Monday, March 31, 2014

Music - The Birthday Massacre

 
The Birthday Massacre
Listening to Pandora has introduced me to some great bands. One of my new favorites is The Birthday Massacre out of Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, the band name dredges up thoughts of Charles Manson-like serial killers and bloody backyard balloon parties. They are a little gothy, but the band’s music has nothing to do with those things. It’s just witty and interesting alternative music with a great sense of melody and instrumentation. Lead vocalist Chibi has a sharp voice that cuts like a knife and is perfect for the band’s sound. There is nothing else like it out there. I have several of their CDs and love them all, but I would suggest starting with Pins and Needles. You can listen to the entire album here. The Birthday Massacre is a dynamic band with a vibrant, unique sound.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Television - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Despite being comic related, I really don’t enjoy the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. The pilot was all right, but it quickly devolved into a boring semi-spy mish-mash with no point or direction. It might help if someone told the producers it takes place in the Marvel Universe, which for years was a magical place with all sorts of creativity. I stopped watching some time ago, but friends I trust tell me it has gotten better. That’s hard to believe, with photos like the one below coming from the show’s publicity department:

TV Deathlok
Comic Book Deathlok

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Original Deathlok Luther Manning? Cool. His replacement Michael Collins? Cool. A guy in jeans and a sweatshirt with a xylophone strapped to his chest? Not cool. I think I’ll continue to stay away from the smell of this show.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Movies - In a World ...

I generally tend to like quirky, independent movies. I was definitely predisposed to like this one. Writer/Director Lake Bell plays a voiceover artist looking to follow in her famous father’s footsteps. Her father, a respected and veteran voiceover man, is deathly afraid his career may be on a downward spiral, despite his upcoming Lifetime Achievement Award. I can relate to this film at least in a small way—I used to work in the media and have been told I have a decent voice (and definitely a face for radio ...). I’ve done voiceovers for numerous commericals, corporate videos, promotional TV spots and other things. I’ve stood behind a microphone and know what a fun job it is, so I can relate to the story a bit if not the characters.  
And the problems start with the characters. Lake herself plays Carol, a slutty, scatterbrained airhead who has aspirations of being a top-level voice talent. She comes off as an empty headed, directionless goofball. Her father Sam (Fred Melamed) and his protégé Gustav (the always slimy Ken Marino) are so self-absorbed I’m surprised they even pretend to help each other. Demetri Martin as sound engineer Louis is one of the few likable characters. Louis is so shy he can’t tell Carol how much he likes her, so he tries to help her gain her dream project, doing the voiceover for a new blockbuster movie franchise called “The Amazon Games.” Bell stumbles through the film as both actress and director. Her character would be much improved if she could just finish a sentence, instead of making her character an annoying, distracted mess who has difficulty expressing herself. The dysfunctional dynamic of her family, consisting of Bell, her sister and their father, is a study in who can out-selfish each other. The main plot deals with who will get the job as trailer announcer for “The Amazon Games.” Carol, Sam and Gustav are all in the mix. When the winner is announced, it’s hard to be happy for the victor—each of these characters has done nothing but prove why they shouldn’t have anything good happen to them.

There are some fun moments in the movie—Gustav finding out his mentor has dealt him a well-deserved betrayal, Louis trying to tell Carol he wants to date her while attempting to shield himself from inevitable rejection, and Sam’s groupie girlfriend, hated by his daughters but the best thing to ever happen to him. The film is helped by the plot revolving around a rarely explored aspect of the movie industry, but hurt by the baffling and unlikable characters.

Rating: ** Stars out of 5
Trailer for In a World ...

Photo of the Day

If you don't know who this is, this may not be the Blog for you.
As of March 26, Mr. Nimoy is 83 years old. May he Live Long and ... well, you know.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews

3/18/14 Books

The Shadow #23 – Marvel and DC have mostly forgotten how to do story-centered, agenda free comics. Thank goodness (except for the price tag) for companies like Dynamite and IDW. Each month, The Shadow delivers a heapin’ helpin’ of 1930s pulpy goodness and blazin’ firearms. In this issue, an unnamed Russian WWI vet makes it to America after a life of mercenary fighting. Most of the story is from his point of view, as he works his way across New York City relating his previous life of murder and larceny. He moves up the social ladder by killing the person beneath him. The Shadow doesn’t show up until the end of the story, just in time to deal out some social justice with his twin .45s. Turns out they knew each other in the past. The Shadow’s story had a happier conclusion.
Too bad this title is cancelled in two issues ... it’s a treat to read every month, thanks to writer Chris Roberson. The man does not phone in his work and obviously has the same love for pulp heroes that I do.
 
Ghosted #8 – Jackson T. Winters is a bad man. An unrepentant grifter, he was recently broken out of prison by a billionaire to acquire for him, of all things, a ghost. That didn’t go so well. In this second adventure, Jackson is paid by a woman to kidnap her demon-possessed niece from a secret society of devil worshippers. High concept enough for you? Jackson is just enough of a likable rogue for readers to root for him. His mission takes a bit of a turn when the cult leader asks him to stay and become an honored member. It also doesn’t help that he is being personally haunted by Anderson Lake, a female bodyguard killed on one of his earlier capers. Trouble is, she is cheering on the folks trying to kill him. Writer Joshua Williamson provides a fun, humorous horror tale and artist Davide Gianfelice provides some very nice art. Recommended.
  
Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows #4 – Despite the goofy title, this Star Wars story delivers the goods. Taking place between Star Wars movies III & IV, Darth is busy killing people and breaking things for the Emperor, not aware he has a whiny son and temporarily hot daughter alive somewhere in the universe. With the help of one of the Jango Fett clones, Darth invades the planet Ostor to kill a band of Separatists. Writer Tim Siedell and artist Gabriel Guzman feature some explosive space battles and character work on the clone, who is trying to stand out from his identical brethren. Licensed titles used to be strong birdcage fodder, but Dark Horse is one of the first companies to make comics connected to movies or other media stand on their own merits. Since Disney bought Marvel, their own comic company, the Star Wars license is reverting to Marvel at the end of 2014. That’s too bad—instead of thoughtful, original adventure stories that capture the voices of the original characters, readers will be subjected to a politically correct Vader bursting through walls shouting his own name. Dark Horse has done a fantastic job with Star Wars. They deserve better, as does the property.

Legenderry #3 – Writer Bill Willingham has given readers a few new concepts to chew on in his time. This is quite an eclectic mix—a steampunk adventure featuring new old versions of the Phantom, Green Hornet, Vampirella and the Six Million (here, Thousand) Dollar Man. It’s sort of a head-scratching idea, but multi-talented Willingham has it all under control. Here, Vampirella and the Green Hornet have put femme fatale Magna Spadarossa on a dirigible to protect her from the evil forces pursuing her. While having dinner at the Captain’s Table, she meets the delightful Steve Austin and his pal Oscar Goldman. When she is later attacked, Austin straps on his new $6000 arm and legs and protects her from the attacking reprobates. Willingham is obviously having fun bringing a new twist to these classic characters and takes readers along for the ride.
 
Daredevil #1 – Another of Marvel’s useless and overhyped relaunches. Desperate to slavishly please shareholders, they relaunch with the same creative team as last month, continuing the same storyline. How much longer until every Marvel comic is a #1? To be fair, there is a major difference from the last issue—Matt Murdock has moved from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City to San Francisco. Waid continues to explore Daredevil’s more swashbuckling side, rather than wallowing in the misery in which other recent writers have frozen the character. Murdock explores his new city and makes new friends. When we last left Murdock’s partner Foggy, he was being treated for an aggressive form of cancer, and Waid leaves what happened a bit of a mystery. A great read, as usual, but the useless and cynical new #1 bars a strong recommendation.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Books - Warbound

Larry Correia is one of my favorite authors. Correia is around 9 feet tall, a Mormon, family man and self-proclaimed conservative and gun nut. And I would add fantastic writer. I first became aware of his work through word of mouth regarding his mind-blowing Monster Hunter International books. The latest, Monster Hunter Nemesis, is out in July and I can’t wait.
 
As much as I love MHI, Larry’s Grimnoir Chronicles series may be even better. Then again, chocolate pie, peanut butter pie, you win either way. Warbound is the last book for now in the Grimnoir series. These books take place in the pre-Great Depression years of the 1930s, where magic exists and is a real thing. It’s an ensemble story, but one of the main protagonists is hard-boiled Jake Sullivan, a “Heavy.” Jake can use magic to control the weight or density of people or objects around him. Country girl Faye Vierra is a teleporter, called an “Active.” Faye is an absolute favorite character and probably the most powerful person in the Grimnoir universe. The universe is populated with thousands of folks gifted with diverse magical powers, such as healing, super engineering, transmitting disease, telepathy, and just about every super power you can think of. Sullivan and Vierra are members of the Knights of the Grimnoir, who help protect the world from magical bad people. *Slight spoiler* In the previous book, Spellbound, Jake dispatched the evil Japanese “Chairman,” the former most powerful magic user in the world. Now an imposter has taken his place, and Jake must work with the Chairman’s reluctant son Toru to dispose of the new guy and save the world.

Correia is an incredible action writer and world-builder. From sending Faye into a bombed out, desolate area of Germany to gather intelligence to dropping Sullivan from a plane into the climactic battle, our heroes go from one bombastic adventure to another. Correia still saves room for character development and getting fan-favorite characters together romantically. He has developed a fine sense of pacing that keeps the reader riveted to the story to see what happens next. There is an especially good subplot about Faye becoming so powerful she is destined to turn evil, and the group trying to assassinate her before that happens. Good luck with that.

The resolution ties up the story and is a natural ending for the characters who survive. Correia has promised more books set in this universe, perhaps jumping ahead to the 1950s to see where everyone is. I’ll follow him wherever he goes, but this is excellent news.

Check out all books in this series: Hard Magic, Spellbound and Warbound. Larry Correia also runs one of the most interesting sites on the web, dealing with political correctness in modern publishing, direct, no-nonsense writing tips and honest and enthusiastic interaction with fans. Find him at Monster Hunter Nation.
 
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Books - Joyland by Stephen King

Stephen King is such a successful writer he has reached the point where he embraces his quirks and doesn’t care who notices. He has two obvious ones: Loving the sound of his own voice and forcing his fringe political views on his characters. Joyland avoids the former.
 
Joyland is a Hard Case Crime book (never read a bad one) that packs a wallop. Dev is working at the Joyland amusement park in summer 1974 between college semesters. He becomes friends with Mike, a kid dying from MD, and his sexy single mom. He also finds the ghost of a murdered girl in the funhouse. The book is fairly short and tightly written and plotted; it’s King at his absolute best. He is incredibly talented at putting us in the character’s shoes and making his characters come alive as people without a wasted word. We care about little Mikey and fear for his safety. We love that Dev has a crush on Mike’s mom. There’s a murder mystery too, about finding the killer of the funhouse ghost.
 
While Joyland is a great overall read, the ending isn’t. Writing the story in his old age, the protagonist, out of the blue, rants on about why so many good people have died in his lifetime while Dick Chaney gets a new heart and keeps on living. It really jarred me out of the story and made me dislike King’s antagonism. If that's how King feels, fine. But does he really have to wish a specific person dead because he doesn't agree with them politically? That’s a nasty, unnecessary thing to do and takes the book from five star rating down to three, at best. Great story, awful ending.
 
Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Hot Links

Some interesting things around the ‘Net ... (just click the highlight)

- Speaking of profanity, ever wondered how the symbols !@#$%^^& came to represent cursing in print and comics? The term for that is “grawlix,” and here is how it got started.

- Flying from Superman's POV. This may be my favorite You Tube video ever. This is what my dreams are like!

- A Playboy interview with the great Stan “the Man” Lee. Stan’s memory is in top shape and his frankness is more on display than his usual “rah rah” publicity interviews. Well worth your valuable time.

Just for fun, Jennifer Lawrence in a deleted scene from American Hustle, where she’s lip-syncing to Santana’s Evil Ways. I loved it, and the movie.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tales of My Childhood - The Dirtiest Word in the World

 
When I was five or six, I was out playing with my cousin, away from the grownups. We were of course fascinated by the adult world and each forbidden glimpse of it was a wonder. We often shared secrets as a way of feeling older and wiser.
 
Out of nowhere, she said, “Want to hear the dirtiest word in the world?”

Want to? WANT TO? Woman, I DEMAND TO! Such clandestine information would make me privy to a no doubt closely guarded adult secret—and what a secret! The dirtiest word in the world! This kind of power does not come cheaply. What did she want? I must act vaguely uninterested.

“You don’t know the dirtiest word in the world,” I said skeptically, hoping she’d now have tell me so as to prove her actual possession of such an artifact.

“I do too. It’s ****.”

****. Hmmmm. I hadn’t heard that one before. Not even when my dad hit his finger with a hammer. And I thought I’d heard every impolite term in the cursing dictionary then. Naturally, I doubted the veracity of this statement. Was she making this up? Or worse, was she mislead by another source, perhaps some kind of adult spy trying to throw us off the track of true knowledge? I had to carefully consider this one.

A few mornings later, after a day or two of consideration, I was sitting in the living room of our house. My mother was right around the corner in the kitchen, slightly out of sight, cooking breakfast. I decided to test my new vocabulary. I had to know if it were true.

“Mom,” I asked innocently, “What does **** mean?

You have to remember, this was before the dirtiest word in the world was regularly in movies, on TV, shouted by kids driving by your house and placed on billboards all over the U.S. It was still rather forbidden back then.

For a split second that lasted an eternity, there was an overwhelming silence and stillness in the air. Like when the earth is covered in a blanket of new snow that suppresses all the din of human existence and turns the earth into a wordless, soundless postcard. That was broken by the crash of a skillet of eggs smashing to the floor.

“WHERE DID YOU HEAR THAT?” For a split second I thought of ratting out my cousin, but this sounded like I was on to something. If this was the real goods, I couldn’t turn her in. It wouldn’t be right.

“I don’t rem...”

Now scream the next paragraph, pretending there is a period between each word, and you may come close to the way I heard it that morning:

“I don’t ever, EVER! want to hear you say that word again young man. DO YOU HEAR ME? Never! If I EVER hear that word from you again, I will immediately wash your mouth out with soap. DO YOU HEAR ME?

“Yeah, mom. I’m sorry.” Sorry I didn’t know sooner! This reaction guaranteed beyond any doubt that I now knew ... THE DIRTIEST WORD IN THE WORLD!

**** yeah!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews

Afterlife with Archie #4
3/5/14 Books
- Afterlife with Archie #4: A comic that has no right being this good. An Archie zombie comic? Yet it works. Author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa plays it straight, with a spell cast by Sabrina the Teenaged Witch gone wrong and starting a zombie apocalypse in Riverdale. Jughead is one of the first infected (he's always been a proud carnivore, right?), and the virus quickly overtakes the town. Meanwhile Archie, Betty, Veronica and the gang take refuge in the Lodge mansion as Mr. Lodge organizes a commando team from what is left of the town’s adults.

In issue #4, Archie’s old jalopy is unveiled as a getaway car, and the fate of Archie’s parents is revealed (slight spoiler—Mr. Andrews has become a bit “bity”). Played as a straight horror book with moody art by the multi-talented Francesco Francavilla, the Archie gang fighting zombies actually ... works.
 

Velvet #4
- Velvet #4: Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, except for a rather ignorant anti-Tea Party storyline, set the standard for modern superhero comics. The man started out good and has become a master storyteller. Velvet is a period piece, taking place in 1973. The premise is “What if Moneypenny from the James Bond films was herself a master spy?” When her boss turns up dead, Velvet is framed for the murder. Jumping out a nearby window, she goes on the run to find the real killer. What follows is a bullet-riddled, glass smashing, bone crunching good time.

In this issue, Velvet infiltrates a costume ball to obtain intelligence from a spy who once worked with her murdered boss. I’m not much of a fashionista ... okay, I’m not in any way anything resembling a fashionista, but I have to say artist Steve Epting draws some of the most beautiful gowns and costumes to appear in a comic. Both creators are doing some of the best work of their careers and it shows in every page. Velvet is a satisfying throwback to ‘60s spy thrillers.

3/12/14 Books
Manifest Destiny #5
- Manifest Destiny #5: A quiet travelogue of a book, chronicling Lewis & Clark’s sojourn across the American wilderness. With one slight twist—the American heartland is chock full of monsters, man-buffaloes, vampires, plant people and things they haven’t catalogued yet. Oh, and Sacajawea is a tough, monster fighting Indian woman, who doesn’t say much but regularly saves their fat from the fire. The stakes get higher every issue, with the explorers getting farther from civilization and the threats getting darker and more dangerous. Their uninformed crew threatens mutiny and their numbers decrease every issue. An intense, fun and well-executed “What If” horror story.


Red Team #7
- Red Team #7: Writer Garth Ennis wraps up his vigilante cops story. A strike team of NY police decide to take the law into their own hands and execute crime lords the law can’t touch. They are incredibly smart about it ... not leaving a trail, not just taking out criminals they are investigating, choosing different times and places, avoiding patterns, making each hit different. When they run into a rival police team doing the same thing for drugs and money, the teams clash and not everyone makes it out alive. Ennis tends to get into his characters’ heads and have them wrestle with the morality of their actions, and it is an honest struggle for some members of the team. The “good” strike team is caught and arrested, but their eventual fate is this issue will surprise you.
 
Stray Bullets #41
- Stray Bullets #41: After an eight-year hiatus, the hardest crime book on the market is back. Not missing a beat, Stray Bullets returns to finish a storyline eight years in the making. Student Virginia Applejack is trying to save her kidnapped friend Leon from upperclassman thug Mike. Mike thinks he’s a tough guy, but is ignorant of Virginia’s background or what she will do to help Leon. There is a brutal final showdown with Virginia, Mike and a crowd of criminals and kids.

Stray Bullet’s black and white printing and stark artwork underscore the hardness of this modern comic noir. Dark and unflinchingly brutal with an honesty few other books achieve, SB still tends to amaze.

Movies - Veronica Mars


It is a pleasant surprise when something you look forward to turns out as well or better than anticipated. Veronica Mars was a three-season drama about a teenage, Nancy Drew-like detective played by Kristin Bell. Direct, adorable and fearless, in the first season Veronica solved the mystery of her best friend’s murder. That first season was one of the most tightly plotted, suspenseful seasons of any TV show ever, with an explosive and satisfying payoff at the end. Subsequent seasons were excellent, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, mostly because of Network creative interference. It never was a ratings hit.

Now, thanks to Kickstarter, the Veronica Mars movie is a real thing. Veronica is drawn back to her hometown of Neptune, CA to help her old boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. This happens to coincide with her 10-year high school reunion, an event she swore to avoid but manages to crash anyway. Veronica renews all of her previous relationships, and luckily her father, private detective Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), is around to warn her off the case. The Colantoni/Bell father/daughter chemistry is one of the best features of the TV show and is a wonderful component of the film. It rings true as a loving father/daughter relationship. Just as in real life, Mars offers his daughter advice from his life experience and wisdom, which she promptly ignores. And pays the price.

Creator and writer Rob Thomas’s script is witty and funny, with a nice twisty plot and some great one-liners. Veronica is a smart, strong and independent leading character, with close friends and an exceptional support system. She doesn’t always make the right choices. However, when she is forced into a corner she manages to solve the mystery and battle the bad guy on her own. The ending leaves the story open for many more Veronica Mars adventures, a thing I hope happens on a regular basis. Finally, the movie is worth seeing for the James Franco cameo alone. Franco has a few scenes playing himself that bring the house down, and are probably worth the price of a movie ticket by themselves.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Media Controversy

Crikey! It's the Crocodile Huntah!
I do miss Steve Erwin, one of the most passionate and entertaining naturalists who ever lived. Should footage of his final act and death ever be released to the public? I'm not sure I agree with him, but James Delingpole makes a compelling case.

http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Hollywood/2014/03/12/steve-irwin-final-moments-death-video

Classic Covers

Batman #207

Batman #207 is probably my favorite comic cover of all time. When I saw it in DC Comics house ads when I was a kid, it scared me to death. So violent, so realistic. Such a sense of urgency and dread. How could Batman and Robin possibly escape that death trap? If the machine guns don’t get them, they’ll drown! I bought this comic as an adult and the story, while not bad, doesn’t quite live up to that stunning cover.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Movies - 300: Rise of an Empire


What I learned from 300: Rise of an Empire:

1. The laws of gravity, centrifugal force and physics did not apply to Ancient Greece.

2. Ancient Persian women were totally liberated and empowered, serving as warriors, generals and all around butt-kickers. They also had a lot of cool smoky black eye makeup.

3. Oceans have hills that boats can come over in a slow, menacing way, just like tanks over a hill in a WWII movie or calvary in a Western.

4. Everything in Greece was on fire all the time.
 
5. Ancient Greeks did a lot of ab work.

Although “campy” would be kind, there is a lot of goofy fun in this sequel to 300. Taking place parallel to, then after the events in that film, Rise of an Empire continues the tale from history, as the Greeks face and defeat Darius of Persia’s navy at Salamis. Once the viewer realizes this is not an attempt at providing a historical document, they can turn off their brain and enjoy the bloody mayhem. And mayhem it is. Eva Green chews some scenery as Greek Admiral and war chief Artemisia fighting for the Persians. Lena Headey reprises her role as Spartan Queen Gorgo from 300. Will this poor woman ever be cast as anything but a belligerent, ill-tempered authoritarian? She’s certainly exploiting that niche for all it is worth. Some generic six-pack guy plays the Greek Admiral Themistokles. He does a great job looking tough and showing the results of 1700 hours worth of sit-ups. This flick does have something for everyone, as smart people can watch to point out historical inaccuracies and dumb people like me can just enjoy it for what it is: a sword and sandal romp through some unexplored historical territory.

Rating: *** stars out of 5

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Classic TV Photo

Adam West & Burt Ward on the set of Batman

The 1966 Batman TV show must have been fun to shoot. I think Burt Ward was around 12 years old here. The entire series will be out on DVD this year. Can't wait!

Photo stolen gleefully from Val at http://valeriedorazio.com/.

When I Met Stan Lee

Stan "the Man"
At the same Fandomfest gathering where I met William Shatner last year, I also met up with the great Stan Lee. I first met Stan back in the '80s, when his autographs were free. Now they're $60 per. I had him sign a nice hardcover of the first Spider-Man Marvel Masterworks, now my most prized possession. Geeky but true.

It’s kind of ludicrous, but I admit I wanted to ask Stan for a "Stan Lee" nickname. During Marvel Comics’ heyday in the ‘60s, Stan used to give the creators a goofy nickname in the credits. For example, “Rascally” Roy Thomas, Jack “King” Kirby, “Jazzy” John Romita. Stan himself was Stan “the Man.” I guess I just wanted to tell people Stan Lee gave me an official nickname so I could run around calling myself "Joltin'" Jerry or something.

Stan’s line was around the convention hall and out the door. The convention staff were moving folks through quickly and the line moved fast. Still spry at 90 years old, Stan was all smiles, thriving on love from middle-aged fanboys like me. I approached Stan and handed him my book, which he signed.

“Hi Stan,” I said. “My name is Jerry Smith, would it be possible to get a Stan Lee nickname?”

While Stan’s health is great, in that crowded hall his hearing wasn’t so much. He misunderstood me and thought I wanted my autograph personalized. He smiled and said, "I'm not supposed to, but ... " He took my book from the security goon who had swept it up, intending to write "To Jerry" on it. The goon actually snatched it out of his hand and snarled to me, "Sorry, signature only."

Stan looked at me like he just ran over my puppy, very disappointed he couldn't get me what he thought I wanted.

I smiled back and said, “Don’t worry about it, Stan. There's always next year.”

You gotta love Stan the Man.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Around the ‘Net

One of the most informative sites on the ‘net is Skeptoid, created and hosted by Brian Dunning. I have a deep and abiding interest in “weird phenomena” investigation, and Brian is one of the finest experts in the business. Each week, he does a short podcast about unexplained phenomena or a famous urban legend. He investigates each subject as scientifically as possible and forms intelligent, rational explanations for some of the stories we’ve all heard. Particular favorites include Nostradamus (#66), ghost hunting (#81 and many others), Pope Joan (#353), 9-11 Truthers (#85), UFOs (#94 and many others), the Mothman (#159) and Astrology (#173). The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter (#331) is a particular favorite, since it takes place in Kentucky. I heard the story years ago and it was so bat-crap crazy I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what really happened. Turns out no one else can either.

Brian Dunning, Head Skeptoid

Dunning also deals with food fads, the Men in Black, Area 51, local monsters, crop circles and hundreds of other subjects. Some of the most interesting are the “Real or Fictional” entries, which deal with incidents, historical figures and historical places. I consider myself knowledgeable about some of those subjects and can never get all of the “real or fictional” questions right. I listen to Skeptoid as a podcast—I’ve listened to all 404 episodes so far, with new ones each week—but it also comes as a weekly printed email if you would like to read it. It’s a quick and interesting way to stay informed on urban legends and unexplained phenomena from all over the world. Unexplained that is, until you experience Skeptoid.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Books - Donnybrook by Frank Bill

 



Donnybrook by Frank Bill is a fun (if dark and violent) first novel. An ensemble cast works its way across Kentucky and Indiana for a private bare knuckle fighting championship, the Donnybrook. No heroes here, but there are some sympathetic characters, and some evil SOBs. You’d think this would be a “fight formula” book where each match is described and the good guy overcomes overwhelming odds to win the prize. Nope. Each entrant (some unwilling) has a back story and the Donnybrook is a small part of the overall story. But fights? Boy are there fights. Brawlers, martial artists, boxers and other combatants compete in the streets, in houses, in the fields and in the ring as everyone fights to get what they want. There are more broken bones, crushed noses and fistfights per page than any book I’ve ever read. People are beaten, shot, kicked, stabbed, dragged by cars, and that’s just by page three! Characters take an enormous amount of punishment. The ending leaves room for a sequel (with the characters left alive), and that I would enjoy reading. Recommended if you have a high tolerance for violence. The characters certainly do.

Rating: *** 1/2 out of 5 stars


Secret Origins



Some Prime '70s Comics Goodness

I tend not to have an addictive personality. I’ve never been drunk, I’ve never been high. One of my few addictions is comic books. More specifically, I’m addicted to stories told with words and pictures. I’m at my LCS (local comic store for non-Big Bang Theory watchers) every Wednesday on New Comic Day.

My mom bought me comics to devour long before I could read. At the time I’m sure I was drawn in by their garish colors, Pow! Wham! graphics and bold action. When I learned to read I enjoyed the stories of good vs. evil, with the square-jawed good guys always coming out on top. Most kids like me tend to drop their four-color habit when they discover girls. I kept both as hobbies, even to this day.


 
Superman #193

The first comic I remember reading was Superman #193. The villainous Lex Luthor had killed Superman in an “imaginary story” (aren’t they all?), and heroes were lined up for miles to pay their last respects to the Man of Steel. Around the same time I discovered Spider-Man and his pals at Marvel Comics, with sophisticated stories aimed at a slightly older reader. I never stopped reading and today have over 24,000 comics and growing. They take up way too much space.

While I still love capes and superheroes, I don’t buy too many of today’s superhero comics. Once non-political adventure stories, mainstream superhero comic books have become mired in politically correct agenda-pushing instead of storytelling. This is fine for creator-owned comics or comics specifically labeled for adults. But I’m not sure why a child reading a superhero book needs to be exposed to alternative lifestyles, attacks against capitalism, and glorification of one side of the political spectrum (guess which one). These are books where characters lift tanks and shoot beams out of their eyes. Can’t we just stick to storytelling? I don't mind expression of those things at all. I just think all-ages superhero comic stories are not the appropriate place for those messages.

On the positive side, there are more genres and types of comics today than ever before, and I still love that medium for telling stories. There are zombie books, crime books, pulp hero books, sci-fi, horror, manga, something for every taste. I’ll be exploring some of the best of these in the days and weeks to come.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comic Strips - Baron Bean and The Gumps


Baron Bean is the first volume in a new series of affordable compilations of early comic strips from the Library of American Comics. These daily strips were originally published in 1916, about a ne'er do well layabout with a fake European title. Apparently those were all the rage in America in the early 20th century. Frankly, the book was a bit of a slog. After the first ten or so strips you get the idea; the Baron is hungry and can't afford lunch. Also, cultural references and some of the things people found funny were apparently different 100 years ago. Some strips just left me scratching my head, not getting the joke. I'm not sure if the gag was dumb, I am, or someone from that era would find it hilarious. There is some humor to be found, and reading the compilation was like looking into a time machine. But I can't wholeheartedly recommend the book except perhaps for curiosity value. However, the presentation, graphics and production values of the book (and subsequent volumes) are exquisite. And the unique, one-strip-per-page design is a great way to read these comics.


The Gumps is the second volume in the series and is much, much better. It's from 1928-29, when the strip had already been running for 10 years. The storyline is one that changed newspaper comics, "The Saga of Mary Gold." Strip creator Syd Smith was experimenting with sequential storytelling and continuity, some of the first in comics. Andy and Minerva Gump are just normal folks in the suburbs. The book begins when their neighbors the Golds move in next door. The families become fast friends, and the youngest Gold daughter, Mary, is soon romanced by two beaus, an inventor and a banker. The banker ends up framing the inventor for a large cash theft, then moves in and gets the girl while the good boyfriend goes to jail.

Apparently this caused a national uproar in the late '20s. Smith was talented at stringing out the daily dose of drama, something new to comic strips. Will the inventor get out of jail? Will the real criminal get his? Will the lovebirds be reunited? Letters rolled into the syndicate by the hundreds of thousands. On the national stage, politicians, business leaders and movie stars begged Smith to resolve his storyline and give the villain his comeuppance. Eventually all is made right, but the storyline ends on a tragic, unexpected note. This drove audiences insane in 1929, when they weren't used to such somber drama in the funnies.

Witty and funny with a great story and sense of dramatic tension, The Gumps is still fresh after 80 years. More like this, please.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Supernatural and Skepticism


 
 
I am a skeptic. I don’t generally believe in the supernatural. I do believe in God—to me there is too much evidence of a divine creator of the universe not to. But I put no faith in ESP, telekinesis, Bigfoot, alien abductions, remote viewing, mediums and fortune telling, ghosts, astrology, or any of the other things claiming to be supernatural. Why? Evidence.

The skeptic’s creed is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Not proof, mind you, but evidence. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for any of those things to exist or be real. Who wouldn’t want proof of an alien culture? To picnic with Bigfoot? To know tomorrow’s sports scores? I don’t think any of those things are beyond the realm of possibility. But I believe in the scientific method for testing the natural world.

The biggest problem is that there are too many natural explanations for seemingly supernatural events. The famous Loch Ness Monster photo from the ‘40s has been thoroughly debunked, as has the Patterson Bigfoot film. The Skeptical Inquirer is a monthly magazine that looks at supernatural phenomena through the lens of the scientific method and the supernatural comes up short every time.

The Amazing Randi

James Randi is an inspiration to skeptics everywhere. He not only exposes fake “psychics” and notions of all kinds, but his foundation offers a $1 million reward for any proof of psychic powers. The arguments I’ve heard against Randi are laughable. “No psychic would take that dare, money is not important to them.” Really? When is the last time Madame Zanzabob offered a palm reading free? Why not prove to the world you are a legitimate psychic, then donate the money to your favorite charity? Why? Because there are no provable psychic powers. Almost every UFO story can be explained rationally if you look at it close enough (except a recent one in Iran—more about that in the future but it really rocks the world). Back to Bigfoot—there are entire families of 8-foot hominids roaming throughout North America, but no one has taken a reasonably good photo? Or found a decomposing body? Or given them beef jerky?

Don’t get me started on the ridiculous “ghost chasing” shows. Educationally-challenged, spiky-haired troglodytes wander through deserted buildings at night and think they see stuff? Uh, yeah, it’s dark and scary in there. And I love their “EVP” recordings of ghost voices. Someone hears “Ummmmmmmmm,” and instead of realizing it’s an electric generator, shouts “OMG! It’s the preamble to the Constitution!” Not that such shows are meant to be taken seriously, but I’ve sat in rooms with people watching them that swallow the stuff hook, line and sinker. I would love to see a counterpoint show of skeptics giving alternative, rational explanations of what people are seeing and hearing. I’m not sure that would be a ratings winner, but perhaps it would be. It definitely wouldn’t be as exploitive.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Make no claims without it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Music



Loreena McKennitt is one of my favorite musical artists—I’ve been following her work since the ’80s. There is no one out there like her. She finds inspiration in Celtic traditions, Middle Eastern music and so many other world influences. I managed to catch her in concert and it was one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen. Her first “Best Of” compilation is out today, called The Journey So Far. Here is a three-minute promo for it. If you don’t know her music, do yourself a favor and watch this. I recommend everything she’s ever done.

Movies




The Sweeney is an excellent British crime flick. Ray Winstone leads a Shield-like strike team (Shield as in the Michael Chiklis police drama, not the awful Marvel Comics travesty) that beats thugs with baseball bats first and asks questions later. Smoking hot Haley Atwell (Pillars of the Earth, Captain America) is a fellow team member with whom Winstone’s character is having an affair. Her husband is a cop with the British version of Internal Affairs, who starts to investigate the team. Put this together with the main plot of some nasty bank robbers who aren't afraid to use mass murder and property damage to gain their filthy lucre, and the drama boils over into a great little action movie. Gritty and violent, The Sweeney is a treat for crime movie buffs. Not to mention Winstone, one of the most watchable and intense actors in the business.

Rating: **** Stars out of 5

Sunday, March 2, 2014

When I Met William Shatner


The Shat
In July of last year I had a chance to meet my geek idol, William Shatner. He was appearing at a show called Fandomfest in Louisville, Kentucky. It was not a disappointment.

Growing up, Star Trek was my all-time favorite show, and is still a huge favorite. Sure, you can say Shatner was wooden or had strange staccato pauses in his delivery ... I didn’t care then and I don’t now. I just love the guy, quirky or no. His Captain Kirk was one of the manliest characters ever on television, and definitely appealed to women, green and otherwise.

The convention line in the morning was actually not bad. The great Stan Lee's line dwarfed Shatner's but they were still moving folks through quickly. People were highly discouraged from talking to the celebs, but I thought I would try it and see if I could engage him for a moment. I handed Shatner the Captain Kirk photo I had for him to autograph. I politely told him I enjoyed his books on CD and his performances of them. He stared a me for a millisecond as if I were pond scum, signed the photo, muttered "Thank you," in a small voice and looked behind me to the next person. That may sound somewhat mean, but I loved it. Shatner has always struck me as an aloof, not friendly (not necessarily unfriendly) person. And I dined out on that story for a month or so, so I'm happy.

Graphic Novels - CSA: Confederate States of America



CSA: Confederate States of America is an oversized, original hardcover graphic novel. It is the first in a projected set of seven or eight books originally published in France. The by now familiar premise portrays the South winning the Civil War, as it happened. The divergence starts at Gettysburg. Lee changes his battle plan at the last minute and wins the battle. The Union starts to lose heart and Union wills and strongholds fall like dominoes from there. Grant remains in a corner and McClellan declares the Union cause lost and stages a military coup, arresting Lincoln and seizing control of government (something McClellan would never have had the guts or energy to do). The book leaves off (to be continued) as Lincoln struggles to find support under house arrest and the Union cause is falling to pieces.

This is an interesting piece of speculative fiction, but the book has some problems. Most of the art is from photo reference, and the painted pages come off as stiff and inert. The printing is excessively murky and black and it is difficult to make out what is happening in some panels, especially if the action takes place at night. This is absolute poison in a graphic novel. Readers must be able to follow the story, even without dialog. There are too many word balloons, same for general exposition. The author is trying to communicate a lot of information in small boxes and balloons and it comes off as too crowded on the page. The writer shows some knowledge of U.S. history and what could have gone so very wrong for the Union, and successfully exploits those points. However, the story and dialog could have been smoother and more streamlined. Lincoln is portrayed as much weaker and McClellan much more powerful than they actually were. I’m not sure if that is for story purposes or a French misunderstanding of American history.

CSA has some great ideas, but lacking a bit in the execution. I’m not sure if I will follow up on future volumes.
 
Rating: *** Out of 5 stars