Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, July 03, 2010
      ( 7/03/2010 08:17:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“I WASN’T EXPECTING ALL THIS AGGRO WHEN I TOOK ON THIS JOB!” In a canny attempt to ride the World Cup wave, British publishers Titan Books recently released a collection of the beloved British football comic, “Roy of the Rovers,” as a World Cup Special. Centering on the exploits of Roy Race, stalwart player/manager for the fictional Melchester Rovers, “Roy of the Rovers” ran from the fifties until the early nineties, first as a serialized two or three-page strip in the weekly comic magazine Tiger, then as its own weekly title in the seventies. Aimed at a young boy readership, the strip maintained a clean-cut veneer that’s exemplified by its hero’s blanket disavowal of football violence in the 1970’s (in one reprinted outing from that period, we’re told that the Rovers “held the distinction of being the only club in the league which was almost totally free of football hooliganism”). While this may have ultimately contributed to the series’ demise in the more jaded nineties, I suspect it’s one of the selling points for Titan’s current series of “Roy” reprint collections.

Though it’s subtitled the World Cup Special, in reality, none of the stories featured in this large trade paperback actually occur at that fabled competition. In the opening story (from 1966), in fact, Roy misses a chance to play for Britain after he gets a “nasty knock” on his ankle during a charity event. To make up for this disappointment, the whole team of Rovers is sent to Australia on a soccer tour (since, apparently, playing soccer down under isn’t as physically risky as it is at the World Cup), where our hero meets his long-lost rancher uncle Cappy Cuttle. Cappy gets the lads involved in a less formal World Cup of immigrant soccer players from around the globe, then secretly bets his ranch that the boys to win the competition. Unknown to both Cappy and Roy, jealous nephew Dick Cuttle has been trying to sabotage the Rovers’ chance at winning, at one point sneaking a boxing kangaroo into the team’s training quarters. Of course, Roy and company ultimately come through for Cappy, but not without some rocky moments.

In a later story, Roy uses his vacation time from the Rovers to manage a “B Squad” of footballers in a home international tourney. His big nemesis proves to be the leader of the American team, Harvey Dallas, who has a grudge against Roy for turning an offer the year before to coach the U.S. World Cup team. Calling it an “insult to Uncle Sam,” Dallas vows to humiliate Race’s squad, dooming Roy’s hope for a “relaxed and friendly” soccer competition. Those boorish Yanks’ll do it every time.

Titan’s collection of “Roy” tales, interspersed with photos and articles written to appeal to the football-mad boy, is appealingly produced. The earliest stories, including a three-page curiosity where Roy dreams about competing at the World Cup, are predominately printed in black and white, while the later tales -- from a time where Roy was finally given his own weekly comic book title -- are in color. Though the volume doesn’t clearly annotate its stories (the only ones to receive writer and artist credit are Tom Tully and Brit comics pro Mike White in the final tale), you can usually gauge when they were published, at least, by the length and cut of Roy’s hair.

To a newcomer to the series, the rest of Roy’s teammates are a largely indistinguishable crew, though a couple of newcomers are provided their own quick plotlines. In one tale, the Rovers’ newest goalie turns out to be a spitting double for the king of the south American country of El Manador (to the west of El Humidor right?); in the last, Roy considers offering a clownish B Squadder a place on his beloved Rovers, but will the boys back home tolerate his goonish hi-jinx? Couldn’t tell ya, since the book ends before Roy introduces him to the rest of the Rovers. What’s important is whupping them upstart Americans -- and you can be darn sure that takes place.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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      ( 7/03/2010 08:13:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Dead dog? Nope. Just Kyan Pup lying on a kitchen A-C vent (pic taken by Becky):

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010
      ( 6/30/2010 08:04:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”I JUST THINK EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR IS CRAP.” In case you’ve missed the entertainment buzz lately, we are in the midst of mini-boomlet of teleseries devoted to fat Americans. I’m not talking about “reality” sideshows like The Biggest Loser, but actual scripted TV comedies and dramas focusing on plus protagonists. It’s an intriguing trend to consider when you take into account the increased media ballyhoo about the elevating BMI in this country. On the one hand, you have scolds bemoaning how “unhealthy” and out-of-shape everybody has gotten; on the other, you have series devoted to the radical idea that fat folk are people, too.

To these eyes, the dramedy to beat remains Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, the fantasy (now in its second season) about a young would-be model who dies and comes back to life in the body of an older, fatter lady lawyer. Within its Heaven Can Wait premise is a theme that easily relatable: the idea of a once-thin woman coming to terms with the fact that she’s ten years older and considerably fatter. The route Diva’s Jane Bingum (the very appealing Brooke Elliot) takes is one toward self-acceptance, and while the series isn’t without its squishy Lifetime moments, as a whole the trip proves an enjoyable one.

On the other side, ABC Family’s new summer series, Huge, opens with a much more conservative set-up. Set at Camp Victory, a fat camp where a variety of portly to super-sized teens have been shipped by their parents to shed weight, the series centers on Willamina (Hairspray’s Nikki Blonski), a purple-haired teen who comes to camp with a chip on her large shoulder. “Me and my fat are like BFF,” she tells a counselor, and though she talks a good rebellion, it’s clear that she’s more than a little jealous of Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff), the zaftig blond who is easily the thinnest plump girl in the camp -- and the one who gets all the looks from all the boys in camp.

To its credit, Huge (adapted from a novel by Sasha Paley) takes a setting that could be an excuse for an endless array of fat jokes and examines it from a healthy variety of different perspectives. Though it’s laid out fairly early that the majority of these kids have been set to Camp Victory by their parents, the degree to which each camper buys into the Thin=Health+Happiness equation varies. At one end, you have contrarian Will, who jokes that she’s come to camp to gain weight not lose it and who makes like Eric Cartman selling smuggled candy to her fellow campers. On the other, you have Amber, who tells us, “I’ve been dieting since I was ten; it’s probably the only thing I’m good at.” Amber has so bought into the Thin Is Beautiful line that she posts magazine shots of anorexic models by her bunk for “thinspiration.”

In between, there are campers like Becca (Raven Goodwin), a repeat visitor who gained all the weight back that she lost the summer before, and Ian (Ari Stidham), the guitar-strummin’ alt-rock fan, who was okay with being fat as long as he wasn’t the fattest kid in his school. Then there’s Caitlin (Molly Tarlov), the quiet girl who’s revealed to have an eating disorder. When sent out of the camp after her purging is reported to hard-nosed camp supervisor Dr. Rand (Gina Torres), we’re told that home with her parents is not the place she should be. Though the statement isn’t explained, those of us with memories of Roseanne Barr’s revelations about her personal history might start wondering where that particular statement came from.

Where Huge’s first ep runs the biggest risk of falling into the same ol’ fat stereotypes, though, is in the subplot where Will sells her cache of junk food to the other kids in camp. The sequences are initially played as a joke (“Are you holding?” one camper asks our heroine). But, while some viewers may view it as a Lookit How Them Fatties Don’t Have Any Will-Power moment, I took it differently: as a typical adolescent reaction against authority and as recognition of the fact that when you take anything away completely, that one thing becomes more important than it ever was.

Still, are times you can’t help wishing one of the series’ plus-sized characters stood up for themselves in way that went past Willamina’s reactive teenage posing. So that when Torres’ Dr. Rand rather disingenuously asserts that Camp Victory’s focus is on health, not weight loss, someone could've answered, “What makes you so certain that I can’t be fat and healthy?” I know: it’s a bit much to expect from a group of young characters who’ve heard nothing but Loath Your Body messages all their life. But the day we actually get a character self-confident enough to assertively challenge the Conventional Wisdom about Fat+Health+Happiness -- that is the day Fat Teevee becomes truly provocative.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
      ( 6/29/2010 07:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I AIN’T YOUR AVERAGE CORPSE JOCKEY.” Alabaster Graves, the hero of John Heffernan and Leonardo Manco’s Driver for the Dead (Radical Comics), is not the kind of driver you’d expect to see at a traditional funeral. A “scruffy looking” guy in a cheap black suit, Graves drives a souped up hearse named Black Betty which looks like something Ed “Big Daddy” Roth might’ve concocted. His job is to chauffeur problematic corpses (a newly transformed vampire, for instance) to their final resting place and ensure that they stay down for good. In the first book of the three-ish mini-series, Graves is assigned the task of picking up the body of Mose Freeman, a recently slain hoodoo man whose body is of interest to a lot of parties working the sinister side of the street. It’s a dangerous job, and, judging from the crappy trailer that we see him living in, the pay ain’t that great either.

Graves is accompanied on his pick-up by Freeman’s college-age great granddaughter Marissa, who refuses to acknowledge what the old man really did for a living (to her, he was a “medicine man who helped poor black folks when the rich white doctors wouldn’t treat them”) and looks at our hero with a suspicious eye. Marissa is about to get schooled, of course, since a monstrous necromancer named Uriah Fallow is after the body. To establish just how much of an s.o.b. Fallow is, he’s introduced cutting out the eye of a blind fortune-teller.

Rated for “Mature Readers,” Driver makes good use of its Louisiana setting and its hard-boiled hero. Scripter John Heffernan (he co-wrote Snakes on a Plane, but let’s not hold that against him) paces the pulpishly horrific moments effectively, so that even when you’re pretty sure you know where a scene is going, its arrival still has impact. His monsters are suitably nasty (there’s a great naked green-skinned witch), and our hero is agreeably rough-mouthed. Leonardo Manco (who has previously worked on another lone-wolf fighter of supernatural beasties, Hellblazer) catches Heffernan’s creep-outs beautifully: I was won over by the book’s opening featuring a snake and demon-filled exorcism, though there are other visual moments just as choice.

A strong start to a promising horror hero series.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Sunday, June 27, 2010
      ( 6/27/2010 07:13:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THE SAME PROUD AND NOBLE BLOOD AS OURS FLOWS WITHIN YOU.” A popular 20-plus volume horror novel series that has spawned its share of spin-offs over the years, Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D is a natural for manga adaptation. A decaying post-Apocalyptic Earth, a lone hero with a sword, vampires and other demonic figures terrorizing the last remnants of humanity, improbably breasted women -- yeah, it’s a comics natural. The question, of course, is whether a book-by-book series of manga adaptations will be any good or not.

Recently received copies of the first four manga paperbacks (fifth in the series is currently scheduled for this summer) by Saiko Takaki, and on the basis of volume one, I can see why this series has had such an extended life. Not having read any of the original novels -- or seen the earlier anime inspired by ‘em -- I can’t say just how faithful the manga is to its source, though from the way the first volume tries to cram so much incident into its pages, I suspect it’s fairly close. Set in 12,000 AD, the books take place in a post-war land ruled by the Nobility, a race of vampires who have held the planet under its aristocratic thrall for five thousand years. Into this wasteland -- half Wild West, half medieval -- rides D, who hires himself out to victims of the decadent Nobility. D (we’re not given a full name, but there’s a hint it’s connected to a more infamous vampire) is a “dhampir,” a mix of human and bloodsucker. To make things even more outré, he also possesses a living face in the palm of his left hand. The nature of this chatty creature isn’t explained in the first book, but it clearly possesses some sorcerous power.

D’s first rescue proves to be Doris Lang, an ultra-buxom cowgirl with deeeep-set eyes and a whip, who has been bitten by Noble Count Magnus Lee. Doris runs her ranch with the aid of her spunky l’il brother Dan, fending off not just vamps but also the unwanted attentions of the village mayor’s son Greco, who’s not above whipping up the inevitable mob of frightened yokels to push her into his arms. Once she meets D, who has the lanky boy toy face of an Ann Rice rock star vampire, it’s clear no normal guy has a chance. Too bad for her that we know D’ll ride off into the sunset by the end of the story.

Still, the guy comes in handy when it comes to fending off the aforementioned panicked villagers, not to mention a crew of the Count’s supernaturally powerful evil minions who call themselves the Fiend Corps because you can’t be truly menacing unless you have a cool name, right? Our hero takes the Corps on one at a time, along with a trio of snaky demonesses called the Midwitch Medusas, before his big showdown with Lee himself. Observing it all is the Count’s provocative vamp daughter Lamirca, who disappears when the Count’s castle collapses but hopefully returns in a later novel.

As for the character of our mysterious hero, we don’t get a whole lot about him, though a scene where he dialogs with his hand is amusing, while an earlier moment where he instructs young Dan on how to be a man for his sister plays like something you might have seen in an old family western -- with Kevin Corcoran playing the role of Dan, perhaps.

Takaki’s art captures VHD’s blend of cowboy gothic. Though, in general, it is stronger on the action than it is on the moody horror, there are a few sequences that effectively capture a Hammer Films vibe (a village doctor, who falls to Count Lee, even resembles Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing). The first volume contains a smattering of gore plus some bits of nudity (whip-wielding Doris uses it to distract an enemy), and DMP has suitably given the book an age 16+ rating. While not without its occasionally clunky expository moments, as a whole the first volume moves along snappily. In the end, this piece of manga mind candy proves capable of standing up on its own.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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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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