Friday, August 22, 2008

Edinburgh by Gaslight

I am a Sherlock Holmes nut. Now, my knowledge is not encyclopedic of all things Holmes-ian or Sir Arthur; I couldn't rattle off all sorts of minor trivia such as how many steps are on the stoop of 221-B. I don't take him so seriously that it hinders my enjoyment of movies like Without a Clue or Young Sherlock Holmes. However, I love reading Doyle's stories of the Great Detective as well as other works of his such as Rodney Stone, The Lost World and various short story collections. I enjoy reading the various pastiches to varying degrees, especially August Derleth's Solar Pons stories that grew beyond that limitation. I have all sorts of books with Holmes and about Holmes, some by Doyle and some not. My enjoyment of Doyle's stories led me to reading other detective fiction of the time as well as modern writers takes on Victorian era mysteries such as Anne Perry's wonderful Mr. Monk series. My favorite actor in the role of Holmes has to be Jeremy Brett in the great Granada produced series. However, I've developed a fondness for the Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford series. Jonathan Pryce does a good job as a slightly older version of the character in The Bakerstreet Irregulars. Matt Frewer and Rupert Everett are best left forgotten as are most others with American actors in the role. One can only wonder what we're going to see in 2010 from Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey, Jr.

I also enjoy shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, Law & Order. Of late, I couldn't help but think that a great show would be something that combined the two genres, a mystery series set in Victorian times dealing with the science and culture of the times. Something not too dissimilar to Caleb Carr's book The Alienist.

This is all a lead-in to the fact that last weekend my gal checked out of the library a two-disc DVD set of a British series called "Murder Rooms". Not included was the pilot, this contained 4 episodes: The Patient's Eyes, The Photographer's Chair, The Kingdom of Bones, and The White Knight Strategm. I'd never heard of the series, at its core is the fact that Doyle based Holmes on his medical professor Dr. James Bell who during an examination could proceed to give a life history of the patient based on observation and deductive reasoning. It's not a big leap then for a creative writer to come up with stories that team the two in a Holmes and Watson relationship and involve them in mysteries of their own. Indeed, Doyle has appeared in books such as Frost's The List of Seven, though with a different Holmes stand-in. This series of 90-minute mysteries are based on such a series of mystery novels.

The first disc with "The Patient's Eyes" and "The Photographer's Chair" are the better two I think. They also are a bit spookier with a heavier feel of menace that pervades them. The first starts off shortly after Doyle has graduated from medical school and starting his practice as a doctor. He has as an attractive patient with eye trouble and she talks about how she is often followed by a mysterious bicycler along an otherwise deserted remote road. This is also the set-up of the Holmes story "The Solitary Cyclist", one of his better I feel. While the set-up is definitely familiar, the story goes in other directions.

"The Photographer's Chair" deals with dead bodies appearing with signs of being bound and choked. When one victim's brother says that his sister will appear in a seance and prove his innocence, we start venturing towards the supernatural. Heavy in this show is Doyle's own struggles with the senseless death of his wife from some time before. The wound here seems so raw, yet this sadness is absent in the other episodes. But, it provides a rationale and foundation for Doyles fascination with spiritualism later in life.

"The Kingdom of Bones" has a great set-up as the unwrapping of an ancient mummy reveals a not so distant murder. We meet a character that is very reminiscent of Doyle's Professor Challenger especially in his disdain for the press, a reference to "the giant rat of Sumatra" and even a bit of boxing. However, it's a bit more adventure oriented than mystery.

"The White Knight Strategm" switches gears as it involves Doyle travelling back to Edinburgh in order to help Bell with a case. We also meet Doyle's father, touched upon in the previous episode, who is in an asylum. There is a strange and uncomfortable question raised about the treatment of family when they become ill and cannot support themselves. A detective on the case that Doyle and Bell butt heads with is supporting his wife who had suffered such a severe stroke she is barely cognizant of surroundings and must be hand fed. He does so out of duty and vows as opposed to sending her to an asylum such as Doyle's own paranoid delusional father is in. You see the moral conflict in Doyle's face, the detective's words and actions come across partly as unintended judgment and condemnation. The episode ends with hints of more but as this has been seven years ago, and the actor playing Bell passed away in February '07.

The lead actors, Charles Edwards as Doyle and Ian Richardson as Bell, are great in their roles. They seem more real than Watson and Holmes as they should be. Doyle is smart and clever, not quite so the blunderer as Watson. Bell is intelligent but very human and prone to human mistakes and humor. He's not as artificially arrogant, emotionally blunted or theatrically flamboyant as Holmes could be. The friendship between the two come off as genuine and heartfelt, it would be hard to watch the pilot with a different actor as Doyle, the two play off each other so well here. It is interesting to note that the dvd case lists comic-book based movies for each of the two in telling who they are. Charles Edwards had a small role in Batman Begins while Richardson who has had a long and lustrous career is credited with a role in From Hell. Richardson also played Holmes himself in 1983 productions of The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles (That has to be up there for one of the most filmed novels of all time. Please stop) and the voice of Doyle in the tv series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. The role that most Americans will remember of my generation will probably be that of the Rolls Royce owner stopping other drivers and asking "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"


Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds: This is pretty much the only Final Crisis mini I'll be getting. And it's mainly because of the work by stellar artist George Perez. When you have a book with this big a scope and this many superheroic characters, Perez is not only the natural choice, he's really about the only choice. If there is any drawback to the series, it's I have to echo Superboy-Prime's sentiments that the older Legion costumes are better than this Emo-Legion. Lightning Lad's long-haired bad boy look, ugh. And, when did he get so whiny? Is there a sleeve shortage in the future? I was never a big fan of Cockrum's art, but most of his costume designs were near perfect. Poor Timber Wolf and Polar Boy tend to look worse with each re-boot.

Guardians of the Galaxy: SI catches up the GG team, for no real reason other than it's crossover-itis. Normally, this title would seem a natural for the skrulls to show up in, but with their big push on Earth and all of the titles that resolve around it, it just seems a little forced to have it also hijack the storyline of this book that takes place nowhere near Earth and has very little to with the happenings on Earth. Otherwise, it has some good plot bits and mistrust is sown, not just because of the possibility of a skrull spy in their midst. However, if you are just trying the title out, you might be a little disappointed because this is an all-subplot issue as various little intrigues, mysteries and situations are set up, but not much real story to it, it's akin to watching a random episode of a soap opera.

Justice League of America: An ok issue. The pacing seems a little strange after the build-up of Amazo as a threat and he's taken out halfway through the comic so that we can move on to the resolution of Vixen's change in powers and ends with a cook-0ut with Buddy "Animal Man" Baker and family. The big shock, emotional cliffhanger of an ending? Vegetarian Buddy eating fried chicken without realizing it.

Secret Invasion: Thor: Matt Fraction does a very good job here, no decompressed storytelling. He sets up the human drama as Don Blake examines a pregnant woman who goes into labor when something strikes the nearby hidden Asgard. He wonderfully juxtaposes the tensions on Earth and Asgard: as the situation in Asgard worsens with news of imminent attacks by the Skrulls and the Asgardians prepare for war, we see the repercussions reflect in the terror of the pregnant woman wondering where her doctor is and people reacting to the storms that are designed to actually protect them from the terror of witnessing gods going to war. What happens on the epic scale is reflected by what's happening on the mundane and we have a Thor with duties to both. Luckily, we also have Beta Ray Bill. Braithwaite's sketchy art works well here in also capturing the real-world rural countrysides and the viking gods of Asgard. Indeed, it was his artwork that attracted me to trying out the title.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Some ole Comic reviews

Thoughts on comics from the last couple of weeks

The Amazing Spider-Girl #23: Have to give Tom DeFalco credit. His little corner of the Marvel universe allows him to play around with the company characters and concepts. He's been titling this arc as "Brand New May", playing off of the "Brand New Day" slogan for the new Spider-man status quos. Meanwhile, the story also wryly touches on an era and concepts that most Spider-fans wish to forget, clones. Like that saga, at the heart of the storyline is the question as to whether the character we've been following for years is the real deal or not. He juggles this against the backdrop of the soap-opera of May's school life, romantic intrigues, and the issues of bigotry and hate groups using the Marvel chestnut of mutants. Ron Frenz continues to deliver on easy to understand yet dynamic artwork. Special kudos also to Irene Lee who has a little fun in designing a re-cap page that perfectly fits in with the tone of the book and shows that even the most humdrum of things can be done with a little bit fun and whimsy.

There's an ad in the book, apparently tiring of zombies, Marvel is borrowing a page from Silver-age DC and going ape with MARVEL APES. Guess the promotion department isn't up on their zoology as their slogan is "with great power comes a prehensile tail". Hmmm. That would be monkeys, not apes. Different animals. The art gets it right though, none of the heroes-turned-ape have tails.

Avengers/Invaders #4: Captain America vs SHIELD's LMD's, the original Human Torch flips out, Namor has growing up to do, Toro's identified as a mutant and Bucky isn't having a good day while Doctor Strange conjures up a Vision from the past. Meanwhile, editorial hasn't seen fit yet to fix the problems with the coloring and too heavy inks (adjusting the penciled art too heavily for shooting from the pencils?). Even the Ross cover is a bit of an eyesore.

Captain Britain and MI:13 #4: A fun book that manages to be enjoyable enough to forgive its oversights and flaws. Like Avengers/Invaders, there are production issues. In this case, it's the fact that pages 1-3 of the story are actually pages 4-6. At least in the copy I got as well as the copy that the person got that posted the online previews as they had the same problem of not quite making sense. The Black Knight has a stone heart? If that were true, that would hardly be the only thing that didn't make sense about his body as Faiza was trying to mystically knit him back together. I had hoped that maybe with her powers, she'd remove his link to the curse as well (seems with everything else she could, healing a stone heart wouldn't be too difficult).

The emphasis on a no-kill clause and Captain Britain's forsaking the sword for someone who hasn't killed doesn't quite make sense after slaughtering all those skrulls and considering the sword Excalibur's own bloody history. Factor in you have another member a man who wears a sword and a half-vampire. I know the skrulls are a special case, it's a war after all, but there seems to be an odd dichotomy that's not really addressed.

Faiza's drawing Excalibur, I couldn't help but wonder about the female Captain Britain that Chuck Austen created. I thought she was a character with potential, it'd be good to see her again even if not as Captain Britain. Likewise Captain Britain's speech about the flag and all, where's ole Union Jack during all of this. He also has links to the Pendragon, a former love of Spitfire and ties to Britain's intelligence community.

The emphasis on Britain's link of magic still doesn't quite carry the weight it should. It raises questions about other areas of magic and other types of magic. Even though the skrulls are stopped here, what about the other places? By addressing this one front, it opens the door for others. And, just because they stopped the invaders here and rigged things to prevent other incursions, the war itself is hardly over, but this suggests that these guys aren't really worried about the rest of the world's problems. A problem by tying in the opening story to a mega-crossover event, it's hard to give a plausible ending in one book while the event is still going on. In for a dollar, in for a pound.

FX#6: Wayne Osborne brings his mini-series by John Byrne to a rocking conclusion as our hero, his not-his-girlfriend and the heroes of the team Front Line storm Olympus and face down monsters and the big villain in efforts to save the soul of his friend and the lives of kidnapped friends and family. Whew. For a first time writer, Wayne does a wonderful job telling an old-fashioned superhero story with likeable characters and manages to introduce us organically to his larger superhero universe, actually making it seem large and with a history and past that the hero FX is linked to. By playing with archetypes, he is able to make the new characters and guest-stars seem familiar enough that we don't need a lot of exposition to get us up to speed but different enough to intrigue us. In fact, if there is a flaw with this issue, I really want to see Home Front in their own series, see more villains. I'm just glad that at the end we see a return of the ghost-knight.

Green Arrow & Black Canary #10: Reports are that with issue 15 there will be a new writer on board. While I liked Winnick on Green Arrow, I think he did a fine job in helping emphasize Green Arrow as a superhero, I think he's a bit tired on the book. Since the relaunch, he never seemed to really grasp Black Canary and the book has become more of a team book, especially in the recent issues, completely losing the focus on the leads. This particular story has been especially drawn out. This issue is mostly exposition, tying the past issues together. Or at least trying to, the kidnapping of Plastic Man makes no sense with what is revealed, this group of would-be assassins are fleshed out but still coming off inept. One character is revealed as a vampire but isn't the least bit scary or have any of the trappings that would make him memorable. It seems tacked on, to give an easy explanation as to why he can tell that the hologram of Ra's al-Ghul is telling them the truth in that he didn't hire them or meet them. However, if he is so good at reading people, how did he fall for the sham-Ra's al-Ghul then? Winnick sets up a big job for himself in explaining he mystery villain's motivation after the big reveal at the end.

The Last Defenders #6: The book ends where it should have started or at least been around issue #2 or 3. If this storyline had been part of an ongoing, it might have worked, but for the most part, it just feels like a "why bother?" To completely deconstruct the team, take Kyle Richmond out of the costume only to put together a new team at the very end? And, anyone reading comics for any length of time can bet how long that will last. If a writer or the company doesn't have concrete plans for a new character or group, they fade away as soon as the mini or series is done. Just as Casey felt like he had to create his own team and completely discard the previous members, what makes him think this will have more lasting power? Especially as he didn't do anything with them as a team or even really make them work together beyond cosmic fiat that is basically a fictional stand-in for "because I'm the writer and I said so". Thus, Krang is a better choice than Namor, Joaquim is a better Nighthawk than Kyle (conveniently ignoring that Kyle has powers and was created to be able to go toe-to-toe with Captain America). For five issues we've seen Kyle being torn down as a character, a complete putz who cannot get his act together, that the conversion in the final issue is as unconvincing as the rest. A waste of some good characters and opportunities.

Star Trek/Assignment: Earth #4: John Byrne's artwork is top notch in this series. Wonderful attention to detail, especially in portraying period detail. And each issue has been a complete story. The only short-comings really have been the lead characters still come across as cyphers. Beyond his job, we don't really know anything about Gary Seven. He comes across almost as unemotional as Spock, totally dedicated to his mission but with less of a sense of humor.

Superpowers #5: Some great superhero action. The painted coloring has improved, giving the proper mood though still too dark at times. Especially odd is a scene of Pyroman flying on page 3 where the bottom half of his body is missing. But, that's a minor quibble. Krueger steps up the story and the problems for the heroes as Dynamic Man manages to maneuver the situation that paints them as turning bad. And, at least Kruegar has seen fit to leave Hydroman, the Flame and Pyroman largely intact as their GA selves despite Pyroman's misleading moniker. Even Ross didn't feel a need to heavily re-design them.

The Target and the Targeteers aren't so lucky. The three are linked, talking and acting as one. It's an interesting gimmick, but the characters already had an interesting gimmick. They were part of a small sub-set of GA heroes, where (usually 3) men put on similar costumes and fight crimes. They had the added wrinkle that the leader of the trio was a pseudo Doc Savage in that he better at many things overall than the others as well as being a scientific genius and designed the bullet-proof costumes they wore (hence the large targets on their chest).

Turns out it was V-Man who got the abilities to transmit some kind of disease and not Miss Masque, playing on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death". It's hard to find a more obscure patriotic hero than V-Man and an odd story-direction for the character with a cast of so many characters and many we haven't seen yet. Considering that the Face cannot take off his fright mask and seems to have some powers, the 'Devil is now mute, maybe Krueger has a problem with non-powered heroes and feels the need to change them to give them each his own defining characteristic?

A nice look at the giants of Superpowers: the Green Giant (notably, his name ISN'T changed), Phantasmo, Boy King's golem Giant (with the normal sized Boy King standing on his foot) and the villainous Claw.

The Twelve #7: The plot moves forward. The police investigate the killings of the last issue coming after the most likely suspect, Dynamic Man. And, he has an iron-clad alibi as I already figured it would play out. He was conspicuously hanging out at the mansion right by a clock showing the time. As a mystery, it's fairly obvious that he's using Electro. Being an android, Dynamic Man is probably aware of the surveillance the team is under thus setting his alibi and is able to control Electro without the use of any devices. Although it could reasonably play out that he's unaware he has the link with Electro and the robot is carrying out his sub-conscious wishes. Being the obvious choice, it's always possible that it's someone else, but JMS would have his work cut out to make it plausible other than a deliberate and complex frame job. Because for that to work, the police have to be aware that Dynamic Man is an android and could control Electro, that his alibi is not sound. In that sense, JMS really could be going after a Watchmen vibe as each hero is undone. Electro is hauled off by a descendant of its owner, Laughing Mask is sent to prison (maybe not a coincidence the police still had that old evidence), the Phantom Reporter is about to find out the Black Widow's dark secrets that could have dire results for one of them. Then, the arrows would point to Mastermind Excello, as it still hasn't been addressed how they happened to walk conveniently into a Nazi trap that he didn't foresee that would put them in suspended animation into the future.

Otherwise, the story is more of the same as Captain Wonder is visited by his old sidekick, emphasis on old. And, it's yet another sad story. This is JMS being literary and realistic as the emphasis in storytelling is all on character flaws and the negative aspects of life. Yes, you live long enough and life will deliver pain, heartbreak and loss. But, life has joy, fun and beauty as well for most of us. There's none of that here. Those that seem to get any kind of joy or fun out of life in this storyline, it's either a bit delusional (the Blue Blade), or the kind a bully gets from beating up his favorite wimp (Dynamic Man, Laughing Mask).

Meanwhile, Laughing Mask, the Witness, and Mister E are completely absent from the issue and the Fiery Mask is barely there.

And, this is the writer Dan Didio thinks is perfect for reintroducing the MLJ characters to the DCU?

The War That Time Forgot #4: I love Russ Heath's artwork and it's a beautiful dinosaur cover. Yet, looking at it, it looks more like "The Love That Time Forgot". At least it does accurately illustrate a scene in the book. The book continues along with shifting status quos and alliances as people from such different backgrounds time periods are unable to work with each other for any length of time. Jones continues giving most of the face time to his Mary Sue characters when Tomahawk or the others could just as easily been used. Still a fun book if you're tired of Final Crisis/Secret Invasion stuff.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Batman is pro-Bush?

Man, it was time to crawl into bed but I just had to read comments on the web how Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT was pro-Bush, that the whole thing with the monitors and all were giving an a-ok to the wire-taps and eavesdropping. And, then I couldn't sleep.

Regardless of what you think about Bush and the war on terror, the movie wasn't about that. It's seeing what you want to see. If that's an analogy equating Bush with the hero Batman, what does it say about vigilantism? It's too shallow of a comparison, it ignores the very basic nature of superheroes. Not too surprising when the comic book writers don't really understand it either and turn out stuff like CIVIL WAR.

Superheroes have been breaking the law before they were even superheroes. Sherlock Holmes took it upon himself on occasion to act mercifully and mete out justice when a court of law would not necessarily. They have been judge, jury and executioner. Batman, Superman and the rest have used interrogation techniques not allowed any police officer, have committed felonies and violated civil liberties in their pursuits of evidence. The scene in the movie is no different than a host of other questionable acts the hero performs to get the job done.

We cheer the heroes but it doesn't mean we approve of the actions. One can love reading the Shadow and the Spider and still favor gun control laws. It reminds me a little of a disagreement I had with a fan over the Charlton character, the Peacemaker. He found the character unheroic, that he valued peace so much, he was willing to fight for it. It's not an unrealistic dichotomy. Think of Hitler and other tyrants. There are times, in the interest of others, it's ok to fight for peace. How is the Peacemaker who fights for peace unheroic and Batman, who breaks laws and civil liberties in the name of justice heroic?

Because the latter, and the Shadow and the Spider are all heroes. Sure, if they existed in the real world, I'd be out there with the rest clamoring for them to be arrested (and the Spider as the Batman in the movie recognizes that is the way it has to be for the Law to work). However, in the narrative of their stories, they are the heroes. They are the Honest Men. We don't worry about Superman violating all sorts of civil liberties and having laws re-written to accommodate his x-ray vision and super hearing that make him better than any wire-tap or even just being a creepy voyeur (although Bryan Singer seems to think he should be). As the Honest Men, we are privy to their thoughts, their motivations, we know that their intentions are pure and honorable, that they won't use their powers for their own gain. Just as we know that somehow, the Shadow and the Spider won't accidentally gun down an innocent civilian or undercover police officer. It's part of accepting the superhero package. Just as in the movie, Batman's actions are justified because he doesn't accept the power for himself. He puts it in the hands of someone else and trusts them to do what's right and honorable. We allow the Honest Man to stand outside the Law and above the Law and we root for him through his struggles, because we know he's just and right even if the Law itself cannot allow him to stand.

The Honest Man only works in fiction, in story though. Johnston McCully made a living off of his rogue outlaw heroes from Zorro on down. We cannot trust real fallible human beings with the power we grant our fictional heroes. It's why we have the Law. Not that it is infallible either, but we have to have those standards. We thrill to the chase scenes and the gunfights of the police and the bad guys in countless movies and seeing our superheroes do what needs to be done when the system doesn't seem to work. We also recognize that vigilantism is often not just, we investigate when a cop fires his gun at somebody and there are actual rules governing when he can and cannot open fire, the reading of miranda rights, search warrants, etc. There has always been this gulf between what is allowed for our fictional Honest Man and what we allow flesh and blood flawed human beings. So, it's a bit disingenuous to pull out one element like this and ascribe some kind of political rhetoric to it.