Monthly Archives: October 2007

The Walking Dead: The Best Defense

51sFHYRO1nLI’m kind of torn on the fifth Walking Dead graphic novel. On the one hand, The Best Defense returns to a plot-oriented focus, just as I predicted it would. And, even better, a cliffhanger ending all but precludes a volume 6 return to form in which all plot progression is halted in favor of character exploration. (Mind you, having both in the same volume would be pretty great, but except for our hero and his wife, that mostly hasn’t been happening.) But on the other hand, the plot that Kirkman has oriented on is kind of tired. I’ve liked how much dissension has come from within, contravening standard expectations; in so many apocalyptic stories, the characters are all united, and any outside groups are evil and/or crazy, hellbent on taking everything that these good people have built, if not destroying it outright instead. In any event, that destructive and moderately trite external influence is finally here.

This is the downside of the zombie setting. Sure, you have all those zombies, but so many of the stories that you can tell against that backdrop have already been told. The best you can hope for is to tell it better, and with the current volume of writing available, that is getting harder and harder to accomplish. I’d hate to think I’m outgrowing this format? But if I had sat down to wonder what was missing from the Walking Dead mythos, this would have been the first plot twist that leapt to mind.

As far as the art, it at least is as good as ever. I am forced to complain about the lack of color, though. With all of the physically and emotionally wringing events they’ve been forced through, the characters’ faces are getting too busy. Where color would reveal exactly the difference between each scratch, scar, or wrinkle, black-on-white just results in character features that are more and more craggy, harder and harder to read accurately. And the art is simply too good to allow it to be reduced by something so trivial.

Sacrifice

51AwFtja8bLIn a fit of irony, the middle book of the current Star Wars series has had the most to offer the fans I was complaining about last time, while simultaneously being the least tightly constructed of the books so far. On the one hand, wow with the events. Sacrifice contains, among other things, the pivotal moment foretold since the first book of the series in which the Sith apprentice comes into his full power as well as two more things I have typed and later deleted because they would be major spoilers. Well, one would be; the other would be if you knew it in advance, because there’s all kinds of obvious foreshadowing for it, if you know that something is coming. I know, because I knew in advance and the foreshadowing was kind of clubbing me about the head and neck. But that’s not too bad of a thing, really; I just wish I hadn’t known.

So, I’m all approval about the ongoing Skywalker-Solo family story and the ways it ties into the current galactic-scale storyline. The thing is, though, it also contains a completely separate story about Boba Fett’s efforts to rebuild the Mandalorian people into a stable civilization as well as his efforts to rebuild his life and his family ties. Which are well-written and interesting, but at no point do they really intersect with the ongoing storyline, like they did when he was last present in the second book. And if there was a theme to tie everything together where the events failed to, well, I missed it this time. To recap, there’s a lot of good storytelling, but it’s not very deep and consists of two unrelated stories. So, y’know, fun to read, but I can’t exactly call it good writing. Naturally, therefore, all of the Amazon reviews seem to be full of praise.

I can’t decide if I’m more sad for me, being attached to a fandom that doesn’t really appreciate technical skill in prose, or if I’m more sad for the authors who have to this point been putting together a solid piece of fiction (genre or otherwise), both per book and overall, but who have been derided by their nominal fans all along despite this accomplishment of something I haven’t ever seen in trademark fiction. (Well, or whatever you call it when there’s a property that’s being farmed out to multiple authors after success outside the written word.)

Preacher: Salvation

Is there anything so quintessentially American as the Western?[1] Despite that preacher Jesse Custer’s travels have taken him to New Orleans, New York City, and Europe, the underlying themes and imagery of the Preacher saga have always been that of the Western. Big land and a big sky, where a man can make anything of himself, accomplish any task he sets his mind to, where wrongs not only can be righted but inevitably must be, where life is as cheap as the desert sand and betrayal is as inevitable as the high noon challenge that precedes it. And in point of fact, the High Noon parallels were plenty enough obvious in the first half of Salvation without Ennis needing to point them out in the dialogue.

As the Preacher series enters its final third, Jesse Custer is a man alone. He’s lost his friends, some of his memory, an eye, and most damning of all, his way. And so, while taking the time to figure things out, he settles in the town of Salvation, Texas on a whim after running into a childhood friend. Salvation has its share of problems: unthinking Southern racism, a rich meat-processing magnate who uses his influence to buy the unlawful run of the town for his workers, and above all an uncaring populace willing to let it all happen rather than stand up. If there’s one thing that has been clear about Custer since the first issue, it’s that he is not a man who will refuse to stand up in the face of injustice. And of course it will become his salvation; but not just his. As so often happens in fiction, unlikely places have a way of gathering together unlikely people.

I was a lot more pleased with this book than I have been with the last couple. Ennis’ characters are a lot more compelling than his erratic main storyline, in which God must be held accountable for abandoning his creation to all the badness out there. I’m hoping he’ll pull a coup and reveal that the being Jesse has had his sights set on for so long is someone other than God; the villainy has graduated from ‘mysterious ways’ to almost cartoonishly diabolical, and I’ve always been one for principled disagreements rather than blatant vilification. Anyhow, the characters are a lot more compelling than all that, I was saying, and they really had time to shine without all the theology in the way.

[1] and other clichés with which you can start essays, by Chris Hammock. Available wherever fine books are sold.[2]
[2] Not actually available.

Exile

51cG8I-R2WLSo, yeah, Star Wars books. Whenever I go to Amazon to dig up my book link, I inevitably see a few reviews that other people have written on whatever the particular book is. And as far as Exile and the previous books in the Legacy of the Force go, the reviews seem one and all to lament that there’s not enough action in the series. And from a certain perspective that’s true. Lightsabers have been wielded aplenty, but the space battles have been rare at best, and if one is reading for the looming civil war between Corellia and her allies against the Galactic Alliance, I can see where that would be disappointing. Although you’d think that the fact that the stalemate has broken and the escalations have begun would be enough to satisfy people.

Anyhow, that’s not important. What is important is that I’m pretty sure these people have pretty solidly missed what the series is actually about, and this civil war isn’t it. What it is is a full-on Greek tragedy, pitting parents against children, brothers against sisters, and so on. It’s a very deliberate tale because you have to set up every aspect of the tragedy just so. The civil war? That’s just a pretext-slash-backdrop for the important events. Of course, now that I’ve defended the series for a paragraph or two, I have to admit that the plot dragged a fair bit more than in previous books. That is, big events occurred in the story; the civil war has reached its decision point past which peace is no longer an option, and the two principle characters have passed their own critical decision points as well. But the small events were a lot less epic-feeling than they have been in the previous books, and it’s hard not to be disappointed by that, no matter how pleased I am with the overall story progress.

Good Luck Chuck

This is how romantic comedies work, and feel free to insert different generic nouns in any particular spot, though by rights they should be used consistently. 1) Boy meets girl. 2) Boy loses girl. 3a) If the circumstances under which the boy lost the girl were at all plausible, boy wins girl back through a completely implausible sequence of actions that would have a boy who was not in a romantic comedy jailed or possibly killed in self-defense. 3b) Else, if the circumstances under which the boy lost the girl were completely implausible, the boy and/or girl return to their senses, upon which boy wins girls back. 4) Happily ever after.

In case you’re wondering, Good Luck Chuck falls under 3b. And by rights, this would be enough information to comprise a good review, because romantic comedies are not known for their innovations. However, there are two additional points worth addressing. Except for Chuck’s troll of a best friend, who is appalling for 80% or more of his screen time, the movie is mostly pretty damn funny, above and beyond reasonable genre expectations. And then there’s Jessica Alba. Maybe I’m on crack and she’s one of those classically hot people that everyone can agree on, but to me she’s more pretty in that girl-next-door kind of way, if admittedly at the top of that particular heap. And since cute trending toward pretty matches my personal tastes a lot more than hot, my point is that she works for me physically. But that kind of thing happens all the time, and would not be noteworthy except that her character (who looks just like her!) is a charmingly clumsy penguin enthusiast and trainer at the local Sea world knockoff, who makes trips to the Antarctic in pursuit of her chosen field. The words “tailor-made” spring to mind, is all I’m saying.

Well, and I suppose if you’re the kind of person who wants to know what a movie is actually about, it’s like this. As a pre-teen, Chuck pissed off a goth girl during a game of spin the bottle, so she cursed him to never achieve love, despite that love would find everyone who he was involved with. And sure enough, as an adult, every time he has sex with a girl and then they break up, she marries her next boyfriend. (To demonstrate this effect to the audience, he has sex with a lot of girls. We in the industry call this a plausible excuse for on-screen breasts.) Then he meets Cam, falls in love with her, and tries to find a way to keep from triggering the curse. I maintain that 3b should have been sufficient information, though.

Y: The Last Man – Ring of Truth

Y_the_Last_Man_-_Ring_of_TruthThe last graphic novel I read concluded a series. By contrast, Ring of Truth marks another chapter in the ongoing adventures of Yorick Brown, the earth’s last man, with no end in sight. Both kinds of stories have their place; it’s kind of hard to imagine the modern age in which the story of Superman, for example, had run from 1939 to 1946 and then ended. The negative side of ongoing serial stories is that they can get caught in a kind of hamster wheel where the same problem is being dealt with forever, absent any apparent advancement toward the goal. And there’s no denying that, despite my interest in the changing characters, Yorick’s advancement across America toward the San Francisco labs of his geneticist companion, Dr. Allison Mann, has certainly had Zeno-like qualities.

And so we reach the upside of volume 5 of the series: the author acknowledges that it’s time to start clearing up some of the mysteries that have been floating around since the day that most everything male expired. And while on that topic, that it’s also time to resolve several of the ongoing conflicts. By the end of the book, I still don’t feel like I know for sure just what’s caused everything and how to fix it, and that’s good; the story would be over if Vaughan ripped out the central mystery and conflict. But Yorick’s quest has definitely reached a turning point (just as his character arc did in Safeword), and I’m excited to see what the next chapter has to offer.

Resident Evil: Extinction

MV5BMjA0NzIwMDI2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzE1NTg0MQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Resident Evil is one of those movies that has zombies in it. Resident Evil: Extinction, being a sequel, also has zombies in it. Therefore, I can be expected to like it. (In some things, I am pretty predictable. For what it’s worth, though, Redneck Zombies was not very good.) Despite that, I think that this movie was not only a decent action-horror piece, but that it furthermore surpassed that apparent goal. Not enough to say it’s great and everyone should see it, but how many movies surpass even modest quality goals that they set for themselves?

So, Milla Jovovich is once more wandering, sporadically nudely, through a zombie-infested nightmare unleashed by the multi-national Umbrella Corporation. Except it’s been a few years since this all started, and said nightmare is now a globe-spanning concern. Also, I guess it affected the weather or something, because the majority of the planet has dried up into desert. Although, let’s be honest, the real reason for this is what Mad Max taught us decades ago: deserts and apocalypses go together like Milla Jovovich and being naked. Faced with the twin horrors of zombification and global warming, the human race has pretty well called it quits, aside from roving bands of heavily armed warriors out on the roads, if you know what I mean. And there’s Milla, trying to work out how to proceed, discovering some new talents, and finding out that Umbrella isn’t quite done with her yet. As fans of the series are already aware, this is the kind of thing that (naked or not) she really doesn’t take lying down.

As a result, you have reasonably decent special effects, more action than you can shake a pointed stick at, everything you’ve come to expect out of a zombie movie[1], and the best girl-fighting scenes this side of Summer Glau. Like I said, when taken across the scope of all 2007 cinema, these are fairly modest aspirations to meet. So that’s cool that they do so, and you end up with what you wanted: a good action-horror flick. Now, stay with me, because you’ll find this next part hard to believe, but I maintain that’s it’s true.

This volume of the Resident Evil series also has a meaningful theme. See, Alice[2] is stuck in a holding pattern. She’s free of Umbrella, sure, but the world keeps getting worse and being free isn’t really all that great when you’ve got a dying planet as your only “on the outside” option. The majority of the movie is her quest to break out of that holding pattern and find a way to make things different than they are. Which sounds all fine, but I could just be reading it in, right? Except, I’m not, because every Umbrella scene has brought us full circle back to the original events of the outbreak. Same spooky mansion. Same giant underground complex. Same AI attempting to orchestrate events. Everything Umbrella stands for in this movie and every action Alice takes in response to the external stimulus of her doomed earth are the visual representations of the spiritual struggle happening in Alice’s psyche: until she faces the past in an almost literal fashion, she’s not going to be able to break the chains of the present and get a move on towards a future in which maybe humanity won’t be extinct after all.

See? Not only theme, but below-the-surface theme. Despite having moved well beyond the game franchise’s rails (or, more likely, because of this), these movies remain the best video game adaptations on the market, and by a fair margin. Also, and I may have forgotten to mention this, but sometimes Milla Jovovich takes her clothes off.

[1] That one guy who gets bitten but doesn’t tell anyone so that he can end up turning at the least opportune moment, the annoying people who are more dangerous to their fellow humans than the zombie plague, etc.
[2] This is the name the movie uses to refer to naked Milla Jovovich. Well, also clothed Milla Jovovich.

Blaze

For the first time in a reasonably large number of years, I’ve missed a buy-on-release-date book. I mean, I’ve chosen to wait occasionally, but this one I didn’t even know about until months later. Richard Bachman isn’t a prolific author, but of the people who write in the spare modern style brought to us by Hemingway, he’s one of the only ones that I’m willing to read at all, much less as soon as I can get my hands on the book in question.

First written in 1973 but only recently edited and published, Blaze tells the story of brain-damaged career criminal Clayton Blaisdell’s plan to kidnap the infant heir of a New England shipping magnate. So, you know, caper story with a pretty unusual twist, which is all fine and well if I was particularly into caper stories. For the most part, the caper itself was workmanlike, entertaining without being particularly special. What really worked was the character study of our unlikely hero, Blaze. For all that he’s the criminal of the piece and in the midst of some huge mistakes, he’s an extremely sympathetic character. Sure, he had a horrible childhood and missed every good break that came his way through no fault of his own, but it’s not that I was pouring out whiny liberal sympathy for him. He’s genuinely plucky and upbeat, downright likable, while his antagonists mostly range from neutral to distasteful. I wanted to see the good things that had passed him by before start happening now, even if they would be coming from the wrong side of the books this time.

Speaking from a fan’s standpoint, it’s interesting to see a sprinkle of elements that would be spread throughout King’s[1] later works: names and places used differently in the long run, but recognizable here as half formed elements of what they would become. Still, this isn’t a persuasive factor, just interesting. The book ranks solidly in the middle of King’s oeuvre. Still, that ends up as “guaranteed to enjoy”, for me.

[1] It would appear that the jig is up, even for those who don’t mouse-over.