Thursday, June 25, 2015

Prison Tales: My Friend Sam Part 6

Not Sam's Halfway House. Thank God. 
This is the sixth in a series of stories about my friend Sam, former owner of the Premium Fireworks Company. He was sentenced to 18 months in minimum-security prison (unjustly) for selling fireworks for which he did not have a valid license to sell. If you want to start the series from the beginning:

The Homecoming. Well, at Least a Lot Closer.
Sam has been in prison now 13 months of his 18-month sentence. The Department of Corrections let him know recently he was eligible for early release (through a bizarre and byzantine set of qualification rules no one understands; although I’m not questioning them now). A few days ago I was able to pick up Sam from his minimum-security prison and take him to a halfway house back in this area. 

Sam’s sister, Janet, and my and Sam’s mutual friend Jennifer* met me at 5:30am in order to drive three hours south to the prison. We had to be there by 9:00am to drive him directly back to town by 12:30pm. Most prisoners take the bus to a halfway house, but a relative or close friend can drive them with special permission. To get that permission, I had to jump through all kinds of hoops. I had to email copies of my driver’s license and an insurance card a few weeks back immediately to the DOC with around an hour’s notice. In addition, I had to provide details on my car down to how much change was in the ashtray. I scanned my license and insurance card, which was recently expired, but said I would have a current one when I arrived at the prison.  

Janet, Jennifer and I had some deep conversations on the three-hour drive south. A main topic was favorite 1960s sitcoms ... Janet was an I Love Lucy girl (I didn't have the heart to tell her Lucy was from the 1950s). Jennifer preferred I Dream of Jeannie. Those are fine, but the greatest ‘60s sitcom was of course The Andy Griffith Show. I shared that anecdote recently with my comedian friend David, and his reply was, “Do you know why everyone on The Andy Griffith Show was so happy all the time? Why? Because all of the characters were single!” True. I think Otis was married, but he spent his nights drunk in a city jail cell, so I suppose he found relief his own way. But I digress. 

We discussed Sam’s mental health and if he would be allowed to return home for the rest of his sentence. He has to be incarcerated until August 10th, either at the halfway house or at home. In this case, the entire halfway house business is nonsense. Halfway houses are effective for folks with no place to live and no job. They offer education, social assistance and a step up to reintegrate back into society. Sam is a successful businessman with a home and large support system. Sending him to a halfway house instead of home (probably to make room for real criminals at the prison) was yet another insult and unnecessary punishment. Indeed, Sam suspected he might be able to “check in” to the halfway house and go home almost immediately. That happened to someone else he knew a few weeks back, so it was a possibility. 

We arrived at the prison in plenty of time. Sam was being released from the maximum-security building; I had never been there before. When we pulled up, Sam’s meager belongings were already gathered outside the door in perforated white sacks and he was in the lobby. He was ebullient about getting out, even unsure where he was going. Then it was the usual bureaucratic “hurry up and wait” scenario, with lots of papers to be filled out and officials consulted. No one ever spoke to me or asked me for my driver’s license or updated insurance card. I could have arrived in a clown car for all they cared. 

Due to the delays, we were a bit late getting on the road. Sam was like a kid on Christmas day, unfamiliar with the area (we were all very familiar with it by now, a remote Kentucky town) and taking in the feeling of (temporary) freedom. It was the first time he had been in a car in thirteen months. I put down the windows and let the air blow. Freedom. The trip flew by, with all of us catching up and chatting like old women. Sam received several pre-planned phone calls, from his family and from our mutual friend Kenneth, who lives in Viet Nam. Sam desperately wanted to stop and get a real hamburger, not one that still had marks from where the jockey was hitting it. But ultimately we decided not to take any chances getting to the halfway house on time. 

We arrived back in Northern Kentucky. The halfway house was over the river on a hill in a seedy part of town, next to other older homes now used for various government functions. We all got out and entered the lobby. The staff seemed polite and helpful. But there was no chance of going home that day, or in the immediate future. Of course there was all sorts of government red tape to wrangle with, mandatory classes to attend and visits with his caseworker. Again, these are legitimate functions for some folks who need such help. Sam didn’t and it was a total waste of city and state resources. Visiting hours are on weekends from 1-5pm, but visitors had to have yet another background check and be approved before visiting. I was just approved to visit a federal prison, why did I have to be approved again to visit a halfway house? Answer: It’s the rule and one size fits all. We left Sam with some reading material and promised to bring him some clothes from home and a cell phone, which he was allowed to have. 

It’s been a few days and Sam is staying put for now. After approval from his caseworker, parole officer and the DOC, and a home inspection, he may be able to go to home incarceration until his August 10th deadline. After that he’ll be on probation for three years. Meanwhile, this former adjunct college professor has to sit through mandatory classes on how to write a resume and how to shake hands and look someone in the eye at a job interview. A huge waste of time and resources, but try telling that to the government. 

To conclude, overall a good day. Sam tasted freedom for a few hours. He may be able to come home soon. The halfway house allows a lot more flexibility than prison. And visitors are allowed to visit and order food from local restaurants; we can finally enjoy a meal together. He has a cell phone and we talk regularly. He’s much better off than he was a week ago, and my friend is a half hour away rather than three hours. We’re all a little happier with the current situation. 

Next: Hopefully, home. 

*Not her real name. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Arnie Pranks Fans as Terminator

Former Govenator Arnold Schwarzenegger dresses up as his Terminator character to walk the streets of Los Angeles and pose as a wax figure at Madame Tussauds. And proceeds to scare the bejeebers out of people and show his funny side. Hilarity ensues!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Movies: Nightcrawler

I confess to not being a Jake Gyllenhall fan; he’s probably my second least favorite actor after Ben Affleck. But I have to admit he does an acceptable job on this film; an expose of nightly news and the freelance videographers (“Nightcrawlers”) who capture footage of accidents and shootings and sell it to the highest bidding news station. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is how fellow Nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton in a cameo role) sums up the local news manifesto.  

Gyllenhall plays Louis Bloom, one of the best-realized sociopaths put on film. Louis has no empathy for anyone, including the victims whose faces he sticks his camera into, or his lone employee (and verbal punching bag), a young man named Richard. Louis is a thief, a liar, and man whose interest in life stops at his own wants and desires. He develops a symbiotic relationship with TV news Director Nina Romina, played by a much missed Rene Russo. Louis brings Nina the worst and bloodiest of Los Angeles filth, night after night. He gets the dirty money shots no one else brings in, and she insists on showing them, despite some of her co-worker’s protests. Management looks at the ratings and has no objection. 

During the TV ratings “sweeps” period, pressure is on Nina and Louis to bring in something special, a career-making bloody lede. It comes in the form of a home invasion and family murder, where Louis beats the cops to the scene and gets some truly disgusting images. His demands to Nina for the footage show his true colors; he even demands a physical relationship with her, which he justifies as being in line with how the station relates to their viewers. Even I almost bought it! 

Gyllenhall transforms himself physically for the role, losing what looks like a dangerous amount of weight. Add to that loose clothes and a creepy smile on his face at all times and he really comes off as an unhinged lunatic with a camera, unleashed on a cold and uncaring city. Nightcrawler is a satire of the entire local news industry, and contains more than a shred of truth. It is definitely worth watching. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Graphic Novels: The True Death of Billy the Kid and Louise Brooks: Detective by Rick Geary

I do love crime fiction, history and comic books. No one combines them better than writer/artist/auteur Rick Geary. Geary has a mountain of important work behind him; mostly multiple volumes of the 19th Century Treasury of Murder and 20th Century Treasury of Murder. These two recent books are a departure from his usual subject material, but still tangentially related. 

The True Death of Billy the Kid is nonfiction, and the first Kickstarter campaign to which I contributed. The results are well worth it. The graphic novel is subtitled, “Being an authentic narrative of the final days in his brief and turbulent life.” An accurate description. This beautifully designed hardcover is typical Geary, explaining who his subject was, the major players in the drama, and the setting in which the action takes place. Geary weaves through the legends, the tall tales and the claims Billy actually lived after his supposed death, and strips them to verifiable facts and likely outcomes. 

Billy, whose real name was Henry McCarty, was born in 1859 in the Irish slums of New York. Moving West for new opportunities, his stepfather abandoned Billy and his siblings the instant their mother died. What follows is a sad life of criminal behavior and constant brushes with jail and the law. The book is mainly concerned with the events of 1881, in which Billy is captured and sentenced to hang. He escaped the jail and the gallows, killing deputies Bob Olinger and James Bell along the way. There is particular poison between the Kid and Olinger, whom he guns down and murders out of spite. 

Fleeing into the southwest, Billy winds up hiding with a Spanish couple who are longtime friends. Feeling safe but paranoid, he carries his six-shooter everywhere. Lawman Pat Garret has sworn to take Billy in to hang, and tracks him to his hideout with two deputies. After a middle of the night shootout (there are several versions to the story, probably leading to all the claims of a live Billy later), Billy lies dead on a cabin porch, with Garrett blowing smoke from his gun barrel. Being a folk hero in town, Billy’s admirers don’t take his death well. You can visit Billy’s grave today, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. 

Geary’s art is a clean, expressive style perfect for history-based stories. He lays out the facts in a clear informative design that exudes drama and excitement when it needs to. An outstanding and enlightening work. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Louise Brooks: Detective is a true departure for Geary, a mystery graphic novel featuring historical characters. Louise Brooks was a real actress in early Hollywood who dated Charlie Chaplin and popularized bangs. Her work has a following among early film buffs. 

Art from Louise Brooks: Detective
In this story, when Louise’s career begins to fade (as it did in real life) she retreats to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas to move back in with her parents. Relations with her parents are strained, and she struggles with her business, a dance studio she opens with a partner. When she discovers a reclusive playwright she admires lives in the nearby city of Burden, she makes plans to visit him. When she does, a body is discovered on his property, a man who just happens to be the fiancée of Louise’s friend Helen. What was the connection? Does it have anything to do with the hitchhiker Helen and her fiancée Walden picked up that day? 

Geary proves to be as adept at fiction as he is with nonfiction, the man is a born storyteller. He unravels the mystery slowly and leads to a logical and satisfying ending. Another great story from Rick Geary. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cosplay - Martian Manhunter

I've never been into cosplay, but I admire folks who are as dedicated as this bodybuilder dressed as J'onn J'ones, Martian Manhunter. Complete with a bag of Oreos. Well done. 

Cosplayed by Kalel Sean, photographed by Contagious Media Productions

Read More: Best Cosplay Ever (This Week): 05.10.15 |

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Comics - Avengers Epic Collection Vol. 1

No one would be more surprised than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that people were still reading their superhero stories 50 years after they were published. The public is not only reading them, but enjoying slick reprint packages, seeing blockbuster movies based on them, and new Avengers comics are still being published. The Avengers was one the most outright fun Lee/Kirby collaborations, and this Epic Collection reprints issues 1-20, covering years 1963 to 1965 of the title. I’ll tell you right now, it’s a 5-star book. 

Kirby art from Avengers
Issue #1 is one of the most famous, and expensive, Marvel Comics ever published. It relates how the Avengers; Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp, come together through the machinations of Thor’s evil half-brother, Loki. Loki tricks the Hulk into a violent rampage and the heroes are all pursuing him separately. They band together to capture him and find out he’s not such a bad guy. Next they decide to form a team, including the Hulk. The lovely and winsome Wasp gives the team their avenging appellation. The Hulk turns out to be a prickly pear and leaves the team to commit more destruction by issue #2. Joined by the Sub-Mariner, another on again/off again hero/villain, they fight the Avengers to somewhat of a standstill for the next two issues. Issue #4 is the game-changer and probably my second-favorite comic book of all time; the reintroduction of Captain America to the Marvel Universe. 

The Avengers thaw Captain America
When a figure frozen in a block of ice washes up in the Arctic, the Avengers take a submarine to investigate. They defrost Steve Rogers, still in his Cap outfit under his military fatigues. Rogers has been missing since World War II, and instantly joins and becomes the heart of the team. This was the missing piece that made Avengers the jewel in Marvel’s crown. In the next few issues, the Avengers go on to fight Baron Zemo and his henchmen the Masters of Evil; Black Knight and the Radioactive Man. Zemo was responsible for Cap’s “death” in WWII and the real death of his kid partner Bucky. Cap is determined to make him pay and drags the rest of the team out to find him. 

Avengers #8
With the reintroduction of Cap, Kirby and Lee start a forest fire of concepts, ideas and characters. In issue #7 they introduce Asgardians the Enchantress and her pet killer the Executioner, then in issue #8 the time-travelling villain Kang. Issue #9 is the famous Wonder Man tale, as Zemo grants a dying man super powers, only to force him to kill the Avengers to stay alive. As a moral man, Simon Williams struggles with the decision, only to sacrifice himself for the lives of the team (not to worry, 10 years later he gets better). This is also the issue where Dashin’ Don Heck takes over the art from Kirby. I’ve read that Stan didn’t like Heck’s layouts, so he later had Kirby do them with Heck’s finishes. I can’t say I agree; Heck was different than Kirby but has a dynamic style well-suited to superhero battles. 

Cap vs. Zemo: To the Death!
In issue #10, Lee and Kirby pit the team against Immortus, a future version of Kang (got it?) and Heck’s art is powerful and effective. Spider-Man stops by in issue #11, or at least a robot doppelganger sent by Kang until the real Spider-Man ... oh, just go read it. These are endlessly fun stories. Avengers #13 introduces Count Nefaria, later part of one of the best Avengers storylines of all time. At the end of the story the Wasp is severely injured and the team tracks down a specialist who saves her in issue #14. Issue #15 brings many storylines to a close as Zemo is finally (and permanently) defeated. Cap didn’t directly cause his violent death, but let’s say he doesn’t lose any sleep over it. 

Issue #16 is another game-changer as the exhausted original charter members of the team take a leave of absence and the book is infused with new blood. Captain America leads new members Hawkeye, Quicksilver and his sister the Scarlet Witch, all formerly thought of as villains, in Avengers 2.0. Lee and Kirby were never afraid to change up the membership of the team when they wanted to shake things up. This led to constant new ideas and new relationships to play off each other. They fight together for a few issues (the Mole Man, the Commissar) with Cap and Hawkeye invariably at each other’s throats. The collection ends with the appearance of the Swordsman, a villain who infiltrates the team pretending to be a hero. 

New blood on the team from Avengers #16
Avengers #19
Lee’s characterization of this version of the team is perfect, and pits the sarcasm and mistrust of authority of Hawkeye against the arrogance of Quicksilver and the lack of self-esteem of the Scarlet Witch. It was risky to remove all of the popular A-list heroes from the book, but the risk pays off beautifully as the new, disparate personalities learn to work together. Especially enjoyable is Hawkeye’s endless verbal and physical sparring with Cap over every decision; but as soon as the Swordsman says something negative about Cap, a spitting furious Hawkeye wants to duel to the death. Hawkeye’s love and respect for Cap is overwhelming, he’d just never admit it. 

It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to read the origin of comics’ premier superteam. These goofy and disposable superhero stories from a bygone era of Russkie spies and underground despots still manage to resonate with readers today. They may not be as sophisticated as some modern stories, but with their mix of both pure hearted and feet-of-clay heroes, they tend to be much more enjoyable. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars