Archive for August, 2020

Long Live the King

I’m hesitant to write much about Chadwick Boseman at all. I only knew him from his movies, and his costars, directors, and friends have already written about what a brilliant actor and great man he was.

Still, I’ll say this: I’m not sure there’s any actor whose loss is going to be felt so greatly. Not just in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where “Black Panther” was very much considered the best movie in that entire series, but in Hollywood and pop culture, too. Boseman was a powerhouse actor, and his personal charisma meant that he was incredibly well loved, even if he wasn’t the best-known actor in the world. His death is going to shake us for a long time.

And yes, it’s yet another example of why 2020 is just the goddamn worst.

On Saturday night, right after I’d heard the news and was thoroughly wrapped up in discouragement, I felt like this should be the final nail in the MCU’s coffin. They’d lost a number of their most popular actors after “Endgame,” and the next phase of sequels were looking fairly aimless. Surely now would be the best time to let the series walk off into the sunset?

But I was wrong, for a number of reasons. First, the Marvel movies have been just too popular, and Disney isn’t going to let them disappear without a fight. But Boseman meant so much to so many people. He was deeply loved by his costars and directors, and his fans absolutely thought the world of him.

Some quick examples:

Basically, I don’t think you could stop the “Black Panther” sequel now. The cast and crew would demand it be made. The fans would demand it be made. The same likely holds true for the rest of the MCU. Everyone’s going to want to make a new film in the series just so they can add their own tributes to Boseman.

And it’s a powerful reminder that no other Marvel film inspired more devotion than “Black Panther.” No other movie empowered Black creators — in every art form — than “Black Panther.” And it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if Boseman’s passing encourages a new surge in groundbreaking works by BIPOC creators — filmmakers, artists, writers, you name it — and offers a timely reminder to studios and publishers that diversity in entertainment is an unalloyed good.

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Flea Caller

It’s been too long since I wrote a post here, so let’s try to get back on schedule. We’ll start out with a novel I read a couple years back — Flea in the Dark by Devon Stevens.

Our plotline: Teresa Manzano is a pretty typical teenager — she just wants to hang out with her friends, smoke some pot, and not have to deal with her irritating half-sister. Felicia — or as everyone calls her, Flea — is a weirdo, obsessed with insects and scary movies, and she’s too young, and worst of all, Teresa is going to have to babysit her over the weekend when she’d rather be out partying with her friends on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

And even when Teresa drags her out to her party in the country, Flea still manages to get into trouble — kidnapped by La Llorona herself!

What, wait a minute! La Llorona? The horrific Weeping Woman of Mexican folklore? The ghost who prowls rivers and waterways abducting and drowning children? She’s real?! This is way out of Teresa’s league, isn’t it?

Soon enough, Teresa has an encounter with a horrific witch, who grants her the abilities she needs to try to find Flea, and Teresa takes a trip to the secret side of Albuquerque, a constantly shifting city populated by dangerous animal spirits where the architecture of the modern city coexists with long-gone landmarks.

Can Teresa navigate the familiar but bizarrely altered Albuquerque, challenge the spirits blocking her way, and still manage to face off with the most dangerous ghost of all to save her half-sister’s life?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was Stevens’ first novel, and I very much want to see him publish some more books soon. This book is a thoroughly grand read. We get to watch Teresa make her way back and forth across the ABQ, making friends and enemies among the spirits, and slowly turn herself from a self-centered teenager into someone willing to take colossal risks and make smart sacrifices for the sake of her loved ones — even her irritating half-sister loved ones.

Using a combination of her temporary magical weapons and her own natural guile and sass, Teresa puts the hurt on enemies and makes many desperate, narrow escapes. She’s an unforgettable heroine.

Some of the greatest pleasures in this book are likely the vast collection of great characters, from Teresa and Flea to Teresa’s high school friends all the way to the wild variety of spirits infesting Albuquerque’s spirit realm.

Even minor characters — like the spirit owl reading a newspaper, the pack of playful coyote pups running loose on the bus, the devious mountain lion mayor, and the dancing kachina spirits directing traffic — are interesting and well-realized characters who you wish you could spend more time with.

The book is likely a must-read for anyone who’s lived in Albuquerque or wants to know more about the city. The Duke City is a character in the story just as much as it is a setting, as Teresa criss-crosses back and forth, into and outside of the city limits, and pays visits to well-known local landmarks — as well as old landmarks in Spirit Albuquerque that have been demolished for years.

If you’re looking for a fun novel with fantastic characters and settings with great action and plenty of adventure, you’ll certainly want to pick this one up.

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NO TIME FOR BLOGGING

Seriously, I ain’t got time for nothing this week. So you’re getting a post full of weird nonsense. Brace yourselves!

NOW GET OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU CHEESE MOLESTING BASTARDS!

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The Bad Times Ahead

Well, if you haven’t been paying attention to comics news this week, you might have missed this scary piece of info — AT&T, the new owner of Warner Entertainment and DC Comics, laid off about a third of their staff, including a ton of editors and their entire merchandising department.

This got immediate comparisons to the infamous DC Implosion of the late 1970s, with Mike Sterling talking specifically about some of the similarities, as well as his thoughts on what it may all mean.

But I want to direct y’all’s attention to a Twitter thread by none other than Gerry Conway, one of comics’ Grand Masters, outlining what he sees as the causes (AT&T has no clue what to do with any of its content-producing subsidiaries and basically wants to treat them the way Bain Capital treated Toys R Us) and the likely future results (very, very little good):

What happened at @DCComics yesterday was probably inevitable once @WarnerMedia became a subsidiary of a tech company uninterested in creating new creative content, and planning only to strip mine existing IP for streaming.

It should have been clear when the incoming AT&T management told the management of the highly successful and profitable @HBO that they needed to upend their corporate culture in order to feed the AT&T cable pipeline with continuous streaming content a la Netflix.

It should have been clear when AT&T replaced the successful management team at @HBO that AT&T didn’t see value in @HBO’s content— only value in @HBO’s *brand*.

The content currently produced at @DCComics or @dcuniverse is of no interest to the tech bros of AT&T— only the brand. Publishing comics is a low profit margin business— the value lies in the IP, and only the IP.

Expect AT&T to do the absolute minimum necessary to keep the

@DCComics brand alive for its IP value. Some of the decisions AT&T will make are probably long overdue for a business model that’s been marginal for decades; this will be brutal and bloody.

This time next year, I predict @Marvel will own about 90% of the new monthly comic market— in which case, retail comic shops are done. @DCComics will probably publish reprints and a handful/dozen of new digital-only monthly series intended for graphic novel release.

When the comic book retail market collapses, @Marvel too will have to turn to a digital monthly/print graphic novel format for a reduced number of titles. It’s simple economics. The business has relied too long on a fragile distribution model. COVID-19 and AT&T have broken it.

In the long run, despite the tremendous personal loss of the people affected by this— and my heart breaks for them, it really does; these are good, worthy people who deserve better— this may be for the best, creatively.

Storytelling in superhero comics has been in a creative, market-driven straitjacket for decades. Pandering to the tastes of a diminishing comic shop readership, relying on marketing gimmicks like variants, reboots and bi-annual “events” to temporarily boost sales—

It’s all had a cost, creatively. A long time ago, in my naïf youth, I once argued with Marvel’s head of production at the time, Gentleman John Verpoorten, that some production decision he’d made would have a negative effect on the creative value of the book I was working on.

At the time Marvel was publishing 40 titles or more a month. John gestured at the wall of covers behind him in his office. “Hell,” he said. “If you want to talk about creative value, from a creative point of view we can justify maybe six of these.”

It was true then, and it’s true now. Maybe a diminished superhero comic book market would be a more creative one.

Guess we’ll see in 2021. Till then…

F**king 2020.

So there’s our grim portent of the future. I’m a natural pessimist — or as I like to remind everyone, a realist — so this all makes dreadful sense to me. On the one hand, it would be great for the Big Two to get away from annual crossover events. On the other hand, really can’t say I like the idea of killing off comics shops and original superhero comics as a sacrifice to AT&T’s profit margins…

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Heroes Wear Masks!

Well, good day, comic book fans! How’s your day going? Mine? Almost no one in my town wears their masks like they’re supposed to, so I’m mostly livid these days!

Granted, some days are better than others. Sometimes I’ll go in the grocery store, and no one will be wearing masks; some days, everyone is. But it’s deeply discouraging that so many people aren’t taking this virus seriously. And that’s going to hurt us all down the line.

We need to be more like our favorite superheroes.

Okay, not all of them. Superman and Wonder Woman don’t wear masks at all. Batman and Captain America wear masks, but the wrong kind. No protection for the mouth, nose, lungs. But plenty of superheroes and even a few villains put their own safety and the safety of their fellow citizens above the need to show off their chins.

We’re not going to be able to list all of them, because even I don’t have that much free time. But we’ll try to hit a nice mix of ’em, okay?

Here are the ones doing the best job with their masks:

Azrael!

Black Panther!

Cassandra Cain!

The Confessor!

Deadpool!

But only when he doesn’t get his mask all ripped up.

Doctor Doom!

Even when it looks like his mouth is open, it’s still covered up by a funky mechanical grill!

Iron Man!

All of his modern armor is sealed, even when it looks like the mouth or eyes are open!

Moon Knight!

The Question!

It may look like bare skin, but it’s still a mask!

Rorschach!

The Golden-Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds!

He’s wearing a freakin’ gas mask!

Sensor Girl!

Spider-Man!

Plus most of the other Spider-heroes — Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and plenty of others. But not a number of Spider-Women, who often don’t have full-face masks. And definitely not Venom. My god, he puts his nasty-ass tongue on almost everything!

White Tiger!

The Winter Soldier!

The version in the comics has typically worn a domino mask, but the movie version had his mouth and nose covered. And with that haircut, he’s been avoiding hair salons, too! Nice work, Bucky!

A few points for effort:

Doctor Fate!

The mask appears to be open at the bottom, but shouldn’t be much trouble to cover up better, Doc.

Casey Jones!

Sorry, Casey — hockey masks don’t do a good job at all of keeping mouths safely covered.

Grifter!

Masks that hang from the bottom of the face aren’t effective enough, because air and germs can still make it to the mouth pretty easily.

We’ll cover the next four together.

Blue Beetle!

The Mask!

Mister Miracle!

Steel!

Now seriously, how do these even work?! They’re wearing masks, right? They’re clearly wearing masks. But their mouths are completely uncovered. Right? Or are they covered, and we’re just somehow able to see their mouths? MASKS SHOULD NOT WORK THIS WAY, AND CONTEMPLATING THIS FURTHER IS JUST GOING TO REDUCE MY SANITY SCORE.

And finally:

The Shadow!

Come on, pull it up over your nose, Mr. Cranston.

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Shadow Theater

It’s been ages since I reviewed any comics! Let’s jump back into things with a look at Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux.

We start out with Cassandra Cain, brainwashed teenaged assassin, whose conditioning is unexpectedly broken when one of her victims leaves a brief final message for his daughter that shocks her out of her murderous programming. She spends a night in an alley before she’s taken in for a meal by Jackie Yoneyama, an old woman who runs a restaurant. Cass isn’t even able to thank her properly — she was trained by her father solely as an assassin, and she isn’t even able to talk.

Cass runs away and finds herself confused and frightened by the noise and chaos of modern life — and being pursued by the other assassins in her father’s employ. Soon she finds shelter in the Gotham Public Library, where she’s able to hide, learn to read, practice her fighting skills on stacks of books, and eventually start making friends, including a wheelchair-bound librarian named Barbara Gordon and a boy closer to her age named Erik.

Can Cass learn more about the world around her? Can Jackie, Barbara, and Erik help her come out of her shell? Can she defend herself against her father’s villainy and discover what happened to the long-vanished Batgirl?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Sarah Kuhn’s story is fine — a tad slow around the middle, but it picks up wonderfully well before the end. Besides, the slower portions of the story are where the character building comes in — and there’s so much great character detail in here. Lots of comics fans love Cassandra Cain, but this is a graphic novel for younger adults who might not be as familiar with Cass as everyone else is, and this comic gives her space to become a heroic character and a character who readers can love. That’s a great gift — not just to readers, but to Cass as a character, who now gets a new generation of fans.

I’m also a big fan of Jackie Yoneyama. She’s a new character created just for this book, but she was wonderfully realized. And she’s the kind of character who should be present in more comics, and particularly in more Bat comics — a street-level civilian who isn’t a victim, isn’t a crook, isn’t a future hero — just a connection to keep our main characters grounded as part of Gotham City. Even better — a character who runs a restaurant, because superheroes need somewhere to stop and get a bowl of ramen while fighting crime.

And let’s give big props to Nicole Goux’s stunning artwork, which rocks its way across every single page. And colorist Cris Peter really makes this book sing — shadowy libraries and rooftops, brilliant sunsets through windows, gloriously colorful clothing. The art and colors really make this book come to life.

Do you love Cass Cain, brilliant characters, beautiful artwork? You’ll definitely want to pick this up.

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Happy Birthday, Clifford Simak!

Hey, I noticed that today is the birthday of Clifford D. Simak, science fiction grandmaster and one of my favorite writers. Let’s take a look at his very best book — City.

(FYI, that’s a scan of the first copy of this book I ever got, and it’s still my favorite because I love the retro sci-fi cool this cover is drenched in…)

This is the kind of story that exemplifies why I love so many stories from science fiction’s Golden Age — it has stereotypical sci-fi elements like robots, mutants, and aliens, it has completely unscientific elements like talking dogs and intelligent ants, it has wild, breathtaking ideas, it has characters you can’t help but love and hate, and its glimpse of the future is simultaneously grim and hopeful. It’s far from a perfect book — there are ongoing assumptions in the story that most of humanity, regardless of cultural differences, will always speak and act with one voice. There are no important female characters in the whole book. And some of the science is distractingly goofy. Nevertheless, Simak is one of science fiction’s unrecognized geniuses, and this is his masterwork.

“City” is the story of how mankind dies, told from the perspective of the intelligent dogs who have taken over the Earth in our absence. It’s all framed as an attempt by the dogs to assemble an oral history of the planet, including the improbable myths of a creature called Man that used to run things in the distant past. Much of that history follows the lives of a single human family, the Websters, and a nearly immortal robot named Jenkins.

In the initial story, told only a short distance in our own future, humanity is in the process of abandoning all of its cities. Mostly plotless, it serves mainly to allow us to follow the transition from today’s urban society to a future society using advanced technology to embrace a more pastoral lifestyle. Technological advances in transportation and communications have rendered the city unnecessary — people can live anywhere they want and still stay in contact with their friends, families, and coworkers. Anyone can feed themselves with a hydroponic garden. Few people want to live in big, crowded, smelly cities, which are mostly abandoned except for some squatters. Only a few old-timers still cling to the old ways.

A century later, we get to our first really important character, Jerome Webster, a doctor who’s been turned into an agoraphobic, terrified of open spaces, by his comfortable life at home. His every need is taken care of instantly by the family’s robots, including the butler, Jenkins. Webster is called upon to travel to Mars, where history’s greatest philosopher, Juwain, is gravely ill — if he lives, he will soon develop a new philosophy that will propel humanity to the very peaks of perfect enlightenment. But Webster finds himself completely unable to undertake the journey to save his friend.

We jump forward several decades and sees the introduction of the Dogs, as Jerome Webster’s grandson surgically gives his pet the ability to speak. We also meet Joe, a mutant who is able to live for centuries and is gifted with extraordinary intelligence. A completely amoral creature, he has spent over a hundred years helping humans, but he’s getting bored with that. So he steals the last notes on Juwain’s revolutionary Martian philosophy, just for the pleasure of hurting humanity. We also get our first look at the ants, as Joe puts a nest on the path to higher intelligence by protecting it for a few winters, then sadistically demolishes the mound. But the ants have already learned quite a bit, and they’ll be back…

The years march on, and we leave Earth to visit the hostile surface of Jupiter, where scientists have attempted to explore the planet by transforming themselves into creatures that can survive the corrosive atmosphere — but none of these scientists have ever returned. What predator could be killing them off?

Decades, centuries, millennia pass. The Webster family continues on, slowly dooming the human race with each decision it makes. The Dogs continue on, growing in sophistication and morality. Jenkins and the other robots continue on, shepherding the new animal civilization through the years. The ants continue on, becoming more and more powerful. Some species die off, some species evolve into new forms, some species abandon Earth forever. Life continues, on and on. Earth continues.

Verdict: Thumbs up. No question, it’s a melancholy, almost heart-breaking story. If you’ve long dreamed that mankind would live forever, this story will subject you to the spectre of the human race embracing extinction, of humanity’s greatest works of science and art being forgotten, of even Man’s Best Friend leaving our home planet behind in the face of an expansionist alien species. Simak’s “Epilog” (which is not present in all editions of the novel) is even sadder. “City” is a book with few truly happy endings.

And yet, I still see this as a hopeful book, and it fills me with joy when I read it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the writing and of the story. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of mankind’s creations — robots, dogs, storytelling, morality and ethics — continue thousands of years beyond our end, even if our status as the creators are long forgotten. Maybe I just really like dogs.

Maybe I enjoy the novel so much because I like the way it’s acknowledged that, eventually, all species must die out — extinction is inevitable, but I think Simak knew that our story isn’t finished yet. Enjoy the good things that humanity has brought about, recognize the bad things that we’ve caused, resolve to help move the species farther along the evolutionary chain, scientifically, artistically, socially.

In the end, I think it’s a story about life and death and memory. Years will pass, centuries will pass. We will die, and those who follow us will remember us for a while. But we will eventually be forgotten. That thought may make you feel depressed and melancholy. But life, in some form, continues, and where there’s life, there’s hope.

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