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.
In the long list of things that Nigel Tufnel was right about, "there's a fine line between stupid and clever" is right up near the top. Which side of that line Paranormal Activity falls on has been bedeviling me since I (finally) saw it Halloween afternoon. Just by way of a for instance, while we chatted about the film in the lobby, I complained to the folks I saw it with about the demonologist who never barked. If the filmmakers were never going to actually put him in the movie, why introduce the concept in the first place? It left me with this weird sensation that either a chunk of the movie had gone missing, or the filmmakers just didn't have that much of a grasp on what they were doing. But then my wife theorized that maybe that truncated feeling was the point--the movie gets you believing that this demonologist will show up "in a few days," so when the end comes and he's still nowhere in sight, it's all the more shocking. Which got me to thinking about how I'd spent most of the movie believing the climax would come on the night of October 31st, only for the proceedings to stop short several weeks before then. Then there was my brother's paranormal-buff fiancee, who "explained" that this kind of haunting had to be "a demonic" rather than the work of a (formerly) human entity, so they needed to address this (the psychic telling them to hire a demonologist) without actually allowing it to fix the problem (Micah puts off calling him, and when Katie finally does, he's out of town). You could probably go back and forth about all the other loose ends--the house fire, Katie's sister, the haunting of Diane back in the '60s--in a similar fashion.
Ditto the believability of the two main characters. I found Micah's desire to get to the bottom of the haunting rather than wave the white flag, even when this ran counter to Katie's express wishes, a totally credible trait; amusingly, my wife found his behavior so dickish as to shatter her suspension of disbelief. On the flip side, I thought the seams really showed on Katie's performance during scenes where she was obviously required to express a certain sentiment or say a certain line; The Missus found her compelling and her story sad. That part we agree on, at least, which is why this post analogizing the story arc of Paranormal Activity to domestic violence has lodged itself in my head the way it has. Overall, again, it's difficult to say whether the shortcomings of the characters are simply the fault of them as characters or the result of poor choices by the filmmakers.
And the scares? As I alluded to the other day, the film shares with The Hurt Locker a structural advantage: The second you're placed in a certain environment (a mission/bedtime), you in the audience are prepped to have the shit scared out of you (by an explosion/by the haunting). Both films smartly let you do most of the work for them, letting you sit there, hearing the pounding of the blood in your ears, straining toward the screen to see what happens yet pushing back in your chair dreading it as well. Paranormal has the added advantage of doing for bedrooms what Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for beaches, transforming a familiar environment into a locus of horror--how much of the "scariest movie ever" buzz simply stems from people not being able to avoid their own bedrooms and therefore recalling the movie whether they want to or not? Ditto how deftly it works with the uncomfortable idea of being watched while you sleep--by a camera, by some malevolent entity, and (we'll get to this again later) even by someone you love.
The difference between the two set-ups, of course, is that Kathryn Bigelow pretty much delivers something memorable every time, from world-class action sequences to gorgeous scenery to those haunting extreme close-ups of falling shells or shockwaves. Director Oren Peli, on the other hand, can really only show you a static shot of a bedroom or a shakicam shot of a living room, in night vision; at times, the "action" disappears into the darkness where you're vaguely aware there's something going on--the tug of war between Micah and the demon after it drags Katie out of bed is the best example--but can't make it out. Once again, is this a deft use of parametric filmmaking or amateur hour?
With all these unsettled questions, there'd be no way I'd feel comfortable proclaiming this "the scariest movie ever made" even if I were inclined in that direction to begin with. Which (the moment you've been waiting for!) I'm not. With a couple of exceptions, there was nothing here you couldn't get out of a particularly well done episode of A Haunting; in fact I can think of a moment from that series that scared me and The Missus worse than anything here. Because of the film's abrupt ending, the sense of relentless pacing and crescendoing terror that characterizes (here it comes) The Blair Witch Project is absent. With it goes the gut-wrenching grinding down of the protagonists--Katie can collapse and cry on the floor all she wants, there's still nothing here that approaches that desperate conversation between Heather and Mike as they droolingly rattle off their favorite foods, knowing they'll probably never taste them again. There's no sense that Micah and Katie have been driven to that desperate a strait, even after the thing yanks her out of bed and bites her.
A big part of the problem is that just like Micah (and Katie, prior to her final under-the-influence decision to stay), we in the audience can't help but associate the haunting with the house. That's what a million haunted-house movies and stories have taught us to do since time immemorial. Even ones that aren't predicated on the location still tend to make tremendous use of it--cf. The Exorcist and how inseparable your memories of it are from that freezing cold, harshly illuminated bedroom. Paranormal Activity is similar: It does such a good job of violating domestic tranquility and transforming the bedroom, a place of comfort and refuge, into a horrorshow, that you can't help but want to scream at them "Check into a hotel and hang out in the lobby overnight! Go to a Walgreen's!" As hard as the movie works to establish that there's no escape, it also never shows them trying and failing to do so (budget limitations, perhaps?), so we're left wondering what-if and letting the air out of the scare. Heather, Josh, and Mike are lost in the woods; Micah and Katie could go grocery shopping or visit his mom or catch a flight to Hawaii if they wanted.
But all of this just keeps the movie from being an awesome stone-cold classic. I think it's still a fine film, and largely for the same reasons it's not a great one. All that ambiguity about the characters, the loose plot threads, whether or not they could have escaped--that's still very interesting, even if you can't nail it all down as a point in the film's favor for certain. I find myself thinking "What if he'd done this? What if she'd tried that?" It's giving me something to chew on.
And while nothing here genuinely freaked me out once I was in the comfort of my own home--something Blair Witch, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Ring all managed to pull off, just to name a few--nor really traumatized me during the viewing--all those movies, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Birds, Psycho, Hostel, The Descent, Hellraiser, Hellbound, etc etc--I can say that there were a few world-class horror images in here. Not the grunts and footprings, not the mysterious photograph, not the ouija board, not the shattered photograph, at least not for me. What got me were two things. For some reason, the lights being flipped on and off really got me. They weren't flickering--something was walking around turning lights on and off. Not only was something else present in the house, it was basically using the house the way we would--only it was nothing like us in nature or intent. I dunno, that creeped me out pretty bad.
But best/worst of all were the two scenes where somnambulist Katie got out of bed, turned to face it, and just...stood there, for hours and hours. That's pure automaton Freudian uncanny, of course, and a monumental horror-image par excellence. And it's reminiscent of the original-edit ending of Blair Witch to boot--to this day the scariest thing I've ever seen in a movie--because there's just no reason for it to be happening. It hits all my buttons, hard, as does the resolution of that first scene, where she walks away and Micah finally wakes up, following her down and out into the backyard, where she's just swinging in a swing. These are actions that really have no inherent emotional or psychological content whatsoever. They're purely neutral. But when you have no idea why someone's doing them, even totally neutral actions can become sinister, almost intolerable. That much I'm sure about.
At SPX this year, a friend of mine approached Al Columbia for a sketch in his themed sketchbook. Columbia started drawing, didn't like it, tore out the page, crumpled it up. Started drawing again, didn't like that one either, tore out the page, crumpled it up. Told my friend he couldn't do it with all the noise and distractions in the room. Stopped drawing sketches for anyone for the rest of the day, except for a tiny circle-dot-dot-curve smiley face next to his signature for anyone who purchased a copy of this book. After I heard this story I told it to a couple of friends. One remarked that if he'd been forced to concoct a story about what trying to get a sketch from Al Columbia would be like, this would have been it. Another said he'd agree with that assessment, but only if Columbia had been paid for the work first.
Al Columbia may be the closest alternative comics has come to producing a Syd Barrett, an Axl Rose, a Sly Stone, a Kevin Shields, a sandbox-era Brian Wilson, or heck, a Steve Ditko--a prodigious, world-beating talent chased off stage by his own...ugh, I don't want to say demons, but even if you ascribe Columbia's Big Numbers flameout and lack of published work post-Biologic Show to perfectionism, surely perfectionism that total and unforgiving is a demon of a kind.
The genius of Pim & Francie is harnessing the power of that demon--whatever it is or was that led Columbia to abandon his impossibly immaculate conceptions of monstrousness and murder half-drawn on the page time and time again--and deploying it as a conscious aesthetic decision. Reproducing unfinished roughs, penciled-in and scribbled-out dialogue, half-inked panels, torn-up and taped-together pages, even cropping what look like finished comics so that you can't see the whole thing, Columbia and his partners in the production of this book, Paul Baresh and Adam Grano, have produced a fractured masterpiece, a glimpse of the forbidden, an objet d'art noir. As I wrote on Robot 6 the other day:
my favorite thing about Columbia's comics--many of which can now be found in his new Fantagraphics hardcover Pim and Francie--is how they look like the product of some doomed and demented animation studio. It's as though a team of expert craftsmen became trapped in their office sometime during the Depression and were forgotten about for decades, reduced to inbreeding, feeding on their own dead, and making human sacrifices to the mimeograph machine, and when the authorities finally stumbled across their charnel-house lair, this stuff is what they were working on in the darkness.
The horror of Columbia's sickly-cute Pim & Francie vignettes--a zombie story, a serial-killer story, a witch-in-the-woods story, a haunted-forest story, a trio of chase sequences--is extraordinarily effective. And the stand-alone images both inside and outside those stories--the Beast of the Apocalypse as story-book fawn, a field of horrid man-things staring right at you, a broken-down theme park and the phrase "there's something wrong with grandpa," a forest of crying trees, some dreadful being of black flame running full-tilt down the basement stairs, zombie Grandma stopping her dishwashing and glancing up toward where the children sleep--are as close as comics have come (hate to keep using that formulation, but there you have it) to the girls at the end of the hall in The Shining, the chalk-white face of the demon flashing at us in Father Karras's dream in The Exorcist, the inscrutable motionlessness of characters in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. The craft involved in their creation is simply remarkable, with Columbia's assuredness of line, faux-vintage aesthetic, and near-peerless use of blacks all actually gaining from his panels' frequent extreme-close-up enlargement throughout the collection.
But moreover, these scary stories and disturbing images are all so gorgeously awful that they appear to have corrupted the book itself. They look like they've emerged from the ether, seared or stained themselves partly onto the pages, then burned out, or been extinguished when the nominal author shut his sketchbook and hurled it across the room or tore up the pages in terror. It's comic book as Samara's video from The Ring, Lemarchand's box from Hellraiser, Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon from Lovecraft, the titular toy from Stephen King's "The Monkey"--an inherently horrific object. Bravo.
* Curt Purcell gives Blackest Night its midterm progress report. He's not that impressed. That's fine. What's irking me (and Curt's not guilty of this so much as the reviewers he links to, who fall all over themselves to find inventive new put-downs) is the fashionable new response to Johns's work among many comics critics, which is that he likes Hal Jordan too much and therefore he stinks. I'm sorry but the idea that he likes Hal Jordan more than, say, Grant Morrison likes Bruce Wayne or Kal-El is ludicrous.
* Jeet Heer discusses what he thinks The Comics Journal has done well lately, and by implication what it's done not-so-well. I think they're simply at the mercy of whoever wants to do reviews and criticism for that publication anymore. I love that they'll pay me to talk to Josh Cotter for an hour, but I'd rather read something and post a review of it that same day than read something that's a few months old and watch the review come out a few months after that. I'll be curious to see if the new site gets involved in the day-to-day discussion again.
Look: I get it. It's a horror comedy. True, the non-horror comedy parts were a bit shopworn. Of course the neurotic guy's phobias include clowns, and when a zombie clown finally appears, of course he says "Look at this fucking clown." Of course the redneck carries a banjo he uses as a weapon, and when he uses it to lure out zombies, of course he plays "Dueling Banjos" on it. And of course the junk food he's obsessed with is fucking Twinkies.
But the horror-comedy aspects were pretty top drawer. I'm sort of astonished by the credit sequence, for example. A series of shockingly gory kills, played for laughs, shot in super slow-mo so they look like a cross between one of those stagey horror photos by Whatsisname and that Spike Jonze video with the burning guy chasing the bus (referenced outright, by the way), and soundtracked by the ever-awesome "For Whom the Bell Tolls"? Add in the slightly overripe, saturated color palette that medium-budget studio efforts all seem to use these days, and the whole opening plays like an Opposite Sketches version of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. Hey, well played!
The four main characters, they're okay. Jesse Eisenberg must feel about Michael Cera the way Gollum feels about the Ring--he hates and loves him, as he hates and loves himself--but he's pretty game in this the second film in which he's a one-man Cera cover band who has some adventures in an amusement park. Woody Harrelson's genial shitkicker is woefully underbaked, a collection of pro forma cliches that coasts entirely on Harrelson's CV full of genial shitkickers, but that meant I could pretend this was an unofficial sequel to Natural Born Killers, which was a ton of fun. It's entirely plausible that Harrelson played this role while all the while thinking of himself as an older, slightly mellower, but no less lethal Mickey Knox. Abigail Breslin is spunky and seems to be aging into teen roles pretty gracefully, while the other girl they gave the raccoon-eye make-up to was fine in a cute tough girl with a soft streak kinda way. Mostly I like dark-haired girls in jeans and t-shirts with rock and roll make-up, so, you know, mission accomplished there.
And the movie had its moments. I liked the fourth-wall-busting use of Columbus's "rules," popping up and getting knocked around by the action. Riffs a little bit on Tarantino, presages what I'm assuming will happen in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim movie, which you can't help but think about when you're watching a post-Shaun of the Dead zombie comedy starring a guy who'd play the other Michael Cera character if they did a new version of The Twelfth Night. Great bit with the girl from the next apartment. Some nice music on the soundtrack, "Oh Sweet Nothing," "Kingdom of Rust," " Everybody Wants Some." And though it was thoroughly spoiled for me by now, great cameo.
But then! They fucking kill the guy, act like it's no more big a deal than if they broke his television, crack jokes during his death, dump his body off his balcony, and carry on having target practice and goofing around and doing the romantic-comedy bit as though nothing had happened. FUCK that. I seriously almost walked out. Not because I was so ouuuuuutraaaaaaged or anything, but because how the fuck could I care about anything else that happened? Like I said, I get it: It's a horror comedy. But it's a horror comedy predicated on the notion that these four people grow to care about each other and act accordingly--I mean, you could see that ending coming a mile away. (Though its wonky timeline was a surprise.) And yet they run into another living person, a person that for reasons I won't spoil they already feel enormously attached to, a person who's being really, really nice to them--and, might I add, a person who was in a far better and more tonally consistent horror comedy!!! And then they fucking kill him and act like they don't care? Blam, there goes the whole movie. I was thrown so far out of it it was like someone hit the eject button. I didn't care about Tallahassee's tragic backstory anymore, I sure as shit didn't care about the romance, I didn't care about the pointless "big climactic battle" at the amusement park. Totally, utterly movie-ruining misstep. To paraphrase the movie itself, "[NAME REDACTED] was a photo in someone's wallet, too."
* My favorite line of the night actually came from the "previously on Gossip Girl" thing at the beginning of the episode, when Olivia said to Dan, "I lied because I care about you." That's Gossip Girl in a nutshell, this season more than ever. It should be tattooed on every character's forehead.
* Actually, my real favorite line of the night wasn't on the TV at all. It comes from The Missus, who when Dan and Olivia were snuggling in bed turned to me and asked "Do you think Dan's morning breath has integrity?" You bet it does, honey.
* "Van der Bilt"? Uh, okay. Van der Woodsen too. Van der Bass? Van der Waldorf?
* I liked the line about a Rasmussen poll having a Democrat in the lead. This really is a fantasy world!
* I enjoyed the lame actor character. More people need to answer doors and attend parties in their boxer briefs.
* The funniest bit of the night is Blair telling Serena about "my best friend Brandeis," whom she met that afternoon--perhaps the most literally childish thing Blair's done in a season full of Blair doing childish things. Please tell me I wasn't the only person who immediately thought of Eric Wareheim's new best friend Raz and Tim Heidecker's new best friend Tony...
Hey, who needs the hoes, right, Blair?
* I love that Blair was so mean to Serena, because the meanness was accurate. Serena is a slutty lush!
* Jimmy Fallon. Jesus Christ.
* Jenny looks cute with no make-up. She should get sick more often.
* I spent a long time baffled as to whether or not Nate actually did stage the drowning. I didn't know what the hell was going on until we got some seemingly superfluous shots of Trip's missus.
* Speaking of, how wonderful was her mustache-twirling exchange with Grandfather? Her: "This couldn't have worked any better if it was planned." Him: "You!" I like a good "you!"
* Wow, this Steven Grant essay about how we've entered the Disco Age of comics (meant pejoratively) is just super-duper wrong about both disco then and comics now. And frustratingly, he tosses in a bit about how people who weren't around in the late '70s don't understand disco, so now I can't explain why it's wrong because I wasn't around then and therefore don't understand. Curses, foiled again!
* I'm a few days late on this, but Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay "Unreal Estate," a compilation of establishing shots of various buildings where bad things end up happening in horror movies and other films, is his best video essay yet. I even did pretty good at ID'ing the films. Barton Fink was a very welcome inclusion.
* Speaking of both Seitz and scares, he's a contributor to IFC's fine list of the 25 Scariest Moments in Non-Horror Movies. Chances are that if it just sprung into your mind, it's on the list. Seitz's highest-ranking write-up happens to be the only act of violence in a film that made me cry.
Captain America: Reborn #4
Ed Brubaker, writer
Bryan Hitch, artist
Marvel, November 2009
In which we learn that Sharon Carter is not just the Billy Pilgriming Captain America's "constant" in the Lost sense--she's literally a Cap magnet, pulling him toward her through the timestream thanks to some nanotech in her blood. Ain't Marvel Universe pseudoscience grand? That's really all I need to get me over what reservations I had about injecting a time-displacement angle into Brubaker's years-long top-drawer super-spy saga. And to be fair, the megastoryline kicked off with the Cosmic Cube, the wonkiest of all Marvel's made-up tech/mystic mumbo jumbo, while one of its best scenes to date involved Bucky's dismembered cybernetic arm springing to life and taking out a room full of SHIELD goons, so this is not without precedent. (There were some cool giant robots in there too, iirc.)
One of my favorite things about Brubaker's run--and in this he's been indispensably assisted by a solid stable of artists, led by Steve Epting and Mike Perkins and stood in for here by the slicker style and cantilevered action of Bryan Hitch, who in every other way is consistent with the established tone--is just how good he is at grouping various super-people together and having those groupings make visual and practical sense. Several times I've touted how he's established this sort of underbelly to the Marvel Universe involving super-powered espionage-based characters: Steve Rogers, Bucky, Black Widow, Union Jack, Crossbones, Agent 13, Nick Fury and so on all look like people you really could believe take advantage of whatever relatively slight super powers they have, put on some form-fitting garb and skullcaps, and go out and assault people in classified military installations. In this issue you see some new combos in that regard, most notably a Bucky-Cap/Black Widow/Ronin trio, who are put through the paces by Hitch in a memorable hit-and-run attack in Marvel's oft-destroyed Times Square. Elsewhere, Bru and Hitch take a trio of gaudier, more straightforwardly superheroic characters--Mister Fantastic, Hank Pym or whatever he's calling himself now, and the Vision--and, despite this being the least naturally resonant area of the Marvel U. for Brubaker's Cap, somehow make them click in that world as a braintrust tasked with cracking the enemy technology that's brought Cap low.
But the best such scene--the scene that made me want to write the book in the first place--occurs when Homeland Security Commissar Norman "The Green Goblin" Osborn's right-hand woman Victoria Hand (yup!) drags Sharon Carter, the brainwashed and disgraced Agent 13, in handcuffs into a secret lair. She looks down, and there looking back at her are Doctor Doom, the Red Skull (who's now trapped in a robot body with a Red Skull mask and an SS uniform), racist luchadore Crossbones, Skull's S&M daughter Sin, and the torso-themed robot Nazi mad scientist Doctor Arnim Zola. Sharon's reaction is more bugged-out disbelief than anything else, and it's entirely appropriate: As assembled by Brubaker, drawn by Hitch, and staged in a clever two-level set-up by the two of them, man oh man does this come across as a batshit-insane crew of lunatics. You really can't even begin to imagine what kind of crazy horrorshow they've got in store for whoever's unlucky to be dragged into that lab; it's like the scene in Blue Velvet where Dennis Hopper forces Kyle MacLachlan into Dean Stockwell's place, only with Doombots and time machines instead of overweight prostitutes and Roy Orbison songs.
And now that I'm writing about it, the scene reminds me in its weird, you-gotta-be-shitting-me way of a very different "here come the bad guys" reveal: that wonderful spread in the first issue of Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez's Infinite Crisis where you realize that Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters are about to get their collective bell rung by Bizarro, Zoom, Cheetah, Sinestro, Black Adam, Deathstroke, Dr. Light, Psycho-Pirate, and that DC Magneto guy Dr. Polaris--just about as fearsome an array of opposite-numbers and cool power-sets as DC can offer. But while that was prime momentism, this is like anti-momentism--the staging peels back the "whoa" factor and transforms it into a sort of wordless shudder. This is the kind of thing you want every superhero comic you read to be able to deliver.
* Just a couple of big Robot 6 posts and then I'm out for the day.
* First, I transcribed the Critics Roundtable panel from SPX. Get ready to wallow in the wisdom sprayed all over your computer monitor or iPod Touch screen by Rob Clough, Gary Groth, Bill Kartalopolous, Chris Mautner, Joe McCulloch, Tucker Stone, Douglas Wolk, and yours truly.
* In the SPX Critics Roundtable transcript, when I wrote that Rob Clough and Chris Mautner's last names are pronounced "Clow" and "Mowtner," I meant that as in "rhymes with cow or Mao," not "rhymes with glow or mow-the-lawn." I'm gonna fix it so it's even clearer, but I've heard enough excitement over people finally learning to properly pronounce those dudes' names that I want to set the record straight.
Mome Vol. 14: Spring 2009--Kaela Graham, Adam Grano, Derek Van Gieson, Laura Park, Olivier Schrauwen, Gilber Shelton, Pic, Dash Shaw, Ray Fenwick, Ben Jones, Frank Santoro, Jon Vermilyea, Sara Edward-Corbett, Conor O'Keefe, Emile Bravo, Lilli Carre, Hernan Migoya, Juaco Vizuete, Josh Simmons, writers/artists Vol. 15: Summer 2009--Kaela Graham, Andrice Arp, Tim Hensley, Sara Edward-Corbett, Ray Fenwick, Conor O'Keefe, T. Edward Bak, Gilbert Shelton, Pic, Nathan Neal, Noah Van Sciver, Robert Goodin, Dash Shaw, Paul Hornschemeier, Max, writers/artists Vol. 16: Fall 2009--Kaela Graham, Archer Prewitt, Ted Stearn, Dash Shaw, Lilli Carre, Conor O'Keefe, Ben Jones, Frank Santoro, Jon Vermilyea, Nicholas Mahler, Laura Park, Nate Neal, Renee French, Sara Edward-Corbett, T. Edward Bak, writers/artists
Eric Reynolds, Gary Groth, editors
Vol. 14: 120 pages
Vols. 15-16: 112 pages each
$14.99 each Buy them from Fantagraphics Buy them from Amazon.com
Things kinda went off the rails here, no?
Like, looking at that list of contributors, you can see some standouts: The Cold Heat material from Jones, Santoro, and Vermilyea is not the strongest Cold Heat material in the world but it's imaginative and, particularly with Vermilyea at the drawing table, sharply delineated, as is Vermilyea's delightfully sick solo material. Josh Simmons impresses with his blackly comic strips, particularly a memorable number involving homunculus-sized versions of Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox grinning soullessly at the assembled paparazzi. Tim Hensley kills it as always with the concluding chapters in his Wally Gropius saga, featuring peerlessly communicated body language perhaps the greatest anti-climax in comics history. I think this is some of the tightest material we've seen yet from Sara Edward-Corbett--I love her white-on-black trees and her Ice Haven-esque children-adults. Lilli Carre is alarmingly good at depicting male lust. Nate Neal's not-so-instant-karma piece in Vol. 16 is explicit and haunting. Dash Shaw is a restless talent, albeit so restless he never seems to settle down even in the middle of any given strip.
But what is Mome at this point? Gone is the "recurring cast" model. Also gone is the Saturday Night Live style approach that replaced it--recurring cast featuring a couple of breakout stars with a celebrity guest each issue. Now it's just all over the place. Here's Gilbert Shelton's unfunny rock epic, here's Ray Fenwick and Archer Prewitt and Ted Stearn's unfunny funny-animal things, here's an astonishingly hamfisted political comic from Emile Bravo, here's some comics from Spain that are stiff and disjointed, here's some Conor O'Keefe stuff that's gorgeously McKay-ian but sort of amorphous, here's some awkwardly self-referential stuff from Laura Park and Nicholas Mahler, here's a T. Edward Bak cover version of Dan Simmons' The Terror and a Renee French piece that just get buried under the accumulated other, lesser contributions. I'm not sure what Mome is supposed to deliver anymore, and I'm not sure how receptive I am to whatever it is delivering.
Danica Novgorodoff, writer/artist
adapted from the screenplay by James Ponsoldt
based on the short story by Benjamin Pierce
First Second, 2009
$17.99 Buy it from Amazon.com
Beware of those epiphanies! They'll get you every time. Like Novogorodoff's previous book Slow Storm, Refresh Refresh creaks under the weight of meaning with which every scene is imbued. Every email from its latchkey-kid teenaged protagonist to his soldier father abroad is a poetic reverie about the emptiness of lives touched by war. Every conversation between his friend and his friend's kid brother is an object lesson in how violence and hierarchical power relationships infect those raised around it. Every bully, every cute girl, every wild animal is a metaphor first and foremost. Once again, there's a belief-beggaring twist involving violence that dances up to the edge of murderousness in a way that simply doesn't flow from what has come before, and in this case is actually difficult to parse logistically. And once again, there's one last desperate night where visions are had and this topsy-turvy world almost makes sense before it all fizzles out and fades away. By the end, I found I didn't care whether the book's trio of teen leads ever broke free of the stultifying pressures that were slowly crushing them, but I sure as heck wanted the author to!
That said, one thing that really surprised me about this book was the art. When I saw that Novgorodoff had (with the exception of one key sequence) subbed out her memorable gray watercolor washes for a more traditionally drawn style, complete with acidic colors by hired guns ("Color by Hilary Sycamore and Sky Blue Ink; lead colorist: Alex Campbell"), I shook my head in dismay. Here was the most distinctive thing about Novgorodoff's earlier book, and now it's gone? But Novgorodoff's got the chops for her pencil-and-ink work to stand on its own without the more dramatic painted style supplementing it. It makes for a fluid read, and in such cases as the predatory Army recruiter who intersects with our trio of heroes at several key junctures, it's a fine conveyor of character information.
I just wish it was being deployed in service of a story a little less beholden to the set-up of literary fiction at its most obligatorily portentous. You know what's a good point of comparison here? Gipi's Notes for a War Story. Both are bildungsromane about three teenage boys caught up in the moral, financial, and physical uncertainty of war. Both are drawn in a thin-line style that emphasizes the characters' awkwardness and vulnerability, but also makes moments of violence that much more impactful. Both are published by First Second. But one feels like a comic, while the other feels like a short story with drawings. Perhaps it's the "adaptation of an adaptation of a prose short story" set-up that's the problem, I dunno, but I do know the problem's there.
* Hey, Deadwood fans: Did you know that the great Todd VanDerWerff of The House Next Door's Lost recaps spent all summer re-watching and reviewing Deadwood for the AV Club? Well break out the fuckin' canned peaches and kiss your evening goodbye, because that's what he did. For all eternity: Deadwood makes The Wire look like Hawaii 5-0.
* I haven't been following the weekly-ish Amazing Spider-Man comic, although I gave it a shot circa the John Romita Jr.-illustrated New Ways to Die arc and will do so again next week as the umbrella-event-whatever onslaught of classic Spidey villains The Gauntlet begins. Therefore I enjoyed Matt Wilson's lists of the 5 Best and 5 Worst Post-Brand New Day Spider-Man Villains at Topless Robot. The concepts are breezily hokey in the fashion of most of Spidey's rogues gallery, and though they're not all winners, they've at least showcased some gutsy design choices and lovely art by the likes of JRJR and Marcos Martin.
* Speaking of Topless Robot: You know, the end result of all the Watchmen DVD shenanigans is that I have yet to purchase Watchmen, a film I greatly enjoyed, on DVD, and don't really have any plans to do so. Last time this happened was with Let the Right One In and its shoddy subtitles. Did the version with proper theatrical subs ever come out, by the way?
* And speaking of weekly comics round-ups, I enjoyed Jog's this week just as I tend do. As usual he sneaks a juicy digression or two in there, this time around a post-mortem on Grant Morrison and Gene Ha's abortive Authority revival.
* I love the metal-up-your-ass imagery of the tumblelog Obsidian Obelisk, but like many Tumblrs (including my own!) it frequently doesn't credit the images it reposts. (I always used mine as basically a file folder you could display online.) So therefore I have no idea who created this wonderful image. Any help?
* As someone who's long felt hugely popular pop music should look and sound more like Mechanical Animals-era Marilyn Manson, I fully support Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance." This may be the moment where I became a GaGa Believer.
It's a simple but effective tactic: Jeffrey Brown almost never draws his action straight-on. We see his autobiographical adventures at a three-quarter angle, or from slightly above and behind him, or with cuts to close-ups. When you factor in the seeming rapidity with which his tiny panels flash by, the effect, rather than one of sitting there watching actors, is like peering into a world, the space described with POV shifts and glimpses of corners and floors and rear walls and "extras." I know I'm sounding like a broken record here--I've reviewed a lot of Jeffrey Brown comics and said this sort of thing in most of those reviews--but it just feels necessary to point out as often as possible that there's a lot more going on, visually, than what's let on by even the back-cover blurbs of his own books, let alone by people who've got a special monogrammed hatchet they break out in his honor.
As is usually the case with Brown's nonfiction and memoir work, Funny Misshapen Body's carefully curated selection of topics and anecdotes belies the surface-level meandering and structurelessness of its narrative. Brown's basically telling two stories here: the stories of his physical and artistic/intellectual development. That in itself is a revelation, because it's not like the two intertwine or inform one another in any real way in the segments we see here. But to Brown, clearly his lifelong love of comics, his long and losing struggle to find a fulfilling artistic outlet, and the eureka moment(s) that bridged the two are just as fundamental to his physical existence as his Crohn's disease, his physical fitness or lack thereof, even going through puberty. (I get the feeling the sex stuff in here would be much more fleshed out if he hadn't already done several books on the topic.)
Maybe it's this focus on the basics that enables him to depict the events of his life with such a winning blend of dispassion and good humor. Brown tackles a lot of material here--middle-school bullying, romantic obsessions, creative triumphs and rejections, the onset of sex as a going concern, inebriated and intoxicated collegiate shenanigans--that quite frankly loom on my own personal mental landscape like fucking Stonehenge. It's almost bizarre to read a memoir that tackles these things from a seemingly undamaged place. But the two parallel narratives complement each other in such a way that it's quite convincing. Brown's story is one of seeking a compromise with the demands of his body and seeking no compromise with the demands of his art. He got to the finish line in both cases, and I guess I'd be pretty settled too, then. That it makes for perhaps his best book to date is just gravy.
* Normally I write these things more or less in chronological order. This is because I've taken to jotting down notes on each episode as I watch it. (The Missus: "Whatcha writin'?" Sean: "I'm taking notes for my Gossip Girl review." The Missus: "And that is why this marriage works.") But, I mean, c'mon, can't do that this time. You know what you want.
* Now I know what I'm supposed to say: "You call that a threesome?!?! That ain't a threesome--that's a threesome" or some shit like that. But that's not how I feel at all. (Although you should click the link for the awesome threesome comic I wrote.) I mean, realistically, what more would we have gotten on network television? Some nude backs and people kissing each other's necks with their eyes closed and making moaning sounds? Unless we're gonna see Hilary Duff's nipples and Penn Badgley's rhythmically flexing asscheeks, I am not interested.
* What we got instead was the most erotic part of this particular sexual encounter, and I think of many sexual encounters outside the context of a committed relationship (though more about that later): The moments when the involved parties consciously choose pleasure. Watching the Duffster's eyes dart back and forth between Dan and Vanessa as she methodically kisses each of them was about a billion times hotter than whatever PG-13 sex scene we might have gotten out of the subsequent scenario. (Shit, I almost feel like they put us through the "OMG she did a sex scene in her vampire movie how can Dan STAND IT" nonsense a couple episodes back as an object lesson in how non-hot that kind of thing is.) Ditto however many years of will-they won't-they tension between Vanessa and Dan dissolving in, essentially, a dare, in a thought process that would be something like "I love this person and care about them as a friend, but they're also beautiful, so now we're going to use each other's beauty for our mutual enjoyment, and that's fine." That's sexy!
* And of course there's the added bonus that this went down as it has so many times in real life: In the context of relationships that will no doubt go down in fucking flames because of it. I don't think Gossip Girl is the place to go for the eroticized misery that these sorts of collegiate affairs engender, I don't think it's going to end up being a super-realistic depiction of how the people who've given you orgasms often rip your guts out before or after or even during that particular procedure, but the teaser for next week makes it clear that it's at least a catalyst for upending the Dan/Vanessa apple cart and causing mischief with Dan and Olivia. Should be a hoot to watch if nothing else.
* Okay, the rest of it:
* I don't buy the suddenness and totality of Jenny's transformation into Queen Bee of the Mean Girls.
* And yet I do buy the suddenness and totality of Chuck's transformation into the mature voice of reason.
* Maybe it's because the former development is annoying whereas the second is totally awesome? What else can you say about a guy acts more like Batman and dresses more like the Joker with each passing episode? His increasingly purple, sleepwear-based wardrobe is a joy to behold. And the second Serena and Blair got on the elevator, I knew he sabotaged it, I knew it! But the booze and cookies was a touch not even I anticipated. I guess that's why I'm Sean Collins and he's Chuck Bass. "If you two want to kiss, it won't count as cheating." Oh Chuck, you're my hero.
* Hey, that reminds me, I believe this episode contained our first real, mutually satisfactory same-sex kiss, correct? I know it was in the context of a trendy threesome and everything, but I'm still down with it because I don't think either girl was doing it for Dan's benefit. So good for them. Still, and perhaps therefore, every scene with Erik and Jonathan just pissed me off all the more. Make out! Make out, goddamn you! I'm so sick of these chaste kiss-less network-tv gay relationships. I wanna see some dudes swap spit for Chrissakes. I want the slap and tickle.
* Speaking of Erik, while I do support an Erik/Blair alliance centered on blackmailing some kid about shenanigans after lights-out at camp, Erik's behavior in this episode was even tougher to swallow than Jenny's. His instantaneous recourse to lying to both the mousy girl and to Jenny during the whole escort situation was not only out of character, it was indicative of how overused that device is by the show's writers. They do have the decency to expose the lies pretty quickly at this point--I don't think the "I've already got a date" text-message ruse lasted longer than one commercial break--but it's annoying and increasingly tough to swallow when even the good eggs start doing it as a matter of course.
* Regarding the escort, though, why is Nate such a coup? I love the kid, but did no one remember him publicly disgracing himself a week ago when he went on television and took the fall for attempting to rig a congressional election by staging a fake drowning on Election Day?
* What self-respecting male geek likes Twilight? You frakked up, writers.
* My favorite cut of the evening was from the nascent threesome to the Empire State Phallic Symbol.
* "Falafel at Mamoun's"! There's a Mamoun's up where I went to school too, and whenever I think of it I remember the time when one of my roommates was wandering around drunk as a lord at 3am with a couple of other people when he got the munchies. They were passing by Mamoun's and though it was dark, there was a light on in the back and the door was unlocked. Drunk enough to be undeterred by a closed sign, my buddy wanders through the darkened dining room and stumbles into the kitchen, where he sees a dude with slicked-back hair and a wife-beater, looking like a young Johnny Depp, counting out stacks of money. My friend apologizes for intruding and heads back out the way he came. "Hey!" yells the guy from the kitchen. "We have everything but falafel..." Just before my buddy can reply "Great--I'll have some baba ganoush!", his companions, who've by now come into the restaurant to retrieve him and realized just what kind of offer was being made here, thank the gentleman for his time and escort my friend out of the premises. Thus, when I heard Dan read this item from the list of things to do in college, I instinctively heard it with quotes around 'falafel.'
* Vice magazine mustache enthusiast Nick Gazin's mostly-altcomix reviewrampages tickled me. Writing like Hipster Runoff's older brother on purpose gets a little old, but if you're gonna bang out short lulzy attention-grabbing reviews of comics, at least do it with comics that might actually be worth your time. (Via Mike Baehr.)
FOOM! FWOOOSH! KRAKKA-DOOM! Abstract Comics contributor Henrik Rehr's Fahrenheit is like the purely visual equivalent of a sound effect. Utilizing chops earned through years of more traditional cartooning, Rehr seizes the canvas of abstract comics with a vengeance, crafting a dynamic and frequently stunning--dare I say it?--page-turner, with nary a narrative element to be found.
Rehr is working in pure black and white, reproduced on a slick page stock that gives its expansive visuals a deep and expensive look. His "story" is structured primarily from spread to spread, and in each, one can detect a particular visual inspiration: the whorls of a fingerprint, the activity of unicellular organisms, waves, fire, smoke, a jungle, and in the book's most memorable moment, a shattered pane of glass. There's even one spread that looked like ghosts to me, though in that case and all the others, nothing is recognizable as such--Rehr deploys just enough visual cues to get the idea across before riffing off into the stratosphere with them. The emphasis throughout is on motion, with the eye pushed, pulled, and even thrown from one end of the spread to the next by wafting forms, exploding panels, or great ribbonlike curves. At times it looks like nothing so much as the stormy sky of a Dore print blown up to unrecognizable size. The context is gone, but the dynamism removes. This book really puts the "action" back in "abstraction," and at five bucks--less than most minicomics!--it was an absolute steal. Snag it if you see it at a show.
I'm not sure what's my favorite part of the entry. Is it saying "Sean T. Collins decided of his own accord that this phrase should become a meme," a move later characterized as "premature declaration"? Is it the assertion that "When fans of 'Whose Responsible This' tried to introduce it into the wild, it was killed on sight because of it's declarative nature"? Is it the use of multiple charts and graphs? I think I'll go with the repeated insinuation that this is some sort of concerted conspiracy by former Wizard employees. As commenter Chris Menning puts it, "'Whose responsible this' was a coordinated media effort." Our responsible this.
* I like The Killing Joke a lot, which is why I enjoyed David Wynne's apologia for the book for Trouble with Comics' Alan Moore Month. Wynne defends the book against its critics (including its writer!) by saying it's a powerful pacifist powerful. I myself like to look at it as a story about people locked in a relationship that brings out the absolute worst in both of them. It's also a good fucked-up Joker story. And I'm sure someone could (if someone hasn't already) draw some parallels between the shaggy-dog joke ending of Moore's book starring a character called the Comedian and the shaggy-dog joke ending of Moore's book starring a character called the Joker. Something for everyone! (Bolland's colors > Higgins's colors, though.)
This book's a tough nut to crack, mostly, I think, because it doesn't work. There are plenty of familiar altcomix elements present here, from slacker/douchebag observational slice-of-life humor, to gross-out gags and dick jokes and sex comedy, to little fantasy creatures having incongruously realistic and vulgar misadventures, to stream-of-consciousness psychedelic transformations and explorations. All that stuff has been done a million times, and in variations of Moynihan's knowingly ramshackle black-and-white line to boot--you'll detect echoes of Matt Furie, Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale, Lisa Hanawalt, Alison Cole, Theo Ellsworth, and probably a lot more besides. That said, Follow Me doesn't feel derivative to me, thanks to Moynihan's strong, winningly lo-fi character designs and "acting." His main character, a little dude in a gnome hat, is a pleasure to watch as he's haplessly buffeted by his own venal impulses and his world's unpredictable metaphysical freak-outs; he gives Moynihan an opportunity for several standout moments, from his convincingly bewildered look as he gets sucked through a vortex to a goofy little dance he does in which his long shadow effortlessly creates a sense of harsh, bright lighting, a very cool effect.
And yet never does this self-evidently very personal vision burst through the "bubble" of its author's headspace and communicate its vision of the world to me. I'm sure you don't need to hear me repeat how much I enjoy comics whose impact is primarily emotional rather than logical, but in such cases I can at least make emotional sense out of what I'm reading due to visual continuity and a tonal through-line, or conversely a tonal juxtaposition,. Here I can do no such thing. Follow Me's elements sit awkwardly and uncommunicatively together. I have no idea what the "I can suck my own dick" gags and poop jokes have to do with extended visual riffs on death and multiple planes of existence. And rather than telling an emotional story, the too-frequent, too-abrupt transitions and extended visual extravaganzas just feel like a repeated "and then, and then, and then, and then, and then..." It feels less like daring and more like formlessness. Meanwhile there's one out-of-nowhere chapter that's as ill-advised a meditation on race as I've seen since David Heatley's My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down. Much more so than most of the comics that bear the name, this feels like a diary comic, meaning it's of value primarily to its maker. Which is fine, but caveat lector.
* So in 1993 Marvel launched a ton of crappy characters. Later in 1993, an official Marvel publication made fun of all those characters--and I mean really mercilessly mocked them. They don't make 'em like that anymore! (Via Robot 6.)
* T-Shirt of the Day, high-end edition: The great Michael Kupperman has created a t-shirt in honor of the addictively irascible Best Show on WFMU, available to those who pledge $75 or more in the station's emergency pledge drive today and tomorrow. (Via Matthew Perpetua.)
* T-Shirt of the Day, low-end edition: Look, I'm not gonna lie, I'm attracted to this drawing of a post-apocalyptic Velma by Travis Pitts, available as an $18 Threadless t-shirt. Pale knock-kneed girls, you make the rockin' world go 'round.
This thick little minicomic does a lot of things right. First of all there's the format itself: cardstock pages, folded into a fat little brick, then cut, I believe, with a bandsaw. It's a delight to hold and let your fingers trace the bumpy edges of the pages; it's like the anti-newsprint. Then there's the idea for the concept itself, which won me over the second I figured out what it was: a chronicling of the contents and environs of his childhood home inspired by his mom's moving out of it. Most of the book is just a shot of a room, a door, a lamp, a tree, a driveway, a hose--one small drawing per page, so intimate I wonder if they were drawn from memory. Flipping through the book's thick stock ends up feeling like opening a tiny door into this house with each turn of the page. Moreover, McShane glides effortlessly in and out of deviations from the standard operating procedure--there's a funny sequence of him popping up into the dusty attic and wondering what the heck's up there (turns out to be nothing); an evocatively minimalist depiction of him and his mom strolling through the neighborhood, juxtaposing little suburban landscapes and still lifes with shots of the pair looking around against a blank background. Finally, McShane sticks the landing with a quietly bravura sequence in which his memories of the house begin to blend together even as he rakes its yard, with a tree suddenly appearing in front of a door and an obviously cherished duck-shaped lamp superimposing itself upon nearly everything, a focal point for years and years of lived experience. McShane's Porcellino-influenced style is a perfectly breezy and simple complement to this perfectly breezy and simple comic, which nails this specific set of circumstances and sensations just about as well as you could imagine. Very well done.
* I'm pretty proud of the latest What The--?! video I co-wrote for Marvel. It's a Twilight parody. I can't speak for the rest of the gang, but as for me, I kid because I love.
Also, just to anticipate what I imagine will be a common complaint: Yes, we've seen the photoshop of Blade lurking behind the Twilight kids, but it's not like the idea of Blade killing the annoying vampire character wouldn't have occurred to us regardless. I mean, we write for Marvel. At any rate, the presence of Morbius, Man-Wolf, Dracula, Werewolf By Night, and Kitty Pryde is all us, baby. (PS: The Blade figure with his awesome Captain Britain & MI-13 haircut is a custom by our animator extraordinaire, Alex Kropinak--yet another Wizard alum, along with me and my co-writer Ben Morse.)
* It's no Cage Match, but in this case that's a good thing: Comics Comics' Dan Nadel, Tim Hodler, and Frank Santoro conduct a Round Table review of Al Columbia's masterful Pim & Francie. I was particularly struck by Dan's observation that the way the individual characters and scenes disappear into artifacts of the drawing process--erasures, tears, ink spills, burns, wrinkles, water damage--in effect "animates the page," creating an illusion of motion and the passage of time that traditional drawing couldn't match. Great stuff; read the whole thing and keep checking back for more.
* I've seen this YouTube montage of The Wire's 100 Greatest Quotes here, there and everywhere, but I didn't watch it until it showed up at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog. I'm really glad I did, because my whole "Deadwood > The Wire" thing has clearly led me to forget just how strong the writing on The Wire could be. That frequently used "If [metaphor], then [some subordinate action related to that metaphor]" structure is really elegant.
Meanwhile, in the comment thread at TNC's post, I once again go through my arguments in favor of The Sopranos and Deadwood over The Wire, if you haven't seen them already. Coates attracts a high class of commenters, so there are probably some other worthwhile things to read in there if you're interested in those shows. Just watch out for True Blood spoilers!
* Apologies to this feature's three readers for its lateness this week.
* It took an episode full of Blair mugging while poking her head through curtains like a Muppet for me to realize it, but this was basically an episode of The Muppet Show, wasn't it? From the backstage shenanigans to the guest star to Blair's increasingly high-strung Miss Piggy-like narcissism and Children's Television Workshop facial expressions. I half expected Lew Zealand to show up and start throwing fish at Vanessa. (But then, I sort of hope that will happen in every episode.)
* So, that bit with Dan walking down the street at the beginning was a conscious homage to Peter Parker's evil "Stayin' Alive" routine in Spider-Man 3, right?
* This episode's threesome flashbacks are notable for the return of my favorite supporting character this season, Vanessa's Cleavage. Welcome back, old friend.
* If I were a high-ranking diplomat, I'd ask Chuck Bass to show my son around New York as well. Man, that was the sort of thing people asked me to do all the time when I was 18. If I had a nickel!
* Fun shots at James Frey and the Weinsteins and Eastwick. More of that sort of thing than usual, I thought.
* Another Muppet-y development: The evil theatre kids. This was a hoot for a couple of reasons. First, theatre kids really are horrible. In college dropped out of theatre and switched to a Film Studies major because that was actually the less pretentious crowd, if you can believe it. Second, I feel like I'm starting to wrap my head around how they're handling college: It's a fantasy land. This is like Quentin Tarantino's "movie-movie" version of college. I can dig it.
* With each new revelation about Vanessa's background, that character gets more exquisitely insufferable and funny. Of course she and Dan have had a "go throw gladiolas at Morrissey" since 7th grade. I wonder if her mom grew the gladiolas herself, next to the chicken coop.
* Uh, Trip was super-creepy in this episode, no? When he walked in on Serena as she was doing stuff in his office, I was waiting for him to ask her, "Ya like Huey Lewis and the News?"
* Speaking of that scene, what the fuck, shoulder pads? As the Missus said, NO. Not unless you're Bea Arthur.
* Damn, this show moves fast. After that scene in the office, I realized that they'd made Trip's wife evil so we wouldn't hate Serena for having her inevitable affair with a married congressman. (Though as the Missus pointed out, is she really evil? She staged the fake drowning to wrest control of Trip away from Grandfather, who's even worse. It was sort of a villain vs. villain deal. But I digress.) But as it turns out, we don't need to feel bad at all, because the show had Trip find out about his wife's scheme and separate from her before he and Serena could get down to bidness. They're always a couple steps ahead of me.
* That said, I think we can still question whether hooking up with a still-married man mere hours after he dumps his wife is a great idea. AIso we can scoff at Serena's majestically self-absorbed plea with Nate for support: "I thought I could count on you to support my having an extramarital affair with your married congressman cousin. I guess I was wrong." It's a hard knock life, Van der Woodsen!
* Nate's too good for Serena! Still, I feel bad that things didn't work out for him and Serena. His dejection as she and Trip talk at the bar was really priceless. Poor Nate, shit-on again.
* I'm sure lots of folks have lots to say about Dan's musical, but what struck me was the snippet of the preceding skit we saw, the thing about the Big Bad Wolf, emphasis on "Big." That's college theatre alright--self-congratulatory snickering at dick jokes.
* From my first listen to "Bad Romance," I was struck by how perfect the song would be for Gossip Girl, particularly the blend of really raw and childlike pathos with selfish spite in the way Lady GaGa sang "I don't wanna be friends" over and over again. Lo and behold! It's a shame that that was the least visually compelling Lady GaGa performance I've seen so far, but hey, you take what you can get. Still, all the banter about Cyrus Rose got my hopes up for a GaGa/Wallace Shawn meeting of the minds. Maybe someday.
* Finally, and most importantly, this episode saw the birth of the sensational character find of 2009: Chuck Bass: Crimefighter! He really is Batman.
It's important not to oversell this book, because author Inio Asano clearly realizes how important it is not to oversell what happens within it. A slice-of-life story involving the amiable but aimless lives of a small group of recently graduated college classmates and the band that alternately provides them with a potential avenue for personal growht and a means of staving off exactly that, Solanin is the Goldilocks of twentysomething pop coming-of-age comics: Not too angsty, not too twee, not too cutesy, not too arch, but just right. The emotions and concerns of its main character, happily unemployed Meiko and her unhappily underemployed boyfriend Taneda, strike me as finely observed and plainly told. The conviction that you must be overestimating your own talent; attempting to fix in someone else a problem present in you as well; the humor-based rhythms of a long-term relationship; the automatic bump upward in feelings of maturity that takes place when living on your own; knowing you must find some direction for your life, yet only really knowing it in the abstract, yet somehow still feeling just as pressured by this as you would if it truly were an immediate matter of life and death; your first real peer-to-peer conversations with your parents; the powerful presence of art and leisure activities, as much of a staple as food and showers; the simultaneously comforting and discomfiting way that life can quickly fill a hole left by trauma or tragedy...it's all just laid out there, as if all the characters and the author and the audience alike can do is simply take it as it comes. It feels leisurely and true.
Amid the overall high quality proceedings, there are some stand-out moments here, too, from a judicious few playful formal tricks with captions and speech lettering, to a series of kick-ass rocknroll pin-up poses in the Jaime mode that you'll wanna scan, print, and hang on your wall, to some really fine and sensitive writing surrounding a pivotal plot twist that could easily have thrown the whole project out of whack like an overloaded washing machine. And if the characters are all a bit glamorous-looking compared to their scrupulously realistic plights--beautiful, button-nosed, sloe-eyed women and stylish, bespectacled, well-coiffed men, drawn with the lovely machine-precise slickness I've come to associate with the kinds of mainstream manga that find their way to readers like me--well, you know, that's okay too. It's fun to watch idealized versions of ourselves beset by the same problems we face. If you liked Gipi's Garage Band, or the non-fighting parts of Scott Pilgrim, or the non-astronaut parts of Planetes, this one's for you.
You're gonna wake up one morning and KNOW which side of the franchise you've been shipping on!
New Moon isn't really a better movie than Twilight, but it's a lot more fun. I'll grant you that seeing it on opening night contributed a great deal to that impression, I'm sure. Now, I'm a neutral party in the big Team Edward/Team Jacob dust-up; I wore a Twin Peaks t-shirt to the screening, so I guess I'm on Team Bob. Still, many of my favorite moments of the evening didn't take place on screen. There was the shaggy-haired kid with the Judas Priest t-shirt we sat next to, clearly dragged along by his female friends--when we asked if he minded us sitting between him and them, he said "Oh, it doesn't matter, I'll probably be asleep through the whole thing anyway"; later he responded to a parodic film-within-the-film action flick by shouting "I wanna be watching that movie!" There was the high-pitched squealing any time a male teenage character (or Ashley Greene's Alice, for some reason...?) came on screen, doubled in decibels anytime one of them took his shirt off. In that respect it was really 17-year-old Taylor Lautner's show--when his buff, bare-chested teen-wolf character Jacob spent a scene glowering topless in the rain, there wasn't a dry seat in the house. And there was the Twi-mom we overheard in the parking lot loudly proclaiming of Lautner (to the chagrin of her daughter), "Six-pack? More like an eight-pack! Believe me--I was counting!"
But even if our screening's highlights came from the audience and not the film itself, that's not to say that the film wasn't a hoot at times too. Sure, I may have gotten more out of scarfing down pretzel bites and nacho cheese and giggling at every collective screech and sigh from our tweenage theater-mates. But don't let's forget that before he presided over the stillbirth of the would-be His Dark Materials franchise with The Golden Compass and subsequently shattered box-office records and Batman-fan hearts with New Moon's performance this past weekend, Chris Weitz helped helm American Pie. I for one thought he brought that same eye for the absurdity of teenage emotions' intensity to this material. Ridiculous tableaux abounded here, from the perpetually shirtless posse of Native American were-twinks to a ride in an elevator with our heroes and a trio of vampire-royalty enforcers that nearly brought down the house. And as in the first film, the four human friends of Kristen Stewart's lead moper Bella were clearly the movie's most valuable players, from Anna Kendrick's motormouth remonstrations as Jessica to Michael Welch's superbly played hormonal awkwardness as Mike.
Best of all, though, were the Volturi, the Italy-based ruling council for the vampires of the Twilight world. Their apparent top dog, Aro, was played by Michael Sheen with all the gleeful giggling gusto of someone who thought it might be fun to pretend he was in a better vampire movie. He's a grinning, fey freak straight out of the Emperor Paplatine playbook, an undead dandy, and I enjoyed every second he was on screen. Equally impressive in smaller roles--due in large part to their striking appearances--were Daniel Cudmore as Felix, a towering vampire guard who smashes Robert Pattinson's emo vampire Edward through a roomful of marble furnishings in Zack Snyder slow/fast-motion style; and Dakota Fanning as Jane, a sadistic vampire teen telekinetic upon whom I'd have developed a crippling crush as a kid. The group is responsible for the film's one true moment of horror, too, albeit offscreen: As Bella, Edward, and Alice are led from their forced audience with Volturi, a tourist group--complete with prominently shot children!--is led in, and their screams as they figure out what's going on actually are tough to hear.
The Volturi certainly compare favorably to the misbegotten trio of vampiric antagonists whose boilerplate antics gave the first film its nominal climax, a role augmented since author Stephenie Meyer apparently never really bothered to put one in the book, from what I'm told. Edi Gathegi's dreadlocked and accented Laurent returns here, pulling an unexplained 180 from his face turn in the first film--something Bella actually remarks upon as he prepares to kill her, but with no explanation forthcoming. He gets eaten by werewolves, which is pretty funny. Faring somewhat better is Rachelle Lefevre's extravagantly red-headed Victoria, out for vengeance for the slaying of her grungy mate James (Cam Gigandet) by Edward and his family in the first movie. I don't think she says a single word in this movie--and behind-the-scenes shenanigans have led her to be replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard in subsequent sequels, so oh well--but she makes a hell of an impression in two of the film's most visually impressive sequences. First, she has a long chase sequence with the wolfpack, choreographed Matrix-style and soundtracked beautifully by Thom Yorke (!). Second, even though this breaks even more vampire rules than the astonishingly dopey "sparkle in the sunlight" thing, she ends up in the ocean at one point, and the two brief shots we get of her in there point to a visually rich vein of "water vampire" fiction should anyone else feel comfortable throwing tradition to the wind.
All that being said, New Moon is still, in many respects, a train wreck. For one thing it's riddled with plot holes big enough to drive Bella's truck through. If Edward can read minds, why on earth would he think Alice was "lying" if she tried to stop him from killing himself out of the belief that Bella is dead? Wouldn't he know, for certain, that she wasn't? Why did the vampire who helped them in movie one turn evil in movie two? Why is it a big deal Bella can resist Edward and the Volturi's powers, when she's perfectly susceptible to Alice and Jasper's? Why would "exposing himself" make people think Edward was anything but a pale human covered in body glitter? Where do the werwolves stash all those extra shorts?
But as I always say, you can put up with a lot of plot inconsistency if the rest of what you're getting is entertaining enough. And in New Moon's case, there are still way, way too many stilted conversations between Bella and Edward, Bella and Jacob, and even Bella and her cop dad (the character who elicited the loudest squeals from the Missus, fwiw--I believe the phrase "You have the right to remain sexy" was used) that consist almost soley of variations on "no, don't, can't, won't." For these conversations, the emotional dial seems permanently lodged at "pained intensity." I wish Weitz, and returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, had taken the time to transmute Meyer's leaden prose into something approaching genuine teenage interaction, even between teenagers who are painfully in love. It definitely gives Pattinson and Stewart little to work with. They're both beautiful, but while I've heard knowledgeable people make the case that they're great young actors, you'll find precious little evidence of it here, unless you're looking for the most realistically awkward, stilted, and painful pause-laden teenage dialogue since Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III. (Seriously, at one point in the middle of one of Pattionson's lines, he stretched a pause out so long that I was this close to yelling "Say it!" at the screen, Rocky Horror-style.)
Meanwhile, structural problems bedevil the film just as they did its predecessor. There's not really a climax, since once again the key problem isn't introduced until about twenty minutes prior to its resolution. And there's little flow--things are fine, then Edward leaves because of supposedly unavoidable problems that if you're paying attention were mostly his own fault, then Bella mopes, then she befriends Jacob, then Jacob mopes, then there's some cliffdiving, then Alice comes back, then Jacob mishandles a phone call, then there's all the Volturi business, then it's over. Somewhere, Robert McKee is rolling in his screenwriting seminar.
I've written that Twilight looked like the product of people who weren't convinced they'd pull it off. New Moon, by contrast, looks (and sounds) like a sure thing. It's much slicker, for one thing--gone is Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke's jittery rhythm, none-more-blue color palette, and general earthiness, all of which have been known to irk viewers but seem positively art-house compared to New Moon's sterile spectacle. Gone too is the great Carter Burwell's score and its memorable piano-tinkle theme, replaced by run-of-the-mill Danny Elfmanisms from Alexandre Desplat. The soundtrack, by contrast, traded up from Hot Topic to Pitchfork with an array of critic's-darling indie-rockers--the lead single from Twilight was by Paramore; the lead single here is from Death Cab for Cutie. It helps, believe me, particularly in that awesome Thom Yorke sequence, but its relative gutsiness made me wish the rest of the film had been as willing to take chances.
(Now, what you won't hear me do in this case is kvetch about Bella's lack of agency. Regardless of what happens in the other volumes, and regardless of Meyer's Mormonism and the genuine creepiness of the whole "make me a vampire so I can be Edward's sister-wife in your weird vampire incest family," I took Bella's actions and inactions here as simply the behavior of an emotionally devastated teenager. It's unfair to dump all the heroines you loved as a teenage girl on her back--just let her mourn getting dumped and use her obviously smitten platonic friend to get over it, as countless teenagers have done.)
So no, it's not "a good movie." But I had a great time at the movies watching it. You know? I left feeling like I'd just seen the female-tween equivalent of Road House: pure pandering to its audience's id, starring a dude who can't keep his shirt on. You holler at the screen during the fanservice, you cheer during the fight scenes, you cringe during the love scenes, you get to watch a bitchin' vampire-vs.-werewolf-vs.-Radiohead scene, there's some cool evil supervampires who act like Lokar from Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the guy who played Colossus reenacts 300 all over Robert Pattinson's gorgeous flat face, there's cliffdiving and indie rock and shirtless wolfpacks ...Grab your popcorn, count your eight-packs, and enjoy the cultural phenomenon.
Look at that cover! Oh man, striking, isn't it? As a package--with its bold cover image and tight title font and friendly digest size and Powr Mastrs-style bendy cover and Helvetica-heavy title pages--Remake is somethin' special. As a comic? Mmmm, I'm not quite there with it. What you've got here is a gentle superhero parody in the vein of Jeffrey Brown's Bighead books--or maybe Bighead crossed with Be a Man, since author Lamar Abrams's target here seems to be the superhero's propensity for narcissism, destructiveness, and pique. His "hero," the diminutive boy-robot Max Guy (he's not named Remake, much to my surprise; hey, why is this book called Remake anyway?) is a blustery, shallow, self-absorbed asshole. He's prone to sulking, bragging, talking shit, salting game, pigging out, playing video games, befriending his enemies and alienating his allies, breaking the fourth wall, vomiting, and so on. It sounds fun, if that's the sort of thing you go for. And Abrams's art helps, though I prefer the uniform line weight, rigid grid, and simplistic designs of the earlier comics collected here to the looser, more Scott Pilgrim-y work toward the back of the book; the earlier material feels like an experiment in staging dramatic, dynamic action and poses while deliberately underselling them with the tools at your disposal, like an 8-bit cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody." But here's the thing: It sounds like more fun than it is. Maybe I just got off on the wrong foot with the book, since its first three strips center on homophobia and animal cruelty gags (I know it's the character, not the author, but still), but I just didn't laugh a lot at this. There was a funny bit toward the end where Max Guy comes rocketing down from the stratosphere in the middle of a fight to smack his opponent with a pie to the face, and when he's asked where the pie came from he said that he bought it from a guy selling them on a cloud, and then there's a jump cut to a little guy with a mustache on a cloud with a stack of pies who says "I'm practically giving them away!"--that made me laugh. The rest, a borderline meh. It's energetic cartooning, no doubt, and generally importing video-game influences to create something more free-form than conventional action-adventure comics plotting would allow is a good look, but for me it just didn't cohere into a whole as winning as some of its parts.
Comics Time: Just a Man #1, Lost Kisses #9-10, Worms #4, and XO #5
Just a Man #1, Lost Kisses #9-10, Worms #4, and XO #5
Brian John Mitchell, writer Just a Man #1 - Andrew White, artist / 56 pages Lost Kisses #9 & 10 - Brian John Mitchell, artist / 36 pages each Worms #4 - Kimberlee Traub, artist / 40 pages XO #5 - Melissa Spence Gardner, artist / 44 pages
Silber Media, 2009 (I think)
$1 each Buy them from Silber Media
Wow, these little suckers put the "mini" in "minicomic." They're just under an inch and a half square, limiting the comics they contain to one image-caption pairing per page. It's an interesting constraint to work impose upon oneself, given that auteur Brian John Mitchell is already up against his own inability to draw. That's not a subjective assessment, by the way--we're not talking Jeffrey Brown lo-fi or Brian Chippendale noise or John Porcellino minimalism or Anders Nilsen stick figures or anything else that's a matter of taste in the Mitchell-drawn Lost Kisses, we're talking actual stick figures, with little happy-face faces and five even tinier sticks for fingers. Mitchell's enthusiasm for making comics outstripped his ability to master even its most basic necessities. Which is kinda cute, I'll admit, and works well enough for the kind of ramshackle navel-gazing confessional humor he's doing in that particular series, but the air of self-indulgence is unmistakable. Making matters worse is a problem with image flow--I know, hard to believe given that you're just dealing with one tiny picture and caption on every page. But Mitchell places the drawings on top of the captions even though the drawings respond to what's said in the captions, so that you either have to read bottom-to-top or constantly spoil the gag for yourself. I have no idea why he does that way--surely he noticed it doesn't scan? I don't think it's a formal innovation done for effect, like Chippendale's chutes-and-ladders layouts--I just think it's a mistake.
Which is what makes the other three comics in the envelope Mitchell sent me all the more surprising. Not due to the presence of other artists, mind you--White's work on Just a Man is scratchily effective, particularly with some effects involving sun glare and flames, but Traub aims for abstraction and ends up coming out just sorta sloppy, while Gardner's basic cartoony figures look like they came from any number of entry-level webcomics or student-newspaper strips. No, what's impressive here is how the physical constraints of Mitchell's tiny format are made to enhance his storytelling. When you have so little room that simply printing a sentence at a legible size eats up half your page, you've gotta keep things terse, so why not go hard-boiled and tale tales of murder and mayhem committed by flat-affect protagonists? Just a Man is a Western morality play of violent retribution; a couple of moments overstate the case, I think, but in general it's a chilling thing, with some memorable facial expressions from White and a surprisingly, refreshingly open and un-cliche ending. XO is a series, but this is apparently the origin story for its blase hitman protagonist, and believe me you didn't need to know this to appreciate the bracing matter-of-factness with which the character unwittingly but unhesitatingly graduates from selling drugs to eliminating an exceedingly minor threat to that undertaking. Worms is the least effective of the trio--the art just doesn't do what it wants to do--but the story seems like an engaging enough Cold Heat-style weird-tale sci-fi mindfuck involving a young woman in peril and fighting to break free, and it sure does take a turn for the suddenly brutal at one point. In more assured hands, all three could be really killer melds of form and function. As it stands, they're maybe not quite there, but if you wanted to spend a measly buck per book, even just to examine what they do right and what they do wrong, you'd have my blessing.
Chester 5000 XYV
Jess Fink, writer/artist
ongoing webcomic, August 2008-November 2009 (and counting) Read it at JessFink.com
A steampunk porn webcomic: By god, is this the most Internet-y thing the Internet has ever produced? Regardless, it's certainly an advertisement for the potential of the web as a publishing mechanism for comics. You can do page after page after page of a cheerful, even sentimental comic drawn in a friendly, loose-fit Craig Thompson-y style (lots of dot-eyes and pointy noses and rapturous swirls) about a woman getting fucked by a robot with a mustache, and Diamond minimums be damned. I stumbled across this by following a link trail from Kate Beaton's place, which seems somehow appropriate--good luck getting your gag-comic series about historical figures off the ground without a David Finch variant cover, too.
To set the scene: It's the story of a workaholic Victorian-era scientist who, unable to satisfy his lovely wife's needs when he's knee-deep in lab work, builds her, essentially, the world's most sophisticated vibrator: A humanoid robot who can go-go-go-go and keep the missus busy when the Scientist's working. Unfortunately for him but fortunately (?) for them, the lady and the robot (the titular Chester) fall in love, as best I can tell because the sex is really awesome and because of Chester's "programming"--the scientist placed a picture of his wife where the robot's heart would go. Eventually the Scientist attempts to sell Chester off to a local widow, but Chester has ideas of his own, and this other lovely young lady gets embroiled in the shenanigans, where we're currently left as of the strip's latest installment.
My relationship with this comic as I read its year-plus run in one go fluctuated fairly wildly, which surprised me. Now, steampunk's not really my thing, and the very twee line and look Fink employs generally needs to be shored up by some genuinely meaty content to pass muster with me. Of course, this being a porno comic, there's a pretty simple way to figure out if it's working, and work it does. It's graphic, so there's that, and there's a repeated emphasis on clitoral stimulation that all but single-handedly (rimshot!) makes up for the American education system's sex-ed dropped ball on that score, which has left generations of young men unable to find the thing with a map and a flashlight. (Please change your standards in this regard, Department of Education--the high school girls of America will thank you!) But in addition to all the sensually drawn close-ups of genitalia, Fink has a knack for capturing not just the act, but the desire to act, if you follow me--a look in the lady's eye as she gets ready to get it on with Chester, the heat-of-the-moment kissing and grabbing and gasping and so on. The build-up to the sequence involving the two women is particularly strong in this regard, though of course I'm a dude with a typical dude's sensitivities in that area, so, you know, unreliable narrator.
But amid all the cute romance and hot sex and meme-able robot stuff, like I said, there's some surprisingly tricky terrain. Is the scientist's obsession with his work really a valid excuse for his wife to so enthusiastically and totally cuckold him--with a gift he gave her, no less? I was pretty sympathetic to the Scientist's outrage over this--until he took it way too far and flipped my sympathies yet again. When the Widow enters the picture, as much as I enjoyed watching her dive in, I found the notion that, basically, everyone is sexually compatible with everyone...snobbish, in a way? Does that even make sense? But as the four characters are currently coupled off, I feel like we're seeing adults make a decision about how they really want to live their lives, even though they're making it with their sex organs at the moment rather then their brains. I don't know...it's heady stuff, in its way, and demanding of one's attention and non-lizard-brain thinking, keeping you actively engaged rather than passively taking in the pretty curved lines and button-pushing romance and dirty drawings. Very interesting.
Evolution in action? Here's a case of the constraints of a comic's production saddling it with weaknesses, only for the comic to come up with compensatory values that all but overcome them. High Moon is a Western-horror hybrid of the sort very much in vogue over the past few years--what hath Ravenous wrought?--which originally ran in DC Comics' webcomics portal/competition site Zuda. I believe this necessitated a Sunday-strip-style landscape-format rectangular page, longer than it is tall, as well as a daily-installment delivery mechanism. The storytelling suffers for it all. There's pretty much one plot beat per panel, with very little breathing room, and moreover nearly every panel contains terse pulp dialogue; the resulting rhythm is staccato to the point of incomprehensibility at times. It doesn't help that writer David Gallaher's characters are almost all types, making it even tougher to tell the players at times.
But! Sweet Jesus, look at Steve Ellis's art. His color palette is a real revelation, fiery oranges and glacial blues all but radiating off the page even despite the book's rough paper stock. The faces of his hardass outlaws and their lovely ladyfriends come off like a cross between fellow horror artists Terry Moore and Guy Davis, their broad-strokes emotions and intentions easy to parse amid the occasional confusion. I was particularly impressed with his creature designs, admirably ambitious and taking full advantage of Gallaher's unique, expectation-defying brand of horror-on-the-range. I think I even detected a Robert Williams homage! Ellis's unnecessarily lovely brushwork really shines in splashpage-style illustrative moments, where you can just sit and stare at the flowing hair and shattered glass and monstrous limbs without feeling propelled to the next rapid-fire panel. It enhances the strengths of Gallaher's scripting--which include at least one dramatic shift in the story's direction and an entertaining willingness to throw everything from steampunk to The Crow into the mix--and smooths over some of the weaknesses. Provided you don't mind when action-horror tilts way way over toward the action end of things, this book is well worth checking out.
His primary argument as I understood it wasn't that rankings always work and are always awesome and time well spent, but that he felt the AV Club's failure to order their list was another choice among many that contributed to their list lacking specificity and weight.
"The terrors of God do set themselves in array against me."
Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become. No, Doris, we must not let you be past surprise.
--Francis Wolcott, Deadwood
With all due respect to Mr. Wolcott's hard-earned wisdom on the topic of a life past surprise, A Serious Man suggests that the flipside of that coin isn't such great shakes either: A life of constant surprise is indistinguishable from an endlessly unfolding nightmare. As a matter of fact Larry Gopnik, the lead character--whether he's the titular character is up for debate--has a few actual nightmares, and for varying lengths of time before their resolution you can't even tell that that's what they are.
The suburban '60s Minneapolis the Coen Brothers construct here is an inferno of monstrous self-absorption, obliviousness, and unreasonableness, but rigorously curated so not a whiff of outright parody or condescension can be detected. There's no out to be found there--these cluttered offices, treeless streets, and hazy screen doors, these nasty neighbors, shrill children, hateful loved ones, and pompous clergymen are crushingly familiar, even if we're simply seeing their worst excised from the rest of their existence and paraded before us as they buffet Larry to the brink.
Moreover, their world is utterly in thrall to authority, but those authority figures are no recourse. They're inscrutable, often incommunicado, as likely to blow you off or keel over and die on you as to offer you a glimmer of hope. It's a world where, as Larry's dream self points out, he makes a living teaching students that while they can never hope to really know anything, they'll be responsible for it on tests. It's a world where a St. Olaf-ian bubbe meise told by a rabbi who can barely be bothered to deliver the punchline is soundtracked by Jimi Hendrix's single most direct response to the senseless slaughter of Vietnam. So thoroughly lapsed a Catholic am I that I didn't pick up on the parallels of Larry's plight with that of Job until deep into the film, but Larry has it worse: Job, at least, could talk to God Himself, but Larry gets saddled with the junior rabbi.
Speaking of rabbis--and we ought to; all three get Tarantino-style title cards, for crying out loud--this is the Coens' "Jewish movie," even moreso than Barton Fink. In part this just gives them some rich adolescent nightmare fuel to feed upon, from Hebrew school to bar mitzvahs. (Even a goy like me nearly experienced PTSD during that scene.) But it also enables them to show ethnicity and religion as utterly oppressive. And I mean that in the sense of weight: These characters and images seem to creak and groan beneath the weight of the accumulated centuries of culture--both the internal culture of tradition and the external culture of hatred and stereoytping--that gave them birth, stirring something close to terror at unfathomable roots. This to me is the source of the horror in the film's opening sequence--not just the visitor's potentially supernatural origin, but his age, the sense that behind his snowy beard and dry cackle lie the accumulated ages, for good or ill. I know that "self-hatred" is a particularly loaded and even loathsome term with very specific sociopolitical baggage among Jews, so I want to be clear that's not what I mean--I mean the sense you can get that when it comes to certain individuals of your acquaintance, most particularly yourself and the people you care about, the ancient and fabled foibles of your people are realer than you'd care to admit. I'm Irish, I've felt it. Yes, the film's single most well-meaning and charitably depicted character, the woman with whom Larry shares a seemingly heartfelt heart-to-heart at the beach, seems to have taken genuine comfort in her faith--but the same God who comforts her crippled her.
With that in mind it's worth pointing out that the film tells two parallel stories itself--those of Larry and his stoner son Danny. At first, clever editing leads us to believe they're the same story, one a flashback for the other. And though for a long time Danny seems like his father in miniature, unlike him in that he's unserious to a fault but like him in that life has him in just over his head, his story appears to be headed for a happy ending. He pulls off his transition to manhood while apocalyptically baked (thanks in part to a glance at the sultry Mrs. Samsky, a rare ray of sunshine for Larry as well (and, thanks to a lifelong case of whatever the reverse of shiksappeal is, for me too)), and he receives a life-saving gift and words of true wisdom across a chasm of generations from the head rabbi in charge. But while the closing image of his story is more open-ended than that of Larry's, it's still frightening--awesome, in the original sense. Just when he's about to say what he needs to say to set everything right, something aw(e)ful knocks the words right out of his mouth. And as we've learned from Larry, God will never answer out of the whirlwind. Surprise.