Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Death and the Batman

Batman: Gothic (Deluxe Edition) (1990/ Collected 2015): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Klaus Janson: Writer Grant Morrison's second major foray into the world of Batman (after 1989's Arkham Asylum) hurls the Dark Knight into a literary hellscape of nods to Faustus, Don Giovanni, Lord Byron's Manfred, Fritz Lang's M., Lewis's The Monk, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and a host of other horrific antecedents. There's even an exquisitely detailed, Rube Goldbergesque death trap for Batman to escape.

Batman faces an enemy from his past -- his past as a schoolboy at a private school, that is, in the days before Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and Bruce's journey towards being Batman began. But the enemy threatens Gotham's major mobsters as well, whom this old enemy hunts for revenge. Klaus Janson supplies lots of moodiness and doom as artist. It's one of Batman's most nightmarish adventures, even with the typical splash of Morrisonian postmodernism. This would make a terrific Batman movie, live-action or animated. Come on, DC! Highly recommended.

Death: The Deluxe Edition (1989-2003/ Collected 2014): written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Dave McKean, Jeffrey Jones, P. Craig Russell, Colleen Doran, and others: Neil Gaiman's goth-chick Death gets her solo adventures from The Sandman, two miniseries, and several other places collected here in over-sized hardcover. 

I'd read them all before, but it's nice to catch up with Death, the friendly and understanding embodiment of, well, Death, one of Gaiman's seven Endless personifications of natural forces (the others being Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium (nee Delight), Despair, and Destruction because the universe speaks English and enjoys alliteration). 

The bulk of the volume is occupied by two three-part miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. I'm partial to the first above all others in this volume, playing as it does with the form of the 'quest' and possessed as it is of a grumpy, teen-aged protagonist saddled with the name Sexton Furnival who goes out one day to commit suicide, instead falls into some garbage, and is rescued by the human avatar Death creates for one day every century so as to experience life among the living. It's one of Gaiman's finest pieces of writing, amplified by the lovely, slightly twee artwork of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham.

The other stories are fine as well, though Bachalo disappears halfway through the second Death miniseries, leaving Mark Buckingham and Mark Pennington to finish up the job without moving too jarringly away from Bachalo's style. That miniseries reunites us with several characters from The Sandman arc "A Game of You" a few years down the road. It's solid as well, though Death is much more of a supporting player this time around. Death's answer to one character's enquiry about The Problem of Evil is glib and shallow, but that may be the point -- she's trying to comfort somebody who isn't very bright, not offer a comprehensive solution to theodicy. 

The volume also includes Death's first appearance in The Sandman, in which she tries to cheer up her mopey Byronic brother Dream, and a standalone issue in which Death is called upon by a very minor DC superhero (Element Woman, or possibly Element Girl) who doesn't know how to die. 

A handful of stories (including one in which Death and John Constantine talk about safe sex!) and a length series of illustrations by various artists round out the volume. There's also an oblique introduction from Tori Amos, reprinted from a 1994 collection: one of the oddities of most of DC's new Deluxe editions is that they contain very little 'new' material. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hell Above, Hell Below

Hellboy in Hell Volume 1: The Descent (2015-2016/Collected 2016): written and illustrated by Mike Mignola: Mike Mignola's Hellboy series moves inexorably towards its conclusion in this, what may be the penultimate volume in the long-running series. The end of the last book saw Hellboy dead on Earth and plummeting into Hell. And now we open, on the borderlands of Hell.

Hellboy is his usual acerbic self as he fights an assortment of demons and, well, more demons. Some have personal grudges against him as he sent them back to Hell during his heroic, monster-fighting career above-ground. Meanwhile, Hell's capital city of Pandemonium is strangely empty, and Satan himself is asleep in a basement. Hellboy has help in Hell, but will it be enough to see his mission through -- if there is a mission?

Well, that's the question. Hellboy in Hell marked the return of Mignola to drawing Hellboy as well as writing it after several years of having Duncan Fegredo handle the art duties. It's a welcome return. Mignola has simplified his line, his shapes, and pretty much everything about his style. It's a marvelous, evocative evolution of cartooning that can attain startling effects both comic and horrific. 

Hellboy's purpose in Hell seems a bit vague, but some of that reflects Hellboy's own rejection of the 'destiny' the first couple of years of Hellboy set up. He's not going to usher in the final act of the Apocalypse, having rejected his demonic heritage. Why, then, does he not remember committing a major act of violence in this volume?

If you've never read Hellboy, this is not the place to start. If you have been following Hellboy, this is pretty much essential as we approach the end of a remarkable horror/fantasy epic. Highly recommended.

BPRD: Hell on Earth Volume 4: The Devil's Engine & The Long Death (2012/ Collected 2012): written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi; illustrated by Tyler Crook, James Harren, and Dave Stewart: The eruption of Hell onto Earth-Hellboy continues in this collection of two miniseries dealing with Hellboy's former unit, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence. Things are grim. Monsters are everywhere. This volume contains two 'snapshots' of the ongoing conflict/apocalypse, nicely scripted by John Arcudi and possessed of a number of fine visualizations of those monsters by Tyler Crook and James Harren. 

An unusual, freaky, and disturbingly visualized Wendigo seems to owe at least some of its visual debt to Jack Kirby's white monkey of fear from his 1970's series The Demon by way of Steve Bissette and John Totleben's visual reimagining of the character early in Alan Moore's 1980's run on Swamp Thing. It's all enjoyable, though a bit light on the textual side of things. Recommended.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Horrors at Home and Abroad

Hitchcock/ Truffaut (2015): written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana; directed by Kent Jones; narrated by Bob Balaban: It's too short and it doesn't name the directors who discuss Hitchcock throughout the documentary until the end credits. But it's still great to revisit the monumental Hitchcock/Truffaut book, initially compiled and published in 1966 from a series of interviews Francois Truffaut conducted via translator with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Young (Wes Anderson) and old (Martin Scorsese) alike hold both the book and Hitch himself in monumental regard. 

The movie introduces the viewer to several key moments in the text, with special attention paid to Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo. It might help to read the book either immediately before or after seeing the documentary. It's impossible to imagine any contemporary, commercial film-maker being as visually and thematically complex as Hitchcock turned out to be over his 50-year film-making career. He's the Great White Whale of movies, the immensely popular and complex artist. Highly recommended.

Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura) (1963): adapted from works by Ivan Chekhov, F.G. Snyder, and Aleksei Tolstoy by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Marcello Fondato; starring Boris Karloff (Gorca/Narrator) and others: Something of a stinker of an Italian anthology horror film from the early 1960's, redubbed for English-speaking audiences. Boris Karloff is fine as both frame narrator and Vourdalak in the third segment. 

The first segment actually goes pretty well until the film-makers unwisely over-use their initially effective Dead Witch Dummy (TM). The second sequence sucks. The third sequence, in which a vampire-like Vourdalak terrorizes a travelling nobleman and a family of peasants, is utterly ridiculous in its plot. It's like a training film on what not to do when menaced by the Undead. Or a cautionary tale about the plague of narcolepsy that ravaged Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Not recommended.

Don't Breathe (2016): written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), and Daniel Zovatto (Money): Admirably tense, terse thriller set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of present-day Detroit. The creative minds behind the solid remake of Evil Dead go with a bit less gore and grue here, though more than one scene is Not For The Squeamish

The young actors are good as three sympathetic burglars who pick the wrong house, while Stephen Lang (Avatar's nutty Colonel) is extraordinarily menacing as the blind, buff homeowner whose house our unfortunate trio break into in search of a hidden cache of Get Out of Detroit cash. The movie may invert the central premise of classic 1960's thriller Wait Until Dark, but it's also a horrifying reimagining of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brutal but never exploitative. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Thing That Wouldn't Leave

Crimson (2002) by Gord Rollo: Things start off promisingly in Canadian horror writer Gord Rollo's Crimson. Four boys in a small town (Dunnville, Ontario, to be exact) stumble across an ancient evil. Things get bad, fast. The novel jumps from 1977 to 1986 to the mid-2000's. The increasingly 'and-the-kitchen-sink' approach to the supernatural involves a certain number of homages to such superior 'children vs. ancient evil' novels as Stephen King's It (giant spider! kid wants to be a writer!), Dan Simmons' Summer of Night (evil scarecrow! kid wants to be a writer!), and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (the evil returns periodically!).

Rollo's time-jumps move the novel away from It and company and unfortunately into the realm of 'Why research anything when you can just fake it?'.  This is a novel set in small-town Canada in its first two sections, though there's nothing particularly Canadian about anything. Alas, section two involves a police investigation that starts off laughable and rapidly becomes completely ridiculous. 

Poor old Dunnville is left to fend for itself, except for the loan of eight officers from other towns, as a serial killer racks up a double-digit murder total in a couple of weeks. Really? It's 1986. Are there no TV stations, no newspapers that aren't local? Given the small size of Dunnville, one might think the province -- and the Ontario Provincial Police -- would be sent in to help. One would be wrong. Hoo boy. 

Then we jump to the mid-2000's, and an absurd prison sequence. Someone gets sent to a Toronto penitentiary for murders he didn't commit. And what a penitentiary! Not only is it worse than Shawshank Prison and the Turkish prison in Midnight Express put together, it's got an overall prisoner death rate that clocks in at about ten times the national average for that time period. Possibly 100X. Alas. Hey, there's an attempted prison break that involves a sewer pipe! There's an electric chair scene! Yes, Canada has brought back the death penalty because I'm not going to spoil how and why that happened! Rita Hayworth is on the Green Mile with It!

Section three also gives us a lengthy Basil Exposition sequence in which the terrible monster explains its entire life history and its cunning plan to its victim. Then, as the monster's supernatural powers consist of Whatever the Novel Needs Right Now, it hangs around to intermittently taunt our death-row prisoner for several years. 

It floats. 

Not down there, but up by the ceiling, invisible and inaudible and, given its decayed condition, presumably unsmellable to all but our hero. As its pointless electric chair plot moves to its climax, it's just hanging around laughing and laughing. It even steals our protagonist's last meal! Quel horreur! This is the greatest monster in human history!

The novel climaxes with a twist that doesn't make much sense even when it's explained a chapter after that twist. Prior to that, we also get a explanation of What Hell is Really Like that reads like something Todd Macfarlane rejected for his Spawn comic, and which destroys all remaining shreds of the suspension of disbelief the novel has left. 

Some of the loopier supernatural elements might work in a novel that paid much, much more attention to the verisimilitude of its police and prison sequences. Though the villain, a centuries-old being who talks like an annoying bully in an episode of Buffy, becomes less and less interesting the more he talks. 

And talks. 

And talks. 

There's even a point at which the monster notes that it was known as Baron Bloodshed. This would make a lot more sense if it weren't known as Baron Bloodshed in Eastern Europe in the 14th century. If nothing else, the protagonist misses a chance for a real zinger by not asking if Baron Bloodshed is alliterative in whatever non-English tongue the monster was speaking at the time. 

Not all the problems are the writer's. A good editor should have suggested changes, especially to the second and third parts. And presumably suggested that a monster that never stops talking isn't a monster, it's just a bad room-mate. Not recommended.