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.

* * * * *

Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds

e597b88c904627a3c00ca02266b6812f

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.)

Created by writer Eric Grissom and artist Phil Sloan, with colour art by David Halvorson, this first volume of Deadhorse tells the story of William Pike, a recluse who is drawn to the Alaskan town of Deadhorse by a key he received in a letter from his dead father. On the journey his path crosses with Elise, a teenage runaway, and Edgar, a wannabe science fiction writer, and the three of them are thrown into an adventure where they are beset by the billionaire who hired Pike’s father to design the town in the first place. Their journey takes some pretty bizarre twists and turns as the journey progresses — did I mention the Sasquatch? — and the creative team has put together a comic book so strong that it not only holds up to the weight of the crazy ideas, it thrives on them.

The mix of humour and creepiness reminds me of Chew, or as a pull quote on the comic’s website says, the television series Twin Peaks, two stories that I am rather a big fan of. As in those previous works, every reveal in Deadhorse raises even further questions, and the more I read the more I want to know how everything is connected. Perhaps not everything is meaningful in terms of plot in Deadhorse but I still get into the story more with every clue that’s dropped.

The book has a distinctive and strong look. Sloan’s caricature-style take on the characters is an odd choice at first but he’s got the chops for action and storytelling to pull it off. These aren’t simply well-drawn figures with great facial expressions; when the action picks up they move fluidly and smoothly, and yes, there are action scenes and they’re bombastic. The sound effects are part of the visual presentation, a vital component of the art, which is something I appreciate. Halvorson’s colours add a lot of depth to the pages as well, both in terms of intensity of colour and the choice of palette. It’s a really cool-looking book that displays the plot to best effect.

Each of the issues (or chapters, if it’s read as a collection) has a single page of backmatter that expands the story, whether it’s a letter, a magazine article, or a news webpage. The backmatter isn’t overly dense so I didn’t have the urge to skip it, which is good because the backmatter doesn’t just flesh out stuff that came before, it foreshadows concepts and ideas for future issues, drawing my attention to things I initially thought were there just for flavour. For instance, when the pop star showed up just after he was mentioned in the magazine article I immediately wanted to know, “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?”

Each chapter I finished in the volume raised more questions, and that’s ultimately a good thing. In the hands of lesser creators it might indicate that they have no idea where they’re going, but the fact that certain throwaway images and ideas in the first few issues become more important later, shows that they have a plan for this. Or at least, they have part of a plan, and they’re seeding in those ideas. I want to see how all those things come together: how do pop musicians Handsome and The Doctor, who only “speak” in an interview in the last page of issue three but whose music is omnipresent, figure into the conspiracy of the magic box? That’s the kind of hook that keeps me coming back for more.

Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds can be purchased online in digital or print versions, and there are two issues of Deadhorse Book Two – The Ballad of the Two-Headed Dog available as well. I would strongly, strongly encourage anyone who likes a quirky mystery to give it a shot.

* * * * *

Though Deadhorse was definitely the highlight of my pop culture week, there were a couple of other gems that stuck in my mind. If anyone thought I was a nerd before, just wait until I drop a little Old-Time Radio science on you.

Old-Time Radio: I don’t know anyone besides me who listens to old-time radio shows, but if anyone out there is looking for a good gateway into the world of OTR, one of my standby recommendations is the detective show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the adventures of “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator.” The 1955 revamp in particular is a great example of how great the medium can be; each story is split up into five 15-minute episodes that were originally aired every weekday night. The format gives the stories room to breathe a little, allows for more twists and turns or character development, without feeling overly long. Bob Bailey plays Johnny as a cynical but decent man, good with a quip or a one-liner and smart as a whip. Basically, he’s a guy who’s in the mold of a hard-boiled investigator but came out slightly undercooked. I like how most of the scripts are written, with Johnny reviewing his expenses and going through the story in flashbacks, which allows the writers and performer opportunity for a pithy monologue on occasion, and the expense account format helps move the story along and transition between scenes smoothly. Most of the time the crimes Johnny investigates rise above the typical Dragnet police procedural, either because the scripts are more clever or the plots make more sense, and sometimes both. Some of my favourites that I’ve been listening to recently are “The Matter of the Medium, Well Done” and “The Alvin Summers Matter,” and there are a lot of episodes available to stream or download online.

Comics: Bear, Bird and Stag Were Arguing In The Forest (And Other Stories) is a 40-page mini-comic by Madeleine Flores that I thought was simply delightful. It collects four different comics stories, each of which highlights a different aspect of Flores’ comics style. Sometimes the art left me indifferent but a couple of the stories were absolute standouts. The first one, that gives the collection its title, is about three talking animals arguing who should be the king of the forest. It’s a fun and silly folk story that looks and reads like it was made by the art love-child of Pendleton Ward and Kate Beaton. If the rest of the stories read the same way I probably wouldn’t have cared much about the book but Flores shows a different style in “Weave,” a fairy story of a woman and her child alone in the woods. Here the story is slower and more contemplative, and Flores uses a sketchier art style to fit the mood; I found myself wanting more of the story but enjoying what there was to be had. The final story, “Wander,” is a short little story about dreams with words so sweet and light they could have been in a children’s book, and the art uses deep blacks for shadow and lots of grey space to emphasize the vast mysteriousness of the dream world. This mini-comic is a strong effort from an artist with a lot of promise, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for more work from Madeleine Flores in the future.

* * * * *

That’s about it for me this week, I’m afraid; National Novel Writing Month is calling me and I am woefully behind in my word count. Until next week, dip your toes into a fun little mystery and I’ll see you in seven days.

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?

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

This Column Has Seven Days #028 // Doom Trombone

This Column Has Seven Days

 This week I have prepared four short reviews because I took three days to fully recuperate from the bicycle pub crawl I went on this weekend. For those of you thinking about doing a bicycle pub crawl, my advice is to definitely do it, unless you haven’t been on a bike in almost 15 years, in which case definitely do it but maybe wait until a long weekend so there’s extra recovery time. And while you’re recovering (SEGUE!) you could do worse than to entertain yourself with one of these selections.

This Column Has Seven Days #027 // Poor, Unfortunate Souls

This Column Has Seven Days

It’s autumn! Beautiful, blessed autumn. I am pleased as pumpkin pie, a treat that I will soon be enjoying because it is traditionally eaten in the fall and did I mention that it is autumn?

Ahem. I feel that I have been overwhelmed by my exuberance. It’s just the change in the air that does it to me. Or maybe it’s because I read a truly beautiful comic book this past week. Possibly both.

This Column Has Seven Days #026 // “Chefs Do That”

This Column Has Seven Days

This week I subjected myself to a number of things that ended up being tolerable at best and disappointing at worst. I was honestly thinking I wasn’t going to have anything to write about this week. And then I remembered: there was one truly fantastic treasure from last week that I would be a fool not to rant and rave about.

This Column Has Seven Days #025 // Turn On Your Magic Beam

This Column Has Seven Days

This past weekend I finished an exhaustive re-cataloguing of my book collections after my original web-based system went kaput earlier this year.

(Yes. I have an extensive cataloguing and rating method for my pop culture reserves. You don’t cram a house’s worth of books, albums, comics and movies into a one-bedroom apartment without a system.)

At the end of it, I found myself with a lot of books that I’d read but hadn’t rated, which means — joy of joys! — that I have some targeted comics and prose re-reading ahead of me over the next year or so. Some of those re-reads will likely be making appearances in this column. Like, for instance, this one right here.

Sandman Mystery Theatre, Volume One: The Tarantula

Sandman-Mystery-Theatre-Volume-1-The-Tarantula

I have a soft spot for the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society of America. The original Flash and Green Lantern, Hourman, Starman, Doctor Fate, and of course, Wildcat: there’s something about the old guard of DC’s superheroes that strikes a chord in me. As much as I like the characters, though, I don’t generally like the Golden Age comics they appeared in. Rather, I like the stories that more modern writers have told about them. Much like their contemporaries Superman or Batman, the original JSA character concepts have a resonance that generally outshines the books in which they first appeared, and a talented creator can see that resonance 50 or more years later and make something wonderful with it.

In 1993, Matt Wagner and Guy Davis did just that with Sandman Mystery Theatre. Set in the 1930s, it stars the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, as he investigates crimes in a very realistic New York City. Wagner and Davis eschew a lot of the historical comic book trappings, toning down the traditional vibrancy literally and figuratively to make The Sandman more of a pulp character along the lines of The Shadow or The Green Hornet. This Sandman isn’t a square jaw in a bright green suit and purple cape; he’s a slightly pudgy man in a much more drab suit and overcoat. He still wears a gas mask, though. Not only does it come in handy when one is in the habit of toting a gas gun, it’s a great way to conceal one’s identity.

In The Tarantula, Wesley Dodds is caught up in the investigation of a series of kidnappings of young women on the streets of New York, all committed by the eponymous Tarantula. In the course of Dodds’ investigations he uses his Sandman identity to get information through less-than-legal methods, but as the wealthy Wesley Dodds, he also gets information through a variety of high-society contacts, including District Attorney Larry Belmont. It’s during one of those meetings that he meets the D.A.’s daughter, Dian Belmont, a smart and determined young woman stifled by the atmosphere of the 1930s. Though Wesley and Dian don’t end up as partners, romantic or otherwise, by the last page of this first volume, it’s nice to see the two of them at the beginning of their relationship. The way Wagner writes their interactions reminds me of The Shadow’s Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane, or The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles, except in this story the man and the woman are on much more equal footing.

Any book published under the Vertigo imprint generally implies that it’s for “Mature Readers,” and Sandman Mystery Theatre is no exception. There are all manner of dark goings-on in the first four issues of this series, which is a huge strength. The tone of the story feels very much like a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel, which is a perfect setting for this Sandman. In the shadowy world of New York City after the end of Prohibition but before the start of World War II, ambiguity and moral relativism run rampant. Most of the characters in The Tarantula walk some line between right and wrong, including Wesley; dressing up like a vigilante and attacking people with sleeping gas is, at the very least, a questionable way of going about one’s business. It’s nice, though, to see The Sandman solving crimes using his brain more often than his brawn. In Sandman Mystery Theatre, he’s one part Sam Spade, one part Batman.

The art by Guy Davis and colourist David Hornung is very strong. Davis hardly alters his line at all, often using line shading and cross-hatching to indicate shadows where other artists would bring out the big ink brush. It’s a bold choice to use that style in what could read like a noir book with heaps of shadows, but for this story and this character it works. It almost reminds me of engraving or woodcut art, in a way. Hornung’s colour palette is pale without being bland, as he knows when to use a splash of pink or lavender or fern green to add a little sparkle to the page.

I liked The Tarantula much more on second reading than I remember liking it the first. If the only thing you think of when you hear the name “The Sandman” is the Neil Gaiman series or the guy with the black-and-green-striped shirt, then I highly recommend this book as a first introduction to the character.

* * * * *

I’ve done more than just dabble in Golden Age reboots this week, though. Here’s a sampling of what else I’ve enjoyed over the past seven days.

Comics: This week I got three-quarters of the way through my copy of All-Star Comics Archives: Volume One. Although I’ve already said that I am not the biggest fan of most Golden Age superhero comics, reading them more for historical reasons than aesthetic ones, I have really been enjoying the work of a couple of the artists in the collection. Howard Sherman’s Dr. Fate strips are a little staid in their presentation but the cartooning is sometimes so good they remind me of Jack Cole, especially in some characters’ faces. Sheldon Moldoff’s Hawkman strips, though, are dynamite, definitely influenced by (or ripping off) Alex Raymond — Moldoff does amazing stuff with figures, shadow and action, and even experiments very effectively with page layouts. In what is otherwise a generally mediocre book, the works of Sherman and Moldoff shine out like diamonds.

Music: I’m going to embrace my inner 13-year-old boy and proclaim that yes, I bought “Weird Al” Yankovic’s final studio album, Mandatory Fun, and I am glad I did. Sure, the parodies may be a little too mainstream for this old man to immediately identify (apparently there is a real band called Imagine Dragons?), but the highlight of the album is the original song “First World Problems,” which sounds more like a Pixies song than anything off Indie Cindy. I don’t care that “First World Problems” is supposed to be a comedy song — it rocks like an Earth 2 version of “Debaser” and that’s good enough for me.

Movies: The fluffy romantic comedy For Love or Money is an easy sell for me, as I am a fan of the great Kirk Douglas. He’s known for his dramatic chops but this rare opportunity to see him do light comedy is a real treat; he manages to contort his handsome mug into some surprisingly comic facial expressions, and his delivery of the admittedly slight dialogue is always on-point. The film is supposed to be a satire of some of the follies of 1960s life (fitness crazes, modern art, psychologically applied advertising) but it’s not hard enough to bite and not clever enough to be really funny. Instead, my enjoyment came from the hoops Douglas’ lawyer character jumps through as he plays matchmaker for three beautiful sisters — Mitzi Gaynor, Leslie Parrish, and a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar — and the film works best when it tries to be more farce than satire. Watching Douglas and Gaynor slowly fall for each other is worth the price of admission for me; not only are they gifted performers, they’re beautiful human beings who are incredibly easy to look at. For Love or Money is incredibly slight but I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying it.

* * * * *

That’s all for me this week. Until next time, try to get a good night’s sleep. I’ll see you in seven days.