Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thoughts from a Michael about Michaelmas

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel also known as Michaelmas. Being a Michael, it caused me take a moment to reflect upon my namesake.

Feasts, saints and angels are things which I think are primarily of interest to Catholics or high Anglicans (high as in church, not high as a kite). I've lived most of my life without knowing the occasion Michaelmas existed.

My parents made deliberate choices when naming myself and my brothers; we each have two middle names, one for a name from my father's side and the other from my mother's. Thus, rather than picking and choosing from either side of the family for our given names, instead we received names from the Bible. I have seen the name Michael defined as "He who is like God." What a name to live up to!

Going strictly by the text of the Bible, St. Michael is one of only two angels who received names (the other is Gabriel). Yes, some churches have traditions which include the likes of Raphael or Azrael. To them I say: that's fine, but have you spoken to Mormons about Moroni lately?

When I see how angels are represented in Hollywood films, television shows, novels and comic books, I get the idea that a great deal of undue emphasis has been placed upon them. Yes, we Christians recognize angels as servants working directly with God, but so what? Yes, they enjoy a relationship with God the likes of which no one on Earth can achieve, but they don't appear to possess the same level of free will as we do.

Or do I have that wrong? Are angels capable of self-determination in equal measure to humans, but are simply much better able to obey God's will because of the closeness they already share? I suppose questions like these are what sustain the discipline of Angelology.

But what does St. Michael mean to me? You have to look to his references in the Bible to figure him out; he's best remembered for this passage from Revelation 12:7-9:

7 And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. 9 So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

It's because of this passage that St. Michael is often depicted in combat with dragons, making him perhaps the second-best known dragon slayer among the saints (St. George had a good publicity man). As a man with a lifelong interest in super heroes, I can get behind this idea of Michael as the angel of action, the lancer who steps out from obscurity to defeat the main villain. Very good showing, Michael!

But the other reference to Michael the Archangel is... problematic. It appeared one book earlier in the Bible - Jude 1:9:

9 Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

You read that and think, "oh yeah, it's Michael against the Devil; that's something he did, it sounds right." But then you might wonder "what's that about Moses?" You see, people aren't quite clear what exactly the event being referred to is. It hasn't even been agreed whether it refers to a Biblical account! (Zechariah 3:1-2 is one suggestion).

Once again I'm reminded of my connection to super hero literature. "Hm, a question of canon? Perhaps a retcon? Sounds just like comics!"

St. Michael versus the Spectre
by John Ostrander & Tom Mandrake

I actually do appreciate that Michael is such a strong name; though my goal is not to become an angel (again, that's Hollywood mythology), becoming "like God" is something I strive toward.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Quadrinhos em Português 3: Scott Pilgrim

To conclude my look at the Portuguese-language comic books I've been using to help me study the language, I turn to the other comic I found for sale at Surprisingly, it's Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim!

As a Canadian who elected to learn Portuguese, why not turn to a Canadian story which has been given a Portuguese translation? Of course, Scott Pilgrim was a big-time/small-time hit in the English-speaking world and led to a modestly underperforming motion picture. How well can a series steeped in North American pop culture references translate to an audience in Portugal? Good question!

Off the bat, you may notice the first volume "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life" in English became "Scott Pilgrim na Boa Vida" in Portuguese. There may be connotations to the phrase local to Portugal which I don't understand, but the literal translation is "Scott Pilgrim: the Good Life," which really does a disservice to the original title. "Precious Little Life" speaks to Scott's sense of entitlement and lack of introspection, informing you a bit about his character before you ever read a page of the story. The Portuguese version lacks this subtle effect.

Scott Pilgrim indulges in a lot of slang which is muted in the translation: where Kim calls Stephen a "pussy boy" in English becomes "maraquinhas" (sissy); the meaning is similiar, but inexact. Fortunately, Sex Bob-Omb is intact; Crash & the Boys become "Crash & os Rapazes." This was probably a very challenging book for the translator to work on.

Of course, many recent additions to the English language such as "internet" have no Portuguese equivalent and use the same words. It's also interesting to note that the joke about wasn't changed to a local version of the site, keeping the Canadian humour. Man, if the jokes about Toronto were arcane to readers in the US, I can only imagine how people in Portugal responded to this book!

Thank gooodness Scott Pilgrim became a large enough hit to warrant a Portuguese language version, one which can be easily obtained by anyone with internet access. And thus I take my leave of this subject, having reached this point where I'm puzzling through comic book pages, slowly translating them and trying to recognize the words and phrases by sight. Sometimes I succeed!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Quadrinhos em Português 2: Tintin

I had a plan. The next Portuguese-language comic book in my collection was going to be Blacksad, that beloved anthropomorphic animal detective series I've blogged about so often (and which remains one of the top search results for this blog). Sure, I was tempted to try and track down Brazilian copies of the Phantom (Fantasma) on ebay, but knowing Blacksad came from Spanish creators, I realized a Portuguese copy had to exist - and indeed, it does. I found an online book vendor based in Portugal who offered international shipping, asked my Angolan relations to check over the site to ensure it was reputable, then placed my order (including copies of XIII and some Marvel super hero books). Then I sat back to wait.

I didn't have to wait very long; the vendor soon got back to inform me they were cancelling my order. Yes, they did offer international shipping, but I think they were more comfortable shipping across Europe, rather than the Great White North. I felt despondent; where could I possibly go to find a Portuguese language comic book?, as it turns out. I had completely forgotten about my old friend Tintin, whose books have, of course, been translated into every language spoken on Earth (and probably some geek has rendered them into Elvish). The USA's Amazon service includes many copies of Portugal's As Aventuras de Tintin, so I settled for a copy of Explorando a Lua (Explorers on the Moon), which is now the third Tintin book in my comics library: one in English, one in French and one in Portuguese - each one a different story!

I realized early on in life that Tintin was a "respectable" comic book; after all, only he and Asterix were elected worthy to reside not only upon the shelves of my junior high school library, but in the esteemed public library as well! (we did possess one copy of the Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics in the junior high library but it was reference-only). I believe I read every Tintin book before the end of junior high.

The first thing I did upon bending back the cover of Explorando a Lua was to hunt for Thompson & Thomson. Well aware that the duo were renamed from nation to nation while retaining the same joke (surnames which are homonyms), I quickly found in Portugal the duo are known as... Dupond & Dupont. That is to say, the original French names. Noting that Snowy was likewise named Milou as in the original pages, I wonder if perhaps the old practice of renaming the characters for each culture has been abandoned, with present-day translations seeking closer fidelity to the French originals (except for in North America where, no doubt, the Snowy and Thompson & Thomson monikers will endure).

One advantage to reading a Tintin book from Portugal is that it uses the version of Portuguese practiced in Angola by my relatives. The disadvantage is that the European version is extremely unpopular in North American so my texts, classes and apps have all been teaching me the Brazilian grammar and pronunciation. Largely it doesn't make a difference but there are moments where I'm taken aback to find phrases structured in a way other than how my Brazilian instructor guided me.

Overall I've been finding that comic books being largely conversational, my skills have been seriously challenged by the informal manners of speech found in Portuguese comics. This is good! I can probably study them for years as my fluency improves!

Three cheers for the ubiquitous Tintin! One more entry on Portuguese comics tomorrow!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Quadrinhos em Português 1: Private Eye

It's been some time since I last spoke about Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin's digital comic book series Private Eye. During this interval, the series wrapped itself up after ten installments and it's been announced that a print collection is forthcoming - but seriously, when you can purchase the entire book for whatever price you like (even free) from their website, why bother with print?

Besides my adoration for the artwork of Marcos Martin, my interest was drawn to Private Eye by the presence of their Portuguese-language translations. Insofar as comic books did so much to help teach me how to read, I thought a Portuguese comic book would be a fun teaching aid. At this point in my attempt to learn the language I've exhausted all of the material provided by my employer's Continuing Education program and thus must educate myself.

I know some armchair quarterbacks on the internet are offering opinions as to whether bringing Private Eye to print is an admission of failure on the part of Vaughan & Martin. For myself, I spent a long time completely disengaged from the series because I forgot it was being published; that's the only real flaw I can see with the model they adopted - that it requires you to frequent their home page on a regular basis to keep up with the story.

Private Eye turned out to be a pretty simple story. Given the title of the series and the occupation of the protagonist I was led to believe it would be a detective series - but no, not really. There was a question as to what the villain was after, but was not much more than a MacGuffin. The story constantly shifted perspectives to show what the villains were doing so the protagonist basically played catch-up for ten chapters. It's a futuristic crime thriller, not a futuristic mystery.

One odd effect of the translation was that a pair of French assassins whose dialogue was printed in English with in the original were, naturally, translated into Portuguese for that version. However, the few times in which the duo spoke French in the original remained French in the translation. It all works, but it does make one wonder: how would a French version solve that issue?

In this scene above, Marcos Martin gave the lead female character a half-page panel to show off her outfit. The first time I read it I assumed the enlarged panel was intended to establish how taken the protagonist was with her beauty - but later, he turns out to be gay. So why the large panel? For the benefit of male readers? Or the benefit of Martin?

More thoughts about Portuguese-language comic books over the next two days.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Everyone wants me helpless." Duster Review

More than three years ago, I supported a comic book Kickstarter for the first time; last week, the product finally arrived. It certainly took its sweet time, but here at last is the graphic novel Duster!

The book is written by Micah Wright and Jay Lender and drawn by Jok, with that spiffy cover you see by (of course) Howard Victor Chaykin. I became interested in the project in 2012 because it was being championed by creators such as Kurt Busiek and - being inexperienced with crowdfunded projects - I felt that established creators deserved my funding to see their self-published comics come to life. In particular, although I had never read any of Micah Wright's comics, I vaguely recalled skimming past Bleeding Cool's expose of his having lied about his military career. This was the first comic book I had seen Wright's name on since that scandal so I suppose I gravitated to this project because the idea of seeing Wright redeemed would be compelling, even if the comic book weren't. As Wright appeared to be someone whom the comic book industry had abandoned, it made perfect sense to see his name on a Kickstarter project. The delay from when the books were mailed out to its arrival in my mailbox was much greater than usual, to the point where I wondered if I had been forgotten. The book finally arrived with something I had never seen before:

Canada Customs stopped the parcel at the border! Boy, align yourself with Micah Wright and the world conspires against you! (seriously, is he on a watchlist?)

Duster concerns one Jo Baker, a single mother and crop duster living in a small Texan town near the end of World War II. Just as Germany has surrendered in Europe, a plane full of Nazis who have cut a deal with the USA are headed over Texas airspace, en route to safety in South America. Unfortunately for everyone, they encounter Jo's plane and this results first in an aerial attack, a farmhouse raid, a town held hostage and finally a showdown in a wool processing plant.

Duster is a thick book, the main story running about 220 pages. Considering many Kickstarter comic book projects aim to deliver perhaps 20 pages of original content, Duster definitely falls on the heavy end of the scale, which helps mitigate the lengthy production time. However, the story is broken up into six chapters which are each comparable in length to that of a monthly comic book - despite this book being a first-time publication, not a collected serial! Likely, this is because Duster is also being sold broken up into its chapters as a set of digital comics.

I've never seen the work of artist Jok before; he's well-suited to this tale and its quick-paced action. He also does a terrific job of desining distinctive characters, both amongst the townsfolk who populate the background and the Nazis, so that even characters who aren't identified by name become familiar and demonstrate quirks.

The plot is fairly pedestrian, usually ramping itself up to an action scene, then building a ramp to the next such moment. The story is mostly notable because of the strong female protagonist (yes, that's why Greg Rucka likes it), the wartime setting and the flashes of humour throughout the tale - occasionally rather grim humour, such as a memorable death scene in the wool processing plant.

The only note in this book which struck me the wrong way came from the introduction, written by Martin Olson: "This should be a movie. Make Duster into a film, dammit. I want to see it. Badly." Once again it hits open my pet peeve about film and comics - that comics are seemingly incomplete as a work of art without a film - that the process of reading words for yourself and choosing how to interpret the page is better left to cameramen and sound mixers - that a labour of love created by a mere handful of folks is inferior to that of a major motion picture's hundreds of staff members. Where do we see this attitude but in comics? Who listens to a radio program and thinks, "Now adapt it as a painting!" Or watches television and remarks, "I can't wait for the magazine!" I beg you, my readers - don't be that guy. The medium of comic book art is sufficiently capable of telling stories intended for the medium of comic book art. End. Of. Rant. (for now)

I no longer support every Kickstarter run by a personality whom I merely recognize - I'd be broke if I kept that up! Nowadays I'm much more choosy in terms of who and what I support - plus, I prefer the digital option over print 'cause my shelves really don't need any more crowding. Regardless, Duster is a good package - a page-turner in the tradition of classic comics. It may not be more sophisticated than a 1930s comic (the crowdfunding aspect is perhaps the most notable thing about it), but the Strong Female Protagonist should help it find an audience with contemporary readers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rest in Peace Jay Scott Pike

One so seldom hears from the artists who comprised the stable of talent in the days of Atlas (Marvel Comics' 1950s publishing name) that you could almost think they had all passed away - until, unfortunately, you hear of their passing. While some such as Colan and Severin worked up until the end of their lives, most Atlas artists have enjoyed their well-earned golden years.

Earlier this month we lost Jay Scott Pike, a veteran of the 1950s Atlas Comics. He's probably best-remembered for his work on Marvel's jungle heroines such as Jann of the Jungle and Lorna the Jungle Girl, but had real versatility, illustrating tales of spies, cowboys, horror and romance. What could readers have possibly seen in his work, hm? Hm? Hmmm.

What's that? Oh, yes, I'm obliged to mention he also created Dolphin for DC Comics, but probably his most overall renowned work is on the many pin-ups he drew & painted across the decades. They been republished in book format (above) and an image search on his name will bring up many (NSFW) results.

RIP Jay Scott Pike. You were one of the best.

If you admire still-living Atlas artists such as Russ Heath or Allen Bellman don't put off telling them so. Even notorious recluse Steve Ditko is still known to answer the occasional letter. Heck, don't put off telling any artist how you feel about their work. I don't regret telling Ron Lim how much I liked his Captain America; I don't regret telling Mark Waid how little I liked his Captain America either.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"...They were willing to weather horrible fates over decades for incremental gains." Storms at Sea review

The book publisher Flesk has turned out a few books which sit in my library: their collection of Al Williamson's Flash Gordon comic books & strips; their collection of Mark Schultz's Xenozoic comics; and Bruce Timm's art book Naughty and Nice (timid review here). Recently, they released another Mark Schultz product, Storms at Sea. Another comic book product?

No. Storms at Sea is a something like a picture book for adults. It tells a single 75 page story with Schultz's beautiful black & white illustrations on the left-hand pages and the accompanying story printed in neat type on the right-hand pages.

In this story, a man named Griff walks in on a murdered scientist and a beautiful woman, Asha. Asha proceeds to explain the scientist's death by crafting a yarn about a secret society who discovered a forbidden island of monsters and harnessed its secret power, using it to even conquer the stars.

The story makes no bones about its references, at one stage very clearly introducing the plot of King Kong as one of the secret society's actions. It's a mash-up of Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft: secret societies, giant monsters, lost civilizations, arcane rites, fantastic elements and predictions of the Earth's destruction.

I mentioned Flesk's other publications at the outset because this seems very much like their other products - not only because of Schultz, but because Storms at Sea feels very much like an art book. It feels as though Schultz had an art file of very interesting pictures which Flesk wanted to publish; rather than simply making an art book, Schultz threw in a framing sequence and text story which would join these images together. Thus, there are pages of giant monsters, lost fantasy lands, science fiction explorations and end of the world destruction all fused together by this plot. However this came to be, I don't care - I like Schultz's art and I like Schultz's stories. It's not entirely satisfying as a novel as it's mostly exposition (needed to tie the images together) and has no conclusion, but as an art book with bonus material, it's very good. Approach it as such.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"God only wants strong soldiers to fight for him." War Brothers review

Media - especially fiction - tends to warp our perception of Africa. I don't believe I ever received a formal education on the African continent; I don't recall ever learning about African politics, African geography, African history or African current events. At the time of my first trip to the continent, I had read precisely one book about Africa: Ishmael Beah's Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Since that time I've become much more attuned to Africa; besides having made 5 trips in 4 years to 6 different nations, I've read a lot of African history and can even speak knowledgeably about current events in several nations or discusses problems various nations are facing. Considering my love of reading came largely from my affection to comic books, I've naturally been keeping an eye out for comic books about Africa.

Although thus far I haven't read anything which was actually written/drawn by an African, I have at least read several which are about Africa; such a book is War Brothers: the Graphic Novel by my fellow Canadians Sharone E. McKay and Daniel LaFrance, a 2013 Annick Press adaptation of McKay's 2008 novel War Brothers. It's a fictional account of child soldiers in Uganda, but drawn from actual events.

The novel concerns four boys - Jacob, Tony, Paul & Norman - who are kidnapped from their school by the rebellious Lord's Resistance Army of Joseph Kony and made to join his forces in the Sudan. While Tony is quickly made into a soldier, the other boys are used for manual labour. Separated from Tony, the remaining three boys vows to stay together; they soon make cautious alliances with the rebel cook Oteka and an earless girl named Hannah.

The depiction of how normal children become soldiers seems at par with what I've learned about the subject in both Beah's book and Romeo Dallaire's They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. It seems unfortunate to me that after Tony is forced to help murder one boy, he is thereafter inscrutable. The other boys endure hardships, but Tony is the only one who truly becomes a child soldier and I feel his perspective would have helped heighten the trauma the cast endures; instead, the changes in Tony are observed from a distance by the other boys.

The book also shies away from depicting the worst violence on-panel (likely so that the book wouldn't be drummed out of school libraries). Terrible things do happen in this tale, but because of the books I'd already read on the subject my reaction largely went: "oh, they're fortunate." Of course, even after the boys finally escape the rebels and try to return to their lives, there's still quite a bit of story to tell - the reassimilation is not easy and even though most of the boys did nothing wrong, people assume the worst.

Artist Daniel Lafrance does a commendable job on the cast of characters, imbuing the children with expressions of innocence, terror and trauma. When the character Oteka finally appeared out of fatigues near the end of the book, I was actually surprised to realize he was a teenager, barely older than the others - the costuming seemed to add years to his appearance and the shedding of the military outfit restored his youthfulness.

In a postscript the author remarks, "We can realize a world without child soldiers." She first told this tale in 2008. By 2012, when social media lit up over "Kony 2012," Kony remained in power. By the arrival of the 2013 graphic novel, the situation still hadn't changed. And as I write this in 2015... well, we have to continue hoping and praying for change.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Music to My Ears: 50 Likeable Film Soundtracks

Until I met my friend Craig, I didn't give film soundtracks much consideration. Obviously, I had grown up enjoying film scores; appreciating how they enhanced the stories told by motion pictures; making that discovery which (I believe) every young person does that "gee, those John Williams movies sure sound a lot alike." I also grew up in a musical family and would watch many musicals; to this day, my family members will occasionally burst into a number from Camelot or Oliver!. But whether the film scores contained lyrics or not, some scores were etched into my permanent memory at a young age because I truly loved the films in which they were heard. That, to me, was the epitome of a great film score: an excellent movie which also has excellent music.

Then I befriended Craig and discovered he was a film score enthusiast. Craig certainly enjoys a good movie all the more if the score is up to snuff, but he is quite capable of separating the two experiences. Ergo, to Craig it didn't matter if Wing Commander stank, what mattered was the film score sounded terrific. Craig, I learned, would collect film scores based on their composers. He might purchase a film score to a movie he outright disliked; he might purchase film scores to pictures he hadn't seen, nor had any intent of ever seeing. Craig has helped me to judge film scores on their own merits and on the careers of the composers. I still prefer listening to scores of films I've seen - and liked! - but a good score is a good score.

To that end, here is a list of 50 film scores which I rather like, starting from my favourite. Much of my criteria is based on how well the score supports the picture, but some scores are so much better than their accompanying films that they truly stand apart.

  1. The Dark Knight by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
  2. Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk
  3. Avatar by James Horner
  4. Glory by James Horner
  5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by James Horner
  6. The Third Man by Anton Karas
  7. The Adventures of Robin Hood by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  8. Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann
  9. Psycho by Bernard Herrmann
  10. How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell
  11. The Sea Hawk by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  12. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country by Cliff Eidelman
  13. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings by Howard Shore
  14. The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams
  15. Star Wars by John Williams
  16. Rocky by Bill Conti
  17. Star Trek: First Contact by Jerry Goldsmith
  18. North by Northwest by Bernard Herrmann
  19. Mad Max: Fury Road by Junkie XL
  20. X2: X-Men United by John Ottman
  21. Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams
  22. Return of the Jedi by John Williams
  23. Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith
  24. Serenity by David Herman
  25. Dark City by Trevor Jones
  26. The Great Dictator by Charles Chaplin
  27. The Thin Blue Line by Philip Glass
  28. The Mission by Ennio Morricone
  29. Aliens by James Horner
  30. Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith
  31. Hellboy by Marco Beltrami
  32. The Avengers by Alan Silvestri
  33. Die Hard by Michael Kamen
  34. Superman by John Williams
  35. The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein
  36. The Thing by Ennio Morricone
  37. Skyfall by Thomas Newman
  38. Captain Blood by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  39. Casablanca by Max Steiner
  40. Tombstone by Bruce Broughton
  41. Conan the Barbarian by Basil Poledouris
  42. Being There by Johnny Mandel
  43. Pete Kelly's Blues by David Buttolph & Ray Heindorf
  44. Godzilla: King of the Monsters by Akira Ifukube
  45. Terminator 2: Judgement Day by Brad Fiedel
  46. Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin
  47. The Untouchables by Ennio Morricone
  48. Casino Royale by David Arnold
  49. Patriot Games by James Horner
  50. The Matrix Reloaded by Don Davis

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mr. Monster on Kickstarter!

He's been super; he's been duper; now he's going to be collected!

A Kickstarter project has begun to bring yet another 1940s Canadian hero back into print; this time, it's Doc Stearne, alias Mr. Monster! This is yet another rare opportunity to feast one's eyes on seldom-seen Canadian comics, so I certainly encourage all interested peoples to follow my lead and support the project!