Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Memory: it was always about STAR WARS

I have much to be thankful for:  A healthy, loving family.  A good job that pays the bills.  The time to spend with my family, to read a good book, or to write.  All cliché and classic.  And all true. 

But, since this is a pop-cultural-type blog, and because a new movie is on the horizon, I found myself reminiscing about one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories from childhood.  And, of course, it revolves around Star Wars. 

This was post-Jedi.  Probably was Thanksgiving, 1983, the year Jedi hit theaters.  I don’t remember the details around the day (though I can say, for certain, it was a Thursday), but I do remember what I chose to do to pass the time before the big meal—always held at our house, with my mother doing the bulk of the cooking and preparation.  I grabbed my slipcased edition of the Scholastic Star Wars Treasury. 

These were the abridged storybooks, filled with images from the movies, including scenes that did not make it into the final films (though that may only be true of Star Wars, where they included stills of Biggs Darklighter, as well as one of Luke, with the hat we never see in the film, looking to the sky through binoculars to watch the Star Destroyer and Tantive IV battling above Tattooine).  This film trilogy was my all-time favorite for many, many years, and the idea of sitting down to read all these books sounded like a gift to myself. 

And it was.  I draped myself across the arms of the chair in our front room and began reading.  Didn’t stop ‘til I’d gotten through all three, which wasn’t a huge chore, these being abridged and all.  It was a great way for me to enjoy my favorite movies because I’m certain we didn’t yet own a VCR, and my uncle only had Star Wars and Empire for his laserdisc player. 

The memory of that day, sitting and reading those books, with all those images direct from the films, gives me a nice, warm feeling in my nostalgic gut.  I hope, after taking my youngest to “The Force Awakens,” that he will find similar memories to look back on someday, like I have with this. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

ADDENDUM for A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals – a new #2

Thirty-plus years of collecting comics, with 17 near-capacity longboxes and counting, means there are some holes in my memory as to what I own and what I’ve read (two different things).  As a result, a glaring omission was made in my recent post, A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals.  Not only did I leave off one of my top 5 comic book annuals, I actually left off the one I would put at number 2—Secret Origins Annual #2, from 1987 (no surprise there).

This second annual looks at the origins of the two most famous scarlet speedsters—Barry Allen and Wally West.  First, readers get to sit in on Wally West’s hour with his therapist, as he works to rediscover the speed he has lost since taking on the mantel of the Flash.  Over the course of the story, written by then-regular Flash scribe, William Messner-Loebs, with art from Mike Collins, Wally shares his origin along with many of the highlights of his superhero career.  His therapist laughs at much of it, at the ridiculousness of some of the scenarios, and then asks the most important question—does Wally feel as if he’s unable to live up to Barry’s ideal, made more overwhelming with his death?  In a telling scene, the therapist asks Wally to tally up the number of people he’s saved in the course of the past year, and Wally comes up with a total of hundreds.  And yet, he feels as if he’s not doing enough, that Barry would be disappointed.  Meanwhile, the therapist discusses the one time he saved someone from drowning, how the glow of that act stayed with him for weeks, and feels that, maybe, Wally should allow that the people he has saved might think differently about his ability as a superhero. 

This desire, on Wally’s part, to get back the speed he’s lost, to be better, to live up to Barry’s memory, something impossible for anyone to achieve, became the thematic spine of the main Flash series for years afterward, propelling the narratives, and Wally’s characterization, forward, and making him, in my (and many others’) opinion, the best Flash DC comics ever had.  And the idea that did the most to propagate that reality was born here. 

In the second half of this annual, we get the origin of Barry Allen, the second Flash and predecessor to Wally.  More vibrant in death—Barry’s sacrifice in issue 8 of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as he ran faster than he’d ever run, in order to destroy the Anti-Monitor’s cannon—this origin, from writer Robert Loren Fleming and classic Flash artist, Carmine Infantino, with inks by Murphy Anderson, offers little in the way of “secrets.”  Much of Flash’s life from his long-lived series was well-known, and there were relatively few nuggets for Fleming to unearth.  But the story hums along nicely, aided masterfully by Infantino’s elastic, flowing linework that epitomizes, for me, the Flash (no comic artist has ever done super-speed as well as Infantino).  Until the end, as readers watch Flash race against the Anti-Monitor’s cannon again, the combination of anti-matter and insane speeds reached by Barry sending him, or an astral image, back through time, touching, again, on many of the important scenes from his life.  And then, as he approaches that fateful day when lightning struck Barry and showered him in the chemicals that made him the Flash, he discovers that, all along, he was that lightning bolt, propelled back in time by his sacrifice.  And, once more, the Flash was off and running to battle the bad guys of Central City.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals

NOTE: an addendum has been made to this post.  You can see above (if you're reading this soon after publication), or check here for the new #2 annual in my personal top 5.  

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.  Everyone has a Top 5, but A Fistful just sounds way damn cooler.

Note:  This post fueled by Nostalgia TM 

Inspired by a recent Comic Geek Speak episode, in which the gang waxed rhapsodic about their own five favorite comic book annuals, here are my top five. 

6. Psi-Force annual #1 (1987), written by Danny Fingeroth, art by Mark Texeira

Marvel’s New Universe was about the strangeness, and the heroes, right outside your door.  Unencumbered by a quarter-century (then) of continuity, with stories taking place in disparate American cities, it really felt that way.  Despite the bad rap the New Universe has gotten, in retrospect, I love Psi-Force, without reservation or irony, and this annual, at the end of its first year of publication, shook up the status quo in a dramatic way, with one of the regular team members choosing to leave, in order to allow the team’s former enemy, Thomas Boyd—now on the run from the clandestine organization hunting these kids, with which he worked to try and capture Psi-Force.  The writing is a bit rough, though not Claremontian-rough, but the story is solid with beautiful art from Mark Texeira, early in his career.  This story, upending the status quo in the manner it does, feels big and important, worthy of an oversized annual.

5. The Flash Annual #1 (1987), written by Mike Baron, art by Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

The Flash is my favorite superhero, and when the title returned, albeit with Wally West rather than Barry Allen, on the heels of Legends, I was excited.  This annual, published after only four issues of the regular series, takes Wally to Hong Kong, where he looks to learn how to harness his chi, in order to control Dim Mak, the death touch he exhibited in the opening of the issue.  It’s a fun story that showcases Flash’s impatience (he’s got superspeed, get it?) as well as expanding on a major theme that runs through the bulk of the Wally West run—that of Wally learning how to be a hero, as well as a man, and coming to terms with the grave responsibility thrust upon him when his Uncle Barry died in the Crisis.  Though they would never return to this aspect of Wally’s powers, it helps lay the groundwork for much that followed…and it was damn cool to infuse the Scarlet Speedster with some zen mysticism and martial arts. 

4. Justice League of America annual #2 (1984), written by Gerry Conway, art by Chuck Patton & Dave Hunt

“The End of the Justice League!”  Frustrated at members unwilling to give their all to the league, Aquaman, as acting chairman and the only founding member still active full-time, disbands the Justice League.  Many of the current roster protest, like Firestorm and Green Arrow, but very few of them are able to give themselves to the league full-time.  So, it is settled.  Except for Zatanna’s and Elongated Man’s desire to continue with the league coupled with the surprising return of J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter.  With this core, including Aquaman, a new league could be formed from the ashes, and they set about with that in mind.  Through the rest of this story, this rejuvenated JLA gets a new headquarters in Detroit and a number of new members, including Vixen, Steel, Vibe, and Gypsy.  It’s JLDetroit, baby!  Like the Psi-Force annual above, JLA annual #2 shook up the status quo and delivered a story that felt important and dramatic, worthy of an annual.  From here, Conway & Patton, with Luke McDonnell coming on later as artist, would chart a brand new course for the Justice League, sans the “big guns” of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al., and take some chances.  There are many who look no this short era of the league with disdain, but after the Bwa-ha-ha version that would follow, this is “my Justice League.” 

3. G.I. Joe Yearbook #3 (1987), written by Larry Hama, art by Ron Wagner, Mike Zeck, et al.

The first comic book I collected was G.I. Joe.  Loved it.  Still love it.  Larry Hama’s infusion of grand soap operatic plotting with complex political machinations and intertwined backstories, combined with over-the-top villains, similarly colorful heroes, super-secret bases and weapons, and all-out action made, and makes, for some great comics.  This story, “Hush Job,” is another important one worthy of an annual.  Snake-Eyes, having infiltrated Cobra disguised as Flint, was discovered and subdued, and is now being held in Cobra’s consulate building in New York City.  Scarlet and Storm Shadow decide to go in and rescue him.  There are ninjas, Dr. Mindbender, Baroness, bullets, bombs, and action, all told without dialogue, as in issue #21.  Ron Wagner’s art is wonderful, detailed and uncluttered, with some great choreography for the fight scenes.  There’s drama and emotion, as Storm Shadow battles to free his friend while Scarlett is discovered by the Baroness in the lower levels of the building, and the final twist, though questionable from a plot standpoint, still works—it’s G.I. Joe, come on.  Add a bunch of extras, including lengthy summaries of the past year’s cartoon and comic book adventures, pin-ups from Mike Zeck, and a short story in the back drawn by Zeck that recounts how a Roman praetor utilized the invention of pizza to defeat the Gauls, and you have a full comic that was well worth the cover price. 

NEW #2. 

see here for the full post on this issue.

1. Superman annual #11 (1984), written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons. 

“For the Man Who Has Everything.”  The best single-issue Superman story ever told, in my opinion.  Mongul has come to Earth to defeat Superman, on the day he celebrates his birthday, bringing an alien plant, the Black Mercy, as his weapon.  Attaching itself to its victim, the Black Mercy puts the victim into a catatonic state by offering up an alternate reality where the victim’s greatest wishes come true, offering a virtual reality the victim does not wish to leave.  Batman, Wonder Woman, and Robin, come to the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Kal-El’s birthday, happen upon this and work to save their friend.  It does not go well, as Wonder Woman battles Mongul while Batman & Robin attempt to free Superman from the Black Mercy’s clutches. 

Superman is lost in a world where Krypton did not blow up, where he had the chance for a family, a wife and children, and where everything was perfect…almost.  It’s an idyllic setting, until rifts start to show, rifts in the political realities of this Krypton that are revealed due to Superman’s psyche fighting the alien plant.  He knows this isn’t right, knows he must return to Earth to be the hero he was born to be.  And, in the end, Kal-El gives up this life, gives up his home, his wife, his kids, and leaves them to return to his true reality.  But, when he comes to—as the plant jumps to Batman, plunging him into a reality where his parents were not killed in that dark alley—Superman is left with all the memories of the family he never had, and the pain he felt at leaving them behind.  He is mad.  And he takes it out on Mongul. 

Their battle is mean and destructive and all too human.  And that is what Moore, and Gibbons, brought to this tale, the truest sense of humanity, and the pain concomitant his parents’ sacrifice, that I’ve ever seen in a Superman story.  Dave Gibbons, a master comic artist, brings it all to life in a way that accentuates this humanity, grounding it all with his precise linework.  “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a master class in doing a poignant, engaging, and entertaining, done-in-one comic story that will make you think and illuminate the characters on the page.  This is a great comic that you must read, if you want to call yourself a real comic fan. 


Monday, November 2, 2015

More Millar: STARLIGHT with Goran Parlov

Mark Millar is a smart guy.  Namely, he knows that comics is a visual medium, and he works with some of the absolute best artists working in the field.  Starlight is no different.  Goran Parlov is an artist whose work I don’t remember seeing before, though I was aware of his name from Parlov’s run with Garth Ennis on Punisher.  So, I was anxious to see what he could do, while also checking out some of Mark Millar’s recent work (having also just read Kingsman, with art by the legendary Dave Gibbons). 

Starlight is an homage to the adventure serials Millar used to watch as a child, heavily influenced by one of the ultimate pulp/sci-fi heroes, Flash Gordon.  And it is a pretty fun romp.  Duke McQueen, the Flash Gordon analogue, is older, his sons with families of their own, his wife recently deceased, his life passing into twilight.  Ever since his adventures on the alien world of Tantalus, McQueen has lived with the fact that his stories of adventure were never believed by the general populace, leaving him as the butt of jokes from neighborhood children and, upon his immediate return from Tantalus decades ago, news reporters.  But, at this point in his life, McQueen has resigned himself to being the target of ridicule. 

Until a starship from Tantalus lands in his backyard, a pink-haired child emerging in the rain to greet him with both excitement and a bit of awe.  Tantalus needs Duke McQueen again, to save them from a new tyranny.  Hesitant at first, McQueen acquiesces and returns to the planet of his greatest triumphs, Earth having nothing left for him. 

From here, we get some fighting, some acrobatics (from an old guy, but come on, it’s fiction), some gunplay, a despotic villain, equally evil henchmen, flying cars, beautiful, alien women, a twist, a feint, some slapstick, and flashbacks of exotic adventure.  There’s nothing new in this book, and Millar isn’t trying to revolutionize comics, but the narrative hums along smoothly, offering some fun scenes that all lead to the climax we expect, with a nice emotional denouement that brings McQueen closer to his sons—or, more to the point, his sons closer to their dad—and it’s professional and competent and doesn’t trip over itself, plot-wise.  It’s a fun, popcorn adventure. 

That said:  Damn, can Goran Parlov freakin’ draw.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  This is one of the most beautiful comics I’ve read in a long time, and Parlov elevates Starlight far above its weight class (to mix a horrible metaphor…shaken, not stirred, please).  His figures look like they were based on character sheets from Alex Toth, while the backgrounds and architecture feel like they were lifted directly from an unpublished tome of Moebius’s work, and it all just sings—aided wonderfully by coloring from Ive Svorcina.  If you enjoy comics, and if you love great comic art, you need to check this book out.  Take your time, linger on every page, drink in the wonder of Parlov’s art.  Not since Scott Morse, or maybe Frank Santoro, have I been so bowled over by an artist’s work in a comic book.  Parlov’s so good, I might have to check out his work on Punisher now. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

All Hallow's Read - a short horror story for your enjoyment

It's All Hallow's Read (aka Halloween...with scary books).  So here's a piece of flash fiction I had published in issue #2 of Firewords Quarterly, a literary magazine out of the United Kingdom.  

Enjoy, and a have a spooky Halloween.

By C. M. Beckett

I need to get outta here.  Winter ain’t even here an’ it’s already too effin’ cold even with the friggin’ global warming.

Sorry, but I won’t curse in front of my Ma, don’t matter how old I get.  A mom takes care o’ you, provides for ya, keeps food on your plate.  You gotta appreciate that and show some respect. 

Of course, things changed with the Little Big One.  We could feel it all the way over here.  Some folks didn’t believe me.  Little tremors, like a shiver runnin’ through your boots.  And then when it hit the news sites.  Nobody knew what to do.  Sittin’ at home watchin’ crazies freakin’ out, killin’ their neighbors, drownin’ their kids.  What the heck?! 

We did what we do best up here – hunker down and cut ourselves off from everything else.  It wasn’t too hard, livin’ on a farm an’ all.  Generations before us had done all right with it, and with the government goin’ ta hell (sorry, Mom) it seemed the best thing to do.  Most people never knew what to make of us up here anyway – ninety percent woods and nothin’ much ta do ‘cept drink and terrorize. 

At first, things were good.  We didn’t need for much, just had ta be smart, use what we found and not waste nothin’.  Things’d be back to normal soon enough and then we’d get back to headin’ down to the mall and such. 

That was a pipe dream.

Goin’ on twenty years now since it all went to crap, and still no end in sight.  Most o’ the woods is gone now.  At least around here.  When the oil prices spiked durin’ the War, poachers swept in like huge vultures, layin’ waste to practically the whole state.  Now we got no resources ta speak of.  No forests.  No topsoil.  No birds, no animals.  Nothin’ worth a damn.  Not here anyway.

So I need to move.  No way to survive another winter here.

Tonight’s my last night.  I managed to gather a few saplings for one last meal before I hit the road.  They’re still raw an’ smoke more than burn, so I didn’t even bother with a pan, just threw it on the fire.  I like the skin blackened anyway, gives it more flavor.

Should be done soon.  It was hard the first time, with Gramps.  Everybody squeamish, not wantin’ to partake an’ all.  My sister – she was always a bitch (sorry, Ma) – got up and walked outside.  Wouldn’t eat nothin’ and upset my Ma no end. 

It’s how Gramps woulda wanted it.  He’d lived a good life and died o’ natural causes.  He would'na wanted us to waste away too just because o’ some old-school civilities.  The rules had changed and we did what we had to do to live.

My sister was next o’ course, but that wasn’t for quite a few months.  I dug right in that night.  She’d fallen and hurt herself somethin’ fierce.  Not much we could do.  No doctors left, and little in the way o’ supplies.  We did what we could.  Made her comfortable.  Said some words over her from the Good Book.  But it wasn’t long before she was gone too. 

That was last winter, which was pretty tough on all of us.  Not many made it to summer.  We all knew what was comin’ but didn’t talk much about it.  How could we?  We had to look each other in the eye every day. 

Now I’m it.  The last one.  I put that off as long as I could.  It was too hard.  I mean, she’s my Ma.  She brought me into this shitfuck (sorry, Ma) world.  But in the end, she understood which one of us had a better chance o’ makin’ it. 

And she knew that a mom takes care o’ ya, provides for ya, keeps food on your plate.

Friday, October 30, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): Saga of the Swamp Thing #21

“The Anatomy Lesson,” written by Alan Moore, art by Stephen Bissette & John Totleben, colors by Tatjana Wood, lettering from John Costanza

Swamp Thing is the comic that put Alan Moore “on the map,” and issue 21 is one of my all-time favorite single issues.  In the previous issue, Moore and his collaborators had killed Swamp Thing, as bullets riddled his muck-encrusted body.  Dead, Swamp Thing’s body has been taken to a research lab in a high-rise building, the modern marvel of “the old man,” a businessman who wants to know the secrets of Swamp Thing’s metamorphosis from Alec Holland into this plant creature and, hopefully, exploit these findings for himself.  To that end, he hires Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, a similarly afflicted scientist, to do an autopsy and discover all that he can about Swamp Thing. 

Through his investigation, the Floronic Man comes to discover that Swamp Thing, though his body has incorporated plant-like body parts that appear to be analogous to human ones, e.g. lungs, kidneys, a heart, none of these actually work in the manner they should.  These are plants, not human tissue, and could not act in the same manner.  What this means is that Swamp Thing is not a melding of Alec Holland and the swamp plants, as a result of the explosion years ago, but is actually a plant being created to mimic Holland, somehow incorporating his essence, or his soul.  But, for all intents and purpose, Holland is dead and will never be revived. 

More importantly, though, if this is actually a botanic simulacrum and not a human encrusted with plants, then bullets cannot kill it.  It is not dead.  The only thing keeping it subdued is the cryogenic crypt within which it is being held.  If someone were to raise the temperature, it would resuscitate.  And if it found out the truth—that it can never return to being Alec Holland, can only ever be a plant monster with the mind of Holland—then it might take its frustrations out ona a particular old man who did not appreciate the Floronic Man’s findings. 

With this issue, Moore & company completely reimagined the character of Swamp Thing without contradicting anything that came before (as Moore is wont to do).  But, like most comics, this would not have worked so well without the artistic contributions of Bissette & Totleben.  They are the gold standard, all due respect to Berni Wrightson, when it comes to Swamp Thing.  True collaborators—their thoughts and ideas were invited and incorporated by Moore—they not only drew Swamp Thing as a monstrous being who was covered with plants and tubers and vines, but also utilized inventive panel layouts and added details (such as crafting panel and page borders from collections of spiders and their webbing) to add to the ambience and mood of the comic.  Under these three master storytellers, along with the contributions of Wood & Constanza, as well as later collaborators such as Rick Veitch, Shawn McManus, and others, the character of Swamp Thing—and, to a lesser extent, horror comics—was revitalized for a market that seemed to have passed him by.  And he continues to loom over the DC comics landscape today, though nobody has seemed able to crack the code as to his popularity so well as Moore, et al. did so deftly back in the early-eighties. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): Ann by the Bed, by Emily Carroll

“Ann by the Bed,” Emily Carroll’s contribution to Youth in Decline’s quarterly monograph series, Frontier, is a comic that will linger with you long after the final page.  Horror is tough to do in comic form.  There are no musical cues, as with film and television, to enhance one’s emotional reaction and add dread or discomfort to a scene.   Any use of gore within the comic medium can never be as visceral as that found in film, and the scare tactics utilized within those other visual media are almost impossible to replicate in comic form.  So, despite rare exceptions, horror doesn’t work in comics.  But if a creator chooses to attempt a horror comic, one is often left with creating a moody, atmospheric narrative as the best approach.  Emily Carroll achieves that brilliantly.

“Ann by the Bed” revolves around the grisly murder of a young girl, Ann Herron, and her family in early twentieth-century Canada, and the urban myth that has come to surround this heinous act.  In later years, it has become a parlor game, of sorts, similar to the Candyman myth or a Ouija board, utilized by older children to scare themselves and their friends.  Carroll interweaves the “true” history of Ann Herron (I place the word true in quotes because I am uncertain about whether Carroll created the history of Ann Herron for this tale, or if it is, in actuality, a true historical happening) with various instances of children playing Ann by the Bed, and the odd happenings that follow these games – often embodied by Ann Herron’s spirit visiting them.

Presenting these disparate scenarios – Herron’s history and the varied children playing Ann by the Bed –adds a sense of gravity to the tale that insinuates itself into your psyche, as you read, ratcheting up the tension slowly even as your mind shifts from reading this as fiction and begins treating it as non-fiction.  Carroll capitalizes on this shift in perspective with the final page, a full-page image that burns itself onto the back of your brain as it lurches the breath from your lungs, leaving you wondering:  Will Ann visit me tonight, or will I be able to avoid dying in my sleep?

Carroll’s art, and the way she deftly teases out the narrative in this story, is phenomenal.  She creates a looming sense of unease that is hard to shake off.  This is one of the most successful horror comics I’ve ever read.  Not only has the impact of the narrative remained with me, but I have also been pondering the craft encompassed therein.  This is a book I want to study a bit more, to try and fully understand how she pulled off this amazing feat.  It’s a rare creator who can imbue a narrative full of static images with such emotion and dread, and Carroll needs to be applauded for that.  She is a serious talent, and one whose work you should seek out (I know I’m going to be keeping an eye out for her comics and do a little digging to find what she’s done before).  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Highest recommendation.


Monday, October 26, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): Sandman #6

“24 Hours,” written by Neil Gaiman, art by Mike Dringenberg & Malcolm Jones, III, colors by Robbie Busch, lettering from Todd Klein

Dr. Destiny—in possession of Morpheus’s ruby, which holds much of his power—has escaped from Arkham Asylum and is holed up in a 24-hour diner in a small town somewhere in America.  His mind already cracked from years of exposure to one of Morpheus’s tools, Dr. Destiny has such a fractured psyche that he takes delight in the torment and horrors inflicted upon others.  He watches the television with glee as the atrocities of the world are revealed to those in the diner, and Destiny uses the powers of the ruby to inflict similarly horrific cruelties upon the few patrons unlucky enough to have entered the diner around the time he is there.  

Through his manipulation of the ruby, Destiny unearths these ugliest thoughts and, for some, fantasies of those around him, affording them the opportunity to realize these horrors (including homophobia, misogyny, and incredibly disturbing physical and emotional tortures) without inhibition.  It’s chilling and uncomfortable, a comic that doesn’t flinch when confronted with the ugliness of humanity. 

Gaiman is ably abetted by his artistic collaborators, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones, III.  The first issue wherein co-creator Sam Kieth was no longer part of the artistic team, the transition away from Kieth’s more cartoonish approach works to the advantage of this issue.  Dringenberg & Jones have a more angular, scratchy delineation (an almost tighter Eddie Campbell style) that increases the sense of urgency and dread, as we follow the cruelties perpetrated by these people over the course of twenty-four hours.  The ugliness of the acts are amplified by the cartooning of Dringenberg & Jones, who are not afraid to exaggerate anatomy and expressions in one panel to great narrative effect, while then returning to more natural imagery in the next, in order to ground the story. 

It is this grounding of the narrative, by Gaiman, Dringenberg, and Jones, that is the most horrifying aspect of the comic.  These are normal people, ones you may know or could easily run into while walking downtown, while the supernatural effects happen invisibly, in the mind of Dr. Destiny, revealing horrors we may have experienced, either personally or second hand, or seen on the news.  The horrors that occur in this small diner are not out of the ordinary; they are the black spots on our souls that we all deal with—though, for most of us, these dark spots are merely flashes of frustration that pop up in fits of pique, that are quickly diminished because we are civil and rational.  But it is this familiarity that makes this story all the more chilling.  



Friday, October 23, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): From Hell by Moore & Campbell

From Hell, written by Alan Moore, art & lettering by Eddie Campbell.

Warren Ellis called From Hell the best graphic novel ever published.  I think he may be right.  The story of Jack the Ripper as told by these two masters of the medium, From Hell is an incredible read. 

Moore & Campbell’s approach to this story was novel.  Most Ripper yarns start with the perspective that the identity of Jack the Ripper, over a century later, is still unknown and thus, a mystery.  These authors, through their works, treat the material as a whodunit, working to enhance the suspense of their narratives by keeping the face of the killer in the dark, teasing out the clues that ultimately reveal the truth of who was behind the ghastly murders haunting Victorian London in that year of 1888.  Moore & Campbell, on the other hand, chose not to keep the Ripper’s identity a secret, instead following Jack (Sir William Gull, royal physician to Queen Victoria) on his rapid descent into horror and debasement.  As Moore stated in interviews, From Hell is a “wha’happen” rather than the typical “whodunit,” and this elevates it above most Ripper fiction. 

Although a fiction—and both Moore and Campbell have stated they do not necessarily hold that Dr. Gull was indeed Jack the Ripper—From Hell is incredibly well researched.  Copious notes can be found at the end of the book, explicating scenes and offering theories that have been put forth by other Ripperologists, and the narrative connections that Moore threads within this horror enrich and enliven the story, even as the facts may turn your stomach.  From Hell is a wildly ambitious narrative that expands across the whole of London—incorporating the freemasons, the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Merrick, the Elephant Man, the royal machinations of Queen Victoria and her family, the inspectors of Scotland Yard, and the dregs of humanity left to founder by an uncaring aristocracy in the East End of London—while also keeping it personal by revealing the narrative through the eyes of its characters, including Mary Kelly, Inspector Abberline, and Sir William Gull. 

Of course, as engaging and complex as the story is, it benefits greatly from the masterful artwork of Eddie Campbell.  The frenetic, scratchiness of his linework and heavy use of blacks add so much to the reading experience.  This London is dark, is dirty, is a place where one can see how a serial killer could make his easily through the blackened night and get away with these horrors.  I cannot imagine this book being drawn by anyone else.  The cartooning adds so much to the feeling of the narrative while also drawing readers in with its more naturalistic and less rigid line.  If you’re looking for a great book to read on these dark, October nights that will chill your heart and tingle your spine, this is the one book you need. 


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): Batman & Dracula: Red Rain

Written by Dough Moench, art by Kelley Jones & Malcolm Jones, III, with colors by Les Dorscheid and letters from Todd Klein

Another Batman Elseworlds tale, but with his affinity for the night, Batman lends himself well to these October Comics. 

In an alternate world, vampires are real, and Dracula has amassed a large enough horde of vampires to his side that he is ready to take over the world, starting with Gotham City.  But Batman is on the case.  At first, he does not realize the victims, whose throats have been slashed, were attacked by vampires.  Digging deeper into the commonality behind those left for dead on Gotham’s streets, he realizes they are all homeless, leading him to the most destitute part of town where he intrudes on the latest attack.  Hindering the attacker, he trails her through the alleys, only to have her disappear without trace or explanation.  When he returns to the victim, he finds her dead, but with puncture wounds, and realizes what he’s up against. 

The understanding that vampires are real also leads to Bruce Wayne coming to grips with how he has been changing.  Concomitant with dreams of a female astral body hovering above his bed, Wayne has become more averse to the daytime while his strength has increased ten-fold.  Eventually, the astral form reveals herself as a vampire who has broken with Dracula, intending to stop his evil before it can spread beyond Gotham, part of her plan being to enlist Batman as a similarly infected “good” vampire, with the speed and strength to battle Dracula on his own terms.  And, in the end, with wings sprouting from his back, Batman is able to do just that.

This was another pairing that just made sense, and Doug Moench’s story works really well.  He paces the comic nicely, revealing answers to the mysteries surrounding Batman and Gotham at opportune moments that add weight and drama to their revelations.  And the ending is quite satisfying, giving us a proper confrontation between these two entities of the night, while never making the outcome seem preordained. 

Again, though, the stars of this book are the artists.  Kelley Jones’s elongated, overmasculinized physiques defy reality, which creates a skewed prism through which to view this story.  As insane as his drawings can be, I love, love, love them.  Jones is unapologetic in his hypertrophied characters as they battle in the sewers and the skies of Gotham.  And that damn cape on Batman—it’s longer than the one Berni Wrightson gave the Dark Knight when he visited Swamp Thing back in the seventies, and it’s magnificent.  Great cartooning can infuse images with a story all their own, and when those pictures are played against dialogue and captions, as with the medium of comics, it can elevate a story to something beyond what either medium could accomplish.  Moench & Jones, et al. all bring their A-game to this book, and it is another October Comic that is eerie and creepy while also being fun and adventurous, a perfect alchemical concoction of comic reading enjoyment.  Check it out!


Monday, October 19, 2015

OCTOBER COMICS (2015): Providence #5

Written by Alan Moore, art by Jacen Burrows, colors by Juan Rodriguez, letters from Kurt Hathaway

Alan Moore’s latest series from Avatar, the first handful of issues have been a slow burn, with little development to see, as of yet (of course, once the full twelve issues are complete, I imagine there will be many threads weaving back to these initial installments; so I can’t pass judgment yet).  A deeper exploration of Lovecraft and the themes surrounding his works, there have been hints at what may come, but, as with the plot development, there has been little in the way of horror.  That changed with the latest issue, number five. 

The protagonist, Robert Black, is continuing his travels through New England in search of an idea he can expand into a novel, all the while encountering strange things and people that he manages to explain away, but which those of us reading recognize as Lovecraftian monsters.  Now in Manchester, New Hampshire, Black is hoping to examine the copy of the Kitab mentioned in the Suydam pamphlets in an earlier chapter, which is supposedly held at the library of St. Anselm College.  But the library is closed, as Black arrives, and he must find a place to stay.  Sent to the outskirts of Manchester, Black finds a worn-down house where a single, elderly woman lives.  She agrees to let out an attic room to Black, and things get weird.

The first indication that something strange may happen is when Black is being led up to the attic, and his room.  As he passes a window on the stairwell, the “camera” pulls outside the house, as if something from without were watching and waiting.  It is used again as Black returns back down the staircase, a single, ominous image that tingles at the spine.  Later, Black is aroused from his slumber by the older woman renting him out the room.  She is sitting in the corner of the attic, stark naked, suckling a creature that has the head and upper body of the creepy man who gave Black a ride into town in his oxblood roadster, while the lower half of his body appears to be that of a large rat/human hybrid.  It is unsettling, an intrusion into Black’s private space that would unnerve any of us in the same situation.  He quickly dresses while the woman sits there, calmly suckling this odd monster, and escapes the house (with a now-full moon hovering above the landscape where a crescent earlier resided), only to have the oxblood roadster approach him, the strange man asking if he can take Black anywhere.  Then Black awakes, back in the attic room, but it’s now empty.  Again, he dresses, packs his suitcase, and escapes, fleeing to the home of a medical assistant from St. Anselm who offered a place to stay, if Black found nothing. 

It’s the idea of intrusion upon a place, even a temporary one, where we, if put in Black’s position, might expect a degree of privacy.  Couple this with the matter-of-fact manner with which the old woman speaks with Black, as she suckles the stunted monster on her naked lap, and this entire scene is rife with unease and discomfort.  The mundanity of the situation, as much as anything, sparks this scene with a sense of horror that lingers after you’re done reading.  And I feel like this may be the turning point in the narrative, where things will start to get more unnerving and begin to move forward into darker, uglier realms of the soul.