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.