Monthly Archives: September 2006

Preacher: Until the End of the World

When last we saw our hero, preacher Jesse Custer, he was on his way back to Texas to follow up some leads on the whereabouts of God, who to Jesse’s way of thinking owes him an explanation or three. But if there’s one thing that can get in the way of a perfectly good spiritual quest, it’s family business…

I said that unless something went horribly wrong, I’d be buying more of this series. I can say with a great deal of assurance that something has gone horribly right. Until the End of the World, the second volume in the Preacher series, ratchets up the sex and the violence and the fiery theological debate, and adds in family themes with depth that would feel right at home in a Gaiman comic and a love story that could measure up to anything written by S. Morgenstern. Can I hear an Amen?

Also, I’m really curious to discover what Skwid was referring to by conspiracy theories. So yeah, I’ll be ordering more of these as soon as I can feasibly do so, I think. In the meantime, still a couple of entries in the gift pile yet to go.

Xombies

Here’s what makes zombies work for me. They are the perfect mixture of two of my favorite subgenres of fiction: horror and global catastrophe. There are bits and pieces of specifics, but that’s the lion’s share of the appeal, right there. The fact is, I get a childlike glee out of both the idea of an empty world and the idea of an unstoppable plague of the undead. One presumes that my actual reaction to such events would be, at the least, more sober and thoughtful. It remains to be seen!

The point of all that being that I’ve found a book that breaks with all previous reader conventions on my part. Xombies is the story of the end of the world at the hands of all women of childbearing age, who all at the same time became blue of skin and started to perform the function for which zombies are second-best known: killing everyone within the reach of their arms and replicating themselves. And it is the story of the aftermath, the struggle for survival of dozens of military men tasked with saving civilization and the hundreds of boys who managed to come along for the ride. And of course it is the story of our narrator, a seventeen year old girl who, thanks to a medical condition, is unable to menstruate and is therefore immune to the initial phase of the disease. (Nobody, of course, is immune to the methods by which it is spread.)

There are layers upon layers of depth to the story. The point that only menstruating women initiated the disease was not lost on me; neither was the bitter irony of the narrator’s surname being Pangloss. Inevitably, I skipped by many of the layers, because, English degree or not, I’m a pretty simple guy at heart, and I mostly wanted to see how the world ended and how our heroes survived it. I’d probably consider going back and reading it again sometime in the near future with an eye on plumbing the depths more fully, except, as I said, it broke my conventions for this genre.

At no point, from the first few chapters through the climax, was I filled with childlike glee at the end of the world. Instead, I was filled with the thick, choking oppression of an actual world’s ending. The sense of things winding down, of people losing purpose and hope hand-in-hand, of the inherently contradictory senselessness of the situation: all of these things accompanied me throughout the book. Having gotten an impression of what the end of the world would really feel like, I find that I prefer my childlike glee. So I probably won’t read it again anytime soon after all. It was good, but not spectacular enough to overcome the unpleasant feeling of reality.

Preacher: Gone to Texas

When I received all of these graphic novels, it was in response to my thinking aloud over a period of time as to how I have so little grounding in especially the history and high points of the comics universe, despite knowing pretty well what’s going on in any given movie. So, I got some old stuff as well as some landmark entries. It could be that the Preacher series is such a landmark, but it could also be that my fascist friend was simply tickled at the idea of a violent theological epic playing out in my home state.

Whatever the case, Gone to Texas, the first volume in the Preacher series, is an excellent book. A Romeo and Juliet story on a slightly larger scale than Verona results in a small town preacher with a murky past given power that is on the same cosmological scale as God’s own, or so it seems for now. Together with his ex-girlfriend and an Irish fellow with an aversion to tanning, he starts on a quest to find God and ascertain why he has abandoned his creation to the forces that have affected him so drastically, and which most recently have unleashed an unstoppable killer to end him for good.

The story is by turns horrific and hilarious, amoral and yet with an unshakeable sense of justice that nevertheless allows for the unlikelily absurd. And best of all, there’s no question as to whether you want to know what’s going to happen next from issue to issue, and frankly from page to page. After the trouble I had following the Dark Knight, I was pleased at the skill that must have gone into making each page chapter-like in its self-containedness. Not to mention that the art is pretty traditionally interpreted as well. Which it should be, because it allows the gruesomeness to be viscerally felt instead of disguised by the stylistic art that’s present in so many other graphic novels I’ve read.

I only have two of these, and I think there are nine in the series. Unless something goes drastically wrong with the second volume, I’m going to have to buy the rest of these and see how it turns out.

Blue Moon

I’m not sure what happened, here. I’d swear I waited longer than a month or so between the vampire porn this time. And yet, the evidence suggests I finished the last one no later than the beginning of August. Perhaps it’s some kind of compulsion. Because I know, I know I was going to wait longer, and then I thought I had. I’d still think I had, if the evidence wasn’t right in front of me. All I’m saying is, this can’t be a good sign.

Anyhow, I read Blue Moon. One thing good I can say for it is that the plot was vastly improved over the last one. Although aspects of it were a bit predictable, I definitely wanted to find out what was going on and how it would all end. Another thing I can say for it, which may as well be classified as good, is that it really lends itself in visuals to a comic format. Now, sure, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately, so I may bias in that direction. But I haven’t noticed it with any other books, plus the art style in my head does not match the art style in any of the graphic novels I’ve been reading. There may have been a third good thing. If I remember it, I’ll probably edit these lines out and replace them with the thing. But don’t hold your breath.

The plot, then, which I have deemed good: an unscrupulous and wealthy fellow is trying to acquire a piece of land for what will no doubt turn out to be nefarious reasons. Unfortunately for him, a post-grad research team is observing a tribe of peaceful trolls with sentient characteristics that live on the land. Even more unfortunately for him, one of the post-grads is the werewolf ex-fiance of our perpetual necromantic heroine, Anita Blake. So when his tactics to remove the research team from the area (so he can dispose of the land as he sees fit) go beyond the ‘Pretty Please’ phase, he’ll no doubt discover what a mistake it was to mess with anyone that Anita feels a tie to.

As for the bad stuff, well, it was basically everything that occurs in and around the plot but isn’t directly related to it. For one thing, there is no more porn bloat. This is actual porn. Sure, Ms. Blake has the excuse of a vengeful spirit inhabiting some portion of her psyche for actively seeking a hard lay from anyone close to her (including, in one memorable event, an entire werewolf pack). But that only excuses her. The book, on the other hand, has none. Along the same track but even worse, through her ignorance, the audience is provided with exposition illuminating BDSM terminology. I really fear for what will happen in the next book, since there was no payoff in this one. (I mean, people can live their lives as they wish, and I don’t judge, nor do I confirm or deny my own opinion on the topic. All I’m saying is, it does not make for compelling literature.) And we’re informed that Jean-Claude (the main vampire of the series) gains power through the sexual pleasure of people around him. (No payoff and correspondingly more fear for the future on this one, too.) Worst of all, though, Anita has graduated to full-blown Mary Sue status.

You know, I say that’s what’s worst of all, but it isn’t. If it was just the necromancy stuff, I could see it as growing powers where each step along the series made logical sense. But the werewolf stuff, in addition to appearing without much logic involved, doesn’t really add anything to the stories that’s at all necessary. This book could drop about a hundred pages to be as long as the first one in the series, and it would be much better as a result. So the worst part isn’t the Mary Sue thing, it’s that there’d still be a story without it, and not only that, a fairly good one. Instead, Anita seems to live in a consequence-free world where her biggest problem is whether one or the other of her boyfriends will be jealous when she has sex with someone other than him. She can stop anyone around her from dying, kill anyone in her way, and nobody seems to mind or expect much different.

And yet, God help me, we all know I’ll have read the next one by November at the latest. What is wrong with me?

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

61H8BOtqAbLThrough chronological coincidence, my next comic entry is an excellent choice to follow the previous one. Having seen where the Batman got his start, The Dark Knight Returns gives me a chance to see where he ended up. And where he ended up isn’t pretty.

One Robin, Boy Wonder has left him and a second has died in his arms. He has been retired for ten years, due to a nebulous agreement that retired or co-opted the other superheroes at the same time (save for Superman, who is now employed by the US Government). Gotham is overrun with crime, filled with gangs of teenagers who own the streets and can make and carry out threats at will. Commissioner Gordon is facing mandatory retirement, and among most of the talking heads on TV, the rehabilitation into society of such criminal masterminds as Two-Face and the Joker are cause for celebration at the success of the system rather than horror and fear at its failure.

Whether because of the declining morality of the youth population, because of guilt over his involvement in Harvey Dent’s (that is, Two-Face’s) inability to cope with his freedom and subsequent return to villainhood, or simply because he doesn’t feel like an entire man without the Bat, the re-costumed Bruce Wayne hits this socio-political climate like a thunderbolt, taking on the gangs, old enemies and old friends alike, condemned by cartoonish liberals for what he is doing to criminals and by cartoonish conservatives for what he is doing to law and order, and joined at an opportune moment by a new Robin. It’s a very raw take on an old man’s unstoppable crusade against everyone who brings society down instead of building it up.

Being raw, though, it does have its flaws. The stories are held together by the world around them, but seem pretty episodic in nature on their own. The art, while excellently frenetic, occasionally lends itself to being difficult to follow. It’s hard to really like any of the characters on a consistent basis (with the exceptions of Gordon and Robin). But flawed or not, it has the power of its rawness, and I’m not a bit surprised that the Batman mythos since this work has owed far more to it than to anything that came before, outside of those initial episodes that first set the character down on cheap pulp. (And which, frankly, were a lot like Frank Miller’s vision in this book. It’s much easier to imagine a straight line between the two graphic novels I’ve read that doesn’t go through Adam West than one that does.)

Also: as you’d probably expect, the Joker (newly revived from catatonia at the news that he once more has a nemesis worth committing senseless murder for) steals every scene he’s in, whether it be praising the media for being his own personal fan club, highlighting all of his criminal activity on the evening news so he doesn’t need to keep track of it himself or whether offhandedly promising to kill everyone within sight of his face and being laughed at for, well, joking (he was not, of course). It’s easy to make an argument that the Batman needs a Joker, an enemy that the forces of law cannot hope to cope with, that justifies his vigilantism. This story makes the far more compelling argument that the Joker needs a Batman; because, if there’s no chance of failure, is there really a point in proceeding on the basis of sociopathy alone?

[Late-breaking full disclosure: I actually read this in the Absolute format, but it contained two books, of which I still in 2015 have not read the second one. So it’s hard to produce a link and image for only half of a book, much less one that is by now long out of print.]

Homeward Bound

Ironic that after my complaints about the editing of Nuklear Age, the next book I should read (well, sort of next) would be an advance uncorrected proof. (Also ironic that despite being “advance”, it’s actually for a book that’s two years old.) Most ironic of all, though, is how very few incorrect edits were present in Homeward Bound, the (as far as I know) last book in Turtledove’s alternate history series where aliens attacked the Earth just as World War II was picking up steam. How very few when compared to the purportedly completed and publishable Nuklear Age, that is.

But enough about that unpleasantness. There’s plenty enough unpleasantness to be had here. Which is odd, because I was looking forward to the book, and throughout it I was eager to know what was going to happen. It’s not like I can say that there was no ultimate resolution in the ongoing cultural (and sometimes military) struggle between humans and the Race. I mean, there wasn’t, but in the acceptable ‘I’ve shown you enough that you can draw your own conclusions’ sense. The same is true for many of the individual character story arcs. So you’d think I’d be happy.

I guess my complaints are all about the execution. There’s a fairly large spoiler on the inside cover that meant my perceptions of the first part of the book were colored by waiting for the other shoe to drop. Since it didn’t until three-quarters through (which is what makes me call it a large spoiler instead of a small one), it seemed like I was killing time waiting for the climax. But then, after the big event, it seemed like I was killing time waiting for the fallout to become apparent. Since it did become apparent but only over an accumulation of data, I’m willing to call that my own fault for being impatient.

Even leaving aside my pacing complaints, though, there were still other issues. There weren’t enough character viewpoints to spread the story around, although I think that ties into pacing too. I came back to characters so quickly (relative to Turtledove’s same formula in his other books I’ve read) that I expected more to have happened by the time I got back. But it wasn’t really a Things Happen kind of book, so much as an exploration of the culture clash between two alien species. Which is also not what I was expecting.

Another unexpected thing is how I keep forgiving the book and blaming myself for its shortcomings. So, I’ll close on a note that I know wasn’t my bad. Among the aliens, there’s a fairly amusing Colombo rip-off who’s trying to get to the bottom of an illicit drug trade. Except for the amusingness, the subplot went absolutely nowhere and seemed to have no consequences for any individual character nor for the story as a whole. The amusing part would have been enough to forgive that if it had only appeared once and faded back, but it was still an issue through the penultimate chapter of the book, and then, nothing. So, that’s lame. And the pacing problems were too, even if they were directly caused by my expectations. Because books should entertain me correctly, dammit.

I’ll certainly keep reading Turtledove, as I have no reason to expect this to be a new direction for everything he writes. But I’m glad this was the last of this series, because I’m not sure I’d read the next one, if there were going to be more. And now I don’t have to wonder what I’m missing or (more likely) cave and read it anyway, despite expecting not to enjoy myself. So you see.

If I had to guess, I’d say the failure of the book is that it was an alternate future, which is to say science fiction. What makes him so good at alternate history is his understanding of actual history. In this case, he had to wing it, and that’s probably what kept the story so static compared to the other ones, where he knew what had to happen next simply because it would make the most historical sense.

Or maybe it mostly was just me after all. But probably it’s the other thing.

Farcry: Instincts

A goodly long time ago, I played the PC version of Farcry, which pits our hero against an island paradise full of mercs and mutants. I liked it well enough that I was excited to hear news of a sequel being released, but at the same time appalled that it was for the XBox only. These kinds of games really do work a ton better on a PC, the success of Halo notwithstanding. Still, I eventually saw that it was to be bundled with yet another sequel on the 360, so I grabbed the pair and have eventually played Farcry: Instincts, the first of the two sequels.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a sequel after all. It’s a remake. And I’ve already played the original, and on a PC, no less. So, y’know: better. Even worse, the second sequel (although, actually, the only sequel, I suppose) cannot be touched until you’ve played through this remake. So, I buckled down and went for it. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that it was not a straight port of the game. There are definitely some new ways to play the game (the setting of traps and the more detailed biological changes from the mad scientist’s injection leap immediately to mind), and they help to disguise the fact that the story isn’t quite as compelling this time.

Because, let’s face it, you can’t very well write up a video game that draws this heavily from the Island of Dr. Moreau and only pay lip service to the inevitable rebellion of the creatures. The original game did a great job here, drawing the collapse of Krieger’s ordered society out over multiple chapters. So I guess I’m saying I’m torn. It was nice to play a different game instead of being made to play the same one twice in two years, but it was disappointing to play such a generic game after the relative (and possibly intrinsic) brilliance of the original.

Lady in the Water

I liked Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense, and I pretty well adored him for his highly underrated followup, Unbreakable. His films since then (despite any personal enjoyment on my part) have been less overtly, well, good than the first two.

Naturally, then, the question that is on your mind is: does Lady in the Water mark a return to the initial talent shown, or is it characterized by the lower watermarks from more recent films? Or, well, that would be your question if I’d seen it in July when it came out, instead of at the dollar movie over Labor Day weekend. Because, really, who cares about new movies this long after the fact without having seen them for themselves? (Besides, apparently, me.) Nevertheless, I’ve already started this review, so there’s nothing for it but that I pretend you really did ask, and answer.

You’re not going to like it, though.

The thing is, I’m just not sure. I remember wondering vaguely, at the time, why there was a lack of buzz. Positive or negative, it should have been there. Of course the possibility exists that people are just over him, and he no longer rates buzz. But I think the issue really is that I’m just not the only one who doesn’t know what to make of the movie. Because, sure, people make fairy tale movies. They just don’t choose to set them modernly when they do so, unless it’s an allegorical fairy tale. This one, being both literal and at the same time modern, causes too much cognitive dissonance at first glance to really figure it out. I think my biggest problem is suspension of disbelief. How am I supposed to allow fairy tale elements to creep into the real world without being skeptical of them?

Even worse, does this mean I’m insufficiently childlike at heart, anymore? ‘Cause that kind of sucks. And yet, the dedication to his daughters at the end and the implication that he filmed it as a love letter to them leaves me with little other conclusion to grab onto.

In any case, I will say that if you can get past the dichotomy, it’s a good fairy tale, with a workable blend of the frightening and the comedic. If it didn’t fall a little short in the Having a Clear Moral department, I’d probably be forced to call it a great fairy tale.

Carrie

51ethQZ+HyLSomething I’ve wanted to do for a while is a chronological re-read of the Stephen King oeuvre, now that it is complete. (Admittedly, it’s not complete, what with him still publishing a book or two per year. But he claimed it was complete with the finale of the Dark Tower series, and I have no problem with that. Like, before he was working on a decades-long masterpiece, and now that he’s finished it he considers himself a hobbyist with a good publisher, or something. Whatever works for the guy, I guess.) For various reasons that I don’t feel like getting into, this will probably not be that re-read. But it will do for a stand-in until the real thing comes along.

So, I read Carrie. Perhaps that’s insufficiently purist of me, and I ought to have been snagging them in order of the short story publication prior to them being put in collections, or some such thing. I’ll see if I can’t find a way to sleep at night. Anyhow, Carrie, for people who have been unaware of popular literature or film for the past thirty years, is the story of the unexpected rise and subsequent terrifying plummet of a previously unpopular high school girl, with collateral damage including the graduating senior class and most of a town. Because what her tormentors failed to take into account was her latent telekinesis.

It’s really not hard to see how King became so popular so fast. The themes might be a little trite (the difficulty of adolescence for everyone involved, the dangers of unchecked fanaticism, revenge fantasies brought to lurid life) and the symbolism might be a little heavy-handed (the girl who everyone made fun of for making it to sixteen without ever having had, or even heard of, her first period is brought low by pouring a bucket of pig blood on her? For God’s sake!), but they’re also vivid and timeless. Unless you had the perfect high school experience, it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for Carrie’s plight, and unless you’re clinically insane, it’s impossible not to feel true horror for her family situation. (And if you did have the perfect high school experience or are clinically insane, then you still have a couple of the good guy high school students or Carrie’s mother, respectively, to identify with.)

My favorite theme, though, is one that echoes throughout almost all of King’s work, from the microcosm of a small Maine town like Chamberlain to the macrocosms of our entire planet or even the cosmology upon which it lies. Everything eventually fails and fades. Sometimes violently, via an angry telekinetic girl experiencing a psychotic break who sets off a series of explosions that are sufficient to physically destroy a high school and an entire downtown area, and sometimes gradually over time like a winding down clock. But it always happens sooner or later, and you can find hints of it in almost everything the man has written.

But all of that aside, I think the most amusing surprise was discovering that Stephen King’s first novel owes quite a bit more to science fiction than horror. Who knew?

Batman: The Dark Knight – Archives, Volume 1

After the extensive silliness of the archival Superman collection, I was a little trepidacious at the idea of the cracking open the initial Batman collection from the same people. (Well, okay, the people are DC, so that’s kind of a dumb way to put it, I guess.) But for lack of a better system I’m reading them chronologically, and that one was next. Therefore, in I plunged.

I’m pleased to report that this was a much stronger entry off the bat. (Er. Sorry.) I found that I kind of missed the full magazine approach that the other one used; no text stories amid the comics and no X-ray glasses or Batman fan-club order forms for me. I think as much as the nostalgia factor, I missed them because it left me less certain that I was actually reading all of the first few Batman adventures. (It didn’t help that one episode referenced a previous encounter between our hero and the villain in question. I have no idea if it was an in media res device or an actual backward reference to a missing story.) And in one unfortunate occurrence, Batman stole a story directly from the Superman of the same period: a football player is kidnapped, so Bruce Wayne uses his make-up and disguise talents (which are, admittedly, a lot more palatable than contemplating Clark Kent’s, whose best disguise consists of a pair of unlensed frames) to render himself identical to the missing player and win the big game. That’s, uh, heroic.

But like I said, on the whole it was a much stronger book. For one thing, it had iconic villains from the earliest stories. While Superman is off fighting interchangeable industrialists bent on raping the middle class and poor countries around the world, Batman is fighting the Joker or Catwoman. Definite advantage here. I have to think the smaller scope in general is part of what makes him a better superhero for the ages. He can be hurt, he can face real setbacks, he has enemies that can make realistic plans to take him out of commission.

And, he has a sidekick that… well, okay, Robin bugs me a little bit, in that he seems to be as effective at sixteen as the full-grown man he’s working with, despite the latter’s drive to avenge his parents and past. (As I understand it, Robin has an equally grim past, but it was never delved into in this volume.) Plus, he’s always grinning widely. Artistic decision, sure, but it also bugged me a little. I guess it’s part of the propaganda portion. He doesn’t really have a character of his own besides ‘generically happy’. He is clearly there for no better reason than to stand in for the teenage boy reader, which isn’t so bad by itself, but then he’s constantly used in that role to teach moral lessons. And I know that’s probably more good than bad, but I’m here for the plots and the characterizations, and I’m simply not going to like it when things get in the way of that. So, less Robin, more Batman, please.

Anyhow, that was as minor of a concern as the football adventure, really. The point is, Batman is dark but likeable, easy to identify with, has excellent opposition, and is just downright fun. Plus, he seems more averse to leaving a trail of corpses behind him, which it took the (seemingly more moral) Superman a little while to accomplish. The misogyny, though, that’s still there. Sure, he keeps saving Catwoman from other villains and now and again from the law simply because he thinks he can get in there, someday. (And watching Robin be confused over that hidden motive was worth his character being present at all.) But that’s the kind of misogyny that I’d think a girl could get behind, if it means she gets away with thousands of dollars worth of jewels every so often.

It’s the other kind that made the book for me, based on the shocked giggles it provided. (I know it’s a double standard, but since it happened 65 years ago and is so, well, cartoonish on top of that, it just doesn’t feel real; as I know it couldn’t happen now, I permit myself some obviously morally defective enjoyment out of it.) I will now describe a single panel of the book, from Batman’s first encounter with the Cat. Awful, I know. But also kind of awesome? You be the judge.

He has just removed the old lady wig, revealing Scooby Doo-style that she’s the villain. Now, he is forcibly wiping the old lady makeup from her face. She cries out, ‘Let go of me!’ His response: ‘Quiet or Papa spank!’