Category: Reviews

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

When it ran on CBS, Mission: Impossible had zero internal continuity. Missions came and went, agents were tortured, battered, and bruised and the next week they’d be hale and hardy, ready for the next assignment.

Since the film franchise began in 1996, the movies have gone in the opposite direction with film to film connectivity, just enough to show the films have consequence but work on their own so you don’t need one of DK Publishing’s patented guidebooks to understand what’s happening.

You’d almost think there was some grand plan and strategy ala Marvel for these films since everything builds to a head in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, out today on disc from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Recently, the first film, from director Brian DePalma has been making the rounds on cable and I was reminded of how much larger and richer the cast of agents were. Since then, there has been precious little mention made of operatives other than the core cast that seemingly winnows per film. There was the pre-credit nod to the past with Keri Russell in M: I III.

So, here we are again with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the only holdovers from the beginning, with the addition of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who interestingly joined in M:I III. That’s it. The IMF apparently has faced attrition and budget cuts. Cruise and Director/Producer/Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have stitched together elements from all the films to create a taut, suspenseful and ultimately very satisfying sixth installment in the series, which has yet to run out of steam.

We pick up with the remnants of Solomon Lane’s (Sean Harris) The Syndicate (a wink to the anonymous organization Jim Phelps battled almost weekly on television), The Apostles. They are searching for three plutonium cores and when the first gambit fails, are stuck with political shenanigans between the CIA in the form of Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) and the IMF, now championed by Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). With trust absent, she insists August Walker (Henry Cavill) work with Hunt’s team.

As they seek the cores, the encounter “The White Widow” (Vanessa Kirby), a black market arms dealer and the returning Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who finds herself allied with and in competition with Hunt. There are the usual death-defying car chases, running and jumping, and mass mayhem but leavened with some deadpan humor.

We see Hunt and Walker fight in the trailers so we’re not sure if the CIA shadow is a good guy or turncoat but his stiff, diffident performance pretty much gives things away. Cavill can be easy on the eyes, but he really needs to loosen up to remain interesting on screen.

Everything builds up to Lane threatening more than the world; he’s targeted Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Hunt’s one true love. The climax in Kashmir may be drawn out, but is pulse-pounding and emotional. The status quo has been modified for future installments and viewers will be fine with a repeated viewing at home.

The film is available in the usual formats including the 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD package. As one would expect, the 2160p resolution displays a native 4K image in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, although there are exceptions with two opening sequences having been shot in a 1.90:1 IMAX ratio. Given the scenery, notably the Kashmir section, we are treated to fine detail, clarity, and sharpness, superior to the Blu-ray. The Dolby Atmos audio track is strong and pairs well with the 4K disc.

A glossy, full color booklet titled Stunts: Raiding the Bar is included inside the embossed case, featuring slight commentary regarding several key sequences.

The 4K disc comes with Audio Commentary: in three flavors: McQuarrie and Cruise, McQuarrie and Editor Eddie Hamilton, and Composer Lorne Balfe. As is increasingly common on 4K releases, we’re treated to an Isolated Score in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.

The Blu-ray disc with the feature carries the same bonus features but then there’s a second Blu-ray disc with an additional hour’s worth of goodness. The majority of the disc is filled with the seven-part Behind the Fallout (53:32) which exhaustively covers the film’s development and production. Broken down, these include Light the Fuse (11:10), giving you an overview; Top of the World (10:48), all about the HALO jump sequence; The Big Swing: Deleted Scene Breakdown (3:44);  Rendezvous in Paris (7:21); The Fall (5:57), all about how a man falls from a helicopter and lives to tell the tale; and The Hunt Is On (11:08), a spotlight on the helicopter chase; Cliffside Clash (4:02).

Rounding out the disc are Deleted Scenes Montage (3:41), complete with optional commentary by McQuarrie and Hamilton; Foot Chase Musical Breakdown (4:50); The Ultimate Mission (2:51), Cruise on his love of the series; Storyboards, and the Theatrical Trailer (2:33).

REVIEW: Justice League: Throne of Atlantis – Commemorative Edition

REVIEW: Justice League: Throne of Atlantis – Commemorative Edition

In case you missed it, Aquaman opens December 21 and the early buzz is good. This will be his solo feature film, but he took front and center in 2015’s animated feature, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, loosely based on the story arc that ran in Justice League and Aquaman, back when Geoff Johns was writing both series.

We reviewed the release back then and found Heath Corson’s script adaptation to be lacking in heart, eschewing characterization over mindless action.

To capitalize on interest in the Sea King, Warner Home Entertainment has released a commemorative edition that includes the complete film and the original extras: Villains of the Deep (12:00), Scoring Atlantis: The Sound of the Deep (30:00), Robin and Nightwing Bonus Sequence (4:00), and the 2014 NY Comic-Con Panel (27:00). Rounding things out, DC Comics Vault (83 minutes) offers up four episodes: “Aquaman’s Outrageous Adventure!” and “Evil Under the Sea!” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “Menace of the Black Manta and The Rampaging Reptile-Man” from the 1967-70 Aquaman series, and “Far from Home” from Justice League Unlimited.

The film is out as a 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD combo pack. The Blu-ray is virtually identical to the original release with one addition. The 4K transfer makes everything very crisp, capturing the colors nicely.

New to the release is Aquaman: The New King (15:00) where Corson and DC All Access host Hector Navarro gush about the hero. While they’re supported by voice actors Sam Witwer and Matt Lanter, it would have been nice for someone who actually worked on the comics to participate and help explain his place in the DC Universe. Apparently, the speakers were only familiar with more recent fare such as Peter David’s run and Alex Ross’ classic depictions.

Is it worth getting for 15 minutes of talking heads? Only if you don’t already own it and love all things under the sea.

Book-A-Day 2018 #336: Strong Female Protagonist, Book Two by Mulligan & Ostertag

Even in a comics superhero continuity entirely controlled by one creative team and contained in one series of stories, there can be retcons and changes. And sometimes you don’t notice them unless you’re specifically looking for them.

Take Strong Female Protagonist by writer Brennan Lee Mulligan and artist Molly Ostertag, originally a webcomic, which has been collected into two big books so far. When I read the first book a few years back, here’s how I described this universe’s White Event:

a worldwide band of thunderstorms hit, impossibly, about a decade ago — soon after 9/11 — and in their wake a whole lot of tweens and young teenagers suddenly had superpowers and strange transformations, all over the world. No one knows if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship there, or which way it would run. But some nations now have gods, and some presumably have very scary government enforcers, and some probably have unstoppable criminals. In the US, we got superheroes and a comic-booky strain of supervillains, who appear to have all gone in for the world-domination racket.

But in Book Two , there’s some throwaway dialogue about all of the affected kids all having been in utero at the time of the event, which either means I badly misunderstood the first book, or there was a different, much earlier event that actually created all the super-people.

This doesn’t actually matter to the story, obviously. But I’m fascinated by the change, and the impulse to change something (or clarify it) that is so unimportant. In both cases, something happened, inexplicable and worldwide, and a bunch of people in a very tight age cohort get superpowers — none of that changed.

I do wonder why having all of the superfolks be precisely the same age is so central — it’s not like they’re all in college together now. I suppose the point was to have this group be the first superpowered people, and to have there be a bunch of them, worldwide. This is a Wild Cards-style superhero universe, without the obvious single-point event causing it. A thing happened, and then a whole bunch of people manifested powers at puberty — some became heroes, some villains, some just hid, and some did other things.

Allison Green was one of the heroes, the high-powered brick Mega Girl, conscripted by the US government and assigned to a super-team for the duration of her adolescence. But now the supervillains have been defeated and the government regulations seem to have switched to “keep track of” rather than “use as strike force,” so now she’s retired, just one more, slightly older than usual, sophomore at NYC’s super-liberal New School. [1]

This book collects Chapters 5 and 6 of Allison’s story, which are as much about what it’s right for superpeople to do — through arguments, discussions, and some strong-arming of a reluctant superperson — as it is about the things they do. Chapter 5 in particular is a #MeToo story…except that I’m pretty sure those comics originally appeared online starting in 2014 or so, well before that hit the media and became a hashtag. (That’s because sexual abuse, and toxic masculinity, was not actually a new thing then — it’s just when a wider world started paying attention and decided it was important now.)

Since this is a superhero story, the initial hook is violence: someone is killing men who have been accused of sexual assault or rape and then been acquitted in court or otherwise “gotten off.” And Allison soon gets connected to the mysterious killer, when one of the victims is the potential creeper she saved a drunk girl at a party from (and saw it all blow up in a shaky YouTube video, of course). It gets a whole lot more complicated than that quickly, with Alison’s new mentor/partner/friend/independent-study-professor Lisa (aka the tinkerer Paladin) and the break-up of her old superhero team the Guardians and her suspicion that this new killer is her old teammate Mary, aka the invisible superheroine Moonshadow.

In the end, there is superhero violence and long conversations about the right thing to do — but much more of the latter than the former, as usual.

And those discussions lead into the ones in Chapter Six, in which Allison butts heads with a new philosophy professor who pushes all of her buttons. And dates a boy briefly who turns out to be a massively entitled rich asshole…and more than that. And attends a conference run by her old teammate Brad/Sonar for the “biodynamic” folks who don’t look like humans anymore. And a few other things, including finding a new life for her old friend Feral.

Strong Female Protagonist is very much the story of a young person, deeply concerned about meaning and justice and what should be and what’s meant to be. Allison is passionately committed to doing the things she was put on Earth to do, but not as clear about what those are. There’s no sign that she’s thought about the possibility that there is no teleology for humans. But she’s young: she’ll have plenty of time to figure out that life is pointless and painful and random and horrible.

[1] Which used to, and maybe still does, have an official name that continues “…for Social Research,” if you’re wondering what I mean by super-liberal.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #333: Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, and others (3 and/or 6 volumes)

More time has passed since these stories per published than had passed for the whole history of the Doom Patrol to that point. As with so many things in corporate comics, in 2018 we’re now deep in second- or third-order nostalgia, memories of particular revised versions of things that have been around, and generating income for some corporation, for five or eight decades.

I tend to think Grant Morrison, and his Doom Patrol characters, would be just fine with that: they already think the world is random and bizarre and mostly unbelievable, a thin scrim over chaos and madness and conspiracy theories and various kinds of unlikely mysticism.

Doom Patrol was always pretty weird, right from the initial ’60s version by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani. Introductions in the current editions of the Morrison run lean heavily into that: the idea that this team was always “freaks” and “misfits,” the ones fixing weird and surreal problems that more conventionally superheroic characters couldn’t handle. I haven’t read much of the Drake/Haney/Premiani run, so let’s say that’s correct: it sounds a bit like special pleading to me, but clearly it was weird by the standards of the time.

Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, on the other hand, is weird by any standard. A hundred or more years from now, if people are still around and reading comics, they’ll still think this stuff is really out there. And it is.

Morrison took over what was a more-or-less conventional superhero team with declining sales in early 1989 and bet all of his chips on the freaks — it worked out, with the Morrison Doom Patrol  becoming an immediate success and eventually becoming one of the core books of the new Vertigo line a few years later. Morrison’s issues ran from early 1989 (#19) through early 1993 (#63), plus a piss-take of the then-popular X-Force called Doom Force.

The Morrison run has been collected twice in the last decade: first as six volumes from 2000-2008, and then as three double-sized books in 2016 and 2017. (There’s also, as there must be, the single big-crushing volume for those who must own something larger than anyone else.) For various quirky reasons that are very Doom Patrol appropriate, I read the first two big books and then volumes 5 and 6 of the previous series — all of the Morrison stories, in order.

It begins, very much corporate-comics style, in the aftermath of a crossover: Invasion! in this case. The members of the old team are dead (Celsius, Scott Fischer) or retired (Tempest) or comatose (Lodestone) or depowered (Negative Woman). Left standing alone is Robotman (Cliff Steele), who, maybe because of that, has since become the iconic character who is in every version of Doom Patrol. And the Chief (Niles Caulder) who originally formed the DP, is back to run it again.

Cliff is in some kind of psychiatric facility — modern and rehabilitative, so I won’t call it an “insane asylum” — where he meets Kay Challis, a woman who was systematically abused in childhood and developed sixty-four personalities from that abuse. And, from the “gene bomb” in Invasion!, all of those personalities now have independent superpowers.

Meanwhile, Larry Trainor, once Negative Man before the “Negative Spirit” left him, is also recuperating from his own problems when that spirit returns and forcibly merges Larry, itself, and a doctor named Eleanor Poole into a single entity that starts calling itself Rebis.

The three of them will be the new Doom Patrol team — Robotman, Kay as Crazy Jane, and Rebis. The former Tempest, Joshua Clay, becomes the team doctor but isn’t active even though he still has his fire-energy-beams-from-his-hands power. And they’re soon joined by Dorothy Spinner, a pre-teen with a deformed face who can bring her dreams and ideas to life (sometimes even on purpose), who is also what the Chief calls “the support team.”

They battle weird existential menaces for a few years of comics time — the Brotherhood of Dada, trying to drag the world into a painting; the Scissormen, foot-soldiers of a rapacious metafiction; Red Jack, who claims to be both God and Jack the Ripper and abducts the former Lodestone as his new bride; the Brotherhood of the Unwritten Book, in a semi-parody of Alan Moore’s post-Crisis Swamp Thing story about a magical apocalypse; the inter-dimensionally warring Geomancers of the Kaleidoscape and the Orthodoxy of the Insect Mesh, who also have plans for a now-awake and -transformed Lodestone (who is called by her real name, Rhea, throughout); the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., who want to make the whole world “normal;” and a few more variations of the same themes.

Along they way, they meet the sentient dimension-hopping Danny the Street, who becomes something between their new HQ and a member of the team. And they meet the long-lost Flex Mentallo, man of muscle mystery, who wandered off for his own mini-series and I don’t think has been seen much since. (Or maybe he’s in the Teen Titans now; stupider things have happened in the DC Universe.)

In the end, the last villain of Morrison’s Doom Patrol run is inside the team, of course, and he gets to run through one more level of deconstruction before ending his Doom Patrol stories with a bang. (And then, to close out all of these books, comes that Doom Force one-shot, a deliberately ugly and dumb takedown of the stupid comics from the people who would very soon found Image and get rich very quickly.)

There’s not much else like this Doom Patrol: it’s the first major flowering of Morrison’s tropism towards metafiction and superhero-as-mythic-figure and a strong example of a case where his magpie gathering of every last random thing he reads or experiences really works well. And he’s ably assisted on art through this long series — primarily by Richard Case, who pencilled the majority of the stories, with other contributions by Simon Bisley (most of the iconic covers), Kelley Jones, Jamie Hewlett, Ken Steacy, and Sean Phillips.

For me, this is the quintessential Grant Morrison Big Two comic. I like to pretend that these are the kinds of characters and stories that his career focused on, that he didn’t turn to telling ham-handed episodes of superhero porn. Remember: we all create our own canons in our heads; we don’t ever need to let anyone else tell us what matters.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #332: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

Some media are better for some stories than others. I’d like to think that’s obvious, but the way mass culture obsesses about adapting everything into movies and TV shows makes me think it’s either a minority opinion or that a lot of people are just dim.

For example: you can do a strong, mostly silent type in a filmed format (moves, TV, animation), and give him hidden emotional depths by turning his thoughts into a voiceover. But a novel is a much more natural and obvious way to tell that story. Comics, too,  has less obtrusive ways to incorporate narration — the old thought bubbles, or the more modern narrative captions.

Which brings me to Jorge Ruiz, narration and central character of Svetlana Chamakova’s third graphic novel about the kids of Berrybrook Middle School, Crush . (It follows Awkward  and Brave ). He’s the kind of kid who’s better at doing than talking, who doesn’t entirely understand his own motivations and feelings — and that’s all very normal, since he’s all of thirteen.

He’s just started crushing hard on Jazmine Duong, a girl in his class — I don’t know exactly why, and Jorge certainly doesn’t, like most crushes. That makes him even quieter when he’s around her, because he’s so tongue-tied hardly any words can even come out.

Worse, she has a boyfriend. And she’s the BFF of Olivia, one of Jorge’s two long-term best buds. So she’s always around, occasionally with that boyfriend.

It gets more complicated — bullies, Jorge’s role as “sheriff” of the school to stop same, preparation for an Athletics Ball thrown by the Athletics Club [1], and several imploding relationships (friendly and proto-romantic) leading to a very nasty group chat with added hacking-fakery sauce. But, as the title promises, this is mostly the story of Jorge’s crush on Jazmine, and how it turns into more than that.

Jorge has a steadier moral compass than many of the people in this story, and a better one (as far as I can remember) than the protagonists of the first two books. But he’s also a tongue-tied thirteen-year-old mush-head, which is totally endearing.

As before, Chmakova makes books that I think actual middle-schoolers like and find to be reflective of their own lives. But Crush is also great for older people who remember being at the opening curtain of puberty, being totally into someone, and having no clue what to do about that.

[1] Neither of which, in my experience, are Things in American schools. The places that are particularly sports-nutty don’t have one club for every jock: each different sport has its own season and structure and teacher-coach and attitude about why their sport is the best possible one. I suspect Chmakova writes Berrybrook as so club-besotted because a) she’s not American by birth and 2) she really likes manga, where the club is an overwhelming trope.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #331: The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell by Michael Moorcock & Howard Chaykin

Michael Moorcock has “ended” his Eternal Champion cycle many times over the past decades — I think he did it for the first time back in the late ’60s, when it was still almost entirely Elric and just a bit of those other guys. But none of those endings have taken; he’s come back time and time again for more stories of Elric in particular and other incarnations as well.

One of the earlier endings was in the mid-70s, after two “John Daker” novels, about an incarnation of the EC that remembered all of the other incarnations. Those felt like summings-up, and were a little heftier than some of the EC novels (Dorian Hawkmoon, I am looking at you). But of course a working writer will work, and he’ll come up with more ideas — particularly for the central project of his career.

So, in 1979, Moorcock, in whatever way and for whatever reason, wrote a treatment for a third Daker story, which he gave to Howard Chaykin, then very early in his career, to adapt and illustrate and turn into a graphic novel. (I don’t think that term existed yet, or at least wasn’t in wide use, but this was one of the first created-as-a-book comics in that first burst in the late ’70s.) It was published as The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell , missed its market almost entirely, and has been a sought-after collector’s item for Moorcock completists since then, but little-remembered otherwise.

But Titan is doing a big series of all of the Moorcock EC comics, in more-or-less uniform editions, so earlier this year they reissued Swords of Heaven into a market where it actually could find the intersection of Moorcock and Chaykin fans.

The best Eternal Champion stories have quirkier, less obviously heroic plotlines — particularly the Elric stories. But a whole lot of them from the ’60s and ’70s take that essential sword-and-sorcery plot — evil forces are threatening {insert place}, which is generally where {hero}’s love {hot girlfriend} lives, and often where he’s from, too, and so he must battle their {fiendish weapon} against overwhelming odds and win out in the end despite great losses to his forces and/or allies. Better versions of that story turn up the woe and bleakness; what made Moorcock’s epic fantasy stories distinctive was the attitude of his stories and protagonists — they’re depressive and tormented and unlucky and nearly incapable of happiness.

Doing the same story in comics form means less of the woe-is-me narration, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view. But it does tend to make Swords of Heaven a little flatter and less distinctive than an equivalent Moorcock novel. By this point in his career, Moorcock’s language was stronger, and often more of a draw, than his epic adventure plots. (His plots outside of epic adventure had gotten substantially better — this book came out only a year after one of his best novels, the World Fantasy-winning Gloriana, and just before a burst of interesting early-’80s novels including the Von Bek books.)

In this case, the transform table goes thus:

  • {insert place} = The Dream Marshes, a lush and rich land about to be invaded by the barbarians of the desert realm Hell on their way to invade an even richer land called Heaven, ruled by aristocratic assholes
  • {hero} = Urlik Skarsol, bodily dropped into the body of Lord Clen of the Dream Marches
  • {hot girlfriend} = Ermizhad, the wife of Erekose, which was our hero’s name three or four books ago, and who he’s trying to get back to in the sense that he pines for her and has no way to actually control his travels
  • {fiendish weapon} = mostly human-wave attacks, though they’re also the usual mix of inventively bloodthirsty and maniacal

So Swords of Heaven does have a faint whiff of the generic to me — not as much as the first Hawkmoon series, luckily, but less distinctive than the first two Daker novels The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian. The names in particular are a bit on the nose, aside from the odd “Lord Clen.” Clen does not have a sword that steals souls, does not massacre his entire race, and does not lose his homeland or One True Love. He’s a smartish guy who wins a brutal war against an overwhelming enemy, though only after his side takes horrific losses. So, not entirely devoid of woe.

Chaykin is working in fully painted pages here, without a lot of black lines. The characters look like Chakyin people, but the overall look aims for more of a classic-illustration look, vaguely in the Howard Pyle vein. And that’s very appropriate for a very traditional adventure story like this one. It’s difficult to tell what of the writing is his and what is Moorcock’s, but it’s all plausible and sturdy, with no major problems.

This is not a great lost Eternal Champion story. It’s a pretty good late-70s EC story, that links Phoenix in Obsidian to 1986’s The Dragon in the Sword. That’s fine for me; it might be fine for you.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #329: Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius by Shannon Wheeler

Disclaimer No. 1: I’m not related to Shannon Wheeler, as far as I know. We both carry an ancient Anglo-Saxon name, and probably have at least one ancestor in common, somewhere in the misty dawn of time, but there are a lot of Wheelers in this world.

Disclaimer No. 2: Wheeler has a recent book about Our Current President, but this is not it. If that’s what you’re looking for, may I direct you to Sh*t My President Says ?

Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius  is a collection of Shannon Wheeler’s cartoons, both comics-format and single-panel. The supposed connection, according to the back cover, is that these are all “personal comics,” but I’m not sure what makes these single panel cartoons any more “personal” than, say, the ones in I Told You So  or I Don’t Get It  or I Thought You Would Be Funnier .

The longer stories all are autobiographical in some way or other, so they’re more obvious. But, if the single-panels all really do come out of Wheeler’s life somehow, it would have been good to have an introduction, or endnotes, or something to make those connections clear. Wheeler does have a fair number of mildly political cartoons, mostly reacting to the frighteningly authoritarian bent of the current US administration — but the majority are just regular single-panel stuff, from desert islands to couples (in bed, or on a couch, or out at a table) to kids to cocktail parties to crime (and superheroes) to death and cupids.

Well, we didn’t get that, so any reader will just say “huh, this cartoon of a guy and his pet fish on a desert island is personal. Wonder what that means?” to herself without getting any answer.

Also quirky and not entirely clear: the book is divided into a number of numbered chapters, without any indication of why or for what purpose. There may be a theme for each chapter, but, if so, I couldn’t detect any of them. Or they may be excuses to run Wheeler illustrations on the chapter-title pages without those having to be jokes.

The longer stories start with the opener, “Camp Micro-Penis,” about a boy with an unfortunately tiny male appendage who Wheeler knew as a boy at summer camp. Also included are the self-evident “My Meeting with Congressman John Lewis” and “How to Pack for a Trip” and “Paris ’89” and “San Diego Comic Con!” and “The Dirty Little Secret Origin of Comic Books” and “How to Sell a Love Doll.” Slightly less obvious are “Cubana” (about a 1996 trip to Cuba) and “Portugal” (ditto, year unspecified) and “The Urine Squirt Gun” (a Chekhovian story about Wheeler and his kid friends and a horrible weapon) and “Dog Bully” (A teachable moment with his kids) and “How to Choke Your Chicken” (in which Wheeler had to kill his ill egg-layer).

All of the long stories are amusing; all of the cartoons are at least amusing, and I laughed at a few of them. Wheeler has a nice cartoony style which works well in both formats, and a lot of this book is in color, too, which surprised me.

Given that he is a Wheeler, I was inclined to like this book anyway. But I can do that without any qualms: there’s a lot of good stuff here. I can’t judge the claims of “very stable” or “genius” from these works, but, what the hell! let’s let him claim that. He’s definitely not the worst person ever to do so.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #328: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

There was an era in books for younger readers where the standard message was to conform, to become just like everyone else was supposed to be, to follow the prescriptions of life and fit your feet to the path. And we all make fun of those books now, when we see them or think about them.

We’re in the opposite era now: the standard story is that what a person wants must be right, because that person wants it. And putting it that baldly obviously shows up the inherent problems, but we generally don’t worry about them. Tell kids they can do anything, we say. They’ll figure out all of the ways that isn’t true for themselves eventually; we don’t need to crush their dreams directly.

Those stories are also regularly about exceptional, unique people — coddled princesses and lost princes, prophesied heroes and fated liberators. Is that because we all believe we are princesses at heart, or because those are the people whose dreams aren’t crushed in the end?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s good to tell kids they have options, that they can aim for the stars. But I don’t think we’re telling them that 99% of them will fail, that the stars are out of their reach, and that they’ll, at some point, need to trim their sails to catch a wind that actually exists. And so I wonder about the diet of stories we’re giving them.

Jen Wang is telling a “be who you feel you need to be” story in her new graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker . And, in that Oscar Wilde sense, it’s fiction, so they can become those things. One of them, of course is a prince at the start, which gives one a certain leg up in the world: it’s easier to find your perfect self when you’re not struggling to put food in your belly and clothes on your back.

It’s also easier when you’re in something like a fairy tale, which this is. It’s set in “Paris, at the dawn of the modern era” — maybe the middle of the long quiet 19th century, maybe later, maybe earlier, but those “maybes” are the point. The Prince is Sebastian, of Belgium, who you will not find on the family tree of the actual Belgian monarchy. He’s in Paris for the summer with his aunt, a French Countess, and will have the usual round of balls and events for his sixteenth birthday.

The underlying reason why he’s in Paris: to choose a wife. His royal parents are fictional/modern enough to let him pick his own match (within reason, and from a carefully curated list of the right young European noblewomen), but they’re traditional/realistic enough to want to get the betrothal settled before much more time goes by. Sebastian isn’t terribly interested in this — is any fictional prince or princess ever happy to engage in the round of who-should-I-marry? — for reasons that will be very obvious very quickly.

Frances is a young woman from outside Paris, driven to become a dress designer. She’s working, at what seems to be a low level, in a high-end shop, and gets her chance with a last-minute design for the Prince’s first ball: the willful Lady Sophie Rohan ruined her dress riding and in a fit of pique asks Frances to make her “the devil’s wench.”

Frances is too green to realize actually doing this would be horrible for her fledgling career, and does it. The dress causes a scandal, and Frances is about to be fired when a mysterious man comes around, looking for the designer of the scandalous dress. He has an equally mysterious client who wants to hire that designer exclusively to design for her, and Frances jumps at the offer.

Of course, despite an initial attempt at anonymity, she soon learns her new client is Sebastian. But she wants to design, and Sebastian wants to wear exactly the kind of flashy, exciting dresses she wants to make. And, at first, it all goes well: Frances gets experience and confidence, and Sebastian gets to go out in public as Lady Crystallia and become a minor celebrity.

But Frances can’t advance professionally as “Lady Crystallia’s” dressmaker, because that would connect Crystallia to Sebastian. And Sebastian’s parents are demanding he spend more time wooing all of those young women, who he has no interest in or time for. (He’s spending his nights as Crystallia, and his days sleeping and recovering.) It all is going to smash, and it does.

Wang finds her way to a happy ending, and one that’s more in keeping with the time and her protagonists’ very different social positions than I expected. The Prince and the Dressmaker is much more successful than I was worried it could be; it is a book that tells the you-can-be-whatever-you-want lesson, but it doesn’t skimp on pointing out the hard work and sacrifices needed along the way. (Plus a fair bit of luck, a sympathetic creator, and no small bit of wealth and position — but that’s what makes it fiction.)

I should have expected that from the author of Koko Be Good , which had a similarly complex central male-female relationship that didn’t resolve in conventional ways and a more nuanced view of success and the pursuit thereof. Wang is also a fine cartoonist, particularly good here with crisp, openly emotional faces drawn with few lines and big expressive eyes. This is a book telling that currently-popular story, and in a way designed to appeal to young readers who want to believe that they’ll get all of their dreams — but it’s a fine book despite that.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #326: Lumberjanes, Vol. 5: Band Together by Stevenson, Watters, Leyh, Allen, Nowak & Laiho

There’s a point where, as a reviewer and critic, you either need to engage fully with your material or just walk away from it. Holding it at arm’s length doesn’t do anyone any good.

And I’m very aware that all of my posts about the great female-centric comic Lumberjanes — see my posts on volumes one and two and three  and four  — are about how I really can’t engage that deeply with a comic that is so centrally about being a girl and having friendships with other girls in a very girl-positive environment.

So I think this is the last time I’m going to read a Lumberjanes thing: they are good, and entirely a positive thing to have in the world, but I really don’t have a way into this material, and five books of searching is long enough.

Also, the stories collected in Lumberjanes, Vol. 5: Band Together  see a big shift in the creative team — Noelle Stevenson leaves as co-writer, to be replaced by Kat Leyh, and Brooke Allen hands over illustration duties to Carolyn Nowak. So this a a transitional moment anyway, which makes it better than most moments to transition myself quietly in the other direction.

Band Together starts with a single-issue flashback to the first day of camp, showing all five of our intrepid campers arriving, in the company of their various families, and pretty much immediately becoming best friends. It is fun and nice and sweet and very fluffy.

The rest of the book collects the three-issue story that introduced Leyh and Nowak as creators, in which our five intrepid best friends discover that there’s an entire civilization of mermaids in their local lake. (Lumberjanes has a lot of the qualities of a good animated TV series, primary among which is that the world is big and full of wonders, including ones that really should have been honkingly obvious before the point they appear.) Since Lumberjanes is about all-friendship-all-the-time (for female-identified persons), this story must of course be about our heroines mending a broken friendship among the hard-rocking merwomen.

That longer story is less fluffy, but it’s still very Lumberjanean (Lumberjaneite? Lumberjaneicious? Lumberjane-aroonie?) in its core positivity and sunny disposition. Even when one character becomes obsessed, she can be talked down (and mildly shamed) by her friends by merely mentioning that she wasn’t thinking enough about everyone else’s feelings.

Again, I think I’m going to leave Lumberjanes behind at this point. It is a very good thing with almost no points of congruity with my life or interests, and I’m trying to teach myself that I don’t need to worry about everything. Let’s see if I can learn.

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

Book-A-Day 2018 #325: Promethea, Book 1 by Moore, Williams & Gray

Alan Moore famously has a love-hate relationship with superhero comics. Well, I mean, a lot of people love or hate superhero comics, and plenty do both. The difference is that superhero comics hates and loves Moore back.

In the late ’90s, after he’d cast a magic incantation cursing DC Comics and all of its wares, swearing never to work for them again under any circumstances, Moore started his own line of superhero comics, under the not-at-all-self-aggrandizing label of America’s Best Comics. And then his publisher sold the entire company to DC anyway, pretty much simultaneously with the launch of the ABC line.

(It’s almost enough to make one believe that deep Northamptonian magic doesn’t actually do anything!)

One of those ABC books was Promethea, with art by J.H. Williams II and Mick Gray. I read the first collection sometime in the early Aughts, and didn’t remember a whole lot about it. (I do remember that nothing I saw of America’s Best Comics, then or later, impressed me all that much. But I can be hard to impress when it comes to superhero stuff.) Since I’m reading giant stacks of comics-format books this year to feed the maw of Book-A-Day, I figured I might as well try Promethea, Book 1 again.

(I’m still not that impressed. This is not a surprise.)

Promethea the character is a legacy hero, one of many in Moore’s work — he’s been very fond of having his main character be one of a million versions of the same thing, from the Captain Britain multiverse to the Parliament of Trees. This time, the original of Promethea is a fourth-century girl in Egyptian Alexandria bodily transported to the realm of story by the god Thoth-Hermes, and somehow because of that gets to be the template for a series of mystically-powered superwomen starting at the end of the 19th century in the US. Since Moore always has miles of notes, I’m not going to ask what Promethea was doing for the intervening thirteen centuries, because he’d probably tell me in great detail in some tedious end-of-book text feature.

Our brand-new Promethea is Sophie Bangs — that name sounds much more like a camgirl than a superheroine, but OK — in a mildly science-utopian 1999, a slightly alternate comic-book-universey version of the real world her story was published into. She’s a college student researching the legend of Promethea, providing both the natural opportunity for a lot of infodumping and the reason why she gets saddled with the glowy caduceus staff and form-fitting bronze armor.

There are, of course, equally mystical evil people who want to snuff out this new Promethea before she comes into her full powers, and they try to do so. But most of the story here, from the first six issues of the Promethea comic, is an extended tour of the Immateria, the lands of story and myth, in the company of each of the recent dead Prometheas in turn.

That tour is not over at the end of this book; nothing is actually resolved by the last page here and Sophie/Promethea is heading out into a promised two more sections of the Immateria to learn more lessons from more dead predecessors. Why this is where the vast and cool intelligences of DC chose to end this particular book is beyond me; I suspect they believe that their target audience doesn’t understand the idea of stories “ending” anyway, and so don’t bother wasting time with such things.

But I am a well-known cynic.

Promethea is a perfectly adequate superhero comic, with powers and characters that make more sense than many of its competitors. Williams and Gray draw well, and get some inventive page designs out of it. You could certainly do worse than this.

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