Sunday, April 26, 2015

Bargain Bin Review: AV in 3D!


This week I'm reviewing something a bit more fun, courtesy of the ten cent pile at one of my local junk stores. From that now far-away world of 1980s black-and-white comic book publishing, I present AV in 3D #1.

There was a resurgence of interest in analogue 3-D in the mid-80s, with many small press comic book titles jumping on the bandwagon. Ray Zone became the go-to guy for overseeing the separation process needed for the blue-and-red goggles to work effectively. Unfortunately, aged pulpy comic book paper doesn't hold the true tones over the years. Outside of viewing the pages under direct summer sunlight, the best way of experiencing the 3-D here is to scan the artwork and adjust the color in the computer. This isn't a knock against the original work put into the comics, but a friendly word of warning to my fellow scroungers of old paper.

It's also a little sad to see the proud list of distributors listed inside the front cover. This vibrant, competitive world of specialty distribution would soon come to an end with a serious of terrible business decisions leading to a lock on the industry by Diamond Comics.

Anyway, on to the comics. These are all four-page short pieces meant to introduce the reader to the titles published by Aardvark-Vanahein in 1984. These are all creator-owned, and per Dave Sim's philosophy, non-edited. And, of course, all 3-D separations are by Ray Zone.

First up is a Ms. Tree four-pager by Max Collins and Terry Beatty.  Collins is now best-known for writing Road to Perdition, and has had a long career of writing hard-boiled crime stories. This is lighter fare, opening with a half-panel shot of the titular character trying on a bathing suit. Terry Beatty isn't the only artist using the 3-D effect for cheesecake purposes, but this is the only story that seems to feel a little guilty about it. The story itself is a fairly standard catch-a-crook tale involving a movie theater hosting a 3-D film festival. Not great, but not terrible.

Next up is a Flaming Carrot short by Bob Burden. Burden's rough art style and wonderful imagination are one of the delights of the 80s. Here, for no particular reason, giant moons invade the Carrot's Dogpatch-ish world and kidnap Sponge Boy. This is the essence of super-hero comics, boiled down to a series of events that hover on the edge of surrealism. The 3-D just makes it all weirder.

After that we get a normalman snippet from Jim Valentino. Here, we're getting into the realm of cartoon-y parody where people are hyper-muscular or hyper-curvy. Not really a story, this is more of an introduction to the concept of a comic-book nerd living in a world where everyone else is a super-hero. And another opportunity to provide the reader with 3-D cheesecake, which was probably more impressive in the pre-internet and anti-sex 80s.

Bill Messner-Leobs uses his few pages to give us a beautiful Journey interlude. He uses the 3-D process to enhance the feeling of being in a forest, with leaves falling outside the panels and birds flying overhead. The story involves a pair of tribal brothers who are looking for the source of some purloined maize and run into a crazed European settler looking for revenge. A nice change of pace from the usual in-yer-face action required by the format.

We also get a Neil the Horse story from Arn Saba. This is a retro-cartoony piece in which various comic-book characters are on the run from the funny animal police. They jump in and out of each other's books, breaking the fourth wall over and over again, 3-D style. A clever and cute use of the short amount of space provided.

The last story is an interesting failure from Dave Sim (and I'm assuming the ever-talented Gerhard, who isn't credited). It appears to be a few pages from a larger dream sequence in the regular Cerebus title. The aardvark flies around and through windows for a few pages. It doesn't really work as a stand-alone piece and doesn't give us any intro information. There's a big egotistical assumption here that everyone already reads Cerebus, which is a bad decision to make in a publisher's sampler. But, Sim's the boss and there are no editors, so in the end all one can say is caveat emptor.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Colette's The Shackle (L'Entrave)


Much of the literature of the first half of the 20th century seems to be obsessed with the question of what masculinity is, or how to reclaim it, in the face of burgeoning middle-class luxury and the de-romanticizing of war. Out of the pantheon of core English Lit titles, James Joyce's Molly Bloom may be a lone attempt at looking at the feminine side of the problem. In America, bored housewives finally found a kindred spirit later in the century with Betty Friedan. In France, however, the leisure class already had Colette.

Not to say that Colette focuses solely on whatever feminine culture was in those heady, between-war years. The Last of Cheri is very concerned with the question of French masculinity, portraying a young man brought up in the world of coquetry who is very out of place among his war-scarred peers.

L'Entrave pre-dates the Cheri novels by a few years and portrays a more typically masculine type as a counterpoint to our heroine Renee Nere. Renee is recovering from the end of an affair, portrayed in The Vagabond. She's inherited a bit of money and so doesn't have to work as an aging actress, retiring to a small building in Nice.

She's become shackled to a neighboring couple, an attention-hungry girl, he a brutish boy, both the type who like to fight violently before making love. Besides May and Jean there is sometimes the addition of Masseau, the opium-addicted older man who comes in and out of the story like a Greek Chorus. Or perhaps like Cassandra, hiding wisdom behind senility.
"This will last as long as you like, and no longer..."
Upon fleeing this stifling life to Switzerland, she finds that Jean is pursuing her in the hopes of an affair. As a divorced, middle-aged woman, Renee sees this on the surface as a way to avoid loneliness, as long as the relationship doesn't reach a serious level. And so the conflict of the story arises from this acquiescence, as both sides fall into the master/mistress relationship.
"No, I don't agree with you."
And for the author, it seems to be inevitable that neither side can fall into their roles comfortably, as long as the ideas of love or marriage are pushed away. Renee is never fully feminine as she tries to influence the seriousness of their relationship, keeping her hotel room as a caveat to independence. Jean, meanwhile, is never fully masculine as he doesn't control the affair, doesn't have a kept woman to come home to. The tense moments in between the time spent in bed come to a climax in an exchange wherein Renee fully admits to not supporting Jean's position, when as a woman (or as his woman) it is expected that she support him.
"You spend your time putting Jean opposite you. That's the attitude of coition, no more."
This ends the affair, and seems to be the natural ending point of the novel. However, it then goes on for a bit while Renee can't force herself to let go and claim the independent hotel life she intellectually desires. She then ends up being lectured to by Masseau, who accuses her of desiring Jean selfishly, rather than as a woman should by not "wanting" at all.
"The hand of my master fell heavily on me."
And so Renee ends up going back to Jean, and he takes his turn lecturing her about treating all men as her enemy, just because of her bad history and divorce. They become a couple again, but this time it is on his terms. The reader is left to meditate on their role reversal, on Jean's active maleness being anchored by Renee's new passivity.

Which makes this a curious read for someone living a hundred years later and across the ocean. There has always been a certain genre of "women's fiction" where obedience is seen as a natural virtue. Some may even see this as a progenitor of the current wave of post-Twilight pop fiction. Having worked in bookstores, I see it more squarely as a part of the Christian fiction tradition which churns out Amish romance novels and calls to make your marriage "fireproof." But Colette doesn't seem to be a part of conservative culture, even for her time.

And given that most of the book is beautifully written and full of psychological insights that come through even in translation, the last few chapters seem hasty and didactic. As a reader, I have to wonder if Colette felt that her novel wouldn't sell without a moral ending, or if she really did morally feel at this time that her character Renee had somehow become a bad example. It definitely hurt the novel for me, and I'm not sure I would recommend this beyond having a curiosity about Colette's earlier writing.

Unless you're down with the "bonnet rippers." To each their own, as they say...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Silence of the Lambs re-read


"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green." -- Sax Rohmer, The Mystery of Fu Manchu
"Dr. Lecter's eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center." -- Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs 

Reading this right after Red Dragon was interesting. There seems to be a quick leap of writing skill for Thomas Harris, but in reality there is almost almost a decade's lag time between novels. Somewhere in there, he's cast out the more imitative parts of his voice and developed a lean yet descriptive style. This is a well-oiled pop novel machine.

And I put this squarely in the pop novel tradition. There's a tendency for Harris to cover larger topics, such as Clarice Starling's career difficulties in a masculine society, but most of the book is dedicated to the movement of plot and the presenting of a certain kind of spectacle. The bits of human relationship are overshadowed by the fantasy of Hannibal Lecter.
"You'v given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling."
For as much as this is a progressive 1980s novel, it still centers around a feminine, intelligent and demonic presence who chides Clarice Starling for having a modern, post-evil view of the world. Ensconced in his dungeon, Hannibal Lecter is an interesting variation on the Victorian villian, though not the Moriarty aspect, but the Fu Manchu one.

The actual plot of the book revolves around Starling and Jack Crawford's attempts to capture "Buffalo Bill" before he kills the daughter of a U.S. Senator. Upon close reading, it's evident that most of the independent breakthroughs come through luck rather than skill. Everything else comes about through the subtle machinations of Lector's ability to manipulate people and push them into various directions.

He usually accomplishes this by analyzing people and preying on their weaknesses, but our heroine doesn't have any obvious ones, or any that he can amuse himself with. Instead, he pulls out a memory that represents her inner strength, the successful rescue of a beloved horse that was going to be killed for fertilizer. This was accomplished under cover of the bleating of lambs being slaughtered, and so the "Silence" for Clarice won't come until her mission is fulfilled.

This is all quick, pop psychology of course, but it works within the genre, here. A large part of crime novels are always concerned with "how" the serial killer became a monster. In Silence of the Lambs, we have the monster denying any how for himself, yet having the power to see the motivation of heroes and by-standers. A nice, polite figure of Satan for the end of the 20th century.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More 100 Greatest Marvels


Here's another Marvel collection that I picked up for collage purposes. This is much better than the last one I tried (#9-6). Like that paperback, this one contains four "classic" reprint stories, meant to countdown the best issues ever. So in here we get #25-22.

First up is Uncanny X-Men #141, the often reprinted "Days of Future Past" opening number. It's the end of 1980 and the height of the John Byrne/Chris Claremont run of issues. Everyone probably knows the story now, which has the newly introduced Kitty Pryde possessed by her future self. There's a terrible apocalyptic timeline to be prevented, all hinging around the assassination of the apparently popular Senator Robert Kelly by, um, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

This is fairly ridiculous stuff, but John Byrne's art really sells the "reality" of the piece. Even a bus being drawn by a team of horses seems somehow plausible as part of the future run-down environment. On the whole, Byrne's realism tends to keep Claremont's wordiness at bay, though there are a few purple prose filled captions. He also goes too far in having Professor X feel sorry for Senator Kelly. Byrne makes it pretty clear in the session scenes that the presidential hopeful is a slimy demagogue; forgiving the choice to sell a politic of fear undermines the X-Men's moral mission and shows Xavier to be a stereotypical knee-jerk liberal.

The second story is a reprint of Fantastic Four #48, "The Coming of Galactus!" Much like the Byrne/Claremont pairing, at this point Stan Lee's wordiness has been toned back a bit, letting Jack Kirby's storytelling shine. It's quite amazing to see the leap of quality between this and the earlier Marvel issues. Using a simple six-panel layout, Kirby crams in much more storytelling and visual invention than we get in today's wimpy computer-edited comics. And what IS that on the penultimate collage page, some weird combo of hair drier/vacuum cleaner/space ship that Galactus drives around? The apocalypse is here, and it's drawn by Kirby.

We also get a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1, with two stories by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The first, presented in the usual six-panel grid, gives us the prototypical Peter Parker story in which he does a great deed and instead of receiving adulation, is hounded by the public. For the third part, where he's tricked by The Chameleon into taking the fall for a crime, Ditko crams everything into a modern nine-panel grid. It's curious, and makes one wonder whether this is a response to having less room on a deadline, or a change of format for a story with less drama and more action. While not as good as the FF story, it's all a lot of fun. There's something particularly adorable about that way Ditko draws a loving Aunt May happily pawning her jewels to keep from losing her house.

The last entry is the Frank Miller drawn and written Daredevil #181. I know a lot of people hold these Miller issues up as some sort of high watermark of comic book culture, but to me this just looks like an amateur artist barely squeaking by. His human figures have poor anatomy, perspective is out of whack in many panels, and there's a barely recognizable helicopter. It reminds me of Rob Leifeld's later work on The X-Men. He does know how to hide his illustrative flaws, using a lot of dramatic shadows and tiny panel tiers, but there's no getting around the awful tough guy dialogue. This is told from a slightly mad villain's point-of-view, so it may be meant as parody, but there's no sign of that in the artwork. The story actually climaxes with a fairly pornographic panel of Electra being skewered and lifted into the air. The whole sequence screams of "look at me!" and while showing the importance of the event, fails to portray the supposed emotional impact of tragedy. A failure of an issue, but an interesting one.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Red Dragon re-read


After watching the excellent first season of Hannibal, I decided it was time to re-visit the Thomas Harris novels that inspired that series. They're also very easy to find at your friendly neighborhood thrift store.

This isn't high literature. As a writer, Harris wavers back and forth between a generic, stripped-down pop novel voice and his own developing, more descriptive style. Its these descriptions that make the book work so well; character can be revealed by the random viewing of the mundane:
"In the pharmacy where he bought the Bufferin, the contraceptives with their illustrated wrappings were in a lucite case on the wall behind the cash register, framed like art."
 That would be Will Graham, the apparent protagonist and insecure stepfather. He's a riff on the magical Sherlock Holmes type, who can intuit and reconstruct motives from the barest of clues. Unlike Holmes, however, Graham is very open about his mental states, always on the brink of an emotional breakdown.
"The reason you caught me is that we're just alike..."
And so it falls to Graham's nemesis to be the cold and calculating one. As Moriarty was presented as the opposite, but equal, shadow to Holmes, Hannibal Lector is the other half of this narrative equation, not giving Will useful information as much as verifying the serial killer's point of view. Using Lector as a foil, Graham can keep his emotional distance from the crimes, even as Hannibal taunts him with the policeman's fear of lost humanity. He that gazes into the abyss and all that.

This isn't the main conflict of the novel, however. It isn't even a conflict between Graham and the Red Dragon serial killer. The story is really about Francis Dolarhyde, the abused child who grows up to murder entire families. After inadvertently falling into a normal sexual relationship with a blind co-worker (yes, yes, letting the obvious symbology slide) he is presented with the opportunity to give up the Red Dragon motivation and be reborn into a new life.

It's a neat twist in the plot, and plays well until the first ending of the novel. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with this resolution, giving us a second "shock" ending. The explanation for the surprise comes from something Hannibal does back in the beginning of the book, but it takes so long to explain all the in-between events that all momentum is lost. It also feels like a cop-out, leaving Will Graham without an actual stopping point in the story, just giving us one more event that happens on the way out. As a character seeking closure or change, Graham, and the readers, deserve better.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Greatest Marvels of All Time. Says so right in the title.


I picked this one up at a thrift store for a quarter for collage purposes. For reading purposes, that's also about what this book is worth. For their 40th anniversary, Marvel had some sort of survey asking people what the best issues "ever" were. This paperback collects the nine through six highest rated out of a hundred.

Number nine is the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, which was only a year old at the time. It's possibly the worst issue of anything that I've ever read. In this iteration, Peter Parker's science nerd vocabulary has been replaced with a "normal" teenage range of "cool" and "no way!" He has inane conversations with his family and friends, gets mildly bullied for pages at a time by the usual stereotypes, and eventually gets bitten by a spider that gives him powers. The artwork is as bland as the script (if there was one) giving us long sequences of nothing punctuated by random close-ups of character's eyes. This is the comic book equivalent of being stuck on a bus full of suburban high school kids on their way to the mall.

Eight is the first issue of the Uncanny X-Men from 1964. This is also bad, but in a different way. Instead of boring dialogue, Stan Lee typically doesn't know when to stop. His characters have to comment on every action being performed in every panel as well as think furiously about their inner turmoil. The Jack Kirby art on this is just passable. Obviously, this is just assembly-line fare designed for young boys who want to fantasize about fighting evil. Or in this case, Magneto, who doesn't really seem to have a well-thought out agenda outside of showing off his weird abilities: "BUT THEY'RE MAKING NO MOVE TO SURRENDER! PERHAPS THEY NEED ANOTHER  DEMONSTRATION OF MY POWER!" Really, he just needs a good infomercial to take over the world.

The seventh entry is The Avengers #4, in which Captain America returns to the world of trademarked characters. Kirby's art is again pretty lackluster, but also again, there aren't any big ideas for him to illustrate here. The plot makes no sense, racing from page to page on the strength of ridiculous events, with Stan Lee having Captain America exclaim "I MUST HAVE BEEN FROZEN IN AN ICE FLOE, AND THEN FOUND BY SOME ESKIMOS WHO THOUGHT I WAS A SUPERNATURAL OBJECT!" Apparently, he's never experienced a hangover before. Oh. And Cap's creepy Bucky obsession starts here, too. As Iron Man says "I NOTICE IT TOOK A THREAT TO THE BOY TO BRING YOU INTO ACTION, FELLA!"

The last piece is the infamous Amazing Spider-Man #121, in which Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacey dies because being happy is "not what Spider-Man is about." It's beautifully illustrated by Gil Kane, who really knows how to get the most  out of expressing paranoia as floating heads and bad memories. The story, by Gerry Conway, seems to revolve around the fact that Osborne's son Harry decided to take an acid trip. This is apparently such a morally offensive thing to do that his dad turns into the Green Goblin and kidnaps Gwen. So there, kids, see how drugs will harm your loved ones? Spider-Man fails to save her from falling off the Brooklyn Bridge. leading the way for hundreds of issues worth of angst and Mary Jane.

Comics, kids!