Monday, 24 June 2013
Posted a review of the excellent latest Usagi Yojimbo book, A Town Called Hell by Stan Sakai here: http://whatculture.com/comics/usagi-yojimbo-vol-27-a-town-called-hell-review.php
Also wrote a review of Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor's pitiful Image series, Gatecrasher:
Gatecrasher is a mix of Stargate and Starship Troopers, two average sci-fi movies, that ends up reading like a below average comic. Which is quite surprising considering the talents involved - Mark Waid and Jimmy Paliotti writing and Amanda Connor drawing.
Alec Wagner is a young dude who’s half human and half alien (I think, it’s not clear) dating a hot high school senior (there’s a subplot about the two attending her senior prom that’s just terrible) but he’s also a member of a covert special ops team that goes into alien dimensions via energy gates and fight off threats to Earth. Aliens and humans fight one another in a boring military-esque fashion - they get in trouble, they get out of trouble, it’s something we’ve all seen a hundred times before.
The only thing the book did besides make me yawn was to wonder about Connor’s politics, particularly towards women. As a female artist it’s strange that she would draw women as exploitatively as she does, like barbie doll scenery essentially. Every girl is ridiculously curvy and in one scene, Hazard, the hot redhead, strips down to bra and panties to sword fight in the finale! What, her figure-hugging outfit wasn’t revealing enough? It’s just so weird to see a female artist draw women like objects.
Anyway, cheap art thrills, boring story, template characters all make Gatecrasher an ordinary, almost pointless comic that fails to interest on any level. No wonder it’s a little-known comic despite it’s creators’ high profiles, Gatecrasher is very forgettable schlock.
Gatecrasher Volume 1: Ring of Fire
Saturday, 22 June 2013
In addition to the 3 comic book reviews I posted a few mins ago, I also wrote a short review of Mark Waid's latest brilliant issue of Indestructible Hulk - #9. Loved it - full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/indestructible-hulk-9-review-mark-waid.php
The assassination of Rasputin, the mad Russian monk who was arguably a big motivating factor in Russia overthrowing its aristocracy and becoming a communist nation for much of the 20th century, is one hell of a story. To kill Rasputin the assassins had to poison, stab, and shoot him and, to make sure he didn’t come back from that, rolled him up in a blanket and dropped into the Neva river in the dead of winter, crashing through the ice into the freezing waters below. That is one tough dude.
A dirt poor peasant who became known as a holy man, Jesus reincarnate, who also looked like Satan, and who managed to get into the good graces of the Tsarina who lavished attention on him for seemingly being able to cure her haemophiliac son, Rasputin was a fascinating figure. But if you didn’t know anything about him before coming to this book, you won’t find out much info on him here. Instead, this book focuses on an Irishman called Cleary who is working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). This book is set in 1916, during the First World War and Cleary has been tasked with keeping the Russians at war with the Germans.
Rasputin has allegedly been whispering to the Tsar to make peace with the Germans but if this were to happen then the Germans would be able to transfer their resources from the Eastern Front to the Western Front and overwhelm the struggling British. Cleary is then tasked with murdering Rasputin to scupper any chances at a truce and to ensure Russia and Germany remain at each others throats, thus ensuring Britain’s relative safety.
Officially, Rasputin’s death was never put down to Britain’s interference or the SIS though it has been a theory for many years. The bullets he was shot with came from a gun the British military used and a known British spy was in the house Rasputin was killed in. “Petrograd” explores this theory from the perspective of Cleary, the British spy who kills Rasputin.
I enjoy reading historically-based comics and initially I thought I was going to love this book but Philip Gelatt’s approach to the story made it seem far less interesting than it could’ve been. This book focuses on Cleary, a somewhat boring character who spends most of his time moping around Petrograd, fighting with his colleagues, not really knowing where his loyalties lie. Through Cleary we get a sense of the situation in Russia with a lot of unrest due to the war not going well for Russia and the poor organisation of public services, due to the Tsar’s bad decisions, meaning while there was food available it wasn’t getting through to the cities and people were starving more and more each week. We get a sense of the situation in Russia reaching crisis point and the fact that the Tsarina is hanging around a man many believe to be evil and making things worse for them doesn’t help.
But it just goes on for too long. The background detail is kind of tedious especially if you’re familiar with this time period like I am as it just went over events and things I already knew. It didn’t give me a better understanding that I already had, and seeing people grumble about food shortage and the nobility behaving like asses, isn’t very interesting to read. This goes on for 140 pages (out of a 250 page book) before we get to what I thought was the point of the book, Rasputin’s assassination. This section is great - Gelatt doesn’t try to explain how Rasputin drank so much poison in the wine and lived, he just shows it. Similarly the stabbing and the shooting, all of which is done in a clumsy way by the unprepared and hopeless assassins, not helped by the manic energy of Rasputin, makes him seem as superhuman as he always claimed for taking that kind of punishment. It’s interesting in a morbid way and creepy too without being overtly supernatural.
And then we’re done and back into the main story which is about the aftermath and Cleary going on the run after being abandoned by his government and his fellow conspirators. He’s suspected of the killing, pursued by the Russian police, evades them, and meanwhile things in Russia go from bad to worse until the 1917 revolution happens. While I would’ve initially thought to summarise this book as being about Rasputin’s assassination, 200 out of 250 pages don’t feature him at all and instead are about a rather dull English agent and the well-known (at least to students of history) troubles Russia faced at this time. Yet the main reason I imagine most people would be picking this up would be to read about the mysterious figure of Rasputin. Rather than focusing so much on the background, I would’ve loved to have read more about Rasputin - even for just a few pages. Establish who he is to people who don’t know. What was his background, how did he become so notorious, why is he the centre of an international assassination plot - if you don’t know who Rasputin was, you’re going to have to look elsewhere to find out, and that really shouldn’t be the case in a book about his death. He’s the centre of the book yet there’s barely any information on him at all.
Tyler Crook’s art is outstanding for the most part but I felt that his character models looked a bit too similar - at least three of the main conspirators are all white, male, same build, same haircut, and it was hard to distinguish between them when they got together in a scene. It’s not helped by the intentionally bland colour palette of black, white and a pale rusty watercolour red which covers everyone’s clothes in the same colour scheme.
The book itself is really well put together. It’s a hardback with top quality paper that’s bound very nicely. The touch of the paper is really pleasant too and feels good in your hands. I read digital comics as well but sometimes the tactile feel of a book can’t be beat. I’d give Oni full marks on the presentation but the cover is at least half cloth covered (the title part) and the gold lettering on it that says Petrograd is starting to come off in little spots after just one reading, which is a bit disappointing. Otherwise, this is an excellently produced book.
Petrograd is a somewhat interesting historical comic book which is at least partially about the death of one the most enigmatic figures in the history of Russian politics. If you know anything about this time period or its main characters, don’t expect to learn anything new, but if you’re a fan of John le Carre’s Smiley books you might enjoy this more. I was expecting a far richer reading experience based around Rasputin and came away feeling unsatisfied with what I got in Petrograd.
The Rocketeer is a character I’ve never been fully convinced is a particularly great hero - he’s just a guy with a jetpack and a weird robot helmet, isn’t he? He’s not a particularly skilled fighter or even a genius like Tony Stark - after all, someone else made the rocket pack for him, he’s just the pilot! That said, Roger Langridge and J Bone have made a pretty entertaining comic book in Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror.
Its 1930s Hollywood and a no-good hypnotist called Otto Rune is out to rob tinseltown’s wealthiest with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile Cliff Secord aka the Rocketeer is being pursued by goons working for a shady employer who wants the jetpack for himself. But when Cliff’s girl, the pinup model Betty, gets caught up in Rune’s plan, he’ll have to make do with a sub-par rocket pack to take on - the Hollywood Horror!
I’ve read some reviews that say this is the Rocketeer crossed with HP Lovecraft and let me say, it’s not. There is some cult-like stuff here, dark arts, etc. and a tentacled “horror” does emerge in the final issue, but it’s not at all a Lovecraftian comic. It’s more light-hearted, even comedic in places, and kind of charming in its way. It’s going for the kind of 30s Hollywood movie tone and it accomplishes this - except I’m just not a fan of those kinds of movies. If you like old-style movies, you’ll get more out of this but I felt the story was at times a bit too light as to be forgettable. It’s also a bit anachronistic in that while its aiming for the 1930s tone, Langridge gives Betty a 21st century progressive personality.
J Bone’s art is fantastic, kind of like late 90s Darwyn Cooke, and beautifully coloured, so the book looks really, really good. The one reservation I had was the exploitative ways Betty was depicted, constantly in her underwear or in very revealing dresses, and in one scene wearing the kind of outfit Carrie Fisher would immortalise in Return of the Jedi - it just made me feel a bit pervy reading this. If not for that I’d have recommended this book to kids. Also the Walt Simonson covers are super-awesome!
I’ve never read a Rocketeer book before but I was quite entertained with this one, enough to want to read another one sometime in the future. And for a character whom I had written off as too one-dimensional, Langridge does a decent job of making Cliff and his alter ego seem relevant and interesting in this book. The ending is a little Scooby-Doo-ish but overall this is a pretty fun comic that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is enjoyable enough to read.
Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror
Ted Halker is a physicist with a genius level intellect. As a child he was skipped ahead several grades because of his above-average intelligence. As a teenager, he imagined wild theories about the universe and went on to get his physics degree at a prestigious school. Cut ahead a couple decades and Ted is now middle-aged, married with a teenage son and a pre-teen daughter, with his elderly and sick father-in-law living with them too.
Ted’s working at a scientific journal and the promise he showed as an early 20-something starting out on his physics career, following in the footsteps of his hero, Albert Einstein, has all but gone. But he’s been treading water too long - he needs to come up with a big idea to keep his job. And he really needs to keep his job for the health insurance now that his wife’s been diagnosed with a brain disorder. Then he finds out his father-in-law knew Einstein back in the 1930s and Albert told him - and only him - an earth-shattering idea...
I found this book a bit contrived to fully enjoy - Ted idolises Einstein and then finds out that his father-in-law knew Einstein and that he told him something he told no-one else. Not that we find out what that idea is, because we don’t, just take it as read that this senile old man has remembered it clearly and repeats it to his son-in-law at just the right moment that he needs a big discovery to keep his job. It’s all so very convenient!
The book makes a point of differentiating between brain knowledge and heart knowledge, and that Ted has plenty of brain knowledge but not enough of the other. Knowledge as opposed to knowing. Guess what he learns more about at the end of the book? That and his wife having a brain disease all felt like very heavy-handed storytelling.
I will say that Ted did seem like a real person though - Steven Seagle wrote him as a believable, convincing character. Not the most likeable guy, but we don’t read fiction to make friends now do we? If the character seems believable, the writer has done his job. Or at least part of it as I wasn’t that engrossed in Ted’s story.
Teddy Kristiansen’s artwork looks very arty, all thin lines and scribbles and flashes of formless paint and watercolours - imagine Eddie Campbell’s stuff and you’ve got it. You either like that style or you don’t. I wasn’t blown away by it and Kristiansen can’t believably make the characters appear to talk but it didn’t make me dislike the book any bit.
Genius is a bit clunky in places where the themes and metaphors really get laid onto the reader in a slightly artless way despite its overtly arty visuals. Is the story of Ted coming to terms with his own limitations despite being labelled a genius at an early age, a story you need to read? Not really. It’s ok, but not a particularly exceptional comic book.
Friday, 21 June 2013
I wrote an article today about why I think Marvel's Age of Ultron Event was a creative failure. You can read it here: http://whatculture.com/comics/7-reasons-why-age-of-ultron-failed.php
The brilliantly silly and inventive Deadpool takes a stab (and several hundred more!) at the classic characters of literature in Deadpool Killustrated. A wonderful book that I heartily recommend all comics fans to pick up. Full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/deadpool-killustrated-review-cullen-bunn.php
Meanwhile the final page of Brian Michael Bendis' chaotic Age of Ultron mini-series ended with issue #10. I lost faith in the Event several issues ago but it's not the worst ending possible. Full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/age-of-ultron-10-review.php
Sunday, 16 June 2013
It's Father's Day and in honour of the role fathers play in our society I've written a short list featuring the most famous superhero dads in comics and their kids. If you want to take a look, it's here: http://whatculture.com/comics/fathers-day-5-superhero-dads-and-their-kids.php
Saturday, 15 June 2013
Prior to this series, a dying Doc Ock managed to switch bodies with Peter Parker so that his mind was transferred to Peter’s body and Peter’s mind was in Ock’s body. Doc Ock’s mind coupled with Peter Parker’s body makes him, in his words, the Superior Spider-man while Peter in Doc Ock’s body is “dead” though his spirit is still hanging around, stupefied at the way events have turned out. Crucially though, Peter was able to give Ock his memories and a measure of his personality so it’s not totally Doc Ock in control of Spider-man - he isn’t 100% supervillain, and he does save lives, think of others, and generally behave in a more or less civilised way than he normally would, much to his chagrin.
So how does Doc Ock do as Spider-man? Actually really well, both as a character and as a concept for this series. He’s still selfish, arrogant and ruthless but his Spider-man is incredibly effective. He creates hundreds of mini-spiders with cameras inside and sets them loose on New York providing him with a spy network that eliminates the need for Spidey to go out on patrol - if a spider-camera picks up a crime, the app on his phone beeps and he can get to the scene exactly. Pretty smart, if somewhat Big-Brother-ish, and an idea that’s a great blend of Spidey and Ock.
There are lots of little things like that that separate this Spider-man from the real Spidey, like the brilliant way he deals with the new Sinister Six in the opening issue, setting the tone for the series that this is a very different Spider-man than the one we’ve all read before. The focus is on Ock's more cerebral approach to crime-fighting, incorporating traps and gadgets to accomplish his goals more effectively. This Spider-man is definitely a new and interesting version of Spidey that we've never seen before and makes for a more exciting story as we can't predict what he's going to do next.
It is strange that no-one picks up on Spidey being different - his voice is definitely Doc Ock’s, using phrases like “everything’s proceeding according to plan” in everyday vernacular - especially MJ. Issue #2 deals with the disturbing consequence of Doc Ock in Peter’s body - that he might end up trying to rape MJ, or she would sleep with him not knowing he’s not Peter. Thankfully, Dan Slott deals with it tastefully and in a way that it doesn’t need to be addressed again in other issues.
There’s a brilliant scene that parodies Batman where Mayor J. Jonah Jameson sets up a Spider-man spotlight that shines into the sky whenever he needs him - a light that Spidey quickly destroys, telling him it’s like a beacon for every bad guy in the city to target. Which raised the interesting question of why more Batman villains haven’t tried sabotaging the light atop the GCPD more often? Batman shows up on the building whenever the light is shone after all. I thought it was a great observation from Slott anyway.
Despite the jokey nature of the first couple of issues, things get very dark in the latter half of the book with Peter’s grip of Ock’s mind slipping (he follows Ock everywhere as a kind of one-man disembodied Greek chorus) and sees the Superior Spider-man becoming much more harsh in his approach to Spidey’s rogues gallery, specifically in his treatment of the Vulture and Massacre. In fact, the way Spidey deals with Massacre might be a dealbreaker for many long-time Spider-man readers - but just remember it’s not Peter.
There really isn’t a single thing about the book I can fault. I even liked the sub-plot where Ock discovers Peter doesn’t have a doctorate and, his ego enraged, re-enrols in university to get his PhD. and gets tutored by a little person with excellent Italian cooking skills. Amid everything that’s happening, it should be a sidetrack that feels unnecessary but instead adds to the overall richness of the storyline.
Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman and Guiseppe Camuncoli have re-invigorated Spider-man with this storyline, giving the character a fresh perspective and creating new avenues of storytelling with all sorts of possibilities. Superior Spider-man is a fantastic series and a must-read for both old and new fans of the character.
Superior Spider-Man, Volume 1: My Own Worst Enemy
Friday, 14 June 2013
Every Stephen King fan has a wonderful memory of reading one of his books, the experience making you oblivious of all else as you become enveloped in the story, completely consumed with the characters, the plot, the sheer brilliance of the storytelling. For me those memories are clustered around my early teens when I first read King, reading Misery, The Shining, IT, Pet Sematary, Different Seasons, in a massive reading jag – I fell hard for King and there was nothing better than picking up one of his novels to pass the time. Movies, games, everything in fact, paled in comparison to the vivid chills and unforgettable characters King conjured up in his novels.
But the years passed and I discovered new writers who made me as excited as King did the first time I read him – Palahniuk, Bukowski, Coupland, the list goes on and on. I still read King every now and then but I found I liked him less and less the more I read, the older I got. Things came to a nadir when I read 2006’s “Lisey’s Story” a book so shockingly bad I couldn’t believe it was written by the same author of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”. That put me off King for 5 years.
Since then the only things King wrote that I could finish were his short stories, some of which were decent, and, if they weren’t, at least they were over soon. The only King novel I’ve completed since “Lisey’s Story” was “Dolores Claiborne” and only then in the form of an audiobook accompanied by a long car ride. But, man, I hated "Dolores Claiborne" almost as much as "Lisey's Story" for having the same, irritating authorial voice that was for too in love with its own voice more than anything else.
I even thought the cause might be modern King versus classic King, so, after getting bored with and abandoning 11/22/63, I went back and read the only major King novel I hadn’t read back when I first discovered him – The Stand. But that too failed to entrance me! It took too long to get going, there didn’t seem to be a plot, and after 200 pages, I stopped and haven’t gotten back to finishing the remaining 1000 pages! So I think it’s a case of my reading tastes now and what they were back when I was much younger, nearly 20 years ago.
“Joyride” has suffered the same fate as every other King novel I’ve attempted reading in the last 7 years – I’ve abandoned it. Except this time, the experience was so terrible, so infuriating, that I officially will never again read, or pick up, a Stephen King novel.
“Joyride” is laughably published by Hard Case Crime, a line of books that publishes, yes, hard boiled noir. If “Joyride” is hard boiled noir, then I’m Cthulu the God of Madness. I heard awful things about his last HCC publication, “The Colorado Kid”, and it seemed that that too wasn’t really a crime novel, or if it was then it was a pitiful attempt at one. “Joyride” isn’t even an attempt at a crime novel, hard boiled noir or otherwise. It simply isn’t.
I was expecting a crime novel though from a few things I noticed before even reading it - the dedication is to Donald Westlake who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Richard Stark wrote the Parker novel "Slayground", a crime thriller that takes place in an amusement park. "Joyland" is edited by Charles Ardai who wrote the introduction to my edition of "Slayground". It's just a coincidence that the last book I read was "Slayground" (review here) that made me think this - but that's all it turned out to be, a series of coincidences as Richard Stark/Donald Westlake would never write something so absolutely boring.
It’s a coming-of-age story which isn’t something I’m against but after reading King’s treatment of it, I’m completely turned off of reading in the future. Devin Jones is our dull protagonist, telling his tale (from the present where he is a 60-something novelist) about his time in the early 70s when he was in his early 20s working a summer job in a fairground called Joyland.
Before I go any further, allow me to vent against this character, and all characters who’re similarly created by King. King is today a 60-something novelist from the American North-East – like Devin Jones. In the early 1970s, King was also in his early 20s – like Devin Jones. How many times is King going to make his main characters exactly like him? How many times have you read a Stephen King novel where the hero is a novelist? Off the top of my head: The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, IT, Bag of Bones, Secret Window, Lisey’s Story, The Dark Half, and now Joyland. There’s probably more – I haven’t read them all, and I’m not going to go look up what other novels/short stories have a writer for a main character, but looking at that list, it’s a lot.
It’s shockingly lazy characterisation from King – fans of his often cite his ability to create meaningful and involving characters and yet so often he doesn’t even try creating original ones. The novel’s being written in the first person? Why not make “I”, myself? That’ll save me trying to create an original voice, it’ll save me having make an effort to create something new! If King had a shred of originality he’d take more chances – fine, write in the first person, but how about making the main character a 12 year old black kid in Brazil? Capturing that voice would be a challenge! Or how about a wheelchair-bound 20-something in a Siberian mining town? Or if you insist on setting all of your stories in mainland America – not a problem – how about picking someone from a completely different socio-economic background? America is the great melting pot, after all. Instead King just picks someone who is exactly like him in every way as his main character. It’s lazy, it’s egotistical, and, at this point, it’s beyond a joke.
So yeah back to Stephen King’s summer job – sorry, Devin Jones’ summer job in Joyland, a Southern amusement park. But WAIT! Before that, we have to read about his boring life as a student in a North-Eastern university. He’s seeing a girl he hasn’t had sex with; he works in the university cafeteria; his mum’s dead; why do we need to know any of this? No idea – why King just doesn’t start the novel with Devin starting work at Joyland, I don’t know. His entire backstory could be told in a page or two, but 30 pages? Where was the editor?
So now we’re in Joyland. But WAIT! We have to read more about Devin and his boring life. We have to read about his trip down South, his job interview, and his boring landlady whom he rents a room from. Through the landlady’s gosh-darnit-down-home blather, King attempts a half-assed ghost story angle by implying the park is haunted by a dead girl’s spirit (which, this being a King novel, I’m sure is real and the ghost shows up later on). Still no sign of that hard boiled noir this series is supposed to espouse. Oh well, at least we have King parodying his former glories – if only in passing.
Because NOW we’re in Joyland – and holy fuck, is it a boring place! Yes, after 50 pages or so of NOTHING, we’re now getting into the story proper. But not really because we see Devin learning how to operate the various rides and meet the carny folk who run it. After 30 pages (I almost typed years – my subconscious isn’t far off, it certainly felt that long) and passing the 80 page mark, I left the book on my table in the coffee shop and walked out.
I read the acknowledgments before abandoning the book entirely and King makes a point of remarking on the carny dialogue of the book, which ties into what made me hate this book so much. King’s writing style these days shows that he has abandoned the qualities that made his writing so interesting in the first place – character, story, pacing – in favour of the worst, most annoying dialogue you’ll ever read.
His characters are constantly spouting down-home, country sayings and gibberish. Factor in King’s new found love for carny-speech and, ugh, I couldn’t bear it anymore. While “Joyland”’s dialogue never sank to the depths of “Lisey’s Story”’s skull-crushingly stupid lexicon ("big sissa" "manda bunny" "bool" "blood bool" "bad bool" "great bool" "boo'ya moon" "bad-gunky" "yum-yum tree" "mothersmucker" "smucker" "babyluv" "Good Ma" "SOWISA" "Strap On Whenever It Seems Appropriate" "ah so" "numbah" – never, ever read “Lisey’s Story”!), it was certainly the most noticeable part of the story for its cheesiness. In fact, I’d guess the only reason King wrote this novel is so he could use the kind of dumb shit carny dialogue that peppers this garbage.
“Joyland” is as hard boiled noir as a Pink Panther cartoon. If it’s a horror novel, I’d compare it to Scooby Doo’s gentlest offering. It’s a pathetic coming of age disasterpiece where dreariness meets plodding, leaden storytelling. In the 80 pages I read I didn’t encounter a single character I cared to know about, a single scene I felt was even remotely interesting, and above all felt like I was reading the ramblings of an old man in love with the sound of his authorial voice – which is exactly what I was reading.
King is such a successful writer that no editor will touch his books and so the pages drone on and on relentlessly, telling you nothing of any interest. If a first-time writer were to submit this crap, it’d never get published, and if an editor did look at it, all of it would be cut. And yet people seem to love this stuff! I can’t believe the overwhelmingly positive amount of reviews this shite is garnering! What book was everyone else reading? Was hearing about Devin Jones’ dull summer job so fascinating?
The Stephen King of today is unrecognisable from the writer whose work I fell for when I was 12/13 years old – now at age 29, I cannot stand him. He’s boring. He can’t tell a good story – he doesn’t seem able to, nor does he seem much interested in telling one, even if he had one! He’s overly focused on corny dialogue to the exclusion of all else and his main characters are thoughtless facsimiles of himself.
The only crime I saw in “Joyland” was that such drek was published in the first place and the only joy I received was giving up on it. This is the last thing I read by Stephen King ever, I just can’t do it anymore, it’s too demoralising.
Fuck “Joyland” and fuck Stephen King.
Thursday, 13 June 2013
A big week in comics as DC send out two of their most iconic characters in two brilliant new arcs in the same week that Man of Steel is released. I did a full round up of the best comics of the week including Guardians of the Galaxy #3, The Manhattan Projects #12, Deadpool #11, Batman #21 (Zero Year Part 1), and, of course, Superman Unchained #1. You can read them all here: http://whatculture.com/comics/5-awesome-comics-you-must-read-this-week-12-june.php
Monday, 10 June 2013
It's Superman week - at least in my head! - so I read a classic Superman title: The Man of Steel, Volume 1 by John Byrne. Makes sense as it's similar to a film I'm definitely going to see several times in the coming weeks (come on Justice League movie!) and why not? It's a pretty good book, despite it's age.
Check it out here to read the detailed review: http://whatculture.com/comics/superman-the-man-of-steel-volume-1-review-john-byrne.php
Sunday, 9 June 2013
Most of us have had contact with cancer in our lives - we've either experienced it firsthand or know (or known) a family member or friend who has had it - and in each instance it's been horrible, an experience unlikely to provide you with much and likely to take a lot from you, if not everything. But most of us aren't Christopher Hitchens - if fact none of us are, and that's why we know who was. He was a unique voice whose essays, columns, articles, and books made the person reading them much more enriched having read them.
"Mortality" is his last book (though I'm sure further anthologies of unpublished material will appear in the years ahead) detailing his fatal encounter with esophageal cancer, from discovering it while on a book tour promoting his memoir "Hitch 22", to the final pages which are scraps of notes for future (and now forever unwritten) writings.
But it's not a sad book. Hitchens was ruthless in his approach to subjects and he is no less so when dealing with himself and "the alien" (which is how he characterises his cancer) - no sentimentality or feeling sorry for himself is allowed on the page.
He is informative, funny, and stubborn all at once when writing on the reaction among religious groups when news of his cancer was reported with some Christians instigating a "Pray for Hitch" day - a day he encourages everyone to ignore. He also reinforces his atheist position, almost aggressively, writing "What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating." As if he wanted to die to once more further his argument that there is no God! If this book shows anything it is that death and the prospect of death does not change the person, and that Hitchens remained dignified and his own person right to the end.
There are essays on coping with the cancer treatment which is almost as bad as the cancer, and a fantastic piece on Nietzsche and the etymology of the phrase "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger". The book is full of rich writing displaying a luminous and inquisitive mind, questioning death, the mundanity of illness, and moving from issues of existence to anecdotes of past columns such as the time he underwent waterboarding to experience how bad a torture it is (very bad as it turns out, traumatising in fact).
Also included is a foreword by Hitchen's editor at Vanity Fair Graydon Carter and a moving afterword by his wife Carol Blue. Our culture lost a brilliant mind on December 15, 2011, and "Mortality" is a fine coda to a man who lived life fearlessly and wrote some of the best reportage of the last 50 years. Christopher Hitchens remains an essential writer to read.
The Monarchy: A Critique:
Christopher Hitchens invites you to think about the Monarchy in Britain, or the United Kingdom - emphasis on the Kingdom - and ask yourself: do we really need it? Shouldn't we, as modern peoples, abolish it? Why do Britons define themselves with the Monarchy and why does it play such a prominent role, especially today? This is Hitchens' persuasive and interesting essay on why he believes the Monarchy should be abolished and I for one enjoyed it.
Yes, I'm a Republican (though not as Americans define the term) and have long wondered at friends and family who feel so strongly about the Queen and her family. Hitchens' essay reinforces my views but goes far deeper into exploring them than I ever have. He talks about how we rely upon invented tradition and how history is sanitised to favour the Monarchy - that the unsavoury parts are "edited" out when convenience calls (you know, the madness, the murders, the endless wars, slavery, etc.). He claims the Monarchy is a "state-sponsored superstition" that everyone in government must take part in if they are to have a career in politics. I think the BBC is party to this as well, broadcasting pro-Monarchy programmes so that vast numbers of the British population are transformed into supporters of the Queen.
I found it a brilliant read and a thoughtful, well written, and eloquent essay on our "national fetish" (excellent observation). As always Hitchens has produced a work that deserves as wide an audience as possible to provoke much needed discourse in our public sphere. The very fact that this is still a national conversation that needs to be had in the 21st century is astonishing. I'll leave this review with the ending sentences of his essay:
"A people that began to think as citizens rather than subjects might transcend underdevelopment on their own... Only servility requires the realm (suggestive word) of illusion. Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown."
The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practice:
The great polemicist Christopher Hitchens turns his attention to Agnes Bojaxhiu, aka Mother Teresa, in this searing look into her work that is universally accepted as humanitarian and above reproach. Hitchens presents an image of Teresa that is highly critical of her reputation in this brilliantly argued book on her life's work.
Hitchens recounts Teresa's relationships with known dictators such as the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife Michele who all but bankrupted their country and fled to France. Teresa, despite supposedly caring for the poor, does little for them - she demands that they accept their lot and live with poverty rather than try to help them escape it. This is a woman whose fame rests upon her help with the poor, and yet she failed to use her power and influence to alleviate their suffering by encouraging the many world leaders she met to work on this issue.
But she's not political! you say, as she claimed many times herself. And yet she often involved herself in politics, especially when it came to the subject of abortion. She travelled to Spain to protest when post-Franco legislation was to be passed regarding the legalisation of divorce, abortion, and birth control, and even spoke to Margaret Thatcher about passing a bill that was in the House of Commons that wanted to limit the availability of abortions.
Teresa was a fond one for abortion (despite being a virgin and not knowing anything about what it's like to give birth, and sex, besides the end product) and made it the subject of her speech when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 (a win that remains questionable as to what she actually contributed to world peace or peace in any single country), claiming that abortion was the biggest threat to mankind.
Maybe the biggest criticism of Mother Teresa above all is the way she and her order withheld painkillers from the very sick and dying. In a filmed interview, she recounted an exchange she had with a cancer patient who was dying, who she refused to give painkillers to, where she said "You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you", to which the person replied "Then please tell him to stop kissing me". Teresa, it seems, was unaware of the irony of that comment. Also, her Homes for the Dying are run by nuns who aren't medically trained or know anything about palliative care, or even basic hygiene as they wash medical equipment in cold tapwater rather than sterilise them!
Hitchens also raises the question of what Teresa did with the millions she received in donations. There will never be an audit because it's the Catholic Church but given the basic requirements of her homes, it seems likely that a lot of it didn't go into helping the poor. And a lot of the donations came from questionable sources like Charles Keating, a fraud who was imprisoned for 10 years for his part in the Savings and Loans scandal in the early 90s. He donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa who wrote a character reference to the judge when he was on trial. It had no effect but the co-prosecutor of the case, Paul Turley, wrote back explaining to her why he was on trial, informing her that the money she had received was stolen from ordinary, hard working people who're now poor people like the ones she tries to help, and that she should return it on basic principle. He never received a reply to his letter and the money was not refunded.
Teresa comes across as a PR tool for the Catholic Church and a political pawn, willingly used for the Church's own dogmatic ideas and as a fundraising figure. Hitchens has written a fascinating book in "The Missionary Position" which rightly questions a person long held to be untouchable because of her work and yet whose actions remain highly dubious and contradictory. "The Missionary Position" is a highly recommended and thought-provoking read.
Also worth checking out is Hitchen's documentary on Mother Teresa, Hell's Angel. The first half of this book is basically a retelling of the documentary. It's available for free on Youtube.
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Saturday, 8 June 2013
While I do a lot of writing for WhatCulture!, I also write a lot of reviews that don't get posted onto the site and get posted elsewhere on the web. Some of the longer pieces get put up here but everything I write goes up on my Goodreads page. To see over 1000+ books worth of my opinions, have a look here: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/5759543-sam-quixote
Friday, 7 June 2013
This week saw the release of the third and final Kick Ass story arc from Mark Millar and John Romita Jr - and it was awesome! Full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/kick-ass-3-1-review-mark-millar-and-john-romita-jr.php
Meanwhile, Age of Ultron ground on with issue #9 - thank god it's almost over! Full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/age-of-ultron-9-review-brian-michael-bendis.php
And another top Marvel seller, Thanos Rising, continued its downward descent in quality with its third issue. Surprising too considered Jason Aaron's writing it. Full review here: http://whatculture.com/comics/thanos-rising-3-review-jason-aaron.php
Those are the comics I bought and reviewed this week. Next week - Superman Unbound, Batman: Zero Year, and Guardians of the Galaxy #3! It's gonna be a good one!
Wednesday, 5 June 2013
Batman has an amazing origin story - the Mark of Zorro, the mugging in Crime Alley, the pearls falling onto the street, the young boy stood crushed between his two dead parents. Later as a young man the bat comes crashing through the window of Wayne Manor and he finds the symbol he must become. Spider-man has a great origin too with the death of Uncle Ben tying into the message of with great power comes great responsibility, a credo that is central to the character. Superman’s origin is so extraordinary and iconic it gets retold again and again - in the last decade alone there have been numerous retellings in Birthright, Secret Origin, Earth One.
Wolverine should have a great origin too, right, something suitably memorable and as powerful? He is among the greatest superheroes ever created and is extremely popular with readers, starring in at least 3 series being published at any one time, and he’s known beyond the comics from the many successful X-Men movies where he’s played by Hugh Jackman. The character should have an epic backstory to explain how he became who he is.
No. No, he doesn’t. At least not if this book - Origin - is anything to go by. Origin is a creative abortion.
The scene opens with a young redheaded girl sat next to an older man with mutton chops, the pair seated in a hansom cab being led by a pair of horses, their dress and vehicle of choice already dating this story beyond the 20th century, to the 19th. The girl is called Rose.
Rose is essentially the main character of this Wolverine origin story. Who is Rose, you ask? She’s a recently orphaned girl who’s been sent to the Howlett Estate to be a companion to young Master James (Wolverine). She’s our narrator and is basically a surrogate mother/big sister/best friend/love interest to James – no wonder he’s screwed up with that kind of confusing relationship being his most primary in his formative years! Plus as she’s a redhead it establishes Wolverine’s “type” as in later years he’ll fall for another redhead, Jean Grey. But if you’re wondering why we never hear from Rose beyond this book, it’s because she dies at the end in the most contrived, stupid way imaginable – but more on that later.
Continuing the trend of new terrible characters, we’re introduced to the groundskeeper of the Howlett Estate, Thomas Logan and his son who is referred to colloquially as “Dog” Logan. Thomas looks exactly like Wolverine does as an adult which immediately makes you wary of James’ real parentage – is it John Howlett or is it this surly beast? In Thomas’ introductory panel he’s also holding a pair of gardening shears, thus completing the Wolverine-esque imagery.
Thomas is a dick, plain and simple. Angry all the time, he’s always drunk, he beats his son, Dog, and has a massive chip on his shoulder in terms of class – he’s downtrodden poor (he does live in a shed with his son) while John and his family live in a mansion. Dog on the other hand looks and behaves identically to Huck Finn, wearing dungarees, a straw hat, with a piece of corn sticking out of his sly, grinning mug. Huck’s dad also beat him.
But maybe the worst character in the book – and this book has nothing but bad characters – is, ironically, Wolverine himself, or James Howlett as he called here. James is first introduced wearing a blouse with a bow tie and a big guile-less smile on his face as he chases after a hoop (the hottest 19th century toy) and then at bedtime he’s wearing onesie footed pyjamas (which I’m pretty sure weren’t around in the 19th century) surrounded by stuffed toys. As if to complete the humiliation, Wolverine as a sickly child (geddit – because later when his healing factor kicks in it makes him impervious to illness!) has a speech impediment: “Can I have my hoop back, pwease?” and “La la la, I love Wose!”. I’m not sure why we had to see all of this as it doesn’t help us understand the character anymore and doesn’t provide any insight, it seems to be there as a weak visual gag (“Can you believe Wolverine was such a wuss?! LOL”) – but this lack of insight into the character will be a running complaint with this origin book.
So the setup so far is: John Howlett is a rich industrialist with a crazy wife (driven mad with grief after losing James’ brother at an early age of an unknown malady) who probably had an affair with the groundskeeper (DH Lawrence style) Thomas Logan, and produced James Howlett, a sickly but cheerful kid with no friends because of his family’s enormous wealth and geographical location – their massive estate is built in the middle of nowhere, Alberta, Canada as the country is being settled. Rose is his slightly older companion, and their other friend is Dog Logan, an abused young boy who grows resentful of the differences he sees between his life and James’. Does anyone feel that this origin has become wildly convoluted at this point? Spiderman didn’t have to go through this much nonsense. But wait, it gets even more complicated!
James gets a puppy for Christmas and Rose mentions in her diary (the clunky narrative device used throughout) that she doesn’t know what James would do if the puppy was hurt – he’d probably lose his sanity, he loves the darn cute little thing so much. Which is as big a signpost as you can get to say the puppy is dead meat - which of course happens! This book is ridiculously predictable. Dog Logan and James get into a fight, over the dreary but pretty Rose, the puppy tries to help James by biting Dog and Dog gets his knife out and slits the puppy’s throat. This is the last straw in a series of alarming incidents from Dog and John fires Thomas Logan and Dog, telling them to leave his property forever.
This is the impetus to move the story away from this boring estate and out into the Canadian wilderness. Thomas and Dog take up arms and manage to break into the mansion to steal as much cash as they can before escaping forever. The plan isn’t really a plan but then we’re not dealing with a couple of brainboxes so whatever. Somehow their non-plan goes wrong! John shows up, yelling for Thomas to leave, Thomas shoots him in the face just as James sleepily wanders in. The trauma is the trigger for his mutation and he rushes at Thomas in a fury seemingly punching him in the gut, only for the pull out to reveal James’ bone claws have popped and stabbed Thomas to death. Dog is scarred across the face by James and James’ mother screeches at James to leave as he’s a “beast”. Though why she’s angry is unknown – didn’t he just avenge her husband/his father’s death? But again its implied that she truly loved Thomas and that Thomas was really James’ dad. Either way, it’s a really confusing scene that’s got no emotional weight to it, despite the finale being James making the funniest sound I’ve read in comics ever: “NNAHHHHWWW!” as he kneels, bone claws protruding from his hands. And then James’ crazy mother kills herself.
I will give the book this one thing: James’ crazy mother’s suicide is a truly chilling panel. She has this blank eyed-stare looking straight at the reader with a faint smile about her lips as she holds the shotgun up to her head, murmuring “it’s not going to hurt”. Damn! That is a haunting look – well done, Andy Kubert.
From there, Rose rushes out after James and the two hide out in a barn where he’s developed short-term amnesia, forgetting what just happened and beginning a tradition of this character forgetting who he is and the events in his life. Meanwhile the dumbest police in the world show up and here’s what they see: John Howlett, a wealthy industrialist, his dead wife, a dead groundskeeper obviously poor, holding a gun, his scruffy and violent son also holding a gun and clutching his mauled face. Also, earlier that day when Thomas Logan had been fired, he’d shouted, in front of several witnesses, “I’ll get you, hear me? The whole lot o’ you! I’ll make you pay!”. So what would your conclusion be? Dog tells the policemen that it was Rose – a young teen girl with no experience of or access to firearms and no motivation for senseless killing, who was responsible for all of this mess. Rose. AND THEY BELIEVE HER!!!
This means Rose and James (who’s changing by the page – his healing factor has kicked in now and he’s somehow lost his speech impediment) are now wanted fugitives. But I don’t know why they’re worried: if the police are stupid enough to believe Dog’s insanely improbable story that Rose somehow caused the multiple homicides and abducted young James, I doubt they’d possess the mental capacity required to organise a hunt for a wanted person. But on the run they go, just because that’s what the plot requires - not because it makes sense - from Alberta to even more isolated and rural British Columbia.
Here is where James Howlett completes his transformation into the Logan/Wolverine we know, in the most idiotic, contrived sequence ever written. Rose and James wind up in a camp where they decide to hole up. The camp leader – Smitty – challenges them, demanding to know their names. And this is where James Howlett becomes Logan – because Rose simply states to Smitty that James is called Logan. That’s it. The “great mystery” over his name, revealed! Bear in mind that if she had simply told him James, that it would’ve been accepted without question as well. But James is on the run, you say – well, kind of, yes, but James is a pretty common name, no? It’s not like Smitty was asking for a surname as well, so why wouldn’t Rose go with simply James? Plus there’s no evidence of any police presence or a manhunt so why feel the need to change his name? Most likely these bumpkins have never heard of the Howlett murders. Also, Logan is a much less common first name, so would’ve actually worked against them, especially as that’s the name of the murdered man back in Alberta the police are currently investigating! Does she have no imagination – were the choices just James or Logan? Plus, giving James the name of his father’s murderer? What a slap in the face to James! And why didn’t he simply reject it after he left the camp instead of keep it?
Next, for whatever reason, the newly christened Logan becomes a hunter – he just develops that skill – and learns to drink and smoke cigars like the other frontiersmen that live in the camp. He also learns to fight when the camp cook – imaginatively named Cookie – decides to pick on Logan, just because Cookie’s a dick. The other men of the camp also use words like “knucklehead” and “bub” which Logan adopts, so that’s why he talks like that!
If the puppy’s death earlier in the book was predictable as hell, Cookie beating up Logan repeatedly is an easily predicted resolution – d’you think Logan beats up Cookie by the end of the book? He sure does. Yawn. Where’s the imagination, eh?
The nonsense starts coming thick and fast at this point – Logan runs off upset into the woods after being saved from another beating by Cookie, and runs into some wolves. They stare at one another and more wolves show up, surrounding Logan. Logan passes out for some reason and the wolves gather around him, not trying to eat him, but accepting him as his own. For no reason! Then in the next scene Logan is literally running with wolves, hunting with them! …
And then the dumb naming conventions thing comes up again. We found out how James came to be known as Logan in a pitiful scene, but now we find out how he came to be known as Wolverine: one of the camp’s men says about Logan “He’s a digger, all right. He’s like … you ever seen one of them wolverines goin’ after a root? They never give up till they got it. That’s what that kid is... he’s a wolverine.” I knew I didn’t like the book by this point but I really wanted to throw this out the window after I read that panel. “Monumentally shit” doesn’t quite cover describing that panel.
One final thing needs to be established before the book closes out – we know Wolverine has a thing for Japan, but how did it start? Did he travel there himself and just fall in love with the culture? That would make sense, right? Nope, not according to this book! Smitty, the camp leader and now Rose’s paramour, is a worldly man who has travelled and he gives Logan a book he picked up in Nagasaki about samurais. So that’s why Logan becomes interested in Japan – he was handed a book about it by a random person he once knew. Rubbish.
And then we get to the moronic ending. Logan is fighting Dog Logan who’s hunting Logan down for killing his dad. They fight, Logan pops his claws and Rose, who’s rushing towards them from the crowd to stop him from killing Dog Logan, somehow manages to run right into Logan’s claws, stabbing herself through the shoulder and arm. This then kills Rose. Whaaaaaaaaat?! That’s the best Jenkins and co. could come up with. So a terribly dull character dies and Logan runs off to live in the forest with his wild animals – the end.
That’s Wolverine: Origin – the most overcomplicated, idiotic, and unimaginative origin story ever. It is such a grim, joyless book featuring child abuse and animal cruelty, and yet maybe the worst thing about it is how boring and forgettable it is. There’s nothing truly interesting about Wolverine’s origin despite being one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe. After reading this we’re no closer to understanding why Wolverine decides to become a superhero, using his powers for good, to save lives, etc. With Spiderman’s origin, we understand why Peter Parker chooses to use his powers for good – because his Uncle Ben, an innocent and beloved father figure – died when he didn’t use them when he could have. With Batman’s origin, we understand his motivations for pursuing a life of justice against crime because of his parents’ untimely deaths, and how he came to adopt the symbol of the Bat. With Wolverine: Origin, things just happen to him and inexplicably become bound into his character for no reason, with no meaning beyond the most superficial. He just happens to be called Logan because Rose says so. He’s called Wolverine because some random guy remarks that he’s kinda like a wolverine. His entire time in British Columbia is contrived because of an incident that any person with half a brain could see had nothing to do with Rose and that James acted in self-defence – they could have stayed in Alberta, thus negating everything else that happens after. His powers develop because he’s a mutant and his mutant gene kicks in.
Based on the events of this book, it would make more sense if Wolverine never again popped his claws and refused to live among humans for the rest of his life, spending his days in the forests until his final breath.
All we know is how he came to adopt certain character traits – smoking cigars, saying “bub”, growing sideburns – while the important stuff such as becoming a hunter and becoming animalistic, aren’t dealt with at all. There’s absolutely no insight into the character. It doesn’t even really feel like a Wolverine story – it’s more like a crappy Jack London wannabe tale filled with badly written period drama scenes.
Origin is to Wolverine fans as The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars fans - just a massive fuck you to the fans of the character. It’s a godawful prequel that should never have been made because of how poorly conceived it was. Wolverine is a character whose mysterious past should’ve stayed mysterious, in order to remain enigmatic and interesting. Explaining it in the most convoluted way just how he came by his many names and so forth is a mistake, pure and simple. Maybe the character could have a great origin story but the creative team here simply weren’t up to it and completely dropped the ball, instead creating a forgettable, confusing, laughably stupid and pathetic origin story for one of Marvel’s biggest characters. As for me, I’m just going to retcon this stupid book from my memory - Origin never happened, Wolverine’s past remains a mystery, this book is just some weird parallel-universe crap.
There’s really only one sound that truly expresses the frustration I had reading this book: