Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jason Powell on Marvel Fanfare #’s 1-4 (a-sides)

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Marvel Fanfare #1Marvel Fanfare #2Marvel Fanfare #3Marvel Fanfare #4

Collected as the TPB “X-Men and Spider-Man: Savage Land”

As he demonstrated with the awesome Uncanny X-Men #150, Claremont has by now realized that the way to avoid turning into a hack who rehashes his own hits is to write stories that inherently prevent their own repetition. In “I, Magneto,” Claremont added a new layer of depth to Magneto that would preclude his future appearances leading to another fight. (Claremont and Byrne had already given us the ultimate X-Men vs. Magneto story in issues 112-113, so why even try to do it again?)

Here, Claremont similarly puts the kibosh on future Sauron tales via much more prosaic means. He simply ends the story with Xavier finding a cure for Sauron’s condition, and voila: Exit one super-villain from the X-Men canon. (Sauron wouldn’t return until after Claremont’s 1991 departure.)

To get to that point, however, Claremont first embarks on yet another homage to Neal Adams. It begins with Angel (plus Spider-Man) descending to the Savage Land and facing the Savage Land Mutates. Spider-Man leaves at the end of issue 2 but Angel sticks around, to be joined by the rest of the X-Men in issue 3. This all is a straight Adams rehash. (Adams created the Mutates for X-Men #62, in a story that also began with Angel preceding the other team members into the Savage Land.)

The strange plot, with Spider-Man leaving after two issues and the X-Men showing up to replace him, was presumably shaped by marketing considerations rather than creative ones.

All in all, this has the makings of an unoriginal and uninspired story. Surprisingly, however, it’s quite the opposite. A lot of the arc’s success is due to the artists – who number some of the best comic book illustrators of the era. Michael Golden on parts 1 and 2; Dave Cockrum and Bob McLeod on part 3; and Paul Smith and Terry Austin on part 4. Golden’s work in the Spider-Man chapters is downright beautiful, his manic fight choreography and quirky anatomical renderings an obvious precursor to Todd McFarlane. Inspired by the wildness of the art, Claremont’s writing displays a refreshing amount of wit and invention. Cockrum and McLeod prove to be a formidable combination in part 3. And Paul Smith – who will go on to replace Cockrum as Uncanny’s regular penciller – is a revelation. Smith’s chemistry with Claremont is palpable immediately, the intense vision of the X-Men they portray here being a sharp preview of what the two will accomplish together on Uncanny in 1983.

So, granted, the plot is a patchwork quilt of old Neal Adams material. It doesn’t matter. The artwork running throughout the story is so diverse in style yet consistent in quality – and Claremont is so clearly inspired by his cavalcade of great illustrators – that the whole thing makes for a cracking good trade paperback. If we needed to have one more Sauron story, this was definitely the way to go about it.

Trivia note: The “Savage Land” TPB also features the return of Zaladane, Garrokk’s high priestess who played a small role in Byrne and Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men issues 115 and 116. The name seemed then – and still seems now – to be unnoteworthy: an arbitrary collection of syllables. But the last syllable being “dane” will eventually be woven into a storyline that makes her the sister of Lorna Dane. (Claremont first plants the seeds for the reveal in 1988’s X-Men Annual, wherein Havok – Lorna’s lover – meets Zaladane for the first time and finds her unaccountably striking. She is introduced to Havok by the High Evolutionary with the diminutive “Zala,” so Alex can’t possibly make the connection.) It seems incredibly unlikely that the Lorna Dane/Zaladane connection was intended from the start. So we have this odd, unintentional phonetic coincidence that Claremont decided to exploit years after the fact for a very melodramatic, soap-opera twist. It’s not the only example of Claremont doing something like that – not by a mile – but it certainly stands out as the most obliquely serendipitous.

Madd_Hadder on the X-Files: I Want to Believe [Guest Blog]

[Madd_hadder reviews the X-Files movie, which I have not seen. Spoilers.].

Mulder and Scully are back! The FBI has a case that was brought to them on a cold call, by a supposedly psychic priest (Billy Connelly), but the two agents in charge (Amanda Peet and Xzibit(?)) are not sure they believe he is really a psychic. Who you gonna call? Fox Mulder! Mulder has been laying low, hiding from the FBI for the last few years after he broke out of a military prison where he was to be hanged. Agent Xzibit asks Scully, now a doctor in a Catholic hospital, to track down Mulder because an FBI agent has been abducted and they need his help. The Priest has more psychic visions, but no one trust him because he is noted pedophile, having molested 30 young boys during his priesting. Mulder believes, or at least he wants to believe, that the visions are true. In these visions the father is seeing and hearing dogs, but not much else, except he is able to lead the FBI to all kinds of body parts. When a second girl gets abducted, Mulder gets fully behind the case, but Scully will not commit. Scully refuses to follow Mulder back into the darkness, but Mulder proclaims his whole life is about the darkness. When they stumble onto the body parts and test them for drugs, Mulder believes they are looking for an organ thieving business, which of course, is not terribly X-files like. In a side plot, focused on Scully, she is the doctor for a child who has an incurable disease, except she wants to try some risky stem cell surgery. It doesn't seem like much of a story, but the brilliance of Dana Scully is the way she is always trying to balance science and religious faith and this story line provides the perfect opportunity for it.

There is a giant part of me that believes I have to view this movie as if The X-Files did not exist. I want to review this specifically as a movie. In that regard, I believe it mostly succeeds. The opening scene is creepy and does an excellent job of setting the mood and the rest of the movie follows suit. There is a nice balance between the darkness and the light hearted Mulder and Scully banter, but in the end, as an X-Files movie, I have to ask "why?" If you are going to revive a franchise that died a very slow and painful death in 2002, you had better make sure the product you bring back something worth watching. The X-files: I want to believe, is worth watching as a movie, but as an X-Files movie it feels like an average stand alone episode. That being said, it was a blast to see my two favorite FBI agents back in action.

David Duchovney finds Mulder perfectly, even after letting him go 6 years ago. He is funny, charming, and earnest and, he still knows how to make us believe in him and his beliefs. Gillian Anderson kind of steals the show, though. She is heartbreaking, kind, and subtle in her choices and watching the two of them banter for the first half and argue through the second half does have a sense of classic X-Files to it. The scene they share in the hospital when Scully confesses she cannot follow him is really the crux of the movie. The plot takes a back seat to watching these characters re-evaluate their relationships and their lives. Mulder still eats sun flower seeds, is still obsessed with the paranormal and his ceiling is still riddled with pencils, but he is desperately in love with Scully. Dana is still whip smart and resistant to believing in the paranormal, but her love for Mulder shines through easily. Even in a lesser X-Files episode they are worth watching and that is no different here. It helps that Chris Carter crafts pretty good dialog that feels totally true to the two characters. Even as Mulder and Scully try to find a way to live with each other after the series, they cannot help but continue to question everything all of the time. It is obvious Carter was not ready to let these two iconic TV figures go.

When the plot does get back on track during the third act, we get some cool, creepy and scary stuff, all helped by Mark Snow's haunting score. The man has not lost his touch for creating the perfect mood with music. The X-Files theme is used only 3 or 4 times that I remember in the actual movie, but it is butchered in some awful techno version in the credits. Fans of the show will undoubtedly get a kick out of seeing Skinner again as well, even if just in the cameo role he was relegated to early in the series. However, while the plot is mildly X-Files like, I was left wanting more. I needed a better reason to see Mulder on screen again. I needed a better reason to watch Scully and Mulder share a bed together. I know Carter wanted to do a stand alone supernatural thriller, but a psychic child molesting priest? Why not tackle something like Big Foot even. Or perhaps something alien that did not have to do with the mythology. I have to believe The X-Files mythos can continue on, but I am not sure this was the right venue in which to bring it back.

I was entertained; I laughed and cheered silently and even uttered an audible "oh shit" during the moment that shocked me, so I cannot be too mad at Chris Carter. He made a pretty good thriller featuring the characters of the X-Files, just not a good X-Files thriller. Sadly, the opening weekend box office leaves little chance we will see a third movie and after limping across the finish line once before, this solid, if unremarkable, movie could be the final nail in the coffin of The X-Files.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

HCDuvall on The Dark Knight [Guest Blog]

[Guest blogger HC Duvall has some thoughts on the Dark Knight, which really does provide endless discussion. Dark Knight is really like Morrison's New X-Men in that it is often really brilliant in spots and stretches but also overrated: the perfect conversation piece.]

The Joker should be a clown who robs banks.

That's certainly less menacing--but Dark Knight, big and serious and entertaining good movie that it is, exhausts the idea of a serious Joker. I'm going to glide over many good things: the acting (Even Morgan Freeman did more than chuckle this time) and Heath Ledger's Joker in general; and some bad things: that the Hong Kong escapade is a long-winded way to establish some gear and Joker's employment to the mob and the generally draggy fourth act. I'm going to fixate on a notion that tumbles in my head whenever a superhero turns extra somber. Boy, this kind of a dead end.

"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector...a dark knight."

Oh, what sloppy business that I might've let go. But Gordon intones it with such concluding meaning, this filmmaker's point of view. It took the wind out of my sails. So the Joker here has been a mass murdering terrorist, all crazy for chaos.* This very much the Killing Joke take. Batman and Joker are lonely lunatic bosom buddies, men who had one very bad day, snapped, and now share this bleak joke. Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, is alone, and fixated on saving people. Joker, no disguise necessary, is alone, and fixated of chaos (meaning killing people). Different enough in effect, but both victims of trauma of some sort.

Dark Knight's Joker supposedly has no established origin. He's a master planner of wheels-within-wheels (who else does that?) and with a speech--it's a meander that sets up the great line about burning down the forest--we are given the notion that some men are born for destruction via the poor robber example. A man who could, after all, be a thrill junkie. Or a Zorro figure set on embarrassing colonial powers. Or a man, raised by monkeys looking for delicious shiny things, who ends up throwing gems away because though shiny, they are not very delicious. Oh sir, there's many a ways away from someone who wants to see the world burn other than being born an arsonist. Fate, poorly supported as it is, is a clumsier argument yet.

Batman Begins had this clumsy shorthand as well: After the first Bat-tank chase, there was a voice over declaring no casualties. How could the audience enjoy the ride if people had died? How could you support a Batman who risked civilians so casually? Where would you be if you took it seriously? Hancock tried this approach this summer (before the interesting character arc was discarded for relationship allegory), and some of Hellboy 2's flaws are from the same vein. Iron Man's more or less neocon foreign policy style is palatable specifically because of it's disregard for this sort of study.

But Batman saves people, and for that they must be worth saving...but back to the quote above...the people, it says, despite making the right choice in the boats, are a cowardly and suspicious lot, and deserve a lie. They'll forgive a boatload of criminals,* but can't be trusted to forgive Harvey Dent, a man with half his face and all his life burned away who killed, eh...two of the people responsible? And if Alfred hadn't burned that note, you see, Batman would realize he's alone and snap again and starting popping some heads. Probably criminal heads, but still. Or maybe he'd just be really sad. Batman saving lives is arbitrary, really. Chance (hello Dent!).

Where else, after all, can this seriousity go? The Joker goes to Arkham? Gotham seems like a capital punishment kinda town. Is Batman going to rescue him from the chair? Not this Batman, he has limits to his belief in rehabilitation. He'll let you die, not that anyone would let him try otherwise. But if we're going to lock up one lone nut killing people, we should probably lock up the one who goes around beating people up, dropping them from buildings, who lets people die if he doesn't like them.** This is why societies don't actually want vigilantes. Incidentally, this is where I think the movie shines re:Batman. He's always paired with the Joker, but Harvey Dent as the opposite of Batman, that's good. The Joker and Batman both are totalitarian in their worldviews and its imposition on everyone else, and Dent actually believed in society. Trouble is, it's hard to fathom a motive for Batman this way, unless he's just fated to be heroic. Fate robs a lot of the cache of hard choices, though. Or he's a depressing symbol of pettiness of humanity then. The crisis of faith regarding cell phone sonar in the movie is supposed to be an example of a line Batman doesn't cross, but why he stopped other then nobody wants to disappoint a frowning Morgan Freeman is kind of opaque. I mean, I see a moral argument to stop, but I don't see why this Batman did. Good on him though, quit while he was ahead. When a character is does something suitably unheroic enough though morally gray enough to be justifiable (or say Dent kills the corrupt cops, but even Dent is a villain, albeit sympathetic), then it becomes a vigilante story rather than a superhero (one where despite all odds, heroism is done). I'll hazard to say that any story that fights this hard against its supposed genre confines is in the wrong genre, or is the wrong story.

Obviously the mileage on this sort of take is actually pretty good, Killing Joke and Nolan's Batman movies praised for reasons. But eventually, going this route of serious forces you to have to explain a crazy guy in a bat suit trying to punch crime in the face. Dark Knight called attention to this in the same breaths that we're supposed to accept a rich man trying to work out his childhood trauma flouting the law. Nothing that solipsistic in movies since The Game. Superheroes are a limited vehicle for this sort of thing, and such things (and Watchmen, oh lovely Watchmen) are end stories with nowhere to go but somewhere entirely different without costumes, or powers, or possibly even heroics, and I don't know, a superhero story needs some of that.

Or, less lament of the disgruntled nerd version:

Seriousness calls attention to silliness, and dressing like a bat is really silly. If the movie disagrees with me, it did a poor job of arguing it.

* I think a good joke for this Joker would be if the civilian boat hits the trigger and their own boat explodes.

** Even Frank Miller doesn't have Batman killing. And Frank Miller likes manly men killing things, no?

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If you think your free form comment here might be better as its own post, but you do not want it to be public yet, email it to me. My email address is available on my blogger profile page. If I think it will work on this site, your post will be published here with your name in the title of the post. You can propose what you will, I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

If you think what you have to say -- new topic or comment on an existing topic -- would be better to hear than to read, use the CALL ME button on the toolbar on the right.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fiest on Sesame Street (Commonplace Book)

Ok, so Slate and Neil already put this up and it is now weeks old. I don't care. I want it on my blog.

Astoria, by the way, is where Sesame Street is filmed; 30 Rock is also filmed here, at Silver Cup Studios.

Jason Powell on X-Men Annual #5

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

X-Men Annual #5

“Ou, La La – Badoon”

Another year, another annual featuring a perfunctory adventure story. The title is an accurate indicator of how seriously Claremont takes this one. The fact that the plot involves Arkon is almost a joke in and of itself – it makes the 1981 annual a sequel to the 1979 one, and achieves a continuity between them ... but Arkon never once shows up in the actual Uncanny X-Men series. It’s as if the annuals exist in their own separate universe, never to disturb the more important continuous narrative in the monthly comic book. (The first time an X-Men annual actually impacts the main series will be in 1985 with X-Men Annual #9. Slyly, Claremont will signal the transition of the annuals into a place of meaningfulness by opening with the X-Men using Arkon’s lightning bolts to transport themselves to a different dimension ... but not to his.)

With expressive pencils by Brent Anderson and lusciously textured inks from the great Bob McLeod, X-Men Annual #5 boasts some beautiful images. The female faces are particularly attractive. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance, however, in the comic’s action sequences, which the narration describes as being fairly brutal but the actual depictions of which are rendered mushy by the artists’ soft touch.

The Badoon, furthermore, are weak villains – the type of one-note B-movie clichés that were resorted to far too frequently in 1960s-era Marvel comics. Claremont certainly seems aware of it, hence his mocking them in the title.

There are some decent character bits around the edges – Nightcrawler once again clashes with Wolverine over their different attitudes towards killing, and Sprite’s crush on Colossus is rendered cutely and sweetly at various points (notwithstanding the uncomfortable sexualization of Kitty – still 13 years old at this point in the continuity, remember – in the final few pages). Claremont also has a great amount of fun with the Fantastic Four here, particularly Reed, who saves the day by devising a clever way of combining the superpowers of Cyclops and the Invisible Girl.

For all of that, however, this fairly rote storytelling on everyone’s part. Claremont’s general eloquence and sense of pace has certainly improved since last year’s dismal “Nightcrawler’s Inferno” – but he still doesn’t seem to have much time for the Annuals.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Favorites List: Criteria

One of the good things about making the favorites list is that it has thrown me back on my criteria.

Why is it that I loved Popbot but hated Hellboy 2? My complaint about Hellboy 2 was that, while the monsters were pretty, a movie should primarily be a story and the story failed on so many levels. But Popbot was all gorgeous art loosely strung together with a bad narrative.

One of the tenants of criticism is that a work teaches you how to judge it, suggests its own criteria: Hellboy is a summer blockbuster that placed a lot of emphasis on the story (Hellboy has a character arc, for example, whereas the characters in Popbot do not); Popbot is designed to highlight the art above all things (being mostly composed of splash-page paintings individually signed, for example).

There is an element of the irrational and contingent in these judgements. Maybe my mood effected my judgement - though I look to the work to guide my mood as much as possible.

And of course as I learned from Stanley Fish, only philosophers need to insist on some kind of rigid logical consistency. We can, and really should, live without feeling the need to make sure everything lines up just so.

Still, I cannot help wondering why I go to the trouble of separating out the New X-Men and JLA stories by Morrison that are my favorites while basically just saying that Buffy is one of my favorite shows, without getting more specific. Certainly part of it is that with comics it is very easy to see at a glance when Morrison is being assisted by my favorite artist, whereas with Whedon it would take some time to look more carefully through the credits -- and even so the collaborations are more fluid and less on the surface.

I can think of movies that I thought were perfect until the third act: Shaun of the Dead for example (which became by the numbers), and maybe Dark Knight (which had too many balls in the air). For those reasons I kept those films off of my favorites list. But I grabbed the first fourteen issues of Planetary, basically cutting the end off of that story all together. It feels less arbitrary to stop at an issue of a comic than at an act of a movie, but still.

I also tried to represent certain creators I really like, even though what I like about them is diffused across several works none of which I would necessarily call a favorite. For example: Zombies vs Robots vs Amazons for example, is there partly because Wood is one of my favorite artists, but he has never been put together with a really top notch story like WE3. (I am looking at you, Matt Fraction).

This is quite rambling I know. The point of it is this: I would like to continue to think about this, and I would like to hear from you about your own criteria and how it effects your calls on movies and the like.

On a larger scale I have two ideas for continuing the Favorites series, which I quite like. One is to begin to go through the lists picking items and writing short reviews based off of recent viewings. The other is to create a "least favorites" list, as I think that will help me to continue to think about what I value in the things I love.

Blog Format Questions

A few housekeeping questions, designed to make your experience here better. Remember that you can always answer anonymously (though there is surely no reason to).

Is the toolbar too busy? I was thinking about taking some of the categories of links, like Best of the Blog for example, and creating a single button that would take you to a page which would display all the links in that category.

Is the post frequency good? Should we only post weekdays? I put up posts weekends because I always want to read stuff on the weekends and places like Slate never have anything up then. But our numbers dip on the weekends -- Favorite Books, for example, was a post that got no attention because of when I put it up. Would as many as three posts a day be better if we had no posts on weekends?

Does Free Form Comments need to go up twice a week because it gets buried so fast? I feel like the speed at which good posts get buried is maybe a problem, but then I think frequent posts is a really good thing too.

Other suggestions?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Troy Wilson on Dark Knight (Comment Pull Quote)

In the comments to the post about the Dark Knight this week Troy wrote:

The problem wasn't that every sandwich could have a bomb in it. The problem was every sandwich did have a bomb in it.

The context of that is my revised opinion on the film, which am going to re-write here:

There is a lot to like in the Dark Knight. I thought the reports of Ledger were being overblown because of his death but I was wrong: he is worth the price of admission, and there are great moments even when he is not around, including the motorcycle v truck street fight, the interrogation room scene, and the prisoner's ferry. But the pacing is kind of a disaster. In Tim Burton's Batman there is a cute scene where Vale and Wayne ditch the huge dining hall and go have a sandwich in the kitchen. Nolan's Batman cannot have a scene like that without putting a bomb in the sandwich. It would be possible to do a good Batman movie with a two and a half hour run time, but by never giving the audience a moment of down time, the film feels four and a half hours long.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #150

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #150

“I, Magneto”

One of the traditions attached to Magneto (and supervillains in general) is outrageous MacGuffins. The Silver Age saw the character inventing mutant-making machines; utilizing technology with giant horseshoe magnets attached; trapping the X-Men in a steel gondola and tossing them into space. Here, that tradition is continued, as Magneto has “created a device capable of manipulating the earth’s crust.” Cleverly, however, this time Claremont is using superhero convention as metaphor. The nature of the machine – its ability to rearrange the substance of the world – lightly foreshadows how this particular Magneto vs. X-Men fight will end differently: the X-Men will rearrange the foundation of Magneto’s worldview. The catalyst turns out to be Magneto’s (seeming) murder of Kitty Pryde. When he realizes his zealotry has taken him to the point where he could so cavalierly take the life of a 13-year-old girl, he is shocked into a new state of mind. The action immediately reminds him of the death of his daughter and leads him towards an introspective self-examination, whereby the readers learn for the first time that Magneto was at Auschwitz. With a few key lines of dialogue, the character is suddenly launched into an entirely new context. (There is an added layer of irony in Claremont’s choice to make Kitty the catalyst for Magneto’s epiphany: She is the only Jewish member of the X-Men, a fact the readers know but Magneto does not.)

It would be years before Claremont would capitalize on this profoundly creative new take on Magneto – the story of his daughter’s death and the loss of his wife, alluded to with some specificity in Uncanny #150, will not be fully told until 1987’s “A Fire in the Night,” published in Classic X-Men #12. Indeed, the achingly tragic “Fire in the Night” adds significance in more ways than one to “I, Magneto.” Note, for example, that Magneto’s brutal reprisal against the U.S.S.R. – the sinking of one of its submarines (killing all aboard), followed by the violent destruction of one of its cities – takes on new significance when we recall that his daughter died in the Soviet Union, because a mob of Soviets prevented him from saving her. Is this what his brutal attack on the country is truly meant to avenge?

(A less significant – but no less striking – resonance with Magneto’s attack on the U.S.S.R. is the backup story from Classic #29, wherein the KGB’s Colonel Vazhin told Colossus he could best serve his country by remaining with the X-Men. When the team stops Magneto in Uncanny X-Men #150, thus preventing any further violence done against the Soviet Union, Vazhin is rather neatly proved correct. Online critics love to accuse Claremont of having a haphazard style that seems directionless compared to the more outwardly elegant work of, say, Neil Gaiman -- but the connections between Claremont’s X-Men stories do exist, and they are more clever and multi-textured than he is given credit for. Uncanny X-Men #150, a veritable junction box of connections between other stories in the canon, is a prime example.)

Claremont isn’t the only one who contributes sublime work to this issue. After providing fairly lightweight artistic contributions in the previous couple of months, Dave Cockum slams this story out of the park. In collaboration with Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek, Cockrum demonstrates fantastic range and subtlety here. The sequence wherein the X-Men emerge from the water to invade Magneto’s island is a particular standout. Note the incredible creepiness of the panel depicting the shadowed and still partially submerged faces of Storm and Nightcrawler – surely one of the most striking images of either character that Cockrum has ever produced.

We also get another example of what will soon become a staple dramatic beat for X-Men stories: with all the team members trapped and powerless, Cyclops regains the use of his eye-beams and blasts the unsuspecting villain, thus turning the tide back in the heroes’ favor. We saw this bit already as the inaugural moment of Byrne and Austin’s fantastically choreographed fight scene in Uncanny #134. Here it is again, and the primal beauty of both the idea and the image is such that it will go on to punctuate many X-Men stories in the years to come. (In 2007, Joss Whedon made it a key feature of his Cyclops-rehabilitation project in Astonishing X-Men.)

The greatest single accomplishment of Claremont’s original 17-year X-Men run is his character arc for Magneto, transforming a previously one-dimensional villain into one of the most powerful and tragic characters in Marvel’s vast stable. “I, Magneto” is a key chapter in Magneto’s transformation, and thus a key piece of the Claremont canon. Indeed, Claremont would even reprise the title in his masterful backup story for Classic X-Men #19, which detailed Magneto’s initial transformation from a noble man to a crazed megalomaniac. That “I, Magneto” ended with the eponymous line, marking the exact moment of Magneto’s transformation. Thus Claremont stuck an eloquent symmetry with Uncanny #150, which opens with the title phrase and ends with Magneto’s first steps from crazed megalomaniac back into a noble man.

The symmetries of Uncanny #150 do not end there. Grant Morrison, probably intentionally, chose issue 150 of his New X-Men project to deliberately revert Magneto to a one-dimensional villain – a swerve that directly contravenes Claremont’s X-Men #150. He then ended the story by killing Magneto off, as mockery of the fact that X-Men writers since the ‘60s had been ending their runs by killing off Magneto, always to no permanent effect. Ironically, both Claremont and Morrison were reacting to the same phenomenon: The futility of hero/villain conflict in superhero comics. This is reflected in Claremont’s story when Xavier comments that “physically defeating Magneto ... [has happened] so often in the past and ... has resolved absolutely nothing...” The two authors’ diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem reflect their different temperaments. Claremont ends the cycle by attacking it from within, unironically adding layers of tragedy to Magneto’s character that will thus inform his future appearances and preclude another rehash of the X-Men vs. Magneto. Morrison comments from outside the story, rehashing the hero/villain conflict but from an ironic distance, and thus subtracting dimensionality from Magneto. Perhaps inevitably, both authors would see their solutions erased by corporate-minded editors to preserve the X-Men franchise, vindicating Morrison’s more cynical view.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Comics Out July 23, 2008

Uncanny X-Men 500. My local comic shop lost a box or something, so you guys are going to have to review this one for me, at least until I get it.

The Wolverine / Kitty Pride Miniseries. I have not read this republished 80s story yet, but it is all part of my plan to read all of Claremont's X-Men. I have like 100 issues left on the core title to go.

The Collected Popbot. I love Ashley Wood and I am pretty sure this is his magnum opus. There is not really much of a story here. Word bubbles and a very loose narrative are strung over each page, but Wood would never allow the bubbles to interfere with the images. What narrative is there is aggressively weird in the way Morrison is, but without the charm -- except for a brief sequence in which the MAXX shows up for no reason. Each page is basically a painting, complete with the kind of signature you would find on any comic book cover image. As a book, it has much more in common with the compete paintings of Turner than it does with Casanova. Style varies wonderfully, but for no narrative reason: rough drawings in both black and white and color jostle with paintings, computer images, and pure graphic design. Looking for reviews, I stumbled on one by Matt Fraction before he was Matt Fraction, if you know what I mean. This is what he had to say: "If one were to take all of the pop culture components necessary to make great comic books with a bit of alchemy and a bit of luck and put them into a great big cauldron, POPBOT would be goo scraped off of the sides of that cauldron, cut with Dran-O, and sold to kids in schoolyards as the next big high." The pop culture components Fraction is talking about here are pinup lipstick lesbians (often in X-rated poses), hip urban samurais, killer robots, and creepy bad-ass soldiers with huge guns. The images are appallingly mesmerizing, and the book is pretty well awesome. Some images of Wood's work if you are not familiar. Don't get the book if you are not 100% sold on the art because the art is all there is. 

I have said this before but here is something I cannot get out of my head: Casanova, as drawn by Ashley Wood.

Thursday, July 24, 2008



Spaced -- the British sitcom from the director and actors that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz -- is now available in the US. You should get it.
Here is a clip.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #149

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #149

Grant Morrison’s musical paradigm for understanding the X-Men, his idea that you must play certain “chords” but with new “tricks” if you are going to write the series, is incredibly helpful, because it seems to have always been true. Neal Adams’ run on X-Men in 1969 was a treasure trove of storytelling tricks, but was also a powerful cover version of Lee/Kirby elements -- primarily the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land. Claremont and Byrne went on to cover Adams – they also did the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land – but they then went on to write brilliant new songs that were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Neal Adams riffs. The Dark Phoenix Saga, in particular, became the archetypal X-Men tune. Indeed, Joss Whedon recently attempted – as Neil Shyminski pointed out – to cement that story in particular as the template for every X-Men story (or song) from now until the end of the franchise.

John Byrne, once he had matched and surpassed Neal Adams on X-Men (albeit not in his own mind), subsequently left the series so he could go on to conquer his own personal Everest: Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Claremont, however, stayed on, and – having completed the unenviable task of topping Lee/Kirby’s X-Men, then topping Neal Adams’ X-Men – now found himself in the awkward position of having to top his own.

So, like the Beatles trying to recapture the glorious psychedelia of their watershed Sgt. Pepper album with the calculated carnival atmosphere of Magical Mystery Tour, Claremont – with Cockrum backing him up – started covering his own hits. It began with the “Murderworld” cover in issues 145-147, and continues here, with the return of Garrokk, from Uncanny #116. (The covers of classic hits will continue for quite some time – next issue is a battle with Magneto; after that, the Sentinels and Hellfire Club return; while in contemporaneous issues of Marvel Fanfare, the X-Men will fight Sauron in the Savage Land.)

The best part of “And the Dead” occurs on the third page, when Xavier thinks to himself, “In too many ways ... Magneto and I are uncomfortably alike.” At this point, Claremont and Cockrum have already begun to devise the Holocaust backstory for Magneto that will make its first appearance next issue. But it will be another year before they hit upon another inspired idea: giving Xavier and Magneto shared history. Uncanny #161 will reveal that Xavier and Magneto were friends before they first appeared in X-Men #1 – this brilliant turn will be crucial in Claremont’s development of Magneto as a replacement Professor X. But that’s still a ways away. For the moment, Xavier’s tantalizing thought on Page 3 is our first and only hint of what’s to come.

From there, disappointingly, Uncanny X-Men #149 is a fairly generic exercise in mainstream superheroics. The X-Men are sent by Xavier to explore the remnants of Magneto’s volcano hideout from their last battle. There, they encounter Garrokk, who inexplicably looks nothing like he did in his previous appearance (though he does look thoroughly menacing, thanks to Cockrum), and he possesses slightly different powers as well. His banal agenda in this issue is to get revenge on Storm for her failure to rescue him at the end of Uncanny #116. He proves embarrassingly ineffective at acquiring said revenge, and any menace he exuded thanks to Cockrum’s imaginative visual design is entirely gone by the end of the story, when the neophyte Kitty beats him through a combination of luck and an unexplained deus ex machina (i.e., her phasing through Garrokk causes him pain for no discernible reason).

It is now exactly a year after the masterful “Fate of the Phoenix” from issue 137, and the comic’s decline in quality between then and now is precipitous indeed. Claremont seems thoroughly uninspired at this point, and the last couple issues feel like water-treading just so that the big Magneto story can appear in issue 150, the anniversary issue.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wall-E, Dark Knight, Hellboy (major spoilers)

I saw all three of these films at the theatre yesterday. Since a lot has already been said about them, I will keep myself to capsule reviews, though the Hellboy thing gets a bit rant-y.

Wall-E is of course wonderful, one of the best movies I have ever seen. Pixar's technical achievements are nothing compared to their gifts of character and story. Wall-E does hovers between putting a spork with his collection of forks or spoons and finally decides to leave it between the two. And now I love him. The main characters have so little dialogue, and yet seem so much more human than most film characters I can think of. When the satire of act two kicks in, it is broad but also all visual -- this film, wonderfully, does not end with some big Jeff Garland speech condemning the human race for their sloth and blah blah blah. They just get to work. No one needs a big speech. And the movie avoids the simple "screens are bad, go out and live life" message that so many movies seem to think is a good lesson -- in spite of the fact that movies are the images on the screens that we care about; Wall-E cares about the images on HIS screen, and so we can care about ours guilt free. A

Halfway through Dark Knight I thought what I have been hearing from most people: Ledger is amazing and I could not think of anything wrong with the film exactly; my only clue that something was wrong was the fact that I was not really engrossed the way I am in a really good movie -- something on screen was keeping me in my head, distanced, analyzing. Somewhere after where the second intermission should have been I got very restless: the movie, and its grim seriousness just went on and on and on, and it made me tired all over. This is not just a length issue: pacing has a lot to do with it. There Will Be Blood was longer, but felt much shorter. Keeping everything at a pitch is exhausting and the the introduction of the late Dent conflict made the film feel like it had four acts rather than the proper three. Though it is partly a length issue: two hours and thirty minutes is too long for a summer Batman movie; people make fun of Shumaker for excesses like the villain pairs and trios, and they should, but let's be honest and say that this film crammed Scarecrow, Joker, Two-Face, and the mob into one film. It might have been better as a six hour HBO series with a killer budget. I very much agree with Neil that the "hero Gotham needs" rather than the "hero Gotham deserves" distinction made little sense, and that the whole thing was quite depressing the way Joker was able to turn Dent so thoroughly and quickly. And I hate the Batman voice: do not tell me Wayne is playing a character, because it is a bad character and that voice is ridiculous if you are going do anything more than shout three word commands at criminals; this in a movie that seemed in love with monologues about the nature or order and chaos, heroism, and justice, especially toward the end. There is a lot to like in the movie, even outside of Ledger (who was stunning): the prisoner chucking the detonator out the window, the truck flipping over, the reveal of Batman in the interrogation room. And I loved that the Joker was not given an origin, and in fact made a joke out of his lack of one. But the good stuff was was isolated. And what the hell was Eric Roberts doing in that movie, and why was he given such a big part? C


As for Hellboy Where is the outrage? del Torro is like Gondry (and Mignola to a lesser extent): his is a wonderful visual stylist -- the monsters of Hellboy are beautiful, that puppet scene especially -- but not much of a storyteller. Movies are very much a visual medium, and I get why they get so much credit for the achievement, but with Pixar running around handling both quite well, the bar should surely be raised. My complaints in the form of a flood: Kid Hellboy was awful, and thanks for the bit about the king only being able to command the golden army if unchallenged. See you have to add that arbitrary rule if you want to both have a fight scene with an unstoppable army AND have your film climax with a mono-e-mono. Elf man cutting the drop of water with his blade makes no sense unless you establish that that was what he was trying to do: if there was water dripping everywhere as it was in that scene I could do that too. If you were fighting a swarm of things would you just stand in the middle of the room just shooting your gun around? One actor in that scene was not even pretending that there were CGI creatures everywhere -- he just stood there calmly pointing his gun and various places on the green screen or whatever. Liz is an awful, wasted character, good for little more than hysterical woman cliches (and men's sitcom reactions to those cliches) literalized her her flames. Does you really want your German guy to sound EXACTLY like the fish on American Dad? Why did Hellboy say he was going to shoot the monster with his big gun then go to help some woman in an SUV and take her baby? -- because for thematic reasons (rather than any plot reason) we need to see him with a baby to know he will make a good dad. Why does Elf-man give him such a guilt trip about the last of the wood elementals -- he was the one that decided to use the unique Mononoke creature for some petty revenge over a dead bodyguard Hellboy was not even responsible for. The troll looked like a bag lady and is afraid of canaries -- wokka wokka. Was it a COINCIDENCE that the one person who could remove the shard in Hellboy happened to live next to the Golden Army? And do you really want to DOUBLE UP on the plot point of main characters deciding to pick their loved ones over stopping the apocalypse in the third act? And are there no consequences to that decision -- everyone seems to still like Abe at the end in spite of his attempt at world ending traitorousness: I suppose the point is they cannot throw stones. Did German fish man really just suddenly have this massive realization about his whole life as a result of Liz telling him he has forgotten how to be human? And it was really cheap how Hellboy can let Elf man live only to have the sister kill him in this magical way: it really negates the responsibility again. And why on earth do they all quit at the end? The singing, for the record, I actually liked , but the song about the Freaks was a little on the nose. I suppose you have to raise this at least a letter grade, maybe two, for the monsters, but the story here was so overwhelmingly bad I really want to give this an F.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jason Powell on Avengers Annual #10

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Avengers Annual #10

“By Friends – Betrayed”

“Chris was one of the first comicbook writers to give us female characters who did not exist solely to be captured by the bad guys so the (male) heroes could rescue them. Altho it is unfortunately true he very quickly turned this into his own cliché – ‘the Claremont Woman’ -- he bought himself a place in comicbook history by being thus ahead of the curve.” – John Byrne

Claremont was superhero comics’ first feminist writer. He clearly had an affection for Storm -- the “new” X-Men’s only female member originally – right from the start. Indeed, it is Ororo who saves the day in Uncanny X-Men #96, the first X-Men issue that Claremont plotted. (Cockrum’s favorite of the “new” X-Men was Nightcrawler; Byrne’s was Wolverine; could Storm have been Claremont’s?)

Claremont’s feminist inclinations were even more obvious in his work on “Ms. Marvel,” which he wrote in the late 1970s. Ms. Marvel’s civilian identity, Carol Danvers, was a character whose expansive and versatile skill set must have seemed absurd at the time, given its context among the breezily sexist Marvel Universe she existed in. At the age of 29 (as given in Avengers Annual #10), she already had quite the resume: she was a former air force pilot, a former NASA security chief, and the former editor of magazine called (what else?) “Woman.” All this, and a superhero too (who, thanks to master costume-designer Dave Cockrum, sported one of the most elegantly gorgeous superhero suits of her day).

Not long after the series was cancelled – the title character thus falling out of Claremont’s affectionate custody – Ms. Marvel soon found herself the focus of an embarrassingly sexist story arc that saw print in Avengers #’s 197-200 (see this article for the details).

Claremont’s blood must have boiled when he saw what happened to her in this story – essentially the closest a mainstream superhero comic could come in 1980 to raping one of its characters. Worst of all, the people behind these sexist comics seemed not to realize what they had done, so Claremont took it upon himself to write an Avengers comic that would specifically address the damage.

The result is Avengers Annual #10, a passionately executed adventure story whose viscerally thrilling centerpiece – the battle between the Avengers and Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – seems to be a Trojan Horse for its final scene, wherein Carol lectures the Avengers on how badly they screwed up in Avengers 197-200. (It’s really aimed at the creators of those Avengers issues for their insulting portrayal of a character that Claremont clearly felt deserved better.)

Claremont’s intentions are good, but in truth the banality of Carol’s lecture at the end is quite dramatically pre-empted by the sheer brilliance of the action that precedes it. Collaborating with Michael Golden, a thrillingly unique artist, Claremont delivers some of the most manic action sequences of his entire career, the pages loaded with unexpected turns and insanely choreographed twists.

Thanks to Claremont and Golden’s unbridled creativity, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants emerge as a genuinely intimidating pack of villains here. They were engaging in their first appearance during “Days of Future Past,” but couldn’t help but be overshadowed then by the dystopian-future scenes. In “By Friends – Betrayed,” the Brotherhood are a force to be reckoned with. Supercharged by Michael Golden in an Avengers Annual (of all places), the Brotherhood will go on to enjoy a career as one of the more convincing supervillain teams to recur in Claremont’s X-Men stories over the next decade.

There are several other bits of this comic that make it a key part of Claremont’s X-Men canon (hence its inclusion in this blog series): Most importantly, it is the first appearance of Rogue, the Brotherhood’s newest member, with the ability to temporarily absorb people’s powers and memories through flesh-on-flesh contact. Right from page one of this issue, she has already done this to Carol Danvers – permanently, somehow – at the behest of Mystique, who hates Carol for undisclosed reasons. (Indeed, Mystique’s first appearance was in an altogether oblique two-panel teaser in the penultimate issue of Ms. Marvel, published almost two full years before the character’s full appearance in “Days of Future Past.”)

With Carol’s memories permanently stolen from her by Rogue, she ends up as a patient of Charles Xavier, whose mental powers manage to restore her to some semblance of mental health. Having engineered this turn of events, Claremont is thus able to make the powerless and partially amnesiac Carol a supporting character in Uncanny X-Men (she first shows up in issue #150). Her role in Uncanny never quite clicks, but of course Rogue will go on to become a mainstay.

Avengers Annual #10 also contains a throwaway panel in which Claremont decides, propos of nothing, to drop the name of the lead singer of Steeleye Span, one of his favorite bands. Thus is a cute little girl (who has been “sick” but is “better now”) dubbed Maddy Pryor -- to the eventual consternation of continuity-obsessed X-Men fans everywhere.

Simpsons: You Can't Handle the Truth (Commonplace Book))

One of my favorite Simpsons moments, a mash up of several big film speeches including A Few Good Men and Patton (and some generic courtroom stuff I think, but if you know where it is from, please tell me).


Monday, July 21, 2008

Favorite Art

In spite of the fact that I am engaged to a painter, and live in New York City, there are very few museum shows that have really blown me away, and very few major painters or sculptors that I find myself thinking about in my free time. So this is going to be a VERY short list, at least for now.

Da Vinci




Vija Celmins


Robert Longo (The director of the terrible Johnny Mnemonic believe it or not; I have no idea how he landed that one random pop culture gig. Longo cannot be appreciated except in person: he does large scale charcoal drawings that are so fine they look like photographs unless you are two inches away from them).

Duane Hanson

Chris Ofili

John Currin

Jeff Koons

Antonio Gaudi

and my friend Jennifer Tomaiolo

and Sara Reiss, my fiancee (who will have a new website up shortly with lots of her work)

Streebo: behind the scenes of Devil Comes Down

[Streebo sent me this, and I thought I would share.]

In honor of MVP's last day of shooting on our zombie short film, Devil Comes Down, we've unlocked the MVP Vaults for something extra special for you. We've posted our step-by-step behind the scenes videos for our short zombie film Devil Comes Down. See how a no-budget film gets greenlighted and brought into reality. If you thought Project Greenlight was good - then you were right because I liked it too.

If you can't join us on the set, you can join us via Youtube!

Wish us luck.

Humbly yours,


Writer/Director 'C For Chaos' & 'Devil Comes Down'
Mutantville Productions, LLC
MVP; changing the face of independent horror, one soul at a time.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mitch: Triumph of the Underdog

[Our very own Mitch has this little project you all should know about. The Fringe Festival is often home to terrible surreal "outsider" nonsense, but this thing -- this thing looks good. It is a play whose format is a lecture from a science fiction professor (complete with PowerPoint), which I think is an ingenious way to deal with budget restrictions, and a great way to think about the place of the monologue in contemporary culture (cause monologues are usually not at home in a movie theatre). Plus check out these pictures. I have met Mitch and he looks like this, but he is kind of dramatically in character here. Just his facial expressions and body language make him look 10 years older, which is really something.] 

[He is a talented guy. I am genuinely excited about this, and Sara and I will be there with bells on. You should be too, but don't go with bells on because then when Sara and I bump into you we will have that awkward moment where we realize we are wearing the same thing.]

Here is the Press Release

Triumph Team is proud to present the New York Premiere of
as part of the 11th Annual New York International Fringe Festival.

The New York International Fringe Festival – FringeNYC
A production of the Present Company
August 8th-24th
Tickets: $15. For tickets visit

Geeks! Dorks! Fanboys! Lend your pointed ears! Peter Howell's mind-bending lecture on the history of Science Fiction might save your life... literally. Can the washed-up author really prevent an astronomical catastrophe threatening to annihilate the entire solar system?

TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG is a one-person show written by Mitch Montgomery and Morgan Allen. Disillusioned Science Fiction author Peter Howell frantically speeds through the history of Science Fiction — from Mesopotamia to NASA and Star Trek in twenty minutes — pausing only long enough to lament his failed career and his recent unemployment. In lieu of a more traditional structure, TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG is presented with all the usual trappings of an actual lecture – PowerPoint slides, anecdotal stories and, you know, suddenly having to save the world from fiery cosmic destruction!

TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG has been in development for five years, since it was originally mounted in a workshop production at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2003. Triumph Team's production will be directed by Barbara Williams and reunites theatre artists who collaborated on the original workshop at SCAD. The play stars Mitch Montgomery and features the voice talents of Belinda Hodler and Forrest Simmons.

Mitch Montgomery is a co-founder of Body Politic Theater and was instrumental in mounting their maiden production of Catherine Filloux's Lemkin's House in 2006. Since moving to New York, Mitch has worked for The Shubert Organization, The Summer Play Festival and as a theatre critic for the website Mitch is a Creative Coordinator at Marvel Entertainment, where he maintains brand standards on licensed products that feature characters from Marvel's thousand-plus character library and writes copy for Marvel's many licensing programs. As an actor, Mitch was twice nominated for the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival's Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Award. This is his first play.

Morgan Allen is an arts administrator, producer and writer living in New York City. Morgan has produced award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux's plays Lemkin's House (78th Street Theater Lab and Body Politic Theater) and Killing the Boss (Cherry Lane Theatre). With Body Politic Theater, which he co-founded and is a board member for, he will develop and produce a new commission by playwright Carlyle Brown throughout 2009. He continues his work with American playwrights at New Dramatists where this fall he will begin his third season as General Manager. Morgan spent the 2005-06 season as a Producing Associate for Prospect Theater Company and has worked in Manhattan with New Georges, National Asian American Theater Company and La Mama e.t.c, among others. His plays Precious Stone, Judas Pigeon and Leap have been work-shopped and produced in Savannah, GA and New York City.

Barbara Williams is an actor, director and educator from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. As a professor at the Savannah College of Art & Design, she has directed such shows as Lord of the Flies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Romeo and Juliet, Metamorphoses and Antigone. She served as the Faculty Advisor for the original workshop production of TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG.

TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG will run at FringeNYC Venue #2: The Schaeberle Studio Theatre, 41 Park Row, New York, NY 10038.

For more information please visit

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Graduation" Pics

I got my D. Phil a year ago, but never did the ceremony. I did buy the fancy Harry Potter robes and just recently went to a park with my parents to take some fake graduation photos, photos that are a loose approximation of photos my parents would have taken if I had done the ceremony. There are two tells that this is not graduation in England: there are no other people in robes, and it is not pouring. That is Sara on the left in the second pic.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #148

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #148

“Cry, Mutant”

Eleven months before this issue hit the stands, readers were treated to the sublime perfection of Uncanny X-Men #137, featuring spacious, meticulously choreographed artwork by John Byrne that was in turn given a sheen of crisp, clear perfection by Terry Austin’s inks. Claremont’s dialogue was lean and his command of language, perfect, even the individual words had an added elegance thanks to the machine-like precision of Tom Orzechowski’s lettering.

What a difference a year can make. Dave Cockrum is an enthusiastic and imaginative artist, but he goes for immediate impact. Eschewing Byrne’s sense of subtlety, Cockrum’s typical strategy is to pack every panel with as much action and dynamism as he can. Meanwhile, Joe Rubinstein’s inking line is much softer than Austin’s. The result of Cockrum’s exuberantly jam-packed layouts combining with Rubinstein’s less articulate inking is some messy-looking pages. Meanwhile, the less written about letter Janice Chiang’s penmanship (indeed, the less written WITH Janice Chiang’s penmanship), the better.

In short, this is a sloppy-looking comic. Not at first, granted. The opening splash images (Page 1’s image of a skimpily-attired Scott and Lee and Pages 2 and 3’s spread of an Atlantean City – rendered in shades of green by the still-superb colorist Glynis Oliver) are dynamic and eye-catching. Ditto, the full-page reveal of Magneto at the end (another classic in a long-line of Magneto splashes). It is the meat of the issue that fails to engage, as Claremont delivers one half-hearted sequence after another, his collaborators doing little to cover for the writer’s apparent lack of inspiration. The opening sequence with Scott and Lee is schizophrenic, its emotional beats confused. Scott laments his inability to relate to normal people “outside the unique high-pressure environment of the X-Men.” That would be both a logical and poignant lament if Lee didn’t act like a character out of a bad daytime soap opera.

Later, Angel quits the team (9 issues after having joined) because he thinks Wolverine is too dangerous, yet there is never a confrontation between Warren and Logan. Indeed, the only example Angel can come up with to back himself up is Wolverine’s violent dismemberment of ... a robot. Later, Banshee meets Theresa Rourke -- the daughter he never knew he had -- in a scene that is virtually incomprehensible if you haven’t read the Claremont-penned Spider-Woman issues wherein Theresa debuted.

Moira gets a halfway decent scene, in which she admits to Storm that she already resents Theresa, because Moira herself can’t ever give Sean a child; she doesn’t want to risk spawning another Proteus. That’s a canny use of continuity, and from the dialogue Claremont seems to have it in mind to make this a new arc for Moira and Banshee – but he never does. Indeed, after the huge introduction of Theresa in the Spider-Woman story, Claremont seems to immediately tire of her. He won’t use her in any significant way until Uncanny X-Men #278 – one issue before his last – and that instance was probably editorially mandated. It certainly raises the question as to just what the point is of the character.

(It is documented that Banshee’s creator, Roy Thomas, originally wanted Banshee to be female – the mythical “banshee” is a female creature – but the idea was quashed by Stan Lee. Claremont may have been attempting to fulfill Roy Thomas’ original vision, but that alone seems like a weak motivation to create a brand-new character.)

A noteworthy step in Wolverine’s development occurs in this issue when Wolverine employs an “old ninja trick” that he “learned in Japan” during a duel with Nightcrawler. Logan’s affinity for Japan was first introduced during Byrne and Claremont’s Moses Magnum arc (issues 118-119), and that seed will blossom pretty soon into a major component of Wolverine’s character. Claremont and Frank Miller’s “Shogun”-inspired Wolverine miniseries is still about a year away, but Wolverine’s ability to pull “ninja tricks” is a clue of what’s to come.

Claremont’s affection for female characters makes its presence known in the main sequence for the issue. At this point in the series, the X-Men only have two female members, but Claremont still finds a way to write a “ladies night out” story, bolstering the estrogen count through the use of Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew (another character Claremont happened to be writing at the same time), supporting cast member Stevie Hunter, and Dazzler (who was first introduced in Uncanny #130 and whose solo series had debuted only about six months ago). A fun idea, but more awkward dialogue hampers the execution (Kitty Pryde is chastised by Ororo and Stevie for her “rudeness” after the horrendous faux pas of asking Jessica three questions about her job. Huh?)

Granted, the obligatory action sequence is competently carried out, there is obvious potential in the new mutant character Caliban, and to Claremont’s credit he writes Dazzler far more interestingly than Tom DeFalco did in the contemporaneous issues of her own comic. Furthermore, “Cry, Mutant” has some canonical significance in that it’s the story wherein Kitty decides to stop being afraid of Nightcrawler. Yet for all its amiable competence, this issue falls depressingly below the high standards that Uncanny X-Men was hitting consistently less than a year ago.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Favorite Books

This is the quintessential desert island question, and I think I have this one down pat.

Poetry (the old stuff)

Bloom's The Best Poems of the English Language is my favorite anthology;

As for my very favorites canonical poets and poems I will rush by them as most are not very telling: Chaucer (Pardoner's Tale and Wife of Bath's Tale), Dante (The Comedy), Spenser (Faerie Queen), Donne (Holy Sonnet 10 and 14), Marvell (Coy Mistress, The Garden), Milton (Paradise Lost, Lycidas, and Samson Agonistes), Pope (Rape of the Lock, the end of the Dunciad), Blake (The Mental Traveller, Milton, The Crystal Cabinet), Coleridge (Rime, Khan, Christabel), Shelley (Bloom's selections from Epipsychidion, The Triumph of Life, the end of Adonais), Keats (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Odes, Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion), Clare (I Am, A Vision), Beddoes (Dream Pedlary), Whitman (Song, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, When Lilacs Last), Melville (Fragments), Dickinson, Tennyson (Ulysses, In Memoriam), Browning (Last Duchess, Childe Roland), Arnold (Dover Beach), Hopkins (Spring and Fall, I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark), Dante Rossetti (Orchard Pit), Swinburne (Anactoria, August, At Month's End), Bronte (Last Lines), Yeats (Adams Curse), Hardy (Darkling Thrush), Frost (Directive, the Wood Pile, The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Most of It, For Once Then Something), Stevens (Sunday Morning, Domination of Black, Snow Man, Idea of Order, Poems of Our Climate, Auroras of Autumn, Of Mere Being, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction), Eliot (Preludes, Prufrock and Sweeny Among the Nightingales, but NOT the Wasteland, and probably not anything else), John Wheelwright (Any Friend to Any Friend) and Hart Crane (At Melville 's Tomb, Voyages, Brooklyn Bridge, Voyages, Repose of Rivers, The Broken Tower).

Poetry (contemporary)

Heaney's Beowulf

John Ashbery -- basically all of it, but especially the more recent stuff including Can You Hear Bird, Girls on the Run, and Your Name Here

Paul Muldoon's Madoc: A Mystery

James Merrill's The Book of Ephriam (the first book of the Changing Light at Sandover)

Mark Strand's The Continuous Life and Eating Poetry (from Reasons for Moving)

Ron Padgett's How to Be Perfect, You Never Know, and Tulsa Kid

James Tate's Selected Poetry, especially List of Famous Hats and Goodtime Jesus

Charles Wright -- all of it.

Criticism and Theory

Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism, Poetry and Repression, and Ruin the Sacred Truths, Figures of Capable Imagination, The Breaking of the Vessels, Agon, and Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climates.

Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Freud -- basically all of it but especially Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Moses and Monotheism; also the Major Case Studies

Emerson's Major Essays, especially Fate, Self-Reliance, History, The Poet, Experience, The Divinity School Address, Representative Men

Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist and the Decay of Lying; also, of course, The Importance of Being Ernest

Walter Pater -- The Renaissance, Appreciations. Really all of it.

Valery's Dance and the Soul

Zizek's Fragile Absolute, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, Looking Awry: Zizek is good but repetitive, so his first books may be your favorites.

Ashbery's Other Traditions

McKee's Story

Paglia's Sexual Personae

Perry Meisel's The Cowboy and the Dandy

Booth's Precious Nonsense

Christopher Ricks' Reviewery

Novels and Short Stories

Pynchon's Mason and Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow

Moby Dick

Cormac McCarthy' Blood Meridian
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca -- NO KIDDING. I LITERALLY could not put this book down. Pulpy and Mesmerizing.

Kafka, especially The Knock at the Manor Gate, The Imperial Message, The Doorkeeper, The Problem of Our Laws, A Parable, and The Cares of a Family Man

Donald Barthelme, especially Snow White, 40 Stories and his non-Fiction

Borges, especially Pierre Menard Author of Don Quixote, the Garden of Forking Paths and my all time favorite The Three Versions of Judas

David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, and the Christmas stories (including the newer one about the Dutch Christmas)

Favorite Shakespeare Play

MacBeth (and Hamlet)

Kids Books

Harold and the Purple Crayon


See here's the thing: by switching to trades on some of the books I read, I do not seem to be picking up many comics on a weekly basis anymore. I may have to rethink this.

Review, discuss and recommend the comics out this week and react to the new Dark Knight movie, without spoiling anything. The AV Club and Slate loved it. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scott is looking for a few good double features

[Scott is looking for interesting pairs of movies for his class. I make a 2 suggestions below.]

Since the topic of movies that paralell one another already came up in the comment thread, I would like to ask the blog for a little help: As I mentioned, I do a Compare and Contrast paper using movies in my Freshman Comp Class. I generally give them about 20 or so pairs of movies to choose from; these can range from straight up remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sabrina), movies that are interpretations of a common source (Emma/Clueless, Dangerous Liasons/Cruel Intentions) or movies that are more thematically linked (High Fidelity/Annie Hall,Fatal Attraction/Swimfan and, a recent addition I'm quite proud of, American Graffiti/Superbad). I'm always looking for suggestions of new pairings to add to the list (especially in the latter, thematic category) so I was hoping you guys could help me out. It's also helpful if you can think of a recent big movie since it will: A. be easier for students to find a copy and B. It might be more familiar to them.

My friend Zack recently came up with the idea of Halloween vs No Country For Old Men which I thought was pretty brilliant and I was thinking of Juno vs Knocked Up... I was also trying to remember some horrible 80's comedy about teen pregnancy that I could pair with Juno....but I can't remember the name.

Other teachers, feel free to steal freely!

[The one I would recommend is The Breakfast Club and The Faculty. The Breakfast Club was a justifiably great movie, but the ending is seriously weak as the Goth Girl requires a makeover in order to date the Jock: this in a movie whose theme is supposed to be that anyone can get along. On a lesser, more realistic note, it is disappointing that the nerd and the cheerleader ultimately find the social order to big to get over and be friends after the movie ends. The Faculty fixes this as it takes the same high school types (Druggie, Nerd , Cheerleader, Goth Girl, Jock) also in a kind of war vs authority (the teachers are aliens) but "fixes" the ending. Note the fate of the one character who is not a member of the Breakfast Club "types."]

[One More: Adaptation and Shrek: I think it is worth comparing the use of "meta" storytelling devices to soup up a basically classical simple story.]

[And finally a pet peeve of mine: the phrase "compare and contrast" while insisted upon by English Departments everywhere, is just WRONG, as "compare" means to measure similarity AND dissimilarity. Compare and Contrast really means " show similarities, dissimilarities and dissimilarities, which is just stupid. I think it is silly that I teach my students to use a dictionary and use words precisely when the department does not.]

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #147

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #147

“Rogue Storm”

And we see this was all heading toward another miniature recreation of Dark Phoenix, with Storm being corrupted by power. Unsurprisingly, Storm is entirely ready to give in to the seduction of omnipotence, until she remembers Jean Grey. That memory reminds her of the price of such power, and so she relinquishes it. This is a dubious plot idea at any rate so soon after Dark Phoenix ended (only 10 issues ago), but given that Claremont did something similar with Snowbird in issue 140, and had the “learning from Jean’s tragedy” bit as the centerpiece of Cyclops’ solo story in #144, this whole concept is downright threadbare by this point.

It’s too bad, because “Rogue Storm” starts off so promisingly. The opening sequence with Nightcrawler escaping by teleporting “two miles above the ground” is very strong. (With Cockrum back on the book, Nightcrawler is back to being the series’ favorite son, rather than Wolverine or Cyclops). The narration on the second page, which off-handedly tells us something new about Nightcrawler’s teleportation powers, is a delightful surprise: “His range is limited by ... the distance and direction of each ‘port. ... north-south (along Earth’s magnetic lines of force) [is] easier than east-west (against them.)” That’s a fun use of pseudo-science, and also a shrewd way to disguise exposition. This, after all, was back when every issue had to bring a potential first-time reader up to speed. Claremont’s narration here tells readers what Nightcrawler’s powers are, but those of us who were reading from the start get a spoonful of sweet character-trivia to make the exposition go down.

The rest of the sequence is just as entertaining, with Nightcrawler attempting to catch an updraft so that he can “bleed off some of [his] velocity” before teleporting, and I also love the detail at the end of page 3, with Nightcrawler – freezing cold after an hour-long swim – forcing himself to keep his teeth clenched, because, “If they start chattering, my fangs could cut my lips and tongue to ribbons.” These thoughtful details, packed into every corner of Claremont’s best writing, are another thing that separates him from his peers. You truly get the sense that he’s thought through every implication of what these characters do and how they work. The image of Nightcrawler’s mouth being sliced apart by his own fangs is also deliciously gruesome.

From there, though, “Rogue Storm” settles into a fairly rote retread of the previous Arcade story: each member of the team busts out of his individual trap, and they all converge upon the villain. In spite of Dr. Doom’s inclusion, there is little to distinguish the story beats here from those in Uncanny #124 (that one even also had an X-Man – Colossus – gone bad, and needing to be talked down).

There is a cute wink to the past early on when Cockrum cuts to the inside of the North American Air Defense Command (the main setting of Claremont and Cockrum’s first collaboration), and the last page inches the Cyclops/Lee subplot a little further along, but apart from these little sprinkles of personality – and that wonderfully engaging opening Nightcrawler sequence – there is not much to distinguish issue 147. Claremont is still struggling to find a new direction for the series in the wake of Byrne’s departure.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If you think your free form comment here might be better as its own post, but you do not want it to be public yet, email it to me. My email address is available on my blogger profile page. If I think it will work on this site, your post will be published here with your name in the title of the post. You can propose what you will, I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

If you think what you have to say -- new topic or comment on an existing topic -- would be better to hear than to read, use the CALL ME button on the toolbar on the right.

Peter Coogan: The Americon: A Steven Colbert Superhero

[Peter Coogan -- author of Superhero: Secret Origin of a Genre and the guy who invited me to do the superhero conference at the Met -- has created this with his brother].

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Favorite Movies

I find this list quite hard to write. TV and comics are manageable because there are a limited number of great creators who do long runs on single titles; books I have kept track of over the years quite well; music for me is a newer interest and thus quite small. But I do not know how to make a list of favorite movies without leaving off huge chunks of things, because there just seem to be so many. This list will need the most help from you to remind me of what I have forgotten.

Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds
Oceans Eleven and Twelve
David Mamet's Spartan, The Edge, the Spanish Prisoner, and State and Main, Redbelt
The Bourne Movies
Grosse Pointe Blank
Dark City
A Few Good Men and the American President
Mystery Science Theatre 3000
Royal Tennenbaums
Groundhog Day
From Dusk Till Dawn
Eyes Wide Shut and 2001
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Blue Velvet
Romeo and Juliet
A History of Violence
Mission Impossible 3
Scott Pilgrim vs the World
The Prestige
Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men
Brain Candy
Galaxy Quest
Dead Man
Alien: Resurrection and City of Lost Children
The Double Life of Veronique
Punch Drunk Love
Synechdoche, NY
Bringing up Baby
The Third Man
The Birds, Vertigo, and North by Northwest
Don't Look Now
Back to the Future
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Once Upon A Time in the West
Chicken Run
Emperor's New Groove
Triplets of Belleville
Toy Story, Bug's Life, Wall-E
The Iron Giant
Center Stage

My favorite Superhero movies (not to be confused with my favorite movies of all time; I add this one only because I get asked about it all the time):

Spiderman 2
Iron Man

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #146

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]


The previous issue, with its exuberant “kitchen-sink” look at the X-Men mythos, was fun, and this one is fairly enjoyable as well, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Claremont is spinning his wheels a bit. Having the current team take on Dr. Doom while a secondary team made up of old members invades Murderworld is certainly a neat idea – but the potential contrast is negated here when Dr. Doom can think of nothing better to do with his captured X-Men then put them in Murderworld-like traps. What’s the point of using Doom if he is going to do the exact same thing Arcade would have done anyway? And Doom turning Storm into a statue is too corny. It feels a bit like something that would have happened to Adam West in the ‘60s.

The Murderworld sequence starring the secondary team is much more fun. Because my first exposure to the X-Men comic was a Murderworld issue, I do have some biased affection for the concept – and there’s something inherently chilling about the idea of a fairground carnival atmosphere with a sinister agenda. But the concept is pretty much defanged in issue 146; the X-Men get through their traps so easily, and nothing ever seems like much of a threat. This could be justified on the grounds that Murderworld is less effective when Arcade isn’t driving it himself – but a premise like Murderworld should be used well, or not at all. As with the Juggernaut, whose boast of being “unstoppable” becomes less easy to take seriously each time he’s defeated, Murderworld’s tagline – “Where nobody ever survives” – loses more and more meaning each time we read a story wherein EVERY SINGLE PERSON survives.

Indeed, even Claremont and Cockrum themselves are mocking it the end of the issue. When Miss Locke says to herself that reaching the control center of Murderworld is not an easy task, it’s followed by a surprisingly foppish image of Havok, who’s just done exactly that. He grins and says, “Want to bet?”

It’s telling perhaps that after this point, Claremont will never again imbue Murderworld with much sense of menace. It always will just be used either as a generator of mindless background action in stories where characterization is foregrounded (e.g., issues 197 and 204) or in comedy stories (as in Excalibur issues 4 and 5).

A somewhat striking moment in this issue is Banshee’s thought-balloon that references “Factor 3.” The Factor Three storyline was a long-running arc during the original X-Men run, first introduced in issue 28 (the same issue that introduced Banshee) and not wrapped up until issue 39 (in which Banshee also appeared). The fact that Claremont never had Banshee discuss this at all while the character was part of the team is evidence that – just as Byrne has said – Claremont hadn’t read most of the original X-Men run when he first came to the series. Presumably, he now has, hence the reference here. In fact, Banshee’s off-handed memory that he was “assigned [to] infiltrate” Factor Three is the first explanation to appear in any X-Men comic as to why he was part of that story. (You’d think it would have been explained at the time, but no – like the sudden appearance of Scott’s brother Alex, many plot points from the Silver Age incarnation of X-Men were just skipped over.)

Meanwhile, Claremont inches along the Cyclops/Lee Forrester romantic relationship in this issue, as Lee learns for the first time about Scott’s optic blasts. Like the material with Colleen Wing, the relationship with Lee gets a big buildup, but – as with all potential girlfriends for Scott who don’t have red hair – Claremont (and Scott) will suddenly grow tired of her, at which point she promptly disappears (Lee’s last appearance as Scott’s girlfriend is also Madeline Pryor’s first). Whether this keeps happening because of Claremont’s tendency to grow tired of concepts and ideas before he’s seen them through, or because it’s a character-point he’s trying to make (i.e., Scott will never get over Jean), is hard to say. Maybe it’s a little of both.

[I have not been making a lot of comments on this series, so I will say something here: Murderworld and Arcade are super-dumb.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chandler Bennett on Hellboy 2

[Chander Bennett guest blogs about Hellboy, in a piece which I thought went well with Scott's post today. I have yet to see Hellboy 2 but it is on my list.]

Mignola and del Toro Dance With the Devil

It would be wrong to criticize the Hellboy movies for not being the comics. Though (creator, writer, and original penciler) Mike Mignola is closely involved, the Hellboy movie franchise belongs chiefly to Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman, and that's fine. Perlman, for his part, brings loads of vitality to a character who, on the comic book page, is (wonderfully) laconic and imperturbable; like Mickey Rourke in Sin City, he manages to come across as natural and lively, overloaded with attitude and a very human vulnerability, from beneath a heaping ton of makeup and prosthetics. And Guillermo del Toro is a master of creature design, clearly committed to creating monsters that not only look really cool, but have a touchable texture and dimension to them, an earthy, oozy, tactile solidity. There's a lot of money on the screen in the Hellboy films, particularly in this latest installment, and it is wielded by an artist-enthusiast who has somehow preserved in himself the wonder and delight of a (late '70's-era) kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.

But, as we know from the second Star Wars trilogy (whose effects couldn't be further removed from those of the originals, or from the Hellboy franchise's for that matter), money ain't everything. As cool and imaginatively realized as the visuals of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army are, and as much heart as Perlman and company bring to the material, there is so little going on in terms of storytelling, atmosphere, and pacing, that the visuals, sadly, end up being not much more than wonderful decoration on the same old bland Hollywood product. It is probably needless, but still worthwhile, to reiterate here that it is the business of Hollywood to take a property which is distinctive, idiosyncratic, and (by comparison) small-scale, and sell it to a vastly larger audience by making it the same as everything else. And so, particularly with Hellboy 2, we have del Toro and Mignola going ahead and pumping up the action (the villain here is a sword-wielding ninja elf who is, to give proper credit, pretty scary), pumping up the romance (both Hellboy and Abe have tiresome love trouble), and, worst of all, filing off the rough edges of a very unusual cast of characters - just as the big-screen Hellboy files down his horn stumps - in order to make them more cuddly and palatable (and so we have the monster weirdoes of the BPRD repackaged as loveable but misunderstood outsider heroes, just like your friendly neighborhood Spiderman).

I am starting to criticize the Hellboy movies for not being the comics, and I said I wouldn't do that. The kind of purism that would take issue with discrepancies such as Liz Sherman being portrayed by a brunette instead of a blond, or Trevor Bruttenholm being killed by Rasputin's Nazi henchman Karl, instead of frog creatures, is the last thing I want to get into here. Adjustments of the source material to fit the particular demands of the new work are to be expected, particularly when the new medium is the expensive, highly-formalized entertainment product known as the Hollywood blockbuster. Dance with the devil and the devil changes you, right?

What I really grieve over is the fact that del Toro and Mignola have retained so little of the spirit of the source material, which has nothing to do with the bland Hollywood commonplaces which have infiltrated the screen version, and everything to do with evoking a powerful sense of wonder, mystery, grim foreboding, and horror using nothing more flashy or dramatic than the basic materials of the comic book medium: shrewdly understated writing and line work, as well as artful page design (all from Mignola), augmented by bold, rich, and utterly un-busy colors (usually by Dave Stewart). It's not necessarily the narrative specifics of the comic book continuity which we should demand to see in the films, but the spirit of craftsmanship which Mignola's work exemplifies, the careful arrangement of simple materials to provoke reactions in his audience.

Look at the sequence in "The Penanggalan" where Hellboy's little girl guide reveals herself to be the monster (you can find this in the recent collection The Troll Witch and Others; I'm starting on the fifth page of the story).

The sense of horror comes not from the narrative turn (which is probably obvious to most readers from the start, and is confirmed by a slim, silent panel of the girl gravely regarding Hellboy with her suddenly-red eye standing out from her shadowy body at the top of the page), but from the carefully-controlled unfolding of the moment. We are made certain of the girl's true identity right before a cluster of panels showing Hellboy piecing it together himself, the last of which is an ominous over-the-shoulder view of him from where the girl has been standing. Then the set piece begins. First we get a large cut-away to the girl's headless body dropping, along with a small inset of a native carving of the monster's face (the third occurrence of the motif, all of them completely unmotivated by character POV, and this one a bloody burgundy close-up on the fangs). Then we get a not-fully-intelligible (yet) close-up on interlinked tubular gray masses set against a soft-red background (a departure from the otherwise brownish-gold coloring of the setting), followed by the girl's trunk stirring up dust and bones as it strikes the floor in the last panel. Finally, across a page turn, we get a full image of the monster, a tall, narrow panel showing the Penanggalan's intestines snaking down from her floating head-and-organ-tree to entangle Hellboy. Then another quick image of the stonework, a close-up on the eye and teeth area (again in bloody burgundy suggesting an awakened life within), and, finally, the masterstroke: a close-up of the girl's head, no longer flesh-toned and human, but transformed into a shocking white death's head, complete with wild hair, gaping eye sockets, and greenish-yellow teeth lining a hideous little maw, all of this set against a background which is suddenly blazing red. "She lives in me," small text centered in a larger, off-set voice bubble, perfectly completes our sense of the feelingless, insatiable horror which the girl has become. Then, in quick succession, a panel of Hellboy struggling with the monster's coiled intestines, followed by a close-up on one of the eyeless, toothy snake-mouths at the tips; and, finally, a wide panel of a snake-tip amidst flecks of Hellboy's dark crimson blood punctuates the action before Mignola cuts away to a long-shot outside the monster's lair as Hellboy screams and his fate seems momentarily (despite our certainty of his ultimate victory) to be in question.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories, like super-hero comics in general (which Hellboy largely is, though with generous helpings of horror and hard-boiled pulp fiction thrown in), and also like Hollywood blockbusters, are action-packed, spectacular entertainments with a high degree of narrative formalization, a kind of ritual regularity religiously adhered to by Mignola in every story: an enigma is introduced (often with the utmost economy, as in "The Penanggalan"), Hellboy investigates with a wonderfully non-plussed stoic reserve, and has a big fight with a monster which he will ultimately defeat. It is not the narrative specifics which we should celebrate in the Hellboy comics, and hope to see in the films, but the care with which Mike Mignola and his collaborators approach their craft, achieving large effects through modest means. Great Hellboy tales like "The Penanggalan" create a rich atmosphere of mystery and horror, an atmosphere which the films, despite eye-popping visuals, largely overlook, watering down what is in its native form a uniquely powerful example of visual storytelling with hum-drum Hollywood clichés. And that's a damn shame.