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Archive for the ‘Private Eyes’ Category

The most important holiday on the capitalist-utopia calendar, Cyber Monday, has come and gone, and that can only mean one thing:  most of the fall TV shows are either on hiatus, about to be on hiatus, or already cancelled.  That means I finally have chance to catch up on a bunch of hour-long serialized dramas, because that’s definitely how I should be spending my precious few hours between sleep and toil every day.   Here are my very scientific findings:

Constantine
Constantine 
I watched the series premiere of this, and quickly fell asleep trying to watch the second episode.  I am not a die hard fan of the Hellblazer comics (although I have a fat stack of ‘Blazer trade paperbacks I picked up in sort-of anticipation of this program and have yet to read), so I can only evaluate it on its own merits and not on how it stacks up vs. the Vertigo series.  My conclusion: this is a pile of hot garbage!  It does have a lot of pretty awesome special effects, and the pilot had one or two decent ‘scares,’ but hardly enough to sustain my attention.  And I wasn’t alone — as of this writing, NBC has suspended production on the series, which is not quite an outright cancellation but it’s certainly a sign things are on life support. GRADE: D-
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Arrow
Arrow hit some real peaks last season, with the interwoven story of Oliver’s escape from the island and his confrontation with Deathstroke in Starling City delivering the series’ most satisfying and ambitious arc to date.  By comparison, season three is so far floundering.  ‘Five years ago’ timeline Oliver is now off the island and working for Amanda Waller in Hong Kong, which means there is very little drama left in the flashback sequences.  All we wanted to know for most of seasons one and two was how Ollie would escape the island — now that that has been resolved, it seems like there is no tension left and really no reason to chart the rest of Oliver’s journey back to Starling City.  In the main, present-tense storyline, there are several promising threads unraveling:  Roy Harper has developed into a full-fledged sidekick, even adopting the Arsenal moniker, but continues to struggle with the after effects of the mirakuru experimental drug, which puts Oliver in the position of becoming more and more of a father figure for Roy even as the latter gains even more self-confidence.  Oliver’s sister Thea has returned to the city, ostensibly to reopen her nightclub, but in reality she’s developed ninja techniques and is working in cahoots with Malcolm Merlin, the Big Bad from season one, back (of course) from the dead.  And, in the most delightful but underutilized plot device of all, Queen Consolidated is in the process of being absorbed by billionaire super-genius Ray Palmer (aka, The Atom), played by failed-Superman Brandon Routh.  For existing fans of the show, this season still has the enjoyable characters and relationship dynamics (Oliver-Felicity-The Atom love triangle, anyone?) to obsess over, but plotwise, it really seems to be spinning its wheels.  Of course, with the 20+ episode seasons of all of these comic book inspired shows, it’s no surprise that the first halves of seasons are usually full of filler.  GRADE: B-
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The Flash
What do you love about classic Flash comic books?  Is it the affable, nerdy, do-gooder attitude of Barry Allen, one of comics’ most beloved heroes?  Is it the crime-solving and detective work inherent in Allen’s secret identity as a forensic scientist?  Is it the Flash Facts, little bits of science (or pseudo-science) frequently thrown in to explain the Flash and supporting characters’ remarkable powers and gadgets?  Is it the somewhat goofy lineup of rogues such as Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and Gorilla Grodd?  Is the sheer joy of imagining all of the things you could do with superspeed, undoubtedly one of the most excellent of the classic comic book superpowers?  If you answered All of the Above, you should probably just go ahead and watch the Flash because it captures the vibe of the comics upon which it is based better than any comic-to-TV adaptation I can think of.  GRADE: A-
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How To Get Away With Murder
Superstar defense attorney Annalise Keating removes her many layers of makeup and her wig, turns to her husband, and utters the phrase that reverberated around the world: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”  That was the stinger at the end of one of this show’s early episodes, and it was the moment that solidified the show as yet another obsession-worthy Shonda Rhimes Special.  Just as Kerry Washington’s white hot charisma powers Scandal, much of the joy of HTGAWM comes from simply basking in the intensity of Viola Davis as she rips students to shreds, blows the tops off of courtrooms, and frequently displays heartbreaking vulnerability.  For me, an even bigger pleasure comes from watching the sexcapades of Keating’s very young, very hot, super diverse, and full-on hilarious team of junior associates.  If you like backstabbing, double-speak, network television’s most explicit boy-on-boy action, and this haircut:
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you will love the hell out of this show.  GRADE: A+
Gotham
I love the comic strip Garfield minus Garfield.  By removing the fat orange cat from the strip entirely, and leaving John Arbuckle alone to contemplate his meager existence, Garfield minus Garfield creates something entirely new through the art of omission.  It takes something mildly funny and recasts it as something profoundly dark.  Gotham, which could just as easily be called Batman minus Batman, does the opposite and recasts something profoundly dark as something *very* mildly funny.  This is a tune-in-every-once-in-awhile-if-the-episode-title-seems-promising kind of show.  Recommended for fans of Batman: Forever.  GRADE: C-
Scandal
This season just makes me want to toss off my all-white winter wardrobe
 Scandal -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.
curl up on the couch with some fried chicken in my Uggs
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sip on a nice, modestly sized glass of wine
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and watch it over and over and over because there’s a decent chance that this is the best season of Scandal yet.  GRADE: A
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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
This series received an injection of buzz and fresh ideas when Captain America: Winter Soldier came out in the middle of its first season and completely changed the show’s status quo.  Suddenly a show about a lame bunch of do-gooder government flacks became a show about betrayal, secrets, and life on the lam.  As the second series has begun to pick up speed, it seems like Agents is failing to take advantage of the excitement and tension inherent in the Hydra storyline.  Coulson’s crew are already back on the right side of the law, with access to seemingly unlimited resources — not excitedly the underdog scenario that was promised in season one’s final episodes.  The one saving grace of this season has been the action sequences.  The fight choreography and special effects this season have been pristine — too bad you generally have to wade through 30-40 minutes of blah storytelling to get to them.  GRADE: C+
Brooklyn 99
 The funniest traditional sitcom currently on TV — in fact, maybe the only funny traditional sitcom currently on TV.  Immature gross out humor, a cast in which ‘competent white males’ take a backseat to actually competent women and men of color, genuinely lovable and delightfully flawed characters, and this face on a weekly basis:
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GRADE: A-

Saturday Night Live
This has been a season full of lame hosts and totally lacking in breakout stars among the cast.  Michael Che and Leslie Jones have been delightful but underused.  Pete Davidson seems promising but has yet to develop any memorable characters — besides himself on Weekend Update.  It seems like Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam are keeping the show afloat most nights with their broad repertoires, but they’re so overused that it’s just starting to seem like schtick.  The best parts about this season have been Kyle Mooney’s weird little segments and digital shorts — he’s the one writer/player who seems to have a distinct voice at this point – and the last run of musical guests.  Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson/Mystikal brought the house down over the last few weeks.
GRADE: C

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Photo cover for Coronet edition of Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark, via Pulp Curry.

Photo cover for Coronet edition of Butcher’s Moon by Richard Stark, via Pulp Curry.

“Nobody tops Stark in his depiction of a world of total amorality” — Anthony Boucher, New York Times Book Review, date unknown

That quote adorned the first Random House hardcover edition of Butcher’s Moon in 1974.  The longest of the Parker novels, it was also nearly the last.  Although Donald Westlake claims he had no plans at the time to end the series or retire his pseudonym of Richard Stark, after Butcher’s Moon both Parker and Stark disappeared for more than twenty years (they returned in 1997 with the aptly named The Comeback)*.

I’ve clearly been reading these books in a terrible order.  I started with a couple of Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations, then picked up Flashfire, a middling effort from the second generation of Parker tales, then dove right into Butcher’s Moon, which I’ve since learned is the most continuity heavy and fan-servicing title in the whole series.  It was the sixteenth Parker novel and features references to every title that came before, especially Slayground, an early caper whose loot a now-desperate Parker is trying to recover at the beginning of the novel.

Parker soon discovers that in order to get his $73,000 he’ll need to go up against the local mob — and he’s not the only party interested in dethroning the current local godfather.  As in many of Parker’s adventures, especially the first trilogy, Parker is not only an outlaw from the straight world but an outsider even within the criminal underground.  This is important because it means that nearly every character he goes up against is a criminal themselves, including the crooked cops and politicians who serve the syndicate in Tyler, Ohio.  As a writing device this is rather brilliant on Stark’s part because it allows him to ratchet up the bodycount to absurd levels as henchmen after henchmen falls to Parker’s snubnose, while still preserving some since of gravity when one of the (relatively few) innocents is caught in the crossfire.

I was taken with the setting of the mid-size city of Tyler.  In my mind, the mob is always centered around big cities like New York and Chicago or gambling meccas like Vegas and Atlantic City, but Stark’s understanding of the real contours of crime is more nuanced.  This was the Jimmy Hoffa era, after all, when ties between organized labor and organized crime were at their strongest, so it makes since that rust  belts burgs like Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Albany, and Buffalo would make strong power bases not only for the IBT and UAW but for their criminal benefactors as well.  Through the town of Tyler, Stark depicts a society in such moral decline that once unthinkable enterprises are now legitimate businesses.  One villain, the porno theater impresario Buenadella, reflects midway through that he represents a new generation of criminal, for whom the side businesses are more than just money laundering operations and the application of force has become less and less necessary.

Unfortunately for Buenadella and the other genteel mobsters, Parker didn’t get the memo about going legit.  When he decides to put an end to the mob that runs Tyler, they barely fight back — Parker is essentially shooting fish in a barrel, highlighted by a late scene in which Parker relentlessly hunts one cappo in his own home.  At some point in the book, Parker’s motivation has changed from merely getting his money to a desire to enact some version of frontier justice — an unusual change of heart that doesn’t escape the notice of Parker’s accomplices, though it surprises no one more than Parker himself.

The accomplices, by the way, are the most entertaining element of the book.  There are ten of them or so, introduced halfway through the story in a series of vignettes as they all race to answer Parker’s call to gather in Tyler for an unusual, but profitable, gig.  I delighted as Stark managed to paint a portrait of each new character in the space of a few paragraphs, each time telling the reader who they were, what their relationship was to Parker, and what their role would be in the ensuing crime spree, all without getting anyone garbled or coming across as a lifeless infodump.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the crew introduction sequence in Ocean’s 11 (the good version), whose sensibility and style no doubt borrowed liberally from Westlake, though perhaps more from his comic Johnn Dortmunder novels than the hard-boiled Parker series.  This section is no doubt of even greater thrill to more seasoned Parker readers, as I take it that every member of Parker’s newly assembled squad has appeared in at least one earlier book in the series.

The novel’s coup de grace is a long sequence of multiple heists in which this Merry Band of Outlaws takes the lead and Parker stays behind the scenes, counting the money and orchestrating the timing as his team knocks over the local burglar arm company and then takes advantage of this blind spot to hit four businesses with mob ties in one night.  Stark is at his best when delivering his clinical descriptions of perfect crimes, from which the bandits always get away, and it’s a thrill to read as the crew liberates hundreds of thousands of dollars without raising alarms, causing bloodshed, or seemingly causing harm to anyone but the “real bad guys.”  It’s almost elegant, a perfectly choreographed ballet of crime — an illusion that is shattered when the hoods take on their last job of the night, hijacking a suitcase full of drug money, a crime where the only plan is to shoot everyone and leave the scene as quickly as possible.

Though he first appeared in 1962, Parker is very much of a piece with the male antiheroes who dominate in our current vogue for elevated pulp television.  The only difference between him and Tony Soprano or Walter White is that he’s not nearly so internally conflicted.  And much like the creators of the Sopranos and Breaking Bad, Stark does a lyrical job of fetishizing and romanticizing the criminal lifestyle just long enough to shock us when he finally digs in and shows us its dark, still-beating heart.

Detail from Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptation of Slayground, an early Parker novel whose setting is revisited in Butcher's Moon.  Scan via Lambiek.

Detail from Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation of Slayground, an early Parker novel whose setting is revisited in Butcher’s Moon. Scan via Lambiek.

*For the most in-depth publication history along with trivia and a great synopsis of not just Butcher’s Moon but every Parker book, I strongly recommend a visit to The Violent World of Parker.

 

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What’s this? A live theater review?  Fear not, gentle reader, now that I’m long since done with my ‘dating actresses’ period, this will likely be the only play I see for another year or two — I’m not gonna turn this blog into the Arts & Culture section…although I did run that museum piece a while ago…

Anyway, Detective Partner Hero Villain.  It’s a short play about superheroes and its running fora few more weeks at Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago.  One of my dear college buddies, Sam Guinan-Nyhart, plays the “Hero” of the title, so once again, let us dispense with any pretense of objectivity for the remainder of the review.  If you love comic books and kinda like theater, I think you should buy tickets.  If you love theater and kinda like comic books, I think you should buy tickets.  If you love comic books AND theater, I don’t know you probably saw it already.

Guinan-Nyhart, Wilson, Rita, and Parker.  Photo stolen from Time Out Chicago.

Guinan-Nyhart, Wilson, Rita, and Parker. Photo stolen from Time Out Chicago.

The short play features a four man cast.  John Wilson is the Detective, sort of a stand-in for Commisioner Gordon as he is the only link between the police and the superhero known as The Fantastic Phenomena, played by Guinan-Nyhart.  Marc Rita plays The Partner, who seems more grounded than the Detective even as he speaks almost entirely in metaphors and aphorisms.  Finally, Tim Parker delivers a satisfyingly arch performance as Supernova, the villain whose killing spree gets the plot of this play rolling.

Within the short confines of the play’s runtime, writer Brett Neveu and director Gus Menary take the time to explore questions that will be familiar to comic fans of the post-Watchmen era:  without superheroes, would supervillains even exist?  What does a masked hero do when he’s not foiling crimes?  Are superhero stories never ending, and if so, is that a good thing?  Do the black and white moral lessons of superhero stories have any relevance to the real world?

Plotwise, the play really fizzles out in the last ten minutes as it crosses over into a more metafictional territory.  But it’s not really a plot driven play, it’s really more of a space for the actors to work in.  I won’t say to much about my boy Sam, except that obviously I thought he was great and his deadpan delivery of goofy superhero lines brought much of the humor to an otherwise dark play.  Wilson and Rita are strong too, but I think it’s Parker as the enigmatic villain who really steals the show.  Playing what essentially amounts the Joker in 2013 without completely ripping off Heath Ledger is no mean feat, so he gets mad props just for that, and bonus points for true Villain Hair.

Detective Partner Hero Villain runs Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays at 8:00 PM at Strawdog Theater Company, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.

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The Nominee: Cormac McCarthy, Best Original Screenplay

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The Film: The Counselor, a Ridley Scott film featuring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz. 2013.

Cormac McCarthy could be quite happy in his relationship with Hollywood; in the last fifteen years three of his novels have been turned into major motion pictures: Billy Bob Thornton’s almost universally panned All the Pretty Horses (book: 1992, film: 2000); the Coen brother’s Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men (book: 2005, film: 2007); and unmemorable, but apparently popular, The Road (book: 2006, film: 2009). Of course, those adaptations, even the beloved No Country, generally managed to capture if not amplify the grit and imagery of McCarthy but missed much of the poetry of the great writer’s language.  No fault of the various directors and actors involved in those films — cinema and literature are different beasts, after all, with different strengths, different possibilities.  It’s clear that for all the accolades and (no doubt) money he has reaped from Hollywood, McCarthy is not satisfied.  With his latest project, the original screenplay for The Counselor, the 80-year old author has set out to make a film that does full justice to his words on the page — and as Andrew Romano pointed out his review and history of screenwriters in Hollywood, that may be a Win for McCarthy more than it is for moviegoers.

I filed this film comfortably into the “interesting is not necessarily good” category — a rather crowded closet, for me at least, full of great directors’ lesser works and unintentional period pieces.  The Counselor mostly belongs to the former designation; it looks good, and Ridley Scott deserves full marks for squeezing every drop of entertainment value out of each instance of sex and violence in the script.  Of course, like most movies, it may one day find itself lumped in with the latter as well, an artifact of a time when we were briefly fascinated by Javier Bardem.  This time ’round, Bardem plays Scarface as if dealing drugs and pimping models was just a cooler way of having a mid-life crisis. Reiner is not a role of great subtlety; I doubt this comes as much of a surprise*.  Bardem’s scenery-chewing is still thrilling to watch, however, which makes it all the more striking that Reiner is eliminated little more than halfway through the movie — one of many uncomfortably timed story beats that signals there is something going on here besides Hollywood’s usual hard-hedonism.

McCarthy’s script takes the form of a grand morality play in which each actor delivers their take on great existential questions in the form of long monologues and queasy anecdotes.  Michael Fassbender, who goes only by the moniker Counselor throughout the film, plays a man whose world is changed forever by a single choice — if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve likely heard Reiner’s warning that “if you pursue this road that you have embarked upon, you will likely come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.”   Late in the film, another unnamed character played by Rubén Blades suggests to the Counselor that at key points in our lives, we make decisions that cause reality itself to fork — and once you have passed into a parallel world, there is no possibility at all of going back to the way things were before.  The tragedy is that there is no way of knowing when those moments will be until they have passed; McCarthy suggests that there is no chance of passing through this life unscathed by own’s choices because it is impossible to know when one is a careening down a moral path from which there is no return.  It is a complex reading of the relationship between self-determination and fate, the overarching theme of Mr. McCarthy’s 50-year literary career and of great thinkers since time immemorial.

Unfortunately, the presentation of this morality play is neither compelling nor lucid.  Like McCarthy’s challenging novels, the film does not lead the viewer through a dramatic arc but rather walks them around a sort of moving crime scene, examining its pieces, bagging some and discarding others**.  It’s an effective treatment on the page, but suffers on the screen from a lack of coherence.  Like many Ridley Scott films, it is effective insofar as it subverts viewers’ expectations of an emergent cinematic mode — in this case, the Mexican-American border epic or narcocorrido.  Unlike many of those same films, however, it fails to reach that goal using the pure, efficient tools of cinema and relies instead on a wooden, overwrought script.  If McCarthy earns an Oscar nomination, or less likely, a win, for this screenplay, it will be read more as a lifetime achievement award than a genuine appreciation of The Counselor — unless the Academy voters saw something here that I didn’t.

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On a lighter note, if ever Cameron Diaz did deserve a Best Supporting Actress nod, this would the one.  She takes diabolical glam to new heights as Reiner’s sensual foil Malkina, and achieves what we thought impossible — she makes exotic big cat ownership seem cool again.

Dear Cameron,

Thanks a million 😉

Sincerely,

The surviving members of Siegfried and Roy, Mike Tyson, and disastercouch.com

*If you’re interested in an infinitely more nuanced, and 30 times longer, vision of drug-dealing-as-midlife-crisis set in the American Southwest, you might be interested in a little known AMC program called Breaking Bad.  

**This is perhaps least true of McCarthy’s most popular book, the Pulitzer-prize winning The Road.  Though its apocalyptic setting makes The Road uncommonly dark, even for a McCarthy novel, it’s narrative simplicity marks it as his most accessible, hence its Oprah’s Book Club nod, an award that is, in its own disheartening way, much more prestigious than even the Pulitzer.

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Multiple Warheads ‘Down Fall’ by Brandon Graham.  Image, 2013.  Reprints “Multiple Warheadz” (2003), “Elevator” (2004), and “The Fall” (2007).

Last year’s Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity miniseries was somewhat arresting for the way it dropped readers into a bizarre, surreal, and fantastical setting with little to no safety net — even more so than Graham’s other trippy series, King City and Prophet, the title bore a take-no-prisoners approach to world building, filling every chaotic page with bizarre technologies, alien origins, and post-meta-mega puns thrice removed from reality.  His best comics capture the free associative magic of childlike imagination, and are thus best enjoyed as a visceral thrill — from whence spring the ideas is  a moot point.  But those who insist on an origin story for everything will be pleased to pick up the new Down Fall one shot, which collects the very first Warheads story — a graphic look at Graham’s Adult with a Capital A Comics days featuring a tantalizing dual penis rig — and two previously published one-shots.   These earlier stories are closer to in tone to King City than the more recent Warheads series, focusing as they do on the internal monologues of Sexica and lacking the unrestrained sense of visual and lyrical play of the pun-strewn Alphabet to Infinity.  Though Graham completists will no doubt enjoy the 80-page volume, it’s worth noting that much of this material will be collected again, along with the 2012 series, in The Complete Multiple Warheads, out December 4.

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Batwoman #24 by J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman and Trevor McCarthy with Sandu Florea, Derk Fridolfs and Guy Major.  DC Comics, 2013.

This is the last Batwoman issue from  J.H. Willaims III, who co-created Batwoman with Greg Rucka, and the creative team of Williams, W. Haden Blackman and Trevor McCarthy, who have helmed the solo title since the launch of the New 52.  One would think that DC would at least give the creators, who left the title due to creative meddling from DC editorial, an opportunity to rap up the storyline they’ve had in the works for over two years.  The issue does finally show the battle we’ve been waiting for between Batwoman and Batman, but we only get a few pages of the fight before ending on a cliffhanger, presumably to be picked up next month by new writer Mark Andreyko and artist Jeremy Haun.  I won’t be sticking around to see who wins the fight — I’m guessing they resolve their differences and end up teaming up to take on a greater threat — because this issue will be the last regular DC title I pick up for some time.  The publisher still has four or five talented creators in their stable, and perhaps many more whose talent would bloom in a less oppressive editorial climate, but I just can’t justify searching for diamonds in DC’s rough anymore — someone let me know if they magically figure out how to put out a comic book that has enjoyable characters and real heart again.

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The Shaolin Cowboy (vol. 2) #1 by Geoff Darrow with Dave Steward.  Dark Horse, 2013.

Geoff Darrow puts a ton of effort into rendering the backgrounds for this comic.  As one might gather from the cover, Darrow presents a world that is filthy and ruined.  Most of the action takes place in a panoramic American Southwest.  The scrub brush and rocky outcroppings scream John Ford and Sergio Leone, but look closer and you’ll see a landscape littered with crushed soda bottles and beer cans, roadkill splatter, and cigarette butts, criss-crossed by cracked highways patrolled by ephedrine popping rednecks.  At the crossroads between The Searchers and Mad Max stands The Shaolin Cowboy, holding back the living dead with his ever spinning chainsaw lance.

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Coffin Hill #1 by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda with Eva de la Cruz.  DC/Vertiog, 2013.

I hadn’t heard of her, but I’m guessing some of you will already know Caitlin Kittredge from one her two successful urban fantasy series, the werewolf cop noir Nocturne City or the young-adult steampunk series Iron Codex.  I tend to keep my mits out of “urban fantasy” because, I don’t know, I don’t want to admit how much of a girl I am on the inside and I think if I open the floodgate of vampires-fucking novels I might never be able to get it closed again.  So far, Coffin Hill is light on the fantasy elements but heavy on the teenage angst and gothy atmospherics that fuel a million little Wiccans nightmares.  It starts out with rookie cop Eve Coffin taking a bullet on what ought to be the greatest night of her life, and then flashes back a decade to Eve’s rebellious stage.  The Coffins, we quickly learn, are loaded up with the kind of old-old money that’s always bathed in a lot of blood — and before the issue ends, a few naked teenagers will be bathed in blood as well.  The most satisfying part comes at the end, when we find that after her gunshot, older Eve just wants to get back to her freaky, gothic roots; I’m sick and tired of coming-of-age stories, and I’m about ready for an unabashed regressing-into-fantasy sort of scenario.  I don’t hesitate to call this an AUSPICIOUS DEBUT.

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Morning Glories #31-33 by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma with Jason Lewis and Rodin Esquejo.  Image, 2013.

It’s not possible to follow this book, in general, and so it is doubly not possible to follow it reading one issue a month.  I have better luck letting three or four build up in a stack and tackling them all at once.  The weird thing is, Spencer actually keeps each issue rather discreet…it’s rare for a single plotline to flow from the last panel of an issue directly to the first panel of the next.  One suspects that there are several possible reading orders for this series or that, like paragraphs in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, you could shuffle the issues into any kind of order and get a different kind of experience.  Is it possible that Spencer is using the very format of monthly floppy comics as a structural element in his labyrinthine time travel tale?  I’m dangerously close to putting up a corkboard and disassembling my Morning Glories collection into a paranoia-matrix, Beautiful Mind style.

and now one from the back issue bin…

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Eightball #4 by Daniel Clowes.  Fantagraphics, 1990.

I wish I was the age I am now but like 23 years ago.  In the 1990, the height of cool was to be marginally employed and willfully unambitious, disdainful of everyone else’s taste yet recklessly confident in your own, to cast yourself as an outsider in amongst a group of fellow outsiders.  Nowadays, twenty-somethings are just a bunch of flannel-wearing, self-obsessed asswipes who love ‘alternative’ comics and worship the Replacements…OH…MY…GOD

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fanemia (n.): The binge-and-purge process by which a fan obsessively pares down his/her comic book pull list and/or Hulu queue, only to immediately turn around and add a bunch of new comic series and/or TV shows to the rotation. See also: First Issue Syndrome, Completerunitis, Pokemania (aka Ash Ketchum’s Disease/Gotta Catch ’em All Disease), Heisenberg Uncertainty Disorder (“I’m The One Who Spoils” Syndrome).

This week I read the first issues of a few different series and watched a few pilots.  First issues don’t always reveal everything you need to know about a book; like TV pilots, first issues generally have little time for anything other than a quick introduction to the characters and setting.  But also like TV pilots, there’s a good chance that if you’re not at least intrigued by that first story, you won’t be coming back for more.  It’s like Eminem once said: “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.”  So what did I think of the issue #1s and episode 1’s of the past week? Read on.

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Fantomex Max #1 by Andrew Hope and Shawn Crystal with Lee Loughridge.  Marvel Entertainment, 2013.

This is the big chance at a comeback from Andrew Hope, who apparently bleeped across at least a few radar screens when he drew a few issues of Mark Millar comics in the 90s before promptly disappearing from the scene.  He’s returned to unleash his scripting prowess on Fantomex, a Grant Morrison character who rather infuriated me in New X-Men but came into his own as a core player in Rick Remender’s X-Force.  Hope writes the character as a narcissistic but benign master thief with a very jealous artificial intelligence always at his side.  I’m not convinced he really knows what to do with the character; the MAX imprint means Hope isn’t beholden to any prior continuity, but rather than getting right to the heart of the character as Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron have done in their MAX titles, Hope goes for the easy out and mostly riffs on Diabolik — the Italian pulp hero on whom Fantomex was originally based.  It doesn’t help the writer’s case that his numerous pop culture references tend to be offensive, dated, clunky, or all three, as when “more holes than a Lillith Fair” is used as euphemism for being riddled with bullets.

I was more interested in Shawn Crystal’s art.  Crystal has done a fair bit of work for Marvel, mostly on Deadpool-related titles.  His style is heavily influenced by anime and animation, which seems a bit out of place in what presumes to be an adult title, but Ryan Ottley made it work on Invincible so it might not be a problem.  While this book may not be a perfect stylistic fit for Crystal, this issue in particular does serve as a showcase for the artist’s many skills:  high-energy layouts, an excellent sense of space and perspective, and phenomenal use of sound effects.  The book is colored in a unique style that uses tons of zip-o-tone effects; I think this may have had a side effect of making Crystal’s artwork look a little more unique than it actually is (J. Scott Campbell called, he wants his breasts and noses back, and also Humberto Ramos left a message regarding hands and feet), but whatever is gained is overshadowed by the distracting muddiness of page after page of polka dot backgrounds.

Finally, this book has a just plain regressive attitude towards women.  I expect this from DC, but Marvel hasn’t been so bad lately.  One step forward and two steps back, ya’ll.

Verdict: An artist who I’ll be keeping an eye out for, a writer who I hope can improve, and a pretty trashy mini-series I’ll be ignoring for the rest of its run.

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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1E1 “Pilot”

Upside:  This was likely the best looking pilot I’ve ever seen — no wonder, it was one of the most expensive episodes of TV ever made, and all that money is splashed across the screen.  The dialogue is Whedon-snappy (if you’re not familiar with this style, it’s a slowed-down, malled-up version of Sorkin-snappy) and I’m sure there are already dozens of wikia and Reddit pages detailing all of the Marvel insider shout outs.  Agent Coulson’s resurrection is treated like the giant, looming plot hole it is — another typical Whedon move, pointing big flashing neon signs at the absurdities and tropes of serialized TV.

Downside:  There’s not much chemistry between the agents — Ming Na acts (if you can call it that) like a fish out of water, Iain de Caestaker and Elizabeth Henstridge are boring versions of quirky awkward genius genre of TV sidekicks, Brett Dalton just stands there, and Clark Gregg himself could be charitably described as “hamming it up”.

Verdict: The only principal who really captured my attention in this first outing was Chloe Bennet, who I could totally watch a whole show about.  Of course, her hacktivist-turned super agent character Skye is being positioned as the show’s viewpoint character so….you win again Disney/Marvel/ABC.

Unlettered/uncolored page from Hit #1 via Vanesa del Rey's tumblr

Unlettered/uncolored page from Hit #1 via Vanesa del Rey’s tumblr

HIT #1 by Bryce Carlson and Vanesa R. del Rey with Archie van Buren.  Boom! Studios, 2013.

This was a hugely surprising debut.  Bryce Carlson is known in comics as a bigwig at Boom! Studios, but had few scripts and no original concepts to his name before this.  Vanesa R. del Rey is a complete unknown who was recruited to Boom! on the strength of the art posted on her Tumblr.  The pair, who have never met face to face, work together like fair trade peanut butter and locally crafted small-batch jelly.  The story is a fictionalized account of one LAPD’s notorious ‘hit squads,’ moonlighting teams of cops who did what the justice system could not during the post-War heyday of LA’s real world noir culture.  Carlson knows his material inside and out.  Del Rey comes out of the gate with a fully formed and totally unique style that could’t be better suited to the story or setting.

Verdict: Nothing but net.

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Blacklist S1E1 “Pilot”

You could put James Spader in a low rent lawyer show opposite Murphy Brown, Odo, and that dude from Tek War and I’ll still watch.  Oh wait, I totally, totally did.

Villains are always turning themselves in these days (see also the Joker in the Dark Knight, Loki in The Avengers, Javier Bardem in Skyfall), so it’s no surprise that someone’s finally decided to make that the whole premise for a show.  James Spader plays a well connected criminal who wants to turn state’s evidence against his former colleagues — but it’s probably all a big trap or conspiracy.  I’m guessing we won’t find out what he’s really up to for a season or more.  In the meantime, it’s Detective Spader solving the case-of-the-week.

Verdict:  No complaints from over here, thanks.

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Hinterkind #1 by Ian Edginton and Franceso Trifogli with Cris Peter.  Vertigo/DC Comics, 2013.

Katniss Everdeen stars as Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.  Looks like a Vertigo comic.  Smells like a Vertigo comic.  Reads like a fairly unsubtle version of a Vertigo comic.

Verdict:  Might pick it up in trade, just because I like all of the drawings of New York City transformed into an overgrown jungle.

 

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Twas the weekend of the Graphic Novel Bacchanal.  There were snack foods.  There were fizzy beverages.  There was krautrock.  It was truly a hedonistic orgy of unmatched depravity.  And the reviews are in.
 
Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus Vol. 1 with cover art by Frank Miller.  Miller originally drew covers for the First Comics editions of Lone Wolf, published starting in 1987.  His contribution led to the series being one of the first widely read manga in the United States.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus Vol. 1 with cover art by Frank Miller. Miller originally drew covers for the First Comics editions of Lone Wolf, published starting in 1987. His contribution led to the series being one of the first widely read manga in the United States.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima.  Trans. Dana Lewis.  Paperback Omnibus Edition: Dark Horse, 2013.  Reprints volumes 1-3 of Dark Horse’s Lone Wolf & Cub series (2000).  Japanese versions originally serialized in 1970.

This year Dark Horse has embarked on a project of repackaging this epic 1970s seinen manga epic into cheap omnibus editions.  Each of these hefty volumes comprises about 700 pages of story; volume three should hit just in time for the holidays this year, and assuming the publisher sticks with the current page count and pacing of releases, we’ll see a 12th and final volume around the time that we’re voting for 45th president of the United States.  Ogami Itto for president!
Example of an ukiyo-e woodblock print by the master Ando Hiroshige.  Ukiyo-e continue exercise a great influence on the aesthetics of manga, from the way figures are placed in panels to the detailed rendering of natural backgrounds.

Example of an ukiyo-e woodblock print by the master Ando Hiroshige. Ukiyo-e continue exercise a great influence on the aesthetics of manga, from the way figures are placed in panels to the detailed rendering of natural backgrounds.

Goseki Kojima seems to astound me everytime I turn to another of his pages.  In depicting Edo period Japan, the artist is heavily informed by ukiyo-e, the popular artform of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Ukiyo literally means “the floating world,” and refers to the beauty inherent in fleeting moments, and impermanence.  Created in woodblock, and thus easily mass-produced, ukiyo-e depict pastoral scenes, often mountainous landscapes where human figures and architecture are rendered as insignificant motes of dust against the larger backdrop of nature.
Detail from Lone Wolf & Cub by Goseki Kojima.

Detail from Lone Wolf & Cub by Goseki Kojima.

Kojima returns to this style often himself, showing the larger world that ronin samurai Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro inhabit.  Though their story is an epic, even a great 8,000 page work cannot capture anything but the tiniest fragment of human experience.  This theme is hammered home in this collection’s final story, “Half Mat, One Mat, Handful of Rice.”  Having emarked on the “assassin’s road” in his pursuit of secret vengeance, Ogami Itto encounters another ronin samurai, Shino Sakon.  Sakon has taken the opposite tack from Itto and embraced a form of pacifism in his new life as a street performer, using his great samurai skill for nothing more than to earn a night’s keep and a bottle of sake.  Sakon encourages Itto to join him and give up the life of the assassin.  It is inexcusable for Itto to put his own life above those of his victims; after all, all men are equal: “Waking, a half mat.  Sleeping, one mat.  Rule the nation, a fistful of rice.  No matter how many people you kill, countries you steal, fortunes you plunder, or titles you earn…you only cover a half a straw mat when you sit, one when you sleep, and your stomach only holds a fistful of rice!”  The measure of a samurai, Sakon argues, is not his skill in battle, but his capacity for compassion and honor.
The story concludes with a duel between Sakon and Itto.  Itto imagines several scenarios, each of which end in either his defeat or the death of both combatants.  In the end, he is able to defeat Sakon by doing something no samurai would do — tossing aside his sword at the start of the battle.  Itto kills Sakon, but it is the first time in more than 700 pages that the Lone Wolf has shown any remorse for a victim.

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Beast by Marian Churchland.  Image Comics, 2009.
Prior to reading this, her first solo graphic novel, my only exposure to Marian Churchland had been her covers and  interiors for Richard Stark’s Elephantmen and occasional back matter in her partner Brandon Graham’s work.  Though I could appreciate the uniqueness of Churchland’s style, which relies on crayons and charcoal along with soft colors, I never felt that it quite fit in with the hard futuristic visions of Elephantmen, King City or Multiple Warheads.
beast panel detail
With Beast, Churchland creates a world much better suited to her own draftsmanship, a story that relies heavily on the interplay between light and shadow, perfect for her chiaroscuro sketchbook style.  The story focuses on Collette, a struggling artist with very little to show in the way of actual art — a side effect of her chosen medium, stone sculpture, which requires expensive materials and is thus difficult for an emerging artist to make a name in.  Enter Beast, a mysterious benefactor who has commissioned Collette to do a lifesize portrait in marble.  Collette reluctantly accepts the assignment, partly because of its apparent impossibility: the Beast is a figure who exists only in Shadow, totally ephemeral, who appears in the corners of the eye but dissappears when viewed dead on.  How to render such a person in the hard, permanent medium of marble?  The answer, it turns out, is power tools, but as with many things, the tale is in the telling.
One Trick Rip-Off
One Trick Rip-Off +Deep Cuts by Paul Pope.  Hardcover Edition: Image Comics, 2013.
Though this early effort from Pope fails to reach the artistic heights of his mature DC/Vertigo works Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid, or 100%, this recent repackaging is a worthwhile addition to any Pulp Hope fans’ shelf.  The primary story, “One Trick Rip-Off,” was originally serialized in Dark Horse Comics Presents from 1995 to 1996 and represents Pope’s first major exploration of the noir crime genre.  It takes place in a sideways-reality version of Los Angeles in which the street gangs are a little more international and a lot more mystical; the titular One Tricks possess the ability to perform what amounts to the Jedi Mind Trick on rivals, forcing others to disbelieve their own eyes or do their bidding for them.  Aside from that tiny conceit, it’s mostly a story about planning a heist and having things go wrong; Reservoir Dogs with less memorable characters and heavy, heavy inks.  Pope’s ink washes in this period were so heavy that they leak into the diagetic world of the comic — this favorite panel depicts a cab peeling out, seemingly stirring up a wet blotch of India Ink as it takes off through the Southern California desert.
one trick rip off detail
The hardcover also includes an essential introduction to Pope’s ouevre by Charles Brownstein, and smattering of previously uncollected Pope stories.  The latter will be of special interest to those wondering what happened to Pope between his quick rise to American indie comics stardom in the early 90s and his triumphant run of work with Vertigo in the early 2000s.  Turns out he spent much of that time in Tokyo, part of a generation of American artists recruited by top manga publishers in the late 90s.  He had only limited success as a mangaka, but the extended period of working in manga and almost completely avoiding American comics seems to have had a beneficial effect on Pope: he came out the other-side with a much more refined hand and an improved understanding of panel-to-panel storytelling and pacing that would serve him well at the height of his career.

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