Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, July 04, 2009
      ( 7/04/2009 01:29:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Here's Savannah Cat, looking a bit taken off guard in the living room.

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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      ( 7/04/2009 07:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

'THE SEA IN TOKYO IS KINDA LIKE A BROKEN TOY." The first series to be featured on Viz Media's new IKKI online magazine, Daisuke Igarashi's Children of the Sea is a lovingly rendered, frequently contemplative look at "the path that connects the sea to space." Rated for "Older Teen" readers, the story centers on a young girl named Ruka -- and two mysterious boys who were raised in the ocean by dugongs. Both boys, Umi and Sora, have swum to Tokyo following the lights and sounds that seem to be accompanying the unexplained, large-scale disappearance of deep-sea marine life.

Monitored by workers at Enokura Aquarium -- Ruka's father Azumi and a tattooed wave rider named Jim Cusack, in particular -- the two boys spent their first years living "exclusively in the ocean." As a result, they need to periodically return to the sea for their own well-being. "If we don't keep cooling down with water," Uma, the younger of the two tells Ruka, "we get really hot, like we're burnt."

They also appear to be on a similar wavelength as our headstrong young heroine. ("Whenever things get tight, she starts playing rough," a handball coach says during an early character-establishing scene.) Ruka has been repeatedly drawn to the aquarium ever since she saw a "ghost" in the water as a child. "You smell like someone who sees and thinks the same things we do," empathetic Umi says. Ruka's "ghost" was a glowing sea creature that she witnessed vanishing from the aquarium tank as a harbinger of events to come. "Come to think of it," the adult Ruka recalls as she opens the story, "that may have been the beginning of everything."

Igarashi evocatively blends this sci-fi mystery with crisp (if occasionally familiar) characterization and a beautifully attuned sense for nature large and small. The big draw here, at least in Children of the Sea's opening volume, resides in its art, which at times recalls both manga/anime master Hayao Miyazaki and southwest underground comix artist Jack Jackson. It's particularly marvelous during the underwater scenes -- as when Umi and Sora take our heroine out snorkeling and she finds herself surrounded by schools of inexplicably glowing fish. They look like stars, and though we're not told why this is in the series' opening eight chapters, Ruka's opening statement about the pathway 'tween the ocean and sky would seem to hold the key. More than once Ruka and the boys compare the act of swimming to flying; for most of us heavy humans, after all, floating in the water is the closest that we get to weightlessness.

Viz is presently running Children of the Sea in online installments with the first print volume collecting chapters one through eight scheduled for a mid-July release on its Viz Signature line. To my eyes, the paper version is superior to the online edition -- the 6-by-8-1/2" book format makes it easier for the reader to luxuriate in Igarashi's art, while the monitor version proves especially unfriendly to two-page spreads. The online version is the place to start, but I'm thinking that a lot of manga fans will want a copy of this for their home shelves. Judging from the first volume of this atmospheric sci-fi tale, Children of the Sea will make a strong addition to anyone's well-kept manga library -- an undersea companion to Yukimura's Planetes, perhaps.


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Thursday, July 02, 2009
      ( 7/02/2009 10:05:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE GOLDEN CARP: Last year, as a part of its "Big Read" project, the NEA presented Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima as its recommended work. In my area, copies of the novel were given away in several scheduled book events throughout the last four months of 2008, all as a part of the Big Read's program to encourage reading in our country. The novel's selection was not without its controversy, at least within the heavily religious communities of Safford and Thatcher, AZ. At public issue were the book's occasional profanities and a scene where the book's seven-year-old narrator Antonio Márez spies on one of his brothers in a whorehouse, though I suspect that many of the loudest critics had a different agenda in condemning Anaya's novel.

Ultima is set in WWII Era rural New Mexico: as such, it makes an intriguing companion piece to Richard Bradford's Red Sky at Morning, though where Bradford made his hero a transplanted southern white boy, Anaya's Antonio grows up in a bi-lingual Chicano home with a strong Catholic heritage. While both novels excel at portraying the workings of their young boys' minds and contain some very funny scenes centered on their school and friends, Antonio's story ultimately proves darker and occasionally frightening.

The Ultima of the title is an elderly herbal healer who is staying with Antonio's family. Though many in the area -- most particularly, a vicious thug named Tenorio -- believe her to be a bruja, in practice we see that she's a benevolent figure, a curandera or healer. Still, her presence in the Márez home proves a lightning rod for Tenorio, who attempts to kill Ultima and our hero in the book. During the first attempt, an owl that we're told is connected to Ultima's spirit blinds Tenoria in one eye.

The presence of the monstrous Tenorio in the town -- coupled with the fact that he's able to brazenly get away with dark deeds that seemingly go unpunished -- spurs the young Antonio into asking one of faith's big questions: if there's a God, why does he allow horrid things to happen? One of the strengths of Anaya's story rests in the way he captures both Mexican Catholic and Southwestern Indian religious traditions and depicts how these might commingle in a young boys' mind. Representing the latter is a local legend, the Golden Carp, who resides in a nearby river.

While Antonio's mother harbors dreams of him eventually becoming a priest, the boy finds himself just as attracted to the nature-driven aspects of the region's Pueblo-based religions as he does the Virgin Mary. This is captured in the book through a series of dreams where the two religious symbols, Virgin Mother and Big Fish, are given equal voice. By the end of the novel, our young narrator has begun to work toward reconciling these two religious beliefs, toward blending them into a personalized spirituality.

It's this aspect of the book, more than its occasional real-life English and Spanish obscenities, which made the book a target in my neck of Arizona, I suspect. Graham County is a largely religiously conservative area with a strong LDS population and a goodly amount of evangelically driven churches. The core theme of Bless Me, Ultima -- that affords similar weight to Christian and non-Christian religions -- is not one that sits well with the Harry Potter Is Evil bunch. Though the curandera Ultima takes great pains never to counter Antonio's very Catholic mother's take on things, her existence as a force for good in the community stands as a symbol of a different cosmology. For many hard-core religionists, even the suggestion that there might be more than One Way is reason enough to try to get this beautifully written and engaging story pulled off school library shelves.

Me, I'm glad the controversy pushed the novel into the public dialog enough to nudge me into picking up one of the Big Read's free paperbacks and ultimately digging into it. Though it doesn't always work this way, the alarmists got me reading a pretty damn good book.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2009
      ( 7/01/2009 05:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VID: Looking up the artists behind Miss Don't Touch Me on the 'net, I somehow wound up on this animated French YouTube video which tickles my fancy. (Should probably put an NSFW here.)

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
      ( 6/30/2009 09:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"BECAUSE GROWNUPS THINK IT'S FUNNY TO BE SCARED." There's a telling moment in the opening credits to Friday the 13th: Part VI -- Jason Lives. We've already seen Jason Voorhees improbably resurrected from his grave by two bolts of lightning, even though we were told in the previous installment that the guy had been cremated. What follows after Jason makes quick work of the disposable companion of would-be monster killer Tommy Jarvis gives a clue as to what writer/director Tim McLoughlin is up to. A visual parody of the James Bond opener with our masked anti-hero tossing a machete at the viewer instead of firing his berretta, it signals that this particular none-too-scary entry is gonna have a whole lotta winking in it.

And so it does. Despite a body count that once again surpasses the titular 13, there's an air of goofiness to the proceedings that's exemplified by the presence of Ron Palillo in the victim pool. Jason butchers a Sweathog! Movie history in the making.

Set an undisclosed number of years down the road from the earlier Fridays, the movie centers on Tommy Jarvis' (played this time by Thom Mathews, best known to horror fans as the young hero in Return of the Living Dead) doomed attempts to destroy the killer of Camp Crystal Lake. His first try involves digging up Jason's corpse, dousing it with gasoline and burning it to a crisp, but that trick never works. The very elements conspire to revive and protect the worm-eaten killer: once those lightning bolts revive him, it starts pouring to thwart Tommy's fire starting. Retrieving his hockey mask (which Tommy and friend have inexplicably brought with them), the implacable undead serial killer stomps off into the woods in search of new easy pickings.

Of course, there's a fresh batch of camp counselors available for this bloody work. The good folks of Crystal Lake have changed the name of their burg to Forrest Green, and the change has brought back the tourists, too. Among these is a newly engaged couple who come across Jason in their car ("I've seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly," the girl tells her beau), a group of corporate paint ballers and a comic cemetery caretaker who happens across Jason's opened grave and says directly into the camera, "Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment."

Tommy, to his credit, attempts to warn the local constabulary that He Has Risen, but, like constant kids before him, isn't believed. Instead, the town sheriff (David Kagen) thinks that Tommy himself in doing the killings to make everybody think Jason's Alive, a fair enough assumption considering the number of times in the last movie that we were led to believe the same thing. Fortunately the sheriff's fetching daughter (Jennifer Cooke), for no good reason that we can see, sides with our hero, and the two work to trick the killer into returning to the bottom of Crystal Lake, where he presumably will rest in peace. It's not like this guy rose out of the lake before to go on a killing spree, is it?

As for the requisite counselor slashings, McLoughlin ups the stakes by, for the first time, actually showing a whole group of living breathing kids at the camp. One pair of boys gets to crack wise during Jason's final assault on the camp ("So what were you gonna be when you grew up?" one asks his buddy), while a cute little girl gets to deliver an unheeded early warning. Nobody listens to anyone younger in these movies!

Though the movie's killings are plentiful, they're treated both less explicitly and more cartoonishly than they were in earlier flicks. In one outlandish gag, for instance, a paint baller gets his face smashed into a tree, leaving behind a bloody smiley face in the trunk; in another, Jason lops off three heads with a single swath of his machete. Having established Jason's supernatural creds, the moviemakers decided to focus on "kills that were almost impossible for a person to do," as McLoughlin states in the DVD's "Making Of Friday the 13th –- Part VI" feature. The heightened unreality didn't make the ratings board go any easier on the flick, however, as a feature showing "Slashed Scenes" makes clear. Though the uncut killings were still pretty tame as these things go, the fx folk were still forced to trim their best gags.

Paramount's "Deluxe Edition" DVD contains many of the usual bells and whistles, though there's one fresh moment entitled "Meeting Mr. Voorhees" featuring a series of storyboards depicting an originally planned appearance by the hitherto unseen husband to game show regular Betsy Palmer's Mama Voorhees. The moment doesn't really tell us much, though it does hint at future plots never to be developed. Wonder who they would've gotten for the role of Daddy V., anyway? Orson Bean, perhaps?


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Sunday, June 28, 2009
      ( 6/28/2009 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"BUT IF I DON'T SELL MY VIRTUE, WHAT MUST I DO?" The title heroine of Hubert and Kerascoet's adult French twist on Nancy Drew, Miss Don't Touch Me (NBM/ComicsLit), is a big-eyed gamine named Blanche. Working as a maid with her sister Agatha in thirties Paris, Blanche's life takes a sudden horrid turn after Agatha falls victim to a serial slayer known as the Butcher of the Dances. Canned by her scandal fearing employer, Blanche vows to find her sister's killer.

Her fumbling investigations lead her to a high-class bordello called the Pompadour. Convinced that the Butcher is somehow connected to this high-end whore house, she gets herself hired as virginal dominatrix ("a virgin of steel," her first client calls her) and becomes a favorite of its jaded upper crust clientele. Blanche's role as a "special girl" puts her in the company of black "madame monsieur" Miss Josephine (who has a passing resemblance to Josephine Baker) and the Boop-faced submissive Annette, while it also earns her the enmity of the other bordello workers. Her suspicions are primarily focused on the Pompadour's thuggish owner and a sinister Elisha Cook Jr. type named Red, but, of course, the answer to the mystery's not that simple.

Despite its provocative setting, the "mature readers" rated Miss Don't Touch Me proves more suggestive than explicit, though it's not without its flashes of topless femmes and groveling naked geezers. Kerascoet's (a pseudonym for two artists, Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) stylized penwork at times reminds me of a less angularly expressionist Richard Sala, though to a certain extent the book's serial killer plot also promotes that visual comparison. It's cleanly simple with its human figures, though the artists' background renderings of period Paris are exquisitely detailed. The only time the artists' blend of the cartoonish and more illustrative didn't work was in a panel where the head of the Butcher's latest victim is discovered by a lake: the pumpkin-sized head is just a trace too stylized to convey the scene's splattery horror.

Miss Don't Touch Me was first published in two parts in its native country, and you can definitely see a shift in focus between its halves. Scripter Hubert initially keeps the story centered on innocent young Blanche (note the name) as she enters her new world, but in the second half, other characters -- most notably, the worldly Miss Josephine -- step up to push the mystery to its big revelation. Though the guilty are all uncovered, not all of 'em are punished equally. Imbedded within this classically pulpish story (Fallen Women! Dope Fiends! Dungeons and Hidden Passages!) is an undercurrent of class-based criticism that's true to the story's period. Historical murder buffs may also find a parallel to some of the royal theories surrounding the Whitechapel murders, though this is a far cry from a heavily annotated historical mystery like From Hell.

But, ultimately, it's our title heroine who engages our concern: though we watch her toughen up through the course of the story, we also know that eventually she's gonna stumble onto the Butcher of the Dances. Does she come out alive and -- just an importantly -- does she keep her virtue intact? More than the killer's identity, these are the questions that drive this engaging grown-up graphic novel.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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