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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Was Superman A Spy?. Brian Cronin. Plume (2009)


This book is a very enjoyable tour around some of the urban legends and stories that are part and parcel of comic book history. While it is unlikely that anyone who was not a comic book fan to begin with would pick up the book, a reader would not have to be one to enjoy it. This is the major strength of the book, it is neither excessively fannish nor is it aimed exclusively at the non-fan. It is straightforward and clear, written in a plain accessible way that is a pleasure to read.
There are 130 stories in the book and they range from the truly odd and sad, one of the creators involved in Crime Does Not Pay was found guilty of manslaughter and served a prison sentence to the wonderful, the pieces about Superman being a spy. Brian Cronin wears his research lightly and provides all the details needed in a concise fashion required to appreciate the point of each story.
There is no particular theme to the book and this serves it well. The stories cover a wonderful range of back stage antics concerned with the comic book industry and the detail is impressive and frequently very amusing. The illustrations and excerpts are very well chosen and the quality of the reproductions is high. This book is both highly enjoyable and very informative, a pleasure.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Sign of Four. (DVD) ILC DVD. (2000)


This is a very enjoyable version of the Sherlock Holmes story, it sticks pretty much to the original story, the variations are nicely done and add to the drama. Sherlock Holmes, portrayed with great skill and humanity by Ian Richardson, finds himself involved in a murderous plot centering around a stolen hoard of jewels and revenge. The plot is nicely paced and the reveals are well done. The deductive set pieces by Holmes are very nicely done, they include one of the most famous in the series, when Holmes makes some observations about an owner of a pocket watch and unwittingly upsets Watson.
Ian Richardson is excellent as Holmes, he captures the excitement that energises Holmes when there is a problem to be solved as well as his uneasiness with non-professional human relationships. His interactions with the police force, who are portrayed as settling for the easiest solution are explored with a nice light touch. Cheri Lunghi, playing Mary Morstan, has a tricky role to pull off, she is a damsel in distress and is largely required to be ornamental, she manages to infuse the role with warmth and depth. As with any Holmes adaptation the most difficult role to carry of is that of John Watson, he is all too frequently reduced to an idiot foil to Holmes, existing to reflect Holmes brilliance. David Healy provides a splendid Watson, his friendship with Holmes is evident as is his interest in their client and future wife, Mary Morstan. His performance makes it easy to see how the friendship between himself and Holmes could exist and flourish. All told, this is a very pleasant treat for any Holmes fan and equally good fun for anyone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Resurrection. The Insurgent Edition. Marc Guggenheim (Writer), David Dumeer, Douglas Dabbs (Art), Douglas E. Sherwood (Letters). Oni Press (2009)


This book has a great premise, ten years after an alien invasion the invaders suddenly disappear and the remnants of humanity have to resume their lives in a shattered world. The execution leaves me completely cold. The mysterious spark that ignites a story in a readers imagination so that it comes to life is not present when I read this book. Reading the book was an effort, I was conscious of actually reading all the time, I did not find myself willing to spend time with the cast, nor did I find that the execution of the premise was sufficiently intriguing to entice me on.
I found the cast to be unpersuasive and the plot mechanics, while thoughtful were just not establishing a grip on me. There is a significant level of craft and skill in the book, the art is a bit looser and less detailed than I really like, the cast were not given quite sufficient substance for my taste. Post-Apocalypse stories are tricky to bring off effectively, disintegration has inherent dramatic possibilities, re-building requires a more subtle dramatic imputes if it is not to be stogy, the mix between the two is critical to engage the reader. This time the formula was not to my taste.

Nixon's Pals. Joe Casey (Writer), Chris Burnham (Art). Rus Wooton (Letters). Inage Comics Inc. (2008)


This straightforward, competent comic is worth reading. This is not intended as a meagre compliment to the level of craft and talent demonstrated in the comic, rather it reflects the fact that the book squarely meets my expectations without exceeding or overturning them. The premise is smart, Nixon Cooper is a parole officer for supervillians. It has a bucket of potential and to a large extent that potential is realised with the book. There are no let downs nor false moves in the book, the idea is skillfully executed. The art is dynamic and detailed, equally effective with supervillians and human characters. The domestic and office scenes are nicely done, the emotional content is clear and vibrant. The supervillians are varied and thoughtfully realised. There is enough variety to give a sense of a genuine population of enhanced creatures threaded through society to make the idea of a supervillian parole officer credible.
The loss in the book is the story structure, it conforms too closely to existing crime story conventions. This has its advantages, it normalises the activities of the fabulous characters and gives weight and credibility to the narrative, it allows for a persuasive interaction between the parole officer and his parolees. The problem is that is does not take a leap off into the fantastic, exploiting the possibilities of the premise. Joe Casey is talented enough to take a almost stereotyped situation, a law enforcement agent with a disintegrating personal relationship, feeling frustration with the system, supervisor and colleagues and to breathe real life into it. The choice to follow this pattern acts to restrict him later when he needs fireworks. The narrative is constructed cleverly, the reveals are effective and the climax satisfactory. This is solid storytelling that just misses being exhilarating.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Brinkley Girls. The Best of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons From 1913-1940. Trina Robbins (Editor), Fantagraphics Books (2009)


Nell Brinkley's stunning art graced the pages of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers for more than thirty years, her warmly romantic drawings of beautiful women and handsome men made her a star in her own right. This book is a superb demonstration of why she was so popular and a testament to an extraordinary talent that deserves to be restored to public attention. Nell Brinkley's elegant art captures the spirit of light hearted glamour and deeply romantic beauty in a way that photography, however creatively manipulated, cannot. The art communicated the ideal with such directness, with the necessary air of fantasy and with the emotional context so intimately drawn into the cast that they remain as seductive today as they did decades ago.
The Brinkley Girls are very distinctively of a type, they are willowy, with glorious hair that that frames their wide eyed expressive faces. They are dressed in the gorgeous clothes that flow and swirl around the them with such stunning details and colours that they are virtually characters in themselves. In the illustrated romantic serials that Nell Brinkley wrote as well as illustrated she clearly had a strong preference for spirited heroines who were willing to take bold action to protect their lovers. In particular the "Golden Eyes" serial is an outstanding example of the astonishing talent. The story is melodramatic to the core, the flowing artwork is joyous. In later serials where she was illustrating the stories by other authors that features more conventionally constrained heroines, her art is still luminous, the fashion details and calmly understated sexuality of the heroines are treasures of lush romance.
The volume is beautifully produced, the artwork is crisp and the details bright and clear. The pieces by Trina Robbins are informative and very well written, they add an valuable critical commentary to the art.

Die Hard Quadrilogy. Twentieth Century Fox . DVD.


A great collection of non-costumed superhero films that combine absurd action, smart humour and carefully crafted tension into a terrific package. These films wear their formula with pride, there is no attempt to disguise it or to update it. They solve the problem that superhero comics struggle with, how do you stick to the basic premise yet manage to provide enough fresh details so that the stories satisfy expectations and are crisp and fresh at the same time. These films also show just how hard that is to do also, none of them are less than really enjoyable, the first and the last are significantly more so than the second and third, the reasons are to do with getting the formula balance correct.
The plot is the same in all four outings, John McClane, a New York policeman finds himself entangled in an ambitious plot by a vicious supervillian and engages in an escalating series of encounters up to an final personal face off. McClane is a reluctant hero, dragged into these situations by chance and having a personal stake in the affair, usually involving a family member being in danger. The action will be loud, very fast, extremely violent and underpinned by a sharp humour. McClane will survive physical pummeling that would reduce any normal human to a bag of mangled bones and charred skin, he will look as though he has been trough the mill however. The supervillians will be truly despicable, nearly operatic in their evil, armed with scorn and savage will they use technology and with to drive their plots, which are always satisfying elaborate.
The second outing lacked the direct confrontations between McClane and the villain that add a key personal element to the contest between them, the third lacked the family element that adds directly to the urgency McClane feels about stopping the villain, the first and fourth films get the balance spot on. Bruce Willis is a charismatic action hero, frequently down, never out, success is always just ahead of failure. The action is always huge and beautifully choreographed, the plots are stoutly constructed, the reveals satisfying and substantial. Best of all there is not a single trace of irony to be seen in any of the films, they take themselves seriously enough to allow the audience enjoy the high energy absurdity to the full. Undiluted fun.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Unstrung Harp Or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel. Ewdard Gorey. (1953) Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


This a a wonderfully funny and horribly truthful book about the toil of writing a novel. Edward Gorey uses the cloak of absurdity to poke very sharp fun at literary pretensions as well as to look at the sheer labour involved in writing a novel. Mr. Clavius Fredrick Earbrass, a noted novelist is about to launch on his next book, always begun on November 18th of each alternative year. The process that follows is hard on mind and body, between the highs of having a good day and the awful lows of reading the work to date and realising that it is terrible. While the struggle to end the book is titanic, it is nothing to the horrors of revision nor the torment of creating a clean copy for the publishers. The struggle continues through proof reading the galleys, approving or disappoving the cover artwork and deciding what to do with the free copies from the publisher.
Edward Gorey provides a wonderful commentary on the action captured superbly in the beautiful line drawings on each facing page. Each stage of the process is affectionately mocked while the genuine effort required for a creative process is revealed with a witty understanding. The ridiculous names and absurd situations are never irritating or tiresome, they are a critical part of the light hearted style of the writing. The book is a remarkable work of art, the writing is very precise, without a wasted word and the illustrations are pitch perfect, the whole package is book to be cherished.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. Bruce Springsteen (1973) CBS Inc.


The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle was Bruce Springsteen's second album, also the second he released in 1973, he was announcing his arrival with style and a confident authority. The musical themes that are present in this collection are the same one that re-occur throughout his work, urban working class and unemployed life, love celebrated and lost love lamented, all driven by exuberant musical arrangements and captivating melodies.
It is amazing that this is a second collection, it has none of the hesitations that frequently dog second outings as artists struggle to find their feet in the music industry with all the attendant production and scheduling pressure that come with it. Bruce Springsteen displays the lyrical density and dexterity that he has always had, there does not seem to have been a learning curve, he had a fantastic talent to capture a slice of life that feels truthful and honest without being pedestrian or patronising. In particular 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), a song about a fading romance , showcases this aspect of his songwriting. The music is gently supporting the words. On the other hand Rosalita (Come out tonight), the music is rushing and triumphant, the lyrics are clever and joyous, it is celebrating life , love and success.
This collection contains one of my all time favourite sings, Wild Billy's Circus Story. From the opening tuba through the extraordinary evocation of a circus at work and play it is wistful, generous and haunting. This collection lacks the thematic coherence of some of the later great collections, it does not suffer by any comparison to any of them. A glorious collection of songs.