Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Comics Capsule Reviews

Mother Panic #1: There’s a new vigilante in Gotham City, and it’s a strange one. Violet Page, rich Gotham socialite, is returning to the city after making her reputation around the world. And what a reputation! In that time, she’s become the female Bruce Wayne; a selfish, spoiled, hard-drinking debutante used to the spotlight. And like Wayne, she has an alter ego; the oddly named, and odder dressed, Mother Panic.

Violet sticks around Gotham long enough in this issue to stop an assassination attempt as Mother Panic, then take care of her dementia-afflicted mother. The story holds a lot of mystery—Violet is after someone, but who? And why? Her alpha-male father is in prison. Why? What is her agenda and whose side is she on? She seems to have no love for Batman (featured in a cameo here); indeed, her one comment on him is “f--- the Bat.” Yes, Mother Panic is a mature readers book and does feature the f-word liberally. That doesn’t seem to fit a superhero book with Batman guest starring, but what good decision has DC made lately?

Mother Panic is a well-ritten, if possibly too adult, superhero comic with a good sense of pacing and several intriguing mysteries. I'll keep reading for now. 

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

Betty & Veronica #2: Writer/artist Adam Hughes continues his winning streak with Archie’s girlfriends. One of comics’ finest fine artists, Hughes provides a fun and interesting take on the material. When the Riverdale gang discovers Pop Tait’s Choklit Shoppe is closing, Betty starts a grass roots campaign to save the teen watering hole. Veronica, whose father’s company is purchasing the Shoppe to replace it with a hipster coffee joint, takes the opposite point of view. While Veronica supports her father’s business (and hipster coffee), Betty prefers to keep Pop’s open and the hipsters out. Thus starts a major war between the two regular frenemies.

Hughes’ writing is sharp, with witty dialog and a gift for puns. He captures the teenage voice well, at least to my middle-aged ears. But the art sells the book. Photo-realistic with just the right touch of cartooning, Hughes is a perfect draftsman, designer and storyteller. He has even researched teen fashion and styles and provides a perfect setting to unleash them. Count me in as a fan, of Hughes and Betty & Veronica.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #20: These team-ups tend to be not only unexpected, but entertaining. There have been the traditional collaborations between the Scoobies and Hawkman, Superman and Batman. But give me the deep cuts, with folks like Buzz & Frankenstein Jr., Jonny Quest and in this issue, Space Ghost. Space Ghost has his full crew of Jan, her brother Jace and Blip, their pet monkey. They come to Earth chasing the devilish duo of Zorak and Moltar. Teaming with the Scoobies for their detective skills, the group tracks the villains to ... the moon? Where else? The Scoobie Gang then space suit up and deploy to the moon for battle. Writer Sholly Fisch manages to distill the essence of whatever guest star is appearing that month and capture the character perfectly. Artist Dario Brizuela is flawlessly on model and everyone looks exactly like they are supposed to. Disengage your brain and enjoy these tales of space hero mayhem. Excellent.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Love and Rockets #1: Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez launch their latest volume of L&R. This is the fourth iteration of the book. The first was a 50-issue magazine, then a 20-issue comic series, then an eight volume annual graphic novel series. I always thought the Hernandez’s were most comfortable in magazine format, and that is what they return to here. The characters are the same, from Jamie’s best friends Maggie and Hopey, to Gilbert’s Latina half-sisters Luba and Fritz. There’s just one problem ... I’ve never really liked Love and Rockets. I have tried all four iterations now, and it just isn’t my thing.

I find the characters grating and uninteresting, and most of the plots meandering soap opera with a huge extended cast I don’t care about. Oh, I admit the work is done with love and craft, and I generally like both artists, especially Jaime. But nothing about this book clicks for me. It never has. I thought I would try one last time to see if anything had changed and if I could get into it now. Nope. I still found the characters to be annoying and a wave of apathy wash over me on each page of both stories. Sorry, world. I just don’t care for Love and Rockets. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently not good, it’s just not for me.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars

Red Team: Double Tap, Center Mass #5: This one of the best crime books on the market, and reads like some of the top crime shows television has to offer. Each issue would make a brilliant TV episode. RT: DTCM would be comfortable on HBO alongside The Wire and The Night Of. Eddie and Trudy are disgraced cops who are now assigned to the lowest jobs available. When they pull over a spoiled rich boy joyriding through town, the bodies in his trunk lead to a major case and maybe a way for them to erase their past. Unfortunately, they have to deal with jealous spouses, erratic witnesses and a department that isn’t quite ready to forgive them.

In this issue, the results are revealed from when Trudy was ambushed last issue. Will she live? Either way, Eddie and Trudy take their relationship in a direction it probably shouldn’t go. Meanwhile, Eddie interrogates their main witness with his high-priced lawyer in the room. Will he be able to get any useful information? The shock ending changes everything and moves the narrative forward like it’s riding a comet. Fantastic stuff.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Black Dahlia: Yes, that Black Dahlia. This standalone graphic novel is the latest volume of Rick Geary’s Treasury of 20th Century Murder. These stories are incredibly well researched, written and illustrated. Most crime buffs know the story of Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia, Liz was a wanna-be model and actress in the mid-1940s stalked by bad breaks and lousy luck. Bouncing around the country from her native Massachusetts, Liz was a chaste brunette who loved the nightlife. She had a lot of gentlemen callers but few close relationships. She liked soldiers though. She was actually engaged to a flyboy, who was shot down at the end of WWII. Liz bounced from hotel to flop house to friend’s back room in Hollywood, all while trying to become a model or meet a nice guy for her M.R.S. degree. One day a boyfriend dropped her off at a fancy hotel, she said she was meeting her sister. A week later her body, tortured horribly and cut into two separate pieces, was found in an empty lot in a residential district in Hollywood.

Geary divides the book into five sections filled with clear art and straightforward facts. Part One is “The Vacant Lot,” about finding the body, the press and police involved, and what was done to Liz. It wasn’t pretty. Part Two is “The Life of Elizabeth Short,” about Liz’s childhood, her estranged father and hardscrabble mother trying to provide a living. Part Three is her “Last Days,” a day-by-day account of Liz’s last week or so. Part Four is “The Investigation,” about the suspects and the police sparing no expense to find the killer. Part Five is “The Wrap-Up,” where Geary looks at the information and suspects that have been discovered since the investigation ended.

To the consternation of many a crime buff, the case was never solved and is still officially open. Geary does disclose the probable killer who came to light in 1981. The police were closing in on him and ... well, I’ll leave something for the book to disclose. I will say the ending of the story is as frustrating as the crime itself. Geary is such a talented raconteur I couldn’t put this down.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars                 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Movies: Doctor Strange


Marvel continues its string of hits with the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr Strange. Cummerbund Bandersnatch (kidding! You know it’s Benedict Cumberbatch) plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a rich, arrogant snob of a neurological surgeon. Cold to his patients, condescending to his peers and addicted to wealth and power, Strange loses it all after an explosive auto accident. When Western medicine fails to restore his health, he looks to the East for a more mystical solution. There he finds the Ancient One, a mystical teacher who accepts him as a student and helps him heal his body and open his mind.

While training with other students, including the enigmatic Baron Mordo, Strange shows some aptitude for magic and spells, kicking and dragging his logical medical mind into the process. He learns of a major magical threat to the world and teams with his new peers to battle it, despite his neophyte status. 

Mr. Bandersnatch as Dr. Strange
Doctor Strange hits all the right buttons; growing and changing Strange into a bearable, caring human being, providing several intimidating protagonists and blowing viewers’ minds with special effects. Doctor Strange has the most trippy, complex and awe-inspiring visuals of any Marvel movie so far. The effects not only evoke otherworldly magic, but also the art of Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange co-creator (along with Stan Lee, who has a rather bland cameo in the film) and designer of some extremely wild alt-dimensional worlds in the original comic. This movie displays a unique and electrifying visual design sense. 

Doctor Strange does follow the normal Marvel movie formula, which is a strength here. There is an origin, dangerous protagonists who threaten to end the world and a slam-bang resolution. Along the way the acting, magic battles and art direction are absolutely stunning. 

The only negative in the movie is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. As portrayed in the comic, the Ancient One is an Asian man from Tibet. I’m not sure if they changed the character from an Asian man to a bald English woman for political reasons (China is a huge movie market, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to see a heroic character from disputed client nation Tibet), politically correct reasons (I thought race trumped sex in PC culture. Liberals, please educate me), or just because the director wanted to change something to put his stamp on the story. Regardless, the story follows the original Lee/Ditko comics closely except for this important detail.

The Ancient One
 
Not the Ancient One
Overall, Doctor Strange adds magic to the Marvel brand, and I look forward to his sequels and appearances in other Marvel films, as hinted in the post-credits scene. Doctor Strange is a fun romp well deserving of your time.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, November 7, 2016

Comics – The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus, Vol. I


This first volume reprints one of the most beloved properties of the ‘70s and ‘80s, stories of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was the son of Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu and an unnamed American mother. With a publishing history stemming from the early 1900s, Fu Manchu was a well-known literary character licensed from the estate of author Sax Romer. A character original to Marvel, Shang-Chi (whose name means “rising and advancing of a spirit”) is trained from birth to be a human weapon and assassin for his father. Dispatched for his first kill, he is told his target is an evil operative who is a danger to the world. After killing the man, Shang-Chi is assaulted by doubt and eventually learns the truth about his father. Desperate to assuage his guilt for the murder, Shang-Chi joins British spymaster Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his group of operatives to fight Fu Manchu and regularly save the world. Rounding out the cast is man-mountain Black Jack Tarr, man of style and action Clive Reston (son of James Bond and great-nephew of Sherlock Holmes), and Shang’s lover Leiko Wu.

These reprints start with Special Marvel Edition #15, then the title changes to Master of Kung Fu in issue #17, which keeps the Special Marvel Edition numbering. By issue #21, Englehart is off the book and writer Doug Moench takes over and becomes the creative force most closely identified with Shang-Chi and his adventures.

Moench takes Shang through some very James Bond-inspired adventures, and the group regularly battles Fu Manchu, usually resulting in a draw. Fu sends assassins like clockwork to kill Shang—they come in the form of waiters, lovers, spies and people on the street. Everyone knows kung fu and everyone is out to kill Shang-Chi for the price on his head placed there by his father. It is clear these tales were never meant to be read all at once, put together they can be somewhat repetitive. Even some of the included letters pages bear this out. But the characters and characterization are top-notch. Shang-Chi makes a conscious decision at one point that, while he abhors violence, he must work with Smith to fight villains and evildoers who mean humanity harm. It’s a tough decision for Shang, at heart a pacifist who just wants to be left alone to find himself.

The largest criticism of Master of Kung Fu is the kung fu itself. I’m not sure anyone on the creative team had ever cracked a magazine or saw a movie about martial arts. Forms are wrong, stances non-existent, punches, kicks and strikes are not related in any way to actual kung fu. Some artists are better than others (Paul Gulacy definitely improved as he went along), but this is a massive missed opportunity for the book. Shang-Chi could have brought real kung fu to the masses. Instead, the book turns out to be another superhero punch-fest with little or no authentic martial arts. But this criticism pales in comparison to the general quality of the stories and the characterization of Shang-Chi as constantly divided, always wanting to retire from his “games of death and deceit.” That conflict drives the series and Moench plays it perfectly.

Obviously inspired by the contemporary television show Kung Fu, starring David Carridine, Master of Kung Fu does manage to be its own separate entity. Shang-Chi is not Kwai Chang Caine, he has his own hang-ups and goals. The stories are fun and action packed, and do contain quite a bit of Eastern philosophy and aesthetic. Moench is a thoughtful writer who can write big concepts, meditation scenes and globetrotting exploits. Overall, MOKF gives readers killer plots, explosive action and a lot of bang for their buck. I very much look forward to the next volume in the series.  

The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus collects Special Marvel Edition 15-16, Master of Kung Fu 17-37 & Giant-Size 1-4, Giant-Size Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man Annual 4.  

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Books: Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge and Ready Player One


Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Larry Correia and John Ringo

A fresh new voice enters the MHI Universe with Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge. The book’s introduction discusses how veteran author John Ringo read and loved Correia’s Monster Hunter International novels, as should everyone with discerning taste in monster hunting novels. He was inspired by those books to create stories of his own set in the MHI universe. Correia, already a Ringo fan, wasn’t about to turn away a writer of that stature playing in his sandbox, especially since the ideas were so good. Correia spent some time helping shape the ideas to fit his universe’s history and aesthetic. The resulting book is smooth as silk between the two writer’s styles.

The first story in the planned series is Grunge. And it is spectacular. I’d never read Ringo’s work, but count me in as a major fan now. Ringo’s hero protagonist is Oliver Chadwick Gardenier, a unique and dangerous man. The book takes place in the 1980s, as Gardenier’s memoir is found behind a filing cabinet in the present day and is exposed to the world for the first time. As the story and Chad’s background slowly but deliciously unfolds, we meet his hippie/activist mother and his playboy father, and come to realize Chad’s future will go in a slightly different direction. After being mortally wounded during his Marine Corps service, Chad is given another chance by heaven (the circumstances of his heavenly meeting are a hoot) to come back and make a difference on Earth. This quickly translates to kicking some major monster ass.

Chad is a different sort of hero. He is what some Asian cultures would term the warrior poet. He is extremely well educated, has a talent with languages and his IQ is off the charts. He is a violin virtuoso and writes music when it pleases him. But he is also a gun, combat and weapon expert/enthusiast who doesn’t hesitate to kill evil monsters of all categories.

Grunge is the story of Chad’s life, his “resurrection” and his time fighting monsters as part of Monster Hunter International. No one is more dedicated to getting the job done despite any and all obstacles put in his way. Chad faces off against zombies, a werewolf, giant spiders, trailer elves and even challenges a fairie queen to a duel of sorts (my favorite part of the book and not for the faint of heart). Along the way he indulges his giant libido, makes contact with many new monster cultures (mostly to crush them like radioactive bugs), and becomes a born-again Christian. True, he practices his own personal brand of Christianity, but it’s a safe bet he’s going to heaven when he dies. And I hope that is not for a long, long time. Chad’s story is funny, irreverent and a mountain of fun. This book is sure to bring many new readers into the MHI fold.

The ending of Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge makes me glad there are more books planned in the series. I could read about Chad Gardenier’s exploits for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. A joyous read.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Taking place in the near future, Ready Player One is a true ode to 1980s video games, music, TV and general pop culture. Being a teenager for the first part of the ‘80s, I can definitely relate. But the book goes much deeper into the future of gaming and how it might affect society. Speculation on what our entertainment choices may evolve into is wrapped around the tightly plotted story of a fantastic and magical online quest.

When eccentric billionaire and game developer James Halliday dies from cancer in the 2040s, he leaves behind a video that will change the world. He reveals in the video that he has left clues in his immersive 3D online world, known as the OASIS, to a contest that will award the winner his $340 billion fortune. Not to mention control of his online gaming empire, including the OASIS. Immediately billions of online users of the OASIS scramble to find any evidence of the clues. One of those users is Wade Watts, a brilliant but poor teenage hacker/programmer. Wade uses his online avatar, Parzival, to aggressively go on the hunt for the first clue. The goal is to find “the Egg,” the final prize that will lead to Halliday’s billions.

Other top scorers, whom Wade ends up knowing well, are avatars Art3mis (Artemis), Aech (pronounced like the letter “H”), and Japanese brothers Diato and Shoto. Standing directly in their way, and in the way of the entire world, is the company IOI. IOI  management and employees, collectively known as “the sixers” (for reasons explained in the novel) are not only after the money, but also control of the OASIS, which has become the way most of the world learns, lives and is entertained. They want to monetize the program and make it much more exclusive, an anathema to Wade and the other players. IOI has the money and resources to control a lot of the quest and game play online, but they are not all powerful.

Wade has to compete against IOI as well as other very smart people in his quest for the Egg. Halliday has based many of the clues on the pop culture he consumed growing up in the 1980s. Wade and the others immerse themselves in 80s culture, memorizing Halliday’s every favorite movie, video game, cartoon, song and book, most of which are mentioned in his public diaries. This information comes in handy when Wade has to take Matthew Broderick’s part in an online recreation of the movie War Games, or know the lyrics to a particular Rush song from the album 2112. The length and breadth of iconic 80s pop culture items mentioned in this book boggle the mind, and definitely took me on a nostalgic trip to my teenage years.

The plot takes some fun twists, especially dealing with the lengths IOI will go to possess the OASIS, and also with the reveal of the characters behind all the major avatars. Getting through each challenge—there are three virtual keys to find and three gates players must navigate to find the Egg—is progressively harder but endless fun to read. The explosive battle for the final gate includes every spaceship, giant robot, fantasy and sci-fi weapon and video game icon created in the 1980s. I’ve read that Steven Spielberg is adapting Ready Player One into a movie. This is an inspired idea, as it is one of the most visual books I’ve ever read. However, I’m not sure it will be possible to bring the epic nature of the story to the screen. Will the filmmakers be able to license media from all the different genres and cultures mentioned to recreate the book? There are hundreds of different rock bands, video games, books, anime, TV shows and games featured, from Dungeons and Dragons to Family Matters to Joust. I would think it would be prohibitively expensive to have them all sharing space in one movie. Perhaps they will pull a Roger Rabbit and make it all work.

Ready Player One is a prose visual tour de force and a feast for all senses. It also takes a serious look at the shut-in phenomenon and what might happen when people have the chance to immerse themselves 24 hours a day in a 3D environment much more exciting and rewarding than real life. Thought-provoking, action packed and full of surprises with an inspired ending, Ready Player One delivers the full gaming experience.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Monday, October 31, 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

Movies: An Honest Liar


James Randi (magician “The Amazing Randi”) has long been one of my biggest heroes. A magician and escape artist, Randi made a name for himself in the 1950s as one of Houdini’s heirs, and broke many of the great man’s records along the way. I became aware of Randi while following his debunking of so-called psychics and his quest to find someone who could prove they possess authentic psychic powers. This documentary follows Randi’s life and career, his battle against endless fake supernaturalists and reveals many surprising secrets about Randi and those around him.

Randi was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in August of 1928. He saw a magician as a child and decided that was what he wanted to do with his life. At sixteen he ran away, joined the carnival, and never looked back. This is also the beginning of his first secret. From a boy, James Randi knew he was gay. He kept it a secret from the world until he came out in 2010.

The film takes viewers through Randi’s performing career, on the stage, on television and in the movies. He was a favorite on Johnny Carson and appeared in many other television shows. It also covers his battles with not only false psychics (are there any other kind?) such as Israel’s Uri Geller, but also occasionally with scientists who wanted so badly to believe they had found proof of honest-to-God psychic powers. The film includes the famous clip where Randi informed the Tonight Show prop people how to easily thwart Geller’s “powers” and show him as a fraud. It worked perfectly. Unfortunately, Geller went on to a fruitful career with his tricks, although he no longer claims to be psychic.

Randi’s other secret is a shock and comes out here for the first time. Over 25 years ago, Randi met a young man named José Alvarez, and they became romantic partners, which they are to this day. What no one knew was that Jose had a devastating secret of his own. During filming for this documentary, the government raided Randi and Jose’s house and arrested Jose. Randi admitted to knowing Jose’s secret. The filmmakers reveal what that secret is and why Randi went along with the deception. Never trust a magician.

The documentary does tell the tale of Jose’s arrest, consequences and how it affected his and Randi’s lives together. Overall it depicts a fascinating man and his life, warts and all. A man who has done so much good for the world and the truth. An exceptional film about a captivating man who veered off quite far onto the road not taken.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars