Friday, June 23, 2017

Comics Capsule Reviews

Harrow County #24: Writer Cullen Bunn (of The Sixth Gun fame, a book I loved) and artist Tyler Crook continue to terrify and amaze with tales of little Emmy and her attempt to protect Harrow County from supernatural harm. Taking place in the 1930s, it was revealed in the series that Emmy comes from supernatural origins herself, which causes some folks in the town to not trust her much.

In this issue, Emmy’s best friend Bernice turns out to be one of those mistrusting folks. Bernice doesn’t have faith that Emmy will side with the humans against her non-human friends, commonly called “haints.” Emmy’s latest haint friends look like giants rabbits with razor sharp teeth, and they surround her in the woods and cast dark glances at anyone who gets too close to Emmy. Bernice, learning some craft from a good witch in the woods, takes it upon herself to fight the haints surrounding Emmy and other dark denizens of the woods. She comes in direct conflict with Emmy as Emmy steps in to protect them. Emmy thinks all beings can learn to live together, Bernice isn’t taking any chances. After battling it out for a while, a surprising being made of fire appears to tell the girls to stop their foolishness. They listen, but it looks like their relationship will be changed forever. They should be looking to the other side of the woods, where a nefarious group is resurrecting the one monster that can go toe to toe with Emmy.

Another treat in Harrow County is the folksy, homespun local ghost stories people relate in the letters pages in the back of the book. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do love a good ghost story, and a few of those have set goose bumps to rising. An excellent comic.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Normandy Gold #1: I am a loyal aficionado of Hard Case Crime’s prose novels. They have recently begun expanding into comics and the results, like their books, are fun, noirish, gritty crime thrillers.

Normandy Gold is definitely all those things. Normandy herself is the sheriff of a rural Northeastern town. Her kid sister Lila moved to Washington D.C. some years ago to take her chances within the corridors of power. Lila got involved with the wrong people, and when she is brutally murdered, Normandy vows to move heaven and earth to find the culprits. She seeks assistance from the Washington police, but finds them less than helpful. She decides to go undercover to find out what happened and who is responsible. Deep undercover.

This book is gritty, violent and not for children. However, it contains a juicy mystery and an extremely driven protagonist. Recommended.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Kill the Minotaur #1: Ever since one of my college history professors related that archeologists found an actual maze under the ancient palace in Crete, my imagination has been obsessed with the Minotaur myth. Was there really a half-man half-bull in that maze who devoured the young and innocent tribute sent by Athens? Why would Athens agree to such a thing? What happened to those young people who were forced to leave their home and possibly be fed to a hell-beast? Kill the Minotaur attempts to creatively answer some of those questions.

The time is circa 1500 B.C. King Minos of Crete has no other choice but to admit his son the Minotaur, trapped in his maze, requires stronger sacrifices than the cattle and livestock he is being offered. He decides to do something about it.

Cut to eight years later. After waging a successful war against Athens, Minos has agreed not to destroy the city for the annual price of seven young men and seven young women. Every year, soldiers from Crete sail into Athens with a warship, walk though the city and take whomever they wish.

This is galling to Athenian prince Theseus, who finds Cretan arrogance and kidnapping too much to bear. When the soldiers arrive this year, it takes Theseus’s brother and a retinue of warriors to stop him from interfering. In the palace later that night, Theseus receives a surprise offer from Cretan Master of the Maze, Daedalus. Thinking he may have a chance to stop the tribute and see what is actually happening to those taken, Theseus accepts Daedalus’s offer and secretly returns to Crete as an anonymous tribute. His plan falls apart the instant he departs the tribute ship.

Writers Chris Pasetto and Christian Cantamessa set the stage well, with a good handle on the ancient world, a wonderful plot and strong characters. Artist Lukas Ketner captures the visuals with verve and panache, he’s an outstanding artist. The only nit-pick I have with the script is the use of the “f” word. I’m sure the ancient world had some analog, but this anachronism takes readers out of the story wondering, “Wow, did they have the f-word back then?” They didn’t, so I vote for using something else. It does give flavor to character dialog. I just like historical accuracy when possible. Still, this is a fantasy story, so not the end of the world.  

Kill the Minotaur is tremendously enjoyable and looks to be a roller coaster ride through ancient Greece. I’m looking forward to issue #2.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Bane Conquest #2: I don’t buy many superhero comics anymore and miss them terribly. Marvel is lost to SJW madness, but DC occasionally emerges from the depths with an actual coherent comic book. Such is the case with Bane Conquest, for two reasons: Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan. Dixon, an adventure writer and expert comic book scribe, makes writing a great comic story seem effortless. Here he catches up with Bane, one of Batman’s greatest villains (created of course, by Dixon and Nolan).

In this 12-issue miniseries, Bane has lost none of his belligerence or overhoned sense of superiority. In issue #2, he has been captured and imprisoned by his enemy Damocles. It turns out his cellmate is another former enemy and someone well known to readers. Together they conspire to escape and discover Damocles’ plan.

There is nothing like watching two masters at work. This comic performs on every level, featuring flashbacks examining Bane’s childhood in prison (through no fault of his own) and how he became the man he is today. The story ends on a humorous note and promises more action and revelations as the series progresses. It’s nice to be reading something in a superhero universe for a change!

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets the Bionic Woman #4: This is a terrible comic. Of course I was in love with Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner in the ‘70s, who wasn’t? Perhaps no comic could hold such awesomeness between its covers and a good story featuring these two blockbuster ladies is just impossible. Or, it’s possible that Andy Mangels, despite his obvious love for the material, is not an interesting writer. It could be artist Judit Tondora, who captures likenesses fairly well, but needs major work on interesting layouts and coherent storytelling. The lukewarm plot includes Fembots and a typical villain ranting about world domination. The cliffhanger includes a dumb, unlikely coincidence that gets Wonder Woman hurt in the most contrived way possible. This story is forced, not organic. It certainly doesn’t flow the way a story with two of the ‘70s greatest heroines should. Lackluster in every way. This comic is not worth $4.00.

**½ stars out of 5

Weird Love #18: I haven’t taken a look at this title for a while, but don’t take that as a perceived lack in quality. If anything, Yoe, Gussoni and crew pick better and more insane stories every issue. Let’s examine a few gems reprinted from comics’ Golden Age this issue:

- “So This is Love!” (from Dear Lonely Heart #1, 1951): Yes, that cover actually happens! Katy is a bit high strung. She’s a hot, four-eyed nerd running her own dress shop. When a brigand arrives at close of business with a gun, she wakes up gagged and tied to a chair! Luckily, officer Patrick Murphy (wonder what his ethnic background is? A Sikh from India possibly?) is walking by and notices her front door forced open. He unties her and the romance begins. Unfortuately, Pat proves to be a toxic alpha male. On their date, he tells Katy to lose the glasses and her hat looks stupid. No one puts Katy in a corner! Reluctantly, she agrees to another date, where the Patster tells her to leave her hair down, not wear it up like a ... hrumpf ... washer woman! That’s enough for Katy! Later, when Pat brings the even hotter Peggy around, they accidently end up sharing a sundae, where Katy tells Peggy just what kind of ***hole she’s dating. If only Peggy wasn’t Pat’s sister, whom he brought around to meet Katy! D’oh! So naturally, when Pat proposes, Katy immediately accepts! Writers—what’s wrong with them?

- “Swinger” (from Teenage Love #43, 1965): Dory likes Gil, but he’s such a square! Gil doesn’t go in for all that dancing and devil music, like Dory’s other friends. When a bored Dory attends her friend’s dance party, she is taken by the Elvis-like Chuck. Chuck rides a motorcycle and says “baby” a lot. When Chuck takes her for a private ride on his bike and tries to get fresh, Dory is moderately uncomfortable! When she asks Chuck to return her to the party, he states stoically: “Sure Chickie! I don’t want to ruffle your feathers!” A true orator is our Charles! When Dory returns home and puts on her Chairman Mao pajamas, she decides a life of fun and whimsy is not for her. She chooses Gil, and a lifetime of bland curtains, boredom and the missionary position. As it should be!

- “My Secret Betrayed Me” (from True Life Stories #9, 1952): Wow, here’s one that is truly twisted. Or twisted-er. Ann lives in jealousy of her kid sister Jessica, a world famous movie star. Growing up, Jessica got the nice dresses. Jessica got the dance lessons. Jessica got the attention from daddy (and the actual talent). When she is mistaken for her famous sister, Ann decides that with the right makeup and hairstyle, she can get some of the attention and acceptance she could never get as herself. Soon she is in full masquerade mode as “Jessica,” getting gifts, limo rides and male interest while the real Jessica is out of the country on a film shoot. When she discovers how easy it is, she goes to the big city and starts to live it up, sticking Jessica with the bills! A perfect plan, until she meets Roland Storm, a square-jawed actor who is rumored to be romantically involved with Jessica. None the wiser, Roland and Ann start dating and fall in love. Or, Ann thinks so, until a drunken Roland demands some of her big movie star salary. When Ann comes clean as an imposter, Roland smacks her hard across the face! The drunken cad! That hit smacked Ann back to reality, as she immediately abandons the Jessica disguise and returns to being Ann. She’s perfectly happy ... until she reads in the newspaper (Millennials, please Google “newspaper”) that the real Jessica has married Roland! So ... everybody’s really happy now? And ... violence is good? I don’t know!

- My First Date” (from Doctor Tom Brent, Young Intern #1, 1963): Blonde Barbie can’t wait for her first date! It’s a blind date to the Spring Formal, with Jud Mills—you know, that kid from Clarksville. All week, Barbie dreams of her Prince Charming, Jud. In her mind, he’s 6’2”, speaks seven languages and was just picked as this month’s Playgirl centerfold. Imagine her distress on the night of the dance when Jud shows up with flowers and—he’s kind of short! And has a pimple! Ahhhhhh! Why is fate so cruel! WHY! In two more panels, he says something nice and everything is all right. Teenagers, ladies and gentlemen! In the ‘70s, Barbie left Jud for Mark Spitz.

As usual, Weird Love is the world's finest source of twisted, ghoulish romance. Never stop being weird!

Rating: ***** stars out of 5 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Movies – Wonder Woman


It’s about time DC Comics inspired a movie I can recommend without hesitation. Wonder Woman takes a bit of the sting out of having a series of horrible films that do a terrible disservice to the public and the heroes they represent. Indeed, WW is the finest film featuring a DC hero since the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie. And that was in 1981.

The filmmakers took such care to make the cast living 3D characters, not campy cartoons, like the recent Superman and Batman movies. She is also well established to be a hero, again, totally unlike the recent Batman and Superman movies. And finally, she is likable. Men want her and women want to be her. Again, totally unlike ... well, you get the message.

The film opens during World War I, a time period I question for the movie. Wonder Woman was created in 1940 and is a creature of World War II. Perhaps the producers thought a WWII adventure would be too reminiscent of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. The time period definitely works in the WW film though, as does most everything.

When Steve Trevor crashes a plane near Wonder Woman’s hidden island home, someone must return him to the front, and fight the War God Ares, whom the Amazons suspect is behind the world war. Diana volunteers and is soon all over Europe fighting the forces of anarchy—including Mars, who is involved and turns out to be a surprising mystery member of the cast.

With one notable exception, everything about this film works—the cast, the script, the marvelous special effects, the fight scenes, everything. Gal Godot makes a glorious Wonder Woman. She could stand a sandwich or two, and I don’t think anyone could be more perfect than Lynda Carter (who should have had at least a cameo role), but Godot is the best cast of the new Justice League actors. The only thing that didn’t work for me was, believe it or not, the music. It’s generally well composed; I just could have used something more upbeat and inspirational. Take for example the scene where Wonder Woman sees a downtrodden population and decides to let her powers loose against the Germans for the first time. This is a blockbuster, thrilling part of the movie. When she lets loose in slow motion, the music is epic, but so, so gloomy.

Think of the opening strains of John Williams’ Superman theme. When Christopher Reeve ran into an alley with that music and ripped his shirt apart to reveal that “S,” crowds wanted to rise to their feet and cheer. Not so for the big scenes in Wonder Woman. When Diana leaped onto the battlefield ready to wreak her righteous indignation, the epic and inspirational music should have been swelling and intensifying to a grand crescendo. Instead, the gloom of the battlefield pervades, and the audience is left with the feeling that she doesn’t want to do this—she has to. C’mon, Hollywood! Let our heroes inspire us with their strength and goodness! Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed by it! A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless. DC just can’t let their heroes or movies be 100% heroic or inspirational. We always have to be reminded the world is a dark, dismal place. This is what Marvel does so well and why the Marvel movie machine is head and shoulders above DC.

Other than that, Wonder Woman’s first outing in man’s world was a rousing success. I hope this has a positive effect on every future movie made by DC. Go see it!

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The First Time I Met Adam West

The Great Adam West
In honor of Mr. West’s passing on Friday, here is the story of our first meeting. It was at the Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, OH, around 2011 or 2012. He and Burt Ward were the guests of honor and I wanted to make sure to meet them and get some autographed photos. I didn’t expect the Laurel & Hardy movie the meeting turned out to be.

As always, the line was long and full of people of all ages, excited to meet the famed Caped Crusader in person. As I approached Mr. West, I could see he was in excellent health for being is his early 80s. He had an assistant helping him, and while he seemed extremely sharp mentally, he did seem to have slight trouble with his hearing. That’s not a surprise, with the milling fans in his line and general attendance in the thousands, it was a wonder anyone could hear anything. Ambient noise was thunderous.

It was finally my turn and I stepped forward to get my Batman photo autographed. The following conversation, to the best of my memory, occurred:

Me: “Hi Adam, I’m Jerry.”
Adam West: Greg? I’ve been expecting you. I hear we have some business together.”
Me: No, Adam, I’m Jerry.
Adam: Can you wait a few minutes? I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
Me: “Um ... “
Adam’s Assistant: Adam, that’s not Greg.”
Adam: Where is he? I thought he was coming!”
Adam’s Assistant: “Adam, he’ll be here in a few minutes. That’s not him.”
Adam: “Oh. I thought he said he was Greg.”
Me: “No Adam, I’m Jerry.”
Adam’s Assistant: “Adam that’s JERRY, not Greg,” he said, raising his voice so he could be heard above the cacophony.
Adam: “You’re not Greg?”
Me: “Sorry, Adam. Jerry.”
Adam takes the picture I had presented him to sign.
Adam to me: “So, who do I make this out to?”

He signed the photo. I took it, smiling at the mix-up. It was signed, “To Greg. Best Wishes, Adam West.” Kidding! It was definitely to me. Here’s proof:


A great guy and fun actor, who will be very much missed. For the story of my second and last meeting with Mr. West in 2015, click here

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Movies – Guardians of the Galaxy 2


The first Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite Marvel movies. It was funny, irreverent and totally unexpected that this band of misfits would fit together so well. I was hoping the sequel would find more of that ground to cover, but in an original way. I’m happy to say that for the most part, it does.

The original team is back; Starlord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon and even Groot, who is regrowing himself and is at a baby stage. He’s cute. The film is not at all crowded and gives itself room to breathe and develop its very likable ensemble cast. The two main plotlines deal with Peter Quill, Starlord, finding his father Ego (another brilliant performance by Kurt Russell), and the wrath of the Sovereign race as they pursue our heroes to recover some stolen property. Both storylines come to a crashing conclusion at the end, as a good explosive superhero film should.

Along the way, director James Gunn treats us to laughs, action and some unanticipated twists. Also, the design work on Ego’s planet is some of the most stunning art, color and overall design work since Dr. Strange. Those awe-inspiring visuals are worth the admission price alone.

Gunn also treats us to some new characters, including Ayesha, leader of the Sovereigns, Mantis, Ego’s ... assistant, and even a cameo by Sylvester Stallone, leader of pirate group the Ravagers. Michael Rooker is great as always as Ravager Yondu, and he has a glorious story arc. Mantis is right out of the comics, which I loved. 

GOTG 2 is not quite as good as the original, but still filled with humor, action and hilarious one-liners. The relationships are expertly written, the characters all grow and change from their experiences, and the visuals are astounding. Unlike DC movies, Marvel movies are filled with joy. And GOTG 2 is one of the most joyous. I look forward to watching it many times more.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Comic Capsule Reviews (*Slight Spoilers*)

Deadpool versus Punisher #1: I have some guidelines for Punisher stories, which are pretty mild. First, the Punisher isn’t crazy. Obsessed ... driven maybe. Sometimes cruel. But not crazy. Second, the Punisher doesn’t harm or kill innocent people. Period. The fantasy of an unstoppable monster with guns destroying bad guys is over the second a civilian puts an eye out. And third, the Punisher doesn’t wear white gloves and boots.

Writer Fred Van Lente sticks to these well, but still writes kind of a dumb story. You’d think this would just be a comedy piece, with the grim Punisher serving as straight man for a constantly wisecracking Deadpool. Nope, it’s a straightforward adventure story, albeit with some humor. Van Lente may follow all my rules, but I’m not sure he understands the Punisher. Here is his opening Punisher narration:

“This may be a little hard to believe. But sometimes ... I actually feel sorry for them.” He is referring to the criminals he kills. No way. No way Frank Castle ever says anything like that. He’s on a mission to rid the world of violent, vicious reprobates. He is highly motivated and does not feel sorry for the kinds of trash he removes from society.

During a raid on a bad guy’s lair, the Punisher discovers some big game, a shadowy criminal who acts as a money handler/investor for other criminals, the Bank. When he goes to kill the Bank and destroy his business, the Bank calls in his friend Deadpool, who naturally keeps all his money with the Bank.

Another incredibly stupid part of the story is when the Punisher arrives at the Bank’s estate and starts shooting. He stands out in the open with no cover, guns blazing, in a t-shirt and jeans. Now, the Punisher is a former soldier who has fought numerous battles on both foreign and domestic soil. It would be logical to assume that a criminal as rich and successful as the Bank would have armed protection around him (he does). So why would you confront him and his goons, armed to the teeth, without some type of body armor? This makes no sense. So of course, when Deadpool shoots back, Frank takes multiple bullet wounds. This is his own fault, as while a skull t-shirt is the height of fashion, they don’t really work as bullet-stoppers.

As the fight rages on, two civilians are killed fleeing the scene, indirectly due to Frank’s actions. That comes close to violating rule #2. The end is somewhat humorous as one of our heroes takes a bullet to the head, and it may not be the Punisher.

DvP #1 isn’t as bad as most Marvel books, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The story is laden with plot holes and is lazily written by someone who doesn't really grasp the Punisher and his mission. He feels sorry for them? No. Not in a million years. This comic is not worth $4.00.

Rating: *** stars out of 5

Curse Words #4: Curse Words is my favorite new book; it’s filled with mad ideas and wonderful stories and art. Wizord is a powerful wizard from Earth’s past. He has been living with a group of wizards in another dimension, serving their all powerful lord Sizzajee. When Sizzajee decides it’s time to conquer Earth, he sends Wizord to the present day to pave the way. Trouble is, Wizord gets to present day New York and decides he kind of likes it. Why should he conquer Earth and turn it into a burning cinder, when he can live like a king in a high-rise and enjoy all the pleasures of modern high society?

Abandoning Sizzajee’s plans, Wizord sets himself up as a wizard for hire and starts stuffing his mattress full of money. In this issue, Sizzajee discovers Wizord’s betrayal and dispatches his former lover, the wizard Ruby Stitch, to Earth to kill him. The book’s cliffhanger is Stitch confronting Wizord. As he displays his shock that Sizzajee chose Ruby to stop him, Ruby admits that Sizzajee didn’t pick her. She volunteered.

Curse Words is full of magic battles, strategic mistakes and waxing and waning powers. And that’s just Wizord! It’s great fun to see him take to the modern world, trying to fit in and understand human attitudes and behavior. He also makes mistakes, which he tries to cover up but just ends up making a bigger mess. The question remains, is he evil and impersonating a benevolent wizard? Or can he learn to be an actual good guy and care about humanity? If he survives Ruby Stitch, I hope we find out.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

The Greatest Adventure #1: Any cursory reader of this blog will know that I am an avid fan of a certain Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs and his many pulp hero creations. So, thankfully, is Bill Willingham, famous for his excellent Fables comic series. Willingham, along with artist Cezar Razek, have taken upon themselves the enviable task of amalgamating several of ERB’s most famous creations into one massive adventure.

Joining together here are my favorite ERB characters the Clayton family—Tarzan, his wife Jane and their son Korak. Along for the ride are also John Carter of Mars and his wife Dejah Thoris, Jason Gridley, Billy Byrne (the Mucker), Ulysses Paxton, and more to come in future issues. Hopefully David Innes will be joining soon, from the center of the Earth.

When inventor Jason Gridley wakes up a thousand light years from Earth, his captors tell him they need one of his most prized inventions, then set him to work creating the technology. At the first opportunity he steals a small ship and heads for home. He barely makes it to crash land in Africa. He seeks out his old friend John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan, to tell him the tale and request assistance. Tarzan assembles a crew very familiar to fans of ERB. Gridley supplies an art deco spaceship, and the intrepid adventurers set off to fight Gridley’s erstwhile captors.

A fun historical note is the newspaper ad Tarzan places to find his crew. “Men of Adventure,” it begins, “sought for an expedition of high risk and low reward.” This is inspired by the ad placed by real-life explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1913 for fellow adventurers on his trip to the South Pole. I love Bill Willingham.

The art gets the job done but could be more dynamic. I’m sure once the action commences we’ll have fighting and space battles aplenty. This one is going to be fun.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Britannia: We Who Are About To Die #1: I have a deep and abiding love for all things Ancient Rome. However, I find most media to be lacking in accuracy of Roman culture or understanding of the Roman mind. As usual, writer Peter Milligan and artist Juan Jose Ryp rise easily to the task. A sequel to their first Rome miniseries, Britannia, “We Who Are About To Die” again features former legionary Antonius Axia, on his way to becoming Rome’s first private detective. This time all the action takes place in Rome, as Roman aristocrats are being murdered by an unknown force and Emperor Nero is feeling pressured to do something about it. He blames chief Vestal Virgin Rubria for not knowing what is happening or what the gods will. She in turn asks Axia for help. He immediately begins to put clues together, and his preliminary investigation leads right to one of the most famous and lethal gladiators in the arena, the female fighter Achillia.

Britannia provides a fantastic adventure in another time and place along with an intriguing (and probably supernatural) murder mystery. Milligan’s story is page turning, but the star here is the picture-perfect art from Ryp. Ryp is brilliant at action, facial expressions and body language. He also gets Rome perfectly right, from military gear to how a toga should look. The key to a good comic is that the story can be followed even if there were no captions or dialog. Ryp’s storytelling is that good. This book does everything a comic is supposed to—in spades. Highest recommendation.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Batman/Shadow #1: I’m always up for a team-up between my two favorite heroes of the night. These caped mystery men usually go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Unfortunately, this first issue had me asking if the creative team only worked on this series because Matt Wagner was busy.

The story’s plot, by Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando, is a bit inscrutable. I’m sure it will open up as the story progresses, but did not make for an interesting first issue. Investigating a murder in Gotham City, Batman crosses paths with the Shadow, who hypnotizes him and disappears. Batman then finds a clue that leads him back to an old teacher in the French Alps. There, instead of his teacher he finds ... guess who?

The art is a major drawback. Riley Rossmo is not a good artist. It doesn’t help that Batman is in his horrendous Rebirth costume, with tiny pinpricks for ears and an obnoxious yellow outline around the bat on his chest. It’s just ugly. His Shadow is better, although I’m not sure why his Shadow drapes his iconic red scarf around his entire upper body instead of just his mouth. Furthermore, in the story Batman is surrounded by tech, from several hundred TV screens in the Batcave to drones following him around and giving him information while he moves through Gotham. That’s not Batman—a few computers are fine, but this is smart-phone, selfie-taking Millennial Batman. Ugh.

I didn’t love this book, but it is Batman and the Shadow. I’ll probably stick with it, but ... Matt Wagner, please?

Rating: *** stars out of 5

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Books - The Flame Bearer, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners and A Head Full of Ghosts


The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell

Historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell is probably my favorite current writer. Cornwell’s Saxon Tales—now known collectively as “The Last Kingdom” due to the successful TV show—are among his best work. And of that work, The Flame Bearer is the finest novel so far. I think it may be destined to become one of my all-time favorite books.

The Flame Bearer is packed with a plethora of ingredients for a successful story—passion, war, subject expertise, larger than life characters and a rocking good tale well told. In this, the tenth book of the series, Uthred of Bebbanburg returns to the fortress he was robbed of as a child to retake it by force and become its lord once again. This is a culmination of nine books worth of war and toil. Uthred has served King Alfred and now serves his son King Edward in order to make a united kingdom of all of Britain’s English-speaking peoples. As the novel unfolds, three of the four English kingdoms are united under Edward, all that is left is Northumbria, the northern part of what is being called Englaland.

Edward is facing resistance on several fronts—the Danes to the north mostly, and the Scots north of them. Against this backdrop, Uthred, with his son Uthred and all the warriors he can scrape up, launch their final plan to invade the fortress of Bebbenburg, stolen from him by his uncle while he was a child and now run by his cousin, who has no intention of handing it over peacefully. Of course, Bebbenburg is impregnable, impossible to breach on land and with limited access from the sea. This is what I love about Uthred. He’s sneaky and clever. From a young man serving Alfred, he has used deception, subterfuge and his enemies’ weaknesses to win battles where he is far outgunned (outsworded?). Currently Bebbanburg is being sieged by the Scots on land and the warriors inside are getting hungry. Uthred’s cousin is casting his net for other allies in Britain, and may have to forge an alliance with the hated Danes to keep his fortress. Uthred uses all these things to his advantage to try and get through Bebbanburg’s massive sea gates and fight hundreds of tough and experienced warriors by whom he is massively outnumbered. Cornwell’s bag of tricks is seemingly endless as Uthred outwits his opponents time after time, although not without cost.

Cornwell is one of the finest battle writers living, and the battle of Bebbenburg is one of his greatest literary achievements. At one point, Uthred is standing in the middle of the chaos, with warriors fighting to the death in the shield wall, surrounded by his enemies on all sides with little hope. That is when he is filled with battle-joy and knows that he will win this day or die. It’s a brilliant scene, evoking another age, a brutal way of life and the kind of men it took to thrive in that time.

Only the cleverest of men could win a battle with such odds. My money is definitely on Uthred. Regardless of success or failure, Northumbria still needs to be absorbed to make a united Englaland and the Danes are still a force to be reckoned with. So thank goodness Uthred’s story must continue. I hope it goes on for a while—I could read these books for the rest of my life.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars


Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners by John Ringo and Larry Correia

John Ringo’s Chad Oliver Gardenier is a bit of a scoundrel. As seen in the first book in the Memoir trilogy, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge (see a review here), Chad is a proud American and former military man now earning his living liquidating monsters for the private firm Monster Hunter International. Making a quick exit from Seattle after an altercation with the trailer park elves (he swore she told him she was 80!), he needs a quick transfer to another division of MHI. His only request? Anywhere but someplace with heat and humidity. So where does he end up? New Orleans of course!

Turns out the Big Easy needs help from someone like Chad, because something big is going down there. The monsters are getting larger and more dangerous, the werewolf population is growing exponentially and the vampires are feeling so crowded out they are rooting for MHI. Unheard of!

Sinners tells the story of Chad’s relocation to his new city. Despite the heat, he comes to love the culture, the food and the people. In a surprising development, he also begins to put down roots, buying a house and finding a place on the wall for his precious sword, Mo No Ken. The story is a quick read, not because it’s a short book, but because it moves at lightning speed. Chad goes from one emergency to the next, and things get particularly out of hand during the full moon. Especially when the combined forces of MHI, the federal government’s Monster Control Bureau and the local police can’t contain the craziness!

Through it all, Chad remains a unique character. He loves the ladies, bonds with his friends and coworkers and showers hellfire on evil monsters. In Sinners, he manages to take on groups of werewolves, magic killer frogs and giant mole rats. He gets little sleep as he hunts bad things through graveyards, city streets and on top of the local baseball stadium. Throughout the pandemonium, he retains his sense of humor and manages to grow as a character and a person. I love reading about this guy.

Sinners rewards readers with intense, non-stop action and characters to love, hate and care about. But don’t get too attached to anyone. It is Monster Hunter International, after all.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5


A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

I hate to give away one word of the plot to this edgy horror thriller. Tremblay proves he’s a writer to watch as he spins the very modern tale of a middle-class family eroding bit by bit. All I will say is that the story is told from the point of view of an eight-year old girl, all grown up in the present, working with a reporter to write a book about the time her older sister was possessed by a demon. I read this novel in two sittings, in the second I just couldn’t put it down. In turns it is fascinating, horrifying and riveting. And that ending ... that one will stick with me for a while. If you like well-written horror, read this book! But try to have someone else in the room with you, preferably saying prayers. You'll thank me when the hair on the back of your neck starts to rise. It’s terrifying, in the best way possible. Highest recommendation.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Television: Iron Fist (Netflix)


*Slight Spoilers*
In many ways, Iron Fist is a typical Netflix Marvel show. It has an ensemble cast, is very street-level and down-to-earth and contains a minimum of superpowers or the supernatural. While not bad, Iron Fist is the weakest of the four shows that make up Marvel Netflix Phase 1, which also includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Finn Jones plays the title character, and this is where the mediocrity begins. Jones has virtually no Kung Fu skills (he started training weeks before shooting began), but to me this is actually not a huge deal. He’ll probably play the character for years and can learn as he goes. He just has no grit, no gravitas as an actor. He is not leading man material, as Charlie Cox is in Daredevil and Mike Colter definitely is in Luke Cage. He’s a little boy who’s probably great as a supporting actor, but is not strong enough to headline his own show.

Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing
The good? Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. She’s beautiful, tough, terrific and a martial arts expert—everything Jones is not. Most of the choreography and action sequences are good, especially where Henwick is involved. When Jones is fighting, you can see what they were trying to do and it somewhat works. An experienced martial artist would have knocked those scenes out of the park. The plot wasn’t bad, as they took at least some inspiration from the source material—Danny Rand, thought dead for years, returns to America and attempts to regain his legacy. The writers deviated totally from Iron Fist’s origin and how he was thought to be lost, and this is a mistake. It was handled much better and more excitingly in the comics.

The sub-plot of the Meachum clan, New York’s most dysfunctional family, is also worth watching, mostly for the work of David Wenham as Harold Meachum. You never knew what the actor or character would do next, and that was enjoyable.

The bad? Everything else. First off, these shows go on too long. Writers put 8-10 episodes worth of story into 13 episodes. What is so magic about the number 13? Every Marvel show has dragged in the middle of the series because of not having enough story to propel the narrative. Jessica Jones probably had the best pacing, but Iron Fist would have been a lot tighter at eight episodes. The worst sin Iron Fist commits is (*spoiler*) not using a costume.

A brief aside—in around 1990, I attended a panel at the Chicago Comicon regarding the upcoming Flash TV show on CBS. The DC writers who consulted on the show addressed some of the challenges they had working with CBS network brass. CBS was uncomfortable with the Flash costume. They didn’t want the hero, Barry Allen, to wear one. “Does he have to wear a costume?” one exec asked directly. One of the DC panelists said, “I told him, if we don’t use a costume, we might as well call him ‘The Jogger.’” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Iron Fist: Kung Fu Jogger.” For most of the series, Danny Rand dresses like a homeless man and has a fuzzy, unkempt beard. He really looks terrible. The comic book Iron Fist is clean-shaven and has a cool costume, which has gone through several iterations over the years. The ‘70s one is somewhat kitschy, I understand they probably couldn’t use it, but they must use the mask, it’s iconic. Today’s tracksuit costume would work and probably wouldn’t be too wince-inducing. It’s bad enough when Hollywood studios mess up costumes or refuse to use them—costumed superheroes are their source material! However, when Marvel Studios itself refuses to use costumes—what hope is there? They’re turning their back on their own stories and history!

This is Iron Fist
So Danny Rand, Kung Fu Jogger, goes through the entire series without showing the mystic part of his city, K’un L’un, without fighting the dragon that gave him his powers in the comic, and forgoes the classic and iconic Iron Fist costume. He’s just a homeless dude who whines a lot and knows a smattering of Kung Fu. Colleen Wing makes it watchable, but without her the entire series falls flat on its face.

Also acceptable as Iron Fist
For the second series, if there is one, I’d suggest replacing Finn Jones with an actor who knows Kung Fu and looks like they could kick someone’s ass (although that is unlikely to happen). Secondly, put him in his costume, even if it’s just the mask! Thirdly, turn up the supernatural aspects of Iron Fist! Show K’un L’un! Have the Iron Fist itself as smoking and steaming, not just glowing slightly. This show could be so much better with just a little tweaking, even if they kept Jones as the title character. Marvel, please stay truer to your source material.

This is not Iron Fist

Rating: *** out of 5 stars