Prepare for ‘Be Prepared’

Working in a bookstore has afforded me certain privileges.  From having a plethora of reference material at my fingertips to all the discounted coffee I could ever want. However, nothing compares to the ability to nab an Advanced Readers Copy of a book, at times months, ahead of its public release. When I see a book I want among the stack I’m often quick to snatch it up so I can read it and excitedly discuss it with customers when it’s eventually released. This time I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Be Prepared by the Harvey, Cybils, AND Eisner winning writer Vera Brosgol.

Some may recognize Brosgol’s name from her previous graphic novel: ‘Anya’s Ghost, for which she won the aforementioned awards. Brosgol has also authored a children’s picture book entitled ‘Leave me Alone!but most should recognize her as a storyboard artist for Laika, the animation studio that produced ‘Coraline’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ both films Brosgol worked on.

Brosgol has a history of working on stories that feature child protagonists in coming-of-age stories and Be Prepared is no different. The one exception is that Brosgol herself is the star. Be Prepared is a (mostly) true autobiographical account of Brosgol’s own time at summer camp and learning that the best way to fit in isn’t to blend in, but to simply be yourself.

The story starts with Vera, aged 9, attending a friend’s birthday party and meticulously memorizing the formula to throw the best birthday party ever: carvel ice cream cake, Pizza Hut pizza with stuffed crust (a MUST), gift bags and a sleepover. When it comes time for the birthday girl to open her gifts everyone provides lavish accessories for a fancy doll while Vera  gives her a, quickly cast aside, hand-drawn portrait of the birthday girl and herself. When next comes time to play with all of their dolls, Vera claims that she “left” hers at home and the night ends with Vera on the outside of the sleeping bag circle as everyone else excitedly discusses what summer camp they’ll be attending.

We fast forward a few months to when Vera hosts her own sleepover but the results are very different, as is the formula. Instead of Pizza Hut, it’s Dimitri’s. Instead of Carvel, it’s a local bakery that gives the Brosgol’s a free cake and birthday well wishes. When it comes time to swap stories at night, none of the other girls are in the mood for talking and before morning can come, the girls’ mothers pick them up under the cover of night.

Even at nine Vera understood not only why her party failed, but also why she often feels ostracized by her peers. While her friends come from wealthier backgrounds where their parents were together and their fathers had lucrative government jobs, Vera was the daughter of a divorced mother who was working hard to provide for her Vera and two other children while putting herself through school. Vera comes to think that the reason why she’ll never be able fit in with American kids is simply that she’s “too poor. Too Russian. Too different.” So, when the opportunity to go to ORRA (Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America), a summer camp for Russian-American youths presents itself, it’s no surprise that Vera jumps at the chance. Attending ORRA would give her the chance to socialize with other Russian-American children her age, make memories that she could take with her for the rest of her life and make some real friends along the way…If only things were that easy.

With her birthday on the horizon Vera is placed among the older campers, bunking with the fourteen-year-old Sashas (unrelated): best friends who are boy crazy for Alexei, the total douche ‘hunk’ of the camp, and who don’t give Vera the warmest of welcomes. But it doesn’t stop there. With most campers either having attended ORRA previously or came to camp with pre-existing friendships, Vera finds that even in a place where she should fit right in she still sticks out like a sore thumb.

Eventually Vera is able to break through to the Sasha’s by showing off her skills as an artist and they’re quick to warm up to the younger addition to their group so long as Vera, who is desperate to fit in by this point, appeases them with favors. However, Vera quickly finds that bought friends are quick to turn cold as she is cast out of their circle of friends faster than she was brought in. Once again, Vera finds herself on the outside looking in.

After a big hike and feeling rejuvenated, Vera sets out to conquer the placement test that awaits her at the end of camp. With that badge Vera would be able to prove that she’d beaten camp ORRA, that she’d won and that she didn’t need anyone like the Sashas or the overly friendly camp counselor.…but wasn’t that the point?

At a very young age Vera learns a lesson most won’t learn until their mid-twenties or later: that you don’t need the approval of others to enjoy yourself. With that knowledge, Vera is finally able to enjoy camp ORRA and make the memories she wanted all along. Vera spends the last few days of camp making friends, finding lost guinea pigs, basking in the wilderness and finally sticking it to Alexei.

From beginning to end Be Prepared is a story about finding yourself and finding where exactly you fit in in the universe. Now in my mid-twenties, stories like my previously reviewed Lucky Penny by Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds or Lost at Sea are the kind that stick with me as each delivers a powerful message about genuine struggles people face day to day and Be Prepared hits the same mark. To say that I was unprepared for the adventure that Be Prepared would take me on when I grabbed it off of the breakroom table would be an understatement. Brosgol, again, delivers a moving story about being true to yourself and appreciating those who genuinely support you. The fact that it’s an autobiographical account only serves to make the narrative stronger. As someone who grew up with a similar familial situation during a time when being a nerd wasn’t as cool this story often hits a little too close to home. Vera’s desire to share in he same experiences, create similar memories, and overall want to feel ‘normal’ are all things that I experienced at various points in my life and I’m sure that the sensation in’t a stranger to others. Graphic novels have the ability to capture raw human emotion in panels and Brosgol has mastered that art. Brosgol’s account of her time at ORRA is moving homage to those of us who find themselves unable to fit in. 

When Be Prepared hits the shelves in late April, I urge you to pick up a copy for yourself. Even if the deeper message doesn’t resonate with you, you’ll still walk away with a wacky story about Brosgol’s time at camp. If you’re one of the ones who still hasn’t found your path, that’s okay, we’ve all been known to get a little lost trying to find our way. Just be careful of moose and properly treat animal bites.

A Henchgirl with a Heart of Gold

My review of Kristen Gudsnuk’s Henchgirl has been unfortunately delayed. But, I swear it’s not my fault. I met the charming and talented Ms. Gudsnuk at Big Apple Con in April 2017, where she told me that her Henchgirl was similar in style to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. While a fan of O’Malley’s Seconds, I didn’t like SP, mainly because I disliked the character. However, Kristen was so enthusiastic that I bought her book and had her inscribe it to my youngest child, Ben, who loves Scott Pilgrim.

When I got it home, I showed it to him, and he merely grunted. So, I placed it on my  “to be reviewed”  pile. A few days later when ready to read it, I found it missing. I eventually located it in Ben’s room. Intuiting that he had read it, I asked how he liked it. Understand that Ben could teach Black Bolt lessons on being laconic and is so finicky that he could starve in a supermarket. So, when he gave me the one-word response “Good,” I knew that Henchgirl must be pretty special.

Grabbing it back I started to read it, but something intervened and I had to put it down. When I got back to it, I found that once again it was missing. This time I went straight to my son’s room, where I found it. I asked him why it was in his room. “Read again,” was his response.

I took it back and complained to my 19-year-old, daughter, Erika. When she asked why Ben liked it so much, I explained that it was similar in style to Scott Pilgrim. Big mistake. Like her brother, she’s a huge Pilgrim fan and has repeatedly read the books and watched the movie. I didn’t get Henchgirl back until she left for her fall semester at college.

Finally, I have been able to read Henchgirl. With all due respect to O’Malley, Henchgirl is better than SP.  The main difference is that Kristen has invoked more heart. I found Pilgrim to be an annoying, shallow and vain character who truly deserved a beating. Mary, despite being the henchgirl for an evil crime lord, is inherently sweet and ultimately likable.

The opening premise of the book involves not the heroes, but the henchpersons and ordinary citizens of Crepe City. When we first meet her, Mary is waiting in the getaway car for her boss, Monsieur Butterfly. The boss is monologuing to his enemy, the hero Mr. Great Guy. Unfortunately, in the course of their battle, the getaway car is destroyed, and Mary barely gets away. But, all was not a loss, she meets the superhero wannabe, Mannequin, and her boss paid her $3,000 up front.  Not a bad night.

Her normal roommates, Tina and Sue are worried about Mary’s career choices and try to steer her onto the straight and narrow. The practical Sue points that, at least, Mary needs health insurance. Mary explains “Monsieur Butterfly is allied with Dr. Maniac and he doesn’t even charge a co-pay!”

The next night Mary is out with another henchperson: Larry, to buy weapons from Mr. Molotov Cocktail.  When Larry tells her that it’s his daughter’s birthday, Mary gives him some money and tells him to take off. Later we see the further conflict between Mary’s chosen career and her own basic decency when she uses Mannequin to reveal Butterfly’s plan to steal grant money earmarked to renovate and expand an orphanage.

Mary is surrounded by a likable and only slightly off-kilter supporting case. With her roommates; Tina and Sue (don’t eat the carrot cake), Fred, Consuelo and her grandmother, Mary should be well grounded. But, we later learn that Mary is the unpowered, and underappreciated daughter of a famous superhero couple, who seem to only have time for their superpowered daughter.

While the stories are basically light, and Kristen shows a deft hand at humor, this is not slapstick. The humor ultimately arises from Mary’s internal conflicts. Can you really balance being an evil henchgirl, a good roommate, rebellious daughter and decent person? As Mary finds out, repeatedly, it isn’t easy.

Kristen’s dialog is smart, funny and rarely fails to hit the point. Her art is dead on as well, providing a perfect complement to Mary’s saga. Kristen has a great eye for setting up the scene, extracting as much emotion as possible with the right degree of exaggeration. Straddling the line between comic and cartoon, she brings City Crepe city and its inhabitants to quirky life.  And yes, while her art is reminiscent of O’Malley’s work, it is uniquely her own.

In all, Henchgirl is a wonderful read.

Robinson’s Saviors, a Retro tale of Alien Invasion

I’ve been a fan of James Robinson since his run on DC ‘s Starman back in the 1990’s. His take on revamping an old classic was smart, thoughtful and poignant. In fact, it seems that Robinson’s name will be forever tied to this creation. And that’s not a bad thing, so long as people realize that he is still very active and is still producing some really good work.

The Saviors, a creator owned work published by IDW, is an example of an incredible talent who takes risks. According to his confessional introduction Robinson, with some level of self-depreciation, claims that Saviors, while no failure is not really a success either.

Robinson wrote: “I realize creatively I’ve made more mistakes and missteps than ten creators combined could have if they actually contrived to do so. But, hey, there have been some successes and noble efforts along the way too, I think Saviors falls somewhere in between.”

I beg to differ.

Anyone can criticize. Writing, and writing well takes not merely effort, but the courage to put your ideas out before the world. Robinson, being a name, could also be hack and churn out acceptable but unexceptional work. He didn’t and he won’t. For that reasonable alone, any creative leap he makes is a success.

The Saviors is a challenge and chance. Robinson is known as a collector of the old and nostalgic, just like his creation Jack Knight. And just as Jack was a fusion of old and new, so is Saviors.

Robinson gives us, in effect, a 1950’s Horror/Space Invader movie dressed up as a 21st Century story.  The protagonist is a pot-head named Tomas Ramirez. He’s basically happy with his slacker life style, until he sees aliens. Unfortunately, the aliens see him as well. The aliens who can mimic humans have blended in, lending an Invasion of the Body Snatchers level of paranoia to the story.

Since the sheriff of the small town, where Tommy lives, is one of the aliens, things go sideways real fast. From a shoot out in a salvage yard to a mad dash across a desert, Tommy barely stays ahead. Fortunately, he meets up with a small resistant group who also knows that the aliens are here.

Saviors is serious fun with no heavy message. And J. Bone’s art is perfect. Bone’s work is slightly cartoony and slightly quirky, yet also manages to fuse tension with his humor. In a way, the art feels like the way Tommy, half stoned views the world.  Robinson also knows to trust Bone’s art to tell pages of the story without dialog.

My only complaint is that after several hairbreadth escapes the book ends with the unfulfilled promise of “to be continued.”

Perhaps if enough people buy this nifty little tale, we can persuade Robinson and Bone to continue Tommy’s adventures.

Turn Your Luck Around With Lucky Penny

There’s something comically ironic as I sit in my car, it’s battery dead, in the lot of my apartment when I should have left for work over an hour ago and think to myself “yeah, I think I’ll start my Lucky Penny review.” But I feel no other coincidence could do it justice.
I have been following the careers of the Brooklyn writer and artist duo, turned couple, of Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota as far back as the early 2000s when I discovered the Applegeeks webcomic, of which Hirsh wrote for alongside Mohammed “Hawke” Haque whom handled the art. At some point Ota came aboard as a guest artist before becoming a regular. Eventually the team of Hirsh and Hawke went their separate ways with the last Applegeeks update being in 2010, but as of 2008 Hirsh and Ota had begun working on a webcomic, which chronicled the oddities of their own lives, titled Johnny Wander. While I could talk for hours on end about how Johnny Wander adds a certain mysticism to everyday scenarios with an art style that’s reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim’s Bryan Lee O’malley, I’m here to talk about one of the many spinoff comics that was born of Johnny Wander: Lucky Penny.

The comic starts with the titular character Penny Brighton getting fired from her job, this set the tone for the rest of the comic. From getting fired, getting kicked out of her apartment, having her money eaten by a vending machine, and accidentally locking the keys she needs to return for said apartment in a fully packed car (all of which happens within the first twenty pages, mind you) we quickly learn that Penny’s life has been a series of bad luck. All of this she attributes to a snake tattoo she has on her neck. But in the face of pitfall after pitfall Penny rarely lets her failures get to her, accepting them as part of her life, as she’s quick to pick herself up and take whatever next step she can. Even if that step involves her working under the oppressive gaze of an 11½ year old who may or may not be a vampire.

As much as Lucky Penny is a whimsical tale about someone who is down on their luck, it’s a serious comic about a young woman’s struggles. Throughout the reading we see Penny try to impress the boy she likes, struggle with her own self doubt and what she does in those times of strife, all while her atrocious luck plays puppeteer to the events.

Lucky Penny shows the reader that in those hard times you can either crumble under the pressure as your world falls apart around you, or you can channel your inner Alistair Lionpride and face your challenges head on. A line from the comic sums it up best: “bad luck isn’t what defines you. It’s what you do in the face of misfortune.”

Lucky Penny is a heartwarming story about how life likes to kick you when you’re down, but in those times you have to remember that there is always a silver lining: at least you’re not Penny Brighton.

Beauty to Die From

 

Hi, Rid here. Gary, who’s getting old, asked me to help out with some reviews. So, I riffled through his massive backlog of unread graphic novels and came across Beauty. The cover and the interior act immediately grabbed my attention, and I read it from cover to cover in one sitting. Writer/artist Jeremy Haun and co-writer Jason A. Hurley produced a disturbing realization of a modern dystopian world in which perfected looks are literally lethal. The coloring was done by John Rauch.

They start with the uncontroversial observation that our modern society is obsessed with outward appearances. From the fascination stemming from a look into the lives of the Kardashians to the election of a celebrity president, looks have never before been deemed as important as it has in today’s society. According to American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ website PlasticSurgery.org, the number of invasive procedures has increased from 2015 to 2017:

Breast augmentation (290,467 procedures, up 4 percent from 2015)

Liposuction (235,237 procedures, up 6 percent from 2015)

Nose reshaping (223,018 procedures, up 2 percent from 2015)

Eyelid surgery (209,020 procedures, up 2 percent from 2015)

Facelifts (131,106 procedures, up 4 percent from 2015)

Further, the  American Society of Plastic Surgeons statistics show that there were 17.1 million surgical and minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2016.

This obsession is the starting point of  Beauty. Published by Image Comics, this introduction into the society laden with an STD known as Beauty was one hell of an adventure. The Beauty is a disease that basically makes someone perfect; their wrinkles disappear, their excess fat evaporates, and they gain seemingly near-perfect features. Have sex and become beautiful. Off the bat, this would sound like some kind of miracle STD for most people.

From start to finish, I could not put this work of art down. It is part police procedural, part science-fiction horror and, of course, part social satire. On all levels, it works.

It starts off with two detectives that come across a freak death that is related to someone infected with the Beauty.

The inception of this book came from the mind of Jeremy Haun: “I was out in LA looking at all of the beautiful people and wanted to tell a story examining the lengths that we go to in order to look good.” After this brilliant idea he partnered up with the most “average looking enough” guy that he knew, (Jason A. Hurley) so they could end up fleshing out this disease ridden world of Beauty.

Detectives Vaugn and DeSilva are our main protagonists who are thrown into the world of Beauty. At the onset of the plot, Vaugn is already infected with the disease, whilst DeSilva is not. One can feel their efforts in trying to cope with the realization that people actually want to be infected by this disease.

Within the first few pages, however, the dark side of this STD is revealed. A person infected with Beauty spontaneously combusts. This incident raises questions for our two detectives and their world in general. How could this have happened? What could be the cause? Is this incident isolated? Or does this disease take the old Blondie song, “Die young, stay pretty,” too literally? Questions such as these are just the tip of the iceberg on how the plot develops afterward.

The dynamic between the duo is on par with what we’ve come to expect from great detective partner stories of the past. It was actually reminiscent of Skully and Mulder. I can actually believe that even the looks of both detectives could have been influenced by the aforementioned TV show.

The Beauty is a collection that features the first six issues that offer an intriguing glimpse into a world obsessed with their outward appearance. It is quite easy to be drawn into such a unique take on our society’s unhealthy preoccupation with looking good at whatever the cost.

Can A Father’s Love Defeat the Wytches?

The term “Lovecraftian” is often used, and misused. Too often his work is reduced to just the Cthulhu mythos which is an injustice to the depth and power of his writing. I bring this up because Scott Synder has created in his Image published graphic novel, Wytches, a truly Lovecraftian horror story with nary an elder god in sight.

Lovecraft was the master of atmosphere and would create claustrophobic scenes, whether in a house, a cellar, an Antarctic city, or old growth woods. In fact, his most frightening scenes were descriptions of forests. Take this scene from the Colour Out of Space:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined. The place is not good for the imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night. It must be this which keeps the foreigners away, for old Ammi Pierce has never told them of anything he recalls from the strange days. Ammi, whose head has been a little queer for years, is the only one who still remains, or who ever talks of the strange days; and he dares to do this because his house is so near the open fields and the travelled roads around Arkham.

 

Scott Synder and artist Jock understand just how scary the woods can be. While the wytches are the villains, the major source of the horror is the forest itself, which they let us know in the opening pages. It is in the dark of the forests where the terrors hide.

The forest is also a metaphor for the wild and uncontrolled aspects of life. In the heart of the forest are swarming insects and hidden animals, and the brooding trees. The forest is not our world and we have no control over it. We can only tame it by destroying it.

The forest of Wytches is one such uncompromising place. A place where the boundaries of between the day and the night break down. Where the land of the living meets the land of the dead. Where the mundane meets the fantastical. In these woods adults are but children with no control.

Synder understand this essence of horror. He starts the story in 1919 in a primeval forest, where a woman is being devoured by a tree.

The story shifts to the present day and centers on high schooler Sailor, her father, and her paraplegic mother. The mundane of this story is the love and devotion a father, Charlie, has for his daughter. This is also the horror. Parents live with fear every day. From the new parent listening to the breathing of their child, to apprehension of your child’s first day walking to school, to nursing them through high fevers, to their first car and beyond. We also live in fear as whether we are good parents. “Have I screwed up?”

Synder discusses this in his afterword. He discussed how childhood fears of monsters and fairies segue in the very real horror of home invasions and school shooters. A dad can handle the monster under the bed, but the armed gunman is something totally different.  “I worry about my children and I can’t protect them. I wish I could stop worrying. I want a moment’s peace. And so, on. It’s like your child has just entered this realm of monsters and you’re one, too. The truth is this is largely what Wytches is about. The Wytches are monsters but they’re monsters what only act when we give them permission to. When we go to them and pledge each other, then they can come with their teeth bared. And their favorite things to eat are children.”

Like the master, Stephen King, Snyder weaves the mundane horror with the fantastical to create a compelling and terrifying tale.  The love we feel for our children also fills us with fear. This is why King’s Pet’s Cemetery was perhaps his most terrifying work, as it involved the death of the protagonist’s son. Synder thus used the twisted woods as a metaphor for the traps and trials of parenthood.

The forest, this metaphor for the uncontrolled aspects of life is also the apt metaphor for the parent. The love we feel for our children feeds our fear for them. Yet, so much is beyond our control. I recall the fear I felt the first time I let my oldest walk to school. To my imagination the streets of our suburban hamlet were just as fearsome as Synder and Jock’s twisted forest. The love and devotion of the parent is so fierce that we would sacrifice all care and protect for our children

Yet, there are people who will sacrifice those whom they should protect. Sadly, I’ve seen that all too often in my career as an attorney.

Sailor has been “chosen” which means she must be sacrificed to the Wytches. Someone has offered her to the Wytches in exchange for a magical reward. Part of the magic is that she will be forgotten, even by her parents. But, the magic has no power over Charlie, as his love for Sailor is the greater power. In this respect, Wytches, though a horror story, has much in common with Christopher Nolan’s movie Intersellar. Both, at their centers is the story of the power of love that a father feels for this daughter. This is a power sentiment.   This love in its essence is purer and more powerful than the evils which lurk around the edges of world. It is also this love which infuses us with such a sense of fear.

This is a masterful piece of horror. Read it and then go and hug your children, and then your parents.

 

Rosemary’s Baby Meets West Wing in The Eighth Seal

Mark Waid is the editor of Thrillbent, a great Webcomic site. Waid is no stranger to comics having penned the Flash, Captain America, Daredevil, and well, just about every other great title published by DC and Marvel. He is also a great editor who has nurtured some very impressive talents.

Two of those talents are writer James Tynion IV and artist Jeremy Rock. When Waid was the editor-in-chief at Boom! Studios he hired Rock for a project ten minutes after seeing his samples. Waid told Tynion that Thrillbent was looking for a new series “and James came back to me with the single best one sentence pitch I’ve ever heard: ‘The West Wing meets Rosemary’s Baby.’ I bought it immediately.”

The series, which is still up on Thrillbent  is available in print from IDW. Take my advice: buy the graphic novel. This is a gorgeously drawn and colored book. Nolan Woodard and Michael Spicer’s colors are somewhat flat on the web page but literally make the work pop off the printed page. That type of visual engagement is critical for a horror comic.

Amelia, the president’s wife is having some problems. She’s having some very disturbing hallucinations. When we first meet her Amelia tells her psychiatrist, Dr. West,   about a vision she had while reading an “inane” book to kindergarteners. She turns into a demonic beast and starts killing the children. In real life, she fainted and passes it off to the worried children and security detail as due to missing lunch.

She complains to the doctor that the medicine should control these hallucinations. Yet, she sees this demonic version of herself in reflecting surfaces. As the Amelia leaves the doctor’s office, he makes a call about her visit. He tells the person on the other end “This is all starting to happen much too soon.” Cue the ominous music.  The press catches wind of the fainting spells and runs a piece on the First Lady’s eating disorder which in turns sends the President’s Chief of Staff, Christian, into apoplexy.  “The entire goddamn press is going to spend the rest of the goddamn week talking about how pale she’s looking…Next up some radio nutjob starts shouting about a ‘drinking problem.’ Then someone says the words ‘pill popper.'”

The world of high politics and supernatural horror meet up. While the White House tries to keep a lid on the First’s Lady’s strange behavior, Amelia is becoming undone.

Tynion keeps the pace, tension, and mystery churning along at a brisk pace. What is the source of Amelia’s strange visions and what do they portend? What does Dr. West know and who was he talking to on the phone? Unfortunately, without spoiling the book, I can’t say more.

Waid makes it clear how much he loves Rock’s artwork: “I was immediately attracted to the life in his style- at the time, very Steve Dillon-y-and I was doubly pleased by his storytelling abilities. His choices as an artist about how to frame a shot and how to deliver impact were (are) every bit as deliberate as his line work.” His decision to match Tynion’s script with Rock’s art was a masterstroke. Rock truly understand’s Tynion’s script and pacing. His framing of the scenes is both clear and creepy.

If you love horror or political drama, don’t miss this one.

 

 

 

 

MonStrous – Monster Movies Done Right

The biggest problem with Universal’s Bomb, The Mummy, was that it was without heart. You either love and understood those classic tales with  Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula and the Mummy or you don’t. Clearly the corporate suits at Universal thought that by throwing money at the project they could cover their disdain for both the material and the fans.

Greg Wright and Ken Lamug, authors of Source Point Press’ MonStrous love the material and are rabid fans. Which is why it is such a good read.

I’ve had the pleasure of running into Greg at a couple of conventions. He’s a bright and engaging guy who absolutely loves talking about MonStrous. And he has every right to be proud. In fact, he told me that it has been optioned for a movie.

Unlike Universal’s effort or merely retelling the familiar tale, with millions of dollars of FX, Wright and Lamug take  Hideyuki Kikuchi ‘s approach with his Vampire Hunter D. The world of MonStrous is a future shattered by the rivalry between Frankenstein and his monster. Unable to destroy each other, they created proxies. Frankenstein turned to making mechanical men who would obey his orders, and the Monster created more monsters. Now, is the Age of Monsters.

The four tales which make up MonStrous are not the stories of Frankenstein or his Monster, but of the people and creatures who live in this world. Each tale is separate and self-contained, without any continuity of characters.

The first tale opens with Ilsa coming to town seeking revenge for the murder of her father by a monster named Venomtooth. When Dr. Frankenstein and his mechanical men refuse to help, she turns to hiring a fugitive monster named Gruber. Together they track down Venomtooth. And the Monster  also makes a cameo. But, this is Ilsa’s story and her quest for revenge. It’s a fine little tale and Greg keeps the story moving along very nicely.

The second tale is about Hans, a human who worked with robots on the Franken-Squad hunting down monsters until he is shot. Not one to waste a valuable resource, Frankenstein takes Han’s brain and places it into a robot. “As you know from your years of service, the Franken Squad pairs humans and robots to hunt monsters. Now, you’re the first officer to be robot and human paired into one.” Hans understandably is not too happy and sets off in pursuit of the monster who shot him.

There are two more equally good stories. If you love those classic old horror films, ignore Cruise’s Mummy and curl with MonStrous.

Big Trouble for Escape from New York

When I attended Eternal Con on July 1, 2017, to check in on Vendors who had appeared at BoroughCon, meet new people and catch up with my buddy Billy Tucci, I did not expect to get waylaid by Greg Pak.

I had walked up to the Pak’s table and started talking to what I thought was a millennial. To my surprise, I was talking to Pak himself! How can a guy who has been producing top flight comics for years, such as the Planet Hulk series, look like a college kid? I’m 55, and he’s 48, yet I look like I could be his father!

Already off balance, he then fast-talks me into buying the full run of the Big Trouble in Little China/Escape from New York crossover. My wallet emptied so fast I had flashbacks to grade school and being shook down by bullies for my lunch money.

Having recently reviewed his great weird west saga, Kingsway I wasn’t ready to so soon review another Pak masterpiece, but I must get some return on my missing cash.

Big Trouble in Little China. If you have never seen this movie, please turn in your geek credentials. To the rest of you, I am sure that you share my view that this is one of the greatest geek movies ever made. It perfectly hits every note. I can and have watched it dozens of times. Lo Pan is one of my favorite movie villains; this was the role James Hong was born to play and considering that he has appeared in 500 movies and television shows, that is saying something.

Director John Carpenter is rightly considered one of the greats of horror. BTLC showed that he didn’t take himself too seriously and could perfectly blend horror with humor.

And of course, there is Jack Burton himself: Kurt Russell. Russell nailed the slightly clueless but amazingly lucky Jack.

Now, there are fans who like Escape From New York better than BTLC. Not to take anything away from that Carpenter film, I prefer BTLC. Escape from New York, which was released in 1981, is such a dark vision of the future that it makes Blade Runner look positively cheery by comparison. However, I do admit that Snake Plissken is one of the great bad asses of all time.

According to Pak, Boom approached him to do the project. They showed him a picture by Daniel Bayliss where Jack is driving his rig, the Pork Chop Express with Snake riding on the cab firing a machine gun at a monster. Pak was hooked (who wouldn’t be?) and the rest is comic book history.

Pak, not merely likes, but clearly loves the source material. His love of these two flicks is evident in both his understanding and handling of these different but weirdly connected characters: Jack and Snake.

The premise is wonderfully silly. In Snake’s world, Bobby Liu, the last Federal Security guard, is guarding the Government’s Secret Vault of Supernatural Research. He used a magical artifact to summon Snake, but made a mistake and summoned instead an alternate world version of Snake: our boy Jack.  Seems Bobby is trying to protect a National Treasure blues Singer, Blind Apple Mary, and transport her to the Free State of Toronto. Right at the outset Jack is mistaken for Snake and kills some Mad Max bad guys called “Marauders.” Snake tracks down the imposter and discovers that Jack has an almost magical sense of luck which prevents him from getting hurt. One thing leads to another and the three head off the rescue Blind Mary. Oh, yes, and the ghost of Lo Pan is tagging along looking for revenge.

The story has the speed and momentum of Jack’s rig and the jokes don’t stop. Lo Pan is a great villain and his plan to use alternate versions of Snake to kill or capture Jack is inspired silliness.

While there are many artists who could have done this, I can’t imagine anyone doing better than Daniel Bayliss. His scenes are funny enough without Pak’s script. Plus he nails Kurt Russell’s square jaw just this side of caricature. I particularly loved the opening scenes of the story where Jack suddenly finds himself in a desert wasteland being chased by Marauders. Later on, he has a lot of fun with the alternate Snakes, which are hysterical. Triona Farrell’s colors are a great complement to the art.

Is this a good read? Well to quote Jack Burton: “You just listen to the old Pork Chop Express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning’s crashin’ and the thunder’s rollin’ and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’”.

In other words: yes, Pak has done it, again.

The After Life with Archie

Archie and his gang were my first introduction comics. As a young child, our local shoe store used to have a stack of Archie comics for its young customers. While waiting for my sister and brother to get their new shoes, I would immerse myself in Riverdale and its funny denizens. I was a particular fan of Jughead Jones. These comics contained a wonderful sense of innocence, timelessness, and humor.

Unfortunately, the bucolic mythic suburbia of Riverdale over time paled and became less relevant to Gen X, and Y and then the Millennials. These generations having grown up with the edgy teen dramas on the WB and the dystopic YA novels, Archie and friends became not merely passé but utterly irrelevant.

Just as Frank Miller re-imagined of Batman as the Dark Knight, it seemed that the time had come to give the world of Archie that harder edge, and thus the After Life with Archie was born.

Author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa explained that the impetus for the idea came from the cover of Life with Archie, number 23, by Francesco Francavilla, which showed a retro-Archie being confronted by zombie versions of Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. “The little kid inside me was a little disappointed that the comic underneath Francesco’s cover didn’t have any zombies in it.” And so, the zombie, or should I saw the “Walking Dead” version of Archie was born.

As anyone on this website should know the modern zombie movie was born with George A. Romero’s classic and still scary Night of the Living Dead. Sequels and remakes will come and go, but this movie is the classic and original deal.

Robert Kirkman revived zombies with The Walking Dead back in 2003. Taking a concept rarely handled well Kirkman made zombies as popular with the mainstream as vampires were with teenage girls.

Surprisingly, Marvel then took a chance and allowed Kirkman into the Marvel Universe with his outstanding Marvel Zombies. Using the Ultimate universe as his jumping point, Mark Millar sent the Fantastic Four into an alternate universe where the Avengers and the other Marvel Heroes were zombies. This was quirky and strangely satisfying. The feedback was so positive that the Marvel Zombies got their own mini-series and Robert “Walking Dead” Kirkman penned it. The series worked because Marvel heroes had seen their share of strangeness and becoming zombies were not that much of stretch.

But, this dark zombified Archie is as discordant as when we heard the horrifying allegations against America’s Dad, Bill Cosby. Sure, we love to huddle under the covers pretending to be afraid of monsters, but we also need to bathe in the light. We don’t really want to have the light turned suddenly dark where the friendly and safe are transformed into the dangerous and deadly. Archie, like Julie Andrews, represents that light. This dark, grim and horrific comic drains all the goofiness out of Archie and the gang at Riverdale. This is a true nightmare world.

Aguirre-Sacasa has written an outstanding and riveting story. Jumping off from our beloved characters, he re-imagines them along more realistic lines before dropping them into this living nightmare. Without breaking their original comic characters, Aguirre-Sacasa deftly grafts the inhabitant of Riverdale into the heart-breaking world of the Walking Dead.

Francavilla is credited with the artwork, but there is no listing for the inker or colorist, so I’ll assume he did triple duty. There is no question he is a master. The art and the colors blended with this top-notch story create a pervasive atmosphere of horror and dread.

The question is would this comic have been as compelling if Aguirre-Sacasa had created original characters? Or is the power derived from placing familiar characters with whom many of us have grown up with, and placing them in this dark place? Perhaps the power does come from seeing these familiar friends in this horror. Stephen King always started his books with realistic situations populated by people we come to care about before turning their lives inside out.

Which brings me this point: I wanted to hate this comic. I didn’t want to see the beloved characters from my childhood tore apart. But, Aguirre- Sacasa and Francavilla created such a phenomenal work that I was compelled not to hate it. Like King, they understand the essence of horror. When the bad guy is killed we cheer when the good guy is killed we mourn.  Horror comes from seeing people with whom we like and identify with placed in peril.

But, in the end, I am torn by this comic. As much as I was captivated by this masterful work, I felt a deep disappointment in watching the light being extinguished in Riverdale in this dark and humorless world.