Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
DC/Vertigo, February 2006
Grant Morrison, writer
Duncan Fegredo, artist
$14.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
So this must be one of those "minor works" I always hear so much about. Collecting the three-issue 1991 Vertigo "reimagining" of some old DC character, Kid Eternity reads like many a current comic really intended as a movie pitch rather than a reading experience: A hapless everyman is inducted by a glib, ubercompetent, superpowered cool dude into the secret truth behind the world as we know it. The pleasures to be had here are in the idiosyncratic details Morrison weaves into this shopworn plot: casting said everyman as an observational stand-up comic (his name, Jerry Sullivan, evokes a Seinfeld with an Irish-Catholic's hang-ups instead of a Long Island Jew's); making said secret truth a weird (if familiar) splatterpunk take on Dante's Inferno; harnessing artist Duncan Fegredo, who currently mimics Mike Mignola in the pages of Hellboy, to the yoke of the world's lengthiest Dave McKean impression. But the curveballs failed to keep me as too many of the surrounding pitches were predictable and almost half-hearted. Serial killer? Check! Deranged Christian missionary? Check! Crazy lettering? Check! Tarot cards? Big check! Fegredo's visuals feel similarly lackluster: For every memorably wild vista (his infernal architecture is particularly ambitious) there's a murky, difficult-to-follow action sequence (I'm still not quite sure what happened in that initial bloodbath), hard-to-distinguish supporting character (I didn't notice that there were two separate murderous antagonists for Jerry and the Kid until they started attacking one another), or just generally uninspired choice (a would-be mindblower tour of hell is metonymized by a few static stand-alone panels and one image seemingly picked at random to anchor the spread in the background). Morrison's at his best when his comics either really read like comics (Arkham Asylum, All Star Superman) or look like comics (We3, I dunno, Seven Soldiers), and this comes across as a creature of its era that thinks it's too cool for school to do either, which it isn't.
* The Daily Galaxy reports that some scientists are worrying that ages-old organic matter unearthed--or un-iced--as global warming melts the polar ice caps will accelerate climate change. Infocult's Bryan Alexander notes the potential eldritch implications, obvious to fans of H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter everywhere.
* New Year's gift number one: Blogger Ken Lowery, formerly of Ringwood, now has his own fancy new web site, Ken-Lowery.com To think I knew him when he still had the word "Ragefuck" in his blog name!
* New Year's gift number two: I tend to enjoy The Best of Bootie, year-end mash-up collections compiled by mash-up DJs A Plus D.
* Adam Balz's brief rumination on the Ed Tom Bell character in No Country for Old Men over at Not Coming to a Theater Near You strikes me as unfair to Ed Tom's deputy. Balz labels him as "artless [and] simple-minded" whose "far from revelatory" thoughts "dance around the crime." In fact, if I recall correctly, the deputy's pretty much dead on in everything he says; the main difference between him and Ed Tom is that he verbalizes most of his thoughts while Ed Tom doesn't.
They called him Iron Man, a hulking teenage football player with a baby face and winsome smile who lived with his parents in a small ranch house in the Buttonwoods section of town.
Then, one summer night in 1987, Craig Price crept across his neighbor's yard, broke into a little brown house on Inez Avenue and stabbed Rebecca Spencer 58 times.
She was a 27-year-old mother of two.
He was 13.
Two years passed before Price struck again.
Joan Heaton, 39, was butchered with the kitchen knives she had bought earlier that day.
The bodies of her daughters, Jennifer 10, and Melissa 8, were found in pools of blood, pieces of knives broken off in their bones; Jennifer had been stabbed 62 times.
Joe "Jog" McCulloch reviews David Cronenberg's seminal body horror/media satire/James Woods vehicle Videodrome.
And BC at Horror Movie a Day presents a Best Of/Worst Of roundup of his first year on the job, the job being watching at least one horror movie every day. Read the roundup for either the hidden gems he discovered or the hilariously bad budget-pack junk he watched to make the quota, or simply to reward him for living the dream/nightmare.
* It blows my mind that Della'morte, Dell'amore/Cemetery Man director Michele Soavi hasn't directed a horror film since then, and has actually only directed one other movie of any kind in that time (he's been doing TV work). But Fangoria reports he's got a project in the works called Catacombs Club, which sounds like it's got the same intoxicating mixture of romance and morbidity that the earlier film boasted. Click for details, including the news that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen co-writer Charles McKeown is writing the screenplay, and the factoid that Soavi shot second unit on that Terry Gilliam film. (Via Dread Central.)
* State of the beast update: Loren Coleman at Cryptomundo reprints eyewitness reports from the San Francisco Chronicle that the two surviving victims of the fatal (to both human and animal) tiger attack at the San Francisco View on Christmas had been actively harassing the zoo's lions shortly before the attack.
* Jason Adams at My New Plaid Pants takes reviewers of The Orphanage, and Roger Ebert generally, to task for overusing Alfred Hitchcock's famous "surprise vs. suspense" anecdote. He does this in large part because he thinks The Orphange doesn't earn the Master's posthumous approval; I've gotta see it before I pass judgment and god only knows when that will happen. As an aside, Jason also mentions how scary he found The Others, a movie I think works exactly one time and then is pretty much useless, so badly does its ending skew everything that comes before it.
* Marvel Editor-in-Chief/Amazing Spider-Man artist JoeQuesada and long-time ASM writer J. Michael "Joe" Straczynski continue to very politely but very publicly blame one another for the shortcomings of the poorly received (by this blog and basically every single other one) "One More Day" Spider-Man storyline, in which Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane make a deal with the devilish Mephisto to remove all traces of their marriage (past, present, and future) from existence in order to save the life of Peter's wounded Aunt May. The funny thing is that both men focus on the story's wonky continuity implications and slapdash use of magic as the narrative equivalent of universal solvent, but neither seem to realize that the emotional, psychological, and moral character-based underpinnings of the entire thing are just as shoddy.
* Finally, allow me to recommend the latest iteration of Dick Wolf's venerable police and D.A. procedural series Law & Order. The Missus and I watched the back-to-back-episodes double season premiere on our TiVo today, and it's the best the show has been in a long long time. It's not just that new cast additions Jeremy Sisto and (particularly) Linus Roache hand in strong performances as lived-in, pointedly un-glossy characters--the whole show seems to have been tightened up, with scenes given more time to breathe, actors given more time to react, even better framing and lighting. It's almost reminiscent of the show's earliest Chris Noth/Michael Moriarty years, where half the fun of the show came from watching a George Dzundza or Steven Hill reaction shot. The cop material in particular showed a gravitas it hadn't had since the departure of Jerry Orbach. Good stuff, worth putting off watching Project Runway and catching one of its countless re-airings instead for.
It might be the jellyfish-on-human double-penetration tentacle-sex scene that makes you realize that this is an adult fantasy comic, but that label, "adult," is really present throughout this first in a projected series of chronicles of the land of New China. For all that characters like Subra Ptareo may be on a quest and Mosfet Warlock may be a mad scientist, their interlocking stories (so far) don't read like the genre narratives of my youth beyond their fantastic trappings at all. Instead, they're stories about buying things and selling things, about twentysomethings (or at least twentysomething analogues) meeting new people and flirting with them, about getting stoned, about fucking and deceiving the people you fuck, about being moved to tears by the realization that you're actually good at what you've chosen to do with your life. Where the fantasy really comes in, for me at least, is in the art. C.F.'s simple, childlike line is reminiscent in affect and effect of Frank Santoro's in their mutual publisher's Cold Heat, but while the latter relies on open spaces and canny color choices to evoke the both the supernatural and the mental states akin to it, the former gets it done with detail. The result is always shocking, whether a sudden splash page overripe with flowers and foliage or a doggystyle-eye-view close-up of a tentacle-filled vulva. The word I'm really looking for here is psychedelic, not the cheesily amorphous lowest-common-denominator version but the intense wall-of-sound riot of art-information present in a Moscoso font or the crescendo in the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." The combination results in as fecund a playground for the imagination as a far more traditional fantasy story, but arrived at from a totally different direction. It's inspiring.
Speak of the devil: Ann Thompson of Variety pens an interesting article on the new wave of first-person docu-horror, focusing on Cloverfield and the indie haunted-house film Paranormal Activity and emphasizing both the format and the "less is more" approach to the scares. The Blair Witch Project looms over it all. (Via Dread Central, which calls the films "voyeur horror," an intriguing label. The next "torture porn"?)
* Bloody Disgusting reports that Doomsday, the post-apocalyptic thriller from The Descent director Neil Marshall, is now slated for a March 14th release.
* Lost star Matthew Fox lets slip some mild spoilers in a lengthy interview with Entertainment Weekly's Dan Snierson (what, was Jeff Jensen busy?). So be warned, he does state some facts (both structural and specific) about the the show's previous and upcoming seasons that are not readily apparent from what we've seen so far. But if you can stomach that, he also has some fairly candid and interesting things to say about what has worked and not worked on the show.
* Echoing Ted Rall's complaint about the perceived New York Times/Best American Angsty Artcomix Axis, NeilAlien argues that such institutions lean so heavily enough to a certain flavor of comics to create the impression that "all artcomix are precious white suburban objets d'angst," likening the phenomenon to the deleterious impact of the superherocentricity of the Direct Market. I've seen many a "new mainstream" adherent draw this parallel, which is bogus because a) a couple of editors at a couple of outlets don't have nearly the level of control over access to comics that the spandex-fixated majority of DM retailers do, and b) the real complaint about the domination of one particular genre is not simply that the genre is dominant, but that many examples of that genre are lousy and and don't deserve the dominance. Unless you're an inveterate contrarian, this is not something you'd say about the work of creators like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Jaime Hernandez (whose Maggie strip from the NYT doesn't even fit into the lamely stereotyped mold the anti-angst crew is trying to push on it anyway).
* Finally, from the Ozymandias files, via Bryan Alexander: A joint US/Norwegian research team has stumbled across a bust of Lenin abandoned by Soviet scientists at the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility, the most remote point on the frozen continent, some 50 years ago. Look on my works, ye capitalists, and despair.
--Dick Hyacinth on the database he's compiling of comics people have put on their Best Of 2007 lists. That's almost 300 different comics, and while surely some of them are bad and were listed by people with not-so-good taste, I think that's indicative of both the scope of the industry and the number of high-quality releases out there right now.
At the unsolicited but welcome suggestion of my old pal Jim Treacher, I recently read The Ruins, the latest novel by Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan. Literally all that I knew when opened the book and started the first page was that a) it was some kind of thriller; b) it was very, very good. Since I believe this is the ideal way to read any book, I recommend that those of you who haven't read The Ruins go into it the exact same way--you'll have a blast--and warn you that SPOILERS FOLLOW. However, we don't give away the ending, so if you're okay with knowing what the high concept is and getting some of the important details blown for you, I suppose you're free to ignore my warning, although (as the events of the book demonstrate) that's frequently a bad idea. I mostly recommend that if you're at all interested in the kinds of things this blog frequently discusses, you skip this post and go and read this book at once.
Anyway, here is the email exchange between me and Jim.
To: Sean T. Collins
Subject: The Ruins by Scott Smith
If you haven't read it, I strongly encourage you to do so at your earliest opportunity. It's by the guy who wrote A Simple Plan, and it's a lot different, but it's every bit as spellbinding. Holy shit. I don't want to say anything about it for fear of spoiling it, but I know you'll thank me.
P.S. I read it because Stephen King said to. I read it in one sitting.
From: Sean T. Collins
I'm in the middle of this right now thanks to your recommendation, and kiddo, you ain't kiddin'.
To: Sean T. Collins
I KNOW!!! There was a point where I literally jumped up and yelled "No way! Oh my God, no way!" And it was only halfway through the book, and I knew I wasn't sleeping that night. Well, enjoy.
From: Sean T. Collins
It's funny--When she first stepped into the vines I was like "oh wow, a man-eating plant story! Sweet!" I've loved that idea back since reading cryptozoology books from the library in elementary school. (Not to mention the Little Shop of Horrors movie with Rick Moranis.) And then it looked liked I'd read too much into that part, but it was still really gripping. And then...
I'll tell you, there's nothing better than going into a book or a movie or something knowing literally nothing other than the very basic genre (in this case, "horror or thriller or something") and that "it's good."
To: Sean T. Collins
Yeah, I'm kind of amazed that I went a year and a half without reading it, and yet not running into any spoilers. They're making a movie out of it later this year, so that'll be the end of that. You really need to go into it blind. There's that sense of foreboding from the beginning, as they sort of blunder into this nightmare, and they think everything is going to be okay because they're well-to-do Americans. Heh heh heh...
From: Sean T. Collins
Finished it last night. Woof.
You know what this book is? It's like every bleak Stephen King or Clive Barker short story about trips gone bad--The Raft, Survivor Type, Beachworld, In the Hills the Cities, Scape Goats, How Spoilers Bleed--simply extended to book length. And written very, very well.
One of the best things about it is that it's all so rooted in realistic detail that when the most unrealistic stuff happens, instead of saying "WTF?" in the sense of getting thrown out of the story, you say "WTF?" in the same way the characters do--"this is crazy, but it's actually happening, so we'd better deal with it. Or not." You honestly could take out the overt horror element and still have a fantastic survival-horror story.
I'm also pretty blown away by how much of the book takes place in the characters' heads, yet you never EVER get bored or feel like he's dragging it out or that the memories and freak-outs and digressions of the characters aren't totally integral to the moment. Compare it to how King blows up his material with belabored inner monologues and, well, there is no comparing it. Also compare the super-competent hero character here to a King equivalent, and it's just fascinating how this one not only becomes less likable to the others the better he is at helping them survive, but that he himself realizes this and can't seem to do anything about it. This ain't "The Mist"!
He even makes the plot holes--why the Mayans don't just salt the whole hill, how they stopped the vine from spreading in the first place, how the vine is not just sentient but actively malicious and mean-spirited, why the kids never stop to think that the Greeks won't simply get stopped by the Mayans--work for him by tying them in with the frazzled and frayed mental states of the characters, who aren't really capable or willing to wrestle with these thoughts. (I definitely loved the implication that it's not a plant at all. An alien!)
And there's even a Deliverance/Texas Chain Saw-style "cryptic warning from a weathered local" at the beginning!
It's pretty great! I hope they don't wimp out when they make the movie.
[discussion of the ending redacted]
This is why when the Missus and I go on vacation, we don't make friends.
To: Sean T. Collins
Yeah, I figured alien too.
They're wimping out in the movie by not making the plant talk, make smells of delicious food they can't eat, etc. I thought that part worked. Once you've taken on board that an evil plant is growing out of a dude's dick (HOLY FUCK!!!!!), why wouldn't it be able to taunt him too?
And I liked that the "protagonists" are really the bad guys. If they get away, it would mean the end of the world! I think Jeff and Mattias sort of talk around that at one point.
From: Sean T. Collins
That's the best kind of horror story!
Indeed, The Ruins IS the best kind of horror story. Highly recommended.
This haunting, completely unauthorized take on Batman begins with what may be the best first panel of a comic I've seen in the past year: A crazed jumble of a cityscape whose non-Euclidean geometry resembles something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari threatens to overwhelm the panel borders and spill out all over the reader, while a caption box identifies it, simply and confrontationally, as "Gotham City." That sets the tone for what follows--a disturbing, uncomfortable response to the Batman concept. What really knocks me out is just how many different levels it works on. It could be a horror comic in about a human monster in the Henry/Buffalo Bill/Leatherface vein. It could be a blackly humorous, satirical pisstake on the Caped Crusader. It could be a vicious assault against the reactionary politics of the superhero. It could be an angry riposte to the ever-grittier direction superhero comics are headed in. It could be an exercise in drawing action and environments. Most amazingly, it could be a great Batman comic, period--Batman's rooftop and skyscraper milieu is depicted with genuine awe, the physical particulars of his methods are choreographed impeccably (as good as any comic this side of Paul Pope's Batman Year 100), and the story is totally convincing as an examination of what might happen if Batman, worn down by the weight of years of horror and toil--"I've been Batman for a long time," he repeats--finally snapped. As in his horror graphic novel House, Simmons' art excels in conveying the way the sheer size of environments both natural and manmade can be frightening, and as his inks shift back and forth from woodcut chunkiness to manic clarity, the effect is practically palpable. The pacing is ruminative but never plodding, lingering just a bit too long, making you feel like something is off but never tipping its hand till the story demands it. Clever bits of business involving Catwoman's acrobatics and the passing of a nearby plane add pizzaz to an extremely dark affair. Even Simmons' figures, never his strong suit, have the mitigating factor of masks and costumes working in their favor. And on a meta level, it's just exciting to watch an artist steal a major corporate icon because he's got something to say and needs him to say it. This is a hard comic to shake, so thank goodness I have no intentions of trying to do so.
* Dirk Deppey has created a colossal (seriously, it's big, like the size of one of those Pitchfork Top 100 things) tribute to the 52 best comics of 2007. It's heavy on manga, particularly scanlations.
* It's official: The New York Times reports that violent movies reduce violent crime rates by keeping potentially violent people off the street and in the movie theater. (Via Jackie Danicki.)
* The article also contains a great plug for Kids in Mind, the excellent, non-judgmental website that catalogs violence, profanity, sexuality, and bathroom humor in films (ostensibly for parents to know what not to show their kids, though the Missus and I use it for its reliable indications of whether or not a given movie has vomiting in it).
* My kind of civil disobedience: South African teenagers make out in public in defiance of their country's new "no PDA" law.
* I've really been digging the bite-size "Screening Log" movie write-ups at Not Coming to a Theater Near You lately. Here's David Carter on the analog world-building of Flash Gordon, Rumsey Taylor on a payoff in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Carter on the lack of Coen-isms in No Country for Old Men, Taylor on humorlessness in For Your Consideration, and two one-sentence reactions from Taylor to Eraserhead and RoboCop 3.
* And Now the Screaming Starts' CRWM reviews Dan Simmons's arctic horror novel The Terror, about which I know roughly as much as I did about The Ruins prior to reading that because I didn't read the review. (Okay, I know a little more--the setting and time period.) I'm getting a similar vibe, though, so it seems like this will be the next book I take out of the library.
* Jason Adams at My New Plaid Pants wishes Jeremy Renner, a fine, fine actor and star of two of my favorite horror films ever, Dahmer and 28 Weeks Later, a happy 37th birthday.
* Jason's also got his own massive, wide-ranging Best Of 2007 movie post, including invididual awards, his top 5 horror films, and his top 20 movies overall. He sees a lot of movies.
* Spinning off a New York Times piece, Clive Thompson examines the government's crusade to be able to confiscate and examine your laptop at border crossings (I've also heard about this going down at airports) and potential technological workarounds for the intrusion.
* Artist Robert Burden has posted pictures of a new pair of epic paintings of action figures, including my beloved Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line. (For scale, note the four framed Krang figures attached to the painting.)
* David Lynch has no love for watching movies on cellphones. There will always be something funny about watching Agent Gordon Cole curse. (Via Rue Morgue.)
The fact that it's hilarious aside, this video actually raises similar issues to the recent snobby reactions against Amazon's Kindle and other electronic book readers. But whereas those reactions are transparently dopey--print is print, and having a fancy-looking book is nice but it's also its own separate experience from enjoying the writing, as anyone who's read a beat-up dog-eared coverless copy of a much-loved book can tell you--Lynch's makes sense because most films are meant to be seen on a much bigger screen.
* Finally, I know that putting the characters of a great drama's final season in a Last Supper pose has been done before, and I don't care. This shot of the Battlestar Galactica cast from Entertainment Weekly is awesome. (Via Whitney Matheson.)
I watched There Will Be Blood last night, and it was excellent. That final scene really blasts it into the ionosphere, like Raging Bull. Which is appropriate, because between this and Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis has somehow become the living incarnation of Robert DeNiro's squandered talent. I think No Country for Old Men is a better film all things considered, but that's really neither here nor there. (If I had to guess the subconscious trigger for critics picking this one over the Coens' effort, it would be Jonny Greenwood's landmark score, which to use the cliché is like the film's fifth main character.) If Paul Thomas Anderson ever gives this kind of treatment to a character who's less sympathetic, he may have the scariest movie ever made in him someplace, and I'm not just saying that because the most memorable shot in this movie is highly reminiscent of the most memorable shot in The Exorcist.
Anyway, the title of this post is a tribute to Jason Adams' amazing insight into a certain scene in the film. Click here and scroll to the bottom to be flabbergasted.
Multiple Warheads #1
Oni Press, July 2007
Brandon Graham, writer/artist
$5.99 Buy it from Oni
(I hope you'll pardon me for getting meta for a moment. Normally I think talking about trends when discussing a comic like this is just a substitute for actually discussing the comic, but in this case the meta takes us in a direction my mind's been wandering in a lot lately anyway.)
I don't know if it's fair to credit Scott Pilgrim as throwing wide the doors for projects like these, or if it's simply the highest-profile such project to pass through said doors regardless of who might have opened them. But at any rate, Multiple Warheads is one of those books like SP that makes you say "hey, this is an exciting time to read comics." Like a growing number of projects--many from Oni--it's the product of a North American artist who's interested in action-based genre storytelling yet has no particular debt to superhero comics, a creature that until recently didn't exist. In this case the artist is Brandon Graham, and he's bringing to bear obvious interests in manga, European sci-fi comics, barbarian stories, and porn to create a fast, loose story of a waaaaay post-apocalyptic future where a va-va-voom young lady named Sexica smuggles super-powered organs around a walled-off city inhabited by aliens and werewolves and normal people too. It's a pretty slight thing. Maybe that's because the most obvious points of comparison--Scott Pilgrim, East Coast Rising, The Pirates of Coney Island--are all telling book-length stories while Graham's going done-in-one (and at kind of a hefty price point). Or maybe it's because the thin line, skewed proportions (everything seems both a bit narrow and a bit bowed), and acres of blank space in the word balloons give the art a tossed-off barely-there feel. Or maybe it's because the story isn't really a story per se, it's more of a "day in the life" kind of thing that simply begins when it begins and ends where it ends, arc schmarc. But the end result of all that slightness is not unpleasant in the, well, slightest. It's a breezy vibe for a breezy character. Indeed, breeziness is very serious for Sexica, almost a raison d'etre. She wants to go someplace nice, untouched by war, and she's tried to get there, it seems, through means both intimate (sewing a smuggled wolf dick onto her boyfriend for some extra spark in the sack) and direct (taking advantage of a spaceship crash to get the hell out of Dodge). It's a laid-back book, almost a stoned book, which makes sense given that Vaughn Bode is evident in Sexica's every lovingly delineated curve. I enjoyed it, and I'm hoping that future issues will provide some muscular mind-expansion--something along the lines of the beautiful panel that communicates Sexica's post-coital bliss at being surrounded by the comforts of home with a bed's-eye-view of the bulbous light fixture on the ceiling above her--to deepen and enrich the pleasures of this installment's lovely but fleeting buzz.
* Holy Motime--Dave Fiore, scholarly scourge of the primordial comics blogosphere, is back! Here he is arguing that "the liberation of the secret self" which I spy in the costumes and superpowers of superhero comics isn't always so liberating. References to the bildungsroman abound, as they are wont to do when Dave's on the scene.
* Speaking of triumphant returns to the fold, Johnny Bacardi is totally back too.
* Final Girl's Stacie Ponder pays loving tribute to her VHS horror-movie collection. Normally I'm averse to these kinds of nostalgic attachments to outmoded media, but the thing that's so endearing about a VHS fetish is that it's impossible to make the usual pretentious arguments that they sound or look better than that cold newfangled digital stuff--they look and sound awful! It's pure attachment to the objects and the experiences that surrounded them, which is adorable.
* Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot has written a very good review of There Will Be Blood that begins with a description of the film's final shot so you should by no means read it unless you've seen the movie, but if you've seen the movie you should read it.
* Famed horror artist Steve Bissette is a big-time Peaks Freak, and in this epic post he outlines the entire release history of Twin Peaks on home video/DVD/laserdisc, explaining just why the Definitive Gold Box Edition is the bee's knees. (Via Heidi MacDonald.)
Here's a fascinating little post from Siskoid on two of my favorite current superhero comics, Green Lantern and Immortal Iron Fist, and how their writers have created independent "bubble worlds" of their own within the larger shared universes they inhabit. This is certainly part of what has made them so appealing over the past year or so, and one of the reasons why I tend to mention them in the same breath. (Via Kevin Melrose.)
And here's a post I don't like at all from Reverse Shot on two of my favorite movies of the past year, 300 and 28 Weeks Later, tagging them as among the year's worst films in an almost willfully ad hominem- and inaccuracy-laden fashion. Bonus points for the now de rigeur slogging of 300 director Zack Snyder's excellent Dawn of the Dead remake, which they sneeringly attack for its proficiency with action in much the same way that previous gatekeepers of good taste sneeringly attacked horror films like the original Dawn for their proficiency with being scary and gross.
The best gags in Jeffrey Brown's loving, lushly colored Transformers parody feel like they didn't necessarily have to be part of Jeffrey Brown's loving, lushly colored Transformers parody. A Change-Bot describing, mid-fight and in overly verbose detail, the rigors he went through so as to enjoy pounding the shit out of his enemy...a leopard batting around an origami Change-Bot, then "trot trot trot"ting away with the crumpled bird-bot in its mouth...the evil leader blowing away his underling for the crime of having "perfect aim" that's "not perfect enough"...all of these jokes play off the same sources of humor--inflated self-worth either rampaging unabated or getting pathetically deflated, imaginations shaped by exposure to genre fiction--present in many of Brown's gag panels and short, funny stand-alone strips.
The story that links them all together is definitely best appreciated by Transformers fans, and I'd imagine Brown didn't hope for anything more. That two factions of giant robots waging vindictive war against one another for eons might unwittingly cause massive destruction to themselves and their allies in the process is an idea that even kids could dimly make out beneath the surface of the concept, and Brown brings it to the fore entertainingly, maybe all the more so for its gentleness (Dan Clowes's "On Sports" this isn't). He also makes some hay out of the narrative loose ends endemic to these kinds of stories: robots yelling "I can explain!" and never doing so, doomsday buttons that may or may not have been pressed. If anything, I wish he'd laid into some of the Transformer mythos' weirder elements--those five-headed floating robot tribunal guys, the giant planet-sized robot, the death and rebirth of the two leaders, and so on--but I suppose that would draw it away from the central "two equally stupid and destructive forces are arbitrarily slapped with 'good' and 'evil' tags and the audience is expected not to notice" thesis.
Ultimately Change-Bots is dumb fun, with the emphasis on both words: Practically every character is an idiot, which limits the book's depth. But when combined with Brown's solid character design, blockily effective action choreography, and vivid magic-marker palette, it's certainly a pip to breeze through, even if I don't see myself returning to it as often as I do to Brown's autobiographies, or even most of his other, less franchise-specific humor and parody comics.
2) I'm really curious as to what the critical reception of the movie version will be. On the one hand it's got the right politics and is sort of the apotheosis of the current pop-culture trend in favor of comics ("the Godfather of comic book movies" will be a hard pullquote to resist delivering; I predict Peter Travers will be the one to pull the trigger), but on the other there's the Ron Rosenbaum-y "graphic novel" backlash and the fact that thanks to 300, critics feel obligated to hate Zack Snyder HARD. For example, in terms of the story's politics, I'm guessing that contra300 they will be correctly attributed to the source material's creators and temporal context rather than incorrectly attributed to the movie's, because to do otherwise would be a point in the movie's favor, and we can't have that. We shall see.
Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4
AdHouse Books, October 2007
Joshua W. Cotter, writer/artist
$5 Buy it from AdHouse
The fourth and final issue of Josh Cotter's stunningly self-assured debut comic is kind of like the thesis statement of the series. The rich fantasy lives of the two little brothers, shaped almost completely by the kind of throwaway genre entertainment of the '80s that proved almost despite itself to be richly resonant with we America's nerds and losers, virtually replace their emotions rather than be shaped by them. The younger brother's innocently violent He-Man drama of loss and recovery, the older brother's violently sexualized late-Marvel drama of emasculation--both larger-than-life sequences all but spill out of their pages and overwhelm the usually staid visuals of the book. In this way they're like the mystical flood that sweeps away the boys' grandmother in the mysterious shared vision that gives the series its title. The choice offered to the older brother in this sequence, itself the apotheosis of the mystical realist epiphanies whose singular iconography has given the series much of its power, is to keep a part of himself locked away behind the helmet of his damned superhero idol or face life without that iron mask. As you might know if you're reading this blog, this comic like all comics is part of an industry where major players profit quite directly from lingering emotional scars and not always in the most scrupulous of ways, so the theme hit me square in the gut. Skyscrapers #4 is both uncondescending and uncompromising in its depiction of how fantasy can be both pleasure and prison. It's a hard and beautiful book, and aside from a slight misstep involving a too easily provoked and resolved fight between the brothers at the book's end, which is the kind of thing I'm very forgiving about, it's a fantastic book too.
Jason finds this poster for the film version of Scott Smith's excellent novel The Ruins boring, but I think it's pretty great. The figures are so un-posed it's almost disconcerting, I'll grant you that, but it's a bit like a poster for Deliverance using a shot of the four guys on the raft during happier times. I think that's a terrific idea.
My favorite thing about The Last Call's debut volume is that it's not at all what I thought it would be. I expected the kind of genre mash-up hipster-action/adventure/fantasy story we've seen in books like Scott Pilgrim, Multiple Warheads, East Coast Rising, and even Powr Mastrs to a certain extent. That's where it seems like we're going at first, as young metalheads Sam and Alec head out for a road trip blasting loud, evil music with hilariously Spinal Tap-esque lyrics that fill their car, and the panels, thanks to Lolos's clever writing and lettering. Next thing you and they know, they get zapped into another dimension where they're apparently on board an enormous train filled with monstrous beings who dress and act like characters from Murder on the Orient Express (an obvious influence, along with Paul Pope's Heavy Liquid, two works not often paired). Then you've got to muddle through some claustrophobic layouts, staccato pacing, an unclear sense of place, and a somewhat repetitive choice of facial expressions for poor stranded Sam, who soon becomes our main character. (You definitely miss the levity and variety brought to the table by Lolos's vivaciously inventive color palette in his Pirates of Coney Island series with Rick Spears.) But just when you think you've got the book pegged, there's a moment when Sam's sitting down for lunch in the train's palatial restaurant with an enormous bulldog-jowled, double-mandibled dowager when suddenly you realize that Lolos is tapping another vein of fantasy entirely: the episodic discovery-of-another-world story. Sure enough, charming, slightly menacing characters collide with Sam to his alternating delight and chagrin, like an Alice in Wonderland or an Abarat as drawn by a guy with a lot of tattoos. The pacing gets increasingly clever, the character design and body choreography increasingly expressive, the plot increasingly hooky, and the book increasingly enjoyable. Like his frequent collaborator and real-life S.O. Becky Cloonan, Lolos is an exciting artist who should be a blast to watch as he shakes free of his most direct influences; this book's a good start in that regard.
The trailer for Neil Marshall's Doomsday is out. (Make sure to click on one of the hi-res quicktime links instead of watching the fuzzy streaming version.) Sadly, it's not very good--over-narrated and edited for maximum blandness. However, you can dimly make out what looks to be a vastly more interesting and entertaining homage to John Carpenter than, say, Planet Terror, with the references to other '80s post-apocalyptic classics like The Road Warrior, The Running Man, and even Aliens playing just as large a role as Escape from New York. Plus, Bob Hoskins and David O'Hara (the guy who played Frank Costello's least-comprehensible Irish thug in The Departed). I'll be there, but they really need to do better with the next trailer. (Via SciFi Wire.)
* Rodents of unusual size? Turns out they exist after all, or at least they did 2-4 million years ago in Uruguay, where rats the size of cars roamed the earth. Loren Coleman has the scoop.
* Aeron at Monster Brains presents a gallery of images depicting the Harrowing of Hell, a fascinating medieval religious concept in which Jesus raided the inferno to rescue the righteous dead during the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection.
Rough, rough stuff from the creator of Palomar. Hernandez is in the midst of creating graphic novels based on the B-movies that his Palomar-verse character Fritz starred in, but "B-movie" might give you the wrong impression here. This isn't one of those howlers the bots made fun of on MST3K--it's the kind of disturbing, unpleasant film starring and shot by unknowns that you might rent on a whim from the horror or European section of your old neighborhood video store, watch, and spend the rest of the evening worried about the mental health of cast and crew. The story concerns Empress, an orphaned toddler abandoned in a sprawling, dog-eat-dog garbage dump and raped so frequently that she doesn't even seem to notice anymore. A farcical string of bloodily violent incidents leads her to a life as the unofficially adopted daughter of a poetry editor who claims to have come from the same circumstances, and then eventually to a second life as the wife of a young district attorney, but in both cases violence and squalor cling to her like a stench, to use a frequently invoked metaphor.
This is the angriest I can ever recall Gilbert's art looking. That's saying something: My wife, for example, finds his books almost difficult to look at--"His characters just look so hard," she says, and they've never been harder than here. Right from the get-go his figures seem dashed off as in a white heat, while several early landscapes and backgrounds in the hellish dump look like the whole world is on fire. His almost supernaturally confident pacing of scenes and the cuts between them evoke in their matter-of-factness the acceptance of everyday brutality by the characters themselves. At times the jumpcuts can be quite funny, as when a scene between Empress and her adopted father consists solely of a pair of panels where they argue over whether a glass is half empty or half full; both Hernandez and his characters know how reductive this exchange is, yet also know it's quite true to who they are.
But when that metronomic editing slows down, the effect is powerful, particularly because it is often done to draw out scenes of gutwrenching violence or tragedy. (The centerpiece scene in the brothel is as disturbing as the death squad attack in Gilbert's masterpiece Poison River; there as here a knowing glance is all-important, but here it causes murder rather than prevents it.) The end of the book changes the pacing again, revving up the jumpcuts to suggest unsolved crime and unglued minds, and to be honest I've revisited it three or four times today and I'm still not sure what's going on. Maybe that's a problem, maybe it's not. Since I see myself revisiting this book, a gruesome, enraged commentary on just how shitty things can be, many, many times in the future, I'm leaning toward "not a problem at all."
Here's the trailer for The Ruins, which I hadn't seen before.
I think it's very well-cast and well-scored. I'm also encouraged that director Carter Smith is a fashion photographer by trade; it should be striking to look at if nothing else. They're obviously taking some liberties in terms of the relative timing and severity of various events, as well as switching around the roles played by some of the characters, but everything looks basically intact. Fingers crossed!
It's difficult to separate an evaluation of Cloverfield the movie from Cloverfield the viral marketing phenomenon, Cloverfield the latest capitalization on Lost's ur-absentee father J.J. Abrams's largely unearned reputation as a genre hitmaker (from where I'm sitting he's batting 1 for 4--Felicity? Alias? MI:3?), Cloverfield the source of Harry Knowles's latest laughably hyperbolic panegryic. But I think it's worth doing so because Cloverfield the movie, like The Mist and I Am Legend before it, is an example of close-but-no-cigar survival horror worth investigating. Indeed, you could see those three films as sort of a not-quite-successful post-post-9/11 monster-movie trilogy, with this one displaying strengths and weaknesses of both its predecessors.
For example, it shares with The Mist some truly harrowing you-are-there camerawork. It's easy to dismiss the first-person construction of the film as, well, easy, and indeed this is being done hither and yon, but if it was such an obvious idea why had no one done it on this scale before? The technique works. It's immediate and intense, and great way to convey the disaster in a relatable fashion, not to mention parcel out the reveal of the monster in a deliciously slow build. And from a pragmatic standpoint, it saves on the CGI end of things.
Speaking of, it also shares with The Mist excellent, frightening, weird creature design. God only knows what that giant monster is supposed to be--it really doesn't look like anything, which besides being cool also reinforces the unresolved mystery of its origin. Even the little parasite-y critters, frequently the weak point of any genre movie's digital arsenal, are scary and convincing. (I especially liked their icky gobble-gobble noises.) Moreover there are no egregious moments like The Mist's opening tentacle attack to make you feel like you're watching Jar-Jar Binks on the rampage. And once again, it's nice to see non-humanoid monsters presented not only as physically frightening in the thriller fashion of Jurassic Park, but existentially frightening in the fashion of all great horror antagonists, from Pazuzu to Leatherface to Pinhead to Godzilla. Finally, unlike The Mist, the movie admirably avoids explanations of the beast from conveniently knowledgeable soldiers.
Meanwhile, Cloverfield shares I Am Legend's beautiful and terrible use of ruined New York City as a locus of horror. If anything Cloverfield pushes the 9/11 imagery even harder and further than IAL, and to memorable and disturbing effect. As I've mentioned before, quite a few times I think, I'm not one of these people who wants to deny filmmakers access to our era's defining trauma, and certainly not because they dare to use monsters in the process. In fact the moments that freaked me out the worst in this movie were all from the destruction of New York end of the spectrum rather than the monstrous one--the collapse of (I think?) the Woolworth Building, the wave of dust chasing our heroes into a convenience store, the lingering, disbelieving shot of the Statue of Liberty's severed head, the panic on the Brooklyn Bridge (I made that walk myself during the big blackout a few years back), the sight of a B-12 bomber dropping a payload on midtown Manhattan. It's terror, alright.
But also like I Am Legend, Cloverfield ends up unsure of itself, backing away from real horror--the horror of failure, impotence, death--and presenting the audience with a too-flattering portrait of the resilience of the human heart. Unfortunately, unlike the final-five-minutes foul-up that marred the earlier movie, Cloverfield makes this the heart of the whole affair: We follow a twentysomething guy and his friends on his valiant quest to rescue the girl he loves (with whom he had hardly spoken, for reasons unknown, following a magical one night stand and day at Coney Island the month before). The notion that in the face of a monstrous apocalypse we'd drop everything and in a living portrait of competence rescue our beloved is an extremely attractive ideal, but it's both soporific and sophomoric. (Literally--I'm pretty sure I wrote something that operated along similar lines in college.) It reduces other people to characters in your personal heroic saga, where you're the knight in shining armor and they're waiting to be rescued. The filmmakers never challenge our hero's blandishing view of himself in the slightest.
And in choosing the least challenging (to writer and audience alike) character arc possibly engendered by this genre, the filmmakers end up serving up an emotionally undercooked, flatlined bunch of protagonists, a fault it shares with The Mist and that film's unchanging archetypes. You don't get bored with these characters like you do with The Mist, since the action here is comparatively non-stop. (Unless you really just can't stand these yuppies, but I don't understand that hostility--these cats and kittens are basically everyone I know in New York, myself included.) But when the facile characterization does stand out, whoo boy, it's some grade-A government cheese. The cameraman's wisecracks, the goofy would-be heartstring-tugging reunion scene (when she woke up, a lot of people in the audience I was in laughed, and for good reason--it was laughable!), and most especially the film's final scene felt like an undergraduate's view of love amid tragedy, like Celine Dion might start singing "My Heart Will Go On" over the final credits. I'm not insisting on nihilism, mind you--some of the greatest apocalyptic survival-horror movies ever, the original Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later and Aliens among them, largely eschew the "no one learns anything, everybody dies" approach, to spectacular results. I am insisting on characters who don't confirm their--and our--first emotional impressions of how they will behave.
Did it live up to the hype? No. I don't know what could, aside from, like, a good Godfather sequel or The Hobbit or something. I feel a little resentful of being coaxed into caring as much about the movie as I did in fact--The Mist and I Am Legend avoided that level of manipulation, and good for them. I guess I'd say I'm glad I saw it, you should probably see it too if you're interested in the kinds of issues addressed by the movie, and like me you'll probably end up back at home, patiently waiting for another monster movie to deliver what this one and its predecessors promised.
* Another lovely one-sheet poster for The Midnight Meat Train (and hey, the definite article is back!) has been released. Note the refreshingly unique presence of a meat tenderizer as the weapon of choice. (Via Bloody Disgusting.)
* Go listen to Tom Spurgeon, Dan Nadel, and Jeet Heer in a must-listen critical roundtable on the comics radio show Inkstuds. (Just make sure to skip past the opening 12 minutes or so of audiocollage.) I particularly enjoyed Heer's observation that comics' growth tends to be in fits and starts and dead-ends rather than cumulative. (Via Tom Spurgeon.)
* BC at Horror Movie a Day's take on Dragon Wars lines up pretty neatly with mine. He also points out the presence of Chris "Hank Jennings" Mulkey, who between this and Cloverfield is becoming quite the battle-scarred veteran of giant-monster invasions of major U.S. metropolitan areas.
* Finally, in perhaps the most horror-inflected of all the major religions' annual rites, Shiite Muslims royally fuck themselves up in Ashoura processions, some of which have been bloodily attacked by millennialist cults.
* I reviewed Cloverfield, if you missed it. Since I wrote it I think that if anything I underplayed the effectiveness of the actual monster-attacking material, which is pretty terrific, if not frightening than at least awesome in the old-school sense.
* I've now heard several anecdotal reports--and witnessed one in courtesy of my poor wife--of people getting wicked cases of motion sickness while watching the film. One friend of mine actually walked out after 30 minutes and got her money back, and then was basically incapacitated for the following two hours. Interestingly neither of these ladies was affected by The Blair Witch Project, though obviously a lot of other people were. Figuring that first-person docudramas will only become more common as the YouTube era continues, and with at least two I can think of off-hand on the way (Diary of the Dead and The Poughkeepsie Tapes), this seems like a genuine obstacle. I wonder if there's any way for the filmmakers to overcome it, aside from handing out dramamine and ginger to ticketholders.
* Bloody Disgusting points out an Easter egg--almost more of an old Mad magazine-style "eyeball kick"--at the end of the film that kinda sorta reveals the monster's origin. Which it doesn't, unless you think "it came from out of the sky" explains what it is and how it got here and what it's doing and so on. Anyway I bring it up because it's classic Abrams to hide a key piece of information for eagle-eyed fans to "decode," and while part of me thinks that in this case the hidden info is pretty neat, the critic in me really resents the whole puzzle-making school of fiction.
* Under the sobriquet Neill Cumpston, a potty-mouthed movie-theatre wage slave, comedian Patton Oswalt has written the mother of all Ain't It Cool News reviews for the film, which he refers to as "Cloverfield Monster Goes Apeshit." The funniest thing about this--well, there's two: 1) That AICN basically allows Oswalt to insult its writers and readers on a regular basis on the site itself; 2) That I've seen at least one critic quote "Cumpston"'s money-shot line on the movie--"It's like a pussy that eats YOU out"--as though it was being said with a straight face. (To be fair, I'm sure the irrationally exuberant Harry Knowles is wishing he'd used the line first.)
* Manohla Dargis's pan of the movie in The New York Times is worth your time both for its more dubious assertions and its occasional flashes of insight. In the former category, Dargis joins the ranks of those attacking the movie's use of 9/11 anxiety and imagery from the perspective of an aggrieved Noo Yawker resentful of outsiders claiming the trauma for their own; the high dudgeon she works herself into while dutifully informing readers that writer Drew Goddard, director Matt Reeves, and producer J.J. Abrams are all (gasp!) from Los Angeles is absolutely hilarious. Her implication that the film would have been better had the characters displayed Scream-style familiarity with the conventions of the apocalyptic monster-attack movie is another one for the head-scratcher file. On the other hand she's right to point out the inescapable shadow that H.R. Giger's Alien design--surely the most singular movie-monster look this side of flat-headed, bolt-necked Frankenstein--casts on the movie's rampaging beast (though she gives the result way less credit than it deserves). And perhaps her smartest point is that for all the subjective camerawork, it's never used to express how our cameraman, or any of his friends for that matter, are really feeling about the situation. Rob Humanick makes this point quite cogently while comparing the film to its oft-invoked predecessor The Blair Witch Project, a movie that's about its main character and camerawoman Heather and her deteriorating mental state a lot more than Cloverfield is about Hud or any of his friends. (Dargis via Jason Adams; Humanick via Matt Zoller Seitz.)
* Bearing this in mind, the first victim of the Adams Axiom may well be Eye Weekly's Adam Nayman, who in his review of Cloverfield calls The Host "sublime." Oh dear. Nayman also sees Dargis's chauvinistic critique of Cloverfield's terror allusions and raises:
...there’s something cynical and even objectionable in the way these filmmakers are playing off collective memories of 9/11, as if a B-movie scenario about a gigantic, otherworldly beastie laying waste to a city were an acceptable allegory for a real-world act of terrorism.
Um, it isn't? Judging from the movies Nayman unfavorably compares this one to, zombies are apparently an acceptable allegory for racial turmoil, vegetable people from outer space are an acceptable allegory for both Cold War/Red Scare and post-Watergate/New Age paranoia, and man-eating frog monsters are an acceptable allegory for American interventionism, so god only knows why Godzilla-gone-Lovecraft is out of bounds for jihadist menace. Finally, Nayman refers to the end of the movie as a "predictablly nihilistic finish," dismissing the love-story angle out of hand--even though that love story is the very thing that the filmmakers structure their sodden avoidance of nihilism around in the first place. All that being said, I'm coming across a lot harder on Nayman than the review, which is well-written and fairly circumspect in most of its assertions, really deserves, so judge for yourself. He also gets kudos for referring to the leads' "screenwriting-workshop-stolid character arcs." Ouch! (Via Seitz.)
* Despite its credulous citing of Neill Cumpston and the usual "hey no fair" response to the 9/11 imagery, Keith Uhlich's review deserves kudos for pointing out the power of the film's single best shot--the horsedrawn carriage, its missing driver a symbol of all the slain people and its sad, confused horse a symbol of all the collateral damage such disasters, and really all of human existence, inflicts on the natural world--and its single biggest weakness--leaving the childishly romantic quest of the protagonist unchallenged. (Via who else?)
* My friend Jim Treacher writes of the film's only stand-out performance, that of Lizzy "Freaks and Geeks/Mean Girls" Caplan:
Everybody else was acting like OMIGAWD I CAN'T WAIT TO BLOG THIS, and she was acting like she'd actually just lived through a giant-monster attack.
It's not like Daniel Day-Lewis has anything to worry about, but hers really was the only performance that contained gradations beyond "I'm snarky," "I'm, like, totally determined to rescue someone," and "yikes!"
When I was a kid I was in Gifted class and we went on a field trip where some guy spoke to us about aliens and UFOs. He talked about how when eyewitnesses report UFOs hovering there one second and then being whoosh gone the next, it could be something similar to what a dog thinks happens to his master when the master gets into the car and drives to the supermarket. The dog's brain isn't sophisticated enough to understand that process--he just knows the master's gone. Maybe the aliens are on a corresponding level to us as we are to the dogs.
That idea stuck with me for a long time. It's only in reading this issue of Nilsen's long-running series that it occurred to me that you don't need aliens in that equation--you can basically just say that perhaps the meaning of life, what's really going on here, just what the hell is going on with us, is just as much out of the grasp of our comprehension as how aliens commute. Nilsen, who since beginning this series has had to wrestle with the precarious nature of human life and our need to cobble some sense out of its ruins in a way I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, articulates this notion gently and humorously in Big Questions, but also terrifyingly. His art is a repeated intimation of great vulnerability, with a line that looks like it might blow away in a strong wind, figures whose slightly disproportionate heads suggest infancy, heightened detail that sits mutely on the page indifferent to what plays out amid it, and a nightfall that coheres out of a multitude of tiny dots of darkness as though it can't muster up the courage to simply descend. His rival flocks of finches and crows, in their interactions with themselves, each other, a pack of wild dogs, and a pair of human survivors of a catastrophic plane crash, grapple with the big questions of the title--quite literally in this issue, as one of them comes up with Plato's parable of the cave--but always with one hand tied behind their metaphysical backs. There's just so much they don't understand about the crashed plane, the people, even each other. Their touchingly well-meaning efforts to stockpile food for "the hatchling" inevitably lead to grousing, mockery, rivalry, and finally violence. What makes the book so unsettling and frightening is that they're really completely wrong about what's going on, and both their good and bad intentions, their sacrifices and their sarcasm and their venality, are all equally meaningless. Is that what life is?
* Everyone is talking about this movie. Prior to the sad death of Heath Ledger today it was the most talked-about event in genre culture I could think of in a long time. I do wish I could still say the same.
* "Everyone" also includes the filmmakers, who are still pumping out the "clues." The official site now features a photo of what looks to be the remains of the beast washed up on a beach. (Via Whitney Matheson.) On the other hand, there's that sound clip from the end of the film itself which says "help us" when played forwards and "it's still alive" backwards, which sure fits with the film's lo-fi realist motif, doesn't it. And then there's the supposed revelation of the monster's origin within the final Coney Island footage, which folks are now reporting has been labeled by J.J. Abrams as a falling satellite rather than the falling creature itself, the satellite supposedly waking the creature who's laid dormant for thousands of years off the coast of Coney Island or something, which is stupid and a lot less randomly cool and weird than a giant monster falling out of the sky. And supposedly that Russian dude in the alley calls it a water god that comes from the land of the ice and snow.
* One of the freshest takes on the film comes from Andrew Sullivan, of all people, who writes:
The real coup was in using very rudimentary camera work to feature CGI. So it was the first CGI horror movie which wasn't so in love with its new technology to be confident enough to hide it, and to subjugate it to story and narrative. Yeah, The Host was pretty cool, in a pomo kind of way. But Cloverfield actually scared me - because it was so realistic for a movie about a mega-monster terrifying Manhattan.
I'd cite him for a violation of the Adams Axiom over the bit about The Host if I could figure out what the hell he means by it, but the point that follows is the one I keep coming back to and the point that precedes it is one that I'd never thought of before in those terms at all. Well done Sully.
* The great pop-culture blogger Rich Juzwiak echoes my sentiments at his site Four Four:
I loved so much of it: the conceit, the commentary on our documentary culture (a relevant spin on the found-footage template brilliantly arranged by Cannibal Holocaust), the snatches of information we are given (the fake news broadcasts felt so real, that still days later when I turn on CNN, my first impulse is relief that the whole monster thing isn't still going on ), the monster itself (kind of reptilian, kind of amphibious, kind of insect-like...the more I saw it, the more I wanted to know about it). And the stuff that I loved, I really loved. It, in my mind, all was adequate compensation for the aspects of the film that were fucking horrible, namely all of the characters. If only the characters were as extraordinary as the events depicted, I'd have no problem labeling Cloverfield a classic.
That last sentence is dead-on. You should also read Rich's piece for its hilarious takedown of the reunion scene and his charmingly cynical analysis of how economic necessity, MPAA-dictated discretion, and artistic innovation all dovetailed in the film's first-person construction.
* In the only review you'll read that compares Cloverfield to James Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, My New Plaid Pants's Jason Adams finally stops yelling "dude!" long enough to offer a pretty sober and positive review of the film, centered on what he feels is its extremely effective evocation of the 9/11 experience. It's nice to see him do this in a way that explicitly rejects the NYC jingoism of the likes of Manohla Dargis, by the way.
* The most amusing catalog of said provincialism I've come across can be found in CRWM's hilariously quote-laden review roundup at And Now the Screaming Starts. But after he finishes pointing out the silliness of all these critics basically replacing actual engagement with the film with yelling "damn tourists!" at it, he has the best neither-fish-nor-fowl analysis of the 9/11 content in the film I've come across so far: The movie's neither a brilliant allegory for the attacks nor a crass exploitation of them, but simply a monster-attack film that employs the "visual language" as a locus of horror, as well it probably should.
* What do I think, with a few days hindsight? Sully, Rich, Jason, and CRWM are all correct--this is a very, very good "giant monster attacks" movie. I'd go so far as to say it's the best I've ever seen. Why? Because it makes the monster and the attack frightening by tying it so tightly to the trauma of the destruction of a city as seen from ground level. The problem is those damn characters! It's been gratifying to see the response to them so universally negative that even J.J. Abrams might have to listen when prepping the now-inevitable sequel. I don't hate them or find them reprehensible because they're good-looking and well-to-do like some critics--they just don't do much, and the one thing they do do--rescue the damsel in distress--is cliched and dopey and reductive. I find myself hoping that the DVD will enable you to snip out the character bits and watch the attack as though it really were unfolding before you on a cable news network, or through various YouTube videos you're flipping between. That material has so much power and it's all the movie can do to keep it from being totally undercut by Rob doing it all for the glory of love, Peter Cetera-style.
In trying to approach this book like a critic, I feel like that giant Arab swordsman who tries to approach Indiana Jones: No matter what kind of fancy-pants technique I might show off, I'm just gonna get shot. I love dogs, and as such I'm helpless before this collection of Barsotti's simply drawn gag cartoons revolving around our Canine-American brothers and sisters. A lot of the fun here is watching that New Yorker cartoon world of Freudian analysis on couches, mustachioed men in suits who call their briefcase-toting subordinates by their last names, and pairs of people tossing off neurotic bon mots to one another surgically implanted with puppies in the lead roles. There are various paths Barsotti takes within that basic map--dogs with human concerns, dogs treating doggie concerns like humans, humans treating doggish dogs like humans, puns, and so on; it's amusing to see Barsotti recombine the constituent parts of, say, a boardroom gag or a courtroom scene depending on what species is placed in what position and in what ratio. While some of the very New Yorker-ish mixed-species gags are funny (the one where the human therapist says to his canine patient "And only you can hear this whistle?" totally cracked me up), I'd say that overall the best jokes are world-weary dog-on-dog bits ("Oh, God, am I housebroken," says one recumbent puppy to his therapist) or mixed-breed efforts that play up the pathon, emotion, and sheer love of dog ownership. I lost it at the deadpan hyperbole and specificity of a human auctioneer gesturing to the tiny dog next to his podium and saying "The bidding will start at eleven million dollars." Meanwhile, one gag that I simply refuse to spoil involving the reunion of a man and his dog in heaven had me crying at my desk in the middle of the afternoon, and I defy anyone who's lost a pet not to do the same. The great thing about it, though, is that it isn't at all maudlin; the body language of the characters involved makes them look completely unaware that they're in a five-hankie cartoon.
Of course these aren't all winners; some cartoons just don't quite rise to the level of funny, and strange choices in terms of which cartoons to place on opposite pages of a spread lead occasionally lead to an immediate redundancy of ideas or execution. But Barsotti's effortless cartooning, somewhere between Charles Schulz (a fan) and Gary Larson, is always a pleasure. I particularly like how he plays with the size of both props like desks and judges' benches and the characters themselves depending on their relationship to one another (a gag about an old dog telling his frightened young employee that his tricks have served him well, thank you very much, works much better since the boss dog is about twice the underling's size). It's a funny book, sometimes a moving book, and good gravy it's a great gift for a dog lover.
* Comics Journal critics Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield discuss my favorite superhero title on the stands at the moment, The Immortal Iron Fist.
* Hatfield also analyzes a killer page from Chester Brown's autobio masterpiece I Never Liked You.
* Bloody Disgusting reports that Paul Thomas Anderson's next project might be a horror film, which is exciting to me since (as I've pointed out) There Will Be Blood is a pretty horror-influenced little movie itself and (as I've also pointed out) I think he just might have the scariest movie ever in him someplace.
* Paul Pope posts a page from his awesome "cover version" of Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C..
* Gary Panter posts his cover for Marvel's Omega the Unknown.
* Quote of the week:
...Marvel had 75 out of the Top 100 comics of the year, according to Diamond's sales figures. Newsarama compares that to last year's Top 100, which consisted entirely of 53 Marvel titles and 47 D.C. titles. And this is despite the fact that in the past few years, Spider-man has both eaten a vampire's face and made a deal with the devil to get rid of his supermodel wife.
* Skibber Bee Bye author and Lavender Diamond member Ron Rege Jr. announces Against Pain, a big new book project from Drawn & Quarterly due later this year.
* If the bloodthirsty gorehounds at Bloody Disgusting are excited for Rambo based on these four clips, then I am too.
* In discussing critical reaction to Philip Roth's Exit Ghost as a way to differentiate great critics from good ones from lousy ones, Jeet Heer writes:
Yet he’s often appreciated for the wrong reasons. It’s telling that Roth’s best books (My Life as a Man, the first Zuckerman trilogy, and most of all Sabbath’s Theater) were widely panned by reviewers who dismissed their ferocious inwardness as a form of narcissism. Conversely, some of Roth’s weaker books (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist) won rave write-ups because they dealt with “issues” and “historically significant” events (as if fiction were simply a form of reportage).
In this you can hear echoes of mainstream critics' mania for finding sociopolitical allegory in horror films and judging the movies' success based on their own success in doing so. You also see similar forces at work whenever dopey Ted Rall insists that Chris Ware is bullshit compared to editorial cartoons, or whenever a graphic memoir that touches on an important current-events topic takes off in the mainstream press (a more well-intentioned phenomenon than Rall's activist philistinism, but still).
* Jason Adams pays homage to Joan Cusack's marvelous speech ("Ma-li-bu Bar-bie!") at the end of the "let's all rise up and kill the popular kids" comedy Addams Family Values.
* Newsweek reports that the MPAA now admits that an earlier, well-publicized report that college kids are responsible for 45% of the studios' copyright-infringement losses may have been exaggerated by 30% or even more. Whoops! Better still is the explanation: human error! Well, that's one way of describing systemic greed and mendacity. (Via Bryan Alexander.)
The use of color in this turn-of-the-century (literally) crime caper is perhaps emblematic of the entire enterprise. It's lovely in its impressionistic greasiness, it looks like if you touched the page you might pull back smeared fingers, there are spots of vivid bright-red brilliance, but mostly it sits on the surface of the page rather than drawing you into it. Eddie Campbell, the preeminent veteran of the graphic-novel terminology wars, brings all his usual panache for evoking sooty old-time sordidness and populating it with warm, likable-looking characters. The problem is that there are just too many swelling the mustachioed, bowler-hatted ranks, and in a heist story that lives and dies with issues of mistaken identity, disguise, and double agency, not being able to tell the players without a scorecard is a major hindrance. That's also one area in which Campbell's sketchy figurework works against him: Quite frequently I had no idea who I was looking at, or, in the case of several key action sequences including a bedroom assassination attempt, a shootout in a train station, and the opening terrorist detonation of a train that provides the book's central mystery, what the heck was going on. Some of the more conspicuously comics-y storytelling devices Campbell employs, like solid red word balloons for a character who can't speak and Chris Ware-style cutaway boxes highlighting certain details, call attention to themselves but don't add clarity or meaning to the proceedings; indeed, the cutaways all but disappear after a certain point, as if Campbell's heart just wasn't in them. There's a point about halfway through the book where the story shifts from a wrong-man mystery to a criminal-helping-catch-the-killers thriller, and all of sudden I felt like I was being pulled along for the ride, but before long shaky action choreography, an out-of-nowhere element of supervillainous conspiracy, and a tacked-on From Hell-ish indictment of dawning modernity had me hopping back off. It's a fun enough read--the period art really is beautiful--but the parts don't cohere into a satisfactory whole, and in some cases they're not that satisfactory as parts either.
* Thisisnow the fourth entry I have written on Cloverfield, a movie I was kind of lukewarm about when I saw for the first time last week. Today I saw No Country for Old Men, the best film of 2007, for the third time in three or four months; I have written exactly zero posts about it. Go figure.
* The most unusual response to the film I've come across so far is the notion that in centering it on go-nowhere characters on the cheesiest possible rescue mission imaginable, the film is actually a critique of the characters and by extension of wealthy, callow, media-numbed Young America. Here's economist Tyler Cowen:
ut you need to know that the characters are supposed to be vacuous and annoying, and that the opening scene is supposed to be obnoxious and superficial. The heroism is supposed to be thin....Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose. I can't recall any other movie that so completely devastates its intended demographic.
It's tough for me to respond to this other than with peals of laughter, because that's just simply not what's going on. But one of his commenters makes the obvious point that the main character is clearly supposed to be considered a hero:
While the film's portrayal of the cameraman was far from positive, I thought the main character was shown in a very positive light. He did what he could to be a hero, and certainly showed moral discourse when he kept urging his friends to stay behind.
But the best riposte comes from conservative political blogger Ross Douthat:
For one thing, the film does have a classic heroic arc. Cowen calls it "thin," but the only thing that's thin are the characters who enact it; the actual decision to cross a monster-ravaged midtown to save the woman you love is anything but. And Cloverfield plays the love story that sets the heroic arc in motion perfectly straight....Which is how the whole film plays, to my mind - as a very straightforward, even old-fashioned disaster movie in which an enormous monster attacks Manhattan and everyone learns valuable lessons about the importance of friendship and love just before they get gobbled up....There's nothing wrong with a conventional monster-movie storyline, particularly if you're working with a gimmicky format. But the fact that J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves didn't manage - or didn't bother - to flesh out their conventional narrative with even mildly engaging characters or dialogue shouldn't be treated as proof that they're engaged in some scabrous satire of contemporary twentysomething life. Vile Bodies this ain't.
While I disagree that the love-story plotline isn't thin, the larger point stands. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)
* While Kimberly of Cinebeats makes the "critique of yuppies" argument largely in passing on her way to lumping in misguided critics of the film's use of 9/11 imagery with some strawman about people not liking Hostel: Part II because it dared to be both a horror movie and a passionate attack against the Bush Administration (snigger), she adds a noteworthy wrinkle to the argument: that the movie wouldn't even be possible if not for characters whose privileged background made them think they could run around a war zone with a video camera and have everything turn out alright. I don't really buy that either, though, because all the video-camera business is is a modern spin on the venerable tradition of having characters in genre fiction behave in unrealistic ways as a shortcut to the good stuff. It could just have easily been a bunch of kids from Spanish Harlem or some Great Neck couple in town for a show or a grocer from Chinatown.
* Anyway, the "yuppie critique" argument reminds me of nothing so much as my own quixotic insistence that the happy ending of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, a film that's an even more direct precursor to Cloverfield than the more recent The Mist or I Am Legend (and along with Cloverfield is certainly in the scarier half of that quartet), is by virtue of its flagrant slapped-on-ness some kind of critique of the notion of happy endings. I still insist that the music cues alone shore me up on this one, certainly a lot more than anything present in Cloverfield supports the idea that this is American Psycho for the Naughts.
* David Bordwell analyzes the film from a structural perspective, focusing on how the video-camera setup restricts the flow of information to the viewer and how that restricted narration is used within the conventions of Hollywood narrative. Bordwell and his blogmate Kristin Thompson wrote the first film studies textbook I ever used, so this is just like coming home.
* Finally, this week's Horror Roundtable is all about our favorite giant monster movies. Mine's a little off the beaten path compared to the others, if I do say so myself.
Weinstein bros.-run Dimension Films has bumped back the release dates for the Hellraiser remake and Eli Roth's Grindhouse inspired fake-trailer-anthology film Trailer Trash to 2009. Bloody Disgusting amusingly spins the studio's reported displeasure with the Hellraiser screenplay penned by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the directing duo slated to film the thing, as follows:
Obviously making money is their number one priority, but it's nice to hear that they're not just trying to push out product without cleaning it thoroughly....it's nice to see the Weinsteins concerned about the quality of our beloved franchise. Mucho props!
There's a bunch of different ways I could start talking about I Killed Adolf Hitler. For instance, there's the fact that it opens with a woman pretending to masturbate in explicit detail while her boyfriend murders someone, which is pretty rough trade for a Jason book. Then there's the fact that when I think about it, many, maybe even most, of Jason's books are kind of non-stop bloodletting--but I had to stop and think about it because the effect is so muted. There's the almost outrageously lovely use of color--glacial blues to suggest dawn and twilight, hues used to suggest depth and three-dimensionality as well as I've ever seen it done. There's the fact that this book contains enough great ideas for several different graphic novels: hitman as legal profession; hiring a hitman to kill Hitler; time-traveling to do so; getting stuck back in time and having to age through the intervening decades to get back to the present; all the attendant relationship issues. Ultimately I think the fact that this slim volume contains so many facets shouting at me to be listed first is what makes Jason's work so powerful: Beneath his taciturn, clean-line, surface-cute animal-people world is just a seething cauldron of repressed anguish and emotion. Up from it bubbles the worldview that even if figures of singular evil like Adolf Hitler were erased from history, life would be just as shitty, if not shittier, than it is now, and that the only way to really make peace with the world and oneself is for one's hand to be forced by decades of accrued regret. With this unfettered imagination and perversely warm nihilism, Jason comes across like a comic-book Kurt Vonnegut, but more focused, sophisticated, reserved, chilling. Each new book is like a paragraph in humanity's compulsively readable collective suicide note.
When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing
I'm having a hard time figuring out what to make of Rambo, mostly due to its odd structure. It really doesn't resemble any action movie I've ever seen before in that regard. In retrospect, something like 75% of the movie is set-up, and the remaining 25% culminates in a grand total of one big action sequence. There are no real "acts" to speak of, there are none of the usual reversals of physical and mental fortune, no mini-climaxes are peppered throughout the running time, there aren't any mini-bosses or notable henchmen or memorably armed villains that need to be defeated, Rambo is never captured, his mercenary allies are not killed off one by one in various memorable and character-defining ways, nothing. Rambo himself spends the climactic battle essentially stationary behind a gun turret. Meanwhile the buildup to all this is a parade of the most horrifically graphic attacks on civilians I've ever seen in an ostensible popcorn movie. Children get shot in the face and set on fire, people get their limbs chopped off with machetes, gun barrels are jammed into bullet holes in still-living victims, limbless people fly through the explosion-filled air like origami throwing stars. It's like if someone took the set decorations for Colonel Kurtz's compound in Apocalypse Now, crossed them with the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, and made an action movie out of it.
It's only in articulating these two halves of the movie that I think I see what's going on here. It's wrong to characterize John Rambo in the jingoistic killing-machine fashion that his surname usually connotes. I've only seen the second and fourth films in this franchise, but in both cases he seems like a profoundly depressed and almost tragic figure, a guy who kills in lieu of crying. In this installment this is expressed with a memorably disorienting black-and-white dream/montage of Rambo's bloody past adventures, as his present-day self tries to come to terms with what he is. Maybe the reason Rambo eschews the usual ups and downs of action cinema is because John Rambo has only two settings, off and on. When his grief and horror reaches a certain point, the switch is flipped and a bunch of fancy-footwork plotting is completely superfluous--he's just going to kill until there's no one left, and then he'll stop. Seen in that light even his oddly static positioning in the climax makes sense. The whole movie was the forces of human brutality laughing in the world's face, and there he is with his machine gun, standing there, shouting it down.
The movie ends with Rambo returning to his family's farm for the first time in decades. Somehow, out of all the things he could have gleaned from the latest bloodbath in which he was forced to take part, he apparently picked up "you can go home again." To me this is the movie's falsest note. I wanted to see Rambo fade back into the jungle like bigfoot, always lurking, always ready to slaughter armed men who slaughter unarmed men. War is in his blood, as he says. To see him strolling the homey paths of rural America is like watching Hannibal Lecter disappear into the Caribbean crowd at the end of The Silence of the Lambs. What happens the next time he's pushed?
From a cover reminiscent of the playful pop-culture surrealism of Brandon Bird on down, this is the most straightforwardly funny Jason book since Meow, Baby!, and the most straightforwardly funny of his long-form narrative works this side of You Can't Get There from Here. It's still working the same territory of all Jason's comics--the absurd finality of death, the emotional ravages of time, the use of de rigeur genre tropes to suggest lives at the mercy of going-through-the-motions routine, loneliness loneliness loneliness--only this time the lonely protagonist isn't some sad sack but the zesty titular character, Athos of the Three Musketeers himself, inexplicably alive some 400 years after his heyday and defending France against Martian invasion. He's treated like the living embodiment of those thin slivers of joy and hope that gleam briefly before being stamped out by futility and despair in Jason's other books, here, finally, given a chance to come out on top. His id-like presence seems to spur some of Jason's funniest-ever gags in the surrounding characters, seemingly through osmosis: the emperor who simply can't bring himself to believe that his guard could possibly be happy with his job; the emperor's daughter who's never more than a second away from physically assaulting her milquetoast general boyfriend; the former royal's one-liner about the latter's presumed death--"Life is sad"--and its hilariously self-deprecating demolition of what is essentially Jason's entire philosophical project. Meanwhile the art edges into "Best Jason Ever" territory: A rocketship chase through the Martian wilderness evokes Winsor McKay, a swordfight practically rings with the clash of steel on steel between its still-life panels, and I could practically bathe in the book's blue-greens.
Ultimately the potential for a better, freer way of life represented by the Last Musketeer triumphs, at least for a while, and the lesson even appears to have been internalized by at least some of the other characters, perhaps even the larger world itself. Even so, Jason leaves us with a character who, like those in more standard works by this author, can only come to accept the possibility of a life worth living after being ground down by regret. But hey, it's better than nothing.
* Clive Barker talks to Chicago Tonight for a lengthy look at a show of his paintings and sketches at the Packer Schopf Gallery. Man, he could not be any more gravelly voiced, bless him. (Via Monster Brains.
* Noah Berlatsky has written an interesting-sounding essay called "Fecund Horror" on the eroticized horror of David Cronenberg's Shivers and John Carpenter's The Thing, and I'll probably even read it at some point when I have more time than I do right now. (Via The Horror Blog.)
* I did however find the time to read Matt Zoller Seitz's excellent rumination on Rambo and its franchise, one of the most thoughtful, least dismissive yet still critical things I've ever read on the character and the series.
* Despite my fixation on sea monsters and lake monsters I refrained from saying word one about The Water Horse because it obviously wasn't for me tonally, but a well-realized water monster is still a shiver-inducing sight to behold even if it is the star of a heartwarming movie for the whole family. This holographic display in Tokyo Bay is ample evidence of that. (Via Heidi MacDonald.)
* Director Mark Romanek--whose homage-laden music videos were either works of visual genius or flagrant ripoffs of everyone from Man Ray to Edward Gorey, depending on your outlook--is no longer directing the Bencio Del Toro/Anthony Hopkins-starring remake of The Wolf Man due to some combination of creative differences and budgetary disputes.
* Joss Whedon says the premise of Weird Science is offensive in its objectification of a sexy woman. Obviously the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is above that. (Via SciFi Wire.)
* At the New York Times' Paper Cuts book blog, Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader recommends several sci-fi and horror books, including Day of the Triffids and (now you'll see why I'm linking this) Clive Barker's Books of Blood (Via Whitney Matheson again.) Sample quote:
A friend of mine, years ago, gave me this, and I read the first two stories and was like, “I can’t handle this.” Then I read an interview with Alan Moore, and he was talking about how “Books of Blood” is one of the greatest collections of short stories ever. So I took another look, and it was so hilarious.
* Neil Marshall has posted the new one-sheet for his upcoming post-apocalypse action flick Doomsday. As with the trailer, I'm not sure I'm feeling it. I like that more thought was put into the design than just a blue-tinted giant face, but I feel like people might look at this and think it's about Earth being invaded by female Darth Mauls and BloodRayne.