REVIEW [Comics]: A God Somewhere

10 07 2010

So. I’m not keen on hard sells. The concept of foisting product(s) on someone is tremendously bothersome to me; I’m reluctant, even, to accept suggestions from my friends. With all of that said, I picked up A God Somewhere because someone recommended it [shout out to Rich at Earth-2]. Call me hypocrite if you must, but I’d politely declined previous suggestions, and I couldn’t keep doing that.

"What makes a human being human?"

In four chapters, writer John Arcudi [The Mask, B.P.R.D. (Dark Horse); Major Bummer (DC Comics)] and artist Peter Snejbjerg [The Light Brigade; The Mighty (DC Comics)] present the story of Eric Forster, his friend Sam, and Eric’s brother Hugh. These three maintain a close friendship until a strange explosion empowers Eric with supernatural abilities. Initially, Eric uses these powers for good; he assists in the rescue of several of his neighbors, achieving “in minutes what would have taken the fire department hours” (39). Hugh’s wife Alma declares Eric’s survival a “miracle” (30), and Eric justifies his later acts of heroism upon this presumption: “God didn’t give me these gifts to be afraid” (57). Despite Sam’s attempt at pragmatism, Eric concludes a call to righteous example. Of his new powers, he says, “Nothing but the hand of God makes sense” (58). It’s this seemingly unquestioned determination that anchors the conflict of the book.

A God Somewhere opens with its trio discussing the purchase of a boat as an attempt to recreate weekends they spent with their father as children (7). After Eric’s transformation, however, this plan is quickly forgotten. Eric attempts to parlay his newfound celebrity into helping Hugh and Alma move into a “nice neighborhood,” but Hugh rejects the offer (69). By this point, I’d accepted the narrative at its face value; it seemed to concern the fluctuations of fraternal relationships. Instead, the story takes a decisive turn when Hugh, in a moment of frustration, punches Eric, the blow merely glancing off his older brother’s chin (84).

Hugh, surprisingly, exhibits no jealously toward his brother; indeed, he wants no part in the “circus” of Eric’s celebrity, and he notices a growing distance in their relationship. Eric recognizes Hugh’s rejection of his help as a rejection of Eric himself, and Eric expresses misplaced anger upon the President (and staff) in a scene meant also to demonstrate the lengths to which Sam enjoys the reflective glory of his association with Eric.

If this story seems disjointed by way of summary, it’s because it read that way. Sam is the thread that runs throughout this story, and yet he doesn’t assume narrative prominence until a third of the way into the book. Eric’s brutal act at the close of chapter two draws Sam into the role of passive observer, if only because Sam is literally powerless to stop Eric. When he asks Eric to explain his behavior (“How could you do something so wrong?”), Eric flippantly responds, “Wrong is just a word people made up. It has nothing to do with the real world” (101).

Much of the last half of the book concerns the escalating means by which the world attempts to stop Eric, and Sam records it all as a journalist. He retains some measure of dignity, though; he “can’t stomach the idea of turning a profit writing” a book about the phenomenon (176). By then, the damage is done: Eric’s divine example inspires a grotesque cult of personality.

I’m of a mind that Story can work in many ways. It can challenge its readers to accept a worldview previously unknown or inspire them to create fresh perspective. This is story that deserves to be read more than once. It possesses nuances of character that might go missed with a casual reading. My first reaction was to dismiss A God Somewhere. Why would a character act this way? I asked myself. The answer, it seems, must be based in a personal, rather than a literary reading. As a story, the book struggles to sustain its premise, but as a graphic novel it succeeds in elevating the form.

A God Somewhere is available from WildStorm Comics. ($24.99)


REVIEW [Movies]: “Outland”

5 07 2010

On Jupiter's moon he's the only law.

So. I’ve not watched “High Noon,” the film to which “Outland” (1983) is partially indebted. I was, however, moderately familiar with “High Noon”‘s premise: a sheriff reluctantly (and without the support of the townspeople) confronts a quartet of villains. “High Noon” was filmed in real-time, a relative novelty for 1952. In that case it worked because the film’s central plot concerned Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) awaiting the train that would deliver the villains. “Outland” employs no such technique, but it does sufficiently transplant “High Noon”‘s theme of greed and graft and the sometimes solitary pursuit of justice.

Sean Connery plays O’Niel, a federal marshal assigned to a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io. After a series of gruesome miner deaths, he discovers a corporate conspiracy: many miners have been consuming an illicit drug that increases productivity but induces psychosis as well. Evidence seems to point to operations manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle) who attempts to bribe O’Niel when confronted with accusation of supplying the drug. O’Niel places Sheppard under surveillance and later overhears of the impending arrival of goons hired to kill O’Niel.

I’m not aware of what motivated the reluctance of the townspeople in “High Noon,” but in “Outland,” the miners seem to have been enticed (off-screen) with something resembling revenue sharing. Any criminal prosecution of the facility’s administrators would certainly inhibit profitability, but I didn’t understand how these average miners would not assist O’Niel. Their co-workers were dying, indeed, killed by a corporation seemingly unconcerned with their well-being. Granted, mining is a dangerous job; space mining particularly so. I can’t think of another movie about mining where something didn’t go wrong.

tangent: Even “October Sky,” which was as much about mining as it was about space, included a disaster.

I thought that these miners would realize the insidious lengths to which their employers would chase a profit and revolt against them, but much of “Outland”‘s drama stems from this ideological difference, and the movie spends its first two-thirds with O’Niel conducting sci-fi detective work (read: doing stuff with computers).

tangent: I couldn’t reconcile how O’Niel (a Scotsman) and his wife (a Briton) produced a son who spoke with an American accent. Evidently, the film’s producers dubbed one over during post-production (think: Aunt Beru in “Star Wars”).

For a movie that’s almost thirty years old, the intensity of its action sequences hold up, although getting there’s a drag. Pacing could have been more consistent. O’Niel’s investigation advances in a perfunctory way and with the usual story beats, but as soon as he discovers that a hit-squad’s been sicced upon him, he (and the audience) simply wait for them to arrive. It’s during this (down)time that O’Niel unnecessarily ties up some loose narrative threads: he captures (or kills) two of Sheppard’s collaborators.

Although “Outland” could be dismissed as possessing a procedural plot, it’s not without merit; its production design is quite impressive. It possesses that singularly important quality of any decent sci-fi flick: its world appears lived-in. Sure, O’Niel matches wits with an assassin in a greenhouse the size of fifteen football fields, but the greenhouse looks like it could actually work.

tangent: Production Designer Philip Harrison and Connery would work together again on the set on “Never Say Never Again,” considered the only “unofficial” James Bond movie as it was produced by Warner Bros. and not EON Productions.

“Outland” is available on DVD and Netflix (streaming video).

REVIEW [Books]: Bow Down to Nul

10 04 2010

It seems that fifty years ago the only recommendation an author needed for his latest work was his own. Indeed, on the cover to Bow Down to Nul is emblazoned the following: “Galactic empires have always intrigued me . . . .” Author Brian W. Aldiss, Englishman, “had the chance of seeing at first hand, the uneasy relationship existing between ‘imperialists’ and subject races in India and Indonesia,” as he notes in the coda. This might seem to inform his work, add depth to what appears (judging by its cover) vacuous genre fiction. Rather, it sets reader expectations too high (“Here’s a work from someone who knows!”) and the text struggles to escape its claim to contextual authority. In other words, its boring.

Earth is “a Class 5c World in System 5417 of Galactic Administration Sector Vermillion,” and its facilitators, corrupt, remain unwilling (even after nearly 2000 years of subjugating our planet) to recognize the various “Earthian” languages; they understand them as dialects. But this isn’t the most egregious form of planetary mismanagement.

The novel’s inciting incident is a letter drafted by Nul whistle-blower Wattol Forlie, recently sacked from his administrative position (“Third Secretary to High Hiscount Chaverlem Par-Chavorlem, Galactic Commissioner”). The letter is received by Signatory Armajo Synvoret, who decides to investigate Forlie’s formal (previously drunken; see: prologue) charges. What Synvoret finds is a planetary population sublimated to Nullian bureaucracy. At this point in my reading, I paused to consider Aldiss’s credentials. If the author had first-hand knowledge of and experience with British imperialism in its final stages, then perhaps this book (albeit metaphorically) might reveal what led to its demise. Rather, Aldiss spends much time with establishing the forms of administrative corruption on Earth and the lengths to which the current administration is willing to cover its tracks.

In an early chapter, the administration on Earth decides to move the entire planetary capitol (and its human occupants). Apparently, Earth’s capitol exceeded Nullian parameters regarding size; think of the fire marshall’s rules regarding maximum occupancy. In the end, the humans win (as we always do) and the spirit of freedom remains vibrant, if constrained, by the rules of committee.

REVIEW [Comics]: Magic Boy & The Robot Elf

27 08 2009
"Kochalka's first (and highly ambitious) fever dream of a graphic novel."

"Kochalka's first (and highly ambitious) fever dream of a graphic novel."

It’d be easy to dismiss James Kochalka‘s graphic novel(la?) Magic Boy & The Robot Elf as Moe Szyslak does of post-modern design: “Weird for the sake of weird” (in episode CABF20, “Homer the Moe”). Kochalka’s narrative has aspirations of exploring the concept(s) of aging and of becoming aged; so, it’s slightly deeper than simply being “weird.”

Its protagonist, Magic Boy, declares flatly, “I’m old,” before investigating his frail body’s suddenly emerging failings. Just as quickly as he notices how “freak[y]” it is to be human, he decides, “I wish I were a robot.” And therein lies his (and Kochalka’s) trouble.

What began as a man’s meditation on the advancing of his years becomes a bizarre (and sometimes confusing) exercise in time travel. To be fair, I might be overstating here; this was, honestly, my initial reaction to the piece. Rereading it, though, gave me a chance to connect  seemingly disparate elements.

Magic Boy appears as both an old man and a boy. The former claims precedence in the piece whenever things seem grim: as he realizes that his body is slowly deteriorating; as he recalls time spent with his wife; as he recognizes that he might have to end his life. The latter appears in the prime of youth: vibrant, loving, confident.

It is because the old M.B. misses the young M.B. so passionately, that the old M.B. decides to construct a robot, because, “through him … I’ll live forever.” But this is where things slip slightly from the rails. As soon the robot is switched on it achieves sentience, attacks old Magic Boy, and claims his life for its own.

And, after activating its “built-in time machine,” it travels back to Magic Boy’s childhood where it discovers young Magic Boy at play. Several scenes play out between them; each of them has much to learn from the other. These, I think, could have been expanded to include the robot (sentient, remember) becoming aware of his failings as a robot and his inability to experience truly human existence. That said, the robot quickly acts to replace Magic Boy and endear himself to his new-found parents.

The story glides easily between primary narrative and flashbacks; Kochalka uses different colors of ink to cue the reader whenever a switch is about to be made. His artistic style is loose and works when presenting Magic Boy in his youth, but falls short of conveying believable robotic behavior (no matter how much that character wishes to be human).

Magic Boy & The Robot Elf is available from Top Shelf Comix. ($9.95)

REVIEW [Comics]: The Broccoli Agenda

24 08 2009
"An illustrated story about guns, mobsters, legends, heroes, villains...and produce."

"An illustrated story about guns, mobsters, legends, heroes, villains...and produce."

I picked up The Broccoli Agenda as part of a local comic book store’s liquidation sale, and I knew nothing of its creator David Yurkovich, except that he possessed an eccentricity that placed him among the avant-garde of the comics industry during the late half of the 1990s. (Yurkovich’s most famous work remains Less Then Heroes; it was recently republished by Top Shelf Comics.)

Undaunted, I purchased a copy, promised with the prospect of an “absurdist view of comics.” The title certainly delivers.

The Broccoli Agenda is narrated by former superhero Dr. Broccoli (Doc Broc) over cigarettes with an F.B.I. agent (Swete, the protagonist of Yurkovich’s first work, Death By Chocolate), a man made entirely of “organic chocolate.” Doc Broc relates a childhood spent obsessing over the titular vegetable, and an adulthood wasted trying to force society’s acceptance of its benefits.

Following the tragic death of his parents, the boy is placed into the adoptive care of the DeCarlo family, local broccoli farmers (‘natch). Hard times fall on the family, and Mr. DeCarlo is forced to accept assitance from Jimmy “Glass Jaw” Marconi, small-time mob boss (who later aspires to public office). When Mr. DeCarlo can’t make his scheduled payment, Marconi kills him, leaving the boy again orphaned, and again adopted.

The Broccoli Agenda.panels

Selected interior art from The Broccoli Agenda.

Yurkovich’s plot builds in an unwieldy way, branching off into tangents unexpected (albeit interesting) but without closure. A digression into the story of an ancient culture had me thinking that The Broccoli Agenda was Yurkovich’s attempt at interlocking narration (perhaps, even, resembling a Russian nesting doll), but it turned out instead to be merely a method of delivering Doc Broc’s mutation into “a plant/human hybrid.”

Now imbued with powers beyond those of mortal men(?), Doc Broc is invited to join the New York Super-Hero Syndicate (and given his codename). Soon, “along with Milk Maid, Multi-Grain, and the Abbatoir, [he] became a member of The Basic Four … and educational unit that would travel the country and demonstrate the importance of maintaining healthy eating habits.” Another branch, another digression.

I consistently found myself questioning the purpose of such plotting: why use frame narrative if what passes in-between claims little connection to it? That said, Yurkovich does succintly end his tale (in a “tidy-little-package” sort of way). My instincts tell me that Yurkovich did not intend to stifle himself with the particulars of plot, but rather meant to investigate (and possibly expand) the conventions of super-hero comics.

Yurkovich wrote an essay (now lost in the ether of the vast interweb) titled “Why Don’t Heroes Age?” An interesting topic, to be sure, if only I could have read it. The Broccoli Agenda doesn’t exactly provide answers, but it did cause me to rethink skipping on eating my veggies.

REVIEW [Books]: Plague From Space

29 07 2009

Why is it always influenza?

Why is it always influenza?

Genre fiction doesn’t age well (unless it’s The Scarlet Letter). As our civilization progresses (improves?), so too do our expressions (and concepts) of popular culture. Take, for instance, Lady Gaga, “the most insistent in a wave of pop artists actively questioning the value of an old and often-debated artistic standard: authenticity” (Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2009). Only a few years ago, Gaga’s antics would have been quickly dismissed as fringe art, existing as they do at the crossroads of music, fashion, and celebrity. Synergy is apparently no longer a dirty word; indeed, it’s the lifeblood of emerging stars. “Selling out” has become an accepted, ubiquitous piece of the pop culture phenomenon.

What does this rant have to do with Plague From Space, a “high-tension science-fiction thriller” first published over forty years ago? Absolutely nothing. But I wanted to demonstrate that tastes change, sometimes dramatically.

So too do the narrative styles and methods by which authors convey tension. Like many of his literary contemporaries, Harry Harrison maintained a consistency with the vanguard of scientific development. Despite an excited interpretation of contemporary science, much of Harrison’s story rings true, believable, and accurate.

Deadly cargo!

Deadly cargo!

Plague From Space (alternatively titled Jupiter Plague) is the story of Dr. Sam Bertolli, an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, among the first to discover the titular plague. It arrives, logically, carried aboard an interstellar vessel that crash lands after a mission to Jupiter. Its first victim, Commander Rand, scratches a cryptic message before succumbing: “sick … in … ship.”

What follows is an unevenly tense narrative, one that sometimes gets trapped explaining its character’s actions and feelings through lengthy monologue. Consider, for instance, Dr. Bertolli’s exchange with Nita Mendel (a forced love interest who disappears for nearly one hundred pages soon after this scene):

BERTOLLI — “If you only knew how I loathe starry-eyed and out of focus TV love scenes of young things wallowing in the treacly embrace of love at first sight. I think they have demeaned something uncountably precious by using it for common coinage. I want to be able to say that I love you, Nita, and have you understand it is something vitally different and important.”

NITA — “But I love you too, so I know exactly how you feel. I suppose it is terrible to say, but I’m almost grateful for Rand’s disease and what has happened. Women are selfish, darling. I have the feeling that without the pressure you would just have gone on being one of those silent, busy men, who use their lives up on important things and never have a moment to consider the frivolous unimportance of women.”

TRANSLATION — Rather than adhere to social conventions regarding relationships, Bertolli has acted upon his feelings (thus disregarding masculine impulses as well) and fallen in love; and, for her part, Nita understands the inherent difficulty in his doing so. Romantic, eh?

Plague From Space is littered with such passages meant to (re)establish patriarchy and, because the story is set in the future, misgivings about global governance. Written as it was during the 1960s, one cannot help but read into the narrative and conjure up Cold War America. When it seems a cure is untenable, the U. N. Emergency Council proposes atomizing the spaceship and its surrounding area (roughly 100 miles).

One of Bertolli’s contemporaries voices his (and possibly Harrison’s) frustration:

“I hadn’t realized that the old philosophy of a bomb-waving solution for international problems was still lurking in dark, spider-filled corners of the political mind. Cretins! … They’re operating out of fear–if you can’t run away from the unknown, why just blow it up!”

Harrison’s pacing is, as stated above, uneven. Much of the story is comprised of extended descriptive monologues in which Important People discuss Important Things. When Bertolli, along with a mixed militia of scientists and servicemen, boards Pericles searching for a cure, they make contact with an alien entity, and, despite previously stated misgivings with the efficacy of coerced cooperation, Bertolli strongarms the Jovian into producing a cure.

Author Harry Harrison (1925- )

Author Harry Harrison (1925- )

Harrison uses flashback to reveal the first contact between Earthling and Jovian. If written today, Plague From Space would have interspersed this relationship within the narrative, developing tension along parallel plots. Because Harrison does not employ this technique (and why would he, writing — as he did — over forty years ago), the story lumbers along, and I found myself desperately wishing to be finished with the book (a dreadful admission for an admitted bibliophile).

In the end, Plague From Space is resolved with mysterious circumstances and forces a reader’s continued consideration (think The Twilight Zone). I could have done without constant explanation (my willing suspension of disbelief has previously permitted my acceptance of The Force), and uneven pacing, but (as a fragment of a previous generation’s chosen method of entertainment) the book possesses value.

REVIEW [Comics]: Hello, Again

25 07 2009

The past may not be buried as deep as William once thought.

The past may not be buried as deep as William once thought.

Our ugliest mistakes return unbidden when we least expect them to do so. Such is the case for William, the middle-aged and guilt-ridden protagonist of Max EstesHello Again.

William is the superintendent of his apartment building, and a reluctant one at that: he corrects another character when she refers to him as a “landlord.” He is unmotivated to improve his lot in life and satisfied to maintain an affair with Delia (his friend Aaron’s fiancĂ©e).

He lies to his mother when she asks if there are “any young women in [his] life,” and feigns interest when Aaron invites him to dinner with Delia. Even after William meets a woman from his building, he recalls Delia’s (not too) subtle bedroom coaxing: “Enough about Aaron, let’s talk about William.”

All things conspire against William becoming self-satisfied, until, that is, he stumbles across a hole in the ground. An adequate metaphor, to be sure, and one seen elsewhere in literature (how’s about Alice in Wonderland for starters?) Instead of beginning a quest for self-discovery, though, William has his quest thrust upon him in the form of Oliver, a bearded manifestation of William’s “conscience” (think Jiminy Cricket).

Oliver represents not only William’s (largely ignored) “conscience”, but also his (deeply buried) subconscious, and William’s struggle emerges as one between sustaining his tired existence or confronting his childhood fears.

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

Estes presents the relationship of William and Oliver as one that adheres (albeit loosely) to the Jungian concept of synchronicity, an event in which two (or more) events are linked more by philosophical meaning and less by causality (this just means that William and Oliver have their fates intertwined, so to speak). If this sounds too heady, then that’s because it is; William is not overtly troubled by his decisions, but rather challenged by Oliver to account for mistakes. (Think of the ghost of Bob Marley from A Christmas Carol).

At one point, Oliver warns, “I’m here to break this cycle, Willy. The next messenger may not be so pleasant.” Is Estes claiming that self-reflection is inevitable? Is Oliver even necessary or would William have confronted his mistakes sooner or later?

If Hello, Again works anywhere, then it is in its simple layout: four panels to every page, many without dialogue. William is loosely sketched (think: the Elongated Man), noodle-ly and capable of stretching to accommodate his morally wayward behavior. Oliver resembles a garden gnome: obstinate and flat-footed. (I imagine him sounding quite gruff; the character is a seaman, after all).

The narrative runs over 150 pages, and concludes within the final twenty (or so): too rushed, I think, to give full weight to the decision(s) that William must make and the consequence(s) that he must face. And for someone who behaves as wantonly as William does, it seems unfair that he should land on his feet.

Hello, Again is available from Top Shelf Productions ($10).