Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Happy Belated Kirby Day

I feel somewhat shamed for missing the chance to join in various Jack Kirby tributes taking place across the comics blogosphere on what would have been his 89th birthday. (That was Monday, BTW.) But it's still the same week, so maybe I can kick in a belated tribute.

Jack Kirby was arguably the finest artist in the comics medium, certainly the best I've ever come across. Modern artists can achieve more photorealistic work, with more sophisticated shading, but this sometimes takes away from the flow between panels, and since comics don't rely on newsstands or five-and-dime stores for sales anymore, they can run late if an artist needs to take some extra time. Kirby seemingly never missed a deadline, and turned out thousands upon thousands of pages solely by virtue of sitting down at his drawing board and staying there for as long as it took.

More importantly, his art strikes the perfect balance between beauty and storytelling. His action scenes leap at the reader using a combination of skewed angles and perspective tricks that became a favored technique of the genre (which has always struggled to depict action and movement in a medium that is by nature static.) As if that wasn't enough, his art is often just plain beautiful to look at. Working at Marvel in the sixties, Kirby's style became more abstract, his figures blockier, his lines more angular. The results are unique; characters have recognizable proportions and believable poses, but seem stronger, more vibrant, and just a wee bit weirder. Kirby was also fond of strange and vaguely expressionistic effects, photo collage, gadgets that were several orders of magnitude more elaborate than they needed to be, and "Kirby Krackle", a nifty effect whereby "cosmic energy" and pillars of smoke and similar things were represented by wild, fractal-esque patterns of solid dots (sometimes called, natch, Kirby Dots.) A certain joy of drawing comes forth in every page, as well as the ingenuity of a mind that just plain sees the world in a different way.

Kirby also wrote, and created more ideas and characters than could possibly be listed. It's still not quite clear about the exact extent of his collaboration with Stan Lee when the two worked together in the Sixties; the general consensus seems to be that Lee, who got the official writing credit, came up with the basic idea for each issue and wrote the final dialogue, and Kirby worked out the beats of the story in between. Certain characters, like the Silver Surfer, are uncontestedly his. When Kirby left Marvel, he began to work as both plotter and penciler, leading us to what is my personal favorite bit of his body of work- the Fourth World.

The Fourth World was an umbrella name for 4 separate titles written and drawn by Kirby for DC: NEW GODS, THE FOREVER PEOPLE, MISTER MIRACLE, and for various reasons, a run on SUPERMAN'S PAL, JIMMY OLSEN that took the title from light fantasy-comedy to high action insanity. Together the four books told the story of a conflict between the super powered "Gods" of New Genesis and Apokolips, a war in the Heavens coming to Earth as Apokolips' leader searched for an equation in people's minds that would allow him to control all living thought. Ramping up the "mythology" aspect of the superhero genre to previously unheard-of levels, Kirby's Fourth World project was cut down early (MISTER MIRACLE, the most popular series, running only 18 issues), but it's since become a cult favorite and a major part of the DC Universe. And he didn't stop there. Kirby appreciated that one of the strengths of the superhero genre was its ability to contain a wide variety of bizarre and fantastic ideas, of which he had plenty. He embodied Death as a black man in multicolored armor flying on skis. He had an entire planet sitting in a man's basement, inhabited by classic movie monsters. A super escape artist battled a sedentary being called "The Lump" in the confines of his overactive mind. Superman fought a giant green Jimmy Olsen. Good times were had by all. Some day, I tell myself, I'm going to review each and every issue of the Fourth World cycle in order of publication. And then I will learn Arabic and begin training as a sushi chef.

I don't think I actually know enough about Kirby's work and life to do the best tribute. But I will say this- he was a master, never adequately compensated for all he did for American comics. Talent like that comes along once in a lifetime.

For additional info and pretty pictures, please visit the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center online. Long live the King.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Comics Page #5: The Thing: Idol of Millions

Dan Slott's THE THING was sort of the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or FIREFLY of superhero comics; intensely beloved by a select bunch of people who followed it, completely ignored by everyone else. It ran for eight issues from 2005-2006, and is already missed. Fortunately, Marvel has just released the trade paperback collection of the complete series, under the subtitle IDOL OF MILLIONS, and I can't recommend it enough to people who missed the title on its first go-round. It is, arguably, the finest superhero book published this year or last, and maybe, just maybe if the trade sells, Marvel might give the title another "season" (as they've done with YOUNG AVENGERS and Slott's SHE HULK). Hypotheticals aside, the collected trade holds up as a funny, touching story, even considering the series' early end and the fact that it was never "written for the trade" to start with.

The Thing, aka Benjamin J. Grimm, "pug-ugliest member" of the Fantastic Four, has come into some money. A lot of it- billions, as a matter of fact, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world. (The book is not clear on how this came about- something to do with him getting control of some of the FF's money made from patenting inventions.) Already a celebrity among superheroes, he's now living it up, drinking champagne, riding in a limo, and attending glitzy parties. However, at one such party, he and the assembled guests are knocked out and dragged off to "Murderland", a lethal amusement park run by the madman Arcade. With the help of Tony Stark and a couple of reforming villains, Ben manages to save his fellow partygoers, but at the cost of his relationship with starlet Carlotta LaRosa. Soon, Sue and Reed Richards are thinking about how to get Ben to appreciate what he has instead of living it up constantly, and Ben himself tries to think of what he can really do with the money- and power- he now has. And of course, in the midst of all this, supervillains show up and he has to clobber 'em.

As I've said earlier, one of the joys of superhero comics, and the universes that DC and Marvel have created, is the variety of fun and wild characters and concepts that coexist in a world that's like ours, but more fantastic. It's the benefit of continuity, what loyal readers get in exchange for knowing what "616" means and why Dick Grayson isn't called Robin anymore. Slott understands this, and makes THE THING into a celebration of the Marvel Universe, full of familiar and not-so-familiar faces popping up to make things more entertaining (a fan-geek highlight comes when The Thing, up against a horde of Hulk robots each dressed as a particular past incarnation of the character, is aided by a group of similarly diverse Thing-bots- including a pirate-Thing who growls "Aye! It be clobberin' time!") It almost goes without saying that this is a lighthearted title, one of the increasingly rare "funny" superhero books that acknowledges and embraces the sillier side of the genre without descending into outright parody. In some ways the book reflects the "one big happy Marvel family" attitude of several books of the seventies- all the heroes know each other, they help each other out, and they're not above sitting in together on a poker game.

The book would be enjoyable just as a nostalgia trip, but there's a nicely human side to things as well. After learning the perils of wealth and fame in the first half of the series, Benjamin Grimm sets out to reconnect with his roots, working at a pawn shop to pay off what he shoplifted as a youth, and maybe give something back to the poor Yancy Street neighborhood. He's also become interested in reconnecting with his old girlfriend, blind sculptor Alicia Masters. She's with someone, but can't quite get the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing off her mind. This all could have ended up a lot more saccharine than it is, and Slott uses a light touch instead of high melodramatics to get across the idea that things are never quite as good or as bad as they seem.

Andrea DiVito pencils the first five issues, mixing excellent attention to detail with a good grasp of facial expression, making the drawings realistic and cartoony at the same time. Ol' Grimm himself is particularly lovingly rendered, his beetle brow and jigsawed skin looking as good as ever. Kieron Dwyer, who took over for the last three issues, has a style that's more abstract and not quite as pretty, but it doesn't detract from the story any. The colors by Laura Villari are appropriately vibrant throughout. A few character sketches by DiVito round out the collection (which is priced at $20.99).

THE THING: IDOL OF MILLIONS is far from the most ambitious or innovative comics story I've read in the last few years, but it's one of the best done just for what it is. There really isn't a false note or out-of-character moment in the entire book. Slott clearly loves the Marvel Universe and all the weird, goofy heroes and villains who make it up, but perhaps more importantly, he gets how they're all, at heart, people with the same ambitions and insecurities as the rest of us. Benjamin Grimm may be made of stone, but he's nothing less than human. This is a wonderful book.

Grade: A

[Please note: as of this posting, the Amazon link says this book hasn't been released yet. They're fulla beans, and you can find this at your friendly local comic shop.]

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Comics Rambling: Death and Superheroes

Okay, I'm going to try something different now: theory. God knows that as an English major I have the basic qualifications, but knowing how to begin, end or for that matter middle these kinds of pieces is tough. I'd go for the "introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion" approach, only that brings back some ugly memories.

Anyway, this one's inspired by things what have happened recently in the comics world. In last week's issue of 52, the superhero known as Booster Gold met his untimely end. He's the latest in a surprisingly long line of recent casualties who gained much of their fame in the 1987-1992 Giffen/DeMatteis run on JUSTICE LEAGUE, known as the JLI or "Bwah-ha-ha" era when the title became a kind of light superhero comedy, adored by many (myself included) and loathed by others. But that's for another column. Instead I'm thinking about superhero death in general, its impermanence, why this one doesn't sit too well with me, and why it maybe happens more than it should from an aesthetic standpoint.

First off, it's strongly rumored that Booster may not quite be dead. One of his gimmicks is that he can travel in time, and the mysterious character "Supernova" might end up being him from another timeline or something. I haven't been following very closely, or at all. So his specific case isn't that significant.

That said, DC's just been piling it on. The INFINITE CRISIS series just before this was chock full of "B-list" characters (another note for a future piece- why I hate the hierarchy) getting gorily snuffed to add drama, and it was kicked off by the untimely snuffing of Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle. So maybe my problem is that there've been too many of the damn things. The good thing about DC and Marvel's comics "universes" is that they're full of interesting and colorful characters. Everybody knows Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc., but the real fun of reading superhero comics comes when you encounter unusual figures like Bouncing Boy, Danny the Street, or the Starjammers, and realizing that all these obscure persons have their own rich history. The more "housecleaning" that gets done and the more heroes and villains consigned to oblivion, the less fantastic the universe is. Granted, it'd take many more deaths than those in IC to really diminish the variety in DC's stable, but you gotta be careful.

That said, there's another problem that comes when you kill off a superhero, which is that that character's fans don't like it. This happens in all serialized media to some degree or another, but when you're dealing with a continuity that has been in place since 1938, things get heated. Julius Schwartz, longtime DC editor, once remarked that "every character is somebody's favorite" (or words to that effect); Booster Gold isn't one-eighth as popular as Batman, but he has his fans, and so do Pantha, Wildebeest, and Namorita, to name a few recent casualties. And this is to say nothing of non-super supporting cast members like Sue Dibny and Dr. Moira MacTaggert, also departed and sorely missed. So, you piss off some readers, in exchange for adding dramatic import and nice weepy moments to a story. Finally, perhaps most obviously, killing off a character cuts off any future "in-continuity" stories for that character, and future writers will have to deal with an altered roster.

For the time being, anyway. Superhero comic book universes tend to be wild, magical places with all sorts of super-advanced technology and cosmos-altering spells. This gives writers and editors plenty of opportunities to bring back characters they like or need, though the explanations can range from the contrived (the person we saw die was a clone/robot/impostor) to the hugely elaborate (don't ask me to explain how Superman came back.) Occasionally it's done right. Usually the best ones are the simplest and most low-key; elemental hero Metamorpho came back into existence as a side-effect of a "gene bomb" launched by alien invaders that mucked with everyone else's superpowers; it took all of a page of the INVASION! crossover and was handled with a certain level of humor. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, just sort of came back. When a hero returns, there's exultation from their fanbase, accompanied by complaints from some corners that superhero deaths ought to be permanent and that these resurrections undermine the drama of the original deaths. (Such complaints rarely surface with regard to supervillain resurrections, as it's generally in-genre for bad guys to come back with the most trifling of explanations.)

I can see the logic of that, but I can't agree with it. The drama of a character's death comes from the way the moment itself is executed, not whether it "sticks", the same with any other dramatic moment in a story. THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, and BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER all contain at least one instance of a hero coming back to life after being killed, which doesn't make the death scenes any less impressive. There's only a problem when the resurrection itself is poorly done or doesn't fit the logic of the story/setting. On the one hand, a character coming back to life can be a silly contrivance to force a happy ending, on the other, it's also a trope found in more than one religion and can be argued as a mythic element derived from the cycle of the seasons.

So, with a certain revolving-door system in place, are superhero deaths worth complaining about at all? The short answer is that this is the Internet and that continuity errors in FUTURAMA episodes are worth complaining about, but to be slightly less flip, there are some bad things about an overly bloody run of comics. There's almost always a waiting period between a character's death and resurrection, its length being that between the time of death and the time someone convinces the current editor that said character is worth reviving and has a decent pitch. You'll notice that editors and writers never say in the immediate aftermath of a death that said character is going to be back in X months; the illusion of change is important to maintain, and unless the return has already been plotted as part of the same story arc (as with the death and return of Superman), there's a minimum grace period which, to fans of the character, is annoying at best. In almost all cases, the people killing said characters aren't the ones who created them in the first place; they have a kind of temporary stewardship of a portion of the company's intellectual property, and they don't have the kind of aesthetic authority to insist that a death should be permanent. Insisting that any significant change introduced by a writer or editor can't be reversed would put good writers at the mercy of bad ones, and vice versa. Not that Dan Didio, Joe Quesada, Brian Bendis, Geoff Johns, or anyone else with a lot of creative influence is insisting on such authority, but it's something I hear a lot from the fanbase.

Got sidetracked there, sorry. Anyway, even if character death is impermanent, it does temporarily deprive fans of a favorite hero or ally, and given the degree to which we are encouraged to see ourselves in these larger than life spandex models, it can be particularly disheartening to see our chosen avatar bite the bullet. Which is not to say that superhero deaths shouldn't happen, but they could be rarer. Currently, it seems that every summer crossover event mandates at least one significant death, and usually more than that; these deaths, to me, seem to be a bit contrived. I'd prefer it if these deaths were limited to the organic, natural outcomes of a character's story; how we expect a figure to meet his/her end, be it heroically or otherwise. Booster Gold's final sacrifice was tainted a bit by the appearance that he was doing it solely to be remembered, Blue Beetle's by the fact that he didn't really accomplish anything- he didn't save the world or beat the bad guy, just left a nasty stain on the floor.

Really, in fiction as a whole, a character who's been established, been given a rich history (of the sort all of DC and Marvel's characters inevitably accumulate over decades), had time to connect with the audience, shouldn't just be cannon fodder. Their death should say something about them. Which I don't think happens when their head is punched off at the start of a fight scene.

So, that's my essay. Cutting and insightful, or incoherent babble? You make the call!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

In Theaters: Snakes on a Plane

[Image yoinked from Empire Movies]

The hype about SNAKES ON A PLANE has had an interesting effect. On the one hand, as with any film so heavily anticipated, it's bound to disappoint; on the other, what it promises is so basic, it really can't. It didn't promise quality, or suspense, or even humor- just the basic novelty of Samuel L. Jackson battling snakes on an airplane. In this way it's almost like the classic exploitation movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies, offering a kind of "high concept" where the audience is pulled in because of an interesting premise- killer snakes on an airplane, a man growing fifty feet tall, aliens creating zombies, etc. It's a great way to hedge one's bets against a perpetually volatile box office. On the other, other hand, the possibility always exists that someone will sit down and say "okay, there are snakes on a plane. Is this really what I wanted?" So it's pleasant to discover that the movie actually kind of works, and has a bit more going for it than just the inherent appeal of Samuel L. Jackson fighting snakes in midair. Not a lot more, but enough.

Jackson plays FBI Agent Flynn, a badass superagent who is assigned to protect Sean (Nathan Phillips), an innocent surfer dude who happened to witness mob boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murder an L.A. prosecutor (the lesson here is to never do assassinations yourself.) Sean needs to be flown from Hawaii to Los Angeles to testify, and he and Flynn sit in first class while a variety of colorful passengers are bumped to coach. Meanwhile, Eddie Kim has launched a plan that, though inefficient, wins points for style- to kill the witness, he's had the plane loaded with a variety of exotic poisonous snakes, and a small explosive launches them from the cargo bay while the plane is in midair. As one might imagine, carnage ensues, and Agent Flynn must unite the passengers to fight off the reptilian attackers (enraged by pheromones sprayed on the leis that passengers were decked with prior to boarding.)

As we know, while this film was still being shot, it gained a following among internet hipster-types (myself included) who were tickled at the idea of a film with such a cheesy yet straightforward title and premise. As a result, the filmmakers ramped up both the humor and exploitation value, reshooting scenes to include more graphic violence, swearing, gratuitous nudity, and of course more snakes. A line from a fan-made trailer- "I want these motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane!"- was put in the film proper (two guesses as to who says it, and the first doesn't count.) As a result the film's campier than was probably originally intended, and if you look closely you can see the seams- some bits are more serious and dramatic than others, some are obviously there for the cheese value. The film could have easily fallen apart into an incoherent mess, or tipped so far into deliberately comedy as to be neither funny nor scary.

Fortunately, the filmmakers seem to have made an honest go at making a monster movie, and not a spoof of one. There are still shocks, and jolts, and the characters, including an OCD rap star (Flex Alexander), his video-game obsessed bodyguard (Kenan Thompson), a strangely likable Paris Hilton type (Rachel Blanchard), and a decidedly effeminate steward (Bruce James), are extremely broad, but endearing in an Irwin Allen sort of way. (David Koechner is particularly amusing as the plane's co-pilot.) There's also a couple of nice low-key romances, between Flynn and stewardess Claire Miller (Julianna Marguiles), and Ethan and younger flight attendant Tiffany (Sunny Mabrey). All that, plus kids in peril, adds up to a nice visceral pull- as campy as things may seem at times, you don't want the snakes to kill everyone.

The snakes themselves, though obviously computer generated, make for good monsters, animated with personality and a flair for the theatrical (as well as a tendency to aim for the naughty bits.) They pop out of places they couldn't possibly have gotten into, stay silent until they're just in frame, and always rear before striking. Their rampage is accompanied by a good Trevor Rabin score. I also appreciated how colorful the movie was, seeing as it was preceded by trailers for a pair of horror films where only two shades were permitted in any given frame. Indeed, of the films I've seen this summer, this is the most unashamedly, unabashedly fun; where even the new PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN took a turn for the dark and dramatic, this has a bouncy, perky tone even when snakes are killing people. There's something charming about that in this day and age.

I think the fear I had was that, after all was said and done, this would just be another disposable thriller with a cool title. Instead the filmmakers, whether on purpose or by accident, found the right balance between humor and horror, and the resulting epic, full of pretty girls and scary snakes, satisfies in a way that so many attempts at modern B-movies don't. Sci-Fi Channel, are you paying attention?

Story by David Dalessandro and John Heffernan
Screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
Directed by David R. Ellis

Grade: B+

Friday, August 18, 2006

Tracey Ullman: Behind the Music

In what is apparently an attempt by my subconscious to squelch any last remaining claim to maleness on my part, I've decided to blog about the music career of Tracey Ullman. Not her lengthy career as brilliant comic actress and writer, but a much more ephemeral stint as pop singer which apparently lasted all of two years but managed to produce more obscure singles than I can count. I came across Tracey's first album in a record store in Kansas City. How, I can't quite recall- I'd never spent much time in the pop/rock section, and I'm only slightly more familiar now- but there it was, and Trace was looking, well, adorable. I'd seen a VH1 bit on her brief career, with some footage of her performing, and this seemed like such an odd, neat thing that I had to have it, cheesy hearts on the back cover and all. Hence the affair began.

Tracey was already known as a comedian before starting her song career, and she apparently happened into it as a lark. (I think every celebrity in Britain who displays any singing talent must release at least one pop album by law. Not doing so is an offence punishable by not being invited on the chat shows quite as often.) With help from a number of industry veterans, most notably Croydon goddess Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey released her first album, "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places", and it was a hit. She also charted with several singles, by far the most successful being "They Don't Know", a cover of one of Maccoll's songs that hadn't quite broken out the first time around. (Interestingly, the B-side to that single was simply "The B-Side", a spoken comedy bit with Tracey doing the voices of several studio musicians, and which is quite funny.)

Tracey's style was almost purely retro, an homage to 60's girl groups. Most of her songs were covers from this era (or, like "They Don't Know", tributes thereto)- for a time I was under the impression that her career had been all covers, but it turns out there are a few originals here and there, at least two ("Candy" and "Thinking of Running Away") with lyrics by Tracey herself. Some of the more offbeat covers included "I Know What Boys Like" and "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear", but her high, sweet little voice and the solid 80s-pop production lends every number a bouncy, sugary quality. It's pure bubblegum, and by those standards excellent.

To digress personally, I've always found Tracey's music a perfect mood-lifter. I don't know if it's her own charisma or the Motown-esque beats backing her, but I find it nigh-impossible to resist singing along and pounding my fist in the air during "Helpless" or "I Don't Want Our Loving To Die." I've also grown intensely found of "You Caught Me Out" (a rare original) and the ethereal "If I Had You." At this point it's obvious that I need to sign up for gender reassignment therapy, or maybe just watch a few Bond films to raise my testosterone levels. It would be cheaper.

Anyway, "You Broke My Heart..." came out in 1983, and in 1984 Tracey's follow-up record, "You Caught Me Out", was released. It didn't do nearly as well, with a couple of singles charting but nothing spectacular. Granted, I don't think the evidence indicates it was a bomb, either, and I suspect Tracey could easily have pressed forward, but she decided comedy was her true calling and soon moved to America to continue her career. Somehow, as a byproduct of this, the Simpsons were born.

Tracey's original albums are hard to find on CD, but her music has been released in several compilations, each one with a slightly different song list. I have no clue exactly how many songs she did, and haven't taken the time to count- there are seemingly endless obscure b-sides and singles floating around out there, an impressive output for so short a career. In America, the two discs to look for are "The Best of Tracey Ullman" with the above cover artwork, and "Tracey Ullman Takes On The Hits", a more recent CD. In the UK you can find "The Best Of... Tracey Ullman", a compilation by Stiff records, her original label, as well as CDs of her albums (including the 1985 best-of release "Forever"). You can also get her two albums on CD in Japan, apparently.

To conclude on another personal note, Tracey was pretty much my gateway to non-soundtrack music. At the time I picked it up, I had a few Cat Stevens albums, and had heard They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic, and that was practically it. But I listened to this, and was entertained. On an AOL board I frequented, I noted that I'd picked up Tracey's album, and a fellow poster recommended Kirsty Maccoll to me. I obliged, and slowly gained a larger appreciation of this thing called "popular" music as well as the whole "album" format. So I've got Ms. Ullman to thank for my not being completely hopeless when it comes to knowing Kylie from Madonna, the Beatles from Pink Floyd, and Devo from... whomever I could possibly mistake for Devo. And I heartily recommend her distinct brand of pop to anyone with a sweet tooth.

[Thanks to Totally Tracey Online for additional research info, and the Tralfaz Archives for the album cover image.]

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Comics Page #4: The Collected Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade
is one of the most popular webcomics running right now (possibly the most popular, there not being any universal measure we can turn to.) It's popular enough that the site manages to operate at a profit entirely through merchandise and modestly-sized ad banners, not caring how many people hotlink the images somewhere else, and has warranted two hard-copy collections of material you can read online for free (though the first volume, ATTACK OF THE BACON ROBOTS, included material originally hosted at another site and no longer accessible, or so I understand.) The second volume, EPIC LEGENDS OF THE MAGIC SWORD KINGS (collecting all the strips through 2001), came out this Wednesday, so I'll be focusing on that, but the strip in general has stayed pretty consistent, the one major change over the years being that the art is better now.

So, Penny Arcade is written by Jerry Holkins and drawn by Mike Krahulik, who, as "Tycho Brahe" and "Gabriel" respectively (I think), enjoy video games, talking about video games, and inflicting random acts of wanton cruelty on each other. Gabe is the slightly dumber, wackier, more aggressive one, and Tycho is sometimes more the straight man, though it's a subtle distinction. Other wacky characters encountered in these volumes include Div, a surly drunken DivX machine (remember, like DVD but you didn't actually own the discs and had to pay each time?); Charles, a Mac enthusiast/zealot; lecherous newscaster Randy Pinkwood, and of course, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The strip generally uses a three-panel approach, and most every entry stands on its own. Occasionally Holkins and Krahulik go absolutely crazy and do a three or even FIVE part epic, and I think you'll see one or two of the former here. Of course, the strip is about videogames (for the most part), and if you don't know anything at all about said hobby/industry/medium/etc., you might be just a bit lost. Online, every strip nowadays is accompanied by "News" posts which supply any necessary context, though not all of them need it and the posts often go into other subjects. Sometimes the context is obvious, sometimes it ain't, though I have to say, I was only tangentially following video game news when I was first reading the strip, and it made me more interested.

In the books, Holkins/Tycho does provide brief commentary on each strip, which sometimes explains background things we wouldn't know about but usually just adds additional entertainment value. Holkins is, for a writer working in such a short form, verbose. He enjoys taking the English language and twisting it for its own sake, and the clever rhythm of the banter is a major selling point. Krahulik's art is simple and still a bit crude in these collections (the "final forms" of the main characters- who, apparently, look nothing like Holkins and Krahulik- hadn't been settled yet, though you can see the current design on the covers), but that's speaking relatively- it's still good comic art, and the facial expressions add a lot. (Both books contain some bonus art content, the second one a bit more since it seems to be collecting fewer strips.)

So, while each of these volumes costs $13 more than it would to read most of the same content online for free, and while I do recommend plunging through the archives just to get a taste for what PA is or just to pass the time, the books have their advantages. They're easier to read in a diner, easier to bookmark and flip through, and they don't emit photons. I think.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 10, 2006

"Who Wants to be a Superhero?" Episode 3- Reactions

You know what? I'm not even gonna try to write an introductory paragraph, because it's all spoilers. If you've seen the latest "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" episode, or you just don't care, read on.

Monkey Woman was by far the most interesting, and to me the most endearing, of this batch of contestants. She wanted this, and was dedicated to her character. She had a nice sparkly personality and incredible persistence.

I can't really argue with the elimination as such. She got caught in a lie, which she shouldn't have done, and it sucks that it came this early in the game. This perhaps is why I prefer scripted television- in a dramatic series, Monkey Woman would be given a nice redemptive arc and come back to prove her worth at the climax. But though reality shows are never fully "real", I doubt this bit was planned. She's charming enough that the producers could have found an excuse to keep her around, but they stuck to the rules. Fair enough.

And so, I have a suggestion. If this show is considered a ratings success, do a second series. And bring Monkey Woman back as part of the next round. She'll get a nice fresh start, her past all settled, and be able to stand or fall based completely on her performance in the challenges. Audiences will like it, and it's not unprecedented in the reality show field. It'll be fun.

With her and Ty'Veculus gone (the latter surprising me almost as much), the show seems less interesting, but the growing conflict between the contestants should sustain it for three more episodes. And Creature is starting to impress me- I thought she had a weak hook at first, but she's shown character.

Keep swingin', MW.

Actual content will return soon.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dredged from YouTube: K9 and Company

You know, it's not so much the time it takes to write blog posts, it's having something to write about. But sometimes the fates throw you something. A news story has confirmed that yet another DOCTOR WHO spinoff, currently titled SARAH JANE INVESTIGATES (Link should be good for a bit longer- I can't find the story on a separate page), is under development for CBBC. (Further along, though still yet unaired, is TORCHWOOD.) This prompted a couple of posters to comment on the first and for a long time only DOCTOR WHO spinoff, K9 AND COMPANY, which also starred Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and only ever aired once as an hour-long pilot. To illustrate the, shall we say infamous title sequence, someone posts a Youtube link. Fortunately for me, said link contains not only the titles, but the entire episode split up into 6 parts. The link in the picture above takes you to an Amazon page where you can get the show on VHS- I try to encourage being nice and legal when I can- but if you're so inclined, you know the site, you know the title, and search is easy enough.

So, a single not-terribly-good pilot for a vaguely unpromising series starring two characters from a show I like, with a tenuous connection to current events. Sounds like a post to me, let's go!

Ironically, the much-mocked title sequence is possibly the most entertaining part of the entire show. With a chirpy, cheesy theme song and shots of Lis Sladen sipping wine outside a pub and running along a country road in running shorts and legwarmers cut with various closeups of her robot dog, it seems to promise a kind of British KNIGHT RIDER, maybe with less violence and more mystery-solving stuff, with Sarah Jane and K-9 roaming the English countryside fighting crime. Which seems to have been the aim, the classic "she's an X, he's a Y, they fight crime" setup which ruled the 70s and 80s. What went wrong? Well...

The first actual scene features a group of cultists tramping around a cemetery, performing an elaborate ritual to Hecate (this was back when people had trouble telling the difference between witchcraft, Satanism, and community theater.) From there we cut to two old women having a drink in an old house and discussing one's imminent trip to America, and unfortunately it's this scene which sets the tone for the episode. The departing professor is Sarah Jane's aunt Lavinia, and Sarah, formerly a newspaper reporter when she wasn't travelling the cosmos with an eccentric alien genius, soon arrives at the mansion to work on a book. Lavinia, however, has already vanished, and Sarah is alone at the mansion with Lavinia's "young ward" Dick Grayso- er, I mean, Brendan Richards. I think. I'm not going to try too hard to put names to faces, because in truth the supporting cast is so horrifically unmemorable that I couldn't be bothered to follow.

Anyhow, when Sarah arrives, there's a package for her that apparently was dropped off at Croydon several years ago. (Make your own Royal Mail joke, I feel underqualified.) It's from her old friend the Doctor, and inside is the K-9 Mark III, a robotic dog much like that which accompanied the Doctor in his own series for a few years (though after Sarah had left.) Sarah's not clear why Lavinia's left already, so she starts poking around, with the help of her new friend K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) and Robin- *Brendan Richards*, dammit. This attracts the attentions of the Hecate coven, which apparently is an old local tradition helping the plants grow (thrill to a conversation about soil acidity!), which would be fine except they're coming up on the Winter Solstice which apparently means a human sacrifice is in order (which seems odd to me, since you're not going to see results for at least three to four months.)

So, basically, Sarah and K-9 and Adric- DAMMIT- muck around for a bit and run afoul of cultists and have drinks with old people while finding out the dark secret of whatever-the-heck-this-town-is. It's actually less boring than it sounds like, but not by enough. The pacing is fine, but there's just nothing there to see- that this was being aimed at a presumably young audience meant that they couldn't get into any really scary business, so the witches aren't ever a believable threat, and there aren't enough twists in the plot to fill an hour.

To make up for it, Elisabeth Sladen is quite charming, and she has the same enthusiasm here that she brought to her role on WHO (and which no doubt led to her returning to the series this year.) She makes Sarah Jane a believable and endearing character, and it's a testament to her talent that she's able to prevent the proceedings from just being painfully dull. Instead it's simply a colossal missed opportunity, and as a series pilot, a bit of a head-scratcher. What precisely was the intended audience? DOCTOR WHO was established as a kind of family program, with something for everyone, a tradition which has continued into the new series. There's more of a kiddy show vibe to this, but if that's the case, why the budget WICKER MAN storyline? What would a normal episode have been like? Would they have fought more covens (as implied in the last scene) or other homegrown vaguely sci-fi-ish threats? What could they really come up with on a budget that, judging from the pilot, was even lower than WHO's? (To be fair, pilots are sometimes made for cheap compared to a regular series, just to get an episode out the door.) Questions like this, more than the ratings the show received on its one airing, are probably the reason there was never a full series. At this point K9 AND COMPANY was more a half-baked idea for a television series than a solid concept.

In short, it's a curiosity, well-suited for the legal anarchy of YouTube, more evidence that it will be a sad day if and when the forces of perpetual copyright manage to reign it in as they have Napster. Then again, with its ties both to SARAH JANE INVESTIGATES and an upcoming K9 animated series, the BBC might give it a DVD release in the not-too-distant future. It's pretty much for WHO fans and completists only, but we know who we are. And many of us don't mind just looking at Elisabeth Sladen for 49 minutes.

Grade: C-