Sunday, December 31, 2017

Parting thoughts about 2017

I'm not the same person I was.

As 2016 drew to an end, I didn't have many ideas about what 2017 would bring me. I had an idea I would like to visit Angola again, but otherwise I planned to merely maintain my usual routines.

But Angola changed the feel of the entire year. I did go back to Angola and it changed my life for the better. I learned more of what I was capable of, I performed tasks I thought myself unable to perform. I grew in faith and ability.

I find myself in such a different place as 2017 ends. I intend to visit Angola again in 2018; I will be continuing to develop the biography of my uncle's life which I began researching; I'm getting back into the comic book industry and will have a new publication to talk about soon; I'm taking on new ministry opportunities. I'm moving to a new office space.

Unlike 2017, I'm beginning the new year with anticipation for what is to come. More and more I'm coming to know myself better and better.

Friday, December 29, 2017

"I am ready to learn your lesson." Marley's Ghost review.

Comixology has recently published the digital comic book Marley's Ghost on their website. It's an adaptation of Charles Dickens' great Christmas classic A Christmas Carol, based on notes by the legendary comics artist Harvey Kurtzman.

How this comic book came to be is almost the most interesting thing about the book. Kurtzman spend years working on his graphic novel Marley's Ghost, but could never find a publisher. This comic was drawn by Gideon Kendall using Kurtzman's layouts and designs as his guide, with Josh O'Neill and Shannon Wheeler adapting Dickens' text to the medium (not why you need two writers to adapt the text, but here we are). The book includes images of Kurtzman's layouts and of a finished page which he had Jack Davis draw. I'm afraid the comparison between those pages and the actual book hurts the finished product a little, in my view. Kurtzman's art was simply so uniquely his own that I was instantly more taken with his layouts than those of Kendall. Likewise, Jack Davis' cartoonish characters outstrip those of Kendall.

But there's nothing wrong with Kendall's efforts on this adaptation. His own cartoony designs (particularly the long-faced Scrooge) are excellent, keeping the scenes lively. And it may simply be impossible to do wrong when faithfully adapting Dickens, which is what this book is - it retains much of the dialogue from the original work.

As I write this, Marley's Ghost is on sale at Comixology. Why not pick it up before the holidays are over?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve: Looking back at "Amends"

I recently sat down and watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It had been years since I last put them on and during the interim there have been allegations that series creator Joss Whedon was a creep, which may hurt the series' reputation by association. Still, I recently realized there was a new generation of viewers born since the series aired its first episode. These new fans are watching the series from the start with absolutely no idea where the program is going, because it's been off the air long enough at this point to be forgotten in contemporary pop culture vocabulary (similar to a professor who made a Matrix reference to a class I was auditing last year; the students didn't get it).

In particular, I wanted to watch the 3rd season episode "Amends" again. It's the series' one and only Christmas episode and aired at a point where the series' cast, writing and storylines were at a very consistent peak. Earlier that year, Angel had been sent to Hell, then returned to Earth with no explanation for how he'd managed that. Angel himself had no clue how he'd been released. Enter the First Evil, a being of pure evil which claims responsibility for returning Angel to Earth so that he could become his soulless self Angelus again. Angel undergoes spiritual torment as the First Evil reminds him of his many past sins, tells him he can never find redemption, and encourages him to lose his soul again. Events come to a head on Christmas Eve.

This episode is pretty well known within the Buffy and Angel fandoms, being the debut of the First Evil, who would become the 'big bad' of Buffy's final season. Further, it establishes a tone for Angel's character which would be followed throughout his own 5 season program - his quest for redemption and the demonic forces which avow he cannot be saved.

One element of the episode which seems to have slipped from popular memory is the impact it had on how fans viewed Xander Harris. Xander was frequently pig-headed and spiteful, particularly in how he reacted to Buffy and Angel's relationship. Leading up to "Amends", Xander had reached a near-critical mass with Buffy fandom, who had all-but given up on him. Then, "Amends" turned him around in the eyes of many for two reasons: 1) he offers to help Angel despite his own misgivings and 2) viewers learn Xander's parents are alcoholics whose drunken Christmas fights have led Xander to sleep outdoors. Suddenly, it seemed to provide an excuse or rationale for much of Xander's poor behavior and instantly won him the benefit of the doubt for a decent period of time.

"Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster."

What I find surprising about fandom's reaction to the episode is how many of them take the First Evil at its word - that it truly was responsible for bringing Angel back from Hell. If that were the case, why did it consider Angel committing suicide to be an acceptable outcome? Why put Angel back on the table as part of a plan where taking Angel off the table again was helpful? Being pure evil - the program's nearest equivalent to Satan - why should anything the First Evil claims be considered truthful?

"I hate that it's so hard... and that you can hurt me so much. I know everything that you did, because you did it to me."

But more to the point, there's the snowfall. At the climax, Angel has decided to kill himself, knowing he can't resist the temptation to be with Buffy, even though it will cost him his soul. Buffy pleads and even fights with him to try and change his mind, but Angel cannot be swayed. Yet the sun doesn't rise. An inexplicable, truly miraculous snowfall occurs in southern California, its clouds blocking out the sun. The obvious impression is that the forces of good in their world - God, from where I'm sitting - have intervened to spare Angel. That perhaps it was the forces of good who rescued Angel from Hell. To some extent all 5 seasons of Angel's own program would continue to revisit the question - is Angel's ultimate purpose for good or evil? But there is undeniable hope expressed in this episode.

"Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I righteous man? The world wants me gone!"

Joss Whedon being an existentialist I sometimes find parallels with my own Christian beliefs. Then, at other times, an impasse. Whedon's approach to Angel's redemption is such a thing - Whedon does not believe in God's grace (the foundation of Christian belief) and so because of this, Angel is tormented (Angel has a Christian upbringing but apparently not a very substantial one). Whedon's programs usually come down on the side of existentialism - as Angel himself would later express it, "If nothing that we do matters, then the only that matters is what we do." But "Amends" forcefully rejects that idea; mercy is shown to Angel on Christmas Eve not because he has earned it, but because goodness is merciful in and of itself.

Merry Christmas, internet!

Friday, December 22, 2017

"My captain is marking his intent..." Captain Kronos #1 review

Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter was a 1974 Hammer horror film in which the titular character was a sword-wielding adventurer who hunts creatures of the night alongside his learned friend Grost and his lover Carla. This year, Titan Comics released a new Captain Kronos series under their 'Hammer Comics' banner.

I would not normally be interested in this series but I was drawn in by the creative team: Dan Abnett, a fine writer who, with his frequent collaborator Andy Lanning, was responsible for revamping Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy into a profitable new franchise (then being kicked off the book for making it too valuable for writers such as they); and artist Tom Mandrake, a frequent collaborator of John Ostrander on series such as The Spectre.

I first learned of Captain Kronos through his entry in Jeff Rovin's Encyclopedia of Adventure Heroes and it fired my imagination - a swashbuckling vampire hunter? That sounded like a great movie! The film itself, though, doesn't quite scratch the itch - it's really your typical Hammer historical horror flick, just the hero wields a sword in the climax. It's still an interesting film and could've become a successful series if Hammer hadn't been on its last legs at the time. In the intervening years we've seen via Blade and Buffy the Vampire Slayer that the vampire-fighting action hero is fertile ground.

In the first issue, Abnett & Mandrake deliver what I had originally hoped for: an all-out action adventure tale. The book opens with Kronos, Grost & Carla dispatching a band of vampires, then begins the set-up for another clash with vampires to come. This series leans harder on the action-adventure genre than the film itself.

It should be noted as well how Carla has been somewhat revamped into an active vampire hunter; she's now a two-fisted scrapper like Kronos, which is very satisfying to see. She's not as lovely as the film version (who can top Caroline Munro?!?) but Mandrake's conception of her is in keeping with the tradition of Hammer horror heroines.

This being a vampire comic book, it's interesting to me to note how much Mandrake appears to be drawing from Gene Colan's work on Tomb of Dracula (both here and in Mandrake's recent Kros: Hallowed Ground). Mandrake's wide faces with heavy shading remind me of Colan's and his vampires look like the kind Colan drew in his later years. It's a treat. Captain Kronos receives my recommendation, particularly to fans of Tomb of Dracula and other 1970s vampire fiction.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Now on Comixology: Wolverine: Weapon X Files!

Back in 2009 we were younger, more innocent, more inclined to believe X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be a winning motion picture. In this environment we of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe wrote up Wolverine: Weapon X Files, a Marvel handbook tied to the film. It's now available at Comixology for $1.99 right here.

An all-inclusive handbook for Hollywood's favorite mutant, spotlighting a complete biography of Wolverine! He may be in an acre of comics each month, but this is the only place to get the real score! Also featuring some of the Canucklehead's best allies -- including Gambit, Maverick, Tyger Tiger and X-Force! And along for the ride are villains -- the likes of Blob, Daken, Deadpool, Mastermind, Orphan Maker, Donald Pierce, the Purifiers, Sabretooth and S'ym! And more than four dozen other stars linked to our man Logan from Amiko to Silver Fox!

The cover artist originally sent in a plain image of Wolverine just standing there - it could have graced the cover of any ol' Wolverine comic book and Marvel was certainly printing them like it was going out of style! The clip art of Wolverine's friends & foes down the sides of the cover were added to get across the idea that this was a Handbook. Still not sure why we called it "Files" though. We usually used the term "files" to refer to non-Handbook formatted books but this one was pure OHOTMU format.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thoughts on Being the Rare Person Who Admits to Liking Avatar

I don't like to see movies by myself. I make exceptions, as when I discovered I had a narrow window to see Shin Godzilla and no time to alert any friends - but typically I go to the movies when I have a friend who wants to join me. On rare occasions, I've seen a film with my friends then later that month seen the film a second time with members of my family. I very seldom see a film 3 times in the theater.

One exception is James Cameron's Avatar. The first time I saw it a friend had invited me. The next two times I was the one inviting people to see it with me. I truly liked this movie and I continue to enjoy it. I delayed purchasing the DVD of the film because I wanted to wait for the limited collector's edition so that I could be sure I was getting the most complete version of the film for my library. I watch it at least once each year.

Don't get me wrong, the longest version of Avatar is not better than the theatrical cut - in fact, the longer cut serves as proof of Cameron's instincts in terms of what to leave out of his film. The theatrical cut is tighter and less flabby - the collector's edition cut exists just for the sake of Avatar fans who wanted more footage - people such as me.

I came onboard with the film without seeing any of the promotion (which is easy to do when you don't watch television). I didn't see the trailer until the day after I first saw the movie - I became convinced I should see the picture after hearing Cameron speak about it at San Diego Comic-Con. Hearing him talk about the work which went into making the picture left me impressed and certain that, as a fan of films, it would be of some interest to me.

Yes, I have heard the nitpicks. Yes, I have heard all the "Dances with Smurfs" jokes. Despite the film being the all-time box office grosser, there are many corners of the internet which despise this film. Nathan Rabin featured Avatar in his Forgotbusters column at the Dissolve, in spite of the fact that the stated purpose of 'Forgotbusters' was to explore top-grossing films which had been 'forgotten.' Avatar, as a film with planned sequels, continued merchandising and a still-active theme park, can't be said to be 'forgotten' in the way other entries in his series were - he bent the rules of his column because of his own distaste for the film. Likewise Forbes posted a well-circulated editorial titled "Five Year Ago, 'Avatar' Grossed $2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint". Many were and are skeptical of the sequels and remain incredulous that the film was the successful production it ended up being. As those sequels come nearer, I imagine there will be more articles such as those two.

And yet, Cameron seems to be 100% aware of these criticisms as he goes forward with the sequels: "Let’s face it, if Avatar 2 and 3 don’t make enough money, there’s not going to be a 4 and 5" he told Vanity Fair recently, also casting this shade:

"Basically, if you loved the first movie, you’re gonna love these movies, and if you hated it, you’re probably gonna hate these. If you loved it at the time, and you said later you hated it, you’re probably gonna love these."

Now taking all of this into account, here's how I feel about the sequels:

  • I will go see the 2nd film in the theater BUT
  • I'm not particularly engaged with the idea of a sequel either.

Again, I like Avatar enough to watch it once per year, but I don't want to see the film remade - that is, I don't want the sequel to replay the same narrative; if it's about the company trying to exploit Pandora and Jake having to band the Na'vi together again, I can't promise I'll enjoy it. Revisiting the same plot as the first film would be the easy path to a sequel - that's why sequels are so very often underwhelming. I suppose my hope is that - as Avatar was inspired by the John Carter* novels - that like John Carter there will be something else fascinating and adventurous to discover over the next hill on the planet.

So yeah, I'm part of the 'silent majority' who enjoyed Avatar. Yet even I'm uncertain about these sequels.

*=By the way, I liked the John Carter film too. Yeah, I don't really have a place at film fansites, do I?