Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, February 12, 2011
      ( 2/12/2011 10:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I MAY BE RUTHLESS, BUT I AM NOT CRAZY.” “Inspired by the Highly Anticipated Game!” the cover to the first issue trumpets, which could be considered a recommendation or a warning depending on your inclinations. Me, I’m more than a little wary of comics where the plot mechanics are dictated by the demands of the game instead of, you know, character, but I still retained some curiosity about the 26-issue DC Universe Online Legends. It’s got old pro Marv (Crisis on Infinite Earths) Wolfman collaborating on the script with current fan fave Tony Bedard. The former helped set the template for Event Comics like this, after all -- so how lame could it be?

Fairly lame, it turns out. The debut issue opens on a sequence designed to get the reader’s attention: a scarred Lex Luthor, encased in a robotic battle suit, defeating his long-time foe Superman. “Superman will not live again!” he shouts, aiming some sort of kryptonite-y spear at the Man of Steel, but we’ve all read that ‘un before. The bald super-villain has teamed up with the evil alien computer Brainiac, wreaking havoc on Earth, forcing both superheroes and villains to fight against an invading hoard of “exobytes.” Smart guy Lex has never even considered the possibility that Brainiac will betray him (really?) and consequently doesn’t have any contingency back-ups when it all goes to hell. I supposed we’re meant to accept that the guy’s super ego is his undoing, but this reader didn’t quite buy it.

As illustrated by Divers Hands (top-billed Howard Porter, Livesay, Adriana Melo, Norman Lee), this all looks suitably action game-y with plenty of effective devastation ruin shots: the focus stays on Luthor though most of the debut issue, with only a few incidental shots of the superhero Legends that we expect to see from the title. When the spotlight does turn on DC's heroes, I found myself missing a stellar crowd-controller like George Perez at the helm. There’s a full-pager at the end of the first issue, for instance, where you can barely tell Black Canary and Power Girl’s facial features apart. It had me yearning for a stronger, more individuality attuned artist -- which I suppose is too much to expect for an obviously committee-crafted work like this.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Thursday, February 10, 2011
      ( 2/10/2011 06:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MIDWEEK MUSIC VIDEO: Here's a video from the Hot Club de Paris, who do not sound like you'd expect 'em to based on their name:

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011
      ( 2/09/2011 06:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“YOU KNOW THAT WORD, ‘DODGY’?” Scripted by the editor of the alternative manga collection, Axe, Sean Michael Wilson and Chie Kusuwada’s The Story of Lee (NBM/ComicsLit) is a somewhat familiar tale of young love in a world of a generational/cultural divide. Set in modern Hong Kong, the manga series follows Lee Chen, a young girl with dreams of going to England and becoming a writer, and Matt MacDonald, a young English teacher from the British Isles. The two meet at the shop where Lee has been working to help out her traditional-minded father, who warns her after seeing their first flirty interactions, “Don’t get too friendly with the male foreigners that come into the shop -- you might get a bad name.”

Of course, our girl ignores her reactionary old man, and the couple strike up a bond, initially over Lee’s love of sixties British rock. Because her Anglophilia is steeped in sixties pop songs, our heroine’s naiveté occasionally leads to some rocky relational moments, but we never doubt that these two will ultimately get together. To counter her conservative father’s pronouncements, Wilson also shows us a more open-minded uncle and an elderly poetry-loving grandma who regularly chides her son for his “petty complaining.”

Author Wilson and artist Kusuwada capture the contemporary Hong Kong setting effectively, and the writer displays a commendable willingness to let his artist tell their story in extended wordless sequences. In one four-page scene, for instance, we see Matt’s would-be rival Wang as he watches Lee from afar then sadly returns to his apartment, observing a happy couple along the way. The moment proves more empathetic than we at first might have expected. If it doesn’t break any more new storytelling ground, Story of Lee handles its appealing cross-cultural love story with a deft sweetness.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Sunday, February 06, 2011
      ( 2/06/2011 09:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THAT’S THE BRAVERY I WAS TALKING ABOUT!” The first of a proposed series of collections culling the highlights from the long-running story magazine, Adventure, Black Dog Books’ The Best of Adventure, Volume One, 1910-1912 is a meaty set of action yarns from the early twentieth century. For lovers of genre writing and the output of the early American fiction pulps, the first volume contains plenty of familiar names -- Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, Damon Runyon, R. Austin Freeman -- and a healthy swath of lesser known adventure fictioners.

Editor and pulp historian Doug Ellis selected twenty-four tales from the magazine’s first two years, the only condition being that each author could only be represented once in the volume -- keeping prolific pros like Talbot Mundy from taking over the book. Mundy’s selection, “The Soul of A Regiment,” opens the story collection on an expectedly solid note. A Kipling-esque tale of bravery in a British regiment, the tale also features a hint of the racial condescension so familiar to the period. (The career soldier responsible for whipping an Egyptian regiment into shape first gets the “coal-black Negroes” into paying attention to him by showing his proficiency with the ol’ buck-and-wing.) This doesn’t detract from the story as much as it pretty quickly highlights for the reader that these stories' cultural attitudes are very much of their era. As Ellis himself notes in an introduction describing the years immediately preceding the Great War, “Colonialism was an accepted reality and the ‘white man’s burden’ an accepted myth, particularly for the U.S., Britain and several European countries.” While Ellis admits that the mag did occasionally publish tales with even more egregious racial stereotypes, “none were very good pieces of fiction.”

It should be noted, though, that the majority of the works collected in this best-of manage to avoid racist stereotyping (though we do get an occasional Arab despot as in Bertram Atkey’s “The Hate of Ismail Bey”), focusing instead on taut tales of derring-do, western gunfights, historical swashbuckling and fierce battles against a harsh and cruel nature. A few offerings seem to really step outside the Adventure parameters: Damon Runyon’s typically wry “Pied Piper, Junior,” for instance, tells the tale of a carnie grifter who “borrows” a retired snake charmer’s python to rid a Midwestern town of rats; the comic “adventure” is frequently told from the snake Elmer’s PoV. R. Austin Freeman’s “31 New Inn” is even a squarer peg: an old-fashioned detective novella featuring Freeman’s “medical jurispractitioner,” Dr. Thorndyke. One of the earliest tales featuring this forensic ratiocinator, “Inn” moves a bit creakily in comparison to the more rousing action pieces, though detective fiction historians most likely will appreciate its inclusion.

To these eyes, one of the collection’s highlights proves to be a South Seas novella, H.D. Couzens’ “Brethren of the Beach,” which follows a motley crew of hard-bitten types who discover a treasure’s worth of pearls while harvesting guano on an isolated island. The resultant rounds of one-upmanship and betrayal had me visualizing the cast of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the tropics. Another yarn, William Hope Hodgson’s “The Albatross,” which depicts a couple’s attempts to survive their time on a rat-infested derelict ship, would not have read out of place in a later horror fiction pulp like Weird Tales. Effectively creepy.

The bulk of the set, though, prove quick and satisfying little actioners offering readers into worlds we now primarily see on cable doc series like Deadliest Catch or Axe Men -- rough environments where tough-as-nails men put themselves as risk on a daily basis -- or classic Hollywood adventure movies. Of all the genre types featured in the book, the one that seems to most consistently bring out a lighter narrative touch prove to be the westerns (e.g., John Lewis’ “The Prodigious Postscript,” which details the adventures of a seeming tenderfoot in an Arizona desert town.) Per the manner of the day, the voice of many of the offerings in Best of Adventure: Volume One is more formal than we are accustomed to reading in more modern action pulps, but that’s also a part of their considerable charm. These are tales where publishers still saw fit to blank out every obscenity, and the nastiest epithet that was openly used was “brute” or “swine.” Which does not, in any way, mute the sense of peril in these Gripping Yarns.

(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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