Monday, September 19, 2011

Breaking Bad is a period piece about an ancient time we have not forgotten, because somehow it lives on in our stupid hearts

Last week I watched all of Breaking Bad's first 3 seasons on Netflix streaming. After watching so many episodes in a row, I couldn't help but notice that no one uses smartphones on the show. All the characters use flip phones.

I tried to figure out why this was the case. I supposed since most of Breaking Bad's characters are involved in the drug trade that they prefer disposable, untraceable prepaid phones (at least that's how they always explain the bad guys getting away on Law & Order). I also thought the directors might like flip phones better because they're more dramatic. You have to open and close them. In a few different spots in the series, characters end phone calls by snapping their phones in half and throwing them to the ground. It would seem difficult to achieve the same thing with an iphone. Not to mention that using flip phones instead of smartphones probably saves a little money. I remember noticing the first time I watched the show that Skyler was using the same phone I owned; a model I bought from Tracfone for $14.

Then I realized what I'm pretty sure is the reason.

Breaking Bad's first episode aired in January 2008. We are regularly reminded - including Sunday night's episode "Salud," via Walt Jr. - that only about a year has passed in the show. Right now, in the world of Walter White and his evil head, it's only 2009. Meanwhile, in the real world, 2011 is growing dark and almost 4 years have passed.

Breaking Bad doesn't have smartphones because it's a period piece.

The makers of Breaking Bad shooed all iphones, Droids, and Blackberrys from their edgy, groundbreaking series in order preserve the illusion they created. Sure, those phones were around in 2008, but they hadn't been absorbed yet so fully (somehow by an American populace that just kept getting less able to afford them). When we watch, they want us to really believe we're right there in that distant, memorialized time. They want us to forget our worries here in 2011 and let their tireless recreation of the ancient 2009 provide us with temporary escape.

They don't shove it in our faces. They're not constantly jumping up and down, yelling "Look! It's 2009! Really! People still like the president! Charlie Sheen still has a job! Michael Jackson and David Carradine are still alive! Possibly! Depending on the month!" The Breaking Bad creative team works tirelessly simply to create an historically accurate background we don't even notice, but that would jar us from our illusions if it weren't there.

Bravo, Breaking Bad. Bravo.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


A brief piece of conversation recorded in Joe Simon: My Life in Comics from a deposition Joe Simon testified at while attempting to reclaim the copyright to Captain America.

"Do you know any of the aliases Jack Kirby used?" they asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"Can you name one?" they persisted.

"Jack Kirby," I said.

That just immediately struck me as hilarious. I had to share.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning to Love Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part 1

My relationship with Star Trek and its offspring is turbulent. I enjoyed a brief, intense love for the original series in my teens but it didn't last. I saw a chunk of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but was never a regular watcher. For some reason as I grew older Star Trek was a corner of the geek kingdom I shunned. I thought the few episodes I caught here and there were formulaic, boring, and pandering to fandom.

Recently, I grew curious. Maybe it's because so many friends whose opinion I respect love at least one of the series. However, no offense to my friends, the fact that I can stream all of the episodes of most of the series on Netflix helped facilitate my curiosity more than anything else. I found myself watching the two-part "The Best of Both Worlds" from The Next Generation in which Captain Picard is absorbed into the ranks of the Borg. A few snarky tweets later and fellow bloggers Tim O'Neil and Alan Doane were responding. After O'Neil tweeted that he's meant for a while to write a top 10 list of his favorite TNG episodes and I responded with "I'd be interested to read that. I don't think I can even think of 10," Doane responded with a list of 21 TNG episodes he thinks are "great, and enjoy watching again and again."

So, since the Netflix is already paid for and all I have to do is click a button, I decided to go down Alan's list and blog about what I thought of the episodes.

I originally wanted this to be a series of 4 installments, but I decided I had more to say about some of the episodes than I originally thought. So, as of right now, all I can say is that it will take as long as it takes.

While I’m blogging about Star Trek: The Next Generation here, I’ll also be talking about the problems I had with the series over at List SMASH! Starting with today’s Top 10 Things I Hate About Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"The Big Goodbye"
Season 1, Episode 12
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan

The Enterprise is en route to greet a race of grammar-nazi aliens, the jaradan. Little is known of the jaradan other than their powerful technology and their insistence that any race opening negotiations with them recite a pitch-perfect greeting in the jaradan’s own insectoid tongue, or whatever insect people have in place of tongues. Captain Picard exhausts himself learning and practicing the greeting and Counselor Troi insists Picard decompress on the holodeck. Picard chooses to step into the shoes of Dixon Hill - a hard-boiled detective whose adventures Picard followed as a child – and he brings Data, Dr. Crusher, and the historian Dr. Whalen with him. While the four of them stumble and giggle through this cartoonish version of early 20th century Earth, the Enterprise reaches the borders of jaradan space and the aliens’ scanning equipment unintentionally damages the ship. While the damage is negligible for the most part, for the holodeck it’s disastrous. Picard and co. cannot leave the holodeck and the safety protocols are off. Dr. Whalen is shot by a weasely character and lies dying on Dixon Hill’s office floor, and in the meantime the jaradan grow restless with Picard’s absence.

I always had problems with the holodeck episodes and “The Big Goodbye” is the very first of them. There were the minor issues most fans would likely dismiss. I find it implausible a military vessel would be equipped with something that has the potential to be the most immersive and addictive diversion every created. Even if it were, I think eventually the thing would be jettisoned once it became clear that something always goes ridiculously wrong with it, and it ends up threatening the ship and her crew every few weeks.

But I also tend to dislike them for the same reasons Trek fans adore them. The holodeck episodes are often used to pay homage to different genres and put the heroes in settings that wouldn’t make sense otherwise. And whenever Star Trek pays homage to different genres, I tend to feel the same way I would if Celine Dion threw together a Led Zeppelin cover album. It’d be really nice of her and everything, but it’s best if she just left it alone. Star Trek never seems to get it right. They cornball-ify whatever they touch, and to try and tackle the hard-boiled detective genre as they do in “The Big Goodbye” just seems freaking ridiculous. You couldn’t get much further from the world of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade than the Enterprise crew, and my whole being just groaned at the thought of those worlds colliding.

I did not want to say about the first episode I covered here “I was surprised at how much I liked it.” I mean, that’s exactly what you expected, right? Well, I’m sorry. It’s true. I liked “The Big Goodbye” and that surprised the hell out of me.

Now, there are some things I didn’t like, but mostly because the hard-boiled detective genre is one I feel a little proprietary toward. I wouldn’t call myself an expert or even a well-read connoisseur, though it’s a genre I’ve been gravitating toward slowly but passionately. We learn, for example, that Dixon Hill was Picard’s childhood fictional hero and that didn’t ring true to me. The gumshoe detectives of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett aren’t the kind of heroes kids are attracted to. A couple of times, Dixon Hill is referred to as a 20th century Sherlock Holmes, and characters like Marlowe and Spade – upon whom Hill is clearly based – were nothing of the sort. That’s part of what makes them “hard-boiled.” They were by no means stupid, but they weren’t deductive geniuses like Holmes. Sure, they used their brains, but their main strategy was to cause as much trouble as possible and see where the ensuing shitstorm led them. Overall, while we’re led to believe the holodeck program in “The Big Goodbye” is based on hard-boiled novels, it’s clear that the episode pays homage more to the Hollywood adaptations of those novels.

Surprisingly, in a way the discrepancies help the episode. As they tour their fictional construction of 20th century Earth, Picard, Data, Crusher, and Whalen come off like condescending American tourists visiting a less affluent country and just tickled pink by its strangeness. Data and Whalen spout off dumb lines in silly accents. Picard can’t stop smiling and complimenting the holodeck characters as he’s grilled by an angry cop in an interrogation room. The holograms seem almost sad about how little Picard and co. take them seriously. So the fact that “The Big Goodbye” is clearly not a perfect homage to the hard-boiled genre kind of fits. The creators are giving the genre as little serious attention as the Enterprise crew, until of course Dr. Whalen is shot and everyone starts taking things very seriously. Also, the incongruity between the genres mirrors the challenges the Enterprise faces with the jaradans, who want Picard to deliver things perfectly, just like the holograms (and apparently just like this reviewer).

“The Big Goodbye” is perhaps the funniest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I’ve seen (at least, in terms of episodes that were intentionally funny). Picard’s beaming, childlike glee with the hard-boiled holograms is hilarious, and something I can’t remember being reproduced again in the series. Even a simple, predictable joke like Picard’s reaction to taking a drag from a cigarette is classic. The funniest moment is reserved for the end, when Picard finally escapes the holodeck and delivers the long anticipated greeting to the jaradans.

The jaradans are handled exceptionally well I thought, and with minimal treatment. You never see the jaradans, their ships, or their cities. You only hear the voice of one, who sounds a bit like Gozer from Ghostbusters. The director lets your imagination run wild in a way that is exceptionally refreshing for a show like TNG.

Perhaps it’s a minor thing, but I love the title. It’s a mash-up of the Raymond Chandler novel titles The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, and there’s a clever irony about it (since of course, the episode culminates not in a Big Goodbye but a Big Hello) that you don’t often see in the titles of TNG episodes.

"Elementary, Dear Data"
Season 2, Episode 3
Directed by Rob Bowman

The next episode on Alan's list is another holodeck-gone-wrong episode, but this time set in a fictional 19th century. With some time to spare, Data and Geordi La Forge decide to have some fun on the holodeck immersed in a Sherlock Holmes novel, with Data playing Holmes and Geordi as his partner Watson. Geordi is quickly fed up when he realizes Data has no intention of going through the entire story. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holmes mysteries, Data simply solves the case as soon as it begins. The annoying fill-in for Dr. Crusher, Dr. Pulaski, overhears Geordi trying to explain the problem to Data and assures Geordi it’s no use: Data’s just a toaster oven who knows cold facts but can’t solve an original mystery. Data takes this as a challenge and all three enter the holodeck, this time asking the computer to create an original Holmes mystery. The mystery is simply an amalgam of Holmes stories, however, and Pulaski calls BS (actually she just stands there and says “Fraud! Fraud!” in a really annoying way – I don’t like her). Wanting to settle the challenge once and for all, Geordi instructs the computer to create an adversary capable of defeating Data, and hence lays the foundation for this particular holodeck-gone-wrong. The computer decides the only way to create such an antagonist is to imbue Professor Moriarty – Holmes’s nemesis – with sentience and the understanding that he is a hologram. Moriarty learns as much as he can about the vessel he’s on, and is determined to be let out of Enterprise’s life-sized video game.

"Elementary, Dear Data" is an interesting episode and I have mixed impressions about it. If you remember what I wrote about "The Big Goodbye," then you probably already realize in regards to winning me over, "Elementary, Dear Data" has a lot working against it right off the bat. It’s a holodeck episode and it’s a genre-crossing episode.

Still, once Moriarty kidnaps Pulaski and Data and Geordi realize they have a genuine, challenging mystery to solve, their sense of adventure is infectious. They throw themselves into it, though eventually it disappointed me. I got the sense that what I was in for was a full episode of Data and Geordi working on a Holmes mystery and that their success or failure would determine not only the fate of Pulaski, but the ship.

But that isn’t what I got. Once Data and Geordi confront Moriarty and realize he’s attained sentience, the episode shifts gears. The game is officially over and the pair leave to inform Picard. Moriarty has somehow constructed a lever that briefly knocks Enterprise around just enough to get Picard’s attention.

Picard enters the holodeck with Data to face Moriarty and rescue Pulaski, and Moriarty’s response is surprising. He doesn’t want to be a villain, he doesn’t want to hurt the ship. He simply wants to exist beyond the confines of the holodeck. He can’t, of course, and he accepts Picard’s explanation why. Daniel Davis’s portrayal of Moriarty is impressive and when he says “What I have seen, what I have learned, fascinates me. I do not want to die,” it takes you off guard. You give a crap.

I enjoyed that moment with Moriarty, but I’m torn between that appreciation and my disappointment with the challenge between Data, Geordi, and Pulaski being so abruptly dropped. We don’t even hear from Data in the resolution of the episode even though so much attention is focused on him in the early half.

I also have to say even though some might consider it a minor issue, I can’t shake this one silly little problem I have with the notion of the computer just presto, BAM, making Moriarty sentient. I understand why – because Geordi stupidly told the computer to make a bad guy who could beat Data – but exactly how did it do that? After Geordi makes the command, the show cuts to the bridge where Worf notices a power fluctuation, so okay, it used more power than normal. So? How does a computer, which is NOT sentient, create something that is sentient? Maybe it’s just a minor complaint, but considering we’re talking about a franchise that pats itself on the back for its scientific acumen, I think it’s a valid one.

"The Measure of a Man"
Season 2, Episode 9
Directed by Robert Scheerer

Scientist Bruce Maddox hopes to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Noonien Soong, the late genius who created the android Data. He approaches Data, Picard, and Riker with his plan, but none of them are convinced Maddox can do what he says. Data is worried he might die, or that at the very least his sense of self might be lost in the procedure Maddox proposes. He resists, but Maddox attempts to force Data to submit to the procedure by getting Data transferred under his command. Captain Picard turns to his former lover Judge Advocate General Philippa Louvois. When Data tries to resign from Starfleet to avoid coming under Maddox’s knife, Maddox claims Data is property and has no right to resign. The matter is brought to a hearing before Louvois in which Picard represents Data and Riker is forced into the unfortunate position of representing Maddox. The issue of the hearing: Does Data have rights or is he property?

It’s disarming how affecting I found this episode. I have issues with Data episodes and I won’t bore you with them now. Suffice to say I feel the question of Data’s humanity got very damn old. And before deciding to go through Alan’s list of episodes, I can guarantee if I was channel surfing and came across what looked to be a Data episode, I would’ve turned it right the hell off.

To my surprise, I grew quickly irritated with Maddox’s insistence of referring to Data as “it” instead of “he.” When Riker shocks the hearing’s attendants by switching Data off and letting him fall over like a puppet, I was equally surprised with how obscene it seemed. Guinan’s speech to Picard about slavery is disarmingly rousing, and the speech it inspires from Picard even moreso. When Picard blasts at the Judge Advocate General, “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits!” it sends chills. Overall the dialogue in this episode is truly powerful and memorable.

My only problems with it are tiny irritations. I thought the dynamic between Picard and Louvois was annoying. And this happens to be one of the episodes that starts with the senior officers playing poker, and I just don’t get that. They don’t have money. How do you play poker in a society where there’s no money? How do you bluff if no one has money to lose?

But again, those are teeny, tiny problems. Overall, it’s a great episode.

"Q Who"
Season 2, Episode 16
Directed by Rob Bowman

The Enterprise reaches the edge of unexplored space and the enigmatic trickster Q reappears, claiming he’s been ejected from the Q Continuum and wants a position aboard Enterprise. Picard and his crew, Q claims, is simply not ready for what awaits them and Q offers to act as guide and protector. Predictably, Picard wants nothing to do with the troublesome entity and in retaliation Q sends Enterprise spinning light years away from home where they encounter the Borg for the first time.

I watched “Q Who” when it first aired, and at first I wondered if Alan put this on the list because it was the Borg’s first appearance. I didn’t remember it as a particularly bad episode, but I didn’t remember it as a particularly good one either. I couldn’t come up with anything memorable about it other than the Borg.

But as I watched it again, my mind changed. Even though it was the Borg everyone remembers from the episode, this is really Q’s show. And it’s unique among the Q episodes in that it’s the one time there’s no denying that Q really does make Picard and co. look just plain stupid.

And it isn’t just because the Borg ship is faster or stronger than Enterprise. After trying and failing to communicate peacefully with the Borg, after Borg drones invade the ship and try to take it over, after the Borg try to steal Enterprise with a tractor beam and the two ships exchange fire, and after Guinan tells Picard and his officers, “Hey! The Borg wiped out my entire race. You really need to GTFO, dude,” what does the Enterprise do? The Enterprise sits motionless in space, staring at the Borg cube, while the senior officers have meetings.

Once Picard finally submits to Q that he was wrong, that they were not ready for what they were about to face, Q snaps his fingers and transports Enterprise back to where she began. Q and Picard exchange some words afterward, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was the one time I actually agreed with Q about something. Sure, Q can be magnanimous and even sympathetic, though usually it’s an obvious departure like when he’s tempted to tell Picard some important secret at the end of “All Good Things…” But it’s rare that I actually feel sympathetic toward Q when he’s being a bastard; I might think he’s funny, but I don’t share his views. Not the case here. When Picard complains to Q that 18 of his crew died, Q responds, “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here.” And for the first time, I thought, “Yeah. He’s right. STFU, Professor X.”

I also remember this was the first episode in which Guinan seemed interesting. Her nature isn’t clearly defined in “Q Who,” and I don’t know that it ever was, but we know she’s much more than she appears. We learn Q and Guinan have had dealings before and there’s a strong implication that Guinan is much more powerful than she seems. She doesn’t do anything to hurt Q or to protect herself from him, but she acts as if she could if she wanted to.

My only complaint about the episode is that the annoying Ensign Gomez who spills hot chocolate all over Picard at the beginning of “Q Who” survives to see the end of it. I mean if the Borg aren’t going to kill the temp characters, what the hell good are they?

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Just a little fyi...

I just wanted to let any regular Superheroes, etc. readers know that things got really, really busy and then turned really, really slow not because Superheroes, etc. is going dark again - and it isn't - but because I was laid off last week.

It's been a unique, painful, and strangely wonderful experience. Not an hour after I was delivered the news, I received a phone call from a civil service agency offering me an interview. It stunned me. I've been trying to get a civil service job for two years. I've taken 9 tests and haven't received a grade below 90 on any of them. In all that time, I've managed to get only one other civil service job interview. It was for the DMV, and a few weeks later the DMV announced 80 layoffs and sent me a letter letting me know I didn't suck; they weren't hiring anyone. The only other jobs I was offered interviews for were at locations too far for me to get to. Most of them were for jobs in prisons. So just getting a call for an interview was amazing, much less getting it when I got it. Whether or not I actually get the job, I think I'll always be thankful for the timing of the call. It helped me hit the ground running.

The past week and a half or so has basically been for healing. I felt like the bloody, raw gums a pulled tooth leaves behind. Believe me, I'm approaching this whole thing more positively than I've approached just about anything, even things that were unambiguously positive from every angle. The job was a survival job and as my civil service shenanigans reveal, I was desperate to get out. It was a wall. I didn't want to get out this way, but at least I'm out. Still, I worked there longer than I've worked any job: seven and a half years. It's unavoidable. It hurt.

Just to be clear, while I say the past week and a half was "for healing," I've been looking for work and handling all the things the freshly unemployed have to deal with. Believe me, no BS, being unemployed is busy work when you actually deal with the crap you're supposed to deal with. Calling to find out about your insurance, finding out about your retirement, figuring out whether or not you have to cancel your doctor appointments, filing for unemployment, researching Cobra and Medicaid, calling pretty much anyone you owe money and seeing if you have any options (and no, you don't), calling your family and friends to see if there are any ways they can help (e.g. carpooling, laundry, extra food, crap like that), and of course there's finally the remarkably easy and straightforward business of securing a new job.

While I somehow found the inner reserves to handle all of that, I could not bring myself to write about Star Trek: The Next Generation or the trials and tribulations of disgraced samurai.

But I feel things equalizing inside now. So soon, probably at the beginning of next week, you'll see the gears at Superheroes, etc. going again. I just needed a little time. It is amazing how much separation from a thing can hurt, no matter how hard you were fighting to get away from it.

P.S. To friends who also read my list blog List SMASH!, I apologize for using the same Hulk pic again but...come on. How many pictures are there of the Hulk getting fired?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

52 Chances to Learn to Love DC, plus Highlander

I'm looking for the help of other comics folk for a bit of a long comics reviewing project.

Over at Alex Ness's group blog Poplitiko, I'm looking for 52 Chances to Learn to Love DC. I'm looking for 52 graphic novels important to the history of DC's main cooperative universe (the one with the most capes) to review and to help show me what I've been missing all these years.

Also, over at my new/old blog List SMASH!, I list my Top 10 Thoughts on Highlander.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 6: Lanterns for the Dead

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 6: Lanterns for the Dead
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
287 pages

One of the most haunting questions about Lone Wolf & Cub is the question of what Daigoro would do, if given the choice.

If you ask Itto, of course, Daigoro did choose. In the penultimate story of the first volume, "The Assassin's Road," Itto resolves to become an assassin in order to seek vengeance against the Yagyu clan, but he feels Daigoro himself must choose whether or not to follow. Though Daigoro is still a chubby newborn, Itto trusts the boy's samurai blood to make the choice. On one side of the room Itto places a child's ball. On the other, he plants a sword in the floor. If Daigoro chooses the ball, it means he wants to remain a child and Itto will kill him so he may be with his murdered mother. If he chooses the sword, then it means he wishes to follow his father on the road to hell. Daigoro chooses the sword.

Of course, that could just be because the damn thing was shinier.

That isn't meant as sarcastic or irreverent as it reads. Itto's voice is an authoritative one, and as readers we are meant to trust his judgment. His justification for bringing his son along on his vengeful quest; for using Daigoro as bait, distraction, and shield; and for proclaiming to any that protest that "a father knows his child's heart as only a child can know his father's" - as he does to the ronin Furizue Geki in the first volume - is based on Itto's faith that it was more than a child's random attention that inspired Daigoro to choose the sword over the ball. Few volumes of Lone Wolf & Cub will make you question that assumption more than Lanterns for the Dead.

Lanterns for the Dead includes a story that is perhaps the most heart-breakingly painful to read in the series. Whenever I re-read Lone Wolf & Cub, it's a story I anticipate with a certain degree of dread. It's too good to skip, it's too important to skip, but it is so hard to read in spite of the fact that - even if you've never read it - as soon as the first few pages you know how it will end.

In "Hunger Town" Ogami Itto uses a new device to get his target out of hiding: a dog. Itto's target is a despotic lord his people know as the Red Demon. The Red Demon is a fan of Inu-oi or "the dog chase." A dog is released while an archer tries to hit it with an arrow before it can escape. Using arrows with blunted tips, Itto trains a dog for weeks to anticipate and dodge the arrows, trusting the dog will survive long enough to lure Itto's target out of the safety of his castle.

Daigoro names the dog Chiro and helps in his training. It is Daigoro that Chiro runs to as he dodges Itto's arrows. Daigoro feeds Chiro, sleeps with him, and when starving townsfolk charge Itto and Daigoro in hopes of snatching the dog and eating it, it is Daigoro who holds the dog tightly to his chest to protect him. The Red Demon's retainers eventually commandeer the dog, as Itto plans, for their lord's Inu-oi, and the result is precisely what you would think it would be. It is a horrible loss for Daigoro, and if it doesn't make your eyes well up just a little bit then you must have surgically altered your face. It is a joy to watch Daigoro in the beginning of "Hunger Town" finally given the kind of thing a normal boy or girl would enjoy, and to have it so brutally taken from him is the kind of sad you remember days after. I never hate Itto more than I do when I read "Hunger Town."

Daigoro is witness to quite a lot of bloodletting in Lone Wolf & Cub, and in fact he causes a bit of his own both directly and indirectly. In spite of this, when Itto slaughters the Red Demon at the end of "Hunger Town," it is perhaps the only time you get the sense Daigoro is happy to watch a man die.

The following story, "The Soldier is the Castle," is important plot-wise in that it multiplies Lone Wolf and Cub's already numerous enemies. Using a powerful weapon won in an earlier story, Itto kills 26 of the Kurokuwa ninja. Though it's questionable whether or not they could have truly been considered neutral up to this point - they did help Yagyo track Itto down in the previous volume - it is this battle that sets the Kurokuwa permanently on the side of the power-hungry Yagyu Retsudo.

The final story of the volume, "One Stone Bridge," manages impressively to continue the previous chapter while mostly remaining a Daigoro story. Daigoro fishes and gathers in hopes of restoring his father, who lies unconscious from the wounds suffered in the previous chapter. A married couple finds Daigoro and brings a doctor to help. Itto is healed just enough to meet a trio of Kurokuwa ninja who arrive to deliver the news that their clan is at war with Itto, and to vainly try to end that conflict by taking Itto's life.

The married couple plans to ask Itto to adopt Daigoro once he is well enough to take care of himself - an offer Itto would no doubt have refused - but they eventually decide against it. Seeing Daigoro's ceaseless devotion toward Itto, they assume Daigoro would be lost without him. As the couple walks away, Daigoro's longing for a mother, father, and a normal life is clear to see.

I skipped a couple of stories there. There's "Deer Chaser," in which a group of con men and women scheme to pose as Lone Wolf & Cub only to run into the real thing. There's the title story "Lanterns for the Dead," in which a pair of low-level yakuza are mercilessly slaughtered for what amounts to a momentary error of etiquette. I can only think of two truly noteworthy things to say about it. First, it isn't until just now that I realized Itto's motivations are fairly mysterious in this story. He attacks his target "Mankiller" Isaburo only after Isaburo kills the second yakuza, though we never learn who hired Itto. That isn't necessarily rare, though we usually get some indication as to why his targets are, in fact, targets. It makes you wonder if Isaburo ever was a target, or if Itto acted purely to right a wrong. Second, for some reason there's actually some confusion about the name of this story. The table of contents lists it as "Lanterns for the Dead" while the title page names it "Floating Spirits."

I have to admit a bit of tunnel vision in terms of my review of Lanterns for the Dead, but it's tough to avoid. When I think of Lone Wolf & Cub stories that resonate, "Hunger Town" is one of the first that springs to mind. There isn't much that's more powerful than the bond between a boy and his dog. Ask Harlan Ellison.

P.S. I'm partial to cats, but I figured that caveat would've weakened that last paragraph.

(Buy Lone Wolf and Cub 6: Lanterns for the Dead from!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Week In Review

This morning my review of Feynman, the graphic novel biography of renowned physicist Richard Feynman, went up at PLAYBACK:stl.

In a turn of events so stunning it would have had some kind of serious impact on the stock market if anyone cared, I actually continued to do something I said I was going to do. As part of my continuing series of reviews of the epic samurai vengeance manga Lone Wolf & Cub, I reviewed Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4: The Bell Warden and Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 5: Black Wind.

This coming Monday will see the revival of my blog List SMASH! List SMASH! is a blog mainly of Top 10 lists. Some of the lists are the kind you would expect. My Top 10 Favorite Movies. My Top 10 Favorite TV Shows. Then there are some a bit stranger. Top 10 Reasons Why Vampires Are Better Than Zombies. Top 10 Best Things To Say On Your Deathbed Moments Before Succumbing To The Inevitable. I had a lot of fun with it and plan to have fun again. To celebrate the first week back in action, I'll have a list per day. After that, who knows?

Look for more stuff from me at Grovel, PLAYBACK: stl, Popdose, and Poplitiko.

Hmm. I write for a lot of places starting with the letter P. I should start submitting to Playboy. And Penthouse. And Poop Quarterly.

I made up that last one.

It's probably real though.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Learning to love Star Trek: The Next Generation

After I returned from the night shift this morning, I was trying to think of ways to keep myself up for a few more hours. A discussion with some friends at a recent party stirred some tentative interest in a corner of the geek world in which I rarely find happiness: Star Trek. So, I fired up the Wii Netflix and watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I actually was a very intense Star Trek fan for about 5 minutes in my teens. I used to take a bus every Friday night to the Studio of Bridge & Games in Schenectady to play Dungeons & Dragons. Predictably, the topics of conversation at the studio covered all things Geek, but I hadn't watched much Star Trek so whenever the gabbing turned in that direction, I felt left out. So I set about finding the air times of any episodes of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation (I believe those were the only two out at the time). I educated myself quickly, was able to answer relatively not-too-obscure trivia (I could've told you the title of the episode in which the Romulans first appeared and that the actor playing the enemy Romulan captain was the same guy who played Spock's father, Sarek, but I couldn't have told you what Stardate it was or anything like that). When I left D & D and the studio behind, I left any desire for Star Trek with it.

When I have happened to catch episodes of the various series, it was rare I felt anything but a yawn. In fact, when I did catch the occasionally impressive episode, it just made me feel more frustrated toward the series. I don't have much critical to say about the original Star Trek. It was a pioneering series and no one could deny it. Sure there was goofy, campy stuff and these days any jerk with a freeware program could drum up better special effects, but like it or hate it, the original series broke boundaries creatively and socially.

Star Trek: The Next Generation though, and its companion spin-offs, pissed me off. They didn't piss me off because they didn't live up to the original. They pissed me off because they didn't live up to their own unlimited potential. There was so much that was good about the foundation upon which Star Trek: The Next Generation was built - and I'm talking about it as its own series now, not living in the shadow of the original - that it just made it that much more frustrating when the episodes were just as predictable and mediocre as your average situation comedy.

But occasionally there were really wonderful episodes, and in most cases those episodes had something to do with time travel. Of the really memorable Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I can remember, most if not all are time travel stories. There's the absolutely superb series finale "All Good Things..." which is truthfully one of the best series finales I've ever seen. There's "Yesterday's Enterprise," and then there are a bunch of episodes whose names I don't remember if I ever even knew them. I recall one where Q gave Picard the opportunity to relive his life after his artificial heart explodes.

To be fair, I wonder sometimes how much of my ire for Star Trek comes from geek self-loathing. In my opinion, most if not all people heavily invested in any kind of culture that others term geeky choose some other part of the geek universe and passionately hate it in order to de-geek themselves just a little bit. Maybe that's what Star Trek has become for me. the thing I have taken a very, very long way around to talking about (mainly because, as mentioned earlier, I am working the night shift this week and since I am slightly exhausted I can ramble quite a bit), I mentioned on twitter that I was watching "All Good Things..." this morning, got a response from Tim O'neil of The Hurting and a little while later Alan Doane chimed in, believing I'd given TNG short thrift. Soon, he posted a list of 21 great Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.

And since we have Netflix in my household, and since we have a Wii, and since every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is available digitally on Netflix...well, I think it is my duty as geek pop culture blogger to watch all of these episodes ADD mentioned and blog about it. And if Tim ever posts his top 10 list, I'll have to look at those as well.

So yes. That is going to happen.

And now I'm going to sleep. While I sleep, and hopefully dream pleasantly, allow me to leave you with the stuff of nightmares.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 5: Black Wind

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 5: Black Wind
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
288 pages

While each chapter of Lone Wolf & Cub is part of a larger story beginning with Yagyu Retsudo's framing Ogami Itto for treason and ending with the final battle between Itto and Retsudo in Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 28: The Lotus Throne, you don't get a strong sense of that larger story in the earliest volumes. Koike and Kojima wisely introduce Itto and Daigoro in stand-alone stories, but Black Wind is where this begins to change.

Itto's war with the Yagyu clan nudges its way to the forefront in Black Wind. In fact, Black Wind's first chapter, "Trail Markers," is extremely light on story and accomplishes little else other than bringing the Ogami/Yagyu conflict into the spotlight. When the Kurokawa ninja - under Retsudo's direction - learn Itto's method of communicating with potential clients, Retsudo uses the information to send Itto's old rival Gunbei to kill him.

Though longer and certainly more satisfying, the subsequent chapter "Executioner's Hill" likewise reminds us of Itto's past. In the midst of a storm, Itto comes across six ronin, one of whom recognizes Lone Wolf as the once executioner for the Shogun. The ronin's former lord is the child Itto beheads in Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger's flashback story "The White Path Between the Rivers."

Itto's feud with the Yagyu flares up again in "Decapitator Asaemon." The Shogun's sword-tester Yushitsugu is dispatched to kill Itto. But Yushitsugu is not just Itto's latest rival. He was the main character for Koike and Kojima's earlier series Samurai Executioner. In spite of Kojima working on both series, readers of both titles will notice Yushitsugu looks much different in Lone Wolf & Cub and it isn't tough to figure out why. So far, I only own the first three volumes of the earlier series, but a quick perusal will reveal that the Yushitsugu of Samurai Executioner is the spitting image of Ogami Itto.

"Decapitator Asaemon" is noteworthy plot-wise not only because it focuses on the Ogami/Yagyu feud, but because it is the first indication we get in the series that the Shogun is aware of the conflict, isn't pleased, and isn't necessarily much happier with Retsudo than he is with Itto.

The events which unfold in Black Wind's final chapter, "The Guns of Sakai," are crucial to the rest of the series, though it's tough to say much about it without laying down some spoilers.

Black Wind's title story is a bittersweet interlude and a relatively peaceful one. Instead of cutting through ronin or wandering the Japanese countryside looking for clients, Itto and Daigoro spend time planting rice. We are just as confused by this as the peasants who marvel at Itto's willingness to do beggar's work. We assume Itto does this as part of an assassination scheme whose puzzle pieces we can't see yet, and ultimately his motives prove to be both more and less than what we suspected.

Daigoro tugs at your heartstrings in "Black Wind." He covets the time in the paddies with his father, and finds it achingly easy to imagine an impossibility: he and his father quitting their quest for vengeance.

It brings to mind part of the reason why the Itto/Daigoro relationship works. Usually, in an action/adventure story, a child companion is a way to bring in the younger audience. To a pre-teen who fantasizes about being Batman or working alongside him, the existence of a Robin renders those fantasies a little less impossible. But this is not Daigoro's function. It is difficult to imagine a child reader envying Daigoro or wanting to fill his shoes. For better or worse, Daigoro is as much a victim of Itto's quest as Lone Wolf's doomed targets.

(Buy Lone Wolf and Cub 5: Black Wind from Amazon!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This is me fighting crime

Mick Martin War Journal:

Tuesday morning, 8/16/11:

I ate too much pizza.

I am back on the night shift, but only for a week. It is the closest I will ever come to the world of Batman. I don't fight the crime, but sometimes I work the hours.

I wonder if Batman would have the same thoughts I have. While the unending sheets of hard rain make driving more treacherous, I'm thankful for it because it makes the short walk from the front door of my job to the parking lot less treacherous. Or maybe it doesn't, but it feels like it does. I find it tough to believe as many violent bastards as usual would be out and about when it's raining like this. Is there really less violent crime when it rains? I wonder. That would make Seattle a fairly safe place to live I guess. Does Batman get bored in the rain?

Years ago, when I started working nights, I noticed it was little things that would make me feel safe or otherwise. For example, I remember waiting for the bus at 6 am after a night shift and a guy walked in my direction. At that time in the morning, in this neighborhood, everyone seems like a potential danger. As he got closer, I saw he was carrying a steaming cup of coffee. That calmed all my worries somehow. I couldn't imagine someone who wanted to hurt me or take my money would be carrying coffee. When Batman kicks bad guys off fire escapes, he knocks knives and guns out of their hands. They're never carrying coffee.

There's a comic book for you. Batman weaves through crowds of pedestrians shuffling to their early-morning jobs, occasionally stopping to bark out "Kii-YA!" and dropkick the arm of anyone carrying a coffee. The hospitals fill with third-degree burn victims. Starbucks makes a fucking fortune.

There's your reboot, DC. Don't listen to the nay-sayers. Justice, League, and International are three words that mean DINERO.

There is something very liberating about working this shift and if I weren't living with the love of my life, it would be tempting to ask for it back. There is a freedom - not really, but something that steps in as an adequate substitute - in commanding this empty building without anyone looking over my shoulder. But this shift knocks you out of step with the world. And while I guess in some ways I've always been out of step with the world, to work nights again is too much.

While I'm being a bit random, here are some random links:

You should read Tom Spurgeon's retelling of his recent medical issues. I had no idea Tom endured this and his essay is amazing.

I have to confess my interest in Tom's blog began simply with wanting the hits a mention on his blog inevitably attracts. However, as I returned to Tom's blog every day to selfishly scan his blog for mention of Superheroes, etc., I realized he was a dedicated and wonderful writer able put into words thoughts, feelings, and impressions on comics I struggle with (or cowardly shirk away from struggling with) every time I log on to my blog.

The part of the essay where Tom refers to himself as an "unproductive writer" truly made me laugh. If Tom Spurgeon is an unproductive writer, I don't even know what that says about me.

In other news, Superheroes, etc. recently joined the Comic Blog Elite! The complicated vetting process involves e-mailing them and asking if you can join the Comic Blog Elite. I recently broke free of the 151-180 range and moved up to the 121-150 range! And I just keep moving up and up! Prepare Superman 101 and Delirium Comics! I COME FOR YOU!

You should check out The Patron Saint of Superheroes, the blog for author Christopher Gavaler. Right now, Gavaler's asking "Are Batman and Robin gay?" And I really want to make a joke about it, but I don't know if there's a joke left that hasn't already been written.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4: The Bell Warden

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4: The Bell Warden
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
319 pages

The world of Lone Wolf & Cub is brutal and unforgiving, and children are not immune to its cruelty. Even the bond between parent and child - of particular relevance considering Lone Wolf & Cub's premise - is given little consideration in the face of violently enforced standards of duty and honor. Though it seems like the connection is coincidental, all 4 stories in Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4: The Bell Warden share the similar threads of either violence befalling children or parents aiding in the bloody ends of sons and daughters.

In the title story "The Bell Warden," executioner-turned-assassin Ogami Itto is hired by bell warden Tsuji Genshichi. Believing neither of his 3 sons are up to the task of replacing him as bell warden, Genshichi hires Itto to take the right arm of each if he can. At the same time, one-by-one he instructs his sons to kill Itto. Since the bell warden must be able to fight his way to his bell if need be, each son is Itto's equal in their particular schools of battle, and the duels are wonderfully executed. It's something of a refreshing conflict. You get used to scenes of Itto impossibly cutting his way through hordes of combatants. A story of three single opponent duels is a nice, suspenseful departure.

The second story, "Unfaithful Servants" opens on an uncharacteristically busy and bloody day, even for Itto. The story highlights one of Koike's unique strengths: mixing historical exposition with action and adventure storytelling. Itto moves from place to place, assassinating multiple targets and cutting a path through walls of henchmen to do so. Meanwhile, Koike tells us about the orisuke - retainers who were not samurai and laid claim to no code - while refusing to tell us why his main character is hacking so many of these unfaithful servants to pieces. Kojima expertly creates a tangible atmosphere, spending pages constructing the halls and showing us the preparation of meals delivered to the orisuke moments before Itto strikes. We learn later that Itto acts on behalf of the son and daughter of a disgraced lord. The children were about to kill themselves in order to restore their family's honor before Itto arrived and offered his assistance.

"Parting Frost" follows Daigoro through rain-saked rice paddies and Buddhist temples as he searches for his father after the assassin fails to return from a mission. During his journey, Daigoro attracts the attention of an ambitious swordsman who recognizes a powerful quality in the boy that makes him see Daigoro not as a child, but a worthy adversary.

"Parting Frost" is the second of what of could rightly be called the Daigoro stories - the first being "Tragic O-Sue" of the second volume - and it's one of my favorites not just because Daigoro is the sweet, sad, tender, yet alarmingly capable soul of Lone Wolf & Cub, but also because it features some wonderful landscapes by Goseki Kojima.

The final story, "Performer," is the reason for the relatively short list of stories in The Bell Warden. "Performer" is twice as long as most Lone Wolf & Cub chapters. Itto's target is O-Yuki, a warrior woman on a quest for vengeance. Defeated in combat with trickery and subsequently raped, O-Yuki gives up everything to get back at her attacker and she employs a bizarre and unique strategy. Before embarking on her quest, O-Yuki hires a tatto artist to mark her with images of demons and monsters on her back and breasts. The images shock and distract her enemies, rendering them easy targets.

The story works well in spite of some weaknesses. O-Yuki's tattoos are provocative but the idea that men ready to cut a woman to ribbons - men who likely have some experience with rape and murder - getting distracted by a little skin art just never rang true to me.

There's also a bit of irony that I'm not sure was intentional; at least it never read that way. We eventually learn O-Yuki has been cutting off the topknots of her samurai victims, causing inestimable shame to them and their families. It is these families who hire Itto to kill O-Yuki, and Itto gives her a bit of a lecture.

That this brow-beating comes from Ogami Itto is a little ironic. While Itto's sole target is Yagyu Retsudo - the man who orchestrated the destruction of Itto's clan, the theft of his position, and the death of his wife among others - like some kind of Hamlet on crack, Itto spends thousands of pages slaughtering just about anyone in Japan he can find who isn't Yagyu Retsudo. When he scolds O-Yuki with "The victims of your quest have a quest as well," you can't help but wonder just how many similar quests Itto's assassin's road has spawned.

"Performer" is not perfect but it's emotionally powerful, mainly because of the understanding that develops between Itto and O-Yuki. She is not the first sympathetic target in Lone Wolf & Cub, but Koike and Kojima invest a good deal of time in her, and she's one of the few you may find yourself rooting for.

(Buy Lone Wolf and Cub 4: The Bell Warden from Amazon!)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
311 pages

The third volume of Lone Wolf & Cub finds the father-son team of Itto and Daigoro facing a trio of infamous ninja in the title story "The Flute of the Fallen Tiger," confronted with a deadly idealist determined to end Itto's trail of bodies in "Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice," shielding a prostitute who killed her rapist in "The Virgin and the Whore," and caught in a han's dispute over a forest in "Close Quarters." We also find out more about the conspiracy that set Itto on his bloody course in the flashback tale "The White Path Between the Rivers."

Lone Wolf & Cub's fame grows. As Itto's victims multiply, so do his enemies. Thus the stoic ronin and his son are recognized by the elite Kurokawa ninja trio, the Bentenrai Brothers in "The Flute of the Fallen Tiger." The Bentenrai represent one the first significant human threats to Itto and Daigoro on their long journey. Itto's growing legend leads to his next battle as well, this time with the retired samurai Bizen in "Half Mat, Full Mat, A Fistful of Rice."

"Half Mat..." is interesting for a few reasons. Bizen is the first significant character to give voice to thoughts I certainly hope most readers of Lone Wolf & Cub humor while reading the series regarding Itto's morality. Unlike Itto who was framed for treason, Bizen chose to leave the path of the samurai. He despises the code allowing samurai to take the lives of peasants at will. He challenges Itto not for fame, money, or glory, but to stop his assassinations and save Daigoro from a future as bloody as his father's.

The final duel between Itto and Bizen enjoys an almost comically bizarre visual element. Since surrendering the way of the samurai, Bizen supports himself by charging money for the chance to stab, cut off, pound, or otherwise fatally wound his head. He sits beneath a custom-crafted table with a hole for his head and anyone who pays may take a weapon from the tabletop and do their best to get him before he can duck. This is how he faces Itto in their graveyard duel and while we're lead to believe this is the key to an almost insurmountable strategy, it's tough to take it seriously.

Whether it causes giggles or not, Koike and Kojima prove their versatility in the duel. Action-wise, one could argue Lone Wolf & Cub is nothing but swordfight after swordfight. Koike and Kojima consistently prove their ability to keep it fresh. They spend 16 pages - mind you, 16 pages is over half the length of a standard Western comic book - on Bizen and Itto visualizing their respective potential strategies and the other's likely counters.

Daigoro doesn't take as prominent a role in The Flute of the Fallen Tiger as he does in some other volumes, but there are subtly powerful moments for the character; one of them in "Half Mat..." Bizen entertains Daigoro with a spinning top, and once Itto sees his son's fascination with the toy he slices it in half to symbolically make a point both to Daigoro and Bizen, who has just announced his intention to kill Itto. Daigoro's response is heartbreakingly perfect. There is no surprise or anger; only a grim and quiet acceptance.

There are similarly quiet yet memorable moments between Itto and Daigoro in "The Virgin and the Whore." While silently eating with his father, Daigoro spills some of his food. Itto doesn't even bother looking up while his son - only two or three at this point - quietly and obediently cleans his mess. Later, when a prostitute who killed her rapist hides in Itto and Daigoro's room, Itto eventually orders her to leave. A brief, protesting glance from Daigoro is more rebellion than you'll ever see from the character toward his father again.

Daigoro is almost compeltely absent from "The White Path Between the Rivers," because it is a flashback set when Daigoro was still a newborn. While in Lone Wolf & Cub's first volume we learned of the conspiracy against Itto's clan, in "The White Path..." we see more of the specifics. Itto's role before his fall from grace was kaishakunin: the Shogun's executioner. When daimyo were ordered to commit seppuku - ritual suicide by self-disembowelment - it was Itto's job to act as their second, or to behead them once they had made the fatal cut to their own bellies. Itto's enemy Yagyu uses Itto's position against him. He convinces the clan of one of the lords Itto beheaded to frame him for treason.

What is most interesting to me about "The White Path..." is the introduction of Azami, wife to Itto and mother to Daigoro. Unless I am very mistaken - and in the coming months as I review the rest of Lone Wolf & Cub I may learn this is the case - this is the only time we meet Azami. In fact, I don't believe even her name appears again.

I find the lack of a female presence in the Itto/Daigoro relationship interesting. I'm not going to make any overbearing social arguments about it, but it's worth mentioning. It's particularly curious to me that in a series as long as Lone Wolf & Cub that boasts perhaps not as much sex as violence but the gap ain't that big - and the sex itself is often violent and bizarre - we only see its main character have sex once, and in fact it isn't with Azami. Itto has sex with a prostitute in the first volume's final story "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast."

It's funny. I've read the series from start to finish two or three times, and even though I know how the bloody trail ends, every time I begin the series over again I still look forward to making my way through it all. No one is more aware of the irony than I that even though most of my comic book interests lean toward the Super, if my apartment burned and I had time to grab comics (provided my girlfriend and kitties were all safe of course), I would watch all of my Incredible Hulk and Defenders comics go up in smoke before I'd let Itto and Daigoro burn. I am immensely happy to finally be reviewing Lone Wolf & Cub volume-by-volume, and I'm just as happy that it affords me an excuse to wander through the series one more time.

(Buy The Flute of the Fallen Tiger (Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 3) from Amazon)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Top 10 Thoughts On Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

10. I thought it was good. I didn't think it was great. I don't think any of the Harry Potter films were great.

9. I was glad to see the Slytherin students were put in the dungeon. I wonder if they had to drink from different magic water fountains. And use different magic bathrooms. Separate but equal, right Professor McGonagall? Racist.

8. I find it both admirable and regrettable the various Harry Potter filmmakers kept a fairly consistent cast list over the course of 8 movies. There are wonderful actors like Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Jason Isaacs, and Ralph Fiennes who are always good to see again. And then there are actors so ill-suited to their roles you really wish the directors would either hire a different person or just kill the character off and live with the Harry-Potter-geek anger. My personal just-get-rid-of-them target is Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. There were times I couldn't even understand what the hell she was saying. She sounds like a younger child who is trying to fake an English accent while falling asleep.

7. While I think Ralph Fiennes is marvelous as Voldemort, I also think Voldemort is a fairly flat and uncreative villain. I spoke with my girlfriend about this on the way home from the film and she suggested that's part of the point of Voldemort; that he and the other bad guys aren't as important as the fear they inspire. Maybe. I just find it regrettable that the Big Bad of a series with huge cultural impact is completely indistinguishable from every dome-headed warlock Doctor Strange took 3 pages to bitch-slap in the back half of Strange Tales.

6. It was wise to move Harry's viewing of Snape's memories in the pensieve to right before Harry's "death" rather than after the final battle. If they'd kept the book's sequence, it would have been anticlimactic.

CORRECTION: I was quickly informed in the comments section that I was wrong; that, in fact, the sequence here is the same as in the book. I have kept #6 intact however both as an admission of guilt, and an admission of laziness since I could have probably come up with a new #6, but hell. I already hit "Publish Post." No do-overs.

5. I also felt the ways they altered the final duel between Harry and Voldemort made sense. In particular, I was relieved they saved the explanation of the Elder Wand's ownership until after the battle was over. In the book Harry explains it to Voldemort as they're fighting, and it ruins the scene's flow. Voldemort is supposed to be one of the most vicious creatures, if not the most vicious creature, in the world and yet he allows Harry to deliver a freaking thesis on genuine Elder Wand ownership while they lock horns. Saving the exposition for after the smoke cleared felt more natural.

4. Alan Rickman's performance was easily my favorite of the film and Snape was overall handled wonderfully. He's my favorite character of the series and I think the filmmakers did his story justice.

3. My girlfriend when Filch walked in with Mrs. Norris: "Aww, lookit the kittie." Pfft. Chicks.

2. When I read the books, it was difficult to not picture Ian McKellen as Dumbledore. Considering all the English talent that appears in the Harry Potter films, I find it interesting McKellen never shows up. It makes sense to keep him away from Dumbledore's role but there are other shoes he could fill. I wonder if they did approach him and he just said, "Dude. I'm Gandalf. I'm Magneto. If you put me in a Harry Potter movie, that'll be it. No one will invite me to anything but geek conventions. You may as well give me the Starfleet uniform now, because you know that'll be my next job."

1. Did anyone else notice in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry Potter, they reversed the Star Wars colors? The good guy's spell was red, the bad guy's spell was green. Put them together and you have...Christmas.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

My Top 10 Thoughts on Kill Bill

I've watched the films a lot lately. I saw them on AMC, couldn't bear to see them all edited, dug the DVDs out, and still haven't put them back.

10. If you're rolling through a parking garage in a wheelchair carrying a keyring that reads "PUSSY WAGON" in your shirt pocket that belonged to an orderly you just killed, and you happen to roll past a truck that has the words "PUSSY WAGON" on the back, why do you need to check the keyring to make sure it's the same PUSSY WAGON?

9. My favorite character of the films is Budd. Or if not my favorite, I feel like his portrayal is the most complex. We never learn exactly why he's left the assassin's life just as we never learn why he's broken ties with Bill. At the same time, it feels like we can infer a lot from the performance and don't necessarily need the specifics. Initially I assumed somewhere between Beatrix's near-killing and her awakening, Budd developed a conscience. The idea makes sense, particularly considering Budd's lines about he and the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad deserving to die. But, then again, the fate he plans for Beatrix doesn't seem to jive with moral redemption. Another thought occurred to me today that, I think, explains his character a lot better. He may have secretly held a torch for Beatrix. It would explain his break with Bill, his disillusion with his work after he helps put Beatrix in a coma, and that strange look he gives her right before hammering her pine box shut.

8. Charlie Brown's wife turning the House of Blue Leaves's lights on and off arbitrarily at the end of the flick is used to facilitate a cool-looking piece of the fight, but makes no goddamned sense.

7. I can't decide whether I think Hattori Hanzo is really flirting with Beatrix when he still thinks she's just a tourist, or if he's just working for a good tip. He and He-Who-Shaves-His-Head-But-Is-Not-Bald have "been together" for a long time.

6. The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves is perhaps one of my favorite parts of ANY film, but due to things beyond my control, I can't help but feel while watching it now - some years after Kill Bill: Vol. 1's release - that the whole thing happened because Uma Thurman switched to Vonage.

5. I've grown to hate Bill's little thesis on Superman. First, because of when he says it's a comic that "isn't particularly well-drawn." Really? Which of the ka-zillion artists wasn't very good? Second, because I just get a whole "Watch this, Quentin is SO clever and pop-culture-deep" vibe from it.

4. Beatrix vs. Gogo Yubari: just freaking awesome.

3. After recently watching the Elle vs. Beatrix fight scene, I was reminded of the fight between Nicolas Cage, John Goodman, and William Forsythe in Raising Arizona. Then I thought "Hey, I should make a top 10 list of movie battles fought in trailers!" Unfortunately, I've proven unable to remember any other movie battles fought in trailers.

2. She keeps saying she has unfinished business with everyone. I think she's secretly a credit counseling service.

1. Bitch, you don't have a future.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
304 pages

While Lone Wolf & Cub's first volume captured my interest, it was this second volume that convinced me I'd found a series worthy of my committed attention. Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier finds disgraced ronin Ogami Itto infiltrating a prison to solve the mystery behind an arson in "Red Cat," disguising himself as a military adviser to assassinate a traitor to the Shogunate in "The Coming of the Cold," learning the secret to kill the Buddha himself in the title story "The Gateless Barrier," and avenging the honor of a dead prostitute in "Winter Flower." The Gateless Barrier also brings us the first of many memorable and usually heartbreaking Daigoro solo adventures (or mostly solo) when the Cub half of Lone Wolf & Cub is used as bait to lure out his father in "Tragic O-Sue."

The most immediately noticeable difference between Lone Wolf & Cub's first and second volume is time, and in more than one way. First, most obviously, Koike and Kojima have more time per story and they use it well. While The Assassin's Road contains 9 stories - most of which are around 30 pages long - The Gateless Barrier contains only five 60 page stories, and this becomes the standard. Second, Koike is more willing to play with the sequence of events, choosing more often than not to start in the middle of the story rather than the beginning. "Red Cat," for example, opens with Itto carted off to prison. It isn't until after Itto kills a handful of prisoners and is sentenced to death that we are shown the beginning of the story and learn that his imprisonment is a ruse.

It's also worth noting that "Red Cat" is something of a continuation of "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast," the penultimate story of The Assassin's Road. A prostitute Itto saves in the latter story recruits him for the assassination in "Red Cat." The other stories up to this point are completely self-contained. It isn't a huge deal, and to be honest it's not even remotely necessary to read "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast" before "Red Cat" - in fact, it wasn't until my second read-through of the series that I realized the woman who recruits Itto in "Red Cat" is the same woman from the previous story, probably because the two stories are separated by the flashback origin story "The Assassin's Road" - but it's worth mentioning because, along with the doubling of Lone Wolf & Cub's page count, it's indicative of how popular the series became between the original publication of the stories reprinted between the first and second volumes.

Itto and Daigoro's relationship seems much more complex in The Gateless Barrier. In the first volume, there are moments when the contrast between Itto's ruthlessness and Daigoro's innocence almost comes off as gimmicky. Daigoro appears oblivious to the things his father does. When Itto drowns and stabs a ronin in the first volume, for example, and Daigoro responds by simply reaching out playfully for his father and laughing, it seems that the toddler has no concept of what's going on. The murder he helped his father commit could be no more than a game in his mind.

This changes in The Gateless Barrier. While Daigoro is clearly still a child in mind and body, Itto doesn't treat him as one. Itto expects Daigoro to follow a strict code and makes no allowances for Daigoro's failure, but at the same time Itto's love for his young son is clear to see. This is no more perfectly demonstrated than in the second story of The Gateless Barrier, "The Coming of the Cold." There is perhaps no scene in the series more perfect in displaying the strange, brutal, yet tender relationship between Lone Wolf and his Cub than one in which Itto instructs his son Daigoro how to survive in a cave while waiting for his father to complete his mission and how - if necessary - to die quietly and with honor. Daigoro responds with no emotion but clearly understands though he's still too young to do more than grunt cutely.

I often compare Ogami Itto to Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly and Serenity. While both Mal and Itto consider themselves to be less than they were - they in fact strive to be less than they were - neither can help but remain honorable and courageous warriors. You begin to learn this about Itto in The Gateless Barrier. He seems less of an assassin and more of a samurai. He still is an assassin. He still commits actions you could easily consider cowardly, murderous, and absolutely reprehensible; but his samurai roots shine through. In "Red Cat," for example, even after killing his target Itto goes further than he has to in order to solve a mystery and get vengeance for the fallen. A better example is "The Coming of the Cold," when Itto goes above and beyond for the sake of honor. For reasons I'd rather not spoil, Itto's clients willingly sacrifice both their lives and their names so Itto can achieve his goal. After killing his target Itto lectures his target's underlings to make them understand the reason behind the killing so his clients' names can be restored.

It was "The Coming of the Cold" that sealed the deal between me and Lone Wolf & Cub, and it remains one of my favorite stories of the series. It opens in the belly of a beached shipwreck - a perfect metaphor for Itto and Daigoro, two tattered survivors of a once grand and rich life - where Itto meets his latest client. Soon Itto travels to a land engulfed in blizzard. Daigoro must wait in a cave for his father and shortly after Itto leaves the cave, an avalanche covers the opening. Refusing to abandon his mission, Itto hopes for the best but accepts his son's likely death. After performing his mission, Itto manages to re-open the mouth of the cave and the story ends with Daigoro emerging from a blanket of furs, saying "Papa..." It's a heartbreaking moment and really the first time in the series that Daigoro's death seems a real possibility.

Another favorite of mine is the title story, "The Gateless Barrier," and it's a favorite for, I suspect, the same reason it was chosen for the volume's title. The specific message of "The Gateless Barrier" is one that is arguably the central message of Lone Wolf & Cub. Itto is hired to assassinate the Buddhist monk Wajo. Upon finding his target, Itto cannot make the fatal blow. He appears literally unable to physically strike the monk. Wajo explains Itto cannot kill him because he has attained Mu; that he has forgotten the self and become one with nothingness. Itto accepts this explanation and intends to kill himself in penance for his failure, but the monk urges him to find the gate where there is no gate and to become the Gateless Barrier. In other words, he has to go meditate a lot. Itto does, eventually returns to assassinate Wajo, and upon his death the monk says, "Is this not good? He who perfects his path? Is this not good? The gateless barrier?" The moral is one that is recurrent in the series; that it doesn't matter what path you choose as long as you choose a path and walk it well.

I've toyed with the idea of a top 10 list of favorite Lone Wolf & Cub stories and it's something I may eventually write. If so, Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier will likely make 2 or 3 appearances on the list. The learning curve between the first 2 volumes is Cliffs-of-Insanity steep, and the first volume is superb, so that's saying a lot.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
304 pages

I keep looking for a new Lone Wolf & Cub and nothing seems to work. That isn't to say Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima hold a monopoly on good samurai vengeance stories. But Lone Wolf & Cub is unique. It isn't just a bloody, kick-ass comic whose inspirational mark you can find in other comics, in hip-hop albums, in Quentin Tarantino films, in cartoons, in video games, and even in a Tom Hanks movie. It's an epic adventure highlighting the horror and beauty of Edo-period Japan. It's a story constantly asking which is more important: the path you choose or how you walk it. Most importantly it's a story about an unbreakable bond between a father and a son.

Before Wolverine or Kill Bill's Beatrix there was Ogami Itto. Itto is the Shogun's loyal executioner until he's framed for treason and his family is slaughtered. Itto becomes Japan's deadliest assassin on his quest for vengeance. Known as Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto often employs his toddler son Daigoro in his killings. Sometimes he uses the child as bait, sometimes as a distraction, and other times even as a shield. While it seems heartless and cruel on the surface, as Itto tells the ronin Furizue Geki in this first volume, "a father knows his child's heart, as only a child can know his father's. No stranger can understand."

Fittingly, I read Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road in a waiting room as my oldest nephew was being born. It was one of the first manga I'd read. I bought it specifically because I wanted to dip my toe into the world of manga, and while I liked what I saw I wasn't ready to dive in just yet. I can't say it left much of an impression just then. On one hand, my mind was on other things. On the other, while it was good and I wanted to read more, it was easy to get confused in the minutiae of Japanese feudal intrigue. Each volume of Lone Wolf & Cub includes a glossary explaining the meanings of any untranslated words. Still, glossary or no glossary, exposition scenes between Itto and his clients - with the clients explaining the reasons they were hiring him - often went over my head. I was often resigned to appreciating the artistry with which Kojima depicted the bloodletting without necessarily understanding why Itto was fighting anyone.

Having now read all 28 volumes and officially deeming Lone Wolf & Cub my favorite comic book series of all time, it is difficult to re-read The Assassin's Road without noticing what is so strikingly different between these early stories and what came later.

For one thing, the stories are much shorter. Most of the stories in the other 27 volumes were around 60 pages while only one piece - "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast" - reaches that length in The Assassin's Road.

Itto is certainly not as fully realized here. Physically he doesn't seem as taut or as ragged. There are panels in which Itto's face actually betrays a hint or two of chubbiness. Itto's characteristic stoicism and unflappability are absent at first. When he reveals his trap in "Sword for Hire, Son for Hire," for example, he laughs triumphantly at his prey and overall enjoys the victory of his deceit whereas the future Itto would reserve that kind of sadistic joy for only his most hated foes, usually seeming simply to accept and endure the consequences of his darkest acts.

The notion of Daigoro participating in the assassinations seems more compulsory in this first volume. While this was an element that never left the series entirely, it becomes less of an automatic plot point. I got the sense that perhaps Daigoro's help was a gimmick that sold the series to publishers, but became less necessary as it garnered success. At the very least, Daigoro's contributions to the killings are treated in a much lighter manner in The Assassin's Road than they would later. In "Suio School Zanbato," Itto tricks Bessho Mondo into a formal duel by instructing his son to stand on a ridge overlooking the road to pee on Mondo's head. In the beginning of "A Father Knows His Child's Heart, as Only A Child Can Know His Father's" - when Itto lures an unsuspecting ronin into water by telling Daigoro to pretend he's drowning - Daigoro seems absolutely oblivious to the murder he just aided when his father lifts him out of the water. He smiles and reaches out for his father as if they were playing in their own backyard pool.

While Goseki Kojima doesn't have the time and space in The Assassin's Road for the kind of expansive landscapes that litter the rest of the series, the cinematic perspective of this first volume is perfect. What impresses me perhaps more than anything else about the late Kojima's work is how he engages my senses. In particular, more than any other comic, I hear Lone Wolf & Cub. There is something about Kojima's elegant sense of timing and his understanding of the natural world that truly makes me experience the sounds of the story. At the end of "Sword for Hire, Son for Hire," when Itto halves a tree while disposing of his target's protectors, I really hear the tree's weight and girth crashing to the ground; just as I hear the metallic unsheathing of swords before Itto's duel with Bessho Mondo in "Suio School Zanbato."

As jarring as the comic book corners of the Internet can be, there isn't much about those corners that surprises me more than how little there is dedicated to Lone Wolf & Cub (and much of what's out there has more to do with the film adaptations). I guess I shouldn't be too shocked that I can spit in the air and hit a Spider-Man fansite, yet finding anything significant about Lone Wolf & Cub takes some real digging. It's in part because of this void that in the coming weeks I'm going to do something I've wanted to do ever since I started blogging about comics: I'm going to review every volume of Lone Wolf & Cub. I won't lie. Not all volumes are equal. There may be a few reviews where I'll struggle to say something more than, "Itto killed some dudes, Daigoro's cute, and there was some really bizarre sex," but hey. The challenge is part of the fun. When all else fails, I can just be a smartass.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Extra Medium, my new/old column for Popdose

Well it sure took me long enough, but I've finally debuted my column Extra Medium on Popdose. I took the title from a short-lived column I wrote for Trouble With Comics, and in fact the subject matter is pretty much the same. Extra Medium covers movies, music, books, video games, etc. adapted from or inspired by comic books.

The column is here and the first installment reviews Thor.

I'm not sure how often I'm going to post columns. We'll see. Hopefully, the rest of my summer comic book movie reviews will be a little bit more timely.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two not-so-quiet quiet weeks

The past two weeks have been a little too eventful for my tastes. I won't lie and say these events are the only reasons Superheroes, etc. has been quiet and why I haven't contributed much to the websites I've recently signed up to, but they sure didn't help.

I won't get too specific. In one case I am bound by law to not be specific, and in another I am simply respecting the privacy of my family.

On May 2nd, I learned 2 members of my family had died. The tragically bizarre part of it is that one of those two died in 2005. My uncle died on Sunday, May 1st. For reasons no one in my family seems to know, my uncle cut off most or all ties to his extended family (at least my side of that family) about 10 years ago. So none of us knew until May 2nd that my late uncle's oldest son, my cousin, died six years ago.

Only a few days afterward, I was summoned for jury duty. My name was the first one called, and I was eventually selected for trial. I can't say anything more about the trial itself (and for those of you in my area, please do not try to guess the specifics because I will delete your comment if you do, whether or not you guess right). I will say I have never felt more honored, more burdened, or more challenged than I do toward this duty.

Right around the time I was selected for jury duty, my left arm developed what I thought was nothing more than a minor muscle pain. I refrained from sleeping on that side (and that is the side I usually sleep on), but I wasn't worried. I got a little concerned after the ache didn't go away after the first couple of days, but I wasn't about to call the doctor just yet. The following Tuesday, the pain dialed up to 11. I couldn't sit, lie, or stand in any position that didn't accompany excruciating pain in my arm. I didn't think it was anything too serious - both because of my age and because I didn't have any other symptoms - but the fact that I am not a small man and the pain was in the arm large men don't want to have pain in, a few fatal thoughts did cross my mind. It was my mother who correctly diagnosed me before I got in to see a doctor because she had suffered the same thing not long before: bursitis, an inflammation of the joints. When my mother was treated, they had given her a shot of cortisone in her shoulder and she said she felt better before she even left the doctor's office. It didn't work so fast for me. But after a day I felt good enough to get out of bed, and after two days I barely felt any ache at all.

So, the last couple of weeks have simply been more emotionally turbulent than I am used to. Both in the cases of my family's losses and the jury duty, I don't think I am exaggerating when I say I am feeling things I have never felt before.

When it comes to my uncle and cousin, first I felt horribly guilty for allowing such a severance between us that I didn't even know my cousin had been dead for half a decade. I don't think there is much I could have done to stop it from happening other than to habitually scan the obituaries. It was my uncle's choice to keep us out of his life and I doubt I could have forced my way back in. Regardless, restoring contact with people who have fallen off the landscape of my life is swiftly becoming a priority.

As for the emotions the jury service has stirred, unfortunately to really talk about them I would have to talk about the trial and I can't do that. Suffice to say, there are not many things I have taken more seriously than my jury duty.

These things have not stopped me from writing. In fact, I should have used my writing to deal with them, but I didn't. I think I've regrouped a little bit, so hopefully more updates will be forthcoming.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spreading the disease

It's been an interesting few weeks. I've succeeded in getting gigs writing for a number of other websites, though unfortunately I haven't updated Superheroes, etc. as much. I hope to change that soon, but in the meantime...

My latest review for PLAYBACK: stl is up today. I review the new collection of the UK war comic Darkie's Mob. Last week I reviewed Ziggy Marley's Marijuanaman and Super Dinosaur #1.

I've also joined the staff of Popdose. I will be reviving Extra Medium - the column I once wrote for Trouble With Comics - for Popdose. I hope to have the first installment up some time next week. In the meantime, I contributed to a collaborative post on The Best of Michael Scott in honor of Steve Carell's bittersweet departure from The Office.

Finally, I will soon be writing for the UK-based graphic novel review site Grovel. I don't have any reviews up yet, but I'm working on a pair of reviews for Matt Wagner's Batman and the Monster Men and the follow-up Batman and the Mad Monk.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How to be stupid at Albany Comic Con

I stole a comic book today.

My hometown Albany, New York hosts the Albany Comic Con twice per year. It is, I'm told, a relatively small convention. I don't have a lot to compare it to since it is the only convention I've ever attended.

Small or not, it's growing. Usually most of the local shops have booths (I know Aquilonia, Comic Depot, Earthworld, and Paragon were all there), there are other independent vendors, a smattering a cosplayers, and in the past there was a relatively stable list of local-to-semi-local comics pros like Ron Marz, Fred Hembeck, and Herb Trimpe (though I did not spot Trimpe this time). It had its busy moments, but for the most part there never seemed to be enough people to make it difficult to navigate.

Things changed this year. When I drove into the Holiday Inn parking lot Sunday morning with my buddy Gene Kannenberg in the passenger side, we had to look around a bit to find a free spot. Our hopes dwindled as we noticed the same cars pass us two and three times, all with drivers just as frustrated as us about finding a parking space. Eventually we found a spot just barely big enough for the Dodge Caliber to wedge into, though Gene volunteered to get out before I pulled in so we wouldn't both be smacking the doors into neighboring cars on our way out.

I thought maybe there was something else going on at the hotel that day, but when we arrived - at 11 am, only an hour after the doors opened - the convention floor was already packed. I've only been to the con two or three times and I'd never seen it that crowded. You couldn't walk from booth to booth without bumping into a person or two and you couldn't have a conversation near a booth without becoming a traffic obstruction. My friend Alan Doane, who I missed this time around, mentioned his plan was to arrive early to beat the crowds. Whether he didn't show up as early as planned and that's why I didn't run into him, or he did and I just didn't spot him, I tend to doubt his plan worked out.

Though I didn't get to see Alan and his family, I bumped into local blogger Kevin Marshall who is a co-conspirator in a project to be revealed before the end of the year. I was surprised to see my co-worker Zack. Zack doesn't read a lot of comics, but told me he was there for the Star Wars related stuff. There were tons of Stormtroopers, Vaders, Leias, jedi, and a dude with a remote control built-to-scale R2D2. I always thought Boba Fett only had one outfit, but I saw at least 3 or 4 different Boba Fett costumes and all had different colors. One younger boy had his Boba Fett costume painted like the outfits professional dirt bikers wear.

Overall, there seemed to be much more cosplay activity than usual. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures. The reason isn't complicated. I'm shy about asking strangers for their pictures, even if they're dressed in a way that says "please take my damn picture."

The picture I most wish I had taken was of the most disturbing costume I saw: a Rorschach suit worn by a little kid. When we eventually left the hotel I expected to see the kid on the roof sling-shotting puppies into trees.

What I did see was two de-helmeted storm troopers on a smoke break. I really wanted to say "We're not the droids you're looking for" as Gene and I walked by, but I figured they might kind of get that one a lot.

Along with Gene, Kevin, and Zack; I also ran into my old acquaintance Jon Stephenson. Jon was good friends with my older brother and used to own his own comic book shop nearby until his shop's pipes froze, burst, and poured water all over his stock.

Jon and I got to talking in front of Aquilonia's booth. I had been looking through their TPB and hardcover bins. Gene entered the discussion as did a couple of folks nearby who overheard me mention I had written an undergraduate thesis on Marvel comics. Eventually we all went our separate ways.

Maybe 15 minutes later, two men walked up to me. By this point Gene and I had migrated to an area in the back of the con space; just beyond the hotel's pool. There were only a few booths and some tables set up for trading card games.

One of the men asked me, "Sir, have you visited the Aquilonia booth today?"

My natural bullshit defenses went on. I couldn't understand why someone would be asking me that. My first thought was that Aquilonia was having someone go around and talk up their booth to get more traffic.

"Yeah," I told him. I noticed he was looking at the books under my arm.

"Did you take a copy of The New Frontier?"

"Uh, no." I had no idea what he was talking about. For some reason, I thought he was referring to some kind of Star Wars or Star Trek comic book.

"This gentleman," he pointed behind me to a guy I hadn't noticed until then, "said you may have a copy of The New Frontier you didn't pay for."

I looked at this second guy - who was looking at the books under my arm just like the first guy - and I suddenly realized what happened.

As I mentioned, before Jon walked up to me at the Aquilonia booth I was browsing Aquilonia's tpbs. I had fished out DC: The New Frontier Vol. 2 with every intention of buying it once I'd made my way through all the books. Once the conversation with Jon and everyone else ended, instead of continuing to look through the trades and paying for the book already in my hands, I just walked away. DC: The New Frontier was lost in the already thick pile of books I carried.

I apologized over and over and quickly dug out my wallet to pay for the book. I was absolutely mortified. I felt like everyone's eyes were on me. Once I gave the Aquilonia owner?/employee? the money I owed him, I felt the need to get as far away from the booths as I could because I was sure the vendors overheard the discussion and would be giving me the stink-eye if I got too close to their merchandise.

To be clear, the guy from Aquilonia didn't give me a hard time. No one asked me to leave, insulted me, or said anything once I handed over the dough. I don't necessarily know if he believed me when I said it was a mistake, but he didn't give me the impression he thought I was lying. It was just an unavoidably tense and awkward scene.

On our way to the back booths I had spotted a Pepsi vending machine near the pool. The incident left me sweaty and nervous, I desperately wanted a drink to cool me off, didn't even blink at the stupidly high $2 price tag, and sighed in defeat as the machine's dollar slot refused to work. Eventually I found a table on which to rest my books and I did my best to calm down while Gene toured the artist alley (where he got a great sketch from Fred Hembeck of a young Peter Parker reading Spider-Man and Hembeck himself reading it over Parker's shoulder). It wasn't until later, when Gene and I ordered matching Guinnesses at the nearby Ninety-Nine, that I finally relaxed.

My lovely girlfriend Maryann gave me the perfect ending for the tale. After lunch at Ninety-Nine I dropped off Gene, drove home, and I didn't even get to say hello before Maryann celebrated my return to the apartment by sneering at me from the couch and saying: "THIEF."

I may have failed to mention that when I leaned against that table while Gene talked to artists, part of doing "my best to calm down" involved using my Blackberry to inform all of my Facebook friends what happened.

Along with "stealing" a comic, I did at least three other stupid things at Albany Comic Con.

1. I didn't take any good pictures. I took maybe a half dozen photos and none of them were very different from the one at the top of this post.

2. My karmic punishment for not-really stealing a comic was to buy a comic - The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 5 - I already had.

3. I bought an Infinity Crusade trade from Earthworld's booth. There were - what I thought were - two copies of the trade but with different covers. I thought that was strange and didn't realize until I got home that there might be more than one volume of Infinity Crusade. The idea came to me at home because I noticed that the Infinity Crusade I bought did not cover the entire Infinity Crusade series. What makes the stupidity of this purchase start to snowball into an avalanche is that I feel stupid for not buying the second volume of Infinity Crusade when I really should feel stupid for buying ANY volume of Infinity Crusade.

Here's my haul:

Alan Moore's The Courtyad
Alan Moore's Light of Thy Countenance
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 5 (to be more precise, this is part of the library's haul, because they're probably the ones I'll be donating it to)
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 8
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 9
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 10
DC: The New Frontier Vol. 2 (Paid for and everything)
Fred the Clown
Grendel: Devil's Reign (I was very happy about this; I love Matt Wagner's stuff and have been meaning to check out Grendel for a while)
Infinity Crusade Vol. 1
Marvel Fanfare: Strange Tales (I was pleasantly surprised when I left the con, flipped through this, and learned the classic battle between Hulk, the Blob, and Unus the Untouchable is collected here)
Rising Stars Vol. 3

Next time the Albany Comic Con swings around, I hope to have saved up a bit more money. I'd love to start building a collection of Hulk convention sketches.

Though they weren't very good, here are the rest of the shots I took: