Sunday, July 29, 2007

iLove iTunes

I admit it. For years, I was one of those jerks that downloaded songs on Napster. At the time, I was like those people who are now reading comics online instead of buying them. I didn't see how I was hurting anyone. After all, a lot of the music I was downloading was stuff I probably wasn't going to buy anyway or couldn't find in the record store. And a lot of times, if I liked something and it was available, I'd go out and buy the whole album. You see, a lot of the stuff I got off Napster was crappy quality and I thought of it as sort of my own personal "listening booth." It was a great way to try music out before making the investment. Still, wrong is wrong and I'm glad the temptation is gone.

Then, along came iTunes, Apple's answer to the illegal music downloading problem. At first, like a lot of people, I was dubious. 99 cents per song was a lot when you were used to getting them for free. But then I realized that 99 cents wasn't a lot to pay for a clear conscience and I signed on. Boy, am I glad I did. Sure, 99 cents a pop adds up. But at least you don't have to buy an entire album if you don't want to and you can spread those 99-cent pops around however you want. And you can listen to the stuff before you commit to buying. Best of all, iTunes carries stuff I haven't been able to find anywhere else.

I'm a soundtrack and original movie score junkie (for which I've taken a lot of undeserved grief from friends and girlfriends alike) and I listen to some pretty weird stuff. Stuff you either can't find at Best Buy or Amazon or have to pay through the nose for on one of those online music outfits like Movie Grooves. But lately I've been able to find a lot of wacky stuff on iTunes that makes me rub my hands together and cackle maniacally. Like several albums by Goblin, the Italian rock group that was big in the Seventies and early Eighties. They did the soundtracks for a lot of Dario Argento's giallos and are probably most famous in the States for their work on George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. I picked up PROFONDO ROSSO (DEEP RED) and the DAWN soundtrack. I got Michael Giacchino's music from Season 1 of ALIAS and also the BEST OF MILLENNIUM album by Mark Snow which, I believe, was an iTunes exclusive. The fact that they're making this stuff available (and affordable) makes me feel like I'm not alone out there and that there's a real market for it. I feel legitimized and a little vindicated.

My latest iTunes acquisitions were a "Black Betty" cover by SpiderBait, an Aussie rock band. I was actually looking for their cov er of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" which was featured in the GHOST RIDER movie but, unfortunately, couldn't find it. I stumbled across "Betty" and had to have it. I listen to it at least once a day now. And, today, I picked up "Alech Taadi" by an Algerian musician from his album "N'ssi N'ssi". Doesn't get more obscure than that, does it? Actually, the song is my favorite track of music featured in the film THE FIFTH ELEMENT. It's the music playing during the taxi cab chase sequence and a little snippet of it is playing when the eccentric little gunman tries to mug Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). It wasn't included on Eric Serra's score album and I've been trying to track it down for years. Yay, iTunes.

I know iTunes has its detractors and there are some problems. Like Album-Only purchases (usually at the artists' request) and boycotts by some artists and music publishers. But there's quite a lot to love about them too so, if you haven't tried them, I highly recommend you sign up. Even if you aren't just dying to hear the creepy piano music from John Harrison's CREEPSHOW score.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"You boys like popsicles?"

When I was in high school, my Art teacher, Mrs. Lee, told me I was a compulsive doodler. I liked the sound of it and, over the years, I've noticed that it's true. Whenever I'm sitting at my desk at work waiting for the computer to do its thing (render a 3D file,save a PDF or...whatever) I immediately and almost absent-mindedly pick up a pencil and start drawing. Usually, I've put down a couple of lines before I even know what it is I'm drawing.

That happened today. In this case, the sketch was of Herbert, my favorite character from FAMILY GUY. I'm not sure what it says about me that my favorite FAMILY GUY character is a crafty, 80-year-old gay pedophile, but it's a fact. I usually love everything about the show but Herbert especially makes me laugh. He really seems to bring out the best in the writers. Most of the characters on the show change their personalities to fit the needs of the story (Stewie and Brian especially) but Herbert (and I suppose Quagmire) has a singularity of purpose that's fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, it so happents that his purpose is getting into the pants of any kid in the neighborhood. Gross, yes. But also endlessly amusing. I wonder, sometimes, if I would find Herbert half as amusing if I had children of my own. Probably not, but I guess I don't have to worry about that.

This sketch evolved from a casual doodle to a bit of an experiment. When I was a kid, NATIONAL LAMPOON published an issue in which they took several comic strip characters (Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Henry) and illustrated them in a relatively realistic manner, emphasizing the more freakish aspects of their faces. They were colored with a strange, grungy sepia tone and the overall effect was pretty creepy. It stuck with me and I think about it from time to time. (I'd love to track down that issue again.) Once the sketch of Herbert started to take shape, I decided to go in that direction with it. I think it actually turned out pretty well. I know I wouldn't want to run into this version of the old perv in a dark alley.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Well, fook you too.

One of the collections I picked up at the Heroes Con was WOLVERINE: ENEMY OF THE STATE. I don't regularly buy WOLVERINE so I decided to wait for the trade, which I normally frown upon. (If nobody buys the monthlies, chances are, there won't be a trade.) Somehow, I just never got around to the trade either. So, when I saw it on the cheap at Heroes, I snapped it up.

It's something I'd been wanting to read for a while, not for the story, but for John Romita, Jr.'s artwork. I've been a big fan of his since his run on DAREDEVIL with Ann Nocenti. I know some folks don't like his work but, to my mind, he's one of the best in the business. His work has the in-your-face power of a Jack Kirby and the emotional impact of a Frank Miller or, well, his father, John Romita, Sr. In an era where comics fans seem to worship guys who can trace dimly-lit photographs really well, it's nice to see a guy like Romita who has the old-school sensibilities but with a modern flair for design and detail. (Ron Garney's work is a lot like this, especially on his first CAPTAIN AMERICA run with Mark Waid.)

Romita's work is served well by the embellishments of inking-god-among-men, Klaus Janson. Janson prooves here why he is considered one of the all-time greats. He's one of those inkers who, when you look at his stuff, you wonder what the hell he's using to ink the work. How did he get that effect? His stuff is so loose and lush, yet there's never a line out of place. I could stare at his work for hours. And, well, I do.

Mark Millar's writing had nothing to do with my desire to read this book. I know Millar's a good writer and I've read a lot of his stuff. But I think he's part of the problem with modern comics, that overwhelming need to make everything so dark and grimy. Millar and others (like Brian Michael Bendis and Grant Morrison) have taken what should have been a couple of interesting experiments (DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN) and have held them up as the model of what comics should be. Sure, there's a place for grim and gritty, but it's all that way now and I'm really tired of it. These guys...and again, I know they're talented fellas, smart and well-read...these guys have, with the fans' blessing, sucked all the fun and wonder out of superhero comics. Superheroes have gone from people experiencing the pure joy of shamelessly putting on colorful outfits and going out and beating up bad guys and flying in the clouds and swinging from building to building to murderous, vengeful, in-fighting sourpusses who look at their abilities as a burden and sit around griping for pages on end. (When they're not being killed-off, that is.)

That said, I'm really enjoying the collection. Millar IS talented and his writing here is very clever and entertaining and the story is well-crafted. But there's no fun to be found here except in the beauty of Romita's artwork. Nobody smiles in this book except Logan, right before he slices and dices someone. If this was an occasional example, I'd be fine with it, but this is typical of just about everything Marvel and DC put out. Are comics readers today more sophisticated? Maybe. But I can't believe they want this kind of depressing stuff ALL. THE. TIME.

Which brings me to what prompted me to write this post. John Byrne, on his messageboard, often gripes about current comics writers who seem to be ashamed of the field in which they toil. They seem to be embarrassed to be writing, ugh, superhero comics. And, so, at every turn we get sneery comments from characters about the "silly outfits" and the dumb codenames. We have characters appearing in costume for one, maybe two pages and, if we're lucky, they aren't backlit or in shadow when they do. Byrne has a point. And this kind of attitude isn't restricted to the work itself. Why in the very introduction to ENEMY OF THE STATE itself, Garth Ennis joyfully voices this very attitude himself. And I quote:

"Most of the time, I'd sooner nail a rabid squid to my face than read superhero comics.

"Not my thing, man. Never was. The powers, the tights, the speeches, the attitudes. The very names they give these characters. Can't be bothered with any of it. Sure, you've got your
Watchmen and your Miracleman and your Top Ten, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The mainstream stuff? Blehhh."

He actually typed, "Blehhh." My question is, if he has such contempt for mainstream comics, then why the hell is he writing them? I personally like Ennis' PREACHER. I think it's one of the greatest comics ever done and read each issue in the car before I went home from the comic shop each week. But other than that book and, occasionally, HITMAN, most of Ennis' work is, to use one of his oh-so-clever, favorite words, shite. His PUNISHER work was overrated and was the literary equivalent of a beer fart. It had just about that much emotional resonance. ADVENTURES IN THE RIFLE BRIGADE was a self-indulgent bore. I'd be hard pressed to name, PREACHER aside, any of his work that didn't rely on visual shock value and a peppering of profanity for impact. And yet, here he is shitting on American superhero comics...IN THE INTRODUCTION TO AN AMERICAN SUPERHERO COMIC!

Well, fook him. Seriously. It's bad enough we comics fans have to take crap from just about everybody else just for enjoying a harmless hobby, now we have to take it from the very people producing the damned things in the first place? Yes, I know Ennis is just voicing his opinion here and, yes, I know that he doesn't usually write superhero stories. But he has written them before. (Hitman puking on Batman's boots. Wow. How utterly creative.) It's the context that bothers me. Basically, a comic book writer is telling me that the comic books I've been enjoying since childhood were utter crap except this one. Because it's written by his good mate, Mark. Well, the book is good. It's well-written. But it's also built on the shoulders of giants like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Len Wein and John Byrne and Chris Claremont. Giants with boundless imaginations who built a universe where writers today, talented though they may be, merely play with toys left behind in somebody else's driveway and often prefering to just kick them around the neighborhood until they're broken.

Garth Ennis thinks superheroes are "costumed codswallop." Fine. Nobody says he has to like them. But I'd appreciate it if he didn't feel the need to tell me my interest in superhero comics was a stupid waste of time just as I'm sitting down to enjoy one. It's like cracking a fart in the face of a diner as he's sitting down to a much-anticipated meal. It leaves an unexpected and bad taste in your mouth and robs you of your appetite. After all, I don't come to Northern Ireland and smack the dick out of his mouth.

So, go away, Garth. Just...go away. I've got comics to read.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Well, we're back. The week passed even quicker than I thought it would. We had a great time and, as predicted, the poor bottle of rum is no longer with us. As much as we enjoyed our vacation, even I don't think for one minute anyone wants to hear a blow-by-blow our week in sun-drenched paradise. Rather, I think I'll just talk about one of the books I read while I was there.

I actually read three books. MONSTER ISLAND, by David Wellington is one of the recent entries in the now-popular genre of zombie fiction based (sometimes loosely) on George Romero's LIVING DEAD films. (The best of the lot being Max Brooks' WORLD WAR Z.) It wasn't the greatest novel I've ever read but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. My buddy Christian loaned it to me and I was grateful because I really didn't want to spend the money on it. A lot of zombie novels tend to read like poorly-edited fan fiction. The second book (and the best of the three) was John Sandford's BROKEN PREY. It's one of his dozen-plus Lucas Davenport novels. It didn't necessarily stand out from the pack but, as with all of Sandford's novels, it was highly entertaining and supremely readable. I had it read in just over a day. The most notable feature of the book was Davenport's quest for the 100 best songs of the Rock era. It was a running gag throughout the book and I have to say I agree with most of Davenport's choices. If you Google it, you'll easily find it and can judge for yourself.

The third novel, and probably the weakest, was GHOUL by Brian Keene. I'm a sucker for anything lurid, (I loved the old Skywald Publications magazine covers, for instance) and if you look at the cover above, I'm sure you'll agree this qualifies. The minute I saw this at BOOKS-A-MILLION, I knew I had to have it.

Brian Keene rose to prominence in the horror fiction world with his zombie novel (see?) THE RISING and it's sequel CITY OF THE DEAD. I enjoyed those books and a third, somewhat related book of his, THE CONQUEROR WORMS. Keene's work is entertaining but at times I feel he needs a better editor. His prose can be awkward occasionally and he tends to repeat words and phrases a lot, sometimes to the point of distraction. Every author has his or her favorite words (Anne Rice seems to have an obsession with the word "preternatural" and Steve Alten probably has the words "nutrient-rich waters" tatooed to his forehead.) But Keene actually uses the same phrases multiple times in the same paragraph. This is especially noticeable in GHOUL.

GHOUL is Keene's entry in the coming-of-age horror subgenre I've been hearing about. A lot of my favorite authors have done their own versions, probably the most influential being Stephen King's THE BODY, adapted by Rob Reiner as STAND BY ME. Other notables include Joe Lansdale's A FINE DARK LINE, King's IT and, one of my favorites, Richard Laymon's THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW. What makes GHOUL stand out for me is the fact that, while most of these kind of stories are set in the '40s or '50s because of the perceived innocence of those eras, Keene's tale is set in 1984. This was my time. I'm a child of the '80s and, though I know it wasn't exactly a "magical" time, it's taken on a sort of nostalgic sheen in my memories and I have a fondness for the era that made me look forward to this book with anticipation.

The story concerns three grade school friends growing up in a small Pennsylvania mill town. We're introduced to Timmy, Barry and Doug on the first day of summer vacation. Timmy is the main character and we see the story unfold predominately through his eyes. Timmy is obsessed with comic books and horror movies (and, so, I identified with him instantly) and has the most normal home life of the three friends. Doug is a bit stereotypical as the fat kid with glasses who can draw. (I also identified with him, unfortunately.) Abandoned by his father, he finds himself the object of unwanted attention from his drunken mother. Barry is the tough kid of the group, determined to escape his abusive father and nearly catatonic mother.

The trio is looking forward to their summer with enthusiasm. Well, that is, until the Ghoul shows up. The Ghoul is a slimy white creature who awakens beneath the town cemetary after centuries of imprisonment and begins digging tunnels and eating corpses. Things get nasty when he comes above ground and decides to interact with the living. I'm not giving anything away because Keene pretty much shows all his cards early on in the story. I was hoping for a little subtlety but Keene doesn't hold anything back for an eventual "big reveal." The Ghoul is described in detail nearly from the very beginning. (In fact, he looks a bit like this guy from Frisky Dingo:

His awkward prose and lack of finesse aren't the only problems with the story, though. As I said, it's set in 1984 and he reminds you of that fact at every turn. He bludgeons you with '80s references on almost every page as if he'd done meticulous research and didn't want to waste a single tidbit. Keene is either a really big comics fan or he read waaaay too much about them in preparation for this novel. I think it's the former and it's the reason I decided to cut him some slack. But the references to actual comics, right down to issue numbers and excruciating descriptions of cover art and even publisher logos had even me rolling my eyes.

Another shortcoming of the work is that Keene isn't just giving us his version of the coming-of-age story, he seems to be giving us his version of all the coming-of-age stories he's read before. It's as if he threw IT, THE BODY and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES into a blender and what he poured out was GHOUL. One of the review blurbs on the cover proclaims Keene is the "new Stephen King" and he seems to go out of his way to prove it, even regurgitating such old King stand-bys as describing pre-storm air as "smelling of ozone." It got a bit distracting. And the Ghoul itself just feels like a combination of Laymon's "Beast House" creatures and Clive Barker's Rawhead Rex. Keene's obviously a fan and student of the genre. He should be aware that his readers are as well. There's a difference between respecting your influences and being slavish to them.

I really wanted to like this book. After all, it's almost as if it was written for me. But other than the disturbing relationship between Doug and his mother and a really horrifying punishment Timmy receives late in the book (One that I have to say just did NOT ring true to me. No loving parent—and Timmy's dad does love him—would ever do that.) there's just nothing new here. Add to that a rushed ending that was going for poignance and just felt predictable and forced...

Keene's capable of better than this. CONQUEROR WORMS was really entertaining and original. I'm hoping for a return to form with his upcoming DEAD SEA. I just wish Leisure would give the clawing hands motif on the covers a rest.