Archive for the “reviews” Category
Posted by Dorian in reviews
Stuart Moore’s latest graphic novel has a remarkably strong concept. Shadrach Stone is a literary agent and a very accomplished liar, probably a better liar than an agent. He’s living his ideal life, until New York is attacked by terrorists and he has a vision in the World Trade Center. After that, he can’t lie anymore. To even be around a lie causes him physical pain. And that’s when he’s recruited by an organization trying to protect reality from the damage that lies do.
It’s a big, sci-fi idea, working in the notion of parallel realities as a fairly simple metaphor for lying. Shadrach himself is a fairly unlikeable character, but the potential for redemption is an interesting idea, and his situation has more than enough of a hint of getting what he deserves to work as a poetically just problem. As a first volume in a larger story, there’s a lot of promise here. At just over a hundred pages it’s a fast read with a strongly drawn lead character. But it is a first volume, and while the conclusion is satisfying as an introductory episode, with a cliffhanger that calls back to the beginning of the story in a logical way while moving the central mystery forward in a way that makes you want to know more about what is going to happen, it still ends at what feels like an incomplete point. As a serialized tale, it would be fine to end an episode there, but I’ve been trained to expect more definitive conclusions in my original graphic novels.
Art is by Jon Proctor, whose work I enjoyed on The Black Diamond series. He has an expressive, caricature-like style in his faces and figure work that fits the story well, especially when it moves into more surrealistic territory. Proctor’s style is a good example of how divisive artwork can be: I find his work interesting and idiosyncratic, and thematically appropriate to the stories I’ve seen it on, but I can also see how others might find it ugly. His characters aren’t attractive, particularly Shadrach. For me it works, but for others it might not.
Shadrach Stone is available on Amazon and directly from the publisher, and is supported by a website featuring many art samples. It’s an engaging and contemporary sci-fi mystery, with an appealingly unlikeable lead character.
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Back when the first wave of Smurfs popularity hit in the 80s, I had several album-sized translations of Peyo’s original comics. They were my first introduction to Euro-comics, and I adored them. Those books have been lost through multiple moves, so I was heartened to hear that NBM, through their Papercutz imprint of children’s comics, was bringing new editions to the U.S.
The first two volumes, The Purple Smurfs and The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, are out now in hard-cover and soft-cover editions. I sprung for the hard-cover editions, and I’m glad I did. They’re nice, sturdy books that look good on my shelf, next to my Asterix books. Which leads to my only major complaint with these editions: they’re small. I prefer my European comics in album format, but Papercutz has gone for a size that’s close to the trade paperback size for novels. It’s the same approximate size that many of the graphic novels aimed at children and teens are published in, and I’m sure it’s preferable to the book trade, so I can see the logic in going with this size. At the small size, some of the lettering becomes absolutely tiny and hard to read, however, and details of some of the art feels lost.
Apart from that, the production quality is very good. The design uses a blue spine with white backgrounds on the covers, giving them a nicely uniform appearance that also matches the blue and white color scheme of the Smurfs themselves. Despite the tiny text that pops up from time to time, the font used for the lettering closely approximates the lettering style in the original comics, which is a nice detail. The computer lettering is occasionally distracting when it is used to label objects that were clearly meant to be hand-lettered, but that’s a minor nuisance I can live with. The coloring is also faithful to the original colors, with bold, matte colors used throughout and very little of the gradient-heavy, obviously computer-assisted coloring that most contemporary comics use.
The Purple Smurfs is actually a collection of three short Smurfs stories. The lead story, “The Purple Smurfs” is an action tale about a contagion that spreads through the Smurf village, transforming the normally agreeable blue imps into vicious, tail-biting purple monsters. It’s largely a comedic spin on the sort of structure that would come to dominate zombie stories, and is a pretty good adventure story akin to an Asterix tale or a Barks duck story. “The Flying Smurf” is a more typical Smurf story, about a Smurf who suddenly develops a mania for flight, and whose attempts to achieve his goal result in chronic, humorous misfires and the ire of the other Smurfs. The final story, “The Smurf and his Neighbors” is in the same vein, a brief morality tale about being careful what you ask for, focused on a Smurf who moves out into the woods to escape his annoying neighbors and learns to regret it. All three stories are funny, with snappy dialogue and gorgeous, expressive cartoon art from Peyo, and a lead story that’s fun and adventurous.
The second volume, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute is actually The Flute with Six Holes, a Johan and Peewit story by Yvan Delporte and Peyo that introduces the Smurfs. It’s fairly typical of European children’s adventure comics, with typically engaging art by Peyo, but the story is overly long and highly repetitive. The plot involves Peewit stumbling upon a flute that compels people to dance before collapsing in exhaustion, which is quickly stolen from him by a conman, prompting Peewit and the young knight Johan to attempt to recover it before too much havoc can be wreaked across the country. The Smurfs don’t even appear until the midway point of the story, as the creators of the flute, and are mostly recognizable, though still very visibly an early, rough design in comparison to their later, more refined appearance. In the end it’s a slight story, fairly unremarkable, and primarily notable for being the first appearance of the Smurfs.
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So, after a long hiatus from buying any comics from Archie, I decided to take a look at the introduction of Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first openly gay character. News of the characters introduction got quite a bit of attention back in late April, including the expected “think of the children” nonsense you usually see on the internet.
The story and art is by Dan Parent, one of the better writers and artists working at Archie these days, with inks by Rich Koslowski. It’s stylized, cartoony work that adheres to the Archie house style without being a slavish recreation of it, leaving some room for personal style. I haven’t been the target audience for an Archie comic in quite some time, so honestly, I was most surprised to open up the book and see slick paper and full-bleed artwork. It’s good work, but it took some getting used to, as subconsciously I pretty much expect an Archie comic to look like Dan DeCarlo drew it.
The story is fairly typical of Archie comedy, with Jughead deciding to prank Veronica for slighting him. Only the form the prank takes is Jughead manipulating events so that Veronica spends her time attempting to attract Kevin’s interest, which is never going to happen because Jughead knows that Kevin is gay. After twenty pages of misunderstandings amongst the cast, Veronica finally learns the truth and those who need to get a comeuppance receive theirs.
My primary curiosity about this issue was how a company perceived as so archly conservative as Archie was going to handle introducing a gay character. I had no real concern over the portrayal being offensive; the only thing that would have meant more controversy for the publisher than introducing a gay character would be introducing an offensive portrayal of a gay character. Kevin is a cute, smart boy who likes comics and can go stomach-to-stomach with Jughead in an eating competition. In other words, he’s just rounded enough to hang a story hook on to him, but bland enough to avoid controversy. I generally rankle a bit at bland, inoffensive gay characters in movies and television shows who only exist to play lip-service to diversity but are completely neutered in order to avoid making anti-gay audience members uncomfortable. But this is a comic whose primary audience is preteen girls. Even a fairly bland gay character is pretty ground-breaking, and that Parent even managed to go beyond that and make Kevin sort of appealing is praiseworthy. I’ll admit, Parent draws him a fairly snarky smirk that would be meltingly hot if it was on a real person.
What I’m especially glad to see is that my one, big fear about the way the set-up for the issue was introduced was resolved in an appropriate manner. The premise, that Jughead is using the “secret” of Kevin’s sexuality to play a prank, has the potential to be offensive if mishandled. It makes homosexuality a bit of a punchline, not an aspect of Kevin’s character. Instead, once the truth is revealed, Jughead is scolded by Kevin, and quite rightly, for using him to take advantage of Veronica in an attempt to make her look foolish. The end result is to actually drive Kevin away from Jughead and towards Veronica, ironically the opposite of Jughead’s intent.
Do I expect Kevin to stick around? It would be nice. As I said, he’s an appealing character, and is already slated to make a return appearance. But the last character to be introduced into the Archie universe and demonstrate any staying power was Cheryl Blossom, and even she took a ten year hiatus. The odds are stacked against him, but he does bring something to the Riverdale dynamic that no other character does, so even if he only survives as, inexplicably, the only gay teenager in the Archie comics world, that’s not so bad.
Also, for no good reason, this panel cracks me up:
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Over at The Bureau Chiefs, Ken Lowery and I take a look at the trailers for films coming out in September.
In comparison to the summer months, this fall is actually looking pretty decent.
Here’s a beardy, brooding Ryan Reynolds, star of Buried:
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The first batch of Doctor Who novels featuring the Eleventh Doctor and Amy came out not too long ago. I’m a fairly consistent reader of these books, mostly because the bulk of my free time to read these days is shortly before bedtime, and frankly I’m never in the mood for anything too heavy, or too compelling, at that time of night. (I did skip out on the last few batches of Tenth Doctor novels, because honestly, I really don’t care about more adventures with the Krillitane or the Slitheen, especially when almost all of them felt compelled to include a plucky teenage girl as the Doctor’s temporary side-kick. I should probably go pick up that Sontaran one, though, because I guess it has Rutans in it too, and that’s the kind of nerd I am. Anyway…)
In comparison to previous offerings in the line, the new set of books are slightly larger, though still in hardcover. This makes them more durable, especially considering that the primary audience for these books is children, but as an adult reader it does rather make me feel like I’m reading a Perma-Bound book. It’s not exactly infantilizing, since the Torchwood books were in the same size and hard-cover format, but I prefer the cover-stock that BBC Books used for their Being Human tie-in novels. Those are closer to something in between a standard trade size paperback and that elongated mass-market size. On the other hand, with the new season, it does slightly feel like the core audience for the franchise is aging up a bit, and being closer in size to “real” books does have a slight psychological effect, possibly, of making the books seem more grown-up. In any case, moving away from the smaller, mass-market format does make them stand out from the rest of the tie-in novels in a bookshop, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
There’s very little continuity between the three books, or between the books and the television program. Normally, this is perfectly fine, but there are moments in each book here that give off the impression that the books were originally written with a Generi-Doctor and Companion in mind, with sudden declarations of the Doctor’s or Amy’s appearance or mannerisms inserted afterwards. More probably, the authors were writing from a brief, without having seen Matt Smith or Karen Gillan in the roles, and a more natural characterization simply wasn’t possible.
The first book in the set is Apollo 23, by Justin Richards, which also has the distinction of having the best cover of the three books, by far.
The plot involves the Doctor and Amy investigating the appearance of an American astronaut in a London shopping center, conincident with the death of a woman and her dog on the moon. This leads them to discovering an American prison on the moon for “the worst of the worst,” with a strong yet unspoken implication that the prison is housing mostly political prisoners, with again unspoken comparisons to the American prison in Guantanamo Bay. The political subtext is probably subtle enough to escape kids, but it’s mostly forgotten in favor of an alien invasion plot that bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of “The Idiot Box.” Though the Doctor and Amy end up separated from one another for much of the story, and the American setting is novel for the series, the solution to the problem sounds, from a non-technical stand-point, much like the Doctor endorsing homeopathy. An “I’ll explain later” can go a long way in situations like this.
Next up is David Llewellyn’s Night Of The Humans, which features the Doctor and Amy investigating a distress signal at a planet-sized garbage dump in space, only to get separated from one another. Amy ends up with the Sittuun, a race of humanoids who all adopt Arabic names for themselves, while the Doctor ends up with the humans, savage primitives who worship cowboy films. Again, the political subtexts are probably going to go right past any kids, and the casting of humans in the role of evil aliens is clever and a subversion of the shows usual tropes, the inclusion of Dirk Slipstream, as a criminal Captain Kirk/Flash Gordon/Buck Rodgers type of space hero is gilding the lily somewhat, especially with his occasional references to previous encounters with the Doctor. (His recognition of the just regenerated Doctor is one of those moments that would seem to suggest that the book was written with a previous Doctor in mind.) Night of the Humans is also noteworthy in that it’s one of the very few of the new series book tie-ins to feature a “pile of bodies” ending.
Finally, there’s The Forgotten Army by Brian Minchin, featuring the Doctor and Amy at some relatively contemporary version of New York City that is being menaced by a resurrected albino mammoth. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a cover for an alien invasion, from tiny beings whose resemblance to troll dolls we are frequently reminded of. They’re a visually interesting idea, and a concept beyond the scope of a reasonable television budget, so they work well as villains here, though the separation of the Doctor and Amy is starting to feel a bit forced at this point, and while the invasion strategy, to make New Yorkers so afraid of nonspecific, invisible and potentially nonexistent threats is cleverly described, once again it feels like some political subtext has sunk in.
Overall, the three books are light, distracting reads. Fun for a fan of the franchise, but probably of little appeal to anyone else. Night of the Humans is probably the best of the three, and also the one that feels most like an episode of the television series. All three books suffer slightly from a similarity in plot, particularly the reliance on the Doctor and Amy being separated for much of each story. To be fair, it is a trope of the series itself, but as a plot device it feels extremely heavy-handed in this set of books. The next set of books, for my own taste, looks to be more promising, with another Gary Russell novel in the offering and the presence of Amy’s fiance Rory as a full cast member. Rory is great, and I’m looking forward to getting as much of him as possible. I even love the “talk to the hand” pose he has on this cover.
It’s good that the show is making use of him and…wait…what?
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Posted by Dorian in reviews
Over at the Bureau Chiefs, I take a look at the Free Comic Book Day titles available from comic book shops this Saturday as part of the event.
It’s the usual mixed bag of titles to pick up, titles to leave behind, and books that you’re getting for free, so what are you complaining about?
Posted by Dorian in reviews
Nightlife, by Dale Lazarov and Bastian Johnsson, published by Bruno Gmunder
Lazarov’s third collection of wordless, gay erotic comics lives up to the standards set by his previous works. These are funny and human stories, porn fodder with recognizable and realistic scenarios and characters that reflect a diversity of types rather than an abstract porn ideal. Johnsson’s art has a clean, simple line that gives the stories an appealing, cartoony look that complements the stories nicely. Of particular appeal is the third story in the collection, “Closing Time,” featuring a casual encounter between a disparate pair of men that develops into a long term relationship. It’s a good closer to the book, a touchingly romantic moment from Lazarov, and a nicely drawn and subtle aging in the art by Johnsson.
The Chill, by Jason Starr and Mick Bertilorenzi, published by DC/Vertigo
I had high hopes for this, the first of the new “Vertigo Crime” line I held out much hope for. It’s a mystery about a serial killer, with roots in Celtic mythology and a supernatural edge. It’s exactly my kind of thing. I’d hoped for something along the lines of Phil Rickman or John Connelly. It’s not…bad, and Bertilorenzi’s art looks quite good in grey tones, and he knows when to overplay a scene for dramatic effect. But it does read, strongly, like a first effort in the comics form, the kind that would have been helped by a stronger editorial hand. It’s generally preferred in the comics format to “show not tell” but there a number of moments here when a little more exposition would have been useful. For example, when our short on personality lead suddenly decides to take the raving Irish man who might also be the lead, maybe, seriously and accept a supernatural explanation for the murders. That the book can’t quite seem to decide which character is meant to be the protagonist is problematic. While a certain amount of ambiguity is acceptable in a mystery, we don’t really have a mystery here. We know all along who is killing people, and mostly why. There isn’t even any real question as to whether the killers are using supernatural means. In this scenario, a little clarity on who we’re supposed to root for would have been helpful.
Grandville, by Bryan Talbot, published by Dark Horse
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first; this is a simply beautiful object. Textured, embossed covers, a gorgeous art deco, high-contrast design. It’s the kind of book that deserves to be faced front out on our shelves so that everyone can stop and admire it. The story delves into the kind of alternate world history that Talbot did so well in Luther Arkwright, but mixed here with a sharp, anthropomorphic design. It’s a bit like what you’d expect to get if Beatrix Potter turned her hand to gritty noir thrillers instead of children’s books. The story itself is fantastically crafted, with nice twisty conspiracy theories and political intrigues that fit the tone of the setting, while at the same time creating a nice parallel to more modern demands of mystery and thriller storytelling. The long and short of it is, this is a must have book, the sort of thing everyone who claims to love comics needs to get and spend time poring over.
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This film and Psycho are pretty much the co-parents of the slasher genre. To be sure, there were plenty of films about maniacs carving up women with sharp implements released between those two films, but if Psycho established the tone of the genre, Halloween polished it into its most recognizable form.
(In this rather strained analogy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the creepy uncle.)
Many of the standard tropes of the slasher genre become popularized here. There’s the use of POV shots from the killer’s perspective, a film technique that was lauded at the time but is sometimes criticized now for identifying the audience with the killer. There’s the explicit connection being made between sex and death, with the more chaste a character is increasing their likelihood for survival. And there’s the “final girl” character transitioning from a passive figure that requires rescue to one that fights back. Though, in fairness, Laurie is very much on the line there; she fights back, but she still needs Dr. Loomis to deliver the killing blow.
What I find interesting is, despite how much of an influence this film was on the genre, particularly through the 80s and into the 90s (the genre seems to be strongly in decline now, with the few contemporary films that dabble in it borrowing more from the self-awareness of the Scream franchise), is that so many film-makers seem to have learned the wrong lessons from the film. Even John Carpenter and Debra Hill did, as Halloween 2, and all other films in the franchise, can be safely ignored, and it would be advisable to do so. Chiefly, the ramping up of sex and violence that occurs in other films. Yes, there’s a link between the two here, but later films magnify it in such a grotesque way it’s hard to dismiss the charges of reactionary politics and misogyny that the genre attracts*.
But the big problem, as I see it, is that the imitators came away from the film thinking it was about Michael Myers. It’s not, not really. By design, Michael has no personality, no real face. He’s a blank canvass. There is one, and only one, moment of personality to the character, and that is when he pauses to admire his handiwork in the kitchen. Everything else is projected onto him by the audience. He’s not “real” in a certain sense. Even Loomis thinks of him as an “it,” as a force of evil. But because of his distinctive look, he became the “face” of the film. Which leads us to Jason and Freddy and Chucky and a whole host of horror movie villains that become the “hero” of their films. Which, I admit, I find problematic. It shifts sympathy from the victims; the film becomes about checking out the new and inventive ways in which people are killed. And that eventually just leads us to plotless dead-end films.
I mentioned Halloween 2 earlier, and I think it’s a good example of how the point can be missed, even by people who got it right the first time. The sequel is the film in which various motivations get piled on to Michael. Oh, Laurie is his long-lost sister. Oh, he’s actually cursed by a Celtic demon. Let’s up the gore and the sex and make Michael the focus of the film, because all these people ripping us off are making so much money, we need to hop on that bandwagon too. None of that “extra” information makes the first film any better. It actually hurts the film to watch it with the idea that Michael has been plotting to kill his sister for fifteen years, and has been able to track her down without even knowing what she looks like or where she is (it all becomes a remarkable coincidence). Laurie and her friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time originally. Now they’re the victims of an orchestrated plot by a cult of evil Irish people? It ruins the drama of the original film.
*I don’t entirely subscribe to the idea that horror films are necessarily misogynist. Yes, there are misogynist films in the genre, lots of them. But on the whole I think the genre is less prone to it than, say, action films or comedies.
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And here we are, the masterwork of the modern werewolf film. It’s been written about extensively everywhere, including here in the past, so I’m no sure what more there is to say.
I will anyway, of course.
A big part of why the film works is the focus on the protagonist’s mental state. The film opens with long scenes of empty roads and moors, with only David and his friend Jack’s conversation breaking up that monotony. We’re given reasons to like these kids right away; they’re good natured, if a bit full of themselves, but more importantly they’re likeable. After the attack, the bulk of the film’s shocks and scares are confined almost exclusively to David’s nightmares. It’s not until relatively late in the film that the audience is given any definitive proof that the supernatural is really at play and it’s not all just inside David’s mind. This works because, since we already like David, we sympathize and relate to his suspicion that he’s going crazy. Given the dictates of the genre, of course, we know on an intellectual level that he really is a werewolf, but on a craft level it helps keeps the focus on David as a relatable protagonist.
Which isn’t to say that the film is without flaws. The whole notion of David being haunted by the ghosts of his friend and the people he has killed, while a solution to the necessary exposition dumps, never quite comes off. It feels more like a shoe-horned excuse to bring some more gore into the film, especially when there’s a whole village full of people who know all about werewolves and what really happened to David right there from the beginning of the film…and David’s doctor actually goes there to investigate the original attack.
But apart from that, it is a superlative film. And the sequence where David stalks a hapless commuter in a subway station is easily one of the best horror film scenes ever.
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This is one of the two vampire movies I actually like. (The other is this big slice of coded gay panic.) It largely got lost in the shuffle when it was released, probably partly because it was preceded in theaters by the only sort of okay The Lost Boys, and the fore-runners of the Twi-hards were too busy swooning over Jason Patric, Kiefer Southerland and the Coreys to appreciate the brooding intensity of Adrian Pasdar or the under-rated charms of Bill Paxton.
A big part of why the film works for me is that it resists the trends of that era regarding the “classic” monster types. Most monster movies were going for tongue in cheek or dark comedy, reserving real “scares” for the slasher genre. And the Anne Rice-ification of the vampire as tragic romantic figure was coming into full bloom as well. Kathryn Bigelow resists that. The vampires in her film are unrepentant murderers, inhuman monsters, something sickeningly unnatural. And being in that state has warped their minds in indescribable ways. They’re not romantic, they’re not tragic. They’re just wrong. They’re so wrong, there isn’t really a word for them. The word “vampire” never occurs in the film. There’s no garlic or crosses, no niceties about being invited in.
Which is why it’s sort of interesting that so much of the film revolves around adolescent ideas of romance. Farm boy Caleb meets a mysterious girl, Mae, who speaks in cryptic riddles before biting him on the neck and running away. The next thing he knows, he’s been abducted by her “family” who debate how to kill him before realizing that he’s “turned” and is one of them now, whether they like it or not. The next few days of Caleb’s life alternate between falling deeper into love with Mae and trying to somehow survive the horrific violence and carnage her family revels in, before a chance encounter between Homer, the eldest vampire ironically trapped in the body of a pre-adolescent boy, and Caleb’s sister provides Caleb with a chance to escape and the most plot convenient cure for vampirism ever contrived.
Caleb’s love for Mae is adolescent. It’s your stereotypical “love at first sight” and “Rome & Juliet” type of love, the kind of love that only exists in romance stories about adolescents. The conflict this creates in Mae’s family is adolescent as well. Homer “turned” Mae, and is jealous that Caleb is essentially stealing her from him, and the other members essentially bully Caleb in a, well, dickish sort of way. The turning point of the film is Homer’s entirely bizarre and sudden infatuation with Caleb’s sister, which seems motivated more as a means of getting back at Mae than an actual obsession.
In a larger sense the world of the vampires is one of an eternally arrested adolescence. While there is some indication that most of them were probably “bad” people before joining the ranks of the undead, their current motives are as much boredom as anything else. They need to drink blood, yes, but the savagery and ways in which they “play” with their food are borne out of having lived so long that they’ve seemly devolved to a child-like, amoral state. It’s effective because it makes good use of the lack of supernatural overtones to their vampiric state. When a vampire is overtly supernatural, it’s easy to accept that they’re evil just because they’re evil. Here, were care has been taken to make sure that the vampires are as “natural” and “real” as possible, their evil becomes slightly banal and pathetic. Again, appropriate to the tone of a vampire being something wrong and despicable, that line between contempt and pity being thin.