Thursday, September 24, 2009

Comics Reviews

All-Star Superman, Volumes 1 & 2 – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

There’s a whole lot to like in All-Star Superman. Writer Grant Morrison essentially distills decades of Superman lore into a 12-part series (collected here in two volumes). The story begins as Superman exposes himself to a lethal dose of solar radiation and soon realizes he has only a short time to live. He decides to tie-up various loose ends in his life: We see a dramatic confession to Lois Lane, a visit to (and from) the Bizarro world, multiple encounters with Lex Luthor, a reminiscence in Smallville, and various other story bits from the Super-universe. Morrison doesn’t cheat with his “Superman is dying story” either; he provides an elegant and moving resolution that is quite effective. There are many great moments in the series—some large and super-heroic, others small and tender—all exquisitely rendered by artist Frank Quitley and colorist/inker Jamie Grant. This is a beautiful comic to read and to look at.
All-Star Superman is a self-contained tale with a satisfying over-all arc. But there is a fractured nature to Morrison’s writing style that can be disorienting. Morrison deliberately elides in his telling—skipping over or leaving out crucial parts of the plot, assuming readers will fill in the blanks. I read All-Star Superman pretty fast and will admit to getting tripped up by the story in a few places. Clearly a closer read (or re-read) is required to get everything out of the book.

All quibbles aside, Morrison has written what is probably the best Superman story ever. And his greatest accomplishment here is that he finds a perfect balance between the alien and human qualities of the character. Let’s face it: Superman’s “super-ness” can, at times, make him distant and affectless. After all, how does one relate to a character who is essentially a god? Through the impending death scenario and elegiac tone to the story, Morrison has found a way. He succeeds at making Superman sympathetic and relevant while still maintaining an alien aspect to the character. (In the end, despite all his trials and sacrifices, we never fully know who or what Superman is.) In All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison restores mystery and possibility to one of the best known characters in comics. That’s no easy feat. In fact, it sounds like job for . . . (well, you get it).

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: “Days Gone By” – Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore

I heard good things about this comic so I thought I’d give it a try. Alas, despite its zombie premise, the story was lacking. Writer Kirkman chooses to focus on his characters and their responses to disaster and tragedy rather than re-visit tired old horror tropes. That’s fine, but if Kirkman’s ambition is to transcend the zombie story he has more work to do. The story, about police officer Rick Grimes and the small band of survivors with whom he joins (after a sudden mass zombie attack) relies on interpersonal conflict and character introspection to fuel the drama. But the plot lacks urgency and Kirkman’s attempt at complex character interaction isn’t enough to make it compelling. As it is, Rick meets his fellow survivors and they discuss whether they should stay near Atlanta or move away to the less dangerous countryside. There’s a lot of talking, much of which is repetitious. A brief trip into the city for guns provides some welcome thrills but, for the most part, the story stalls as the characters spend time getting to know one another. There is personal conflict between Rick and his former partner, Shane, but the “surprise” ending (which was nicely foreshadowed) was too abrupt. I’m sure the consequences of this ending are further explored in Volume 2 of The Walking Dead but it would have been nice to have an epilogue in Volume 1. Though I am ambivalent about this series I do see a lot of promise in The Walking Dead. I’d happily read the next couple of volumes, but I’d need to see a stronger story and more sophisticated characterization to go any further.

Richard Stark’s Parker, Book One: The Hunter – Darwyn Cooke

The eponymous protagonist of Parker: The Hunter is a pretty simple character in a pretty simple story: Parker is a hard and violent man who sets out to track down the men who double-crossed and left him for dead during a heist. But simplicity doesn’t keep Parker from being a magnificent rendering of a good, old-fashioned revenge tale. Darwyn Cooke has chosen to adapt the Parker story from a 1962 pot-boiler by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). While Parker may not be sympathetic (he tramples everyone who stands between him and revenge) you still root for him because he is brash, daring, and has the odds stacked against him.

The straightforward tale is predictable, of course, but what makes Parker worthwhile is Cooke’s beautiful art. He manages to convey effortless movement from panel-to-panel with his fluid, cinematic style. His composition is bursting with energy and motion, befitting the nature of his hard-boiled tale. Cooke’s stylized character are, essentially, idealized renderings of 1960’s stereotypes—there’s the angular, chiseled looks of Parker, the curvy allure of Parker’s girls, Lynn and Rose, and the pillowy physique of Parker’s nemesis, mob middle-man Mal Resnick. Illustrated in black, white and grey on thick, creamy paper, Parker is a high-quality hardcover and a sensual delight.

Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The real highlight of my recent comic reading is David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp – a superb and unforgettable work of art in which Mazzucchelli displays complete command of his medium. Asterios Polyp is the name of the main character, a middle-aged architect who has lived a passive, listless life—one that is haunted (psychologically) by the presence of his dead-at-birth twin brother, Ignazio. The story begins when Asterios’ home burns down. Left with nothing but the clothes on his back (and three small, but meaningful possessions) Asterios sets out to start life anew and contemplate the various ghosts of his past. His journey of self-discovery alternates with flash-backs about Asterios’ early years and his relationship with, and eventual marriage to, an artist named Hana.

As the story of Asterios and Hana unfolds, Mazzucchelli tackles big philosophical ideas like the nature of identity and the concept of duality. Asterios’ dead brother, Ignazio (the story’s narrator), informs the heart and soul of the book. Asterios cannot move forward in his life, cannot achieve anything of substance until he resolves his “relationship” with the shadow-presence of Ignazio. Doing so is no easy task. Asterios is haunted by alternatives: What if he, and not Ignazio, had died at birth? Whose life is he really living? Can he share his life with a dead doppelganger? Mazzucchelli explores these exhilarating ideas with aplomb. In fact, there’s such a richness to Asterios Polyp, such a masterful control of the material, that I’m finding it difficult to find adequate words to describe the book.

It is clear that Mazzucchelli is at the top of his form. He has harnessed the power of comic story-telling to merge words and movement and abstract concepts in such a way that no other medium could do his unique ideas justice. And it is a book to return to: Heady with ideas, superbly structured, and so delicately layered—so perfectly executed—it demands multiple readings. Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

(For more about Asterios Polyp, check out Scott McCloud’s review here. The book’s deep themes and layered concepts have inspired some to begin annotating the work. This is really the tip of the iceberg; I expect to see much more writing about Asterios Polyp in the future as there are so many puzzles still to solve. Curiously, I haven’t seen anyone talking about the riddle of Asterios’ last name (which we learn was cut in half by an “exasperated Ellis Island official” when Asterios’ father immigrated to the US). What is his true full name? I’m sure I know. The clues are there in the book. Hint: There’s lots of reference to Greek mythology in the story. Follow that lead.) [Whoops! Spoke too soon! A reviewer on Amazon discusses the full name of Asterios Polyp. More clues there.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

Federer Moment

David Foster Wallace called them Federer Moments:

"These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K."

This happened to me as I watched Roger Federer play in the U.S. Open on Sunday. I've never seen anything like it. Take a look.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Novelization of a Film Not Yet Made

Next week we are going to be inundated with hype surrounding Dan Brown's new book (and follow-up to The Da Vinci Code), The Lost Symbol. This is one of those books that's going to be everywhere: the grocery store, the drug store, Blockbuster Video . . . everywhere. In fact, I suspect copies of The Lost Symbol will be especially prominent in places where you don't usually find books. Why? Because The Lost Symbol is a book written for the casual reader--someone who does not frequent bookstores, who does not read book reviews or magazine articles or any kind of non-fiction. Like The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol will be a beach read, an airplane book.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like easy-to-read books from time-to-time. I find it relaxing to read a fast-moving story with simple characters. And if the book contains some puzzles and brain teasers and a dollop of historical conspiracy theory, even better. I read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it for its absurd "secret history" and wild theories. But for all its delights, I grew tired of the book's style. It read like a summer movie, complete with action scenes and silly dialog and contrived plot twists. There was an emptiness about it, like a flimsy set dressed with bright and shiny props.

So when I say you're going to see The Lost Symbol for sale at Blockbuster I really believe it. Like so many other bestsellers, it is written for an audience used to watching movies. It will have arch-villains and fast chases and big explosions--all easy to envision because we've seen these things hundreds of times in every formula thriller ever churned out by the big studio factories. There will be no ambiguity and little nuance. The Lost Symbol is a Hollywood book, a perfect example of how one medium has fully encompassed another.

Books and movies have always fed off of one another, or course. And big name authors from Thomas Harris to Michael Crichton have, in the past, essentially pitched films in the forms of novels. (In fact, Crichton's posthumous pirate novel is already being developed as a film.) But it always seemed that past best-sellers, be they Jaws or The Godfather or even Jurassic Park, were written for readers. Now I get the feeling that the audience for many popular books is viewers--people who want to "read a movie." Many books are certainly written that way (even the early Harry Potter books have a big-budget "CGI" feel to them--especially their finales) and so they end up being flat, forgettable, temporary entertainment.

I'm pretty sure that's what The Lost Symbol is going to be. And, yes, there will be a movie. It probably won't big a big hit. But that won't matter: The Lost Symbol will forever live as a rental movie, waiting for the masses at Blockbuster.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Out of the Dark and Dusted Off: Japanese Twin Peaks Board Game

(I wanted to write a proper entry this week but my schedule has been quite busy. Time for some pictures!)

This week I have pics of a stunning Twin Peaks board game.

Back in the day (the early 90's), the Japanese sure loved Twin Peaks. They produced a couple of nice laserdisc box-sets, some beautiful posters, a slick press book for Fire Walk With Me, and scores of other unique items. They also produced a couple of games based on the series. One was an Uno-like card game and the other was this sprawling board game: "The Game of Twin Peaks." Here's the box, measuring 12" x 19":

This box contains many game elements: plastic and cardboard pieces, two decks of cards, a spinner, and three (!) playing boards. I never did figure out how all this stuff worked together but I'm sure it was a damn fine game! Here is a display of all the various game parts:

This is the "map" playing board (it apparently shows a street grid of the town, overlaying a map of the the larger Twin Peaks territory). At 24" x 19" this thing is huge!

Next up is the character-chart board:

Here's the "rock throw" playing board and "mystery" log cardboard pieces (whatever they are):

A nice shot of the saw-blade spinner (which probably told you how many spaces to move), along with donut playing pieces and a bag containing plastic bottle pieces, pawn pieces and other items:

Here are all the cards laid out. The larger, character-profile and location cards are on the left. The smaller, suspect(?) cards are on the right:

The Cooper profile card:

The suspect cards:

One side of the instructions:

Whew! Some game! I'm thinking it's a cross between Clue, Chutes-and-Ladders and Monopoly! Do you think anyone ever played it?

Note: I had originally planned to post these pictures on the Twin Peaks discussion board at but for whatever reason I never got around to it. If you don't already know, is an indispensible site for Twin Peaks fans. Equally valuable is "Jerry Horne's" superb Twin Peaks archive site. Give that one a look, too!