Friday, August 31, 2012

Cult Films 101: The Guilty Pleasure

Welcome, thank you for coming. Please take your seats, we have a lot to cover. Today, we'll be screening Plan 9 From Outer Space, which many of you have heard is The Worst Movie Ever Made. Then, by a show of hands, we will select either The Big Lebowski or Bubba Ho-Tep as the film for next week's screening.

In this course, we will look at three types of films that generally achieve "cult" status:
  1. Films whose reach exceed their grasp, and spectacularly so (the Guilty Pleasure)
  2. Films that take an unconventional approach to narrative or subject matter (the David Lynch)
  3. Films that become significant for reasons beyond their intrinsic merit (the Dementia 13)
First up, Plan 9 From Outer Space, written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. This film, produced in 1959, was popularized in 1994 thanks to the Tim Burton film Ed Wood. This film is not -- not by any measure -- the Worst Movie Ever Made. It's not even Ed Wood's worst fact, it's likely his best. Have any of you actually seen Glen or Glenda?, because that thing's just a train wreck.

Plan 9 is a prime example of your Type 1 Cult Film, the Guilty Pleasure. Notice the way the cardboard graveyard wobbles as people walk through it. Notice the blank wall that stands in for an airplane cockpit and the lovely curtains that form the interior of an intergalactic space cruiser. Wooden dialogue delivered by non-professional actors. It's all here. But also, notice the sincerity of all involved. Most of them genuinely believe in what they're doing here. They're excited just to be making a movie. We empathize with them, because we understand the joke, but they don't seem to. Watching them move and speak like no human beings have ever moved or spoken in real life is kind of touching...maybe even a little heartbreaking, isn't it?

But not everything about this film is terrible. The lighting is fine. The editing is consistent and looks reasonable enough. And the idea of "solarbonite," sunlight molecules that can be weaponized, is actually sort of interesting and taps into the late-50s zeitgeist. There are many films in the Guilty Pleasure category of Cult Films that cannot make even these modest boasts.

This brings us to the epic question of why do we bother with Cult Movies? There are some laughs in your Guilty Pleasures, sure, but intentionally funny movies are bound to have more. Watching great actors or directors in their first films has novelty value, but their later films are by far the greater achievements. So what gives?

Three reasons. (And these will be on the final.)
  1. They are Outsider Art. Whatever the type of Cult Film, these movies are all created by either amateurs with no connection to the mainstream filmmaking establishment, or they represent film professionals intentionally subverting established forms. Both broaden the scope of human experience portrayed on film. In many ways, Manos: Hands of Fate, however abysmal in its technique, is a more honest reflection of real life in America in 1966 than something like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because of what's not onscreen. The simple fact that it exists illustrates that the Hollywood Dream reached even to El Paso, Texas, and beyond, catching fertilizer salesmen, local theater actors, retired judges, and other regular people up in its mystery and promise. (Read about the effort to restore Manos from its original film elements here and here.) 
  2. They are life affirming. These films, especially the Guilty Pleasures, are full of pathos. We instantly feel for these people (not the characters -- good lord, no -- but the actual people making the films), and we root for them. We understand that they have no idea what they're doing either in front of or behind the camera, and we wonder how we'd respond under similar circumstances. Because of that, the part of us that always roots for an underdog wants to see them and their celluloid babies succeed in spite of themselves.
  3. We just like them, and that's totally ok. No explanations or apologies necessary. Sometimes, we just enjoy dumb stuff because it makes us happy.

Should we discuss The Big Lebowski or Bubba Ho-Tep next week? Let me know in the comments or on the Twitter @vkotrla.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thursday Morning Superhero

We had Read Comics Book in Public Day Tuesday and one of the best weeks of new comics on Wednesday.  How can I choose which book was best?  The Justice League took a new turn, Locke and Key had a brilliant one-shot, the Sixth Gun marched on, more secrets were revealed in Morning Glories and we had another in the AvX title from Marvel.  My wallet is hurting because it is a good time to be a comic book reader.

Pick of the Week:
The Sixth Gun #24 – Cullen Bunn managed to stand out in this great week of new books.  The General stirs and speaks of another lady in his life (trying not to spoil!), Becky and Drake come across a Kalfu and Gord has a mysterious someone in the shadows watching.  Bunn continues to keep the pace of the story fast and enjoyable.  This has been a series that is rapidly approaching one that I always suggest to new readers.  I don’t know if I can wait until the next issue.  If you haven’t read this series do yourself a favor and start.  All of the issues are on ComixOlogy and three trades have been published.  What are you waiting for?  

Oh the might Bitey Key!
Locke and Key: Grindhouse – If reading a grindhouse pulp written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez isn’t enough, we witness the horrors of a new key (The Bitey Key!) and get to see the blueprints to Keyhouse! Fans of the series will enjoy knowing what horrors the crooks in this story have stumbled into and new readers will have some fun surprises.  They delivered with their style, emphasizing the teeth of the villains as they mentions at Comic-Con in San Diego.  A must read for fans of the series (everyone really should read this series) and a great, fun, schlocky read for new readers.

The Not as Good:
Avengers vs. X-Men #5 -  I have gone back and forth on this series.  It has had some really good moments mixed in with really bad ones.  This issue felt as a throw away and only served to offer up some humor that fell flat.

The Rest:
Powers #11 -  This was almost the pick of the week or the runner-up as Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming deliver a great issue.  I have read about 7 or 8 of the trades and would recommend this series to anyone.  I am not currently caught up with this title but was reminded why I love the series and look forward to the spin-off that is upcoming: Powers Bureau

Justice League #12 – Another series that I had been reading but am not current on.  I picked this one up based on hype and am glad I did.  The times are a-changing for the Justice League and it seems like a perfect time to hop on this book.

Morning Glories #21 – Nick Spence is one of the best comic authors on the market today.  This series remains one of my favorites, but he has woven such a complex web I sometimes am lost.  I keep saying I am going to stop buying new issues and wait for the trades, but I just enjoy this book too much.  This issue had some big revelations regarding the academy and left me wanting more.

Li’l Homer #1 -  I will admit that it has been quite some time since I picked up a Simpsons comic, but seeing Homer as a child with his mom and dad on the cover was irresistible.  The comic didn’t disappoint, featuring several enjoyable tales about Homer’s childhood.  Nothing to write home about, but a fun read that I would encourage Simpsons fans to pick up.

Batman Detective Comics: Annual – A fine read that was enjoyable, but not memorable.

What I missed:
American Vampire #30 -  This was a series I began reading early on and really enjoyed.  For whatever reason I drifted, but it sounds like it is going strong and that there is a lot more for me to read about Skinner Sweet.  It may be time to revisit this one.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Microreview [film]: Birdemic: Shock and Terror!

The Meat

How bad is this movie? Let me put it this way: If I had the option of a) being strapped to a chair and made to watch Manos: Hands of Fate repeatedly while being force-fed Funyuns and Big Red for an entire day, or b) watching Birdemic: Shock and Terror just once more, then you'd be sizing me up for a bib and wrist restraints.

Ostensibly, this is the story of a bunch of eagles and vultures that attack Half Moon Bay, California. Or more specifically, that attack the nine people in this movie, who are in Half Moon Bay. Everyone else seems to drive past and live their lives in relative ease, given the ongoing bird attack and global warming epidemic, which is repeatedly referenced. See, for the first 46 minutes, this is a series of largely unconnected scenes about literally nothing. Then at minute 47, exploding eagles arrive apropos of nothing, and the movie becomes a series of largely unconnected scenes about the maybe nine people imperiled by this bird attack.

This movie made me rethink my love for bad movies. And I've enjoyed many of the worst movies ever made. You can feel free to tell me in the comments why I missed the point or whatever, but I will expand on the value of cult cinema in a subsequent post, and for my money, even as cult cinema, Birdemic: Shock and Terror misses the mark. It may legitimately be the worst movie ever made and released in public. I'm sure far worse movies have been attempted and aborted somewhere along the line.

The Math

Objective Quality: 1/10

Bonuses: +1 for Whitney Moore, because a beautiful girl in both her underwear and a terrible movie is still a beautiful girl in her underwear; +1 for Becky getting killed while taking a dump in the underbrush (bird attacks render indoor plumbing useless).

Penalties: -1 for the worst CGI in the history of ever; -1 for literally every other single thing in this movie.

Cult Movie Coefficient: 1/10. Prosecutable as crime against humanity.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy Read Comics in Public Day

Happy Read Comics in Public Day!  I can’t think of a better way of celebrating what would have been Jack Kirby’s 95th birthday then reading some of his fine books in public with pride.  Today is the third annual read comics in public day and I am proud to say that my son, my daughter and I have been a part of it all three years!

In 2010 Brian Heater and Sarah Morean from The Daily Cross Hatch created Read Comics in Public Day in an effort to increase the number of people reading comics and to help promote comics in general.  The idea is as simple as it sounds.   Don’t be ashamed that you read comics, celebrate and share your love for such a phenomenal medium.  If you want to inform others or have a nifty poster to hang up in your house you can download it here:

After you have finished reading in public, documented said reading with a photo, be sure to upload your photo to, and celebrate the fact that you were part of something great.  You can learn more about the day at  Share the comic book love!

Here are my comic book recommendations.

For the Kids:
Johnny Boo by Eiser award winner James Kochalka
Owly by Andy Runton
Cow Boy by Chris Eliopoulos

For the Grown-ups:
In honor of the man himself, read some classic Captain America
Locke and Key by Joe Hill
Fables by Bill Willingham
Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn

Monday, August 27, 2012


It was the year 2002. Our valiant efforts to stem the tide of strife unleashed by Y2K were all successful, leading to a magical world without war, taxes or rational limits on housing prices. And so it was that a nation found itself transfixed by a kid with a fake lightsaber:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mircoreview [Nonfiction book]: Supergods

The Meat

Before reading Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes,Miraculous Mutants,and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, I never thought of Grant Morrison as a man who knows and loves superheroes. Then again, I never gave Grant Morrison much thought. Morrison has always seemed like that guy in high school who wore Rainbow Bright t-shirts, claimed to love The Carpenters, and rode around on a unicycle. Weird for weird’s sake. Doom Patrol and Animal Man read like that at the time: sophomoric attempts to appear hip and outré, while sacrificing plot and character development in the process. Sure, he's made his mark on superheros since then -- first on New X-Men and later much more successful stabs at Superman and Batman -- but I figured, like Moore, Bendis, Brubaker, and a host of other writers, he was simply going where the money is. But, having read Supergods, I must admit that the man knows superheroes. More to the point, he loves them.

Supergods -- part socio-critical history, part memoir of a career in comics -- is a fun and provocative read, though not without its problems. It’s often hard to take Morrison’s P.T. Barnum cum Aleister Crowley persona seriously. A whole chapter devoted to drug-and-chaos-magick fueled visioneering: I took a pass and breezed through it. It’s not simply that I don’t believe Morrison, but, more importantly, I didn’t care. Yeah, the '90s was a good time for you. Now, get back to the superheroes, pal. 

More problematically is the underlying theory that Morrison rather unevenly develops in the book, which draws more from Jung’s psychedelic-analytical framework than chaos magick. Superheroes are just the modern incarnations of the ancient gods and fairyfolk. Referring to the original Flash, Morrison sees a new incarnation of Hermes, who “washed up with the rest of the trash in the swill of twentieth-century gutter culture” as “that bridge between man and the divine now known as the superhero.”

Maybe. But it could be that the simplicity and directeness of these narratives are inherently appealing, especially to children -- who if anything want to be big and strong like Superman. I know I did. My own trajectory into comics ran from The Lives of Saints to X-Men, with a brief but significant detour into the wonderful D’Aulaires books of Greek and Norse myths. The timelessness of all these genres of heroic tales doesn’t mean that there’s something eternal or transcendental undergirding human storytelling. It’s more likely that the mind of a child enjoys simplicity and detests ambiguity. We learn grey as experience with the world forces us to dispel with Manichean notions. Gods often get cast aside in the process. Or they are forced to change, to grow up and accept the messiness of reality.

These parts represent no more than 25% of the overall page count -- which at 500+ pages is considerable. For the most part, Supergods is a fairly straightforward history of superhero comics.  Even here, however, Morrison remains slippery. It is unclear if his take on the Bronze Age -- which he aptly refers to as “the Dark Age” -- is positive or negative. Does he like Watchmen or not? Furthermore, his referral to post-Image Comics as the “Renaissance” is problematic. If anything, current superhero comics seem to frantically look to the past in search of something that will undo the current decline of the industry. There’s Silver Age cosmicism and existential angst, Dark Age grit and social commentary, and Golden Age whismy and wonder floating around the comic world of today, often in the same book -- like Morrison's current and wonderful run on Action Comics

Morrison’s reference to Iain Spence’s Sekmat Thoery also feels overblown, which he partially admits by referring to it as a "framework" for finding "meaningful patterns in the service of lateral thinking." But, even as such, it isn't necessary. Rather than reacting to sunspot activity, comic books -- like all pop culture -- respond to broader historical trends, to widespread social hopes and anxieties. Comics are also shaped by the history of the publishing industry, as Morrison notes. He views the artist-led testosterone-fueled crosshatched shallowness of the Image era as an answer to the cynicism and realism of the Dark Ages, when brainiac writers ruled the field -- with their plots, ideas, and other inconvenient things Lee and Leifeld never bothered with. 

Finally, he is only suggestive in prognosticating the future of the superhero myth, though he seems to indicate that the superhero can no longer be bound by the comic book format. The big screen is the hero’s new home. As Morrison writes, comic books as a whole have become “a respectable stepping-stone to Hollywood and big money.” This of course is obvious. But as to what will happen in the comics’ world itself, Morrison doesn't have much to say. He ends the book on a relatively positive note, reflected in his work these last few years at DC, especially All Star Superman and Batman and Robin. Whether or not this the superhero’s last gasp as a clever wink and nod to the enthusiasm and confidence of the Golden Age, Morrison doesn’t say. My own suspicions is that he’s smarter than that. Having had brushes with death in the post-WW2 era and the speculator-fueled market crash of ‘90s, the superhero has proven resilient. Gods are, after all, hard to kill.

But, despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the book immensely. Grant Morrison’s prose is wonderful and, with the exception of his much-too-long recounting of his drug-and-magick middle life crisis, he kept my attention. Even his somewhat casual and unfocused theorizing was fun to read. I have friends like Morrison: scattershot rather than measure, intuitive rather than analytical, I rarely agree with them but nevertheless have fun arguing with them and pondering their navel-gazing while knocking back bottle after bottle of Miller High Life

The Meat

Objective score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being a readable history of superheroes

Penalties: -1 for haphazard theorizing; -1 for having too much fun in the nineties

Nerd coefficient: 6/10

[Don't agree? Well, we got a system and we're sticking to it. You can check it out here.]

Friday, August 24, 2012

Guest Microreview [Comics]: Habibi by Craig Thompson

We are happy to present another guest post by Rob Kristoffersen, who previously wrote an eloquent essay on Maus for us. Here he reviews Craig Thompson's graphic novel Habibi. Enjoy!

The Meat

Those familiar with Craig Thompson's work knows of his ability to capture humanity and emotion with such flourish and beauty to realize that you're looking at something new. You've never seen it before, you'll never see it again, but you have a lasting document that remains with you forever. Aside from Thompson's other work (Goodbye Chunky Rice, Carnet de Voyage) he is greatly known for his 2002 graphic novel Blankets. Captured through the winter season, primarily, Thompson deals with issues of adolescence, religion, and sexuality on a level that not very few can express. Granted, Blankets is autobiographical, but we all lose touch with that side of ourselves at one point or another. Regardless, Thompson earned three Harvey Awards, two Eisner Awards, and thousands of adoring fans.

Seven years later Habibi landed on bookshelves, a sprawling 672 page masterpiece that brought with it the flavor of the Middle East. Here, our protagonist is a middle eastern girl named Dodola and her adopted slave child Zam, as they survive in a wasteland of sand, blood, and water. Dodola's journey is endlessly tragic. She is sold into slavery as a child to gain a husband who would teach her to read and write. From there she is ripped away from him, whores herself out to traveling caravans for food and water, is captured and thrown into a harem, and does prison time. Zam, who is also known as Habibi, endures a journey to find Dodola that is just as heartbreaking. Before they were ripped from each other, their love began to grow, evolving from a mother/child type to lovers as Habibi transforms through adolescence. The parallel journey finds him casting aside his sexuality and his voice in order to get her back, while she is exploited for hers. From the first pages, Thompson's obsession with Arabic language and calligraphy bleeds onto the page, creating a style that the whole book fits into. Continuing from Blankets is Thompson's obsession with spirituality and religion, and fused within is a mythic and highly respectful Islamic history lesson. It doesn't bog down the book, but fits throughout the narrative like a puzzle piece falling into the right place.

After reading Habibi, I was stunned to hear that Thompson had not visited the areas represented Ewithin Habibi's pages, but that instead he did a ton of research to sculpt his art. The research shows, as he seems to paint a convincing picture of the Arabian land and it's inhabitants--though granted, lacking personal experience in the region, I could be wrong [ed: it would be interesting to see what someone from, or well-traveled in, the Middle East thinks of its treatment in this book]. Returning to adorn the pages is the jaw dropping art style that made Blankets so beloved. His interpretations of Islamic scripture and emotion in general has the reader just entranced, often staring at the page long after it's been read.

The greatest downfall of the book is page length. Thompson's work is always a quick read despite page length; he never bogs the reader down with dialogue, only when he needs to. Even he has admitted never being one for prose, but with the stunning art and the compelling story, it never matters. However, with Habibi it gets a little tiring past page 600, particularly the sexual euphemisms and degradation.

Was the seven year wait worth it? By all means YES; the book certainly cuts past it's flaws to become an art form enviable to the greatest degree. The book design alone makes this a must buy, but Thompson's style is what you come for, even if I'm shoving it down your throat. Take a look at a few panels, and you will be convinced. Thompson has announced two projects in the works, one, an all ages book and a second exploring another side of sexuality. Whatever it is, I will pre-order, It's set in my head, i'll buy it in hardcover and paperback. Hopefully, this time, it's not a seen year itch.

The Math

Objective Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for his returning Blankets style, +1 for book design, +1 for the research done on this book

Penalties: -1 for page length, -1 for the fact that Dodola looks kind of like the Octomom as she gets older

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "very high quality/standout in its category"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thursday Morning Super Hero

Welcome to week 2 of Thursday Morning Super Hero.  The budget limited me to six books this week, but it was a good week of reading nonetheless.  The comic scene right now is solid and there are so many great books out there.  Any suggestions as to what books I should pick up next week are welcome.  Shoot me a tweet at @newhousebailey

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #4 – Mind MGMT was a book that had received good critical praise and one I wanted to finally check out and I am pleased I did so.  I am not just saying this because the main character shares a name with my son, but because the writing is smart, the art is beautiful and you can’t help believing in this acid trip world Matt Kindt has created.  I think it speaks volumes to the creative mind behind a book about children who utilize mind control on dolphins and being asked to shoot your classmate with a gun in immortality lessons that you walk away feeling that it really could happen.  Time to read some back issues and hop on this book.

Fables #120 – Just when you think that Bill Willingham can’t make the Cubs in Toyland any darker he managed to do just that.  To be honest, I was starting to fall off of the Fables bandwagon for a touch until this story arc rekindled my love for Mr. Willingham’s world. I was planning on eliminating this from the single issue purchases and switching to trade, but I am hooked again.  Bonus: Best cover of the week!

The Not as Good:
Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #4 – I truly enjoy Cullen Bunn’s work and have enjoyed this series until its conclusion.  I just didn’t care for this book and didn’t like the conclusion.

The Rest:
Brilliant #4 – Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley continue in this solid tale about college kids who find out a way to create super powers.  More is revealed about who underwent the treatment for powers and the FBI is now keeping a watchful eye on the kids.  Add to the fact that they are all over YouTube and you have a scenario with some great potential.  Not my top choice, but one I have enjoyed from the get go and will keep reading.

Batman: The Dark Knight #12 – Every week I swear I am going to trim down my Batman reading and focus on the brilliant Scott Snyder run.  Then I read the Dark Knight and blown away by the university David Finch has drawn and I am hooked.  I don’t know if anyone can draw Scarecrow as good as Finch and despite not much action in this book, I breezed through it with pleasure. Even though it is a gimmick, I am looking forward to DC’s issue #0 promotion to hit soon.

Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #1 – I am embarrassed to admit that I have been enjoying (guiltily) the Before Watchmen run, but this is one I will pass on.  I am intrigued by the history of Dr. Manhattan, but like to keep him a mystery.  No need to dig deeper.

What I missed:
Scalped #60 – I have read the first few issues of Jason Aaron’s and R.M. Guera’s epic and plan on reading the entire series.  From what I read about the conclusion I will be very happy that I traveled down the Scalped road.

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #1 – Not surprisingly, but Mark Waid is getting positive attention for a comic book.  With Waid at the help of the Rocketeer it is hard to go wrong.  My local comic book store was sold out so I missed it.  It sounds like it was a fun ride.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Microreview [film]: The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton was in charge of the "horror unit" at RKO Studios in the early 1940s. He produced nearly a dozen genre-defining movies, saving the studio from financial collapse, launching the careers of several directors, and resurrecting (pun intended) the career of Boris Karloff in the process.

The Meat

The Body Snatcher is my favorite of all the Val Lewton movies. It may not have be influential as Cat People or as lauded in later years as I Walked with a Zombie, but for me it does eerie, skin-crawling atmosphere about as well as any movie of the period, whatever the budget or pedigree. The movie is based on the short story of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson (of Jekyll and Hyde fame, of course), which was in turn inspired by the real-life serial murderers Burke and Hare, who sold the bodies of the people they killed for medical dissection.

The movie follows Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (what a name, right?!?) as he rises in prominence and social station due to his success as a surgeon. But he's only able to gain the surgical insights necessary for his breakthroughs from his work dissecting cadavers. To get those puppies, he enlists coachman (symbolism?) John Gray, played by Boris Karloff at his most oily and sinister, to dig them up out of graves. But after a while, Gray decides to go for...fresher...specimens. A very interesting power struggle goes on between the two men, and it raises interesting questions about the moral imperative of advancing medical knowledge and at what cost, but doesn't linger on the questions, keeping the proceedings a fun diversion.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1, for being the first movie directed entirely by Robert Wise, who would go on to become a legendary director and producer; +1, for Karloff's nuanced and caustic performance; +1 for being the final onscreen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi.

Penalties: -1, for the comically out-of-place sound cue that mars what would've been an otherwise haunting murder of a singer.

Cult Movie Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


It was the year 2001. We were slowly crawling out of the nuclear blast zone left by Y2K when a sudden spate of calamities struck, and struck us hard. In what could only herald an organized campaign of terror on the high seas, sharks began congregating off the Florida coast in unnatural numbers. Meanwhile, pop star Brittany Spears was savagely attacked by a Burmese Reticulated Python.

The snake begins the slow process of constricting its victim.
On the man-made side, ethical and not-politically-connected energy company Enron misplaced its accounting books (oops!) while California failed to reconnect the electricity grids knocked out by the computer crashes of 2000. Then something really bad happened. In a spontaneous display of mourning and solidarity with the victims, Americans and visitors to the United States began ritually taking off our shoes at airports.

In these troubled times, we yearned for art that reflected our new, harder and tougher sensibilities, something that could soothe our wounded souls and give us the vision and moral clarity we needed to move on. Yes, in such times, these were the only words that could truly speak to us:
In A.D. 2101
War was beginning.
Captain: What happen ?
Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
Operator: We get signal.
Captain: What !
Operator: Main screen turn on.
Captain: It's you !!
CATS: How are you gentlemen !!
CATS: All your base are belong to us.
CATS: You are on the way to destruction.
Captain: What you say !!
CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time.
CATS: Ha ha ha ha ....
Operator: Captain !! *
Captain: Take off every 'ZIG'!!
Captain: You know what you doing.
Captain: Move 'ZIG'.
Captain: For great justice.
...and then we wanted to dance.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

WE RANK 'EM: The New 52 Batman Books

I'm a child of the late '80s when it comes to comics. So for me, the grittier the better. And, after the Punisher and Wolverine, Batman was the grittiest. This was the era of Dark Knight Returns, The Cult, Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum. It was also the second coming of Batmania -- which is how Batman began for me. The Waldenbooks near my home stocked all of these trades in anticipation of the release of Tim Burton's film. Fortunately, though I was 10, I worked with my gardener father -- mowing and hedging lawns, raking leaves, fixing sprinklers...well, handing him tools while he fixed sprinklers. My father was an old country Basque. Not only had he never heard of child labor laws, but the idea of paying his son in cash never crossed his mind. Comics were my wages. So, for much of 1989, we'd head down once a week to the Waldenbooks - reeking of cut grass and gasoline -- and I'd get to choose one of those glorious trade paperbacks as a week's pay.

Two collections in particular stood out at the time: The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. These two books provided a history of Batman; in fact, a history of comics. The early Batman stories were awesome: eerie, horror-tinged tales the simplicity and directness of which struck my 12-year-old heart immediately. The '70s Gothic Noir Batman -- especially the work of "Dennis O'Neal Adams" -- also moved me with their fairly realistic take on criminality and justice. The in-between -- the silly, breezy, f*cking ridiculous '50s and '60s -- sucked as bad as did the T.V. show. Perhaps I was too young for irony and camp. Batman was supposed to be dark and brooding. The permanent smile he wore during the era between the grit irritated me.

On the many, many rereads of the Greatest Story books, I skipped those not-so-great stories.

So what's this all mean? I don't know. I just needed to write something by way of introduction. Now, on to my ranking of the best New 52 books with "bat" in the title. (Sorry Catwoman. I have other things to do than read comics all day.)

6. Batman: The Dark Knight
Honestly, I could barely get through this series. I found it to be an unimaginative, unoriginal, and unnecessary book by writer/artist David Finch. The plot of the first arc -- Gotham's villains have been slipped a drug that makes them fearless until their eyes bleed -- reminded me of some many other Batman stories. For example, anything that featured Scarecrow. Finch's artwork also turned me off: all testosterone and grimaces. The plot felt like an excuse for Finch too pull out all the artistic gimmicks that made me hate Image Comics even as a teen. In short, he underwrote and then cross-hatched the sh*t out of this book. Granted, the White Rabbit was adorable. But you know who else can be adorable? Actual human women. Have you checked out The Chive?

5. Batgirl
I really didn't want to read this. But, I was pleasantly surprised. I was pleasantly surprised that this didn't suck with extreme prejudice. That doesn't mean it was good. But it wasn't terrible. As a rule, I don't like female versions of male superheroes -- just as I don't like Wonder Man. But, Gail Simone did an O.K. job at writing a compelling story about Barbara Gordon coming to grips with being able to walk again. The rest of the book was pretty much meh. The dialogue felt trite, as did some of the characters (i.e. the tough, anarchist, bartending Asian roommate).  And, I hate to ask for some realism in my comics, but I just didn't buy The Mirror's motivation for being a bad guy. The art by Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes was good -- the definition of competence -- while simultaneously towing the exact line that has become DC's house style. Meh's the word on this one.

4. Batman & Robin
I have always hated Robin. We all know why he was brought on in the first place: to salt Batman's ass-kicking game. Plus, isn't it unethical for Batman to be endangering an adolecent by having him go up against Killer Croc? Somewhere along the line, DC wizened up and gave us Damian Wayne, the actual son of Bruce Wayne who has been trained to kill since birth -- so it's alright for Batman nightly to put him in harm's way before his voice drops. But, I still don't really care. The first story arc of Batman & Robin was not bad at all. Peter J. Tomasi penned a fairly thrilling yarn pitting Batman against Nobody, the son of Henri Ducard. Bruce Wayne's former mentor. with young Robin caught in the middle. The story is essentially an exploration of Batman's "no killing" morality that ends up being wrapped up a little too nicely. In the end, I wasn't convinced of Batman's moral logic. By not killing the Joker, how many have died? At what point is Batman responsible for these deaths? Better than expected, but remember, I hate Robin -- but at least this Robin's ended up with issues that could make for some future good reading.

3. Batwoman
Wow. This one caught me off guard. Astute readers will remember how I feel about female versions of male superheroes -- and Wonder Man. But Batwoman was actually a good comic book. Co-writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman -- what are they, 19th century industrialists? couldn't resist -- offer up a chilling horror crime story about missing children, steeped in Mexican-American folklore. But this is all more or less an excuse for a character study that feels real. Batwoman is seeking her way out of Batman's shadow, a means by which to make her mark as a hero in her own right. (May I suggest ditching the "Bat" part of your name?) The initial story arc deftly set up the series, foreshadowing future plotlines and conflicts. Of particular interest will be her involvement with the Department of Extranormal Operations. But, all this would make little difference if J.H. Williams III hadn't provided the artwork, which is absolutely stunning. He manages to combine naturalism and artistry, yet remaining focused on storytelling. His creative paneling makes anything David Mack has ever done look like a pile of puke. Unfortunately, Williams' ended his run as artist with issue 5. A shame. A bloody shame.

2. Batman
This one, plotwise, is the best of the bunch. Part gothic horror story, part urban conspiracy, part exploration into Batman/Bruce Wayne's messianic conceit: Scott Snyder's story was everything a Batman tale should be. I recommend this so highly, that I will not bother with going into the plot other than to say it involves the deep secrets of Gotham City, the 13th floors that even Batman has no knowledge of. It's a twisted, psychological exploration that stretches into the recesses of the Batman family. That and undead steampunk ninjas. Read it yourself, nerd, through issue 10. You won't be disappointed. Well, actually you might be. The reason: Greg Capullo's artwork. It's not that Capullo is a bad artist. He's simply not on par with Snyder's story, or possibly with Batman himself. I also found myself perplexed by his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, who at times looked 17-years old, and at other times looked like every other male in the book. And what's with the annoying smirk on everyone's face? What emotion is that supposed to convery?  If J.H. Williams III has worked on this book, we'd have another Hush or The Cult on our hands. But, we're left with a book that ultimately is less than. It could've been a contender.

1. Detective Comics
Really, at the end of the day, all we need is two Batman books: Batman and Detective Comics. This post would have been so much easier to write. Though Batman featured the best story and Batwoman the best art, Tony Daniels and Ryan Winn's Detective Comics combines great art with inspired storytelling. His first run is a brutal, nasty thriller -- a nice contrast to Snuder's more subtle Gothic take. Daniels, in many ways, gets to have all the fun. His Batman is early in his career, a man wanted by cops and criminals alike. Issue 1 we get the Joker. By issue 5, we get Penguin. In between, Daniels tells a Silence of the Lambs-meets-The Killing Joke story featuring a new villian, the Dollmaker -- whose past, we find, is not so different than that of Batman. Daniels manages to touch on the varied psychological implications of trauma while still giving a damn fine comic adventure that reeks of creepiness. Ryan Winn's artwork fleshes out the darkness and violence of Daniels' plot quite nicely. His work, though clearly routed in the American comic tradition, has at times European touches. And always, always clean lines -- especially when portraying ugliness. After looking through the rest of this lot, I was glad to be given a break from DC's new house style. All in all, this is why we read Batman: nasty, gritty crime stories. And a guy in a bat costume battling insane crooks who have even less of a fashion sense than he does.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Nerdgasm! Interactive Mars Panorama on Your Phone

I found out about this on (original article) -- there is an interactive, 360-degree panorama of Mars made from assembled Curiosity Rover pictures, and when you access it on your phone, it uses the built-in accelerometer and compass to re-orient the image in real-time. That means as you sit in your desk chair and spin slowly around, your office turns into freaking Mars.

Freaking Mars.

The planet Mars.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thursday Morning Superhero

This is a new column I am trying in which I recap the comics I read on Wednesday, and tell you which ones I enjoyed and which ones I did not enjoy. The idea is like a Monday Morning Quarterback for comics.  The number of comics will vary week-by-week depending on what is out and what I can afford.  I think at this point minor spoilers are ok, but I will try to abstain from anything major.  Any suggestions as to what books I should pick up next week are welcome.  Comment away on how awful my choices are or how great of a human being I am.

Pick of the Week:
Walking Dead #101 – I was late in drinking the Walking Dead Kool-Aid and now I can’t get enough of this book.  While it doesn’t have the ending that #100 did, the emotion in the opening pages between Maggie and Rick is beautiful.  Rick and crew make it to Hilltop to drop off Maggie and Sofia, but return to see that Negan’s Saviors have attacked their safe haven in their absence.  This war is just getting started and I have a front row seat!  Well-done Kirkland.

Classic villain Stiltman!
Daredevil #17 – Mark Waid’s current run on Daredevil has been delightful and earned him a well-deserved Eisner. Matt Murdock flashes back to when he first began working with Foggy and through this funny look back at classic Daredevil (Stiltman is in the flashback!) realizes that someone is trying to turn Foggy against him.  Full of humor and some old fashioned action, I am ready to see who has it in for the Man with no Fear.

The Not as Good:
Batwoman #12 – I have not read any of Batwoman since the New 52, but with this column and a new story line that crosses over with Wonder Woman I figured it was worth a shot.  While the art and style in this book are amazing, the story felt convoluted and didn’t hook me.

The Rest:
AvX #10 – finally we get to see Hope gain some power. I will keep reading this series, but it is far from my favorite.

Before Watchmen : Rorschach #1 – Very violent and very satisfying.  While torn on the idea of Before Watchmen, I really enjoyed this one.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #3 – Cullen Bunn (The Sixth Gun!) writes it and Deadpool really does kill the Marvel Universe.  Fun!

Fatale #7 – Nobody does noir like Brubaker.  Chapter 2 begins with a great ending to an otherwise slow issue.

Saga: Chapter 6 – Fiona Staples draws a beautiful book.  Throw in Brian K. Vaughan. It works. 

What I missed:
Wonder Woman #12 – From the reviews I read I should have opted for this instead of Batwoman

Nightwing #12 – Robin guest stars in what sounded like a good one I could have picked up.

GRATUITOUS PLUG: "The Lennox Kid" by Vance Kotrla

If you read this site regularly, you've come to know Vance Kotrla, author of many classic nerds-feather posts, including this Neil Gaiman-approved review of Pavane, a controversial ranking of Harry Potter films and this very touching ode to Ray Bradbury (RIP). What you may not know is that Vance writes fiction in his spare time. With his latest short story, "The Lennox Kid," Vance enters the brave new world of independent publishing.

Residing somewhere on the border of speculative fiction and magic realism, "The Lennox Kid" tells the story of a lawyer, his trustafarian client and his conscience, whose name is Larry. It's a fun story, and is full of the kind of culture-savvy irony we expect from Vance. Plus it's only $0.99!

"The Lennox Kid" is available in e-book form at Smashwords and Amazon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

ALERT! The Galactic Equivalent of Octomom Found

Astronomers working on the Chandra X-Ray Observatory have discovered something remarkable:
Stars are forming in the Phoenix cluster at the highest rate ever observed for the middle of a galaxy cluster. The object also is the most powerful producer of X-rays of any known cluster and among the most massive. The data also suggest the rate of hot gas cooling in the central regions of the cluster is the largest ever observed.
The Washington Post, in a brilliantly insightful and not at all condescending article, translates this for us reality TV-addicted slobber-monkeys:
Scientists have found a cosmic supermom.  

Ah! Okay, now I get it! But say I want some more detailed information? From the Chandra press release:
With its black hole not producing powerful enough jets, the center of the Phoenix cluster is buzzing with stars that are forming about 20 times faster than in the Perseus cluster. This rate is the highest seen in the center of a galaxy cluster but not the highest seen anywhere in the universe. However, other areas with the highest rates of star formation, located outside clusters, have rates only about twice as high.

The frenetic pace of star birth and cooling of gas in the Phoenix cluster are causing the galaxy and the black hole to add mass very quickly -- an important phase the researchers predict will be relatively short-lived.

"The galaxy and its black hole are undergoing unsustainable growth," said co-author Bradford Benson, of the University of Chicago. "This growth spurt can't last longer than about a hundred million years. Otherwise, the galaxy and black hole would become much bigger than their counterparts in the nearby universe."
Translation from WaPo:
It’s a galaxy that gives births to more stars in a day than ours does in a year.
Or, as one Stone Temple Pilots/base jumping enthusiast at Harvard they interviewed put it:
It’s very extreme.
Can you hear the sub-Soundgarden voice yet?
But enough about all that. Here's an actually awesome pair of photos of our galactic TLC star to be:

[If you want to watch a totally awesome video podcast in HD, made by the good people at Chandra and featuring lots of cool visuals, check this [download] out.]

Microreview [film]: Corman's World

The Meat

"Roger will just say exploitation pictures don't need plots. They need sensational things like girls shooting Filipinos out of trees. That works."

I wonder, do people still look down their nose at Roger Corman? For a long time, I'm sure they did, what with his making movies like Attack of the Crab Monsters, Ski Troop Attack, and Teenage Cave Man. But I would think that having launched the careers of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and Peter Fonda, crafting arguably the most perfect expression of Vincent Price's horror legacy, and giving Boris Karloff a worthy send-off in a handful of films in the 1960s, Corman has earned the respect of fans across the entire spectrum of film-fandom.

But just in case he hasn't won somebody over yet, we have Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, which is a full-tilt, unapologetic celebration of the man's work. From his early black-and-white sci-fi D-movies, through his late-50s/early-60s heyday as a producer/director, the radical shift in aesthetics, storytelling, and subject matter he helped spark and reinforce in the late-60s through the 1970s, and even up to his recent work for SyFy, this documentary hits all of the important points and does a nice job of putting everything in a larger context -- either in strictly Hollywood terms, or in broader social terms, where appropriate. It may not break any new ground in terms of how it presents the information (it's a very traditional, talking-heads-and-movie-clips approach), but there's a vibrancy and joy to the entire affair that more than makes up for any stylistic shortcomings.

What is perhaps the most appealing about this documentary, though, is the time spent with Roger Corman, himself. As he suggests (and is said about him) in the trailer, Roger may be a quiet, funny, erudite man of exceptional personal taste, but he has a roiling, tumultuous subconscious that has resulted in 60 years of notoriously un-classy movies. Roger's success means that, somewhere, and no matter how faint, there may be hope for Hollywood yet.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1, for the scene where Jack Nicholson breaks down in tears talking about what Roger means to him; +1, for the fantastic array of interviewees.

Penalties: -1, for playing so safe in a documentary about such a subversive and non-traditional filmmaker (but this is a quibble).

Cult Movie Coefficient: 8/10. (for Corman fans like myself -- I'd go 7/10 if you're less enthusiastic about him)

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

AUDIO: Patrick Rothfuss Discusses Urban Fantasy

...with Jim ButcherEmma Bull and Diana Rowland.

Among other things, you'll discover that Rothfuss has misplaced his shaver, Butcher is prepping for tactical insertion into Syria and Emma Bull has some pretty interesting things to say about a genre she arguably helped invent.

Master of Ceremonies

Can't say my tastes run in this direction, but I did leave the conversation ready to check out BONE DANCE. Check it out:

Monday, August 13, 2012


It was the year 2000. We were slowly recovering from the great computer crash of Y2K and the widespread rioting and looting that followed. We were traumatized, and thus sought comfort in the guise of a little dancing fella with a catchy little song. Sure it wasn't "from" 2000, but it was there for us in our time of need.


Friday, August 10, 2012

WE RANK 'EM: The SF Masterworks Series

Since 1999, Orion Publishing Group (home of Millenium, Orb, Gollancz and other important SF/F imprints) has been putting out a reprints series called SF Masterworks. The series has two goals: to collect and compile the best science fiction out there, and to ensure that these books stay in print. There are, of course, some issues with the list (why, for example, is there no Octavia Butler?). But overall it's pretty good. Both WWEnd and SFSite provide handy comprehensive guides to the series. This dude is working his way through the entire catalogue.

With 102 books published in the series so far, though, you may wonder where to start! To held a helping hand, I am choosing 6 books in the series that I've read and think you should too. Because this list only has 6 selections, I had to make some tough decisions. One of them was to buck @nerds_feather tradition and add an honorable mention (sorry, I couldn't help myself). I also decided to skip over worthy and justifiably famous selections like Dune and The Forever War in favor of books that may be a little more obscure, but are equally brilliant.  My tastes range towards the weird, so keep that in mind as well. But that's not why they're here. Rather, it's because each and every one of these books epitomizes the strength and power of the science fiction medium.

Without further ado, the list...

Honorable Mention: Philip K. Dick - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (SFM #52, 1965)

The SF Masterworks series loves them some PKD, and so it seemed natural to pick my favorite of his 1960s novels for an honorable mention. I mean, you've got global warming; dueling industrialists; drugs called can-D and chew-Z; space colonization; and a reality melting finale...what's not to like about that? Though sharing a lot of thematic ground with the more famous Ubik (1966), I'd argue that Palmer Eldritch is the superior book. Why? Because of how very funny it is, until it's gets all freaky and metaphysical. Then it's just awesome.

6. John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar (SFM #15, 1968)

Eco-dystopias were popular in the late '60s and early '70s, and there were arguably none better than Brunner's 650 page masterpiece. Set in a version of 2010 that today feels simultaneously futuristic, antiquated and just plain realistic, Stand on Zanzibar works best when read as an alternate history of the present. In a way, it's proto-cyberpunk, though it's also a lot more than that. A fragmented narrative helps Brunner explore issues of overpopulation, exploitation, excessive corporate influence, cultural decay and nihilism in soaring, if also sprawling, fashion. Oh, and there's the fact that it's really, really well written.

5. Brian Aldiss - Non-Stop (SFM #33, 1958)

Aldiss is a guy who really cranked out the books, and a lot of them aren't much to speak of. Non-Stop, though, is an interesting take on the generation starship idea, where humans have evolved into shorter beings living in warring, tribal communities--not even knowing they are on a ship. But for a few of the "dizzies," the truth begins to emerge. It may not be as well-written as some of the other selections here, but it will really stick in your head like the best SF tends to do. Plus it features one of the most chilling concepts I've encountered in SF: highly-evolved, intelligent rats. You see, rats are just like us--only dumber yet hardier. If they evolve sentience, we're pretty much done. HAIL RATS.

4. Ursula K. LeGuin - The Dispossessed (SFM #16, 1974)

Le Guin is best known for her "anthropological SF," where human narrators come to terms with the social implications of contact with non-human species. Arguably her best novel, though, is the more "sociological" Dispossessed. It may seem dated in some ways, reflecting as it does a peculiar Cold War mentality, but the Dispossessed is a fascinating rumination on the idea of utopia, its essential unattainability and the almost inevitable bureaucratization of revolutionary movements once they pass from the phase of critique to one of governance--yet the reader never loses sight of what made the utopian ideal attractive either. And that's just the tip of the iceberg as well...  

3. Philip K. Dick - A Scanner, Darkly (SFM #20, 1977)

Future 1994 California is a lot like actual 1994 California, only narcotics agents wear these things called "scramble suits" that aid undercover work but also, when combined with copious drug-taking, indelibly blur the line between realities, allowing said agents to undertake the real undercover work, at creepy rehab clinics. This is Dick at his absolute, undeniable best. This is serious f***ing literature, and up there with Pynchon in any discussion of mind-bending conspiracy fiction. Ignore the fact that there's a film starring Keanu Reeves based on it, and just go read the book already.

2. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky - Roadside Picnic (SFM # 68, 1972)

This classic of Soviet SF shows us a post-visitation world where human "stalkers" venture into radioactive "zones" left by the visitors, looking for and finding all kinds of swag. It's a complicated, experimental novel, set in an original world populated with unforgettable characters. It's also the type of book where what you get out of it depends, in part, on you not reading wiki summaries or other spoilers. In the end, this is one of the most profound, challenging novels of any kind that I've ever read. It's also, to my knowledge, the only thing by the Strugatskys currently available in English. That sucks.

1. Alfred Bester - The Stars, My Destination (SFM #5, 1956)

Whenever I'm privy to one of those "what's the greatest SF book ever" conversations, I always say you can't credibly participate unless you're read The Stars, My Destination. Indeed, there's so much going on in this book that I can't possibly do justice to it in such a small space. Suffice to say, nothing in SF was the same after its publication. Everyone from Samuel Delany to Joe Haldeman has paid tribute to its genius, and everything from cyberpunk to PKD's late-60s freak-outs owe a massive debt to this dense, wonderful, epic novel. Gully Foyle is the original SF antihero, and to this day the greatest character I've ever encountered in science fiction.

...and that's all folks. Tell me why I'm wrong in the comments!

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