Transformer

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Comic book, 2012

Josh Bayer’s drawings sure let you know they’re working hard- beads of sweat fly off the character’s furrowed brows as they struggle to convert simple thoughts into comprehensible communication. After seeing his work online for years as one of the more visible faces of the current alt-comics scene, Transformer is my first time reading one of his actual books (barring the Suspect Device series he edits, in which all his contributors seem to adapt his visual language to varying degrees). It’s a comic about comics, in the way I suspect his Raw Power series is about punk. Furthermore, it’s a comic about making comics, almost making it self-referential twice over. Postmodernism can often feel impersonal, but Bayer seems to be able to overcome this. It’s just as easy to imagine the beads of sweat flying off the protagonists of Transformer are Bayer’s own as they are the artistic icons they ostensibly represent.


Curse Of The Molemen

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Comic book, 1991

Charles Burns’s Curse Of The Molemen barters heavily in 50’s science-fiction and horror, not unlike another comic of its time I recently read, Clowes’s Lloyd Llewellyn. Curse Of The Molemen, by contrast, casts a decidedly more ironic gaze upon its subject matter, effectively launching a much sharper jab at the faults of that era. (Specifically as depicted here, domestic violence.) Because of this, and the heavy use of surreality, comparisons to Blue Velvet would be apt. The main difference, besides being a lot more direct about its heritage, is that its protagonist, Big Baby, is actually a part of the surreality. Or, perhaps he is the only true piece of surreality, as all other depicted aspects of it could be attributed to his imagination. To be honest, I don’t quite understand the meaning of the Big Baby character, but this is the only story featuring him that I’ve read, and I’m under the impression there are more.


Lloyd Llewellyn #1

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Comic book, 1986

It’s difficult to view early work by a great artist outside the shadow of their later, more substantial achievements (if that’s the trajectory their career in fact took). This is the case with Lloyd Llewellyn #1, the debut solo book of the great Dan Clowes. The work stands on its own, with style and personality to spare, but what it has in those areas in volume it lacks in density, clipping much of that personality from a certain irony-tinted nostalgia for 50’s swank and masculinity. It’s an area of interest that comics doesn’t support any more. (I can think of a number of artists that paint with a similar broad, lively brush who stopped releasing work a number if years ago, although Steve Mannion recently seems to have found a new way to funnel interest for it via Kickstarter.) This could be due to a shift in the interests of comics readers, a shrunken industry no longer being able to support work this insubstantial, both, or something else. So it’s a good thing Clowes made the shift in his work he did- he went from this, to having his characters be into this, to this being only one of a variety of hues that color his work- because he saved his career, and helped shape the industry, by doing it.


Evil Dead (2013)

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Film, 2013

The biggest reservation people seem to have about the new Evil Dead, people in my circle of friends anyway, is that it’s not funny. It’s a valid reservation. If the idea of Evil Dead without the humor- which is to say, a boilerplate gore movie- doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t see this movie. There’s nothing in it for you. But the part of that reservation I don’t think holds much water is that an Evil Dead film without humor is inherently pointless. While the humor and personality of the originals is what gave them a wider appeal, I think it’s worth remembering that the original Evil Dead film was not funny. The original Evil Dead was an attempt to create an extreme gore film. That attempt was eventually subverted when the original filmmakers’ sense of humor and distinct personality proved impossible to suppress, steering the films in an, admittedly, much more worthwhile direction. (Not to mention the third film, Army of Darkness, and Bruce Campbell’s increasingly hammy public persona permanently softening the reputation of a series of films that had previously been primarily known for the original’s X rating and being highly controversial in England.) But the new Evil Dead is an attempt to deliver on that original promise of unadulterated, grueling terror. And true to the original intent of the series, it is gruesome, repulsive, and shocking. Depending on whether or not you’d consider that last sentence to be a mark against or for the film, you will either hate or be thrilled by it.

I don’t mean to imply that the new Evil Dead is completely devoid of personality. Its demented supernatural elements and the over-the-top nature of the gore imbue it with some character, although much less than Sam Raimi’s direction and Bruce Campbell’s performance injected into the originals.

The writing is also, for a movie of this caliber, surprisingly competent. The character work is half good and a clever plot device, namely that the protagonist experiencing withdrawal from a severe cocaine addiction, manages to finally find a reasonable excuse for keeping the kids at the cabin way past when shit starts getting weird.


Stoker

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Film, 2013

I was a little apprehensive about Stoker going in, only really being a fan of one of the three movies by the director that I had seen previously (loved Lady Vengeance, was indifferent toward Oldboy, and hated Thirst). At first I found it difficult to stomach Chan-wook’s visual poetry and glassy-eyed melodrama. This could be due to the fact that I might not be as open to that style when presented in English. And while that’s on me, the problem was exacerbated by the performance of the lead actress, often a dead fish, and by Kidman playing it a little too artificially. But once the fluff started to become weighted by the evolving mystery, I was enthralled by the proceedings, hook, line, and sinker. And as with any Chan-wook film, there’s no shortage of carefully orchestrated, effective sequences and moments. There was a bit of sound design where India drinks a glass of wine that really took my breath away, the montage where she rejects Uncle Charlie’s offers of assistance was a welcome bout of levity, and the sequence centered around Philip Glass’s stunning duet really does the piece justice. The movie ultimately draws its power from showing us ghoulish monsters, every bit as unnerving as vampires or ghosts, presented as mere humans.


Badger #46

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Comic book, 1989

Deep into the middle of its run, Mike Baron’s initial series of Badger comics is starting to come loose at te seams. There are a couple new features of the comic I can attribute this to. First, the instances of Baron ham fisting his anti-left political agenda into the book have grown in both frequency and unpleasantness. There was the joke last issue where Baron, in an in-panel note from the editor, asked the “Madison lesbians” not to get mad at one of his characters for believing that a woman isn’t complete without a man. Then in this issue, Baron has a left-wing talk radio host hastily usher a caller off the air for stating she’s a happy housewife. Now, listen. Let’s give Baron the benefit of the doubt and say maybe there was a time when there was a group of extremely vocal social change advocates in Madison. Even so, actively discrediting an oppressed minority, even for turning it up to 11, just seems sleazy. Maybe there was a time when these references made at least a little sense. We are no longer living in that time, and this book isn’t aging well as a result.

Second, I don’t think Ron Lim’s art is a good fit for the series. I’ve already made the case that a realistic style is intrinsically important to The Badger‘s thematic success, and Lim’s art is too cartoony. There’s no danger in this world any more, only fun, and the loss of that dynamic is a huge blow to the series.

To be honest, it’s hard not to let the shortcomings of these later issues cast doubt on the quality of what came before. Was I wrong about The Badger being a subtle satire? Is it actually being straightforward in its depiction of violence? Was the deft utilisation of a stiff art style in fact a simple case of bad taste? These types of distinctions have never really mattered to me. I’ve always been much more interested in what I see in a work than what a creator intended. The key to a good work for me then is that it has enough complexity to provoke thought, or to at least imply depth, without telling you outright what it’s about. The Bill Reinhold era of this comic possessed those ingredients. I hope later issues find them again.


Badger #25

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Comic book, 1987

I love telling people about The Badger. It’s about a mentally ill Vietnam vet who is a martial arts expert and dresses like a superhero. He savagely beats anyone he doesn’t approve of, from supervillains to jaywalkers, all in equal measure. It uses the old gag that someone would have to be a militaristic crazy person in order to be a superhero and milks it for all it’s worth, somehow presenting The Badger as a sweet, likable guy in the process. Also, he’s employed as a bodyguard by a time displaced 18th century weather wizard turned stockbroker named Ham. And it has the best balance of humanity and humor in dealing with the subject of mental illness that I’ve ever seen. Did I mention The Badger can talk to animals, like Dr. Doolittle? So, after telling all of this to someone, I get to tell them that no, I wasn’t just free-associating. There’s actually over 70 issues of this comic. And it’s very good.

I used to be annoyed that the cover for this issue, #25, is the main image for The Badger on Wikipedia. It looks very morose, and a poor representation of what reading the freewheeling comic is actually like. But now that I’ve read the issue, I very much approve. Not only is it a solid story, but one that would definitely serve as a good introduction to the series. In it, The Badger helps an old woman get revenge on her neighbors for murdering the ducks in her pond. It shows The Badger’s sweet side, his physical prowess*, and his surprisingly accurate sense of justice. (It’s the amount of punishment in relation to the crime that he has trouble accurately gauging.)

The art in this issue is by Bill Reinhold, who I believe drew more issues of the series than any other artist. His art is generic, dull, and stiff, and I imagine it’s a big reason why no one ever talks about the title with any reverence. But I think Reinhold’s art is what makes The Badger really work. The humor in The Badger works because it’s juxtaposed against its presentation as a second rate action comic. When The Badger does things like irately yell “Honk!” at a group of confused ducks while flapping his arms like wings, as he does at the end of this issue, it appears truly absurd. If depicted in a style that appeared to have any sense of humor at all (like the art in, say, fellow funny superhero comic The Tick), the jokes wouldn’t have nearly the same punch. The classic humor comic Herbie uses the same strategy.

This conventional style also allows the action, guided by writer Mike Baron (a real-life martial arts enthusiast and practitioner) to have real weight. When The Badger’s eyes go crooked and he starts spouting gibberish, you know that someone is about to be seriously hurt. There will be no cartoon stars or birds shooting out of their head, only their own teeth and blood. And that’s exciting. Baron (as he does with his other signature creation, Nexus) stacks the morals of the situation so inarguably in his protagonist’s favor, primarily by making his villains unilaterally, absurdly rotten, that it’s not hard to get behind The Badger‘s acts of violence, and even to turn your head  and chuckle as he dispenses even more justice than is warranted.

The Badger reminds me of a New York Times pull quote Marvel frequently uses to sell Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix, which they describe as “a witty blast of media criticism disguised as a garish spin-off of the X-Men”. I hope someday more people realize there’s a similar level of satire at work in The Badger.

* Side note: I like that almost no one can defeat The Badger in physical combat. I think it makes the character exciting, and forces the narrative to go in unique directions. In my opinion, whenever writer and creator Mike Baron would write The Badger being defeated by anyone less than a world champion, he was fucking up.


999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

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Video game, 2010

Here’s yet another DS adventure game that beat me. I could dedicate a lot of thought dissecting the things about this game that don’t work, things that I believe are objectively bad, but instead I’m going to talk about one moment that stuck out to me as particularly awful, and from which you can draw your own conclusions about the level of sophistication at work here. In it the protagonist asks his love interest (and their characters have no depth past what I just described) to repeat herself after she said the words “It’s really hard”. Several times. He didn’t do this to laugh at her accidental innuendo, we’re told that after she repeated herself he blushed. I guess he asked her to say it again so that he could overload on how sexually exciting that is? Right in front of her? And the third party that’s present? It’s this mortifying immaturity and emotional tone-deafness that informs all aspects of this game. The shallowness of thought here is overwhelming, despite some good puzzle design. I’m surprised by the amount of positive attention this game has received, and can only speculate that people either wanted to like it because of its interesting gameplay mechanics, were fleeced into thinking its brooding atmosphere actually possessed depth, or have loose standards due to the low bar set by poor storytelling in the majority of video games.


The Ward

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Film, 2010

The Ward, horror film luminary John Carpenter’s first film after a ten year gap, is set in the year 1966, takes place in a mental asylum for young hotties that’s haunted by a ghost, and that’s it. It kind of feels like a letdown for Carpenter to return to the field with something that would have felt slight even if it were released during the time of his most prolific output, but on the other hand The Ward is simply boilerplate Carpenter. If you’re let down by getting exactly what you’re told you’re getting out of this thing by virtue of it having Carpenter’s name over the title, then that’s on you. If put in the context of modern mainstream horror this thing is shot really well, respects the audiences intelligence enough to let them sit around for a while while the tension builds, and contains a few striking images. I’ll take it, happily.


Mara #1

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Comic book, 2012

The few Brian Wood comics that I’ve read have proven to be frustrating experiences for me. This is due in part to the fact that the ideas for them sound so good on paper. It’s the execution of those ideas that doesn’t agree with me. I first experienced this with his relaunch of the Wildstorm property DV8 a while back. The basic premise was that a bunch of young, bratty superheroes get transported to a primitive land, where they are then worshiped as gods. It’s a unique idea rife with potential for action and drama, except the fact that the entire story was being told by one of the superheroes in the past tense, eliminating much of the immediacy and danger inherent in the concept. I had a similar experience with Wood’s new comic Mara, which takes place in a world where government supported sporting leagues serve as a distraction from a constant state of war, and is centered around its biggest celebrity, a volleyball star named Mara. Another great concept with built-in social commentary and visual potential. Unfortunately, Wood again takes a smart concept and tells it in a way that allows only for the minimal amount of thought from the reader. The first half of this issue is nothing but narration, explaining Mara’s world in a way not dissimilar from the way I do above. It tells us its story by practically reading us a summary of itself, instead of showing us this world and letting us discover it for ourselves. I want to love your stories Brian Wood. Please let me enjoy them instead of cramming them down my throat.