel' meaning 'Nouvelle' here and below, and not a matter of length. One of several Machen stories dealing with a survived, malign race of 'Little People.'

Novel of the White Powder  (1895): Another piece of pseudo-science based horror. As with the above 'novel,' this was also published as part of the actual 'novel'/short-story cycle The Three Impostors. The 'science' moves into the realm of the occult at the conclusion.

The Red Hand  (1895): A fine piece of horror which uses the style and structure of the mystery story.

The White People  (1904): A towering achievement in first-person narrative in the horror genre, framed by a somewhat wonky but necessary philosophical discussion of the nature of good and evil. One of the most unnerving stories ever told.

A Fragment of Life  (1904) : A slightly weird tale of a young couple chafing at life in a London suburb really grows on one as it builds to a climax reaffirming Machen's love/hate relationship with cities.

The Bowmen  (1914): That famous piece of accidental 'journalism' (it's a short story mistaken at the time for being real) that spawned the World War One legend of ghostly bowmen coming to the rescue of British soldiers.

The Soldiers' Rest  (1914): Another of Machen's brief newspaper short stories meant to buoy spirits during the early days of the Great War.

The Great Return  (1915): A weird tale without horror -- instead, it's a faux-journalistic piece on the Holy Grail in the Welsh countryside.

Out of the Earth  (1915): Very minor piece concerns Machen's underground, malign, and apparently foul-mouthed little people. 

The Terror  (1916): Written in a straightforward journalistic style that's unlike Machen's earlier works of weird fiction that include "The White People" and "The Great God Pan," The Terror is instead the great-grandfather of Max Brooks' World War Z. The Terror depicts its events as real, investigated by the unnamed narrator.  

Those events aren't zombie attacks -- they're mysterious deaths breaking out in various locations throughout Great Britain during World War One. Have the Germans landed some sort of hidden force on the British Isles? Is someone using a mysterious 'Z-Ray' to smother people or send them running off cliffs to their deaths? Or is there something wrong with the animal kingdom?

 Machen was writing furiously at this time in his life, forced into newspaper work in order to pay the bills. The Terror isn't the imaginative and literary triumph that the aforementioned stories were, but it's still an enjoyable and often weird book. It's also an important permutation in horror's long love affair with the pseudo-documentarian style. Where 'letters' and 'journal entries' once told us that what we were reading was 'real,' now the journalistic voice does. 

It's also a mutation of something going back to at least Daniel DeFoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. In that early 18th-century work, DeFoe told a fictional 'you-are-there' story about a real event. Machen embeds The Terror in the real, early events of the Great War and then, like DeFoe, tells everything as a piece of actual reportage. It's a major stylistic leap. 

There are many fine moments of horror and pity throughout The Terror, along with some marvelously weird images. Machen captures the way fear can travel through gossip when the official channels are trying to hide the problem. A late-novel tableaux of horror at an isolated farm is especially well-managed through the description of the aftermath and through a dead man's journal describing the mysterious and terrible events that led to that aftermath. 

There are a couple of flaws to note. One isn't so much a flaw as a relative lack of closure. Things just sort of stop. This first flaw is exacerbated by the second, which is the narrator's jaw-dropping, climactic theory about why what happened, happened. It's an explanation totally in keeping with Arthur Machen's beliefs about society. But it's a moment of political and social commentary that will leave a sour aftertaste with anyone who doesn't long to live in a medieval fiefdom. I kid you not. 

Overall: A selection that includes non-horror pieces makes for an interesting overview of Machen's career. Those interested only in Machen's horror output would be better served by seeking out a collection that includes "The Great God Pan" and "The Shining Pyramid." The end-notes to the stories are extremely useful. The cover is the only oddity, as it seems to have been commissioned for a collection that did include "The Great God Pan." Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Love in the Time of Machines

I like big boots and I cannot lie
Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface (1991-2003/ Collected 2005): written and illustrated by Shirow Masamune; translated by Frederik Schodt and Toren Smith: Well, it's interesting, the sequel to manga-become-anime hit Ghost in the Shell. The seemingly endless, technobabble-heavy monologues, dialogues, conversations, and footnotes about philosophy and technology slow everything to a crawl in between the action set-pieces, which are themselves well-rendered and staged. 

The Major from the first Ghost in the Shell now works for a massive multinational. Or is it the Major? The cybernetic police officer for Section 9 has a slightly different name and look. But as she's pretty much entirely an AI inhabiting cyberspace and a host of different robotic bodies, her identity isn't necessarily clear. And Shirow Masamune ultimately puts a cyberspace spin on a Borgesian short story, making questions of identity both paramount and oddly moot.

The technobabble and philosophy are something of a slog after awhile -- one wishes for an editor to give some shape and clarity to it all. Instead, the big unwieldy philosophy pill is sweetened by a seemingly endless series of drawings of naked women with those creepy little-girl manga heads. But they're not really naked because in the real world, when they're naked, they're artificial bodies that lack nipples and genitalia. Ditto the cyberspace world, with one important exception late in the narrative.

It's as if we confront again and again some NuRuskin aesthetic, a world where the female body lacks body hair, nipples, and genitalia. And as the cyberspace renderings of such represent how the various characters 'see' themselves, this is a choice, conscious or sub-conscious, of the minds inhabiting those hairless bodies unblemished by messy body hair or genitalia. Make of that what you will. That those gobs and gobs and gobs of techno-philosophy are delivered by those mechanized bodies is part of the point. Maybe the whole point. 

It's not all that enjoyable a narrative (when it bothers being a narrative), with its action moments existing almost independently from the babble. In a way, it anticipates the problems of the second and third Matrix movies, only on a somewhat more thoughtful level. Moments of tee-hee levity make everything even more problematic, as if the 12-year-old boy inside Shirow Masamune were periodically erupting into the text to ogle the nude/non-nude girlies who occasionally flirt like teen-age stereotypes. Lightly recommended.

Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics (1947-57/ Collected 2012): written and illustrated by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; restored and edited by Michel Gagne: That time in the late 1940's and early 1950's when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented the Romance comic book for an under-served audience of teen-aged girls? Remember that? No? Well, it happened.

And those comics were immensely popular. But then the Great Disaster of American comic books, the Comics Code Authority, came to pass. America's rapidly evolving species of comic books for teens and adults were neutered, rendered into stories primarily of interest only to children.

But during that brief flourishing, Romance comics were huge. And Simon and Kirby demonstrate in these pages, lovingly restored by Canada's own Michel Gagne, that they were masters of something other than superhero comics. 

The dozen or so pre-Code stories collected here are a lot of fun -- pulpy, full of emotion, and often dealing with quite adult characters and situations. One can see why they were so popular. They're models of narrative economy. But they also hew quite close to realism in Simon and Kirby's art, with carefully modulated bursts of melodrama and bombast. As with a lot of other pre-Code comics, these suggest an American comic-book industry and readership unencumbered by the ball-and-chain of the superhero. It's like catching glimpses of a lost, better world. Highly recommended.

Trillium: written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire (2013): Enjoyable, time-twisting science-fiction story from the increasingly prolific Ontario, Canada writer-cartoonist Jeff Lemire. Humanity faces extinction at the 'hands' of a sentient virus in the future. A species of Trillium (yes, the provincial flower of Ontario) may hold the key to humanity's survival. The problem is getting to it inside an alien city. But that city is more than it seems -- it links past and future, and can perhaps rewrite reality. 

Lemire keeps things moving briskly while also playing with lay-out and comic-book story-telling conventions. It's by no means a great work -- and feels padded by at least 25%, to be honest -- but it's certainly worth a read. And Lemire's scratchy, often grotesque art-style makes for an interesting take on what are mostly Old-School, Golden-Age science-fiction conventions. Recommended.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Now Entering or Leaving Manhattan

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945): written by Robert Riskin, Dwight Taylor, and Harry Kurnitz; directed by Richard Thorpe; starring William Powell (Nick Charles) and Myrna Loy (Nora Charles): So-so penultimate entry in the six-movie Thin Man series plays up comedy and Asta the dog in the first half before turning to an interesting mystery in the second half. William Powell and Myrna Loy are charming as always, but this is certainly a case of diminishing returns when it comes to a film series. Lightly recommended.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984): written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, and Frank Oz; directed by Frank Oz; starring the voices of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goetz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt, and Jerry Nelson; and Juliana Donald (Jenny), Lonny Price (Ronnie Crawford), and Louis Zorich (Pete): Amiable third Muppets movie takes place in an alternate timeline from the first two. Or perhaps it's a movie made by the Muppets of the first two films, played so straight and non-meta that no one addresses the camera at any point. 

As always, the Jim Henson Muppets are a fun and charming bunch. The film riffs on the old 'Let's put on a musical!' chestnut. It also sees all the Muppets graduate simultaneously from college at the beginning of the film. Clearly this is either Earth-2 or a fictional movie about the Muppets! (In)famous for introducing that blight The Muppet Babies on the world. Because it's not a non-fictional Muppet movie, any marriages performed seem to have been permanently treated as 'Out-of-Canon' afterwards. Recommended.

Strange Origins

The Witch (2015): written and directed by Robert Eggers; starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas): Just about as dark as it gets for a horror movie. Robert Eggers riffs on everything from "Young Goodman Brown" to Kubrick's The Shining in this tale of dark Christianity, Satanic goings-on, and extreme isolation. 

Set in New England in 1630, The Witch begins with its family of protagonists being exiled from a Puritan settlement for their religious beliefs (which may be even more Calvinistic than the Puritans). We see the first steps in that exile subjectively, from teen-age girl Thomasin's point-of-view. Her POV will dominate what comes after, though there are scenes that she isn't witness to. Probably.

Eggers drew on folktales, witch-trial court documents, and period testimonials for his inspiration. The film itself can withstand multiple, sometimes contradictory readings. Is it a paean to feminism? Is it a straight-up piece of Satanic horror? Is it a tale of madness in the woods? Is it a commentary on Calvinism? Is it a light-hearted romp? Well, no. It's not a light-hearted romp. Unless you actually are a Satanist. OK, so it could be a light-hearted romp for a certain type of person.

Filmed in the dark and humanless woods of Mattawa, Ontario, The Witch is ultimately a disquieting and unnerving 100 minutes of film-making. That it got a major release in theatres is something of a miracle -- audiences expecting another Blumhouse boilerplate horror movie clearly didn't like The Witch. So it goes. I think it's a major work of art from a young film-maker I'll be watching. And Anya Taylor-Joy is superlative as the sympathetic, frustrated Thomasin. 

But the actors are all really good, from Ralph Ineson as the bumbling, weak but well-meaning patriarch and Kate Dickie as the increasingly paranoid (towards Thomasin) matriarch through Harvey Scrimshaw (what a last name!) as adolescent Caleb all the way to the two kids playing the unnervingly carefree, creepy young Jonas and Mercy. A black rabbit delivers a fine performance, as does a black goat. 

Blood and gore are minimal, but when they come, they shock. Even the minimal score is creepy. This is about as good a film as one could hope for, and one that will probably spark conversations for years to come. Highly recommended.

Deadpool (2016): written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; Deadpool created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicienza; directed by Tim Miller; starring Ryan Reynolds (Wade Wilson/ Deadpool), Stefan Kapicic (Voice of Colossus), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), Ed Skrein (Ajax), T.J. Miller (Weasel), and Morena Baccarin (Vanessa): Deadpool's success suggests that people wanted funnier, raunchier, R-rated superhero movies. And can you blame them? Deadpool may not be as funny as it seems to think it is, but it's still pretty funny. 

It's also a perfect showcase for Ryan Reynolds' brand of smirky hunkiness. The script is still a bit too boilerplate for its own good -- the romance, the origin story, and the vengeance plot are all things we've seen before, though Deadpool's ongoing meta-commentary on everything that's going on keeps things lighter than the usual superhero movie: he's Bugs Bunny as Wolverine. It might be nice to see a bit less programmatic story for Deadpool 2, which looks like it's going to be Deadpool and Cable and not another revenge story. 

The supporting turns from CGI Colossus -- finally used to good effect in what is, technically, an X-Men movie -- and the hilarious, angsty Negasonic Teenage Warhead (thank Monster Magnet via Grant Morrison for that name) as unwilling sidekicks/frenemies to Deadpool are quite funny. And while this Fox-Marvel movie doesn't share the same universe as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's also pretty funny to see a climax that really does seem to occur on, over, around, and ultimately under what looks an awful lot like a SHIELD helicarrier someone dumped in a junkyard. Recommended.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Lost District and Other Stories by Joel Lane (2006)

The Lost District and Other Stories by Joel Lane (2006): containing the following stories: The Lost District  (2001); The Pain Barrier (1994); The Bootleg Heart (2000); Scratch (1996); Coming of Age   (2003); Mine (2006); Prison Ships  (1998); Like Shattered Stone (1994);  Among the Dead (2005); The Window (2001); The Quiet Hours (2006); Exposure (2001); The Outside World (1995); The Country of Glass (1998); The Night That Wins (2005); Against My Ruins (2004); The Only Game (2006); Contract Bridge (1996); Beyond the River (2004); The Plans They Made (1997); The Drowned (2002); Reservoir (2006);  An Unknown Past (2002); and You Could Have It All (2006).

The late Joel Lane, gone too soon at the age of 50 in 2013, was one of a handful of horror's finest modern short-story writers. Many of his stories were set in and around Birmingham, England. These stories presented a bleak, nightmarish, and very human universe of the lost and disconnected, generally trying to reconnect to something through sex, drugs, or alcohol.

And Lane really could be a short-story writer with the accent firmly on 'short' -- The Lost District and Other Stories brings together 26 stories in less than 200 pages. That's a lot of stories. Gratifyingly, none of the stories are hyper-short 'Flash Fiction,' and none of them are fragments or unfinished-feeling vignettes. They are actually stories, though often with equivocal endings.

Lane often deals with body horror, though generally in a subdued manner. When he does move into the graphically grotesque, as in "Coming of Age," the results are extremely disturbing given his general reticence when it comes to graphic violence. Otherwise, the horror and the weird intrude on the world in more muted ways, often leading to a final stinger of sentence.

In some cases, as in the title story, horror itself remains almost hidden. "The Lost District" could just be a standard-issue remembrance of things past. But if so, why the disquieting background of decaying Birmingham? And why the feeling that the civic 'renewal' that 'loses' that old district is some sort of malign, organic urban process and not simply a case of bureaucratic planning? 

There's more than a hint of Ramsey Campbell in Lane's focus on urban and suburban English horrors, but there's also a more inchoate, almost miasmic sense of decay that recalls early J.G. Ballard in its emphasis on unexplained, gestating decay. Striking stories of disquiet, beautifully and sparsely told. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Fishnets of Fury

Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell: written by Paul Dini; illustrated by Joe Quinones (2014): Zippy fun written by Paul Dini, best known for his work on Batman: The Animated Series. Joe Quinones' artwork is clean and sharp, a perfect complement to Dini's mostly old-school script. The entire reason for a team-up of Black Canary and Zatanna is that they're the DC Universe's most prominent fishnet-stocking-wearing super-heroines. Seriously. Dini forges a long-standing friendship for them that predates their fishnets and sets them against a magical threat that has ensnared Black Canary.

This is the sort of graphic novel that should be a mainstream comic book -- it's breezy, fun, and well-executed. And its protagonists and antagonists are pretty much entirely female. There's a certain amount of backstory that could have been included to make things a bit more clear to non-fans, but for the most part this is a superior old-school superhero comic with new-school empowered female protagonists. Includes Dini's series proposal and entire script (!) along with small reproductions of the pencils for every page (!!!) and character designs by Quinones. Recommended.


J.H. Williams III channels Peter Max

The Sandman: Overture: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart (2015): I started reading Neil Gaiman's career-making Sandman series when it first started appearing in monthly comic-book form back in the late 1980's. And I don't recall ever wondering much about what this prequel details: what happened just before the events of the first Sandman to result in the Sandman returning home weakened from a trip across the universe?

The Sandman, mostly known in the series as either Morpheus or Dream, is one of seven Endless in Gaiman's conception -- god-like siblings who supervise seven conditions of existence (Dream, Death, Destiny, Delirium/Delight, Desire, Despair, and Destruction). The original series followed Morpheus over about 2000 pages of comics prior to ending in 1995. Subsequently, Gaiman has written 'side' pieces (among them Endless Nights, seven stories about the seven Endless; The Dream Hunters, an illustrated text novel in which Morpheus is a supporting character) but no continuations or major additions to the main Sandman story. 

But to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the original Sandman, Gaiman and artist J.H. Wiliiams III created this six-issue miniseries, subsequently collected. It is a prequel, though the time-bending nature of the narrative means that it's also a sequel of sorts.

The book tells us what Morpheus was doing just prior to his fateful return to Earth that kicked off the events in Sandman #1. We meet hundreds of new characters. We visit, mostly briefly, with many characters we've seen before. And we encounter two characters I never thought existed prior to Overture: the mother and father of the Endless. 

All of this is rendered by the meticulous, cosmic J.H. Williams III, whose high point in wild, dense, expansive comic-book art comes on Alan Moore's Promethea. Williams throws an explosion of carefully chosen styles and some extremely complicated panel lay-outs at us throughout the pages of Overture. At points, the art really overwhelms the narrative. 

I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing. Gaiman had many fine artists on his original Sandman run, but they tended to support the narrative with relatively standard panel progressions and page-to-page continuity. In Overture, the reader deals with a wide variety of unconventional lay-outs, many of them confusing at first. Does it work? Does it serve the story? Not always. The 'tooth' lay-out associated with the Corinthian (I'm not explaining this!) in the first chapter is probably the lay-out that most pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness for the sake of being startling, though there are others.

But boy, the art is gorgeous and complicated and multi-vocal. There's an 'artist's edition' that renders all the text of Overture translucent so as to foreground the art even more, if you want that sort of thing. 

Overture is relatively essential to anyone who loves The Sandman or who enjoys the boundary-pushing art of J.H. Williams III. It's lovely stuff, though the art overwhelms the smaller charms of the narrative throughout. This foregrounds the fact that the original Sandman thrived on its smaller charms of characterization and description -- especially once Overture becomes the most apocalyptic story ever told by Gaiman about Morpheus. 

The resolution of that apocalypse depends on one character from the original run revealing major new depths, a minor character gaining a new plot function, and lessons to be learned from a couple of the old Sandman stories. I'm not sure how well these things work for one who hasn't read the original stories (or who has forgotten them). But I'm not sure why someone would read Overture without having read everything else Sandman-related first. This is a prequel that needs to be read after everything else, not before. 

Overture's art is splendid. The narrative connects a few too many dots that might better have been left unconnected -- there's a 2010 feeling to certain scenes and revelations. Still, far from being some sort of failure. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Two if by Morrison

Vimanarama: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Philip Bond (2005/ This edition 2016): 18ish Ali is about to meet his arranged bride Sofia in London, England. But then Ali's baby nephew crawls off, down, and into a strange underworld that's opened up beneath Ali's brother's convenience store. 

Ali and Sofia pursue. The baby accidentally opens the gates to an ancient prison, releasing Ull-Shattan and the Fire-born. The dark creatures steal a bunch of UFO-like ships stored in the underworld and start attacking London. Ali and Sofia manage to summon the Ultra-Hadeen. The battle is on!

Well, it's sort of weird but not without precedent. Morrison and Bond's Ultra-Hadeen are god-like superheroes who resemble figures from various religions, led by the Hinduish Ben Rama. They're not gods -- they're more in the line of Jack Kirby's Eternals or New Gods, powerful beings who we once took for gods, long ago.

Vimanarama (oh, look it up) is a clever, Kirbyesque action-romp that centres itself on the growing love between Ali and Sofia (look 'Sofia' up too while you're at it). Philip Bond does a terrific job delineating both the otherworldly and the mundane. He's one of the best when it comes to cartoonish but realistic humans, which makes the out-sized attributes of the Ultra-hadeen 'pop' even more by comparison. 

I'd like the story to be a bit longer. Moreover, I think Morrison goes a bit astray when the satiric ultra-violence of the Fire-born takes centre stage for a few pages: it really stops the joyful weirdness of the narrative absolutely coldly and unpleasantly. One satiro-violent scene in particular seems like it arrived from another Morrison comic -- perhaps The Invisibles. It's jarring to say the least, but thankfully soon passes. Recommended.

Kill Your Boyfriend: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Philip Bond (1994/ This edition 2016): Kill Your Boyfriend came out at almost the same time as Natural Born Killers. And they're certainly similar. One of Grant Morrison's rare non-superhero, non-fantasy comics sets two young London lovers on a kill-crazy spree across England. Along the way, gobs and gobbets of satire and social commentary fill the page, along with a fair amount of bloodshed and some PG-13 sex. 

Philip Bond's witty, humanistic cartooning helps keep things light, as does Morrison's relentless, anarchic characterization and commentary. It's certainly better written than Natural Born Killers, and both use as their foundation Terence Malick's distinctly non-funny, elegaic tale of Charles Starkweather, Badlands. Not for everyone, but recommended for those who like their satire bloody and colourful.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Dr. Strange in Time and Space

Dr. Strange: The Oath: written by Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by Marcos Martin and others (2006-2007/Collected 2007): The ubiquitous, excellent Mr. Vaughan and an able Marcos Martin team up for a most pleasing adventure of Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange. 

With long-time man-servant/bodyguard/pal Wong dying of cancer, Strange sets out to find a magical cure. But powerful earthly forces -- well, Big Pharma -- don't want any such cure found. And they've got their own magician, along with a hired mercenary, to stop Strange's attempts.

All that and a magic-soaked handgun that's peculiarly lethal to magicians regardless of what defensive spells they have up. It's all a rousing, often very funny trip into the odd world of Dr. Strange, and one of the good Doctor's most memorable adventures since his glory days in the 1960's being written and illustrated by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Highly recommended.

Dr. Strange: Prelude to The Last Days of Magic: written by Jason Aaron; illustrated by Chris Bachalo and others (2015-2016): Dr. Strange has been cancelled so many times as a comic book that I can't really fault Marvel for going with a revisionist take on the character in his new comic. I don't agree with some of writer Jason Aaron's retcons and personality tweaks, but I understand them: this Dr. Strange is a lot more sarcastic and a lot less self-assured than most of his previous incarnations. 

Aaron introduces one retcon that's quite interesting without really being consistent with all previous versions of the Sorcerer Supreme: magic takes a horrible physical toll on Strange. I guess we just never noticed before. So it is with major retcons. 

In any event, the magical menaces Aaron comes up with are fun and interesting. Chris Bachalo's art is almost perfect for the visionary horrors of Dr. Strange's world -- his monsters and magical vistas are indeed monstrous and magical. 

Only that odd, persistent Bachalo whoopsy-cuteness in the faces of characters detracts from things, and I don't think Bachalo's going to lose that artistic tic now, even in the build-up to some gigantic magical apocalypse that's about to commence at the end of issue 5. This may not be my ideal Dr. Strange, but it's certainly worth a read -- it's one of the best 'superhero' books currently on the 'stands.' Recommended.

Gods and Things

The Tale of One Bad Rat: written and illustrated by Bryan Talbot (1994-95/This edition 2010): Writer-artist Bryan Talbot's tale of abuse and recovery as filtered through a young woman's interest in both Beatrix Potter's life and work is a lovely, tough comic that actually appeals to people who don't normally read comics. As the afterword to this new(ish) edition notes, the book now shows up a lot in middle schools and high schools and counselling centres. 

It isn't a boring pamphlet, however, but a sad and funny bildungsroman (and, indeed, a kunstlerroman) about teen-aged Helen's efforts to deal with the trauma of her sexual abuse at her father's hands. She runs away, first to London, England and then elsewhere as she pursues her vision of Beatrix Potter's life and works all the way to the Lake District where Potter (a pen-name) wrote her famous and influential children's books.

Helen's accompanied by her pet rat for the journey. The demonization of the rat in Western culture resonates with Helen's own experiences as an abused and otherwise unwanted child. Helen also grows towards having her own artistic voice to express her pain and anguish, at first by copying and recopying Potter's illustrations from memory. Gradually, Helen begins to draw new material of her own.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is a moving graphic novel, beautifully illustrated throughout by Talbot whether the scene is a vista in the Lake District or a grimy London house where various runaways are squatting. Highly recommended.

Nameless: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn (2015): Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham forge a weird, somewhat non-linear journey into neo-Lovecraftiana in this six-issue Image Comics miniseries. Surprises are part of the package, so we'll stick with a bare plot description: something ancient and terrible is falling to Earth inside an asteroid, and only the eponymous Nameless and a crew of private astronauts can stop it. 

Nothing is really that simple, of course, as the graphic novel bounces off everything from Mayan mythology to the Arthur Machen horror story "The Black Seal" on the way to an apocalyptic climax.

Why Nameless is literally Nameless (or, as he notes, 'Nameless is a name!') is only one of the mysteries that may or may not be answered by the bulk of the miniseries. Morrison plays with narrative unreliability here, while artist Burnham does a nice job of illustrating moments of extreme grue, normal city streets, and the occasional squirmy Lovecraftian God-thing. The ending is tricky, like everything else, so pay close attention to what's happening in the concluding panels. Recommended.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson: edited by Jeremy Lassen (2012)

The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson: edited by Jeremy Lassen (2012): containing the following stories: 

The Ghost Pirates (1909): Brilliant short novel of the sea and its terrors is a fine, tightly plotted work of horror and disquieting weirdness. A careful, fairly slow build of suspense climaxes in a rapid-fire and horrifying climax. See full review here
A Tropical Horror (1905): Monsters from the sea attack a sailing ship. Gruesome stuff.
The Sea Horses (1913): Bittersweet but overlong and a bit treacly modern folktale set at sea.
The Searcher of the End House (1910): One of the weaker Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories seems an odd choice.
The Stone Ship (1914): More weird but pseudo-scientifically plausible events at sea. Really a nice little tale of mounting terror.
The Voice in the Night (1907): You'll know what movies have lifted the central premise of this horror story once you read it. Probably Hodgson's most-reprinted piece.
Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani  (1919): Unusual tale set on land applies really, really odd pseudoscience to the events of Christ's crucifixion. The last few paragraphs are the most Machensque writing Hodgson ever did.
The Mystery of the Derelict (1907): Yet more weird but pseudo-scientifically plausible events at sea. Actually, remove the 'pseudo.' This could actually happen. Also one of Hodgson's tales of the Sargasso Sea. 
We Two and Bully Dunkan (1914): Humourous tale of revenge on the high seas. Certainly shows Hodgson's range.
The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder (1908): Odd, almost fabulistic sea tale.
Demons of the Sea (1923): Monsters from the sea attack a sailing ship. A minor work.
Out of the Storm (1909): Strange, disturbing tale involving shipwrecks and telegraph signals.

Overall: Really more of a career survey than a 'Best of,' as some of the selections are dubious (well, "The Searcher of the End House," "Demons of the Sea," and  "The Sea Horses").   Nevertheless, highly recommended.

The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson (1909)

The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson (1909): William Hope Hodgson's brilliant short novel of the sea and its terrors is a fine, tightly plotted work of horror and disquieting weirdness. A careful, fairly slow build of suspense climaxes in a rapid-fire and horrifying climax. 

Hodgson's early days as a merchant sailor come into full play in this tale of the cargo ship Mortzestus, plying the seas some time early in the 20th century or late in the 19th. The Mortzestus is a sailing ship on an Atlantic run. But she's also a ship whose crews have felt her to be more and more strange as the years have passed. And strange she is, and becoming moreso.

The joys of The Ghost Pirates lie in a lot of areas, from the unusual but intelligibly delivered dialects of the sailors (and of this particular sailing milieu itself, really) to the gradual but accelerating accumulation of details and events that give the novel its name. 

From the beginning, we know something has happened -- the narrative is framed as being the written testimony of Jessop, last survivor of the Mortzestus. Jessop has been rescued by another ship. Rescued from what? Well, that's why there's a novel.

The Ghost Pirates is one of two Hodgson weird novels of the sea (The Boats of the Glen Carrig is the other). Hodgson also wrote dozens of other stories set at sea, from comic pieces to thrillers to horror and the supernatural. He also wrote in a sub-genre I'd probably call 'Fictional Sea Cryptids,' tales of unusual animals and other... things... which come into conflict with human beings on or near the sea. 

The Ghost Pirates is part ghost story, part cryptid fiction, part pseudo-scientific horror story. Perhaps. Jessop offers an explanation for the events of the novel that's not a tale of actual ghosts, but he doesn't necessarily know what really caused the events of the novel. 

Nonetheless, Jessop's quasi-scientific explanation of the horrors he and the rest of the crew of the Mortzestus are beset by is in line with many of Hodgson's other stories and novels in which supernatural events are given disturbing, visionary explanations. A model of narrative economy, The Ghost Pirates is one of the treasures of weird fiction. Highly recommended.