Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, September 01, 2006
      ( 9/01/2006 01:35:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS CITY?" – Packaged under the meant-to-be-evocative title "Dark Moon Rising," writer/artist Matt Wagner's Batman mini-series, Batman & the Monster Men and Batman & the Mad Monk, look to the character's early years a lá Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. But where Miller's sensitivity in his considering of Young Batman took from hard-boiled cheeseballs like Mickey Spillane, Wagner is akin to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent, more proudly boyish in his treatment – even if we do get to see Bruce Wayne's latest ladyfriend in a moment of post-coital bliss. If the results lack the "significance" of Miller's over-elevated Dark Knight books, in their own way they're even more fun: comic book versions of forties Monogram B-pictures.

Both Monster Men (currently released as a trade pb collecting all six issues of the limited run title) and Mad Monk (just beginning its six ish run) focus on a Bruce Wayne still so new to the crimefighting biz (in the first series, we get the first appearance of a Batmobile) that he's actually optimistic about the fact that he has a "girlfriend." Said object of his doomed affection is one Julie Madison (a briefly-seen player from early Detective Comics), whose father is on the hook to shady underworld types. (This is Gotham City, after all.) Though Bruce and Julie are going at it hot and heavy, it's clear Dad's gonna eventually gum things up as we watch him deteriorate into full-blown alcoholism over the series.

The heavy in mini-series one is Dr. Hugo Strange, who gets to play mad scientist to the hilt – genetically manipulating criminally insane inmates of Arkham Asylum into knobby, cannibalistic giants. Strange is abetted by a sinister Hindu named Sanjay who hopes that the professor's unconventional researches will help his invalid brother. (What? Strange couldn't find a hunchback for his second-in-command?) To finance his researches, the mad doctor is in debt to the same gangsters holding a leash on Julie’s father. Gotham City's just one big small town.

As written by Wagner, Strange is the type of arrogant, insecure baddie whose response to a rich bitch's sneering put-down is to toss her and her drunk boyfriend into a cell with his flesh-eating creations. Kind puts a lie to the guy's assertions that he's doing his vile researches for the good of humanity, but, then, long-time Bat readers knew that was a crock, anyway. Besides, it's no different from what George Zucco would've done. As the various players – Strange, Julie's Dad, gangster Sal Maroni – dance around the subplot of illicit loans and i.o.u.s, we the readers mainly look forward to a final confrontation 'tween Batman and Strange's monster men.

This finally happens, though the results are dampened by artist Wagner's seeming inability to get a handle on just how big his gigantic-ized monster men are (a captionless cover showing our hero dangling by the cape from a MMan's grip doesn't help matters here either.) All of a sudden, we've moved from Monogram Pictures to Bert I. Gordon, and the results ain't pretty. Too, a bit where one of the creatures appears to have died, only to pop up later in true horrorflick fashion, is seriously bobbled. Wavering giants aside, however, Wagner's art has a rough edge to it that is appealing, even if he does occasionally make his ingénue heroine look like a sharp-chinned harpy. In a perverse way, it hearkens back to comics' Golden Age, when city boys with only a smidgeon of art training could become comic artists – and their kid audience was completely satisfied with every undue body construct.

Still, Wagner has fun working with the World of Early Batman. Though much of the action in Monster Men is set indoors (as if further replicating the soundstage look of B-movies), he still manages to convey a believably retro Gotham City. His caped crusader is not as hard-cased as he'll later become under the presentday Dark Knight rubric – and is more interesting for it. Bruce even commits a clear strategic blunder by calling Julie's father by his first name, while wearing the costume – an act that you know will impact on future episodes of "Dark Moon Rising."

Mad Monk follows not long after the events in Monster Men: Bruce is still dating Julie Madison, while her father is descending even further into pathetic alcoholism. Future Commissioner Jim Gordon – seen for brief bits in the first Wagner graphic novel – has more a prominent role in this second outing, facing off a trio of corrupt policemen on a station rooftop while waiting for the Bat to make an appearance, escorting the costumed crimefighter into the city morgue. Monk's primary heavy doesn't make an appearance in the first chapter (though Golden Age afficianados and readers of DC's Batman Archives might understandably start wondering if he's connected to the werewolf Monk who appeared in Detective Comics #31 & 32), but the villain who does – an exotically tattooed, leather-clad seductress – proves sufficiently pulpish to pique our interests. (Newly borne Catwoman also makes an appearance in the first ish opening, but it's unclear whether she'll have a more prominent role in the storyline.) If the horror tone in this second outing is a trace more modern than it was in MMen – there's a hint of C.S.I.work in the coroner scene – it's still agreeably B-pic. (Howling 2 perhaps?) Works for me . . .
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Thursday, August 31, 2006
      ( 8/31/2006 04:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHY WE LOVE CABLE SITCOMS – Because you'll never see a scene like Andy Botwin's (Justin Kirk) uncle-to-nephew Weeds lecture on the best home tools for masturbation included in an Emmy clip montage . . .
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Wednesday, August 30, 2006
      ( 8/30/2006 02:52:00 PM ) Bill S.  

HEY! – Journalista is finally up! (Congrats and welcome back, Dirk!)

UPDATE (8/31): First day up, and Dirk Deppey knocks out a telling and trenchant piece on Tokyopop's proposed Internet sales scheme.
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      ( 8/30/2006 01:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GOING FULL CIRCLE – One quick thought on the tightness of Deadwood's bloody, ultra-dark season finale: pretty damning (and believable) that Gerald McRaney's George Hearst (man, have I underestimated McRaney, the actor!) winds up being the one who grabs the prime object of scheming desire in the show's first season – namely, the twice-widowed Alma's gold-rich claim. For all the characters' struggles at civilizing and bringing governance to their town, it all still comes down to what Hearst calls "the color."
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      ( 8/30/2006 11:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LAIR OF THE UNIPINE – A second video of a song from Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous – opening track "It's A Hit":

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006
      ( 8/29/2006 02:19:00 PM ) Bill S.  

A CHANGE OF VENUE VENDER – So I read at Chris Butcher's place that at least two Tokyopop series that I've been following (Arm of Kannon and Dragon Head) are going to published in the future as online series only. As someone who's grown to enjoy the feel of a manga trade pb in my hands (and still has a strong attachment to paper and ink), I'm disappointed to read this news – especially in the case of Head, which has really managed to hook me with its claustrophobic survival horror . . .

CORRECTION: As Kevin Melrose, who covered this story in a piece for the should've-read-it-first Blog@Newsarama, points out in the comments below – I got the story wrong. Tokyopop is not publishing web comic versions of its manga series, just selling the books exclusively through its own site (Do they take PayPal?) Looking at the publisher's Online Exclusives page, I see that the first Dragon Head to be available online isn't coming out until April 2007 – and that there are several volumes in the series inbetween that I haven't read yet.

The big question, of course, is whether this shift in selling strategy will help or hinder a series like Dragon Head. Me, I'm pessimistic.

To add to the category of disappointing manga news, commenter Sean Collins also mentions that the manga series Bambi And Her Pink Gun (a rollicking violent series which I haven't had time to review yet) has had its plug pulled by American publisher DMP. (I first read this distressing news on Johnny Bacardi's blog.) May I join the chorus of loudly disapproving boos?
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      ( 8/29/2006 09:35:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"LET'S KILL THE LANDLORD MAN!" – Yesterday, at 3:00 p.m. CST, our long national nightmare finally came to an end: after eight months of paying two mortgages, we finally managed to sell the house next door.

I've written about our abortive attempt at owning rental property before: suffice it to say, what seemed like a decent idea (hey, the renters'll pay the mortgage; we'll live next door and thus be able to see if there are any probs; we might even get a little extra income out of the deal) turned out to be a severly misinformed one. Our renters proved deadbeats, and the house wound up costing more than its mortgage. When our second set of renters left the house in March, they were two-and-a-half months in arrears.

Since then, most of our weekends – and way too much stress time – has been spent agonizing over our little money pit. Spent a lotta time painting and repairing the place, but the house is an old Sears-styled bungalow, and there's no way it was gonna look pretty for anyone but a young, first timer. (First week we put it up for market, we got a low-ball offer from some entrepreneur hoping to flip it, but we didn't take it. More than once over the past few months I found myself second-guessing that decision.) The same week we put the house up, the city of Bloomington started tearing up our street to put in new storm drains, a process that lasted three months and did little for our curb appeal. At one point, we had a porta-potty sitting right next to the "for sale" sign. When I went outside with a videocam to take some snapshots, it was quickly moved.

The housing situation wreaked havoc on our budget: in addition to the mortgage, we continued to pay insurance and utilities on the place. This restricted my pop culture purchases so much that when I'd get a piddly check from The Comics Journal for one bullets-sized review, it wound up comprising most of my comics budget for the month. If this blog has been overly focused on Boom! and AiT titles in the past half year, there's an obvious reason: they were the only ones consistently sending me review copies. (Which is not to say I still wouldn't be writing about 'em – since I've grown to appreciate both lines immensely – but to state that I wish I'd had the resources to review more.) Hopefully, with a bit more time and money, I'll be able to gadabout in a larger pop culture arena. I'm also looking forward to being able to focus on a passel of stalled writing projects.

Though I know life has a way of throwing new crap at you every time you think you've got a grasp on things, for now, I'm feeling an intense sense of relief, a lightening as this hefty financial burden has at last been lifted. Last night, my wife and I watched our new neighbor – and his family – as they began the process of making the place ready for the their big move. We spent over ten years in that funky little abode ourselves; we hope its new owner finds it just as homey . . .
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Sunday, August 27, 2006
      ( 8/27/2006 12:58:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"A CHARACTER LIKE EDDIE HAPPENS IN EVERY TOWN" – Shopping at the Dollar Tree for a passel of leather chew rolls for the dogs, I happened to pick up a one-buck VHS tape of the 1933 MGM musical comedy, Roman Scandals. (Hold onto some of yer twentieth century electronics, kids, 'cause there's a still a bunch of cheap entertainment to be found in it!) A vehicle for banjo-eyed trouper, Eddie Cantor, the flick's an enjoyable amalgam of pre-Hays Code one-liners and Busby Berkeley-directed showgirl set pieces. Cantor plays an easy-going chump in a Depression Era small-town called New Rome; when he runs afoul of the town avaricious rich guy, he's kicked out of town – and on as he tramps his way along the dusty road, he gets conked on the head (or somp'n) and dreams he is back in ancient Rome. In dream Rome, he runs afoul of the Emperor Valeria (durable bad buy Edward Arnold), whose double-dealings none too surprisingly parallel those that we’ve already seen in New Rome.

Not much different from the kinda movie comedy that Danny Kaye, say, would be making in the forties and fifties (there's even a poisoned food bit that anticipates one of Kaye's more famous movie routines): Cantor gets several song-&-dance bits (music courtesy of Al Dubin & Harry Warren) in addition to his good-natured clowning about. The Busby Berkeley showpieces provide his pronounced blend of the titillating and the bizarre: in one, singer Ruth Etting, playing one of the emperor's slave girls, does a torch ballad that turns into a long parade of "naked" blond-haired lovelies being chained to the wall and whipped as a group of fat Roman senators leer suggestively. (On the basis of this and Hips, Hips, Hooray!, Rute Etting seemed to have a knack for getting prime billing in pictures that basically required her to sing one big number and then disappear for the rest of the movie.) In a second, Cantor disguises himself as an "Ethiopian beauty specialist" using some remarkably durable mud to put himself in blackface. He sings to a chorus girl audience of blond slaves and their black hairdressers – who both get to tap and parade around in typical Berkeley fashion before Cantor is inadvertently exposed by lifting his toga while dancing and showing off his lily white thighs. They force him into a steam room to get the rest of the mud off him, and then turn on the steam. But when he emerges, he's Billy Barty with the mud still on him!

The movie has a negligible romance in it, of course, which is primarily notable for featuring a young Gloria Stuart and David Manners (the gallant hero of several Universal horror flicks) in the roles. Lucille Ball reportedly shows up as one of the Goldwyn Girls, but I've gotta admit I didn't pick her out from the crowd. Again, since the movie was released a year before the Hays Office, some of the jokes go beyond what would later be considered respectable. In my favorite, Eddie is confronted by a duo of menacing Roman Legionnaires, who threaten to kill him. "You can't kill me – I haven't been born yet," Eddie yelps. "It wouldn't only be murder, it'd be birth control!" To honest, that particular punchline caught me off guard.

As a movie comedian, Cantor (much like satchel-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown) is probably better known for the cartoon caricatures that were done of him by the Warner Bros. studios than his own work – which, on the evidence of Roman Scandals, is a shame. He carries the picture, which reportedly was par for this notorious camera hog, but you don't mind since he comes across so instantly affable. There's some decent slapstick in the flick (most notably involving a mishandled bullwhip) and a nice comic chariot chase in the end, but the bulk of the laffs come from Cantor's disarming way of delivering wisecracks – which, even at their most deflating don't crack his agreeable demeanor. (Reportedly, Cantor had pages of verbal jokes by such venerable gagmen like Nat Perrin inserted into the script – which reportedly did not set well with original authors George S. Kaufman & Robert Sherwood.) A solid example of Depression Era musical comedy that I'd recommend looking out for: TCM has broadcast it in the past during the wee small hours of the morning, but if you've got a Dollar Tree in the area, why not check it out there? It'd be a buck well spent . . .


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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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