Monthly ArchiveAugust 2010



Comic books 30 Aug 2010 10:38 pm

The Spirit #5

 spirit-5

The Spirit continues to be the high water mark of DC’s First Wave line.

The latest issue is no exception. Writer David Hine and artist Moritat prove that all one needs for a compelling adventure comic is a hero you can root for, trying to accomplish a near-impossible task against near-insurmountable odds.

In this case, it’s the Spirit trying to get his associate, Ebony (recast in this latest incarnation as a young woman), to medical treatment after she has been drugged with an illegal substance. Hine strews a number of obstacles in the Spirit’s path, including a blizzard, thin ice, and a $100,000 bounty to the first person who can kill the hero before he achieves his goal. 

Visualizing the issue’s pivotal fight scene from the viewpoint of the hallucinating Ebony gives Moritat a chance to demonstrate his artistic chops and allows readers to imagine how the Spirit might fare in a sword-and-sorcery milieu.  The two-page spread of our hero battling street punks recast as slobbering monsters and ghouls is a showstopper.

This issue offers nothing too complex from a storytelling point of view, which is perhaps why it works so well: Visceral comics from a team that is gelling together quickly, with a cliffhanger ending, to boot.

To be honest, I didn’t read the book’s second feature, a black-and-white tale of the Spirit by David Lapham and Michael Wm. Kaluta. I usually like Kaluta’s artwork, but it looks too busy here, so much so that it turned me off from reading the story. For the most part, the second features in the two First Wave books (extra Spirit stories here, and adventures of Justice Inc. over in Doc Savage) have been disappointments. I’d rather see the space devoted to the main stories in each book.

Even so, The Spirit #5 is an enjoyable installment in the series.

 

Comic books 30 Aug 2010 05:28 pm

Thor the Mighty Avenger

 thor-1 thor-2 thor-3

I last read a solo Thor series more than 20 years ago, after Walter Simonson had finished a defining run on the character. I hung around for a time, hoping subsequent teams would produce work as memorable. What they created were perfectly acceptable superhero stories, but nothing that burned with the intensity of Simonson’s writing and art. I left the book and the character.

But a few months ago, I began reading reviews of Thor the Mighty Avenger that indicated the creative crew of writer Roger Landgridge, artist Chris Samnee and inker Matt Wilson were onto something special. So I gambled this weekend and picked up the first three issues (the fourth comes out next week), and you know what? The reviewers are right.

What Landgridge has done is to take the best sturm und drang elements of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run and mix it with a modern, humanistic sensibility. The key is the relationship between the God of Thunder and Jane Foster, who is recast in this incarnation as a museum curator, which makes sense given Thor’s connection to ancient Norse religion. The two are, as guest-star Wasp notes to Ant-Man in the third issue, hopelessly in love, even though they don’t know it “just yet.”

This is a Thor who sleeps on Foster’s couch, who isn’t sure exactly why he’s been exiled for Asgard but assumes it’s because of another fight with his dad. Landgridge plays the stranger-in-a-strange-land card perfectly here, jettisoning Thor’s faux-Shakespearean blank verse and bombast in exchange for language that is formal, but more accessible. The first two issues set up the scenario, and then the third issues gives the team a chance to really put the storyline into motion.

Samnee’s art bears more than a passing resemblance to Darwyn Cooke’s and is pitch-perfect. His Thor is strong and dynamic when battling Mr. Hyde or stopping a train from running over Giant-Man, but unprepossessing and sensitive when asking Foster to show him the wonders of her world. It helps that he draws Thor as a younger man, despite the character’s immortality. He’s accessible and interesting, and we feel for his plight. Wilson brings a beautiful palette to the color work, fully justifying his position with the other two creators on the cover.

If Marvel is smart, the company won’t lure the team off to bigger and better books or burden this title with unnecessary tie-ins. What the Powers That Be should do is let these three creators continue to follow their instincts and promote the heck out of the results.

Thor the Mighty Avenger is a terrific little series and a brilliant reimagining for a character who was long overdue for one.

Commentary 26 Aug 2010 09:13 pm

2010: A bookshelf odyssey

Today’s column:

I bought a “some-assembly-required” bookshelf last week for my classroom. It was only $15, and I certainly received my money’s worth in frustration and inspiration.

In post-literate America, written directions are as passé as poodle skirts, so the bookshelf came with a half-dozen pictograms, showing the various pressboard pieces and hardware that, if assembled with some modicum of skill, would result in a piece of furniture capable of holding the collected works of Shakespeare, a CD player and perhaps a bottle of Jack Daniel’s hidden inside a hollowed-out dictionary.

I’m sure there’s an old saying somewhere about making sure you have the right tools for the job — in this case, a claw hammer and a Phillips screwdriver — but since both of those were at home and I was at school, I forged ahead with a tiny geologist hammer and needle-nosed pliers borrowed from the librarian. (Librarians have everything.)

Once I had unpacked all the pieces and parts and spread them across the desk tops that today serve as pillows for my slumbering students, I began to decipher the various hieroglyphics in the directions. As a licensed driver, I have lots of experience with this, because English disappeared from automobile dashboards 15 years ago, replaced with wavy blue lines for air conditioning, wavy red lines for heat and something that looks like a nuclear explosion for a flat tire.

These bookshelf directions were cut from the same cloth, with lots of arrows swooping across drawings of an idealized bookshelf that barely resembled the piece I was stitching together like a demented scientist in my murky lair.

The first thing I discovered is that a geologist hammer may be perfect for rock hounding, but it is utterly inadequate for pounding fasteners into predrilled holes. For that you need a real man’s hammer, or lacking that, a heavy literature book. However, what you gain in weight with a good anthology, you lose in precision, meaning my fingers were receiving a good thumping for every fastener I attached.

Whenever I assemble something, I immediately compromise my already-shaky commitment to quality. With the bookshelf, this began when an essential “compression dowel” (words were used in the directions only to give cryptic part names) snapped in half, leaving one end lodged firmly in the panel. Attempts to extract the piece with the needle nose pliers only demonstrated the depths to which quality compression dowel manufacturing has sunk since the golden age of the craft in the late 1920s: It twisted into shrapnel, with one piece still lodged inside the panel.

Like any good structural engineer, I shrugged my shoulders and hoped the stunted remains would be tough enough to support the 170 pounds the bookshelf was designed to hold.

Ultimately, a bookshelf did indeed rise from the rough-and-tumble, helter-skelter amalgamation of wood and metal around the room. The pièce de resistance was the nailing of the back panel, a flimsy thing about the consistency of 20 wet Kleenex tissues.

I quickly completed this final step, only to realize that I had used 16 nails to attach the back panel … to the front of the bookshelf. Removing those 16 nails effectively destroyed the shelf’s finish, tearing the panel in the process and bending about half the nails.

At this point, I was almost ready to drop another $15 and start from scratch, but then the Muse of Education — a cigar-smoking cherub with facial stubble and a dunce cap — granted me a vision:

As babies, most of us come out of the box perfectly, but with no clear instructions. The people responsible for putting us together do the best they can with the tools they have at hand. Most of the time, the results are functional final products, but not without a few wrong turns of the screw or crookedly pounded nails. We don’t call the broken pieces defects; we call them “character.”

My new bookshelf has a lot of character, too much to relegate to the scrap heap. I’m keeping it next to my desk, both for its functional purpose as a holder of books and as an unexpected metaphor for the process of education.

Teachers, may all your bookshelves be functional, and may they all reveal the one thing that no test can measure — character.

Television 23 Aug 2010 06:54 am

Dollhouse Season One

 dollhouse

Months after we started, my wife and I finally finished watching season one of Dollhouse on DVD, just a few weeks before the second season is scheduled to be released. The show was a constant surprise, much more smartly written than many critics (and even fans) gave it credit for. Given the rather formulaic beginning, I never would have predicted where the season ended.

The initial premise is that the Dollhouse is a Los Angeles-based, high-tech brothel where hookers called “actives” are imprinted with memories to make them the perfect companions for the idle rich. After each “engagement,” their memories are wiped clean, and they return to a naive, doll-like state, wandering about an underground secret lair until they are contracted out again. The opening episodes are trashily enjoyable in this vein, especially one that riffs on Richard Connell’s “Most Dangerous Game.” Later episodes show dolls (both male and female) being imprinted with expertise in a variety of disciplines and farmed out to work as investigators, body guards, and midwives, to name just a few professions.

The star doll, if you will, is codenamed Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, known to most fans know for her role in another Joss Whedon-created series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but famliar to me from her starring turn in the underrated horror flick Wrong Turn. Echo is really a young woman named Caroline, who has traded five years of her life as an operative in the Dollhouse in exchange for commuting a jail sentence. When her time is done, so the series goes, she will have no recollection of the time she served as a doll.

Issues of free will, slavery and the ability of technology to outstrip morality soon come to the forefront, and the show quickly moves beyond the more prurient aspects of its premise to become a real sci-fi mind-bender, especially as Whedon and company introduce the idea of rapid switching of consciousness within the dolls’ bodies and the possibility of customers wanting their own consciousnesses imprinted into the dolls’ minds. A constant bogeyman throughout the season is Alpha, a doll who has gone rogue and become homicidal.

Strong performances abound in the show, especially Fran Kranz as Topher Brink, a lovable if amoral genius who programs the dolls before each engagement; Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard, an erstwhile FBI agent seeking to learn about the Dollhouse, which has attained the status of an urban legend in L.A.; and Amy Acker as Dr. Claire Saunders, the Dollhouse physician who serves as Topher’s conscience.

The show’s writers have a knack for coming up with character twists and scenarios that seem totally obvious after the fact, but which nonetheless startle upon first viewing. Truly, this isn’t a show that somebody could drop in and watch in the middle; like Lost, another show I’m terminally behind in watching (I’m still in the middle of season two), it rewards — and even requires — close viewing from the beginning. Unlike Lost, however, Dollhouse never captured a sufficient audience to keep it afloat. Whedon seems to have anticipated this by filming a coda of sorts, “Epitaph One,” which jumps the series ten years into the future and provides some closure.  

Still, the series survived a second season, which is scheduled for release on DVD this fall. Although it will likely take me another year to complete, I look forward to it.

Commentary & Television 19 Aug 2010 11:35 pm

(Bleep) is the word

 bleep

This week’s column from The Review:

Right up front, I must say that I don’t know (bleep) about “(Bleep) My Dad Says,” a new show airing on CBS this fall.

Oh, I know it’s based on a book of the same name, which in turn is a spin-off of a website or a Twitter feed that purports to share blunt wisdom from somebody’s father. Or maybe it collects blunt wisdom from everybody’s fathers, homespun nuggets like “Don’t eat yellow snow” and “If you don’t shut up, I’ll cut out your tongue.”

I have no intention of watching the show, first because it stars William Shatner, a breathy and bombastic actor whose delivery makes me want to puncture my earlobes with roofing nails, and second because despite having a full slate of satellite channels, I watch little television.

But if I were watching, the last thing that would upset me is the word (bleep) or the shift-key stand-in that CBS is using in the actual title. This is why I’m not a member of the Parents Television Council, which last week sent letters to more than 300 companies, asking them not to advertise on the show because of its name.

According to PTC President Tim Winter, quoted in the Huffington Post (the Wikipedia of news), “Parents really do care about profanity when their kids are watching TV.” He then goes on to qualify the statement by noting that only “something like 80 to 90 percent of parents” care. That leaves me in that 10 to 20 percent who don’t give a (bleep).

Suppressing (bleep) has a long tradition, one that is rooted in the Norman Conquest of 1066 (betcha didn’t know you would be getting a history lesson), when those marauding Normans attempted to supplant vibrant Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with more genteel — at least to our modern ears — Norman French. It’s a prejudice that continues to this day.

Take George Carlin’s infamous Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, which have since morphed into the equally infamous Seven Words You Can’t Say on Network Television, as they are used quite freely on premium cable channels. Not only can these words not be uttered on free TV, they also can’t be written in a family newspaper. However, I can use some of their French-derived equivalents — urinate, defecate and fornicate — with impunity. At least one of the remaining four I can describe more clinically (”breasts,” instead of the one-syllable word Carlin uses), but I can’t even tiptoe around the remaining three for fear of offending Beatrice Bluenose, one of the paper’s oldest and most conservative subscribers.

(The newsroom was very concerned about Ms. Bluenose last month, when on National Rain Day I attempted to warn people to “wear their rubbers,” a dictionary-sanctioned reference to boots that was nonetheless greeted with such disapproval from my colleagues that I excised it from the finished page.)

The point is — what is the difference between urination, defecation and fornication and their blunter equivalents? Why is it OK, hypothetically, for Dr. Oz (speaking of another show I seldom watch) to discuss defecation clinically, but not OK for a primetime show to use a more common term for humorous effect? Can we not recognize the medicinal effects of laughter and agree that (bleep) is as appropriate in comedy as “defecate” is in medicine?

For that matter, why is it OK for the Cleveland Zoo to feature an exhibit called “The Scoop on Poop,” but scandalous if they would advertise “The Skinny on (Bleep)”?

Yes, I know the PTC is concerned that society is becoming coarser, and that little kids (the lowest common denominator of all entertainment, apparently) might spew out the actual word — horrors! — instead of saying “bleep” when talking about the show, but only after they’ve finished talking about how many people they killed in their latest videogame venture. Because you know that CBS is targeting the 10-and-under crowd by casting the septuagenarian Shatner in the lead.

Besides, nobody who’s been on a playground has ever confused it with polite society.

I consider references to (bleep) as less an example of society’s coarsening and more of an opportunity for the next generation to reclaim its Anglo-Saxon roots, when men were men, (bleep) was (bleep), and William Shatner’s most important line was “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Comic books & Television 18 Aug 2010 08:06 am

Who(m) do you love?

In the eternal battle for pop-culture geek supremacy (Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Twilight Zone vs. Outer Limits, and so on), two questions reign supreme:

 

veronica-betty

Veronica or Betty? Veronica Lodge (left) is the spoiled, rich heiress and Betty Cooper is the middle class gal with the heart of gold. Both duel perennially over freckle-faced Archie Andrews (center) — and all three seem intent on contracting meningitis by drinking from the same cup.

 mary-ann-ginger

And …  Mary Ann or Ginger? Mary Ann (left) is the down-home country gal, and Ginger, the sophisticated movie star. Neither is particularly interested in Gilligan (center) from the venerable TV show, Gilligan’s Island, and to be fair, he never seems to pursue either of them, leading some to speculate that he’s chasing that cougar, Mrs. Howell, or — more radically — he’s into the Skipper.

My picks, by the way, are Veronica and Mary Ann. What about you?

Comic books & Commentary 17 Aug 2010 06:35 pm

Periodic chart of super powers

 periodic-table-of-superpowers

I found this online a couple of months back but forgot to post it. Clever stuff. Of course, the only super power I’ve ever really wanted was the ability to go back in time 30 seconds and stop myself from saying whatever dumb thing I’d just said. This ability would keep my foot (not to mention the taste of crow) out of my mouth on many occasions.

Comic books 16 Aug 2010 08:23 am

Life with Archie: The Married Life

 archie-mag

I liked Life with Archie: The Married Life #1 much more than I thought I would. Last year’s promotional coup by Archie Publications — showing Archie’s life if he married first Veronica and then, in another possible timeline, Betty — was an interesting experiment, but I was skeptical when the company announced it would continue the story in an ongoing magazine format.

I was wrong. Writer Michael Uslan and penciler Norm Breyfogle did a great job with this first outing, rejoining the future plotline after the nuptials but before little Archie Jrs. show up. While the Veronica story is more dramatic, the Betty story has its strong points too. 

Even in this future story, Uslan knows he can’t tamper too much with Archie himself, so the writer shines the spotlight on supporting characters. I won’t ruin the surprises, but fans of Jughead, Pops, Mr. Weatherbee, Ms. Grundy and especially Moose and Midge will have much to mull over after this first issue. And what exactly is going on with Dilton, anyway?

Personally, I prefer veteran inker Joe Rubinstein’s inks over Breyfogle’s pencils in the first story. Not that inker Andrew Pepoy does anything wrong over Breyfogle in the second story, but he makes everything look too finished and restrained. Rubinstein keeps the spontaneity.

The marketing decision to run this at magazine size is a great way to get the book into venues that don’t normally carry comics. My copy came from Walgreens, but I’ve seen it elsewhere in my small town, including Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle. I can’t say the last time I’ve had the luxury of choice about purchasing a comic book from differing vendors; usually, my comics-buying sorties are 40-mile round trips. More companies should experiment with this model. I know Marvel publishes magazine-sized comics, but they are almost entirely reprints and priced out of the market. At $3.99, Life with Archie: The Married Life is a steal.

I’m less enthused about some of the Teen Beat-ish kinds of articles in the magazine, but those aren’t aimed at my demographic anyway. The book wisely makes the comics the main selling point, and I can see this title appealing not only to Archie enthusiasts and nostalgia seekers, but also to anybody who likes prime-time soap operas a la Desperate Housewives. It’s still recognizably Archie, and still all-ages, but with a layered storytelling approach that makes it work for adults as well as kids. Kudos to Archie Comic Publications for a terrific debut. Coupled with the exposure the company received from the New York Times over the weekend, 2010 could well be the year of Archie. Who’d have thunk it?

Books & Comic books 12 Aug 2010 06:51 pm

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago

 swomnibus

My first experience with Star Wars came not with the original movie, but with the Marvel Comics adaptation. And it wasn’t even the premiere issue, with Darth Vader miscolored green, but the second issue, with Luke and Ben fighting the alien denizens of the Mos Eisley cantina.  I don’t think I ever saw the movie until the fourth issue of the series had been released, and by that time the Marvel version of the story was firmly lodged in my little psyche. (I eventually found the first issue in the old Salvage Freight store in Alliance.)

For the past month or so, I’ve been reliving the Marvel Star Wars by reading Dark Horse’s A Long Time Ago omnibus, which reprints issues #1-27. I didn’t realize until I started working my way through the volume how many of these stories I had read and owned originally. So far, I’m up through issue #18, and only two or three are new to me.

The book opens with the six-issue adaptation of the original film by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin. That first issue features the infamous “scratchy-style” Chaykin art, which would be tamed and smoothed considerably by diverse inkers in subsequent months. (Dark Horse color corrects Darth’s helmet on the omnibus cover, but leaves the green gaffe in place on the inside.) What I like about this original adaptation — over and above Dark Horse’s own version from a few years back — is that it incorporates elements from the original shooting script that were eventually cut from the finished film, including scenes with Luke Skywalker’s childhood friend, Biggs, and Han Solo’s meeting with a humanoid Jabba the Hutt.

Beginning with issue #7, Marvel became one of, if not the, first companies to extend the Star Wars universe beyond the movie when it offered new stories. Thomas and Chaykin stuck around, but only for a few issues, with stories about Han Solo’s ill-fated attempt to pay Jabba the money he owed him. Along the way, Solo meets a Don Quixote-inspired Jedi and a villain patterned on cartoonist Sergio Aragones. (Both references sailed right over my nine-year-old understanding.) It’s fun, but tepid, stuff.

The series starts looking up with issue #11, when scripter Archie Goodwin and artist Carmine Infantino come aboard with a multiple-issue storyline called “Waterworld,” which was also featured on the infamous Star Wars Christmas special that George Lucas keeps locked in the vaults. Goodwin excels at putting the characters in novel situations, and Infantino’s art, while largely dependent on a stable of rotating inkers, is crisp and clear and hearkens back to his Adam Strange sci-fi work for DC.

What makes this series so much fun — even when subtracting the nostalgia factor — is that the creators aren’t hamstrung by Star Wars continuity. Obviously, there are some plot points they couldn’t touch for fear of treading where only the eventual sequel could go, but absent that, Goodwin could take the book virtually anywhere without danger of treading on an established continuity, because one didn’t exist much beyond the ending of that first film. It’s a freedom that later writers wouldn’t enjoy.  

 I wish Dark Horse had seen fit to include letters pages along with these reprints, but I suppose just having the books, in color and fairly affordable, will have to suffice. A second volume, reprinting stories both pre- and post-Empire Strikes Back (and including the beautiful adaptation of the second movie by artist Al Williamson) is due in October.

Commentary 12 Aug 2010 09:45 am

Wife calls hubby by another man’s name

dear-shabby

By popular demand (i.e., one halfhearted request) the male version of Abigail Van Buren returns with misogynistic advice while Chris Schillig enjoys a well-deserved week off.

DEAR SHABBY: My wife constantly calls me by her dead husband’s name, especially during intimate moments. Should I be concerned? — MY NAME’S NOT BRAD IN BELOIT

DEAR NOT BRAD: Heavens no. The best person to be in competition with is somebody who’s 6 feet under. If it really bothers you, though, start calling her by your ex-wife’s name. If you don’t have an ex-wife, use the name of a former girlfriend, a woman at work, at church, or in a restaurant where you two frequent regularly. Your wife will get the hint, and I bet all her passive-aggressive garbage will stop immediately.

DEAR SHABBY: I am getting married to the woman of my dreams. She’s perfect in every way, except one: She believes that it is her duty to do all the housework — the cleaning, the washing, the ironing, everything. I was raised to believe that household chores should be split equally, and I am afraid I will resent being waited on hand and foot for the rest of my life. Should I call off the wedding? — WANTS TO HELP IN HANOVERTON

DEAR WANTS TO HELP: Whatever you do, don’t marry this woman! Break off the engagement immediately, and then send her name, address and home phone number to Dear Shabby, who isn’t above making consolation house calls — or auctioning off the information to the highest bidder.

DEAR SHABBY: Because of the downturn in the economy, my wife and I have lost our house and are considering moving in with her parents. I am not sure this is a good idea because my mother-in-law and I have a combustible relationship. She routinely calls me the worst thing that ever happened to her daughter and once hired a voodoo priestess to pray for my death. Obviously, I am concerned for my welfare if I live under the same roof as this woman. Help! — LEERY IN LOUISVILLE

DEAR LEERY: Have you considered other options, like joining the circus or sleeping outside in a tent? Either would be preferable to life with the maniacal mother-in-law you describe. However, if you must move in, be sure to secure a copy of “Countering Voodoo Curses for Dummies 2nd ed.” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Juju Magic,” both of which are available at your local booksellers in the relationship section. These tomes teach how to protect against the evil eye and random zombie attacks. Meanwhile, the prospect of living with your in-laws should provide extra incentive to update that résumé and land a better job. Shabby hates slackers.

DEAR SHABBY: I like your column, but I get the feeling many of the letters are made up. What proof can you provide that they are real? — DOUBTING IN DAMASCUS

DEAR DOUBTING: You’re a real person, aren’t you?

Dear Shabby, who has advanced degrees in septic systems, diesel mechanics and medieval literature from two online colleges and one Cheerios box, answers readers’ questions whenever he feels like it, which isn’t often. He can be reached by e-mail through the more respectable Chris Schillig at chris.schillig@yahoo.com.

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