Thursday, December 31, 2009

This is the end, my friends...

So we're wrapping up 2009, and we're wrapping up the decade -- and I've decided it's as good a time as any to wrap up this blog as well.


I've been blogging, not daily, but at least a couple times a week, for just shy of 6 years now -- exactly 1,101 posts, starting all the way back in Roseburg, Oregon, in April 2004, and wrapping up at the end of 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand. I've been mulling over quitting for a couple of months now, trying to decide if I was "sure" or not, but in the end it boils down to I feel like I've said most of what I wanted to say here, and I don't want to just keep doing this blog as a chore. I could stumble on for a while longer, but I'd like to try and turn what little spare-time creative energies I've got in a different direction. I won't quit writing, but it's time for something else.

I've really enjoyed doing this blog, and I know I will miss it more than a little bit, especially when the itch hits to rant and ramble on something. The longevity of as new a medium as blogging is uncertain -- some folks do it once or twice and flame out, some carry on daily posts for years and I tremendously respect that. I figure I ended up somewhere in the middle; 6 years is a decent run in today's world.

I never wanted to make this a "one subject" blog so I have written about any variety of things -- books, movies, music, comics, journalism, and of course, chronicling the ins and outs and ups and downs of plans for and migration to New Zealand in 2006. And I started this blog just a couple months after we had our bouncing baby boy Peter, so there's been a lot about what it's been like being a dad on here. I also ended up doing a lot of writing for the fine site BlogCritics as a result of this site, and had a great time doing that and polishing my critical skills.

There's a heck of a lot of fine people I have "met" through this blog, several of whom I've actually gone on to hang out with in person. They're great bloggers and quite interesting folks who have commented or linked a lot. A decade ago I would've said making a "friend" on the Internet was a bit creepy, but many of these folks I've met thanks to this blog are great and not at all creepy -- Ash, Arthur, Andru, Bob Temuka, Roger Green, Mike Sterling, Patrick, Johnny Bacardi, Daniel M., Tom The Dog, Largehearted David, Greg, Mandy, Fred Hembeck, ADD, Uncle E, Beaucoup Kevin, Jeff Parker -- I'm proud to call a lot of you my friends (or at least not mortal enemies) and I'm sure there's many I've left out.

And there are tons of others, friends old and new, who have stopped by to read my words-- every time someone has left a comment on here, I've been gratified, and even if you've been reading and never left one, I still appreciate your time.

I'll still be lurking around the Internet someplace, of course and plan to keep reading the many great blogs out there, some of which are on the blogroll. Thanks again for reading my meanderings these past 5 3/4 years and have yourself a most excellent 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part IV

PhotobucketThe gory end! We hit the finale of my look at Stephen King's written legacy -- over 50 books, kazillions of words and a lot of inventive ways to kill people. As I noted last time, King's days of every book being a capital E "event" are probably over, but he still sells 'em by the shovelful. His rather insanely prolific pace makes it hard to keep up sometimes. (Remember that time when he was allegedly going to "retire"?)

King has been up and down the last decade -- with some tremendously strong epics like "Hearts of Atlantis" or "Duma Key" paired with jazzy pulp like "From A Buick 8" or "Cell," and then some outright failures like "Black House" or "Dreamcatcher." But I'll still pretty much give everything he writes a shot -- he's rarely failed to entertain at least a bit even at his lowest point.

Rose Madder: One of King's more overlooked books, but a really gripping tale of an abused woman's struggle for freedom, folded into a fascinating mythology-linked plot. King's voice for women characters has rarely been stronger and there's a real sense of empowerment here that it's hard not to cheer. And for once, what I call King's "metaphysical mumbo-jumbo" tendency for plot resolution works very well. Grade: A-

PhotobucketThe Green Mile: Famously done in a 'serial' format, it's an interesting cross between realism and fantasy for King -- which doesn't entirely come off, but there's a new maturity to his writing here. The tale of a prison guard, a mysterious "magical inmate" and his healing powers, it's very well told even if some of the more fantastical elements don't really work for me. Grade: B

Desperation: A demon takes over a small Nevada town, wreaking havoc on a small crowd of survivors. While not in King's upper tier, it's a decent, gory yarn, although the whole "magical child as savior" trope is really getting old. But it moves briskly for its length and goes down smooth enough. Grade: B-

The Regulators: A weird "rewrite" of "Desperation" by "Richard Bachman," King's pseudonym. A town slowly goes mad thanks to a demon's possession. I'd say by this point the Bachman gag has worn out its welcome -- not terrible, but not as good as "Desperation" and the split-novel parallel is nowhere near as interesting as King thought. Grade: C

Bag of Bones: One of King's best takes on love and loss and I'd argue the full flowering of King's more "mature" style we saw hints of in "The Green Mile." While it's a ghost story, King takes a gentler hand in his writing, working hard to develop character instead of shocks. If it weren't for a rather unsatisfactory conclusion I'd rank this among his best books, but it's well worth a read. Grade: B+

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: A short story about a girl lost in the woods, padded out to novella length. On its own, not terrible, but not worth being a book on its own really. Grade: C

Hearts in Atlantis: One of King's finest works, and there's barely a monster to be found in it. A series of intercollected novellas loosely wrapped around the baby boomer generation. It ties in loosely to the "Dark Tower" series but the best of the stories are the ones that have nothing to do with horror -- the title piece, about a group of friends and their time in college, plucks the heartstrings like nothing of King's since "The Shawshank Redemption." Grade: A-

PhotobucketOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Yes, "It" and "The Stand" are usually mentioned as King's best books -- but this very candid memoir/writers guide deserves a place in the pantheon too. Full of tips and confessions, it's some of King's most honest writing, a fascinating peek "behind the camera" and as gripping as any of his made-up stories. Grade: A+

Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing: A rather under-the-radar "grab bag" of King works, many of them uncollected. Viewed as a kind of companion to "On Writing," it's not bad, although it's really one for the diehard fans and does repeat some of what's in other books. Grade: B

Dreamcatcher: It'd be hard to make any novel about aliens that erupt out of your ass palatable, and this one is a rare total misfire by King. It rips off aspects of "It," "The Tommyknockers" and "The Shining" and makes it a gooey, overlong mess, complete with mentally disabled character who just happens to have magical powers. One of my least favorite Kings, written while recovering from his near-fatal 1999 accident and really, it shows. Grade: D

Black House: Disappointing sequel to "The Talisman" by King and Peter Straub. It fails to capture the otherworldly wonder of the first book - returning to its protagonist Jack as an embittered adult - and even for King, this one is dark and frankly, dreary. And tying it into the "Dark Tower" series seems unnecessary, really. Grade: C

PhotobucketFrom A Buick 8: A teleportation device to another world disguised as an old car? This one is a rather underrated, concise bit of creepy sci-fi horror, with the punch of an old EC Comics story -- it's short by King standards and has a good bit of pure chills. I also frankly like how open-ended the mysteries remain. Good fun. Grade: A-

Everything's Eventual: The fourth volume of short stories and a decent set of yarns -- many originally printed in "The New Yorker" and have a bit more highbrow, Poe-meets-Lovecraft kind of feeling. The best of his recent story collections. Grade: B+

The Dark Tower - Books IV through VI: You can really only consider the final Dark Tower books as a thousands of page whole. I could have written an entire series of blog posts on the "Dark Tower" alone and feel bad to give them rather short shrift here, but suffice it to say it's King's magnum opus, a gigantic piece of work with tendrils connecting all over his other stories (some of the links work, some feel forced, though). The story of damned gunslinger Roland and his quest for the Dark Tower has a very different feel than most of King's tales, taking on aspects of Tolkien and other epic fantasies. What's particularly interesting about the Dark Tower as it works through the last three mammoth books is how King goes very metafictional -- including himself as a character at one point. "The Dark Tower" isn't a perfect piece of work, and probably could have been at least one book shorter, but its sheer scope demands attention -- and the ending, while perhaps less immediately rewarding than one might hope, is still utterly fitting and almost demands you go back instantly and re-read the thousands of pages before. Grade for whole saga: A

The Colorado Kid: A thin-as-piano-wire thread of plot animates this bloated-up short story about a mysterious death on the Maine Coast, part of the "True Crime" series. It's really just a 10-page tale strettttttched into 150-something pages by King's meandering. Grade: C-

PhotobucketCell: Cell phones turn people into mindless zombies! A retread of "The Stand" but with a good and gory hook. "End of the world" books are almost always worth a read. It's dark and nasty but a good solid yarn, although the novel bogs down in a rather unbelievable plot once the whole "apocalypse" unfolds. Grade: B+

Lisey's Story: A love story but a flawed one -- with some of King's most annoying authorial tics in full flight. The narrator here, a woman who's lost her husband, uses an inane made-up language to describe her fantasy world; a device that could have worked but becomes incredibly wearisome over 500 pages. As a ghost story and a love story, King's done better in books like "Hearts in Atlantis" or "Bag of Bones." Redundant. Grade: C-

Blaze: As disposable as King gets -- an unpublished "Richard Bachman" crime yarn from the '70s dusted off and rewritten, and it reads like sub-par Elmore Leonard imitations. Really interesting only as trivia, and best left in the files. Grade: D

Duma Key: An excellent gem about redemption, and rehabilitation, using King's accident as a plot point. One of his best written novels and it's quite rewarded by using Florida as a setting instead of King's by-now cliched use of Maine. Grade: A-

Just After Sunset: More short stories! I'm afraid King's short stories haven't really zinged since about "Skeleton Crew," but more power to him for keeping up. This is probably his most uneven bunch, but "The Things They Left Behind," where King uses 9/11 as the engine to set a haunting story in motion, is among his best short pieces. Grade: C+

PhotobucketUnder The Dome: Hey, I just put this on my top books of 2009 list so I must have liked it. Basically what I said there -- good chewy King yarn, with a highly propulsive plot that speeds over any rough patches. It's impressive that after a few zillion words and more than 30 years, King still has the ability to craft a tale as readable and fun as this, really. I don't know where he's going next, but I'll stick along for the ride as one of his many Constant Readers. Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiest of holies

With 3 days to go in 2009, I proclaim this the year's best YouTube video compilation. And the decade's, for that matter.

Lazy crazy daze of summer

Late December and January are a weird time in New Zealand. After four Christmases here, I'm pretty much used to the whole "Christmas in summertime" thing, and we had a gorgeous holiday weekend to boot, with much eating outdoors, hiking on sand dunes, a bit of swimming (water's still a little chilly though) and more. I even got attacked by a crab which got tangled in my swim shorts perilously close to a place you don't really want a crab with pinchy claws going, if you get what I mean.

The entire country sort of settles into a weird torpor till about mid-January or so, the "silly season" as it's called. Many people take some of their four weeks' guaranteed annual holiday time in Christmas, and the kids go on their "summer holiday" break from school -- about six weeks off. It's far more of a holiday than it is in the US, where Christmas falls in winter and students generally only get a couple weeks off. Don't try to hit the roads going out of town or find a quiet campground in NZ in January -- everyone else has the same idea. Rather than taking a big holiday time here I've been taking several 2- or 3-day breaks here and there and combining them with weekends, it's worked out very nice so I haven't had a full 'regular' week of work in a month or so, and got to spend a lot of time with my parents while they were visiting.

Stores close down (my favorite comics shop doesn't reopen til January 9 - sob!), businesses roll down the hours and the Auckland traffic is suddenly deserted. Also a really bad time if you need to get a contractor or lawyer or other service. It's actually kind of a nice time to be living in this city of 1.5 million people if you do have to work, really. Besides, when there's several fine beaches within a 10-minute drive of our house I don't get fussed about trying to leave town this time of year, I'd rather do it when the rest of the country isn't on the roads too.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Elementary, my dear Watson: Holmes endures

PhotobucketOne of my favorite discoveries of 2009 was the venerable Sherlock Holmes. Oh sure, I knew who Holmes was, how can you not?

But while I'd seen a few old movies/TV shows with the character I'd never really read the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tales or discovered their rich charm. I picked up a nifty omnibus in Melbourne a few months back collecting the whole lot of them, and have been slowly working my way through.

The stories are great fun, classic Victoriana adventure lit that reminds me of Jules Verne (whom I read the heck out of as a kid). Sure, they're formulaic, but it's a winning formula. Everybody loves a mystery.

With many Holmes movies the perceived stiffness of the characters renders them museum pieces to a modern eye; but even though Doyle was writing from a very prim and proper time I find his words pack more life than some of the adaptations have.

PhotobucketSo while it's no masterpiece, it's a pleasure to see director Guy Ritchie and a lively Robert Downey Jr. attempt to rejuvenate the legend in their new film.

Ritchie gives Holmes a good kick in the trousers, knocking off the Victorian dust that's settled over the years. Read closely Sir Arthur's original stories, and you'll see lines about Holmes' boxing prowess, his cocaine habit, his raw moodiness. There's little here in this zippy new "Holmes" that flies in the face of tradition.

Instead, it plays up the quirk that was already there. You get a seething, funny performance by Downey, all tics and constantly spinning mind. One of the movie's best gimmicks is showing how Holmes works out the best way to win a fight in his head before a punch is thrown. Downey is frequently the best thing about the movie, which is a bit overcooked by hyperactive director Ritchie.

Jude Law makes a sturdy, jaunty Watson, showing the character as less of a buffoon although he is frequently outmatched by Holmes' wits.

Rather than giving us some "Sherlock Begins" origin story this film jumps in with the detective well-established. The plot loosely revolves around a death-defying master criminal (a sinister Mark Strong) and a secret society, and tosses in Holmes' unease about Watson's impending marriage. As a kind of love interest, Rachel McAdams is Irene Adler, the "only woman who bested Holmes."

Sherlock Holmes has become an icon, like Batman or James Bond, who's open to multiple interpretations. While the new "Sherlock Holmes" film might be a bit jumpy and modern for some, it's just the latest in a long line of cases the great detective has taken on.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: The grand finale, X, Y and Z!

...And finally, we reach the end of the alphabet of my Classic Comics ABCs. Took me a little longer than I thought it would to make a journey through the ol' comics collection and some of what I've read and loved these past 25+ years, but 'tis been kinda cool, too, doing brief looks at everything from "A for Amazing Spider-Man" to "Z for Zap Comix." And without further ado, away we go into the end of the alphabet!

X is for Uncanny X-Men #168

If you were a teenage boy reading comic books in the early 1980s, at one point, you had to fall in love with Kitty Pryde. It was the total 12-year-old kid kinda crush, nothing creepy, but the youngest X-Man -- the reader's viewpoint on the team -- was kinda adorable. For me, the prime X-Men era will always been circa #160-#200 when Paul Smith and later, John Romita Jr. were on the artwork with writer Chris Claremont. Yeah, the earlier Claremont/Byrne issues are awesome stuff too, but I didn't read them till much later. Unfortunately, the "X-Men brand" has been so utterly diluted in the years since by endless spin-offs, impossibly complicated continuity and everything from movies to action figures to beach towels that it's hard to forget how simple and revolutionary they once seemed. Unlike the rather stiff Justice League or Avengers or even Fantastic Four, the X-Men in the 1980s seemed real. Chris Claremont had his flaws but at his best, he utterly got the whole outcasts fighting for a society that hates them motif. This issue is a great sampler of the era, featuring Smith's terrific cover, with young Kitty "booted out" of the X-Men for the new younger trainee team. She has a tantrum, fights some stowaway aliens, wins Professor X's respect and is back on the team, the end. It's got superb Smith art and doesn't meander all over like most X-Men stories do today. And man, did I love that Kitty Pryde a bit.

Y is for Yummy Fur #22

PhotobucketChester Brown is one of indie comics' most interesting creators. His works include the sicko surreal fantasy "Ed The Happy Clown," strangely direct Bible adaptations, Canadian historical nonfiction -- but my favorite of his work remains his unsparing, gripping autobiographical stories. Towards the end of his run of "Yummy Fur," Brown started telling tales from his childhood, focusing on the small moments of being a nerdy kid growing up but making all these moments add up into a rather devastating portrait of boyhood. My favorite among these is "The Playboy," a tale about, well, Brown's first issue of Playboy, and his obsessive compulsive attempts to hide it, his shame, shredding it, hiding the bits again and so on. I won't say I ever did such a thing (no really, I won't) but Brown's eye for detail and his fine, almost wood-cut like art take tiny moments and make them big. He's rather unprolific now compared to what he once was, but Chester Brown is definitely one of comics' greats.

Z is for Zap Comix #0

PhotobucketIt's appropriate to end the ol' Comics ABC with Robert Crumb, who helped mark the delineating line between "kid comics" and "adult comix" with his seminal '60s work, including this here issue of "Zap Comix." I'd characterise myself as a "middling" Crumb fan – I'm a huge admirer of his draftsmanship and his ability to let his id utterly flow forth onto the page, although sometimes he gets a little too id for his own good. I find he works best in sampler packages like the "R. Crumb Coffee Table Book " or his excellent sketchbook collections. And then there's the movie "Crumb," which I'd easily put in my top 5 documentaries of all time list -- rarely has a creator let himself be so thoroughly dissected for the screen, and it's a fantastic film. "Zap Comix" #0 is a total artifact of its time, all hippie dreams, Mr. Natural, raining meatballs and Crumb's vaguely disturbing stereotypical drawings of women and black folks. It's a perfect little peek at his odd mind, and while I think he'd go on to do much better work in years to come, "Zap Comix" is still 100% pure Crumb. So we start with Spider-Man, and end with Crumb. That's comics for you!

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, M: Miracleman, N: Naughty Bits, O: The One, P: Peter Parker, Q: The Question, R: The Rocketeer, S: Star Wars , T: Transmetropolitan, U: Ultimate Spider-Man, V: V For Vendetta #1, and W: World's Finest #258.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Forsooth! A final week of 2009 meme!

Photobucket1. What did you do in 2009 that you'd never done before?
Saw the boy off to start school; dealt with cancer in the family; saw Neil Young live; celebrated 10 years of wedded bliss; rebuilt a front page in about 10 minutes to get Michael Jackson's death in; visited Melbourne, Australia.

2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I don't make the things. Less grief.

3. How will you be spending New Year's Eve?
Valiantly trying to stay awake but likely failing.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
Just crossed the ditch to Melbourne in Australia. Also went to South Island which is kind of like another country. Hoping to visit the ol' American homeland in 2010 but will see...

6. What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009?
Peace of mind.

7. What date from 2009 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
April 17 was quite nice as we were on our South Island trek and had a fine, if incredibly curvy driving, journey going up the hill from Motueka over to Farewell Spit, on the very very tippy northwest corner of the South Island. We got to this very remote and gorgeous hobbity beach and it was nearly deserted, and a whole school of baby fur seals were playing in water pools just a few feet away from us. Awesome.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Finally getting our house into decent shape by painting every room, building a nice trellis outside and buying the last furniture we lacked.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Controlling the devil temper.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
The usual minor aches and pains for someone suddenly pushing (urk!) 40.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
The flash new LCD TV and a new sofa set. Also the most expensive things we bought!

12. Where did most of your money go?
The mortgage, of course. Also big ticket items like new gutters, new couch, that kinda thing. Lots of little dribs and drabs onto the usual comics/movies/music of course....

13. What song will always remind you of 2009?
"Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear; "Zero" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Writing/drawing. Also exercising.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Lying on my back bein' a bum.

16. What was your favourite TV program?
We totally got into watching Showtime's "Dexter" this year and have ripped through the first three seasons. Michael C. Hall is so great he makes me forget "Six Feet Under."

17. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Hrm... no, hate is a strong word. "Tired of" is better.

18. What was the best book you read?
Even though I technically started it in 2008, I read the bulk of Roberto Bolano's "2666" this year and dug it a lot.

19. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Old music: I'd never really listened to the 13th Floor Elevators/Roky Erickson prior to this year and really got into their utterly batshit psychedelic rock. Newer music: Finally got into exploring the Eels and their great discography. Newest music: The superb Grizzly Bear's evocative gem "Vecktamest."

20. What was your favorite film of this year?
Still an awful lot I haven't seen, but so far -- a tossup between "Inglourious Basterds" and "Moon," I think.

21. What did you do on your birthday?
Ate yummy noodles at a noodle bar with the family and watched Kenneth Branagh smoulder in the BBC's "Wallander."

22. What kept you sane?
Wife/boy/sunny days. Some days boy did the opposite though.

23. Who did you miss?
"All my friends" living in the US of A.

24. Who was the best new person you met?
Not to put him on the spot but it was a pleasure to meet Bob, a NZ comics nut/ blogger/journalist whom I have a lot in common with.

25. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009:
Nothing stays the same.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In memory of the humble Christmas card

PhotobucketI guess I hadn't really noticed it, but the old Christmas Card pretty much died off during this decade, didn't it? I never got a flood of cards, but back in the 1990s I remember getting a couple dozen which has slowly eased off to a trickle these days -- we might get a couple of cards a year and they're almost always from folks over 50. What with the Facebooks and Twitters and blogs and such the annual card doesn't seem as necessary a way of catching up, I guess.

I stopped sending Christmas cards myself 5-6 years ago I think; I did an "email card" or two for a while there but now, well, thanks to the Internets I'm pretty much in touch with you if I want to be and if I don't want to be it doesn't really matter, does it?

I did always like cards, though, like the "ET" one above I made my parents in 1983 or so. For a while there, I was a real nut for elaborate handmade Christmas cards -- back at the end of high school and on into college, after I'd moved across country, I made a huge production of the annual card, when email was science fiction and real mail letters were how I kept in touch.

PhotobucketMy first card circa 1988 or so was a drawing of my little comic characters, and the next year, I branched out into collage. I painstakingly cut dozens of little photos out of magazines of pop culture icons of the age like Vanilla Ice, Sinead O'Connor and Sting and glued them into my cards, combining them with artwork to create kinda nifty (if I do say so myself) little panoramas. I then made color photocopies and mailed them out. I tried to top myself each year -- the last year I did the collage I had more than 100 little figures and photos on the page, had repetitive strain in my hands from the scissors and Xacto knives and decided that was about enough.

Sadly, I really, really was hoping I could dig out some of these collage cards to show here, but can't find them -- I suspect they're buried in a box in my parents' basement in California.

PhotobucketBut I did make other cards, up until 1999 or so -- using PhotoShop or my own drawings instead of scissors.

Christmas Cards are one of those things that have kind of faded away from my life, though, and I guess in 2010 they start to look a bit archaic. I don't miss getting them, not really, as other things have taken their place, but I did kind of like the curious effort I put into making my own for so many years.

Merry Christmas to all you out there!

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: U, V, and W!

Just three more letters to go in my Classic Comic ABCs as I wind through the ol' comics collection. Here's U through W!

U is for Ultimate Spider-Man #13

I'm of two minds about Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis has becomes one of comics' top selling writers in the last decade, with his name on about half of what Marvel puts out. He brought a fresh, sharp eye for dialogue -- characters that speak like real people! -- and interesting "reinventions" that got a lot of ink. I wouldn't have thought Spider-Man, Wolverine and Luke Cage would work as Avengers, but he's more or less made it work. But on the other hand, Bendis' quirks can become annoying, and his dialogue can sometimes try too hard to be "hip." He also has a knack for starting a story in a gripping way and having it all fall apart in the end. But anyway, Bendis got his big mainstream start with "Ultimate Spider-Man," which should not have worked -- an "alternate" version of Spider-Man starting at age 15 or so, told from the beginning without all the burdens of existing stories? Yet "Ultimate" has often been more entertaining than the established Spidey in the past 10 years. This issue, #13, is one of Bendis' best -- no villains, no costumes, just an issue-long conversation between Peter Parker and his girlfriend Mary Jane as she learns his secret. Bendis' strengths for human interaction are in full flight here. A great single issue where nothing happens, but everything happens.

V is for V for Vendetta #1

I've written about Alan Moore a couple of times here on this list, so this time, I'll turn to the artist. "V for Vendetta" is Moore's giant "F--- you" to the era of Thatcherism/Reaganism, and as chilling a story of paranoid fear and fascism as comics have produced. There was a movie based on this series a while back, which was better than I thought it'd be but lacked the omnipresent dread of the original. Much of the mood of this series comes down to David Lloyd, whose shadow-drenched art flowed richly on the page. He used chiaroscuro to give his work an incredible depth; the grime and decay of post-war London oozes off the page. The colours in the paperback I have are muted, dulled and nearly sepia in approach, letting the blacks dominate. Lloyd also devised the iconic look of the "terrorist" V himself, all dancing cape and frozen, ever-grinning mask. Back when I drew a few scribbly comics myself, I remember studying Lloyd's panels endlessly for tips. Moore's words often get most of the attention in his comics -- and well they should -- but in "V for Vendetta" Lloyd really rose up to become a totally equal partner in the series' creation. It's hard to imagine it drawn by someone else.

W is for World's Finest #258

Some things just go well together. Peanut butter/chocolate, Lennon/McCartney, fish/chips, Superman and Batman. I've always loved the old "World's Finest" series that ran up to the 1980s where Supes and Bats would team every month in a comradely fashion and fight crime. Back then, Batman wasn't so grim and the duo had a real friendship that shouldn't have worked but did. This tale is hardly the best story of the era but I got it 30 years ago in 1979 -- it was one of these wonderful "Dollar Comics" DC did for a while, a 68-page anthology that besides the Dynamic Duo also included Green Arrow, Hawkman, Captain Marvel and whoever else was floating around at the time. The lead story this issue has Batman turning into... well, a were-bat thanks to some Kryptonian disease. It's the kind of story that scares the hell out of an 8-year-old -- Were-Batman was freaky, man! I can still read the yellowing pages and summon up how the story felt to read some 30 years ago. Batman and Superman still team up all the time these days but darn it, they never turn into werebats or battle giant dishwashing machines or aliens quite like they did back in the day.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, M: Miracleman, N: Naughty Bits, O: The One, P: Peter Parker, Q: The Question, R: The Rocketeer, S: Star Wars and T: Transmetropolitan.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Weekend music miscellany

Photobucket• Here's a marvelous appreciation of the band Pavement by Tim O'Neil which I found quite interesting. They are the quintessential California slackerdom '90s band; when I first discovered them I was living in Mississippi but they always reminded me of something strange and remote about my homeland. I clearly remember driving down the lonesome road from Oxford to Tupelo with a girl I knew I liked but couldn't figure out how to deal with, "Brighten the Corners" was on the car stereo, she made a comment about how she didn't like it and I knew that was probably it for us. When I lived for a year or so down near Modesto, a short hop from Pavement's hometown of Stockton, I listened to 'em constantly. Their mellow surrealism was the perfect tonic for life in the California Delta. (About three months until I get to see them play the first show ever on their reunion tour, y'all!)

• I am a man of eclectic tastes and I guess I see no wrong in both Genesis and the Stooges being voted to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Class of 2010, even though it'd be hard to get two less alike bands. ABBA, I'm less sure about (ABBA is just one of those things that has totally passed me by in life). But I know one thing -- I'd pay one MILLION dollars to see an all-star jam between Genesis and the Stooges at the end of the night of the induction. "Sus-Suss-Sussudio and Destroy!"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Next stop, Year Two!

PhotobucketSo the beginning of the boy's first school year was weird and strange and fun -- but the end of it is even odder to me. Down here in upside down down under, the school year ends just before Christmas and starts up again in February, so Peter's on his final day in Year 1 of primary school today. He found out his next teacher and classroom that he'll start up with Year 2 in 2010, and got his very first school report. It's got to be a bit tough, having just gotten used to his little group of friends and familiar faces, and then moving on to the next one. It makes me feel weird, too -- first "end of term," first of many more to come, the kind of realization that school isn't just a one-off thing but a years-long journey for the boy.

He is doing pretty well, all things considered. It's been a bloody rough year for our family in a lot of ways with two grandparents battling cancer, but he's been strong at school and his reading and imagination are tops. There's more than a fair share of discipline and obedience battles and there are times when you just think life was easier when we had two cats instead, but so it goes. Peter gets a break now with mom for a while and then he goes back in February -- not one of the newest kids, but moving on up the old school food chain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My favorite books read in 2009

So, here are a handful of my favorite books of 2009 -- a couple of which might've snuck out a bit earlier than this year but which are very much still worth reading regardless of publication date. There are many others that came out this year I haven't gotten around to as well -- finding a copy of Chuck Klosterman's latest down here is danged tricky, for instance.

But of the 75 or 80 books I read in 2009, here's what I liked best:

Photobucket"2666" by Roberto Bolaño and "The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolaño - For someone who's been dead since 2003, this Chilean writer has had quite a year. His last few books of fiction have been translated into English and they're not quite like anything else out there -- surreal and vicious and intense and passionate, he was one of Latin America's most exciting voices. "2666" is a monster of a book, nearly 1000 pages (and apparently not entirely finished before his death) divided into three parts, an apocalyptic and nightmarish journey that circles around a plague of serial murders in Mexico and a secretive German writer. Bolaño had a knack for creating a disturbing, unsettling atmosphere. It's an epic book and by the end I felt truly changed a little by it in some undefinable way, which is what the best stories do. "Savage Detectives" is "lighter" in tone than "2666" but also marvelous, a kind of Kerouacian road trip following two poet buddies traveling around the world. It's both idealistic and disillusioned at the same time, and Bolaño's twisting, gorgeous prose is in full swing.

The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English by Mark Abley - People love to complain about how English is being "destroyed" by the Generations Y and Z, with all their LOLZ and txtspk. Abley genially upsets that assumption by painting a portrait of how English is always changing, always fluid, and how it has truly become a global language in the last few decades. In a great piece of anecdotal journalism he skips about the world looking at Japanese teens' "Japenglish," Hispanic Spanglish, the influence of hip-hop and the Internet, and how the way we communicate is constantly shifting. Instead of being debased, Abley argues that English is being constantly improved as a tool that works best for its particular audience at the moment. Thought-provoking and trivia-packed. (His "Spoken Here," about dead and dying languages, is also worth looking for.)

Photobucket "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" by Mark Harris - Five movies that don't seem to have a lot in common -- "The Graduate," "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," "Dr. Dolittle," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Bonnie and Clyde." But they were all nominated for Oscar's Best Picture of 1967, a year that changed the movie industry. This fascinating book explores the genesis, production and reaction to all five movies, each of which symbolizes a different aspect of Hollywood, whether it's maverick independence or bloated studio extravaganzas. The fertile explosion of film in the '70s can be directly credited to movies like "Clyde" while the more calculated blockbuster mentality is seen in a stumbling vanity production like Rex Harrison's "Dolittle." Harris' smart and funny narrative is a must-read for any fans of movies.

"Under the Dome" by Stephen King - I know, a Stephen King book on my "year's best" list, there goes my literature street cred I carefully built up with the dead Chilean writer above. But "Dome," while not King's best ever by any means, is a great "cheeseburger" of a fiction read, a very fast-paced 1000-page epic about a small town in Maine and what happens when a mysterious giant dome is placed over it. Yeah, sounds like a "Simpsons" episode, but King deals it up with his trademark mix of horror, humor and invention and a fair amount of satire on the post-9/11 American mentality. Sure, characters may be thin and 1000 pages may be padded, but I'd still call "Dome" his best in several years and to use a cliche, I could barely put it down while reading it.

Photobucket Sunnyside" by Glen David Gold - I loved Gold's first novel, 2001's "Carter Beats the Devil," and it's been a long wait for his next book. "Sunnyside" is a challenging but quite satisfying read that entwines Charlie Chaplin, a would-be Hollywood stuntman, World War I and a cast of dozens of real-life and fictional personages of the 1910s. "Sunnyside" sprawls all over the place in its narrative that loosely explores the birth of the "modern" world of Hollywood, imagery and warfare, but it's Gold's portrait of Chaplin that holds the center -- his Chaplin is a confused, brilliant genius pulled in different directions by his muse.

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann - Mysterious lost cities in the jungle of the Amazon? Sign me up! I've been on a big "exploration lit" kick for a while now and David Grann's stirring tale of the search for an ancient lost city is great fun. The focus of Grann's book is on legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared into the Amazon in 1925 and was never seen again. Dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of valiant explorers have also been lost searching for traces of Fawcett. Grann does a great job revealing the secrets of the world's hidden places and giving us rollicking real-life Indiana Jones-style adventure.

Photobucket "Juliet, Naked" by Nick Hornby - Hornby's latest novel is a nice return to his "High Fidelity/About A Boy" form after a few lesser books. "Juliet, Naked" is almost "High Fidelity 2" in how it digs into that strange world of music obsessives (um, not that I know anything about that), spinning a tale of fixated fans, reclusive musicians and lovelorn museum curators that's a real brisk, good-hearted and enjoyable read.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: S and T!

S! And T! Near the end of the alphabet we be! (Can you tell I've been reading Dr. Seuss lately?)


S is for Star Wars #58

Oh, this is a pivotal moment in the alphabetical meander through the ol' comics collection. This tattered and battered 1982 issue of Marvel Comics Star Wars is my first time. The comic, that is, that started off my multi-decade, my oh-my-god I don't want to think about how much money I've spent comics obsession. Sure, I'd read comics before, but casually like any kid, not as a "fanboy." But this one tipped me over the edge. It was a fun comic, during Marvel's rather underrated series following up on the movies, and at this point the great team of artist Walt Simonson and stories David Micheline were on board. The issue itself -- well, nothing "epic," I guess, but it had a cool story about C-3PO and R2-D2 floating in outer space waiting to be rescued. That dazzling Simonson image on the cover -- scarlet sky, boiling sun, vaguely haunting image of robots floating in the void -- it kindled something primal in the ol' mammal brain and I had to pick up every issue of "Star Wars" I could, and soon, many, many other comics as well. All thanks to this issue. I've gotten rid of many of my "floppy" single issue comics over the years, trading them in for paperbacks of the material when I can, but this one issue I'll never get rid of.


T is for Transmetropolitan #8

Cynical, hard-boiled journalist tearing up the streets? Why, it's my life story. ...Nah, I've never really been that kind of journo, but that doesn't keep me from admiring the hell out of Spider Jerusalem, the bald, sneering take-no-prisoners Hunter Thompson meets Mad Max scribe of Warren Ellis' futuristic classic. Ellis is perhaps my favorite comics sci-fi writer, because he makes the future seem so damn plausible and scary. "Transmetropolitan" was bitter, brutal, thoughtful and mercenary, and it was one of my favorite comics of the 1990s-2000s. Ellis' vision of the future, wired-to-the-gills and corrupt as hell, is one of the great settings, and in this issue, Ellis compares then and "now." The political conspiracies and journalism rampages of other issues are set aside for one tale of Mary, a woman who dies in the 20th century, has her head frozen and then is revived in Jerusalem's twisted future 200 years later. This story, written as a Spider column, tells of us Mary's life and the horrible shock she gets from the future, which is meaner and more baffling than anyone could imagine. What would it really be like to visit the future? Maybe we don't want to know. This is a heartbreaking little gem of a story, and one of Warren Ellis's best creations.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, M: Miracleman, N: Naughty Bits, O: The One, P: Peter Parker, Q: The Question, R: The Rocketeer.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Movie review: Zombieland

PhotobucketIf the worst comes to pass and zombies do actually rise up and start feeding on the living, it's a good idea to be prepared.

Lists are smart. Do your cardio exercise -- it's wise to have a head start on the undead. Always check the car back seat -- there might be a zombie back there. Oh, and beware of bathrooms.

In the biting new horror comedy "Zombieland," nerdy student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is one of the last people left alive after the zombie apocalypse. He's managed by making obsessive lists of survival tips, but soon hooks up with fellow survivor Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a gun-toting, impulsive redneck. Together the two take a road trip across a shattered America to find out if there's anyone else left.

Equal parts road-trip comedy and horror movie, "Zombieland" is a bit like an American version of Simon Pegg's modern classic "Shaun of the Dead."
Columbus and Tallahassee make a fine team as they travel. Mismatched buddies are nothing new, but the novel setting makes "Zombieland" a gory good time.

First-time director Ruben Fleischer has a witty, sharp style. While there are shocks and action, the characters are given equal time as they try to live in a strange ruined world. For Columbus, he hopes to find a surviving girl to fall in love with. For Tallahassee, nothing is as important as finding the last box of Twinkies snack cakes.

"Zombieland" boasts one of Harrelson's best roles in years -- his bogan Tallahassee is hilarious. And there's a cameo appearance by a top comedy star that has to be seen to be believed.

The pantheon of zombie movies is growing almost as fast as vampires these days, but "Zombieland" is lively undead fun. Just don't forget to check your back seat after the film.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday shuffle: Much better than the owner of a broken heart

Photobucket Ah, glorious new iPod! Yes, I remember the days of yore when I bought my 30GB first iPod back in 2005, and I thought, I will never fill this with music, that's a lot of space. Of course it's been pretty much full for the better part of a year or two now and I kept having to delete stuff to put new stuff on, so being a mechanical modern man I decided to splash on a late birthday/early Christmas present of a stylish 120gb iPod with four times the space. Ah, gigabytes, is there nothing they can't do?

1. Poison Cup 2:45 M. Ward
2. Holy Holy 2:23 David Bowie
3. Slip Inside This House 8:03 13th Floor Elevators
4. Burnin' Up 3:52 Ciccone Youth (Sonic Youth)
5. In My Room 3:54 Yaz
6. Born In Time 4:13 Bob Dylan
7. You Belong To My Heart 3:05 Old 97's
8. Don't Ask Me 3:45 Public Image Ltd.
9. Dinner Bells 7:35 Wolf Parade
10. Thrift Store Chair 2:09 Everclear
11. Owner Of A Lonely Heart 4:29 Yes
12. Family Entertainment 2:38 The Undertones
13. Ye Auld Triangle 4:25 Cat Power
14. Whistle For The Choir 3:36 The Fratellis

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: Q and R!

Onwards, onwards, through my alphabetical tour of my favorite comics in my collection over the years -- the end is in sight!


Q is for The Question #1

There are "minor" superheroes every comics fan has a thing for. They aren't the giant marquee heroes who get movies made about them like Batman and Wolverine, but they're still cool. I've got mine -- Black Panther, Omega the Unknown, Mr. Monster, The Atom, and the faceless man of mystery himself, The Question. Steve Ditko's Question has one of the best, simplest looks in comics -- a man in a suit, but with no face (thanks to a pseudo-science mask). The Question had a marvelous run back in the 1980s-1990s for DC Comics under writer Denny O'Neil, who for my money is one of comics' most valuable players. O'Neil has written tons of classic Batman, Green Arrow and more stories, and his edgy mix of humanism, relevance and good ol' action still holds up. The Question #1 is vintage O'Neil, a relaunch of the character who'd more or less been in limbo since his 1960s debut. There's a bit of Batman, a bit of the Shadow and a bit of Caine from "Kung Fu" in the Question, who's kind of a "zen detective." The stories are less about comic superheroes than they are tight little vignettes of the human condition. This is pulp crime comics close to their best, aided by superb art by Denys Cowan. Oh, and at the end of this very first issue the Question is beaten to a pulp, shot in the head and thrown in a river. Now that's a cliffhanger!


R is for The Rocketeer

Dave Stevens' "The Rocketeer" was pure pulp comic art, and it's a real shame there was so little of it. I remember first seeing the dazzling, near photo-realistic art of The Rocketeer back in the mid-1980s -- it was a revelation. The story wasn't anything visionary -- a charming 1930s adventure about a man with a rocket jet pack -- but the intensely detailed art was among comics' best. It didn't hurt that Stevens helped fan the Bettie Page revival with his thinly veiled inclusion of the pin-up queen as a character. There was a not half-bad movie too based on the series in 1991. Unfortunately, the gorgeous art showed how much of a perfectionist Stevens was -- it'd take him years to produce pages, and in the end his Rocketeer story was only a hundred pages or so. He died of leukemia in 2008, his comics output having slowed to a trickle over the years. He did an awful lot of "good girl" pin-up art -- and it was great stuff, never truly sleazy like much of the field. It's a real shame that he didn't leave us with more, but what Rocketeer work he did produce was "choice," as they say.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, M: Miracleman, N: Naughty Bits, O: The One, P: Peter Parker.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Across the gulf to Waiheke Island

PhotobucketAs mentioned previously, my parents are back over here from the US for a few weeks visiting, which has been keeping us quite busy. The other day we did one of those quintessential Auckland experiences that I've never actually done, visiting Waiheke Island. Waiheke is about a half-hour ferry ride from downtown Auckland and home to 8,000 people. A sizable community lives over here in the Hauraki Gulf and it's a very popular holiday home and tourism destination. I've meant to go go over here for years but never quite got around to it (in the way you often don't visit the most touristy things in your hometown until you have out-of-town guests). We found a nice ferry/guided tour/bus pass package that worked out really well for a day's adventure. It's a beautiful rambling island, full of vineyards, beaches and greenery and with a nice "back in the bush" feeling with Auckland's skyscapers visible in the distance across the gulf.


In an Auckland spring you get about 40 different kinds of weather a week but fortunately the weather gods smiled on us for our day on Waiheke. Gorgeous clear skies, weather warm enough I regretted not bringing the swimming togs, and low winds. If there's anything finer in life than fish, chips and beer by the golden sandy beaches, I don't want to know it.