Four Books I Liked By Joe Hill, Erik Larson, Tina Fey & Roger Moore

Like any hopeful reader, I have boxes of books just waiting to be read in my garage and even a fair number waiting in the digital realm. There’s not much rhyme or reason to which ones I choose or why they take me so long to read, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts down about these four books I’ve finished in the relatively recent past including books by Joe Hill, Erik Larson, Tina Fey and Roger Moore. Continue reading Four Books I Liked By Joe Hill, Erik Larson, Tina Fey & Roger Moore

What We Watched In 2015

Back in the day, this blog got traffic boosts from the posts I wrote about Jersey Shore, The Challenge, Real Housewives and The Big Bang Theory. Taking notes while watching and posting that night got pretty exhausting and when the kids starting coming, those fell to the wayside. But, I still love television and wanted to share some of our favorite shows from this past year. Continue reading What We Watched In 2015

Hellblazer Trade Post: Original Sins & The Devil You Know

john constantine hellblazer vol 1 original sins John Constantine, Hellblazer, Vol. 1: Original Sins (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano with Rick Veitch, drawn by John Ridgway, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy, Veitch & Tom Mandrake
Collects Hellblazer #1-9, Swamp Thing #76, 77

At the beginning of October I had two ideas that turned out to be pretty good ones: first, I should read some of the Hellblazer volumes I had sitting around and, second, I should see if anyone wanted to pay me money in conjunction with the first idea. As it turned out, I came up with an idea to run down John Constantine’s most dastardly moments from the early days of his solo series and it ran over on Topless Robot. It worked out well because of the premiere of Constantine on NBC, though I haven’t actually watched more than a few minutes of the show.

What I soon remembered after diving in to these books is something I noted when I reviewed Jamie Delano’s “The Fear Machine” arc as well as the more recent graphic novel Pandemonium and that is just how rich, robust and literary Delano’s text boxes are. Comics just don’t have that quality anymore and it took me a little while to adjust, but once I did, I realized I was reading something dark and special. As my list notes, Constantine makes some very difficult and awful decisions, but the more you read of him, the more you understand that no one else will make those choices and they weigh heavily on him.

Specifically speaking, this first batch of issues might seem like a series of one-offs, but they’re building off of themselves and each other leading towards the larger story coming to light in the next volume. The first two issues deal with an old friend accidentally unleashing a hunger god that leads John to NYC where he visits franchise stalwart Papa Midnite. From there you get a Yuppie-loving fart demon, a child murderer, a town that gets its boys back from Vietnam in a very unexpected way, a multi-armed soccer hooligan, a cyber mage, a deal with a demon, a terrible 35th birthday and a crossover with that other Vertigo mainstay Swamp Thing where the title character borrows John’s body to have sex with his lady Abby.

This volume is the perfect example of what Hellblazer was in its early days and not just because it’s the first. You get the sense of humor Delano instilled in the character as well as his intrinsically tragic nature. Plus, while you might not see them on the first read, there are a lot of seeds being planted that grow and bloom as the series progresses. I should note here that I haven’t read Constatine’s first appearances in Swamp Thing yet, so I’m sure some of that came from Alan Moore, but I credit Delano with creating something truly wonderful here in these issues.

john constantine hellblazer vol 2 the devil you know Hellblazer, Vol. 2: The Devil You Know (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano, drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Dean Motter & David Lloyd
Collects Hellblazer #10-13, Hellblazer Annual #1, The Horrorist #1-2

After all the build-up in the previous volume, issues #10, 11 and 12 hit like an atom bomb. #10 features an issue-long astral plane trip while Swamp Thing’s using John’s body. #11 explains why Constantine’s been having such a rough time in one of the most disturbing comics I’ve ever read. By #12, everything comes to a head, characters come crashing together and Constantine comes up with a particularly devious way of dealing with his nemesis.

The last regular issue of this collection is one of the craziest, dream sequence things I’ve ever experienced in any medium. Set against the looming threat of atomic mishaps, John deals with everything he’s caused and gone through leading up to this point. It’s not the easiest thing to understand, but then again, neither is the annual which switches time between John looking for a tape of his band Mucus Membrane and a past/future version of himself intertwined with Arthurian legend. It’s a lot to take in. The book closes out with the mid-90s two issue mini The Horrorist which finds Constantine drawn to a woman from a photograph who is wreaking havoc across the country.

Altogether these first two volumes don’t just set up the groundwork for a series that would go on to last 300 issues, continue on in a different form in the New 52 and make the jump to the big and small screens. One of the things that surprised me most about these two books is that Constantine doesn’t use magic in the way you might expect having seen things like Harry Potter films. He knows all about demons and monsters and angels, but instead of casting spells, the action is far more physical and more in line with a detective story. I like that take because it grounds the supernatural elements which can be off-putting at times.

Before closing out I want to say a few things about covers. First off, the ones for these trades are amazing. Getting Jim Lee and John Cassaday to do these covers is ingenious because they might help bring in new readers, but also because the original series covers are pretty insane. I mean, just look at them. These might be the most surreal, difficult-to-describe covers I’ve ever seen. It’s actually kind of shocking that they were used to try and sell a book back in the day.

Digital Trade Post: Marvel Masterworks Thor Vol. 1

marvel masterworks  thor 1 Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 1 (Marvel)
Written by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber, drawn by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Al Hartley & Joe Sinnott
Collects Journey Into Mystery #83-90

I’ve had a Comixology account for a few years now, but I didn’t do much with it until this year. Part of that has to do with the fact that I started using my (now broken) Kindle Fire a lot more and partly because I discovered they do a lot of great sales. One such sale offered the very first Thor stories collected in the Marvel Masterworks format for something like $5.

Thor’s not a characters I have a ton of experience with and that’s exactly why I went with his origins. I’ve found that, just by being a longtime comic fan — 22 years now — I have seen a lot of the big superhero origins over and over again. Plus, many of the stories that followed were referenced and pulled from in later years which means that actually going back to the source material can be a little boring because you know what’s happening almost beat for beat.

That was not the case with the first Thor Masterworks, thankfully. Like I said, I’m not overly familiar with the character’s many years of comics that came after his introduction in 1962. I do have a stack of Thor comics from the 70s and 80s that I tried reading through, but got really sick of what felt like an inevitable reveal that Loki was behind whatever troubles his half brother were going through at the time. Most of my experience with the character comes from his appearances in Avengers.

Anyway, these issues are actually pretty fun because I had very little idea what was going to happen in them. Sure, they’re quintessentially Silver Age-y and Loki pops up twice, but that’s to be expected. Thor also throws down with stony aliens (one of which is Korg from Planet Hulk!), travels through time, fights mobsters and topples despotic dictators.

I was surprised by several elements of the Thor mythology found in these early days. First off, when Don Blake taps the walking stick he only seems to turn into Thor physically. Sure, in that form he has more knowledge of Asgard and whatnot, but he never seemed like a different person, which is how I understood this relationship previously. I also thought it was charming how specific the rules are for Thor’s abilities. If he’s separated from Mjolnir for more than 60 seconds, he turns back into Don. There is also a very specific correlation between how many times the hammer taps the ground and what it can do. One turns him back into Blake, two creates a storm, three  stops the storm and four makes lightning.

The complete lack of other Marvel superheroes was also surprising. One of the things you always hear about this era of Marvel comics is how connected they are, but, if memory serves, this book had none of that. Finally, I was surprised with how big of a jerk Jane Foster is. Whenever she’s on the page, she’s either pining for Thor or calling her boss, Don Blake lame. Ouch.

One thing I was specifically excited about when it came to this book was seeing Jack Kirby draw some of the weird and wild elements of this book, especially after enjoying his DC work like the Fourth World books, The Demon, The Losers and OMAC. But, this is a very different Kirby. You can see what he would grow into, but these aren’t the big, bold figures you might be expecting if you’re going in reverse chronological order like I am. Also, you can really tell when someone else is pencilling. That last issue in the collection by Al Hartley looks pretty bad.

As far as digital reading experiences, I’ve got to say that this one was pretty great. For one thing, these Masterworks volumes are recolored, so they look great on a digital screen. Also, thanks to the fairly standard rectangular pane;s of these issues, they are easy to read when going through panel mode even on a phone, which is how I read most of this book. I really started reading this book when my son was in the NICU after being born almost two months early and then next to my little girl while she fell asleep so it was basically the perfect reading experience given those circumstances: fan, light stories that helped build a shared fictional universe I’m quite fond of. My only complaint? It’s a much bigger pain trying to find a page in digital format than it is just by flipping through. Laying down those four Mjolnir rules was not the funnest thing in the world.

Q: The Winged Serpent Is Awesome

Q The Winged Serpent Last fall a buddy of mine sent a few Blu-rays he got through his work my way. I’m always super appreciative when people do nice things like this because, unless I hit a really good sale, I’m probably not going to get my hands on a great many things. In that package was a little movie called Q: The Winged Serpent directed by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) and starring Michael Moriarty (Troll), Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and David Carradine (Kill Bill). I was sold solely on Moriarty’s involvement who I had just seen in The Stuff and, as it just so happens, that film was also directed by Cohen, so I guess they bring out the best in each other because I love both of these movies, like hard.

Here’s the basics, as best I can remember them. People in New York City are dying and going missing. The police don’t know why, but it’s because there’s a giant flying monster eating them. Moriarty plays a wheelman dragged into pulling a jewelry heist that goes south. On the run, he winds up in the top Chrysler Building  which just so happens to be the monster’s nest. Meawhile detectives played by Roundtree and Carradine are trying to figure out what’s going on. In the process, Carradine becomes convinced that it’s not only a big monster, but also the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl.

One of the many elements I love about this film is the fact that Moriarty’s character is so important to how this story plays out. This isn’t the story of a down on his luck hero finding the threat to the city and bringing it to the attention of the authorities. Instead, Moriarty uses the monster to take care of two guys trying to shake him down and he only tells anyone in the local government about what’s going on until after he’s made a deal to get a huge pile of money and pardons for all crimes, even the ones the NYPD might not know about (a “Nixon-like pardon” he says). Since he’s a sneaky, shifty dude, the movie goes places it wouldn’t if this were a more typical Hollywood tale.

For his part, Moriarty really carries this movie. He pulls off this oddly alluring synthesis of charming, down-on-his-luck and  bad that works so damn well. You might like him because he can play the piano so causally, but then you hate how he treats his long-suffering girlfriend. Then, at just the right point, he reveals a piece of his personal history that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but might explain it. That’s another major plus for this film, Cohen reveals bits and pieces of Moriarty’s character when they’re necessary, not before. In that way, it’s a really great example of delving out information at just the right time.

It might sound like I’m going overboard about this strange monster movie from the early 80s and maybe I am, but I still think it’s got a lot of greatness held within. However, it’s not perfect. The special effects don’t look so hot these days. From animated shadows to poorly composited images, there’s a lot for the modern eye to pick apart, but for me that was all part of the film’s charm. It did the best it could at the time and probably looked pretty darn impressive in 1982. I thought the actual Q monster looked pretty solid when it was on screen and there were plenty of dizzying aerial shots of NYC (maybe too many) that acted as monster perspective shots.

Now that I think about it, I think I might like this movie because it’s a combination of two of my favorite films without directly ripping them off. On one hand, all the perspective stuff reflect’s John Carpenter’s Halloween where he puts us in the killer’s perspective for chunks of time. Since we’re dealing with POV on a completely different level, it doesn’t feel like a direct lift. On the other hand, there’s a lot of “you don’t get to see the monster JUST yet” elements taken from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Around the time I watched Q, I heard a lot of people saying that the latest Godzilla  was like Jaws in the city, but it’s a dynamic that worked well given the setting and time of this film.

Also, like both of those admittedly much better films, Q also makes the locale a huge part of the film. Cohen and company made such good use of the Big Apple that it practically oozes all over ever frame. Obviously, the Chrysler Building plays a huge part in the proceedings, though how accurate the film is or whether they actually filmed inside, I don’t know, but those swooping arial shots also firmly cement the fact that we’re dealing with NYC. There’s even a scene shot at Columbia which I only knew because I’m familiar with another film that made such good use of New York City, Ghostbusters.

At the end of the day, Q: The Winged Serpent benefits from a great many positive notes. Moriarty is stellar, Carradine and Roundtree are great, the setting is perfect, the story works specifically because of the characters involved, the monster looks pretty good and presents a definitely threat and it’s got a pretty well thought out mythology. For all those reasons and more, I fully recommend checking this movie out.

Book Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2006)

nick and norah's infinite playlist

I’ve been pretty scattershot with my book reading choices these days. I’ve given up on the pre-planned Ambitious Reading Lists this year and have just been grabbing things willy nilly from the ol’ to-read pile and my growing collection of Kindle ebooks. In the case of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which I’ve had in a bin for three or four years, it jumped to the front of the pack for one simple reason: it’s short.

Back in 2009, my wife and I checked out the film based on this book co-written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. I dug it and when I saw a copy of the novel on sale for a few bucks, snatched it up. But, I knew nothing about it going in, so the fact that the book is actually split between two POVs was a surprise. Basically, Nick gets a chapter, then Norah gets one written by Levithan then Cohn respectively.

The story itself finds Nick, a bass player in a band playing in New York City, asking a stranger to be his pretend girlfriend for five minutes so his ex won’t think he’s a lonely loser. As it happens, the girl is none other than Norah, a young woman who’s also recently broken up and trying to figure her life out. The two weave in and out of each others’ lives for the rest of a long NYC night filled with bands, secondary characters, exes, cab rides, burlesque nuns, Yugos and failed sexual advances as told by the two primary members of this burgeoning couple.

I really enjoyed the back and forth nature of this book and how it relates to relationships. From a writing perspective, it was nice to see each writer give the character such a unique and personal-feeling voice even if Norah gets a little Juno-y at times. But the approach also works well from a storytelling perspective. Obviously, in the real world, you only have your own experiences to go on, so it’s fun in fiction to explore this kind of story where you’re living the same events through two different, very articulate brains. While the movie got more into the adventure of the night by way of finding their favorite band Where’s Fluffy? and a few other devices, this one just gets into their heads and rides out the evening.

Aside from the dual narration and dual authorship, I was surprised by how graphic the book is. I wouldn’t say it’s lude or anything like that, but it’s filled with F bombs and a wide spectrum of sex talk. I wasn’t offended by any of this, mind you, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a young adult book. Then again, I’ve had very little experience in that realm since I stopped reading Christopher Pike books.

I was also surprised with how the movie informed my reading of this book and at times worked against me. The filmmakers nailed it when they hired Kat Dennings. My mental concept of the actress perfectly reflected this character in my mind. In fact, her 2 Broke Girls character seems even more in line with Norah than my memory of the film. But, Michael Cera as Nick just wasn’t working for my brain. He’s described as tall, dark haired, disheveled and kind of muscular. It wasn’t until I finished the book that an actor really came into play in my head to fill the Nick role: a young, lean Jason Segel with the intensity he brought to the role of Nick on Freaks and GeeksOddly, when Norah’s ex Taj came into the picture, I was kept thinking of Superbad-era Martin Starr because I thought he played the part in the film, but it was really Jay Baruchel.  

Anyway, I not only enjoyed the tale told within the pages of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but also appreciate the reading momentum it gave me. It seems like I start and lose interest in books pretty quickly, even if it’s something I really want to read by a favorite author, but finishing a book always makes me want to read another. I’m hoping I can ride this wave back into Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and finish that sometime this month. We’ll see though, I’m always getting distracted by something whether it be a trade or Candy Crush.

Comics, Comics, Comics, Comics: Gen 13 By John Arcudi & Gary Frank

Gen 13 26 On several different occasions (including this one) I’ve talked about how much I dug Gen 13 in the 90s. Every ten years or so there’s a teen superhero comic that kids of that era really gravitate to. For me it was Gen 13. I started reading the book somewhere in the teens and made it my mission to track down all of the accompanying issues, crossovers, spinoffs, one-shots and first appearances. I actually did a pretty good job and have close to a complete set from their first appearance up to Claremont’ run.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read OG Gen 13 comics though. When it comes to youthful favorites I often wonder if my adult self will enjoy the material as much as my younger self did. In this case I’m not so sure how things will hold up, but there was one run I decided to try again when we went to my parents’ house for Christmas: Gen 13 #25-41 written by John Arcudi and drawn by Gary Frank, two of my favorite creators these days.

The Arcudi/Frank stuff really starts in a back-up story in #25 so that’s where I began re-reading. The gang — superstrong Caitlin Fairchild, weather manipulator Sarah Rainmaker, firestarter Bobby “Burnout” Lane, gravity controller Roxy and  molecular bonder Grunge — are supposed to be lying low in NYC especially after their leader Mr. Lynch has been framed as a terrorist by the media and I/O leader Ivana. While I’m not 100% on what all went on in the 24 issues leading up to #25, it had something to do with part of the team going to space and Caitlin meeting a deranged version of their mentor and team leader John Lynch. Coming back, she can’t completely trust him because the crazy version didn’t seem all that different than the man she knows. After running into a fellow Gen Active who has a history with Lynch and fighting a mad scientist power-sucker named Tindalos, they head to the Florida Keys to lie even lower for a while.

Gen 13 33In the Keys their adventures seem a bit more mundane but still include local conspiracy theorists, the return of Caitlin’s dad Alex, half the team running into another mad scientist who turned into a giant baby (see: right) and a quick trip back to New York by Roxy and Sarah so the former could meet with her step mom and the latter can try and find a woman she briefly met and became smitten with. All of this leads to a pretty bonkers confrontation with Tindalos and an attack that not everyone survives.

I vaguely remember this arc when it was happening and thinking it was kind of weird and slow. That’s an opinion that was shared by some of my fellow readers who wrote letters to that effect. But, like many of them, I found this arc to be incredibly engaging this time around. Sure, it lacks the on-the-run, constantly-in-danger antics of the previous 25 or so issues, but there is just so much going on here on a character level. Caitlin has to deal with her feelings about Lynch, Lynch needs some time away, Alex comes in and starts leading the team, Roxy discovers that her step mom is actually her birth mother AND that Alex is her dad. To a lesser extent, Sarah tries to combat her loneliness and find a lost potential-love. Grunge and Bobby don’t go through as much, but that’s alright. If everyone was having some kind of crisis, it would be exhausting.

Plus, Arcudi really made this whole thing feel like an arc. Characters learn things about themselves and each other, they deal with those revelations and by the end, most of them are different, especially Caitlin. And, while the wrap-up seemed to come a bit faster than originally intended (those last three issues cut back and forth a lot to the point where I’m still not exactly sure what happened), I still think as a whole these issues tell a complete larger story that feels satisfying at the end of it.

Did I mention how much I love Gary Frank’s art? Because I loooooooove Gary Frank’s art. I first saw his work on Midnight Nation and then a few other books that have all been a visual treat including his awesome run on Action Comics with Geoff Johns. He has such a clear, crisp style that mixes the big time superhero stuff we all know and love with the facial expressions of a Kevin Maguire or Steve Dillon. Heck, Cassidy from Preacher even shows up in a panel at one point!

gen 13 41

After reading this run again, I’m actually pretty excited to go back and read the rest of the books in my Gen 13 collection. I remember some really fun arcs, runs and one-shots in there that should be a treat to go back to. While I don’t think all of them will be as good or solid as this run, I think there will definitely be some fun nostalgia moments.

I also realized that this run will be a good candidate for binding. At 17 issues, it’s pretty much the perfect size. But, the real question becomes whether I want to bind my entire collection. If that is the case, I might have to take a closer look and figure out the best way to do so. Before this arc you’ve got 24 issues, plus the various first appearances and the original Gen 13 miniseries, so I’m just not sure how it will all shake out until I get my collection back together in one place. Maybe I’ll pick a mini or a few one-shots from this era to round things out.