My New Favorite Things: Paper Girls, Greydon Clark & Box 13

favorite-things-paper-girls-hi-rider-box-13I’ve had a lot of good luck when it comes to entertainment choices lately and wanted to talk about them all in one place! First, let’s talk about comics. In addition to reading a ton of Guardians of the Galaxy and monster comics for Marvel.com I’ve also been going back through the 90s Aquaman series (which will get a post of its own soon) and also the first two volumes of Paper Girls from Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Image Comics. Continue reading My New Favorite Things: Paper Girls, Greydon Clark & Box 13

A Feast Of Friday The 13th Frights!

abbott and costello meet frankensteinI was looking at the calendar last week and realized that there wouldn’t be another Friday the 13th until November. I celebrated last month’s by watching Funhouse and The Shortcut, but wanted to go all out for this one. So, here are a review I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks along with a few new ones! Continue reading A Feast Of Friday The 13th Frights!

Trade Post: Pistolwhip & Pistolwhip The Yellow Menace

pistolwhip Pistolwhip (Top Shelf)
By Matt Kindt & Jason Hall
OGN

Do you ever read a book or group of books and fall hard in love with them, but aren’t sure if you can quite put into words why? That’s what I’m feeling after reading the three Pistolwhip books by Matt Kindt and Jason Hall. I picked all three up during one of Top Shelf’s fantastic sales after discovering Kindt’s work by way of the excellent Super Spy. I knew nothing about them but figured I’d give them a shot. I actually read Mephisto And The Empty Box not too long ago, but had to give it another read after diving so deep into Pistolwhip and Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace.

Pistolwhip stars a bellhop-turned-PI of the same name who gets embroiled in a complicated and complex whodunit that starts with a shooting and then goes on to explain how each character involved got there and where they went afterwards. Each chapter of the book is told from the same perspective of a different character who was in the room, which nearly all of them interacting with secondary or tertiary characters from the other story. What winds up happening is that you really feel like you’re steeped in this world set in a big city in the 30s or 40s.

I had to flip back through this book to remind myself what happened, but I don’t mean that as a check in the negative column. On the contrary, this book does so much in its 120 pages that I felt like I was put on the tracks and rocketed forward in this roller coaster of a mystery-thriller. As such, I grabbed on to whatever I could, but kept moving forward to find out what was going on. It’s similar to something like The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs — two of my favorite movies — in that sense. And, like those movies, I want to return to Pistolwhip again and again to see what else I can absorb.

The only downside to that style of storytelling (or more accurately, my reading of it, because I choose the speed of a comic) added to the loose, cartoony style of the artwork, is that I was definitely confused in the beginning of the story about who I was following and when. I got it eventually, but that’s not something you have to deal with in a film, usually.

pistolwhip the yellow menace

Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace (Top Shelf)
By Matt Kindt & Jason Hall
OGN

The follow-up book Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace crafts a similarly complex story, but does it in a different way with a whole different thrust. This time around, someone’s committing crimes under the name of the Yellow Menace, the villain on a very popular radio program a a la The Shadow. At the same time the show’s hero Jack Peril has also decided to become a real person and is trying to take down his nemesis. The story becomes a double sided mystery, on one hand Pistolwhip is trying to figure out who the Yellow Menace is and also who Jack Peril really is.

What really impressed me most about Yellow Menace is not only that it keeps the same high quality as the previous volume, but also weaves a similar tale with a completely different end result. I also want to mention Mephisto once again. That is a completely self-contained tale that can be read on its own and also does not need to be read to enjoy either of these books. However, the box does appear at one point in one of the books, so there’s a definitely connection. Even though I’d read that smaller volume not too long before, I still immediately dug it out and gave it another read so I could absorb the full Pistolwhip world. I recommend doing exactly that if you’re going to read these books: catch ’em all Pokemon style, then read them as quickly as you can. You’ll need to go back and catch up a bit, but you’ll also really take in all the small interconnected details (at least that’s how I work).

I also want to take a paragraph and talk a bit about something I tend to overlook and that’s book design. As you can see from the image, the front cover of the first volume is actually a great high-res image of an old timey radio. Parts and schematics can be found inside. Heck, even the back cover looks like an old radio complete with stickers, stamps and notes that aren’t just thoughtful re-creations. The second volume goes a different direction but still offers a really great set of covers that I spent a good deal of time checking out.

Friday Fisticuffs: The Green Hornet (2011)

I had zero expectations for The Green Hornet. I was intrigued by Seth Rogen’s attempt to be an action star as well as Michel Gondry’s involvement, but it wasn’t the kind of course material that I’m either familiar with or nostalgic about. I questioned what the point of bringing back a character that hasn’t been in the spotlight for 40 years and assuming he’d have any kind of cache with audiences. But hey, that’s what Hollywood does.

We’ve actually had this DVD sitting around from Netflix for longer than I care to admit (or can remember, but it’s been awhile). Originally the missus and I were going to watch it, but with more and more passing weeks and our recent downgrade from two discs at a time to one, I wanted to get some new blood in my player.

Oh man, did I have fun with this flick. For some reason, I had assumed that Rogen’s Britt Reid was actually some kind of legacy, that he was picking up the Green Hornet mantle from his father who had passed away, but that’s not the case. Reid’s dad does die, but he wasn’t GH. After a day of hanging out with his father’s mechanic/genius/martial arts expert Kato, Britt and him wind up doing something stupid that leads to them becoming heroes. From there it’s a matter of Reid’s fortune supplying Kato with what he needs to build their supercar the Black Beauty and come up with the Hornet’s gas gun.

I know there have been several movies lately about what it would be like for a real person to become a hero, but I haven’t seen them. I refuse to watch Kick Ass and just haven’t gotten around to seeing the others. I know from reviews and source material that they focus on the potential hero getting the ever loving shit kicked out of them before they get to be worthwhile protectors of peace and justice. I’m glad they skipped over most of that stuff with this movie. Kato’s got the Green Hornet’s back, so you don’t really have to worry about him for the most part. There’s a few close calls, but overall Reid handles himself alright. There are real life like events, like a few killings, that reflect the seriousness of the situation, but overall, Rogen’s quips keep things light and had me laughing a lot. It did seem like a lot of them were ADRed in which got to be a little distracting and reminded me of Patton Oswalt’s routine about writing jokes for movies that had already been written.

But that’s a minor problem and one that you only really notice if you watch too many movies like me. The real question from a Friday Fisticuffs perspective is: how were the fights? Pretty cool. I know there was some hesitation online about Gondry’s way of showing how fast Kato moves and thinks (it was called something, but I can’t remember what), but I thought it came off pretty cool looking if not very video gamey. He essentially scans the entire area, notes weapons and sometimes targets in red and then does a series of moves to take them all out. There’s also a kind of stretching effect here and there that reminds me of some of the effects used in Flash comics. Had it been overused, the effect would have quickly become annoying, but Gondry used it sparingly, so it was fun to watch. Plus, Jay Chou’s got pretty good moves for a pop star.

There weren’t that many hand to hand fights, but the ones that were, using Gondry’s method were a lot of fun to watch. You don’t often see people thinking of new ways to actually show fights and it’s a heck of a lot better than that quick-cutting, hand held camera work that has become so popular. The other action scenes were pretty great, especially the huge epic fight that lead into a chase and then into yet another fight at the very end.

Overall, I’d recommend The Green Hornet to pretty much anyone. There’s enough comedy in there to keep non-action fans entertained as well as something of a love story. The movie also did something that I didn’t think was possible: made me more interested in the Green Hornet. I kinda want to check out the original old time radio show as well as the TV series (though Bruce Lee’s involvement as always intrigued me) and even the Kevin Smith comic based on the screenplay he wrote a while back. So, I guess the movie did it’s job. Well, it could have done better at the box office, but it did it’s artistic job by being entertaining, fun, innovative and intriguing.

Book Review: Sunday Nights At Seven The Jack Benny Story By Jack and Joan Benny

I’ve talked about my love of Old Time Radio before, but I figure I’ll repeat myself. When I was younger, I had trouble falling asleep. It’s something I still have trouble with on the rare occasion I need to go to bed earlier than normal (between 1 and 2AM nowadays). I don’t exactly remember how the OTR tapes made their way into my family’s life, though I do remember my dad copying some that my grandma had, so maybe that’s where it all started. I was exposed to a wide variety of comedy shows from the 30s and 40s from Burns & Allen, Abbott & Costello, Duffy’s Tavern, Baby Snooks, The Bickersons and most importantly The Jack Benny Program. I’m not exactly sure what made Jack Benny my favorite, but I’m sure it had something to do with the mixture of spot on comedy with fanciful elements like Jack’s pet polar bear or his ginormous underground bank vault, but whatever the reason, I almost wore the Benny tapes out.

Essentially, The Jack Benny Program was a back-stage type show. The character of Jack Benny–who was played by Jack Benny–was a miserly skinflint who starred on his own radio show. Sometimes, they’d put on plays on said show and sometimes it would go “behind the scenes” to Jack’s home and experiences with other celebrities. Every episode was sponsored by a big company like Jello-O or Lucky Strike cigarettes, featured a group of other characters/actors, an orchestra lead by Phil Harris and a song sung by a tenor (Dennis Day or Kenny Baker, depending on when you listened). I remember doing some research about Benny on the internet back in the day and even buying some MP3 DVDs of his shows (that no longer work for some reason) in college, but that was about it. Until a few months back when, on a trip to New Hampshire, I stumbled up Sunday Nights At Seven, the 1990 double autobiography written by Jack Benny and his daughter Joan. It’s a book I had read about in my early internet research and always been curious about but since it was published in 1990 and Benny’s been dead since 1974 it’s not the easiest book to find nor the most popular.

When I bought the book, I assumed that it would have been co-written by the pair around the same time, but what really happened was that Joan–Benny’s only daughter–found a draft of her dad’s autobio when she was cleaning out a house. She then added her own words to help frame things, but also give her perspective on what was going on. This format was interesting because of the different perspectives. Jack was remembering things one way while his daughter was remembering them as a kid. Though it might have been interested, I definitely found myself getting a little bored when Joan took over. I mean, she’s a good writer and had some interesting stories, but I wanted more Jack. It’s kind of like paying to see Walk The Line, but having half the movie focus on Roseanne Cash. Again, there’s some interesting tidbits in there and would have made it’s own interesting story, but in the first few pages she talks about Jack writing a 400 page book and then takes over for pages and pages.

One of the worrisome things when reading a book about a celebrity you really like is finding out about their unlikeable qualities. Thankfully, it turned out that the real Jack Benny was a nice, solid guy who was generous with his time and money, but also spent a lot of time thinking about comedy. He goes into detail about how sound effects were used to great effect back in the golden age of radio. He told great stories about his co-stars and the people who worked on the show, including Mel Blanc. Everyone comes out pretty clean. Except Mary Livingston, Jack’s wife and a character on the show (they weren’t married on the show). Jack doesn’t have a bad thing to say about the woman with the wonderful giggle and great, natural timing, but Joan does. It turns out that Mary was very worried about her place in society and was very cold to Joan growing up, not quite Mommy Dearest territory, but it didn’t sound like a great house to grow up in.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed reading about a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Several actually as the book covers vaudeville, radio, early television and the golden age of Hollywood. I’m a sucker for that stuff and love reading about a person I like being likable. My problem is that I’m told about a 400 page Jack Benny autobiography and I don’t get it. It also seemed like Jack didn’t really get into detail on things. I don’t know if those were pages left on the cutting room floor or if he just didn’t dive in, but things like his feud with Fred Allen are merely mentioned and not really delved into. It was also strange that early tenor Kenny Baker wasn’t mentioned once in the book. The tapes I had as a kid almost all featured Baker singing the songs. I know that’s a very small section of the much longer run of the show, so my perspective is skewed, but it seemed strange that he wasn’t mentioned at all.

Overall it’s an interesting look at a life through two sets of eyes, but doesn’t really get into as much detail as I would have liked. I’m glad I read it and will be keeping it on my shelf, but I would still like to see that unedited autobiography that Jack Benny wrote. Maybe someday.

Christmas Stories: Listening To The Jack Benny Program

I want to paint you a bit of a picture of my childhood. My room, throughout most of my growing up period, used to be the dormer of our house which means it had these sloping walls. The middle of the room, from door to wall (which also held a window) was regular height, but on both sides from there, the walls angled down to about three feet tall. Being short that aspect of the room rarely gave me trouble. In fact, the sloping walls were perfect for sky lights, which is exactly what my parents installed in the conversion process from dormer to bedroom and my bed was often directly under one of them.

When I was a kid, I had trouble falling asleep and at some point in my youthful days, my dad introduced me to old time radio. He had a set of tapes which I had access to and then, after a while, I wound up having my own tapes. I had classics like Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen and Amos & Andy, but my favorite became The Jack Benny Program. For those of you who might not know, before TV came around, folks got their entertainment through the radio. Some soap operas that are still on now got their start in radio as did a few news shows, I believe. Like TV now, there were all kinds of shows from comedy and mystery to romance and science fiction. Shows were aimed and kids (like Ralphie listening to Little Orphan Annie in A Christmas Story) and adults and both, but I found myself drawn mostly to the comedies. I would up with a whole brief case-looking case of tapes that were all old time radio. I have very distinct Christmas memories of lying in my bed, with one strand of Christmas lights thrown around the window to my right along with one of those plastic light-up Santas and a ceramic Christmas tree with lights that my grandma made and listening to Jack Benny as I fell asleep. I rarely made my way through an entire half hour episode, so I became kind of an expert in the first 15-20 minutes of those episodes.  In college I found a website that sold DVDs of the old time radio with tons and tons of shows on them. Most of those discs don’t work on my computer now, but I was able to salvage two of the shows that happened to be on those tapes I used to have. Every now and then I’ll put on the story of how Jack Benny dealt with getting a polar bear named Carmichael and even though it might sound ridiculous, I’m transported right back to those days in my old room with the only light coming from Christmas decorations and the stars above me. I can still recite the shows verbatim, but only up to a certain point because, even now, I have a tendency to fall asleep before the show’s end. Listening to those two episodes while driving around in the craziness that is pre-Christmas traffic not only brought a huge smile to my face, but also made some of the awful driving of my fellow New Yorkers not so bad. I had a good time writing about this and think I might dig out some of those tapes when I’m home and write more about old time radio and my interactions with it.

Book Vs. Radio Play Vs. Movie Vs. Comic Vs. Movie: War Of The Worlds

This post has been a long time coming. After reading and not particularly enjoying H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, I decided to go on and listen to the radio play again, watch both the 1953 and 2005 movie versions and read Alan Moore’s interpretation of the adventure using his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the second volume of that book. I listened to the play again online, watched the first movie and read the trade within a pretty short amount of time, but then got hung up on watching the latest movie for timing reasons.

To sum up my previous post, I thought WOTW (first published in 1898) was an interesting book that based an alien invasion story around the technology and military practices of the time. Overall, the way the story was told (almost completely in first person recollection–like a journal–with almost no dialog) sapped a lot of the tension right out of the proceedings. Hell, you know he survives because he’s writing the book you’re supposedly reading. The basic idea of the book is that our white collar main character sees something fall from the sky that turns out to be a Martian. These head-like aliens with giant eyes and tentacles shot here in cylinders, built huge tripods, walked around in them destroying things with heat rays and green death fog only to be SPOILER brought down by Earth germs. Without spoiling too much, I enjoyed every other version of this story more than the original text.As I mentioned in the post about the book, I was fascinated by the 1938 radio play version of the story orchestrated by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater (you can listen to it here if you’re interested). It was done on Halloween that year and–this is the part that blows me away–some people thought it was real! This might seem ridiculous, especially considering the opening, intermission and very end make it very clear you’re listening to fiction, but just imagine how many times you’ve tuned into a TV show a few minutes after the start. The way the story was presented to people back then was basically the same as a mockumentary now. A live concert was interrupted, first by reports of strange streaks in the sky and later by a full-on report from New Jersey where one of the pods landed. There’s even a great moment early on when they interview a guy who was just driving around listening to the radio program that we are listening to. He says he was getting bored and dozing because it was boring!

Even though this thing was done almost 75 years ago, it still felt thrilling and spot on from a news standpoint. Even though I’d heard it before a bunch of times, I was excited to hear what was going on. It’s kind of like watching Jaws or Halloween again. I know what’s happening but I love the ride. I’m also really impressed that it still feels like a modern up-to-the-minute news story. It reminded me of seeing the events of 9/11 unrolling when I was in college. You have no idea what’s going on except for a few things you’re hearing/seeing and you’re trying to put the pieces together. And, man, it just feels hopeless at times. How are these people going to defeat these giant monsters they can’t seem to even touch?

Compared to the book, the radio play is far more exciting. They use the same basic story structure, but the inclusion of New Jersey and New York City as locations and more common language make it easier to follow. By this time, the language of sci-fi was more established, so it’s easier to explain what’s going on. We also see some straight-up sections taken from the book mostly after the intermission with the narrator explaining what’s going on. The character of the infantryman showing up and giving his spiel about sneaking around and building up a resistance to fight the aliens. And, of course, the story ends with our hero realizing the aliens have died from Earth germs. The 1953 version of War Of The Worlds is considered a sci-fi classic. I had no idea, but I can see why after watching the movie. It’s a very 50s flick with nearly everything shot on backlots (I know this might look corny to some people, but I love the look of studio lot movies like Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). This time around, our hero meets up with a girl and winds up getting stuck in a house with her (like the hero in the book was, but he was with an annoying guy). I thought this change in dynamic was interesting and offered some different elements that I enjoyed. There’s also a really intense scene where one of the Martians sticks an eyed tentacle into the house and the couple have to avoid it for fear of being killed.

Another new element that you can see on the above poster is that, instead of riding around in tripods, these aliens use flying ships (which were actually mentioned as potential transport for the Martians in the book). The effects look amazing–especially when you see an actual Martian’s hand–and there’s an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that I got from Netflix that goes through and shows how they did a lot of the practical effects for the movie (fun fact: Ray Harryhausen shot test footage because he wanted to do the movie, but it went to someone else).

Again, compared to the book, this is a much more engaging journey right off the bat. Four minutes in and I was jazzed about the story and wanted to see what was going to happen. One interesting thing is that, in the very beginning, they actually show Mars and then the other planets, explaining why they wouldn’t work for the Martians (which is interesting because at the end of the book, we’re told another planet would work, I think it was Venus, but scientifically speaking that’s nonsense). Anyway, they use more science than Wells had access to, but it’s funny to see a drawing of Earth from space instead of a picture, because, well, we hadn’t been to space yet.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should do yourself a favor and rent or just buy this bad boy. The movie is awesome, but it’s also jam packed with extras. You’ve got the FX thing I already mentioned, plus interviews with the surviving cast members, especially the female lead who knew a LOT about what was going on with the making of the film. The most interesting aspect though, was a featurette which compared Wells with the other godfather of sci-fi Jules Verne. Apparently Verne didn’t like Wells because Verne took the time to do the science and Wells just made stuff up that doesn’t make a lot of sense (like the seemingly nonsense Martian biology his narrator describes). Oh, they also have the full radio show on the DVD too, if you don’t want to listen to it on your computer. Aside from the radio play, the second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the other version of War of the Worlds I’d experienced before. There’s a lot more going on in these issues that originally came out between 2002 and 2003 from Wildstorm imprint America’s Best Comics, including a visit to Dr. Moreau (as in The Island Of) and a pair of confrontations between members, one romantical, the other super duper gross and bloody. But, the overall thrust of the story involves Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man doing what they can to stop the Martian invasion (Moore went with the traditional tripod designs for the Martian walkers as you might expect from the master of detail).

LOEG is not only one of my favorite concepts (Expendables is basically the LOEG of action stars!) but also one of my all-time favorite comics. I even did a big paper comparing the characters in the comic to the characters in the original books back when I was in college, though it was confined to just the first volume because otherwise, I would have gone insane. Anyway, what I like most about Moore’s take on the story is that humanity actually gets to do something more than fumble around until germs kill the Martians. If you haven’t read this trade yet (what are you waiting for?) this is SPOILER territory. Not only does Hyde fight one with his bare hands, but the trip to Moreau is to get a bioweapon mixing anthrax and streptococcus that they fire at the aliens to take them out. YEAH! Humanity FINALLY got to do something instead of knocking a few tripods down with rockets or whatever. The final entry in the post comes down to 2005’s War of the Worlds flick directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and even cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson who were the leads in the 1953 flick! This time around Cruise stars as a divorcee who doesn’t have the best relationship with his son and daughter (Fanning). He’s got them for the weekend when the aliens start their invasion and goes on a tour of the east coast trying to keep them safe. Spielberg incorporates elements from all the previous official renditions mentioned above including paraphrases or direct quotes from the radio play, book and 1953 movie along with a few scenes from the previous movie. This time, instead of arriving in cylinders, the war machines were supposedly buried on Earth years ago (before roads were built) and a lightning bolt somehow brought the aliens down from Mars into the robots while also taking out communications and machines with an electromagnetic pulse. I understand why they changed this: modern humans wouldn’t wait around for an alien to build a craft in a hole. But, it just feels kind of strange and goes back to one of the problems with Wells’ original: some of the science doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway, the aliens once again ride tripods, feed off of humans and destroy lots and lots of things and people with their heat rays. Cruise–the luckiest man in the world as everyone around him gets zapped to death and he almost never gets grabbed by the aliens unless he wants to–gets home, gets his kids and they make a break for it. Once again, even though I knew how the story would end, I was still really drawn into the story thanks to the obstacles Spielberg put between Cruise’s family and safety.

Back when this movie first came out I wasn’t very interested because of Cruise’s real-life craziness, but I actually liked him in the movie, partly because his character is kind of a crazy asshole. It’s like watching Nic Cage’s enjoyable movies like National Treasure instead of the ones where he’s trying to be serious (Bangkok Dangerous SUCKED). I had a lot of fun with the movie, but once again, it ends with people discovering Earth germs kill Martians, though there are a couple scenes where humanity takes a few of them down, which is nice. Again, even knowing the ending, I was just waiting to see how things would end (aside from the germs).

After reading the book I thought “Well, I don’t like this version, but the story has a lot of potential.” Clearly that’s correct, though I’m not sure how much more it might have. Frankly, the fact that humans don’t get to actually do anything, makes for a less-than-stellar story. I know that the meat of the remakes have been about the perseverance of the human spirit in the most daunting and adverse situations, but with the same ending every time (minus LOEG Vol. 2) it gets kind of neutered. In the end, I think I’m all set on War of the Worlds remakes and reinterpretations, unless they can recreate the real life panic started by the radio show. THAT would be interesting.