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» 2009 » November

Monthly ArchiveNovember 2009

Commentary 26 Nov 2009 12:23 pm

Don’t read this while eating

Here is my Nov. 25 column from The Alliance Review.

Hypochondriacs shouldn’t become parents.

I’ve thought this many times, but was never so convinced as a few weeks ago in the emergency room lobby, sandwiched between my daughter — her head on my shoulder, coughing up a blue streak through a face mask — and a complete stranger holding a sick infant who pulled an Exorcist-worthy stunt by upchucking pea soup down the front of his dad’s shirt.

I’m gonna get what she has, I thought, looking to the left. And then I’m gonna get what he has, I thought, looking to the right.

This was parenthood purgatory of the highest degree, a lower level of Dante’s Inferno reserved for overly fussy germophobes who worship at the altar of hand sanitizer and Lysol and whose idea of torture is listening to people describe, in loving detail, every symptom of their illnesses and every moment of their treatments and convalescences. (You know who you are.)
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Comic books & Television 24 Nov 2009 12:39 am

V is back


When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I grooved on the original V mini-series (two of ‘em) and weekly series (one season). The original mini-series had pretensions to be real literature, an allegory about orchestrated genocide with sinister Nazi overtones. It was created and produced by Kenneth Johnson, who had taken The Incredible Hulk beyond its campy roots in comics to something that aspired to be more topical and dramatic (even if it was only a rehash of the far-superior Fugitive, something I didn’t know back then). The second mini-series and subsequent TV series were made without Johnson’s input, and they aspired to be nothing more than straight action pieces with ray guns and lizards — which is what the Visitors were, after all.

I liked the show so much that I migrated over to DC’s short-lived comic-book series, where one of my letters was published in the fifth issue. Back in those days, DC published complete addresses (today the company doesn’t even have letters pages), and my few hundred words opened the doors to sci-fi fandom. I even had a few V pen pals as a result, geeky as that sounds.  

Cut to 2009, and ABC’s re-imagining of the V concept. It’s … all right. I like that a Catholic priest is one of the
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Books 22 Nov 2009 11:02 pm

Maps & Legends


Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, offers some excellent insights into various genre fictions and into his own life and writing process. I was familiar with Chabon by name only before reading this, but he made me a fan through his introspective, thoughtful pieces.

If the essays can be said to have a theme, it is that genre fiction is as deserving of respect as more “literary” efforts. Again and again, Chabon expends more time than most serious critics might in examining the underpinnings of works as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, and the little-known ghost stories of M.R. James.

The piece that first drew me to the book is a thoughtful appraisal of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where Chabon argues that the book is not science-fiction but horror, a thesis that will be little doubted by anybody who has read the post-apocalyptic novel. I gave this piece to my Advanced Placement English students after they had
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Commentary 20 Nov 2009 08:09 am

Inventions we could really use

This week’s column from The Alliance Review:

From bladeless fans and edible race cars to teleportation and wooden bones, if you want to have your mind blown again and again, check out “The 50 Best Inventions of the Year” in the Nov. 23 edition of Time magazine.

These innovations are on the cutting edge of science, medicine and technology, hastening the day when the word “impossible” will be eliminated from the language. Yeah, you get weird tweaks to existing items, like a stationary bike hooked to a vending machine so consumers must work off calories before receiving sodas, or a paper airplane that made the longest flight (27.9 seconds).

But you also get revolutionary creations like an AIDS vaccine that reduces the chance of infection by 31 percent, a device that allows people to send Twitter messages mentally (and which holds stunning promise for the paralyzed to communicate), and an electric eye that could restore partial vision to the blind.

Still, I was disappointed that nobody had come up with solutions for many of my pet peeves, day-to-day annoyances that should be eliminated for the betterment of humankind.

My list of the top devices that nobody has yet invented includes:
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Movies & Music 16 Nov 2009 10:41 pm

Trio of musicals

sir3 chicago1 holinn3

My fall Film Studies class just finished exploring the musical genre with the three movies shown above. I’ve used Singing’ in the Rain before, but never Chicago or Holiday Inn. I was surprised at how much the students liked all three. I would guess Chicago, which was a bit more spicy — OK, much more spicy — than the others, was their favorite, but they had good reactions to the other two, especially Holiday Inn, which has an effective romantic triangle courtesy of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds.

I saw Holiday Inn for sale on DVD at Wal-Mart over the weekend in a new deluxe set that includes the original black-and-white film along with a colorized version. While colorized films don’t usually tempt me, I am curious how the addition would affect this film, which is all about the spectacle of the holidays. (Purists should note that we watched the black-and-white version in class.) I don’t mind so much when films are colorized if they are released along with a copy of the original.

Movies 15 Nov 2009 10:21 pm

The Beast is back


In Ray Harryhausen films, everything that occurs between monsters is usually filler.

The human bits in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms aren’t that bad, but they do pale in comparison to the scenes where the stop-motion rhedosaurus (above) wreaks havoc in NYC. The 1953 film is definitely the template for many a giant, radiation-irradiated monster movie to follow, including Toho’s famous Godzilla series. Beast is inspired by a Ray Bradbury story called “The Lighthouse,” the plot of which is dispatched in about three minutes in the movie.

Basically, a nuclear detonation in the Arctic awakes a slumbering dinosaur that makes its way south along the North American coastline. Most of the movie’s first half covers the trials and tribulations of a nuclear physicist present at the creature’s “birth” as he tries to convince the rest of the scientific community that he’s not crazy. He manages to convert a pretty paleontologist to his cause, and after that the rest is easy.

The scenes of the rhedosaurus tromping around Manhattan are definitely the highlight of the film, especially a fiery conclusion at Coney Island as the creature tears up a roller coaster before taking its final bow. A weird subplot posits that the creature can’t be directly killed because of some sort of prehistoric germ it carries that  sickens all who come into contact with it. I originally assumed this was some sort of radioactivity it picked up at the site of the bomb blast in the Arctic, but the script isn’t specific about this. Logic isn’t always a strong point in these pictures, but that hardly matters here.

Fifty-six years after its release, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still an exciting motion picture, one I dimly remember from the good old days of Super Host on WUAB-43 on Saturdays during my misspent youth. It was nice to revisit it again and find it is still just as fun — and influential — today. I’ll always be a sucker for a giant-monster movie, and while none quite compares to the granddaddy of them all, King Kong, this one is still good stuff. (And for only $6 on Amazon, how could I go wrong?)

In some ways,

Books 14 Nov 2009 04:34 pm

Pearls Sells Out


The only bad part about reading this, the fourth and latest Pearls Before Swine treasury from Stephan Pastis, is the realization that I’ll have to wait a long time before the fifth treasury is released. I love everything about this strip, from Pastis’ stripped-down art to his wicked sense of humor, which more and more often involves including himself in the proceedings. Like all the Pearls treasuries, this one has the added bonus of annotations by the creator and a sampling of rejected or revised strips. It’s all great stuff.

This is the treasury where the crocodiles come into their own. When the crocs were first introduced, I didn’t find them all that funny and resented the time they took away from Rat and Pig, the stars of the series. But over time, either the crocs have gotten funnier or I’ve grown accustomed to them, because their antics here — including a doomed croc/zebra romance with overtones of Romeo and Juliet and a sequence (at Christmas, no less) where a croc finally manages to eat a zebra — are hilarious. If this were TV, Pastis would have spun them off into their own series by now, but since it’s the doomed world of the newspaper comics page, they remain a strong part of the ensemble cast.

If we need another reason why newspapers must survive, Pearls Before Swine provides one.

Comic books 13 Nov 2009 07:54 am

Doc meets Bat


I wanted to like Batman/Doc Savage Special #1 a lot more than I did. The pairing of the Dark Knight and the Man of Bronze is a natural since both are characters who have perfected their bodies and minds to a near-inhuman degree to fight crime and since the first was clearly inspired by the pulps and the second is arguably the pulp’s most famous son.

But this issue comes across as little more than a tease for DC’s upcoming First Wave title, which will apparently feature a new universe of sorts where pulp characters are brought out of the ’30s and ’40s and allowed to interact with DC franchises, albeit some alternate-dimensional type of DC franchises. Writer Brian Azzarello does a great job explaining all of this in the back pages of this special, walking us through his take of First Wave Batman, Doc Savage, and various allies and enemies. Unfortunately, that’s the most intriguing part of the book.

The story itself is basically Batman and Doc Savage deciding if they can trust one another. Bats thinks Savage is a media whore; Savage thinks Bats is a killer. The rest plays out like an average issue of the old Marvel Team-Up, except that by the time the heroes realize they should stop fighting and start working together, the story is over.

Phil Noto is an artist whose work I’m not familiar with. He uses a nifty art-deco kind of style here that doesn’t quite capture the essence of either costumed crimefighter. It’s not bad by a long shot; it just doesn’t fit with the pulpish tone of the material.

I’m curious to see where all this goes when First Wave premieres in March. Hopefully, the Batman/Doc Savage team will receive another pairing there, as this one was largely a missed opportunity.

Commentary & Media 13 Nov 2009 07:27 am

I hate to eat personality

This week’s column from The Review:

I just don’t understand the urge to anthropomorphize food.

Why does Madison Avenue think I’m more likely to eat a product after they’ve spent millions to convince me it has a consciousness and, by extension, a soul?

Take Frosted Mini-Wheats. Kellogg’s gives these little squares of whole-grain goodness voices and personalities. In one commercial, they’re lounging in warm milk like vacationers in a hot tub and actually seem excited about the prospect of being eaten. In another, they’re practically begging kids to chew them up so they can sit on their shoulders during the school day and help them with tests.

So much is wrong with this that I don’t know where to start, but I will say that I’m now less likely to sit in a hot tub without expecting a giant spoon to lower from the heavens and the eye of a giant, extra-dimensional child to peep through one of the windows, looking for hot cereal. If one does, don’t look for me to be the person shouting, “Eat me, eat me, giant child from another dimension! I want to help you do well on your algebra quiz!”
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Books & Comic books 11 Nov 2009 07:10 pm

Sleeper Season Two



Sleeper Season Two is the conclusion (at least for now) of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ dark exploration of the spy genre by way of superheroics. I raved about Season One, which works its “Spy Who Came in from the Cold” theme with great relish.

I am a little less pumped about this collection, if only because the violence becomes a little too gratuitous and over-the-top. Season Two also loses some of the suspense of its predecessor because the double-agent status of protaonist Holden Carver (and I always want to type Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame instead) has been exposed, and I miss the tension that comes from wondering on every page when he will be caught by the criminal group he has infiltrated.

Still, these twelve issues are definitely worth reading, especially (and probably only) for those who have read the earlier collection. Brubaker brings down the curtain in fine style, providing the only ending that doesn’t strain the reader’s credulity past the breaking point. There is room here for a sequel, but I hope Brubaker and Phillips resist the temptation and leave the story as it is.

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