Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reality Invaded


Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day
. Starring Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Pat Roach, John Dunsworth, Jonathan Torrens, and Alex Lifeson as Undercover Prostitute#1. Written by Mike Clattenburg, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Timm Hannebohm and Robb Wells. Directed by Mike Clattenburg. (2009): The Trailer Park Boys franchise has managed to balance lowbrow comedy and biting social satire in a way unique to Canadian television. Maybe all television. The satire all aims upwards: at the hypocrisy of institutions, the willingness of governments to profit from people's addictions to gambling, the glaring flaws in the education system, and a host of other social ills. The comedy gets many of its laughs from violently slapstick moments -- never has a TV series (and subsequent movies) gotten so much profitable comic mileage from characters discharging handguns, for instance.

In this second TPB movie, nothing much has changed. Ricky, Julian and Bubbles get out of jail at the beginning, having served their time for yet another failed criminal enterprise. Mr. Lahey and rotund, unshirted Randy now run a new trailer park, the old one having been boarded up and abandoned. The boys come up with various schemes. Mr. Lahey falls off the wagon. Julian carries a rum-and-coke with him everywhere. The usual criminal hijinks ensue. Disaster looms. Oh, and Ricky studies to get his Grade 12 diploma.

As it's a movie, there's more money for car chases and location work. If nothing else, TPB:CTLD presents the world with an unprecedented twist in car chases, one which I won't explain here because it's quite funny -- and completely in keeping with the spirit of the series. I'm not sure what someone who had never seen a TPB movie or TV episode would get out of this movie. . There's nothing here as funny as the TV escapades of Mountain Lion Steve French, or satirically complex as the episode, "If I Can't Smoke and Swear, I'm Fucked," but I'd still say Highly Recommended.

Sanjuro, starring Toshiro Mifune, directed by Akira Kurosawa (1962): Mifune's wandering, crabby, justice-restoring samurai returns from the classic Yojimbo, this time to prevent an evil Superintendent from taking over a town. Kurosawa stages this as more of a comedy than Yojimbo, which makes the sudden shifts into serious drama quite startling. Like most of the great heroes of Hollywood Westerns, the samurai is doomed to save societies which he can never feel comfortable within. Highly recommended, but only if you've already seen Yojimbo.


The Last Coin by James Blaylock (1988): Along with the great American fantasist Tim Powers and several others, Blaylock was a friend of Philip K. Dick's. When a group of writers are friends, one calls it an Affinity Group. If there's any influence of Dick on Blaylock, it's in the realms of plot structure and character. The plot veers again and again into unexpected territory; the heroes are normative, faintly ridiculous, but well-meaning.

In this novel, Blaylock presents the reader with a present-day historical fantasy based on equal parts Christian fantasy and eclectic speculation. The 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ are potent magical items which have never been collected all together since Judas attempted suicide after Christ's crucifixion. At that time, Iscariot discovered that he couldn't die: assembled, the coins conferred immortality and great mystical powers upon their owner, though that mystical power was evil and debilitating for most humans. Fully repentant of his sins, Iscariot dedicated his immortal life to keeping the coins -- apparently forged by Satan -- from ever being fully recollected. Animals -- including a giant sea creature and a giant pig -- are naturally disposed to help protect the world from the coins; various humans take on the job of storing one or more of the coins; a sinister magician named Pennyman seeks to reunite them so as to gain complete power over the Earth.

And that's really just the backstory. In 1980's California, a somewhat hapless fellow who runs a hotel for some very peculiar people tries to get ready for the grand opening of his restaurant. Around him and his friends (and his mysterious uncle), the whole plot wheels. This is really a delightful romp with a cast of eclectic characters and a supernatural premise that's a lot more interesting than, say, The DaVinci Code. Highly recommended.

The Penguin Book of Horror Stories, edited by J.A. Caddon (1984): Any time I run across a survey anthology with a 50-page historical introduction, I figure the publisher was hoping for textbook sales. Caddon's selection of stories bounces from interesting to wonky and back again throughout -- I'd say about a third of the stories fail the Horror Test, which is to say I can't imagine anyone actually being horrified by them.

However, there are good and unusual selections from high-end, non-genre writers that include Faulkner, Kafka, Zola and de Balzac. I'd actually have been more interested had the editor tried to create an entire horror anthology out of horror excursions by non-genre writers -- the more traditional genre examples often fall short, though there are nice (albeit overly familiar) stories here by William Hope Hodgson and M.R. James and a few others. Recommended.

Dead Man's Boots: A Felix Castor Novel by Mike Carey (2007): At some time in the recent past of Carey's Felix Castor novels, some supernatural cataclysm resulted in dead souls being released from Hell, and the dead on Earth often being able to stay on Earth in spiritual form indefinitely. One of the attendant effects of this cataclysm was to awake a buried ability in some humans to act as exorcists, capable of binding souls or even sending them back beyond the veil of death. Castor is one of these exorcists, narrating his adventures in the manner of decades of hardboiled detectives before him. Each exorcist has a unique method of dealing with souls. In Castor's case, the music he plays on a tin whistle (!) can summon, bind and/or exorcise spirits and other spiritual entities (there are demons running around the Earth as well).

Here, the apparent suicide of another exorcist helps lead Castor and his allies (primarily the reformed succubus Juliet) deeper and deeper into a mystery surrounding the apparent (and supposedly impossible) physical resurrection of an American serial killer in present-day London. Something strange enough to attract the attention of Hell is going on, and Castor soon finds himself the target of attacks both natural and supernatural. Carey does a lovely job of using the world-weary tone of most hardboiled detective narratives in a dark fantasy context, and the fantasy elements are consistent and 'rational' without too much exposition being used to explain the workings of this particular universe (and Castor isn't certain how or why certain things like exorcism work anyway). Highly recommended.

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (1940; rev. 1953): Conjure Wife is one of American fantasy Grandmaster Leiber's two or three best novel-length excursions into what I'd called 'hard fantasy-horror.' 'Hard' refers to the technical concern brought to bear on the 'laws' of magic, not to any prurient content. In this novel, a young American sociology professor is under the mistaken impression that his successes are solely the result of the hard work that he and his wife, Tansy, have put into his academic work over the past decade at staid Hempnell College.

They aren't.

Behind the scenes, the political wars of academia are fought by the wives of the faculty (this was written in 1940) through magic, an area all women are aware of but almost no men. When the protagonist finds his wife's store of magical items, he rationally assumes that his wife is suffering from a neurosis that must be addressed by getting rid of all the charms and wards she's been creating over the years to protect the two of them from magical academic intrigue. But when all the charms are gone, the professor soon discovers that witchcraft works.

Conjure Wife really is a model of suspense and 'rational' magic all the way through, along with a fair bit of horror. While the protagonist seems a bit dense at times, he is operating from the initial assumption that magic and the supernatural are imaginary, and that everything can be explained through empirical means. The portrait of academic life, while dated, still rings true in a lot of places. The book even nods to the old adage that the wars in academia are so nasty because the stakes are so low: and at Hempnell, the war gets very nasty very quickly. Highly recommended.


Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol Volume 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, Scott Hanna, Carlos Garzon and Doug Braithwaite (1989): Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison's first foray into American comic-book superteams at DC in the late 1980's came on The Doom Patrol, one of DC's more marginal properties that had first appeared in the 1960's, been cancelled by the end of the decade due to low sales, and been revived twice after that. Morrison took over in the 19th issue of the second revival, and rapidly moved Doom Patrol into the realms of weird, adult-oriented superhero comics.

In their original configuration, the Doom Patrol were "the world's strangest heroes", fighting strange, quasi-scientific menaces throughout the 1960's. The initial line-up was brought together by wheelchair-bound super-genius Niles "The Chief" Caulder. Cliff "Robotman" Steele was the muscle of the group; Rita "Elastigirl" Farr could grow, shrink and stretch; and Larry "Negative Man" Trainor could release a bizarre "negative energy" duplicate from his body. They were easily the most misfit team in 1960's superhero comics -- compared to them, the original X-Men and Fantastic Four were exemplars of normalcy.

Morrison quickly ratcheted up the weirdness in what would ultimately by a nearly 4-year run on the title. The Chief became colder, more distant and more manipulative. Cliff Steele started to suffer grave psychiatric crises related to being a human brain stuck in a robot body. Rita Farr...well, she'd actually been dead since the late 1960's, and she didn't return. Larry Trainor and the energy being merged with Doctor Eleanor Poole to form a bizarre new hermaphroditic entity that called itself "Rebis", the "product of an alchemical marriage." Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 different super-powered multiple personalities, joins the group early in Morrison's run.

The villains also became weirder, though they'd always been weird (two of the Patrol's early nemeses were The Brain, a brain in a tank, and Monsieur Mallah, a hyper-intelligent, beret-and-bandolier-wearing gorilla). In Morrison's first 4-issue arc, reprinted herein, the Patrol face the Scissormen, shock troops of an invading, fictional reality created by a bunch of professors initially as a thought-experiment. Thus, Doom Patrol became the first superhero comic to have villains who were an homage to Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius." Later would come The Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, Hofmann's Bicycle, the SexMen, Flex Mentallo ("the man of muscle mystery!"), the Candlemaker, the Cult of the Unwritten Book, Danny the Street and a host of other weird and wonderful friends and enemies. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dear God: The Jerk Store Called...


The Book of Genesis
, adapted and illustrated by Robert Crumb (2009): Robert Crumb is one of a handful of the world's greatest living cartoonists, given some fame outside comics by the documentary Crumb, which juxtaposed Robert with his sad and complicated siblings. Crumb came to fame in the 1960's as America's preeminent underground cartoonist. He became famous for creations that included Fritz the Cat (bastardized in a Ralph Bakshi animated movie), Mr. Natural, Shuman the Human and the seemingly ubiquitous 'Keep on Truckin'' logo that came to dominate T-shirts and bumper stickers without Crumb seeing a cent.

Since the 1970's, Crumb has widened and deepened his craft, the often insane sexual hijinks of his early work now complemented by pieces on the environment, on his family, on blues legends, on folk culture, and so on, and so forth. He's one of the relatively few living American artists who merits the accolade 'National treasure.'

And here, after five years of work, is his take on the first book of the Bible. And boy, is it a stunner. My only complaint about the volume is that Crumb can't possibly find time to adapt the entire Bible unless he lives as long as one of the Old Testament patriarchs whom he depicts, lovingly and warts-and-all, herein. If you read one chapter-by-chapter comics adaptation of a book of the Bible, make it this one!!!

Crumb's art is lovingly crafted, the research into dress and landscape fully integrated, the characters human and individual. Genesis is in many ways a book of horrors -- the expulsion from Eden, the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It's also a book in which almost everyone acts badly at least part of the time (Crumb supplies a couple of possible text-history explanations in the appendix for why Abraham keeps pimping out his wife to the rulers of the lands he visits, for instance). God is an arbitrary, vengeful, forgetful jerk who expels Adam and Eve from Eden as much for fear of what will happen if they manage to eat of the Tree of Life as for their sin of disobedience. Incest in various permutations is rampant. Even Joseph, in many ways the most sympathetic of characters (and, with 12 chapters devoted to him, the most fully realized) manages to put together a scheme whereby the Pharoah ends up owning the land of everybody in Egypt except the priests, making the entire population slaves (or serfs, if you wish). Good times, good times!

And through it all, Crumb's art keeps everything grounded in the normative, even the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, if you will. His career-long fetishes about the female body mean that the matriarchs of Genesis are all big-breasted, big-bummed powerhouses, and there's certainly more female nippleage on display here, covered and naked, than in any previous rendition of a book of the Bible. That doesn't mean Crumb aims for the pornographic -- but sex (and all the attendant alliances and betrayals caused by it, trying to get it, and even trying, like Onan, to get out of it) is a major part of the Old Testament world. Crumb doesn't shy away from that.

All in all, an astonishing achievement of comics work. Highest recommendation.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Red Menaces


Devil Dinosaur Omnibus Edition by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer: Comics legend writer/artist Jack Kirby co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the comic-book Thor, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, the original X-Men and thousands of other comic-book characters for a variety of publishers in a career that lasted from the late 1930's until his death in 1995. Devil Dinosaur, a Marvel comic that lasted nine issues back in 1978, is not generally considered to be Kirby's best work or his best creation. However, mediocre work from Kirby is still far more interesting than the best work of hundreds of comic-book creators.

I expected to really hate this book, so I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it is. The concept is faintly ridiculous, even for comic books: in a somewhat confusing past in which fur-covered protohumans and dinosaurs co-existed, a smart little primate with the unfortunate name of 'Moon-boy' and the giant red T. Rex he saved from a fire and named 'Devil' protect the valley they live in (and its assorted dinosaur and mammalian inhabitants) from a variety of menaces. Their opponents include colonizing aliens, giant ants, a giant spider, a witch, a tribe of dinosaur riders, and an angry giant human. Moon-boy and Devil are sort of like Spider-man, in that they're often hated or feared by the very beings they work to protect. But it's all in a day's work.

Devil Dinosaur was apparently created in part because Marvel hoped that the child-friendly characters and storylines (a heroic dinosaur and a child protagonist fighting various giant things) might allow them to sell the rights to an animation studio. This didn't happen, though Kirby himself would go on to do a lot of conceptual and design work for animation studios in the late 1970's, 1980's and early 1990's (Thundarr the Barbarian is one of Kirby's design projects. for instance). A six-year-old child who likes dinosaurs, or someone like me, would probably enjoy this book. Recommended.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets by Herge: Before the 22 graphic-album adventures of Belgian kid-adventurer Tintin and his dog Snowy that are still popular today, there was this bizarre early 1950's volume, a comic inferno trip through the Soviet Union by reporter Tintin and his faithful pooch. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this thing is fucking bananas. Originally serialized in about 50 parts, this plays like a full-length anti-Soviet Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Accidentally buying this album for a child who enjoys the other Tintin adventures would probably be a big mistake, unless that child is Charles Krauthammer. Recommended, but deeply weird.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 6 (1941) by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and others: The sixth volume of DC's chronological reprint series of Superman's early adventures is a lot of fun. Superman is still a vaguely socialist firebrand rather than the paternal Establishment Man he would soon become with the advent of WWII for the US. So he fights various plots against the little guy both as Superman and Clark Kent (including a fake talent agency. Seriously.). He also fights Luthor, who is, as always, a dick, and a variety of other superpowered villains, including The Ghost, a radioactive killer suffering from terminal radium poisoning. I like early Superman a lot. When he threatens to throw a criminal into the propellers of an airplane unless the criminal talks, he's not necessarily bluffing -- he's like a super-powered Jack Bauer who works only for himself. Highly recommended.


Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, starring the voices of Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, Clancy Brown and Alison Mack (2009, animated): Based on the first five-issue arc of the Superman/Batman comic series, this DC animated movie keeps much of Jeph Loeb's story intact while the character design emulates Ed McGuinness's art style rather than the more familiar Paul Dini/Bruce Timm designs that started with Batman: the Animated Series back in the early 1990's and continued through Superman and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Daly, Conroy and Brown reprise their voice roles from the 1990's Batman and Superman series as Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor respectively.

A war-and-economic-depression-plagued USA elects Lex Luthor president. Things seem to go well for awhile, though Luthor tries to make all superheroes work directly for the US government. Guess what two heroes refuse? Then a giant Kryptonite meteor is discovered on a collision course with Earth, and Luthor turns out to be even worse at disaster prevention and response than George W. Bush. This animated movie is pretty much one long fight scene. It's enjoyable, but characterization pretty much has to fall by the wayside. Still, it would make a great template for a live-action movie. Recommended.

Green Lantern: First Flight, starring the voices of Christopher Meloni, Tricia Helfer, Victor Garber and Michael Madsen (2009, animated): The Green Lantern Corps is the intergalactic police force of the DC universe, keeping peace and order under the supervision of the immortal blue aliens known as the Guardians. This animated movie puts Earth Green Lantern Hal Jordan (voiced by Law and Order SVU's Meloni) through his initial paces as a Green Lantern, while throwing in story elements from about 30 years of Lantern mythology.

The "greatest Green Lantern of them all", Sinestro (voiced nicely by Victor Garber and doomed by that name to a life of evil), takes Hal under his wing as they investigates the murder of Hal's immediate predecessor, Abin Sur. Someone is trying to create a competing power battery -- yellow to the Corps' green -- so as to destroy the Green Lantern Corps and take over the universe. Test pilot Hal Jordan appears to be in over his head, but like Earth people in any number of scifi plots, he makes up for his lack of training with grit, imagination, and a tendency to hit bad guys with giant boxing gloves made out of the ring's mysterious green energy that can do pretty much anything the wielder can imagine.

I enjoyed this quite a bit. The plot's awfully busy for an origin story, though (in GL's origin back in the 1950's comics, he simply gets his ring from an Abin Sur terminally wounded in an accident. Boy, those were the days of brevity when an origin story was something to get over with!). Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Judgment at Nuremberg


Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann, starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximillian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer and William Shatner. (1961, B&W): Based on writer Mann's 1959 television play of the same name (with Schell in the same role as the German defense attorney for four German judges being tried for crimes against humanity in the post-WWII Nurmeberg trials), producer/director Kramer follows his standard all-star casting procedures with, for the most part, good-to-excellent results.

Tracy leads the cast as a Midwestern judge in charge of the three-judge panel hearing this particular trial. Clift and Garland, by this time tragic wrecks in their personal lives, stand out as victims of the judges' decisions called upon to testify, while Dietrich plays the widow of a German officer and Lancaster the most famous judge to be tried. Shatner and Klemperer, still years away from TV fame on Star Trek and Hogan's Heroes respectively, have small roles as an American officer and a German judge, also respectively.

The trial here focuses not on top-ranking Nazis and German military and civil authorities, but on the 'second tier' of decision-makers, specifically the judges who meted out the often fatal punishment for being racially or genetically 'impure' in the eyes of the highers-up. However, the trial here takes place in 1949, as the Soviet land blockade of Berlin, and their development of the atomic bomb, cause U.S. authorities to desire an end to prosecuting Nazi crimes in order to curry favour with the German people against the Red Menace.

Late-career Tracy is a study in naturalistic minimalism as an actor, his face and body language often doing the entire job of portraying the character's thoughts about the proceedings. He was a marvelous, unshowy actor. Schell, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is bombastic as the defense attorney -- it almost seems more like a stage performance than one meant for the amplifying effects of film close-ups. Of course, it's hard for a film with nearly two hours of action set in a courtroom not to seem stagey at times. Kramer keeps the film-making tricks to a minimum, relying primarily upon long takes and sudden close-ups to make his stylistic points.

I don't think this is a great film -- it's a bit preachy, and falls victim a bit too much to telling rather than showing -- but it is a riveting one, and a pretty intelligent one. And, as a big-budget three-hour drama with lots of talking and no action to speak of, the sort of film Hollywood simply doesn't make any more. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Perfidious Albion


by Alan Moore, Leah Moore, John Reppion, Shane Oakley and George Freeman: Alan Moore plotted this revisionist 2006 6-issue miniseries about British comic-book characters of the 1960's and 1970's, with Leah Moore and John Reppion handling the writing duties. I came to this with pretty much no knowledge of indigenous British comics of the 1960's and 1970's, but the book does a pretty good job of presenting a story that's interesting on its own for someone who doesn't have the faintest idea who Kelly's Eye is (to name one character).

Alan Moore is here more in the mode of his nostalgic meta-short tale "Pictopia" than of revisionist superhero epics like Miracleman or Watchmen. A debased modern world has sought out all the old heroes and villains of British comics and either imprisoned or killed them. A couple of spunky 20-somethings with ties to some of the characters team up to get the remaining characters out of prison. The forces of oppression and repression try to stop them. Excitement and hilarity ensue.

The strangeness of these abandoned British characters obviously informs Alan Moore's interest in them -- there are no real superheroes here, but there are heroes with animated, robotic puppets; mechanical hands that make the bearer invisible; crime-fighting genies; rubbery escape artists; patriotic about the carnivalesque! I quite enjoyed this volume, and 40 pages of "classic" reprints of the source material helped contextualize the whole thing (as did several pages of history). Recommended.

Shade the Changing Man Volume 2: Edge of Vision by Peter Milligan, Chris Bachalo, Mark Pennington, Bill Jaaska and Brendan McCarthy: Shade was originally a trippy short-lived 1970's DC comic created, written and drawn by the legendary Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange over at Marvel. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, DC started having writers and artists reimagine various fringe, failed and forgotten titles as revisionist, adult-oriented titles. Eventually, these adult titles would become the still-existing Vertigo line in 1993. 1990 saw DC hand the task of reimagining Ditko's Shade to British writer Peter Milligan and up-and-coming artist Chris Bachalo, with British artist Brendan McCarthy providiing the wild cover art.

The result was a qualified success. Shade ran for 70 issues, nearly as many as Neil Gaiman's uber-successful Sandman series, and more than Garth Ennis's also-successful Preacher, two titles that helped define the Vertigo line. But for reasons known only to DC, most of Shade remained out-of-print until the last year, when the first two reprint volumes were finally issued. Given Milligan's great early-oughts sales success on titles like X-Force, I have no idea why DC waited so long.

Milligan keeps the bare bones of Ditko's Shade -- he's a visitor from another dimension whose 'Metavest' allows him to alter the appearance of reality around himself. Then he adds stuff both sinister (Shade is now a literal shade, his original body dead and his mind inhabiting the body of a serial killer) and kooky (Shade's reality-altering powers appear to have no limit, but Shade himself is a somewhat befuddled, virginal presence).

A reality-altering madness plague Shade dubs The American Scream threatens to suck all of reality into an unhinged nightmare world unless Shade uses his reality-altering powers to combat the Scream's reality-altering powers. So the storyline follows Shade and friends as they travel the Madness Stream across America, trying to stop the dreams and nightmares of average Americans from permanently destoying the normative. These nightmares include the reconfiguration of Dallas into a giant JFK assassination reenactment; a New York overwhelmed by garbage (!); a community in which anyone slightly abnormal is hunted down and killed; an LSD-influenced hippie paradise gone wrong; and so on, and so forth. Things are never dull. Recommended.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Out of Africa


Unknown Soldier: Dry Season by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli: Boy, I love this comic series, and you should too. In one way, it's the most exciting educational comic ever. The action takes place, for the most part, in the various parts of Africa thrown into horrifying confusion and strife by the ongoing disintegration of Uganda in the early oughts. Dysart leaves most of the heavy historical lifting to his text pages, though I sometimes wish he and Ponticelli would work up an issue depicting these histories in comic-book form. Why? Moby Dick, baby, which interpolates chapters devoted to rope-making, the history of whaling and what-have-you directly into the narrative. OK, maybe only I and a few other people would find such a narrative homage interesting.

The Unknown Soldier was a well-meaning, Westernized M.D. returned to the Africa of his youth to try to help refugees and the assorted victims of war, pestilence and famine. But something happened. His disfigured face now covered by bandages, he also now shares his mind with...something. A viral personality? A split personality? A soldier, in any case, capable of great cunning and great violence. The CIA wants him. His wife wants him back. And he's not sure what he wants. The violence in the book horrifies even when it, rarely, also thrills. I think this is the best war comic with a continuing character ever published, and one of the three or four best comic books on the stands today. Highest recommendation.

The Chronicles of Solomon Kane by Roy Thomas, Ralph Macchio, Howard Chaykin, Bret Blevins and others: This Dark Horse volume collects Marvel's 1970's and 1980's colour-comic-book adventures of Robert E. 'Conan' Howard's 16th-century Puritan ghost-buster. The Chaykin art is especially inspired (why couldn't someone get him to illustrate an adaptation of Moby Dick?). No one draws more interesting clothing than Chaykin, and I mean that as a compliment. Bret Blevins and other artists, including Mike Mignola and John Ridgway, also do fairly inspired work on the art. And like the Unknown Soldier, Kane spends a lot of time in Africa, albeit an Africa found in no history book.

As always, Roy Thomas is a bit verbose when adapting someone else's work. Writer Macchio does a nice job on the 1980's six-issue miniseries collected here, though events are curiously flat sometimes -- the final adaptation, of Howard's "Wings in the Night", simply needs more room to be effective, as 20 or so pages makes the whole thing seem more like a plot synopsis than an adaptation. Still enjoyable, though. Recommended.

Essential Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-man Volume 3 by Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Jim Mooney, Ed Hannigan, John Byrne and others: I really enjoyed this collection of early 1980's Spider-man stories from the "other" Spider-man title of the time. Bill Mantlo was always a capable writer, and Ed Hannigan -- who does the art and covers fior a number of issues -- was doing some really interesting things with layouts at the time. Indeed, his covers for PPTSS became semi-legendary throughout the industry for their difference from other super-hero covers. Hannigan was really channeling the sort of striking approach to covers and splash pages that made Will Eisner's The Spirit so innovative back in the 1940's.

Here, Peter Parker -- now a graduate student and a teaching assistant! -- has the usual personal problems associated with being a swinging superhero with an ailing aunt, an ailing love-life, and an ailing bank account. One of the truly major differences between the recent Spider-man movies and the Spider-man comics is herein exposed -- being Spider-man gives Peter Parker an immense kick. In a way, it's the one thing that makes his life joyful, regardless of the problems it causes. If there's a curse of Spider-man, it's not being a superhero -- it's being the person the super-hero is when he takes off his costume. Heavy!

These collected issues introduced characters both one-shot (The Ringer!) and soon-to-be surprisingly popular (Cloak and Dagger) to the Spider-man Mythos. while also bringing back villains ridiculous (The Gibbon!), popular (Kingpin!) and mostly forgotten (Robot-master, Boomerang and The Will-O-Wisp, to name three). Frank Miller supplies some nice reprinted covers, too. Recommended.