Thursday, October 23, 2008

what was lost

I really wasn’t sold on this when I started reading it. My friend Adi loaned it to me. But by the time I finished the first page I was absorbed, which is something every author yearns to hear said about his or her novel. This is Catherine O’Flynn’s first book. The key to it—and something I feel I should take away and emulate more in my own work—is the ability to tease out the facts of a story very, very slowly. I tend to rush and get exposition out of the way as soon as I can. In this book, you were left guessing about a number of things here through almost 200 pages. Also noteworthy were O’Flynn’s characters. Not all of them were drawn to the same degree of precision but they were genuinely unforgettable.

It really amused me that I started reading the book on a bus when it opens on a bus. However, I was on a bus to Caswell in 2008, Kate Meaney was on a bus to Green Oaks Shopping Centre outside of Birmingham in 1984 (when I was born, mind you). Kate immediately stole my heart, and I defy anyone to read the first section, set in 1984, and remain unmoved and unamused by this young girl’s pluck, creativity, and the weird sense of adulthood coupled with complete naiveté which she carried around her. A lonely child, there’s no one to really notice when she goes missing. Parts of the book are told as excerpts from her Falcon Investigations notebook, all of them amusingly earnest.

It says in the back of the book that the author’s father owned a sweet shop; she puts this firsthand knowledge into the backdrop of the story with Adrian, Kate’s much older friend, just as weird and wonderful, an enthusiast of music, a co-conspirator in Kate’s Falcon Investigations. . . . He would always put a scrawled sign on the counter: ‘Now Playing: Captain Beefheart, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. For more information, just ask a member of staff.’ Kate’s father doesn’t make much of an appearance, sadly, but in a few words he comes across as the greatest of dads, even if he is 61 when Kate is 10—a retired statistician, he and Kate make lists and spreadsheets, visit cemeteries, factories, forgotten parts of Birmingham. O’Flynn knows how important details are. We don’t have to be told Teresa Stanton’s being abused and that Kate is her only friend, the only one who recognizes her potential. Once O’Flynn has fleshed out the world of 1984 sufficiently, we’re dropped suddenly into 2004.

The protagonists of Green Oaks in 2004 are not quite as endearing as Kate and Adrian. I suppose it’s just part and parcel to their being so unhappy in their lives, they come off (amusingly) bereft of human spirit. Kurt is a night security guard with a lot of emotional baggage who thinks he sees the missing Kate on CCTV footage—though until the end there’s really no explanation for him to do so unless you want to claim she’s a ghost. However, with so much time to think (it’s against Kurt’s religion to read a book, apparently) he (or O’Flynn using him as a mouthpiece) comes up with profound stuff. Sometimes when he was at home in the afternoon, the sun would shine in a certain way through his bedroom window, the net curtain would move in the breeze, causing a rippling shadow on the wall, and he’d had a strong sense-memory of what it felt like to be loved, what it felt like to fall asleep and wake up with someone’s hand in yours. He’d try and hold onto this sensation of euphoria as long as he could but it was only ever momentary. Mainly, all he could dredge up of certain times were memories of memories.

Lisa works for Your Music. O’Flynn uses Lisa to an extent as an indictment of working in retail hell, which O’Flynn apparently did herself. Lisa has no life. She has a crap boyfriend, no interest in music anymore, and nothing beyond staring at the wall to interest her outside of work. She is soulless. Your Music has done this to her, to a point where she doesn’t even know how to fill out the “Interests and Hobbies” section of a job application. I found her character so deeply depressing I could barely even laugh at the grim humor surrounding the freaks in the stockroom, the sh*tter in the elevator, her insane boss Crawford, the immensely annoying Your Music customers (clearly drawn from life). The key to her character involves enduring pain and hardship because she didn’t say no at the very beginning, beautifully summed up in a childhood experience involving blanc mange, and I almost punched the air on the bus when she finally turned her life around. Even better was a scene in which, not only did she say no, she actually stopped a cycle of customer-employee-customer abuse mind-games. All with a blank tape and a copy of Mozart’s horn concertos.

When at last Lisa and Kurt meet, both of them sharing the burden of misery and more of a connection over Kate Meaney than they realize, the story picks up speed. Adrian comes back into the picture. Kurt’s still in thrall to his moral but emotionally tyrannical father. Both know more than is immediately visible about Kate. And what has happened to Kate? Is she dead? Who killed her? Adrian? Why did she never make it to Redspoon (read: vomit) Academy? All becomes clear, and I’m proud to say for once I figured out the bad guy a few steps ahead of the narrator. In the end, despite the hurt suffered by so many of the characters, you get a sense that things have happened for a reason and there is closure.

This is a funny book, but it’s also a grim book. I really like the narrative switch between 1984 and 2004. There are attempts to—what? Liven it up? Give a fuller character experience? –with short diversions in the forms of recorded thoughts of random people including bored people on Sundays who go to malls and the jerk-off Mystery Shopper. I wasn’t sure how much the book really benefited from these. I don’t quite know why parts of the prose were blocked off with chunks of dialogue—a postmodern technique, surely, but for what purpose? I really did enjoy this book and will be haunted, like Green Oaks, by Kate’s character, for some time.

boys in eyeliner

Dark Victory

It’s really strange to be reading Loeb/Sale work with Heroes on the tube, since they’re both collaborators in that series as well (and one of the best pieces of TV fiction ever, in my opinion). As usual I’m doing it all backward—this is supposed to follow the Loeb/Sale masterpiece The Long Halloween. (The library doesn’t have it, so I may have to actually put down some cold hard cash and buy it.) Catwoman: When in Rome was excellent, this was very good, so I’m hoping Long Halloween will be, in accordance with the hype that surrounds it, unparalleled.

As far as I understand it, Dark Victory continues on more or less where Long Halloween left off. This is different territory than any of the Frank Miller I’ve been reading ,which started at the very beginning of Batman’s and Gordon’s careers (Year One), or the very end (The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again). Here is a fairly young Batman, a fairly young Gordon, and it’s time for Robin to make an appearance. All modern writers seem to acknowledge including Robin is difficult—Miller compensated by making her a girl, Loeb and Sale try to reconcile the fact that Batman works alone with a need to prevent his childhood tragedy—with no one to talk to except Alfred—happening a second time. It works fairly well. That’s one thing this graphic novel seeks to do.

One must remember that being a detective is in Batman’s DNA. He made his first appearance in 1939 in the pages of Detective, Ras al Ghul calls him “detective,” and this is what sets him apart from Superman, Spiderman, all those with “superpowers.” Hence, this is a really good detective story. It’s long and complex, so it has room for many characters and conspiracies. The conceit is a follow up to (who I assume was) the villain of Long Halloween, a villain called Holiday who strikes only on holidays. A villain named Hangman is emulating Holiday’s style. I tried to do the “holidays universe” thing myself, albeit in Doctor Who fan fiction: I got as far as “Birthdays,” “Friday the 13th,” and am still slogging away on “St Valentine’s Day.” So I have a lot of affection for this conceit, artificial though it may be. Remember Calendar Man from Sale’s “Misfits”? He’s in here too. Albeit much more sinister.

Though Alfred is around minimally to make his usual dry quips, I find it’s actually Gordon who provides the much-needed comic relief in this story. He’s got a new D.A., Janice Porter, who went to law school with Harvey Dent. Who I guess must have just become Two-Face in the last story, as the wounds are still fresh within everyone—Batman/Bruce, Gordon, Selina/Catwoman, etc. Janice Porter is, as the notes say, based on Lana Turner and must have been fun to draw. She’s a fun character, and a lot more complex than you might think. Her arrival in the comic is: “I’ve just come back from Arkham.” Gordon’s response is, “Business or pleasure?” She won’t work with Batman, she finds it difficult to see eye-to-eye with Gordon (it’s sweetly pathetic when Gordon invites her to Thanksgiving, a bit à la the young Gordon in Year One), and she’s reopening the Alberto Falcone case (ie, Holiday). In court Gordon tells her she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. Well, she does. I may as well tell you that she’s secretly Harvey/Two-Face’s lover, which is reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s Two-Face story in Black and White—with the same tragic results.

Alberto Falcone is released on strict parole and starts hearing the voice of his “father,” encouraging him to commit Holiday-style murders again. He’s got a copycat in Hangman, who everyone thinks is Two-Face. When Two-Face is busted out of Arkham, along with Solomon Grundy, the Scarecrow, and the Joker, we begin to see one half of the coin (if you’ll pardon the pun). The “freaks” of Gotham are going to war against the five crime families (Falcones, Vitis, Maronis, Gazzos, and Zuccos) with the death of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (in Long Halloween). His daughter Sofia Gigante (so-named for ample reason) is now the head of the crime family but confined to a wheelchair with a neck brace. Or is she? To quote the Fourth Doctor in Wolfsbane, “Women can be monsters, too, you know.” Hangman is going after Gotham City cops, corrupt and clean, killing one per holiday, per month. There is a method to this madness, but it only becomes clear in the stunning finale. I can tell Loeb and Sale are obsessed with this Gotham City mafia business, and make Selina Kyle a big part of it, so I’m content to let them steamroll along. I suppose it’s all leading back to that realism vein Batman Begins started in on. (“Lovely bunch of coconuts,” is Gordon’s assessment of the mob families.)

Speaking of Selina, she’s still dating Bruce Wayne in this, and from her perspective, he’s a really crap boyfriend. They spend Thanksgiving together at Alfred’s suggestion but he fails to show up on Valentine’s Day. From the Catwoman angle she isn’t getting any satisfaction either. Batman yells at Catwoman to get down, and when he falls on top of her, she’s prepared to take it with a smile and a wink. On Valentine’s Day she and Batman stand on the roof together. “I know there’s something about me you want. I can tell. You go all rigid when I’m around. Let’s do it. Right now. Take off the masks. No secrets.” BATMAN: “ . . . What is your relationship to the Falcone crime organization?” CATWOMAN: “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I still think Sale draws Catwoman like a man with helium balloons glued to his chest (as Renaissance artists used to make their women terribly muscular because they only had male models). But character-wise, she’s awesome. “Why is it so hard for you to understand—when you blame yourself for Harvey Dent—and you didn’t even throw the acid.” BATMAN: “Harvey Dent was . . . my friend. Who is Sofia Falcone to you?” Clearly the lack of trust has gotten in the way of something really great between them. Oh well.

I do like how Sale draws Bruce/Batman. Bruce is hairy but has a lovely facial structure, slightly presaging Christian Bale. Like all of Sale’s characters he seems to be wearing eyeliner—all of Sale’s men look like raccoons. Fortunately I am a woman who appreciates men in eyeliner. I don’t like Sale’s Poison Ivy, he’s got it all wrong there. His Scarecrow, however, is the epitome of creepy—really, really far out there and the complete reverse of anything BTAS or Batman Begins could offer. Loeb and Sale seem to understand Harvey/Two-Face, giving him motive and moments much like some of the best stories in Batman: Two-Face. The scarred part of his face (play some Phantom-style organ now) is perfectly hideous, but the handsome Harvey-side is not really that handsome. (Have to say I prefer BTAS’s version.) I love what Loeb and Sale manage to do with the Riddler. And as for the Joker . . . is it too facetious to use the Third Doctor’s words there—“all teeth and curls?” Can’t say it’s my favorite design—that probably belongs to Joe Chiodo, whose Love on the Lam actually has a scene reminiscent of the one here where the Joker and Two-Face level semi-automatics at each other’s heads—but he does have the tommy-gun. I have to say from what I’ve seen the Loeb Joker is not really that funny and perfectly loathsome. Nevertheless I was a bit tickled at the fact Porter got dragged off to see Two-Face by the Joker and the Scarecrow.

And what of Dick Grayson? There’s a really powerful panel of Bruce Wayne at the circus where Dick’s parents have been killed in their highwire act, and Loeb and Sale are careful to emphasize the link between the two men, in terms of unbridled rage and need for revenge, as well as the terrible loneliness thrust upon them at a young age. In a rare smile-inducing moment Dick insists on the yellow cape as part of his Robin costume, to Bruce’s puzzlement. Art-wise Dick looks like a small wiry monkey with mascara, a character design I could live without.

Loeb and Sale know what they’re doing. They’ve plotted this thing to perfection, with twists and turns, and therefore have turned out a moving, fast-paced, beautifully drawn, inked, and colored piece of work. Sale has a real sense of design and space and how to use it, most evident in his large, page-sized spreads. It’s another graphic novel I’d certainly like to own one day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

batman: city of crime

You wouldn’t think so, but I’m beginning to see how Batman the franchise and Doctor Who the franchise are alike. They both have a revolving cast of assistants to help the central hero, a revolving cast of regular villains to frustrate them, and the format of both is so malleable, they are able to constantly reinvent themselves and stretch the boundaries of the universe in which they inhabit. It probably makes sense, then, why I am drawn to both.

I say this as a preface to this graphic novel collection, taken from issues 800-814 of the Detective range in 2005-6, because it represents the one extreme. Batman can go toward the humorous, cartoony side, a la BTAS. Nolan!verse Batman tries for the ultra-realistic. Push that a bit further, and you have David Lapham’s vision. City of Crime is so realistic, in fact, it’s disgusting. Paul Dini’s Death and the City was in that vein, but somewhat stylised, Gothic. Lapham’s packed narrative panels are somewhat reminiscent of the energy of Bill Sineciwicz, but Ramon Bachs’ pencilling, Nathan Massengill’s inks, and Jason Wright’s colors are a bit closer to Tim Sale.

Lapham is a good enough artist to provide the original comic covers, and his sense of space and suspense reflect this. City of Crime is sprawling and overarching and very frightening. It’s an unrelentingly grim, sordid story set half in Bruce Wayne’s exclusive penthouse parties and half in Crown Point, equivalent to Albuquerque’s downtown or Martineztown. (That was a bad joke. It’s worse than Albuquerque’s downtown, I assure you.) While the tangled web involves the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and the Ventriloquist, the real villain here is a semi-supernatural force called The Body. (Not be confused with Steve Austin.)

There’s an omniscient narrative voice that at first I found annoying and intrusive, but its occasional flashes of dark humor make up for it. As Batman and Robin go into a burning apartment complex, Robin displays his recurring dry wit: “Did you wear the Nomex suit?” “Yeah, yeah, asbestos boxers and all.” The narrator adds, “Like a panther, he moves fast and low. In truth, more like a raccoon or a ferret. But don’t tell him that.” The Penguin, who I remember vaguely from the Batman movies, always seemed a bit absurd in the abstract. Of which the narrator is certain: “Oswald Chesterfield Copperpot. Known in certain circles as the Penguin. But don’t laugh. It could get you killed.”

The Penguin is presented here as loathsome as possible and is drawn that way, too--though he did make me laugh, when referring to Mr. Freeze, “This is what happens when you work with freaks.” I’m not quite sure what Mr. Feeze’s role in the story is--he kidnaps a pregnant teenager, puts her in a meat locker and forces a priest to perform a marriage ceremony, but what this has to do with the main “body” of the plot I’m not sure. In characteristically brutal style, however, the force of Freeze’s gun is illustrated with disturbing realism.

Bruce Wayne snubs a Paris Hilton-like spoiled little rich girl at a party, and then feels really guilty for the rest of the comic when she dies of a drug overdose. I still haven’t quite figured out how her death is connected to the exploding apartment complex full of pregnant teenagers and runaways, but that’s obviously because I’m slow. Taking the cue from Frank Miller, when Bruce infiltrates Crown Point, he dons his most Pimpernel-esque disguise yet. Intelligence gathered, he returns to the neighborhood as a union construction worker, Donnie Malloy. In his initiation fight with the foreman, Raffi “The Moose,” I’m reminded of “The Forgotten” from BTAS.

When Raffi befriends “Donnie,” we see a truly disgusting world of half-starved drug-peddling children, Raffi’s abused wife Siran, and about every other kind of perversion you can think of. Meanwhile Robin and ex-Commissioner Gordon are holed up in Gotham Mercy Hospital with slightly deranged cop Frank Ivers and Wekser the Ventriloquist (in a coma). And the Body is after them. It’s a good set-up. There’s wonderful interplay between nightmare and reality as we think Bruce and Siran kiss, with Raffi on the rampage killing both of them. The truth is both stranger and more prosaic.

Is it a coincidence that the City Waterfront Project, of which Raffi is foreman and which exudes a terrific force of paranoia and madness on whoever gets near it, looks exactly like Rassilon’s tower in the Death Zone? I think not! I wonder if the underground cathedral Batman finds is the one in Gothic? Batman defeats the Body’s Hydra heads and its many sources, before Robin and Gordon can kill each other (apparently, under the Body’s influence, the former thinks the latter is the murderous puppet, and the latter thinks the former is the Joker.)

As in The Dark Knight, City of Crime sees Batman nearly giving up his struggle against the weight of a city that is so virulent with pestilence and evil. In both cases he manages to remain true to his calling, but at a terrible cost.

Friday, October 17, 2008

rose has a thing for fit natives

Colin Brake has written many things, including a Second Doctor novel (with a Seventh Doctor cameo) called The Colony of Lies, which I read some time ago. I remember it was pleasant enough, and it’s difficult to write Troughton well, but I found it rather average as far as story went (it was set in a Wild West-type town on another planet, with dog-headed natives, and IMHO it didn’t really do the Wild West thing very well). I quite liked The Price of Paradise, his Ten/Rose novel, though upon reflection it has a very traditional Doctor Who structure and style. Not that this is a bad thing, just . . . average.

It occurred to me about halfway through the book that I’ve never actually read legitimate writing for Ten and Rose. (I didn’t actually read Curse of the Drowned or The Stone Rose; lovely Mr McDonald read them to me.) Since, as you know, season 2 leaves me a bit flat, I was curious to see how much I enjoyed the pairing in prose. I thought Brake pulled it off well, though perhaps because he used that tried-and-true method of separating Doctor and companion for most of the story! Brake wasn’t about to get all sappy about the Doctor and Rose (Jac Rayner isn’t so squeamish and I love her for it) so maybe the book benefited from the more straightforward approach. Having read it almost directly after Only Human, it struck me that all the writers seem to agree: Rose has a soft spot for fit natives when she lands on their primitive planets. At least they’re consistent. As in Wooden Heart, actually, I am reminded of The Village as far as the “monsters” are concerned.

Did Colin Brake know the Vast Toffee was going to name the ship the S.S. Pompadour? Because his ship name is almost as absurd: S.S. Humphrey Bogart. That’s okay—she’s sort of channelling Firefly, being a bucket of bolts rather than a sleek ship. The story concerns Laylora, the fabled “paradise planet,” and a human crew’s excursion there, which puts the planet’s eco-system in serious disarray (couldn’t be more topical, I suppose). Of course the Doctor and Rose are involved, having to avoid the seriously dangerous Witiku monsters and keep the Laylorans and the crew safe. Rose actually does a lot in this one, using her gymnastic skills, making a lucky guess in terms of weaponry against the Witiku, and there are a few sections where I think Brake does quite well in getting to the essence of Ten—specifically when he rants against a “dirty” generator that the intractable Professor (à la “42”) refuses to turn off. Rose meets Rez, an adopted human, and enjoys his company, but not to the point of Tillun in Only Human.

Inevitably, whenever I think I have something figured out, I don’t. Not even close. When grim-faced Professor Petra Shulough expressed an inkling of understanding for Rez, I took the “Silence in the Library” route. I was wrong, but in that case, why was she drawn in such an inhospitable style? One of her crewmen says in eight months, he never saw her smile. That seems like a remarkable hyperbole. Okay, she’s an orphan, but is that really justification for her frosty attitude? I wasn’t entirely convinced. Even the Doctor compares her to a Cyberwoman! (Though I suppose this may be Brake’s way of keeping us on our toes, never sure whether Petra has another, sinister agenda or not. For some reason in my mind’s eye I kept seeing the older archaeologist from “Stones of Blood.”) Fortunately, after a bit of compassion (in the form of saving her life) from Rose, Petra loosens up a bit.

Brake has a gift for cute little scenes or details; Rose goes through the Doctor’s coat pockets in order to find a weapon (and feels bad about it—I’m sure it would be the first thing I would do—especially if he was wearing the coat, heh). (Speaking of which, I’m sure Brake didn’t intend for the following exchange to have a subtext, but then again, maybe he did. ‘It’s not actually a cell, you see . . .’ Hespell started to explain. ‘It’s my cabin.’ ‘I’m being held prisoner in someone’s bedroom?’) Is there even a sly Candide reference when the sparkly trisilicate is found in the Laylorans’ fields, “ever so common”? When Rez and Rose meet, she offers him her hand. She tells him to shake, so he shakes—like a dog. If that’s not a funny enough image, it’s played up again later in this sweet and hilarious exchange: Rez looked a little hesitant. ‘Does he shake?’
She and Rez exchanged a knowing look and then both of them burst into hysterics.
‘I’ll take that as a no, shall I?’ The Doctor sounded a little hurt.
Rose managed to stop herself laughing and apologized. ‘Private joke,’ she explained.
If anything, this only made him look more upset.
(This is the closest we get in the book to the Doctor and Rose as a couple.)

There’s a death at the end that, in my opinion, is included only because no one has died and this is Doctor Who so someone must die. While I found it entertaining and a quick read, it never seemed to kick up into its highest gear; even when I was only a few pages from the end and knew I was reading the denouement, I kept expecting the big finale on some level. So definitely a page-turner, I think I liked it more than Colony of Lies, and better than I expected for Rose/Ten.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the underwater menace

The only episode of this Patrick Troughton story that remains in its entirety is the third, and I was fortunate enough to watch it when Jamie got me Lost in Time. I was struck then by the sheer weirdness and creativity of the set design and costumes as it was set underwater (duh) in Atlantis. Despite this, the story has been regarded as a bunch of “old twaddle” (yes, I stole that phrase from Jamie though I don’t think he ever described this story quite that way). Perhaps then it is a superb candidate for the audio treatment as provided by Anneke Wills (Polly) who provides linking narration here much as Frazer Hines did for The Evil of the Daleks and Carole Ann Ford did for The Reign of Terror. At four episodes it’s positively sleek by 1967 standards, and despite it being a series of escapes and recaptures, I found it quite entertaining. Perhaps it helped that Anneke Wills voice was both soothing and a good one for narration; perhaps it helped that much more of the dialogue told the story than in Evil of the Daleks (was that the script writer’s fault?).

This is Jamie (McCrimmon’s) first proper story, having just been recruited from The Highlanders. It’s hilarious to see (hear?) him coming to grips with time travel (and everything else!) in this story, which he manages in irrepressible Frazer Hines style meanwhile maintaining a “desperate Scottish” accent. As I say, I admire the unusual setting that Gregory Orme gives us, and for once I find out the story behind that rather strange third episode I saw. The Doctor, Jamie, Polly, and Ben land the TARDIS in what Polly surmises is the Cornish coast, but in fact, as the Doctor determines, they’re nearer the Mediterranean. They “scramble up the volcano,” which indeed must be arduous for Polly if she’s in bloody heels like I expect she is!

Anneke Wills notes later in her interview that when she left, Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines’ natural tendency was to comedy, which is certainly already showing here. “You’ll find out!” the Doctor says when Jamie wants to know what’s going on. “I don’t think I want to know,” replies Jamie. Ben snipes that in his kilt, “someone might mistake [Jamie] for a bird!” Since apparently the crew have landed in 1970 (?!), Polly notes this is later than her own time. “Later?!” cries a baffled Jamie. “I wish I understood.” I was impressed that Polly speaks at least three European languages, and Jamie speaks Gaelic—between them and the Doctor, they’d do pretty well on communication (that is, if the TARDIS didn’t translate things already—maybe it was malfunctioning at first?).

The team almost get eaten by sharks, then sacrificed to the Atlanteans’ goddess Amdo before the scientist Zaroff comes to the rescue. The Doctor cleverly facilitates this with some reverse psychology and pretending to be a little more familiar with Professor Zaroff than he is. Zaroff is the egomaniac of which we seem to encounter only in James Bond and Doctor Who. He utters the immortal line, “I could feed you to my pet octopus, yes?” To which the Doctor replies, “Yes.” Zaroff is a food expert (perhaps he and Yana should have teamed up) who has come to Atlantis to do studies. When the Doctor asks him how the Atlanteans ever accepted him, Zaroff says he gave them a big sugar-coated pill by telling them he’d raise Atlantis to the surface of the Earth. The Doctor is horrified at the plan. In order for the audience to understand the full extent of his horror, the Doctor cries, “Do you know what you’re doing?” “You tell me, Doctor.” Apparently the nutty Zaroff’s going to explode or fry or both, the Earth. “Just one small question—why do you want to blow up the Earth?!” Because he can, muhahahahaha!

The primitive Atlanteans want to sacrifice the travellers to Amdo, turn Polly into a fish (before Peri was about to be turned into a bird), and Zaroff will stop the Doctor and his Atlantean allies from interfering at any cost! All this involves the Doctor donning a ridiculous disguise, Polly wearing shells, Jamie and Ben making friends with some guys named Sean and Jacko (where they came from, I’m not quite sure), the Fish People getting agitated and going on strike, culminating in Zaroff killing people, dragging Polly around, and shouting, “Nothing in the world can stop me now!!”

The Doctor manages to foil Zaroff, of course, but says, “I can’t leave Zaroff to drown there!” Zaroff perishes due to his own hubris, and Polly cries of the Doctor, “he must have died saving us!” Of course the Doctor did not die. Polly gets dragged roughly to her feet by Jamie in what could have ended in really bad fan fiction but doesn’t, fortunately. The surviving, displaced Atlanteans escape from their submerged city declaring “there will be no more temples” as they, like the world at large, reject religion for science. When Jamie alleges the Doctor can’t control the TARDIS, the Time Lord sputters, “I know: let’s go to Mars!” They end up on one of the most boring serials ever, “The Moonbase,” but that’s another story.

I read an interview with Anneke Wills in Shooty Dog Thing as she promoted the first volume of her autobiography. To be honest, I’d never heard of her before Doctor Who so I haven’t picked up the autobiography yet. But she seems a delightful interviewee, very lucid and also full of fun and pluck. I loved what she said about narrating the story in audio form: “I get to work again with Pat.” She notes that just hearing his voice is such pleasure, and I agree. You can accept almost anything if it comes from Troughton, or at least I can. He is a most consummate actor in audio or on screen, and listening to him play the Doctor constitutes almost half the fun of this audio adventure.

Again, as I said, the clipped nature of this story makes it much easier to listen to and follow than the ordinary stories of the period, and the over-the-top nature of the incidental characters as well as the humor of the principals increased its pleasure factor.

watch your language, son

The Dark Knight Returns

It was indeed ironic that this book came up right after its sequel at the library, so I read them in reverse order, which gave the experience a twist all its own. I liked the original better than the sequel, though reading it gave me a better appreciation for the sequel and helped me understand what the heck was going on there. The main difference is that Klaus Janson is doing the art, Frank Miller sticking to the writing.

At the outset, I think one fundamental difference between Mr Miller and myself is that he wanted to see Batman at the end of his career—having fought crime for 25 years—at the ripe age of 60. I, however, am happy to maintain the myth of Batman being forever young, forever fit. Sure, Miller contributed much to the mythos when he caught both Gordon and Batman at the dawn of their careers in Year One, and I can certainly see the symmetry in bringing him to his end. I feel a bit schizophrenic, too, toward Janson’s art. Sometimes he is capable of large panels of extraordinary beauty and power. But when the pages are divided into tiny panels of sixteen, swamped by text, by sheer fact of doing that much drawing, the drawing quality goes down. I am sure that for myself, if I had to do sixteen panels a page and leave room for text, I wouldn’t go beyond the cartoony either.

Miller likes that text. His characters talk a lot, and what’s more, they think a lot. Which is an interesting combination with the action-oriented art, but I have to say I kept getting confused at whose thought bubble (or rather soliloquy) I was reading. The plot is simple: Batman has retired for ten years and just as a new threat hits Gotham—the Mutants—and Jim Gordon is retiring, he dons the cape and the cowl one last time. He’s got a new sidekick, too, Catgirl from the sequel, Carrie Kelly, who serves as his Robin. Alfred, who must be pushing eighty, is still around as is Gordon, a newly surgically-altered Two-Face, and Selina Kyle. (Selina is presented as a washed out old woman who runs an escort agency. I was highly disgruntled with this; she should have gone out in her own blaze of glory.) There’s a huge confrontation with Superman at the end, which results in Batman/Bruce Wayne faking his death, which I still don’t understand. As wonderfully as Janson draws Superman, the character has always bored me.

As I’ve said before, the modernistic approach—and even here, some of Janson’s art—cannot but have inspired the mood of Batman Begins. The origin story—falling down a well, being attacked by bats, his parents being gunned down in the alley—is practically the same in the film. One vital difference I don’t think I brought up before is that in every comic I’ve ever seen showing the Waynes’ death, Thomas Wayne always fights back. In my opinion he’s much more admirable (and the pathos that much more sincere) when in the film he and his wife attempt to placate their assailants—paying for their lives with such compassion. Miller’s Batman, especially in this story, is rather brutal in his methods. In a way, the Batman Begins/TDK Batman had his moments—the torture of Sal Maroni in a back alley—but I guess it’s just down to Miller’s vision of Batman. He does warn a collaborator bent on revenge, “Pull that trigger, and I’ll be back for you.”

Miller loves satire, and over half the narrative is taken up (and sometimes bogged down, in my opinion) by ongoing news reports showing the public’s reaction to Batman, including interviews with Gordon, Harvey Dent’s surgeon and psychologist, etc. The shrink puts it all down to “Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psychoerotic behaviour pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns.” Harvey’s been in “Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled” where the Joker’s been in a catatonic state since Batman—“darling”—retired. Miller/Janson’s vision of the Joker is . . . unique. He looks a bit like a beefed up David Bowie or the Emcee from Cabaret. I’m most amused when he uses special lipstick to kill an entire television audience (um, not the killing part, just the method, oy). Captain John in Torchwood operated in a similar manner, and I can’t help thinking the TDK Joker would approve. There’s a very brief insight into his state of mind in the carnival, where he’s just murdered tons of kids by giving them poisoned cotton candy/candy floss, “They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine—and it would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.” Apparently, after 30 years of cat-and-mouse (though we’ve had almost 70) Batman has decided enough is enough and he’s going to stop the Joker for good. Which he does. To me, if he’s going to abandon his principles, he should have done it way back when the Joker first appeared. It would be a bit silly to compare them to the Black and White Guardian, but it is archetypically satisfying to think of them as, well, as the Joker says in the movie, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

I like Carrie Kelly. She’s easily the most likeable character in the comic. I don’t even mind the notion of Robin being a girl. But if I’m supposed to believe she’s 13 and can be the superhero she is (plus with the emotional maturity) then I’m Santa Claus. I finally figure out where the “Batboys” from the sequel—and their ludicrous dialect—came from as Carrie infiltrates the Mutants’ hideout. She’s also the Scarlet Pimpernel, apparently. Well, a chip off the old block. She brings a sorely needed humor to the proceedings. And her relationship with Batman is soo sweet. Her character design is very cool.

So, my overall reaction was positive one, but I think in both this volume and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller let his tendency toward wordiness run away with him while in Year One he revealed the perfect balance between his narrative-driven story and letting the artist get a word—or drawing—in edgewise.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

and on the tube x 2

Figured it was time for round two.

I managed to miss most of the rest of the series of Who Do You Think You Are?, but I did play catch up during the marathon re-runs of the first series and made sure to see David Tennant, as the first time I missed most of his episode. He was all grizzled up for Recovery but still wearing quite tight trousers—er, I’m supposed to be discussing the merits of the show, aren’t I? Well, for some reason I thought Mr. McDonald was from near Edinburgh like one side of my family, but like Gerard Butler, he’s from the Glasgow area. He got to visit a small Scottish island where the living was tough, the streams were clear, and he somehow resisted doing a Yorick with a skull he found in a local parish church. Then he got very angry at the committed Orangemen in his family in Northern Ireland (we have them in my family too) but recovered when he saw that reconciliation seemed to be in the cards for the Derry community from which his ancestors had come. All in all, it was highly fascinating, especially since we have somewhat similar backgrounds, but I confess I did dream about him after I went to sleep. ;-)

Lost in Austen’s zenith were its second and third episodes, once I had accepted the very loony conceit that Amanda Price had swapped places with Elizabeth Bennet via her bathroom. The despicable Mr. Collins was played with every ounce of oozing unctuousness, Amanda got to knee him, I was convinced Bingley would shoot him in a duel, and my friend Katie was completely won over by the Mr. Darcy, far from her original assessment (“he’s ugly”). Admittedly we all howled when he had his metaphysical postmodern moment in the fountain, and Katie in particular loved when Amanda accidentally called Miss Bingley “bum face!” I really liked seeing Mr. Darcy in 2007 London trying to get his bearings, and the vaguely good turn Wickham made. (That reminds me—Mrs. Bennet, Amanda’s best friend, Kitty Bennet, and Miss Bingley were all played by ladies who had big parts in Doctor Who!) However, it was so very much like fan fiction—the creaking machinery of belief-suspension to get it started, the glorious headlong dash through moments of high comedy and farce, and the sad quaking of discombobulation as it tried to make a satisfactory ending.

Harry & Paul is really the first sketch show I think I’ve watched, not counting a few rounds of Catherine Tate which I didn’t really understand in the first place. I loved the first episode because I didn’t realize the characters were going to be reused. The casually callous Nelson Mandela—the posh builders—and in particular the shop owner who sells “Wank” to women with more money than brains. I also enjoyed the Dragons Den segment once I understood what they were lampooning. I think my favorite was the absolutely barmy black-and-white film noir salesman and inn keeper—a read of the Radio Times even wrote in to ask what exactly it was satirizing. The response was . . . nothing in particular!

Tess of the d’Urbervilles was one of the best programs I’ve seen all year. It was incredibly faithful to the book, which I have loved since I read it seven years ago. (I also claim the distinction of playing Tess in our English final project of that year and screaming, “It’s the mother ship!” as Tess was abducted by aliens. You had to be there.) Gemma Atherton was a superb Tess (she was Elizabeth Bennet in Lost in Austen, but definitely proved her acting prowess here!). The fact that it was four hours long made it possible to adapt the book in a reverent fashion, so that you could really understand why Tess, Angel, Tess’s mother, and others acted the way they did. The music was absolutely gorgeous and moving, and I’ve been singing “The Snows” ever since. The tail end of the 19th century in Hardy’s Wessex was perfectly recreated. Although I’ve always regarded Angel Clare as a little sh*t, in the final episode I did at least want him and Tess to get together—though of course I knew they wouldn’t end happily (yes, I did cry). I’ve always been a fan of Hans Matheson, and he made a perfectly dissolute Alec d’Urberville (unfortunately he looks quite a bit like someone I used to fancy so I ended up dreaming about this person throughout the run of the show!).

I only saw one episode of The Hairy Bakers, in which they made a giant, seven-tiered wedding cake. I just remember they did their mixing in a wheelbarrow and the visceral pleasure of pouring all that flour, sugar, sultanas, and butter and mixing it with their bare hands! The end result would have been pretty, but as I’ve said many a time, I don’t like British sugar icing so even their layer of marzipan couldn’t save it.

Radha convinced me to watch one episode of Ambulance as we waited for Virgin to connect our Broadband/cable. This was a reality show in the basic sense: it followed one ambulance crew around during one night and one day while they were on duty. I can’t remember which Northern town they were patrolling, but I think it made the very clear statement that many Brit injuries are the result of too much alcohol. On the other hand, these heroic people had to save a boy from a car accident and a suicide attempt.

It was like a blip: one night I happened to catch an episode of Life on Mars, the vaunted show whose second series I missed the last time I was here because I didn’t know about it. This particular episode was written by Chris Chibnall, and I thought he excelled at it far and above anything he ever did for Doctor Who or Torchwood. I can at last see why everyone loved Gene Hunt’s politically incorrect ways and sympathized with poor Sam Tyler as he loses his mind in bell bottoms. There was a trip for a “real” curry in this one, as Gene’s team basically tortured a suspect. I’ve got to get this on DVD—or else see if the library’s got it. Chan it’s horrible to think I’ve got a crush on the Master tho.

At Williamthebloody’s suggestion I saw an episode of Dragons’ Den. I found it heavy on the corporate-ese at first, a bit over my head, but toward the second half I began to see the appeal. None of the Dragons seemed to think any of the ideas were much good, and to be honest neither did I, but finally they seemed to perk up with the last guy.

I’ve tried very hard to like Merlin. I know it’s got the same vibe as Robin Hood, about which I was equivocal. There were elements of fun to that show that I liked, but some of it was just annoying and the costumes made me go oy. (Though apparently Mr. Darcy from Lost in Austen will be King John in the next series, and if Richard Armitage is still Guy of Gisborne—in the immortal words of Harley Quinn, “Whoa daddy, feed me some candy!”) I guess I just find the reworking of the Arthurian myth too drastic to stomach. Young Merlin, sure, but young Merlin as servant to pouty, blondie Arthur? How much did they have to pay Anthony Head to be a sanitized Uther Pendragon? Gwenivere is Merlin’s crush and a servant? I did enjoy the over-the-top cameo by Eve Myles in the first episode, but the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. I enjoy Richard Wilson as Gaius, but I spend most of the time rolling my eyes through this thing. I do enjoy debating with Adam Purcell on Facebook about why everyone in this mythical kingdom wears a cravat.

Much more thought-provoking was the short special on Merlin of Legend. This was very thorough and showed Merlin in his evolution and archetypal guises, tracing him from medieval bard and mysterious figure to a modern-day painter who claims to be Merlin reincarnated. Merlin, as you may know, was (perhaps) Welsh. The reason for the red dragon is because of Merlin—he solved the mystery and made the prophecy of the red dragon and the white that fought with each other underground. He is said (possibly) to have come from the market town of Carmarthen, where there was until very recently a tree that was said to cause destruction if chopped down (which it sort of did). I learned about much of this when I was travelling Wales earlier in the summer. There are many, many monuments in Wales to Arthur and Merlin (perhaps a Welsh bard of hiraeth), and in some places you do feel a sense of age and mystery.

Speaking of which, Radha, Tinki, and I were watching re-runs of the X Files for a few weeks, which really amused us.

River Cottage Summer, or something like that, was the title of an absurd cookery show by Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall (first of all, that NAME!). I don’t remember much about it except he slaughtered his own pet goat and tried to make curry. Then he stumbled through some bushes gathering rose hips. Adi and I basically laughed our way through most of it.

The Sarah Jane Adventures have started, and I’ve come in with remarkably high expectations. I’ve seen the first two episodes and am feeling uncertain. However, it’s too early to say anything, so we’ll wait for its own proper review.

Paul Merton’s India has just started, and seeing as how I’ve lived with Indians and suddenly have lots of Indian friends (and also live near the densest grouping of Indian restaurant in Swansea) I thought I’d give it a shot. I didn’t know anything about Paul Merton before watching the first part. His India is definitely not the tourists’ beaten track, and so far in the Delhi area he’s managed to go to Indian finishing school (where he learned to burp and eat with his right hand, which honestly I find extremely difficult, much more so than eating with chopsticks). He learned about monkeys in the police force and participated in a festival to Shiva, celebrating the god’s consummation with his consort. I’m looking forward to seeing the segment on the south, where all my friends are from. (They speak Tamil and Malayam (sp?) and have so far criticized white views, on TV, of their homeland, as pretentious and patriarchal.)

There are few shows which blow my mind as much as Heroes does. I am really impressed that on BBC3 we’re only a week behind the US (and to be honest, I’m pretty patient with these things at this point anyway). The first season of this show was more addictive than drugs, and while the second season was kind of crap, it’s looking super-impressive this time around. I expect I’ll do a full review at the end of the season.

As I wait for my absentee ballot to arrive (!!), I’m trying to keep up with the political situation in the US as only bad news seems to reach us about the economy. I steeled myself for entering the clash of politics by watching The Second Presidential Debate. My first surprise was John McCain’s easy, fluent speaking style (though he did continuously interject with “my friends”). For some reason I was expecting Obama to soar over him in eloquence and common sense. I was also surprised at how they kept passing the ball of blame and recrimination between them, and I was left with the impression that they can’t both be telling the truth—at least not the whole truth—on their records for voting for a) tax cuts; b) alternative energy. Which is depressing considering whoever ends up as President will be a liar. (But I’d be a whopping idealist if I ever honestly thought otherwise.) One thing I noticed in this “town hall” style debate was that one elderly woman asked what the candidates would ask their American citizens to sacrifice as her generation sacrificed during the Depression and World War II. Interestingly, neither of the candidates said anything particular. It would have been easy to answer the question directly: give up their reliance on fossil fuel, their security in that food will always be copiously available, etc. Both hedged the question.

British TV is certainly gearing up for the American election, and a six-part series that will coincide with the election is Stephen Fry in America. Last fall, Fry drove across all 50 states in the London cab he owns. Ambitious, highly entertaining, and I’m pleased with the genuine affection and reverence he furnishes on my homeland. In Maine he had lobster (overlooking, strangely, the real cruelty of how the lobsters are boiled ALIVE, the subject of a truly compelling essay with Stephen Wallace Foster, who recently committed suicide, our loss); in New Hampshire he met Mitt Romney. In Vermont he mixed ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s (he said something to the effect of the world needed ice cream). He spent a lot of time in Massachusetts in Harvard discussing the principles behind the founding of our country (he quotes Gore Vidal in that the Puritans were escaping persecution so they could find someone to persecute). He went hunting in upstate New York, cab driving in Queens, and mixed with the Mob (sort of). He took a look at the Adirondacks, Edith Wharton’s “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island, gave Delaware, and Maryland the short end of the stick, with a stint as a croupier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He summed up Washington D.C. as one of the most European of the American cities (with the exception of some airports, Civil War battlegrounds, and Florida, D.C. is one of the few places on the East Coast I’ve ever visited). He said nothing about Quakers in Pennsylvania but instead focused on Gettysburg with a Lincoln-lookalike and did a pretty good job of summarizing the Civil War. Next week he’s on to the South, but it's a few more weeks before he reaches New Mexico. I haven’t felt particularly homesick yet, but I do feel a certain pride and nationalism as I’m watching.

The Tudors’ second season ended with a surprisingly moving final episode as Anne Boleyn kicked the bucket. It’s hard for me to take Natalie Dormer seriously after what her character did in Casanova, but she really earned her acting chops. I think it’s very hard to empathize with Henry at this point, though the writers and Jonny are doing their best. The actress playing Jane Seymour looks like a plastic Barbie so I’m totally turned off by her, but I am looking forward to seeing the Wheel of Fortune take Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Regina round and round.


a piqueur is worth a thousand words

I’m not really an impulse buyer, but I am sometimes an impulse book borrower. One such impulse loan was The London Monster: Terror on the Streets in 1790. I recently read a biography of Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge (which I didn’t review but might come back to) and its subject somewhat corresponds to this book’s: the time period, anyway. One might put it down, too, to my interest in Jack the Ripper and the rather Gothic fad in the 1830s of women in France throwing engraving acid in people’s faces, as the book is part history, part psychology, part media study. You may have noticed that two of my favorite periods are, broadly speaking, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the French Revolution straddles them both. Or maybe a better way of putting it is it’s like the train collision between the two centuries. It’s one of my pet subjects, and The London Monster is a fascinating look at its long-reaching consequences on the other side of the Channel.

The writer, Jan Bondeson, easily confesses in the introduction that he came across the subject of the London Monster while researching another book (The Feejee Mermaid, which is definitely on my to-read list). Like me, he found the subject of a mania and series of attacks by an armed man upon “helpless” London women of all ages and walks of life to be fascinating. I really like that Bondeson draws parallels between our contemporary life and that of London in 1790, but also makes the distinction that life is still very, very different from that of our ancestors. He does an excellent job of setting the scene for the attacks with a well-researched, broad survey of crime and punishment at the end of the 18th century. After the American Revolution, London was hit by a crime wave. The Bow Street Runners were about the only people actively pursuing justice; Bondeson makes a big deal that local watchmen were usually old and ineffectual, the lowest of the low because no one else would do their work.

In order to combat this rise in crime, the Bloody Code made many small-time crimes—mostly property-related—felonies, so that tons of people could be executed instead of imprisoned. Harsh human-rights violations that would make Victor Hugo apoplectic? Indeed. But from a purely logical point of view, efficacious in keeping criminals off the streets and out of overpopulated prisons. Britain could no longer dump its criminals in America, and Botany Bay was a few years off. Most of the long-term prisoners in British jails were debtors. Even worse, sometimes, were punishments like the pillory (immortalized by, heh, Hugo in Hunchback of Notre Dame, but cited in Bondeson’s case for punishment of two homosexual valets in 1790). Plus, as I’ve often said about the 18th century, “the sexuality of London was . . . earthy and abandoned.” Bondeson estimates 10,000 prostitutes, and the double standards in the last decade appear as bad as those in the late Victorian era. He is also eloquent about London pastimes such as men chewing up rats for sport (shown in Horatio Hornblower aboard ship, I might add) and eating living cats. It’s enough to make you hang up your time-traveling shoes.

It’s a wonder women Londoners dared walk out alone before someone (or several someones) began attacking them, first with filthy language (one such example that the victim dared repeat was “Damn you, you bitch, I would enjoy a particular pleasure in murdering you and in shedding your blood!”) as well as “making love to her all the way with a rather uncommon energy (!)
[1]” and then either stabbing them in the thigh or pricking their faces with knives concealed in artificial nosegays! As the “Monster” began accruing more victims (or else women complained that they were being attacked) common moral outrage grew to a feverish pitch, rewards were offered for capture, vigilante bands were formed, innocent people were attacked, and it didn’t even stop when an arrest was made and a trial enacted. Some Monster-hunters invested the fiend with Scarlet Pimpernel-like powers, that he wore stilts, wigs, and disguises.

The person eventually arrested, put on trial (twice), and convicted of being the Monster was a young Welshman named Rhynwick Williams. Some people at the time expressed unease at the conviction, for though it was clear Williams liked to pursue women and that his language became violent when they did not respond to his advances, no sharp weapons could be found in his possession, and his alibi for one of the Monster attacks, while not watertight, was at least corroborated by seven witnesses. Williams’ strange occupation was that of an artificial flower-maker, which seems to make a plausible connection with the Monster’s habit of stabbing-by-nosegay. In his second trial, Williams was defended by Irish eccentric and relative of Jonathan, Theophilus Swift. Theophilus was an incorrigible showman and chauvinist, and I can’t help thinking if, the London Monster became a musical, he would get to sing all the best bits.

Theophilus’ defense started strong but petered out, and Williams was convicted. He served a six-year prison sentence and then disappeared from all record. Was he really the Monster? The blurb on the back of the book seemed to suggest he was an innocent framed by a society looking for any scapegoat, but Bondeson is more equivocal. He is sure Williams wasn’t the Monster, as attacks on women continued while he was in police custody. He may very well have been one Monster with copycats. It is interesting to note that the Monster was immortalized in Mrs Salmon’s Waxworks Display, one of Madame Tussaud’s rivals upon her arrival in England in the early 19th century. The fates of Williams’ principal nemesises, the Misses Porter who claimed he attacked them and the man who claimed the reward for capturing the Monster, John Coleman, make it sound as if they manufactured the whole trial out of revenge and hatred against Williams, who once annoyed them. I can see them conspiring in a Crucible-like manner. Theophilus briefly joined Williams in Newgate when he was convicted on libel charges.

Bizarrely, men have gone around slashing, cutting, and stabbing women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. One strange incident I have heard of that Bondeson points out is the 1977 “Skirt slasher of Picadilly” who cut open the back of women’s skirts on the Tube. Not cool. In Bondeson’s final and most analytic chapter, “Who was the Monster?” he builds up cases for the defense and prosecution in the Williams trials. He is inconclusive but circumspect, and in that way nicely ties up his book with reference to our great unsolved case of the Whitechapel murders (like many authors he thoroughly disapproves of us who go on the Ripper tours in the East End). Though Bondeson does not, like me, dare to make any conclusions about the Ripper, he is atypically biting about those who propagate the Royal Plot and other “far-fetched” conspiracy theories. In defense of the view that the London Monster may have been a moral panic/hysteria epidemic, he makes a rather stunning allusion to the 2001 New Delhi “Monkey-Man.”

All in all, a very well-researched, lively history book with welcome analysis. I am surprised Bondeson didn’t make any allusions to the current epidemic of knife crime in Britain, but since that is less about sadism and more about murder pure and simple, I guess it was out of the scope of the study.

[1] Bondeson’s exclamation point!

a cream pie christmas

I was fortunate enough to get the second disc of Batman: The Animated Series that the library owns. I find it really annoying that the DVD packaging purports to contain the first five episodes of the first season when in reality they are random episodes picked from the first forty or so episodes! Who cares, though—I really enjoyed them. (According to Bruce Timm on the commentary they are the first five episodes, but then why does the listing at say otherwise?)

On Leather Wings” was the actual first episode of the series and uses the character of Man-Bat, which I personally find so strange (the comic I bought from Forbidden Planet in Cardiff also used this character). Bruce Timm explains it that they wanted to do this one because it helped create “mood, mystery, and drama” as opposed to just action. I do like the stylish Art Deco look of Gotham but it’s a very odd combination, having TVs, ‘30s-styled radios, blimps, Jazz Age microphones, walkie talkies, typewriters and supercomputers all alongside each other. (I had forgotten that since this was written in the early ‘90s, the age of the PC had not yet dawned.) The plot concerns the origins of Man-Bat, highly Jekyll and Hyde with a dose of, of course, Beauty and the Beast. I must say, in BTAS, Alfred’s sense of dry humor is so hilarious. While the Man-Bat is pulling off heists and Batman is being blamed, Alfred quips, “By heavens, you mean it wasn’t you?” There’s a certain section where Man-Bat lands in a parking garage . . . and the police just sort of let him and Batman get away! WTF?

Poison Ivy makes her debut in "Pretty Poison," where, interestingly, she’s the fiancée of Harvey Dent. Harvey—who made a short appearance in the previously-cited story—is obviously pre-Two-Face. I really like the character design for him and, like all the men in these stories, he dresses classy. Pamela Isley—Ivy—is similarly a sight for sore eyes and gives off all kinds of Jessica Rabbit vibes (Timm calls her the “femme fatale” with “somewhat noble motivations”). I never know how to take Ivy’s character. In later stories I think she almost becomes sympathetic because of her green fanaticism, but as originally written I feel she’s an object of contempt, a loony as crazy as any in Arkham by asserting that plant life is equal to that of human life. Using her famous pheromones on Harvey, she nearly kills him by planting upon him one long, raunchy kiss (by kiddie TV standards anyway). It’s sad to reflect that Harvey says of Bruce, “There’s nothing we don’t know about each other.”

Nothing to Fear” introduces the Scarecrow, whose raison d’être, by his own admission, is to “frighten things, people”—he hasn’t yet gained the sympathetic back story that shows him a tormented, bullied young man. His costume is slowly moving in the minimalist direction of Batman Begins, though he still looks the awkward misfit from “Mistress of Fear.” So I’ll pretend it’s Cillian Murphy under the mask, okay? The vocal talents give him stentorian majesty with a hint of poshness. The Scarecrow is out for revenge against Gotham University for firing him from their psychology department. “Burn it—this isn’t about money, it’s about revenge!” As in Batman Begins, the terrified Gothamites, under the influence of Crane’s fear toxin, start attacking Batman.

When Batman fights back against the Scarecrow’s toxin, I really like what he says: “I am vengeance, I am the night . . . I am Batman!” It’s the first time I can remember seeing Bruce with stubble. I even get a wobbly lip when Alfred tells him, “I know your father would be proud . . . because I’m so proud of you.” The Scarecrow with a tommy-gun? His henchmen with “are you my mummy?” gas masks? I loved this!

The Last Laugh” seems to have acquired a soundtrack from Philadelphia, which I don’t really get. The plot resembles many in the Joker’s bag of tricks, namely to poison everyone in Gotham with his Joker juice (here it doesn’t result in death-by-rictus-grin, it makes you “permanently insane” by prolonged exposure). The first victim is an ice cream man, driving his truck over the Gotham River, as the Joker’s barge of floating garbage laced with poison (driven by a robot dressed as a clown; surely he must be Sharaz Jek in disguise?), whose truck falls into the river and the man barely escapes with his life. I was thinking, would your insurance be able to cover that? Clearly I forgot THIS IS A CARTOON! (Timm muses that here, as in Adam West, the Joker “seems to be causing trouble for no reason.”)

It’s April Fool’s, and Alfred’s getting in the spirit by announcing he’ll “draw you [Bruce] a bath.” When Bruce goes to the bathtub, there’s nothing, so Alfred shows him a drawing of a bath. God—it’s so bad it’s good. Bruce announces he’ll take a shower, and I confess this episode shows a most gratuitous amount of Bruce in the near-buff. When Batman is able to track the barge, the city has already gone into hysterics. The Joker, protected from the gas by a space-suit like bubble, merrily announces as he robs a jewellers’, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!!” (He really must need the money to fund all the crazy mechanical things he appears to manufacture himself.) His thugs wear cheap clown masks like in TDK, and when Batman attacks his base at Ace Chemicals Plant (curious, considering that’s apparently where he got dipped in acid in the first place), I thought of not one but two Doctor Who stories! Firstly, the Joker tries to pick up Batman with a giant claw (“Planet of the Ood”) and the robot gets mechanically crushed (“Seeds of Doom”).

I can’t tell if this Joker really wants to kill Batman or not. Though he doesn’t show his on screen counterpart’s predilection for bazookas, Glocs, and knives (though he does use a knife in this one) he does have some vicious turns, such as when he traps Batman in a metal bin and then stabs “air holes” in it before tossing it into the river. Batman has to produce a real Houdini act if he wants to get out alive. The Joker is really impressed when Batman tells his “first joke,” though the joke’s obviously on him when he almost falls (again?) into a vat of chemicals. Batman greets him with an April Fool as he allows him to think for a second that he’ll drop him. Perhaps the best part of the whole story, however, is when Alfred has a whiff of the laughing gas and tells Bruce to do his own damn cleaning (not in those exact words). He then goes crazy with a broom and smashes Bruce’s Ming vases. LOL.

We have “Christmas with the Joker,” which resembles “Slayride” ever-so-slightly. I confess that while I found it totally silly, I also quite enjoyed it (Timm says their Joker is all about “unfair jokes”). In Arkham, the Joker sings “Jingle bells / Batman smells / Robin laid an egg” before the Christmas tree turns into a rocket which he rides to freedom (RTD, eat your heart out). I mean, WTF?? He also brings out a Santa tank. He has somehow had time to manufacture all of this, rig a cannon at the Gotham Observatory plus machine gun dummies, plus kidnapped three people, plus set up a broadcasting signal that block out everything else on TV on Christmas Eve. Clearly he’s one sad, psychotic, narcissistic SOB with way too much time on his hands.

Christmas Eve it is, indeed, when Batman and Robin—written with great humor and drawn decently—sit down to Christmas dinner followed by It’s a Wonderful Life (which Bruce has managed never to watch). He’s sceptical of the saccharine ending, and Robin reflects “You could give lessons to Scrooge.” When Robin suggests that even the Joker might want to spend Christmas with his family, Bruce notes “he has no family.” Broadcasting with three hostages who he’ll incinerate at midnight, the Joker sends Batman and Robin on a wild goose chase to prevent a train from derailing at a bridge he, the Joker, has just blown up. The hostages are gagged with candy canes, and the Joker’s Christmas present to Batman is . . . a cream pie in the face!

I’m still really struck with the quality of the animation. In particular, the light and shadow play, as well as the explosions (of which there were many!), are accomplished. The voice talents are, in general, very good. Kevin Conroy is excellent as Batman and Bruce. It’s a wonder the constant laughter didn’t drive Mark Hamill insane. I did, for fun, watch one of the episodes dubbed in French, which was actually quite entertaining, for the novelty of listening to the voice talents as well as the fact a lot of the slang and colloquialisms had to be changed for a French-speaking audience. I might watch them all in French.

I was a bit sad to realize that one should be glad that an entire city was laughing in “The Last Laugh”—it’s disturbing that something as innocent as laughter should be perverted into a disease, a weapon. My beta-reader for “Queen of Hearts” said that in any incarnation, the Joker craves attention. There is always a fine line where laughter becomes inappropriate, as all stand up comics know and which was quite relevant to the play I saw today. Oh, and there was supposed to be a featurette to show you how to draw Batman—PUH-lease. It was ten seconds of watching over the artist’s shoulder. I’m really looking forward to the third DVD the library has.

enduring freedom

Enduring Freedom was a short, one-act play by Gary Owen performed at the Swansea Grand by the Fluellen Theatre Group. I always enjoy Fluellen, not least because they performed excerpts from my radio play June 2007 in Rough Diamonds (and I spoke to the guy who played Alphonse today, and he remembered my play!), and because the first theatre I saw upon coming to Swansea was their version of Twelfth Night. The staging is simple, as are the costumes, lighting, and set; there are three characters, and it’s in-your-face from the moment you say “go.” It’s based on the exploits of a British student in 2004 who joked she had a bomb in her bag at the Miami Airport and was detained and eventually released.

The play’s character, Kate, jokes about the bomb in JFK Airport, and the fact it’s set in New York immediately heightens the tension between Kate, her boyfriend Richard, and the Federal Agent on Kate’s case. Kate is super-unlikable, tossing herself into a situation in which she believes the moral high ground is hers, rather than confessing that she made an arse of herself. She highlights Americans’ perceived lack of irony and something I’d never thought about before: she claims the British got through the Blitz by laughing at their own perilous predicament, while we Americans always take things too seriously and whittle ourselves away with discipline that melts away our humanity. The Agent’s response is archly funny; so much for irony. All the acting was excellent; George Andrews in particular as the Agent had a practically perfect New York accent. I was really impressed, and the best part was my ticket was free!

I thought it might be interesting to have the piece performed in the U.S. How do you think it would go down?

Friday, October 10, 2008

paris, je t'aime

It was bad enough that I was already homesick for Paris (I never know what to call these physical aches for cities that can’t really be considered my home). This film—a truly visionary idea to unite 15 directors for 15 five-minute stories about different arrondissements of Paris—made the ache even more acute. You may have guessed at the way I read poetry and listen to music that I like compilations—even if you have to take the bad with the good, at least you’re guaranteed an interesting view point, which is exactly what you get with the short, stylishly-made films in Paris, je t’aime.

The casting is like a dream come true. Luminaries of French, British, and American cinema such as Natalie Portman, Gérard Depardieu, Gena Rowlands, Gaspard Ulliel, Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins, Marianne Faithfull, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell, and on and on. The collection of directors and writers isn’t bad either.

Five minutes of something you find boring or incomprehensible will seem a fidgety lifetime; five minutes of something you enjoy or that intrigues you will feel like five seconds (I guess, as Einstein said, that’s relativity). This is certainly the case in Paris, je t’aime. To be sure, “Porte de Choisy” as directed by Christopher Doyle was a pretension, a Chinatown/Moulin Rouge hybrid, but I got some good laughs out of it. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” was also heartily self-indulgent (mimes, prisons, children) but amusing. I had high expectations for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau” but found the lighting too dark for illumination, the twist too Montpaussant. “Pigalle”’s luminary actors were something, but again, I felt confused and let down by the story. But all the others, to a higher or lower degree, intrigued, amused, and moved me.

“Montmartre” was 100% French even if it didn’t show any windmills. Like almost all of the stories, it was about love. It was about a self-deprecating man trying to park his car, and a fainting woman who intrudes on his lonely life. Try writing something compelling for five minutes about that—and Bruno Podalydès did. “Quais des Seines” somehow bore Gurinder Chadha’s unmistakable mark on its completely accurate tale of cross-cultural love, with an excellent understanding of the French male teenager’s mind, and some lovely shots of the Mosque near the Jardin du Luxembourg as well.

“Le Marais” was about love, too, but its revelation was as sad as **SPOILER Donna’s near-miss of her “husband” in “Forest of the Dead.” SPOILER** “Tuileries” by the Coen Brothers is one of the more likely, the more arch, and definitely one of the funniest of the entries. Considering it takes place entirely in the Tuileries Metro station, it has nothing to support it but the strength of its writing and the humor it manages to milk out of a tourist entangled in the ways of a typically French couple. “Loin de 16ième” was utterly different to anything else, a Naturalist novel in five minutes.

Isabel Coixet’s “Bastille” defied expectations and showed us yet another kind of love, without sentimentality and again, with a great dose of Parisian humor. The eerie, pathos-soaked “Place des Victoires,” directed by Nobuhiro Suwa, again highlighted selfless love against a background of the mythic. “Quartier des Enfants Rouges,” by Olivier Assayas, with its unlikely story of love between a drug dealer and an American movie actress, seemed to have possibility to live beyond the five minutes in which it had been written. By contrast, I could barely bear to watch “Place des Fêtes” and the life of an immigrant from Lagos who lays it all on the line for love. Oliver Schmidt’s vision of love is merciless.

Speaking of merciless love, the most outrageous story was the Sin City-drenched “Quartier de la Madeleine” which gives us Anne-Rice-on-steroids vampirism courtesy of Vincenzo Natali. I laughed until I cried. Wes Craven surprisingly directed the impressively English “Père-Lachaise,” which testifies to the unique beauty of that Parisian landmark while including a romance and a cameo from Oscar Wilde. I absolutely loved “Faubourg St Denis”’s atypical love story and brilliant direction from Tom Tykwer. It brought me nearly to tears, and I loved that it fooled me in the end. Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Dépardieu collaborated on acid champagne penned by Gena Rowlands in the ex-pat gay divorcée romp of “Quartier Latin.” But my favorite would have to be “14ieme Arrondissement” written and directed by Alexander Payne, whose idea this whole thing was (he even plays Oscar Wilde). Margo Martindale sucks us in from the very first word of her poorly-prounounced, syntactically plodding French as an American student of French who indulges her dream to go to Paris for a week. Alone. It was the perfect note upon which to end this collection, and again, it nearly brought tears to my eyes—but the good kind.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone—but especially Francophiles. But you’ll want to be in Paris yourself . . .

at the corner of bulfinch and kipling

Fables Vol. 1

Williamthebloody was right. This may be a slim volume, but it’s bursting with creative concept, humor, narrative-driven, action-packed art, and shows that obsession with twisting fairy tales that I have considered mine most of my life. It also answers some of the questions I had jumping into volume 8 of the series (which, obviously, wasn’t the smartest thing to do but I just picked it up off the shelf). Bill Willingham is the man in charge, with Lan Medina and Steve Leialoha providing the art.

It’s difficult not to make the 10th Kingdom comparisons. The first page introduces the setting as a fictional land called New York City. Though the heroine—Snow White herself—doesn’t live in an apartment building, she does operate out of the Woodland Luxury Apartments. Instead of Wolf seducing the doofy waitress Candy from the Grill by the Park (Central Park, that is) it’s Prince Charming doing the honors to a similarly doofy waitress named Molly (in a much less charming manner than Wolf did!). The Wolf—Bigby—is a detective rather than a huggable sheep-worrier but certainly the same genre of tough-guy, yet oddly, disarmingly, charming.

It’s difficult, as well, to forget the fact that from volume 8 I know who the Adversary is and that Bigby and Snow get married, have kids, etc, as here he is the bashful , strong, silent suitor and she the bitchy, independent working woman (for some reason I keep thinking about Rachel Dawes from Batman! Yeesh, too many TDK fics). But I look forward to finding out how they get together! It seems that the Fables (as the fairy tale characters are called) fled to the world of the Mundanes (Mundys) after the Adversary drove them from the Homelands . Since they are long-lived (immortal?) they’ve been in hiding for a long time. The majority live in New York City with certain protective measures, while “nonhuman” creatures are on the Farm in upstate New York. (There’s also a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings in this volume.)

Fables: Legends in Hiding starts out with a bang: Beauty and the Beast having marriage counselling! It’s hilarious and quite clever. Jack of the Beanstalk is here, as a trickster who never did anything with his life, as is Bluebeard (complete with TARDIS-like charms), one of the Three Little Pigs (who crashes on Bigby’s couch), Cinderella, and Snow White’s hellraising younger sister Rose Red (a far cry from the Rose Red in volume 8!). There’s a wonderfully wicked humor running throughout, as Bill Willingham seems to take perverse pleasure—as did Stephen Sondheim before him—in making our childhood characters into swearing, smoking, debauching moderns. Prince Charming’s conduct during casual sex should at least get a mention: “I’ve always believed a truly accomplished nobleman should hone his cocksmanship every bit as much as his swordsmanship.”

The story is hard to explain given what you know in volume 8, but suffice it to say it’s a murder investigation. Suddenly Prince Charming is even less charming than he was before. Snow White, who, if we remember from the fairy tale, was exceptionally sweet and naive but also stupid—in Fables, you’re not supposed to mention the dwarves to her—is now exceptionally put-upon by running the Fables’ fragile bureaucracy, and Bigby seems to get perverse satisfaction from keeping her on a short leash even though technically she is supervising the murder investigation. SNOW: “You can be one frustrating son of a bitch!” BIGBY: “Literally, in my case, but she was never less than loving and nurturing. The best mother any boy could want.”

The title, Fables, suggests the original intent of the stories—didacticism. (Perrault’s tales came with a rhyming moral at the end of each.) Making a metaphor for living life in the modern world. How do you interpret it, then, if the modern world is the setting for the fantasy? I’m not entirely sure, but I really like this series and will try to read what else it has to offer.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

a waste of ink

Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

So much for the genius of Frank Miller. I appreciate that this was 2002 before Batman Begins, and criticizing the vapidity of the government, election process, and social structure of the US was not only in vogue, but warranted. But this graphic novel was unintelligible and I nearly put it down several times. Certainly it would have served me better to have read Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again returns first, but I didn’t have any control over what holds come in at the library first. If I read the original and enlightenment dawns I’m more than happy to eat my words.

Frank Miller was always known to me as a writer rather than an artist, so I was surprised to see him as both writer and artist. I’m sorry to say, I don’t think much of his drawing style. I can see that his sketching skills are quite good, but I don’t think he inks—that Lynn Varley colorizes on a computer is obvious, and I think Miller is relying too much on the textures of the colorization. Consequently, though the blocking of the panels is quite dynamic, the figures come out looking quite matte. He only seems to be able to draw one woman, over and over—to be fair, Rosetti was the same—and to be frank she looks like Jessica Alba.

About the only redeeming features I can find out of the complicated, self-referential story are Wonder Woman and Catgirl. It’s an amalgam of practically all the Superheroes Marvel and DC have ever produced. They all seem damaged and to hate each other. Superman screams obscenities at Batman who is wizened and supposedly dead. Not really being a fan of Marvel’s superheroes I confess to being bored.

Book One begins with the rescue of Professor Palmer (The Atom) by Catgirl, a sixteen-year-old in a cat costume with roller skates. She surpasses Batgirl and Catwoman in sheer efficiency and is really the heart of the show. The narration is garbled out of sheer lack of variety in voice (even all the narration bubbles are homogenous) and too many characters. A big deal is made of Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara, but better still is a spread covering several pages during which Superman and Wonder Woman, wrapped in each other’s cloaks, fall to earth.

There’s rather a chilling revelation at the end, but personally, I’d rather just have the real Joker.

Well, it’s safe to say I either have no taste or this volume’s importance has been grossly inflated.

Monday, October 6, 2008

wooden heart?

Who is Martin Day anyway? I had read nothing either complimentary or condemnatory about Wooden Heart, a novel for the Tenth Doctor and Martha (and I still don’t know what the title means). Even so, having had so much fun with the last Doctor Who books I’d been reading, I found this one a bit disappointing. Part of it is, in my opinion, he failed to really capture the persona of either the Doctor or Martha, as has been done so well before (Martha really well in The Pirate Loop, both of them in Sting of the Zygons). The sci fi story ideas are fine enough in themselves, quite imaginative in some ways, but as a Doctor Who novel specifically I’m not sure it all came together. None of the secondary characters ever quite captured my imagination, and with descriptions of adversaries as “dark angels,” I felt parts of it were a bit difficult to visualize.

The Doctor and Martha step off the TARDIS into a macabre living tomb (shades of Serenity)—that’s how Day plays this, very macabre. So what if the disappearing children are not killed but rather spirited away into the night—the “monsters” that inhabit the forest that the Doctor and Martha stumble into (while still on the ship) give off the creepiness vibe of The Village. As long as they are at the edge of vision, they remain horribly frightening. When Day describes them fully, however, the prose becomes unwieldy. We are told how terrified Martha is to get away, but I never feel like she is. When you figure out the distillation going on the monsters make sense, but somehow I think the Gothic fails to work with over-analysis. Was he going for Hinchcliffe? I’m not really sure what he was going for. Stuck in the middle of this is a chapter on murderer Ben Abbas, which I found really distracting, especially since it seems to be drawing parallels with Princess Diana.

However, there are some fun moments in this book. There’s something funny and shocking about the Doctor getting his leg stuck in some kind of metal trap. ‘Doesn’t half hurt,’ he added. ‘Do you precipitate this chaos, or are you merely drawn to it?’ ‘I do wonder sometimes,’ said the Doctor. Experiencing the whole lifetime of a village, where apparently generations have existed, winds its way, in my mind at least, to that Star Trek:TNG episode. Martha is courageous, compassionate, all the qualities we’ve come to associate with her—When you’re presented with suffering, she thought to herself, you react to it on a human level—with sympathy. You’d be something less than human if you didn’t—and yet I hardly feel I know her. She’s gone to Ibiza and lost her passport in a bar, apparently, and doesn’t feel up to performing pathologies. But where’s Martha? I feel him grasping for the effortless banter between the Doctor and Martha at their best, like when Martha tries to impress him by knowing the myths behind Castor and Pollux, and when the Doctor retorts with gobbledygook from the realms of the absurd. I do wonder if Martin Day feels a bit ripped off by “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead.” That plot and his do share certain similarities, but then I suppose it’s a science fiction archetype—after all, just watching “Carnival of Monsters,” it shares certain things in common with that story too.

I will grant you, about halfway through I was very excited to keep reading as I really wanted to know what the connection between the forest and the ship was. In the book’s defense, as I say, parts of the plot are quite interesting and creative, but I can’t say very much without spoiling the entire thing for you. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2

“Pretending everything’s tickety-boo, Nemo. It’s the great British pastime.” --Allan Quatermain

For some reason, I always think this Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill series was written around the time of Moore’s other triumph (well, one of them) V for Vendetta, which was from the ‘80s. Actually, LoEG is quite contemporaneous, though strangely it’s published by America’s Best Comics and printed in Canada! Whatever. As you know, I enjoyed the first volume—obviously the wit, violence, cynicism, sex and grime are in common with From Hell, the first graphic novel I ever read. I’m surprised that by the end of this, it purports to be the final volume of the comic. My big criticism of From Hell was its obsession with making Jack the Ripper into a cosmic phenomenon, which frankly I didn’t think the events warranted (the Ripperologist in me also blames Moore for propagating the Royal plot on me when I didn’t know any better). I see Moore’s ambitions (he cut his teeth on Doctor Who, after all) but it’s just not for me.

That doesn’t make his opening, with Kevin O’Neill’s extraordinary art, any less magnificent. There’s a superb two page spread of hyper-alien costume and beings, an army that’s half-The Fifth Element, half-Lawrence of Arabia. It brings to mind Return of the King, as well, and Star Wars. No matter if it has much in common with other sci fi forbears: it’s really cool, and the entire opening will throw the reader (who is expecting the 1890s on Earth) for a loop. Frank Miller, eat your heart out. I’m totally confused as to why the action has started on Mars, other than to give us cool drawings and a sense of, again, the cosmic size of the conflict, but soon enough we’ve joined the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (surely they must have worked in tandem with Torchwood; they’re around for the same purpose and founded in roughly the same period!). I find it very amusing that the most interesting, most heroic character in the League is not a man, and most of them are not gentlemen in any sense! Clearly Moore’s sense of cynicism.

Allan Quatermain, African explorer of King Solomon’s Mines and nearly 70, Miss Mina Murray (sloughing off her married name of Harker and left with the scars of her conflict with Dracula, to her infinite shame), Dr. Henry Jekyll (who spends most of the story as Hyde), Captain Nemo of the Nautilus, and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man. All fictional characters from British pens of the late 19th century. The premise’s appeals to me are obvious. I’m not quite sure what the inspiration between the “Milking Stools” or Tripods, as the mollusc-like, Alien-like super aliens is, but they’re terrifying. There is a delightful sense that this could have happened in Doctor Who—can’t you just see the Fourth Doctor uttering Mina’s line here? BOND: “It’s all incredible, I can hardly take it in. I-If that thing’s truly from another world, then . . .” MINA: “Sir, it hardly appeared Prussian.” Moore’s command of the Victorian vernacular—Mina calls someone a “vile jelly if I ever saw one”—is natural and probably accurate, never too stuffed-shirt or too slang-y. Likewise, the thing I once got praised for as my “talent” in drawing comics—sincerity of expression, a genuine capture of body language and feeling—is exactly what O’Neill possesses in abundance. That makes things as mundane as Mina throwing her reticule on the bed in the inn look interesting.

Mina is clearly the brains of the operation as well as the most sympathetic character. As I mentioned before, she reminds me of the Doctor. “I have a terrible feeling. Those men . . . most of them are going to die, aren’t they?” Obviously I’m going to find her relationship with Hyde poignant. In the previous story, Mina and Allan had a couple of romantic liaisons but they aren’t a couple per se. In a quiet moment, the monstrously-proportioned Hyde is allowed to show a bit of the Elephant Man. I’m aware as I’m reading it I’ve written an Erik (Phantom of the Opera) in Scars who sounds a lot like this. HYDE: “Miss Murray, though I am a beast, do not think that I am stupid. I know that I am hideous and hateful. I am not loved, nor ever hope to be. Nor am I fool enough to think that what I feel for you is love. But in this world, alone, I do not hate you ... and alone in this world, you do not hate me. . . . Go quickly, before I break your jaw.” Their relationship is based on the fact that Mina has known someone worse—Dracula. I won’t pretend this didn’t sound like a bit of Robin McKinley as well.

I love that the League’s headquarters are the British Museum, and that it’s full of all manner of cryptozoology and general weirdness. It’s where Griffin assaults Mina, unfortunately, as the guy has been a jerk the entire book series and finally shows his true colors by betraying the human race to the enemy. Clearly, if you’ve been paying attention, you know Griffin’s going to get payback and then some from Hyde. (NEMO: “Besides, if I were Miss Murray, I should not like to miss that event [Griffin’s capture].” HYDE: “No, I don’t believe she would. She is different to us, Nemo.”) In light of the events, Hyde and Nemo go aboard the Nautilus to try to keep the Tripods back, while Mina and Allan are sent on a mission for a secret weapon. Hyde and Nemo can barely stand each other but appreciate each other’s assets in the fight for England, which makes their boat trip rather amusing.

No less than getting Harley and Ivy to take showers and Selina Kyle nearly nude all the time, Moore and O’Neill waste no time in getting Mina to remove her corsetry and seduce Allan who I daresay needs little provocation. (She is, after all, a married woman. And their romance is rather sweet. ALLAN: “I’ve tried not to imagine you. It felt wrong.” MINA: “Allan, you are dead, while I am divorced, disgraced, and disregarded by the rest of the world. Could anything make us moe wrong, do you suppose?”) Because of Alan Moore, though, I don’t mind telling you, I thought every graphic novel was required to have nasty sex interludes. There are two in this volume. I don’t mean to be a prude, but are they really necessary? Moore tries to make a joke about it by putting a moral prohibition about “unhappy fornicators” after Allan has seen Mina’s vampiric wounds about which she is so self-conscious, but it doesn’t quite reach its mark. Besides, I can’t imagine any way worse to end your exciting sylvan sex than one of Doctor Moreau’s creatures coming up on you in the woods!

As dastardly as is Hyde’s revenge, he does explain some things that would have put ardent Stevensonians out of joint. For example, he explains that originally he was the troglodyte of the book, as Jekyll’s “sins” were small, including a bit of shoplifting and the like, but has grown to his immense proportions because Hyde’s growth has been unrestricted by Jekyll’s influence. Hyde goes out in blazing glory that is ever-so-Elephant-Man. That’s two of the League gone, Nemo jumps ship out of principle when Dr. Moreau’s secret weapon is revealed. So while we triumph against the aliens, the League is splintered. Mina decides that sex with Allan wasn’t that great or something—she tells him she needs time, whatever. The only weak bit of writing associated with her.

Anyway, that’s the end of volume two, but a fascinating document on the history of the League is included. It’s too vast and amazingly thorough to summarize, but I will drop the names from which figures of literature appear—it’s almost like a Where’s Waldo of literature. Lemuel Gulliver, the Blakeneys, Fanny Hill, Woolff’s Orlando, and Shakespeare’s Prospero are all pioneering members of the League. In their travels they meet characters from Cold Comfort Farm, Bleak House, Under Milk Wood, Alice in Wonderland, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Fantomas, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Castle of Otranto, In the Name of the Rose, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Utopia, Gormenghast, Canterbury Tales, a wonderful pirate commune with the likes of Captains Blood, Hook, and Clegg (alas not Sparrow), HMS Pinafore, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, the Macondo of García Márquez, Candide, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Paul Bunyan, Twin Peaks, Gene Autry (?!), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Stephen King’s novels, Arkham Asylum (?!), Tarzan, Last of the Mohicans, Madam Butterfly, The Mikado, Santa Claus and polar bears who are being propositioned by Coca Cola (?!), Heart of Darkness, Toyland, and no doubt many, many that I’m not cultured enough to recognize. In addition (!) there’s a board game that is probably worth the price of the book alone, which sees you pitting your wits against Spring Heeled Jack, Edwin Drood, Sweeney Todd, Nikola Tesla, Mowgli, the Black Cat (from Poe), Pip from Great Expectations, the man in the iron mask, Moby Dick, The Moonstone, Camilla [sic; they mean Carmilla], Varney the Vampire (I’m damned impressed at that reference), a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, John Melmoth (also very impressed with that one), Auguste Dupin, Harry Flashman, etc. It’s good fun, with cover art from all six issues and a few other assorted fun and games.

Yes, it’s as Victorian a graphic novel as they come.

fabled gothic

With a title like Batman Gothic, you’d follow my logic and expect it to be a story I would really like. Sadly I found it rather a disappointing volume both art-wise and writing-wise. The art does seem of its era, 1990, and it has the strangest coloring scheme I think I’ve ever seen. I imagine, due to the subject matter, it’s supposed to be unsettling, but it just ends up looking garish. It does have all the trappings of Gothic—a Matthew Lewis-like Monk named Manfred who’s sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for three hundred years of prolonged life (certainly Faustian although the Plague connection also suggests Narcissus and Goldmund by Hesse); debauched German monks who hold satanic rites and torture nuns, one of which becomes a ghost who haunts the old monastery, now underwater; nightmares for Batman that include his father’s mouth being sewn up; a time capsule from the 1760s in Gotham Cathedral; the Devil sending Batman the present of a disembodied heart. However, what’s not there is Batman’s character. I’m on my 20th volume of Batman comics by now, and Grant Morrison’s version of the caped crusader doesn’t seem quite right: “You and your kind have turned Gotham city into a hell. Now rot in it.” What is entertaining about this story are Alfred’s quips, the best being when the heart appears on Bruce’s doorstep: “Shall I alert the Tin Man, sir?” Artist Klaus Janson does a nice job with Gotham Cathedral and some of the more horror-type aspects of the story, but all in all, it just didn’t seem to fit the Batman universe.
As the winner of 7 Eisner Awards and the claim, on the cover, by Publishers Weekly that Fables is “the smartest mainstream comic going,” it wasn’t difficult to pick up Wolves, volume 7 of this DC-published comic from 2006. For obvious reasons I don’t usually like jumping into comic series with heavy continuity when I don’t know the characters or plot. There’s helpfully a “Who’s Who/The Story So Far” at the beginning to help me ground myself in the world of Fabletown, the Farm, and the Mundyworld (read Muggle-world). To be honest, I’m drawn at once into the story because it reminds me of The 10th Kingdom with its mix of hip modernism, humor, action, romance, and inventive reworking of cherished myths (though I suspect Bill Willingham’s more immediate source may be Shrek). Some of the characters are even similar to T10K—for example, the shape-shifting tough-guy Bigby Wolf is a rougher, more macho version of Wolf as played by Scott Cohen in the TV mini-series. Snow White fulfils Virginia’s role in T10K to an extent, and Fabletown looks like the Manhattan so memorably linked up to the 9 Kingdoms. There’s also the matter of war with the giants and their beanstalks. Instead of the Evil Queen and her Huntsman, however (played by Diane Weiss and Rutger Hauer), the villain is Geppetto (!).

However, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Willingham seems determined to pick and choose from which fandoms to populate Fabletown, obviously choosing Pinocchio but also, strangely, The Jungle Book. Is Rudyard Kipling rolling over in his grave
[1]? Somehow I think not. I’d better confess that when I was very young, I used to make my mom read the beginning of The Jungle Book, where Mowgli gets adopted by the Wolf Tribe, over and over and that I wanted to act it out! Why, I really can’t say—I was a strange child. In any case, it’s thus hard for me to resist the charm of a grown-up Mowgli who’s a secret agent for Fabletown (and good-looking as comic book characters go). There’s also a touch of Greek myth in that Mr. North, “the living North Wind,” is Bigby’s supernatural estranged father.

The title story, “Wolves,” is the most attractive artistically, drawn by Mark Buckingham, inked by Steve Leialoha, and colored by Daniel Vozzo. It concerns Mowgli tracking Bigby to Russia and having to do all kinds of wolf-ie things to find him. There’s a very well-drawn sequence where Mowgli has to fight the pack leader of Siberian wolves (kudos to the artists for managing to censor Mowgli’s nudity in every single panel and make it not look like censoring). “Happily Ever After” is an epic that ends in a wedding. It brings in the Real World as well, including “the Israel Analogy” (which makes Fabletown a bit too political in my opinion, but maybe I’m just too squeamish). (Speaking of squeamish, Snow White doesn’t seem very alarmed when a pig head on a pike, named Colin, talks to her. WTF?)

Big and Small” is a fun enough adventure starring Cindy (Cinderella) in a diplomatic/espionage thriller of, er, epic proportions (further dabbling in the fandoms by bringing in Gulliver’s Travels) but I have to hand it to Shawn McManus, the artist—he can do very convincing cartoon animals! I’m not too thrilled with Cindy’s character here. Has anyone ever gotten it right? I can’t bear to watch the second act of Into the Woods because of all the death and carnage and what becomes of Cinderella; Cinderella in T10K is wonderfully camp although I would like to see her in her younger years.

Quite charmingly, at the end of the volume is the full script to “Happily Ever After” which you can believe I will study. I’m eager to find the previous volumes of this series and start at the beginning—it’s an easily accessible, appealing series. I just wish someone had turned T10K into a graphic novel series—it’s crying out to be adapted, not least because Simon Moore has written much, er, more than actually ever appeared on TV. I, of course, would be willing to help . . . (The fan fiction that eventually became “J’ai vu le loup” which I submitted to the Big Finish Short Trips contest was originally a chapter in a T10K spin-off I had in mind, which was suitably epic, but never quite made it off the ground. I’d love to try again.)

[1] Freudian slip. I almost typed “cave.”