Monday, May 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 117 (5/31) -- Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels by Mignola and Stenbeck

Mike Mignola's Hellboy empire continues to proliferate: the core series spawned the B.P.R.D. series about a decade ago, and has put out various other offshoots (Lobster Johnson, Abe Sapien, short stories, novels, art books, and other paraphernalia) since then. Sir Edward Grey has been a background character in several of those stories -- particularly the flashbacks to Abe Sapien's early, pre-transformation life -- and now he, in turn, got his own miniseries.

Grey is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the long tradition of Carnacki and Jules de Grandin -- Mignola has an afterword about how much he loved those sleuths, and their compatriots, and how he thought he wanted to do a comic about his own Victorian investigator, until he realized how much research he'd have to do for all of the details of that world -- who is called in by the local authorities, in the time-honored fashion, when they have a case that has preternatural implications. The particular case Grey investigates in this book is tied into Mignola's usual mythos, as the undead spirit of one of his ancient hollow-earth slave-creatures is rampaging through 1879 London, slaughtering first the members of the expedition that brought its bones back to England, and then, as it gathers power, looking more widely for blood.

Grey is possibly Mignola's least physically imposing hero -- he's pretty tough, agile, and resourceful for a human, but that doesn't mean much in a Mignola universe. So it's a good thing for him that he's only up against one Mignola monster: the odds are still against him -- as they always have to be in a story like this -- but he's not utterly overmatched the way he would be against some of the creatures Hellboy or Abe or Roger or even Lobster Johnson battled. On the other hand, he is smart and knowledgeable, so he can handle himself pretty well.

Witchfinder takes the now-familiar Mignola plot and atmopshere, dropping it into a relatively new setting to ring some interesting changes as it goes. This story does suffer a bit from backstory-itis; Grey encounters both Martin Gilfryd (during his Bedlam years) and the Heliopteric Brotherhood of Ra, but the end of those particular stories have already been told elsewhere, so Grey's story feels more like a footnote in those scenes.

That's a quibble, though; Witchfinder is a dependably entertaining story of Mignolian supernatural skulduggery, set in an era ready-made for it. And new Hellboy-universe artist Ben Stenbeck does very well for himself; he has another one of those moody, drenched-in-black-ink styles that work so well for Mignola's world. So this may be an offshoot and a sidebar, but it's a pretty good one.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - To The Dogs Or Whoever (live)
via FoxyTunes

Yo, Dude, It's, Like, Totally Real!

Always loathe to see a bandwagon that they can't jump onto, Amazon has thrown itself into the latest media frenzy with its Amazon 3D 101 store, selling all manner of 3D entertainment gewgaws.

(And any reference to the fact that the real world is itself in three dimensions, and so no fancy machinery is required to see, for example, a sunny day in a green field, will be sternly shouted down by the Amazonian sales team.)

Here, have a banner, while I weep for the future of mankind:

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/29

Given the usual traffic patterns on the Internet, I expect fewer of you than usual will be reading this on Monday, when it posts, since Monday is a national holiday here in the US, and many of us have better things to do than read blogs on a holiday. (Not that I'm judging those of you who don't have anything better to do on a holiday than read blog, or even those of you so benighted as to live somewhere else in the world.) Still, I do this post every Monday morning, and I see no reason to stop now.

These are the books that showed up in my mailbox last week (plus a couple that I picked up at the disappointingly small and giveaway-less Book Expo America convention on Thursday) -- I haven't read any of them yet, and some of them I may never end up reading, for one reason or another. But here's what I can tell you about them right now, from looking at them and making wild assumptions.

Pyr seems to be quietly amassing an interesting list in the dark fantasy/swords & sorcery area -- which shouldn't be a surprise, since editor Lou Anders has made no secret of his love for that side of the genre -- which is leading me to think I should be reading more of it. The latest case in point is Jon Sprunk's first novel, Shadow's Son, about an assassin named Caim in the holy city off Othir, and what happens when one routine job goes bad. It officially publishes next week in trade paperback, so you might be able to find it from your favorite bookseller already.

Jonathan Rosenberg's Goats webcomic gets its third collection with Showcase Showdown, published by Del Rey as a trade paperback last week. Rosenberg recently made comics-press news with a blog post about the "stagnation" of the audience growth of his "teenaged" Goats strip, and how he might need to end Goats earlier than this original plan (aiming at 2012) for financial reasons. (Since I'm always looking on the bleak side of life, I do have to note that Rosenberg assumes that a new strip would have a larger audience, and that's not necessarily the case -- he's a funny writer, and a good cartoonist, but audiences are fickle and buzz is elusive; there's no guarantee that his next project would be even as lucrative as Goats, let alone more so.) From Rosenberg's uneasiness, and my own researches, it's pretty clear that the first two Goats books -- Infinite Typewriters and The Corndog Imperative -- haven't sold as well as anyone hoped. (The numbers I can see in the standard book-industry tracking system are so dismal that I'm hoping the Goats books moved a substantial quantity through Diamond into comics shops, or through any other channels, just because I like his stuff.) I've reviewed both of the earlier books, and enjoyed them a lot -- Rosenberg has a quirky, deeply geeky sense of humor and complication that could be very popular if it clicked with the right audience -- so I hope that things will get better for him and Goats.

Witches Incorporated is the second book in the "Rogue Agent" series from K.E. Mills (who is also, not secretly at all, the epic fantasy author Karen Miller), after The Accidental Sorcerer, which I didn't see. I think it's contemporary fantasy set in the UK -- there's a lot of Brit slang in the first few pages -- but the back cover doesn't entirely make that clear, and there's a "Princess Melissande" running about as well. (Cue up my usual lecture here about how the descriptive copy for later books in a series has to work doubly hard -- it can't just hit the names of the main characters and explain what they're doing now, but needs to place a book clearly in context and explain why a random reader would want it.) This was published, if I'm reading the copyright page correctly, last summer, but the Orbit team was cheerfully pushing it on passers-by at BEA -- presumably since book three, Wizard Squared, will hit stores in about a month.

Also from Orbit is The Unit by Terry DeHart, which will hit stores in about a month. It's a post-apocalyptic story about one California family, in which the author "draws on his own research and experience as a Marien, a security analyst for NASA, and a disaster preparedness consultant." If I may, I'd translate that all to "stuff blows up real good." (It also seems to be from the POV of the hard-as-nails father of this family, who is proven right about the essential perfidy of man -- and his wife's softer impulses proven wrong -- on the teaser page, so adjust your expectations appropriately.) For those of you who like near-future backswing stories -- and you know who you are -- here's one from a writer who knows his stuff. But, as usual, I would suggest reading John Varley's "The Manhattan Telephone Book (Abridged)" before partaking in any post-apocalyptic adventure novels.

To switch gears entirely, here's Fairy Navigator Runa, Vol. 1, a manga from Miyoko Ikeda and Michiyo Kikuta about a abandoned baby who grew up -- well, not that far up; she's only in fourth grade as the story starts -- to be the Legendary Fairy Child. It's from Del Rey Manga, and was published May 25th.

And last for this week is Jacqueline Carey's new brick-sized novel Naamah's Curse. It's the second in a trilogy set in the same fictional world as her "Kushiel" books, though it seems to mostly take place at the other end of the Eurasian continent. (I read the first "Kushiel" trilogy, and Carey's interestingly flawed Silmarillion-from-the-bad-guy's-perspective "Sundering" duology, but I haven't kept up with her last few books, so I'm not precisely sure how this fits into the Kushiel world.) Grand Central is publishing this in hardcover on June 14th.
Listening to: The Builders And The Butchers - Devil Town
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Slow Burn Songs

I love long, slow-building songs -- the ones that begin at a slow walk, and build way the hell up as they go.

As opposed to songs that last for a long time at a slow simmer, like Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Or long songs that start at a high heat and try to get even higher, like Melissa Etheridge's "Like The Way I Do." Both of those can be good, too, but it's a different kind of energy. And then there's the famous power ballad style of loud-soft-loud, about which the less said the better.

I was thinking about songs like that recently, and realized this would be a great excuse to play with one of my favorite Amazon widgets again. The down side is that you really don't get a good sense of what I like about these songs in thirty second snippets. But it's got to be better than nothing, right?

So here's the list I came up with:
  • Josh Ritter, "Thin Blue Flame"
  • live version of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Calvary Cross"
  • Local H, "Hand to Mouth"
  • Harvey Danger, "Radio Silence" (unavailable in the widget, but it's on YouTube)
  • Okkervil River, "So Come Back, I Am Waiting"
  • U2, "All I Want Is You"
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Hallelujah"
  • Eagles, "The Last Resort"
  • Peter Gabriel, "Biko"
  • Cracker, "Dixie Babylon"
  • Dandy Warhols, "Be-In"
  • Sinead O'Connor, "Troy"
  • Camper Van Beethoven, "Civil Disobedience" (also unavailable in the widget, but it's on iLike)
  • Dire Straits, "Romeo & Juliet"
  • The New Frontiers, "Who Will Give Us Love?"
  • Ambulance Ltd., "Stay Where You Are"
  • Elvis Costello, "Battered Old Bird"
  • Rachel Smith, "Juanita"
  • Bodies of Water, "I Guess I'll Forget the Sound, I Guess, I Guess"
  • Rilo Kiley, "Always" (yet another song unavailable in the widget, it's also on iLike)
  • Modest Mouse, "Parting of the Sensory"
And here's the widget:

What songs do you like that have that pattern?

Outdoor Fun Can Be Yours -- With Purchase!

Amazon would like it to be known that they are selling Outdoor Fun for the summer. That's right -- they're directly selling fun. No need to purchase objects and experiences and hope that using and experiencing them will create fun -- now you can simply buy fun itself.

I trust we will all rejoice at this amazing leap forward in commerce.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 116 (5/30) -- The Stuff of Legend, Book 1: The Dark by Raicht, Smith & Wilson

First of all, a hearty ha-ha to writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith for their title pun. (When someone makes a pun as obvious as that, you need to make clear to them that you got it, or they'll keep elbowing you in the ribs until you pretend to laugh.) In case you didn't get it, let me ask you to look at the most prominent character on the cover, and note that this is an adventure story involving sapient toys. Ha ha ha, right?

The Stuff of Legend is on the level of that pun straight through, I'm afraid -- though it's not humorous, except for occasional asides. Like a big-budget summer movie -- to which The Stuff of Legend has certain similarities in tone and plotting -- it's carefully constructed to appear to be fresh and exciting, while actually containing no real surprises or moments of wonder.

It's 1944 -- for no obvious in-story reason, since the real action takes place entirely in a Fantasyland -- and The Boy is kidnapped from his bed by The Boogeyman (a creepy pale figure with daggerlike fingernails and a tattered cloack, naturally) and taken into The Dark. The Boy's most loved toys decide to go rescue him, led by a soldier called The Colonel (though he's clearly a WWI infantryman; I hope Raicht and Smith know this, but I have my doubts).

The rules for all of this are entirely muddled and unclear; toys become real in The Dark, and The Dark has geography that matches the real world in some ways, at least some of the time -- but none of this seems to be anchored by The Boy's actual play and thoughts, and a cynical reader might begin to suspect that Raicht and Smith are making things up as they go along, with a primary purpose of making cool things for artist Charles Paul Wilson III to draw. Who The Boogeyman is and what are the limits of his power are also entirely unclear -- and The Boy, I'm afraid, is a mere plot token. A story like this needs to be carefully constructed: it doesn't need to be literally allegorical, but it's going to be symbolic no matter what the creators do, so they'd better understand the symbols that they're using, and use them with purpose.

Instead, Raicht and Smith want to just have yet another "rag-tag band of adventurers travel across weird lands and through adversity," down to the tedious cliche of having a traitor (or, to be more precise, a wavering traitor) in their midst. Wilson's sepia-toned art (perhaps that is the only reason for having this set in 1944? to give it an old-timey feel?) is suitably melodramatic and entirely professional; he's particularly good at giving these characters (a jack-in-the-box come to life; the stuffed bear on the cover, who becomes a large live grizzly in The Dark; a duck; a ballerina; a piggy bank turned into a real pig; and Pocahontas) reasonable expressions while they declaim their penny-dreadful lines.

The Stuff of Legend is "Toy Story meets Saving Private Ryan," and I would be very surprised if that precise phrase wasn't used to pitch this book at some point. If you have always wanted to see a behind-enemy-lines drama enacted in comics form by toys, today is your amazingly lucky day. For the rest of us, The Stuff of Legend is a pleasant diversion reminiscent of a dozen better stories.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Andrew Bird - Plasticities
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 115 (5/29) -- Underpass (and Komikero Komiks #3)

This is, I think, the last day of Philippine Week in Book-A-Day; I've now run through all of the Philippine comics (or should I say komiks?) that I've read, and I don't expect to get any of the collections/anthologies/prose books done tomorrow in time for that day's review. So, once again, I have to admit that I really know very little about Philippine comics -- but that I've really enjoyed a lot that I've seen. And I also have to thank Charles Tan one last time, for his tireless efforts on behalf of Philippine SFF and comics.

Today I have two things to talk about: one (Underpass, an anthology from Summit Publishing and introduced by Budjette Tan, though not edited by any credited person) is pretty clearly a book, since it's squarebound, sits nicely on a shelf, and is a one-off anthology. The other (issue # 3 of Komikero Komiks Anthology, edited by Jonas Diego) is equally clearly a magazine (or maybe just 'zine -- it looks hand-collated and -stapled). The former is probably more "professional" than the latter -- although one creator appears in both, and there's good work in both.

Underpass is a slim book -- only 52 pages long -- with four separate comics stories in it. Gerry Alanguilan's "Sim" leads off, with the story of a horny young man, the phone sim card he finds, and the woman's voice that leads him to an unexpected end. "Judas Kiss" -- written by David Hontiveros and Budjette Tan (from Hontiveros's original short story) with art by Oliver Pulumbarit -- shows its prose origins by being essentially an illustrated story, told entirely in captions, and also has a family similarity to "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the stories of O. Henry. Third is a heroic fantasy story, "Katumbas" by Hontiveros and Ian Sta. Maria, that feels like the introduction to a character whose adventures will span many more pages, rather than a self-contained story. And last is "The Clinic," written by Budjette Tan with art from KaJo Baldisimo (the same team as Trese, working in color here), which brings a similarly fantastical slant to another piece of day-to-day life, when a rising actress finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy.

All four of the stories are solidly professional, and all tend towards the dark fantasy/horror side of the street -- this isn't a theme anthology, by any means, but the stories do have a similarity of tone that makes them work well together. The first and last stories are the most successful, to my mind -- but that might just be my familiarity with those creators talking.

Komikero Komiks is more loose-limbed and free-wheeling; it's the latest in a series published quarterly, and contains nine very different stories, at vastly different levels of ambition, craft, and expectations. Two of the stories -- the lead-off, Ariel C. Atienza's "Class" and "Graveyard Shift" by Hazel Manzano -- are almost entirely in Tagalog, so all I can really say about those is that Atienza has an appealing teen-comedy style, while Manzano's scratchier, rougher work doesn't work as well to my eye. There are a number of what I'd call journeyman stories in here, like the superhero punchfest "Servant" by Geoffrey Borgonia or the elliptical vignette "Alone" by Pilar Esber, or a couple of oddly cramped and violent science fiction stories near the front of the book.

But Gerry Alanguilan has a solid story about suicide and not getting what you want, "Timawa: Jumper," to finish out the anthology, and the whole thing has an energetic, lets-put-on-a-show, indy-comics vibe that's infectious. I hope Komikero Komiks continues, even if I'm unlikely to see it very often (if ever!); local communities should have their own hotbeds of experimentation and storytelling, to push each other to keep getting better.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Our Daughters Will Never Be Free
via FoxyTunes

Friday, May 28, 2010

Incoming Books: 28 May

The impending holiday meant that we were all allowed to flee the office somewhat earlier than usual today, and I took advantage of that opportunity to drop into a comic book store very near the Port Authority Bus Terminal (where I then stood, uncomfortably, in line, for over half an hour, while waiting for a bus -- now that I don't take buses regularly, every trip to PABT means a longer and less comfortable ordeal).

And here's what I grabbed and took home. (Well, I also paid for it, but that's less interesting.)

Daniel Clowes's new book Wilson has already been reviewed several places online, and apparently features a main character who is even more misanthropic, obnoxious and grumpy than usual for Clowes, which would be a massive feat if true. I've been reading Clowes's comics since the early days of Eightball, which is something like twenty years now, so I'll be interested to see if he really has reached a new height of bile.

I discovered Molly Crabapple with her turn-of-the-last century murder-mystery webcomic Backstage (co-written by her regular collaborator John Leavitt), so I've been looking for the first Crabapple-Leavitt graphic novel on paper, Scarlett Takes Manhattan since I heard it was being published late last year. I finally saw a copy in person -- and learned that it's substantially racier than Backstage, not that I mind a bit -- and made it mine.

I used to read Marc Hansen's Ralph Snart comics back in the nineties, and they were fun slabs of superdeformed raging-id weirdness. So when I saw his slim graphic novel Doctor Gorpon (featuring a minor character from Snart) going for a cheap price, I grabbed it. This book is from 2004, so it's been sitting around for a while -- and also doesn't quite answer the question of what Hansen is doing now, if anything -- but I haven't read any of Hansen's stuff for a decade at least,
so it was worth the few bucks Midtown Comics was asking for it.

I was very impressed by Matt Kindt's graphic novel Super Spywhen I saw it in 2007 (and reviewed it for ComicMix), so I jumped on the new companion volume, Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers. It looks to be much more companion than standalone, but that's OK, too.

Another book that was on the ol' sale rack was Rene Lott's 2009 graphic novel Festering Romance, which has been lingering on my "look for it and maybe buy it" list for a while. I almost bought it twice at full price, so I couldn't resist it this time.

Roger Langridge is in the middle of an incredibly entertaining series of Muppet Show comics for Boom!, in which he channels Henson, Oz & company from the late '70s and pours them into comics form. (I don't know how he does it, but I was very impressed by the second collection recently.) And I saw that the fourth collection was being solicited in Diamond a month or two ago -- which I took to mean that the third collection was already out. And so it was, so I found On the Road today.

GrimJack: The Manx Cat (by Grimjack creators John Ostrander and Tim Truman) is both a new story in a series I've been reading since I was a teenager and a book co-published by my ComicMix friends/colleagues/estranged cousins. (Someday I may even get back to reviewing for them; I keep thinking I should, but then I do something stupid like declare I'll review a book every day here and use up all of my time.) This is yet another book -- DC Comics has lots of them, and other comics publishers have more than their fair share -- that has a vastly different cover on the book in my hands than any I've seen online, though, and that pains me as a book marketer who wrangles with datafeeds to my own online accounts far too often. Hey, comics publishers! Can you please get the cover art for your books correct, please? Danke.

And last for this trip was Dash Shaw's new graphic novel (and reprint of the online strip that I only read bits of) BodyWorld. I thought this came out a few weeks ago, but I finally saw a copy of it now, and so I own it now.
Listening to: Emily Jane White - Liza
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 114 (5/28) -- Neil Gaiman Presents the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards Comics Anthology

Philippine Week continues today -- still through the generosity of Charles Tan, who sent all of these books to me in his role as the Philippine comics/SFF world's greatest international booster -- with one of the two anthologies that collecting the winning works of the first three years of the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. (This one has the comics; a companion book -- Neil Gaiman Presents The Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards Prose Anthology -- collects the stories. I have a copy of the latter, and hope to get to it soon.)

It's very difficult to say anything definitive about a prize anthology, since it's made up of the best works (according to whoever decided that prize) out of a universe that the reviewer won't know well. In this particular case, all I have to go from are the stories in this volume -- I have no idea what else was in contention (good or bad, interesting or derivative, in English or Tagalog) or how the judges decided. (I've been part of judging panels for awards a couple of times now, and what a panel settles on as #1 often can be a work that none of the individuals on that panel would have picked first separately.) So the first thing to say is that there's an incredible variety of stories in here, with lots of craft and ability on display, and that many of them really impressed me -- and that a different set of stories would likely really impress someone else.

So: this award has been running for three years now, with what seems to be the same team of judges for all three years -- Gerry Alanguilan, creator of Elmer and a lot of other Philippine comics as well as an inker for American comics; Arnold Arre, creator of the graphic novel Martial Law Babies, among several others, who has also done work for American firms; Jaime Daez, Managing Director of Fully Booked, the bookstore chain that sponsors the award and publishes the anthologies; and Lenil Francis Yu, a fan-favorite penciler of superhero comics and others. Arre also provides the cover, which brings together motifs from many of the winning stories.

In the first year, 1st place went to "The Sad Mad Incredible But True Adventures of Hika Girl" by Clara Lala Gallardo and Maria Gallardo, a fantastical story of sibiling rivalry with a flat neo-primitivist art style that reminded me of '60s posters at times. Second was "Splat!" by Manuel Abrera (whose book 12 I looked at yesterday), a wordless story about creation and the terror of the blank page. And two stories tied for third place: Rommel Joson's "Dusk,"a moody, shadowy vignette; and "Defiant: The Battle of Mactan" by Juan Paolo Ferrer and Chester Ocampo, a confidently straightforward retelling of a battle against the first wave of Spanish invaders.

The book also contains six other stories -- presumably honorable mentions? it doesn't explain their inclusion -- from this first year's competition, from creators including Avid Liongoren, Leonard John C. Banaag, and Nino A. Vergara. I found most of these to be too heavily narrated -- weighed down with too many captions trying too hard to establish a mood or give all the details of a story -- as if the creators were trying to fit twice as much story into the pages they had. But their art is amazing -- and amazingly varied, with each of these having a very different look and feel.

The second year, oddly, didn't have a first place winner. The second place award went to Andrew Drilon's "Lines and Spaces,"a visually inventive tribute to Alex Nino. Third place was again split between two stories: Heubert Khan Michael's "Absolution," a gorgeously chiaroscuro, but awfully obvious, tale of religious redemption; and Jerald Dorado's "Afterlife," a complicated (and also over-narrated and -condensed) science fiction story of the far future. Two more stories from this year's competition fill out the middle of the book.

And the end of the book features the winners of the third year...which again had no first place winner. (Perhaps the first place is like being the King of Gondor?) Second place went to Genevieve Go's "Douglas," a slice of life enlivened by an expressionistic style. And third place went this year to "(Love) At Last Sight" by Heubert Khan Michael (the first repeat winner), a complicated and slightly rushed supernatural tale. Six more stories fill up this section, including one -- Manuel Abrera's "I See," which would later be published in a slightly different (and more polished) form as "8" in 12 -- that I would have voted for the first place slot without any hesitation.

All in all, Comics Anthology is a big mixed bag, like all anthologies. Some stories will appeal more to some readers; others to different audiences. But as a carefully curated snapshot of a world of comics that I knew very little about -- and I bet most American readers know equally little -- it's a real eye-opener. And the contest that it grew out of sounds like a great thing: spurred by the visit of Neil Gaiman to the Philippines a few years back, and on its way to help build a stronger SFF/comics market and community there.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Richard McGraw - My Life
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Idleness

"There is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is having lots to do and not doing it."
- Andrew Jackson

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Movie Log: Everything I've Seen for the Past Month

I'm clearly not going to write full-length posts on all of these movies at this point, so, instead, here's a lightning round of movie hornswoggling!

The Amateurs: in retrospect, this looks like an out-of-town tryout for Kevin Smith's Zach and Miri Make a Porno, which was released a year later. (Though Amateurs apparently sat on the shelf for a few years, so the real gap is somewhat longer.) It's a loose-limbed comedy with a lot of recognizable faces in it, led by Jeff Bridges as the kind of lovable goofball that he could play in his sleep. For an unexplained reason, the Bridges character comes up with bizarre schemes, and pretty much his entire town goes along with them, even those those schemes never work out well. (This is not the most plausible, or coherent, of premises, but it's the one The Amateurs chooses.) The scheme in this particular case is to make a porno movie to make them all rich -- this, of course, does not happen in the way Bridges's character hopes. It's generally funny, and doesn't strain plausibility too much, but it's the kind of movie that makes a viewer seriously wonder how it ever got made at all, let alone attract so many well-known actors to it. One might begin to wonder if blackmail played any part, because no more obvious explanation comes to mind.

Born Romantic: The Wife and I are always up for a romantic comedy that isn't stupid -- a category that's vastly smaller than one might think it would be, though having primarily British accents seems to help, at least some of the time -- and so we found our way to this movie a few weeks ago. It's not quite a lost masterpiece, but it doesn't make any obvious missteps as it tells three intertwined romantic stories with style and energy. (I'm coming to believe that the only rom-coms worth seeing have more than one love story in them, since Hollywood can't tell one love story without tossing in all kinds of puerile "complications.") Craig Ferguson is particularly fun to watch here; it looks like he could have had a decent career as a film leading man if he'd had more luck with his first few movies. There's also a strong dance element here -- tango, I think, though the details are getting fuzzy at this point -- which gives the couples excuses to twirl each other about for a while. Anyway, this is a romantic comedy that not only doesn't suck, but actually works pretty well and manages to avoid directly insulting its audience's intelligence.

I Heart Huckabees: OK, this was just weird, and I don't remember it well enough to say much more than that. It was funny at times, and quizzically weird at other times, and has Dustin Hoffman and Lilly Tomlin acting particularly bizarre. It's one of those movies that's more like itself than anything else ever could be.

Sherlock Holmes: I was definitely in a room where this particular assemblage of exposed celluloid was playing, but I didn't end up paying all that much attention to it, since my laptop turned out to be more enticing almost every moment of the film. (Even The Wife found herself dozing on the next couch, without even the excuse of a distraction that I had.) The CGI was intrusive and obvious in all of the big action scenes, robbing the movie of even the tiny scraps of period feeling and detail it had managed to clabber together. Downey did the same sort of schtik as he did in Iron Man, to much less effect. Even the supposedly offensive homoeroticism was entirely subtext, and mostly buried subtext at that. Dull, flashy, forgettable, and mostly a waste of time.

Nine: Musicals rely very heavily on the willing suspension of disbelief, even more so on film than they do on stage. (Stages are so artificial to begin with that new artificialities barely register. But the movies mostly try to ape reality, or fake it, so staginess grates unless done exactly right.) Daniel Day-Lewis plays not-Federico Fellini, moping about when he's supposed to be preparing a new movie in the early '6os while a succession of gorgeous women perform production numbers in the theatre of his mind (and sleep with him, too, of course, in nearly all cases). The songs didn't register very strongly, though the choreography was nice. Day-Lewis, though, mopes far too much for a rich artsy type with more freedom than he knows what to do with and Penelope Cruz in his bed. The boy doth protest way too much.

California Dreamin': Not only is this European -- and we all know what that means -- but it's from an obscure corner of Europe (the former Yugoslavia), and by a noted director (Cristian Nemescu) who died before he could finish editing it. And the movie shows that: it could have used some tightening and focusing, but it also turned out to be less interesting and more Euro-dull than I'd hoped. A NATO train, with a troop of soldiers under the command of Armand Assante, is on its way to Kosovo in the late '90s, during the war. A local businessman holds up the train for reasons that are far too on-the-nose thematically to be believed. And the movie then wanders around for two hours of mostly gentle culture-clash stuff before turning 180 degrees for a less pleasant ending. The title only makes any sense in the last five minutes, and not a whole lot of sense even then. I was deeply disappointed, which may of course mean that I'm just a cretinous American who can't appreciate Fine Cinema.

What's Up, Doc?: After that, I felt the need to retreat to some silly '70s comedies that I hadn't seen in a long, long time. The Wife had never seen What's Up, Doc? -- a movie I watched a bunch of times as a l'il hornswoggler -- so I sat her down and we laughed our way through it. In its own odd way, it's the feminist version of all those modern shlubby-guy-gets-the-hot-girl movies: Barbra Streisand is radiant and compelling and smart and funny here, but she never was conventionally beautiful, and Ryan O'Neil was in the sweet spot of his own youthful hotness at that point. (Of course, he plays one of the world's great nerds, which undercuts my point strongly, but I'll pretend not to notice that.) This also was Madeleine Kahn's first movie, and she's great, too, as O'Neil's controlling, conventional fiancee. Heck, everyone is good in this -- it's full of vaguely familiar faces, ranging from Randy Quaid and John Hillerman to Kenneth Mars and Austin Pendleton. If you haven't seen What's Up, Doc? within the last twenty years, it's time for a booster shot.

The In-Laws: And then I felt like a silly comedy from the other end of the '70s. I haven't seen the recent remake, and quite likely never will, but it felt like time to see Peter Falk yelling "serpentine!" again and see Alan Arkin do that New York neurotic thing that no one did as well. (Richard Benjamin and Woody Allen come close, in their own ways, but no one beats Arkin. Hm, maybe I need to see a bunch of '70s Arkin movies next?) The plot doesn't make much sense, but that's the point: Falk's rumpled supposedly-CIA man is dragging Arkin's respectable dentist (just ahead of the wedding of their children to each other) through things that Arkin can't believe and would never expect. It's also got some great faces in minor roles, including an uncredited Merlin Olsen, deep in his bad-guy phase, as one of a pair of thugs that try to kill Arkin. Falk was never better in a movie than he was here, and his chemistry with Arkin is wonderful.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated: An agitprop documentary about the MPAA's ratings board; it definitely has a point of view to sell, and does a pretty good job of selling it. The movie could have used some more statistics (between big-studio R-rated films and indy NC-17 films; between violence that got an R and sex that got a NC-17), but the filmmakers would rather stake out the offices of the MPAA and "out" the raters, since that's more cinematic. So it has a good case to make, but spends its time being theatrically exciting rather than laying out the reasons for its case. It says obvious things to people like me, who would prefer to see more movies be more adult about human relationships (and I don't just mean sex) and have less violence, particularly cartoony violence. But most of America prefers cartoony violence to honest sex, it seems.

An Education: Carey Mulligan is excellent as an early '60s teen who suddenly discovers a wider world (when a oddly diffident older man starts dating her, with much less emphasis on seducing her than seems to make sense) and begins to question her priorities. She has some great speeches, and so do Emma Thompson (in a small role as her headmistress), Olivia Williams (as the severe schoolteacher this girl doesn't want to grow up to be), and Alfred Molina (as her blustering, controlling father). But this really is Mulligan's movie, and she runs away with it. The fact that it's based on a real story -- from a memoir by a British journalist -- only makes it that much more interesting. (And I should mention the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, who was responsible for all of those excellent speeches.)

Did You Hear About the Morgans?: We ran across a preview for this sometime recently, and The Wife expressed interest. So, like a dutiful husband -- I suppose I should really say "as a dutiful husband," right? -- I stuck it in the Netflix queue, and so we saw it Wednesday night. For an American romantic comedy, it's remarkably non-stupid -- that's not to say that it's even a good movie, since it really isn't, but it fits the parameters of the genre, gives a bunch of entertaining people work, and feeds Hugh Grant a series of excellent funny lines. Yes, it's cartoonish in every possible way, but I believe that's what the audience for a movie like this wants, so I'd have to consider it successful.
Listening to: The Builders And The Butchers - When It Rains
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 113 (5/27) -- 12 by Manix Abrera

Philippine Week continues today, as I review books from a country I know very little about -- other than the fact that they make some damn good comics! As before, I saw these books entirely because of the outreach efforts of Charles Tan, the secret weapon of the Philippine SFF/comics world.

The most universal comics are wordless, by definition. They don't need to be translated, and can be read across nearly all borders -- as long as the reader has the general sense of how comics work (and can figure out if this particular piece reads left-to-right or the reverse), she can get as much out of a wordless strip as anyone else in the world.

And a book of wordless strips can be paradoxically close and far from the reader at the same time -- like this book, for example. As far as I can tell, it's titled simply 12, and is by a cartoonist credited here as Manix Abrera (though he has a couple of strips in an anthology I've seen under the name Manuel Abrera, making me suspect "Manix" is a nickname for or derivative of Manuel). Nearly all of the words -- few as they are -- in this book are in Tagalog, aside from legal notices on the copyright page and the two words "Silent Comics" on the back cover. The strips themselves, all twelve of them, are purely wordless -- they are silent comics. So I can "read" these stories perfectly well, but not a word of the short introduction and afterword (author bio?). All I know about Manix Abrera is that he made these stories.

But that's plenty, since these are great stories, full of the terror and wonder of existence. Each one is a small shard of surrealistic life -- a girl attaches her eyes to a balloon, to see above a crowd and find her mother; a young woman falls in love with a famous man, and creates her own version of him through pure will; two men fight over who will go first on an an escalator; a group of scientists get superpowers by not dissecting a frog -- darkly illuminating a world with both pain and sorrow, hope and love...but much more of the former than the latter.

Abrera has a simplistic style here, reminiscent of a dozen webcomics (Raymondo Person, Cyanide & Happiness, and particularly the doughy people of Perry Bible Fellowship) -- those dot eyes and wide mouths turn his characters into everymen and -women, and their troubles become our own. Sometimes those troubles are funnier than tragic, as with a man leaving a poker game to relieve himself on a tree that turns out to be occupied, but more often are both darker and more resonant than that, like the O. Henryish story that ends the volume, in which a young man and his mother have very different ideas of what to do with his conjoined twin. The stories in 12 are sad in the way that all lives are sad in the end, because in the end all lives are about death.

This is a lovely, touching, funny, shocking, and utterly true collection of stories, from a creator I hope to see much more from in the future. And it would be great to see some North American art-comics house -- a Top Shelf or D&Q, a Fantagraphics or NBM -- pick this up and bring it to an audience over here. (Like the great Trese books -- I reviewed the third yesterday -- this was published by Visprint in the Philippines. I don't know who's running that company, but whoever it is has excellent taste.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: My Brightest Diamond - Gone Away
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 112 (5/26) -- Trese: Mass Murders by Tan and Baldisimo

Philippine Week continues with the third in an urban fantasy comics series about paranormal detective Alexandra Trese. I reviewed the first two collections of this excellent series last year -- all written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by KaJo Baldisimo -- and, as usual, I saw any of these books entirely because of the generosity and advocacy of Charles Tan, the unofficial ambassador of the world of Philippine comics and SFF.

Mass Murders
is the third of the three originally planned Trese collections, bringing together issues 9 through 13 of the comics series to tell one long story about Alexandra Trese, her father Anton, and the god of war Talagbusao. Along the way, it accomplishes all of the things that a story like this should: it explains some (though never all) of the mysteries of Trese and her world, it provides a major capstone story to this series, and it deepens the mythology and history of this particular fantastic version of Manila. I'm frankly surprised that no one on my side of the Pacific has picked up Trese for this market yet, since it's a natural: an engrossing set of stories in a popular subgenre, featuring a mysterious heroine with two wonderfully kick-ass sidekicks, set against a deep and immersive fantastic world full of new and strange dangers and wonders. And that's before I even mention Baldisimo's shadow-shrouded art.

Well, there's still time: the three slim Trese books from the Philippines (all published by Visprint) would make a great single volume for the US market -- he said, nodding significantly at whatever comics publisher might be out there.

The five issues in Mass Murders tell either one story or three -- stories that take place when Alexandra Trese is 15, 18, and 33, or the single story that continues through what happened to her at those ages. It begins with the murder of several army Scout Rangers -- and the removal of their hearts -- in a Manila strip club. That looks supernatural, so the police call in Anton Trese -- their expert on tikbalang and aswang, and all of the other creepy things outside of a cop's normal experience. And he brings along his daughter Alexandra, who is quickly becoming as skilled as he is and who, as the sixth child of a sixth child, has her own prophesies to live up to.

The bloody trail leads to other soldiers from the same battalion, and to a ritual they performed in the mountains, several years before, while fighting rebels. Anton and Alexandra learn that the soldiers summoned Talagbusao -- almost without knowing that they did it -- and that the war god is preparing for a major sacrifice that will allow him to stay on Earth permanently. And before Talagbusao is sent back -- that time -- we've learned the truth of the two Kambal who guard and protect Alexandra.

At eighteen, Alexandra must perform a difficult and complicated ritual to come of age -- she has to pass (Which is to say, survive) twelve tests to become a mandrigmang-babaylan, a warrior and shaman. She has plenty of help, both in her own skills and tools and from her family and their allies, but there are also powerful forces that would much rather that the sixth child of a sixth child not reach her majority.

And, finally, when Alexandra is thirty-three, Manila is horrified by a series of suicide bombers with dead eyes, who sing the national anthem in public places before taking as many innocents with them as possible. Alexandra's investigation leads back to a dangerous prison -- where Talagbasao may have come back, and where he may be powered by the perpetual riots and violence. And he may well be planning something even larger and more apocalyptic than he did the first time -- a plan that Alexandra Trese must stop without the help of her father.

Mass Murders ends this Trese series with a bang -- I say "this" rather than "the," since I do fervently hope that this won't be the last we see of Alexandra Trese, the two laughing killers that call her "bossing," and the dangerous, fantastic, multilayered world they move through. Trese is a great urban fantasy comics series, and it's the kind of book that could be a big hit with English-speaking audiences from the US to Australia to South Africa to the UK. I hope it gets that chance.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: White Rabbits - Navy Wives
via FoxyTunes
(As with the other books this week, I'm afraid I don't have any Amazon links -- this is a great book that hasn't been published in the US, and it looks like vanishingly few copies have made it outside of the far.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 111 (5/25) -- Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan

This is the second day of Philippine Week, celebrating some random books from a country I know very little about -- but that I'm getting to know a little of the SFF and comics publications of, courtesy of Charles Tan.

I reviewed Elmer once before, in a slightly different form: I saw the four individual issues of this series more than a year ago, and wrote about them in a round-up of Philippine comics for ComicMix in April of 2009. Since then, the series has been reprinted in a trade paperback from Komikero Publishing, with an afterword from creator Alanguilan and a few other pages of pin-ups and other related art. (And I'll try not to repeat what I said about Elmer a year ago; go to that link for the full story.)

But Elmer is still the same story, a naturalistic, ground-level story of a world (and, in particular, a Philippines) where all the chickens suddenly gained sapience a generation ago and -- after plenty of violence and disruption -- settled in as yet another odd minority group in a world full of them. Elmer is one part Angry-Young-Man story, one part "What did you do in the revolution, Dad?" and one part minority/immigrant experience. The chicken-ness of the chickens, though, is something that could only work this way in comics -- animal fables in prose depend on tone, and always end up at least one level removed from reality. But Alanguilan's detailed lines make the chickens real characters -- as distinctive and specific in their faces and bodies as the human characters are -- to keep Elmer as a realistic story rather than an allegorical one.

It's still an audacious concept, and I still would argue that comics are exactly the right medium for startling concepts like this -- in comics, not only can you say anything is true (as you can in fiction in any medium), but you can show it, with the immediacy of pictures and the careful framing of the comics panel. Alanguilan's linework still strikes me as slightly superior to his prose in Elmer -- there's an occasional unwieldy phrase, particularly in his dialogue, and his characters use contractions much less than it feels like they should -- but the story as a whole is strong and surprising and deeply enjoyable, a dispatch from a struggle for freedom in a world even stranger than our own.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Hexes & Ohs - Little Bird
via FoxyTunes