Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/11/2018 – 02/17/2018


This has been an eventful week full of tragedy (yet another school shooting), triumph (Black Panther), and everything in between, has it not? And somewhere in between the grieving and the glory, there was even time for comics, so let’s talk about those —

Brian Canini remains as busy as always pursuing his various and sundry idiosyncratic cartooning visions, and recently found time to send me issues three and four of his superb ongoing mini-comics series Plastic People, which so far bears all the hallmarks of being his best work yet. Part dystopian sci-fi, part character study, and as of now — a murder mystery to boot? Clearly Canini’s spinning a lot of plates with this title, but so far pulling it all off perfectly. I don’t know how lengthy a narrative he’s pursuing here, but from all appearances he’s playing a “long game,” and after spending the first couple eight-page installments on “world-building,” the main thrust of his story is starting to come into view. The scene of the discovery of the dead body that comes to take center stage is downright Lynchian in its execution, what with one seemingly important event dovetailing into another, entirely unexpected and more consequential one, and the dialogue at the morgue that follows it a joy to read, equal parts procedural and personal. His art on these issues is equally strong, minimalist angularity that presents a foreign-yet-familiar future Los Angeles with a kind of “street-level” uncomplicated dynamism. About the only thing you could wish for from this comic that you don’t get is more pages, so absorbing and immersive is the tale being told here, but if you buy all four (and at just $1.99 each, why wouldn’t you?) and read them in one sitting, there’s that problem solved. I’m hoping he’s able to stick with a fairly regular production schedule on this one — I know, I know, easier said than done when you’re balancing your small-press publishing with a “real life” — because I’m pretty well hooked here and would love to be able to count on a predictable dose to mainline into my eyeballs. I know I’ve talked this series up in the past, but goddamnit, I’m going to continue to do so until you’re sick of hearing me talk about it. Do not pass this one up.

Also arriving in my package from Canini was the second issue of his full-color mini Blirps, another series of one-pagers starring his anxiety-riddled robot (I think, at any rate) monsters. These are always worth a chuckle and the concept seems like one that might have some commercial “legs” to it, as the set-up for each gag strip is simple yet infinitely applicable to any number of socially-awkward situations. I get a kick out of the deadpan humor here and could see this being a fairly successful Adult Swim-style animated short series — or, hell, maybe even being used as the premise for a line of greeting cards. You never know — but, again, I do know that this is well worth your two bucks and, as with Plastic People, is available from Drunken Cat Comics at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

Rachel Scheer is a full-time schoolteacher/part-time cartoonist based out of Seattle, Washington whose work I confess to being unfamiliar with until an envelope from her containing a couple of her mini-comics arrived in my mailbox the other day. Her drawing style is simple, but expressive, and lends itself equally well to scenes of fluid motion or static, single-panel illustration, and in Cats Of The White House we’re treated to plenty of the latter as she and writing collaborator Danny Noonan provide a series of brief-but-fun bios of some of the felines who have shared 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. along with their more-well-known human servan — sorry, “owners.” This is great little book for kids, cat-lovers, or both, and you may even pick up a tidbit or two of useless trivia along the way. Hell, I never even knew George W. Bush had a cat — or maybe I did, and I was just trying to forget it along with everything else about his presidency? Plenty of story and art on offer here to make it $3.00 smartly-spent.

The Scheer comic that really knocked my socks off, though, was The Hanukkah Fire, 1992, a family history wherein she traces the circuitous path her forebears took from Europe, though the little-known Jewish ghettos of Kobe, Japan and Shanghai, China, and all the way to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the Bronx. Her use of old family home videos as a framing device is a simple-but-ingenious springboard for this deeply personal tale that touches on topics ranging from religious/cultural identity (or lack thereof) to the transition into adulthood and an examination of why we keep certain family traditions going while letting others fall by the wayside. Quietly poignant, highly literate cartooning delivered in a disarmingly simplistic style that manages to convey an awful lot of emotion with a minimal amount of fuss and muss, this is one of those comics that I’ll be re-reading again and again over the years. It’s available (along with Cats Of The White House and Scheer’s other self-published comics, which I intend to check out) for $4.00 from the cartoonist’s Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/RachelComics?ref=l2-shopheader-name

And I think that’ll about do it for this week, but next week’s Reading Round-Up is already pretty well set in stone given that the newest four-pack of minis from our Latvian friends at Kus! Comics just showed up in the mail today, so I’ll hope to see you back here in seven days for a look at what promises to be another superb quartet of books from eastern Europe’s finest publisher.

Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940) — cracked rear viewer


 

Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In […]

via Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940) — cracked rear viewer

Book Review: Need To Know by Karen Cleveland


 

How well do you know the people you love?

That’s the question that’s at the heart of Need to Know, the debut novel of Karen Cleveland.

When we first Vivian Miller, the main character and narrator of Need to Know, she has a life that, on the surface, many would envy.  She has four children, a nice house in the suburbs of D.C., and a handsome and charming husband named Matt.  Of course, there are problems.  Money’s tight.  One of her children has a heart defect, one that will undoubtedly require surgery in the future.  Honestly, Vivian would be happy to stay home and spend all of her time taking care of the children but, as Matt always reminds her, they need the money that her job brings in.

Vivian works for the CIA.  She’s an analyst and, as glamorous as working in intelligence might sound, her job basically involves spending a lot of time in the office, searching through the computers of suspected Russian agents.  For instance, there’s the mysterious Yury.  When Vivian searches through Yury’s files, she comes across a folder that is labeled “Friends.”  Inside the folder are five pictures of five people who might or might not be working for the Russians.

Four of the pictures are of total strangers.

The fifth picture is of Matt.

If nothing else, Need to Know is a book that will keep you guessing.  Is Matt a Russian agent or was his picture placed in the folder just to compromise Vivian’s position with the CIA?  Has Matt spent ten years being a perfect and supportive husband or was he actually a passive aggressive manipulator?  What do the Russians want and how far are they willing to go to get it?  And, even more importantly, how far is Vivian willing to go to protect her children?

Need to Know is a strong debut novel, a perfectly paced thriller that will take consistently take you by surprise.  Karen Cleveland is a former CIA analyst herself and she puts that background to good use in Need to Know, supplying a lot of interesting details that you wouldn’t get from a book written by … well, by someone like me, whose national security expertise is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen in the movies.

(Speaking of movies, apparently Charlize Theron will be producing and starring in the film version of Need to Know.  Personally, the entire time I was reading the novel, I pictured Naomi Watts as Vivian, Jeremy Renner as Matt, and Richard Jenkins as Vivian’s boss, Peter.)

I did have a few issues with the final few chapters of the book.  Though it didn’t effect my overall enjoyment of the novel, I would have liked a stronger ending.  That said, the ending does potentially leave room for a sequel and I will definitely be reading the next book that Karen Cleveland writes!

If you’re in the mood for a good and intelligent spy thriller, Need to Know is definitely one to check out.

“Black Panther” : Hail To The King


Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.