Saturday, September 27, 2008

i love nine soooooooooo much

Only Human made me realize how much I had missed the Ninth Doctor. The last Ninth Doctor novel I read was either the Stephen Cole one or the Jacqueline Rayner one, and at that it was probably two years ago. It was to Gareth Roberts’ credit that he was able to capture the banter of Nine and Rose so well that immediately I was back into their world. And what a wonderful world it is. Add to it that this is the first official novel I’ve read in which Captain Jack figures, and I may have been bouncing off the walls, so gleeful was I.

I can just imagine the brief Roberts was given. “10, 000 BC” but better. Keep the elements of danger, the rawness, the disbelief, but kick it up a notch—add futuristic tech and monsters. Rose in wedding furs and the possibility of Rose getting raped are certainly throwbacks to the 1963 story. Part of the brief, too, must have been the old “challenge our assumptions” bit. With the Doctor’s help, we are meant to see the Neanderthals as surprisingly civilized, the world they live in as natural to us as can be, that, with the TARDIS’ help, Neanderthals speak normally and ancient, early humans speak like Rose’s mum (as utterly annoying as Roberts’ attempts in “The Shakespeare Code” to get everyone’s dialogue “hip” and James Moran’s similar tendencies in “The Fires of Pompeii”). One of the Ninth Doctor’s most alien qualities—but in a standoffish way, what sometimes made him quite sexy—was his facility for piling on the guilt to humanity, mostly in the person of Rose. He does this a lot in Only Human, making Rose feel bad that her ancestors destroyed the Neanderthals, making her feel bad that her natural instinct toward the Neanderthals is distrust since they don’t look like her. Similarly he makes her feel bad about the humans from the future also included in this story and about her 2005-era common humanity. But of course, she is the exception to the rule so he is often forced to eat his words. Though Gareth Roberts has a good sense of the absurd—Minnie Mouse-voiced Neanderthal in fancy dress party in Bromley—I’d like to know where he got all his info about Neanderthals. He doesn’t list any sources. Poo on him.

Roberts’ talent lies in satire, but it’s tempered by his genuine, passionate love of Doctor Who the institution. I don’t know what Bromley ever did to Roberts, but he really takes the mickey out of it. Looking at it cynically, he’s absolutely right to put down current Western culture’s obsession with leisure time as portrayed by the residents of Bromley with Rose, the Doctor, Captain Jack, and the Neanderthal unfortunately dropped into the future by a time rip engine, Das, especially in contrast to the Neanderthals’ more industrious obsession with feeding “the tribe.” Future humans do not escape his scathing commentary: in that era, humanity has taken laziness to an extreme, popping packs of chemicals whenever there’s “wrong-feeling.” People are uniformly gorgeous but dull. I admire Roberts’ creativity in this aspect, I found the future world he created highly interesting and entertaining. Roberts pulls no punches as far as language is concerned, somewhat shocking me. (Even if Roberts claims the TARDIS filters out swear words—‘Did she really say blinking?’ asked Rose. ‘That’s the TARDIS—got a swear filter.’) Sometimes I honestly think he goes a bit too far, like a non sequitur sequence included just to get in a dig at the church (which he pursued to a degree in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”). It’s always great to read a Doctor Who author enjoying writing the book as much as you are reading it, and that’s certainly the case with Roberts, who seems to get a bit of himself (and the reader) into the character of Weronika, a Polish NHS nurse who meets the Doctor, Rose, and a buck-naked Jack for about two minutes (very funny sequence). As they entered the lift, she [Weronika] found herself wanting to scream, I don’t know who you are, but take me with you!

Rather strangely, several elements of Only Human reminded me of my novel-length Nine/Rose/Jack story, St. Valentine’s Day, which I’ve never been able to finish, mostly due to the research required—but I have plotted it out the end. For example, it decides early on to separate Jack from the Doctor and Rose. Jack is required to help Das, who is trapped in the 21st century, to his new life there, while Rose and the Doctor are to go back in time to where Das came from. Do great minds just think alike? Or did both Roberts and I see the potential, but subtle, character-building inherent on showing the Doctor’s jealousy over Jack? That said, Roberts writes Jack with unabashed relish, and he is, in all his pre-Torchwood glory, our galactic buccaneer. Rose winced. ‘Could those trousers be any tighter?’ ‘Is that a request?’ (Bit of the Tenth Doctor-in-waiting there!) Also in common with my story, Roberts has Rose required to marry an ancient human named Tillun (in my story the Doctor has to break up her wedding to a 17th-century criminal overlord, but that’s telling). This is another excellent vehicle for Rose/Nine shippers to indulge their whimsy: He [Tillun] leaned over and gave her the snog of her life. Over her shoulder she heard the Doctor sighing. ‘What a terrible ordeal for you,’ he muttered with more than a hint of something that was either envy or fatherly protectiveness, she couldn’t tell which.

Roberts makes an interesting decision regarding POV in that, while we are pursing the Doctor/Rose/ancient Earth plot thread, Das’ and Jack’s stories are played out in journal form. Das describes his love for eating all things fatty (one of the few things I remember about Physical Anthropology was human inborn desire for fats, salts, and sugars, which unfortunately has dogged us to this day—erm, it must be the same for Neanderthals) and Jack expresses disbelief that Das is able to find a “mate” (apparently they can have children?!?). I thought that Das’ inability to understand the concept of lying was going to lead somewhere, but all it creates are some mildly funny incidents, told to us in summary. What Roberts does do surprisingly well is create some scenes of genuine peril that were hard to put down—Rose and the Doctor about to be attacked by monsters on the plain of some prehistoric Earth.

Unfortunately, it’s the monsters where Roberts lets us down. I found this same disappointment in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” to be honest. Roberts’ villain is a calm, cool, bland super-genius woman, boring by nature but therefore dramatically lacking as well. While the presence of frustratedly passionate Quilley the Refuser and references to “Kinda” and L. Frank Baum make up for the general vanilla flavor of the dastardly plot once it’s revealed, I found the end rather anticlimactic. The monsters, the Hy-Bractors, were appropriately violent, but I really couldn’t see them at all in my mind’s eye—always a bad sign.

Overall, though, this was just so—much—fun.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

opinone buona notte, ragazzi

Catwoman: When in Rome

Why does Catwoman get all the best stories? Darwyn Cooke’s Ego, which contained Selina’s Big Score, was the first Batman-ish comic I read, and it’s still one of the most memorable in terms of story and characters. I wonder if it’s the fact writers just respect Selina/Catwoman enough to only give her the very best—or if they’re just so tickled by the idea of drawing a mightily-proportioned kick-butt heroine in black leather and a whip and claws. I was somewhat leery of picking up a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale production simply because, despite the high acclaim they have for The Long Halloween and others, I either find Sale’s art enormously brilliant or rather strange. Sale makes Catwoman proportionately 40% cleavage, but I find I much prefer the “traditional” Catwoman look (thigh-high boots, purplish leather top, tail, cat mask with whiskers) over what I now know was Darwyn Cooke’s invention, the cat-eyed goggles and Honor Blackman-esque jumpsuit. Since Sale mostly draws the former for this comic, I’m mostly content. That said, I prefer Darwyn Cooke’s version of Selina—the short hair, the glam ‘40s retro look, and also I must say I don’t like how Sale draws the Joker, or Batman, for that matter. His Two-Face, on the other hand, is the epitome of cool, and bravo to this story for actually making the Riddler menacing, or at least a force to be reckoned with. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You have to suspend your belief on a number of points When in Rome—it seems to me everyone should figure out Selina is Catwoman a long time before they do. As I understand it, at this point in the mythology Selina loves Bruce and Catwoman loves Batman but she doesn’t connect the two? If that’s the case, she must be blind. That Catwoman takes E. Nigma aka the Riddler along with her to Rome just because he’s good at solving riddles seems a stretch. But I don’t care. I love the conceit of this—it makes for hilarious writing and fantastic art. Sale must have a graphic art/marketing art background because the covers he designs for the six parts of this are incredible. They are based on advertising art by a French marketer, and the influence shows—I’d be interested in acquiring prints of all six covers and framing them. I’m afraid I haven’t been good to the colorists on comics—I didn’t realize until I read the featurette at the back of this collection how much they actually (can) contribute to the finished look of the comic. Hats off to Dave Stewart who transforms Sale’s inkwash/ink (watercolor-style) distinctive art into fabulous, almost moving pastels.

Loeb is good at making Selina’s inner monologue instantly sympathetic and identifiable. As in Selina’s Big Score, we’re with her from the outset. And as glamorous as Catwoman is in Rome, I love that the story starts with her and the Riddler waiting at the baggage claim for her lost catsuit! Sadly, all the handsome, hyper-masculine (yet I’d call them pretty boys) hitmen-type characters who try to resist Selina’s charms but ultimately fall in love with her don’t seem to last long (I’m thinking of Jeff from Big Score). Here’s another one, the amusing and hulkish Christopher Castillo. Selina has some of her funniest, winning-est dialogue with “Blondie.” Selina manages to be Audrey Hepburn, Sophie Lauren, and Halle Berry rolled into one—ergo, she’s super-cool and super-sexy, ergo, Rome is the perfect setting for her (Paris would be fun, too).

Between the constant intrigue with Blondie—is he on Selina’s side or is he out to kill her?—and Selina’s nightmarish, Twilight Zone nightmares/hallucinations about Batman, you might think her interactions with Nigma would get overpowered. The opposite is the case, and their screwed-up relationship is my favorite part of the plot. He seems, without giving too much of the plot away, to always be hanging around her bedroom trying to get a peek of her (he even tries on her catsuit in a ghoulishly laughable panel). “What? Tell me you’ve never wondered how you’d look in a skintight green leotard with question marks all over it . . . and a nifty bowler hat.” I’m afraid sometimes Selina brings all the attention on herself as she goes about almost naked quite a bit of the time. (Funny sequence where she straddles Blondie who she thinks is trying to shoot her. SELINA: “You make a habit of breaking into women’s bedrooms, pointing your gun at them?” BLONDIE: “I have no gun.” SELINA: ... “Oh.” Reminds me of a bad joke in “Queen of Hearts,” but let’s not go there.) The Riddler reminds me a bit of Chauvelin in that his end goal is to unmask Batman (surely he could figure it out—though as I recall from one of the Dini comics, he did and then got knocked out so he doesn’t remember anymore) and thinks that Selina knows. SELINA: “It’d help if we knew who the Joker was before he was the Joker.” NIGMA: “Ah, Gotham City’s second best riddle.” My favorite panel in this one vast treat is Selina thinking she’s kissing Batman only to wake up kissing the Riddler. Ha!

Interestingly, in her nightmares at least, Selina rages against Batman for trying to mold her simply into Selina Kyle, billionaire debutante and ignoring the Catwoman side of her personality, which, if true, is pure hypocrisy coming from him! There’s a superb, superb flashback sequence of Catwoman’s first meeting with Batman, rendered in glorious color. As for the connections with the mob, Selina trying to find out if her real parents were the Falcones, I could take it or leave it. Mark Chiarello is the editor and notes that it was his Sicilian background which the boys needed for authenticity. It’s hard for me to see Carmine Falcone as anyone but Tom Wilkinson at this point, which makes all of this Mafia stuff less than compelling for the likes of me. Still, it’s not every day you get to witness a cat burglary in the Vatican with a demented supervillaness named Cheetah!

This has definitely cemented my opinion: I’m going to give the other Loeb/Sale collections a chance. They really impressed me with this one.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

one-way ticket to venice

“There’s no shame in being a writer.” –said to a suspected sqacrilegious writer tortured by the Inquisition

I’ve said before that Casanova is one of my pet subjects. The question is why it took me so long to see the David Tennant Casanova, and equally why it took me so long to see the Heath Ledger one. I have no idea. Anyway, I finally saw it. Much as I love David Tennant and respect what Russell T was trying to do with his version, I think the Lasse Hallström-directed version is slightly better and more cohesive.

Perhaps because I’ve just read a book on Mozart, I’m better able to appreciate the tone. Russell T’s version was farcical, certainly, and in its approach, ultra-modern. This version is certainly comic in tone, but it’s got all the hallmarks of Mozart’s Figaro or Cosí fan tutte—mistaken identities, disguises, plays-within-plays—that bring it somewhat closer to how the real Casanova’s life in 1753 might have played out. It also makes it delightful fun that made me laugh out loud several times. Though it is a fictional account, it admits in the beginning that the tale it’s about to tell is invented (though not in the way you expect). It opens, in fact, in a very similar fashion to David Tennant’s version. There is the old Casanova, writing his memoirs, imagining us back to when he was in, er, peak physical form. As in the other version, with David Tennant romping around half-dressed with various women in beds and escaping from irate husbands, we have Heath Ledger romping around half-dressed with various women in beds and escaping from irate husbands. I guess it’s the economical way to get into character.

Instead of a broad survey as it were of Casanova’s “career,” the filmmakers have (deliberately, I hope) set it in Venice in one year, to revolve mostly around one main seduction, during a period when the historical Casanova was a) in fact in Venice; b) involved in one of his longest-lasting affairs, with the mysterious, voyeuristic, bisexual M.M. To a much larger extent than the DT version, this one takes decided jabs at the nuns/novices (I so did not mean to make that pun) Casanova loved to seduce (and often impregnated). This was a very, very funny part of the movie. As in DT, Casanova’s valet has a large role, though this version is more Jeeves than bad attitude. There’s a fun homage to escaping from the leads, which as I mentioned in the other review, actually happened.

The real Casanova would have loved all the gender-bending in this film (to be fair, there was a healthy and mostly accurate amount in the DT version). Very shrewdly, the woman who becomes more of a partner rather than a flavor-of-the-week is Francesca Bruni, a writer who spends part of the film in drag (see Shakespeare in Love, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, etc), defends her man in court (The Merchant of Venice), and writes proto-feminist pamphlets under a secret male pseudonym (encouraging women to burn their corsets, even though they weren’t called corsets yet, they were stays). She also is an expert swordfighter somehow and a scientist (the balloon ride was lovely but hot air balloons on that scale weren’t invented til at least twenty years later). I don’t really like Sienna Miller so the fact I liked her character attests to the strength of the writing. I did love all the visits to the printers, to the garret where the man Francesca employs to act as her ghost-writer. It goes without saying that cinematically the film was without parallel. Venice has fascinated me for the last ten years, so seeing St Mark’s Piazza, the Bridge of Sighs, and the magnificent Shrovetide ball interiors (to be fair, the dancing was a bit staid—I’m more inclined to agree with the rocking out presented in the DT version) was spectacular.

For the amount of hamming it up that two of the characters do, it’s fitting that Casanova’s rival in Francesca’s affections is a lard “mogul.” Oliver Platt was not only absolutely hilarious as the buffoonish Patrizzio (fair enough, he was almost too ridiculous and stupid to be believable) but came to a wonderfully sweet and unexpected ending where he actually became an ally rather than an enemy. You see, Francesca’s widowed mother Andrea (Lena Olin) wants to marry her off to Patrizzio of Genoa (who has a suitcase shaped like a salami!) to ensure against the family debts and provide a living for her son (in love with the virginal Victoria whose father wants her to marry Casanova!). I thought the pouty, repressed Victoria looked awfully familiar until I realized it was a blonde Natalie Dormer! (The hands-down funniest scene was the over-eager Victoria under a table at the masquerade ball ... erm ... how can I put this politely? I don’t think I can—pleasuring Casanova, who she thinks her husband-to-be is while he’s trying to carry on a conversation with her father, Francesca, and Andrea. The real Casanova would have loved that!)

The other ham is certainly Jeremy Irons as Bishop Pucci. Undoubtedly the clergy were none too pleased with Casanova; I think he was studying for the priesthood before he was thrown out. (He was also studying to be a lawyer which is why the scene of the debate between Francesca and her male rivals is quite apt.) In real life he had the protection of Signor Bragadin, but here it’s one of the Doges, making him considerably more immune to that nasty Inquisition and Irons’ nasty, hypocritical Bishop. A deleted scene hints that many of the clergy had their own mistresses, but for the most part, the writers’ attack on the Catholic church is confined to its (in their eyes) hypocrisy and arrogance: “Heresy is whatever I say it is.” The action turns surprisingly dark when both Casanova and Francesca are sentenced for hanging, she for heresy, he for fornication and adultery. (A hint of Perfume if not Pirates of the Caribbean!) I was rather amused when Casanova turned Dread Pirate Roberts at the end, but I will say no more.

It was a stroke of genius for Alexander Desplat to write the music in the style of that other famous Venetian, Vivaldi, complete with mandolins and harpsichord; it really lent a luminousness and sense of fun to every scene, as much a character as the filmic beauty of Venice itself. Similarly, aside from a few faux pas like sunglasses (!) and purple ecclesiastical gloves, Jenny Beavan’s costumes really look both spectacular and in period. Though the film acknowledges that a) Casanova is always in debt; b) his mother was an actress and he came from humble origins, it doesn’t make as much of an issue of it as the DT film did. Of course, I suppose it must boil down to how you perceive Casanova. While David Tennant is quite attractive, he can do the gangly, awkward thing, which is no doubt why he was cast: that Casanova was a bit of an outsider looking in, always trying to compensate for being born outside the normal order. By contrast, Heath Ledger looks a bit more like Casanova did, is handsome in the more traditional sense, and even admitted that the role wasn’t heavy-duty, acting-wise.

So, were my pet peeves antagonized or assuaged? Well, did people go around calling him JACK-a-MO? Yes, they did, unfortunately, though far less than in the DT film. Were his eyes brown like they were supposed to be? Yes, thank God. I am disappointed to suggest, yet again, that for a film about Casanova, it was surprisingly tame, sex-wise. Like I said last time, I wasn’t expecting porn, but . . . well, considering that two actors I find extremely attractive both get cast as Casanova , I was hoping for a bit . . . more. Anyway.

I found it quite enchanting. I really liked it.

mozart's ghost

For about four months, I was steeped in the Vienna of the 1780s, ‘90s, and early 19th century, researching my latest radio play, meaning I read many books about Beethoven, Haydn, Johann N. Hummel, and Mozart (much less about the latter). It was then with great familiarity and joy I picked up Mozart and His Operas by David Cairns from the library. For better or worse, Cairns seems to believe that Mozart can do no wrong, and his infectious enthusiasm for his subject quickly melts away any doubts about his rather odd writing style, his anecdotal footnotes, and certain inconsistencies of approach. Shrewdly Cairns has chosen to use the operas as a base, much more approachable (at least for an amateur like me) than the symphonies, etc.

My sum total experience with Mozart prior to research was Amadeus (the film and a revival of the play); an English-language version of The Magic Flute in which my then-voice teacher played a spirit, and some subsequent research on the opera for the purposes of fan fic; a recording of Don Giovanni as part of the research for Origins; some of Mozart’s love letters to his wife; and I saw part of Cosí fan tutte on TV in France. I think Cairns’ prime audience has a bit more knowledge of the maestro than that. Having just listened to a ton of Beethoven’s music as well as having read about him, it was going to be tough work for Cairns to convince me of Mozart’s superior genius (to be truthful, I had somewhat fallen in love with him, Beethoven). Cairns doesn’t seek to compare and contrast Mozart with other musical geniuses, which is just as well. He does, however, note that in a post-Romantic, post-modern world, Mozart’s work has often been discounted because “such cheerfulness [that we find in his music seems] a betrayal of the heartache that preceded it.” With Beethoven’s suffering chiefly in mind for producing such colossal works as the 9th Symphony, I know I have always held Mozart’s more ethereal, light-handed scores, well, superficial in comparison. Cairns warns us against such over-simplifications; the darkness of Don Giovanni should be proof enough.

Nevertheless, as raw, passionate, beguiling, and sad as is the genius of Beethoven, Mozart’s life is such that it should be a Todd Haynes film—“the advent of his being—like a visitant from another world.” What was in the water of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the latter half of the eighteenth century that it was breeding such a crowd of intellectual giants? This is a quandary that has fascinated me for years. Nature or nurture? I have myself been compared to Mozart on two occasions for early writing precociousness, but let’s not kid ourselves here. At my age, Mozart wrote his first “real” opera, Idomeneo. Cairns is quick to defend this often-overlooked piece, seen as a slave to convention; Cairns rebuts every point against his beloved Wolfie, ever-cementing Mozart’s god-like status. The only place he grudgingly concedes less than perfection is in some analysis of Cosí and in acknowledging Tito was rather hastily written.

I am likewise fascinated by the fact that Beethoven produced only one opera, Fidelio, while Mozart’s output was always somewhat more (I didn’t know it was seven operas until I read the book, Idomeneo, Abduction from the Seraglio, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and La Clemenza di Tito, all in Italian except Seraglio and The Magic Flute). Though the book doesn’t get too much into the biographical details—it’s written to celebrate the music, to describe the genesis of the operas as well as analyze them musically and in doing shoot down all their detractors—there are some gems that emerge that I didn’t know about. For example, during a rehearsal of The Magic Flute, Mozart was mistaken for a journeyman tailor (even though, as the book makes clear, he always used a hairdresser and took care in his appearance, quite a contrast to Beethoven). Likewise, I didn’t realize Mozart hated his birthplace of Salzburg so much; he felt much more at home in Vienna, less constricted by its appreciation of opera and less hemmed in by his family, I daresay. There’s a fabulous series of letters from Leopold, Mozart’s father, giving mouth-watering descriptions of Viennese cooking. As was hinted in the Hummel research I did, the Viennese were all on the roly poly side due to their love of food.

There’s an intriguing suggestion by Cairns that Mozart was “oversexed”—we all know from the Peter Schaffer play/film that Mozart was amused by flatulence, bawdy jokes, and giggled like an immature, naughty four-year-old on Ritalin. Or did he? Cairns tries to make the point that Mozart’s family and indeed the times produced people with similar interests/character flaws, and since it was the eighteenth century I tend to put more stock in Cairns that I would otherwise (he’s so desperate, sometimes, to smooth over anything negative said about Mozart!). Which is why the sly hint about being oversexed is intriguing—Cairns says it in context to Don Giovanni, supposing that even if Mozart wasn’t a Don Juan (contemporary descriptions call him a small, but pleasant-looking, flirtatious man) he could certainly imagine himself as one. (Making Don Juan Triumphant the perfect opera for Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Webber to give to the Phantom; Erik is certainly of the frame of mind to imagine himself as Don Juan.) By Cairns’ description of Don Juan, he brings to mind various titillating comparisons (to me, anyway) such as Heathcliff, Satan in Paradise Lost, etc, though I found him rather revolting when I listened to a recording of the opera.

The book is quite entertaining and has certainly made me determined to listen to, if not see, all the operas, armed with a bit more biographical and musical knowledge.

Batman the Greatest Stories Ever Told vol. 2

I didn’t really know what to expect from this volume. I mean, what’s the criteria for a great Batman story? Is it the art or the writing that takes precedence? I know for myself, it’s the writing, by a narrow margin. I’m sure in every “greatest of” collection there must be at least one work by the masters, the originators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. For characters like the Scarecrow, about whom less than two dozen stories have ever been written, it can’t be that hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. But in the long history of Batman?

I began to think that for this volume, they were picking the weirdest, most far-out of all Batman stories. I wouldn’t rank them in the best category, but they certainly push the envelope. Secret Origins Starring the Golden Age Batman from 1986 is drawn and written competently by Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers respectively. Young Bruce Wayne as a teenager and college-age student is firmly rooted in the 1920s. He smokes a pipe, does gymnastics, loves the theatre (the Pimpernel strain), and falls in love with an actress named Julie Madison. As usual, Batman’s first attempts at being the caped crusader go dismally, but he learns, improves, and pretends to Julie (like Nolan!verse Batman did to Rachel Dawes, until the end of Batman Begins) that he’s just a “playboy.”

I don’t really know what the point of Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters is, other than it’s from Batman #1 from 1940. It’s mostly a rehash of King Kong with Frankenstein thrown in. I do like that Bob Kane has helpfully drawn numbers in the corners of each of his panels so that the readers know in which order to read them! Similarly bizarre is The Career of Batman Jones from 1957, drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. The censoring laws must have come into effect, as the story is by turns bland and ridiculous. As if Robin the Boy Wonder wasn’t cheesy enough, because Batman saved a new mother’s and baby’s lives, they name him Batman Jones, and Batman contributes a “bat-coop” crib for the child to play in! It’s a big publicity ploy for Batman that goes wrong when the kid dresses up as a mini-me and gets himself into all kinds of trouble. Frankly, the whole thing is ludicrous, but the art is the epitome of ‘50s pop art.

Prisoners of Three Worlds by the same team, from 1963, is certainly as weird as the two titles that preceded it, but it anticipates the same vein of science fiction we’ll see about three years later in “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” One’s tempted to even say that Doctor Who inspired it, but it was written some months before “An Unearthly Child” was broadcast. Kathy Kane is lamented for being a beauty and not having married--yet unbeknownst to everyone, she is secretly Batwoman! That’s right, Batwoman! Her niece, Betty Kane, is Batgirl. Unfortunately these predecessors of Catwoman and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl have really naff costumes and, as we will see, mostly rely on their male counterparts to do the work. Nevertheless, I guess if I were a girl in 1963 who stole boys’ comics books, I might find role models in the two Kanes.

The plot concerns an alien named Karn--quite literally a little green man--stealing silver. When the fearsome foursome try to stop him, he teleports Batgirl and Robin to a planet that could be from Terry Nation’s imagination and Batwoman and Batman have split into two beings, one half teleported to a different planet and one half still on Earth! Uber-weirdness. When I first flipped to this particular page of the comic, I thought Batman had been split into his yin and yang components--male and female! What a trip! It’s strange, imaginative, and utterly ludicrous, but part two ends with Batman confessing his love to Batwoman as they kiss! Batgirl and Robin also snog! The ending makes Batman into one conceited jerk, however: BATWOMAN: “I did hear you admit that you loved me!” BATMAN: “Well--er--Batwoman--I thought we were going to die--and I wanted to make your last moments happy ones!” She should have kicked the crap out of him for that one.

How Many Ways Can a Robin Die? by Frank Robbins, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano from 1972 features some good detective work from Batman as he races against a madman released from death row for Robin’s life. The title page includes a set of grisly “deaths” for Robin that makes quite a thrilling opener (all of this poignant in light of the fact one of the Robins eventually dies, and that comic-book readers were given the choice--and killed him off anyway!). There are some fun panels, including one where Batman uses a trash can lid to shield himself from three swords flung by a sideshow swordman. There are some excellent settings, as well, including St. Elmo’s Graveyard (for seamen not buried at sea) and a waxworks museum. For me, I could well picture something similar in the Orlando Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! It was fun.

Batman’s Last Christmas by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo from 1982 turns up the weird factor again by, again, channelling Doctor Who even if doesn’t know that it is. As is explained to us by the narrator, There are at least two Earths in the multi-verse, existing on separate vibrational planes . . . Earth-1 heralds the Justice League as its champions, while Earth-2 is the home of the Justice Society! In Earth-2, Bruce Wayne died and left us with his daughter, Helena/Huntress, who sort of recycles Batwoman’s costume from 1963, and who calls our Batman “uncle.” (I know. It’s weird.) Anyway, it’s Christmas, and apparently it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from Earth to Earth, which is why Helena visits Batman. When you’re able to look beyond all that stuff, though, it’s a somewhat sweet story of Bruce not being able to come to terms with the fact his father may or may not have been as corrupt as some of the criminal dirt bags Batman sends to jail. There’s also a Merry Christmas to All of You at Home from the entire DC Staff.

All My Enemies Against Me! is a bit reminiscent of a recent Tenth Doctor comic by, I think, Roger Langridge from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, in that it does what it says on the tin. The Joker (muhahahaha) brings all of Gotham’s super villains (such as they are in 1983; there’s no Poison Ivy, obviously no Harley Quinn, and the Cavalier’s a bit different from the one I’m used to) together for to beat Killer Croc to the punch and destroy Batman. In that way it’s got a sweeet opening panel lineup with all of Batman’s foes in stunning theatrical color (though Two-Face’s ’70s plaid is ghastly). Gerry Conway and Don Newton do themselves proud with this story. (Hey, how can I not be amused if the Joker’s wearing purple gloves and purple pinstripe trousers? He also starts singing “Trouble” from The Music Man. He gets called a “dandified freak”--didn’t the Master call the Doctor that, or vice versa?--also “chalk face.” I quite like how Conway sums him up: Rule One: Trust no one. Rule Two: If anyone is fool enough to trust you--destroy them at the first conceivable opportunity.)

Batman’s allies are involved as much as his foes, including some girl in red named Thalia and an early version of Catwoman. She’s still named Selina and still has the hots for Battsie, but her costume is naff, naff, naff. Oh well. Robin (the original--Dick) is involved as well as Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl--quite a strong outing for her, actually. It’s an important story for more than the fun factor--Bruce adopts Jason Todd, the circus troupe teenager whose parents were killed by Croc, and eventually our second Robin. In the meantime, there’s a bad-@$$ female editor named Vicki Vale who reminds me of Sarah Jane Smith a bit, but her story doesn’t seem to go anywhere--perhaps in later stories. All the super villains squabbling amongst themselves is comic gold, the Riddler calling the Mad Hatter a “overstuffed hat-rack.” The final showdown is in a brewery (!).

As I was reading this collection I thought how nice it would be to have a story about Alfred, long-suffering advisor that he is (Michael Caine gives him personality in the Nolan!verse), and suddenly I came upon Of Mice and Men by Alan Grant from 1999. It’s brief, drawn in an anime-esque style by Scott McDaniel, but I quite like it. The young Alfred even looks . . . dashing.

I also really like Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, and Marcos Martin. The style is fresh, fits its 2003 writing date, but at the same time not as anime or cartoony as some. It’s how Batgirl comes to know Batman and Robin (a possible lead-in from the BTAS comic version or an alternative version). Batman is his typical jerk self while Robin, who figured out her identity long before, is nicer (even though she keeps teasing him about wearing pixie boots--as long as he’s not wearing kitten heels!). Strangely, Batgirl’s voice somewhat resembles a less bitchy version of Harvey Tinkle from The Dark Side of the Moon--but that’s another story. Alfred taunts Batman with voyeurism accusations as well as questions his ethics. Robin is also quite witty. Yes, quite fun and well-drawn, too. Citizen Wayne (2000) is six pages of sheer fan wank, basically viewing Batman through Orson Welles-colored glasses, but it’s fun. The Rosebud revelation at the end is great, as well.

A mixed bag, overall, but I can’t stop reading this stuff. I’m addicted!

Batman the Dark Knight Adventures

The first Batman comic I actually bought. I was looking in an independent comic shop in Cardiff for Harley Quinn stories (none of which they had) as they were much friendlier than the one in Swansea. Then I spent ages in Forbidden Planet trying to decide if I wanted to shell out £10-12 on a comic I’d already read or even one I didn’t know anything about. Then I saw this book, which had actually come from America—it was a bit beat-up, it was based on the animated adventures, and it had Harley in it. It was more expensive than I thought it should be, but I bought it. Mostly it didn’t disappoint. It isn’t Mad Love, which I have ordered from the Swansea shop, but which refuses to come in, but it’s a start.

This is a collection of monthly releases from DC in order to coincide with what was then the current run of the animated series (‘92-‘93). Bruce Timm, co-creator with Paul Dini, outlines in an introduction his initial horror that the monthly comic, aimed at younger readers, would undermine what the animated series was trying to do with a more adult approach. He asserts that the writer, Kelley Puckett, and the artists, Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett, contradicted this notion. In general I agree.

The art is more cartoon-y, for obvious reasons, than the last collection I read; it doesn’t seem to have been colored as much as dotted with inks (like the earliest Batman comics). The paper quality is like that of a coloring book, which some tyke must have found to be true, as parts of the book have been colored (annoyingly it’s usually over Harley’s face!). These limitations aside, the funnest parts of the art are its diverse and action-filled angles, and despite the simplicity of its character designs, Gotham is stuck in the same quasi-1940s universe as the animated series. It’s disappointing, therefore, that there aren’t any Two-Face or (okay, I admit it) Joker stories to remind me of that cartoon/Art Deco approach. Mostly it’s second-tier villains, with two exceptions.

Since it’s for a younger audience, the storylines are relatively straightforward, the panels often lacking much dialogue, and the violence is akin to The Sarah Jane Adventures rather than Doctor Who. (No one seems to actually die.) Nevertheless, it reveals its sophistication to its adult readers by its wry humor and occasionally bittersweet pathos. Raging Lizard, for example, tries to bring some humanity (even he admits he’s not human!) to Killer Croc, who has apparently gone clean and making a living as a boxer. I’m such a sucker, the Phantom approach always works on me, but from what I remember of the TV show, this is the vein of many of their stories: MICK: “Killer, this is all ya got! Look, people see ya on the street, whadda they do?” KILLER CROC: “Scream.”

Larceny My Sweet is even more blatant with the Beauty and the Beast thing, concerning a completely impenetrable bank robber and a lovestruck reporter named Summer Gleason. Things aren’t what they seem in a story about someone called Clayface (apparently in Gotham any bizarre superpower you can think of has a villain who’s got it) and misdirection. And thwarted loooove! Booo hoo! Little Red Book is mostly good old-fashioned chase scenes for boys, but in one panel a gangster asserts “I’m just glad we got the goods. I need another lecture from Thorne like I need a sock in the head” right before Batman KRASH! CHOK!s him.

The Last Riddler Story introduces (?) three absurd villains named the Perfesser, Mr. Nice, and Mastermind—clearly what they need, instead of lives of crime, are UK TV game shows on in the early evening. Batman must have a sense of humor to deal with these nuts. This animated-verse is so silly sometimes—the Riddler’s henchmen bake him a cake when he gets out of the Pen (rather than Arkham, curiously)! In fact, his henchman create the majority of the laughs in this rather insubstantial story—E. Nygma is a bit pissed off that his face rests on a video game he created—“One stupid mistake in your youth and you never live it down . . .” Manbat must be the hands-down strangest and most ludicrous of the second-tier supervillains, though, as usual, we go for the emotional side of things in The Beast Within.

Obviously I bought the book on the basis of Batgirl: Day One which features a whole litany of supervillainesses—Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley—as well as an origin story for Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl. The story is winningly drawn, and I find that in general women get bigger parts and wider range in the animated universe than in the straight DC universe. Batgirl begins, plausibly enough, as a costume at a Halloween party. It finds Batgirl and Harley fighting over a baseball bat before they smack heads! I mean, really, where else are you going to find stuff like this (and moreover, like it)? Ivy and Harley are always a winning combination, but throw in Catwoman, who treats them a bit like the Rani treats the Doctor and the Master, and it’s superb. By the way, I prefer animated!Catwoman’s costume to the DC-verse, but something’s still not right—there’s not enough leather.

And the cover’s brilliant.

By the way, I’ve got a hold on the animated series at the library, but it’s taking so long I may have to buy it. Uh oh.

Friday, September 12, 2008

the curse of dracula

I thought I’d try something different and sprang for this standalone comic by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan from 1998. Okay, since it’s about deadly bats it wouldn’t seem much of a departure—however, it’s from the Dark Horse Press from which Hellboy and numerous other successful franchises spring. And therefore, the feel is very different. I tried to get into it, and being as I am a fan of Stoker and Gothic horror, it seemed a plausible match. But I’ve got to say if I fancy bats I’m going to stick with the safe—that is, DC Comics.

Gene Colan doesn’t ink, as far as I can tell. Therefore his drawings are sketches, bearing the telltale signs of value, smudging, and layering that look cool but ultimately unfinished and must belie the amount of effort that he’s put into the art. I’m almost certain that Dracula 2000 evolved from this story as it shares a similar gritty theme of guns, guts, perversion, turn-of-the-century dirt and corruption. Dracula is the ever-immortal, there are grandchildren of the original Van Helsing and Seward, and its setting of seedy San Francisco is certainly akin to the New Orleans of the film.

That’s where the similarities stop, though, as the Dracula 2000 Dracula was charming and at least quasi-sympathetic (hell, he was Gerard Butler) whereas this Dracula is loathsome. The vampire hunters are interesting to a point; Van Helsing lost his vocal cords to vampires and earns his keep as a talk show host. By far the most interesting character is the half-Japanese Hiroshima who dresses bad-@$$ and carries a huge gun—she was blinded and tortured by vampires and therefore has absorbed so much of their blood that she’s half-vampire (or something?). Still, if we’re on the subject of a team, I think I’d much rather watch Torchwood kick undead butt.

The plot to take over the US presidency is interesting but ultimately meaningless. The team do possess some exciting weapons like a metal-tipped whip, incendiary stakes filled with sulphur and guns with wooden bullets. But overall, I found myself not caring very much about any of these characters and much preferring Dracula 2000.

batman begins: the movie and other tales of the dark knight

Paydirt. I’m sure I’m biased, but whoever put this collection together is a genius. Scott Beatty is listed as the writer, but the script has basically been taken verbatim from the David Goyer and Chris Nolan original. No matter—it gives me yet another chance to marvel at the intricacy of the plot. At the back of my mind, I think in light of TDK I was beginning to imagine Batman Begins was simplistic—and it isn’t at all.

Killian Plunkett and Serge LaPointe are superb artists. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to draw comics characters who actually look like their real-life film and TV antecedents—ie, the actors. The artists here do that stunningly, for all the characters. I’ve been complaining ever since I started my comic-reading quest that I’d much prefer Batman to look like Christian Bale than anyone else, and what unabashed, fangirlish joy for me to at last experience that. Hawt. (And the inked version of Dr. Crane is perfectly Cillian Murphy, down to the pale blue eyes.)

I wonder if it’s easier to create a comic when you’ve got a film equivalent to work from—or harder. I believe—it’s been awhile since I saw BB—that some of the backstory and narrative have been rearranged, and necessarily a lot of the middle material and fight scenes have been distilled—which is an interesting lesson in itself. Maybe best of all, I can see that, from the clean, realistic inking style, with a lot of work, I might be able to draw comics like this someday.

I am aware more thoroughly than in the film of a lack of female characters, and it bothers me—put purely from a drawing perspective! Some of the dialogue was either excised from the film, or was rewritten by Beatty, an excellent example being: BATMAN: “I’m taking her back to my place to give her an antitoxin before the damage to her psyche is permanent." GORDON: “Your place?” BATMAN: “Don’t ask.” GORDON: “Good, because I’m not sure I want to know.”

The strength of this collection is the four other stories the brainiac behind all this chose to match up with the story of the film, as they are all similar in tone to the Nolan!verse. “The Man Who Falls” by Denny O’Neil and legend Dick Giordano must have influenced Batman: Year One and the Nolan!verse. Young Bruce falls into the well and is traumatized by bats as in the film, though his father in the comic is callous and could easily be Sarah Palin’s hunting buddy. It’s a very good origin story, even if Bruce does look like Clark Kent again, and poor angsty Brucie endures the ache and pain of loss and isolation while hippies kiss. This Bruce meets a Korean sensei, a Pacific Indian leader, and his debut as a crime fighter being beaten by whores in the east end is as dismal as the one in Year One. An enjoyable if straightforward story.

The drawing style of “Air Time,” by Rick Burchett, reminds me of Heroes for some reason, and it’s the colors, as well as the innovative panelling and strongly technical inking, that keeps the non-traditional narrative, er, afloat. Batman is so noble in this story, it hurts. The family he saves is smart, brave, and grateful, not often a given in Gotham’s seedy world. Legendary Greg Rucka has found a perfect match in the talents of Burchett in this story.

Equally legendary Ed Brubaker contributes a morally uplifting story that perfectly complements Scott McDaniel’s active, colorful art in “Reasons.” It’s also a sweet Catwoman tale, though I confess to hating this “traditional” (?) version of the Catwoman costume. There’s an impossibly impressive two-page spread of Batman circling the Gotham skyline. CATWOMAN: “You kidding? Tony the Turk deserves to be walking with the a limp.” BATMAN: “That’s not the way I work.” It’s Catwoman who saves Batman’s heiny, and there’s a sweet moment where she infers he’s come to the east side to see her. BATMAN: “Okay, you caught me.” CATWOMAN: “Somehow I don’t thinks so . . ."

Urban Legend” by Bill Willingham and Tom Fowler has quite honestly the most hideous cover art I’ve ever seen, but it’s the first comic that’s made me laugh aloud again and again (other than Harley and Ivy of course). The book is worth reading for this one alone. To spoil the twist would be unpardonable, but Batman finds himself knocked out, amnesiac, and needing help getting to his car. “It’s called the Bat Car, Rob—or maybe Mobile, or something like that.” “The Mobile Car? That sounds stupid.” Batman is convinced that his “special bat powers” will come back on when he regains his memory. There’s a very, very funny sequence of Batman in the ‘hood with the local vatos, who actually help him out—it had me in stitches.

With very great reluctance I returned this volume to the library, and it’s definitely going on my to-own list.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the covers meme

Sadly, many of my favorite musicians just do covers—some of them have never written their own material (I’m thinking of those who fall into the category of show tunes and “easy listening” like Sarah Brightman, Michael Ball, Michael Crawford, John Barrowman, etc). But that’s okay, I guess—there’s room for everything in this big, wide musical world.

Johnny Cash- “One” (originally by U2)
Johanna introduced me to both Johnny Cash and U2, but I heard this version of one of my favorite U2’s songs in the supermarket. I liked it so much I went out and bought my first Johnny Cash CD. The original’s good, and I don’t know quite what I like so much about this version. I just do.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon- “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (originally by Bob Dylan)
And speaking of Johnny Cash . . . I always said Joan Baez was the one qualified to sing Bob Dylan’s songs as at least her voice didn’t sound like a cow sat on it. Nevertheless, reinterpreted by the cast of Walk the Line based on a reinterpretation by Johnny Cash and June Carter, it’s one of Dylan’s best.

Tony Gallichan- “Mr Dalek’s Bad Wolf Xmas” ie the Doctor Who theme (originally by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire)
I’m a junkie for remixes of the classic Who theme, and if pressed to pick a favorite I guess I would have to choose this one (originally found one It’s so good, it made otherwise timid me message Tony Gallichan when I saw him on Facebook to tell him how much I enjoyed it. We thus became friends and a bunch of other fun Who-related stuff ensued. But that’s a digression. Tony’s a gifted composer, and this haunting version of the theme manages to get in “Bad Wolf,” “The Watcher” from “Logopolis,” the sombre Dalek choruses from “Parting of the Ways,” the new (well, 2005) theme tune from TV in music box-like flourishes, “The Satan Pit”-like cello, and an amazing mix of Derbyshire and Gold. Go find it on whomix. Or better yet, find Tony on Facebook.

Alabína- “LoLoLe (Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood)” (originally by The Animals)
What irony that the title of the original corresponds to the fact that the cover is in Spanish and Arabic.

Nightwish- “Walking in the Air” (originally by Aled Jones)
Britons will probably recoil in dismay when they hear the original as it gets a lot of airtime here at Christmas. I must have seen the animated Snowman when I was little, and the tune haunted me, but it wasn’t until I heard it Gothic heavy metal with electric guitar and a crowd of clapping acolytes by the Norwegian group that I really appreciated it. It manages to be both mysterious and beautiful, a little dark and lovely. Their interpretation of “Phantom of the Opera” is also good.

Simon and Garfunkel- “Red Rubber Ball” (originally by the Cyrkle)
There’s nothing wrong with the original, it just ages with less alacrity than the vocal stylings of Paul and Art.

The Lounge Brigade- “Deep Dish” (originally by Ani DiFranco)
The Lounge Brigade interpret so many of Ani’s songs in interesting and accomplished ways, but this one is the funnest because of its use of different sound editing techniques as well as having a sort of James Bond feel to it!

Alanna Davis- “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (originally by Blue Öyster Cult) (I couldn’t find her version, but I did find this
Somehow stranger, creepier, and prettier than the original.

LA Guitar Quartet- “Loose Canon” ie “Canon in D” (originally by Johann Pachelbel)
I have many favorite versions of the famous Canon, including an a capella one by Platinum, a hyper-electronic one by Isao Tomita, and reinterpreted as a Christmas song by the San Francisco cast of the Phantom of the Opera (!) but this one stylistically covers all the bases and gives the quartet a chance to show off their superb guitar skills. “Bluegrass” canon is perhaps coolest.

Sarah Brightman- “Gloomy Sunday” (originally by Reszo Seress)
Who would have known this was the suicide song? I certainly didn’t, as Sarah (or her arrangers) make it a jazzy, sultry number with an upbeat added verse at the end. That doesn’t take away from the dreamy, sensual lyrics or haunting, melancholy tone.

Smashing Pumpkins- “My Blue Heaven” (originally by Gene Austin)
I just love this song, and if Smashing Pumpkins hadn’t dug it out of musical obscurity, I would have never known about it.

Gary Jules- “Mad World” (originally by Tears for Fears)
Gary Jules manages to sound like Simon and Garfunkel on “Broke Window,” so maybe making derivative sound good is his gift (although there are a lot of gems on Snakeoil for Wolftickets that are often overlooked). This is the cover that had me hitting the replay button about ten times in a row. Tears for Fears may have created the obscure, profound, awed, and cynical lyrics, but Jules imbues the sweetly sad piano with much emotion. And I always think of Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann when I hear it, but that’s another story.

Michael Ball- “Hot Stuff” (originally by Donna Summer)
Of all the Michael Ball covers, this is the most ludicrous and fun.

The Obertones- “Under the Bridge” (originally by Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Oberlin College a capella ensemble that has managed to do great things with Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and The Beatles’ “Please Please Me,” though this is the most ambitious and integrated of the lot. Also good is Yale’s Kingsmen’s version of Barenaked Ladies’ “What a Good Boy” and Nothing But Treble’s “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5.

I’m sure there are more, but I can do a part two.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

and on the tube ...

Now that it’s been seven weeks or so that I’ve been here in Britain sampling the delights of culture, I thought I might as well share what I’ve been watching. I’ve only got four channels at the moment so I’ve been a bit limited. Nevertheless, one can watch a lot of TV in six weeks if one has no job.

There’s a Pobol y Cym omnibus Sunday afternoons through the evening, and since this is the only time you can catch the Welsh-language soap with English subtitles, I do. I’ve said this before, but the British have a peculiar relationship with their soaps. They have them on at prime time rather than in the daytime, and they’re a cultural phenomenon, watched by everybody, not just stay-at-home moms or the elderly. I do like to brag my tutor used to write for Pobol y Cym (which I think means “hill and valley”). I don’t really “get” the British soap thing, I think they’re rather ridiculous really, but I have a soft spot for PyC and honestly believe it to be better than English-speaking soaps on the market. I like the characters more, and just listening to the Welsh (with the occasional English words thrown in) is great fun. A Telenovela it is perhaps not.

Tipyn o Stad is another Welsh-language soap that I started watching but have lost the thread more recently. I thought PyC was set in north Wales but now I think it must be in the valleys somewhere because they drove to the Eisteddfod in Cardiff.

I was watching EastEnders for awhile, as I prefer it to Emmerdale (vastly; what crap) and Coronation Street (I don’t have cable so I can’t indulge the psychopathic pleasure of Hollyoaks). I’ve stopped more recently but I know if I want to start up again I can at anytime, as the storylines will be easy to follow.

The Tudors is what I’ve managed to watch every week except once. My sister watched a bumper version of the first series, of which I caught the last few episodes. She isn’t a history buff but watched it because of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and now is somewhat interested in Henry VIII. So that’s one good thing the show’s done! It goes into thorough (one might say agonizing) detail over the well-worn period in history. Normally shows of this nature will condense a lot of time in order to cover ground quickly; the opposite occurs here, they milk years of Tudor-time for all they’re worth. The first series ended with the deposition of Queen Katherine of Aragon, and now, by episode 6, Anne Boleyn the minx is on her way out. I don’t know how much you can say for the historical accuracy sometimes; the costumes are beautiful but sometimes blatantly a fantasy. Christmas is all wrong, so are weddings, and a guy’s already playing the fiddle when they haven’t been invented (as such) yet. There’s usually more sex than you can shake a stick at—presumably the shtick to get mainstream audiences to watch—including gay men romping. Despite all that, parts of it are genuinely moving. I like how even-handed they are writing Mary Tudor, who will become Mary I, and I thought they handled Sir Thomas More quite well. The acting is, for the most part, quite good, and Jonny does make a virile King Henry.

Mock the Week has convinced me that Frankie Boyle must not have any friends, but most of the time it’s the funniest thing on TV. The all-time funniest joke on this was in reference to Wales (of course) but it would be easier for me to tell it to you rather than write it out. I love the way they’re all going after McCain as well.

Would I Lie to You? is also quite funny. They usually have good guests as well.

QI is hosted by Stephen Fry and is all about Stephen Fry proving how clever he is by doling out points for the answers that amuse him the most, not the correct answers. Which is fine, it’s his prerogative and since he is usually justified in thinking himself clever, it makes for a good show. There are also wackily-musicked buzzers, and when Jo Brand was on, it was just hilarious. I also think I’m developing a crush on Alan Davies from watching it. He’s so cuuute.

Kingdom also stars Stephen Fry as a rural solicitor whose put-upon by his jailbird brother and various other weird characters. It’s somehow not as good as it should be, and I never know whether to take the magnificent title sequence seriously.

Bonekickers had me scratching my head the one episode I saw. I couldn’t figure out whether it was supposed to be a documentary or a drama. It was a drama, I think, and involved bitchy archaeologists digging up British POWs from WWI in a German tank in France. The archaeology part was interesting, the international digging politics (à la Timeline) were interesting, but the characters were so lame, it was barely endurable. Fortunately the story itself had the mystic appeal of The DaVinci code as it stretched all the way back to Joan of Arc in Lorraine. It also starred Burn Gorman and Mr. Blifil from Tom Jones as hounded WWI soldiers.

Who Do You Think You Are? is one of my favorite British programs period. From the David Tennant episode I was hooked. This series has fewer “celebrities” I actually know, though my favorite episode so far was Boris Johnson. I find British politicians have improbable names, like Boris, Jack Straw, or Alexander Darling. I know my fellow London ODers are in a funk over Johnson’s election, and from what they’ve said I couldn’t find any redeeming features for him at all. That was before I saw the impossibly blonde man in action, and I must admit surely it’s his charisma that got him the job? Taken purely on his performance in Who Do You Think You Are? he seems an amusing, likeable chap. Maybe he’s got the sound of drums behind him like Harry Saxon did? Anyway, I think they must have upped the series’ budget this time, as we’ve so far travelled to Turkey, Poland, Alsace, and other far-flung places, all in pursuit of making what genealogists do look easy. I don’t care if it’s all been hyped-up for TV; it is interesting, fascinating, even exciting, what they manage to dig out. For example, on one side, Boris has a Turkish antecedent who stood up to Ataturk and paid the ultimate price. On the other he’s distantly related to George II (which, as you can imagine, delighted him to no end). Others have found relatives in East End slums and a diamond billionaire. I’m looking forward to David Suchet now.

Pierrepoint was in no way qualified to be bank holiday viewing, as there was nothing holiday about it at all! I daresay it’s one of the first times Timothy Spall has gotten to play leading man, albeit as a humble, conflicted hangman, and it was interesting to see him handle the role. Juliet Stevenson was quite good as his wife, alternately his Lady Macbeth and also shrinking from what she saw as hands with blood on them. Though overall the period, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was well evoked, there were some scenes that had absolutely nothing to do with anything—thrown in for titillation value?

The Last Word Monologues would never have happened on American TV. Even at half an hour, what is essentially a theatre device causes me to fidget, and I hope I’m a more discerning TV viewer than most (well, that’s just being egotistical). The first of the three was interesting, sweet, ballsy, and quite sad, concerning a woman who’s about to be euthanized at her own request—it’s a video recording farewell to her husband. They’ve travelled to Switzerland in order to have the procedure done, and the narrative is partially about the indignities of the voyage. In addition to it being excessively bleak, what I couldn’t quite get into were the cutting-edge filmic techniques in a scene that’s so static. Distracting.

On the other hand, I absolutely adored Rhys Ifans as a lonely Welsh farmer recording a tape for a dating service. The narrative starts out in the predictable manner, but I fell in love at once with the middle-aged man’s awkwardness and plainspoken. It was terribly funny, as well, and in addition to the inherent loneliness of farming in isolation, the farmer was ruled by his mother, haunted by his father’s early death and the suspected lack of love between his parents, and piqued by the appearance, one summer, of a migrant Maori worker. The narrative sucked me in, and the bittersweet (but ultimately happy) story of the farmer and the worker was magnificently done.

I did see the third one with Bob Hoskins because I was doing something else.

Midsomer Murders have been given three chances by me, but I’ve come to the same conclusion three times: they’re not very good. Set in some fictional rural village, they start out with interesting characters and good twists, but by the time we get to the summing-up, the whole thing’s fallen apart into stiff, bland characters who do things because the writers tell them to. Even the likes of Simon Callow and a bunch of other actors who’ve been in Doctor Who couldn’t save it.

Lost in Austen is fan fic, pure and simple. If only someone would pay me to write this kind of stuff, I’d be rich. I actually wasn’t going to watch it until my friend Katie asked me if I was, and then since she was coming over to watch it anyway, I decided I would. You really have to suspend your belief here—unless there’s some massive revelation coming up in the fourth section—as the heroine, Amanda Price (not Fanny!) climbs through her bathroom into the Bennets’ house in Pride and Prejudice and subsequently behaves badly. It is indulgent fun, however, and I will be watching next week as I suspect (hope?) it will improve with time.

The One Show I happened to catch and not only was Bryn Terfel on it (who Katie loves), but also a feature on Dylan Thomas in Laugharne, and something else vaguely Welsh and interesting but I forgot what it was.

Friday Night with Jonathan Ross has just started its series, with Wossy’s tie the same color as the opening titles sequence. In the past I’ve doubled over with laughter as he’s interviewed Billie Piper (I believe when she let slip that her nickname for David was “Ten-Inch” Tennant), John Barrowman, Freema Agyeman, and a crazy American model who tried to attack him. I hope the line-up this time around will be as good.

Will o’ the Wisp is a kid’s show from the early ‘80s that Katie got for her birthday on DVD. We watched it, and I was quite frightened by the now-un-PC characters. But it was hella funny, and Kenneth Williams voices all the characters wonderfully, including a very gay will o’ the wisp. Mavis Cruet is a pink, overweight, dysfunctional, sweet and sometimes stupid fairy—I liked it when she refused to give up eating fairy cakes in order to lose weight and be able to fly like all the other fairies. I also liked when she got abducted by Vikings and then was angry when her friend, Arthur (really ArfUR) the caterpillar rescued her. Arthur is extremely funny. Quite possibly the weirdest animated character ever is Evil Edna (I keep wanting to call her Dame Edna) who is a witch in the shape of a television (WTF?). She’s evil, selfish, and with a streak of vanity you wouldn’t believe. She turned the Beast into a beast from a handsome prince who couldn’t pronounce his rs. The Moog is my favorite character, an unbelievably thick dog. There’s an erudite, bespectacled cat whose name I forgot, and some other characters. This all takes place in the warped world of Doyly Woods. There’s some Will o’ the Wisp clips on YouTube, along with Jon Pertwee as Spotty Man in Super Ted. You Brits are so weird.

And that one show where John Barrowman tried to find out how gay he was. Jamie tipped me off to this one, and while I was watching it at the time with Joyce who is 80, she was very understanding of John’s superlative gayness. John was, of course, convinced that his gayness was a gene rather than something in his upbringing, and you should have seen the look on his face when they analyzed his, erm, reactions to gay and het porn and they jokingly told him he was straight. Very funny show, and he was absolutely the best person to explore this topic. And they say he’s on TV too much!

And coming up soon, I know already I would like to watch The Devil’s Whore, a historical series starring John Simm (looking grungy) as a 17th century assassin; Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Hans Matheson (though is he playing Alec or Angel??), Einstein and Eddington (with David Tennant as a scientist!), and The Last Van Helsing with Philip Glenister (partially because I never got to see Life on Mars and have heard so much about Gene Hunt). I’m undecided on Merlin, which claims to emulate Robin Hood (which, let’s be honest, I watched mostly for Richard Armitage).

Is there something I should be watching but I’m not, UK viewers? Let me know your thoughts!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

the last of the mohicans

Now we move to rival comics camp Marvel for a bit. My interest in this graphic novel was three-fold. First, my dad has always loved Classics Illustrated and even bought me a copy of their Jane Eyre (I remember the art wasn’t all that good). My mom has always been a big fan of The Leatherstocking Tales. The Michael Mann Last of the Mohicans is one of the first films I can remember seeing in the theatres and it has remained one of my favorites to this day. Mann’s film is based on an earlier adaptation and therefore differs a good deal from the Fenimore Cooper original, so I was curious to see how the graphic novel adaptation would hold up. With Washington Irving, Cooper is basically the forefather of American literature, and when I took a class in American literature in France, the French obsession with Puritanism in colonial America gave way slightly in order to accommodate the atypical adventure stories by Cooper.

Writer Roy Thomas has made a conscious effort not to stray far from Cooper’s original language though Thomas admits even in 1826 when the book was published, it was already archaic in style (then again, it is trying to recapture events from 70 years previous, in 1757). This means some of the speech bubbles are impossibly crowded, but since it’s consistent, you get used to the protracted linguistics quickly, which come in the form of the Munro girls’ and Major Duncan Heyward’s impossibly educated speech and the tortured syntax of the Delaware and Iroquois. I’ve always wondered how much research Cooper did into the Indian groups he portrays, as I surmise he gets the facts basically right.

The hero is Natty Bumppo (changed to Nathaniel Poe in the Mann film), also known as Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine (by the French-speaking Iroquois who fear his accurate rifle Killdeer), and the Deerslayer, plus some other epithets I’ve probably forgotten. Though he asserts he has “no cross”—ie, no Indian blood—he is between two worlds, “white and Christian-born,” but raised by the Mohican/Delaware chief Chingachgook. In the Mann film, of course, he is memorably played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and some of the art by Steve Kurth (in particular some cover art by Jo Chen and Gerald Patel) shows that influence, however unconscious. Nevertheless the real hunk of the graphic novel is young and ill-fated Uncas, Chingachgook’s biological son.

The story is full of adventure and violence, but more a series of escapes, skirmishes, recaptures, and bloodbaths—a bit like a Pertwee story but with more blood. The Mann film has a much more traditional three-act structure, but a good many of the elements of the original novel—beautifully illustrated here—have worked their way into that film. The waterfalls, Massacre Valley, Uncas and Cora’s ill-fated deaths at the hands of Magua, etc. The Munro girls, Cora and Alice, are much more non-entities than I remember from the film, with both of them making brave and erudite speeches. Of course, romance is much less the point of Cooper’s tale, with some of the roles being reversed: Uncas silently loves Cora and dies for her, Heyward loves Alice. There isn’t the pleasant tension of the Hawkeye/Cora/Heyward love triangle, but to make that work in the film, Heyward had to be something of a priggish, racist colonialist redeemed only by his brave sacrifice on Cora’s behalf. There was something so sweet, too, in the innocent Alice and Uncas relationship in the film.

There is less overt attention paid to the politics of the French and Indian War, but then Cooper only had less than a hundred years’ perspective whereas we have had more time to analyze. General Montcalm, the “Canada father,” makes a brief and satisfyingly crafty appearance. The white officers show themselves to be every bit as courageous as their Mohican/Delaware counterparts, and Magua remains a wonderfully multi-dimensional villain, explaining to Cora that the reason for wanting revenge on her father is a complex tale of shame and the drunkenness brought by the white man and his “fire water.” There is little insight into the settlers who would have been removed from their lands by the draft to fight with the British army; this was not Cooper’s axe to grind. A fascinating section of the narrative is when Hawkeye and Uncas try to persuade Tamenun, the great Huron/Iroquois Sachem, that Magua’s claim on the prisoners—Heyward, Cora, Alice, and a bizarre psalmodist character named David Gamut—is null. Some of the dialogue in this section made its way unaltered to the film.

In all of the media used to retell this story, much has been made of the “tortures” and atrocities committed by the various native American groups on each other and white prisoners. In the film, Munro’s heart is cut out of his still-breathing body by Magua and Duncan is crucified in flame. In this graphic novel, prisoners are tied to trees and woman’s baby is dashed against the rocks before someone puts a tomahawk through her head. The violence of the frontier no doubt occurred, but I can see where Europeans would get a very skewed idea of the American west from overlong exposure to some of Cooper’s imitators. I’m happy to say that Patrick O’Brian seems to have borrowed a cunning disguise perpetrated by Hawkeye here and given it to Jack Aubrey in Post Captain.

Kurth’s art is wholly impressive—a perfect example of how talk-heavy comics can accommodate truly great action scenes and close-ups. Inker Cam Smith and colorist June Chung should be acknowledged as well. The Delaware/Lenni Lenape are accurately drawn—no tiny breech cloths that so annoyed Russell Means in the Hollywoodization of Mohicans. Unlucky Cora and Alice have to wear bulky gowns whose historical accuracy is questionable.

The Italian artist Denis Medri tries his hand at illustrating “A Tale of Hawkeye’s Youth from The Deerslayer.” His style is too anime, too CGI for me. The tale itself is interesting, showing the young Natty’s personal honor as well as an ill-fated romance with a haughty settler’s daughter named Judith Hutter. Chingachgook’s courtship of Hist-oh-Hist, Uncas’ mother, is no less enjoyable. The tale is, as ever, bloody, but has moments of quiet contemplation lacking from Mohicans the graphic novel. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. But I do not feel toward you as I should; if I were to cleave unto you. Nor am I one to take advantage of a weak moment when you fancy that earth and all it holds are in this little canoe.”

Roy Thomas has won masses of awards, so maybe it’s worth trying to find more of his work.

batman: face the face

I know it’s not very often I actually criticize the art in a graphic novel. There are so many talented artists out there, it’s easy to take their skills for granted. However, I will just say that Face the Face has really exceptional art by Don Kramer and Leonard Kirk—pages and pages of absolutely mind-blowing art that goes above and beyond the normal panel-by-panel reconstruction. I suppose it’s sadly appropriate, then, that the script by James Robinson isn’t quite up to snuff, at least until the last third or so.

In chronological terms, this takes place after Detective but right before Death in the City and some time before Gotham Central. Face the Face picks up after something called the Infinite Crisis where, in the DCComics world, the reset button has been hit after a year. So Batman has been absent from Gotham for a year. Wait til you see who he put in charge in his absence. Anyway, the action does start right away, with the death of a second-tier villain KGBeast plus a confrontation with Poison Ivy. Oh, and what gorgeous lighting techniques Kramer, Kirk, and their inkers and colorists are able to achieve—like Tim Sale, they love to use ink. I quite like the Poison Ivy confrontation here—drawing-wise and content-wise—as with our present era of green, Ivy doesn’t seem like such an insane person after all. “If she wasn’t going about it all wrong,” says a sympathetic Jim Gordon, “I’d almost want to side with her.”

The story is partially the third Robin’s. I’m slowly, slowly figuring out the whole Robin chronology. Dick Grayson was the first Robin, and he turned into a superhero in his own right called Nightwing. The second Robin I think he died. The third Robin, Tim, is an orphan, and I can’t quite tell if he was the Robin who sent the Joker in the path of a semi in Slayride or not. In any case, I think all writers try their hardest to make Robin appealing. He has a good sense of humor and a compassionate heart. I like what he says to new detective Harper. “Don’t worry, he [Batman] liked hearing you say that [it’s great to have you back].” “How do you know?” “I know.”

In discovering the death of another second-tier villainess named Magpie (who, except for the hair, I would probably dress like if I were a villainess), old skool detective Bullock notes, “Why didn’t a second-rate villain like Magpie move to somewhere like ... like ... Apache Junction? She’d rule in Arizona. Hell, even England. They got like, what, two heroes in the whole damn country? Imagine what crazy quilt could pull of there.” That’s funny on so many levels. In all these killings, a two-barrelled hand-gun is used, pointing the finger at a reformed Harvey Dent. Who Batman left in charge during the year he was gone. What?! Is he nuts? Well, wisely the graphic novel keeps us in suspense about how Batman charged Dent with keeping things in order until the last third.

We see the Ventriloquist offed and meet the rather appealing, humorous, totally egotistical gumshoe Jason Bard, who Batman hires to help him do some detective work. “Is this a quick visit, or should I put the coffee on.” “Interesting.” “Coffee? If you say so.” “I know men. Their fear. You have none for me. I like that. Men of good heart have nothing to fear.” Batman’s assertion to Bullock that “All evil is bad. I don’t have a sliding scale” is interesting; I think it would jive with something the Eighth Doctor once said. The ring of villains ever widens, including the Penguin as well as a strange one named Orca. Jason Bard interviews her husband in a very illuminating and well-paced section after her body has been discovered in a sewer—mauled by something called Croc—ewwww. Bard has a run-in with a hitman named Tally Man as the Harvey Dent/Batman/Two-Face tension is ratcheted up.

I’ve always thought that the whole Two-Face story had a variety of Phantom-y qualities, which proves to be the case here, although a stunning opener for the last third in which Two-Face tries to break out of Harvey’s psyche is more like Gollum confronting Sméagol. Being Two-Face, was, apparently, better than sex, heroin, cocaine, weed, opium, Valium, crystal, acid, and ecstasy combined. Hence there’s a potent call on Harvey’s soul, and with his vanity and jealousy piqued by the fact Batman is not entirely sure Harvey’s being framed for the murders on the villains, it doesn’t take much to send him over the edge. Apparently he did a competent job while Batman was away, which rather boggles belief if you ask me. Certainly Two-Face’s original origin, in that he got splashed by acid, must have come from the Claude Rains Phantom. But the Phantom would never, had he gotten plastic surgery, re-mutilate himself with nitric acid and a scalpel! Major gross-out!

There’s a final confrontation with the Scarecrow, who looks rather different from any of the versions seen in the Scarecrow Tales collection (ostensibly because Face the Face is from 2006, after Batman Begins, and therefore he is looking a bit more like the Cillian Murphy version). Robin makes off with another great-one liner after Scarecrow accuses Batman of being cruel. “Yeah, pot, he’s a black kettle.” I like seeing Jason Bard kick butt—I hope he shows up in more stories. The story finally winds its way to its conclusion with the whole thing having been masterminded by another Phantom-like villain, but I won’t spoil who. There’s such a sweet ending to this story that I almost cried, because I’m a big baby, but the future doesn’t look so bright considering Two-Face is roaming the streets again! His facial reconstruction surgeons must be pissed off!

So that’s all the villains accounted for, except for Harley who we know from Death and the City is in Arkham, the Joker who must be involved in the Loxias thread, and Mr. Freeze, who may have died, I don’t know. Is there anyone I missed? Anyway, the art is un-missable, and once the narrative by Robinson gets going, it’s like a steam train. All aboard!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

batman: year one

Batman: Year One

I should tell you that I’ve never seen Sin City, and even the inducement of Gerard Butler in a loincloth couldn’t get me to finish 300, which I thought was absurd, repetitive, and boorishly violent. Nevertheless, Batman: Year One from 1988 has long been touted as one of the best stories in the genre for its reinvention and kick-start given to the origin story. It’s long been cited, too, as one of the major influences for the Nolan films, and in reading it, it’s easy to see the connection.

It’s telling that in Batman: Year One Batman encounters no super-villains. He is truly alone, pursued by petty crooks whose lives he’s spared, prostitutes he’s rescued, crooked cops, and a dogging media, so he doesn’t need a larger-than-life flamboyant madman to deal with (though, just like in Batman Begins, mention of the Joker as a future menace is included at the very end). Miller is indeed an excellent storyteller. He cuts the fat and goes for the jugular, and his view of Gotham is extremely grim—it would not have passed the censors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as almost the entire city police force is corrupt and vicious, and the people really have no hope until Batman and Jim Gordon join forces (though Harvey Dent has not yet become Two-Face and is therefore fighting the good fight in the DA office).

According to Wikipedia, Gary Oldman’s look as Gordon for Batman Begins/The Dark Knight is almost identical to that drawn by David Mazzucchelli in this comic. Yes, but so is his extreme heroism, his almost saintly commitment to serving justice. In fact, in this graphic novel, his story is as important as, if not more than, Bruce Wayne’s. So can I just say how much Jim Gordon kicks @$$? He’s transferred to Gotham from Chicago just as his wife (now named Barbara; how is that for confusing?) finds out she’s pregnant; like the Russian ballerina in TDK, he can’t countenance raising a child in Gotham. He perseveres, though, despite the animosity and corruption of his fellow officers (Nolan!verse junkies will recognize names like Gordon’s partner Flass, Commissioner Loeb, and a mob boss called the Roman is, I think, Falcone). I know that even heroes like Gordon can’t be completely infallible, but is his infidelity with fellow detective Sarah Essen really necessary other than as blackmail material? Essen’s the one to peg Wayne as the best candidate for Batman, a bit like Chauvelin figuring out the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, but this thread seems to disappear once Essen is transferred.

As in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after years of travelling the world, seen by all as a vapid, over-rich playboy with a cocaine habit. This Bruce becomes Batman when some bats fly in through his window. I’m biased, but the much richer mythos developed by Goyer and Nolan in Batman Begins overwhelming trumps this one. Despite his Superman good looks, I like Miller’s Bruce/Batman for his self-deprecating sense of humor and his sheer courage and commitment to doing the right thing. “Too bad I can’t afford to patent it [Wayne Electronics invention]. I’d make a fortune. But then, I already have a fortune.” It’s Batman’s sense of mercy toward cats that connects him to Selina Kyle, making a brief, pre-Catwoman appearance, but also that mercy convinces Gordon that the vigilante is not out to terrorize people but to give the wicked a taste of their own medicine.

Gotham certainly comes across as a city uninterested in being saved—a city that likes being dirty. I’m baffled as to why a gang of hookers in Gotham’s east end—including Selina—want to beat up Bruce when he saves them from their violent pimp, unless they’re just scared. After a rip-roaring finish involving Gordon’s baby son, it’s a fair bet that Gordon does know who Batman is. As I said, Harvey Dent is certainly on Batman’s side at this point—there’s a very funny sequence where Batman hides under his desk as Gordon questions Dent to provide alibis for times when Batman was out and about (again, not unlike similar suspicions raised in TDK). Williamthebloody brought to my attention a review of TDK accusing the film of being pro-Conservative party propaganda, and while at first this seemed absurd to me, its philosophy is much more conservative than V for Vendetta, for example. Batman is a vigilante, some of the cops in TDK’s Gotham are corrupt, and while the Joker’s philosophy of anarchy (or moral nihilism according to Wikipedia) is explained in enough detail to almost make it appealing, your hopes are always with Rachel’s, that good in the form of organized government will always come through. Year One is much closer, then, in philosophy to V for Vendetta and is more anti-government, more relying on the efforts of two people, Batman and Gordon, for the salvation of Gotham.

I’ve so far barely mentioned the art by Mazzucchelli. It’s a vehicle for telling the story, unlike some of the more otherworldly art in Black and White, for example. It’s got a real old skool feel to it, though definitely more accomplished than the Kane/Finger story from 1941 that I read. The pages are packed—with action, with dialogue, and Mazzucchelli always delivers, whether it’s a close up, a background shot, or a simple action silhouette. This will make no sense, but it’s so good it’s almost unnoticeable. If you’re invested in the emotion of a scene in a film, you’re not supposed to even notice the soundtrack. The story, the almost cinematic world Miller and Mazzucchelli create is so effective, you lose yourself in it—gritty and unpleasant though it may be. Colorist Richmond Lewis, by the way, is a woman. Cor.

Year One isn’t flash, but you can see how everything after it owes it a debt.