Monday, November 29, 2010

The Long Weekend

I didn't blog much during the Thanksgiving Weekend. That's because I was busy goofing off. I had already decided to spend the majority of my five day weekend just having fun. I did a little housework, but only what I had to. I had a lot of good breakfasts, my favorite meal to cook. I ate out some, but mostly just slapped meals together from provisions I had picked up Tuesday afternoon on my way home from work.
Thanksgiving itself was the usual mix of family foolishness and moments of introspection. The details are boring, so I'll let it go at that.
I did a lot of reading. Read Black Hats, which is reviewed below, and Andrew Vachss new one, The Weight. Also re-read various Michael Moorcock books and short stories as research, as I am writing a Jerry Cornelius story, something that every Moorcock fan has to attempt at some point, I think. Cornelius is a character that Moorcock has allowed other writers to use in various stories over the years, sometimes to his regret. Mine is not terribly serious, fan fiction really, and I'm bouncing all over the Multiverse with it. So yeah, I did some writing too.
I read some more Darkhorse Tarzan reprints and a few new comic books, including the final issue of Darkhorse's Conan the Cimmerian. That series ended with issue 25, finishing up the adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Iron Shadows in the Moonlight. Next up for Darkhorse is Conan:The Road of Kings, not an adaptation of the Karl Edward Wagner Conan pastiche, but a new 12 issue story arc by original Conan comics writer, Roy Thomas. Also read the first issue of the new Darkhorse Kull mini series, The Hate Witch. Decent story and decent art, but nothing to write home about. Increasingly it seems that Darkhorse's REH pastiches become more and more throw away, like back up features from the old Marvel Savage Sword of Conan. If they're going to do short series, I'd like to see them make more of an event of it, not just another monthly comic, if you take my meaning. You've got the time folks. Do something spectacular. Get some creators in there who the fans have always wanted to see work on Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and the lot. (Speaking of which, I noticed in an old Marvel Letters page that at one point Gene Colan was supposed to have been working on a Solomon Kane story. Now that's something I would have liked to have seen. Apparently it didn't come off.)
I watched another Zatoichi movie, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman. This is one I had always wanted to see as it represented a crossover between the Japanese Toho Studio and the Chinese Shaw Brothers Studio. Jimmy Wang Yu, the titular one armed swordsman was already the star of many Hong Kong films, so to have his one armed swordsman character meet Zatoichi was a big deal. It's interesting to note that the director didn't seem to quite know what to do with a Kung Fu swordsman and Wang Yu's fight scenes look a little awkward when compared to his Hong Kong movies. Fun stuff though.
I also watched a couple of episodes of the old Ultraman TV series. It doesn't hold up too well, I'm afraid, but I absolutely loved it when I was a kid, so nostalgia carried the day. I was amazed at how well I remembered the origin episode.
I also started reading the stories in volume five of the Nightshade Books' Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith. I'll blog some more about that one later. This was the last volume in the series and I'm glad to have all of Smith's work in one spot and in the order in which it was published. Interesting to watch Smith's style change over time.
So that was pretty much the weekend. Movies and comics and books. Not a bad way to spend the time off.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Black Hats


Max Allan Collins is what you'd call a prolific author. That means he writes a lot of books. A few of these appear under pen names and recently one of those pen names got past me. Collins wrote a book called Black Hats which came out in 2007 under the name Patrick Culhane. I'm glad I finally became aware of it, because it's a very good book. It takes place in 1920 and it follows former gunslinger Wyatt Earp, now 70 years old, to New York City where the son of Earp's late best friend Doc Holliday has run afoul of mobsters. A young up and comer named Al Capone is leaning heavily on Holliday, trying to get Doc's kid to buy prohibition booze from the outfit Capone works for. Earp and old pal Bat Masterson step in to back Holliday's play. Sounds like fun, eh?
If you're not familiar with Collins, he's something of a master at historical mystery/thrillers. Probably best know in the book world for his Nathan Heller novels (True Crime, True Detective) a private eye series that often involves various true cases, such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, he may be best known to casual readers for writing the graphic novel that became the Tom Hanks film Road To Perdition.
Collins authored several books featuring Elliot Ness (who also shows up in the Heller books) as the protagonist and he did a series of books a couple of years back which featured various authors playing amateur detectives. My favorite was The Pearl Harbor Murders. The protagonist in that one was Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The things that all of these books have in common are scrupulous research, clever plotting, and Collins' solid writing. I started reading Collins many years back with his Mallory series, followed by his Richard Stark homage books about a professional thief named Nolan and the Hellers. Along the line I read the Elliot Ness books and the Dick Tracy novels. (Collins was the writer for the Dick Tracy newspaper strip for many years.) Not to mention Collins comic book work. He wrote Batman and Wild Dog for DC and created, along with artist Terry Beatty, what I consider to be the best private eye comic book ever, Ms. Tree. he also revived the old Pete Morisi PI, Johnny Dynamite.
Recently Collins has been editing and finishing the Mike Hammer manuscripts left by Mickey Spillane. Collins and Spillane were good friends and Collins is definitely the man for the job. He's also been writing new books about his hitman protagonist Quarry. Somewhere in there he's turned out any number of TV and movie tie-ins and adpatations. Everything from CSI to the Scorpion King. Oh and he also writes cozy whodunnits with his wife under the pen name Barbara Allan. I told you the guy wrote a lot of books.
Anyway, Collins is in fine form with Black Hats. He really manages to evoke prohibition era new York. The speakeasys and the clubs and just the whole feel of the city. I learned quite a bit about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Al Capone for that matter. In the last few pages of the book Collins gives the names of the books and other research material he used in great detail. I'm going to have to track a few of those books down. Amazon.com has plenty of used copies of Black Hats. Order yourself a copy and let an expert transport you back to the 1920s where you can stalk the mean streets of New york with Wyatt Earp. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Commandos Are Coming


One of the things that has always impressed me about the comic book work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is that no matter what comic publisher they worked for, what you got was a Simon-Kirby comic. They didn't conform to house styles of writing or drawing. Heck, many times they created the house style, dethroning the previous approaches by the sheer power and energy of their work. If you look at Captain America, Sandman, The Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, or any of S&K's output, they seem to belong less to the Marvel or DC or Harvey universes than to the Simon and Kirby universe. The imprint is that strong.
I was thinking about this as I read through the latest release in DC's Simon and Kirby Omnibus series, The Boy Commandos. I've blogged before about how I used to love the DC 100 Page Super Spectaculars because they reprinted tons of old comics as backups to the lead features. This is where I first met the Boy Commandos. Later, I kept an eye out for those reprints. I found quite a few, but this new volume contains several stories I haven't read.
From the first story which introduces the multinational gang of lads (Pierre from France, Jan from Holland, Alfy from Britain, and Brooklyn from the USA) we are firmly in Simon and Kirby land. I used to think that just meant those running, leaping, punching, figures that Kirby did so well and the over the top storytelling, but it seems, on re-reading some of these stories, that the writing is more solid than in a lot of comics from this period. Each Boy Commandos story in this volume is a mini-war movie, filled with pro ally propaganda, patriotism, and the sort of heartfelt can-do spirit that was part and parcel of the World War Two era. Reading Boy Commandos made me want to run out and buy war bonds and stamps right now. I can only imagine what affect it had on the readers of the time period.
Checking the DC Sandman and newsboy legion volumes, I find that the writing is just as strong. Simon and Kirby told stories about people and the heroes, rather than being the focus of the tales, were often merely bystanders until action was called for. There's just some very strong writing in these stories. That's as much a S&K trademark as the bombastic artwork.
If you're not familiar with the Boy Commandos, the crew are war orphans who have been adopted as mascots by the Commando units, at least in the early stories. They are watched over by Rip Carter, a dashing commando Captain who acts much as the Guardian does in the Newsboy Legion, kind of a Pat Ryan to his four Terrys. As the series progresses, there is less talk of mascots and the boys actually seem to BE commandos, showing up in dangerous situations without much explanation. The stories range all over the world, as did the war. Wherever Hitler and his goons are causing problems, you're likely to find the Boy Commandos right in the thick of it. (It seems to me that the Boy Commandos stories are tighter and more realistic than those of the Newsboy Legion, but that may just be because of the war backdrop.)
It seems that in most of the Simon and Kirby kid gang comics, Jack Kirby usually had a character that mirrored his younger self. Kirby grew up on the lower east Side of New York and he says, in an interview with Jim Steranko that he knew all the kids you see in his comics. he wore the baggy pants and the turtlenecks. Using that as a visual clue, Scrapper is probably Kirby's self projection in the Newsboy Legion. Brooklyn is an easier call in Boy Commandos since in addition to talking like a Warner Brothers' gangster and wearing the turtleneck, he's the only American kid in the gang.
Anyway the Boy Commandos are another example of just why Simon and Kirby were the first real super-stars of comics. Solid writing, great art, and characters that kids could identify with. What more do you want?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Weekend That Was

I had sort of an unfocused weekend. I didn't get much reading done and what I did was mostly comic books. I read reprints of old Tarzan comics and I may blog about that soon. I picked up the Boxed set of Doctor Who Season Five so I watched a lot of the extras on that. I watched a historical action movie called Centurion, which wasn't bad, but I had some issues with the way the Roman soldiers used their swords and shields in combat. I played Lord of the Rings Online a good bit Friday, none on Saturday, and a little on Sunday. I did some research for a short story idea and I wrote a little of the story last night. I re-read a couple of my older stories and found that they held up okay. I cooked some really good omelets. I had some Chocolate ice-cream. I did some house cleaning and played with the cats and otherwise just sort of puttered about. As I said, an unfocused weekend, but not a bad one. Now I have to work for two days and then the FIVE DAY WEEKEND begins. Maybe I'll be a little more productive. Then again, maybe I won't.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

FIVE DAY WEEKEND

I get Thursday and Friday off from my job next week for Thanksgiving. Since I still have some vacation time left I have scheduled Wednesday off as well. That gives me five days in a row from Wednesday to Sunday. Woo Hoo!

Four Years in the Trenches

I just noticed that I missed the blog's anniversary this year. I've been blogging away for four years now as of Nov 1st. I had begun to think this was going to be yet another year when the post total dropped from the year before, but looking at the numbers, I've really been quite the blogging machine over the past few months. If the trend continues, I should equal last years posts by the time I hit the end of the year. Just more going on I guess, or maybe I've just been in the mood to write more reviews. I mean, even in the weeks where I don't review any books, I probably read several. Just wasn't moved to talk about them. I've had a good run of luck in that the last four novels I read were all good and so I reviewed them all here. I tend not to review stuff I don't enjoy. I figure what's the point? Unless I sincerely feel that I'm saving someone money by panning a book or movie, I usually just figure it's a matter of taste and someone else may really enjoy something I didn't like.
Anyway, scanning the posts, I see lots of reviews and a few stories about my life, so about the same level of content as 2009. Thanks to everyone who reads Singular points and thanks for all the comments and emails. I'm still having fun, so I'm still here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wolf Age

One thing I'll say for James Enge is that he isn't one of those writers who writes the same book over and over. His second novel about Morlock the Maker, This Crooked Way, isn't much like his first, Blood of Ambrose, and the third isn't much like the other two. Oddly enough, while reading the first part of his new one, The Wolf Age, I was reminded of Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you've read much of Burroughs' Mars and Venus stuff, or even the Pellucidar books, you may recall how whenever the hero discovers a new civilization he's usually taken prisoner and learns the civilization's language, customs, and such while he's incarcerated. The first third of The Wolf Age is a lot like that. The wandering Morlock is captured by a race of werewolves and held prisoner for several months. During that time he learns to speak the language, picks up a lot of the local customs, and even gains a certain amount of respect, even as John Carter did while a prisoner of the Tharks in ERB's A Princess of Mars.
As the book progresses, Enge spends as much time with the werewolves as he does with Morlock, so you learn all about their culture, which is well realized and very in depth. Werewolf class system. Werewolf politics. (Elections are not pretty.) Werewolf romance. Werewolf language. (They have two. One language for when they're in human form and one for wolf form.) You name it. Enge works hard, not so much at world building (though he's good at that) but character building. You learn about the werewolf civilization by watching the werewolves. Meanwhile Morlock, the centuries old maker (A maker is a magic user who makes things. You'll just have to read it.) engages in bloody battles, loses his second sight, and briefly goes mad.
Enge's Morlock stories are hard to describe. I've yet to read a 'typical' one. Some approach Jack Vance in their strangeness and use of odd magical abilities. Then in the next we're hip deep in Robert E. Howard land as Morlock wades into battle against man and/or monsters. He is a magic user, but if you're looking for Gandalf, Morlock Ambrosius is not your boy. He'll walk away from a fight if he can, but he knows how to use a sword and doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. He's not a do gooder, but he has his own sense of honor and he'll go far to uphold it. A complex and interesting character.
As I noted in my review of This Crooked Way, Enge's imagination is formidable. His plots twist in unexpected directions and he seems to be endlessly inventive, tossing out interesting and just plain weird ideas left and right. Best yet, he seems to be getting better as he goes. The Wolf Age is a deeper and richer book than the two that preceded it. Can't wait to see what Enge does next.

Monday, November 15, 2010

You CAN Go Home Again, but You Have to Kill Zombies

I watched the first episode of AMC's The Walking Dead Friday night. I'm not a huge fan of zombie movies, but I enjoyed it. Part of that was because it's filmed in this area, and I recognized some roads and things. The funny thing was, later that night I dreamed about zombies, which is unusual, since I rarely dream about anything the same day I see it. Usually takes time for my subconscious to process stuff. Not this time.
In the dream I was in the past about twenty years. I was at my Grandparent's house, and my grandfather L.B. Rutledge (Who passed away several years ago.) and I were in the kitchen. We had knocked some window panes out and we were shooting zombies as they came into the carport and tried to reach the back door.
I don't recall much more about the dream, but it was kind of fun killing zombies with my late grandfather. I told my mom about the dream and she laughed and said, "Well, I'm sure if zombies had shown up at the house, your grandfather would have shot them."

Those Blasphemous Books

My pal Jim loaned me a movie, Dead Birds, a nifty little low-budget horror film, and I watched it this weekend. It's definitely a creeper, and it shows what someone can do with a limited budget. It's set during the Civil War and concerns a bunch of deserters who rob a bank, kill some innocent bystanders, and then hide out in an old mansion deep in the Alabama woods. Things don't go well. It actually made me jump a couple of times. (Though the DVD box art gives away one of the big scares. duh.) Jim figured I would like it because it has echoes of Robert E. Howard's Pigeons From Hell in its abandoned Antebellum mansion setting and because it pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft in that all the horrific happenings are set in motion by a book of spells. The late plantation owner was attempting to bring his wife back from the dead using the book, but instead he opened a gate to a bad bad place and let some things cross over to our side.
As soon as I saw the book I knew it would be at the root of the problem. It's strange how often spell books, scrolls, and Grimoires of arcane knowledge turn out to be the main plot point of so many horror stories. I think we can blame H.P. Lovecraft for most of that since the majority of these books are shadows of Lovecraft's fabled Necronomicon. And knowing the gentleman from Providence, I think he would be pleased. Back when Lovecraft was writing his Cthulhu mythos stories for Weird Tales, he encouraged other writers such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Aston Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth to join in the fun. These writers came up with their own tomes of dangerous lore, such as Nameless Cults, The Book of Eibon, Mysteries of the Worm, and Cults of the Ghouls. Other writers over the years added more volumes to the library of Cthulhu.
But it doesn't stop there. There have been other dangerous books invented over the years, most at least partially influenced by the Necronomicon. F. Paul Wilson created the Compendium of Srem for his Repairman Jack series, an ancient volume of eldritch Lore. The Compendium of Srem is probably the most cooperative evil book out there, as it translates itself into whatever language you happen to read.
Terry Brooks' entire Tolkien-ish Shannara series was set into motion by a sentient grimoire called the Ildatch. It was reading this book that would eventually transform the Druid Brona into the Warlock Lord. Even a single page from the Ildatch posed a threat to the world in the novella Indomitable. A very bad book.
The movie In the Mouth of Madness, which I reviewed last month, revolves around a horror writer whose books drive his readers mad and eventually allow a doorway to the outer dark to open into our world.
Over in Marvel Comics we have the Darkhold, kind of a Necronomicon equivalent for Marvel's Cthulhu knockoff, Chthon. Various Lovecraft inspired tomes of terror have turned up on TV shows such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hercules and Xena, and many others. It's a powerful trope. (I used it myself in my story The Silent History. The titular book must never, ever be read aloud.)
So where did Lovecraft get the idea for his blasphemous book? Obviously there have been real (Real in the sense that they existed, not that they were magic) spell books over the years. John Dee supposedly had quite a collection. Lovecraft was aware of several books about the occult but he considered most of them boring and useless as fodder for his fiction. He preferred to just make everything up. The most probable inspiration was Robert Chamber's book The King in Yellow, which features a story about a play called the King in Yellow, which drives mad anyone who reads it. I suppose it was never performed. Lovecraft mentions The King in Yellow in his pseudo essay The History of the Necronomicon, saying that King in Yellow was probably influenced by the actual Necronomicon. More likely it was the other way around.
(It just occurred to me that a fun Cthulhu mythos story would have some idiot scanning the Necronomicon and uploading it to Google Books. Feel free to steal the idea. Just send me a copy.)
Anyway, somewhere in the vast library of books that were never written is a section kept separate from the rest of the library. A dark corner with one blinking overhead light, where the shelves tilt and the geometry seems wrong. Here are housed those blasphemous books of arcane knowledge and eldritch lore.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

IDW's Dungeons and Dragons


I've always wondered, given the wealth of potential behind the worlds of the Dungeons and Dragons game, why no one has been able to do a decent D&D Comic. I mean, come on, a world full of elves, dwarves, haflings, dragons, monsters and magic galore. An almost unlimited background for adventure, yet over the years one comics company after another has pretty much blown it. Someone may be about to break that losing streak.
So far there's only one issue of IDW's Dungeons and Dragons comic out but I liked it a lot. The writing by John Rogers was nice and snappy and the story got off to a fast and frenetic start. We're introduced to a group of adventurers right out of D&D central casting. Amid the apparent attack of evil zombies (everyone loves zombies) we neet a smart-ass Elf, a rambunctious dwarf, a sneaky halfling, and an over confidant human. The adventurers have just signed on a new member, a spell caster, when things go bad and off we go.
The artwork, by Andrea Di Vito is clean and sharp and very comic-bookish. Di Vito has apparently done some work for Marvel Comics though I'm not familiar with him.
The best thing about the comic was that it was fun. I'm not a table top gamer, but I do game online and this comic reminds me of the banter and ribbing that goes on as you and your friends charge into trouble. I got the feeling that the writer was going for a mix between an actual adventure and the feel of a gaming session. Works for me. Anyway, we'll see how things shape up over the next few issues. I'd certainly like to see an entertaining, fun comic set in the D&D universe. Maybe this is it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Moonlight Mile


I remember buying Dennis Lehane's first novel, A Drink Before the War, brand new in hardback from a bookstore that no longer exists. That was back in 1994, when I was still reading private eye novels hand over fist, and I remember reading the inside of the dust jacket and seeing that Lehane's book was set in Boston and thinking that was a pretty gutsy move since Robert B. Parker, then the current PI heavyweight, had staked out Boston as his own territory.
As it turned out, Lehane owed little to Parker. Spenser exists in a Boston of nice restaurants, College functions, and an overall atmosphere of very upper middle class to rich. Lehane's Boston is blue collar, working class all the way. His two detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are definitely more human and down to Earth than semi-Superman Spenser. The only thing that struck me as Spenser-like about Lehane's series was the character Bubba, a killer redneck who acts much in the role that Hawk fills in the Spenser books. He's the guy who will do the things that the main character won't. (I blogged before about how when I first read A Drink Before the War, I was put out because I was then five chapters into the writing of a private eye novel featuring a sidekick named Bubba who was a killer redneck. I still have that manuscript somewhere. Such is life.)
I liked A Drink Before the War quite a bit, and over the next five years I picked up the Kenzie/Gennaro books that followed, right up to 1999's Prayers for Rain. And there the books stopped.
Lehane's next book was 2001's Mystic River, a stand alone that won an award or two and was later made into an Academy Award winning movie by Clint Eastwood. I started the book but didn't finish it. Just not my sort of thing, I guess. I gave Lehane kudos for branching out and trying other things, but I missed the Kenzie/Gennaro books. I was reminded of this when I watched the 2007 movie adaptation of the novel Gone, Baby Gone. I thought it an excellent adaptation, and I liked Casey Affleck as Kenzie. Made me wish that Lehane would get back to his original series, but by that time eight years had passed and I'd begun to think I wouldn't be seeing any new stories about Patrick and Angie.
Jump forward about three more years to Tuesday. I was browsing in Barnes and Noble, looking through the New Hardback section and I spotted Lehane's name on a cover. I almost passed it by, figuring it would be just another stand alone like Mystic River, Shutter Island, or The Given Day, but I thought,"Gee wouldn't it be cool if that was a new Patrick Kenzie book." I picked up the book, titled Moonlight Mile, and lo and behold, it was indeed a return to the private eye genre.
I read most of Moonlight Mile Tuesday night and let me tell you, the layoff did Lehane good. The writing is sharper, the characters more well drawn. I was instantly drawn back into Lehane's world and the lives of his characters. The only reason I didn't finish the book was it was getting late and I didn't want to rush through the end. I finished it yesterday afternoon as soon as I got home from work and it did not disappoint.
Moonlight Mile is a sequel to 1998's Gone, Baby Gone, perhaps Lehane's most controversial book in the series. At the end of Gone, Patrick Kenzie has to make a choice that pretty much ruins his life. He made the right choice based on his ethics, but a lot of people paid a terrible price. Just how terrible becomes clear as Moonlight Mile unfolds. Now it's twelve years later, time having passed in 'real time'. Kenzie and Gennaro, just into their 30s in Gone are now in their early 40s. They're married and have a four year old daughter. The recession has hit them hard and they are barely squeaking by on what Kenzie makes as a private eye, while Angie has gone back to school. They're struggling with the present when the past rears up and smacks them right between the eyes.
Amanda McCready the little girl who's abduction set the events of Gone, Baby Gone in motion, has gone missing again. Now aged sixteen, she's vanished without a trace. Amanda's aunt confronts Patrick, saying he owes a debt for what he did twelve years earlier and it's up to him to find Amanda again. Patrick tries to ignore her and get on with his life, but finds he can't let the case go.
In typical PI style, Patrick has barely begun to look into the case when he is beaten up and warned off. But anybody who knows Patrick Kenzie knows that he isn't going to stand down and trying to force him will just make him all the more determined. He and Bubba go looking for the guys who roughed up Patrick and took his laptop and the bad guys learn why you don't mess with the friend of a killer redneck. Soon Patrick finds that Amanda is into some seriously bad stuff with some seriously bad people in a world where human life is worth nothing.
If I have any problem with the book it's the near the end where Lehane sacrifices logic and probability for a 'surprise plot twist' but he's done that before. (And I wasn't surprised then either.) For the most part his snappy yet literate prose and his skill at writing complex characters makes me ignore the occasional plot wonkyness.
Overall I really enjoyed Moonlight Mile. The end is written as a possible finish for the series. If Lehane decides to stop writing about these characters he's given them a fine send off. But I hope he'll revisit Patrick and Angie again. It was good to see them.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ichi and Zatoichi: The Blind Leading the Blind

Back in the day, when I was teaching Shotokan karate four nights a week, I was fascinated by all things Japanese. (Still am to some degree.) In particular I liked Samurai movies. My favorites are probably Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, all directed by Akira Kurasawa, but I also have a fond spot for the movies about the blind sword master, Zatoichi played by Shintaro Katsu. I wasn’t the only one fond of master Ichi. The series spawned 26 films between 1962 and 1989, and well over a hundred episodes of a Zatoichi television series. There was also apparently a remake a couple of years ago, but I haven’t seen that one yet.
However my buddy Chris, who is also something of a Japanophile, told me that there was a new film out called simply Ichi, which dealt with the adventures of a young blind girl who used a sword in the same style as Zatoichi, and had an intriguing connection with the blind swordsman. I found a DVD of Ichi for cheap at Moviestop (handy place, that) and watched it Saturday.
Ichi is very much in the tradition of Zatoichi, as the blind girl, who calls herself Ichi, wanders the Japanese countryside during the Edo period, seeking a blind sword master who may or may not be her father. (This point is never confirmed and is left up to the viewer, which is good since the possible fate of the man she is seeking might put off some Zatoichi fans.)
It’s a fun little movie with a lot of good fight scenes and some nice character bits. The lead character has an interesting story arc and actually grows and changes as the film progresses. Takao Osawa portrays Ichi as a girl wronged by the world and seeking one final meeting with the only family she has ever known.
I wish I could say that her skill with a sword is up to Katsu’s but she lacks his impressive footwork. I enjoyed Ichi enough to go to Hulu and watch one of the original Zatoichi movies, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, and marveled a Katsu’s performance and his skill with a sword. Possibly only a martial artist would be bothered by the footwork thing, but most Japanese martial arts stress stance and footwork as the foundations of all technique. Anyway, a small thing. All in all I really enjoyed Ichi. Of course now, I feel the sudden need to watch all the original Zatoichi films and maybe check out that TV show…

Blue-Eyed Devil: The Last Round Up


With the confusion over the last Spenser book by Robert B. Parker, I hesitate to say that Blue-Eyed Devil is the last we shall see of Parker’s cowboy heroes Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, but as far as I know, it is the last roundup for the boys from Appaloosa. If so, it’s a pretty good one. There is much horse riding and gun shooting and philosophizing about the nature of men, women, personal honor and such. In other words, about what you’d expect from a Robert B. Parker Western.
One thing I did note, and this may or may not have been Parker’s intention, but it seemed that Cole and Hitch were becoming aware that the nature of civilization in the oncoming 20th century might soon make them outmoded. Blue-Eyed devil is about the growing level of civilized laws and rules and politics in the former wild and wooly town of Appaloosa. The boys find themselves at odds with the new Sheriff in town. The Sheriff is running an extortion racket and you know he and Virgil Cole are going to clash, but Cole’s motivations seem a lot less clear than in the earlier books because, right or wrong, crooked or not, the Sheriff is the law and Cole is breaking the law by fighting him. The days of frontier justice are fast fading and it looks like the day may come when Cole and Hitch won’t be laws unto themselves. But as Aragorn would say, it is not this day, and the lead flies and the boys take care of business one more time.
Another thing that caught my attention this time was how Virgil Cole’s love interest, the fickle and unfaithful Allie, is the exact opposite of Spenser’s long time love, Susan Silverman. I guess Parker felt the need to write a female character who wasn’t the perfect woman.
A second Susan connection is Cole mentions that Everett Hitch went to West Point almost as many times as Spenser mentions Susan went to Harvard in the average Spenser book. Kind of funny.
Anyway, I read Blue-Eyed Devil in a sitting and enjoyed it quite a bit. Wish that Cole and Hitch could hit the trail a few more times, but that’s not to be.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How I Met Elric of Melnibone


Recently Michael Moorcock has been writing new stories about his best known character, Elric of Melnibone. These 'new' adventures are designed to fit into the established Chronology between the 'classic' Elric books Elric of Melnibone and Stormbringer. The most recent, the novella Red Pearls, appeared in the anthology Swords and Dark Magic, which I reviewed here a while back.
Unlike some of my book purchases, which have faded and run together in my memory over the years, I remember my discovery of Elric pretty well. I was fourteen, perhaps the best age to first encounter the moody albino prince, and my cousin Rick and I were scouring the bookshelves at the B. Dalton store in Cumberland Mall. Cumberland was one of two Malls that my parents frequented back in the day, and those were the only places to find chain bookstores at the time. Since I couldn't drive yet, I had to wait for my parents or grandparents to make a run to the mall. I'd spend most of the time we were there in the bookstores. B.Dalton was upstairs and Waldenbooks was downstairs. B. Dalton seemed to have a better stock of fantasy (I bought Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books there and Lin Carter's Thongor books as well) but Waldenbooks had a better collection of art and comics related books. That's where I found Steranko's History of Comics.
So anyway, Rick and I were looking through the books, searching for anything that resembled Conan and I spotted a cover with a garish red background. In the foreground a man with long white hair was jabbing a sword into the prone form of what looked like an ogre of some sort. Glowing purple energy writhed around the sword. The title of the book was The Weird of the White Wolf and the author was someone named Michael Moorcock. Down at the bottom of the cover a small blurb said, The Third Novel of Elric of Melnibone. Third volume? So it was a series. Maybe something like Fritz Lieber?
The bookstore had three more volumes in the series, though not the first or the last. I bought the four they had. I think Rick did too. Though he and I swapped a lot of books back and forth, we generally wanted our own copies of series sword & sorcery.
I'd like to pretend that I had good taste in my selection of books, but truthfully I think it was the Michael Whelan covers that originally sold me on Elric. They were colorful and pulpish and the scenes depicted promised adventure galore. Of course the books themselves didn't disappoint. I learned pretty quickly that Elric wasn't much like Conan. Instead of a brawny adventurer, he was a sickly albino who got his strength and vitality by stealing it from others by killing them with his cursed sword, Stormbringer. In some ways I think that is a large part of the appeal of Elric, especially to adolescents. You don't have to be big and strong or fast and athletic to be the most dangerous hombre around. You just need that magic sword.
And Elric was moody and depressed and angst ridden. Once again, perfect hero for a teenager. I was very taken with the books and read the four I'd purchased back to back. Book distribution being what it was in the 1970s, I had trouble getting the missing two and it was actually a few years before I got a copy of the first one. (It wouldn't have occurred to me back then that the bookstore could order it specifically for me.) I re-read those four Elric books several times over the summer. And I still like to re-read the series every year or so.
I was musing the other day how I wished the new Elric novellas could be collected in a paperback with a Michael Whelan cover so I could put it on the shelf beside the original six books. Unlikely, I guess, but gee, that would be fun. Just like old times.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Andrew Vachss' Heart Transplant


I just read Andrew Vachss' Heart Transplant, a graphic novel about bullying and let me tell you, if you know any kids you suspect might be being bullied in school, you need this book. It would be a great way to open a dialog with a child and it might teach you a few things and blow away any preconcieved notions you might have about bullies. It's that good.
It's also a very good graphic novel, written with the razor sharp prose I've come to admire from Lawyer/Author Andrew Vachss over the years. Vachss has a way of going straight to the heart of a matter, pulling no punches because they shouldn't be pulled, and never flinching from uncomfortable truths.
If you're unfamiliar with Vachss, he is the author of the long running series of Burke crime novels and many other books. More importantly, he's a remorseless enemy of anyone who would harm, abuse or neglect a child. I interviewed him many years ago for Comic Shop News and it changed my life. Many of the hardest and most important lessons I learned about the world, I learned from Andrew Vachss. Some day I'll go on about that in more detail, but just let me say that when Vachss talks, I listen. When he said join PROTECT. org, a non partisan organization for the protection of children, (Kind of like the NRA but lobbying for kids instead of guns) I signed on. I'll provide a link at the bottom of the post. Help out if you can.
The art for Heart Transplant is by Frank Carruso, a talented cartoonist who uses mixed medias in this book to carry the story along. His art is catoony when it needs to be and more realistic when that will get the point across better. It reminds me somewhat of Will Eisner's later work, such as A Contract With God and The Building.
The last few pages of the book contain an informative essay on violence and bullying by Zak Mucha. I learned a lot from that as well.
Anyway, I highly recommend Heart Transplant. Like most of Andrew Vachss' work, it might make you a little uncomfortable, but that's okay. There are things we should be uncomfortable about, and we're lucky there are writers and artists who take the hard looks.

For more about PROTECT go here:

http://www.protect.org/home


And for more about Andrew Vachss, go here.

http://www.vachss.com/

Monday, November 01, 2010

Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest

I was browsing at Moviestop on Saturday morning and came across a used copy of Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest. This is one of two animated features featuring the voice of David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. The other one, Dreamland, is also available on DVD. Quest features 2D cell style animation mixed with some computer graphics and Dreamland is a full CGI cartoon.
The first thing I noticed about Quest was the rather limited animation, looking something like the old Filmation cartoons where the same stock animation was used over and over. You know. Left profile of Doctor. Right Profile of Doctor. Left three quarter view of Martha. Right three quarter view of Martha. Doctor walking. Martha Walking. Etc, etc.
Doesn't really matter. Still gets the story told.
The second thing that stood out for me is how well animation works for a SF series because you can show things that it's difficult or prohibitively expensive to show in live action. The cartoon features space cruisers, metal birds, walking oil rigs, and a bunch of robots. You could probably do most of that with CGI, but not on the budget of a weekly TV series. Plus, you don't need stuntmen, caterers, carpenters, lighting techs, etc. Just voice talents and people who can draw and animate.
The Infinite Quest follows The Doctor (David Tennant) and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) in a race across several galaxies to try and find The Infinite, an ancient object said to be able to grant people their heart's desire. Unfortunately a nasty space pirate named Baltazar is also after The Infinite and his heart's desire is to see the Doctor dead and the Earth destroyed. The animators use their unlimited location budget to send the travelers to a desert planet, a tropical world besieged by giant insects, and the frozen prison planet Volag-Noc.
It's a fun cartoon, very much in the spirit of the live action show. The DVD has some cool extras, including interviews with all the voice talent and footage of Tennant and Agyeman recording their lines. Also it's a chance to visit with the 10th Doctor yet again, even if it's just his voice. And I got it for four bucks, used.

Looking Back

I was doing a little research last night, reading through the six volumes of DAW books' Years Best Fantasy series that writer/editor Lin Carter had edited back in the 1970s. In the introduction to each book, Carter gave a report on the state of fantasy fiction as it stood. It forms a strange time capsule. In volume one, which came out in 1974, Carter mentions that J.R.R. Tolkien died the previous year without finishing The Silmarillion, and that Lancer books had gone bankrupt, leaving the fate of the Conan paperback series in doubt.
In the next few volumes Carter will mention the publications of Watership Down, The Book of Merlin, and the Sword of Shannara. (Carter hated the Sword of Shannara, by the way. He thought it too derivative. You'd need to be familiar with Carter's own writing to realize how funny this is.) It will take three more years for the Lancer problem to be cleared up and for ACE books to take over the publication of the Conan series. Carter will eventually report that J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher has resigned his position as a professor and taken his family to France so he can complete the editing of the Silmarillion.
The amazing thing is, at this point in time, the future of fantasy as a viable genre was still in doubt. It's hard to believe these days, when the fantasy/SF section at Barnes & Noble takes up more floor space than any genre besides Romance, that once upon a time there simply wasn't that much fantasy out there. I remember that when I first started reading fantasy, coincidentally in about 1974, that the SF section at Waldenbooks was a single six foot tall shelf unit, and the majority of books there were science fiction. I woud dig through the books, looking for anything with swords on the cover instead of spacecraft.
With Conan out of print, the sword & sorcery pickings were slim and comprised mostly of Conan knock-offs like Brak and Thongor, though thankfully Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were available. One nice thing was that almost all of Edgar Rice Burroughs books were in print and I bought shiny new copies of the Mars, Venus, and Pellucidar books. By the time I abandoned the genre about 1980, the size of the fantasy section had increased to four or five shelves. When I returned about two decades later, the fantasy genre had grown by leaps and bounds and the shelves were full of authors I'd never heard of.
The other strange thing, which I've just thought of as I write this, was how loosely defined fantasy/SF was. Waldenbooks and B.Dalton often shelved such diverse writers and books as Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Doc Savage, Tolkien, and even early Stephen King in the same area. I think King's eventual success caused the creation of a 'horror' section in the chain stores.
But yeah, it's strange to look back at the state of fantasy circa 1974. The Tolkien clones hadn't really ramped up yet. Authors like George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh and Tanith Lee were just beginning their careers, and the old timers were folks like Poul Anderson and Andre Norton. Seeing Watership Down and the Silmarillion on the New York Times bestseller list was a big big deal. How times have changed.