Friday, December 30, 2011

The Angel-a-Thon: Season 5, the grand finale

OK, it was actually a few months ago now I finished my noble goal of watching all of Joss Whedon’s “Angel” and “Buffy” series, a whopping total of 254 episodes of vampire-stabbin’ good television. I wrapped it up with the final episode of the fifth season of “Angel,” “Not Fade Away.”

After the stumble that was the confused Season 4, the final season shakes up everything and goes in several new directions. At the end of the fourth season, Angel and his friends were put in charge of their longtime enemies, evil law firm Wolfram and Hart. The entire season is basically a meaty moral dilemma for Angel and co. – if you join the bad guys, work for the bad guys, doesn’t that make you a bad guy yourself? Angel, Wesley, Fred and the rest are determined to try and turn Wolfram and Hart into a force for good, but easier said than done.

For me, much of the enjoyment of Season 5 comes from totally changing the status quo. No more dank hotel and “vampire detective,” hello heavily funded mysterious corporation and deals with the devil. Some longtime “Angel” fans squawked about this season, but it’s a natural progression for Angel’s ever-shifting moral compass. It’s also a pleasure to see Buffy’s Spike, played by snarky James Marsters, join the cast. His cocky cockney schtick may be getting a wee bit tired after so long, but it adds a nice jolt of energy to the cast.

The pathos of Season 5 echo the show’s best year, Season 3 – there’s a ton of tragedy here, from the fate of poor Fred and Wesley to Gunn’s metamorphosis from street tough to silver-tongued lawyer. A real appeal for “Angel” is how everyone constantly changes, and you honestly feel that characters can die at any time – and often do. The show did get its legs cut out from under it a bit with the open-ended finale cliffhanger (which has been followed up in an OK fashion in comic books). Yet “Not Fade Away” ends in a spectacular, damn-the-torpedoes fashion, with the final battle to top all the final battles to date and some shocking turns.

Best episode: Several to choose from, including “Not Fade Away” and Cordelia’s bittersweet swan song on “You’re Welcome” – but for sheer quirkiness and a welcome blast of humour on a dark season, you can’t go wrong with “Smile Time,” the one where Angel is transformed into a deranged vampire Muppet. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Year in Review: My Favourite Comics of 2011

Favourite Ongoing Series: Amazing Spider-Man continues to be reliably solid under writer Dan Slott. His massive “Spider-Island” tale this year was both ridiculously goofy and a lot of fun, as the entire population of Manhattan mutates into “Spider-People.” Slott knows the balance of humour and action is important in Spider-Man. While not every issue is a home run, the comic is the best it’s been in years, welcome news for this longtime Spider-fan. Runners-up: Batman Inc. by Grant Morrison; Criminal/Incognito by Ed Brubaker.

Finally got sick of: Brian Bendis' Avengers books. There was a freshness and novelty to The Avengers when Bendis took over and added characters like Wolverine and Luke Cage to the mix. But I’ve gotten really sick of his dialogue tics, his spinning out one issue worth of story into six, and his overuse of the ridiculous villain Norman Osborn (who should’ve stayed dead back in the 1970s, dammit). Enough already.

Best gamble that paid off: The "New 52" by DC Comics. As monthly comics face dwindling sales, there’s going to be more drastic action in the future. DC relaunching every comic was the first shot fired. Not every book was a winner but there's been enough to enjoy here and some particularly fun offbeat series -- the "horror hero" books like Animal Man, Swamp Thing and Frankenstein are my favorites.

Best overlooked book: Red Hulk by Jeff Parker & company. The Red Hulk is one of those awful-sounding comics concepts like the son of Wolverine that shouldn’t work, but under talented writer Parker, his book has become a real gem. The Red Hulk is the “green" Hulk’s former foe General Thunderbolt Ross, who has, as you do, become the thing he most hated. What I like about the Red Hulk is the character behind him - a frustrated, 60-something military man who now has to be a superhero. It's not revolutionary Hulk comics, but there's something unique in Parker's spin on the character and Red Hulk has become an inventive, exciting ride each month.

Disappointing: Some of my favourite alternative comics creators delivered heavily hyped, but unsatisfying new work this year – Chester Brown’s bizarrely cold and clinical memoir of patronizing prostitutes, “Paying For It,” which suffered from a very dry, emotionally distant art style. And then there’s Frank Miller’s “Holy Terror,” which has very quickly assumed almost legendary flop status. Rushed art, juvenile writing, and a paranoid world viewpoint that seems torn directly from the furthest fringes of the far right.

Biggest bomb: Fear Itself. Yet another overhyped, overpriced "event comic." Each time I get disappointed by a "Siege" or "Secret Invasion" I say I'll stay away, but the muddled, overblown calculated chaos of Fear Itself finally convoked me to stop buying the hype.

Best new series: I love Daredevil, but the grim, rain-soaked loner facing constant tragedy bit got very old. So it’s a delight to see Mark Waid deliver a more happy-go-lucky take on the Man without Fear, which doesn’t abandon the past but embraces a more optimistic view. And artists Marco Martin and Paolo Rivera have, for the first time in Daredevil’s nearly 50-year-history, come up with some amazing and inventive ways to illustrate a blind superhero’s perspective of the world. Runner-up – a bold new take on Animal Man at DC Comics, with a creepy, Clive Barker-meets-David Lynch sensibility and some truly disturbing art. Not sure it’s got enough steam for the long haul yet, though.

Best writing about comics: The good folks at TwoMorrows Publishing continue to put out some great reading. Back Issue magazine is the only mag about comics I get anymore (now that the Comics Journal is once every year or two). And their books are even better -- I just got The Quality Companion which is a retro-fan's delight of information about the comics from this Golden Age publisher – from Plastic Man to forgotten oddballs like The Jester, Bozo the Robot and The Whistler. Great stuff!

Best reprint series: We truly do live in a golden age of great comics reprints, when even my old 1980s guilty pleasure West Coast Avengers gets deluxe hardcover treatment, but I was especially pleased this year to see Fantagraphics kick off a massive reprinting of Carl Barks’ delightful Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, easily some of the best kid-friendly comics ever created. Reading the first volume, “Lost in the Andes,” with the boy was a great experience, and knowing there’s a flood of future volumes to come is great. Beautifully designed, full of content and at a reasonable price.

Best Comic Book Movie: I've got high hopes for The Adventures of Tintin, coming in a week or so, but until then the most enjoyable comics-based movie this year was Thor - with X-Men: First Class and Captain America not far behind. Green Lantern and Cowboys Vs. Aliens, we won't speak of.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Year in Review: My favorite music of 2011

It's that time of year, so here my picks for my favorite music of 2011, in alphabetical order:

Beirut, “The Rip Tide”
Sometimes sad is good, and Beirut does wonderful sad. Imagine Morrissey if he'd loved world music and brass bands. Zach Condon is only 25, but his music sounds like it's been around forever, steeped in old-world charm. Beirut's third disc, "The Rip Tide" is all sweeping melancholy and Condon's mournful voice, but it's the kind of sad that feels good to listen to. The jaunty "Santa Fe" is perhaps my favorite song of this year, while the title track is beautiful, broken-hearted and grand. If you like Arcade Fire or the National, you need to listen to this one.

Ben Folds, “The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective”
OK, technically it’s a box set, but it’s got new stuff, too. And what a treasure trove for fans of Folds and his wry, witty piano pop – three discs of hits, rarities and live versions. Folds’ tunes straddle the line between Elton John and They Might Be Giants, with a song able to break your heart and crack you up in the same verse. The Ben Folds Five were one of the great underrated acts of the 1990s and Folds’ solo career has been pretty winning. This set offers a whole new chance to appreciate the hooks and harmonies, and discover rare gems.

Fabulous/Arabia, “Unlimited Buffet”
New Zealanders Lawrence Arabia and Mike Fabulous have collaborated to create a dreamlike and gorgeous piece of Kiwi pop. Arabia's last album "Chant Darling" is one of the best Kiwi records of the last few years -- in that same creative, vibrant zone bands like Phoenix Foundation and Liam Finn are operating in -- and this record is nearly as good. High harmonies, floating hooks, a bit of winking irony and an undercurrent of funk swim together in an album that is perfect for listening to on a New Zealand summer's day, watching the waves roll in at the beach.

Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch The Throne”
It’s a gaudy and cocky monument to consumerism, with barely an ounce of subtlety – but still, the two titans of hip-hop deliver a caffeinated, hook-filled romp of an album. While less epic in its reach than Kanye's last album, it's still a pretty dazzling mix of ego and invention, with some of the best uses of samples in a long time. Most “event” albums -- like Lady Gaga’s latest -- fall short, but this one manages to deliver.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Soul Time!”
Unabashedly retro soul-funk, which may not be particularly groundbreaking but sure lights up a room. I've been on a big classic soul kick lately -- Otis, Aretha, Stax -- and Jones is one of the few folks today who carry on that tradition in a way that doesn't just seem like a tribute act. Top-notch musicianship and utter sincerity abound in songs like "Genuine" and "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?" I'd take the well-seasoned, passionate voice of Sharon Jones over the staggeringly dull Adele any day of the week, myself.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Mirror Traffic"
Ah, Malkmus. Don't ever change. On the heels of the great Pavement reunion tour comes another slab of Malkmus' quirky, goofy rock, this time produced by Beck. Full of jammy guitar riffs, wacky lyrical asides and hooks that burrow into your brain, "Mirror Traffic" is good partly because it seems so damned effortless for the band. Only Malkmus could deliver the chorus to "Senator" with a straight face: "I know what the senator wants / what the senator wants / is a blow job." Awesome!

My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”
Some fans hated MMJ's last album, the experimental "Evil Urges," but I kinda dug it. The myth-drenched Southern rock combo return with an album that sums up all their parts. "Circuital" combines the spooky, reverb-filled feel of MMJ's first few albums with the free-wheeling charm of their later work -- got to love a song called "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which is defiantly tongue in check. But then album opener "Victory Dance" is a slow-building thunderbolt of a song, knocking you flat with its building power.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Unknown Mortal Orchestra”
Out of the ashes of New Zealand’s punk-pop band The Mint Chinks comes this groovy psychedelic funk rock outfit, now based in Oregon. There’s a kind of alien, trippy loose-limbedness to this record, which blends solid grooves to space-cadet melodies. A bit like MGMT or Of Montreal, it’s a band giving a hipster take on well-worn genres with true adoration. It’s seasoned with a strange dash of melancholy that only makes the beats dig deeper.

Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”
After nearly 40 years of doing this, isn’t Tom Waits’ schtick old by now? But “Bad As Me” is as fresh and strange as anything else in the master’s cellar, and like many other critics have said, it plays almost as a “lost greatest hits” album. Waits saunters through every style in his book – the mournful ballad, the warped road song, the tub-thumping rant. I remember Waits being a bit of a cult figure when I stumbled across him in the late 1980s. But icon status, and even admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, hasn’t dimmed his distinctive weirdness one bit.

Wilco, “The Whole Love”
After two lovely but mellow albums, there’s a welcome return of tension and experimentation to Wilco’s latest. There’s less of the anguish that marked the band’s classic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” but there’s a resurgent curiosity and sense of play. The band’s secret MVP is astounding guitarist Nels Cline, whose textural clangs, chords and riffs give frontman Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics added space and mystery.

Bubbling under: Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”; PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”; Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”

Songs of the year
Beirut, "Santa Fe"
The Drab Doo Riffs, “Juggernaut”
Bon Iver, "Perth"
Liam Finn, "Cold Feet"
My Morning Jacket, "Outta My System"
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Senator"
Urge Overkill, “Thought Balloon”
Florence + The Machine, “Never Let Me Go”
Tom Waits, “Hell Broke Luce”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “How Can You Luv Me?”

Show of the year
I've been a total slacker on the concert scene the second half of this year, because I'm an old man in my 40s, after all. But I did see some excellent stuff earlier this year, including the sprawling traveling review of George Clinton & P. Funk - the big man may be past his prime but he was backed up by a great all-star cast. A '90s fave of mine, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, were also garage-rock fun, but the real highlight for me was seeing the post-punk combo Gang Of Four tear it up, and energetic front man Jon King ripping the Powerstation apart like it was 1979 all over again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Superheroes I Love #10: Deathlok

Every red-blooded boy loves cyborgs. Half-man, half-robot, what’s not to love? The Marvel Comics character Deathlok is a bit on the obscure side, but debuting in 1974, he’s the grandfather of Robocop, Arnold’s Terminator and many more equally mean machine-men.

Who: Deathlok “the demolisher,” a.k.a. Col. Luther Manning, an American soldier who suffers horrible injuries but is reanimated and turned into the experimental Deathlok cyborg wandering through a ruined future world.

Why I dig: I didn’t often pick up “Captain America” as a kid but the cover of #286, featuring Deathlok taking aim at the Captain, is pretty darned sweet. Drawn beautifully by Mike Zeck, it really makes Deathlok look half-zombie, half machine, and you can practically feel the gritty rot. It was about 1983, my first exposure to Deathlok, but it took me years to get around to finding his obscure 1970s original appearances.

The original series of Deathlok stories that ran in Marvel’s Astonishing Tales comics in the 1970s was a kitschy romp, created by artist Rich Buckler, and with that marvellous “make it up as we go along” feeling so many 1970s Marvel comics had which make them such immersive, if goofy, fun. Deathlok wanders through an apocalyptic America (in the far future of 1990!!) hunting the maniacal Ryker. There’s not a lot of plot to these stories but Buckler and Doug Moench give it a tactile atmosphere. Many of the sci-fi tropes we now consider a bit cliché originated in these pages. I wouldn’t ever call Deathlok great art – the series flounders about in search of a real hook other than the mangled Deathlok’s identity crisis, and unfortunately it ends just as it's really getting good – but it’s still a lot of fun.

Read this: The “Deathlok Masterworks” hardcover is a bit on the pricey side, but it collects pretty much every decent Deathlok story there’s ever been, including that Captain America multi-parter that attempts to sort out his tangled history. Unfortunately, like an awful lot of characters, Deathlok’s been killed, reborn, resurrected, rebooted and redone so many times since the 1980s that I don’t even know who he is these days. But that’s all right. Give me the shiny Deathlok Masterworks and a sunny afternoon and I’m good as gold.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


…So long time, no post. As the last entry probably indicated, it’s been a rather rough year for us. We’re dealing with everything that’s happened and getting on with our lives, but admittedly, it’s a long haul for everyone, losing two parents from the family in less than 2 months. It's a cliche, but sometimes cliches are true: Everything has changed.

Somewhere in there, I turned 40. We buried my wife’s father on a Monday, and by that weekend, we were off to Sydney, Australia, for a long-planned holiday arranged well before all the funerals and such we’ve deal with this year.

I turned 40 and we spent the day in the sunshine at Manly Beach, on gold sand and warm water, and we went out for dinner at a fine little Italian restaurant where I ordered a proper steak for the first time in eons. Sydney is one of my favourite places, and it didn’t disappoint this time. All in all, it was a good way to get a year older – I thought I’d like to make the 40th something to remember, and it was.

And now 2011 is nearly over – I’m usually a fairly positive fella, but it’s been a year with a lot more bad in it than good. Good riddance to it, and hoping for a better 2012.