Category: Reviews

In. by Will McPhail

This graphic novel is just too damn good to be Will McPhail’s first book-length project. He has to have a drawer-full of stuff, or maybe he’s published short work somewhere. The drawing I completely believe; I’ve seen his cartoons and they’re assured enough that I believe he could easily make the jump from single panels to juxtaposed images. But the story here? How does someone go from a one-line joke to a full-realized story of almost three hundred pages?

So, um, yeah, this is pretty good. In. is apparently the first long narrative Will McPhail has created, and it works from beginning to end.

It’s about this guy, Nick, who lives in a big city (not unlike McPhail, who lives in Edinburgh, though this city is more vaguely New York) and works as an artist (also not unlike McPhail). He’s got a sister, Anne, and a mother, Hannah, and early on he meets a woman, Wren, who could turn into a girlfriend if everything goes right.

But he feels like he doesn’t connect with people, like he just skates across the top of conversations, saying generic things back and forth with people, and never gets to know anyone. He’s not sure if he wants to get deeper into other peoples lives, but he feels like he’s missing something, as if he’s just play-acting at life. In fact, he’s actually play-acting in the first contemporary scene of the book, as if this is how he thinks adults, or normal people, act with each other.

But then he connects, unexpectedly – he says something really honest and really listens to the answer. McPhail illustrates this conversation, and similar ones later in the book

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, as a surreal scene that Nick falls into – it’s related to the topic, loosely and visually, but McPhail is not illustrating what Nick learns. Instead, he’s showing what it feels like: a visual, comics metaphor for a deep human connection.

The rest of the book looks like McPhail’s cartoons: line art with light washes of gray for emphasis and texture. But the surreal sections are fully painted, and striking every time they appear. (McPhail also signposts that a color scene is about to begin by zooming into the speaker’s face and showing their eyes in color: another nice visual metaphor about seeing that only works in comics.)

I don’t want to detail what the story is about from there: every story is in the telling of it. Nick does start out a bit immature, a bit unconnected – that’s the point – and learns how to be different. Along the way, McPhail does things right both big (those surreal scenes, the overall flow of the book, all of the characterization) and small (a dozen throwaway joke names for coffee bars and alcohol bars, an amusingly arch depiction of Nick and Wren’s first sexual encounter).

One of the most impressive things, particularly for a first book, is that I can point to something like a dozen things that McPhail does really well, and nothing at all that I’d seriously criticize. No book is perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed, even as a former editor, to point to anything in In. that I’d have red-penciled or asked for revisions on.

So: yeah. Really impressive. Thoughtful, deep, meaningful, lovely. Takes advantage of the comics form brilliantly, though I can still see someone wanting to turn this into a movie. (They’d probably screw it up, since it’s already as good as it can be, but it would have four great parts to entice various actorly types.) If you haven’t read it, you probably will want to.

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

Alias the Cat! by Kim Deitch

I don’t know if all of the Waldo stories are consistent. I don’t know if they can be consistent, or if Deitch would want them to be.

I kind of hope they aren’t, actually. Memory is flawed, history is misunderstood, the past is a mystery. And demon-creatures shouldn’t be completely knowable, able to be nailed down to a specific timeline.

Alias the Cat!  is a Waldo story: it’s almost twenty years old now, but close to the last major Waldo story to date. It followed A Shroud for Waldo and The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (probably the centerpiece of the Waldo universe) and was in turn added onto by The Search for Smilin’ Ed. Deitch’s most recent book, Reincarnation Stories, is a similar style but doesn’t include Waldo as far as I remember.

What does any of that mean?

Well, Deitch presents himself as an autobiographical cartoonist, one fascinated by popular entertainments of the early 20th century: cartoons, circuses, movie serials, comic strips, carnivals, and so on. Ephemeral stuff, things that are largely forgotten or lost. His big stories, for the last thirty years or so, tend to combine his discovery of some old piece of entertainment with a retelling of that old story – or the circumstances surrounding those people, or a complicated combination of the two. We get comics pages of Deitch talking to the reader directly, about the things he’s discovered, and pages of him doing things in his life, and we also get stretches retelling the history he’s discovered, or – as in this book – supposedly reprinting old comics by someone else from a hundred years before. It all combines together into fictions that mimic non-fiction, as surreal and supernatural elements are first hinted at and then leap into the center of the story.

They’re impossible, and Deitch presents them all as if they’re true. I’d say he presents them “straightforwardly,” but he doesn’t – Deitch portrays himself as excitable, eager to chase down these crazy ideas, as maybe more than a little bit naïve or gullible, someone always ready to believe in a great story.

Alias the Cat! is a three-part story: it appeared originally as three separate comics, in 2002, 2004, and 2005, and each volume has that Deitch energy and enthusiasm – each one has that air of “hey, look at what I just discovered!” They each end inconclusively, with mysteries left unsolved: even the third, even the end of this book and story.

Again, that’s the nature of history, of the kind of stories Deitch tells. There’s only so much Deitch-in-the-story can find out, only so much that has survived a hundred years. Only so much Waldo will tell, or allow to be told.

Waldo is a anthropomorphic character, like a black cat – call him Felix’s evil twin, or dark doppelganger. He was a character in forgotten ’20s cartoons, or a real creature impossibly in the real world, or a supernatural entity centuries old, or a hallucination only seen by the insane: he’s all of those things in turn, or at the same time. He’s a trickster at heart, a hedonist who has been everywhere and done everything and is ready to tell entertaining and possibly even true stories about those places and things.

As Alias the Cat! opens, Deitch-the-character insists he’s never met Waldo, and that he’s not saying that Waldo is a real person in the actual world. He likes Waldo stuff, and likes digging into these old stories, but he’s not some kind of nut, he’s not crazy – he can’t see Waldo. All that will change by the end: meeting Waldo, being crazy, all of it.

Each of the three issues has its own arc and obsessions, from “furries” to Waldo’s time as the charismatic leader of a tropical island, to a forgotten movie serial from the 1910s that strangely paralleled the actual events surrounding its release, to a forgotten New Jersey town populated entirely by midgets. Deitch-the-character keeps getting in deeper and deeper, more excitable and surprised by each new revelation.

This is all fiction, as far as I know. Waldo is not real, Deitch did not meet him, and meeting Waldo didn’t send Deitch into a sanitarium for observation. As far as I know. But how far do any of us know?

Alias the Cat! doesn’t end as well, as definitively as Boulevard or Smilin’ Ed – it’s an uneasy, uncertain ending, an ending about things that didn’t happen rather than about the things that did. Maybe a disappointing ending rather than a triumphant one, but a true ending, an ending based on those bits of history and forgotten popular entertainments, and what’s left of any of them in the modern day.

I don’t know if I’d recommend starting reading Deitch here: I’d recommend running more or less in publication order, or starting with Boulevard if you want to jump forward to the big book. But this is a big middle piece of the Waldo saga; you’ll get here eventually.

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

Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

To me, the core Neil Gaiman stories are about young people, encountering things they don’t understand. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Violent Cases. Coraline, something of an edge case – since the core set of stories are all about a young person like Gaiman.

And, of course, Mr. Punch .

I don’t want to speculate how much of this story is “true.” That’s the wrong question anyway: the truth of a story is the story-ness of it

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, and this is a great story, told beautifully by Gaiman’s words and Dave McKean’s art. (I wish they had worked together more: they are each other’s best collaborators.)

It’s a graphic novel about a young British boy, about fifty years ago, remembered by that boy as a man, about twenty-five years later. So it’s now as far back in time itself as the events it depicted were when it was published: this is a 1995 book about things that happened in the late ’60s. The boy is Gaiman. Or he is not. Or, more accurately, that again is not the right question.

It’s the story of how the boy learned about Punch and Judy shows, about his grandfather’s failing seaside business, about family stories. Like all stories about childhood, it’s about memory most of all: what is remembered, how it’s remembered, what looms larger looking back than it did at the time. It is an intensely told story, constructed carefully by Gaiman even as it seems to be narrated off-the-cuff by the man in the story who is and is not Gaiman.

And, most of all, it’s about the questions of childhood: the things you asked at the time, the things you wish you’d asked at the time, the things you know you never would have gotten a straight answer about, and the things you didn’t even think could be questions until much much later.

Punch and Judy shows are alien to Americans: they don’t exist here. I don’t know if they exist in Britain, these days: I get the sense the boy in this book was from the last generation to see that kind of puppet theatre all over the place. So this might be entirely a dispatch from a foreign country: for all of us, everywhere.

That’s entirely right, though: that was the point and purpose of Mr. Punch. It was always a dispatch from the foreign land of childhood, the land we all were born in and can never return to. And it’s just as strong and thoughtful and moving now as it was then. Mr. Punch does not change with time, as Gaiman points out. He is always the same, always there, holding strong his side of the stage, eternally on the puppeteer’s right hand.

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

REVIEW: The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

REVIEW: The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

Many worthy films for all audiences flew under the pop culture radar in 2021, released with some fanfare but overshadowed by current events. Take the animated Connected, for example. Announced by Sony for 2020, it briefly arrived in theaters in April before hitting Netflix under the name The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

Now available in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack, the film is well worth your time and attention. First of all, it’s funny and good for the entire family to enjoy together. Second, it has some fine messages underneath the frenetic pace and stuffed visuals.

Rick (Danny McBride) loves nature and is a bit of a technophobe, setting up a conflict with his daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), who is about to attend film school. When their visions clash one more time, he cancels her flight and decides to pack the family into their old station wagon and drive across the country. His wife Linda (Maya Rudolph) and young son Aaron (Mike Rianda) don’t necessarily want to interrupt their lives but off they go.

As they ride the highway, the evil tech genius Mark Bowman (Eric André), having had his PAL (cute) AI declared obsolete, enacts his revenge by having the next generation of PAL programmed to capture all of mankind and launch them into space. Our heroic family narrowly avoids this and it’s up to them to save the world from technology gone wild.

On the macro level, we have the obvious save the world plot, but underneath it, Rick is trying to save not only his family but his relationship with his eldest. The film is stuffed with other characters with an impressive vocal cast with John Legend and Chrissy Teigen playing married neighbors, whose daughter Abbey (Charlyne Yi) is the object of Aaron’s adolescent desire; and a series of PALs, led by Olivia Colman, clearly having fun.

The animation is impressive as it blends the hand-drawn with CGI overlays, letting director/co-writer Mike Rianda pack plenty of action, comedy, and commentary.

The 1080p high-definition transfer is excellent

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, capturing all the colorful nonsense and keeping things crisp. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is fine but struggles to keep up in places.

The combo pack has delightfully creative liner notes worth a read. The disc contains not only the theatrical release but Katie’s Extended Cinematic Bonanza Cut! (1:52:48) adding about two minutes of extended/alternate scenes without the CGI enhancements. It also comes with an intro from Rianda.

Special Features include Dog Cop 7: The Final Chapter (8:24), Katie’s student film; Bonus Scenes! (25:18), a collection of deleted and extended scenes; Katie’s Cabinet of Forgotten Wonders (11:24): Katie-Vision!; Dumb Robots Trailer; The Original Mitchells Story Pitch; The Furby Scene – How? Why?; and Pal’s World; The Mitchells vs. The Machines: Or How a Group of Passionate Weirdos Made a Big Animated Movie (12:49); How To… : Audiences learn how to Make Sock Puppets (1:48) and Make Katie Face Cupcakes (1:56); and Audio Commentary: Director Mike Rianda, Visual Effects Supervisor Miks Lasker, Production Designer Lindsey Olivares

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, Co-Writer/Co-Director Jeff Rowe, Producer Kurt Albrecht, Head of Animation Alan Hawkins, and Head of Story Guillermo Martinez —with so many creators chatting, it’s a fun review of their ambitions and reflections.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 6: Six Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

So I’m a year late here: I was going to point out that this series took longer to complete than I expected, and so I was not as invested in this book as I could have been. But one whole year of the delay is on me, so mentioning that a comic that started in September 2013 and only ran thirty-one issues probably shouldn’t have taken seven years might not come across well.

Or maybe I’ll passive-aggressively say I’m not going to do that. Pointless passive-aggression is pretty on-brand for a discussion of Sex Criminals, right?

Anyway, Six Criminals  is the sixth and last collection of the comic: it includes the final story arc (well, the five issues in which the story ends; it was all one “arc,” basically) and the fantabulous extra issue #69, in which two minor characters have a destination wedding a few years later and all of the surviving characters show up to celebrate and bounce off each other one last time in a vastly lower-stakes way. Like the rest of the series, it was written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Chip Zdarsky. (See my post for volume five , or drop back to the first one if you have no idea about the series.)

(Consumer Note: references to this book say it contains issues #26-69, which is technically true but deeply misleading. They mean issues #26-30 and #69. There is nothing in between.)

My reaction to it was pretty muted, and I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe I waited too long, and the previous volumes had gotten fuzzy in memory. Maybe I was secretly hoping for the Big Ending to go a different way – though I think it works just fine, is constructed well, entirely fits the characters as we know them, and is satisfying. Maybe it’s just me.

This book does fulfill the promises of the previous collection, where all of the sex-powered people we’d met join forces and start talking about taking down the big bad, a probably borderline-sociopathic business magnate who, we learn in this book, has been stealing all of Our Heroes’ precious bodily fluids (well

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, energy) in order to power what he hopes is a time machine. Yes, that’s very weird: Sex Criminals has kept digging new levels of weird from the initial some-people-freeze-time-when-they-come premise, as it finds new possibilities for sex-based superpowers.

(Sidebar: Say, do you think Sex Criminals was originally pitched as “Chew , but about fucking”? If not, why not?)

There is a reasonably happy ending for the world in general, if not for Suze and Jon’s relationship, which has looked intermittently doomed the entire length of the series. (Jon in particular has never been the most stable of people.) In the end, it’s still basically Suze’s story, as it started out, though focus wanders around among the rest of the cast, as it must when you have that many people. That part is very realistic, and I appreciated it: so many stories, in comics and out of it, slam the two main characters together at the end even if that’s an inherently bad idea.

I bet this all reads better if you run through it all relatively quickly; I read the first volume back in 2014 and have never re-read older issues before hitting new ones. It’s all good stuff, and adult in both the under-the-counter (it’s about sex! you see nudity and sexual stuff on the page!) and the grown-up (people have relationships that grow and change! those relationships are often weird or nonstandard!) ways. It’s definitely worth reading, if you are old enough to do so legally in your jurisdiction.

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

A Shining Beacon by James Albon

In some world that is not precisely our own – maybe the near future, maybe an alternate present – an island nation has an autocratic, near-fascist government. There is, of course, a revolutionary group aiming to overthrow that regime, which includes violent activities.

It is not the UK, exactly. But it is very much like the UK, more than it’s like any other nation on earth.

The regime is building a major public-works project in the capital: a large sports facility with a huge swimming pool at its center. And the Department of Culture needs to find an artist to paint a giant mural over that pool. The mural must be uplifting but not political, lovely but not challenging, colorful but not incorporating any imagery or ideas from the rebels or anyone else hostile to the regime, artistically powerful but without any deep or hidden messages, and entirely approved by various top ministers.

This is of course impossible. It’s also demanded, and must happen.

Functionaries at the Department of Culture, after several metropolitan candidates are rejected, settle on Francesca Saxon, a youngish woman from the North of the country, an artist with a relatively provincial career so far and no hint of the wrong politics. She is summoned to the capital and set up in a luxury hotel to create that mural. She never applied for the job, or really had a moment to decline it.

She might perhaps have preferred to return home and work in her own studio, but those are not the regime’s plans. And the whole point of autocracy is that it demands everything conforms to its plans, even if those plans change instantly.

Francesca’s mural, or perhaps the sports centre in general, is meant to be A Shining Beacon  for the entire nation; that phrase repeats throughout the graphic novel, and clearly was originated by some very high power in the autocracy.

We don’t know who that was; we don’t get names for most of the characters and we never see or understand the top level of this government. Instead, people are known by their function – minster of this, secretary of that – or seen doing what they do. If there is a dictator or politburo over it all, we know nothing of that.

The rebels place someone close to Francesca; she doesn’t realize this for a long time. The rebels perhaps have a strong case against the regime – it is brutal and repressive and murderous – but they are no better themselves

, and it’s not clear that this nation would be any better if they were to seize power.

Francesca struggles to make the mural the government demands, as their demands shift almost daily and every one of her sketches is found deficient in some new way. Rebel imagery crops up in some of those sketches as Francesca becomes more frustrated by her gilded cage, and she evades her armed government minder more and more often. She also comes to know that minder better on a personal level along the way; her frustration in being guarded by him is mirrored by his frustration in how she makes his work harder by sneaking away. And this regime is not kind to people who fail it, whether that failure is related to making art or guarding artists.

It all ends in violence and destruction, as always happens in a repressive regime: violence is the tool those regimes know best, and the best tool their enemies have against them.

James Albon tells this story calmly, straightforwardly, in watercolors highlighted by bright, almost day-glo colors on darker backgrounds – Francesca’s blonde hair in particular pops in every panel she appears. His lettering is organic, the slightest bit rough, an unexpected touch for a book so driven by dialogue. His camera flies in and out from panel to panel, to share focus between the architecture and the people: both are equally important here.

It comes across something like a historical document: A Shining Beacon reads a bit like the chronicles of something that happened, not that long ago, in a nation not far away from our own. There is an inevitability to all of its plot twists; this is how it all had to happen, and how it would always happen.

It is both not a political book and deeply a political book. It makes no specific points, and never names the ideology of the regime. But then, regimes like this have the same core ideology anyway, no matter what their public statements say. It’s all about holding onto power, nothing more. Albon, I think, would not characterize it as a warning about anything: that’s not what A Shining Beacon does. It is a story, about one person in an impossible situation, and how she tries to navigate it and eventually sees how impossible it always was.

It does that very well. It may have lessons for those who engage deeply with it. And it may have warnings to those of us who see aspects of Albon’s fictional regime in our own nations.

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

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean

You know what’s weird? Reading a book about an artist with no examples of that artist’s work – but pages filled with art by somebody else. It might be inherent in the form – a graphic novel about an artist who’s been dead about seventy years – but it’s still weird.

It would be fine if the artist the book was about was someone world-famous – someone’s whose style was instant recognizable, and could be called to mind by any of us. Oh, it would still be at least a little weird to have a book all about an artist with art by someone else, but it would be the kind of weird that happens every day.

Paul Nash, though, is not world-famous. He was a British gallery painter in the first half of the 20th century, formed strongly by his fighting in the Great War, and noted as a surrealist for the rest of his life. Art historians know him, devotees know him, probably a lot of museum-goers do – but he’s no Picasso or Monet or even Turner, to live in the minds of millions every day.

All that hit me, as I got to the end of Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash , a 2016 graphic novel by Dave McKean. I realized I really didn’t know what Paul Nash’s art looked like. I now knew how McKean drew Nash, and how McKean interpreted Nash’s life, but not what an actual Nash painting looked like. If you’re in a similar situation, the Tate (I assume the London museum) has a Paul Nash page with some of his art, a potted bio, and other details.

Unsurprisingly, he looks to my post-Black Dog eye a lot like a Dave McKean precursor, angular figures (very occasionally) in muted landscapes filled with heaped objects. His work, from the little I’ve seen now, is awfully quiet and still for what I’m told is a war artist: Nash’s stuff looks almost frozen to me, pictures in which usually nothing is moving and often it looks like nothing will ever move.

I have no idea what Dave McKean sees in Nash’s work: I assume entirely different things, since that’s how art works.

Black Dog is a biographical story: it doesn’t tell Nash’s whole life, or even the whole of his service in the war. Instead, it focuses on a recurring series of dreams he had, about a black dog, starting in childhood and ending around the end of the war. This is a book about the war, but mostly elliptically: not the flow of lives in the war, or the mass deaths, or stories of fighting, or troop movements, but individual, small moments, mostly as remembered afterward. The thoughts of someone who survived the war. But then all stories are from those who survived their wars.

I wanted to read this because I’m a fan of McKean. I missed it for five years because I suspected it was mostly for people who already knew Nash, or at least more about the Great War art scene in the UK. I was not wrong: this book was commissioned by a festival and by a project to commemorate the war a century later; it’s a book by one person for his own reasons, but it’s also a work of public art for a public purpose, made as part of public commemorations.

Many of McKean’s characters are ciphers; Nash is another one of them. We do get some answers, but much of what we see in his dreams is strange and inexplicable because they are dreams. So the more you know about Nash, and the war, and the UK at the time going in to this book

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, the better.

This is a fine thing to exist, but it is a bit chilly and a bit official, like so much public art is. It can’t shake the fact that it was commissioned, that it has a place in the world because of arts bureaucracy and a rollover of the calendar. If, like me, you knew nothing about Paul Nash going into this book, you won’t get all that much out of it.

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

REVIEW: Venom: Let there Be Carnage

REVIEW: Venom: Let there Be Carnage

After Spider-Man’s black suit was revealed to be an alien symbiote, I lost all interest. I have never cared about Venom or Carnage or their symbiote children. The viciousness and exaggerated fangs and tongue are relics of the 1990s that I wish would just go away.

I was not at all surprised Sony went ahead with a Venom movie, but what surprised me was that it received not only good word of mouth but enough box office to receive a sequel. Venom: Let there Be Carnage has the benefit of being mercifully short. As a buddy movie, with the buddies sharing one body, it has some nice lightweight moments that Eddie Brock/Venom (Tom Hardy) plays well enough.

But, when Brock interviews Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) on Death Row, things turn decidedly darker as the red-hued symbiote emerges. There’s mayhem and blood everywhere, but not much sympathy for the newer, deadlier villain. Any attempt at that, as he tracks down lover Shriek (Naomie Harris), fails to elicit any emotion. And poor Anne (Michelle Williams) can only watch with growing horror at the world that keeps knocking on her door.

Andy Serkis’s direction is perfectly adequate

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, using his CGI experience to get the most out of Venom and Carnage. But, the story, crafted by Hardy and Kelly Marcel, who went on to write the script, can’t sustain a tone to serve the story. The buddy stuff is entertaining enough but Carnage is under-developed and the romantic elements just feel tacked on. The heart and soul found in the Spider-Man movies, from which these technically spin from, is absent and lessons need to be learned before the Sony Spiderverse grows.

The tone doesn’t work and had they leaned into an out-and-out horror film, it would have been R-rated and perhaps more interesting. Instead, this mess ill-serves its cast and the characters. That the end credit sequence sends Venom to Peter Parker’s world, as seen currently in Spider-Man: No Way Home, is inevitable but disappointing.

The film is out now on disc: 4k, Blu-ray, and DVD combo packages with Digital HD codes. The Blu-ray was reviewed and the 1080p transfer is just fine. It captures the color palette and deep shadows just fine. This edition has a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack while the 4K Ultra HD also has Dolby Atmos. Everything sounds just fine on basic home audio equipment.

There is the usual assortment of Special Features including Let There Be…Action (7:20), Outtakes & Bloopers (3:22); Deleted Scenes (9:33); Eddie & Venom: The Odd Couple (10:18); Tangled Web: Easter Eggs (4:31); Sick and Twisted Cletus Kasady (5:36); A Fine Romance: Cletus & Shriek (5:02); Concept to Carnage (1080p

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, 4:23); Select Scene Previs: Ravencroft Breakout (2:15), San Quentin Carnage (4:10), and Show & Tell (2:23).

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant

Comics memoirs don’t have to be about something life-shattering that happened when you were younger. It just seems that way sometimes. And, to be honest, any book should be about something important: one old piece of fiction-writing advice is that a story should be about the most important thing that ever happened to that person. [1]

Of course, not everyone has a father who survived the Holocaust, or fled their birth country when very young because of upheavals, or was unable to speak for months at a time, or had a major intestinal condition as a middle-schooler, or…so on. But everyone’s life was changed, at least once. So everyone has at least that one story to tell.

Hazel Newlevant is a relatively young cartoonist, about a decade into their career. No Ivy League  was their new graphic novel for 2019; my sense is this was a bigger book, maybe more of a breakout book, than Newlevant’s previous work. I could easily be wrong: but the “Comics” page on Newlevant’s site seems to mostly have shorter pieces. My sense is that cartoonists list all of their work until the list gets too long, and then prune down to book-length works and either just “Shorter Stories” or a couple of categories of those shorter pieces.

This is a story about a seventeen-year-old named Hazel. From the afterword, it’s based on Newlevant’s real life, with details changed for everyone else (like so many memoirs). Now, I want to apologize if I screw up pronouns from here on: Newlevant’s site describes theirself as transmaculine and uses they/them pronouns, but the Hazel in the book presents as female and uses she/her. This is not a transition story: it’s a story about a person who later transitioned, and I’m going to try to be precise in talking about Hazel (the seventeen-year-old character in the memoir) and Newlevant (the decade-older person who made the story).

Hazel is a high-achieving homeschooled kid in Portland, Oregon. She seems to be an only child, the kind whose parents poured everything they ever wanted into her upbringing, and that’s the kind of homeschooling she had: the regular-schools-aren’t-good-enough-for-my-awesome-child kind, not the keep-my-brood-away-from-secular-temptations kind. She has a small group of other homeschooled kids she hangs and works with regularly; they’re making videos for a national contest to promote homeschooling with the hope of using that money to go on a road trip the coming fall to see the band Guster in concert.

Another making-money scheme is a summer job: Hazel gets hired into No Ivy League, a youth group that will spend the summer removing invasive ivy from Forest Park, a gigantic semi-wild area in the city. There she’s thrown in with a large group of other kids her age for what may be the first time in a long time: certainly the most mixed group that she’s ben part of

, in race and background and outlook and life experience.

The bulk of the book is about Hazel’s time with that group, for good and bad. She learns to play ultimate frisbee and gets sexually harassed; she works hard and has to deal with people very unlike those she’s used to. There’s no one lesson, no one big thing – she does get sexually harassed, but just once, briefly, and she reports it. The aftermath is messier, since it leads to her harasser being kicked out of the program, and everyone knows it was because of her.

(This is also mildly parallel to a very inappropriate flirting that Hazel carries on – one-sidedly, only from her – with one of the adult leaders. She says things to that leader arguably as bad as what was said to her, and does it over a longer period of time.)

The biggest piece of the experience is Hazel realizing how insulated homeschooling has made her, and how it’s intertwined with her privilege. Like the grind she is, she tries to fix the situation by reading a bunch of books and learning better. (It’s not the worst reaction, certainly! Frankly, it might be about the best possible one.)

No Ivy League is not about A Problem in the way so many memoirs are – or

, if it is, the “problem” is vastly larger and ubiquitous. Hazel can’t solve the problem, and it’s not her problem the way it usually is in comics memoirs. She can learn more, and understand better, but all of her vegan living and good intentions won’t change that most of No Ivy League is made up of “at-risk youth,” and all of the ways that’s coded, and all of the ways all of those kids have not been set up to succeed a tenth of the way she has.

Hazel does learn; she does do better. And one hopes the reader learns alongside her. I’m pretty sure that’s why Newlevant chose this story to tell: it’s a story about a young person learning more, and doing better. My sense is that No Ivy League is aimed at people like Hazel – young, well-meaning, probably more privileged than they realize, and in need of something to make them pop their heads up and look around.

Newlevant tells that story in a mostly quiet, naturalistic way. Their lettering is softly rounded, the art is watercolor but mostly in shades of greenish gray, the people are a little bit cartoony but their surroundings are precise and real. This is not a story that will hit you over the head; it will creep around the sides until you’re right in the middle of it without realizing. Even if you’re not a privileged seventeen-year-old, No Ivy League has a lot to offer.

[1] It’s not perfect advice, obviously – what about series characters? But it’s good new-creator advice, to focus on stories that really matter to your characters. And “your characters” are “you” for the autobio cartoonist.

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

REVIEW: Copshop

REVIEW: Copshop

Thanks to the pandemic, many a good film winds up overlooked and underappreciated. Joe Carnahan’s Copshop is such an offering. Out now from Universal Home Entertainment, it boasts a well-constructed story using a solid cast, and set almost entirely in a Nevada police station.

It’s clear something’s amiss when Teddy Murretto (Vincent Grillo) pulls up in a police car riddled with bullets and sucker punches rookie cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder), forcing her to arrest him. The why becomes clear when the intoxicated Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) is also brought in. Viddick is there to kill Murretto, who has been informing the Feds about an assassination plot. Add in Huber (Ryan O’Nan) and Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss) as wild cards just to keep things interesting.

The ensuing chaos is loud

, brash, and inventive as the cops and criminals and innocents are all caught up in a cat and mouse game, with bullets flying and alliances appearing more mercurial than originally believed.

Carnahan, who made his name with Narc, Smokin’ Aces, and The A-Team so he knows how to handle action and memorable characters. Working with screenwriter Mark Williams (Ozark), there is a sense of fun brought to the mayhem, making for a satisfying filmgoing experience. The bad guys are far more than two-dimensional, adding a fine layer of meaning to the proceedings, their code versus the police rules.

Grillo and Butler are fine, but it’s The Tomorrow War’s Louder who shines her, as a by-the-book cop who has to sort out the mess and survive.

The film arrives in the traditional Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD code combo pack. The 1080p transfer in 2.39:1 is very crisp, retaining the interesting color palette, starting with the amber of the desert and including the red and blue hues of the police lights. The blacks are retained just as well. The DTS HD-MA 5.1 audio track is strong, given all the shooting and shouting.

Surprisingly, there are no Special Features to accompany the movie, not even its trailer. Given the fun experience in watching it, no doubt there would have been interesting Behind the Scenes stories to share.