Tuesday, October 23, 2018

My Sister, the Serial Killer: Is this more or less troubling than My Mother the Car?

My Sister, the Serial Killer
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Doubleday

I remember reading an essay by Kurt Vonnegut in which he offered a piece of advice to aspiring writers: start a story as late in the action as possible. That's a strategy that Oyinkan Braithwaite follows in this, her debut novel, which begins with the eponymous murderer informing the book's narrator that she has killed her third victim. It's a great way to hook the reader, since when the title gives away what's going on, there's no need to explain a detailed origin story. Instead, we not only jump right into the action, but do so following a main character who goes about the morbid business of disposing of a body with resignation and frustration.

This approach also makes sense for the purposes of the book, which is less a tale of trying to cover up crimes (although that does factor into the plot quite a bit) than a character piece, with Korede, our narrator, struggling to balance a multitude of forces pulling her in opposing directions. She's the responsible one of the family, working as a nurse at a hospital in a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, while her sister Ayoola seems flighty, irresponsible, and, of course, prone to killing her boyfriends without showing much in the way of remorse. But things get even worse for Korede when her work and home lives collide after Ayoola shows up at the hospital and begins flirting with Tade, the handsome doctor that Korede has been pining for.

So, there's something of a thriller element here, with Korede trying to make sure her sister isn't caught, but also desperately attempting to keep Tade from being Ayoola's next victim. But there's a lot more going on here under the surface. As the book goes on, we see that Korede and Ayoola are still living in the shadow of their late father, and the more we learn about him, the more we see that they are recovering from some serious emotional trauma, not just from him, but from a society that systematically allows men to mistreat women.

While Korede and Ayoola have different ways of dealing with this trauma, they are both attempting to reckon with the way the world treats women. While Korede takes a more traditional approach, she doesn't get much satisfaction from it; working as a nurse doesn't seem to be the balance that it should be against the grim nature of her home life, since she spends most of her time dealing with administrative hassles rather than actually helping people, and she doesn't get much recognition for her efforts. So who's to say that Ayoola's me-first approach to life is any worse? While her claims that she killed her victims (a series of boyfriends) in self-defense don't seem very plausible, they were likely to do some sort of physical or emotional violence to her at some point, so she just beat them to the punch. It's a horrifying, sociopathic way to live one's life, but given the statistics about the harm that men do to women, as well as her own experiences, she might be the most prudent character in the book.

This dark philosophy is pretty universal; the dynamics between men and women play out in similar fashion all over the world. However, what makes the book especially interesting is the specificity of its setting. For a reader like me who knows very little about Nigeria, there's plenty of nice detail here, from the words people use and the meals they eat to cultural customs they follow and the concerns of their lives, such as the frustration of dealing with local government. It's not the stereotypical depiction of Africa, and even though it's a slim volume, it really places the reader into a different world, one that feels lived-in and vibrant.

This is a pretty excellent read, a fascinating character study that keeps its plot steadily moving forward while doling out bits of backstory at just the right pace and giving the reader plenty to think about. I'm definitely glad I got the opportunity to read it.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Bad Man: We're not talking about Shaft

Bad Man
By Dathan Auerbach
Published by Blumhouse Books

I don't read a lot of horror fiction, but I do occasionally check out the "creepypasta" stories that people publish online, some of which are very effective with the scares. So I was glad to get the chance to read this upcoming horror novel by an author who gained his fame through the online horror story Penpal.

However, I ended up being not especially satisfied with the actual book (I didn't like Penpal very much either, for that matter). Perhaps it's just my own tastes, but I felt like this one took much too long to get to where it was going, focusing more on the main character's turbulent emotions than on any spookiness that was going on around him.

The problem might be my own expectations; I thought this might be something of a supernatural story, but it turns out to be fairly grounded, although I wouldn't exactly call it realistic. The plot involves a young man named Ben whose three-year-old brother disappeared without a trace while the two of them were at a neighborhood grocery store. In the five years since the incident, he has been wracked with guilt and searched everywhere in town to find his brother, to no avail. After he graduates from high school, he looks for work to help his family make ends meet, but the only place in his small town that is hiring is the store where his brother disappeared.

So, he ends up working the night shift, and some strange stuff seems to be going on around the store, although less than one would expect in a book that's supposed to be scary. Instead, the focus is mostly on Ben's emotional state, including his continuing guilt, anger, and desperation, as well as his inability to trust anyone else. He's a complicated character, and not especially likable, prone to lashing out at people who care about him, obsessing about whether others are lying to him, and suspecting that nearly everyone around him is either involved in his brother's disappearance or just doesn't care enough to help find him.

I think that's the real focus of the book, and rather than going for scares, the kind of horror the author seems to be attempting is placing the reader in an unpleasant headspace. I wouldn't exactly call Ben an unreliable narrator, but you do get the idea that his internal sense of himself is different from what others see. He seems to think he's on a heroic crusade to find his lost brother, while he's actually causing a lot of pain to those around him and generally making things worse. And that makes what ultimately happens to him kind of fitting, if still pretty disturbing.

All in all, it's an interesting book that's fairly effective in placing the reader someplace they don't really want to be. It does take a long time for things to happen, but maybe that's by design too; Ben has been waiting for answers for five years, and he's stuck eking out a grim existence, with little hope for the future. Things are already sad enough at the start, and they just get worse, no matter how hard the characters try to make things better. In that way, it's kind of a fitting book for modern times. That doesn't make it especially satisfying or enjoyable to read though.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: The series gets...less bizarre?

This blog isn't dead if I publish one or two blogs a year, right?

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 3: Stardust Crusaders, Volumes 1-6
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media

If the first two parts of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure were ludicrously over the top examples of shonen fighting manga, this third volume seems to be the point at which creator Hirohiko Araki toned things down a bit and settled into a long-running quest storyline. They're still pretty weird, with lots of striking gore, strange fashions, and nonsensical superpowers, but not quite at the level of what he had exhibited previously. Maybe setting the story in the present day somehow made things more restrictive, as if there needed to be at least some semblance to reality?

Whatever the case, there's still plenty of crazy stuff here. This volume introduces us to a new series protagonist, who is Japanese this time around. He's the grandson of Part 2's Joseph Joestar, but his name, Jotaro Kujo, can still be shortened to JoJo, and he's something of a tough guy high school student. However, we get introduced to him when his mother sends for her father, Joseph, who is looking pretty spry and muscular for a guy in his sixties. She reports that Jotaro has been arrested and refuses to leave jail, and when she and Joseph visit him, he claims that he's being haunted by an evil spirit, whose powers get demonstrated in pretty awesome fashion:


This is kind of a clever way of introducing the series' latest twist on crazy superpowers. You see, certain people have such powerful life energy that it creates an apparition expressing their inner nature or something. Since these spirit figures stand next to them, they are known as "stands," which I suspect is a case of a Japanese creator using an English word that sounded cool to them but comes off as awkward in translation.

Anyway, only stand users can see each other's stands, and both Jotaro and Joseph have had their stands recently awakened due to the reappearance of an old enemy: Dio! That's right, the villain from part 1 has been awakened after somebody found his body on the bottom of the ocean, and what's worse is, his head (which, you may remember, was all that was left of him after a series of epic battles) is wearing the body of Jonathan, Joseph's grandfather!

So, Joseph and Jotaro set out to go confront Dio, who is currently in Egypt. They are accompanied by a stand-using pal of Joseph's named Mohammed Avdol, who I think is supposed to be African, although I don't know what's going on with his weird hairstyle (which seems to consist of two-inch dreadlocks and a rat-tail) and what are either facial tattoos or some sort of scarring, as well as what looks like a very heavy earring necklace:

They quickly pick up a few allies as well. First up is another Japanese teenager named Noriaki Kikyoin, who attacks Jotaro at school in a creepy fashion by using his stand like a puppeteer to take over the body of the sexy school nurse and make her do some nasty stuff to some other juvenile delinquents:


However, when Jojo defeats him by having his stand punch him a lot, he drags him back to Joseph and Avdol and learns that he was being controlled by a "flesh bud" inserted into his brain by Dio:

Gross! But after Jotaro removes the flesh bud via awesomeness, Kikyoin is eager to join the gang on their quest. However, they quickly learn that their journey to Egypt won't be so easy when another bad guy attacks their plane and causes them to crash. In order to avoid endangering innocent bystanders in future attacks (and to provide a reason for a road-trip narrative), they decide to take a more roundabout route, traveling by sea and land throughout southern Asia. They do manage to fill out their ranks a bit more after encountering a Frenchman named Jean Pierre Polnareff in Hong Kong. As with Kikyoin, he attacks them because he's being controlled by Dio, but his sense of honor fights through his evil programming as he accepts a noble death by fire at the hands of Avdol's flame-controlling stand, which makes them decide to spare his life and let him join the team.

So, it's a long, eventful journey that's full of geographical and cultural details that may or may not be based on actual research; there are lots of wacky culture-shock misunderstandings while the gang is traveling through India, and plenty of other nonsense, like this strange aside involving some ascetics sighted by the side of the road:

That might just be Araki inserting some of his general oddball sensibility into the story, which he does take the opportunity to do whenever he gets the chance, although if anything, he seems to have toned things down a bit. This turns out to be a fairly conventional shonen narrative involving a group of awesomely-powered pals (some of whom started out as bad guys) traveling together and occasionally fighting evil on their way to confront the ultimate villain. The sheer level of anything-can-happen strangeness is not as prevalent here as it was in previous volumes, with villains mostly being defeated after being overpowered (Jotaro's main attack seems to be a flurry of punches) or occasionally outsmarted through teamwork. It's kind of disappointing; there's not much of the one-upmanship that I enjoyed so much in previous parts, with combatants countering their opponents moves through secret techniques only to fall prey to counter-counter moves, which are countered themselves in increasingly awesome and unlikely ways.

But maybe that sort of storytelling isn't sustainable; if every encounter is more awesome than the last, you eventually reach a point in which you can't get any more awesome (although I could think of a few rebuttals to that idea, such as the Dragon Ball manga or the anime Gurren Lagann). For a longer-running series, shorter encounters with secondary bad guys makes for an easier hook, and maybe Araki can pull out all the stops when the gang finally gets to Dio himself. And who knows, after that the sky's the limit.

But for what actually does occur here, there's plenty of strangeness, imagination, and lots of the series' trademark gore. Also, Araki has given himself an interesting foundation to build the series on by basing everyone's stand on cards from the Tarot deck. They start out by pairing cards with a color; Avdol's stand is named Magician's Red, Joseph's is Hermit Purple, Kikyoin's is Hierophant Green, Jonathan's is Star Platinum, and so on. Later, Araki drops the colors and just names stands after the cards, so they encounter Emperor, Hanged Man, The Lovers, Justice, The High Priestess, etc. It sort of makes sense, at least early on, with Avdol, a fortune teller, remarking on what the different cards represent and how the stand users' powers fit that theme. But eventually it just seems to be an idea generation machine, with the names of cards giving Araki an excuse to draw whatever seems to fit the theme. And eventually, Araki runs out of Tarot cards, so when the gang gets to Egypt, they start encountering stands based on the Egyptian pantheon of gods (some lip service to consistency is paid when a character claims that Egypt is the origin of the Tarot, which is a notion that seems suspect).

And there are certainly some crazy/cool ideas here, as well as quite a few that don't make a whole lot of sense, but you just kind of have to accept them. Joseph's stand takes the form of thorny vines that come out of his hands, but he mostly uses them to interface with electronic or photographic equipment for remote viewing purposes (including karate chopping and smashing a Polaroid camera in order to generate a picture of Dio). Polnareff's Silver Chariot stand is an armor-wearing swordsman that moves so fast that Avdol's stand's flame powers are useless against him because "My stand can freely slice apart flames and separate them...creating gaps between pockets of air, guiding the fire." Uh...sure, that makes sense, I suppose.

And those are just the main characters. The villains consist of a motley assortment of freaks and weirdos, mostly recognizable by their grotesque appearances. There's a serial killer whose stand attacks people through reflections, a sadomasochistic creep whose stand seems to be inspired by the killer doll from the movie Trilogy of Terror, a womanizing cowboy with a gun stand that fires ghost bullets, a gross old lady who turns people into zombies/puppets after punching holes through their bodies, a guy who shrinks his stand down to microscopic size to attack people from inside their brains, and a baby stand user who attacks people through their dreams. And those are the fairly normal ones!

There are also quite a few instances when Araki sets up rules, only to break them as soon as possible. Characters state early on that only stand users can see each other's stands, but at one point, the gang gets shipwrecked and lost at sea, and they, the crew of their boat, and a girl who decided to tag along as a sometime-sidekick end up on what appears to be a drifting, deserted ship. But wouldn't you know it, the whole ship is a stand! The stand user, by the way, turns out to be an ape that does not appear to be based on anything actually found in the animal kingdom:

This phenomenon of "normal people" being able to see and interact with stands happens more than once, and it usually gets hand-waved away. There's another guy whose stand is an amorphous, shape-shifting blob which he uses to disguise himself as other people, and apparently his stand is able to take physical form because that was what the plot called for. Later, the crew fights against a stand that takes the form of a sword that possesses anyone who unsheathes it, which kind of upends the whole basis of the series' mythology. Ah well, you can't really take points off a series like this for being unrealistic.

One thing I did sort of take points off for, though, is Araki not coming up with as many crazy poses, strange anatomical irregularities, or weird costume choices. There are certainly some regrettable hairstyles, like Polnareff's super-high flattop/mullet combo (Araki sometimes gives him a hairline that makes it look like his head is cylindrical):

Or the wad of hair that seems to be hanging off the front or side of Kikyoin's head:

And I'm not sure what is going on with Jotaro's hat, which seems to either have his hair sticking up through the top or only covers the front of his head:

But other than that, people seem almost normal, with few expressionistic fashion flourishes (Polnareff's weird tube-top/one-shoulder tanktop is particularly goofy), and aside from an occasional bit of anatomical oddness, action poses that are fairly standard. Instead, Araki seems to be saving up his excessiveness for the ever-present gore. Blood flows in this series like few others, and villains are usually dispatched in incredibly nasty fashion. People's heads explode, limbs are severed, guys are stabbed full of holes or cut in half, and all manner of nastiness occurs. In one especially brutal moment, even a dog gets killed in gory fashion:

It's pretty horrific stuff, but it's certainly memorable. It also serves to make the good guys willingness to straight up murder their enemies somewhat more palatable, since the bad guys are likely to viciously dismember anyone and everyone they encounter. This usually makes their comeuppance pretty satisfying, whether they're getting stabbed to death by Polnareff:

Or pummeled by Jotaro:

So, overall, this is still a pretty enjoyable series, even if it has lost some of the batshit craziness of earlier volumes. I'm definitely curious to see what other types of superpowers and gore that Araki can come up with, and who knows, maybe he'll pull out some sort of insane battle that tops everything he's done so far. Here's hoping for as much nonsense and, yes, bizarreness as possible.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Paterson: The power of a blank notebook

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

If you’re looking for a filmmaker who can accentuate the poetic nature of everyday life, you could definitely do worse than Jim Jarmusch. That’s kind of what his whole career is all about, even when he’s making movies about modern-day samurai or guys escaping from jail. This one is one of his more down-to-earth ventures though, following a regular guy with artistic aspirations through a week of his life.

It’s a pretty low-event movie, one that seems to take place mostly in its main character’s head, and even its most dramatic moment featuring a struggle that’s almost entirely internal. And who better to play a guy of few (verbal) words but one that has a lot going on under the surface than Adam Driver, that most inscrutable (in a good way) of young actors. He plays the eponymous bus driver, who shares a name with his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and while he seems to just quietly go about his work and observe what is happening around him, we see him regularly write poetry in a notebook that he always carries with him, and we hear him read these poems in voiceover, often delivering them in a somewhat halting manner, as if he is still composing them.

And that’s about all there is to the movie. Paterson continues throughout his daily routine, working on his poetry and trying to take inspiration from his hero William Carlos Williams and his surroundings, although he seems to be struggling a bit. And that’s where the slow-moving, internal nature of the movie becomes fascinating. It seems that everyone around Paterson has some sort of artistic pursuit of their own, from his wife and her multiple creative outlets (including fashion, interior design, baking, and music), to a young girl he meets who is also a poet, to the bartender at his evening haunt, whose pursuit of his love of chess may end up causing him some trouble, to a cameo by Method Man as a rapper working on his verses while waiting for his clothes at the laundromat. Many of them also seem focused on fame, with the bartender highlighting famous Paterson natives on the wall behind the bar and his wife dreaming of becoming a country music star. And most of all, the spectre of Williams, who is certainly Paterson’s most famous son in Paterson-the-man’s eyes, stands out as the person whose example he’ll never live up to.

But is that really the point? While Paterson’s wife pushes him to share his poetry with the world rather than hiding it in his “secret notebook,” isn’t art truly about expressing yourself creatively, no matter who is watching? Or is Paterson’s intensely internal nature keeping him from sharing his poetry with anyone else, and he needs a push to get him to acknowledge to the world that he’s more than just a bus driver? Whatever the case, he definitely becomes forced to face himself and do something, and that’s where the movie attains a kind of sublime power, a call to action to not let your artistic gifts lie fallow.

I’m especially fascinated by the film’s repeated use of twin imagery. Paterson encounters several sets of twins throughout his week, as well as other instances of doubling (two bus riders having a conversation in which they each relate an experience in which a pretty woman flirted with them, but nothing came of it; a pair of old ladies sporting similar attire and hairstyles; the bus dispatcher complaining about his personal troubles on multiple days, and so on). At first, this seems like a cryptic detail that highlights the poetry that Paterson sees in the world around him, but then it takes on relevance in relation to his wife’s urges to photocopy his poetry notebook. But after thinking about it, I feel like it’s the world telling Paterson that he is more than one thing; he contains multitudes. He can be a bus driver, and a loving husband, and a friendly guy at the local bar, and also a poet. It’s an empowering realization, and one that we can all take to heart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Jerusalem: When can I make a pilgrimage to this new holy land?

By Alan Moore
Published by W.W. Norton

Alan Moore is a weird dude, but he's been writing compelling, fascinating stuff for decades now. Most of his body of work has been comics, but his first novel (or was it a collection of interlinked short stories?), Voice of the Fire, was pretty successful, so he apparently decided to go for broke and pour as many ideas as possible into his next work, and Jerusalem is the result, a 1,200-page doorstop of a book that is in turns mindbending, frustrating, and exciting in its sprawl of concepts and styles.

Like Voice of the Fire before it, Jerusalem centers on Moore's hometown of Northampton, England (specifically the working-class neighborhood known as The Boroughs), which he posits as centrally important in the history of Britain, a wellspring for much of Western culture, but a neglected and downtrodden place that is constantly being shat upon and systematically destroyed, possibly leading to the eventual downfall of civilization.

That's a pretty big idea to take in, but it's only one of the crazy concepts that Moore explicates here. While the story jumps around in time, with segments ranging from over 1,000 years ago all the way to the end of the universe (and also beyond time itself into higher dimensions), the story centers around a family native to the area, the Vernalls, and their fitful awakening to the role they play in the relationship between "our world" and the higher realms of the afterlife and the ghosts and spirits that inhabit it. It's an interesting multi-generational story, with everything leading to a climax of a sort, although now that I've finished, I'm still pondering exactly what to make of it all.

The journey from the beginning of the book to the end is definitely worth taking though. It starts with a prologue about Alma and Michael Warren, a brother and sister who grew up in the Boroughs in the 1950s and 60s. The defining incident around which much of the book is built has to do with a day in 1959 in which Michael, at three years old, choked on a cough drop and spent nearly ten minutes in which he was basically dead before being miraculously revived, with no memory of what happened during that time. But nearly 50 years later, in 2006, he has an accident and the memory of those 10 minutes comes flooding back, and it's so crazy that he thinks he might be going insane. He tells the story to his sister, who grew up to be a somewhat famous artist, and she decides to create an exhibition of works about his experiences, one that she says will make everything right that has gone wrong in their dying neighborhood.

But, having defined these two events that are of fundamental import to the story (Michael's near-death experience and Alma's exhibition), Moore proceeds to make us wait before he gets to them. Jerusalem is divided into three "books", and the first one skips around all over the place, focusing mostly (but definitely not exclusively) on members of Alma and Michael's family from earlier generations and their propensity for what seems like madness but turns out to be a knowledge of higher dimensions. This exhibits itself in different ways and to different effects, but it probably comes across most strikingly in a chapter told from the viewpoint of their great-grandfather Snowy Vernall, whose fourth-dimensional experience of his life means that he knows everything that will happen beforehand and simply follows predefined steps with his every action. Fascinatingly, Moore turns this into a beautiful examination of how this type of life would be experienced, describing how he still feels all of his emotions and lives every moment, even though he knows what's coming, and it ends up being a beautiful look at human life as lived without the illusion of free will.

There's plenty of other excellent drama and ideas in this first third of the book, with the perspective shifting in every chapter and jumping around in time to follow not only other members of the Vernall/Warren clan, but other characters as well, including a modern-day Boroughs prostitute, a former slave who emigrated from the United States, a medieval monk who hauled a stone cross from Jerusalem to mark Northampton as the center of England, and a ghost who roams the Boroughs living a strange sort of purgatorial existence.

That last one is one of the more interesting chapters, since it offers a hint at the weird cosmology that Moore has devised here, in which the departed can roam their former haunts and tunnel backward and forward in time, gaining sustenance from a sort of extradimensional fungus that looks like a bunch of conjoined fairies (you can see a depiction of these "Puck's Hats" right next to the title on the book's cover art, which was drawn by Moore). And when Moore finally comes back around to what happened during young Michael's near-death experience, you understand that he has been laying the groundwork for Book Two, which functions as an extended trip through the afterlife, a higher dimension known as Mansoul.

Book Two functions as one of the travelogues that Moore is famous for (think of William Gull's tour of London in From Hell, or, perhaps more analogous to this book, Promethea's journey through the Immateria), with Michael taking a premature trip through the afterlife, which sort of sits "above" our world and functions as a place where the dead can congregate, interact with angelic "Builders", and journey to any moment in history to witness what took place. This leads to plenty of adventures, many of which occur after Michael joins up with a group of apparent children (we learn that the dead tend to take the form at which they were happiest during their life) called the Dead Dead Gang, and they take him exploring through various moments in history, interesting areas of Mansoul, and sights that he needs to see to be able to later relate them to Alma so she can turn them into her art exhibition.

This second third of the book is probably where it works best, since it functions as a rollicking adventure through time and space, shifting perspectives each chapter so that we not only experience Mansoul through Michael's eyes, but also check in with each member of the Dead Dead Gang and learn about their lives and what led them to take part in these momentous events. There's an exciting scene in which they watch a fight between two Builders who come to blows over Michael's fate, an encounter with a demon whose nefarious schemes may or may not all be part of the grand plan, moments of profound sadness and joy, and a grand finale that's a fitting send-off to the kid before he rejoins his natural lifespan.

Following that tour de force exploration of the workings of the crazy afterlife that Moore has come up with, the last third of the book can't help but feel somewhat less satisfying, with much of it seeming like it's killing time before we can finally get to Alma's big exhibition and the culmination of all the book's plots. But there are still some fascinating ideas and continuing exploration of this world, including a trip to the end of the universe, a look at the world's monetary system (another thing that Moore claims has its origins in Northampton), and the payoff to some plots that had been simmering throughout the entire story.

Book Three also gives Moore a chance to experiment and push the limits of his format, sometimes in ways that test readers' patience. This is especially true in a chapter about James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who spent several decades in a Northampton mental hospital. Moore writes the chapter in what seems to be a pastiche of Joyce's style (I haven't actually read any Joyce, so I can't say how effective of an imitation it is), and it's a chore to get through. Everything is written phonetically and with lots of misspellings, rearranged words, and malapropisms, and reading it kind of drove me crazy, since it required constant decoding to determine what it was saying. I did get the hang of it after a while, but I was certainly glad when it was over, even though the content of the chapter lurking under the stylistic presentation was really interesting, with Lucia's fractured mental state allowing her to traverse multiple time periods and interact with lots of fantastical people and creatures.

Moore also throws in a few other semi-experimental bits, including a chapter that's presented as a sort of stage play (with Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare as characters), another that takes a stream-of-consciousness journey through one peripheral character's evening, and a third that takes the form of a poem (with an ABCCBA rhyme scheme that seems to reflect the book's structure itself). It's all rather playful, and by the time the book is over, it makes for a kaleidoscopic range of stories and ideas.

I'm still processing what exactly Moore is trying to say with all of this, but one thing I'm thinking is that Alma Warren is sort of a stand in for Moore himself (her name even sort of functions as a verbal anagram of Alan Moore), and this book is his version of her art exhibition, with the purpose of capturing the history and character of his beloved hometown and preserving its importance even as it (and, by extension, the rest of the world) decays into ruin.

But the book is really about so much more than just the importance of Northampton. It's full of fascinating ideas, and its extreme length lets Moore take side trips into whatever seems interesting, including Oliver Cromwell's psychological makeup; the struggle to come to terms with the fact that John Newton, writer of the song Amazing Grace, was also a slave trader; and even a look at cartoonist Ogden Whitney and his creation Herbie Popnecker. The book contains multitudes, and I'm sure it's full of additional secrets and symbols that I didn't catch. It's a pretty incredible experience, one that's like nothing else I've read, even among Moore's extensive, challenging body of work. It definitely requires an investment in time and mental energy, but it's totally worth it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I Watch TV Too: I need more time

I got behind on Timeless, but I'm all caught up before new episodes start again, so here's a quick review dump:

Season 1, Episode 8-10: "Space Race," "Last Ride of Bonnie & Clyde," and "The Capture of Benedict Arnold"
NBC, 2016

Welp, Timeless is still rolling along, and I'm still enjoying it. Of the three episodes that closed out 2016, we've got one that's an "adventure of the week," one that's sort of a character piece, and one that furthers the show's overarching plot in kind of interesting ways.

First up is "Space Race," in which the team heads back to 1969 to save the moon landing, which bad guy Garcia Flynn and his kidnapee/accomplice, the lead time machine scientist played by Matt Frewer (who I hope gets to travel to the 80s at some point and note his similarity to Max Headroom) have decided to sabotage for some reason. It gives our heroes their usual chance to geek out over being witness to a famous historical moment, and it also leads to some pretty amusing technobabble in which Rufus has to figure out how to fix a virus that Frewer infected NASA's computers with (he supposedly used a DDoS attack, which doesn't make any sense). Interestingly, he does so by recruiting Katherine Johnson, the real-life woman who was an unsung hero of the space program due to her race (she's played by Taraji P. Henson in the recent movie Hidden Figures). I do like that this show manages to work in historical figures like this and point out bits of less-remembered history.

As amusing as all of this is, with jokes about how the giant computers running the space program can hold 10 whole megabytes of data, it definitely strains credulity, with mission control spending most of the episode sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sit there on the moon waiting for the guys on the ground to fix the computers. The episode also suffers from its other plot, in which it turns out that the NASA stuff is mostly misdirection so Flynn can go meet his mother and try to change his family's history for the better. I think the show is trying to humanize him, making him into a conflicted villain who does evil for what he thinks is the greater good, but it ends up being kind of a muddle, with the audience not sure who to root for or how much they should care. Oh well, it's off to the Depression for the next episode!

You can guess the setting of this episode from its title, "The Last Ride of Bonnie and Clyde." Unfortunately, it's not especially interesting, maybe because the actors playing the eponymous bank robbers are no Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Our heroes head into the past to meet up with them when they find out that Flynn is after a key that Bonnie wears around her neck, which he has helpfully labeled as the "Rittenhouse Key" in some documents that the government recovered, so everyone knows it's important to the series' conspiracy plot.

Aside from a shootout that happens when Bonnie and Clyde rob a bank that Lucy and Wyatt have wandered into, the episode kind of drags, spending a lot of time with the characters hanging out with the historical figures and quizzing them about where they got the key (turns out Clyde stole it from Henry Ford and gave it to Bonnie in lieu of a wedding ring, since she was already married to someone else). I think we're supposed to wonder if Lucy and Wyatt are also forming a budding romance and maybe see some inspiration in these historical examples, but they don't have much in the way of chemistry, so I hope not.

Anyway, aside from an interesting scene between Rufus, Flynn (who is posing as a bounty hunter chasing the Barrow Gang), and Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who led the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, there's not a whole lot of interest here. Flynn ends up getting the key he was looking for, and the episode ends with him using it to open a steampunk mechanism in some old-timey clock and retrieve a mysterious scroll, which we're supposed to find exciting, if the dramatic music is any indication. What does the scroll contain? Find out next episode:

"The Capture of Benedict Arnold" functions as a Fall finale for this season, and it's back to exciting territory for the series as the cast faces their own "would you kill baby Hitler?" dilemma. This time, the gang heads back to find out what Flynn wants with, yes, Benedict Arnold; turns out he's a founding member of the evil Rittenhouse conspiracy, which is what that mysterious scroll told Flynn. We learn his plan when the team runs into George Washington and he introduces them to a familiar spy from the Culper Ring (a reference that I knew, having read Y: The Last Man) and asks them all to go on a mission to kill the traitor who recently defected to the British.

So that's their first big decision: should they trust Flynn and work with him to try to destroy Rittenhouse at its inception? Flynn tries to get them to agree by showing them that Rittenhouse is behind every travesty in American history (Lucy cites the Trail of Tears and the Waco Massacre), which is enough evidence for them to agree, I guess. When they do catch up with Benedict Arnold, the plot thickens even further when he reveals that Rittenhouse is just one man at this point in history, so if they can kill him, maybe they'll change history for the better?

This is all pretty dubious stuff, and it's the kind of thing that annoys me about not just this type of science fiction, but conspiracy stories in general. Trying to pass of centuries of horrible acts that real people carried out as a sinister plot by some evil overlords cheapens the real human cost that everyone should reckon with. Plus, it's less dramatically interesting, in my opinion. The banality of evil, the fact the real, regular people are capable of the horrors that we've witnessed throughout history is much more interesting than the idea that there is a cabal of moustache-twirling bad guys pulling everyone's strings.

But that's what you get in shows like this, so at least they make it fun by having the evil progenitor of the show's conspiracy be played by Armin Shimerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). He almost immediately sees through our band of misfits' assassination plot and captures them, smirking the whole time at his superiority over them. The good guys still win, of course, but mostly out of luck and dramatic necessity, and they end up killing not only Rittenhouse, but Benedict Arnold, and the British General Cornwallis, and who knows what changes that will have on history.

But Rittenhouse's young son gets away, providing the big dramatic climax of the episode, since Flynn wants to kill him, but Lucy won't allow it, even though we got a scene in which the kid told them all about how his dad thinks that the powerful people are destined to rule over the peasants, preferably from the shadows while mollifying them with the appearance of democracy. The kid is definitely shaping up to be an evil mastermind, but now that his dad is dead, maybe he'll change? That's the argument anyway, which plays out to tiresome extent in the episode's climax, even though it seems obvious that even though the show regularly changes history, it won't actually sign off on child murder. And sure enough, the kid gets away, which enrages Flynn enough to kidnap Lucy and take her with him in his time machine, leaving us on a cliffhanger until next time.

So sure, the show is still fun, although I'm finding the conspiracy plot to be increasingly tiresome, for reasons stated above. Of the three leads, Rufus is the only one who seems to have much personality; Lucy and Wyatt are bland and boring, no matter how many times they reiterate what they're fighting for (for the former, it's to try to fix things to bring back her sister, who was accidentally erased from history; for the latter, it's to maybe try to do likewise with his wife, who died in a car accident that might have been masterminded by Rittenhouse for some reason).

Interestingly, one of the series' minor players, the Homeland Security lady who sends the team on their missions, gets one of the more affecting scenes of the entire series in this episode when she has Lucy over for dinner to meet her family, confides in her that she's horrified at the possibility that they might change history in a way that makes her wife and kids disappear without her even knowing that they existed, and asks her to carry a thumb drive full of photos and videos of them with her on her missions in case that ever happens. It's a kind of goofy idea, but it fits into what the show has been doing, and actress Sakina Jaffrey totally kills the scene, demonstrating that with a decent performance, real emotion can be wrung out of these situations.

If the show has to shoot for emotion and drama in future episodes, it would be great if it's more like this than the overwrought angst the series' leads usually engage in, but I'm not especially hopeful. Instead, I'll just be glad whenever we get to see some fun time travel shenanigans, meet historical figures both well-known and less so, and recreate various settings on whatever backlot the show shoots on. That will probably be enough for me to keep watching.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

One Punch Man: When you start out big, where do you go next?

One Punch Man, Volume 5-6
Story by One
Art by Yusuke Marata
Published by Viz Media

One thing I enjoy about shonen manga is its sense of growing scale. Stories often start out following one character or group as they seek to become the best fighter/ninja/pirate/whatever in the world, and they slowly get better and better as the series progresses, gathering allies and gaining strength until they're ready for a massive final confrontation with the forces of evil. It's a great formula, one that makes following a lengthy narrative over the course of multiple volumes really satisfying.

But as with any formula, it can be fun to subvert it and play against expectations. That's what this manga does, with its main character starting off the series as the strongest there is at what he does and then subverting tropes as he easily defeats any threats that he faces. The creators get a lot of mileage out of the comedy that comes from a guy who is kind of a schlub being super-awesome, with his struggle being to find a worthy opponent, or just to get through his normal life when he's too good at what he does.

The fact that this is a superhero comic also gives the creators a chance to put their own spin on that genre. And they certainly do so, making this a very manga take on capes-and-tights, with characters competing to attain certain rankings in a superhero system that's strictly controlled by an organizing body. There's also an emphasis on master/student relationships, although the central one, between main character Saitama and his cyborg disciple Genos, regularly gets upended, as the student is the competent one, only following his teacher in an attempt to discover how he reached his off-the-charts strength levels.

So really, this manga is all about comedy, as well as plenty of shonen manga style awesomeness. Saitama is an impossibly strong superhero, able to defeat any enemy in a single punch, but how he got these powers is a mystery (he claims it came from working out so hard that all his hair fell out, he lost all feeling, and he gained incredible strength, but when he describes his workout regimen, it's not exactly back-breaking).

The first few volumes of the series saw Saitama wondering why he was having trouble achieving recognition as a hero, until he realized that he hadn't joined the Hero Association. Once he did that, he then struggled to be able to officially defeat bad guys, and since he was ranked so low, people thought that he had somehow cheated and couldn't possibly be so strong. And lots of other stuff, like rivalries with other heroes, got in the way of his progress. But maybe things are finally starting to look up for him as new threats that require his awesome strength arise.

As volume 5 starts, several other heroes (including an offensively-stereotyped gay-panic-themed weirdo named Puri-Puri Prisoner) are facing a monster named Deep Sea King who has invaded land and begun killing everyone he sees. It takes Saitama most of the volume to even show up for the fight, giving everyone else the chance to defend innocent bystanders and make courageous stands against impossible odds. We get plenty of dynamic spreads in which punches explode off the page:

But when Saitama finally gets there, he ends things pretty quickly, as always. But perhaps this is the moment when the creators decided that that joke can only go so far, so they spend the next volume or so building up an impossibly large threat to the planet in order to give Saitama an opponent who can survive a fight scene longer than a page or two. As seems to be standard for the series by now, it takes an entire volume of build to get to the confrontation (with lots of page time devoted to other heroes fighting over-powered bad guys in awesome manner), so we'll have to wait until volume 7 to see how it finally plays out, but given the series' track record with comic timing, I bet it will be pretty enjoyable.

So, this is a fun manga, full of dynamic action with stakes that are ridiculously high (entire cities are regularly laid to waste during the battles that take place), but an emphasis on comedy that keeps things light and silly while still taking plenty of time for general shonen awesomeness. One area of particular interest (to me, at least) is the way that Saitama himself is depicted. Artist Yusuke Murata uses a visual alien style when drawing him most of the time; where everything else is hyper-detailed and full of speed lines, Saitama himself is usually drawn with simple lines and minimal detail. It's another weird bit of comedy for the series, emphasizing that the main character is something of a blank slate, and someone who doesn't really fit in with what's going on around him.

The series makes for a really enjoyable read, albeit one that goes by quickly, since so many pages consist of characters attacking each other in explosive bursts of power, but I'm happy to spend that time having fun and being entertained by whatever nonsense the creators come up with next. I don't know how long they can sustain things, but I'm definitely planning to see them try.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Watch TV Too: Out of time

Season 1, Episode 7: "Stranded"
NBC, 2016

As I've stated, I enjoy this show, but it's not exactly good. That is, it's fun when it gets into rollicking time-travel adventures, but it's at its weakest when focusing on interpersonal drama between its characters. But while this episode does feature some of the latter, it balances it out with a decent amount of the former, enough so that I'll call it a win.

I suppose some focus on the characters was necessary after the big revelations in the previous episode, which set the main trio of the show at odds with each other as they all found reasons to be distrustful of one another. So, this episode sticks them in multiple situations in which they have to figure out how to work out their differences, which is fine, but neither the writing nor the acting is strong enough to justify the time spent. This means that we have to suffer through some interminable conversations about how they have to learn to work together and all that jazz.

But luckily, the rest of the episode has some fun stuff. The team pursues their nemesis, Flynn, to Pennsylvania in 1754, thinking he's going to try to change the outcome of the French and Indian War or something. But it turns out he has something more dastardly in mind: sabotage of their time machine in hopes of causing them to get stuck in the past with no way to get home. Oh no!

Luckily, our heroes are resourceful, so they come up with a ridiculous plan to sneak into a French fort and steal some supplies so Rufus, the team nerd, can cobble together a capacitor and get the ship working well enough to jump back to the present. This is pretty ridiculous (not that I've looked into the science or anything, but replacing circuitry with some bottles and flattened tin seems suspect), but it's one of those things that sciencey guys can do on shows like this, so we'll go with it.

And they also end up having a series of adventures on the way to their destination, including being captured by both French troops and Native Americans, with the latter providing one of the more dramatically ridiculous moments of the episode when Rufus somehow convinces them that he's not a slave and he'll put his life on the line to free his friends. This scene also gives us the requisite brush with history, as Lucy gets excited to meet their chieftess, Nonhelema (who has a surprisingly good grasp of modern English slang), but doesn't get the chance to explain who she is. Maybe they just didn't have time for the exposition, but it was kind of nice to have a character acknowledge that this is somebody notable without giving us a synopsis of their term paper about them.

And along with the historical shenanigans, there's also some drama in the present as the team of time-travelers try to send a message to the future through a time capsule, which gives Gia, the mousy (in Hollywood terms) technician who Rufus has a crush on, the chance to angst about her relationship with Rufus and eventually use their shared history of incredibly obvious sci-fi fandom references to interpret the message he left that will help them get back to the future. It's an example of a bit of writing that doesn't make sense (why would he leave such a cryptic message?), but as a way to develop character relationships, it works much better than the dramatic scenes between the three leads.

So, sure, the show is still fun. It's got time travel adventure, action, technobabble, and lots of ridiculousness (my favorite thing this episode was when our heroes were trying to hide from French soldiers and they just kind of wandered around in the forest without checking to see if they could be spotted). I'm still on board, although this focus on interpersonal drama might wear me down at some point. But as long as there's stuff like people dressed up in tri-corner hats and breeches and guys using blacksmith equipment to fix a time machine, I expect I'll be enjoying what they've got to offer.