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» 2010 » April

Monthly ArchiveApril 2010

Commentary 30 Apr 2010 08:34 pm

Welcome to ‘unschooling’

This week’s column from the April 29 Alliance Review:

The “unschooling” movement, featured last week on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” is the latest educational tempest in a teapot.

A branch of homeschooling, unschooling rejects formal curriculums in favor of allowing children to study — if you want to call it that — anything they are interested in, including video games and TV. Because a spectrum exists in any movement and because TV news loves the fringe, the parents on the ABC segments (freely available online) practice extreme unschooling. This means they operate with few, if any, rules, not even mandating that their children go to bed at a sensible time or brush their teeth.

Instead, kids follow their whims, setting and presumably accomplishing self-mandated goals without the specter of Big Brother looming over their shoulders. They don’t use textbooks (unless they want to) and they don’t formally study math or literature or history (again, unless they want to).

A relative tipped me off to the program, probably thinking that as a teacher I would find it crazy enough to write about. She was right about the writing part, but I don’t necessarily find it crazy.
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Comic books 29 Apr 2010 10:08 pm

The Warlord #13


With The Warlord #13, creator Mike Grell does what he should have done from the beginning: Clear the decks and start from scratch.

Since its inception, this revival of the ’70s favorite has been hampered by Grell’s slavish worship of continuity. The first few issues were so bogged down by flashbacks to events from the first series that newcomers need not have bothered, and later installments were devoted to exploring — in excruciating detail — what makes Travis Morgan, the Warlord, a fallible hero.

But with issue #13, Grell finally digs himself out from beneath the weight of previous stories and shifts the focus from Morgan to his son. I’ve been reading comics too long to expect that Morgan, who met his end in the previous issue, will stay dead, but this is one of the few times in comics where I hope he does.

Unencumbered by hundreds of issues of personal tragedy, Warlord Jr. demonstrates just enough angst about living up to his father’s legacy to make him suitably tortured, but not so much that he sits around brooding about it. Indeed, Grell has him doing more in this one issue than he assigned to Morgan in three.

Grell also shakes things up in Skartaris, the land of eternal sunshine at the earth’s core, courtesy of a stray meteor that wipes out a sizable portion of geography and should provide our new title character with plenty to do if he remains the star. Chad Hardin’s artwork suits the story, with dynamic layouts and big panels to capture all the action.

I hadn’t read The Warlord in months before sitting down tonight to catch up, and I had almost decided to drop it from my pull list until I reached #13. This is a new beginning for the book that could actually work, if the misfires of the first year didn’t drive away all but the hardcore faithful.

Mystery fiction 28 Apr 2010 06:58 am

Sixty-Second Solutions #1

  Back around 2006 or so, I wrote a series of twelve mini-mysteries that were published in The Alliance Review. Kids were the target audience, and my inspiration was the series of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries written by Donald Sobol. Steve Wiandt, then my co-worker at The Review, provided illustrations.

When my freshman classes were studying mysteries last week, I got to thinking of my series and decided to dust off the inaugural installment for publication here. Although it was tempting to go through and rewrite and edit, I didn’t. Looking back, I see many things I would change if I had to write them again, but that’s all part of the process. If interest warrants (hi, Mom!), I’ll run a few more here, too.

I don’t have Steve’s pictures (and wouldn’t run them without his permission, even if I had them), but maybe if he’s out there reading, he will upload them on his blog.


           Samantha Spade was the world’s greatest detective.

            Unfortunately, she was the only person in the city of Sallami who knew it.

            Since she had been old enough to read, Samantha had devoured the mystery books on her father’s bookshelf. She read the adventures of Sherlock Holmes from cover to cover, admiring how the master detective untied knotty clues. She loved writer Edgar Allen Poe, whose stories were full of giant apes and poisoned letters. She especially enjoyed tough guy stories by Dashiell Hammett; his character, Sam Spade, had inspired her father to name her “Samantha.”

            After exhausting her father’s bookshelf, she went to the library to find real-life stories of police officers, detectives and other experts. By the age of eleven, she knew more about police procedure and science than any child her age, and was better than most adults at applying observation and deduction.  She worked hard to be a good amateur detective, and it showed.

            But it hadn’t showed in Sallami – yet.
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Books 27 Apr 2010 09:15 pm

Filthy Shakespeare


Nobody reading Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan can be surprised by the content. Subtitled “Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns,” the book is exactly that: a look at everything blue connected with the Bard.

Fans have long realized that the most interesting portions of Shakespeare are the lines that stuffy scholars never get around to footnoting, but even so, many may find it difficult to swallow (no pun intended) some of the author’s liberal translations. Take, for example, Hamlet’s bawdy line to Ophelia, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?,” which the author translates,  ”Lady, shall I f**k in your vagina?” Yikes.

Or take this line from Lord Capulet to young Juliet, “Fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next/To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,/Or I will drag thee on a hirdle thither.” In Kiernan-speak, he’s saying, “Get your genitals ready for a thrashing on Thursday next to go to Saint Peter’s Church with Paris, or I’ll drag you there on a whore’s cart.”

Well, the audience always knew he wasn’t complimenting her.

What starts as an enjoyable romp in the hay with Shakespeare soon grows tedious with page after page of such interpretations. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, and in overstating her case, she quickly wears out her welcome.


Movies 25 Apr 2010 03:30 pm

Avatar revisited


I’d read enough blather about Avatar being a different experience at home versus the theater that I was curious what my reaction would be while watching it on DVD. Would I think less highly of the James Cameron epic in the comfort of my living room?

Nah. If anything, watching it at home gave me an opportunity to catch more of the eye-popping visuals packed into every frame of the movie. And even though the story is derivative of any number of other movies, books, fairy tales, and legends (Poul Anderson deserves credit for the similarities to his “Call Me Joe”), that’s what a good story does, too — echoes and reverberates from earlier tales.

So I’m still a big fan. And when I was finished watching last night, I felt the same way as I did emerging from the theater — energized and ready to see  it again sometime soon.

A word about the Earth Day release: This is a bare-bones edition, not even including a trailer. I ponied up an extra four bucks at Wal-Mart to buy the dual DVD/Blu-Ray package, even though I don’t have a Blu-Ray player. Someday, I likely will. Word on the street is that a more thorough edition of Avatar is coming in November, one with the bells and whistles that some fans wanted on this one. Me, I’m satisfied with the release I already have. But caveat emptor and all that.

Books & Comic books 24 Apr 2010 08:53 am

Area 10


Trepanation is the practice of drilling a hole into the head and through the skull, traditionally in a quest for enlightenment. The practice is esoteric enough to serve as the centerpiece of the latest Vertigo Crime graphic novel, Area 10, by Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee.

Detective Adam Kamen, on the trail of a sadistic serial killer, Henry VIII, who decapitates his victims, receives an inadvertent trepanning wound that causes blurry vision and psychic flashes. With the help of a police psychiatrist, he continues on the trail of Henry VIII, spiralling deeper into the killer’s bizarre mindset.

Gage has created a memorable protagonist in Kamen, giving him just enough psychoses to make the reader question his motives and even his sanity. The dialogue is realistic in a CSI sort of way; the novel reads like one of the more bizarre entries in that television series, which is a good thing.

Samnee illustrates the story in stark black and white — no grayscale here. His images sometimes appear to be almost photographic negatives. It heightens the mood and provides a distinctive look. Just as important, Samnee makes each character easily recognizable, something that many modern comic artists struggle with.

Area 10 is another winner from Vertigo Crime. Up next from the line is the Executor, next month.

Commentary 23 Apr 2010 06:21 am

Warm milk

This week’s column, fresh from the pages of The Alliance Review on April 22, 2010:

While you are all singing the praises of spring, I’m a dissonant voice in the choir, noting the season’s negative effects on dairy products.

I’m talking milk here, created by our bovine friends sometime in the 14th century exclusively for use on cereal, which wasn’t invented until Cyrus Cereal (cousin of the even more obscure Seymour Cereal, who named the little flap of skin between thumb and index finger) discovered Froot Loops growing along the Amazon River in 1919. Which meant that for something like 600 years, milk served no function, except as a salve for poison oak.

But I digress.

Milk and spring go together like oil and water, like Republicans and Democrats, like conservatives and liberals.

Consider: In the winter, you buy a gallon of milk, chuck it in the backseat of the car, and reasonably expect that it will be usable when you get home (the milk, not the back seat, although that should still be functional too.)
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Media & Movies 22 Apr 2010 06:58 am

Abridged Shakespeare


Can three guys perform the entire Shakespeare canon in 90 minutes?

That’s the question that the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare answers in the affirmative, as long as the viewer allows all the comedies to be dispatched in one manic condensation and the history plays to be lumped together in a football game. What remains is a rap-song version of Othello, a Titus Andronicus cooking show, and the performance’s most inspired pieces of lunacy: a 12-minute abridgement of Romeo and Juliet and a lengthy (by RSC standards, anyway) staging of Hamlet.

I screened the Romeo and Juliet portion for my freshman classes following our reading of the play; it was a huge hit. How gratifying to see students responding to the Bard — even in this drag-queen version — and getting the lines! It made them, and me, feel smart. My senior Advanced Placement class enjoyed the Hamlet version Wednesday. From the tube-sock ghost to the hand-puppet play-within-a-play, it was also a hit.

When I watched the entire performance in one sitting, I admit that the troupe overstayed its welcome slightly. The middle portion drags. But the R & J opening and the Hamlet finale make amends. A terrific performance — not really intellectual, but more along the lines of what the Marx Brothers might have done if they’d had an opportunity to sink their teeth into the Bard.

Comic books 20 Apr 2010 10:35 pm

Two new comics


What if Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did copious amounts of LSD while creating Spider-Man stories in the 1960s?

The results might look a lot like Spider-Man: Fever, the first issue of a three-part mini-series where writer/artist Brendan McCarthy offers his retro, weirdo take on everybody’s favorite webslinger — and Dr. Strange, another Lee/Ditko creation, for good measure.

I’m not a regular reader of Spider-Man these days, but I was attracted to this effort because the art looks as if McCarthy is channeling the spirit of Ditko (who is very much alive) circa the golden age of Spidey, albeit through his own skewed sensibility. The plot is an inspired piece of nonsense about an arachnid-shaped demon that breaks through into our world and steals Spidey’s soul, leading to all kinds of visual hallucinations and psychedelic colors.

The story may be only an excuse for the art, but it’s still a memorable tale, something likely to linger in the mind longer than the standard Spider-Man adventure. I liked the cool vibe of the comic and McCarthy’s — and Marvel’s — willingness to go out on a limb to do something different with this flagship character.


Meanwhile, nobody at DC went out on a limb with the premiere issue of Doc Savage, which was a disappointment from start to finish. I would have guessed that creators would line up around the block for a chance to write and draw the adventures of this pulp icon, the precursor to Superman.

But what we get is a humdrum, half-hearted introduction by writer Paul Malmont, who fashions a story about lightning strikes in New York caused (most likely) by some mad scientist type. Unfortunately, Malmont never gets around to showing us the villain, so this is basically the world’s smartest, strongest guy versus impersonal nature, which might be exciting in some circumstances, but not in this.

Worse, Malmont does a terrible job of introducing Doc Savage in his own book, perhaps relying on the fact that many readers will already know the character from his long publishing history or, at the very least, from his reintroduction in other DC First Wave books. Whatever the reason, it’s a bad decision, and new readers may be left wondering who the hero is and why the hell they should care about him or his crime-fighting companions.

Howard Porter and Art Thibert turn in lackluster art where Doc Savage looks different from panel to panel, sometimes jarringly so.

The situation doesn’t improve much with the book’s second feature, an updating of another pulp concept, Justice Inc., which plays like a bad episode of CSI or Cold Case.  Yuck.

All in all, it’s a terrible way to start a series. Instead of looking forward to new issues, I’m already wondering if I should drop it from my pull list. A shame.

Comic books 19 Apr 2010 10:19 pm

Sin City



I revisited Sin City last weekend. It’s still an ugly place — gloriously so.

Long before the movie of the same name, and before writer and author Frank Miller went Hollywood with the concept (and 300 and The Spirit), he was the auteur behind this gritty little series of shorts in Dark Horse Presents. As Miller explains in the afterword, the story ran away with him, something he blames on Marv, the big lug of a protagonist who brawls and hacks and slices his way through the scummy underbelly of the city on his way to bringing down Cardinal Roark, a Roman Catholic criminal of epic proportions.

What I like about this first foray into Sin City is seeing Miller move from the overly fussy style he used on books like Ronin (which will always be my favorite Miller creation) to the stripped-down, minimalist style that has defined his work ever since. The opening chapters of Sin City – later trade collections subtitle this one The Hard Goodbye, but my copy is old enough to be simply Sin City — show the seedy metropolis and its characters in much more detail than Miller would use in later installments, where the art becomes such an extension of the story that it is virtually invisible.

This was apparently my weekend to wallow in violence. Sin City makes Kick-Ass look like grade school in this respect. Is it gratuitous? Not really. Each wicked scene demonstrates to the reader how far Marv will go to get the truth and to defend the honor of his Angel, the glorious call girl whose death in Marv’s bed is the McGuffin that gets the plot moving.

Now I may need to revisit later episodes in the series, too. Sin City is a not-so-nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to leave there.

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