Monday, March 27, 2017

Comics - Thor Epic Collection Volume 1

Thor has always been a fun Marvel character. He’s not quite a B-lister, but a strong mid-seller, except for certain periods when he had an inspired creator like Walt Simonson writing his stories. This thick Epic Collection (470 pages!) reprints the first round of Thor tales, mostly by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

I’ve always liked Thor, but he’s never been an absolute favorite. I’m not sure why Stan created him, some of the early stories are so generic he could be any muscle-bound hero. But when Lee and Kirby found their groove with Thor, there has never been better galactic, heroic adventure storytelling.

Thor debuted in 1962 in Journey Into Mystery #83, “The Stone Men from Saturn!” plotted by Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Leiber and drawn by the incomparable Jack Kirby. Lame Dr. Don Blake, vacationing in Norway, stumbles into an alien invasion. Running from the aliens, he discovers a cave with a secret chamber—and in the chamber, a gnarled old walking stick. When he accidently slams that stick into the ground, it turns into the magic hammer Mjolnir and he transforms into Thor, the Norse god of Thunder! After fighting off the aliens as Thor, Blake returns to America and begins his superhero lifestyle.

Thor tests his powers

Journey Intro Mystery #84 introduces on-again off-again bad guy The Executioner, who in later years shone so brightly under Simonson’s direction. This issue also introduces Nurse Jane Foster, Blake’s romantic interest. Jane loves Blake, but constantly remarks on how handsome she finds the mighty Thor! JIM #85 is the debut of Loki, Thor’s brother and main villainous opponent. Issue #83 pits Thor against the rather bland Tomorrow Man, with Kirby tweaking Thor’s costume details and his hammer’s abilities and powers. #84 has plotter Lee going to his favorite trope in the early ‘60s—commies! Thor pounds Ivan into the ground while Jane is now actively pining for Thor, much to Dr. Blake’s dismay. #88 is the return of Loki, who is really a scoundrel in these early stories. He’s jealous of Thor and wants to humiliate as well as kill him. Well, daddy did like Thor best ...

In issue #90, Al Hartley does the art as Thor takes on the Carbon Copy Man. Does anyone under 45 know what a carbon copy is? Hartley isn’t a bad artist, but he’s no Kirby. In #91, Joe Sinnot does  a rare penciling job and it is wonderful. Loki gives powers to Sandu, Master of the Supernatural. Sandu tries to take on Thor’s hammer directly and totally underestimates it as well as its wielder. In #92, Loki takes a more direct hand in defeating his brother. This was when Thor’s hammer couldn’t be gone from his hand for more than 60 seconds or he would turn back into lame Dr. Don Blake. Lee gets a lot of mileage out of this detail and it bites Blake in the butt more than once.

JIM #93 introduces the Radioactive Man, a great villain who took on many Marvel heroes in the Silver Age, especially Iron Man and Thor. Scripting is credited to R. Burns (Robert Bernstein), who always does a sub-par job. Bernstein either looked at comics as sub-literate children’s throwaway garbage (as most of polite society did, to be fair), or he was just not a talented writer. His stories always stand out as dull and uninspired. Lee is still plotting, but Bernstein takes over dialog for a few issues and the results are lackluster stories.

In Journey Into Mystery #97, Lee is back to full scripting and Kirby returns on art, inked by Don Heck. Thor stories start getting good again. Lee turns up the soap opera (as he is wont to do) between Blake and Jane Foster, as both love the other but are afraid of expressing their feelings. This issue also begins Lee and Kirby’s “Tales of Asgard” backup stories, which squeeze an incredible amount of fun in a few pages. JIM numbers 98 and 99 introduce the Cobra and Mr. Hyde respectively, who go on to become a team that drops in to try and kill Thor regularly. With each new story Lee’s writing and Kirby’s art is getting more dynamic and epic. Issue #103 introduces another long-lasting villain team, the Executioner (from ish #84) this time in tandem with the lovely and deadly Enchantress. In the story, Loki dispatches Enchantress to steal the love of Thor from Jane Foster. It doesn’t work, but now Odin is made aware of Thor’s love for a mortal. He doesn’t approve. Issue #104 brings Odin to Earth to suss things out for himself. He and Thor end up kicking the tar out of Surtur the Fire Demon and some Storm Giants, but the all-knowing one is worried about little Thor.

Kirby's Enchantress - who says he can't draw women?

JIM numbers 105 and 106 bring back the Cobra/Mr. Hyde team. In this two-part tale, they kidnap Jane Foster, ending in Thor showing them that is a bad idea. Lee & Kirby are on a tear of creation here, introducing the Grey Gargoyle in issue #107. He is still around and up to old tricks today. In the last issue of this collection, issue #109, Thor makes a rare crossover with the X-Universe, as Magneto messes with New York and Thor tracks him down. In an exciting battle of muscles and wits, Thor is separated from his hammer too long and turns back into Don Blake. Seemingly at Magneto’s mercy, Blake actually outwits him and manages to reach Mjolnir and change back into Thor, who proceeds to wipe up Magneto’s hidden base with his body parts. Mags ends up fleeing in fear, living to fight another day. The story ends with Blake and Jane Foster looking over the NY skyline, pining for each other but afraid to say the words they both want to hear ... first-rate Stan Lee soap opera!

Delicious early Kirby art from Journey into Mystery

While this collection is a seminal Thor primer with some entertaining stories, the next few volumes will be even better. In the near future Stan really lets loose with the cosmic flavor in Asgard, and Kirby matches him artwise note for note. There are so many fun Thor stories ahead.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Jack "King" Kirby. No caption needed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Movies: Logan

*Slight Spoilers* I saw Logan last night and I’m still not exactly sure what to make of it. Logan is a fine, well made tale of the famous feral mutant Wolverine and takes place in a near future of the X-Men Universe. It features spectacular action, wonderful acting and a great script. It’s an impressive film—I’m just not convinced it’s a great Wolverine film.

We join Logan as a much older man, driving a limo to help support him, an ailing Professor Xavier and the mutant Caliban. His healing factor is beginning to fail and his body is rejecting the adamantium coating his bones. He’s aging, tired, run down and in constant pain. It’s all he can do to keep going. When a young mutant girl named Laura enters his life and needs a ride to the north for safety, he wants nothing to do with her. Some nasty, violent people are pursuing her and Logan (going by his birth name of James Howlett here, an unexpected treat for comic fans) does not want to get involved. Eventually forced to flee with Xavier and the girl, Logan fights his way north through a series of obstacles to save her.

Director James Mangold has a specific and stylish story to tell in Logan. It’s serious, violent and not necessarily hopeful. The violence is constant and visceral, as the Logan we’ve always wanted to see finally surfaces and the movie earns its hard R rating. Logan cuts and slices arms, legs, heads and other extremities from countless evil hoods who are trying to stop him and his mission. Hugh Jackman, in supposedly his last Wolverine performance, does a fantastic job channeling Wolverine’s rage into lashing out at evil men and cutting them into small pieces. The ending is not upbeat, and can be taken as hopeful or not, depending on the viewer. I didn’t love it.

I’ve been reading Wolverine comic book stories for 40 years now. My version of the character is much more of a superhero than this broken, angry animal. My Wolverine wears a costume, has funky hair and while feral and violent, keeps that part of himself in check—barely, but he does it. This serious, adult film has nothing to do with that character. This is a dark, thinking man’s action adventure. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is a far cry from my Wolverine. There is definitely room for both versions of the character, but if this is the last Hugh Jackman Wolverine movie we’re ever going to get—possibly the last Wolverine movie ever—I would have liked to see the young Wolverine, maybe a costume, perhaps some traditional comic book villains—and not an overall feeling of depression and malaise throughout the entire endeavor. Again, Logan is a fine Wolverine movie—just not my Wolverine.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Books: The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years by J.W. Braun

This thick compendium offers insight into all Star Trek series, movies and cartoons featuring the cast of the Original Series. Author Braun begins with all 69 episodes of TOS, dividing entries into episode title, grade, summary and a “Did You Know?” section. He then features the 22 episode animated series and concludes with all of the original cast films. As an extra Braun also covers “Star Trek Continues,” fan-produced episodes with new actors in the Original Series character roles.

Braun’s notes are exhaustive—summaries are clear and simple yet communicate the core of each episode. The “Did You Know?” facts are fascinating, as Spock would say. I’ve read dozens of books on the original ST, and Braun offers up many interesting details I didn’t know or hadn’t read before.

Of particular interest is Braun’s grading system for each individual episode. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it works—favorites are so personally subjective. For example, my personal favorite episode of the original series is “This Side of Paradise," where plant spores are sprayed onto the crew and they become unbelievably cheery and rather mutinous. Leonard Nimoy explores Spock’s character in a touching and humorous performance. Braun gives the episode a C, saying it is “slow moving with little action and just a middle of the pack offering for TOS.” Another absolute favorite of mine, “Balance of Terror,” gets a B+. Braun points out some minor faulty logic in the episode, but so what? I loved it! At least the horrible “And the Children Shall Lead” got the F it so richly deserves. I probably would have gone for an F-. Braun’s grades don’t always match the ones I would give, but that’s okay, everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, depending on the grade, the system may cause some raised eyebrows among loyal ST fans who disagree with the author’s summations.

Overall The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years is a wonderful compendium of Star Trek information and trivia for all ST fans. Recommended.

(Full disclosure: The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years includes a blurb from me regaling fans of my amusing meeting with William Shatner at a pop culture con a few years back. You can find the original story on the blog here. I was provided a complimentary copy of the book. Which I appreciate!)

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Concert Review: Garth Brooks

At best I’m only a moderate fan of country music. I’d heard Brooks gave a great concert performance, but nothing prepared me for the entertainment atom bomb of Brooks’ live show. The man transcends any musical genre and is a phenomenon unto himself.

Brooks had two opening acts, Mitch Rossell and Karyn Rochelle. Singer-songwriter Rossell said his gig before that was playing in airports for tips. Rochelle had a sweet voice and is an extremely talented songwriter. But the audience was there to see Garth, who strutted out in a black cowboy hat and promised to play “all the old stuff.” And he did. He did sing some newer material, but continually wowed the audience with his greatest hits package, along with some album deep cuts that kept the entire US Bank Arena on its feet, screaming and applauding, for two plus hours.  

Garth began with his massive hit Rodeo, followed by Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House, and The Beaches of Cheyenne accompanied by some great beach video. He also did versions of The River, a very fun Two Pina Coladas, the tongue-in-cheek Papa Loved Mama, and a rockin’ Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up). Additional songs included Unanswered Prayers, The Thunder Rolls, and We Shall Be Free. He knew what the crowd wanted and gave it to them, with sugar on top.

I’ve never seen a closer bond between performer and audience. The only other performers who can compare are Elvis and Bruce Springsteen. Elvis was too shy to be that close and it’s not really Springsteen’s personality. But Brooks embraced his fans, addressing the audience personally, calling out signs and commenting directly to audience members. At one point, he would gesture to various sections of the crowd and they would cheer as if their home team had just won the Super Bowl. “I thank God that this is my gig!” he cried to the heavens.

Mid-concert Brooks was joined on stage by his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood. They sang a duet and she did several solo songs while Brooks no doubt collapsed on a couch somewhere. Brooks and Yearwood have a wonderful stage presence together, alluding to a deep love and partnership with no rivalry. If a competition exists, the audience certainly couldn’t tell.

Near the end of the show, Brooks cemented himself forever in my book as a class act. Talking to a woman and her mother near the front of the stage, Garth asked them about their sign saying the older daughter had cancer and attendance at the concert was her way of thanking her mother for helping her through. He asked her how the treatment was going and how she was doing. He wished her well and dedicated a song to her. Then Brooks asked a stagehand to bring him a Garth Brooks breast cancer baseball cap with a pink ribbon on it. Taking the hat in his hand, he drew it back to toss to the mother and daughter. Smiling at the last minute, he instead ripped off the cowboy hat he had been wearing all night, tossed it to the daughter, then flipped the baseball cap onto his head. He wished her well and went into the next song. No one in the arena auditorium had a dry eye after that. Mr. Brooks, you are my hero.

When the band took a break, Brooks read song requests off audience signs and played them on his guitar—not only his own deep cuts, but he was pleased to do a version of Don MacLean’s Starry, Starry Night as well.

When the band came back, Brooks finished with some of his most famous songs, including The Dance (in my opinion one of the finest songs ever written), and of course I’ve Got Friends in Low Places, complete with the rare naughty fourth verse.

Brooks spent over two hours jumping, laughing, singing, playing and engaging the audience like they were friends in his living room over for a jam session. For his last number, he playfully crawled over the stage to his guitar and jammed a fantastic rendition of another Don MacLean song, American Pie. The crowd shouted the lyrics with him.

The Brooks show was in my top three concerts of all time, and with perspective may end up being my favorite ever. I’ve never seen artist, band and audience in such perfect sync. This was my first Garth Brooks concert. Now I can’t wait until the next one. The man left nothing on the stage, and I think we both left exhausted.

Rating: ****** out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Recent Movies

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – I love Star Wars and I am desperately trying to like the new films. So far they are 0 for 2. Rogue One isn’t an awful film; it’s just boring. The actors are stiff and lifeless with no attention paid to character and less to the story. The characters gather in a throne room to talk, then a war room to talk, then on ships to talk ... why don’t they do something?! Actress Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso is bland and even more uninteresting than Daisy Ridley as Rey in The Force Awakens. She has no personality, no emotion and the charisma of a bag of doorknobs. It’s about the same for the crew of rebels who assist her, with the possible exception of Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. They put Zatoichi in a Star Wars movie. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Forest Whittaker as Saw Gerrera is at his “Look at me, I’m ACTING! Look how TORTURED I am!” best. He has given this exact same performance a hundred times. It may be time for him to report to Overactors Anonymous.   

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a diverse cast, which Rogue One does. But it gets a bit weird. The entire Rogue One Squadron, the good guys, is either female or minority—and all villains and evildoers are middle-aged white men. Um, what are you trying to tell us, Star Wars Universe?

Of course the special effects are breathtaking, as are the digital reproductions of young and deceased cast members. Darth Vader was handled well and was definitely on model. But overall Rogue One was an unnecessary tale told by a group of lackluster actors and filmmakers. The PC elements didn’t help. This drivel gives me little hope for future Star Wars installments.

Rating: ** stars out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan – Much to my delight, Hollywood is once again trying to introduce Tarzan to modern audiences. Since I read a buttload of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Jungle Lord books when I was a teenager, I’m a huge fan. Tarzan is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters and I care about getting him right. Unfortunately, this is not the film to do so.

This time around Tarzan is played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård. He’s a great Tarzan, the filmmakers chose well. His wife Jane is Margot Robbie, also a great Jane. Inglorious Basterds' Christoph Waltz is a credible villain. The only misfire is Samuel L. Jackson as the whiny comic relief. This film was shot before Robbie’s breakout role in Suicide Squad, where she became a geek household name. I suppose the producers thought the film needed some star power, so they created a superfluous role for Jackson, who has no earthly reason to be in this movie.

The plot is decent; Jane is kidnapped in Africa and Tarzan has to go find her. This is the plot of 90% of ERB’s Tarzan novels and is perfectly acceptable. The execution is ... not good. It’s as if someone told someone else the story of Tarzan, then that person talked to the writers and they used that story to write the movie. Did they crack a Tarzan book? In the books, Tarzan wears an animal skin loincloth; leather, lion skin, leopard, whatever. In the movie, he wears culottes. Tarzan does not wear culottes. This took away from the classic visual of the character and just made him a muscular guy in culottes. Ugh. In the books, Tarzan never goes into the jungle without weapons, usually his bow and arrows, knife and possibly a spear. In the movie, he gets off a train and runs into the jungle with nothing. He’s following an army and trying to rescue his wife. That’s not just not following the books, it’s stupid.

When Tarzan gets off the train and goes into the jungle to rescue Jane, Sam Jackson’s character goes to follow him. Tarzan says, “I’m not going to let you slow me down.” Then Tarzan proceeds to slow from a run to a walk, then walk through the jungle rather than swinging from tree to tree, thereby letting Jackson’s character slow him down. Was anyone paying attention to their own script?

The movie did get some things right; Tarzan is a well-educated, well-spoken man. But the movie Tarzans are never as raw, as primal, as ERB’s original. The literary Tarzan was highly intelligent, compassionate and honorable. The movie Tarzans are always weak and equivocating. This movie Tarzan was a creature of the city, ashamed of his jungle heritage and reluctant to go back into the forest. The literary Tarzan, a much more interesting creature, was proud of his jungle life and always longed to visit his African holdings.

The great Tarzan film has yet to be made. 1984’s Greystoke starring Christopher Lambert was close, but no cigar. I’m still waiting, Hollywood. Please do better next time. And no culottes!

Rating: *** stars out of 5

X-Men: Apocalypse - 20th Century Fox continues to pump out X-Men movies, whether anyone wants them or not. Here, the oldest and first mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), is released from his Egyptian tomb and gathers a group of mutants to conquer the world. Bryan Singer directs, but doesn’t offer anything new to X-Men or superhero movies.

Apocalypse gathers some young mutants, including Mystique, Storm and Angel, as well as an older, disillusioned Magneto (Michael Fassbender). His efforts are fought tooth and nail by Professor X (James McAvoy) and young versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and the Beast. The actions scenes are superior and the special effects of Apocalypse slaughtering humans and the X-Men fighting back are truly spectacular. The highlight of the movie is a terrific cameo from a feral mutant everyone has come to love. But there is just nothing new here. An evil mutant threatens the world, the X-Men team up to stop him. No one discovers something new, no one acts out of character and almost no one offers anything worth watching. Michael Fassbender is always fascinating to watch as Magneto, and he did have an interesting story arc and the most growth of any character. But that was a small part of the movie. I kept looking for something that made X-Men: Apocalypse special or unusual or stand out in any way from a crowded superhero marketplace. I suppose this film is not the worst way to pass two hours. But in the end, out of all the movies made last year, X-Men: Apocalypse was one of them.

Rating: **½ stars out of 5

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Comics of 2016

In alphabetical order:


Bone: Coda

Future Quest

Lake of Fire

Manifest Destiny

Rachel Rising

Red Team: Double Tap, Center Mass


Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses