Thursday, January 29, 2009

Comics Reading List

This was a light week for me, as I didn't have any interest in Final Crisis or 90% of the crap that DC or Marvel are selling. A new Northlanders and Umbrella Academy came out, but I've adopted a wait-for-the-trade strategy with those.

Battlefields: Dear Billy, Part 1 (of 3) (Writer: Garth Ennis, Pencils: Peter Snejbjerg)
Ennis continues his World War II anthology series with a story that takes place in South Asia. Set during the opening months of 1942, the comic focuses on the war with Japan from the British perspective, and is narrated by a Royal Army nurse who suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese. The "Billy" in the title is an RAF pilot who was badly injured (in his case, by a bunch of Japanese bayonets), and he and the narrator meet at a hospital in India. Far more so than the typical two-fisted tales found in most war comics, Ennis captures the almost casual brutality of the war, and draws attention to the fact that women are especially vulnerable targets. Thankfully though, this is not a story of victimization, but rather one of survival and love. The art in this title is not particularly memorable, but it effectively lays out the narrative and there is an excellent use of color to convey mood.

New Avengers #49 (Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Pencils" Billy Tan)
I never claimed to not be a hypocrite. After opening this post by dissing Marvel, here I am reviewing one of their big titles. This is another Avengers issue by Bendis, which means a lot of "realistic" dialogue, a lot of unnecessary violence, and not very much actually happening to advance the plot. All that being said, I liked this issue if for no other reason than it has Luke Cage out-smarting the Green Goblin in the most obvious way possible: by being a dirty-fucking liar. Unfortunately, a decent-enough story is nearly undone by the terrible art of Billy Tan. He seems to be trying too hard to ape the style of regular penciller Leinil Yu, with the result that everything seems both over-drawn and yet oddly out of proportion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comic Reading List: Catching up with last week

Jonah Hex #39 (Writers: Gray/Palmiotti, Pencils: Garres)
DC Comics continues to publish the best of the comic Westerns, which admittedly isn't saying much since there's only about four of them. Hex delivers the goods every month, and is one of the few mainstream comics that is actually designed to be read on a monthly basis, rather than in a trade volume. This month, Hex helps a novice sheriff deal with a band of violent fugitives, while at the same time trying to protect his favorite watering hole from the temperance movement.
The artwork of Rafa Garres is quite different from the usual mainstream artwork found in this title. There's a deliberate murkiness to the panels and a lack of clean lines. It is as if Garre is trying to capture the moral ambiguity of the Jonah Hex universe, with its noticeable lack of clearly defined, black-and-white morality. On an aesthetic level it works, but on a narrative level, the art is often too murky. I often had difficulty figuring out who was speaking to whom, and in what direction characters were heading.
Still, if you like Westerns, Jonah Hex remains the bright spot in the comic book industry.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Video Games =/= Movies

Through a combination of boredom and peer pressure, I recently sat through two (relatively) recent video game adaptations, Max Payne and Hitman.

For those who do not waste their weekends with a controller in their hand, Max Payne is the story of a cop whose family was killed by junkies high on a new drug called Valkyr. Naturally, he precedes to murder the entire criminal underworld of New York, and discovers that Valkyr is connected with an evil (is there any other kind?) pharmaceutical company. The game was notable for its noir-ish influences, its graphic novel format during cutscenes, and the use of Matrix-style bullet-time to give you the edge over opponents.

Its film adaptation is, in a word, boring. While the movie borrows the goofy plot and overwrought dialogue of the game, there's no sense of fun or excitement to it. Instead, the filmmakers drag out the entire process with a number of pointless scenes that exist for no other reason than to pad the length of the film until the villains choose to reveal themselves. The game designers understood that they weren't recreating The Big Sleep, they were making a game where you got to shoot people in slow motion while diving through a window. The film version seems to think that its a true noir, but it's far too dumb to be a great crime drama, and far too slow to be interesting regardless of its pretensions. Marky Mark Wahlberg is also woefully inadequate as the lead. He simply doesn't have the charisma to carry an entire movie.

The video game Hitman was about a bald assassin produced by a secret Catholic order that has nothing better to do than raise assassins and tattoo their bald heads with bar codes. The game mechanics were simple; sneak or shoot. Every mission was about figuring out the appropriate way to sneak up on your target and then kill them stealthily. The paper thin plot of every Hitman game usually had some sort of double-cross, followed by righteous vengeance.

The Hitman movie sticks to the formula of the the game far more faithfully than the Max Payne adaptation. The lead character is betrayed, and subsequently must kill the guys who set him up. Fairly straightforward stuff, and it provides a framework for a number of big action set pieces. Strangely enough, Russian hottie Olga Kurylenko appeares in both movies, but her role is far more substantial (and naked) in Hitman. This flick could have been decent popcorn entertainment, but the action scenes just don't have any spark to them. We've seen all this stuff done better. On top of that, Timothy Olyphant, who has the potential to be a great leading man, is wasted as the drab, emotionless killing-machine.

Video games and movies seem to be incompatible mediums. The repetitive action and occasional puzzle-solving of video games simply don't translate well into film. Max Payne attempted to deviate from the formula by adding more plot points, but that resulted in making the film a tedious chore. Hitman came closer to capturing the spirit of its source material, but when you merely watch a video game, it's hard not to notice how dumb and derivative it is.

The first great game-to-film adaptation will require a game with a lot of ideas and filmmakers who know how to tell an action-driven story. Maybe Bioshock?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

TV: Is there anything good on?

Spoilers below...

24: 12:00 - 1:00 pm
It's still early enough in the season that 24 can continue to barrel along without much concern for how its various plot threads will end up colliding. This episode doesn't have as much action as the previous ones, but it does offer the usual "time is running out!" scenarios that this show does so well. Jack comes up with a rather inventive and semi-plausible way to force Mobotu from this panic room, and he even gets to fake-kill someone again.
We also learn that the President's administration is riddled with secret bad guys who want to help General Juma, and this corruption extends to the Secret Service, who murdered the President's son, and now plan to murder her husband. Has there ever been an administration on this show that didn't have at least one traitor in it? And there was the time that the President himself was the bad guy. No wonder all the good guys became independent contractors.

House: Painless
A fairly formulaic hour, with the usual patient with mysterious ailment, misdiagnosis, inane subplot, misdiagnosis, inane subplot leads House to the correct diagnosis. To shake things up, this patient is super-suicidal, but the writers ultimately try too hard in trying to draw parallels between the patient's life and House's. At the end of the day, the patient has a great life that's been marred by chronic pain, whereas House has a rotten life of his own making that is made worse by persistent but managable pain. The episode also continues the out-of-left-field Foreteen romance, but I don't think anybody really cares.

Burn Notice: What Doesn't Kill Me...
We begin season 3 with (spoiler alert!) Michael surviving the explosion, followed by a brief car chase. Michael feels like shit, so he cheers himself up by taking the case of the week, and actually seems really gung-ho about helping his client for a change. The client got scammed by a fake hospital, so Michael and company break out the usual bag of tricks to scam the scammers. Unfortunately, we've seen some of these tricks already, from the interrogations to the "trick the one guy into thinking you killed the other guy" scheme. As per usual, the crooks are idiots and are easily played by Michael. Also as per usual, Michael doesn't collect a fee, leaving one to wonder how he pays for all those gadgets and guns.
In the ongoing plot, we learn that Karla didn't try to kill Michael, and that someone else is now screwing with her plans. This show may have become a bit too formulaic, but I'm still curious as to where things go from here.

Monk: Mr. Monk and the Lady Next Door
This episode guest stars Gena Rowland, who apparently has had an extensive career in Hollywood (according to IMDB) but never hit it big. The big mystery of the week involves the theft of an egg-eating machine (it's dumber than it sounds) and an unfortunate security guard who was killed. Sadly, the mystery this week is one of the poorer ones, and I imagine that most people figured out the trick to the killer's alibi by the first half hour. Somewhat more interesting is the exploration of Monk's issues with his mother, who abandoned him when he was a child. Gena Rowland's character stumbles into Monk's life, and Monk quickly comes to accept her as a surrogate mother. But given his poor experiences with phony friends, Monk becomes suspicious of this new figure in his life. I liked this subplot, if for no other reason than it seems to actually suggest a tiny bit of awareness of how Monk's experiences in previous episodes might affect him in the present. While this show remains adamantly episodic, a tiny bit of continuity never hurt anyone. Of course, all the changes in Monk's life are undone by the end of the episode, so back to square one by next week.

Battlestar Galactica: A Disquiet Follows My Soul
Another excellent episode from an excellent series. Many of the issues that I had with the Cylons so suddenly becoming cozy with humanity are starting to be addressed. As it turns out, not everyone is as ready to make nice with the toasters as Adama and Apollo. Zarek is causing trouble in the quorum and Peg-Leg Gaeta is contemplating mutiny. Things come to a head as Adama orders all the ships to accept retrofits of Cylon technology, which requires Cylons boarding the civilian vessels. To make matters even more complicated, the Cylons want citizenship and Tyrol finds himself on an episode of Jerry Springer. While this episode has the usual superb writing and acting, it mostly serves as a setup for the next one, which promises to be quite shocking.
Also, old people have sex. You know you want to watch.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Comics Reading List

Hack/Slash #19 (Writer: Tim Seeley, Pencils: Kevin Mallon)
This title continues to be the only good thing coming out of Devil's Due Publishing. This issue wraps up the lingering plot thread involving Pooch, introduces a new villain, and potentially sets up a new status quo for Cassie and Vlad. One of the things that continues to impress me about Tim Seeley's writing is that, even as he utilizes longterm subplots, he's actually able to tell a full story within a 22-page periodical, a talent that most writers from DC/Marvel seem to have lossed. And I would be lying if I didn't admit to enjoying the cheesy exploitation in the story, from the slasher homages to the lesbian fanservice. Not for readers with good taste, but everyone else should give this title a try.

Battlefield: The Night Witches, Part 3 (of 3) (Writer: Garth Ennis, Pencils: Russ Braun)
This is the conclusion to the excellent short story about the Night Witches, a WWII era Soviet bomber group composed entirely of women. Garth Ennis doesn't re-invent the wheel on war comics, but he does hit all the expected marks with an unquestionable competence. There's doomed lovers, innocence lost, and a frank depiction of what war does to ordinarily decent people. Ennis brings an authenticity to the characters and the violence that is often lacking in war stories, and Russ Braun's artwork effectively captures the ugly reality of Stalingrad. Certainly worth buying if you already have the first two chapters.

100 Bullets #99 (Writer: Brian Azzarello, Pencils: Edward Risso)
I think I'll hold off discussing this until the next, and presumably final, issue comes out.

Mysterius the Unfathomable #1 (Writer: Jeff Parker, Pencils: Tom Fowler)
Jeff Parker made a name for himself at Marvel by writing kid-friendly superhero comics that kids would actually want to read. This title is his first notable shift away from superheroics, instead focusing on a mystic and his new assistant. Given that this is the first issue in a new series, it carries the burden of making a lot of introductions through a lot of expositionary dialogue. Still, Parker manages to given the reader a strong grasp of the main characters and sets up a story for next issue. Tom Fowler's artwork is very cartoony, and it works perfectly for Parker's tongue-in-cheek script.

Justice League of America #29 (Writer: Len Wein, Pencils: ChrisCross)
This was fucking terrible. I wouldn't even steal this comic, it's so bad. I would discuss why it's bad, but that would require thinking about it, and I just can't bring myself to do it.

X-Men: Kingbreaker #2 (of 4) (Writer: Chris Yost, Pencils: Dustin Weaver)
I have a soft spot for Marvel's cosmic heroes, and as a long-time X-men fan, this book would seem to be right up my alley. Unfortunately, I still can't stand the character of Vulcan, one of the most obnoxious ret-cons in comic book history. Even if Vulcan was tolerable, this story is clearly just treading water until War of Kings begins.

The Might Avengers #21 (Writer: Dan Slott, Pencils: Khoi Pham)
If you've read enough superhero comics, then you've read one of those stories where the writer tries to convince you that the weakest, most useless member of the team is, in fact, the lynchpin that holds the team together. Those stories invariably suck, for the obvious reason that nobody but the writer (and a few obsessed fanboys) actually care about the crappy character in question. So it is this weak with Hank Pym, aka the Wasp, aka Ant-Man, aka Giant Man, aka Goliath, aka Yellowjacket. Dan Slott spends the better part of an issue trying to convince the reader that Pym really isn't the C-lister that he's been for 40 years. At least the Scarlet Witch is back, and not quite as crazy as before.

Dark Avengers #1 (Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Pencils: Mike Deodato, Jr.)
Brian Michael Bendis gets to write whatever the fuck he wants at Marvel. As with the Dark Reign one-shot, this issue is one long, tedious set-up. I could bring up how Bendis wastes an inordinate amount of space on splash pages, or how his characters say far too much and do far too little, but I'd just be spitting into the wind. The guy sells books. At least Deodato's art seems a little less porn-lite than usual, though he does work in an ass-shot or two.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obligatory Obama Post

So flubbing the Oath of Office; Was that Roberts or Obama's fault?

Good speech though.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Who needs Superman?

Bill Willingham's remarks at Big Hollywood stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the content of superhero comics and their political leanings. While I don't think this was Willingham's intent, a few commentators interpreted his statements as an accusation that liberalism had tainted superheroes by embracing a philosophy of moral ambiguity. To put it another way, conservatism embodies the true values of superheroes, particularly moral clarity and patriotism.

Steven Grant offered an interesting rebuttal, pointing out that traditional takes on superheroes, such as the much-maligned Superman Returns, have generally failed commercially since at least the 1970s. Grant further argued that conservatives from Reagan onward wanted heroes who were willing to do terrible things in the name of their country. In other words, altruistic, goodie-two-shoes like Superman were out, Oliver North was in.

This leads me to wonder, who is the target audience for Superman these day? Liberals? In general, liberals like stories that embrace moral complexity, where there are no absolute good guys or bad guys. Superman is simply not designed for these types of stories, which is no doubt why the character often feels hopelessly anachronistic in the modern, darker DCU. Yet conservatives don't seem terribly interested in reading his books or watching his movies either. I suspect the reason for this has much to do with what Grant was discussing, namely that conservatives view Superman, with his no-killing policy and naked altruism, as hopelessly naive. What conservatives want is a hero who possesses moral clarity and patriotism, and who is willing to do whatever it takes to defend his country. In other words, they want a consequentialist hero, for whom the ends justify the means.

And such a hero already exists. Jack Bauer from the TV series "24" is the epitome of the conservative action hero. He is a patriot, having served his country for the past 6 seasons of the show. He also has a firm and unwavering sense of good and evil. During the current season's opener, Bauer fought an African warlord and saved the lives of a dozen young boys. And Bauer is willing to do whatever it takes to get the bad guys. He's killed, he's tortured suspects, and he's repeatedly broken countless laws in the name of defending his country. These qualities have made Bauer something of a cultural icon of the post 9/11 era, and his popularity apparently reaches up to the Supreme Court (Justice Scalia is a fan).

To put it simply, conservatives don't need Superman. Neither do liberals. He's the hero of a bygone age, whose values no longer resonate with modern readers (or at least readers over the age of 10). At least he's still got nostalgia working for him, but how long will that last?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Curse of Tecumseh

One of my favorite bits of presidential trivia.

In 1811, William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana Territory, defeated the Shawnee chief Tecumseh near the Tippecanoe River. Legend has it that the blood-brother of Tecumseh, known to Indians as the Prophet, placed a curse on Harrison. This curse supposedly affected not only Harrison, who was elected President in 1840, but every president who was elected in a year ending in 0. Each one would die while still in office...

1840: William Henry Harrison catches pneumonia and dies soon after his inauguration

1860: Abraham Lincoln is famously assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Boothe in Fords Theater

1880: James Garfield is assassinated by the insane Charles Guiteau during his first term

1900: William McKinley is assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz during his second term

1920: Warren Harding dies from a stroke, under somewhat mysterious circumstances

1940: FDR dies from a cerebral hemorrhage during his fourth term

1960: JFK is assassinated in 1963 by a massive international conspiracy involving Castro, the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover, and the gay mafia; Lee Harvey Oswold becomes their patsy

1980: Ronald Reagan is injured by a crazed assassin trying too hard to impress Jodi Foster, but the Gipper survives

Given that Reagan lived through both terms, perhaps the curse was broken. Maybe the Prophet's magic was no match for modern medicine, or maybe Reagan was Indian-proof. The only way to know for sure is whether Bush, elected in 2000, survives through Tuesday.

Post-script: The curse is complete make-believe, probably attributable to "Ripley's Believe It or Not." I should probably have mentioned this above.

Edit on 1/24/09: Looks like Bush lived. The curse is broken.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Galactica is back! And more depressing than ever!

"Battlestar Galactica" returned to the SciFi Channel last night after an extended hiatus, presumably so showrunners could figure out how to write the last ten episodes in a way that wouldn't come across as incredibly anti-climatic. Prior to the hiatus, the human survivors of the Colonies had made nice with the Cylons (at least the pretty ones) and arrived at Earth. Instead of the land of milk and honey, they found an irradiated wasteland. The new episode, "Sometimes a Great Notion," begins right where the last episode ended.

Spoilers below...

Previous seasons of Galactica typically fell apart in the latter half, mainly because the writers simply lacked the material for 20+ episodes (Remember the Apollo as hard-boiled detective episode? Sorry to bring that up). However, if the rest of the remaining episodes are like "Sometimes a Great Notion," Galactica may go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

For viewers who love the show's mythology, this episode is a dream come true. We finally get some concrete information about the Thirteenth Tribe (they're fracking Cylons!) and about Ellen (also fracking Cylon). But this episode raises just as many questions as it answers. How did the Final Five download/soul-transfer from Earth 2,000 years ago to the Colonies in the present? If Kara isn't the last Cylon, what the hell is she? Do the writers have a plan, or are they just making this shit up as the go along?

In terms of personal drama, this episode doesn't disappoint either. Rosslyn goes crazy with the book-burning, Dee takes the easy way out, and Adama gets drunk again. I love me some drunk Adama, but sadly there's no drooling this time. Every character has to deal with the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and Adama's final solution is both true to his character and the spirit of the show. With nothing left to lose, he gives his people a reason to keep going.

My one slight concern is that, with nine episodes left, the writers may once again not have enough decent material to maintain the quality at this level. I don't want to sit through seven terrible episodes before getting a spectacular two-hour series finale. But like Adama, I'll keep hope alive, and get mad drunk.

Testing, testing

Actual content coming soon!