The Mix : What are people talking about today?
My first reaction to this book is idiosyncratic and petty; it may also come off as a minor spoiler. So flee now if you need to.
If you call your organization the “Knights” of something, it implies certain things: people chosen for specific qualities, organizational structure, a martial bent. Calling the family that survived a cataclysm “the Knights of the Waxing Moon” does not check any of those boxes, or any of the other boxes that people think of when they think of knightly orders. The family can be the equivalent of a secret society, they can keep ancient mysteries and protect the treasures of the ancients — but they are in no way knights.
But here we are, in Aaron Renier’s graphic novel The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon . It continues the story of the original Unsinkable , picking up almost immediately after the events of that book and continuing to add more complications and dangers for young Walker and his friends.
I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I think I liked the first one: maybe I was in the wrong mood, maybe I didn’t remember the details well enough ten years later. This time out, I kept thinking too much of Knights was vague and unfocused: the shipwrecked pirates are divided into factions, sort of, but don’t have clear leaders and also don’t seem to be jockeying to create leaders. Their goals are equally vague or unclear: getting off the island they’re shipwrecked on feels like it should be a bigger deal than it is, or there should be a “we want to settle here” faction. The aforementioned Knights are mostly just living where they live and occasionally repelling people who wander in, without any larger plans. There’s a creepy family that clearly has some goals — riches and power, most clearly — but also already has a lot of unexplained power and abilities, no clear leaders, and underpants-gnomes-levels of fiendish plots. (Send more family members to the place where our family always dies…something something…we get the secret metal that controls the world!)
All in all, Knights felt like a book with a lot of people running around in circles for a couple of hundred pages. Sure, they found some Neat Stuff, and battled over that, but why they were doing any of it was always muddy. It looks great, and the characters are interesting and specific — but the ways they interacted didn’t quite click for me. To be brutally honest, it’s like a combination of me not paying enough attention this time and forgetting what I read in the first book. This is likely what we call a Me Problem, so check out the first book if you haven’t already (and which I loved at the time), and then maybe move on to this one if you like Walker’s first adventure.
It sometimes feels like that for every James Bond film made, there are several others that never get before the cameras. We hear of actors, writers, and directors coming and going, which sometimes explains the long gap between films. And with an unexpected delay for No Time to Die (please open in 2021), we could use a dose of 007.
Mark Edlitz delivers with his latest deep dive into pop culture. His self-published The Lost Adventures of James Bond covers the films, novels, comic books, and other media complete with fresh interviews with many who were actively developing stories we’ll never see.
While I knew comics writer Cary Bates wrote an unsolicited treatment, which he sold, I had no idea John Landis, fresh off Schlock, was invited by Bond impresario Cubby Broccoli to write a screenplay for Roger Moore. (It’s worth reading just for his anecdote about Queen Elizabeth.) Nor was I aware that there was active development of at least three different Bond films for Timothy Dalton, who lasted a mere two outings.
We learn how times change, audience tastes change, and sometimes it was hard for Eon Productions to keep up. Or the things that excited some writers didn’t excite Eon. And yet, elements from many an unused story found their way into other productions throughout the years, so little went to waste.
With his exhaustive research, he has unearthed details on the films, but also does a deep dive into the James Bond Junior television series, covering almost every angle. Even television commercials get their due.
While many interviewed here never got to see their ideas fully realized, they almost all give credit to Richard Maibaum, the screenwriter who set the cinematic template in the 1960s, going on to pen a dozen missions. Apparently, he wrote a series of essays about Bond, a rare book I’d like to find and read.
His appendixes include a comprehensive catalog of everyone to portray the secret agent in all media, far more than you would realize. There’s also a guide to all the stories in print and on film. Finally, the treatments to the unproduced A Silent Armageddon and “A Deadly Prodigal” are presented in their entirety.
Edlitz supplements his interviews and narrative with fine illustrations from Pat Carbajal along with imagery from international comic books and comic strips through the years.
This is a worthy addition to anyone’s Bond library and certainly alongside Edlitz’s earlier The Many Lives of James Bond.
This is, obviously, a sequel. The first volume of Rene Tardi’s WWII war memoirs, as interpreted, reimagined, and made into a graphic novel by his son Jacques, was published in French in 2012 and English in 2018. That one covered the bulk of the war: how Rene got into it, his capture and transfer far to the east to Stalag IIB, and the life of the camp through the end of 1944. (See my post on that book for more.)
My Return Home picks up the story from there: the first page has the POWs on the march, having already been herded out of the stalag by their posten (guards). It’s late January in Northern Poland — well, what is now Northern Poland; it was conquered Nazi territory then, part of the crumbling dreams of the greater Reich. Jacques begins deeply in medias res, giving no explanations for potential new readers. We don’t even get a date for nearly a dozen pages, and if we’ve forgotten that Jacques is drawing his younger self (circa 1958 or so; he was born in 1946 and seems to be a tween here) as an interlocutor and interpreter for Rene’s sketchy notebook account, there will be no relief to our confusion. (That’s the two of them on the cover: Rene from 1945 and Jacques from about 1958. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, frankly, but it works as a framing device.)
So: this is the story of a long forced march, of hundreds of French POWs (and some others, I think — Jacques and/or Rene are not particularly clear on the makeup of the POW group), through Poland and northern Germany, for reasons that were not clear to Rene on the ground in 1945 and are no clearer to us now. The posten apparently thought they would be killed by the advancing Russian armies — which is probably entirely true — and perhaps were still dutiful or suspicious enough not to leave hundreds of former combatants, even ones broken down by four years of camp life, in their rear as they fled West. (It probably made sense to them at the time. Some of them likely even made it out to safety and survived the end of the war.)
Rene kept a skeletal diary of the march — names of towns and kilometers on the road for each day, and a few other notes on river crossings and armies seen in the distance and similar events. That diary survived for Jacques to turn it into this book, but the reader has to be amazed at how much work it took for Jacques to go from those quick notes, which we can see on the endpapers, to three wide panels per page, full of landscape and men trudging through that landscape, with events and dialogue and endless marching.
In the end, though, My Return Home is more than a bit of a slog itself. We know Rene made it home, and the march is neither particularly interesting (another night in a random field! backtracking yet again to cross the same river!) nor horrifying (there are some moments, but it looks like nearly all of the POWs survived and only a few of them got up to anything that could be called seriour war crimes ). It’s another war story, and war is hell: we know that already. My Return Home is about a hundred and fifty pages of men marching through dull terrain under duress: that’s it.
Jacques’ writing, or perhaps the translation by Jenna Allen, is a bit stilted in spots. Since Jacques’s afterword is stilted, and fond of random exclamation points in the middle of the sentence the same ways, I’m inclined to pin it on him. His art is strong as usual, and his slogging POWs remind me of Mauldin’s soldiers — maybe just due to the era and my American biases.
There is a third volume, which was just published in the US, covering (I think) Rene’s return to Germany as a civilian, years later. But, frankly, it’s looking like there only needed to be one I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, and that’s the one when he actually was a prisoner of war in Stalag IIB.
 Rene did, as part of revenge against the remaining posten near the end of the march. It’s mildly shocking in the story, but not surprising.
HBO’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Westworld is an interesting barometer of geekdom’s temperature. The first season arrived and it was a cause celebre, given its rich, sprawling cast, topical questions about the role of AI in our lives, and plenty of violence and nudity.
The second season clearly went off the rails and people questioned what was going on even as those who stuck around were intrigued by the glimpses into the other worlds vacationers could visit.
Through it all, there was Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the android who went beyond her programming and chose to control her destiny. In the third season, things went back on the right track as you can see for yourself in the just-released Westworld: Season Three: The New World from Warner Home Entertainment.
Delores escaped the park at the end of last season and we see “our” world through her eyes which was an interesting bit of writing. We also meet Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), a former soldier turned petty criminal whose story takes its time but ultimately dovetails with Delores’. Similarly, the story of Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) and Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) takes its time and shows other aspects of this world and its inhabitants.
Where Delores’ “reawakenings” led to her sentience, Maeve’s takes us in another other direction and explores her in a World War II Italy Warworld reality, which brings her to Serac.
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and William (Ed Harris) make the odd couple of sorts in the third major arc of the ten-episode season. Here, they struggle with determining reality versus simulation, an interesting notion as more people in the real world plug into various forms of artificial reality (Ready Player One anyone?).
The connector to all of this is Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who is never less than interesting to watch.
The good ideas and strong performances more than make up for the uneven writing across the season. It’ll be back and there’s more than enough here to entice us to come back for another E-ticket ride.
The box set comes with both 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray editions along with a Digital HD code. The 2160p transfer in 1.78:1 is excellent. The Dolby Vision nicely punches up the blacks and darker details from the traditional film.
The 1080p transfer is equally strong which helps tremendously. Both benefit from the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and Dolby Atmos so this makes for an excellent home video experience.
Much of the Special Features, scattered across the Blu-ray discs, are drawn from the existing HBO extras, starting with Escape from Westworld (1:53), which introduces viewers to the setup. Disc one also features Creating Westworld: Parce Domine (6:36); The Winter Line (7:18); The Absence of Field (6:05); and Exploring Warworld (3:56).
Disc Two offers up Creating Westworld‘s Reality: Genre (3:54) and Decoherence (4:48). Disc Three features We Live in a Technocracy (13:44) spotlights producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy; A Vision for the Future (14:09); RICO: Crime and the Gig Economy (7:07); Westworld on Location (11:20); and Welcome to Westworld: Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul – Analysis (3:46), Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul – Who Said It? (3:43), Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson – Analysis (3:22), Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson – Who Said It? (2:57); Creating Westworld‘s Reality: Passed Pawn (4:09) and Crisis Theory (9:03).
It is an odd and interesting thing: the biography of someone whose life is badly-recorded and full of gaps. It’s even more quirky when that person didn’t really do anything in his life, and even the records of where that person was are messy and often missing.
But Bill Griffith, cartooning king of all things pinhead-related, wanted to tell the story of Schlitzie the Pinhead, the second-most famous real-world pinhead , even though Schlitzie’s origins are disputed and his life basically consisted of being dragged around the US so people could gawk at him for fifty-plus years.
The result is Nobody’s Fool , a graphic novel about a person who may have been born Simon Metz around 1901 in the Bronx, and definitely was buried as Schlitzie Surtees in 1971 in California. Schlitzie was male, but the characters he “played” on stage were more often than not female — because that made the fake “savage” stories more shocking, because he was less than five feet tall, because it was a random carny idea that stuck, or for some other random reason, we don’t know.
The list of things we don’t know about Schlitize, though, are long. Well, “we” don’t know much about any random person born in 1901 and dead since 1971 — if that person did public things, they’d be recorded, but most of us live our lives in private, and those lives all die as the people we knew die. The people Schlitze knew are from a world that’s been gone for over sixty years, and they were marginal people to begin with — many of them with physical deformities or other health issues that shortened their lives, all of them living on the fringes of society, traveling from town to town to be exhibited as “freaks.”.
And Schlitzie, who I have to guess had some kind of development disorder — Griffith doesn’t speculate, or provide an armchair diagnosis — didn’t leave any kind of records himself, and didn’t live the kind of normal life (marriages, children, buying real estate, making business deals, joining clubs, working for companies) that generated the usual records. So we have third-hand stories and speculation and some informed guesses, random datapoints and decades-later interviews with people who knew Schlitzie.
It all gives Griffith a series of scenes, mostly of Schlitzie on stage or doing performance-adjacent tasks, since that’s the parts of his life than anyone knows anything about, fifty years after he died. But what did he feel? What did he think? We don’t know, and we’ll never know. Griffith doesn’t even try to define what Schlitzie could and couldn’t do — we know he liked to wash dishes, and that he had a larger vocabulary than other “pinheads” on the same circuit at the same time. But that’s about it.
So what Griffith has here is a sequence of pictures, a sequence of events that probably happened, more-or-less. We get to look at Schlitzie, the freak, acting weird, performing in sideshows and in the 1932 movie Freaks. We’re told stories about his origins that are probably more true than those told at the time — last of the Aztecs! half-monkey, half-human!, the missing link! — but aren’t really “true.”
This is still a sideshow. Schlitzie is still being paraded in front of a crowd to show off how weird and inexplicable he is. What he was like as a human being is still tertiary at best. Griffith cares about Schlitzie and his life, but he just doesn’t have the materials to tell this as a story. It’s just disconnected moments featuring someone with no agency and little understanding of anything that happened to him.
So this is a deeply sad book, even if it’s about a person who seems to have been relatively happy, as humans go. In a hundred years, this may be all anyone ever knows about Schlitzie Surtees. And we’ll still know nothing about Simon Metz.
 After Zip-the-What-Is-It, who seems by all accounts to have been a perfectly mentally “normal” African-American man who figured out a weird career for himself and ran it for all it was worth to the end of his life. That is probably a more interesting and meaningful story, but it’s not a pinhead story.
We just wish Dennis O’Neil were here to see this.
Bruce Timm takes the Dark Knight back to the 1970s for a supernatural-laden martial arts extravaganza in Batman: Soul Of The Dragon, the next entry in the popular series of the DC Universe Movies.
Set in the midst of the swinging 1970s, this Elseworlds adventure finds Bruce Wayne training under a master sensei. It is here that Bruce, along with other elite students, is forged in the fire of the martial arts discipline. The lifelong bonds they form will be put to the test when a deadly menace arises from their past. It will take the combined efforts of Batman, world-renowned martial artists Richard Dragon, Ben Turner, and Lady Shiva and their mentor O-Sensei to battle the monsters of this world and beyond!
Comics fans are well aware of Richard Dragon, who was created by Dennis O’Neil and James R. Berry in the novel Kung Fu Master, Richard Dragon: Dragon’s Fists (1974) under the pseudonym “Jim Dennis”. O’Neil later adapted the character for DC Comics in the comic book Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, along with Ben Turner aka Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva.
The ensemble cast features a core group of actors playing martial arts students-turned-heroes in David Giuntoli (Grimm, A Million Little Things) as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Mark Dacascos (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Iron Chef America, Hawaii Five-0) as Richard Dragon, Kelly Hu (Arrow, X2: X-Men United) as Lady Shiva and Michael Jai White (reprising his role from Arrow) as Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger. Their mentor O-Sensei is voiced by James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner). Josh Keaton (Voltron: Legendary Defender; Green Lantern: The Animated Series) is featured as Jeffrey Burr, and additional voices are provided by veteran Voice Over actors Grey Griffin, Chris Cox, Erica Luttrell, Robin Atkin Downes, Patrick Seitz, Jamie Chung, and Eric Bauza.
Sam Liu (Reign of the Supermen, Batman: The Killing Joke) is Producer and Director of Batman: Soul Of The Dragon, utilizing a script by Jeremy Adams (Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge). Michael Uslan is Executive Producer. Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Whisper, Superman: Red Son) and Sam Register are Executive Producers.
Produced by Warner Bros. Animation and DC, the feature-length animated film will be released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment on Digital starting January 12, 2021, and on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack and Blu-ray on January 26, 2021. The film is rated R for some violence.
Nobody would want Brian Fies’s career, not matter how many books he sells and how many awards he wins. Two of his three major books to date have been pure “making lemonade” activities: he went through things no one wants to and came out the other side to write about them.
First was Mom’s Cancer, which was about exactly what you’re thinking it was. In between was the fictional Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? And his new book for 2019 was A Fire Story , because his house burned down in the October 2017 series of wildfires in Northern California.
So if I say that I hope Fies’s career takes a different tack in the coming years, that’s what I mean: I hope he doesn’t have any more tragedies that launch books. He’s due for a happy book, or three, or five.
A Fire Story started out of immediacy: Fies wrote and drew a twenty-page version of this story a few days after the fire, when the pain was raw and he and his family had just realized what “we’ve lost everything” means. He posted it online, and it was seen around the world — hundreds of thousands read Fies’s comic, and a few million saw an animated version made by the San Francisco PBS station (which also won a local Emmy).
The book version of A Fire Story came about a year later, which means it’s still pretty raw and immediate — I have to imagine Fies writing and drawing this in temporary housing or rented houses, waiting and hoping to get back to the normal life that burned up.
The story here starts from those initial pages — redrawn, cleaned up, expanded, but those first panels are all here in new forms. This is how Fies and his wife woke up in the middle of a Monday night, grabbed a few things, and fled a house that then burned down before the night was over. Fies expands that story in multiple ways — he brings in more of his family, including the grown twin daughters who take in Fies and his wife after the fire; he adds the narrative of several other people whose houses were burned down, so this is no longer just his story; and he continues though the beginning of rebuilding, showing scenes of sifting the ashes  and dealing with the insurance adjuster.
A Fire Story is powerful, direct, and personal: Fies went through something horrible and had the skills to present its horrors clearly and precisely to the world. It’s a book to be deeply ambivalent about: do we wish it never existed, because Fies’s house was instead saved? Do we rationalize that there are always houses that burn down, somewhere, and at least this giant wildfire resulted in some great art?
I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m glad Fies was about to squeeze this lemonade and still wish he hadn’t had to. Maybe, at best, it can help those of us who have not lost everything understand it a bit better: I’ve been known to whine about my 2011 flood, which destroyed an entire basement but left the rest of the house intact; and that’s minor compared to what Fies suffered.
But A Fire Story is a major graphic novel, no matter what else. And Fies shows that he has not just the artistic chops, but the resilience and clear vision to do it. I just hope that his next project requires the chops and maybe the vision, but not the resilience.
 This is not a metaphor. One of his daughters is an archeologist, and uses a rocking screen on the site of their burned house.
Unhappy childhoods make for more interesting books than happy ones: can we agree on that? I’ve seen several Boomer nostalgia vehicles that were basically “everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds when I was free, white, male, and seven years old,” and they’re all deadly dull at best.
Unhappiness leads to better stories: writers don’t have to suffer, but it definitely gives them better material.
Vera Brosgol has some pretty good material; she off-handedly mentions things both at the beginning (growing up poor among spoiled rich girls in Albany, NY) and the end (moving suddenly to London at the age of ten) of this book that look like they could be full graphic novels of their own. But Be Prepared is the story of one summer at camp…well, a little about the months leading up to that summer, and how she got to that camp, but all focused on ORRA.
Maybe I should back up slightly — Be Prepared is the story of a girl named Vera, but Brosgol’s afterword explains that it’s not purely autobiographical. The general outlines are correct, but she went to the ORRA camp for two years, not one, and events have been shaped here to make a better story — including details from other campers, such as her younger brother. Readers who demand absolute factual accuracy will be crushed; those who like stories about people will be much happier.
I fall into the second camp.
(Hah! “camp”. Pun not intended.)
Brosgol is not a new hand at this — her previous graphic novel Anya’s Ghost also drew on her being-an-odd-Russian-kid-in-America childhood, but in a clearly more fictionalized and fantastic way. (The title is not a metaphor.) That was also a damn good graphic novel, just like Be Prepared. Brosgol is creating stories aimed at younger readers — my guess is upper elementary school, maybe shading into middle, since the rule is that kids hate reading about anyone the slightest bit younger than themselves — but they’re smart, well-told stories that can only come from adult distance, and that makes them just as good for adult readers.
Anyway, young Vera feels like an outsider — her friends are more affluent and “American” than she is. But there’s a summer camp affiliated with her family’s Russian Orthodox church, and so she thinks she wants to lean into being Russian — that will be where she finds girls just like her, and the best friends of her life, right?
Unfortunately, wrong. Young Vera is introverted and a bit quirky — like all the best people — and the ORRA camp is cliquish in its own way, with traditions and history and skills she knows nothing about. Plus an outdoor latrine, which is a whole different kind of reality check.
So she’s quickly writing letters home begging to be saved from the camp she spent so much time begging to go to. But her mother is busy, so that’s not going to happen. Young Vera is just going to have to make it through camp — find a friend on her own, find things that make her happy, find things she can be good at. She does: it works out.
It turns out this isn’t the kind of unhappy childhood caused by outside events — well, it is, partly, because being poorer than people around you is never a happy thing — but mostly because young Vera is the kind of person who has trouble being happy. (I know that kind of person well; I’m one, myself.)
And, again, Be Prepared is published specifically for kids, and in particular kids who are their own flavors of weird, unhappy, different, and introverted, but Brosgol is a great storyteller. Her drawings have life and verve to them, with lots of clear emotion in her kid characters, and she structures the story well. I might even give this the highest praise: Be Prepared is a book even for those few bizarre kids who enjoyed camp.
Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis turned a high concept into a charming, enduring film in Back to the Future. It spawned two uneven sequels (and I am so glad Gale see s no reason for a fourth installment) with time-hopping DeLorean and the character of Doc Brown melding into the pop culture zeitgeist.
The films, certainly the first one, deserve to be seen by all, including the current generation to whom the 1950s and 1980s are equally ancient.
Thankfully, Universal Home Entertainment agrees and we have been treated to DVDs, and Blu-rays ever since. Out this week, in time for everyone’s holiday shopping, comes Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy as the films receive the Ultra HD treatment. In a lovely embossed slipbox, you get six discs with carryover content from the 2010 and 2015 editions.
Doc Brown has invented a time machine and with Marty on hand, they travel back to 1955, inadvertently keeping Marty’s parents from meeting. As time threatens to unravel, he has to befriend them both, avoid his mom’s icky romantic advances, and get them to fall in love while dealing with the social mores of a conservative era that, like time, is slowly starting to come part. It took televisions stars Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox and turned them into movie stars. The rest of the casting was spot on which helped turn the first film into a blockbuster.
So of course, we had a sequel, going forward in time to see further ripples that are more unpleasant than one would hope for. Here. Elisabeth Shue comes along for the rider as Marty’s girlfriend and future wife (a concept which frightens here at first). And then, for the final installment, they head backwards, to a simple, dustier time: The Wild West. This is the less creatively interesting one but saved thanks to the romance between Doc Brown and Mary Steenburgen, who is good in everything.
The new scans are pristine and wonderful with Dolby Vision color correction, making shadows deeper and the 1950s a technicolor delight. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack perfectly captures the sound effects, but more important, the vital, vibrant rock and roll that was gaining popularity during the earlier era of the first film. Thankfully, the work on the sequels is equal or even better than the original.
There’s a bonus seventh disc with fresh new supplemental content along with material from the 30th anniversary edition. Among the new features is the brief The Hollywood Museum Goes Back to the Future (10:17), as Museum President Donelle Dadigan walks us through their BTTF exhibit. There’s also Back to the Future: The Musical Behind the Scenes, a three part feature on the musical version.
A nice addition is An Alternate Future: Lost Audition Tapes (3:45 focusing on those who didn’t win the familiar roles. These include potential Biffs Billy Zane and Peter DeLuise; possible Marty McFlys C. Thomas Howell, Jon Cryer, and Ben Stiller as Marty McFly; with Kyra Sedgwick as Jennifer Parker.
Finally, there’s Could You Survive the Movies? Back to the Future (19:47): A YouTube video which reality tests some of the physical humor from the films.