Sunday, August 30, 2015

Comic Capsule Reviews

Beauty #1
Beauty #1: Beauty has a movie-ready high concept—two years ago, a sexually transmitted disease exploded on the world stage; an STD people actually wanted. The “Beauty” STD cleared up bad skin, reversed hairlines and weight gain, and made men and women the best possible physical versions of themselves. The only downside was a constant low fever, but none of the victims seemed to mind. Perfect physical beauty was only one sexual encounter away. When a Beauty “sufferer” implodes on a New York subway train, NYPD detectives Foster and Kara are called in to investigate. Finding leads quickly, they follow the trail to an angry anti-Beauty protester. The encounter swiftly turns to violence. 

Beauty has a unique concept, with brilliant art and an execution that pulls the reader deeply into its world. Circumstances allow the disease to affect both Kara and Foster personally. One of these incidents is the last-panel cliffhanger, which will definitely bring me back for issue #2. A captivating book with plenty of mysteries to explore. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

The Fade Out #8
The Fade Out #8: This series was a bit slow to find its footing, but since it did it has been firing on all cylinders. In this issue, writer Charlie Parish attends another soulless Hollywood party, only it’s Halloween now and everyone’s in costume. We find out more about the past of Charlie’s girlfriend, actress Maya Silver, as she hustles Charlie from the party to rescue her Mexican ex-husband from a heroin-induced haze. It’s pointed out that her ex, a talented musician, used to work with the Desi Arnez band. When Charlie drags home, a blackmail note is waiting, threatening to expose the truth about the death of actress Valeria Sommers, which Charlie has been investigating since day one. 

Questions again abound this issue. Why does Charlie receive the note? And why does he think he knows who sent it? Writer Ed Brubaker answers each question with another, more complex query about these characters and their motives, all the while examining Golden Age Hollywood at its seediest. Fantastic stuff. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Manifest Destiny #16
Manifest Destiny #16: Will this comic ever slow down? It’s easily one of the most fun and innovative books on the market. Writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts take a fantastical look at Lewis & Clark exploring a Louisiana Purchase full of monsters and magic. Currently their exploration party is in the area now known as St. Louis. Making common cause with a sentient (and human-eating) bird tribe, Meriwether Lewis leads a band of volunteers from their exploration group to destroy a mutual enemy. They may have bitten off more than they can chew. Meanwhile, Clark stays at the camp with Sacajawea, who is pregnant and ill with visions from her Shaman grandfather. 

Dingess knows how to ratchet up the tension and make it believable that anyone in the group, including Lewis and Clark, may not be returning home from this grand adventure. And Roberts can illustrate any monster or act of magic thrown at him. Highly recommended for lovers of real and bogus history. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Stray Bullets: S&R #7
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses #7: Occasionally writer/artist David Lapham will go off the rails and publish a ridiculous fantasy instead of his usual gripping crime story. I love those times. Tied intrinsically to the main narrative, this issue portrays fantasy versions of all the usual main characters with Lapham’s traditional over-the-top anti-heroine, Amy Racecar. Amy Racecar stories are whimsical, LSD-daydream tales of tongue-in-cheek death and carnage. Like most readers I’m sure, I used to shake my head at Amy Racecar stories, usually appearing out of nowhere in the middle of multi-issue epics, and wonder if Lapham was having a laugh. Until I read the origin of Amy Racecar in the Stray Bullets world. I no longer laugh them off. Amy Racecar is one of the most disturbing creations I’ve ever experienced in any media. Why she was created and what she was intended to cover up is truly horrific. It makes me nauseated to think about it. David Lapham can make readers feel something, and that is a rare talent. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Seven-Per-Cent Solution #1
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution #1: Even though I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, I’ve never seen director Nichols Meyers’ Holmes flick The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Meyers also directed Star Trek II – the good one). Here writers David & Scott Tipton adapt Meyers’ original novel of the same name into a comic miniseries. 

It turns out that the battle of Richenbach Falls may not have been so fatal for Holmes’ most enduring nemesis, James Moriarty. Holmes is obsessed with finding Moriarty and stopping him before he can return to his evil ways. He becomes so obsessed in a fog of cocaine he can’t tell friend from foe or reality from hallucination. Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ physician and friend, happens to hear about a new treatment for such maladies from a doctor ... of the mind. The most accomplished such doctor is a gentleman from Vienna—one Sigmund Freud. 

How Holmes and Freud will clash will be an interesting meeting. Despite being dragged to Vienna by Dr. Watson, I’m not sure Sherlock will appreciate having someone tramp all over his mind and explore his childhood. That should be a hoot. We’ll see next issue. 

Rating: *** ½ out of 5 stars 

We Can Never Go Home #4
We Can Never Go Home #4: Still on the run from the events of last issue, Duncan and Madison are stuck in yet another nondescript hotel room in Buttcheek, America. They have killed people, robbed drug dealers and stolen a fleet of cars in their run from authorities. After a nasty argument, Maddie storms out. She returns a moment later and locks lips with Duncan. If you think that doesn’t sound like something Maddie would do, you would be right. 

Turns out crime bosses tend to keep super-powered people around them for cases such as this; and a shapeshifter is about to end Dunc’s life on the run. She actually makes him an offer, but it looks like it’s one he can refuse, because he does. When Dunc and Maddie (the real one) are tracked down by the F.B.I. five minutes later, they get another offer. Will they refuse this one too? Or will they spend the rest of their lives in maximum security? If they accept a job, will they go to work for the bad guys or the worse guys? The huge cliffhanger ending is a clue, but I don’t think these two crazy kids have totally made up their minds either way. A fun, if amoral, read with little redeeming social value. I loved it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Television – Fear the Walking Dead


It’s impossible to judge a potential new series on the pilot episode. That said, let’s take a look at the pilot of AMC’s The Walking Dead companion show, Fear the Walking Dead

Overall, this first 90-minute story, introducing the viewers to the characters and the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, lacked a lot of oomph. It was a slow burn—too slow. The screenplay was co-written by Robert Kirkman, the mad comic book writer behind the Dead phenomenon. Kirkman has always been better at plot than dialog, but both suffer here. 

The story opens on a pre-op transsexual waking up in what looks like a church in Beirut. He has on an odd fright wig and woman’s blouse. He turns out to be a drug addict who witnesses L.A.’s first zombie. He spends the rest of the show crying, whining and making that guy from Glee look manly. 

I love teachers, but the main stars play an English teacher and a guidance counselor, two of the most boring people in the history of television. They just moved in together, big deal! We don’t know them and nothing about this screenplay makes us care. The Walking Dead pilot began in media res, and it added a creepy vibe to the entire show as we discover the end of the world with cop Rick Grimes. For the sake of more action and/or excitement, wouldn’t it make sense to feature main characters who have reason to be in the thick of things? What about showing the viewpoint of a doctor or EMT? Or even a politician trying to keep things together? Or even a reporter? Instead, we get endless scenes of teachers and kids going to class, going to gym, hanging out after class. That’s kind of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ... sorry, dropped off for a second. I admit it was funny to see Barack Obama play the principal of the teachers’ school. 

The original show pilot was exciting, spooky and dangerous. You never knew what was going to happen or what would pop out from around a corner. And eat you. Fear the Walking Dead was outright boring. Just talking heads doing their endless talky talk with very little action or interesting drama. The levy scene was an exception, but this show is already performing under expectations. The next few episodes had better turn up the heat or there will be no way to catch up to the deserved success of the original. It’s not awful, but it’s certainly not great. 

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

R.I.P. Yvonne Craig, Batgirl


Farewell to one of my first TV crushes, the endearing Yvonne Craig. She held her own well with the boy's club on Batman. I met her once at a convention--a tough lady proud of her career and trailblazing work. She was still annoyed at Burt Ward for stealing her Batgirl costume, but that's another story. 

On his website, writer Mark Evanier tells a sweet and funny story about meeting Yvonne as only he can. Check it out here

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Books – Monster Mash by Mark Voger


Officially titled Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957–1972, Monster Mash is the story of monsters and horror culture when it was first released in all its glory on America’s masses. The book is a real treat, and takes readers through every aspect of the monster phenomenon of my personal formative years and before. 

The Great Bela Lugosi
Voger first takes us through the creation of the seminal literary monsters; Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula, H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man and finally Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Early movies experimented with horror themes quickly (talkies Dracula and Frankenstein were both released in 1931, and both scared audiences to death). His contention is that horror mass media began with Screen Gems releasing something called their “Shock Package” to television stations in 1957. These were 52 films that dealt with dark crimes, horror or the supernatural. All of the original Universal monster films and their multiple sequels were in the package. There were also many crime noirs with horrorific or violent themes. This was decades before home video, and most children had never seen any of these films. Kids, consider your worlds rocked. To go along with the Shock Package, local TV stations created the role of the cheesy horror host to host the movies. In Cincinnati, we had Dick Von Hoene on Channel 19’s Creature Feature every Saturday. His alter ego was the “Cool Ghoul,” complete with cheesy makeup and a funny monster shtick. 

Dick Von Hoene as "The Cool Ghoul"
From there the monster phenom just grew. The book covers the monster magazines, including the most influential, Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by super-fan Forrest J. Ackerman. The Mad Magazine monster parodies are also given some love, as they should. Of course monster toys and models are thoroughly examined, as well as licensed products such as shampoo, posters, 8mm films and inspired records. No record critique would be complete without a look at the book’s title song; the infamous Monster Mash 45rpm by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. It is still played today every Halloween. The words “I was working in the lab, late one night ...” are as emblazoned on my brain as my first phone number and my mother’s maiden name. 

The Munsters
One of the most fun sections of the book is a look at various monster TV shows, especially The Addams Family and The Munsters. Which was your favorite? Voger combines multiple interviews he has done over the years with the shows’ most famous stars to get a comprehensive look at their roles and methods. The book also does a nice job exploring the monster comic books of the 1960s, especially Creepy and Eerie magazines and the creation of the most important and lasting comic horror host; Vampirella. 

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows

Voger raps up the story with a long look at the Dark Shadows TV explosion, including interviews and photos of producer Dan Curtis and the show’s most famous stars. He also briefly mentions the Planet of the Apes craze—not typical monsters, but those gorilla soldiers sure scared the heck out of me as a kid. The author suggests 1972 as the place to end the book, as Dark Shadows had been cancelled and Hammer Studio’s last Dracula movie was released. As we all know, the monster craze never really ended, and with conventions, toy shows, merchandise (both old monsters and new), and media, today it is bigger than ever. 

Wolfman Model
Loaded with color photos, well-researched articles and informative sidebars, Monster Mash is an extensive look at the heart of the monster craze in America. And it’s a fine look back at a dark and sometimes parentally forbidden part of our childhoods. That’s one reason the phenomenon is so delicious. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Movies – Ant-Man


Are we so far down the list of B-heroes at Marvel that even Ant-Man gets his own movie? Chalk another one up for Marvel. And, like most Marvel movies, it works. 

In Marvel continuity, Hank Pym is a charter member of the Avengers and the inventor of the shrinking technology that created Ant-Man. And the growing technology that made Giant-Man, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Later that technology is stolen by petty-thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Scott Lang in order to save his daughter’s life, and he becomes the new Ant-Man. The movie takes these basic facts and runs with them. Pym (Michael Douglas) recruits petty thief Lang (Paul Rudd) right out of prison to become Ant-Man and steal back his shrinking technology from evil government stooges. In the comics, Pym’s wife is socialite Janet Van Dyne, also known as the super-heroine the winsome Wasp. She isn’t mentioned by name in the movie, but Pym’s movie daughter is Hope Van Dyne (a much missed Evangeline Lilly from Lost), so draw your own conclusions. Everyone is charming and the SFX are breathtaking, as usual. Corey Stoll chews some scenery as the businessman/scientist bad guy and is sufficiently menacing. The worst thing about the movie is Michael Peña as a bland comedy relief sidekick who exists to say clichéd catchphrases such as “Awesome, dude!” and “KnowwhatImsayin’?” The movie comes to a dead stop whenever he appears on screen. The director should have known better. There is a cameo appearance from the first actor to ever play a live-action Ant-Man, which was a wonderful surprise. 

Overall, Ant-Man was a fun ride and a professional piece of work. But it doesn’t set the world on fire and doesn’t really add anything original or special to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I supposed it gives the Avengers someone new to pull in to the next Avengers movie. That is fine, but I’m ready for another unique blockbuster from Marvel that throws some curves into the story and is unlike anything else out there. Bring on Dr. Strange and Black Panther

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Books – The Martian by Andy Weir


I’m totally in love with The Martian by Andy Weir. This book blew my mind. 

I saw The Martian on several of the best book lists for last year, but I passed on reading it. I’m not much on hard science fiction, and the idea of a guy stuck on Mars alone for an entire book seemed boring. It would take an exceptionally talented writer to pull it off. Enter Andy Weir.  

The Martian is the best book I’ve read in a long, long time and definitely the best thing I’ve read this year. I know it will end up being one of my all-time favorite books. In the near future, Mark Watney is an engineer/botanist on the second manned mission to Mars. When a freak sandstorm hits and the mission is scrapped, Watney is injured and to all appearances killed during the storm. His comrades are forced to flee the planet and head home, mourning their friend. The problem is, Watney isn’t dead. His suit auto-seals after a breech, and when he regains consciousness, he is abandoned on Mars with very little food and water and oxygen enough for a few days. It will be at least four years before a rescue can even be attempted, and that is if he can alert anyone to the fact that he is not dead. Chances are he’ll starve to death, freeze to death or suffocate long before anyone even knows he’s alive. 

That’s when things get interesting. I hate to ruin one sentence in this roller coaster ride of a novel, but I do want to encourage people to devour it. Mark pools his food, shelter options and oxygen, then finds simple but effective ways to extend them for at least a short period. On Earth, NASA discovers he is alive and finds some difficult but effective ways to communicate with him. He becomes a celebrity on earth with daily news stories and billions of dollars committed to saving his life. The problem is, even with peak efficiency from every party—a stretch under normal circumstances—his food will run out months before a rescue operation can be mounted.  

Weir is a genius and my favorite new writer. He writes Watney as an intelligent problem solver, but also a bit nerdy with a whimsical sense of humor. Watney’s internal dialog as he logs his daily struggles are a joy to read. His delight as he solves one devastating, unsolvable problem after another puts the reader in the place of this man who is doomed but refuses to give up hope. The planet keeps trying to kill him, and he keeps finding ways not to die. In the end, the bottom line haunts him and everyone on Earth ... he doesn’t have enough food to wait for a rescue attempt. Meanwhile, NASA is putting everything they have into brainstorming ways for Mark to survive. But their scientists are fighting nature, time, distance and politics (sometimes world politics) to save him. 

I won’t give away one more of the many setbacks and dizzying plot points faced by astronaut Mark Watney, the loneliest man on Mars. The Martian is a triumph of plotting, dialog and characterization. The characters are fully realized, the writing sharp and funny. I listened to the book on CD and lost count of how many times I guffawed aloud. Do yourself a favor and read this book. You’ll love it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Thanks to ace writer Steve Wellington for the word-of-mouth recommendation. 

Presenting the 18' long, 1/6 scale Millennium Falcon


Who wants an 18-foot long Millennium Falcon? Um, I'd take one. 

And Hot Toys is ready to provide one. Yeah, I'm sure this will be affordable.