Monthly ArchiveApril 2008



Books & Comic books 30 Apr 2008 06:17 pm

Economy-sized scares

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The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics is the perfect companion piece to David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague, which I reviewed here. It is a 538-page black-and-white compendium of scary and often bloody comic-book tales published from the 1950s to today. Editor Peter Normanton supplies informative introductions to each era, and he kicks things off in fine style with a 1944 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” followed by a 1952 shocker, “Hitler’s Head,” a story I’ve read about that defies categorization (but you can get a good indication from the title).

At only $17.95 (actually less with my Amazon.com discount), the book is a deal, which makes me feel catty to complain about it. But the printing in some stories is marginal at best, and reducing the size of the original stories to fit the book’s dimensions compounds the problem.

I haven’t read all 500-plus pages (I’ll stick to a few pages at a time so I don’t glut myself), but I can already tell the book jumps too quickly into the ’60s and beyond, eras that (as Normanton notes) are well represented by collections from other publishers. More ’50s material – perhaps a whole book worth — would be welcome. Maybe Running Press, the Pennsylvania publisher that released this, will come through.

Despite my griping, this is a great book. If you’ve never read any of the stories that inspired a witch hunt against comic books in the 1950s, here they are. They aren’t high art, but they are diverting reading from a bygone age and a decent sampler of horror from then until now.

Movies 28 Apr 2008 07:30 pm

New secrets revealed

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If you check this blog regularly, you might be sick of reading about Cloverfield. I wrote about how much I enjoyed it here and here. And since the movie was released on DVD last Tuesday, I’m going to write about it again. Sorry.

Cloverfield may be better at home than it was in theaters. A big-monster movie (as opposed to a big monster movie) filmed from the ground level, with hand-held cameras by characters who are running for their lives, the herky-jerky angles and constantly bouncing picture is supposed to represent footage unearthed at Ground Zero in New York City, the site of the creature’s attack. Because of that, it feels more personal and real on TV than on the big screen, like an old videotape you might have found up in the attic but not seen for years. The lack of traditional credits adds to the illusion.

As good as it is, the movie isn’t perfect. Too much of the dialogue sounds like this: Rob, hey Rob. Rob, Rob. Rob, wait up. Hey, hey Rob. Rob, hold on. Rob. Rob. Rob.” That’s from Hud, the cameraman for most of the film, who follows his best friend Rob through the Manhattan streets while Rob is searching for his girlfriend. (Well, OK, the girl he slept with the month before and then never called again. Hey, true love is where you find it.)

The twenty-somethings who populate the film are mostly a liability, but they are likable enough, and director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame) give Rob’s search for Beth (the slept-with girl) a poignancy by inter-cutting the “documentary” footage with scenes recorded a month earlier on the same tape — Rob and Beth at Coney Island, Rob and Beth on the New York streets, Rob and Beth clowning around in her dad’s apartment.

The special effects are incredible. The monster itself is an insect-like, thirty-story giant that rips the head off the Statue of Liberty, and that’s just for starters. The destruction appears realistic, in part because Abrams and Reeves studied actual footage from Sept. 11 and attempted to capture the same you-are-there vibe. It works, sometimes too well: The early scenes, where the destruction has begun but before we learn it was caused by an American version of Godzilla, are very uncomfortable, almost to the point of exploiting the 9/11 tragedy.

The DVD also includes two making-of documentaries, one on the pre-production work and filming and one on the post-production special effects. There are also the obligatory blooper reels and two alternate endings, neither of which is too different from the one seen in the film.

Some people say the jerking camera effects are too much, that the film inspires nausea, not horror. I guess I would feel differently if I had, like, vomited while watching it, but I have a fairly weak stomach and wasn’t affected by the jiggling camera. I wouldn’t want every movie filmed like this (and a similar approach in last summer’s Bourne Ultimatum left me cold), but it works here, and at only 85 minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Of course I recommend Cloverfield. What did you expect? After all, apparently I can’t stop writing about it.

 

Books 27 Apr 2008 08:08 am

Box o’ blood

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It’s been a while since I’ve gulped down a book as quickly as I did Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. The main character, Judas Coyne, is a semi-retired heavy-metal musician — think Ozzy Osbourne, but without the wacky family and with a Southern drawl instead of a British accent — who buys a ghost through an online auction site. Hill makes it a point to say it’s not eBay, just in case any readers go trolling the Internet for restless spirits, I guess.

The ghost is Craddock McDermott, who pursues Coyne and his girlfriend du jour, Georgia, across the country, racing toward a conclusion that alert readers may see coming from early on, but which in no way lessens the suspense — and chills — they receive along the way. With this book, getting there is more than half the fun; it’s the whole point.

Coyne and Georgia are great characters, and Hill goes to great lengths to develop them into people who, despite their Goth trappings and non-conventional rock ‘n roll lifestyles, are recognizable as good people caught up in a bad situation. I also liked Coyne’s dogs — Bon (Scot) and Angus (Young) — who become major players in the story. Hill obviously enjoys his characters, too, which might explain why he extends the story about 20 pages too far, reluctant to leave their world. It’s a forgiveable failing.

Last year, Hill publicly acknowledged that he is the son of horror writer Stephen King (not to mention novelist Tabitha King, his mother). The situation reminds me of a proverb that opens Cujo, one of King’s novels: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” With Heart-Shaped Box, newly released in paperback, Hill has constructed a crackerjack story that should win him fans in his own right, regardless of his lineage. I know that I’m primed to read his short-story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, solely based on how much I enjoyed Box.

Books & Comic books 24 Apr 2008 07:47 pm

Cleaning kids’ minds, one fire at a time

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Here is my print column for the week, published on April 24, 2008, in The Alliance Review:

In 1954, Operation Book Swap was in full swing in Canton, Ohio.

A project of a committee formed by Mayor Carl F. Wise, the program encouraged Canton-area kids to trade comic books for books. Nearly 30,000 comics were collected and exchanged for hardcover copies of novels like “Heidi” and “Swiss Family Robinson.” City leaders unceremoniously hauled the brightly colored comics to the dump.

Operation Book Swap was northeast Ohio’s response to a national mania, the alleged filth being poured into kids’ minds by supposedly unscrupulous comic-book publishers, one chronicled in David Hajdu’s new book, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

Hajdu believes the comic-book purge of the early 1950s — in many communities, comics weren’t taken to the dump, they were burned publicly — was a forerunner of the generation gap popularized years later by parental dismay over rock and roll. The precursor of Elvis’s shaking pelvis was a four-color world held together by two staples, with an admission price of one dime.

In the 1950s, superhero comics were on the decline and crime and horror comics were coming into their own. Publisher Lev Gleason was selling around a million copies a month of a comic book that introduced wide-eyed youngsters to violent bad guys plying their trade against the innocent, supposedly to reinforce the title of the comic, “Crime Does Not Pay.”

But as John Milton learned while writing “Paradise Lost” a few centuries earlier, it’s a lot easier to dramatize evil than goodness. Hajdu notes that the word “Crime” on the magazine’s cover was much larger than the rest of the title, an accurate representation of the emphasis inside between crime and punishment.

Similarly, the EC Comics company struck it rich by selling revenge stories with O. Henry-style twists in magazines like “Crime SuspenStories” and “Tales from the Crypt.” At a Senate hearing on comic books (the very existence of which proves government always has found topics besides the important ones to occupy its time), publisher Bill Gaines defended an EC cover that showed a woman’s severed head held aloft by her killer. He said it would be in bad taste only if the killer were “holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood.”

Psychologist Frederic Wertham spearheaded the jihad against comics. His 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent” branded Batman and Robin as homosexuals, Superman a fascist, and Wonder Woman a sadomasochist. He claimed that comic books caused juvenile delinquency because all the juvenile delinquents he had worked with read comic books. His findings ignored that almost all kids read comics, and that many grew up to be perfectly normal and well adjusted.

By reaching back to the early years of the 20th century, Hajdu shows how disapproval over comics was cyclical. As early as 1909, Ladies’ Home Journal was concerned about the content of the Sunday newspaper funnies, calling them “inane and vulgar” and “nothing short of a national crime against our children.” Similar concern was voiced decades later with the introduction of the comic book, a reaction that reached full flowering in the 1950s with the passage of laws in many communities that made it illegal to sell certain “prohibited” comics titles to minors.

Ultimately, the comic-book industry formed a self-censorship agency, the Comics Magazine Association of America, and created a code banning almost everything that had made comics so appealing to kids. Readership declined (the rise of television was also responsible) and comic books were never again the cultural force they had been.

The final pages of “The Ten-Cent Plague” are a roll call of writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the mid-’50s purge, creators whose stories were burned by over-zealous parents and politicians who, only a decade earlier, had successfully won a war against a regime that also found it necessary to incinerate books.

It is an irony that does not go unnoticed by Hajdu, who has written the definitive account of the mass-market censorship of an art form that nobody cared too much about because it was the exclusive province of the young.

Books 21 Apr 2008 09:46 pm

Ms. Tree solved

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The Hard Case Crime paperback imprint promises “the best in hard-boiled crime fiction” and often delivers.

Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins managed to sneak in below my radar in November. The book’s star, Ms. Tree, has a long history as a comic-book detective, and I’ve enjoyed virtually all of her appearances in that format. This is billed as “the first ever Ms. Tree novel.” Co-creator Terry Beatty, who draws the feature in comics, doesn’t have any interior illustrations, but he’s along for the ride with a wonderful painted cover (seen above). It perfectly captures the essence of Ms. Tree and the Hard Case Crime line, even if it made me a little self-conscious to read it in public.

The novel is a retelling of how Ms. Tree comes to take over her husband’s detective agency (he’s murdered on their honeymoon) and how she avenges his death. It’s a story already told in the comics, but Collins gives it a fresh spin here. Like most Hard Case novels, this is very brief — only 192 pages — and the author moves the story along briskly.

The first-person narration, coupled with Collins penchant for telling us exactly what his characters are wearing at all times, makes for occasionally awkward writing. For example, Ms. Tree notes, “My maroon pinstripe one-button jacket with matching cuffed pants, and the silk blouse with cami, had looked pretty sharp to me this morning; I wondered if my outfit was looking as drag-assy by now as I felt.” Ouch.

Sometimes, the tough gal patter gets a little overbearing, especially when Ms. Tree is making the two-backed monster with her late husband’s partner. Before a steamy love scene, readers are treated to this groaner (no pun intended): “Before he slipped it in, he slipped it on — the ring, I mean.” Mercifully, the scene ends shortly thereafter, but it should have ended before that awful line.

These are minor quibbles. It is good to “see” Ms. Tree in action again. Her comic-book adventures ended in the early ’90s, and with the author moving on to higher-profile work like Road to Perdition, I was afraid she was gone for good.

In an afterword, Collins writes that Hollywood continues to express an interest in the hard-boiled lady detective, and that he might be convinced to bring her back in more prose adventures. I hope he does.

Movies 20 Apr 2008 08:47 am

Close Encounters

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Last night, I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s take on benevolent aliens (but not the illegal immigrant variety) among us.

I first remember seeing it thirty years ago with my family at a drive-in. This is the best way to see the movie, under a starry sky that acts as an extension of all the starry skies in the film. Sitting outside and watching the closing scenes set at Devils Tower, Wyoming, is pretty cosmic, especially when you’re eight or nine years old. I’ve seen CE3K (to use its geek abbreviation) about half a dozen times since then, but nothing beats that first go-round.

Richard Dreyfuss is perfect as bumbling, star-struck Roy Neary, who becomes obsessed with UFOs after having a close encounter along a deserted stretch of Indiana road. Dreyfuss had a run of great roles in the ’70s — in American Graffiti (which I saw for the first time recently), Jaws and this. Hard to believe that Spielberg courted Steve McQueen for the role; McQueen turned it down because he didn’t think he could cry onscreen.

French director Francois Truffaut (whose work I am entirely unfamiliar with, except for his appearance here) is enigmatic but empathetic as Lacombe, who investigates weird goings on around the world before stumbling on a code that leads him and the government to Devils Tower.

There are so many great moments: shots of McDonald’s blanketed by darkness, government vehicles disguised as Piggly Wiggly trucks, Dreyfuss’s sculpting his mashed potatoes at dinner (leading to a massive home destruction project where he replicates Devils Tower in the living room), and the iconic scene of little Barry being tugged through the doggy door by aliens who have invaded his Indiana home.

I have a copy of the 30th anniversary DVD set, which includes the original 1977 film, an expanded version released in 1980, and a third version, also tweaked, released in the 1990s. That’s a lot of CE3K. Included is a lengthy documentary that runs across all three DVDs. Unlike many “making-of” features, this one is actually informative and entertaining. It has interviews with most surviving cast members, discussions of ideas that didn’t work (Spielberg originally planned to have the aliens played by orangutans on roller skates), and composer John Williams explaining the hundreds of versions of the five-note theme he composed before finding one that Spielberg approved. I learned about the hidden R2D2 (of Star Wars fame) hidden on the model of the mothership, and about real-life Project Bluebook head J. Allen Hynek’s cameo appearance. (Hynek, an inveterate skeptic who came to believe in UFOs although not necessarily aliens, is the person who came up with the first-, second- and third-kind designations for alien encounters.)

Eventually, I’ll get around to watching the other two versions of the movie. Overkill? Maybe, but for a director who has made more than his share of great films, Close Encounters may be Spielberg’s signature work, and one worth returning to for a few encores.

“If we’re all ready on the Dark Side of the Moon … play the five tones.”

Commentary 18 Apr 2008 06:55 pm

Kart King explains cat-food etiquette

Here is my column from The Alliance Review, published April 17, 2008:  

This week, the Kart King — a.k.a. Sultan of Sales and Guru of Groceries — answers your questions about all things consumer. Actually, the Kart King makes up all the questions, but don’t let on: It really hurts his feelings when people say he’s talking to himself.

DEAR KART KING: Last week in aisle nine, I came upon the last bag of cat litter at the same time as a little old woman who smelled strongly of ammonia. I let her have the bag, and my cats had to use shredded newspaper for the week. Was I right to yield? — CRAZY FOR CATS IN EAST CANTON

DEAR CRAZY: All is fair in love and litter. Next time, scan the aisle carefully to make sure she isn’t accompanied by a bodybuilding son who is hopped up on steroids. Then, drop a four-pack of Nine Lives canned food on her head (she’ll be catatonic — get it, CATatonic?). Take the litter, and beat a hasty retreat with nobody the wiser. A note of caution: Make sure you knock her out with the first blow, or she might clamp down on your backside with a pair of false teeth or trip you with her walker. Note: This technique works just as well in other aisles, like coffee, snack food and frozen food. Simply substitute Maxwell House, Keebler snack cakes or a DiGiorno pizza for the Nine Lives.

DEAR KART KING: I hate it when I have my turn signal on to pull into a parking space and some sneaky devil in a sports car cuts me off and takes the spot. Should I confront him, or meekly head to the next closest space, usually at the end of the lot farthest from the store entrance? — BELLIGERENT IN BELOIT

DEAR BELLIGERENT: Unlike my answer above, I don’t recommend the direct approach. People who drive sports cars are likely to pummel complaining little girly-men like yourself, even if the space they’ve just stolen from you is marked Handicapped Only. Revenge is a dish best served cold, which means that shaving cream applied judiciously to the windshield of the car after the driver has gone inside will get the point across more effectively than having emergency workers pick pieces of your gray matter from the concrete. Kart King recommends Gillette Deep Cleansing Shave Gel. Good luck!

DEAR KART KING: I am single and lonely. The only reason I go to the store is to meet women, but so far, I haven’t had any luck. Am I crazy, or is this a good way to pick up chicks? — LONELY IN LOUISVILLE

DEAR LONELY: First, don’t knock the single life; it saves you thousands on food alone each year. That said, if you’re really serious about finding a mate, you could do worse than the local grocery store. The worst time to troll is Saturday night, when you will appear so lonely and desperate that even other lonely and desperate people will give you a wider berth than I did that kid in third grade who threw up all over his desk and all the other kids pushed their desks away and made a ring around him because it smelled so bad. The best time to shop for companionship is Sunday morning, when you have a plausible excuse to dress up (you can say you just came from church), and single seekers of the opposite sex will do the same. Happy hunting!

If you have a question for the Kart King, who has studied consumer science in every college and university that would let him sit in the back of a classroom for a few weeks, or his mild-mannered alter ego, Chris Schillig, who may have suffered a psychotic break from reality while writing this column, e-mail cschillig@alliancelink.com. Read Left of Cyber Center at www.the-review.com.

Commentary & Family life 17 Apr 2008 08:03 pm

Pulling the cord — and a few muscles

I did two atypical things this week.

First, I started jogging. My daughter took me out for Run One, told me how to pace myself and plotted a decent route. (She’s had much more experience than I.)

Since then, I’ve run two more times. All week, my legs have felt like two lead weights. They hurt like crazy. Just getting up out of a chair is painful. This is good, I guess, as I’m using muscles I didn’t know I had. And here I thought I was in good shape. Surprise!

I don’t know if what I do counts as running or jogging. I’m moving faster than somebody on a Rascal Scooter, but not as fast as somebody on a moped or a tricycle. I’m also self-conscious when I run; my form is so bad I worry that people who see me might think I’m running away from somebody or something and failing miserably. (Then I remember the old saw: You’d probably care a lot less what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.)

The second atypical thing I did was mow the grass. Now, mowing itself isn’t so unusual, but doing it this early in spring is. I try to put off the first mow as long as possible, because once you start you can’t stop, but the backyard looked as if I needed to hire a couple of ruminating cows to chew through it, so I brought out the Wal-Mart special ($89 plus tax) and cranked it up. The mower is hard to start, even when I’m not sore from all this running — or jogging. Add the aches and pains and the pulling becomes really tough. Maybe I need a new spark plug. It took about eight pulls of the cord to get the red beast fired up, but it was the first shearing, so that’s not too bad.

It took longer to pick up all the dog droppings than it did to mow the grass. (Didja know bear droppings are called scat? I learned it this week. Maybe that’s where “scatological humor” comes from.)

With that pleasant thought …

Books 16 Apr 2008 07:27 pm

Bigfoot: I Not Dead

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Bigfoot: I Not Dead am written by Bigfoot himself. Bigfoot no am very smart. Him write in childish scrawl, with words run down side of page. Bigfoot mad that once him was much more popular, but now not so much.

In book by Graham Roumieu, which come out next month, Bigfoot ruminate on many topic. It include drug, weirdo neighbors, meet hot chicks in bar and others. Whole book write just like this, but with pictures case you get board.

If me were Roumieu, I worry that critics say “one-trick pony,” cuz last book — “Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir” — kinda sound like this knew one, too. Roumieu am good artist, though. Picture cute.

I glad book were free. Editor receive it mail, take home but bring back. Put in my inbox, say it sound more like something I likes. Should me be offended? Nah, still free.

Want know what make Bigfoot mad? Thought of pay $15 for book write all like this, that could read in like 15 minute. I happy to read for free, but not order it on Amazon (where it only $10.20) or buy in brick-and-mortar store.

Am funny pictures of Bigfoot pooping, though. Ha ha. No buy this book. Stay far way. Trust Bigfoot.

Commentary 15 Apr 2008 07:31 pm

How much does this cost?

How much money will U.S. taxpayers spend to protect Pope Benedict XVI during his current visit?

I have nothing against the pontiff, who has an ambitious itinerary for his trip and big shoes to fill from his predecessor, John Paul II. Because he leads a branch of faith whose believers number over 1.1 billion, he is a foreign dignitary deserving of the same level of protection we would extend to any comparable world leader.

But the tight security that accompanies his visit does make me stop to marvel how strong a hold faith has on our world, how a person whose deepest beliefs are supported by no evidence whatsoever and which have led to untold misery and countless deaths in fervent holy wars over the centuries (not to mention the ruination of countless lives through guilt from Christian teachings) can nonetheless command the attention of heads of state when he drops in for a visit.

If I tried to gain an audience with the president to discuss world affairs based on my authority as leader of, say, the Church of Zeus — which has as much evidence to support it as any other faith — nobody would hesitate to brand me psychotic and usher me out. But because the Pope heads a movement that somehow has maintained credibility with a large number of people for thousands of years, his opinion carries great weight.

Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” said, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

I’m not trying to cast aspersions on anybody’s faith — we are all entitled to believe what we want — but I do believe it has no place in national and world politics, where it’s caused enough harm already.

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