This Column Has Seven Days #057 // A Little Hard to Stomach

Hello! Long time no see! Well, it’s been a week, I suppose, so not that long. It feels like longer, though, because I crammed so much activity into my long weekend that it feels like it’s been more like … nine days. Ten at the most. This week I’ve decided to talk about a difficult genre when it comes to comics, a genre that has been very popular in the past but now seems a little dated: war comics.

This Column Has Seven Days #056 // I’m Very Bendy

This week has been a battle between my mind and my body. I have been trying to become more active in my day-to-day activities but have paid little attention to the need to stretch and keep myself limber, and I wake up in the morning feeling like an 80-year-old man with an attack of severe rheumatism. I have been taking extra time to stretch in the past few days, and not just my sore joints — I’ve tried to get back to my roots and sample a little of everything, from film to music to novels and of course, comics. Today I present for your approval the three best mind-extending offerings of the week.

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Cover to She-Hulk Volume One: Law and Disorder

Comics: I know I’m late to the party so I’ll try to keep this brief, but goodness, isn’t She-Hulk Volume 1: Law and Disorder a fun and clever little book? Charles Soule gives the character a solid motivation and a very clear voice, and surrounds her with a very effective supporting cast (including Patsy Walker, Hellcat, as a special investigator). The balance between superheroing and lawyering is also very effective, with She-Hulk’s primary motivation being her legal career, but dang it if supervillains and mysterious demons don’t keep showing up to keep things interesting. The first four issues are illustrated by Javier Pulido, who is wildly creative with page layouts and has a great eye for facial expression and physical moments, and has already received wide acclaim for his work on this title. The art shifts dramatically when Ron Wimberly takes over in the collection’s final two issues, and while I can’t say I loved his work, there were a number of moments when I felt like I was looking at something really special that I couldn’t fully wrap my mind around. I’ll have to re-read them to try to figure that out, which is a happy prospect because these stories are a real treat.

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Books: I sometimes find that when I approach a classic work in any field, it’s only worth the time and effort because it’s an artifact of the times, or influential but ultimately a little unsatisfying. This is decidedly not the case for In Cold Blood, the pioneering non-fiction novel about the real-life murder of a wealthy farmer, his wife, and two children, on their farmstead just outside of Holcomb, Kansas, in November 1959. The book also explores the relationship between the two killers, the effect of the crime on the townspeople who knew the family, and the investigation of the crime by the members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. It’s a tremendous book. Truman Capote is a master writer; he writes like he’s memorized the thesaurus and he chooses his words with great care. He writes so stylishly and seductively that I often found myself forgetting that Capote was inventing large passages of the book. A careful reading of the book from a purely factual, journalistic perspective would be incredibly painful; Capote plays loose with the facts and (re-)creates scenes with an attention to detail and ear for dialogue that would be impossible unless he was actually there when the events were happening. Capote billed the book as being entirely factual, which can and has been disproved, but whether it’s historically accurate is, for me at least, beside the point. It’s a powerful book and trying to argue the proportion of fact to fantasy serves only to distract readers from a towering work of storytelling. As a historical document, In Cold Blood is riddled with inaccuracies, but as a book it’s sweeping, intelligent, and captivating.

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Movies: The 1940 romantic comedy Lucky Partners is a strange little movie, but I like it. An adaptation of a 1936 French film, it stars Ginger Rogers as a young woman who believes a man she just met, played by Ronald Colman, is her good luck charm when she stumbles across a $300 dress after he says good morning to her. She tries to convince him to go in on a sweepstakes ticket with her, thinking that she can’t lose with the two of them together. When he asks her what she wants to use the money for, at first she says for her honeymoon, but it’s quickly revealed that she doesn’t really care much for her fiancé and wants to have the money for her own security in case it doesn’t work out. He eventually agrees to go in on the ticket with her, on the condition that if they win he will be allowed to plan her honeymoon for her — and be the man to accompany her on the trip. It’s a light, airy comedy, full of quirky supporting characters and some ridiculously sublime set pieces, and Colman and Rogers are fantastic together. Colman is suave and intelligent, and hits each of his great lines right out of the park. (I must have listened to him say “A honeymoon isn’t something you can put away in cold storage like a mink coat” four or five times before I continued watching the movie.) And Ginger Rogers is just such a gifted performer. She’s almost as good with dialogue as Colman, and physically she’s a delight, lending a dancer’s touch to a bit of physical business and using her expressive face to brilliant effect. It’s so much fun to watch her that when the movie starts turning a little sour she makes it worth it to watch it to the end. Lucky Partners is a light confection that is strangely adorable when it goes all in with the strangeness. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, but I am so very happy that I watched it.

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That’s it for me this week, gentle readers. Until next time, make sure you keep both your body and your mind flexible. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #055 // These Allegories Are Getting Out of Hand

Hello comrades! I greet you from the bright orange heart of Soviet Alberta, where snow falls from the sky in May. It’s been a little weird here in my hometown, is what I’m saying. There have been some truly tremendous things that have happened to and around me in the past seven days, and my digressions about pop culture seem even more inconsequential than usual. As long as I’m enjoying myself, I suppose, that’s all that matters. What helped me enjoy myself this week? I’m glad I asked.

This Column Has Seven Days #054 // Serious Playtime

Greetings and happy Friday! This week I am very excited to share my enthusiasm for two slightly irreverent works that bring me joy. Simultaneously, even!

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The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius: 10% Heart, 90% Cuss Words

Cover to The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius Volume 3 by Judd Winick with colours by Guy Major.
Cover to The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius Volume Three by Judd Winick (colours by Guy Major).

I’ve already talked about how Judd Winick gets an undeservedly bad rap in comics circles when I raved about his work on Marvel’s Exiles series. However, those aren’t even close to my favourite Judd Winick comics, not by a long shot. The best comics series I think the man ever created was one that he created entirely on his own — writing, art, even lettering apparently — and one that he admitted came out of feeling creatively bankrupt and wanting to just make something fun. I’m talking about The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius. Over the course of 12 black-and-white issues, Winick took a completely joke premise and made something amazing out of it, without ever losing the humour and profanity that was there from the start.

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius is about, well, a boy genius named Barry Ween. Barry is the smartest human alive; he was self-aware in the womb and was creating artificial life when he hit grade school. This kind of intellectual gigantism has also led to Barry developing a slightly antisocial personality, a kind of callousness towards life, and most importantly, an incredibly foul mouth. His best (and at the start of the series, only) friend in the world, the impulsive and attention-deficient Jeremy, is probably the closest rival Barry has in terms of creative curse words. Most of the first third of Barry Ween features two 10-year-old boys swearing and cussing at each other as they make their way through hilarious science-fiction adventures. Whether it’s aliens who have crash-landed on earth, tears in spacetime that happen to be in Barry’s basement, or accidentally transforming Jeremy into a giant purple dinosaur, restraint has been kicked out the door and the emphasis put on adventure and humour, sometimes at the expense of other pop cultural offerings. Winick clearly loves the things that he’s skewering though, whether he’s using Barry and Jeremy’s dialogue to poke holes in Star Trek’s space-time continuum or making visual homages to famous superhero comics.

The book works just fine that way, and if it had stayed at that level, it would be a pretty good series. However, what starts off as a pure humour book eventually gets some heart. Especially in the last two volumes, things get really personal. It becomes much more than a joke book about a foul-mouthed child genius — it becomes about exploring friendship and life. Except, you know, with ape fights and Stone-Age warrior tribes and laser cannons and parallel universes and jetpacks.

The injection of heart comes from the addition of two new characters. Roxy, a super-intelligent girl sasquatch whom Barry helps fit into human society, is fun and exuberant and playful and a great foil for Jeremy, who crushes on her something fierce. The biggest change, and the focus of the last volume of the series, is Barry and Jeremy’s classmate Sara. Sara is the key to unlocking the real potential of the series, because Barry needs someone to soften him and Jeremy would never be able to do that. Sure, Jeremy’s got a heart that Barry doesn’t have, but Jeremy is basically all instinct, the opposite of the hyper-rational, intelligent Barry who uses his intellect to avoid using his emotions. Sara has a heart like Jeremy but she is also smart and rational and curious with a dose of self-control, which makes her a good match for Barry. In the latter half of the series, Sara shakes up the Barry-Jeremy dynamic a little bit, and while Jeremy remains the most important person in Barry’s life, Barry’s relationship with Sara gives the book new depth.

This series is my answer to anyone who questions Winick’s chops as a comics creator. He pours everything into this “throwaway book” and his talents in plotting, writing, and art shine through in every volume. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and establishes both the characters and their relationships. The cartooning is spot-on, too; the look of each character is perfect, one look at Barry’s pursed lips and furrowed brow or Jeremy’s wide eyes and long, expressive face and the reader is already halfway to understanding what these characters are all about. Winick also gives a lot of attention to action scenes, which always feel urgent and exciting.

Barry Ween is a strange and beautiful combination of themes and emotions; it’s profane and hilarious and heartbreaking. I’m not ashamed to admit that it is the first comic book series that made me cry when I read it over a decade ago, and then again just this week on the re-read. Yes, there’s real heart among the dick jokes and robot exoskeletons. It might seem like I’m over-selling this humour book about a boy genius, but give it a shot. I believe my fanatical devotion to this book will be proven absolutely appropriate.

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Music: This week I also fell head over heels for Girl Talk’s 2010 release All Day. It’s over 70 minutes of incredibly danceable mashups, designed to be listened to all in a row, which I have done five times in the past four days. Girl Talk makes the strangest combinations of artists work incredibly well. There are mashups of performers I love but would never have thought to combine, like Big Boi and Portishead, or The Notorious B.I.G. and Cream, or Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Radiohead. Then there are combinations that I never thought I would like but now can’t get enough of, like Ludacris and Phoenix, Lil’ Kim and the Jackson Five, or Young MC and Kylie Minogue. All Day is more than just a sequence of impressive mashups though, it’s equally impressive how they all flow together. Girl Talk is incredibly skilled at putting together fun little alterations to memorable musical hooks and using samples to transition between moments. Some of the samples are layered so thick that they’re almost auditory illusions; did I really hear a snippet of one of my favourite songs, or did I just imagine it? Whether cleaning house, reading The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, or going for a run, I could listen to All Day every day.

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That’s it for me this week, my friends. Until next time, have fun and enjoy something others might consider “lowbrow” without shame. I’ll see you in seven days.

 

This Column Has Seven Days #053 // This Sounds Vaguely Religious

Hello and happy Friday, gentle readers! This week I have three quick selections to throw out in the hopes of increasing someone’s enjoyment of life and of all the spectacular weirdness that exists out there. This time out it’s comics and Scottish electronic music, but that’s just where I’m at this week. Your mileage may vary.

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This Column Has Seven Days #052 // Featuring The Inevitable Daredevil Review

If I were really planning ahead, I would have made column no. 52 an all-DC-Comics spectacular, but I didn’t, because I am not a great person at planning ahead. Including one DC book will make up for it though, right? Right.

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Terra Firma

Cover to Terra by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts.
Cover to Terra by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts.

Most of my comic-book reading lately has involved pulling mediocre books off my shelf that have just been taking up space and finally reading them before moving them out of the apartment. This week I read eight different nearly acceptable books, including Superman: New Krypton volumes one and two, X-Men: Mutant Massacre, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s run on The Flash, and a few that were so bad I won’t mention them here at the risk of triggering a rant. However, there was one I liked enough that I am keeping it around for at least one more read. That book is Terra by writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey, artist Amanda Conner, and colourist Paul Mounts. It’s a book with more than its own fair share of cheesecake, but I have always had a soft spot for Amanda Conner’s art.

I think I am an Amanda Conner fan because she’s got a real eye for variety — yes, she draws beautiful women in skin-tight and sometimes-skimpy outfits, but they’re not all bending over at the waist and looking over their shoulder in every panel like the work of some other mainstream superhero comics artists. There are also beefcake guys (though, admittedly, the ratio is skewed), as well as supporting characters with a variety of body types, most of who come off as beautiful in their own distinct way because of the line and attention Conner brings to them. The characters always have body language and facial expression appropriate to the situation, whether that be intimidating, humorous, frustrated, powerful, happy — the list goes on. In fact, my favourite thing about Conner’s art is that she’s an amazing director of emotion and body language in comics. There is never any doubt in my mind what any of her characters are thinking, whether they’re the people in the foreground with the dialogue balloons or a random person in a crowd.

The ideas collected in the Terra TPB could have been an interesting addition to the DC Universe — multiple alien civilizations living underneath the Earth’s crust are under the protection of a 16-year-old hybrid superhero — but with at least one line-wide reboot wiping that out of existence, whether or not the story “matters” is beside the point. Palmiotti and Grey write a young woman who is trying to find her place between two worlds; she wants to leave home and explore the outside world but not entirely sure how to go about it. It relies on character and ideas more than an intricately plotted story, which is fine by me as the characters and ideas are definitely strong enough to stand on their own. Terra is fun and adventurous and extremely well-drawn, and I am very pleased to say that I misjudged the book by just looking at its cover. If only there was a proverb that warned against that kind of behaviour.

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That’s not all, folks. There were a couple other things that caught my attention this week. I’ll get the most obvious mention out of the way first.

Television: I am a giant comics nerd so of course I watched Daredevil this week. I took the full seven days to watch all 13 episodes though, because as much as I wanted to just binge and get through them as quickly as I could, I also wanted to savour the story and draw it out. Also affecting my movement through the series is that the show is shockingly violent. The episodes can get pretty intense and I didn’t want the shocking moments to lose their impact just because I had watched seven or eight episodes in a row. Overall, it’s a really great series; I found a couple of episodes dragged a little but that’s only in comparison to the rest of the Daredevil series. Compared to nearly all of the other comics-based television shows out there, Daredevil stands tall and proud. Yes, it’s vicious. Yes, it gets a little bleak and dark at times. But the cast is phenomenal, especially Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better Foggy Nelson, who I think is the most important Daredevil character other than The Man Without Fear himself. The fight scenes are tremendous, the tone and visual style is consistent throughout the series, and though the whole series felt like a battle, the final two episodes really hit me like a knife in the gut. In a good way. Daredevil wears a lot of hats — crime series, action-adventure serial, courtroom thriller, superhero adaptation — and it wears them all really well. This sets the bar really high for the rest of the Marvel Netflix shows to come, but it’s also giving me hope that they can pull this off. (Especially the Iron Fist series; the fight choreography in Daredevil is so good that I can’t wait to see what they do with Iron Fist.)

Books: At first I thought Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life was too clever for its own good. In the first chapter of the novel, the main character Ursula Todd dies stillborn in the winter of 1910, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The second chapter retells the story of her birth, but this time the local doctor makes it to her home in time to save her and she lives through her first day on Earth, until another calamity befalls her and she dies again. The first hundred or so pages explores many of young Ursula’s lives and deaths, nearly all of them starting over in the winter of 1910, which I found made for a slightly maddening experience. No stranger to the concept of multiple lives and multiple timelines — I am a comic book reader, after all — I wasn’t put off by this tactic, but rather confused about whether the book would finally start gaining momentum before Atkinson cut the story off at the knees again. Thankfully, once Ursula makes it to her 16th birthday, the stories available to her become more expansive and Atkinson is able to explore concepts such as the role of British women in the early 20th century, the effects of the Second World War on multiple European countries, and universal themes of love and family and devotion. Once the initial hiccups were over, I rather enjoyed the ability to look at multiple aspects of this era of British life through the eyes of the same character, who gains different perspectives on life with a few alterations to her timeline with every new life. Fans of hard sci-fi might find the book a little free and easy with the timeline-hopping, and there were a few times where even I thought that Atkinson might not have thought out the logistics of her gimmick well enough. However, once it gets out of its own way, Life After Life has a group of interesting stories to tell and a character who is worth sticking around for, in nearly every iteration.

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That’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, clear a few things out of your life that you no longer need and take time to savour something instead of gorging on it. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #051 // Escape From Spring Break

Hello! I am back from Winnipeg and from the mystical recesses of the spring break holiday, and it feels good to be back. This week I’ll be taking on a few shorter recommendations as I shake the rust off, but I truly believe these are three great selections well worth anyone’s time.

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Deadly Class: High School is Murder

Deadly Class Volume 1 cover by Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge.
Deadly Class Volume 1 cover by Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Deadly Class since it was first published in early 2014, but it was often pitched as “The Breakfast Club meets Kill Bill,” and as that is a terrible pitch for someone like me, I figured I’d probably get around to reading it eventually. It wasn’t until last week, when I was killing some time in the Winnipeg Public Library, that I picked up the first volume and gave it a solid read. I am saying right now, for the record, that a year was entirely too long to wait. Written by Rick Remender with art by Wes Craig and colours by Lee Loughridge, Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth shows that this has the potential to be a monster of a series.

It’s set in 1987 at Kings Dominion School Of The Deadly Arts, a boarding school for the world’s greatest assassins-in-training. Marcus Lopez, the school’s newest student, is trying to make his way in this new environment. For the past year, he’s been living on the street and on the run from the law, having left the group home he went to after his parents died in front of him. Just like in non-assassin high school, Marcus has to deal with inter-student politics, brutal teachers, and awful homework assignments, except the cliques are all children of gangsters and political dictators, the teachers can execute you for failing, and the assignments are attempted homicides.

Remender amps up the “high school as gladiator arena” tone by mixing in a little of his own apparently horrific childhood (part of the reason that the series is set in 1987), but the real reason this book is a must-read is Craig and Loughridge’s art. I lost count of how many times I turned the page and was startled by the fluidity and power of the comic page. Craig’s layouts are phenomenal; he’s got a real knack for giving characters personality through posture and facial expression alone, but he also pushes the storytelling by breaking through or layering or sequencing panels in such a way that the attentive reader is guided through the book at just the right pace. Loughridge is always someone I am happy to see as part of a creative team, and his colours perfectly accent each scene, never seeming out of place or garish (except when necessity calls for it, as is the case in the greatest acid trip I’ve ever seen in a comic). Deadly Class could have been little more than a high-concept elevator pitch with an empty soul, but with these talented creators behind the helm, there is so much more to it, and I am counting down the days until my budget resets and I can buy the second volume.

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It wasn’t all adolescent assassins for the past two weeks, though. There are a couple more things that I want to shine a little love on.

Podcasts: A little over two years ago saw the release of the final episode of the Pod F. Tompkast. Hosted by the famous comedian, Paul F. Tompkins, the show was a hilarious combination of improvised monologues, interviews, sketches, and segments from his live show, with musical accompaniment from longtime Tompkins collaborator Eban Schletter. It was a great show that apparently was a monster to produce, hence its demise two years ago. But Tompkins and Schletter are back with a new podcast, Spontaneanation, which takes some of the best parts of the old show and adds an improv twist. Each episode of Spontaneanation starts with a monologue from Tompkins, a stream-of-consciousness, free-association ramble full of bizarre tangents and off-the-cuff rants. That quickly transitions into an unscripted interview with the episode’s special guest, sparked by a question from the previous episode’s guest. Finally, Tompkins and three guest improvisors perform a long-form improv sketch for the last half of the show, based on a location suggested by the interviewee as well as anything touched on in the interview or monologue segments.

After the first two episodes I’m happy to say that Spontaneanation is a worthy successor to the Pod F. Tompkast; it’s loose and silly without being foolish, and it makes me laugh extra hard to hear the other performers enjoying themselves and being delighted by their own ridiculousness. It’s also wonderful to have Schletter scoring the improv scenes in real time with the performers, as well as his patented back and forth with Tompkins during the opening monologues. It’s fast and loose and full of whimsy and I wish there were more episodes so I could listen to three or four in a row. I suppose I will just have to wait a few more weeks and then do a marathon re-listen.

Music: I discovered singer-songwriter Allison Weiss when she guested on a recent episode of the improv4humans podcast. The songs she performed on that episode were really striking, so the following day I started listening to her 2013 album Say What You Mean and have not stopped. I was a sucker for a good break-up album long before I’d actually been broken up with, and Say What You Mean is a killer break-up album. Full of happy-sounding sad songs boasting a variety of musical influences — country, punk, folk, rock — this is a highly accessible pop album that comes on strong with a solid punch to the heart. Weiss has the capacity to craft songs with simple but powerful lyrics, and half of the album’s songs could be breakout radio hits if given half a chance. There are sweet break-up songs like the acoustic “Wait for Me” and aggressive ones like the highly amplified and vicious “Hole in Your Heart” (my favourite on the album, for the record). Weiss has a delicate voice that sometimes cracks when she might not want it to, but she generally uses it to add a layer of heartbreak and pathos to a song, as in the way she falls apart at the end of “How to Be Alone.” I would also recommend her 2014 EP Remember When. Though it’s not as sweeping or as raw as Say What You Mean, it’s a little more polished, plus it features a cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” If there was anything that would seal the deal on my love of Allison Weiss, it would be a cover of my favourite Swedish pop sensation.

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That’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, spend some time listening to your favourite break-up album with teenage assassins, if that seems like a fun Friday night to you. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days 050 // Every Time I See You Falling, I Get Down On My Knees and Pray

As of the time this column is published (a couple days late because of terrible internet problems and also losing my iPad) it is spring break, baby! I know that doesn’t mean a lot to most people, but to me, someone who is employed by the public school system, that means I have a week to relax, visit friends, and have some extra time to enjoy some books, movies, comics, and so on. (It does not mean a week of debauchery, sadly, because I’m over 24 and that time in my life has passed.) Before getting ready to enjoy a break from my routine in beautiful, sunny Winnipeg, I wanted to quickly wrap up some of my favourite pop culture offerings of the week.

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This Column Has Seven Days #048 // They Alive, Dammit

Despite losing an hour I somehow managed to get a fair chunk of reading done this week. And my accomplishments weren’t just limited to reading; I decluttered the apartment, tackled a knitting project, and all manner of other things besides. Oh, and I watched an entire season of a sitcom as well — no, it wasn’t Parks and Recreation. (Though I am almost finished season four of that.) Let’s get to it.

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Television: The pedigree of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt practically guaranteed that I was going to watch the entire thing. Produced and created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who made one of my favourite sitcoms, 30 Rock? Check. Starring the charismatic and talented Ellie Kemper? Check. Supporting cast includes Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess (both also from 30 Rock) and legendary actress Carol Kane? Check. And though it had a bit of a rocky start, and some questionable artistic and story choices (Krakowski’s Jacqueline Voorhees has an unfortunately tone-deaf backstory, for starters), it’s a very clever show that lives up to its potential. Sometimes it feels like it’s haunted by the ghost of 30 Rock, as the shows unsurprisingly share a comedic sensibility and are both scored by Jeff Richmond, but though the shows share some DNA Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is very much its own creature. The cast is a particularly strong point. Kemper is the perfect choice to embody the indefatigable main character, Burgess has all the best lines, and Kane steals practically every scene she’s in. Some of my friends and co-workers were turned off by the show’s premise — Kimmy was kidnapped by a cult leader and trapped in an underground bunker with three other women for 15 years before finally escaping — but the darkness of the show is the biggest selling point, as the way Kimmy and the rest of the characters cope with the tragedies in their lives and their secret pasts is ultimately inspiring. (It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, in case I’m making it sound more like a Lifetime Original Movie than a sitcom.) After a promising but shaky start Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt grew into a smart and funny show with a strong message, and a lot of potential for the upcoming second season.

Comics: I used Daylight Saving Weekend to making my way through my stack of unread single issues and I have to say that winnowing that pile down to under two inches has given me a surprising amount of energy and motivation to tackle other things. It’s strange, but true. Here are a few updates on some of the best of my current books:

  • Sex Criminals – Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s critical darling about time-freezing sex maniacs gets better with every issue. The story has been making a slow, subtle transition from “wacky sex comedy with hijinks” to “thoughtful sex comedy with hijinks,” which I thoroughly appreciate. My favourite thing about the book is the letter column, though; as much as I like the story itself, the feedback and the sharing from the community of readers always makes me laugh the hardest.
  • Swamp Thing – I didn’t think much of Charles Soule’s Swamp Thing run when he took over from Scott Snyder, but the last few issues have turned the book around very sharply. I found his first issues limp and in search of direction, but with one issue left before this series comes to an end, Soule has pulled together the weaker plot threads and characters and given the book a real sense of urgency. The rise of the new Metal Kingdom, or the Calculus, as a rival to the Green, the Red, the Rot, and the Grey, could be seen as muddying the DC mythology a little bit, but it’s a good idea and executed well. The book also looks gorgeous; Jesus Saiz’s art is given some fantastic depth by Matt Hollingsworth’s colours, and letterer Travis Lanham gives the denizens of each realm distinct voices thanks to font and word balloon choices. It’s a foregone conclusion that our hero will come out victorious in the final issue, I’m sure, but Soule and company have at least given Swamp Thing a challenging adversary and clever story to finish the series with.
  • The Wicked + The Divine – This is still my favourite book currently being published. The first story arc ended with a hell of a bang, and the second story has not only picked up the pace but is further exploring and developing the world and the characters’ places in it. The beautiful thing about a book like this (and also Sex Criminals) is that I have no idea where it’s going. Don’t get me wrong — I like some corporate superhero comics but I am well aware of their storytelling limitations (namely, having to make due with the illusion of change instead of actual change), and not only does The Wicked + The Divine allow for change, but it provides danger and actual stakes for the characters, so the reader comes to care about them. Plus, for my money it’s the best-looking book on the stands. It’s the comic I never knew I wanted, and now that it exists I never want it to end.

Books: This weekend I finished reading a book of comics criticism — Voyage In Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization. It’s definitely a niche volume, but for fans of Ellis it’s an interesting read; there are chapters that dissect how his work is influenced by his views on superheroes, science fiction, violence, anger, and authority. The book also features excerpts of Ellis’ interviews for the film Captured Ghosts, giving the man himself the opportunity to expound on these and other topics. My biggest problem with the book is that it would benefit from a final pass from an editor; there are a handful of typos, missing words, and confusing clauses that interrupted the flow of reading. That’s the kind of risk one runs when getting a self-published book, though, and the analysis in the book is thought-provoking and made me want to re-read some of Ellis’ work with this new perspective.

Comics: Speaking of Warren Ellis, this week I also read the first volume of Trees from Image Comics, written by Ellis with art from Jason Howard. Trees tells the story of humanity post-alien-invasion, with a twist — the aliens are giant cylinders that tower over cities, and not only do they not have any interest in communicating with the human inhabitants of planet Earth, they don’t seem to recognize us as life forms at all. Ellis and Howard show the reader a world where humanity lives in the shadow of powerful and unknowable alien beings and how that has become the new normal. A diverse cast of characters additionally shows us the impact of these Trees all over the world, from an artist’s community in China to street gangs in Italy to a mayoral candidate in New York City to a research station in Norway. I’m halfway through my second reading of the book; I’m an unapologetic Ellis fan but I feel there’s something really special and yet elusive about Trees that I really think needs more exploration. I wholeheartedly endorse everyone read the book and discover it for themselves.

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That’s all for this week, cats and kittens. Until next time, I encourage you to catch up on some of the things that have fallen to the wayside and get yourself energized. Spring forward, so to speak. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #046 // Marvel’s Not Ready For Prime-Time Players

This weekend I took advantage of a couple of the sales on ComiXology, including picking up about a half-dozen Marvel comics collections. I thought a few of those series were worth talking about, because while they aren’t perfect they are at least interesting examples of what comes from corporate comics that try to look like boutique books.

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Going Solo, or “What I Got At The Marvel Digital Sale”

When Marvel announced their “All-New Marvel Now” branding across a slew of titles in early 2014, it seemed to me like they were trying a little too hard. There were a few books I was interested in, but seeing the “All-New” descriptor tagged to the initiative made it smell of desperation and hucksterism. I tried out a few of the new series, including Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and enjoyed each of them a great deal, but my choices were based far more on my interest in the creative teams than on the characters themselves. I took advantage of this weekend’s digital sale to pick up some other books, which promised some new takes on solo, “street level” characters: The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

The Punisher, Issue 5.

Let’s start with The Punisher. I have some very specific criteria when it comes to enjoying a Punisher comic book. Basically, if it’s written by Garth Ennis then I’m gonna like it; if it’s someone else, then it’s a crap shoot. In the first two volumes of the new Punisher series (Black and White and Border Crossing), writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads move Frank Castle from his home in New York City and send him to Los Angeles on the trail of the Dos Sols gang. This being a Punisher comic book, though, things get a little more complicated than that. The Punisher encounters the Dos Sols’ secret weapon, and is secretly hunted by the American military in the form of the black ops version of the Howling Commandos. In the second volume Frank finds himself in a South American prison, then later runs into Black Widow (more on her later) and ends up doing some dirty work for her in exchange for her not turning him in.

I enjoyed the team’s take on The Punisher as a tactician and soldier while still firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Frank’s not going out guns a-blazing and heading at super-villains head on; he’s mindful of collateral damage and is actually taking steps to be brutally efficient without making a spectacle of himself. Moving him to Los Angeles also provides Edmondson and Gerads with some interesting story potential, as well as the ability to establish a few new supporting cast members. Gerads’ art is clean and uncluttered, and he gives a flow to fast-paced scenes so I was never confused about how the action in one panel led to another, an important thing in a Punisher book. However, there were times where I had to actively stop comparing certain stories or situations to the Garth Ennis run; it’s not fair to Edmondson and Gerads to compare their work to some of my favourite Marvel comics of all time. I definitely would have an easier time reviewing this series if I could have stopped negatively comparing it to Ennis’ run, but at times I just couldn’t help it. Despite my own personal attachment to and opinion of the character, overall this new series is a smart, violent, and engaging book, like The Punisher is supposed to be, even if I couldn’t get out of my own way and just accept it.

Black WidowThe next comic, also written by Edmondson, is Black Widow, with art by Phil Noto. Out of the three series, this is the closest spiritual cousin to the critically acclaimed Hawkeye; though it doesn’t quite hit the same artistic highs as that series, Black Widow is a look at what an Avenger gets up to when she’s off the clock. From the first issue, Edmondson lays out his take on Black Widow: a woman who’s not running from the mistakes of her past, but rather using it as motivation for her current actions. I think the first volume, The Finely Woven Thread, is a good introduction to the character (speaking as someone who has never felt a particularly strong attachment to her). It starts with a few self-contained chapters establishing Natasha Romanoff’s globe-trotting espionage adventures and then closes with a multi-part story that establishes a conspiracy inside the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy agency. The dialogue gets a little rough at times, and towards the end of the collection the plot feels as though it is being stretched a little thin. On the strength of the writing alone, Black Widow would simply be an acceptable book. However, Noto’s art turns it into a much more interesting read; surprisingly, given his thin lines, his action scenes have real energy and the way he lays out the talking heads scenes help the pacing and actually elevate the dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Black Widow, and will definitely get the next volume to see how the seeds Edmondson and Noto plant in these early issues take root.

Iron Fist

My favourite of the three new-to-me series, however, was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, with Kaare Andrews taking care of both writing and art duties. The first volume, Rage, takes everything that has previously been established about Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, and deconstructs it. I don’t want to get into plot details, as revealing anything about the events of the plot (aside from the whole “Things will never be the same again!” hook) would spoil the read. However, I have to single Andrews out for making a book that looks absolutely gorgeous. His varying colour palette establishes just the right tone for each of the different settings, his faux-distressed and faded art for the flashback scenes strikes a good balance against the present day’s crisper line, and his action scenes are vibrant with Iron Fist moving through panels like a torrent of boiling water. Furthermore, the way he lays out each page is creative and eye-catching; some pages have a number of smaller panels against a larger backdrop, geographical details in one scene become panel borders in another, and his splash pages give the reader a chance to breathe while expanding the scope of the issue. I have no idea where Iron Fist: The Living Weapon is going, and though I am not sure I will like the final result from a plot and character perspective, I will love watching it happen.

Each of these new series scratches a different genre itch — action, espionage, martial arts — while never abandoning their identity as corporate superhero comics. That’s both a blessing and a curse — the use of established characters helps give them an audience but it also means that any significant changes are unlikely to remain in continuity after the current team leaves or the series wraps up. Taken for what they are, warts and all, all three are worth a read if only as attempts to shake up and reintroduce old characters to new readers, and the art on all three makes them worthy of a second look.

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I wasn’t just a Marvel zombie this past week, though. I also managed to dig deep into the origins of one of television’s biggest creative juggernauts — for good or for ill — of the last 40 years.

The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.
The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.

Television: I didn’t watch the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special earlier this month, mostly because like a stereotypical goon I dislike most of what SNL produced after I turned 19. However, I thought that the 40th anniversary was as good a reason as any to take my Season One DVDs off the shelf and give them a watch for the first time. After watching the first nine episodes I am still floored at how different the show was in its early days. It makes sense that a late-night sketch variety show would have a few growing pains when starting out, but the first few episodes feel wildly different than the format that is so familiar to today’s viewer. The first episode has host George Carlin (who only does monologues and never interacts with the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players), comedian Valri Bromfield, musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian (each of who does two songs), Andy Kaufman doing his Mighty Mouse routine, some original work from Jim Henson’s Muppets (which were an absolutely terrible fit for the program, as much as it pains me to say), and a film by Albert Brooks. All that plus some truly weird and wonderful sketches. It’s a fascinating watch, even if some of Carlin’s bits are de-fanged due to the combination of nerves and television standards, but watching the show evolve over the next eight episodes is absolutely fascinating. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, is basically a musical show with a few sketches, including a bizarrely hilarious film where he plays one-on-one basketball against former Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins. Simon sings a few songs on his own, then gets Art Garfunkel to come back to sing a few of their classics (and also to verbally Garfunkel on television).

The show really starts coming into its own when Candice Bergen hosts the fourth episode. She’s the first host to participate in sketches with the cast, and the show even has her in unscripted conversation with Gilda Radner, which is wonderfully sweet and sad. It is easy to see that everyone involved in the evening is having fun; the cast seems grateful and happy to have someone who’s willing to play along with them, and Bergen is up for trying anything. It’s the first glimpse of what the show would eventually turn into, and as much as I like the Carlin episode with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the Bergen episode is the first to border on legitimately great. Lily Tomlin’s and Richard Pryor’s episodes are even better, each tailored to best highlight their personas and skills. Even though the show can appear clumsy, sweaty, and dated at times, it’s also exciting and fresh and vibrant, and I can’t wait to get through even more episodes and then on to Season Two when things apparently get really interesting.

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That’s it for me this week. Until next time, try your luck at one of those Marvel series, or at least track down the Saturday Night Live “Racist Word Association” sketch with Pryor and Chevy Chase and marvel that it was on broadcast television in the ’70s. I’ll see you in seven days.