Monday, March 28, 2011

Review - Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk

Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk HC
By Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti, et al.
Published by Marvel; $34.99
Collects Incredible Hulk #s 92-105, Giant-Size Hulk #1, Amazing Fantasy #15, and Planet Hulk Gladiator Guidebook

You probably wouldn't expect the phrase "Hulk got too smart," but it's true. It didn't happen all at once and it didn't happen without good reason. Incredible Hulk needed Peter David to get more cerebral with the mythology, to delve into the abuse-ridden childhood Bill Mantlo outlined in his penultimate issue, to be the first writer to actually diagnose Bruce Banner with Multiple Personality Disorder, and to give us more than a half-dozen different versions of the green-sometimes-gray goliath because it brought some much needed depth and complexity to the franchise. The story of a man trapped in an endless Jekyll/Hyde cycle because of an atomic blast made way for the story of a man whose tortured past made him a monster, and the more mature definition was a success. David experimented with Bruce Banner's fractured psyche, making whole new character's from the scientist's trauma. He was a gray thug, a Las Vegas leg-breaker, a cunning rocket scientist who could shoulder mountains, and at one point Banner even switched places with his alter ego; with Banner controlling the body of the Hulk and, if angered enough, changing to the weaker body of Bruce Banner controlled by the Hulk's childlike, brutish mind.

Eventually, it got to be too much. Writers simply wouldn't approach the character unless they had a radically different, intellectually convoluted interpretation of the Hulk and his history. Somewhere between Paul Jenkins portraying a literal army of alternate Hulk personalities lying dormant in Bruce Banner's mind (including a Clown Hulk and a Lizard Hulk and a Salesman Hulk) and Bruce Jones writing scenes with dueling secret agents quoting Shakespeare and Coleridge for no reason, the "smart" of Incredible Hulk got pretty stupid.

Thankfully, someone shot Hulk into space where he could beat up a bunch of aliens.

With Civil War on the horizon, 4 members of the Illuminati - Iron Man, Black Bolt, Doctor Strange, and Mister Fantastic - conspire to rid the Marvel superhero world of its most troubling citizen. They trick Hulk onto a space shuttle but, instead of returning him to Earth as promised, they blast him deeper into the void. A recorded message apologizes, explains, and promises the Hulk he will soon land on a new world where there's no one to hurt the Hulk, or to be hurt by him. Instead the shuttles crashes on Sakaar, a world of Roman-inspired tyranny where the Hulk is pressed into service as a gladiator. He earns the title The Green Scar and leads his Warbound: a patched together band of natives and displaced aliens. Having cut the despotic Red King in his first arena bout, the Hulk's continued existence and the rebellion he inspires threatens the King. Eventually the Hulk, reluctant at first to aid the insurrection his example has roused, leads a worldwide revolt against the psychotic Red King.

He fights robots, bug people, lava monsters and a hot alien ninja chick; and Coleridge's poetry doesn't come anywhere near it. Writer Greg Pak lets his readers know his intentions right away. At the end of the first issue Hulk and the insectoid alien Miek - who would become the Hulk's sidekick, ally, and eventually his enemy - are transported to the deadly gladiatorial school The Maw. As Miek cries out in fear, the Hulk says, "What are you crying about? This is gonna be fun." The dialogue is Pak's mission statement. It's a promise and he keeps it.

Pak's vision for Planet Hulk was the journey of an epic hero. The memorable open narration reads like the opening of an epic poem chronicling the adventures of a Heracles or a Beowulf: "This is the story of the Green Scar. The Eye of Anger, the World Breaker...Harkanon, Haarg, Holku...Hulk. And how he finally came home." As he survives certain death again and again in the arena - as more of the Red King's oppressed citizens discover the Hulk's spilled blood revives long dead plants from the dry soil - the belief spreads that the Hulk is the Sakaarson: an ancient figure of Sakaarian prophecy who is said to either save the world or destroy it.

Planet Hulk is strongly inspired by older Hulk stories and Pak is not shy about admitting it. The extreme nature of the Hulk's exile, and the fact that Doctor Strange is involved with it, is reminiscent of Bill Mantlo's Crossroads Saga (a story Pak paid tribute to again in Hulk Vs. Hercules: When Titans Collide). With the star-crossed love story between Hulk and Caeira as well as Hulk's immersion in an alien society that is technologically more advanced than our own, yet culturally much like civilizations of our distant past, it is difficult to not be reminded of the classic stories of Jarella's world. Pak references the similarities himself in the chapter reprinted from Giant-Size Hulk #1. Bruce Banner catches the Hulk dreaming of Jarella and her microscopic world. He scolds the Hulk with, "Look at you. Living these old stories again. Ugh. This is embarrassing." The short story is filled with similar references to other books, including jokes aimed at Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk and the Hulk's guest appearance in Sentry.

While Planet Hulk is influenced by older stories and focuses more on action than psychological intrigue, Pak proves he can still tell a smart story that takes the character in interesting directions. The aforementioned Giant-Size Hulk #1 is a perfect example. Bruce Banner's paler self is absent for most of Planet Hulk and Giant-Size Hulk #1's "Banner War" tells us why. After the Hulk and his Warbound escape from the arena with a small army in tow, Banner tries to resurface. Pak applies an oft-used Incredible Hulk device: he gives us a battle between Hulk and Banner not in the physical world, but in their shared mind. Over the years Hulk has given us a lot of dreamy sequences in which Banner and Hulk meet to hash things out either literally in dreams or on some kind of hypnosis-induced mental plane. "Banner War" turns the paradigm on its head. Instead of Banner shown as an innocent victim of the Hulk's overpowering anger; Banner is portrayed as an emotional tyrant trying to belittle the Hulk into submission. It's Banner, and not Hulk, who viciously rips at his alter-ego's insecurities in order to prove he's the dominant persona.

Pak's Hulk resembles the so-called "Grayvage" Hulk who appeared at the end of David's tenure on the title; the more thuggish tone of the gray Hulk coupled with the emotional instability and physical power of the green Hulk. It's perhaps my favorite incarnation of the character because it preserves the Hulk's unpredictable nature and myopic rage, but without letting him sound like an imbecile.

Pak attempts to answer the question of whether or not Hulk really is a hero. That sounds fairly trite on the surface, even like something you'd expect to read in a Marvel solicit. Regardless, I'd argue it's a question that still confounds Marvel's writers. Obviously, he's a hero in the literary sense, but what about the morally narrow superhero sense? He's fought crime and supervillains. He's saved the world. But he's a wild card. He can be as much or more of a hindrance than a help, which is why the Illuminati exiles him in the first place.

On the other hand, Sakaar is a place where the Hulk can be a hero; a place without the crowded fraternity of Marvel superheroes and a place where the Hulk is still the strongest one there is, but not so much stronger that everyone around him knows only terror when he's near. I don't think Pak ended the first 4-part chapter of Planet Hulk with a Hulk/Silver Surfer battle just to have the story touch base with the rest of the Marvel proper or to fuel online Versus debates. I think when the Hulk pounded Surfer into the arena floor, it was his final rejection of Earth (obviously Surfer isn't native to Earth, but that's where Hulk knows him from). As far as Hulk was concerned, from that moment on he belonged to Sakaar.

I think it's a shame that the Hulk ever returned to Earth. I enjoyed World War Hulk. However, Sakaar offered a chance to see a new and interesting side of the character. The Hulk at the end of Planet Hulk - before the event that sends him raging back to Earth - is a guy I've never seen before. He's a selfless barbarian-king, practically Christ-like how he stands between his new subjects and that which endangers them. The scenes of Hulk as the Green King - like Hulk sitting proudly on his new throne, letting the Spikes feed greedily on him to keep them docile, or when he forces the bugs and pinkies to skewer him with spears and swords meant for each other - are some of my favorite in the character's history. I find it tough to believe there weren't interesting places Pak or other writers could have gone from there.

In fact, Planet Hulk convinces me that the Hulk belongs in space. More and more, I tend to doubt Stan Lee originally intended the Hulk to have anything to do with the world of superheroes. I think the Hulk makes more sense in the bizarre cosmic mythology of skrulls and kree and rocket raccoons than in that stranger asylum of super soldiers and Iron Men who find Hulk so unsettling they Major Tom-med his ass.

Carlo Pagulayan quickly won me over when these issues were first released. His Hulk has a more heroic air than most though without, unlike Dale Keown or Gary Frank's more conventionally superheroic Hulks, sacrificing his inherent wildness. I remember being immediately impressed with what I felt was a great understanding of the Hulk's, for lack of a better word, bigness. There's something very appealing about Pagulayan's treatment of the Hulk's girth. He tends to extend it to parts of his body, like his teeth, that other artists don't normally tend to draw as being particularly big or thick (I know I'm setting myself up for plenty of jokes), and even to things he carries; like swords. Pagulayan takes a break in the middle of the story and Aaron Lopresti takes over penciling for a bit. You certainly feel Pagulayan's absence, but Lopresti is sensitive to the unity of the overall story and there are places where you might not necessarily know there was a different artist.

The only dislike I harbor for Planet Hulk lay in what came after. It was such a clear success that the Hulk's trajectory in the Marvel Universe suddenly became more of a priority, spawning his own event crossovers and of course Jeph Loeb's Red Hulk.

But that doesn't color my appreciation of Planet Hulk. It was a great, epic adventure story brought to Hulk fans after years of stunningly mediocre, pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Marvel gave Pak much more time to tell his story than was customary and managed to maintain more visual unity over the course of 14 issues than you generally saw within 3 or 4. It wasn't the most innovative story in the world but it was a smart, fun space war and it's one of the few collections of which I insisted on buying the hardcover version. It deserves its spot among the classic Hulk stories and I'd argue there isn't a Marvel reader out there, Hulk fan or not, who shouldn't consider it required reading (well, maybe Silver Surfer fans).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review - Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir

Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir
By Dave Mustaine, with Joe Layden
Published By HarperCollins
346 pages, hardcover
$25.99 US

In Michael Azerrad's Nirvana biography Come As You Are, Kurt Cobain talks about how he identified himself as a punk rocker before he ever heard a punk record. He felt he owned what had to be a relatively accurate sense of the genre from what he learned in magazines and from word-of-mouth. I've never picked up a guitar and my musical education is limited to an Introduction to Piano college course I dropped after the first few classes because it was scheduled too early in the day, so I'm not trying to compare myself to Cobain or any other musician in regards to musical artistry, but I could relate to his visceral sense of genre because I felt the same about thrash metal. Long before I bought an album by Megadeth or Slayer, I felt like it was my music. I was young and angry. I went to a military/christian school whose oppression I was just beginning to identify. It was music that was loud, angry, and fast; music that was no good for dancing unless it meant hurling yourself around like a demon in the throes of exorcism; music filled with imagery that raped the sensibilities not only of the coaches, priests, and retired Army sergeants who laughingly called themselves "teachers" at my school but those of the suburban jock douchebags who made up the student body; and it was music I felt I never had to hear in order to feel or own. But eventually, like Cobain, I figured I should get some of the material myself. So I went to the local mall and bought Metallica's And Justice For All..., Anthrax's Among the Living, Slayer's South of Heaven, and - what remains my favorite album by the band - Megadeth's Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?

Among my circle of friends and in my own heavy metal pantheon, Megadeth didn't hold the top spot but its place was unique. One day I noticed that - though he was the head of Megadeth and I had never heard of him having anything to do with any other bands - Dave Mustaine's name was all over not one but two of Metallica's albums: Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning. In the days before the Internet was king, I learned mainly from friends that Mustaine was a founding member of Metallica who had been given the boot before the first album was released. Why was he kicked out? The answer changed every time I asked it, though usually it involved Mustaine hitting the drugs and the booze too hard for the rest of Metallica to endure. The story never rang true to me, mainly because the idea of a metal band - or any rock band really - ejecting a member for drug use seemed laughable. Regardless, knowing that Mustaine helped create the world's biggest heavy metal band, that he'd been kicked out, and that he'd risen from the ashes to create his own metal monster just made him seem that much cooler. He was the heavy metal version of Wolverine - even among rebels, he was too rebellious. He's always piqued my curiosity, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that before Megadeth broke into the mainstream with 1992's Countdown to Extinction (at which point I was listening to more punk and alternative rock and had all but forgotten metal), I hardly heard or read anything about him. I was a music news/factoid junkie, but Megadeth didn't get a lot of coverage in the days before Metallica's Black Album officially rendered thrash metal acceptable to the masses. Thrash metal hardly received any coverage on MTV News or in Rolling Stone and Spin; and when it did it was often tongue-in-cheek. You got the sense a Rolling Stone or Spin writer covering a thrash band felt like a New Yorker writer covering Jackass 3D.

So when I saw Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir on a co-worker's bookshelf, it caught my attention right away. I hadn't thought about the name in years, but once I saw it on a book cover, it was instantly irresistible.

Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir opens in 2002, with Mustaine learning that because of nerve damage to his left arm, there's a good chance he'll never play the guitar again. Leaving us with that cruel little cliffhanger, Mustaine and co-author Joe Layden jump back to Mustaine's stormy childhood. We learn of how Mustaine's mother took him and his sisters away from his allegedly abusive father (Mustaine maintains his father was not as abusive as his sisters claim, though he does this right before describing his father dragging him home by the ear with a pair of pliers) and eventually brought her and her family into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses. Reacting exactly as you'd expect he would, Mustaine rejects the Witnesses, gravitates towards music and drugs as a teenager, becomes a drug dealer for a number of years, and one day answers an ad in the local alternative weekly placed by Lars Ulrich. After helping to create what would become the most successful heavy metal band to date, Mustaine is kicked out during the band's trip to New York City. He's given a bus ticket back to California. With no money on a 4-day bus ride, he's forced to panhandle for food. During the trip he picks up a pamphlet about nuclear proliferation and flips through it just to pass the time. A line of the pamphlet reads, "The arsenal of megadeath can't be rid no matter what the peace treaties come to." When he forms a new metal band, the name Megadeth sticks. With a line-up that changes so often it would make the guys from Spinal Tap laugh (Mustaine makes this comparison himself several times), Megadeth wins success after success - occasionally making enemies of bands like Aerosmith, Pantera, and Dissection - but never quite reaching the level of fame and fortune of the four-man group that is Mustaine's white whale; Metallica. Through it all, Mustaine is never shy about the drug use that helped define his career in the public eye, just as he's not shy about copping to what could be considered a glaring hypocrisy: the fact that in spite of how much anger he's harbored towards Metallica over the years, if you added up all the people who have ever been in Metallica, it wouldn't even come close to equaling the number of musicians Dave Mustaine has fired from Megadeth (not to mention the producers, managers, and other non-musician professionals attached to Megadeth he's given the boot). We learn about Mustaine's many grasps at sobriety, his more recent conversion to Christianity, and his plans for the future.

I don't read many memoirs; at least not memoirs by celebrities. Mustaine may actually be the first such book I've read cover-to-cover, and what distinguishes it from the others is that, for the most part, I believe the narrator. I have no doubt his own history is, like anyone's, colored by his perception and so perhaps warped and misremembered in places. Particularly when it comes to the subject of his conflicts with Metallica, it's good to remember that two-sides-to-every-story cliché. Still, you get the sense reading Mustaine that its author is being as candid and honest as he can. On one hand, Mustaine obviously thinks very highly of himself; particularly in regards to his musicianship, his contributions to thrash metal in particular and rock in general, and specifically the credit he's owed for Metallica's success. He tended to rub me the wrong way whenever he talked about his many physical altercations with other musicians, including his own bandmates (though to be fair this is mostly my own coloring - Mustaine learned martial arts from an early age and I have a knee-jerk I-Call-Bullshit reaction to anyone telling a story that involves them using martial arts and winding up on the winning side of fisticuffs; which is perhaps unfair since no one would learn martial arts if they weren't at least occasionally effective, but 9-times-out-of-10 you know and I know that most assholes with kung-fu stories are full of shit). But what constantly wins me back to Mustaine's side is his admission of his own hypocrisy, his faults, and his bullshit.

What he writes about Metallica is a perfect example of this. It becomes clear very early on that of all the members of Metallica, the one with whom Mustaine held the biggest grudge was Lars Ulrich. He confirms what seems to be the general view of Ulrich and James Hetfield's Master/Blaster relationship. He goes so far as to refer to Ulrich as "Machiavellian." Regardless, he will often say of Ulrich's actions that, as much as it pissed him off at the time, he would've done the same. And later on, in some cases, he did do the same. The simple fact that Mustaine writes as much as he does about his feelings of frustration and betrayal towards Metallica is impressive. After all, one of his guiding mission statements of Megadeth was to overtake Metallica, and that clearly never happened. It would seem easy for Mustaine to try to downplay the humiliation he was dealt not only with his initial ejection from the band, but subsequent betrayals (such as being included in the documentary Some Kind of Monster in spite of his request to the contrary and Metallica's supposed assurances his request would be honored).

As far as whether or not Mustaine's version of the Mustaine/Metallica conflict should be believed; well, there's that whole two-sides-to-every-story thing again. I haven't read or heard much of Metallica's side of things, and obviously I wasn't there, though I do have two thoughts. First, the one and only thing about Mustaine's version of events that triggered any alarms on my part is the fact that, according to him, when they kicked him out, he didn't ask why. He describes the firing as occurring the morning after a day of heavy drinking. He was suffering a hangover and was understandably a little hazy. After they tell him he's out they hand him a bus ticket, he tells them not to use his songs, and James Hetfield drives him to Port Authority. Now I remember when I was fired from Subway, I didn't bother asking why because it was fucking Subway and I was happy to leave. But this was Metallica, a band clearly on the rise, and he didn't ask why. Maybe it's just one of those things you can't understand unless you're wearing his shoes, but it seems strange. Second, regardless of the old two-sides cliché, if even half of what Mustaine says about the things Metallica did to him over the years is true; Ulrich, Hetfield, and the rest should forgo any future group therapy and just have someone send them a notarized document that reads "Your emotional problems stem from being unrepentant douchebags. Deal with it."

Because Mustaine's firing from Metallica commanded most of my initial curiosity, I was worried I would lose interest in Mustaine as soon as it was covered; and he chronicles it early, in the fifth chapter. I was pleasantly surprised. Mustaine's career and personal life - neither of which seem independent from one another - are turbulent and interesting and all he needs to keep interest is exactly what he gives: honesty. I am used to testimonials and interviews with rock musicians, particularly with rock singers/frontmen, in which they refuse to admit (perhaps even to themselves) their free will had anything to do with their own careers. In spite of all of their Cobain-like statements to the contrary, rock musicians don't get famous by accident. Rock musicians don't get famous without trying to be famous. Rock musicians don't get famous without carefully cultivating an image that will sell. Mustaine never minces words about this. He wanted to be famous, he wanted money, he wanted to be worshiped by women, he wanted to be a rock 'n' roll god, and he wanted the heads of his old Metallica bandmates on pikes at the foot of his heavy metal kingdom. His candor is refreshing it makes the telling of his career's trajectory hypnotic. As much as he can be self-serving at times and occasionally merciless in his dealings with former bandmates, it's tough not to like him and root for him.

Perhaps the most impressive testament I can think of is the interest in thrash metal reading Mustaine has reawakened. Somewhere in the middle of reading the memoir I realized I no longer owned any of Megadeth's albums. I immediately downloaded Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? and the mostly instrumental "Hangar 18" from Rust in Peace. I've been hunting down old albums from Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Pantera along with asking friends for recommendations of thrash I haven't stumbled upon yet. When I wandered over to Megadeth's website and saw the trailer for an upcoming Metallica/Slayer/Megadeth/Anthrax show in California next month, I briefly humored the idea of looking into a trip to the west coast. If I had known sooner, maybe, but that's okay. I found just the idea of spending time and money on nothing but headbanging to that old, familiar jug-jug-jug-jugga invigorating.

For anyone who's ever had any interest in the metal scene or the rock of the '80s and '90s, there's no good reason not to check out Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review - Rabbit Hole

Based on the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner, Rabbit Hole is a film about the aftermath of disastrous personal loss. The film opens 8 months after Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lose their 4-year-old son. Both are at their tattered ends; unsure how to live the rest of their lives. Both react differently. Howie dwells. He attends weekly group therapy sessions and urges the stubborn Becca to join him. He regularly replays a video of his son on his phone and goes wild when he learns Becca accidentally deleted it. Becca, on the other hand, does whatever she can to keep her mind from her loss. She gets rid of many of her son's belongings and even wants to sell her house because it reminds her too much of her son. Eventually Howie edges towards a possible fling with one of this therapy group's grieving mothers (Sandra Oh) and Becca develops a secret, strange, and tense friendship with Jason (Miles Teller) - the teenager who is partly responsible for her son's death.

The cast of Rabbit Hole is perfect and there isn't a single actor who doesn't invest fully in his/her role. While the entire cast is great, Kidman steals the show. She is magnificently believable as Becca. I can't say I've seen every Nicole Kidman film, but I find it tough to believe this isn't the role of her career thus far. Eckhart is deeply affecting as Howie and I hope we keep seeing great things from him. Again, I haven't seen every Eckhart project but I haven't been disappointed yet. I was surprised at how much I was impressed by Teller. I don't recall seeing him in anything and it's rare for an actor of his age to be able to evoke the kind of guilt and sadness we see in Jason without overdoing it.

Rabbit Hole is named after a comic book Jason makes about parallel universes and alternate realities. In the comic a mother, father, and son prove to have endless counterparts in different universes; in one reality the father is dead, in another the mother is dead, in yet another the son is dead, etc. While it may seem like pandering to say so, after watching the film I can't help but find some possibly unintentional irony here. Throughout the film, there are moments when you think you know where the film is heading, and where you think it's heading is a much more sensational or Hollywood place. For example, early in the film Becca becomes obsessed with a teenage boy she spots on a passing school bus. She follows the bus home, learns where the boy lives, and regularly parks her car outside the house to wait for him to be delivered home again. We are not initially shown why Becca cares about this boy, but I was immediately reminded of a movie (I forget the name, it may have even been a made-for-TV production) of a kidnapped child whose mother spots a teenage boy in her neighborhood many years after the kidnapping and the boy eventually proves to be her lost child. My assumption was Becca thought the boy was the spitting image of what her son would have looked like if he'd lived that long. I was completely wrong and it wasn't the only example. In other words, whether the filmmakers intended it or not, just as you can see the parallel universes in Jason's comic, you feel the presence of all the alternate ways Rabbit Hole's plot could have gone. Just like Becca says about her own alternate selves that "somewhere out there I'm having a good time," somewhere out there - in whatever alternate universes good movies become bad - a hundred different Beccas were having a good time in a hundred different crappy versions of Rabbit Hole; the kind that would be made if anyone with a Hollywood sensibility got anywhere near it.

One of the aspects of Rabbit Hole that intrigues me the most is something interesting going on in regards to class. Becca and Howie are clearly not hurting for money. They are, at least, upper-middle-class while Becca's sisters Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) is decidedly lower class. She's pregnant with her boyfriend's child and both are forced to live with Becca's mother. We first meet Izzy when Becca bails her out of jail for starting a bar fight with her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. Becca comments on how it's very "Jerry Springer" of her sister to have a fistfight over a man. It's a comment that becomes more than a little ironic as Izzy becomes an unwilling witness to the more well-to-do Becca and Howie getting a little "Jerry Springer" themselves. She's there when Becca and her mother get in an emotional shouting match at a bowling alley, when Howie learns that Becca has been talking to Jason and goes on a tirade that would be filled with plenty of editing bleeps if he were on Jerry Springer, and most fittingly Izzy's there when Becca hits a woman in a grocery store. I won't lie and say I know what, if anything, the filmmakers are saying about class. I don't think, and certainly don't hope, it's as simple as saying we're all potential Jerry Springer guests deep down inside (especially since I don't think anyone secretly paid Becca to hit that woman in the grocery store). I don't mean to make the film seem like an academic exercise, but it's there, it's interesting, and it's worth noting.

Rabbit Hole is, above all, a deeply honest film as stripped of Hollywood convention as you could get. There is hardly a single line of dialogue that doesn't feel precisely like something a person would actually say, and yet screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (also the author of the original play) never sacrifices poetry for authenticity. As conditioned by Hollywood as everyone else, I kept expecting to be preached to, to be shown which way of grieving was better than others, to eventually be delivered the epiphany that would kill the couple's overwhelming grief, and to end the hour and a half with a spiritual uplifting that would assure me that Becca and Howie were going to be a-okay in the end. I got none of the above. Rabbit Hole is not a movie to learn from - except in learning how to make great, emotionally genuine movies - but to experience.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Yeah, yeah, I know, I really should be tired of blogging about blogging by now...

Since the frustration the title implies is real, I will try to keep this short.

I am officially abandoning my goal of blogging every weekday for 6 months.

First, I don't enjoy blogging anymore and since no one's paying me for this, personal enjoyment seems a reasonable prerequisite.

Second, I am not writing the blog posts I want to write. The ideas for blog posts I'm the most excited about are ones that would take more than a day to put together, so I always end up shelving them in favor of something else.

Third, I need to trust myself more. I think I've made these proclamations and rules because I don't trust myself to keep writing. I assume if I'm not blogging every single weekday, I will allow Superheroes, etc. to go catatonic again.

My writing isn't the only area of my life in which trust is an issue. I won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say I think the most important thought to cross my mind in months is that I need to trust myself even if I have given myself reason not to. Because if I don't trust myself, who the hell will?

So, I am still blogging and I plan to do so on a regular basis. I think, and certainly hope, the main difference will be better content because I'll only be writing what I want to.

I am not sure whether or not my weekly Hulk column will be a casualty of this. I don't think it will disappear entirely, but I'm also not sure if it will still be weekly.

I don't regret making the goal. I pushed myself and it paid off in a lot of ways. But now I want to concentrate on quality instead of quantity.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Review - The Mighty Vol. 1

The Mighty Vol. 1
By Peter J. Tomasi, Keith Champagne, and Peter Snejbjerg
Published by DC; $17.99 US
Collects The Mighty #s 1-6

I was genuinely at a loss to explain why I enjoyed the first volume of The Mighty as much as I did. The main character is Gabriel Cole, the newly appointed head of Section Omega; an agency tasked with supporting the world’s only superhero, Alpha One. Cole is made head of Section Omega after his predecessor Michael Shaw is murdered. He’s chosen in part because of his claim to fame – being saved by Alpha One from the same car crash that killed his parents. He’s reluctant at first to accept the job, in part because of its high mortality rate and in part because of his wife Janet’s concerns, but eventually Alpha One wins Cole over. Slowly but surely Alpha One proves himself to be less pure than he appears. The first definite proof we get that he’s at least part asshole is when he tries to get horizontal with Cole’s wife. But soon we learn that for many years Alpha One has been secretly covering up dark acts that put adultery to shame, in pursuit of an unseen goal.

I was confused about why I liked The Mighty because if you were to describe the plot to me before I read it, I would assume it was something very ho-hum trying to pass itself off as innovation. At this point nothing about The Mighty that sounds new is new. More realistic Superman clones, law enforcement agencies dedicated to superhero activity, superheroes letting their power and skewed perspective drive them bonkers, superheroes “going bad,” superheroes as they would “really” be, or a world that reacts to super-people like we react to real life celebrities; none of these things are particularly novel anymore.

Part of it, honestly, is that I went in blind. I recall hearing about The Mighty when the series was first out in floppies, but I didn’t know anything specific about the plot. I knew it had something to do with a superhero, that readers were disappointed when it was eventually canceled (which seems strange only because it doesn’t seem like a series that would lend itself to an ongoing format), and that it was being heralded as one those Great Series You Aren’t Reading. I’m always much happier with a good series when I know next-to-nothing going in (which may make it seem kind of hypocritical for me to spend so much time writing reviews and making sure other people don’t get to go in blind).

But I also think Peter Tomasi just tells a damn fine story and The Mighty has convinced me to track down some of his other work. Anyone who has read or watched a murder mystery will suspect as early as the first chapter that Alpha One is up to no good. The death scene of Michael Shaw (Gabriel Cole’s predecessor) drops a hint so glaring you wonder how Cole could ever have trusted Alpha One. Still, I found myself questioning whether my suspicions were correct and – in spite of the fact that there wouldn’t be a very interesting story to tell in that case – hoping that they weren’t. Even when he tried to get into Janet’s pants, I found myself thinking that that didn’t necessarily mean my other fears about Alpha One were correct. And even once I started to see the scope of Alpha One’s crimes, while he seemed dangerous and unstable, he never seemed fake. I never questioned the sincerity of the character’s gentlemanly, patient demeanor and his noble intentions earlier in the story. Alpha One is convincingly human in his inhumanity. We don’t find out exactly what he’s up to in this first volume, but Tomasi does a good job of persuading us that – whatever Alpha One’s goals are – he believes he’s doing it for the greater good regardless of his means.

I have to confess to just a little disappointment with this first volume’s ending, though I don’t necessarily lay that at the storytellers’ doorsteps. I didn’t realize there was a second volume, expected the story to be wrapped up by the sixth chapter of this one, and so it couldn’t help but feel anticlimactic. I also think it’s clear Tomasi wasn’t writing For The Trade, and it’s tough to fault him for that.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Review - Samurai: Heaven & Earth Vol. 1

Samurai: Heaven & Earth Vol. 1
By Ron Marz, Luke Ross, Jason Keith, and David Lanphear
Published By Dark Horse; $14.95 US
Collects Samurai: Heaven & Earth #s 1-5

Just before CrossGen folded I had all of their books on my pull list. I didn't like all or even most of their titles, but I had what I thought was a great idea supported by providence. I was living in Albany but I had gone to school in Tampa. I was forced to leave because I couldn't afford tuition. I was sharing my snacks with mice in a basement studio apartment in Albany and concocting schemes to return to Florida when I learned that CrossGen, like my old school, was headquartered in Tampa. I decided this was no coincidence and set about researching the comics for the company I would convince to hire me as soon as I could figure out how to afford around $10,000 per semester. It's just as well that I couldn't find a way back to the sunshine state, because CrossGen tanked. All I had to show for it was a stack of overpriced comics (if memory serves, all of CrossGen's books cost $2.99 back when the industry norm was $2.25). Of the company's many titles, there were 4 that I would miss; among them Ron Marz's samurai epic The Path. It had a different tone and rhythm than just about anything I was reading and it was the first samurai comic I read on a regular basis. I was sorry to see it go.

Luckily, Marz wasn't done with samurai books. Unlike the fictional Japan-inspired setting Marz used in The Path to keep in step with CrossGen's sigil storyline, Samurai: Heaven and Earth begins in Japan itself. The protagonist, Shiro, is a loyal retainer of Lord Tokudaiji. Shiro, like any good samurai, is more than prepared to lay down his life when unstoppable Chinese hordes lay siege to Tokudaiji's fortress. Expecting and accepting death, Shiro spends a final night in the arms of his lover Yoshiko (I don't remember whether or not they are married, though I think I assumed it when I first read the book) and tells her that "nothing in Heaven or on Earth" will keep them apart; hence the subtitle. Shiro is buried under a pile of rubble, survives the battle, and wakes to find most of his fellow samurai slaughtered. From one of his few surviving comrades he learns that Yoshiko was taken by the Chinese soldiers. Because of his pledge to Yoshiko, he refuses to commit seppuku and instead hunts for his captive lover. He travels first to China where he learns Yoshiko has been sold as a sex slave, follows her through mainland Asia and Europe, and finally comes to Paris where he must face the Three Musketeers among others before he can fulfill his promise to Yoshiko.

Luke Ross is a perfect artist for the book. Though it's a samurai comic, it's hardly all hacking and slashing. Ross's range is impressive. His love scenes and exposition scenes are just as engaging as his battle sequences, and in some of his love and battle scenes he uses a similar technique; many tiny panels featuring slivers of the action, not necessarily in order, each showing enough that they don't need to be in order. Parts of some fight scenes have a great noiseless quality to them; in particular I loved a sequence towards the end when a villain is beheaded and it's done in such a seamless manner that truly defines the phrase "he didn't know what hit him." His renderings of Japanese gardens are as convincing as those of the court of Versailles and his characters' facial expressions are subtle and familiar.

Marz is at the top of his game here I think, telling the story in a perfect rhythm, making great choices as to what to show and what to leave to our imaginations. There's a particular scene, for example, when it looks like we're about to get one more bloody sword fight with a prominent villain, but Marz fast-forwards from a panel of the bad guy lifting his sword right to the aftermath with the jerk's lifeless head on a pike.

Shiro isn't particularly distinguishable as far as samurai heroes go. He's fiercely loyal, driven by demons, and refuses to welsh on a promise. It's surprisingly novel to read a samurai comic in which the hero's quest springs from his love for a character, rather than out of revenge or simple obligation. I love samurai comics - Lone Wolf & Cub is my favorite comic book series - however just as it's tiring to know that most western action flicks will end with the hero and his buds living happily ever after, it can be equally as frustrating reading samurai comics when you know you're investing in a hero who will probably spill his guts all over the ground before the comic's over. The fact that Samurai: Heaven & Earth's characters are on a quest that at least has the potential to send them to happily-ever-after land is refreshing.

The only thing I didn't like about Samurai: Heaven & Earth Vol. 1 that stands out in my mind is the use of the Three Musketeers. The scenes with them are fun and while it's been a while since I've read Dumas's Three Musketeers, Marz's characterization seems spot-on. I simply didn't like that they were in the series. In a comic this bloody, I don't think any character should be safe. Since they are The Three Musketeers, as a reader I never questioned whether or not they would survive and as a result their presence came off largely as gimmicky. It's a minor complaint though and, gimmick or not, Marz uses them well.

Samurai: Heaven & Earth is a great samurai comic that stands out from the rest. I need to get off my ass and grab the second volume which has been out for a while now. Ever since finishing Lone Wolf & Cub I've been hungry for more funnybook samurai epics. I hope Marz keeps enjoying writing these books as much as I enjoy reading them because there just aren't enough good samurai titles out there.

Friday, March 04, 2011


This was originally posted at Comic Book Galaxy in 2004.

My first review for the previous incarnation of Comic Book Galaxy covered Incredible Hulk #33, one of Marvel's 2001 "Monster-sized" issues. It featured, among other things, a fill-in story by Christopher Priest that bookended the writing chores of Paul Jenkins and Bruce Jones on the title. What made the story such a treasure, and much more memorable than any other Hulk story of recent years (particularly of any other fill-in, and there have been quite a few since the title's 1999 reboot), is that it was simply a Hulk story. Priest didn't give us an updated Hulk origin. No new psychological motivations were attached to the relationship between Bruce Banner and his monstrous alter-ego. His speech pattern didn't change, his skin color stayed the same, and he didn't eat any nurses. It was just a good, funny, touching story about a big green guy who breaks stuff; something Hulk readers have been denied for quite a long while.

Now, you're probably thinking I'm the kind of obsessed RPG-minded reader who frequents comic book battle message boards, and pins death threats to the windshield of Kurt Busiek's car for letting Superman clock Thor upside the head in JLA/Avengers. Hulk fans are considered one of the most obsessed and hard-nosed groups of comic book fandom. In fact, Priest jokingly expressed some concern about Hulk fans' reaction to the aforementioned fill-in writing, "Hulk fans are very serious about being Hulk fans. Good thing I just moved..." Many of those readers who have enjoyed Bruce Jones's Hulk stories likewise dismiss the anti-Jones sect's criticisms as coming from stubborn, narrow minded Hulk-nuts who resist any new ideas; any change.

You might get away with calling Hulk fans obsessive or immature without hearing any objections from me, but the idea that Hulk fans can't handle change is a pretty laughable notion. For over twenty years, all Hulk fans have gotten is change.

Since Bill Mantlo's '80s Hulk stories, we've had smart Hulks, gray Hulks, mute Hulks, evil Hulks, suicidal Hulks, psychotic Hulks, incestuous Hulks, Hulks borne of Skrulls, Hulks that don't even have to turn into the Hulk to get all Hulky, and Sybil-Hulks who change from green-to-gray and smart-to-dumb every day. We've even had a Rick Jones Hulk (who unfortunately lacked the hilarious Beatnik/Hulk lingo of one of the early What If…? issues). Imagine if Mexican wrestlers broke Bruce Wayne's back every few years, and Spidey endured clone sagas bi-annually. That's what Hulk fans have dealt with for the past two decades.

I'm not heralding the return of any particular incarnation of the green-sometimes-gray goliath, or of any particular writer. Change is inevitable. Continuity gets muddled. That isn't the point, and that's not my complaint.

There seems to be an -- understandable, if not necessarily accurate -- impression in the House of Ideas that you just cannot write a compelling story about a big green guy who breaks stuff. But, he's one of their household names, so canceling the title isn't an option. The result is that any writer hoping to scribe the character needs a very specific gimmick. They need to re-write his origin. They need to change his speech pattern and his skin color. They need to make him eat nurses and slaughter half of Manhattan. They need to drag him through a four-years-long conspiracy thriller that reads like old people sex.

So, while the various changes in characterization and continuity in other titles come about to help fuel the story, in the case of Incredible Hulk, the change is there just for the sake of change; just to alter the face of the character and disguise it as depth. A Hulk story simply won't be published unless it re-invents him somehow. Other writers change the status-quo for the sake of story, while the success or failure of Hulk stories hinge solely on that change. Everything revolves around it. The question of whether or not the story is actually good, regardless of the change, is never asked.

Can good, interesting stories about a big green guy who breaks stuff be written? And more importantly, can they sell? I don't know. Priest did a fine job, but to be fair, it was just a fill-in, and the story might not have worked for anyone who hadn't read the preceding Black Panther stories.

I guess my problem with the ongoing mess that is Incredible Hulk really speaks to the broader argument of whether any of these decades-old characters have good stories left to be told in their various sagas, or if they've ceased to be characters at all, and instead are cold, soulless franchises.

I'm not sold yet on the idea that the tales of our various childhood icons should end, probably because there are still good stories being told, as rare as they may be. Matt Wagner's Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity is the perfect example of the kind of Hulk stories I crave: good, compelling stories casting age-old characters in an interesting light without altering the essentials of who they are at every turn. Wagner did it. Priest did it.

It's been a long time since I've been happy with my childhood hero's title, and as such choose to consider Incredible Hulk #467, Peter David's last story on the title--and probably his best--as the very last Hulk story (which worked much better as a climax to the Hulk's history than David's brief return to the character in Incredible Hulk: The End--once again, the character was re-invented; this time as a superhero parallel of Greek myth). With the departure of Bruce Jones from Marvel and the rumors that the green guy's saga will be brought closer to that of Avengers, maybe Marvel will get the kind of talent that can give Hulk-nuts like me interesting, entertaining stories about a big green guy who breaks stuff. Probably not. Until they do, I'll make allies of the nay-sayers who call for an end to the superhero necrophilia and ask that finally, and at long last, somebody will leave Hulk alone.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Top 10 reasons why vampires are better than zombies

10. If vampires don't feed on humans, they die (again). If zombies don't feed on humans, they're okay. They get cranky, but they're always cranky. Conclusion - vampires kill people out of necessity. Zombies kill people because they're assholes.

9. Everyone wants to screw vampires, even people who kill vampires. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? She had two vampire boytoys. No one wants to screw zombies, not even other zombies. They might want to gnaw on each other, but that's it.

8. Vampires have cool names. Dracula. Spike. Angel. Lestat. The cast list of a zombie flick? Zombie #1. Zombie #2. Zombie #3. Zombie #4. Blonde In Sweater. Zombie #5. Etc.

7. Vampires have character. They're devious, suave, seductive, sensual, childlike, and free spirited. Zombies just break shit and eat your nose.

6. Vampires are like ninjas. One can take out a household before anyone knows what's happening. Zombies are like killer bees. They can't do shit unless there's a swarm of them. Otherwise, any B-movie actor can hold them off forever with a shotgun and a golf club.

5. Zombies scare me. Vampires turn me on. Either will kill me, but I'd rather die with a boner.

4. Vampires are discriminating in their tastes. They just want your blood. Zombies will fight each other over everything from your foreskin to your colon.

3. Get killed by a vampire and there's always a chance you'll wake up as a super-powered child of the night. Get killed by a zombie, and you wake up as an ass-hungry corpse.

2. Vampires are clearly the more well-rounded villains. By their nature, they lay claim to a healthy majority of the seven deadly sins. They're gluttonous, lustful, proud, wrathful, and greedy. Zombies, however, only get gluttony. Ironically, being that they're villains who only commit one of the deadly sins, I would argue this renders them sinners of sloth. But they don't get to count that with their sins because it's already being counted against their sins. So there.

1. Satan loves vampires. Nobody loves zombies.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Review - The Illusionist

As a child there was something frustrating about cartoons featuring characters either mute like the Pink Panther or, like Charlie Brown’s horn-throated parents, intentionally incoherent. A world in which people didn’t speak seemed inherently scary. How could you communicate? How could you know what you needed to know? How could misunderstandings become understandings? How could you find or keep friends? How could you ever experience anything but crushing loneliness?

A sense of disconnection is perhaps why the characters of Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist speak rarely and, when they do, only allow a coherent word or two to squeak through otherwise garbled speech. The film’s main character, a French magician, finds himself more and more disconnected from a world that once warmly received his brand of entertainment.

The film follows the final days of the magician’s career. He travels through the great cities of Europe plying his trade, but finds himself squeezed out of the limelight by the increasing appeal of fledgling rock ‘n’ roll. His greatest success is in a tiny Scottish town so backward that the switching on of a light bulb is met with thunderous applause. Yet even there, moments after the magician’s well-received performance in the crowded pub, he is replaced with a jukebox. While in the town, the magician impresses the young Alice with his magic. Hiding in the back of a truck, she follows him when he leaves the town and convinces him to go to Edinburgh where they stay in a hotel filled with clowns, ventriloquists and acrobats who – like the magician – have been left behind by the world’s shifting tastes. There is a sweet, innocent romance between Alice and the magician, but they never exchange more than a peck on the cheek.

The animation is beautiful and each character – even those who simply fill the background – is distinct, recognizable, and expressive even without the gift of speech. The film thoughtfully plays with the notion of whether or not, like the magician’s illusions, we are always seeing what we think we’re seeing; like when a windblown cloud of feathers fools Alice into thinking it’s snowing or a pair of oncoming headlights make the magician and Alice think they’re not long for this world until, instead of a car, the headlights prove to be from twin motorcycles.

While the film certainly ends on a sad note, it’s filled with wonderful comedy that seems utterly human even in its sillier moments. One of my favorite characters was the drunken, warmhearted Scotsman who seems to pop up unexpected everywhere; ready to dance wildly like a frat boy in a mosh pit to his pub’s new jukebox, or to abruptly drop face-down in the grass and roll down a hill like a little boy. The humor never seems cruel even in its darker moments – such as the many trials and tribulations of the suicidal clown who lives upstairs from Alice and the magician – and you leave with the impression that the filmmakers cared thoroughly for every single one of their cartoon creations.

I am thankful that growing up has, among other things, cured me of my aversion to such animated features. I found it very refreshing to experience a film whose characters communicate mostly without words, as well as simply watching a film that explored a genuinely different way of telling a story.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Soundtrack nostalgia

At work yesterday, my co-worker Zack brought up the Best Original Song category in the Oscars. I forget exactly how the conversation progressed but it led to me, Zack, and the intern Suzy riffing on all the songs originally recorded for movies that we could remember. I started writing stuff down and thought for today's post I'd get a little nostalgic. This isn't a Best Of list. I'm just having fun remembering them.

"Dream Warriors" by Dokken; from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

I think this video is the only reason I ever watched a Nightmare on Elm Street flick. I didn't like horror movies and didn't share the love other teenage boys seemed to have for slasher flicks. But when I saw Dokken's "Dream Warriors" video and subsequently learned about the movie, I saw something that appealed to the comic book fan inside me - instead of a killer stalking prey in their dreams, I saw superheroes (i.e., a group of teenagers who learned how to give themselves super powers in their dreams) fighting a super villain. That was something I could get behind.

"We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)" by Tina Turner; from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

I was a kid when this came out and I wonder whether or not, if I'd been a bit older, the obvious mismatch between the music and the subject matter would have made me avoid the movie entirely.

I remember being disappointed about what I thought at the time were lyrics that had little to do with movie. Or, at least, that I thought didn't make sense. Because of the use of the childrens choir, I assumed that the lyrics were written from the perspective of the tribe of children who saved Max from the desert. And it seemed very clear they DID need and want another hero. In fact, their entire Peter-Pan-y existence was built around the notion of a heroic pilot they believed was destined to return to save them all.

The wikipedia entry for the song says, however, that the lyrics were written from the perspective of "those being oppressed," which I guess means the inhabitants of Bartertown. That seems like a strange point-of-view though since you don't meet many of them other than those - like Aunty Entity and Master Blaster - who are doing the oppressing.

I saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome again a couple of months ago. I hadn't seen it for years. I think I wrote it off as just another dumb movie I liked when I was a kid, but it holds up fairly well. I should learn to be less dismissive about movies that aren't musicals.

"Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker, Jr.; from Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters remains one of my favorite movies and easily one of my top 10 comedies.

This video, on the other hand, seems to be about a supernatural rapist who pursues a woman while she's teased by 1980s celebrities living in her wall.

"Glory of Love" by Peter Cetera; from The Karate Kid, Part II

I remember being very excited about the impending release of The Karate Kid, Part II and being very, very angry that this odd-looking blond man was recruited to sing for the movie. I don't know anything about Peter Cetera, and he may just be the nicest man this side of Okinawa, but my impressions of him when I saw this video were very clear. He personified Hollywood. He was clearly older than his big hair and his giant, white teeth wanted him to be. He seemed simultaneously striking and deeply, deeply ugly. He looked like the kind of guy who was waiting for me in a van with blacked-out windows.

"Flash" by Queen; from Flash Gordon

I hadn't thought of this song in years until I saw Tenacious D cover it on their DVD collection.

Queen was so perfectly named, and not just for the glaringly obvious reason. There was a tangible majesty to their sound. If I were a superhero, I would want Queen to write my theme song.

"Blaze of Glory" by Jon Bon Jovi; from Young Guns II

I certainly never listened to this while fantasizing of being a brave warrior making his last stand against brutish, cowardly villains who looked suspiciously like some of my high school classmates. And anyone who says otherwise clearly fucks goats.

"Live to Tell" by Madonna; from At Close Range

Zack mentioned this today and I felt like I hadn't thought about this song in a million years. I remember being surprised Madonna was willing to do a song for a movie she wasn't starring in, and strangely thinking that while I thought the movie looked good I didn't want to see it. It looked too tragic. In fact, I remember thinking that shot of Penn and his buddies jumping in the air Oh-what-a-feeling style (about 01:19 in the clip) was too comic for what looked to be a violent, depressing movie.

"The Goonies 'R' Good Enough" by Cyndi Lauper; from The Goonies

As far as I'm concerned, Cyndi Lauper was the queen of the '80s (as in royalty, not as in I'm comparing her to the guys earlier in the list).

I have a relatively dumb wish. I want a Goonies 2. The catch? I want all the surviving cast from The Goonies as they exist today, but they have to act like only a year has passed and none of them have aged more than that.

No Country for Old Goonies. What evil prick wouldn't pay to see it?

"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Starship; from Mannequin

It's likely Kim Cattrall was the most important woman in my sexual development. She helped jumpstart my hormones in my pre-teens when I saw Mannequin and started their slow death when I saw Sex and the City.

"Batdance" by Prince; from Batman

Considering what a hardcore Marvel kid I was, I think "Batdance" excited me more about Tim Burton's film than any trailers, commercials, or Behind the Scenes footage. I think Prince really committed himself to embodying the spirit of the movie and it was cool to be able to tell just how deeply Prince cared about making the soundtrack for a comic book flick.

Now that I've grown up, read a few books, made the easy choice of not remaining in that camp of aged comic book fans who sigh whenever someone mentions the possibility that there might be something sexual behind the stories of muscular men in skintight outfits wrestling around with each other, I think I have a better appreciation for how the video's creators chose to portray the Batman/Joker conflict as such a sexually charged one.

In fact, boobs or no boobs, I'd say Prince's dancers understood Batman better than Joel Schumacher ever did.

(had to get that in there)