Category: Reviews

REVIEW: Black Widow
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REVIEW: Black Widow

Since her introduction in Iron Man 2, the Black Widow has been the most human of the heroes (yes, more than Hawkeye). It was fitting that it was the non-powered Avenger to actually shut down the device in the first Avengers film and for her to make the ultimate sacrifice that led to the restoration of half the life in the universe. So, it’s fitting that her one and only solo film is also one of the most emotional in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Screenwriter Eric Pearson neatly weaves in bits and pieces from the other films to provide background and context for who Natasha Romanoff is, making us all the sadder for her loss. In the hands of the skilled Cate Shortland, the movie is as much about Natasha as it is saving the world (again).

We discover that she was recruited as a Widow at a very young age, raised in the dreaded Red Room to be the ultimate espionage agent. We learn what happened in Budapest. And we learn what it cost her to chart her own path.

As it turns out, she had a “sister”, Yelena and a mother, Melina, and a father, Alexei, a faux family embedded in Ohio for three years. When they leave, in a hurry, the family is separated and do not reunite until 20 years later. We then get a series of set pieces that slowly build backstory as the sisters first reunited with their fists and then with their words.

After breaking Alexei out of his prison exile, they reunite with Melina and the scene set at the dinner table is priceless as they settle back into their old roles while simmering tensions and old wounds are revealed.

Yeah, this is all done in service to bringing down the Red Room and its airborne master, Dreykov (a weak Bond villain despite Ray Winstone’s efforts), freeing the mind-controlled current generation of Widows. His ace in the hole is Taskmaster, a silent warrior who can mimic anyone’s moves, forcing Natasha to change her game. Unfortunately, Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) is way too similar to Ant-Man’s Ghost with similar tragic backgrounds, another example of Marvel repeating itself.

There are some lovely action sequences and fights along the way, but the thrills come from the interactions between the characters. Here, Shortland’s work is superb as is the acting. Much has been made about Florence Pugh stealing the film as Yelena, but this has more to do with the fact that we have known and loved Scarlett Johansson’s Widow since 2009 and Pugh is something fresh and different. Yelena is like her “father” as she and Alexei hold nothing back while Natasha is more like Melina, quiet and reserved. The contrasts are well defined here.

David Harbour is having the time of his life as Alexei, the one-time Red Guardian, leaning into his aging, overweight condition, a sharp deviation from Rachel Weisz’s Melina, who remains Russian to the core, until motherly love wins the day.

The movie, out today from Disney Home Entertainment, is available for streaming and in an assortment of disc combinations (4K, Blu-ray, both with Digital HD code). The 1080p transfer on the Blu-ray is very strong, preserving the rich textures of the international locations, which adds another Bond-like element to the film. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is equally good so the at home experience is a solid one.

The film comes with a brief introduction for Shortland. The special features are fairly basic starting with Sisters Gonna Work it Out (5:24), focusing on Natasha and Yelena and Go Big if You’re Going Home (8:50), a catch-all behind-the-scenes piece, and a Gag Reel (2:54). There are nine deleted scenes (14:10), with several nice beats.

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Gloomtown by Lewis Trondheim

Lewis Trondheim has done a lot of comics, in lots of different styles and modes. The ones that come closest to major US comics genres – funny books for kids, dark fantasy adventure , autobio stories – have been the most likely to be published well on my side of the Atlantic and to succeed here. The rest…well, publishers keep trying, but some things haven’t really clicked yet.

His first big popular series in his native France, nearly thirty ago now, was Les formidables aventures de Lapinot, a loose series of ten books which all had the same “characters” (anthropomorphic animals, in roughly the same roles in the story and with roughly the same personalities) in which those “characters” often played different roles, as if they were actors cast in movies with each other a lot or the members of a repertory theater company.

Some time ago, Fantagraphics published two of the books in that series – Harum Scarum and The Hoodoodad  – in paperbacks matching the size of the original French albums. Both were part of the contemporary “plotline” (as I recall, they didn’t really connect with each other), and I read and enjoyed them quite a while after it was clear Fanta wasn’t going to make what they called “The Spiffy Adventures of McConey” happen.

Well, time marches on, and publishers are enthusiastic about books for a living, so Europe Comics (a newer publisher of graphic novels) jumped in and published three McConey books in digital formats in 2018: Slalom, and Gloomtown, and The Hoodoodad (again). They have slightly modified the series title – Lapinot/McConey is now having “marvelous” rather than “spiffy” adventures, perhaps because it is no longer the late ’90s – and seem to be be planning to do the whole series in initial-publication order, if everything goes to plan.

(Note: there’s been no sign of the remaining seven books in the three years since this first batch, so my guess is that the plan is just as busted as last time. Maybe the next attempt will start from the other end, and translate some different books.)

Gloomtown  was published in French as Blacktown, which title gives different expectations in English these days than I gather it did in French in 1995. It’s a Western; McConey (who I don’t think ever gets a name in this book; he’s just “the stranger”) is an Easterner, on the run from a vicious gang for reasons we don’t know as the book opens. He lands in a small town, expecting to spend the night and get out quickly the next morning.

But the town is corrupt and the requisite Old Prospector type has just wandered into town with a big bag of gold, so McConey gets caught up in a battle to find and control the vein of gold somewhere nearby, plus being assumed to be a criminal just because he’s a stranger, plus the subsequent arrival of the very angry ex-Rex Logan Gang. (Logan being ex is the main reason for their anger, at least towards McConey.)

This is an album, so it all has to happen and hit a moderately happy ending in 48 pages, and it does — luckily, being an album, they’re large pages, so Trondheim has room for a lot of dialogue and action and takes advantage of that space. Complications pile on complications, characters race around town and outskirts at high speed, often pursued by each other or by bullets, and more than one character meets a sudden unexpected death.

The tone is similar to Dungeon: not 100% serious, but mostly straight. Trondheim likes to use genre tropes while winking a bit about them at the reader, as if to explain that he likes them, and is happy to exploit them, but doesn’t believe in them.

So I still think the McConey books are fun, and will read as many of them as I can get my hands on. But I do see why they’ve been a harder sell in the USA: Americans, as a class, are allergic to irony, and there’s no throughline of a larger McConey story to keep a reader coming back for the next one.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Trots and Bonnie by Shary Flenniken

In memory, the past is moments. We slot in memories to specific points in time: that was when I was living there, remember when Y was five years old and started doing Z?, that was the Christmas when A had that crazy hat.

But time is more fluid than that. Anything we remember was more than a moment: it was a period, an era, an epoch. It’s true for our own lives, and it’s true for a lot of art.

Especially comics, which are the great serialized art form of the American 20th century. I might rhapsodize about Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, the famous Alan Moore “Anatomy Lesson” story that upended that series and gave corporate comics a new template to exploit for the next few decades, and peg it to February 1984. But Moore started writing Swamp Thing one issue before, and “Anatomy Lesson” is full of the loose ends of the previous stretch of stories – and the reason we look back at it in the first place is what came afterward. It lived up to its promise, so we remember it.

Shary Flenniken lived up to her promise in Trots and Bonnie . More than that, she made radically different, larger, stronger promises than almost anyone else in comics: some other women were aiming in the same direction, but Flenniken’s work was purer, more precise, and consistent over a much longer period.

That’s the memory-moment issue again. I think of Trots and Bonnie in the context of the height of National Lampoon in the 1970s, as a burst of feminist energy in the middle of that very sophomoric, boyish humor. But Flenniken produced Trots and Bonnie strips for more than twenty years, from 1972 to 1993, spanning not just the Lampoon height of the ’70s but its declining years in the ’80s and its eventual implosion. Flenniken was one of the most consistent things about Lampoon for those years: a page of female concerns and anger in the middle of some of the most male-oriented humor imaginable, a context that got steadily blander and more derivative as those ’80s wore on.

That’s the wonder of it: that Trots and Bonnie existed at all, that it lasted almost the entire life of the Lampoon. Some editor at the Lampoon (OK: it was Michel Choquette) saw Flenniken’s early work – the first four Trots and Bonnie strips collected here predate her Lampoon years, and she did some other work as well – and said “my audience of college-aged sex-obsessed boys needs a comic strip about a thirteen-year-old girl obsessed with sex in very different ways.” He was right. And his successors, who kept the strip running, were just as right.

This book is the first time the Trots and Bonnie strips have been collected together in English; there was a previous collection only published in France, for whatever reason. It is not complete: for all that some of these strips are shocking and norm-breaking – the Lampoon prided itself on breaking norms; Flenniken chose different, more central norms than most of its contributors – there are some unspecified number that are too much to be republished. Flenniken says they were omitted because “Oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.”

I suspect it’s a bit deeper than that. But that’s how Flenniken works. That heavily-socialized voice of mid-century womanhood comes easily to her, even if the reader isn’t sure if she’s using it to tell the truth, to mask her intentions, or to set up her next attack on its sexist assumptions and crippling control of women.

But know that, no matter how shocking some of the strips here are, there are some Flenniken left out. She’s thinking about your poor shocked sensibilities, oh eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old boys, the same way she was for the twenty years she made these comics. She’s thinking about those sensibilities, but maybe mostly about how to pop them most effectively and quickly.

Bonnie is a thirteen-year-old girl. She reads a bit tomboyish on the page: Annie-style blank eyes, always wearing pants, usually in a dark pullover sweater over a white shirt, like a school uniform. But she’s obsessed with sex, because she is thirteen. The great secret of Trots and Bonnie, for even the dull boyish readers who didn’t get any further into it, was that girls (and, if they realized it, by extension women) were as interested in and fascinated by and eager to learn about sex as boys were.

Of course “as” covers a wide range in both populations: that’s the point. But Flenniken, in the sex-obsessed Lampoon, gave those boys a window into the ways girls could be sex-obsessed, the ways they might talk about boys, might have their own concerns and worries and demands. Girls in most of the rest of the pages of Lampoon were objects – pretty naked bodies to adorn a joke in Foto Funnies, the targets of lust in most of the written pieces – but in Trots and Bonnie they were central, and active, and in control.

Trots is Bonnie’s dog: in best classic-comics fashion, he can talk, at last some of the time. He gets the punch lines a lot of the time, because that’s the deal with talking animals: they don’t have the hang-ups and fears and interpersonal problems of humans. They can just do; they don’t have to be self-conscious about it.

The third main character of Trots and Bonnie is the one who isn’t in the title: Pepsi, Bonnie’s best friend and inciting influence. Where Bonnie is questioning, Pepsi is demanding. Where Bonnie is concerned, Pepsi is outraged. Where Bonnie is interested, Pepsi is fascinated. Pepsi’s angers and enthusiasms and appetite drive a lot of the strips.

Flenniken wraps those three characters, a few others that recur at least a few times (perpetually smiling boy-next-door Elrod, Bonnie’s clueless and complaining parents), and a whole lot of one-offs into a series of stories, most usually single-pagers, that are all about sex. Sometimes it’s sex as in the old in-out (or the desire for same, more specifically), sometimes sex as an advertising campaign, sometimes sex as in women. There are strips about menstruation, abortion, and rape: Flenniken is not here to be happy and nice for your entertainment.

In retrospect, the Lampoon was a great home for this work. It was an outlet obsessed with pushing boundaries. Flenniken was pushing in an entirely different direction – I’d argue a better, more important direction – but just that she pushed so hard must have appealed to the Lampoon editors.

Trots and Bonnie is not dated. Not in the slightest. The details of the lives Bonnie and Pepsi lived in these stories are of their times, but their mental lives are still current. (Sadly, I guess. We should have gotten beyond this by now.) Even the classic early-20h-century style art just makes it seem more eternal and current.

I still think boys need to read Trots and Bonnie more than girls do – and I use the diminutive forms of both deliberately – because girls already know all of this. (Maybe not consciously, all of them: we all know different things. But I expect it’s already in their heads, one way or another.) So I’m very glad to see that it’s available again, and I hope the thrill of sex will induce some of the right readers, the boys who most need to learn that girls are people, to read it, and to laugh, and to achieve enlightenment.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

It’s a cliché now: the superhero story that makes a startling new origin or explanation for a character. But there was a time when it was new. There was even a time when it was reserved for minor, unimportant characters – it was too much of a risk to radically change anyone important.

We’re very far from that world now: it’s been gone for almost thirty years. Perpetual transformation of the most profitable characters is the standard. I assume the Big Two have wall-sized whiteboards to keep track of who’s currently dead, when they’re coming back, which are swapping races or genders or powers or doing heel/face turns, just so they don’t trip over themselves.

And if they don’t have whiteboards like that, they should. They need them.

But 1988 was the other side of that wave: it had just started. Alan Moore had done it with Swamp Thing, most obviously. And the glimmerings of the all-crisis-all-the-time world, of eternal reboots, was faintly visible in the passel of Secret Wars and John Byrne Superman. And the conveyor belt of all-new! all-different! minor characters was just starting.

One of them was Black Orchid , a three-issue series in the newly hot Prestige Format (forty-eight pages, perfect-bound, on fancy paper with a fancy price tag to match) by two British creators making their American debut: writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean.

Black Orchid was a definitively minor character: she didn’t even have an origin, she hadn’t had a comic named after her before. She was some kind of mob-infiltration expert, a mistress of disguise with some other powers (flight, toughness, giving and taking punches – the usual stuff). So she was perfect for the soon-to-be standard British Creator Makeover — there was very little to worry about.

So Gaiman killed Black Orchid in the opening pages. (Spoiler, I guess, for the set-up of a thirty-five year old story. Citizen Kane is about an old rich guy who owned newspapers; Star Wars is about this space farmboy named Luke; The Usual Suspects are criminals.) He connected her to a bunch of other DC characters, mostly through the Alan Moore Swamp Thing (probably because that was the current model of “treating superheroes seriously” or “making comics for adults”), giving her an origin that’s not a million miles away from Swampy himself.

Oh, the first Black Orchid was dead. And the woman she was based on was dead long before that. But you grow orchids. It’s not like there’s only one of them in the world.

There are supervillains doing supervillainy and some vague ecological stuff in the background, but this is mostly about new Black Orchid trying to figure out who the heck she is and what the heck she’s supposed to do. (In the end, it will be: fight crime in a skintight costume that shows off her tits, because DC wants to sell more comics. But that’s after this series is over.)

In some ways, Black Orchid is “The Anatomy Lesson” writ large, with the General Sunderland role broken up into several people, the “principle” one a much more important DC character. This is all origin story for a character we didn’t realize needed an origin.

It is lovely and mostly thoughtful: the adventure-story hugger-mugger sometimes tonally clashes with the “as a newborn plant-woman, who am I?” soul-searching. Gaiman admirably keeps his heroine from violence for the course of this story. (I have no idea what happened afterward: I assume she used her plant-based barely-covered tits to batter miscreants into submission like every other female superhero with strategic cutouts in her outfit.)

These days, Black Orchid is most interesting as a warm-up for The Sandman, which began soon after. It shows that Gaiman was already eager to dive into the obscure corners of DC lore, and that he wasn’t happy with the obvious story choices that universe provided. And McKean’s art is simply stunning: this was the high point of his realistic style, fully painted and drop-dead gorgeous in every panel, just as stunning as the better-known Arkham Asylum.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Young Shadow by Ben Sears

Sometimes a creator’s different instincts and plans don’t always play nice with each other. For example, a costumed-hero story has certain standard tropes: the hero can always leave the bad guys tied up with a nice note for the authorities and the reader knows that means justice has and will be done.

But if the same creator wants to do a story about corrupt cops in what seems to be a deeply corrupt city, tying up those cops will not have the same expected result: it just means their compatriots will untie them, maybe make fun of them, maybe get angry on their behalf. Frankly, it would just annoy Certain People even more: that’s an event for the middle of the story, not the end.

So I’m not as happy with Ben Sears’s new graphic novel Young Shadow  as I was with the last book of his I read, House of the Black Spot . Black Spot had villains who could be dealt with by mostly offstage Forces of Justice, and heroes whose modus operandi was a bit more complex and nuanced than the costumed-hero standard of “run around the city at night, asking people if there’s any trouble, and then get into fights with people whose look you don’t like.” That’s very close to Young Shadow’s exact words: he’s the hero, so the book says he’s right to do so, but his actions are exactly those of a bully or criminal gang: find someone doing something you object to (in this case, “rebel against your rich parents by drinking in the park and not bathing”), use violence on him.

If I were being reductionist, I’d say Young Shadow is “the Jason Todd Robin in an ACAB world.” We don’t know what Young Shadow’s real name is, or his history: we meet him on patrol, in Bolt City. He’s in tactical gear, with a domino mask, and he’s good at violence but signposted to be on the side of righteousness – the first time we see him fight, it’s to help a maltreated dog. Sears’s rounded, clean art style isn’t great at communicating this, though: Shadow says the dog is malnourished and dehydrated, but Sears draws him exactly the same then as later in the story, or like any other dog, just with his eyes closed most of the time.

Shadow doesn’t appear to have any real home. Maybe a bolt hole or three where he sleeps, or stashes gear, or keeps whatever other stuff he has. It’s not a “this guy is homeless” situation; it’s just not important. What he does is patrol as Young Shadow. What he does is protect the city. Anything else he does is not even secondary.

Shadow has a network of friends, or maybe informants. They’re the people of this neighborhood, or maybe multiple Bolt City neighborhoods. A number seem to be the owners of small businesses: a “lantern shop,” places that look a lot like bodegas, an animal shelter. They would tell Shadow about miscreants in their areas, we think – but, in this book, they don’t talk about nuts dressed up like wombats planning elaborate wombat-themed crimes, but instead about the night shift of the Bolt City Police Department. Those cops are acting suspicious, searching for things in a more furtive way than usual for cops. It’s not super-clear if there are elements of the BCPD, or any aspect of Bolt City governance, that is generally trusted by the populace. My guess is no. There is definitely some generalized “never talk to the cops about anything” advice, as with similar communities in the real world.

We do get some scenes from outside Shadow’s point of view, to learn that there are Sinister Forces, and that they encompass both the young malcontents Shadow beat up in the early pages and those crooked cops. (Well, maybe not crooked: they’re not soliciting bribes. We don’t even see them beat up or harass anyone. It’s just that Young Shadow is set in a world with people who totally mistrust cops for reasons which are too fundamental to even be mentioned.) There is an Evil Corporation, as there must be, and both a villain with a face and a higher-up Faceless Villain. Their goals are pretty penny-ante for an Evil Corporation: get back a big cache of crowd-control weapons and tools, get some more pollution done quickly before the law changes.

Shadow spends a lot of time wandering around looking for these people. I’m not sure if Sears is trying to make the point that this is not a useful tactic, or that Shadow is good at the violence stuff, but not so much at the finding-appropriate-avenues-for-violence stuff. I thought he did make those points, deliberately or not. Eventually, another vigilante appears: Spiral Scratch. (At first in a closed helmet, which I was sure meant it would be a character we’d seen before. But nope.) The flap copy calls SS the sidekick of Shadow, but the opposite is closer to the truth: Scratch is more organized and planful, and Shadow wouldn’t get much done alone.

In the end, our two forces of righteous violence find the thing the Forces of Evil are searching for, and dispose of it with the aid of an order of robot nuns. (I do enjoy the odd bits of Sears’s worldbuilding.) And they tie up some of the henchmen, which, as I mentioned way up top, will probably not lead to anything like punishment for them.

So I’m left wondering if there’s going to be a sequel: it feels like this story isn’t really over, that our vigilante heroes haven’t actually solved any underlying problem by punching a few people. And I also think I like Sears when his characters are detecting and talking rather than punching. But I like that in general, so that’s no surprise. People who like more punching in their comics may have a different opinion, and God knows they’re very common – if you’re one of them, give Young Shadow a look.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Hypnotwist / Scarlet by Starlight by Gilbert Hernandez

I feel like we’re all just supposed to know how to read Gilbert Hernandez’s “movie books,” even though they’ve never been clear, and their publisher (Fantagraphics) has stopped even mentioning the movie connection. These days, it seems to be just the distinctive end-papers that give us a clue, and then we’re on our own.

You see, Hernandez has been writing stories, in the various comics mostly named Love and Rockets, about a group of people, originally centered on the residents of a small South American town of Palomar though in recent decades shifting to the extended Southern California family of a woman named Luba who lived in Palomar for a long time. Luba’s younger half-sister, Fritz, had a career as a film actress: not a great career, and not a lasting one, but she made a bunch of movies. And Hernandez has not just told stories about Luba and Fritz and others – stories in their world, meant to be “true” as much as any fiction is – but also told stories retelling those movies, telling stories that are meant to be seen as fictional from a fictional world.

It’s complicated and knotty, and not explaining it in the books themselves makes it even weirder and complicated. The most recent, and most major, Maria M. , was the height of convolution, telling the movie version of Fritz’s mother’s life (with Fritz in that “role”), which readers of Love and Rockets had already seen the “real” version of, years before. Prior movie books were from “earlier in Fritz’s career,” when she did pulpier, less ambitious….OK, let’s say bluntly bad and derivative and exploitative movies: Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers  and Love from the Shadows . (And I can’t explain explain clearly how Speak of the Devil fits into this schema, either — I think it’s the “real” version of a story not about Fritz and Luba and company that was also made into a movie with Fritz, and maybe we saw some parts of that movie made in the main series.)

Hernandez was most active with these stories just over a decade ago – the first burst came out roughly every year, 2007 and ’08 and ’09 and ’11. Maria M. took longer to gestate. And, along the way, Hernandez also made two shorter movie stories, which have now been collected together in flip-book format.

That is Hypnotwist Scarlet by Starlight , both of which “star” Fritz as a major role, though (and maybe this is meaningful?) she doesn’t speak in either story. One is a pretentious movie that I don’t think Hernandez expects us to take entirely seriously. The other is a pulpy genre exercise.

And I still don’t get the point of either book, or of this entire sequence. Is it meant to be some kind of parallax view of specific events in the “real” story? Are they just goofy, clear-the-decks stories that Hernandez wants to get out of his head, and this is a way to tie them in? Or what?

Hypnotwist is the longer story, 59 pages long: it’s some kind of art film with no narration or dialog that follows a woman who may be dreaming, or sleepwalking, or hallucinating, or something. A sequence of surreal things happen, some of them sexual and/or violent, with some other characters reappearing and a central image of a creepily smiling face. Oh, wait! I forgot the magic shoes! She gets magic shoes at the beginning, and that might explain it all. If anything can explain anything here.

(You might have gathered that I don’t get this at all. Hernandez has done a bunch of dream-logic stories in his career, and I like looking at them and appreciate the visual inventiveness but never get anything specific out of any of them.)

Scarlet by Starlight is tighter, a ’50s-style space opera movie in 37 pages of comics – though, in the world of L&R, I guess it was made in the late ’90s. Three Americans are on an alien planet, researching something or other, two men and a woman. There are two seemingly-sapient races here, though neither can speak: the human-height and furred Forest People and the dwarfish pinkies. The humans have befriended the Forest People – well, at least the couple Scarlet (female, Fritz’s character) and Crimson and their children. The pinkies, though they seem to be more organized – they have a village with buildings, and a much deeper curiosity about the human’s technology – are considered basically vermin.

But then Scarlet comes into heat, I guess, and tries to have sex with one of the Americans, and it all goes to hell. There’s a lot of Hernandezian violence until the survivors are able to regroup with a Hollywoodesque happy ending. Again, Hernandez is not trying to present this as a good movie: rather the reverse.

I get the sense that Hernandez makes these stories either to scratch an itch to tell junky stories or to comment on junky stories, but I have no idea which, or if it’s both, or if those are the only two possibilities. I enjoy the way he moves characters around and evokes junky movies without ever getting a clear sense of why he thought spending months of his time to do this would be worthwhile.

It’s weird, man. The “movie books” are just an odd sequence of stories, and these two are the very weirdest of that sequence. People who like weird should dive in here; this book is about as bizarre and random as Hernandez gets.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: The Shadowed Circle
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REVIEW: The Shadowed Circle

Film and pop culture guru Steve Donoso successfully Kickstarted funds for a fanzine dedicated to the iconic pulp magazine hero The Shadow. The first issue of The Shadowed Circle was released in July and packs a lot in its 48 black and white pages. Billed as a thrice-annual publication it features pieces by experts and passionate fans of the hero and his world.

Two pieces fill the bulk of the issue. First up is Will Murray’s accounting of how he and Anthony Tollin addressed packing the last handful of issues of the Shadow reprints that Sanctum Books completed in 2020. They lost their license with a handful of issues left to collect and as they packed as much as possible, things got left out. As a result, Murray includes the Intermission written for volume #150. The theme of that issue was the Women of the Shadow so we get a nice accounting of how women were depicted, including Conde Nast’s insistence that women be downplayed in the pulp, even though Margo Lane was a significant character on the radio series.

The other major section was an interview with James Patterson and a review of his first novel featuring a brand new take on the Shadow, set in a dystopian future. The first in the series was released recently and apparently resembles the source material in name only which is deeply disappointing. (That Patterson is also providing a new take on Doc Savage in 2022 is disheartening.)

The rest of the zine covers Universal’s short subject films narrated by the Shadow, a fan’s quest to obtain a classic cover painting, and other aspects of the character.

You have to know and love the character to appreciate the publication but thankfully, there are plenty out there. One fan, born in the 1990s, discusses how he found the hero and came to love him despite the Shadow being an “older” hero.

The magazine is nicely laid out and well-illustrated, including some good fan art. Clearly, this is a labor of love from Donoso and his pals. To learn more, they have a Facebook group.

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Room for Love by Ilya

This is a story about two people and about love. No, not that kind of story.

One of the people writes that kind of story, though. Pamela Green is a romance novelist, reasonably successful writing as Leonie Hart, with a fan club and what seems to be solid but unspectacular sales. But she’s in a bad patch of writer’s block, and has possibly soured on the entire idea of romantic love. Personally, she’s deep into her middle years, and alone: we don’t know exactly why and how when the book opens, but we will learn.

The other person is a young man: we actually meet him first. We don’t know his name. He travels to London from wherever, hitching rides and exchanging sex for money. He ends up on the street, with another young man. Things go bad.

Room for Love  is the story of Pam and that man — call him Cougar; he does when he gives Pam a name at all. It’s by a cartoonist of several names himself: credited as Ilya here, known to me previously as the Ed Hillyer who worked with Eddie Campbell on a number of Deadface stories .

Pam and Cougar meet on a bridge. It’s already a third of the way through this graphic novel, so we know their routines and lives pretty well at that point. Pam thinks Cougar is going to kill himself; we’re not sure but it seems plausible. She’s wrong, and she ruins what Cougar has. To atone, she offers, suddenly and surprisingly to both of them, for him to live in her house.

Cougar, we see, is the kind of man who takes every opportunity he can, so he agrees. He moves in with her, cleans up a bit. Opens up, not even that much of a bit. They end up having sex after a couple of days, and then regularly.

In retrospect, we realize that’s Cougar’s pattern: it’s how he gets close to people, how he transacts with people, how he gets what he wants. Maybe we realize that at the time: I didn’t. Pam doesn’t. Pam thinks this is a relationship.

Well, it is. But she thinks it’s a romantic relationship, when it’s a business relationship. Eventually, she learns better.

Actually, they both come out of Room for Love a little bit better, more able to handle the next big thing in their respective lives, the thing they were avoiding and trying not to think about. 

Ilya tells this story in contrasting colors: brown for Cougar and blue for Pam – panels washed with their respective colors when they’re separate, discrete highlights on their clothing when they’re together, dialog boxes outside panels in their colors. It’s a small thing, but a deeply comics thing: a clear visual representation of how separate they are, and a clean way to keep what are and are not two story strands separate. His art falls in that no-man’s-land: a little bit of cartooniness in his faces, to make them instantly identifiable, but mostly realistic, only in a slightly simplified, cleaner way. (I don’t have the language to talk very well about art; I’m a words person, mostly.)

This is a thoughtful story about two well-defined people. I have a few quibbles: there’s more than a bit of  psycho-babble near the end, and I think Pam’s agent is acting a lot more like an editor. But the quibbles are all on that level: minor, unimportant. Room For Love is interesting and resonant: it’s a book worth reading.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Batman: The Long Halloween Part 2
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REVIEW: Batman: The Long Halloween Part 2

The acclaimed maxiseries from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale was wisely produced as two animated feature films. Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1 was a real treat, one of the best productions from Warner Animation in quite some time. As a result, expectations were high for a satisfying Batman: The Long Halloween Part 2, out on disc tomorrow. Unfortunately, it proved to be very much a letdown.

In part one, we have a Batman (Jensen Ackles) still in the early portion of his career, learning to think and be a detective as he worked with Commissioner Gordon (Billy Burke) and DA Harvey Dent (Josh Duhamel) to find the Holiday Killer, who used celebrations to mask a series of murders. The Caped Crusader was aided by Catwoman (Naya Rivera), who was more sidekick and romantic interest than foil. The murders exacerbated the rivalry between Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (Titus Welliver) and Sal Maroni (Jim Pirri), the top two crime bosses in Gotham City, recognizing their time was rapidly fading with the arrival of the colorful crazies that followed in Batman’s wake.

Part two picks up immediately with Falcone’s son Alberto dead and Holiday still on the loose. However, Batman has been absent for nearly three months and oddly, Bruce Wayne has been deeding over properties to Falcone. We learn this a result of Poison Ivy (Katee Sackhoff) and it finally takes Catwoman to free him only for Batman to almost immediately succumb to the Scarecrow’s (Robin Atkin Downes) fear gas so she has to save him again.

The biggest problem in Part Two is that Catwoman is more the proactive hero than the title character. Batman is reactive throughout until the final quarter and it undercuts his mystique.

Also, Part One did a nice job contrasting the marriages between the Gordons and the Dents and that’s all missing here. Instead, the focus is on one criminal after another interfering in the investigation, ultimately teaming up for mayhem but not with a lot of logic. Along the way, Dent is scared and has a mental break making him Two-Face, which becomes important as events progress.

The Falcone family could have benefitted from some more depth, especially as Sofia (Laila Berzins), The Roman’s daughter, comes on the scene to lend a hand.

It’s a lot less interesting and complex than Part One and therefore, ultimately disappointing. Tim Sheridan’s script started off so well but suffers here. Visually, Sale’s distinctive design work is once again largely absent except for the title sequence.

The movie is out in a Blu-ray/Digital HD code combo pack with a 4K Ultra HD to follow. Overall, the 1080p presentation is perfectly satisfactory for the limited animation. The shadows and somber color palette work just fine. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is equally solid.

The supplemental features are lackluster, with the exception of the brilliant DC Showcase: The Blue Beetle (15:30). Designed to be a 1960s-style animated adaptation of the Charlton Action Heroes, this Jeremey Adams-written short is a sheer delight as Beetle (Matt Lanter) and The Question (David Kaye) investigate a crime, leading them to their old foe, Dr. Spectro (Tom Kenny), who has Captain Atom (Jeff Bennett) and Nightshade (Ashly Burch) in his thrall. The only other new piece is the obligatory A Sneak Peek of Injustice (7:48), adapting the video game and comic series. The disc is rounded out with From the Vault – Batman: The Animated Series: “Two-Face – Part One” (22:27) and “Two-Face – Part Two” (22:30)

REVIEW: A Quiet Place/ A Quiet Place Part II
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REVIEW: A Quiet Place/ A Quiet Place Part II

In 2018, director John Krasinski delivered a gripping thriller in the guise of a science fiction/horror film, something that would not have out of place in the 1950s. A Quiet Place, though, was a contemporary film as it focused entirely on a family, trying to survive in a world post-invasion. The aliens, in this case, had such a superior sense of hearing that the merest cough would alert them, allowing them to hunt you down. Whatever made the sound was destined to be destroyed.

As a result, husband Lee (Krasinski), pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter Reagan (Millicent Simmonds), and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) try to navigate the world where the merest whisper could be a death sentence. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival that works on the screen as the audience is caught up in the long silences, the heightened sense of danger around every corner, and admiring the ingenuity and love clearly evident during the movie.

It proved such a success, that to Krasinski’s surprise, Paramount Pictures ordered a sequel. The film was shot and then delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. When it opened in the spring, it was a major success, both critically and commercially.

The new film is out now in 4k Ultra HD and in a variety of other formats. Interestingly, the two films were combined into a two-disc Blu-ray release, in case you missed the first one.

The first film was shot on actual film and the high definition transfer is immaculate with excellent color saturation. For a film where sound or its absence was vital, the audio track is equal to the visual presentation.

The first disc contains three featurettes: Reading the Quiet — Behind the Scenes of A Quiet Place (14:45), The Sound of Darkness — Editing Sound for A Quiet Place (11:44), A Reason for Silence — The Visual Effects of A Quiet Place (7:33).

A Quiet Place Part II opens with a flashback that details the day the aliens crashed to earth and the panic that ensued. After that, we pick up pretty immediately after the first film as new mom Evelyn has to keep her newborn silent and circumstances force them from the sanctuary Lee had built for them. Their trek brings them into the world of survivalist Emmett (Cillian Murphy) and the possibility that surviving humans are gathering somewhere nearby. As Evelyn goes to investigate, the narrative tension is successfully mounted and sustained, letting body language and facial expression do a lot of the heavy lifting. We have multiple threads to follow this time, but director Krasinski does a masterful job letting these breath and showing the characters grow.

Yes, things wind down to a satisfying ending, but you can see the door remains open for more stories told in this frighteningly familiar world.

The high-definition transfer is not as brilliant as the first disc but certainly satisfactory enough for home viewing. Instead, the Dolby Atmos audio track is much superior and makes the viewing much better.

Time, there are more featurettes, well worth a look: Director’s Diary: Filming with John Krasinski (9:38), Pulling Back the Curtain (3:47); Regan’s Journey (6:19); Surviving the Marina (5:00); and Detectable Disturbance: Visual Effects and Sound Design (8:26).

The double-feature Blu-ray comes with Digital HD codes for both films with most of the featurettes available for streaming.