Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Ultimates 3: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch?

I’m torn on this book, unlike the rest of the internet. (They seem to despise it, and I think it is only fair to calibrate expectations in that way.) But first things first: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch? is simultaneously the straight-forward murder mystery that its title implies and also a means of setting the stage for the upcoming Ultimatum that, so far as I know, I am only two books away from. I can’t think of a good way to add more to my plot summary that wouldn’t be extensively spoilerish, so I’ll move on to the controversy.

On the one hand, I really did enjoy the actual storyline. Both the pacing of the mystery’s unraveling and its ultimate denouement were satisfactory to me. And honestly I think even that, my enjoyment thusfar of the build toward this crossover event thingy they’ve decided they had to do, is a bit controversial. But so be it, some days I am an easy audience. Still, there’s that other hand, wherein a lot of the details went wrong. Like, wasn’t Juggernaut dead the last time I saw him? And was it absolutely necessary to drop in a Ka-Zar[1] cameo this many years into the Ultimate run, and this close to its end? And, seriously, the use of the Black Panther seemed racially insensitive at best. And none of those missteps was necessary to create the plot that I was happy with! So frustrating.

[1] He’s a Tarzan rip-off from the mid ’60s. Not bad as characters go, just untimely.

The Ultimates Omnibus

Note: I did not actually read The Ultimates Omnibus as my title and link might otherwise indicate; I just re-read the four volumes of The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2 that I have mentioned previously, but this seemed like the easiest way to get away with treating it as one project, so soon after I had read them individually. And in short, I want to say that I was right to go back and reread them, as seeing the Ultimates in their proper context over the evolution of that universe would have made a lot more sense than seeing everything at once right when I started, and then going back in time to see them interact with the rest of the series in progress as I variously caught up to “current”.

As for the books themselves, though? Still good, and they certainly do stand alone, if you wanted to ditch the rest of the universe to just read these. They’re by far the most adult books, both in theme and in prose. And certainly in plotting, where they occasionally seem to go above and beyond the adult theme cut-off just to show they can. But since almost every other main character in the Ultimate universe is mid-late teen in age, it makes sense for the one adult group to make a point of doing adult things. Anyway, it rarely seems to actually pander, which I guess is close enough for me. Also, the art is always good, though it strikes me funny that both the Wasp and the Scarlet Witch have violet eyes. The odds just seem implausible, is all I’m saying. So, like I’ve doubtless said in previous reviews that I don’t feel like digging up: if you like adult-oriented[1] globe-spanning events with real emotional and physical consequences, this is the place to get them. (Because Wolverine can’t be the star of every X-Men comic, and really, who else is there besides him and these guys to count as adult?)

[1] For the most part, non-pornographic.

Dexter in the Dark

51VvbZNbVsLIn a sense, one of the reasons I have been trying to read so many short, breezy, comfortingly familiar and above all known-quality books is that I’m girding my loins for literary battle; in other words, it’s about time for me to read another Anita Blake novel, and I’m by turns looking forward to the review and dreading the book itself. But also there are a stack of giant books I’ve been peering at, and then I think, nah, I’d rather read a lot of short books instead of that. I suppose once I finally catch up with the Ultimate Comics line from Marvel, I’ll feel better about long gaps in my books-reading too. None of which exactly explains how I pick what my next novel will be; I kind of just do it by feel, as opposed to the very structured method I have of graphic novel selection. All I really know is that my to-read pile is at least a hundred books deep right now, and that’s kind of unsustainable since it has consistently grown rather than shrunk, and so lots of authors but especially lots of series suffer delays as a result.

One such delayed bit of work that I chose out as randomly as you’d expect from my previous paragraph is Dexter in the Dark, a book that I had been looking forward to eagerly for months, after certain revelations about Rita’s children from the previous book. (Rita, of course, is Dexter’s girlfriend, and Dexter is the perpetually eponymous, ethical serial killer who stalks far less ethical murderers with a quip in every narrative hook and disdain for human emotions in every interpersonal encounter.)  And although those revelations played out very much to my satisfaction, the rest of the book was… it was not bad; Dexter’s voice has grown on me a little more with each book, straddling the line between sincerity and parody without ever straying into ridiculousness or a breaking of the fourth wall. Dexter is very fond of himself, and of pointing out the many differences between himself and the rest of the teeming humanity through which he strides, and even though he misreads himself unwittingly as often as he very knowingly misreads others, it does always straddle that line of sincerity in such a way that he’s obviously not having the audience on. He’s the least reliable Reliable Narrator I’ve ever read, and I enjoy that about him. So, like I say, the stuff for which I read these books has not gone away at all, and by no means would I like to say it was bad.

But it was entirely inexplicable, plotwise. I don’t want to say it’s gone off the rails, though the common Amazon reviewer seems very convinced to the contrary on this point. Anyway, here’s what happened. Dexter has this Dark Passenger that he refers to on a regular basis, the voice inside him that requires his violence. He has channeled it down useful pathways thanks to the help of his foster-father Harry, but it’s the Passenger that keeps him alert, drives him in his purpose, helps him to never get caught in the moment, even as Harry helps him to never get caught after the moment has passed. And okay, it’s not exactly the same as an annoyed dog telling him to go kill people, but it’s not all that dissimilar; basically, it works as a seed to explain why he would have been a serial killer, no matter what. Except… this book starts off by making the Dark Passenger a literal separate entity, that can be terrified and abandon Dexter to his fate and that has, in one form or other, apparently been stalking the world looking for hosts since before the world had any life to be a host. And I can honestly maintain, as I’ve already stated once, that it didn’t conspire to make the character in any way less entertaining. But all the same, what a bizarre plot turn! I didn’t hate it, but I can understand why people would. And I really hope it fades to the background with little or no future relevance, as I’ll be more than happy to pretend it never happened, even if references to Moloch in modern literature are few and far between.

The Blind Side

I have, I am sure, mentioned that I see a lot of Wednesday afternoon movies, in an effort to avoid adding a random 60 miles to my weekly drive schedule. I may also have mentioned that I welcome attendees, because that is a lot of filmage to see by oneself. The upshot is that I will sometimes see something that isn’t at the top of my personal list, or even something I didn’t really want to. In this particular case, the movie I didn’t much wanna see was The Blind Side, by virtue of it being one of those “feel-good picture[s] of the year” that is pretty much guaranteed via that descriptor to be twee and annoying.

But, y’know, I’m a big enough person to admit when I’m wrong, and right here? I was wrong. Through an unlikely (but not unthinkable) series of events, a white Memphis socialite family meets and takes in a black teenaged ward of the state, and they each learn a lot about the ways the world works; also there is football. And it still sounds pretty twee, plus I don’t know how to say only a little bit about it; it’s either keep adding details until I’ve told the whole story, or the probably better option of knowing only that much or even slightly less than what I wrote above, as I did. The important part is, it was a genuinely sweet, sincere movie about how people are only different if we insist that they are, and about whether opportunity can triumph over fate. And no matter how twee this review may be, the movie really wasn’t.

I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever watched this genre of movie in my adult life without rolling my eyes. I hope I’m reporting accurately, instead of having somehow changed internally to become a sucker. That would be embarrassing.

Death: The Time of Your Life

There may be more Death-based graphic novels; the existence of an Absolute mega-edition like was created for Sandman and some other DC titles suggests so, but I’ve only ever seen two. And as of today, I’ve read the second one, so I guess I’ll just have to see what else pops up or else not worry about it. Which is not unlike how the pale gothy girl wearing the ankh expects me to live my life, I think; after all, it’s what I’ve got.

I kind of wish, though, that I either read Sandman more often than I have or else that I had eidetic memory, or that I had been obsessed with the series the way I was with the Wheel of Time during the ’90s, or really anything that would lead me to have good recall about the characters of Foxglove and… Jesus, I’ve forgotten her girlfriend’s name in the time it took me to start this review after finishing the book earlier today. That’s just sad, though unfortunately illustrative of my point. Because, you see, The Time of Your Life is mostly about the two of them and their son Alvie who has a suspicious anagram in his name, and also of course about the pale gothy girl with the ankh, who you may better know as Death.

It was a sad and sweet but probably more sad story about relationships and fame and sacrifice and of course death, and I liked it on its own merits, but I didn’t really like it on the merits of being a story about Death. She felt shoehorned in to provide a… well, deus ex machina can hardly apply if the being providing it is pretty well at a higher level of existence than gods are. But all the same, her only real point in the story was that she worked as a lever to break the logjam between waify singer/songwriter Foxglove and that girlfriend whose name I can’t remember, so that they can proceed with their lives (or not) one way or another, instead of continuing to circle around and around the same static relationship they were stuck in on page one. And even worse, Death provided this lever by way of an action so implausible that she even commented in the dialog that it’s the kind of thing she never does, right before doing it anyway, for no apparent reason. That could be a hint that she has taken more interest in the two characters than I apparently managed (her name is Hazel, if you are itching to know), but I couldn’t bring myself to take that hint. Instead, it was just an inexplicable oddity in, like I said, what could have been a pretty interesting story about a few side characters without ever including her.

Although, I admit it does seem like some member of the Endless should have probably been involved for it to really fit in the universe, familiar characters or not. It’s just, it’s plausible that if a character is going to behave inexplicably, Gaiman already wrote one who has that exact modus operandi. Y’know?

[1] It’s weird, or serendipitous, or merely coincidental, but I’m positive not ironic in any sense, that I’m listening to Who Killed Amanda Palmer? on vinyl as I write this. See, I bought it a few weeks ago while browsing a local record store for a few pickups, and finally unwrapped it right before I started on this. I had been going to write it anyway, just over Jon Stewart from last night instead, but the whim struck me, and there you go. And after I’d gotten about a sentence deep into the review, a line from the third track played out: “Nobody deserves to die, but you were awful adamant that if I didn’t love you, then you had just one alternative.” And the thing is, I feel like there might be a way to tease out a very close parallel between that line and the book, but only with spoilers, and anyway, it really would be coincidental, almost certainly nothing more. Even though I’m pretty sure Amanda Palmer wrote the introduction to that giant updated Death collection I mentioned, and Neil Gaiman wrote the copy on the back of Amanda Palmer’s album, and they’re engaged, and all of that. Sometimes, despite everything, it really is just a coincidence.
[2] How weird is it that there are two unreferenced footnotes in this entry?

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Unless you live at the bottom of a very deep hole, you will no doubt have heard that Tim Burton is remaking Alice in Wonderland. Well, was remaking, I should say, as it came out last weekend. And I am here to tell you that it is a gorgeous movie. As usual, modern 3D is good even when it’s not particularly serving any purpose, and IMAX always looks and sounds about as good as you can imagine, but I’m not just talking about that, of course. Burton has a stylized signature art style that suffuses every movie he has made since at least Edward Scissorhands. It is slightly dark, in an almost proto-goth kind of way, even though he has sometimes made it darker than others. It is cartoonish without being cartoony. Basically, every world he creates looks like a fairy tale world; in this case, Wonderland already being a fairy tale world in its own right, Burton has pushed it through a glass darkly. Which, of course, is appropriate.

In addition to being so very pretty[1], the casting was consistently spot on. I mean, obviously the focus will be on Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and I kind of thought he alternated between acceptable and annoying. But everyone else was pretty great. Crispin Glover as a gawkily tall bad guy, Alan Rickman as the snide caterpillar, Anne Hathaway as the ethereal White Queen, and then lots more. Perhaps best of all was Alice herself, though; in addition to managing to have girlish innocence despite now being 19 and looking really nice despite unreasonable ongoing damage to her wardrobe, she was a delight throughout the framing story (in which she is blindsided with a marriage proposal from some British lord or other), portraying the uncertainty, the yearning against the bonds the society was placing upon her, and so on. It would not have been Alice in Wonderland by any means, but I think I could have watched an entire movie built from that framing story.

Which is a pity, because the main story? Also was not quite Alice in Wonderland. The March Hare was as mad as… er, he was entirely crazy. And the Cheshire Cat was approximately perfect, plus all the casting I’ve already mentioned above. But the story… after complaining about Depp annoying me, I feel bad to say this, but the story was entirely too sane. It was linear, and standard, and about nothing much more than a hero needing to decide to be heroic. Which in itself is a movie I’ve watched many times before and will watch many times again, but placing characters from Lewis Carroll’s works into a movie does not make the movie suddenly about Wonderland. So I think I was ultimately more disappointed than it deserved, due to the misrepresentation, yes, but also because of how everything that was not the script[2] was so very well done.

[1] I should note that bloodhounds hit the uncanny valley of dogs for me; they looked perfect, but moved all wrong. Still, it’s nice that the technology keeps getting better.
[2] Well, except the dogs. And about 30% of Depp’s performance.

Batman: The Killing Joke

I wish DC would rip off the Marvel Ultimate universe idea and perform their own reboot for new readers. Alternately, I wish that someone would tell me this has already occurred, and what I should be looking for. I know that the constantly renewing TV shows serve approximately the same purpose, but still, something in the original format would be nice to have around. This is certainly one reason why I have found Marvel so much more accommodating than DC since I decided that superhero comics were pretty sweet after all. (The much broader availability of original run comics as data files was the larger reason, despite how much more Ultimate universe I’ve actually read.)

The upshot of this lack is that there are all kinds of DC storylines that I’ve heard people talk about but never gotten around to, while I’m coasting along quite nicely on the other side of the fence. But I did recall that one of the biggest deal stories I hadn’t read was Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, about the relationship between Batman and the Joker. Much to my surprise, it is a story that has consequences I’ve actually seen play out in one of those TV series I mentioned earlier, the short-lived Birds of Prey. So, in addition to my actual reaction to the story, there was that bonus feeling of getting to catch on to an underpinning moment that has defined the DC universe. I dig that kind of stuff, in exactly the unfortunately punning sense that makes me sometimes wish I had gotten my degree in archaeology.

But as to the story itself? First of all, it’s very short, only about the size of a standard annual comic. No run of issues here like you’d expect to find in an “important” story. It’s also very simple: Batman has decided that it’s time to really talk to the Joker, who is unique among the Batman’s adversaries in that nobody has any idea who he is; he is simply an enigma sowing chaos in the world. All Bruce Wayne does know is that they hate each other, and sooner or later one of them will die as a result of it, and being that he is a fundamentally good man despite his anger issues, he wants to try to solve it. Whereas the Joker… in his own words, he wants “[t]o prove a point.” To prove that he’s not really sowing chaos, or at least that any chaos sown is just a side effect. He wants to prove that his reaction to the world is not only normal, but inevitable. And the ensuing clash between these two conversations is dire, bloody, repercussive, and entirely horrible. And it sums up, in only about forty pages, the entire history and future of the relationship between the two characters.

Every voice was perfectly realized, every expression and motion had economy to it. Except for the unfortunate refrigeration of Barbara Gordon, there is really nothing about the story that is not concisely perfect. It should ought to be read by anyone that enjoys either lead character. And also? The joke was pretty good.

Ultimate Origins

I kind of feel like Ultimate Origins was a risk. Okay, the continuity had only existed for about nine years at that point, plus I think they already knew that they were headed towards an ending of sorts. But still, taking even a mere nine years of continuity and then going back and finding a way to tie it all together in meaningful and unexpected ways, without accidentally being ridiculous? It’s a fine line to walk.

But what am I talking about? It turns out that the Ultimate universe, about which I talk from time to time, has some important and unrevealed information from the World War II era that spawned the original super soldier project and ultimately Captain America, and also from the generation that precedes modern times / the current crop of superheroes and mutants. Information that has strong relevance to mutantkind and its imminent war on humanity. Information of particular interest to one Peter Parker on the topic of his dead parents, if only he knew it.

All the same, I’m pretty sure that, if it hadn’t been written by Brian Michael Bendis, it would have been ridiculous after all. So yay for the author they chose!

Red Holocaust

It is clear to me, in retrospect, that I waited too long between these books. (Of course, that’s true of most of my books, but it’s more true when the books are so very light as this, and also I’m facing a quarter-century backlog for the series.) But I have finally read the second book of the Deathlands series, Red Holocaust. When last we saw the one-eyed Ryan Cawdor, pleasantly mutated Krysty Wroth, gun enthusiast J.B. Dix, and the man of mystery known only as Doc, they had escaped vengeful danger of some kind or other into one of many Redoubts, hardened chambers scattered around America that are filled with guns, supplies, and most importantly for our purposes, teleportation rooms.

This new book starts what I expect to be a long-term trend, in which the Trader’s crew will teleport randomly from place to place, find something horribly wrong, and go about fixing it. In this particular instance, the main wrong thing is that the Bering Strait has frozen over again[1], allowing both marauders and an apparently somewhat cohesive Soviet pursuit to cross into Alaska. Since the first teleport destination is also in Alaska, you can imagine that some kind of militaristic event is about to ensue. And I think that is what I am expecting to be the most common path for the series as it unfolds: party teleports somewhere randomly, comes out to discover a situation in need of caretaking, does so, probably loses some members while gaining others, returns, and teleports randomly once more. The draw, therefore, will be the gradual unfolding of the geopolitical situation[2], revelations of character histories, and of course fragment by fragment of the secret of the Doctor, who can’t keep track of a stream of consciousness for more than a few moments, yet who has all manner of pre-war knowledge, both trivial and sublime. Most recently, for example, he revealed that the matter transporters have also been used in time travel experimentation! Dating back to 1930s!

I don’t know exactly why I lap this stuff up, but really, it’s not that big of an investment. A day or two to read a book that would work equally well as a single or two-part episode of a television series, and then onto something else? It’s more than fun enough to pay that price, and thusly I do.

[1] Thanks, nuclear winter!
[2] For example, who knew that Russia would manage to be visibly more together than the United States, a hundred years after World War III? I mean, besides doomsday scenario authors, who I believe were certain of this fact throughout the duration of the Cold War.

Hot Tub Time Machine

I’ve said it before, and I will inevitably say it again: I really like sneak previews of movies. Like, a lot. They’re free, which doesn’t hurt, and I get to see them before other people, which is nice for this whole ‘review’ gig I have going. But they’re usually only a day or two before release and if I’m at all busy, I still fail to get the review out in time. So I guess what I like best of all are the rare previews that are weeks in advance, wherein I get to feel like I’m sitting on some kind of secret.

Yesterday, I got to do that again for the first time in a year or so, at least that I can remember. (If only there were documentation!) After sitting in line for a goodly while and having one of the most surreal stranger-conversations of my life between my friends and the dude in front of us in the line[1], after having all electronic devices stripped from us by the local constabulary[2] lest we make a shitty recording of the film to dump onto youtube, after eating pizza and drinking a milkshake to combat the effects of surreality and douchebaggery, we finally settled down to watch Hot Tub Time Machine, a movie about… well, I think you can tell from the title, right? But, okay, there are specifics, and they are as follows: three high school friends that have drifted apart (and also John Cusack’s nephew) decide to return to a ski resort that was the prime destination of their party days, to reconnect. Except the town is dead, the resort is falling apart, and things generally suck about as much as their lives do. But one drunken night in the hot tub later, they wake up at Winterfest 1986 in their teenage bodies. And then hijinx, as they say, ensue!

It really is a direct port of an ’80s teen sex comedy, except with a nostalgia filter and focus on adult friendships. And there’s also a cute hipster girl for Cusack who really doesn’t fit into the rest of the picture, but John Cusack [contractually] cannot be in a movie without a romantic interest. That’s just how things work. All in all, though? Pretty good stuff and definitely funny, with an excellent mixture of zany, raunchy, and sweet.

[1] I’d explain, but the explanation would I think actually be longer than the review if I did. I can’t even figure out how to sum it up in a snappy one-liner. It was just… bizarre.
[2] And, speaking of true stories: the constable guy actually said this, and my paraphrase is in no way misleading: “If I see you with a cellphone that you’ve snuck in here anyway, I have handcuffs and I’m empowered to march you out of the theater. … Let’s all try to have fun tonight!”