The Ultimates 2, Vol. 1: Gods and Monsters – A Graphic Novel Review

Basically an updated version of Marvel Comic’s classic Avengers lineup, The Ultimates is the closest comic book out there to a big budget action movie. The art is hands down astronomical. Bryan Hitch can draw anything and make it look both dynamic and realistic at the same moment. And Mark Millar (whom is often hit or miss for me) writes snappy dialogue that really sets the characters apart from one another. While his overall plots are nothing terribly original, his new takes on classic characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk have been tremendously entertaining. We now have heroes in very much the twenty-first century, with all the neurosis, greed, naiveté, and self-doubt that comes with being a denizen of the modern day.

As I said, the overall plots are predictable, but it’s the subplots where the genius rests. Each character has their own story, and it’s those personal stories and interactions that prove captivating. However, when it’s time for the big action of the overall plot’s climax, strap yourself in. That’s where Bryan Hitch saves the day with his art and Mark Millar makes it fun with his dialogue.

If you want to experience super hero comics at their <ahem!> ultimate in terms of action and art, the Ultimates is what you’re looking for.

V for Vendetta – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ll admit it . . . I picked up this classic by Alan Moore more out of curiosity for the upcoming movie than for the many good things I’ve heard about it.

I’ve got one word-wow. This graphic novel is beyond mesmerizing. I suppose this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise considering that Alan Moore rarely misses with this genre. I literally could not put V For Vendetta down.

It’s the story of a post-apocalyptic England. It’s the year 1997 (keep in mind this was written in 1983) and the world as we know it is gone. Warfare has destroyed much of Western Europe, and it is only after a fascist political party steps up to take control over a lawless England that some semblance of order resumes. However, things quickly go wrong and the people of England move from lawlessness to total oppression. I’ll leave it up to you to draw the comparisons to real life.

One man, however, rises above it all to become a hero of the people. He is a champion of Anarchy, saying that he believes people should voluntarily rule themselves, and he seems quite insane. However, he fights to defeat the oppressors, and so we cheer for him. He may have been one of our original anti-heroes in the graphic novel medium. His identity is a mystery, as is his source funding for his elaborate operations, but he fights against the tyrants ruthlessly, using what many would call terrorist methods. Again, as you can well imagine, this brings up many philosophical questions.

The art is adequate, though I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but the dialogue and plot are exquisite, as is the tone and pacing. Moore has gone on the record as saying he has not been happy with the film interpretations of his work, so much so, in fact, that he now refuses to have his name attached to them. Let’s hope that the film version of V for Vendetta pleases this modern day master of the graphic novel literary form.

Fables: The Mean Seasons – A Graphic Novel Review

Once again, I found out about the series Fables from the Eisner Awards list. I’ve yet to be disappointed by my buys from the winners of the Eisner Awards, and Fables is no different.

First of all, let me catch you up to speed. Fables is about a community of exiled Fables who have taken up residence both in New York City and in the upstate New York countryside. Some of them have been there since the colonial days of America. Now, I can hear your first question: What do you mean “exiled Fables?”

We’re talking Snow White, Prince Charming, Little Boy Blue, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, among many, many others. Some evil being called “The Adversary” has taken over all of these characters’ homelands, and so they had to flee to our world in order to escape his mastery. The human looking Fables live in Fabletown, their little neighborhood in NYC that goes unnoticed by the “mundies,” or regular humans. The non-human looking Fables, such as the three little pigs, the three bears, and so on, all must live in the countryside at a community they call The Farm.

I’ve enjoyed all the trade paperbacks from this series, but I most recently read The Mean Seasons, the fifth book in the series. In it, Prince Charming has made a bid to run for Mayor of Fabletown, hoping to remove King Cole from office. Snow White gives birth to a litter of the Big Bad Wolf’s (called Bigby, who is able to take human form) children, and we get to go on a secret mission of Bigby’s during WWII where he fights someone all old horror movies fans will take delight in. As usual, this series is well written with very efficient art. The most amazing part of this series is how credible the writer, Bill Willingham, has made all of these Fables with their day-to-day lives. As you can imagine, the allusions are non-stop, and I must admit I can’t keep up with the majority of them.

If I had heard the pitch for this series in a meeting, I would have passed. But, Willingham as made it work exceptionally. I highly recommend checking it out.

You really need to read them in order to get the full effect. Here’s the list of trade paperbacks so far:

Volume One: Legends in Exile
Volume Two: Animal Farm
Volume Three: A Storybook Love
Volume Four: March of the Wooden Soldiers (very good!)
Volume Five: The Mean Seasons

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Paul Auster presents us with yet another must-read.  This novella takes place in an unnamed city that has suffered complete ruin.  There is no consistent government to speak of and anarchy rules supreme.  But, the fascinating premise is that this is not a world problem, this is a city problem.  It is a land cutoff from the world, and the world seems to have forgotten about it.  Sound familiar?  (Keep in mind this book was first published in 1987.)  However, newspapers are still trying to get the scoop on what’s going on, and so reporters are occasionally sent in, though most never return. 

One such reporter who never returned left behind a younger sister who has traveled to the country of last things in order to find him.  From a privileged family, it takes her a surprisingly short amount of time to adapt to the horrific conditions under which she must survive.  She is primarily the narrator of her story, and we follow her as she experiences tragedy, death, suffering, but also, as impossible as it may seem, love and hope.

I’ve heard this book is about everything that can go wrong in a society and how it can leave the reader with a sense of despondency; however, I found the book to be a testament to the power of hope and love.

To touch upon Auster’s style: I’ve read many of Auster’s books, and while he explores similar themes, I’ve never read two books that were written in the same manner.  Auster gives us something fresh and artistically progressive with each book he writes.  In the Country of Last Things is virtually a how-to for any budding writer as it uses sparse detail and very limited dialogue to completely drive home the potency of the theme. 

I’ve yet to read a book I did not like from Paul Auster, and In the Country of Last Things is certainly no exception.

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman – A Book Review

I somehow missed the boat on this series that began in 1988.  It ran through 1997, and some believe it is the greatest comic series to have ever existed.  I finally-FINALLY-decided I needed to check it out.

Gaiman himself has admitted in the past that Preludes and Nocturnes was a bit of a rough start to a series that would later garner much acclimation, and he was correct.  Don’t misunderstand though-I still thoroughly enjoyed it.  If it is considered a rough start, then I’m greatly looking forward to the more “polished” volumes!

The character of Sandman has some sort of intangible appeal that I can’t put my finger on.  For those who don’t know much about him, he is the God of Sleep, an entity who often takes the form of a tall, thin, nearly translucent-skinned man with black eyes and black, unruly hair.  However, I absolutely understand what I like about his story potential.  In the first volume alone, his story unfolds over decades, he visits Hell, he walks the Earth, he rules in his dream kingdom, and he even spends some time with his cheery, charismatic sister Death.  The only thing about this first volume that struck me as almost too awkward was when Sandman interacted with the then-present incarnation of the Justice League.  This was before the Vertigo imprint was born and Sandman was given his own universe to play in.

Sam Kieth was the original artist, but he left after only a few issues.  Some people love his work, others don’t.  Personally, I enjoyed Mike Dringenberg’s incarnation of Sandman much better.  Also, keep in mind these stories were produced in the late eighties, so the coloring isn’t quite up to today’s technological standards. 

However, it’s obvious this is a very smart series and I can’t wait to read the entire set.  I only wish I hadn’t waited so long to give it a chance.

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

One thing you must realize about Annie Proulx-she pulls no punches.  Heart Songs and Other Stories is absolutely no exception to the rule.

In this collection of short stories, Proulx give us characters that are not terribly intelligent, sophisticated, attractive, or even likable.  But, what they are is real.  We’ve all met at least one of the characters in this book, and that’s the magic of Proulx’s writing.  She’s not interested in creating a romantic hero; she’s interested in telling real stories about real people … who happen to be fictional.  And, like so many of us, they have moments that aren’t exactly shining.

I’ve read quite a bit of Proulx, and this book is one of her earlier efforts.  It’s not quite as stylistically refined as her later work, but it is still a magnificent read.  The fact she is absolutely so willing to spit in beauty’s face makes her no-nonsense stories  and rough and tumble characters all the more beautiful.

If you haven’t read any Proulx yet, you really should.

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult – A Book Review

This is hard for me because as much as I loathed certain aspects of this book, I couldn’t put it down.  Despite my best efforts, I got sucked in and had to know what happened next.  That says something, doesn’t it?

Okay, the premise … turn on Lifetime or an after school special and you’ll get the same kind of story.  I won’t spoil anything about the book, but Picoult managed to throw in every possible trauma a family could go through in an amazingly short span and then make sure we learned our lessons by practically beating us over the head.  But, perhaps such escalation of eccentric plot devices was the point.  The mother of her main character is a specialist in Dante’s Inferno, and so part of me wonders if this story is supposed to mirror the nine levels of hell, but if so, I think it was done rather melodramatically.

One interesting tool used in this book, however, is actual comic book pages “drawn” by the main character’s father who is a renowned comic book artist.  Shocker, the comic book is called The Tenth Circle as well.  At the end of each chapter are components that make up a larger comic book, which parallel the actual story and play off of Dante’s Inferno.  I’ll admit, Picoult had some impressive concepts going in this book; I simply didn’t care for her style of execution.

Listen, I know a lot of people really like this book and love Jodi Picoult, and I can’t deny the fact that I could not stop reading.  I slapped my forehead the whole way through as the plot got more and more outlandish, but I couldn’t stop reading.  If an author can keep you going even when you don’t want to, they’re obviously doing something right. 

If you’re into Picoult, you’ll probably dig this.  As for me, as good as she was at hooking me, this’ll probably be the last book of hers I read.  Just a tad too heavy on the family drama and forced “life lessons” for my tastes.

The Tamarisk Tree by Gloria Beanblossom – A Book Review

In The Tamarisk Tree, Gloria Beanblossom delivers an epic story accurately detailing the true complexities of love, religion, family, and human nature.  

We all know what these things mean on the surface, but life experience tells us there are many gritty nuances to each of these, and Beanblossom does not hesitate to dive in to the murkiness that is real life.

However, just as she shows us the darker side of these things, she also shows us the power of hope when it comes to love, religion, family, and living as a human.   Her characters are flawed, as are we all, but they also have hope, and through that hope they meet with victory, though they do suffer some losses along the way.   Beanblossom understands how to create characters that are active participants in the human race.

Beanblossom has written a book that is very easy to get lost within.  We follow an epic tale as her main characters, Abby and David, struggle to come to terms with the consequences of their past actions.   Abby and David’s story is a complicated one, and Beanblossom gives them the time they deserve, which translates to a very long book.  If you are one who enjoys settling in and joining in the lives of characters, watching them grow and meet the challenges without the author rushing things, then I believe The Tamarisk Tree is for you.

Be warned, however.  Beanblossom pulls no punches.  She is not afraid to display life as it truly occurs, and for some, this realistic depiction may be offensive.   Beanblossom reminds us of the beauties of love, religion, and family, but she doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that can occur, either.

Pan’s Labyrinth – A Movie Review

First of all, we just have to establish that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best directors in the business.  Not one of the best international directors-one of the best directors.  The movies that I’ve seen from him always overflow with richness and style.  It’s obvious he treats his craft as an art.

That said, let’s talk about Pan’s Labyrinth.  I have to admit, judging from the trailers, I thought this was going to be a fantasy-laden film.  Pan’s Labyrinth was anything but.  There were some moments where our young main character, Ofelia, interacted with the fantastic, but the vast majority of the movie is set in a very real and very violent world.

This very real and very violent world is set in the Spanish countryside of 1944.  Ofelia and her mother are on their way to live with a captain responsible for eradicating a group of resistance fighters hiding in the woods.  The captain is not Ofelia’s true father, but the baby within her mother’s womb is the result of his advances.  It’s obvious very early on that the real monster in this movie in the captain, and I think the theme may be that there is more horror in real life than any fantasy we may take part in.

I remember reading some were disappointed that Pan’s Labyrinth dealt more with Ofelia’s mother, the captain, and the resistance fighters than with the fantasy elements of the film, and while this surprised me as well, it did not make me like the film any less.  In fact, the tension of this violent and horrific camp had me on the edge of my seat the entire film.  But, be aware, if you’re looking for a fantasy romp, I’d say only fifteen percent of the movie takes place in Ofelia’s fantasy world.

And that brings up another point.  The story lends itself greatly to the idea that perhaps the fantasy aspect is nothing more than the imaginings of a young girl.  It’s very early established that Ofelia is one for fairy tales, and given the fact that she is browbeaten by the captain upon their introduction, it’s not hard to believe that she develops a safety zone for her to retreat within.  I may be alone in this thinking, however.

Be aware, also, that while this is a violent film, actual scenes depicting violence are far and few between.  But, when those moments are displayed, watch out, they are very graphic and very authentic.  But again, I think this may be a message that violence in the real world is worse than any scary make-believe story.  It reminds me of a man I once knew, who, upon discovering my superstitions, told me he has enough things to fear in the real world without worrying about a ghost showing up in his house.  Wise words.

I definitely recommend this movie.  I thought the English subtitles would bother me, but in fact they did not, and, if anything, I think it made me appreciate the subtle body language of the actors all the more.  It’s just a beautiful film with a potent message.  Give it a view.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – A Movie Review

So, as most of you know, for ten months of the year I am a high school English teacher.  This gives me great insight into many different aspects of life, including which movies are winning the admiration of youth culture.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End did not score well.  This initially confused me, because while I thought Dead Man’s Chest was entertaining, many high school students loved it with a passion I didn’t understand.  So when they came in, some literally the next day, after seeing At World’s End and lamented the demise of their favorite movie franchise, I thought to myself, “Netflix.”

Fortunately for me, my wife and I wanted to go see a movie and At World’s End was about the only thing that stuck out to us.  I’m glad it did.  In my opinion, the professional critics and the more astute high school students were wrong.  At World’s End was wonderful. 

I liked everything about this movie.  The special effects were the best yet, the acting was fun to watch (especially Depp’s, whose return to quirkiness with Captain Jack was much needed), and, most importantly, the story finally made sense and wrapped up many plotlines.

We finally get to see something relatively interesting done with Orlando Bloom’s character, Will Turner; Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones turns out to be far more complex than anyone imagined; Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is a flat-out joy to watch; and the Keith Richards’ cameo was instant-classic.  The movie had action, humor, character development (finally!), and some dramatic gravitas (not so much to ruin the fun tone, though).  Really, for me, At World’s End captured everything I enjoyed about its two predecessors, and truly felt like a continuation and conclusion of those two other films.

One major complaint I heard from the critics was that there was simply too much going on, and yes, there were several plotlines being dealt with, but I never thought it was too convoluted to enjoy.  Be aware, however, that I wasn’t holding it accountable for much.  In my mind, this is a fun summer movie based on a Disney attraction, so I made sure simply to enjoy the ride.  Were there some aspects I didn’t totally understand?  Yeah, but I got the overall idea.  It certainly didn’t ruin my viewing experience.

All in all, I thought it had the fun of the first one with a far more complex treatment of storyline and character.  Best of all, it concluded all the plots that had been introduced in the other films, ended very symmetrically with the beginning of The Curse of the Black Pearl, and even left itself open to some interesting possible sequels.

Which reminds me-make sure you sit through the credits.