Monday, December 6, 2010

Honest Question

If someone could explain to me how a serialized show about a zombie apocalypse in the Romero mold--a premise that's been begging to be put on television--based on a solid comic book, airing on AMC (current home of some of the best TV available), and overseen and mostly written by Frank Motherfucking Darabont could end up sucking so badly, I would really appreciate it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Base Metals

Because geeks like lists and categorizations, it was inevitable that comics would inevitably become grouped into pseudo-scholarly categories. The exact origins of the “Gold”, “Silver” and “Bronze” ages are something I’ve been trying to discover for a while now, but it’s surprisingly hard to track down who came up with this in the first place. The Overstreet Price Guide seems to be the culprit, but I’m not certain that that’s the case. For the most part, comic nerds seem far more interested in arguing about the demarcation lines between the different period, with no particular authority being cited. Anyone (like, say, myself) who enjoys having a running, nitpicky, good-natured debate about stuff can while away many a happy hour debating the exact definitions of these terms.

For the record—and to prove my nerdy bona fides—the Golden Age begins in 1938 with Action Comics #1, which introduced Superman (this being the one point everyone can seemingly agree on). This continues until 1956, when we switch over to the Silver Age with Showcase #4, which introduced the new version of The Flash.

Then the arguments begin.

Since the “Bronze Age” had only just begun when this style of categorization came into fashion, no one seems able to agree on exactly where it begins. The most commonly cited reference points are Conan #1 (1970), The Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow (also 1970), the death of Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973) and the introduction of the “new” X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975). (A reference point I’ve never heard suggested is the publication of the Overstreet Guide itself…) Tentatively, people apply either Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns (both 1986) as a demarcation for the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the “Iron Age”, though that’s still a alittle shaky. Everything after the Iron Age hasn’t really been defined, despite much talk of the “Chromium Age” and “Diamond Age”.

This stuff is fun to hash over, and it can be useful in casual discussion, but I think it’s important to remember that this is a very loose system at best. For starters, the Gold/Silver/Bronze terminology applies to superhero comics only. It's borderline useless in describing any other genre of comics--do we talk about "Silver Age Carl Barks"? "Golden Age EC"? "Bronze Age Will Eisner"? And what about the many, many comics published before Superman ever made his appearance? Getting too hung up on Gold/Silver/Bronze ages may have helped relegate a lot of significant comics to the dustbin of history.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that you can accurately lay out an "era" of comics while you're still in it. I'm pretty sure the "Gold/Silver" delineation came about in the early 70s, which happens to be the point that marked the end of those eras...and as pivotal as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are, it took quite a while for people to start declaring them markers of the end of the Bronze Age. You need the context of distance to be able to call this stuff. That's why I get a little annoyed by the "Chromium Age" or "Diamond Age" talk for recent comics; in particular, I think trying to hold up the collapse of the speculator's market, or the publication of "Kingdom Come", as a demarcation line is a mistake. KC isn't that significant a comic--it only felt that way at the time because people were getting sick of all the grim 'n' gritty nonsense of the last decade. And as undeniably significant as the speculator's boom and bust were, they don't really fit the spirit of the "rules", which use single, epochal issues to mark the beginnings of new trends.

Of course, even there we run into a problem, because the system seems to have been developed primarily for the sake of pricing old issues, which means it wasn’t really looking at comics for their artistic value; it’s simply geared towards the initial superhero boom post-Superman, and the resurgence of the genre post-comics code. While you can see the logic, it means that Showcase #4 is considered pivotal, while Fantastic Four #1 isn't.

I think we need to work on a new system of categorization, one that engages more with creative trends and milestones, and takes into account ALL kinds of comics. My suggestions for pivotal comics under this imaginary new system:

1894--Hogan's Alley debut (eventually became "The Yellow Kid", arguably the first newspaper comic strip)
1929—Tarzan newspaper strip begins.
1934--Famous Funnies #1 (First modern comic book with original material)
1936--Wow! What a Magazine #3 (first comics work of Will Eisner)
1938--Action Comics #1 (Introduction of Superman)
1942--Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (Carl Barks' first Disney Duck comic)
1947--Young Romance #1 (Beginning of the Romance Comic in its modern form)
1950--Crypt of Terror #1 (Later renamed Tales From the Crypt, marking the new era for EC.)
1950--It Rhymes With Lust (Arguably the first modern graphic novel)
1956--Showcase #4 (introduction of the new Flash)
1961--Fantastic Four #1 (Duh)
1973--Giant-Size X-Men #1 (Launch of new team and Chris Claremont)
1978--A Contract With God (Popularization of the Graphic Novel)
1981--Love & Rockets #1 (Beginning of the black and white indie boom of the 80s)
1985--Watchmen/The Dark Knight Returns/Crisis on infinite Earths
1992--Youngblood #1 (The first published Image comic, I think)

A little more research will turn up tons of others, no doubt. Anyone out there have any further suggestions?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

As Promised.... can now buy Freak U. Volume 2 in a handsome 192-page trade paperback format. By clicking on that link. Right there. Or this picture:

Go do. Need money.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


FFWHOOOOOOFFFF. (That was me blowing the dust off this blog.)

Well. The Toronto FanExpo has been and gone--being the thing that, together with a trip to Nepal and a new girlfriend, has been occupying my summer. So yes--I do apologize for the lack of updates, both here and at Phantasmic Tales, and I do promise to be more regular with this stuff from here on out.

How was the show? It was...a little disappointing, to be honest. For one thing, there were some serious organizational issues, which Chris Bird has already touched on, but perhaps not emphatically enough. On Saturday, one of the people at my table was unable to get back into the convention despite being an exhibitor. That had to do with the fact that they packed us into the tiny North Hall, as Bird says, and then oversold--but it was also partly due to the pointlessly strict security. Exhibitors weren't simply allowed to show their passes to get in. Oh no. They had to get their passes punched for that day, and then get their hands stamped. Like what happens when you go to a club or a theme park. And they did it with the weakest, most water- (and sweat-) soluble ink I've ever seen. My co-exhibitor Justin was particularly pissed because he'd been planning to help set up, go home and shower, and then come back.

Regular patrons who bought three-day passes had it even worse: they were forced to wear a bracelet that they couldn't take off for three days. Seriously.

All of this was simply to prevent people trading passes, which is immensely stupid, particularly in the case of exhibitors. As my other co-exhibitor Nick pointed out, ticket sales are pretty marginal compared to the amount of money they make from exhibitors. By inconveniencing and insulting everyone to stop a relatively small number of people who'd be willing to go through all the rigamarole of trading passes back and forth, they probably lost more ticket sales than they saved. Again, this is particularly moronic when it comes to exhibitors, who have to sit at the table for hours--if I can find a friend who's willing to trade off my pass, is it really an immense loss to the con if we split our time there? Exhibitors are where you make your money, FanExpo. You gain so much more by accomodating them than you do by playing Scrooge.

The annoying part is that these shenanigans cast a pall over everyone, resulting in no one being in a purchasing mood. Our sales were way, way down from last year as a result.

So yeah. Not really worth spending all summer preparing for in that respect.

There were some bright spots, though. Fellow Durham Comics Guild members Dylan, Kris and Nathan sold out of their 16-page book, Larz, which I'd printed on our newly-purchased communal printer. Which seems to work OK, and may enable us to print our own stuff from now on. I also personally sold several copies of Freak U. Volume 2 (which I'll post a link to as soon as IndyPlanet approves it, promise). What was most important and exciting, though, were the many people I met and made a real connection with, many of which might lead to possibilities or new talent for the guild. I actually met not one but two very talented sets of creators making a comic called "SpyGuy"--one of whom, Mike Kitchen, has been a mainstay of the Toronto area conventions for a while now, along with his brother Blair. There was also the amazing Steve Mannion, who is NOT a Toronto mainstay, but has a great action-hero name. What's exciting is that he came up from the same sort of situation that I and most of the Guild are coming from, and he was full of tips 'n' tricks. In addition, a LOT of other people contacted us about appearing at other shows.

So a mixed bag this year, but in the long run it may end up paying off. But the important thing's over.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds

In the early sound era, there was a mania for sequelizing and remaking movies; the Wizard of Oz that we know best is something like the fifth or sixth film version, and there was a sequel to King Kong made the same year the first one came out.

In the 50s, movies were often talky and stagey, stuffed with needless filler to pad out the runtime on business that wasn't at all important to the story, and with exposition often delivered in spectacularly clumsy fashion.

In the 60s, movies got incredibly bloated, with studios lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars (adjusted) to fill up the screen with empty spectacle to distract from how boring or stupid the story was.

In the late 60s and 70s, smaller and more independent movies went through a renaissance, but a lot of these were slapdash and amateurish, sacrificing narrative coherency for the director's "vision" (or just a plain ol' inability to tell a story).

In the 90s, movies were aimed increasingly at kids or rather stupid teenagers, sticking rigidly to formulas and keeping everything as stupid and unimaginative as possible.


Is it just me, or does a lot of what Hollywood makes these days combine all of these aspects?

I guess the silver lining is that all of these trends eventually reversed themselves.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who's Next

Heeeeeey. Long time. Sorry about that.

I’m not a big TV watcher, really. Not nowadays. I don’t have anything against TV; just the opposite, in fact. I believe it can be a very powerful and intelligent medium with boundaries that still haven’t been defined yet, and even now I think the best TV shows are probably better than most of what hits the multiplex these days. But it’s been a long time since I spent more than a couple of hours a week watching TV, and even when I did I wasn’t really a channel-flipper. For me it’s appointment TV only, and the rise of TV-on-DVD has made that increasingly irrelevant. Mostly, for me, it’s The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, and even those are available online.

And yet, as I only just recently realized, throughout my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever been without at least one TV show that I had to watch, day-and-date—and it always had to be a genre show. When I was really young, it was Transformers, mostly. Then Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then X-Files. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fortunately, each of these overlapped the others by a year or two, so I was never without some show to obsess over, and there was a strong upward trend in quality, too. Just as I was moving into adolescence and getting completely sick of TNG’s stagey, pedantic universe, The X-Files came along with its dark, moody, and often witty idea-based stories. Then, as I was truly getting fed up with X-Files’ static characters and go-nowhere mythology, Buffy showed me what can really be done with long-form TV storytelling and characters in a genre context. Then when Buffy started to disappear up its own ass…

Well, there really wasn’t anything. (For the record, Buffy is still, on the whole, my favourite TV show.) But there were still shows to delve into; two of them, in fact, if you don’t count the tragically shortlived Firefly. Those two shows would be Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

I don’t really want to get into a huge discussion of these two shows. In fact, I find it interesting how quickly my interest in Lost evaporated after the finale had aired. (And yeah, I thought it was pretty crummy, aside from the awesome Locke vs. Jack fight on the rocks.) BSG had a better ending, but the season leading up to it was clearly wrecked by the writer’s strike, with inconsistent characterizations and stupid plot holes.

Neverthless, without those two shows, I suddenly felt a striking absence. Suddenly there wasn’t anything I felt compelled to watch. I’m looking forward to the upcoming A Game of Thrones, based on one of the few genuinely good fantasy novel series out there (and about which I plan to have more to say in a little while), but that won’t be hitting until next year. What’s a geek to do?

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

My relationship with Doctor Who is pretty simple. Caught it now and again on TV when I was a kid. Thought it was creepy and weird. Didn’t make a point to watch it—don’t know if it was too scary for my liking or if it just came on before I got home from school. (Probably the latter.) At any rate, I mostly missed the window to allow a show like that to get its hooks in me…

…Except that, when the new show launched, a lot of very smart bloggers, most of them British, turned their attention to talking about the old show, and they did it in such a way that I was intrigued. I’ve since caught a couple of episodes of the classic show and found it to be somewhat interesting, though I’d be lying if I said I felt compelled to really delve into it. I can understand and respect its status as an iconic institution, and I do plan to check it out every once in a while, but as with a lot of old comic books, I’m almost more happy to read ABOUT it than to actually experience. (And yes, I hold with the idea that Dr. Who is about as close to comic books as TV has ever come.)

The new show, though. Well. That seemed like a good jumping-on point. I was actually pretty excited when the show returned in 2005—I always like the theory of revamping old TV SF shows and movies for the modern era, even if the execution is so often lacking, and since I didn’t have any emotional connection to the old show, I wasn’t likely to get caught up in the endless fanboy debates that I knew, even then, were on their way. For me, the show could just be something fun and new with a history behind it, but one that I wouldn’t be beholden to—it could be an entry point into the old show, and nothing more. Plus, I liked the idea of a TV show starring Christopher Eccleston.

The problem, of course, was that the show sucked.

I seem to be in the minority here, but I honestly still think, looking back, that the first season was by far the worst. It had nothing to do with whether or not you enjoyed the original show (though it seems like most hardcore Who fans pretty much hate the new show), or whether you could get past the dodgy FX (I knew going in that that was part of the Dr. Who package); it was just flat-out crap, period. Plots didn’t go anywhere. The ideas were unimaginative and repetitive. There was an inexplicable focus on the boring life of Rose Tyler, on a show that had all of time and space to play in. The satire was both heavy-handed and nonsensical (they’re still going to be watching “The Weakest Link” 5,000 years in the future? They’re not even watching it NOW). And Russell T. Davies, the show’s new executive producer, was committed to some truly awful ideas, first and foremost being the race of farting alien infiltrators.

It wasn’t a complete wash; there were a handful of decent episodes, most notably “Dalek”, which reintroduced the Doctor’s classic foes, and “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, an actually creepy and satisfying story set in WWII. It was enough to keep me watching, hoping that all this “Bad Wolf” business was going somewhere (it wasn’t), that the melodramatics would subside (they didn’t), that the show would find its footing (it didn’t). At the end of season 2, I was out of there.

And yet, here we are. Partly because of my aforementioned lack of a genre show, and partly because it seems to have pervaded the geekosphere, to the point where it seemed like everyone had developed this weird blindspot as to just how lame the show is. It’s the classic case of “if you’re told something often enough you start to think it’s true, even when it actively contradicts reality.” What finally tipped me over were two factors: I learned that Steven Moffat, generally considered to be the show’s best writer (he wrote the aforementioned “Doctor Dances” two-parter, so the evidence seemed to support that) was going to be taking over as showrunner; and I found myself housesitting for a friend who had the entire modern series on DVD, and nothing to do otherwise. So I decided to catch up and start watching the new series.

I’m sorry to report my take on the Davies era hasn’t changed much, but I will say this: generally speaking, the show improved slightly with every season it was on the air. Season Two continued with a lot of the stuff I’d disliked about the earlier show (and the Christmas special that introduced David Tennant as the new Doctor was truly lousy, which sadly started a precedent of awful Christmas specials), but there were a few signs of improvement. The farting aliens were gone. The show’s budget had improved, which is a cosmetic change at best, but it leant everything a sheen of professionalism that made it go down more easily; at the very least, they could do more episodes set in the past or the far-flung future, meaning we spent less time hanging around Cardiff, Wales, disguised as London. More importantly, I started to get just a teensy glimpse of why people were so engaged with this ridiculous show. There’s a certain…spark to the proceedings, an energy, a chemistry between the leads that keeps everything highly watchable no matter how cruddy everything around them gets.

And things did get pretty cruddy. The big problem is that Davies-era Who seems to rely on certain tropes over and over again: unrequited love (including between the Doctor and his companion). Humans being possessed by or turned into aliens. The hamfisted “satire” mentioned above (i.e. diet pills that are turning people’s fat into little alien creatures, reality television run amok, a planet where people are stuck in a perpetual traffic jam). And, most annoyingly of all, a plot that sort of flails around wildly until it’s solved by a deus ex machina of increasingly ridiculous proportions. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, the most revered two-parter from season two, begins with the Doctor looking on, amazed, at a planet suspended above a black hole without falling in, and proclaiming it to be impossible; by the end, he’s blasting out of the black hole in his TARDIS like it’s nothing. Consistency!) Oh, and the Daleks returned over and over again, despite the fact that every episode ended with them supposedly being destroyed forever.

Nevertheless, I was addicted at this point; it was a bit like cramming your face with nacho-cheese-laden turkey-flavoured double-fried potato chips. You know it’s really, really bad for you, and sort of makes you gag even as you’re consuming it, but you can’t stop.

The third season, again, showed a slight improvement, partly because the utterly obnoxious non-love affair between the Doctor and Rose Tyler was over. This, unfortunately, gave Tennant’s Doctor something to mope about, something that he’d continue to do at great length throughout the series. Tennant himself is an appealing actor, but his version of the Doctor was a whiny emo trust fund kid, which was a thoroughly unappealing characterization. On a moment-to-moment basis, they did keep to the “wacky mad scientist characterization, but you’d get to some point in each episode where the Doctor’s eyes would well up, and the score would start to blast, and he’d say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” and you’d know you were in for a rough time.

And may I just take a moment to deride the music on this show? It's the most heavy-handed tripe I've ever heard. I'm no expert on the old show, but I know it's often praised for its inventive music and sound design, and from what I've seen I agree. With the new show, it's boilerplate emotional manipulation all the way, and when the composer and Davies REALLY go both barrels it's like Spielberg and Williams with about 1/8th the talent and 1/25th the subtlety. "This is WHIMSICAL, dammit!!"

Fortunately, counterbalancing that was the lovable (and yes, very beautiful) Freema Agyeman as the new companion, and a strong run of episodes leading up to the end, leading up to “Blink”. “Blink” really threw me for a loop, because it’s possibly the best single TV genre script I’ve seen in the last few years. And here it is in the middle of this show that, at its best, still wasn’t THAT great. However, it had been preceded by a really strong two-parter, “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”, so I allowed myself to think that maybe the show was tipping over into being legitimately good.

And then Derek Jacobi turned into John Simm and the Doctor turned into Tinkerbell. And I don’t really want to talk about that.

Anyhow. Season Four saw the return of Donna Noble, the character who’d already popped up in a previous Christmas special and been very, very annoying, so my hopes weren’t high. Imagine my surprise when Donna (played by Catharine Tate) turned out to be the best of the Davies-era Companions. Her grating nature actually turned into a huge advantage for the show, as at that point the Doctor had been saddled with two Companions in a row who thought the sun shone out of his ass, and he desperately needed a voice of dissent. Considering that the Doctor had been growing increasingly self-absorbed and immoral—a character arc that I don’t believe was intentional at first but was clearly being developed by the writers at this point—having someone act as the needling voice of the Doctor’s conscience was a smart move, helping to steer the show away from melodrama and back towards the saving-the-world business it was supposed to be about. This is also the season that introduced the interesting River Song, a character who’s story arc actually made use of the time travel that the show is supposed to be about; essentially, the Doctor and River are experiencing their relationship backwards, so that his first meeting with her was her last, chronologically.

The Season 4 finale was as stupid as ever, and the string of TV movies that followed (making a de facto Four and a Halfth Season) were plenty mediocre, but there was a definite sense that the show was on rails. It wasn’t good, but it had the ingredients to be great, with just a nudge or two in the right direction.

Enter Matt Smith.

At the end of “The End of Time”, Tennant’s Doctor (they’re usually referred to by number, so call him Ten) died the way he lived: whining about his lot and life and acting like a drama queen. (I love that his last act is to trash the TARDIS for the next guy. Prick.) Fortunately, the nature of Dr. Who is such that once you’ve got a new lead actor and a behind-the-scenes change, you have a bit of a clean slate, so it’s not surprising how quickly the new series has gone over into something compulsively watchable, occasionally even great. That X Factor—which basically seems to boil down to “coherent scripting”—has been added to the show, while keeping the spark of weirdness and fun from Davies’ run.

When Smith was cast, there was a lot of grumbling that he was too young and glamorous, but in fact, when you see him in action, Smith seems less like a Boy Band member than Tennant did. The guy’s just odd-looking—handsome enough, sure, but not in any conventional way. But what’s amusing is the way he plays the Doctor as a very old man, which of course, he is at this point. (By the way—is it just me, or is the Doctor getting younger with each regeneration something that’s been going on since the beginning? I know the respective Doctor’s ages don’t make a perfect downwards line, but the oldest Doctor, William Hartnell, is also the first, and in general each new Doctor seems younger, with a few exceptions. Casting a Doctor as young as Smith makes a certain amount of sense to me at this point—I think he’s got one regeneration left, right? If that one’s a teenager, it would be pretty funny.)

Meanwhile, Karen Gillen as Amy Pond is…um…just a little bit sexy. Just a smidge. More to the point, her character is actively sexual in a complex, interesting way. She’s introduced, as an adult, as a “Kiss-o-gram”, which is pretty clearly meant to be kid’s show code for “Stripper”, and this more or less makes sense given her backstory. The newly regenerated Doctor crashed in her backyard when she was a child, already developing some odd quirks due to dead parents and a frequently absent aunt who raised her, and he seemed like Santa had answered her prayers (she was literally praying to Santa Claus when this happened) by sending down a real-life imaginary friend. But then he abandoned her, intending only to pop out for a minute and instead returning 12 years later. The adult Amy is clearly dealing with some issues, and some of them may be sexual, but refreshingly, she hasn’t let them ruin her life; she’s mostly a stable, functioning adult with a few neuroses. (Some people actually find her a little annoying for this reason, but Gillen’s pouty face is something I could look at all day, personally…) The show’s subtext has been about Amy’s choice between childhood and adulthood, as represented by her upcoming wedding; to that end, Moffat’s version of the show has more of a fairy tale feel to it.

Anyway, this kind of careful scripting, as opposed to Davies’ sledgehammer, is what’s made the new show so much more enjoyable when it goes into sitcom/soap opera territory. Which it does fairly often. I suppose I understand; the show’s become a massive hit based on Davies’ version, and Davies’ version was a soap opera, so they don’t want to change things up too much. Actually it’s interesting how much the Moffat show has hit many of the same beats as the Davies run, but then taken them in different directions. The Doctor-Companion sexual tension is there, but it’s dealt with fairly quickly and effectively, and with the obvious implication that they won’t be getting into a relationship (which I approve of; personally I wish they hadn’t brought it up at all as a possibility, but at least it’s veered quite firmly away from Rose Tyler territory.) Likewise, we’ve had the schlubby boyfriend who has to compete with the Doctor for the girls’ affections; Amy’s encounters with the Doctor over the course of her life echo “The Girl in the Fireplace”; and the most recent episode pulled a hat trick of callbacks, with an crashed spaceship doing harm while trying to repair itself (like “Fireplace” again), the Doctor trying to blend in as an “average bloke” (like “Human Nature”) and a couple of Young Nerds In Love who are too awkward to tell each other how they feel, and whose lives are impacted by the Doctor (like “Love and Monsters”, a.k.a. THE WORST THING TO EVER AIR ON TELEVISION EVER). We’ve even had a “runaway bride”. It’s like Moffat wants to show off how much better he is at running the show, and really, he’s right. Under Moffat, the show has been tighter, more imaginative, and more idea-based.

The big difference seems to be that Davies isn’t interested in SF; Moffat is. In other words, we’ve now got a guy who likes SF running this SF show. Gosh, who would have predicted that would have made a difference?

But it has, and now I’ve got my appointment TV back—

--for a couple more weeks.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Miss Me?

Been super-busy. Aside from trying to keep my head above water with Lemuria and Freak U (both of which will hopefully have new printed material by this summer) I've been tackling some major illustration work which will be keeping me busy for a few weeks yet. But I am going to make an effort to blog more; I've got two big ideas for ongoing posts which I'm hoping to launch within the week.

In the meantime, I'm still contributing to and now editing the new comics review column at, so if you want to read more of my golden thoughts, there's the place! We're now weekly, with a new column every Tuesday.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This Is Not An April Fool's Joke

I am now officially part of the comics reviewin' team at Which, to be clear, is only just now coming into existence. The comics review column, not JoBlo itself.

Title TBD.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Epic Epicness Indeed

And then this happened and I had to spend the whole evening watching it over and over again while walking in smaller and smaller circles and pretending to fly across the room while punching things in slo-mo.

I'm excited, is what I'm saying.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles!

So, I’m kicking around the library a week or two ago, and just out of curiosity I head over to the kid’s graphic novel section. While it’s expanded significantly in 20 years, there was nevertheless a pretty substantial assortment of graphic novels here back when I was a kid. Most of them were album collections of European comics, three titles in particular: The Smurfs, Asterix, and Tintin.

It was the Tintin books that I was most obsessed with as a kid for some reason, which in retrospect doesn’t make a lot of sense. The other two titles featured more appealing, expressive art (I thought so then and I think so now) as well as nifty fantasy elements in the case of the Smurfs, and epic historical adventure in the case of Asterix. They’re both also a LOT funnier and more well-characterized than Tintin.

…And looking at them now, I’m only just realizing what a huge subconscious influence they were on Lemuria--good grief. How did I not catch that? I guess it just shows how thoroughly I’ve internalized these comics.

I guess it’s not hard to see why a kid would read the Tintin books—the ligne claire style is still breathtakingly elegant, simple yet with lots of appealing detail. The various locales are captured in impressive detail; it’s no surprise that this comic was a huge influence on Stephen Spielberg (who, as you’ve no doubt heard, has a Tintin movie in production. And there’s no denying that Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Thompson and Thomson are entertaining sidekicks. Of course, Tintin himself remains a boring cipher whose few shreds of personality disappear whenever he’s around one of his sidekicks.

Anyway, it turned out there were several new Herge books on the shelves I hadn’t seen before, such as:

Yes, it’s the very first Tintin book ever. Along with Tintin In The Congo, it’s one of two not listed on the back of the Tintin collections. “Congo” is legendarily racist, being essentially a bit of blind boosterism for colonialism (Congo having been a Belgian colony at the time) and featuring some pretty over-the-top slaughter of animals, so it’s not hard to see why this story isn’t promoted much these days. But “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” is pretty uncontroversial and is obviously historically significant. Its obscurity seems to boil down to the fact that it’s really not very well drawn.

Georges “Herge” Remi drew these strips for Le Petit Vingtieme, a children’s supplement for the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle (“The 20th Century”). What I didn’t know what how blatantly the strip was intended as a work of propaganda at first. The strip was apparently commissioned by the editors as a full-frontal attack on Stalinist Russia, though, it must be said, it was an attack that turned out to be surprisingly accurate about some of the abuses that were going on in that country, particularly the widespread famine and poverty being covered up by the Soviet leaders. Though having Tintin randomly stumble across the supervillain-esque secret lair of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, protected by a haunted house of all things, might have been just a tad over-the-top.

Right from the start, a lot of the Herge tropes are in place: Snowy/Milou the “talking” dog (who no one seems to be able to hear, not even Tintin):

…an essentially realistic world that occasionally, and jarringly, reminds us that it is a cartoon:

…and Tintin repeatedly triumphing, not by skill or smarts, but by repeated dumb luck and the idiocy of his enemies:

Of course, now that I know Tintin was explicitly intended to be Catholic, I suppose you could argue that it was God who kept saving his bacon in all those improbable ways.

Side note: this is also the first and only Tintin story in which Tintin, ace reporter, does any actual reporting.

As for the story, it’s a pretty repetitive and dull affair, filled with vaudeville humour (the series always traded in slapstick, especially once Captain Haddock joined the cast, but this was literally produced during the age of vaudeville). Basically, everywhere Tintin goes, the bad guys try to kill him, he escapes through pure luck and manages to single-handedly put a huge monkey wrench in the evil regime. It’s a wonder the Soviet Union hadn’t packed up and gone capitalist by the time Tintin leaves. What’s kind of hilarious, though, is that this story has exactly the same plot as Tintin in America, the third book, except there it’s gangsters who are constantly trying to kill him via elaborate deathtraps and failing due to idiocy and really, really bad luck (or good luck, from Tintin’s point of view). Herge was apparently an equal-opportunity critic when it came to capitalism and communism. It’s just too bad we never got to see Herge work his magic on the Nazis.

Oh, wait…there’s a reason for that...

Anyway, Tintin was an instant hit, and Herge became a sensation in Belgium and, a little later, Europe in general. This success enabled him to spend a lot more time working on the artwork of the strip, which very quickly went from the simple doodles of “Soviets” to incredibly lush, full-colour strips loaded with an almost insane amount of detail. Herge even went back and redrew some of the earliest books in order to unify their look (and remove some of the more unfortunate stuff from “Congo”, which Herge quickly realized had been insensitive and/or wrongheaded). European comics have always been filled with a lot more detail and background art than American or even Japanese comics; I suspect Herge is one of the forefathers of this tendency.

Herge cranked out a 62-page (or thereabouts) volume of Tintin every year or so from the 30s to the mid-50s. What’s astonishing is that this wasn’t all he was doing; he also launched a number of other comic strips, one a year for the first half of the 30s, though none of them lasted more than a single album. The exception was Quick and Flupke, a more gag-oriented strip about a couple of moppets that ran for a decade starting in 1930. As if all this wasn’t enough, Herge created yet another strip in 1936 that lasted for two decades: The Adventures of Jo, Zette and Jocko.

This strip seems to have been born out of the fact that Tintin, supposedly a teenager, didn’t much act like one; Jo and Zette LeGrand are much more believably rendered as kids, often in danger but never single-handedly defeating villains. Most of the actual action and competence is left to their engineer father.

And yet again, this was a work of propaganda, even though it was apolitical; it was commissioned by another Catholic newspaper to promote “family values”, i.e. a paradigm in which mom and kids are useless appendages and the dad does everything.

But hey, there’s a monkey! (That’s Jocko.) (And like Snowy, he talks, but none of the humans ever seem to hear him.)

This is the only JZ&J book I’ve read, but once again the troubling (but complicated) racial and cultural undertones of so much of Herge’s work are present. This is embodied in The Maharajah of Gopal, the focus of much of the plot, and, really, the main character. He doesn’t get to kick ass like Mr. LeGrand, but he’s so much more compelling than anyone else in the story, even when for the first third he’s portrayed as a relentless jerk:

He’s basically a grown-up version of Abdullah, the spoiled brat son of an oil baron, who pops up in Tintin’s adventures. The Maharajah complains whenever someone shows him up, even accidentally; he relentlessly abuses his privilege, demanding canings and imprisonment for anyone who sets him off; he demands that everything conform to his worldview (to the extent that, when some jewels go missing and a detective is called in, he forces the detective to change into a Sherlock Holmes outfit before he’ll let him do his work); and he values objects over people. The plot is set in motion by the Maharajah’s desire to build a bridge in his homeland, which it’s eventually revealed is because he wants the money that will come with bridge fees.

His obnoxious puling eventually culminates in…oh dear…

Yes, that’s a civilian white dude spanking non-white royalty. Go ahead and guess if there are any consequences for this. No, seriously, guess.

To be fair, Herge seems to have had it in for the wealthy and privileged in general, rather than foreigners in particular. The Maharajah talks in immaculate English, and his faults aren’t associated with his race (his put-upon personal assistant seems like a perfectly decent and competent dude). And the Maharajah does redeem himself somewhat by the halfway point, revealing a more modest and friendly side…after he’s been spanked. Of course, when we get to Gopal, it’s full of scheming Indian stereotypes, including a treacherous Prime Minister and an evil Fakir.

So really, not much there to be happy about.

What’s frustrating about all this is that Herge was a cosmopolitan guy who doesn’t seem to have had a trace of malice for anyone. This was all the result of ignorance and/or the genial insensitivity of a privileged white guy ensconced miles from the countries he was writing about. And of course, in some ways Herge was actually quite enlightened…his famous friendship with Chinese sculptor Chang Chong-jen led to a relatively sensitive and accurate portrayal of China in “The Blue Lotus”, and in the later books he clearly put a lot of effort into researching the various cultures he was portraying. It just shows how multifaceted and pernicious racism can be.

Oh well. Let’s move on to a later date, and the second-last Tintin book:

I grabbed this one because I remembered it being one of the few Tintin books with a SF element (“The Shooting Star” is the other one, unless you count the appearance of the Yeti in “Tintin in Tibet”). The last three Tintin books were produced at a very slow pace—understandable, since Herge had apparently become seriously burnt-out by the mid-50s, and anyway he’d become so successful that he didn’t really need to continue the series. Flight 714 came out in 1968, and it had clearly absorbed some of the then-trendy ideas of the time. Specifically: ancient astronauts.

The story has the Tintin crew (no Thompson twins this time out) being hijacked and forced to land on a remote island somewhere in Indonesia. The mastermind turns out to be Tintin’s archnemesis, film director-turned-drug-dealer-turned-Blofeld-esque supervillain, Rastapopoulos.

Despite what you might expect, it’s not an elaborate plan for revenge; Tintin’s presence is just another one of the many fantastical coincidences that populate Herge’s world. Rasta’s actually after the bank account of one Mr. Laszlo Carreidas, a miserable Ebenezer Scrooge-esque millionaire who’s nevertheless taken a shine to them, particularly Captain Haddock. Carreidas’s behaviour isn’t much better than the Maharajah’s, hence my comments about Herge having it in for rich folks.

At any rate, for the first half, this story is the usual sort of thriller, with the gang escaping Rastapopoulos and engaging in a series of action sequences, but then something weird happens: Tintin starts to hear voices…

Which lead him to an underground space filled with mysterious artifacts of a bygone time…

…Wait a minute. Mysterious island, strange voices, SF goings-on, a black rock, underground temples…there wouldn’t happen to be any incongruous polar bears on this island, would there, Tintin? Any sign of this symbol?

Well, I guess he doesn’t have much time to look around, being chased by terrorists and all. But if this IS the island from Lost, I can spoil the ending of the series for you: it’s aliens.

Somewhat jarringly, a mysterious Russian man, Mik Kanrokitoff, shows up to meet them and begins filling them in on a lot of X-Files-ish mumbo-jumbo about the island being a meeting place between aliens and a secret cabal of humans. Don’t worry, they’re perfectly benign—in fact, the only real purpose they serve in this story is to save the gang as the active volcano beneath the island erupts.

The aliens themselves never appear on-panel, and the heroes have a telepathic whammy put on them before they board the spacecraft, which leaves their memories completely erased afterwards. The story is clearly meant to emulate the various popular accounts of alien abduction, but it’s hard not to be a little frustrated by how much is left dangling at the end of this story—it feels like all buildup, no payoff. It certainly blows my mind that there were ever comics made that would AVOID showing aliens and spacecraft by any means necessary.

I set out to write something fond about Tintin, and of course I did feel a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic glow as I leafed through these books. But rereading them, I’m sort of disappointed by how dry and soulless they are, and how much objectionable content is present. The art remains magnificent, but there’s so little humanity in them, even aside from the regressive politics and the tiresome humour. It’s clear that Herge continued to learn and improve all his life, and the geniality of his creations still makes the books readable…barely. But I think I’m ready to throw these on the pile of “books I loved as a kid that don’t hold up.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Excuses, Excuses...

So Sunday afternoon I get home from a baby shower* with the coming week largely clear of obligations, professional and personal. "All right!" I think. "I can use this week to catch up and get get ahead on my webcomics!" So I sit down and pencil this week's Freak U. and Lemuria, going great guns, all fired up to keep the pace going for the next few days...and by the time evening falls, I'm feeling an ominous tickle in my throat...

Monday morning I awaken to find myself buried under a pile of bricks. On closer inspection, the bricks turn out to be mucus, and Monday turns out to be Wednesday. Possibly time travel was involved. As far as I can remember.

At any rate, the biohazard seems to have receded to the point today where I can actually accomplish something beyond turning over frequently enough not to get bedsores. (OK, I exaggerate--I was briefly online, but I wasn't up to doing much of anything that didn't involve pressing a button or two.)

I mention all this because, despite the inauspicious start, I still have a fair amount of free time this week, and I'm hoping to use it so that you guys don't have to see anymore non-updated strips. Famous last words, I know...

Just so as not to leave this post as a bunch of whinging, here's a bit of linkblogging. The website Comics Alliance has made the wise move of employing comics blogger extraordinaire Chris Sims, and he, along with main editor Laura Hudson and...other guy Caleb Goellner, have been providing the vital public service of mocking some of the more idiotic and poorly-researched coverage of comics that have been popping up in the mainstream media of late. First they took on this eye-gougingly smarmy and cliche-packed CNN article, and now they've tackled a less absurd but still fairly dumb article about Mark Millar.

Oh, and speaking of ambitious plans of my own and entertaining comics blogging, I have a rather epic post about Tintin that should be going up in the next day or two. Yeah, Tintin. Can you stand the excitement?

*It's now pretty much normal for men to go to baby showers, right? I mean, I'm aware that's not how it was done, traditionally, but that tradition seems to have existed primarily because society wanted to keep baby-rearing squarely the responsibility of the ladies, which makes it pointless and outdated. And I've been to several amongst my baby-having friends. I'm not part of some cutting-edge progressive commune (contrary to what Americans seem to think of Canada) so I have to assume this is basically normal amongst my generation now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oh, Right, Valentine's Day.

About all that means for me right now is that I get to post joke Valentines from around the web.

(Click on the images to see more from each site)

Happy corporate-sponsored commercial exploitation of people's emotions, everyone!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies Definitely Summed Up Canada

Badly organized, filled with technical glitches, everyone having fun regardless.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Goes the Drama

Andrew Hickey is a fine fellow who blogs about comics…or used to. He’s observed, lately, that there’s a bit of a malaise in the world of genre storytelling as a whole; everything seems to be, in his words, “soap opera” or (more rarely, in my opinion) detached idea-based fiction with a lack of real human interest. He’s issued a call for more “drama” or “pop-drama”, in his words, which essentially means “more stories about interesting characters which are also about something”. I’m not quite doing justice to what he means, so go read the post.

I may have more to say about this later—in fact, I may actually be working with Andrew at some point—but for now I wanted to riff on the idea he suggests down at the bottom there—the idea of posting proposals for revitalizing various pop-culture franchises. It’s actually very similar to what Chris Bird is doing with his ”I should write Dr. Strange” posts, but with the more unlikely premise that I’d be handed the keys to a major series of movies, TV show, or whatever.

The character I've decided to tackle: Doc Savage.

Now, I admit that my knowledge of Doc is a little shaky--I've read the first few stories and I know the basic history of the character (and of course, Wikipedia is my friend), but I don't claim to be an expert in the various details of Doc's adventures, or have an abiding passion for the character. Still, I think I know enough to be able to attempt this.

For those of you who don't know...and can't be bothered with the Wikipedia link...Doc is a character who hails from the pulp novels, and is in many ways one of the predecessors of the superhero. Like Superman, he's a paragon, an embodiment of human perfection, devoted unfailingly to justice and goodness (and he has the first name "Clark" and a Fortress of Solitude--yes, really). Like Batman, he's scoured the globe, devoting his life to self-perfection; even more so than Bats, in fact, as he's pretty much the best of the best of the best at everything. And I do mean everything. Doc has a band of erstwhile companions who are the most respected experts in their fields--an engineer, a chemist, a geologist, a lawyer and an electrical expert--and it's stated on a number of occasions that he's better than all of them.

Yes, Doc is considered to be the pinnacle of human perfection, having been raised since birth by a rather mysterious cabal of scientists assembled by his father (who, as the first story opens, has just died). Doc also has vast wealth, attained by his (re)discovery of a vast treasure trove of gold in a lost valley, guarded by an lost tribe of ancient Mayans. Who are oddly agreeable to letting this American tromp in and make off with their vast wealth. (It has something to do with an agreement they made with Doc's father, who arrived there years before, just as Doc was being born. But really it has more to do with the book having been written in 1933.)

In addition to being the world's greatest scientist and inventor and all-round expert on everything, Doc is in physically perfect condition, knows dozens of martial arts and modes of hand-to-hand combat, and has some other odd quirks that make him seem somewhat inhuman. His physical appearance, for instance, is described as being "bronze"--not just tan, but as looking exactly like a bronze statue. He also apparently produces a weird, high-pitched noise in times of stress that has a "calming" effect on those around him, as well as providing a rallying call.

People have attempted to adapt Doc into movie form, and he occasionally makes a brief appearance in comics (just in the past few months, he's crossed over with Batman as an attempt to launch a new line of pulp stories at DC) but I think it's pretty obvious why the character hasn't really found a foothold the way that, say, Tarzan or Zorro has. He's too perfect. In fact, it gets a little creepy when you consider that he's essentially a walking experiment to produce an "ubermensch" type, an idea that...well, let's just say that however well it went over in the mid 30s, by the end of the next decade people had lost their enthusiasm for it. (There are even creepier ideas at play in some of the stories--in one, Doc apparently isolates the gland that causes "criminal behaviour" and operates on criminals, transforming them into model citizens. Gosh, that couldn't possibly go wrong!)

Even putting that aside, Doc comes off as an utterly paternalistic and smug figure, inhuman and unlikeable. We simply can't relate to a guy who's that perfect, and who smacks of authorial fiat besides. But that's the essence of the character--to graft on some human weakness would be a betrayal of the whole concept. How do you deal with that?

Alan Moore, as many know, essentially remade Doc Savage as Tom Strong, and found an interesting hook--focusing on the psychology of the man who'd been treated as an experiment for his entire life, who could do almost anything when it related to pure talent but struggled to understand his own humanity. But Moore had the luxury of an all-new character, one whose backstory he could shape in whatever direction he wanted.

My own suggestion for reworking Doc is very simple: make him African-American.

This is actually something I've been chewing over for years--the fact that there's a distinct lack of truly iconic black (or any other minority, really) adventure heroes. I mean, yes, there are action-adventure stories and movies and comics starring black protagonists, but none of them have that kind of iconic central figure who stands astride the narrative, your Indiana Joneses and James Bonds and whatnot.

Furthermore, Doc being black creates a whole new social context, even if it's never overtly referenced in the story. Suddenly the motives for having his father push him into this rather harsh lifestyle are a little more understandable (even if we still don't fully condone it). Doc becomes the Jesse Owens or Tiger Woods of adventure heroes, a guy with something to prove just by existing. And of course, the underlying politics of this previously simplistic story suddenly get rather complex and certainly very relevant in the age of Obama (I'm also assuming that these would be set in the present day, rather than the 30s). What's great, though, is that this doesn't change anything about the actual stories you can tell with Doc. He can still fight giant spiders and men from the earth's core, solve mysteries and invent incredible new surgical procedures. The subtext springs into being, fully formed, from the new element of Doc's race. And suddenly a relic of the past becomes a hero for the future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lost in the Woods

The final season of Lost starts tonight, in case you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers jammed in your ears. This is a show that ABC believes, and possibly correctly, can compete with the Olympics for ratings. This is a show that caused President Obama to move his state of the union speech because he didn't want to pre-empt it. It's a popular show, is what I'm saying.

I'm almost perfectly on the fence as to whether the creators are going to stick the landing. Lost has gone over the course of its run from "a show that is clearly carefully planned and on rails" to "a show where the writers are clearly just making shit up as they go along, and barely keeping track of their own continuity". And the thing is, it's gone back and forth between these two states multiple times. If you'd asked me after the incredibly tight, Brian K. Vaughn-shaped 4th season, I would have said the show was in good hands and likely to satisfy with its ending. Halfway through the wheel-spinning 5th season, I was seriously starting to doubt this. Especially after the crucial "Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" episode ended up being a gigantic waste of time with no character logic whatsoever. But then, last year's season finale was genuinely intriguing, actually answered some questions, and opened the door for some very interesting developments in the coming season--and I have no idea where they're going from here.

Right now Lost is like Schrodinger's Cat, trapped in a perfect state between a tightly told, perfectly executed mystery with a satisfying conclusion...and an incoherent failure. As long as we don't open the box, it could go either way.

Tonight we crack the lid...

Five SF Misconceptions Set Straight

5. Star Wars is set in the future, not the past. This has been confusing people for years. The fact that the movie starts with "A long time ago..." plus the fact that it came out in the 70s, when people took Erich Von Daniken seriously, had everyone assuming that this was intended as an "Ancient Astronauts" kind of thing, and that we were seeing events that somehow took place before recorded history. In another galaxy. In fact, one of Star Wars' biggest imitators, Battlestar Galactica (the original), made the "humans came from the stars" an explicit part of their storyline, which helped cement this whole idea further in people's minds, to the point where no one questions it now.

Certainly, the fact that Lucas was going for a mythical, fairy-tale feel with Star Wars makes this idea seem a little more plausible. And Star Wars throws a lot of confusing stuff at you right at the start, so "this is all happening in the past somehow" seems like just one more gnat to swallow. But what a lot of people don't realize is that "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" was a last-minute addition to the movie. Even the original novelization, by Lucas himself, began with the more ambiguous "another galaxy, another time". It's pretty clear he was trying to evoke old-fashioned campfire mythology without explicitly contradicting the idea that this was taking place amongst a typical star-spanning future civilization, one clearly evoked by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Frank Herbert's Dune, from which Lucas borrows liberally in his world-building. (And it's worth noting that both of those stories take place in a future so distant that Earth has been either forgotten or relegated to the status of insignificant backwater, one which no one bothers to mention.)

But wait, you say, back up--regardless of Lucas's original intentions, the movie DOES open with that line establishing the story as existing in the past, so all this is moot, right? I mean, I'm pretty sure "Sith" wasn't intended as meaning "evil jedi" originally (Darth Vader simply had "Sith lord" as a title, and he happened to be a jedi who had gone evil--but that's two different things) but the Prequels have established it otherwise. But no: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" isn't intended from OUR perspective. It's from the perspective of some other chroniclers in the far, far distant future (and possibly another galaxy). Lucas even mentions these guys repeatedly in the early drafts and concept notes: they're called The Whills, as in The Journal of the Whills. Which is what the entire Star Wars series is--a record of future history. Given how badly Lucas has jumped the shark, I doubt we're ever going to return to this concept, but it's out there, and nothing we've seen has ever contradicted it.

And speaking of Lucas jumping the shark--

4. Midichlorians are not the same thing as The Force. I'm not trying to defend the Star Wars prequels in any way, shape or form, but one of the biggest complaints about The Phantom Menace--that it reduces the force to a biological condition--simply isn't accurate. The midichlorians are LINKED to the force, yes, but people seem to have leapt to the conclusion that these little guys are what gives you the ability to use The Force. And the higher your midichlorian count, the stronger your force powers.

Even though this is explicitly contradicted by the dialogue.

The discussion is pretty straightforward. Anakin's midichlorian count is revealed to be absurdly high, "higher even than Master Yoda's". "What does that mean?" asks Obi-Wan. "I don't know," says Qui-Gon.

So if Midichlorians gave you super-force powers, why would they be acting so confused? It would mean something pretty straightforward: that Anakin is the super-Force messiah and they should all be bowing down to him. But in fact the Jedi seem to treat Anakin's midichlorian count as a weird, vaguely interesting anomaly, nothing more. It doesn't even justify training him as a Jedi, apparently. And--somewhat more crucial--does Anakin ever display a mastery of the Force higher than Yoda's? No he does not. Hell, Obi-Wan kicks his ass. Anakin's high midichlorian count is a weird fluke, not the end-all and be-all of Jedidom, and the Force remains a mystical anomaly.

Man, I feel nerdy. Let's move on to something more straightforward.

3. The new Star Trek did not "erase" all the other ones from continuity. Ah, that's...better?

For some reason this was a huge complaint around the interwebs back when we were all convinced the new Star Trek was going to suck, and even after we all saw and enjoyed it there were still people moaning a little about how everything Star Trek has been wiped from continuity "except Enterprise" (usually accompanied by moans of despair).

This appears to be a hangover from Crisis on Infinite Earths. Lord knows Trek fans and superhero fans can give each other a run for their money in the OCD trivia sweepstakes. And the desire to have a single "continuity" seems to be inescapable, even when so much time and effort could be spared by simply acknowledging the presence of a new timeline and chilling the fuck out. But if you won't accept that, how about the fact that it's fucking Star Trek and alternate timelines have been part of the show's mythology since 1966?!? I mean, did Eric Bana wipe the "Mirror universe" from continuity as well? No? Then shut up.

Fortunately people seem to be accepting this one--I'm told the new Star Trek online game is set in the old, nerdy continuity. So the idea seems to be that the new movies will be an effecitve in-continuity reboot for mainstream audiences, but the hardcore will still have their Star Trek Classic(tm) with all the old baggage. Makes sense to me.

2. Deckard is not a replicant. Yes, I know this is contradicted by Ridley Scott himself. He was taking the piss, guys. Deckard being a replicant makes no sense, plot-wise or thematically, and the idea is based entirely on that one weird line in which the number of escaped replicants is miscounted (which, incidentally, was corrected in the director's cut) and a few strange arguments about the unicorn dream sequence. Anyway, this one's been thoroughly dismantled by Scott "El Santo" Ashlin at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, so just click on the link and save us all some time. But not before I talk about:

1. Pretty much everything about the second Matrix movie. Now this is a movie I do think gets unfairly maligned--the third movie has a lot more problems, but even so, it's got a lot of value in it as well. The main reason I like the second movie is that it actually expands, thematically, on the first in a way that most sequels don't bother with...and I absolutely love that they're willing to twist the premise of the first around the way they do. That said, there are some awkward bits from a story perspective, but a lot of the issues people have can be corrected (though sometimes a bit of fanwank is needed.)

Why doesn't Neo just fly away during the Burly Brawl? Because, if you notice, Neo can't just leap into the air; he needs to bend down and build up power first. The pile of Smiths assaulting him makes that impossible until he's cleared a space.

Why is Smith alive again at all? Because his experience with Neo--his "merging" with him at the end--made him capable of thinking outside the box in a way that the other programs can't, and part of that newfound realization--Neo "setting him free" as he puts it--is that you can't really "kill" a computer program. He became spiritually self-aware, and reconstituted himself. Essentially, it's what Neo did at the end of the first movie. This is why he quickly starts taking over the Matrix--without needing to abide by the rules, he's become essentially unstoppable.

Why does Neo defy the Architect, dooming the human race? It's not so much that he dooms anybody as that he rejects the choice he's offered. The whole series up until that point has been leading to this, thematically: Neo's made a big deal of his own freedom of choice up until now, but at this point, choice is being used as a method of control. Neo's basically exercising the only freedom left to him--the freedom to opt out, even if it means disaster. But he also believes that he can make his own rules, and doesn't have to accept the Architect's pronouncement of how things will play out. Very buddhist.

Oh, and why can Neo control the machines in the real world now? Because he's been to The Source. I'm amazed at how many people miss this bit. He's developed a link with the machines, one that they all seem to share--he's infected their code the way Smith has infected the Matrix. This is a big part of why the machines let Neo solve their problems in the final movie--they realize they're at a bit of a stalemate. They've got Neo wrecking their shit from without, and Smith taking over the Matrix from within. Chaos has corrupted the system.

If it helps, though, I still agree the rave scene was silly.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yes, 2000-2009 Counts As a Decade. It Doesn't Matter That There Was No Year Zero. Look, Just Forget It.

The decade just past was a good one for comics.

There, I said it.

Yeah, I know, there were some bumps. OK, a lot of bumps. The kind of thing that might occur over the course of, y'know, a DECADE. But as I've said many, many times before, when you don't see comics through the prism of superheroes--and I, personally, do not--you come away with a much rosier picture of the medium.

I don't know if I've brought this up before on this particular blog, so I may as well go over it again. I read comics growing up, but they were mostly of the Archie/Tintin/Uncle Scrooge variety. I enjoyed them in the unselfconscious way that kids enjoy things. Plus, I was a really nerdy, weenie little kid who tended to hide under his chair at the most subtle note of horror in his entertainment, and as early as the mid-80s, superhero comics were too grim 'n' gritty for my liking. I was enrolled in the gifted program in Grade 3, meaning I was comfortably surrounded by other nerds, and I actually thought liking superheroes--which at the time meant X-Men, and plenty of them--made someone too badass to hang around me. D&D was the same way, with its lurid mystique of occult worship and teen suicide. I think I may have been the most pathetic child ever.

At any rate, the floodgates finally opened for me in the early 90s, when Ken Butland, who was and remains my best pal on this Earth, developed an addiction to the Image comics of the time, and as with so many other things, passed it along to me. I'll admit that one of the other things keeping me out of comics was my somewhat OCD nature which required me to start reading stories at, like, the beginning (how drearily pre-21st-century-schizoid-man of me). Having a brand-spanking-new comics line available for my perusal really helped me appreciate just how much fun modern, mainstream comics could be. Don't get me wrong--I quickly realized that Spawn and its ilk were pretty terrible, and graduated to stuff like Bone and Sandman. But I'm pretty sure you need a visceral kick to engage the reader at that crucial, adolescent time when comics fans are born, and Image squeaked me through just as the window was closing.

Anyway. The long and the short of it is that the Big Two have always had a negligible appeal for me, and watching them choke and sputter and circle the drain in these last few years hasn't had any kind of emotional impact whatsoever. Let them go. Spider-man's not going anywhere; he and his kind live forever in those giant omnibus collections we were so lucky to be blessed with in this decade. And when I say they're not going anywhere, I mean they're not going anywhere. Even as their history gets venerated, elevated to popcult iconography by the culture at large, their future in comics seems more and more limited. The superheroes' natural home is and always has been on the Hollywood silver screen; now that the opportunity to make that evolutionary leap has finally come along, the corporate gatekeepers aren't going to let those pesky comics from which they sprung interfere with the REAL money. Comics have always been a bit of an embarassment to those peripherally involved with them, the bratty nephew of pop culture, and that's both good and bad. But once the gold rush starts, as it has, you'd better believe that the corporate megaliths are going to make sure that bratty nephew straightens up and flies right. No more throwing shit at the walls, or starting awkward political discussions at the dinner table. In other words, superhero comics, don't make us look bad the next time one of your products gets a movie deal and causes the spotlight to tilt in your direction.

Of course this puts superhero comics in the position that unchecked capitalism puts all popular art in, only more so: the compulsion to keep the content coming, but not to do anything weird or different that might upset the status quo. Not exactly a recipe for greatness. Is it really any wonder we're at where we're at right now?

Um. I'm fairly certain I had a point around here somewhere...

Oh yes. Well, as much fun as it is to write about this stuff, I don't have any attachment to superhero comics, so they serve best by steering the industry in wise directions (by accident, naturally). And for the last decade, I'm pretty content with that direction. Like I say, divorce superheroes from the equation and comics have been on an uptick in just about every way imaginable. Granted, that was almost inevitable after the bottoming-out of the early 90s, when comics hit a nadir in quality and then lost the majority of their popular following through poor business practices (not that the two things are unconnected, of course). But the good thing about this--and trust me, I know, I was there--is that the only people who stuck around after the bubble burst were the ones who really loved comics. It's not a coincidence that the second half of the 90s saw a head-spinning surge in quality for the medium; complacency gives way to rebellion, and enforced lameness breeds vitality once the dam breaks.

I think that amazing turnaround made the past ten years seem a little less exciting by contrast, but this was the decade when comics internalized the lessons of the 90s: edginess is cheap, the past is ever-present, and comics offer a unique opportunity to be a cutting-edge maverick. Comics have always had the potential to blend the populist with the personal in exciting ways, but I think the Aughts is the decade when the world at large finally started to get a whiff of this. Between the web and the bookstore, comics started to rebuild their audience--and this time, they were smarter and hipper than before. (And, OK, more cultish and socially backward. But in that way too comics are on the cutting edge: it's the internet age.) Comics aren't the ones trailing pathetically along after Hollywood's leavings anymore; now its the funnybooks that set the tone, delivering all the best TV shows and movies that the homogenized Hollywood media octopus can't or won't deliver, until they see the sales figures. Many of the decade's most significant movies--for better or for worse--were either based on comics or significantly inspired by them. I'm not talking about superheroes, now, but rather the likes of Sin City and 300 and V For Vendetta and A History of Violence and American Splendour and Ghost World. This is where movies, and thus, the culture, is heading--there's lots more where that came from. Increasingly, comics are going to be steering the culture, even if lots of people don't realize it.

On the other end of the scale, we had the web restoring cheapness and accessibility to comics, and thereby bolstering the numbers of that always-significant audience: the comics readers who don't think of themselves as comics readers. I'm referring here to newspaper strips, which have always had a weird, detached relationship with their four-colour cousins; classically, people just haven't connected their love of Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side with "reading comics", and the nerdier side of the family tree hasn't even attempted to build a bridge to this massive, potential mainstream audience. At any rate, that ship has mostly sailed, as print comics entered their decline and the web rose up to authoritatively take their place. Webcomics allow for pretty much anything, in format or content, for free, and with no gatekeepers to stand between the artist and the reader. The amount of suckage is vast, of course, but that's the glory of a truly populist medium--the chaff can be safely ignored, leaving lots and lots of wheat to be enjoyed. Provided you don't mind staring at a screen, of course. But hey! This was also the decade in which notable comics started to make the jump to print, often assisted by the old guard of the comics medium--Dark Horse has probably been best at seizing this opportunity so far, with their Achewood and Perry Bible Fellowship collections and moving Dark Horse Presents online, but most of the other companies have dipped a toe in the pool as well.

Anything else I could possibly say about webcomics has been said better already by Abhay Khosla, so go read that when you're done. In the meantime, here's


Seven Soldiers--What if DC had a giant multi-series crossover and nobody noticed? Of course, this was more a metacommentary on the idea of superhero crossover events than the real deal, since the characters featured didn't have their own books and were entirely at the mercy of Grant Morrison. But it's precisely because of that that we got such a tight, brilliantly told story made up of smaller stories with a firm authorial voice. Crossover epics were developed under the aegis of one man, Jack Kirby; it's only fitting that this, probably the last time we'll ever see it done properly, was also a purely one-man operation.

All-Star Superman--I got nothing. This is just the best Superman story ever, and possibly the best superhero story ever that isn't named "Watchmen". Everything I could say here is redundant if you've already read it, and if you haven't you're lazy and benighted.

Scott Pilgrim--See below.

Seaguy--It is what it is, and that's all that it is. Superheroes, cartoons, theme parks and vast media empires, all made to look very silly yet very serious. Morrison's work always has a deeper meaning, but this time out you're probably better just rolling with it.

We3--Dang, Grant Morrison again! My love of variety is tempting me to drop this just to give one of the other kids a chance, but it just wouldn't be the truth: Morrison is the best comics writer currently working. We3 is small but perfect.

Box Office Poison--This comic flirts with the kind of indie navel-gazing that I absolutely hate--hey, everyone, let's show how serious and important comics are by taking away everything that they do well!--so it should tell you something that it's on this list. Warm and true, this book is like hanging out with an old friend.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--Yes, the whole thing. Yes, Black Dossier included. Alan Moore's disastrous Hollywood experiences seemingly led him to steer what had previously been "just" a tremendously fun adventure book with a neat hook into a "unified field theory of fiction", showing off comics' "multimedia" nature and making a statement about the nature of intellectual property which can only get more interesting from here...

Black Hole--I feel like the ending veers away from the darkness the book had been staring at unflinchingly up until then (like some kind, hole-ish thing), but that's probably just what felt most truthful to author Charles Burns. Otherwise, this is a deeply unsettling Freudian mindfuck and a masterful slice of atmosphere and tension.

The Umbrella Academy--Did I say superheroes were dead? Oh, I didn't? Well, they're not, at least, not as long as witty and enthusiastic fans like Gerard Way have something to say about them. As tends to be the case, starting afresh with new characters in the key. This is a satisfyingly knotty and emotional romp, equal parts Wes Anderson, Edward Gorey, Stan Lee and Mike Mignola.

Phonogram--Love of music is magic, a fact made literal in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's beautifully drawn valentine of a comic. Like Scott Pilgrim, this is a comic that manages to blend slice-of-life with the fantastical in a way that's uniquely suited to comics, and although it takes a more intellectual frame of reference, the creator's love is leaking out of every panel.


Scott Pilgrim--Can't claim to be objective about this one; it's like this comic was made for me, specifically.

Nextwave--Warren Ellis calls it "pure comics". He is correct.

Seven Soldiers

Y: The Last Man--It can grate a little in that Joss Whedon aren't-I-precious kinda way, but I have never seen anyone read the first volume of this and not instantly demand the second. Movies are often cinematic, but this is the first true "TV comic" (and I mean that as a complement).

The Goon--Warren Ellis does NOT refer to this one as "pure comics", but he would not be incorrect to do so.


She-Hulk (Dan Slott issues only)--Like all the superhero books on this list aside from All Star Superman, this book succeeds because it focuses on an obscure or purely original superhero character, meaning that there are still things that can be done with them. That said, this one does do a lot of bipping and bopping with the minutiae of the Marvel universe, but Slott's love for this stuff is so pure and unrestrained that he actually made me care. Me!

All-Star Superman

Top Ten (Alan Moore issues only)--The original run was probably the Magus's most satisfying story arc since the 80s. The two spinoffs, Smax and The 49ers, helped flesh out a world that sadly would be continued only in a halfhearted fashion by lesser (though not untalented) creators.

Runaways--What the--a Marvel comic starring NEW characters?!? And a great one, at that? Of course The House of Ideas managed to screw it up by delaying the later issues until all the heat around the book died down, but it never stopped being great. The true heir apparent to the sprawling soap operas of the 70s, only more fun.

I'm leaving off Bone because it was mostly in the 90s, and the second half wasn't as good. I haven't read Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Criminal, or any of Bryan Talbot's stuff. I *almost* included Conan, just for the spectacular first 15 issues by Kurt Busiek, but I felt like the rest of it wasn't good enough to rate a "best of" list. conclusion...the aughts were a pretty good time for comics. Certainly they were the beginning of some massive changes in the industry, though of course lots of them won't be for the better. Still, it could be that the 00s heralded a time when you could actually be proud to say, "Yes, I read comic books."

...OK, maybe we should give it a few more decades.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's All In The Mind...And It Should Have Stayed There


It's possible I heard about this a while ago and dismissed it as one of those ill-conceived ideas that Hollywood is always tossing out and which never seem to happen. It's also possible I repressed it.

Robert Zemeckis is doing a CGI mo-cap remake of Yellow Submarine. And it's apparently into the casting stage.

I'm not the kind of guy who turns up his nose at remakes; there are plenty of movies that could be improved, and sometimes a story is so strong that it genuinely deserves a modern take on it every few years (like the numerous Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies--the recent Nicole Kidman version is apparently lousy, but the other two remakes are both solid enough--the 70s version is brilliant, actually).

But I don't really need to explain why this plan sounds utterly stupid, do I? The original is nearly perfect, at least partly because it's a relic of its era, and while the Beatles themselves were only fleetingly involved in the original movie, it still FELT like part of their body of work. The Beatles were still a growing, dynamic creative force at the time, alive and vital, impacting the culture, their legacy still being written. 40 years on, that legacy is pretty much set in stone, and a new Beatles movie--no matter how much care is put into it--can only seem like a museum piece. No doubt it'll be packed with Beatles references to tickle our nostalgia bones, like that "Free As a Bird" music video--but by definition, it can't add anything to the Beatles legacy. And if it did add anything, it wouldn't be "The Beatles".

And that's assuming a hypothetical best-case scenario. Going further into the details of this actual production, we've got...Robert Zemeckis, once a tremendous filmmaker who has, bewilderingly, surrendered to that godawful mocap process which satisfies neither the desire for live action nor that for real animation. I sort of liked Beowulf, but having the characters be hyper-real, dead-eyed mannikins hurt the story, which would have been better served by a group of live actors or a traditional animated format. For some reason Zemeckis is married to this medium, even though it clearly isn't working yet, and may possibly NEVER work, no matter how great the technology gets. (Bringing animated characters to life is a matter of artistic skill, not coding. It requires time, care, and talent, not money and technology.)

At least Yellow Submarine's mo-cap characters wouldn't be bound by a pedantic need for realism, but still, what's the fucking point? It frankly smacks of a wrongheaded belief that CGI is somehow "better" than classical animation, and that this is bringing the original "up to date". That may not be what Zemeckis is telling himself, but that's how it comes off. You know how George Lucas only seems to exist to destroy everything that is good and wonderful about movies? At least he's mostly kept it to his own franchises. I can't say the same about Zemeckis anymore. Fuck that guy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kids In The Hall: Death Comes to Town

It was...OK. It's possible that being a kid when KOTH was on the air has made it seem better than it was, so I don't know if that was disappointing or par for the course. The setup is intriguing--I'm a big fan of The League of Gentlemen, so it's cool to see that structure being imitated by the Kids. I liked some of the insane, random imagery, and it certainly warmed the cockles of my nostalgia, but I'd be lying if I said it had me rolling with laughter.

The best stuff was Mayor Bowman and his food-theft and his special son Rampop, plus the return of the two cops. Death is sort of interesting as a plot device, but comedically those scenes were way too broad and "zany". And there was a disappointing lack of McDonald/Foley action.

That said, there was still plenty of potential for something good, assuming that this episode suffered from having to set up the premise. And nostalgia aside, this did feel at least worthy of an average episode of KOTH--I know they've had worse, or more baffling, sketches.

By the way, you can watch it online here (at least, Canadians can--don't know about the rest of the world.)


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Liveblogging Boll. Livebolling? ...Bollblogging?

Happy New Year! Guess what one of my resolutions was. No, go on, guess.

If you guessed “to blog more often”, you have a keen grasp of what every blogger on the internet is thinking. Anyway, in that spirit of snide optimism, here’s a big ol’ post!

Despite my fondness for bad movies--I've linked to the B-Masters Cabal before, and I will do it again--I don't usually get to see them very often, partly because I don't really get much time to watch movies at all these days, and obviously I'd rather watch one that's actually good given the chance. Still, what with one thing and another I've had a chance to see a few ripe ones over the holidays. My friend finally got me to watch "The Room", which is sort of what you'd get if Ed Wood and David Lynch had a baby. But the big event was meant to be my first viewing of an Uwe Boll movie on New Year's Eve. We threw on House of the Dead at my friend's party, only to discover that what we were watching was the "director's cut". This is a version made after the movie had developed a reputation as a complete stinkbomb, and made to cash in on this fact (as well as showing that Boll supposedly has a sense of humour about it--he shows up in a short intro at the beginning as a hostage to a terrorist group that's going to force him to watch his own movie). Which is all well and good, but this version of the movie turns out to be loaded up with pop-up video "snark", stupid "comedy" sound effects and music, and goofy outtakes spliced into actual scenes (even more horrifying, some of these allegedly "comedic" scenes actually seem to have been filmed just for this DVD). The result is way, WAY more painful than just watching a bad movie--it's like watching the creators of "Meet the Spartans" attempt to do MST3K.

I needed to cleanse the palette with a true, undiluted bad movie experience, one in which the comedy is unintentional and therefore funny, so I tracked down "In The Name of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale". This is an Uwe Boll movie from much later, after the Lord of the Rings movies had made their mark, so I was kind of curious to see if this was as entertainingly gonzo and inept as "Dungeons and Dragons" or any number of terrible mid-80s fantasy flicks. And I kept notes as I watched, to amuse you.

01:28--Nothing kicks off an epic fantasy like shots of Ray Liotta smooching with Leelee Sobieski! And by the way, EEEEEW.

02:18—John Rhys-Davies talks to no one, then melts. Huh?

02:36—Jason Statham makes his appearance, farming turnips. So far I feel like I’ve been watching random scenes from three completely different movies, badly spliced together. And not the opening scenes, either—just random scenes from halfway through several randomly-chosen movies. At least this one feels like a proper introduction to the character. Music: twinkly and celtic, but also vaguely resembling that of a 50s western for some reason.

03:10—A boomerang. Statham’s character is a master of the boomerang. Why was I not informed of this?

03:20—He throws it at crows “so they don’t eat the crops”. Crows are known for digging up turnips, I guess?

03:36—PERLMAN!!! With a pig! Trading it for corn, for some reason, even though Statham is clearly a turnip farmer.

05:43—Domestic scenes with Statham’s character (as you’ve no doubt heard, he’s a farmer named Farmer), Perlman, and his wife (Claire Forlani) and son. Then the obligatory makeout scene with his wife, showing how happy and loving they are before his family is horribly killed and he swears vengeance (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that’s what happens).

07:40—Farmer’s wife explains that Farmer took the name “Farmer” “because he believes that people become what they do.” Guh wha? Does he call everyone by their function? Does he call Perlman “Swineherd”? Does he call his wife “Wife”?

08:10—Introductory shot of Matthew Lillard, cramming his face with meat like Henry VIII, immediately followed by a shot of Burt Reynolds, looking like he’s already planning on jumping out the window to escape the movie.

08:30—Last Survivor Of Evil Army, who keeps randomly shouting “Krugs” in the middle of sentences. Krugs appear to be this movie’s Orcs. Aaaaand—that scene’s at an abrupt end!

09:07—Well, this movie *looks* pretty good, cinematography-wise. But it’s kind of hilarious how randomly everything’s been thrown together—you have costumes from a bunch of different historical eras (and some that belong in LOTR), white and black people, English accents and American ones, together with no logic.

11:40—Interestingly, it looks like Farmer’s going to be attacked while his wife and kid are away, rather than vice versa.


13:35—The action scene here is not terrible. In fact it’s pretty good. Even if there’s no explanation for why this farmer is such a badass.

15:11—And suddenly we’re cutting away in the middle of this two-pronged attack to watch Leelee do tepid Matrix-style swordfighting with a black dude. With a lousy British accent.

15:50—Lillard also has a bad British accent. And he’s playing a foppish nobleman. I love you, movie.

16:17—Every second Lillard is on screen is GOLD.

17:12—Time for the standard “raid the village” fantasy-movie scene. There’s been some talk about how Krugs are these mindless beasts and seeing them fight with weapons is clearly the work of dark sorcery, which is actually kind of cool, except Krugs are clearly humanoid. Is it really that amazing that creatures with opposable thumbs can swing a sword at you?

17:30—I love how Statham and Perlman, apparently with no help at all, can hold off a battalion of these things. Aragorn had to call in a bunch of elves and dead guys. Pussy.

18:42—Every evil fantasy army seems to hire that one guy just to wear badass armour, pose on horseback on a cliff or low structure, and do nothing to help.

19:08—POV shot of armour-wearing dude trying to ride down Farmer. He sees in BLACK AND WHITE!!! OOOOH!!!! SPOOOOOOKY!!! This is because he’s being remote controlled by Ray Liotta. Farmer kills the armour dude, which makes Liotta happy for some reason. And he congratulates Farmer, even though his avatar-guy is dead and there’s no way he can hear him.

23:29—Blah blah blah, battle’s over, lots of people dead. It just kind of ends. Farmer’s kid dead, wife missing. Music: sad chanting of sadness, which for some reason swells and gets intense and epic as he digs his son’s grave.

26:06—Surprise, Lillard is this movie’s Wormtongue! In that he’s a close confidant of the king (in fact, he seems to be the king’s only friend, judging from the earlier scene) who’s secretly working with the villain.

26:52—The king came down in person to sympathize with the villagers. I’d say something snarky about how phony that sounds, but since standard king procedure is to belch slightly and order a new dish of figs when informed that the peasants are suffering, I have to give him props.

27:00—Hey, Rhys-Davies is here too. He appears to be this movie’s Gandalf. Speaking of which, Perlman has a bow and arrows, making him this movie’s Legolas. And there’s this random dude with long hair hanging around—I think he’s Farmer’s brother-in-law? Maybe? I’m going to proclaim him to be this movie’s Pippin.

27:51—Farmer pretty much blows a raspberry in the king’s face for his failure to stop the Krug and black dude (the actor’s name is Brian J. White, the character’s name is Tarish) starts getting all huffy. King Reynolds tells him to hold off, because “That is not the way of Ehb.” Ehb is the kingdom they live in.

28:28—“Old, but still strong.” Statham and Perlman actually have awesome chemistry. This movie becomes pretty decent whenever they’re on screen together.

28:59—Farmer flashes back to the one scene he’s had so far with his wife. Rhys-Gandalf comes along and lectures Farmer on his duty to the king by telling him there are more important things than his dead son, who just died a hour ago. Don’t sprain something showing your compassion, Rhys.

30:53—Farmer and party send the horses back so they can zipline across a broken bridge. This is obviously a call back to the Mines of Moria sequence, except there’s no dungeon. In a movie called “Dungeon Siege”. That’s Boll for the course, of course—there wasn’t really a house in House of the Dead either. Music: flutey and zany.

34:29—Ye gods, Lillard is over the top. He’s in a totally different movie—everyone else is trying pretty hard, and often succeeding, at bringing this script to life, but Lillard seems to have an idea of who’s directing. By the way, we’re finally getting a bit of backstory—he’s King Reynolds’ nephew, and he’s helping Liotta so he can seize the crown. Now if only we knew who the hell Liotta was.

35:35—Leelee asks Liotta, “Must you appear so suddenly from nowhere?” “I don’t, I appear suddenly from somewhere.” Um, yes, good. By the way, the fact that the evil sorcerer’s plan involves banging the king’s daughter is kind of awesome.

38:32—King Reynolds on Lillard: “You have a knack for well-timed diplomacy.” (Pause) “I guess that’s something…”

39:59—Farmer (sarcastically): “People say God watches over the innocent.” Whoa, what? They’re monotheists in this fantasy world? That’s a first.

41:22—Forest spirits—elves, I guess—appear in a flurry of aspen leaves, looking for all the world like Cirque de Soleil performers. Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly who they are.


42:42—Wait—Leelee isn’t King Reynolds’ daughter? Is she Rhys-Gandalf’s daughter? Damn, Boll does a terrible job setting up the characters.

46:33—So Lillard’s run off with a battalion, and when the commander asks, basically, “What’s going on,” Lillard stabs him and then threatens the other soldiers with more of what that guy got if they ask questions. Dude, that only works if you can actually take the people you’re threatening in a fight.

47:25—Leelee finally has a scene with her dad, in which he basically tells her everything that’s happened is her fault (Liotta’s “tapping into their bloodline”, whatever that means, and it’s giving him lots o’ power). Again, two good actors sell this scene, but it’s hilariously abrupt. And Rhys-Gandalf is a jerk.

47:55—The elves, or whatever they are, are supposedly the reason no one goes through this forest, but when they catch the heroes they obligingly lead them through to the other side.

47:35—The king has been poisoned. Rhys-Gandalf crouches at King Reynolds’ bedside, stroking his hand tenderly. THAT WILL NOT MAKE HIM BETTER YOU STUPID MAGUS.

Some time in here—I’m too lazy to go back and check—Farmer and co. do the “knock out the bad guys and steal their armour to blend in with the evil army” thing. Except Farmer doesn’t bother, he just runs around in his usual outfit and ducks behind the odd wagon. Smooth.

51:13—Fakest looking CGI army EVER. Or maybe they just filmed a bunch of D&D miniatures standing outside a matte painting.

51:46—“In the name of EEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHBBBB!!!!!”

55:33—Rhys-Gandalf, who so far has done nothing except slightly prolong the king’s life and make Leelee feel bad, has somehow been able to sense that Farmer’s in trouble, and rides up to help him at this convenient moment. If he needs Farmer so badly, and is willing to take time out to help him, why didn’t he just help him rescue his wife a few scenes back? That way Farmer would have owed him a favour, and his schedule would have been totally clear.

57:06—Leelee—and DAMN she looks more and more like Helen Hunt every movie—is so distraught over her bad breakup with Liotta that she’s breaking mirrors…WITH HER MIND!!!! A random Swedish girl comes in and consoles her.

58:04—Oh my God, now she’s suiting up in armour! She’s pulling an Eowyn!!!

60:02—At almost exactly the hour mark, Rhys-Gandalf drops the bomb that Farmer is the King’s son. Of course Farmer refuses to believe it, because, hey, who’d want to be the heir to the throne?

60:38—“What kind of joke do the gods play on me?” asks King Reynolds. So he’s a pagan, but the people are monotheists? FANTASY RELIGION IS CONFUSING. Rhys-Gandalf tries to soothe him with “Sometimes the Gods know what is best for us” and the king says “What the hell does that mean?!?” My sentiments exactly. Rhys-Gandalf’s all trying to pretend like it’s a good thing that his kid was abandoned for 30 years and raised without ever knowing his father, because he was “far from his enemies.” Except the rampaging Krugs, of course.

63:01—Statham’s voice is getting lower and growlier in every scene. I can barely hear him now.

63:41—Tarish faces down the defecting army under Lillard, and basically threatens to kill them all. Yes, that’ll win them back! Lillard says “We will offer no quarters!” OK, can you spare five nickels, then?

66:54—Farmer runs out in front of the front lines and draws his sword as the Krugs approach. Going to take on the whole army by yourself, are you?

68:00—Holy crap. The Krugs can burrow through the ground like Bugs Bunny and drag approaching soldiers down into the ground. This is retardedly awesome.

69:08—This giant battle seems to be this movie’s version of Helm’s Deep. Farmer is leaping around and doing kung fu flips with NO ARMOUR WHATSOEVER, and of course he’s killing more Krugs than any three men on the field.

70:02—Why does Lillard still have soldiers hanging around him? I thought they all renounced him and he stormed off in a huff.

70:35—The king has a whole squadron of ninjas in leather masks at his disposal. So this whole thing is like a LOTR battle on a teensy budget, but with Bugs Bunnies vs. ninjas thrown into the middle of it. Now we just need some zombies for no reason. Maybe a lightsaber or two wouldn’t hurt.


71:39—The Krugs have these big-ass catapults that throw flaming boulders at…nothing in particular. I mean, they throw one at Farmer, but for all they know he’s just a dude, and flinging them randomly onto the battlefield is just going to kill as many of their own men as it is their opponents, right? Liotta doesn’t care, he thinks it’s funny.

72:08—Now the Krugs are LIGHTING THEMSELVES ON FIRE and being THROWN IN THE CATAPULTS at the heroes, at which point they GET UP AND KEEP FIGHTING. I love you, movie.

73:28—What the?!? There’s some random guy in a white straw hat and a totally modern shirt wailing on the Krugs in the middle of the battlefield! And he’s right in the middle of the shot!

76:33—Farmer is running across the heads of the Krugs towards Lillard in a sequence that does not look wire-assisted AT ALL. I’m sure a lot of medieval warriors could have used that trick. You were born too late, Statham.

78:49—“Looky here!” I love this seamlessly archaic and Shakespearean dialogue.

80:31—Leelee isn’t at all freaked out by the killer vines and Cirque de Soleil elves, she’s just glad Lillard’s getting his. And she’s just randomly ordering the elves around, too! Is there a missing scene in here? Probably.

81:09—Awwwwww, Perlman’s toast.

82:20—Rhys-Gandalf strokes King Reynold’s hand some more as he lies dying. This guy is like Rasputin: poison him, stab him, he just…won’t…die. Reynolds has this perpetual look of befuddlement on his face through about 90% of his screen time, like he’s thinking, “Why the hell aren’t I dead yet?”

83:46—“Wisdom is our hammer. Prudence will be our nail.” So…we’ll beat prudence into the ground with wisdom? METAPHOR FAIL

84:15—What the…so Farmer remembers stuff his father, the King, taught him when he was a child? So in the 30 years he spent farming, he never went, “Hey, I’d kind of like to go back to that palace I used to live in, where they had good food and stuff and I was heir to the throne”? He’s clearly not an amnesiac or anything. Seriously, did they put any thought into this “lost son” bit at all?

85:22—King Reynolds is finally winning Farmer over with his knowledge of FARMING. Kings are expected to know all about farming, apparently. Music: triumphant-yet-sad strings. King Reynolds buys it, finally.

88:35—So Leelee presents Lillard to Tarish all bound up, and for some fucking reason Tarish is going to fight a duel with him instead of just, y’know, throwing him in the dungeon. AND we’re suddenly expected to believe that Lillard is this awesome swordfighter and Tarish is in real trouble. Uh HUH.

90:52—Tarish suddenly can’t kill Lillard because they learn the king is dead. Um, he’s clearly a traitor to the throne, so King Reynolds really ought to have had the smarts to disinherit him before he died. I guess they figure finding a new heir would be too much trouble, so better to suffer under the rule of this jackass. This AWESOME jackass.

92:00—Farmer’s real name is Camden Konreid. Again, was he just repressing this? Why did he hate the idea of being king so much?

93:14—So now Farmer’s saying they’ve got to march on Liotta’s evil fortress of Kristwind. Why, that would be…gasp…could it be? actual Dungeon Seige?!? Also, Rhys-Gandalf says “God save the king”, so I guess he’s suddenly not a pagan anymore.

95:52—King Reynolds gets his Viking funeral. Tarish cries manly tears.

100:32—So a few scenes ago, Forlani found out she was pregnant with Farmer’s child, because she was brought to Liotta and he “could sense him in you”. Which is actually kind of cool. But now she’s begging him to kill her, because…I’m not sure why. Farmer’s going to come anyway, he’d have no way of knowing she’d be dead. She’s just emo, I guess.

102:32—You know, it’s traditional to mount a siege with, like, siege engines. But never mind, the Krugs are helpfully coming out from their nice secure stone walls to be killed. They even let the heroes have the high ground, so they can drop boulders on them. How gentlemanly of you, Krugs.

103:05—Wow, we almost got through the movie without the de rigeur panoramic helicopter shot of the Fellowship—I mean, the, um, random collection of heroes—trekking through the mountains. Also, it’s suddenly daytime now, so I guess we missed the end of that epic battle that was going on a minute ago.

104:44—The elf throws a rope across a gorge to a mountain spire that appears to be about a mile away. I know elves have good aim and stuff, but that’s kind of ridiculous. Meanwhile, Rhys-Gandalf and Liotta are having their face-off and giving us their backstory—now, with 20 minutes left in the movie.

105:24—“How do ya like my Krug?”

106:50—Farmer leaves Leelee and the elf behind, meaning that Leelee is going to contribute pretty much nothing to the story since strapping on her armour. Suddenly, back to the big battle, and it’s night again. Is the back entrance to Kristwind in another hemisphere or something?

107:51—Oh, wait. Leelee’s tapping into her magical abilities and shit to teleport herself in. Y’know, as an armour-clad warrior babe AND a sorceress, she really ought to be contributing a lot more to the story. Heck, she’s got a better personal motivation to be the main character than Statham does. The villain is her ex-boyfriend.

110:14—Day. Night. Day. Night. Day. Night. Also: Forest. Mountains. Forest. Mountains. Also: Rain. Clear. Rain. Clear.

111:47—So, here’s the thing: even in the best fantasy movies, the portrayal of magic is often kind of a botch, because sorcerors don’t seem to have very well-defined limits on their power. They can usually do all kinds of awesome things, until the plot requires them to be powerless for no reason. This movie’s actually been pretty good about this, with the baddie only having a few powers, the main one being to control mindless creatures to do his fighting for him. But now we’re learning he can fly and throw stuff around telekinetically. And yet, when Farmer shows up, guess what? He engages him in a swordfight. Just because Farmer taunts him about fighting with magic being dishonourable. YOU’RE THE BAD GUY, DUDE. Honour is not really an issue at this point.

113:51—Liotta realizes swordfighting a random dude is pointless when he has magic powers, and launches an entire library’s worth of books at Farmer, which twirl around him without touching him, then they get sucked up to the ceiling together. Then he throws them to the floor. Did you really need to trash the bookshelf for that, Liotta?

114:15—Oh no! Some old guy died! NOOOOOO!!! Also, it’s night again.

114:58—AGAIN Liotta’s just causing books to swirl around Farmer for no reason, except he’s using a couple to clamp his wrists down. Leelee bursts in and…sets the books on fire?!? How the hell does that help? Are you a fascist, Leelee? You’re certainly blonde and pale enough.

115:04—Wha?!? Of all the characters, it’s Forlani who gets to kill Liotta? Well, I can’t say I saw that coming…

115:30—OK, Farmer gets to deliver the coup de grace via one of those Equilibrium/Underworld moments where the villain walks a few steps before realizing he’s been sliced up. But still.

116:57—The sun rises in a perfectly clear, rain-free sky, and just like that, it’s over. Roll credits. Music: jaunty harpsichord supporting a typically godawful song (though at least it’s not a faux-celtic smooth rock thing).

What, that’s it? No coronation scene? No resolution for the 5,000 other characters? We don’t even get to find out what happened to Lillard? Leelee is lying on the floor unconscious, for God’s sake!!!

I have to say: I had a fair amount of fun watching this. It wasn’t as generic as a lot of fantasy movies, and there are actually a lot of good ideas, even if most of them are essentially tossed out and then abandoned. I particularly thought Leelee’s character could have been really interesting if they’d let her take center stage and developed her relationship with Liotta a bit more, and if he hadn’t been a mustache-twirling villain, and if the sight of Leelee Sobieski making out with Ray Liotta didn’t make me want to take a scrub bud to my parietal lobe. So, OK, it needed work. But still, there was something there; the script actually didn’t seem that bad, despite some gaping holes (which are the kind of thing you can often lay at the feet of the director). And that was, as frequently seems to be the case with Boll, one heck of an amazing cast, most of whom were able to make the material work to a certain degree. I’d see a movie that reunited Statham and Perlman, or hell, even Liotta and Leelee (AS LONG AS THEY DO NOT MAKE OUT AGAIN).

Still, it’s just as obvious that Boll is really inept and doesn’t give a crap. The editing is haphazard, the continuity is nonexistent, and there’s no attempt to build a coherent world. And yet, Boll does clearly have his own personal style; he’s not a generic hack, he has a strong vision of what he wants, even if that vision is deeply stupid. The result is that the movie is never boring, even if it never reaches the level of unintentional hilarity that the best bad movies can achieve.

So, in conclusion: BOOMERANG!!!!