Friday, February 26, 2010

Martians and Spiders and Cocoa Puffs, Oh My


Killraven by Alan Davis and Mark Farmer (Six-issue miniseries 2003): Marvel Comics' 1970's Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds series (which started off as War of the Worlds) was a sequel to H.G. Wells's late 19th-century Martian invasion novel War of the Worlds. Set in the third decade of the 21st century, Killraven depicted a world overrun by Martians about 20 years earlier, with humanity reduced to slaves, food, entertainment, and the occasional survivor living off the grid.

Though created by others, Killraven quickly became the stand-out work of writer Don McGregor and artist P. Craig Russell. The whole 70's saga is still available in a Marvel Essential edition, and I'd recommend seeking it out -- it's an odd but intoxicating blend of superheroics, post-apocalyptic action and increasingly intricate experiments with art and storytelling, none moreso than the final issue of the initial run, "The Morning After Mourning Prey." McGregor and Russell helped pave the way for the increasingly literate genre comics of the 1980's and 1990's -- in many ways, their Killraven is a more direct ancestor of Alan Moore's 1980's Swamp Thing work than any previous Swamp Thing iterations.

By my count, this miniseries was Marvel's second attempt to reboot Killraven with a new team for a new generation of comics readers. It isn't exactly a failure. Writer/penciller Alan Davis is a solid writer and artist of superhero comics for both Marvel (Excalibur, Fantastic Four: The End) and DC (JLA: The Nail). His Killraven reboot attempts to streamline things, and the plot reaches a point after six issues of this miniseries that the original series never actually reached over its 30+ issues and one graphic novel -- a partial rapprochement with some of the Martians.

Nonetheless, this is pretty boring stuff, though maybe it wouldn't be if one hadn't read the original run. Characters are simplified and streamlined, none moreso than Hawk, a tragic Native-American malcontent in the original run who here becomes simply a whiny blowhard. The introspection and weirdness of the original (a battle with Martians amongst the devastated breweries of Milwaukee would be one of the high points of the original series, which often set its larger battles with the Martians in iconic American locations including, in the graphic novel finale, Cape Canaveral) have been abandoned for a relatively straightforward quest plot. It all looks great, albeit a bit slick, and it's all as boring as hell. Pick up the Essential volume, don't bother with this. Not recommended.

Essential Silver Surfer Volume 2 by Stan Lee, Steve Engelhart, John Buscema, Marshall Rogers, Ron Lim, John Byrne, Joe Staton, Joe Rubenstein and others (1981-1988; coll. 2006): The former herald of Marvel's world-eating Galactus would undergo a 16-year hiatus between the cancellation of his first regular series and the beginning of his second regular series in 1987, with only a couple of solo one-shots and appearances in other characters' titles during the interregnum. Writer Steve Engelhart and penciller Marshall Rogers were finally allowed to get the Surfer back into outer space in 1987, as the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm figured out how to get around the 'barrier' Galactus had placed around Earth to stop the Surfer from leaving, a punishment for the Surfer turning on Galactus to save the Earth way back in the Surfer's first appearance in the Fantastic Four in the 1960's.

Engelhart and Rogers waste no time going cosmic, placing the Surfer in the middle of an intergalactic war between Marvel alien-race mainstays the Skrulls and Kree, a war which becomes part of a larger battle involving the machinations of a bunch of Marvel's really old, powerful aliens, The Elders, and their attempts to really, really, really screw up the entire universe. Along the way, various cosmic characters and storylines from Marvel's past show up, including the Celestial Madonna, Jim Starlin's In-Betweener, Lord Order, Master Chaos, the High Evolutionary, Galactus himself, Mangog, the Soul Gems, the Super-Skrull, Jack Kirby's Eternals, the Celestials, and Kree super-blowhard Ronan the Accuser. Surprisingly fun. Recommended.

Spider-man: Election Day by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Zeb Wells, Todd Zauck, Matt Fraction and others (2009): AKA 'the Spider-man collection with Barack Obama on the cover.' Spider-man's megaselling team-up with Barack Obama on Inauguration Day makes up only about 20 pages of this 200-page collection, with most of the rest of the collected issues dealing with New York City's mayoral election on Earth-Marvel. The main story, by writer Guggenheim and artists Romita, Jr., Kitson and Janson, is a sort of standard, competent Spider-man arc, angst alternating with action sequences. Someone's framing Spider-man for 'The Spider-Tracer Murders,' in which murder victims are found with Spidey's electronic bugs on their bodies. Meanwhile, a Green Goblin-like menace called The Menace seems to be trying to affect the outcome of the mayoral race in its last few days. The whole thing plays out like a slightly more self-reflexive Spider-opus from the 1970's.

The Obama issue also evokes the 70's, though in this case the Hostess Fruit Pie one-page ads that used to run in comics and featured licensed DC and Marvel superheroes fighting supervillains who were trying to steal large quantities of fruit pies. The Obama issue, written by Robot Chicken's Zeb Wells and illustrated by Todd Zauck, feels like the longest Hostess Fruit Pie ad ever created. Minor, early Spider-man villain The Chameleon tries to impersonate Obama at his inauguration. Spider-man has to stop him. This would be a bit more interesting if Zauck could draw a convincing Obama. Unfortunately, he can't, though he's a little better with John McCain and Joe Biden. It's all pretty crappy, making DC's 1963 story "Superman's Secret Mission for President Kennedy" look like Watchmen by comparison. Not recommended.


Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (Collected 2003): Klosterman's essays on various pop cultural topics managed to combine hilarity with insight at about 120 bpm. Though I remain unconvinced by his attempt to argue for the greatness of Billy Joel, I am convinced by his explanation of how The Empire Strikes Back helped create the angst and failure of Generation X. A piece about the differences between the 1980's Lakers and Celtics and another one about several nights spent 'touring' with a Guns and Roses cover band also stand out. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Angry like the Wolf

The Wolf Man starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Joe Johnston (2009): I've never found the Hollywood version of the werewolf to be all that compelling a monster, seeming as it does more suited to an action movie than a horror movie. Especially since movie werewolves seem to have the strength and agility of ten wolves, bringing to mind the Incredible Hulk rather than a reasonably imagined supernatural entity.

In this remake of the 1940's Universal horror movie that introduced doomed lycanthrope Laurence Talbot to the world, the makeup effects are often swell (Rick Baker, prosthetic and makeup man extraordinaire, does the heavy lifting here -- he designed the wolf man in An American Werewolf in London, among dozens of other worthy, old-school effects projects on his resume). The production design is terrific, as is the use of real-world exteriors and CGI period recreations of various locations in London.

Unfortunately, one can see the stitches where the studio jigged and rejigged a movie that was supposed to be released over a year ago. To cite one example among many, the Gypsy connection to the werewolf, central to both the original movie and to the first part of this one, suddenly goes nowhere. Or, more accurately, the origin of the werewolf suddenly shifts from Hollywood-gypsy to somebody-may-have-heard-of-Rudyard-Kipling. The significance of a medallion discovered in the early stages of the film thus becomes...well, insignificant.

This is the sort of dead end that happens when scripts are combined and scenes are reshot. For no discernible story reason, an inspector sent to investigate the killings (played by Hugo 'Elrond' Weaving) turns out to be Inspector Abberline, the inspector who really was in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation, as about one sentence in the movies explains. Why use a real historical character? It adds nothing to the narrative and, if you know the real Abberline's post-Ripper history, makes the last ten minutes of the movie completely goofy.

Del Toro and Emily Blunt do their best with the material, never descending to camp. Anthony Hopkins hams it up. The werewolves move so quickly that they seem more like weightless superheroes than convincing manimals. The rhyme about werewolves that original Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak wrote back in the 1940's ("Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night...") introduces the movie. But the werewolves, in their Incredible-Hulk-like shredded clothes, fail to move.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Detectives, Inc. by Don McGregor, Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan (Material from the 1970's and 1980's; this IDW edition 2009): IDW is really winning my heart with its reprints of great comics from the 1980's and 1990's. This B&W collection of writer McGregor's Detectives, Inc. comic stories comes along with several prose pieces on the genesis of the detective comic, along with a piece on the filming of the Detectives, Inc. movie. My only caveat about the volume is that it's unfortunate that it couldn't be reprinted in a larger format -- the hyper-detailed art of Marshall Rogers on "A Remembrance of Threatening Green" originally appeared in a larger album size, and things do get a little squinty at times.

Still, this is a tremendous achievement both in writing and art. The world of McGregor's private detectives, Rainier and Dennings, gets the hypercrisp, hyper-detailed treatment from Marshall Rogers (best known for his Batman work in the 1970's), and the moodier, more humanistic approach from Gene Colan (best known for Tomb of Dracula and about a dozen other books). Both art styles work, and both look great in black and white. Indeed, this may be the late Rogers' greatest work. The attention to detail is stunning, and Rogers experiments with some really fascinating one and two-page designs.

Private detectives aren't all that common in comic books unless they wear costumes or have occult powers. Rainier and Dennings remind me a lot of revisionist 70's PIs from the movies -- not so much Jake Gittes in Chinatown, as Rainier and Dennings are less cynical than Robert Towne's PI, but more the characters we see in films like Night Moves (with Gene Hackman on the case) and Cutter's Way (in which non-PI's John Heard and Jeff Bridges try to solve a case). They're battered and bruised sometimes, emotionally as well as physically, but they stay on the case. McGregor invests his characters with a lot of heart -- he's one of the great comic book writers in terms of creating sympathy and empathy, at creating plausibly flawed and self-doubting protagonists, and at incorporating both sex and romance into a comic book without being prurient or exploitative. Highly recommended.

Captain Carrot and the Final Ark by Bill Morrison, Scott Shaw, Al Gordon, Carol Lay, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, E. Nelson Bridwell and Ross Andru (1982, 83; 2007; Collected 2008): DC's relatively short-lived funny animal superhero book Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! has generated love-it-or-hate-it feelings among readers ever since its premiere back in the early 1980's. DC brought the bunch back in 2007 in a miniseries to either put a capper on the whole alternate-funny-animal-universe thing or to spur interest in another on-going series. Neither has happened so far, as Grant Morrison inserted the Captain and the Zoo Crew into the final pages of company-wide crossover Final Crisis, which happened after the events collected in this book. So Captain Carrot and his friends are still out there, fighting the good fight. The powers that be really should include the pages from Final Crisis in subsequnt editions of this book -- the ending of the Final Ark miniseries, though inconclusive, does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, funny as it is.

Much of the humour (or lack thereof, depending on your tastes) comes from a combination of elaborate punning and an accompanying parody of superhero conventions, though that parody was always pretty gentle. Regardless of one's thoughts on the writing, seminal Captain Carrot artist Scott Shaw has always been the main draw of the book for me -- he's a great funny animal artists who's worked on both comics and animation over the years, and this book reprints a story with the greatest page in Captain Carrot history, one in which the Crew travels to a succession of alternate Earths that are thinly veiled versions of Walt Disney cartoon, the Pogo strip, Krazy Kat, and others.

I also think it's really funny that DC chose to make Captain Carrot's Earth-C an official part of the DC multiverse right from the get-go, with Superman teaming up with the group in its first adventure and the long-time Justice League foe Starro appearing as the first villain. As it turns out, when one sticks Starro into an alternate funny-animal universe, he talks. ALL THE TIME. That's funny in and of itself, given that he/she/it never really talked all that much while battling the Justice League. I mean, it's a giant telepathic alien starfish which periodically almost takes over the world. How awesome is that, talking animals or no? DC was so protective of Earth-C that even after the multiverse 'vanished' for about 20 years, editors periodically noted that Earth-C was actually in a different dimension, and was thus immune to the vanishing of the multiverse. This even though DC neither reprinted nor did new Captain Carrot comics for nearly 25 years. DC is weird.

Mad: The Complete First Six Issues by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, John Severin and Jack Davis (1952-53; collected 1985): It's fascinating to read the early issues of America's most influential humour magazine. When Mad started, it was a comic book -- it would eventually go to magazine format to escape the newly created Comics Code Authority, an industry-run censorship board put in place to placate those who found comics of the 1950's to be vulgar, gruesome and unfit for children. Hoohah! Mad started off as part of the EC (actually short for 'Educational Comics' -- EC published a lot of Bible comics for children back in the day) stable of horror, science fiction, fantasy, suspense and war comics -- a lot of which is still held in high esteem today.

The first couple of issues of Mad feature stories that could have appeared in the horror or science fiction comics, along with more familiar satires of TV, comics and culture. Actually, one short, "Blobs", is a rip-off of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops." By issue three or thereabouts, the Mad 'style' is almost fully formed -- irreverant satire of such fixtures as Superman, the Lone Ranger and King Kong, with artist Will Elder especially pioneering the super-crowded Mad panel in which the background is populated with jokes, extra business and commentary on the action. Mad was writer-artist-editor Harvey Kurtzman's baby, and this Russ Cochran reprint includes some interview excerpts in which Kurtzman talks about the various stories, and the strengths and weaknesses of different artists (well, he mainly goes on repeatedly and at length about the strengths and weaknesses of Wally Wood). Highly recommended.

The Art of Walt Simonson by Walt Simonson, Gerry Conway, Eliot S! Maggin, Martin Pasko, Steve Gerber, Cary Bates and others (1971-81; collected 1989): DC never did another book like this -- a creator-focused collection of 'Greatest Hits', mainly from more obscure titles -- and it's too bad, as much of the material in this collection would otherwise remain uncollected. Artist and eventually writer Simonson came to prominence in the 1970's on Manhunter (with writer Archie Goodwin) and on the Batman titles before moving to Marvel for acclaimed runs on a number of titles, most notably Thor in the mid-1980's. Throughout his career he's been acclaimed as one of comics' greatest draftsmen and stylists, with an especially dizzying array of line-styles on his early 1970's material -- Manhunter alone looks like it took fifty years and a thousand different pen nibs and pencil widths to pull off.

Here, we get a few early Simonson pieces from DC's horror and war anthology titles, the two-issue conclusion to the Hercules Unbound series of the 1970's, a terrific Dr. Fate one-shot, and Simonson's dazzling five-issue run on the revived Metal Men. It's all good: the Dr. Fate story suggests that Simonson could have been really favourably matched with Marvel's Dr. Strange had someone thought of it; Simonson's short-eared, squat Batman in an early take on that character looks forward to Frank Miller's tank-like Batman of The Dark Knight Returns; and the Steve Gerber-penned issue of Metal Men managed to be fun and revisionistically grim at the same time, no small feat. Highly recommended.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 2 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Ron Randall, Shawn Macmanus, Len Wein, Berni Wrightson and Rick Veitch: DC's new hardcover reprints of Alan Moore's first work for DC back in the mid-1980's, on Saga of the Swamp Thing, is pretty essential stuff for anyone who enjoyed Moore's 'V' for Vendetta or Watchmen. Moore and company put Swamp Thing through Hell, literally, in the main story in this collection, as our muck-encrusted hero has to save the world from a suddenly far-more-powerful old foe prior to descending into Hell to save the soul of a friend. Moore's writing is sharp and evocative, and the art throughout is terrific, whether Bissette, Veitch and Totleben's depictions of the horrors of Hell, or Shawn Macmanus's melancholy work on "The Burial" and "Pog," the latter an award-winning standalone tribute to Walt Kelly's Pogo. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Man-eating Toilets and Flowers with Faces


Irrational Fears by William Browning Spencer (1998): I can't think of many funny, sad novels involving Alcoholics Anonymous, a thinly veiled Church of Scientology, and the dangers of thinking H.P. Lovecraft was writing fact rather than fiction, but this would be one such novel. An organization called The Clear (cue Scientology alarm whistle -- 'becoming clear' is a major catchphrase in Scientology) has taken it upon itself to try to discredit Alcoholics Anonymous by advancing the 'theory' that alcohol and drug addiction are actually the result of a transferable psychic curse cast upon certain humans by dark alien gods.

The Clear is actually a front for one man's completely bizarre obsession with discrediting and destroying AA while also perhaps bringing about global armageddon as well. Much of The Clear's mythology is lifted wholesale from the H.P. Lovecraft revision "The Mound", which appears in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, a Lovecraft collection I reviewed about a month ago. It's amazing how these things come together!

The mythology I'm referring to above is the monster stuff and not the AA stuff. HP Lovecraft did not write stories about aliens causing alcoholism.

In any event, an oddball assortment of AA members that includes a fallen American Literature professor, an angry old coot who's been sober for 68 years and a late middle-aged man who may actually be some sort of retired US secret agent come together to try to figure out what The Clear is up to, and how to stop it before it plunges the U.S. into telepathically induced anarchy.

Irrational Fears is pretty much its own book, though Spencer certainly shares certain traits with Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. A previous novel, Resume with Monsters, managed to suggest The Cthulhu Mythos meets The Office, an impressive feat given that The Office was still several years in the future when that novel came out in 1995. Highly recommended.

The Shadow of the Torturer (Part One of The Book of the New Sun) by Gene Wolfe (1980): Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun tetralogy is probably the most critically praised science fiction or fantasy series of the last 30 years, both in genre circles and in the mainstream press. Set so far into the future that technology has become, in some cases, indistinguishable from magic, the series ends up being somewhat unclassifiable. 'Science fiction', 'fantasy' or that handy hybrid 'science fantasy'? That it often more resembles the works of Voltaire, Rabelais and Jonathan Swift just makes classification that much more pointless. It may contain many of the rough plot stages of an epic quest, and the overall arc of a bildungsroman, and so on and so forth, but it is its own thing in the end, an enjoyable, deeply weird and challenging thing on pretty much every level one can think of.

The bare-bones plot of this first novel in the series is quite simple: Severian, a young member of the Torturers' Guild is cast out of the guild to find his way in the world after he shows mercy to a prisoner. The planet he lives on, Urth, appears to be our Earth so far into the future that the sun is going out and all the coloured glass of our era now covers certain beaches with coloured grains of sand. Technology and biotechnology have advanced to such a point that certain events seem like magic. And some members of humanity long ago left for the stars, while on Urth the rulers have decided to purposefully retrogress society to a quasi-medieval state, albeit one in which the more learned citizens are well aware that their society's structure is wholly imposed and artificially retrograde. Somewhat bizarrely, that last sentence makes me think of a number of Islamicist nations. Oh, well.

Severian's adventures here sometimes baroque, sometimes whimsical, and always prone at any instant to plunging into the starkest matters of life and death. Though the Torturer's Guild operates entirely at the whims of the rulers of Severian's nation, the torturers themselves are despised and shunned by most who meet them. Or at least they used to be. By Severian's time, society's institutions and the general knowledge of them have declined to the extent that many greet him as a wonder, especially the farther he gets from the center of the great city. He meets companions" some of them loyal, some of them treacherous. And as Part One ends, he and his companions reach the edge of the great city and pass beyond its cyclopean walls to the countryside beyond. Highest recommendation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dead boys, Demons, Darkness


The Sandman Presents The Dead Boy Detectives by Ed Brubaker, Bryan Talbot and Steve Leialoha: A slight delight almost entirely populated by characters created by Neil Gaiman during his Sandman days (hence 'The Sandman Presents'), including the two boarding-school ghost-friends from A Season of Mists and immortal Morpheus-pal Hob Gadling. The boys, who elected not to go with Death back in A Season of Mists, have been goofing off around London ever since, and have now opened a detective agency with its office in a treehouse in the yard of a haunted house. Street kids are disappearing and the turning up dead and extremely desiccated. So the dead boys take the case -- luckily, while most adults can't see them, kids and teenagers can. Various hijinks ensue. Recommended.


Darkness Demands by Simon Clark (2001): There's a sub-genre of horror in which a town is imperilled repeatedly by a horror which returns cyclically. In Stephen King's It, the creature has been terrorizing the town of Derry, Maine every 28 years or so since before there was even a town there; in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show travelling carnival returns to the twons on its schedule at about the same frequency. In Darkness Demands, something that 'lives' beneath the massive English cemetery known locally as the Necropolis returns every 70 years or so to request things from randomly selected townspeople. The requests are minor -- bars of chocolate and pints of porter are to be left in the cemetery prior to a certain date. Failure to do so results in extremely bad luck for the person who refuses to do so, and for the entire town if enough people refuse to honour the request. What's doing it and why? Well, you'll have to read the novel. This is a very tightly plotted, suspenseful novel with a climax you may not see coming. Recommended.

A Lower Deep by Tom Piccirilli (2004): The narrator (referred to only as The Necromancer or The Master Summoner) and his demonic familiar Self find themselves pulled back into the machinations of the Necromancer's old coven leader, whose previous major feat of magic destroyed his previous coven with the exception of the narrator and a couple of others. Piccirilli draws on Christian, gnostic and kabbalist sources to portray the magic used by his characters, with a bit of Marvel's Dr. Strange thrown in for good measure (spells crackle and arc before being released). What seems like a pissing match between two former friends turns out to be something much larger, as a version of the Christian apocalypse begins to seem pretty much certain. Piccirilli plays fair with the implications of an apocalypse right out of the Book of Revelation -- would it be such a bad thing if one was on the side of the saved? -- while sketching in enough of the rules of magic so that the novel remains 'fair', even in its surprising final pages. Recommended.