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.

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.

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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.

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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.

This Column Has Seven Days #023 // How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Jack Kirby

This Column Has Seven Days

This week I have to take a little time to talk about the King of Comics, Jack Kirby. Yesterday (Aug. 28) marked what would have been the man’s 97th birthday, and it’s hard to be a comics fan and not at least know a little about what he did. The man started working on comics in the 1930s and was still making comics in the 1980s. To call his output prolific is an understatement. So what is the best way for an interested yet cautious reader to begin exploring the man’s voluminous body of work? I’m not sure I can answer that to everyone’s satisfaction, but I can tell you what worked for me.

This Column Has Seven Days #022 // Boys II Batmen

This Column Has Seven Days

This week I have been waist-deep in the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, North America’s largest fringe festival. It’s one of my favourite times of the year, when I get to put on shows and go to see other performances, eat my favourite street foods, and see people I only see during the third week in August. I have seen some good shows, but I have been using my down time to sample a few other pop culture morsels as well.

Batman: Monsters

250px-Monsters

Batman: Monsters is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a collection of three unrelated stories from the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series from the late 1990s, an anthology series set in Batman’s early crime-fighting career. The stories are thematically very loosely tied together by the fact that in each story, Batman goes up against three different, monstrous foes. Each story succeeds and fails in different ways, leaving the collection uneven but still worth a read.

The first story, “Werewolf,” collects issues 71-73, written by James Robinson and art by John Watkiss. While investigating a murder that an eyewitness swears was committed by a werewolf, Batman goes to London to see how two similar murders there might impact his case. His investigation takes him into London’s underground, where he deals with gangsters that seem inspired by Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers as well as an occultist society led by a beautiful woman named Raven. It’s drawn in broad strokes and is a little rough around the edges, and Robinson appears to lose track of some of the plot threads between the second and third chapter, but it’s worth reading because of Watkiss’ art. While his Batman appears to lose his nose in his cowl in a couple of panels, Watkiss’ thick brushstrokes are not something I’m used to reading in a Batman book, and he uses extreme high and low angles, close-ups and detail panels to create tension, confusion or action as the scene demands.

The second story, “Infected,” is the reason I picked the book up in the first place. It collects issues 83-84, written by Warren Ellis and art by John McCrea. Ellis, for those who don’t know, is one of my favourite comics writers, and McCrea’s art has always tickled me since I discovered his work on titles like Hitman and The Demon. Together the two men put together a story that feels like an idea that Ellis came up with for his StormWatch series, abandoned and then brought back for this Batman story: genetically and biologically engineered soldiers who carry a virus that will transform anyone who gets infected into soldiers like them. It’s got Warren Ellis trademarks like cinematic “widescreen” panels that stretch all the way across the page, futurism hijacked by bureaucrats and characters that speak in telegraphic English, but putting that in a Batman book makes for an intriguing read. He also has a good read on a Year One-era take on the Caped Crusader, who still makes mistakes and talks to himself in dialogue boxes that would make Frank Miller proud. And McCrea makes the soldiers truly monstrous, giving them real heft and viciousness so that they really pose a threat to a young Batman. This was, unsurprisingly, my favourite story in the collection.

The final story, “Clay,” is from issues 89-90, and was written by Alan Grant with art by Quique Alcatena. “Clay” is the story of Batman’s first meeting with Matt Hagen, better known as the first Clayface. I found it to be the weakest story in terms of plot and dialogue; Grant’s a writer I generally enjoy but I found some of his turns of phrase a little awkward, and the story seemed like a one-issue story padded out to two. However, I will not complain about having two issues of Quique Alcatena art. His characters are clean and well-formed, especially his Batman, who has a powerful physique, long billowing cape and elongated cowl. His art elevates a run-of-the-mill script to something visually compelling and worth revisiting.

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I was intrigued by more than just Batman grotesques this week, though. There’s one more choice selection from the past week.

Movies: I caught Richard Linklater’s Boyhood on Tuesday, which in case you haven’t heard much about, is the story of one boy’s life from age six to age 18 that was shot with the same cast over a period of 12 years. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen before, and when it was over, I only had one nitpick about the entire film, which I won’t share because I don’t want to prejudice any potential viewers. It is unheard of for a movie to run over two hours and 40 minutes and only give me one thing to get stuck in my craw. It’s not fast-paced or full of twists, and 164 minutes might sound like a long time, but I’ve seen shorter movies that felt far longer. I am not sure if everyone will like it, but so far it’s my favourite movie of the year. I don’t know if it’s possible for another movie to dethrone it. I don’t want to say too much about it, other than, “Go see it. Be open. Be willing to be surprised.”

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That’s about it for me this time, folks. Until next week, I would really suggest going to see Boyhood, unless you live in Edmonton, in which case I know of a couple of Fringe shows you could check out before Sunday, wink wink. I’ll see you in seven days.

 

This Column Has Seven Days #020 // The Cure for the Summertime Blues

This Column Has Seven Days

I hope things have been absolutely wonderful for you so far in August. My mood’s been a little low the past couple days, and I’m not sure why. However, when it’s summer vacation and I’m down in the dumps, there’s always something I can rely on to cheer me up. No, silly, not the companionship of people who care about me. Ice cream and comic books!

Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang

Just look at those weirdos. You want to read about them, don't you?
Just look at those weirdos. You want to read about them, don’t you?

One afternoon this week I’d had enough of the summertime blues so I went out to grab myself a frozen treat. I came back with a Drumstick — chocolate fudge, if you’re curious — and then stood in front of my bookshelves in search of a book that would help to lift my mood. It took about 10 seconds before my eyes fell upon one of the most esoteric books on my Mainstream Superhero shelf; as soon as I saw it, I broke into a grin. “This is the one,” I said to myself. “This is exactly what I needed.”

Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is a fast-paced romp through the abandoned corners of the DC Universe as it stood in the mid 2000s. First published in 2006 as back-up features in Tales of The Unexpected, this eight-chapter story features Doctor Terry Thirteen, a parapsychologist and skeptic who doesn’t believe in anything paranormal or supernatural. The story follows him and his teenage daughter, Traci, as they move through a world that seems very much to want them dead. Along the way they pick up other misfits and rejects from the DC Universe, including Anthro the First Boy, a French-speaking Cro-Magnon; Infectious Lass, a member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes whose superpower is making people sick; the ghost of General J.E.B. Stuart and the crew of his Haunted Tank; and Genius Jones, a little boy who was trapped on an island with every book ever published and can answer any question as long as you pay him a dime. The book also features ’80s-glam vampires, Nazi gorillas, ghost pirates and more. As Doctor 13 and his crew encounter more bizarre dangers, they discover that there’s a reason why the universe seems to have it out for them: it does. Or rather, The Architects of the universe do.

It’s a weird book. If you haven’t read it, you might wonder what the point of the whole story is. And that’s the wonderful, magical thing about this story, or about any great story — the point is the story itself. Architecture & Mortality is a meta-commentary on the state of the DC Universe at the time of its publication; The Architects are thinly veiled references to the four writers who were setting up the newest reboot to the company’s continuity. If you know that, then the book works on that level. If you don’t know that, though, then it’s a story where a vampire and a caveman ride around on a ghostly floating pirate ship and team up with a Civil War-era ghost to fight a group of fascist apes. It works on many levels.

Writer Brian Azzarello was and is still best known for his darker work on titles like 100 Bullets, but here he crafts a fantastical adventure with a joke on every page. Cliff Chiang’s fluid lines and graceful figures are on fine display in this story, and he does huge action stunts, physical humour, and the book’s few poignant emotional scenes with equal skill. Patricia Mulvihill’s colours are also incredibly versatile and fit the tone of every scene. All the creators come together somehow to make this weird book a wonder to behold.

I absolutely adore this book, and laugh and cheer every time I read it (yes, out loud). Whenever I get down about the state that a certain comics publisher is in, I think about this book and, just like Doctor 13, I realize that this era’s Architects are not infallible. That they have their time, and then that time will pass; what once seemed new and fresh will become old and lame. Those who want to sweep Doctor 13 under the rug with all the other “embarrassments” that don’t make sense will never win, because I have books like Architecture & Mortality on my bookshelf to re-read whenever I want. Even right away!

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It hasn’t been all Drumsticks and DC adventures where I’m concerned, though. Here’s a couple other things that caught my eye this week.

Books: In less than three days I finished Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman’s 2006 follow-up to the widely-acclaimed American Gods. Even though the title character appears in both books, It’s not so much a sequel; Anansi Boys would be entirely comprehensible to someone who has never read American Gods. (Also, if you haven’t read American Gods, you really should. It’s one of my favourite books.) Anansi Boys is my perfect summer read in some ways — it’s quickly paced, tightly plotted, and peopled with characters that stick in my mind long after I close the cover. Gaiman stirs up a confection of adventure and mythology and horror and humour that’s a storyteller’s delight, though I found the subplot involving a vengeful ghost almost entirely skippable. I also have a new literary crush in Detective Constable Daisy Day, despite being entirely too old and cynical for such things. While I don’t anticipate re-reading it again very soon, it’s a book that will have a place on my bookshelf alongside its more electrifying sister for years to come.

Movies: I feel strange writing about Guardians Of The Galaxy given how many reviews and thinkpieces and opinion articles have been written in the week since its release. To that end, I have decided to limit myself to saying five things about the movie:

  1. It is so much fun.
  2. Gamora is a far more interesting character than Peter Quill and she got the short end of the stick in terms of storytelling (and that’s not all).
  3. Marvel really needs to work on developing their villains. All of the antagonists in Guardians of the Galaxy, though ably performed, were extremely one-note.
  4. Vin Diesel and the animators absolutely nailed Groot and I could not be happier about that.
  5. I started crying twice during that movie, both times because a murderous CG raccoon was sad.

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That is going to do it for me this week, I think. I have to re-read Architecture and Mortality, after all. Until next time, go have a good time at the movies and then sit outside under a tree and read a good book. I’ll see you in seven days.