This Column Has Seven Days #038 // Three Hundred Words of Raw Power

The past seven days have been just full in my area of the world: some pretty dingy lows and some incredible highs. My brain is so ready for my upcoming two-week holiday I spent two hours napping instead of doing anything actually productive, like, say, writing a column. Never one to completely shirk responsibility, I have put together 100-word summaries of three of my favourite pop culture offerings from the past week.

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250px-Seaguy_coverComics: When Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart’s Seaguy came out, my first impression was that it was incomprehensible but beautiful. It still looks fantastic; Stewart’s art is action-packed and gorgeously illustrated, with panels that feel like subtle homages to artists like Darick Robertson and Dave Stevens. As I’ve gained a little more perspective, though, the story has become clearer, and I was surprised how much sense it made underneath the Morrison “wackiness,” especially in issue two. The book knocked me to my knees on a second read, and I now have a greater appreciation for Seaguy’s inevitable struggle. A must-read book.

Comics: Another comic that is even better with a little distance is Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, a love letter to space exploration. In a dystopian future where no one goes to space anymore, a lost space shuttle returns to earth after 10 years, covered in what looks like skin and with only one crew member on board. Yeah, it’s Warren Ellis all right, but there’s a desperate love and yearning here that makes it more than just a “cool experiment.” Doran’s amazing touch with facial expressions give the characters depth and gravity, and Dave Stewart’s colours add a huge punch.

81en7XG7BDL._SL1425_Music: Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, which is 19 words right there, is a complete powerhouse of an album. The first track “Wild Creatures,” an echoing rocker with lyrics that cut me to the quick, sets up the listener for a deep and soulful listening experience. “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is another standout; an a cappella track that captures both crushing defeat and powerful affirmation of life. It’s bombastic and brutal, an embarrassment of riches, and eminently re-listenable. In my eyes it’s the highlight of Case’s amazing catalogue.

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I honestly think it was harder to limit myself to exactly 100 words than to have no limits, but that was a fun exercise in brevity (for a change). I’m taking the next two weeks off for Christmas and a skiing trip so until next time, have a freaking blast, everyone. I’ll see you in 21 days.

This Column Has Seven Days #037 // A Piece of Cake

Earlier this week, my a cappella group did our Christmas show and raised money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. It was pretty fun, and pretty disorganized, which probably describes this column fairly well too. At least the disorganized part. I was also on this week’s episode of Doctor Whooch, which was a blast (thanks Danica and Brandon!). It’s been a busy seven days, that’s for sure. Despite a whirlwind week of getting things whipped into shape, I managed a few fun things in my downtime, including re-reading a favourite children’s book with old, jaded eyes.

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

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If my memory serves me — and it probably doesn’t, as I have an absolutely atrocious memory — I probably read Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More at least three times before the age of 10. It was one of my favourite Roald Dahl books — one of my favourite books period, as a matter of fact. It’s seven short stories that vary in length and topic, and I would always read it from cover to cover in a single day, instead of letting each story sit on its own. I hadn’t read it in over 20 years until this past weekend, but there was something that was calling me to it last week. (Maybe it had a little something to do with the fact that I set myself a challenge of reading 225 books in 2014 and I’m currently at 160.)

When I was only 10 pages in, I thought to myself, “Good lord, I read these stories way too young.” Dahl’s not Kafka, but I feel the best of his stories are the ones that are tinged with his trademark bittersweet despair, and there are definitely layers to these stories that I missed on those first few readthroughs as a kid. These stories would still be fantastic for a 14-year-old, as many of them draw from those senses of not really belonging anywhere or discovering something new inside of yourself that’s terrifying in its power; two things that were defining characteristics of my own adolescence. Reading the stories as an adult, though, they still ring true, even if some of the writing is a little less complicated than the ideas the writer is trying to express.

“The Boy Who Loved Animals” and “The Swan” are two of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection, and the ones that are probably the most loved by the people who love them and despised by everyone else. These are really bleak stories of young boys who are tortured by the actions of people around them, intentionally or not. “The Swan” in particular is a story that is absolutely horrifying: a young boy is bullied beyond belief by two older, bigger boys, and it ends ambiguously enough that present-day Devin felt a chill in his gut. Add that to “A Piece of Cake,” a purportedly true story of Dahl’s time as an airman in World War II that is full of violence, pain, and morphine dreams, and the casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that Dahl’s work on Henry Sugar is basically Hubert Selby, Jr. with training wheels.

There are moments of pure brilliant light, though. “The Hitchhiker” doesn’t really go anywhere but is well-told and a nice light breather in the collection, about a man who picks up a hitchhiker with a very particular skill, who also manages to explain the secret of life (or one of them, anyhow). And of course there is “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” the crowning jewel of the book; a story about a selfish aristocrat who accidentally discovers another one of those secrets of life. I have held on to that story in my heart and soul for years, and I was absolutely delighted to find that not only does it hold up, it’s better as an adult.

I know there are people who only know Roald Dahl through that awful adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the one that Tim Burton did later, which was also awful but not as awful. Dahl’s catalogue is vast and varied, though, and even though it’s technically a children’s book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More is a great sampling of the man’s talent.

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I managed to do more than simply revisit a bleakly beautiful childhood classic this week, though. Here are a couple other things that grabbed my attention.

Television: I thought that after their third season, AMC’s Western series Hell on Wheels had completely lost its way. That season felt like it was just a long, slow setup getting rid of plots and characters from the second season that didn’t work, and I had lost nearly all the affection and goodwill that I’d had for the series. I finished up the fourth season this weekend and all that place-setting paid off in spades — the show was exciting, with real urgency to the stories and challenging a status quo that was becoming a little stale. New characters were introduced to shake up old dynamics that were getting a little tired, while established characters were put through their paces, transformed, and in some cases, dispatched as the story demanded it. There were times where the dialogue got a little creaky but even with some rough scripts, all the actors put in some of the best work of the series. It’s not a season that one could just jump into and hit the ground running, but for a viewer who had been wondering whether or not the series would ever live up to the potential of the first season, it was a real punch to the gut. In a good way.

Comics: This past week I finished 20th Century Boys Vols. 8 and 9, and even after a long-ish self-imposed break after the seventh issue, the story continues to excite. 20th Century Boys is a manga series that starts off by telling the story of a group of Japanese boys in 1969, hanging out in their secret base, reading comics and stolen porno magazines and listening to rock and roll. They come up with a symbol to represent their group, as well as a fantastical story set in the year 2000 where the boys have to stop a coming global superpocalypse. Then, in the late 1990s, a group calling themselves The Friends appears, using the symbol that the boys created in 1969, plus certain things from their made-up story start happening in real life. That may seem like I just spoiled a great deal of the plot, but that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg. The story expands outwards as it folds in on itself; events that happen in the “future” are immediately juxtaposed with flashbacks to the “past” and each enlightens the other. The art is fantastic, and creator Naoki Urasawa is a master of the almost-reveal, where the reader thinks they are about to get a crucial piece of information but then quickly that reveal is interrupted or shelved, and the story moves on down a different alleyway. I can count the number of manga series I unabashedly love on one hand, and this is one of them. Every time I think it hits a new high, it manages to outdo itself. It’s rock and roll and dystopia and mystery and friendship and that’s quite enough to keep me satisfied.

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And that’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, do whatever you want to do. I’m not your boss. See you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #035 // Don’t Blame Me, Blame The Superheroes

This week marks the end of November, which also means it’s the end of National Novel Writing Month. That may not mean much to the average reader, but to me it means I can no longer ignore the fact that I have over 10,000 words left to write by the end of Sunday. Because I have strange priorities. Some of my priorities are also reading awesome books, comics or not, and I have three such books to talk about this week.

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This Column Has Seven Days #034 // Indie Lunch Hour

This week started off a little slow on the pop culture front; I watched and read a few things that were “kind of” good but nothing that really set me on fire. By the end of the week, though, I had read a couple self-published comic books that made me sit up and take notice.

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Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds

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I found Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds to be a comic that took a little time to warm up. It’s a quirky mystery comic involving a widowed recluse, a teenage kleptomaniac, a deserted Alaskan settlement, a mysterious key, an evil industrialist with a dark secret, an exuberant science fiction fan, and a masked bounty hunter who calls himself Sasquatch. And that’s not even half of it.

(In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t that the book needed some time to warm up; perhaps it was me.)

This Column Has Seven Days #033 // Houseguest Adventures

Hey everybody. I have been very fortunate to have my best friend in the whole world, the handsome and intelligent Kim Stolz, staying with me since last Friday. He is great and we are spending a lot of time getting some good pop culture in — he’s reading my Avengers comics and we’re watching True Detective (still good, for those of you who are wondering), and he has finally convinced me to watch the first two episodes of each of my Ultraman and Torchwood box sets (both so good so far, in very different ways). This week’s pop culture outings have been a little grazing at the smorgasbord — a few episodes of this, a few issues of that, a few chapters of the other. Still, I managed to dig deep into a few things that I thought were particularly noteworthy.

This Column Has Seven Days #032 – From A Remote Southern Outpost

Sometimes, one travels out of town for work. And sometimes, when one travels out of town for work, like say, to Calgary for a two-day conference, he leaves behind the comics he was planning on writing about for an article. When that happens, one can always be happy that he has experienced a few other fantastic things during the week, and can always revisit those entertaining comics at a later date.

This Column Has Seven Days #031 // Take It From Me, Parents Just Don’t Understand

Even though my weekend was taken up with playing video games for 24 hours on Saturday and then recovering from that on Sunday, I managed to get some other pop culture time in. From new music to revisiting old comics, I think I did okay for myself. Let’s hop forward about a century and get started, shall we?

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Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume 1: Teenage Revolution

When I first got back into superhero comics, there was always one title that felt daunting: Legion of Super-Heroes. On the face of it, the Legion seems like a great concept — a team of super-powered teenagers in the 30th century, inspired by the legend of Superboy to become heroes in their own time. Where it became daunting was in the continuity. The Legion’s history had been rebooted multiple times, each reboot keeping different aspects of the previous stories, and with a group of over 20 characters to keep straight, they threatened to be more of a labyrinth to get lost in than a fun read. So how did I break through and become a fan of the Legion? It was thanks to a run by one of the greatest writers to ever pen a comic script, and one of his most talented collaborators.

Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s 2004 reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes still feels timeless, because they base the series’ hook on the near-universal teenage experience of alienation from the adults in their lives. However, these Legionnaires face oppression beyond the regular teen angst; they live in a future where they are viewed as terrorists by the adult-run government of the United Planets, and their home base is surrounded by a camp of teenage refugees from all reaches of the galaxy. Despite being unfairly persecuted, these Legionnaires do their best to right wrongs and defend people who would otherwise be condemning them. They’re teenagers who put their money where their mouths are when they say they know better than adults.

Waid and Kitson create an exciting, captivating world for these characters to inhabit, one slightly different from every other Legion run that came before them. They give familiar characters slight tweaks in history and personality, and make each member of the team interesting and fresh. It was learning the backstories of characters like Triplicate Girl and Phantom Girl that made me realize the potential that each of these characters had, and Waid’s terrific characterization with Kitson’s design and facial work bring each character to vibrant life. Plus, despite the dystopian setting, the creators manage to bring humour to the proceedings, whether it’s a date gone wrong or a prank pulled on Brainiac 5. These are the scenes that could have read cheesy or clunky in the hands of lesser creators, but Waid and Kitson make every moment shine.

It’s 10 years old now, but for my money, this run of Legion of Super-Heroes holds up, and in some ways is even more compelling and prescient than when first published. Funny, exciting, and smart, it’s a book that should be read by any contemporary superhero comic book fan.

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I did more than just exercise my inner teenager this week, however. Here are a couple more things that made me kick up my heels with delight.

Television: There are some pretty rocky new sitcoms for the 2014 television season, but I am happy to report that Marry Me is well on its way to becoming a very good show. I am biased because I like both Casey Wilson and Ken Marino, so based on the strength of those two alone I was planning on giving it at least four episodes. But after watching just two — “Pilot” and “Scary Me” — I can see myself tuning in for even longer. Created by David Caspe, who also created the cancelled-too-soon Happy Endings, Marry Me benefits from a good comic ensemble, clever jokes, and the fact that the two leads in the romantic comedy already know and have fallen in love with each other, so nobody has to spend more than a couple of minutes on the meet-cute, the developing attraction and the eventual falling out of and then falling back in love. Everything is established, so the humour comes from the relationship rather than the familiar romantic rollercoaster tropes. Like I said, it’s a little creaky to start but very few shows come out like gangbusters their first time out, and it has so much potential that I’m very excited to see where it goes.

Music: It is definitely not for everyone, but I am loving the new Run The Jewels album. It’s simple and lowbrow in terms of content — lots of incredibly inventive trash talk — but the production and delivery are absolutely tight. Together, Killer Mike and El-P make some exciting, visceral hip-hop, and as both Run The Jewels and Run The Jewels 2 are available for a free download it’s worth giving them a shot.

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That’s about it for me this week. Until next time, embrace your inner adolescent for a few hours, whether you be a Colossal Boy, a Light Lass, or somewhere in between. I’ll see you in seven days.

 

 

This Column Has Seven Days #030 // My Third-Favourite Deadly Sin

This week it’s nothing but comic books that talk about teen feelings and Can-Con music, which makes me pretty happy, all things considered.

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Gilbert Hernandez’ Sloth: Lemons and Angst

Saying that I read and liked a Gilbert Hernandez comic is like saying I watched and enjoyed a Stanley Kubrick movie. The best ones are fantastic, and the worst ones are still at least interesting to digest. Gilbert’s ability to tell a comic-book story is unmatched by nearly anyone in the business today — his moody inks and expressive iconic faces, combined with a knack for authentic characterization and an interest in the darker side of life, have given me some of my favourite comics stories, whether in his Love & Rockets work or in his stand-alone work. So when I picked 2006’s Sloth off the shelf, I had a feeling I was going to enjoy it.

Sloth starts off as the story of teen angst in the suburbs, the bleak horror of a mundane existence with the existential dread of being an adolescent. Just before his third month of Grade 11, Miguel Serra apparently wills himself to fall into a coma to escape his daily depression and stress. A year later, he has willed himself out of his coma, and he tries to get back to his life in high school, including getting back together with his band Sloth, which is made up of Miguel, his girlfriend Lita, and his best friend Romeo. Miguel’s return to regular life starts out fine, especially with the care of his loving grandparents and a lot of lost time to make up for with Lita, but soon the reality of his life starts sinking in again, as he meets up with his incarcerated drug-dealing father and Miguel starts wondering what really happened to his mother when she disappeared all those years ago.

Then we find out that while Miguel’s been “away,” Lita has become obsessed with urban legends, and one night the three friends go out to investigate one in particular. The Goatman is a creature who lives in the lemon orchards just outside town — the orchards that Miguel believes his mother is buried in — and if anyone catches a glimpse of him, they change places, with the Goatman taking over that person’s life. After Miguel, Lita, and Romeo return from the orchard, Miguel’s dreams get more intense, and life in the suburban town gets more bizarre.

Sloth is a fascinating examination of identity and relationships, and how the horror of the everyday can spill over into the horror of a different, more shadowy kind. It’s not a brutal or terrifying book; more moody and introspective, and it hit me right in the sweet spot. If you thought that Dawson’s Creek would have been better if it were more like Twin Peaks, or had never thought that until this moment and now can’t get the idea out of your head, then I recommend checking out Sloth as soon as possible.

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It hasn’t been all mysterious suburban dread this week, though; as promised, I have more Canuck rock and comic books to talk about.

Music: After seeing Sloan live in concert for what is probably the seventh or eighth time, I came home with their new album Commonwealth. It’s an odd record for Sloan, as it’s an exercise in isolation — the concept for  Commonwealth is that it’s a double LP, with each side highlighting the songwriting of a different member. It makes for an interesting listening experiment, as instead of moving through the different moods and tones that each member brings to the group, there is a solid 15 to 20 minutes of each member’s personality, in a row. It’s not going to convert anyone who’s not already a Sloan fan — though I have other albums that might serve that purpose — but there are some really good numbers, including Patrick Pentland’s “13 (Under A Bad Sign)” and Chris Murphy’s “Carried Away.” And Andrew Scott’s side is an 18-minute odyssey called “Forty-Eight Portraits,” which has to be heard to be truly understood.

Comics: Anyone who isn’t reading The Wicked + The Divine should really think hard about what they want in a comic book. It’s got gorgeous figure art, breathtaking colours, clever one-liners, effective and sharp characterization, a fantastic sense of design, and a mystery that keeps getting more intense with each passing issue. This is the story of 12 gods who come down to Earth every 90 years, and as this incarnation takes place in 2014, of course the gods are internationally famous pop stars. The Wicked + The Divine could be seen as just a book for young people who are in love with the gods of celebrity, but it’s so much bigger and more all-encompassing than that. It is my favourite comic book currently being published, and Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson are doing some of the best work of their careers. The worst thing about the book is that the team is only five issues in — I want it all and I want it now, and being forced to wait for another installment is a sweet kind of torture.

Music: The new Rural Alberta Advantage album, Mended With Gold, is a strange one for me. It hasn’t grabbed me from the first listen like Hometowns, nor am I wallowing in non-stop re-listens like I did with Departing. It’s taking a slow hold of me, with a new appreciation of a different song every time I go back to it. One song, however, had me from the first listen: the rocking “Terrified” is a tribute to the power of love and fear — or is it love as fear? — and the little bit of a snarl at its core makes me love it that much more. Paul Banwatt’s drums go from frenetic to subdued and back again, and I could sing along to the soaring “oh”s on the chorus for hours. The RAA might not be the most musically adventurous band, but their delivery and enthusiasm more than make up for it, and “Terrified” is a perfect example of them at their best.

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That’s all or me this time around. Until next time, embrace the teen angst within you and listen to some sweet Canadian rock music. It’s good for the soul. I’ll see you in seven days.