Monday, November 14, 2016

"The Caped Crusade: Batman and The Rise of Nerd Culture" by Glen Weldon

That is not the actual cover to Glen Weldon's Batman book. In my humble opinion, I fixed it. I made it into a cover image I wanted to see, just like when I fixed the cover to Michael Moorcock's rubbish Doctor Who novel into something I might keep on my shelf (but I didn't). Who are all those guys cosplaying as Batman? I don't know them. They're not Batman. The new cover - that depicts the Batman.

That's really the point of Weldon's book. The lean page-count is due to the lack of biographical material; the real focus is on the different incarnations of Batman thru the decades, from dark to light to dark to light to dark again snd so on. He's a resilient, nonchalant character - adept at mystery, sci-fi and fantasy stories with a simple turn of the screw. I don't think he really cracks the code as to why that is so, but he's more interested on how audience opinion can influence the lifespan of each incarnation anyway. It's this school of thought where Batman is an idea that exists within the public if he's bigger than comics or films or videogames...Weldon doesn't say it, but the character is recognized the same way globally as Mickey Mouse, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson. He's joined that club. A lot of people don't read the comics, but they are cognizant of the existence of a character named Batman.

It's what Batman is that has the nerds debating about it, and Weldon doesn't quite ridicule those arguments, but it's hinted as very closed-minded thinking. The best depiction of a fully-realized Batman, at his most basic, is the Batman of Batman: The Animated Series. After that, you're probably just going for extremes for the sake telling new stories.

The downside to this book is that it's nothing you wouldn't learn from reading a Wikipedia article. Without biographical material to gain insight into why people who worked on Batman approached the character the way they did, it's very, "...during this run, this guy wrote Batman like this.." And another thing...I seriously doubt anyone enjoys being called a nerd. The bozos selling t-shirts and apparel in an attempt to brand "Geek" "Nerd" and "Spaz" wouldn't be caught dead feigning interest in this stuff if they couldn't make a buck. I don't buy it. It's a slam for knowing anything.

And yet, the fact that people know Batman is what's kept him from stagnating like Superman, Bond and the Mouse. Alan Moore put it best when he described Batman as a character created to appeal to children in 1939 who were reading Superman comics...Batman's longevity is astounding if you consider that he's past his "Sell-by.." date. I don't know if Weldon has seen that distinction between a  concept that can survive being branded and still have a place in contemporary fiction...maybe he'd have been hesitant to use the word "nerd" so much...or maybe he doesn't..between the lines, once you get to the end of the book, it feels like he's saying all the Batman stories that could be told have been told.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Woman With A Blue Pencil" by Gordon McAlpine

Takumi Sato wanted to write a mystery novel about a grieving husband seeking his wife's lover/killer. His editor at the publishing house, Maxine Wakefield, would prefer a genre spy adventure about a secret agent tailing an assassin. Sam Sumida is a Japanese-American professor who fears he is losing his grip on reality: there is no record of his existence anywhere. Police detective Henry Czernicek is Sam's only connection to the world he remembers...but this guy is the man who was having the affair with Kyoko, Sam's wife..and is the man who killed her..maybe..a woman resembling Kyoko is running loose on the streets in a killing spree. In hot pursuit is Korean-American secret agent Jimmy Park, who hates being confused with Japanese by ignorant Whites, though is not particularly interested in identifying anything about Korean culture that would make him as distinctly different from a Japanese man (or any American man, for that matter) as he claims he is.

Gordon McAlpine - he wrote Hammett Unwritten under the pen-name "Owen Fitzwilliam - juggles all these characters and stories using mixed-narration and multiple realities. I'm reminded of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or "The Zeppo" episode of Buffy or The Lion King 1 & 1/2, where you have a separate story occurring in the background/periphery of a more commonly-known story brought up to the foreground. Takumi Sato, a 22 year-old Japanese-American man languishing in an internment camp during World War II, completes his manuscript for The Orchid and The Secret Agent per Maxine Wakefield's specifications, but only because he decides he will finish the story he really wanted to tell by having Sam and Henry find their footing in this forced, cardboard reality of a rubbish spy novel that Maxine manipulates Takumi into writing.

The book isn't perfect - the only characters that feel fleshed out are Sam and Henry..and perhaps the point of the book is that the characters with the most capacity for life get to finish their story. Jimmy Park is a secret agent/detective who accomplishes nothing beyond beating up a bunch of guys. Takumi Sato completes a book he didn't want to write, only because he found a way to complete the book he wanted to write, but felt doomed by circumstances surrounding him and saw no future in his current state. Maxine Wakfield got the novel she wanted to publish, but will never get to spin it into a series, because she twisted the arm of her writer too hard. Sam Sumida finally got revenge against his wife's killer, but his wife doesn't exist anymore and was revised into a twisted new character that is emphatically not the Kyoko he knew and loved. Only Henry Czernicek got what he deserved..even if what he deserved only mattered because it mattered to two different men living on two different panes of existence.

Even more impressive is how short the book is. There are a lot of high-concept novels out there that weigh a brick..and always read like something you've glanced at before on film or television. Not this. This was good.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" At 30

I remember watching The Great Mouse Detective when it premiered when I was a kid. For those who haven't seen it, this Disney animated film from 1986 is about a mouse named Basil who lives in a mousehole at 221B Baker Street in London - the home address of Sherlock Holmes. Basil is an anthropomorphic cartoon mouse who solves mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. He even has a sidekick - Dr. Dawson - who is the anthropomorphic cartoon mouse counterpart to Dr. Watson. Basil's archfoe is Professor Ratigan (voiced by horror icon Vincent Price), who is the anthropomorphic cartoon rat counterpart to Professor Moriarty. The film is excellent. It's still available in stores as part of a Blu Ray-DVD combo pack, so I highly recommend that you see it. might want to check out the children's book series of novels that inspired the film. Eve Titus created Basil, Dawson and Ratigan. She wrote five books in all, beginning with Basil of Baker Street, which I remember was brought back in print to coincide with the release of the film. I remember thinking that I didn't enjoy Paul Galdone's illustrations because the characters looked too much like real mice, whereas the Disney version reimagines the cast as pure cartoon characters. Cut to 2016, the 5 books are back in print, with new cover illustrations by artist David Mottram - these I like! Basil and Dr. Dawson have a bit of a Chuck Jones style to them...a literary Hubie & Bertie, ready to meet the cricket in Times Square  (if you got that reference..thank you)..or a wizened Pixie & Dixie. Unfortunately, they didn't have Mottram contribute new interior illustrations, so you get to stare and compare with Galdone's stuff.

As for the stories..I got a confession to make: this month will mark my first time reading the books. I remember owning the reprint of Basil of Baker Street that had the Disney version of the mouse on the cover, but being put-off by the Galdone drawings and the fact that the story had little to nothing in common with the plot of the film. You won't find prose/illustrations of balloon races across the Thames, no escapes from Rube Goldberg-esque deathtraps or clock tower showdowns or bats with peg-legs. Ratigan isn't in it - he appears in the 2nd book! You will find a similar scene of Basil deducing a location by analyzing a piece of paper, along with the disguises Basil and Dawson wore in the film. The book's plot is about Angela and Agatha - two little girl mice twins who are kidnapped by a group of mice called "The Terrible Three". Angela and Agatha have little to do, but are the likely inspiration for the character of Olivia Flaversham from the movie.

I did enjoy the book now because I appreciated reading a new story with these characters and I've got four more to go. I'm curious as to why Disney never thought of cranking out some direct-to-DVD sequels during their "cranking-our-some-direct-to-DVD-sequels-of-our-movies" phase, but there was material there. Plus, in the wake of Geronimo Stilton and Sherlock, these books seem perfect for a chance at being rediscovered by new readers.

One notable difference in the books from the film that's never addressed is the idea of anthropomorphic animals co-existing with humans in secret communities/colonies that escape the humans notice. Basil gathers a group to live in the basement at 221B Baker Street and forms Holmestead, a literal mousetown with houses and shops..kind of like the Aardman movie Flushed Away..or the "city" scenes in A Bug's Life...this might've been the forerunner to that kind of thing.

I'm about to read about Basil and The Cave of Cats..pygmy cats, huh? This would make a cool idea for a CG sequel..

One last memory: does anyone besides my old 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Vogel, pronounce "Basil" like "Bay-zil"? Y'know - like the herb? Or "Bah-zil", as in "Basil Rathone" or "St. Basil"? I remember when I ordered Basil of Baker Street via Troll - the school book order catalog. The books for the students would be delivered to the respective classrooms, then the teacher would sort out who ordered which books. She insisted that Basil's name was pronounced Bay-zil. It was a losing argument: she wasn't going to see the film, but she had to be right, because it was her classroom, so this cartoon mouse was clearly named after an herb she owned in her spice rack...

In retrospect, her intelligence was...elementary.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"The Chocolate Falcon Fraud" by JoAnna Carl

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the 3rd adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's epic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon...the one with Humphrey Bogart and the statue of a bird. All kidding aside, The Maltese Falcon should rank among the top 2 greatest mystery novels of all time (the other being The Hound of The Baskervilles) and the film actually improves on it, particularly with the ending, which leaves out an additional scene in the book that sort-of cheapens our conclusions about the character of Sam Spade by implying that he's already over the drama, whereas the Bogart version of Spade is not likely to forget what happened after "..a couple of rough nights.." If you haven't seen it, please do.

Now...I realize the only surviving participant in the 1941 film is the prop falcon statue. There are two in existence. They both have aged to the point where they appear to be made of solid milk chocolate, in color and texture - like a chocolate bunny. Some replicas of this prop are gold-plated, so they resemble a solid chocolate falcon wrapped in gold foil..

With this train of thought in mind, it was easy for me to see the appeal of a mystery novel with a title that includes the words "Falcon" and "Chocolate". Right off the bat, I will say that there is no chocolate Maltese Falcon statue in the book, even though the protagonist specializes in designing original gourmet chocolate confections. The only chocolate falcons we get are described in a way that resembles those holiday chocolate candies Russell Stover offers - marshmallow-filled chocolates in the shape of Santa Claus, Halloween pumpkins and Easter eggs. These Falcon candies are offered by our heroine at a Maltese Falcon film festival/fan expo, a convention you might think would exist, given the popularity of the film, but is made-up for the plot of the book.

The Chocolate Falcon Fraud is a cozy - a sub-genre of mystery novel in which there's a puzzle to be solved, but it's not a tough puzzle; the real appeal is that the heroine (always a female protagonist; the closest you get to a male cozy detective series is M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth novels and Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhoddenbar books, which are mostly classified as police procedural and caper novels, respectively, but Hamish is a constable in a cozy Highland village and Bernie's a thief that owns a shop, so they fit in there) runs a shop that makes gourmet chocolate with her aunt, so the author gets to better her books with recipes and trivia about fudge and chocolate foodstuffs for chocoholics. It could be adapted into a film for the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries channel. More on that in a bit, but getting back to what a cozy is...they're light in subject matter and not too explicit in violent content. It's Miss Marple and Murder, She Wrote territory, where a headline on the front page of the New York Daily News might actually read, "Murder Stymies Cops!"

Lee Woodyard is our eager amateur sleuth. Her stepson from a former marriage has come back into town to become the target of an elaborate kidnapping plot by a group of con artists baiting him with a ruse about a possible 3rd falcon prop statue used in the 1941 film that he wants to purchase. Doppelgangers for Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor show up. Gawdy keychain-size replicas of the falcon pop up. This is good stuff, but my big gripe (aside from the lack of a proper falcon statue made of solid milk chocolate) is that the cool Falcon riffs kick in halfway through the second half of this book. Most of what we get is teen soap opera about Jeff, the aforementioned stepson/scapegoat, whose transformation from ne'r-do-well emo teen punk to nerdy film buff/movie memorabillia tchotchke collector with a girlfriend is sincere...or if he's on the shenanigans.

The book is okay...but JoAnna Carl (a pseudonym used by Eve K. Sandstrom) dropped the ball by overlooking the most obvious gag a mystery novel with a title like that could have. It has a lot of nice ideas..I do wish there was a bigger fandom for The Maltese Falcon.

Should The Chocolate Falcon Fraud be adapted into a film for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries? Yeah! It would be terrific! I would like to suggest Danielle Harris play Lee Woodyard. I can easily picture her in a mystery involving a popular genre film, a fan convention and collectors and tchotchkes...and Will Wheaton could play her love interest, because Danielle's husband in real-life kind-of resembles Wheaton..if Wheaton was pumping iron a bit. And Jennifer Tilly could play Lee's Aunt Nettie, so yeah, this would be awesome.

And there will be a falcon statue made of solid milk chocolate..with marshmallow center, of course.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

See The Movie...Or Read The Novel: "Suicide Squad"

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice didn't have a tie-in novelization, but Suicide Squad does, written by Marv Wolfman, of Teen Titans and Crsis On Infinite Earths fame. I was impressed with his prose writing ability - I'm going to check out his novelization of Arkham Knight - and observed that it's probably (judging from the mixed reviews..or tomatoes, frankly) a smoother experience than the film, which I saw two months after reading the prose. In the past, I've tried reading other novels by comic book writers and found that only Dennis O'Neill, Devin Grayson and Alan Grant had a knack for it, whereas others felt very amateurish. If I didn't own the trade paperback of Crisis, I would've tracked down Wolfman's novelization of it, just to see how he wrote it up.

The book contains fewer Ben Affleck cameos. In it's place, the character of June Moon/The Enchantress and her storyarc in the film is elaborated on by Wolfman. In the film, June's relationship with Rick Flag, her initial transformation into the Enchantress and her enlistment to the Squad by Amanda Waller is just exposition, but it's dramatised in the book and takes up most of the first 1/3...having said that, the final battle between Enchantress and the Squad is really weak.

And I didn't enjoy reading the stuff with the EA's...the tar monsters (my description...or what I gathered that they looked like). All those descriptions of combat fighting felt like Resident Evil stuff. That was not interesting to read. I also disliked all the back-and-forth TV cop show-style bickering between Deadshot and Flag. Audiences liked Will Smith as Deadshot, so I'm assuming his performance added something missing from what reads like well-worn material. Captain Boomerang was fun to read, though the joke about why he owns the pink unicorn doll isn't in the book.

Neither the book or the film do anything with Katana, who's just along for the ride. Whatever additional scenes featuring Jared Leto that might exist on the cuttingfloor don't make it into the book, so it's hard to gauge whether even more material was shot after the book went to press...after all, the novel does have fewer Batffleck cameos...and no Flash cameo, either! do I sum this up? It has a lot of cool moments. The book does some heavy lifting with the characterization in parts, I didn't really like the plot, because it just becomes a video game along the middle, then has a really weak finale, while the casting choices impose a better movie exists along it's I the only one who would prefer to see the newly branded DC Films ditch their labyrinthine plans for Justice League movies and just give us straight up a Batman vs. Joker & Harley Quin trilogy, instead?

Oh, and a trilogy Wonder Woman movies. Everyone loves Gal Godat. :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"The Alternate Duckiverse" (alt. title: "Is St. Canard In Callisota?")

Darkwing Duck is 25 years old. No news yet about an animated revival of the Disney TV series, but there is an ongoing comic book series published by Joe Books that's available at your (hopefully) better-than-average comic shop currently on it's 4th issue.

Series creator Tad Stones was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter about the milestone and dropped what's been reffered to on social media as a "bombshell": he never really saw Darkwing Duck as a direct spin-off of Ducktales and believed both shows took place in separate universes.

It always seemed like a natural assumption that Ducktales and Darkwing Duck were linked together, first because the latter program featured Launchpad McQuack and Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck, two major Ducktales supporting characters who were introduced in said series. A later episode of Darkwing Duck ("In Like Blunt") featured the major Ducktales villains - Flintheart Glomgold, Magica de Spell and the Beagle Boys - in non-speaking cameos. And while Scrooge McDuck and Huey, Dewey & Louie Duck remained offscreen, there was an infamous "Welcome To Duckburg" billboard with Scrooge's face appearing in the episode, "Tiff of The Titans". More-obvious examples of Disney TV shows that likely took place in separate universes, yet featured anthropomorphic talking ducks in the main cast were Bonkers, Quack Pack, The Mighty Ducks and House of Mouse. Those three series depict their lead characters inhabiting worlds that include cartoon humans, yet neither would mix well, unless you add a conceit that one or the other is a fictional series of cartoons being "filmed" within the world of another series, and the protagonists are ret-conned as actors, which is what House of Mouse does.

What supports Stones' logic is that both shows featured stylistic differences that set eachother apart..and I don't mean drawing style. Darkwing was a sendup of genre cliches featuring spies and superheroes. It also featured a lot of broad slapstick and cartoon violence in the vein of Tom & Jerry and the Looney Tunes shorts. Characters were often acutely self-aware and would break the fourth wall, knowing they were in a cartoon. Ducktales was a more conventional adventure-comedy series. Whenever there was any broad slapstick, it stayed firmly in relation to how things would happen in the real world, not cartoon physics. There were exceptions, but Darkwing would often survive a barrage of explosives and heavy metal objects and would shake it off; Scrooge suffered head trauma/amnesia after getting hit on the head with a skateboard in one episode. For Darkwing Duck to get amnesia, it would probably happen with twelve pianos falling on his head. You see what I mean?

The only way to reconcile this revelation with what's already established and all in the past is that a different version Scrooge McDuck and the Ducktales cast of characters exists within Darkwing Duck's..cartoonier universe. That's all. Not knock-offs, just apropos of Darkwing. By the same token, we can assume a different version of Darkwing Duck and his cast of characters exists apropos of the Ducktales universe as well.

And what if they crossover? Which universe does the episode take place in? Well, if it's a self-contained one-shot story, it's set within the context of the respective series. If Darkwing appears in the new Ducktales episodes premiering on DisneyXD in 2017, it'll be within the context established by that series. Same deal if Disney ever thought of a "The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones"-esque TV movie featuring these characters.

And if they really want to run wild...there's the cake gate. It was established in Darkwing Duck that portals/wormholes to parallel universes exist disguised as giant decorative cakes. There could be a cake to the Ducktales universe, a cake for the Super Goof universe, a cake to the Double-O-Duck universe*, a cake to the Carl Barks comic book Durkburg, a cake to the DC Comics universe, a cake to a mashup universe, a cake to the real world and the Disney Parks..and even a cake where Darkwing and Scrooge accompany Sorra instead of Donald and Goofy in Kingdom's a piece of cake.

Happy Anniversary, Darkwing Duck. :)

*Double-O-Duck was the original incarnation/concept for Darkwing Duck in it's early stages of development..I'm actually surprised that the team got as far as creating a press-kit for the character before revamping it into the character/series that we're familiar with today.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

See The Movie..Or Read The Book: "Ghostbusters"

Maybe I should've just seen the lady Ghostbusters movie..I wound up reading 3 books: the junior novelization, the standard novelization..and, perhaps better than either of those - a facsimile of Ghosts From Our Past, the guidebook serving as the catalyst for much of the film's plot.

The only disadvantage to opting out of seeing the film is that I can't say anything about the cast or choices regarding direction, production values and special effects. What I can observe is how earnest the story is. Erin and Abby's friendship is central to everything that happens...but it reminds me of the stuff with the baby in Ghostbusters 2 - actually, it's not as bad, but you can't have a proper screwball comedy romp when you try to add greater meaning to the shenanigans. Erin and Abby's dilemma belongs in a very different comedy, yet I'm aware that without it, this whole thing might resemble a remake of Pixels.

In the junior novel, Erin comes off particularly bipolar - she's looking for any chance to bail one moment, licking radioactive ghost traps the next. The junior novel, I'll bet, resembles the final cut of the film. Nancy Holder, who wrote the adult novel, goes to great lengths to flesh out Erin and Abby's backstory with lots of flashbacks to their salad days as teenagers and college students, eventually chronicling the disintegration of their friendship. That leaves little time for Holder to devote much to fleshing out the best characters: Kevin the receptionist and Jillian Holtzman. Midway into the final 3rd of the novel, she gives Holtzman and Patty Tolan a precious moment to talk about themselves, in a scene reminiscent of a moment between Dan Ackroyd and Ernie Hudson driving across the Brooklyn Bridge in the original film. For the sake of a sequel centering around Holtzman at least, I wish the film was successful enough for the studio to make one.

Other hints of the author taking creative license include an attempt to explain lame gags - the same Chinese food deliveryman, the dangerous radioactive device that gets handed like paperweight, Jennifer Lynch and the Mayor's obsession with keeping up appearances, Erin a popular target for getting slimed/puked on..

Oddly, Holder and Andrew Shaffer - the writer of the Ghosts From Our Past facsimile - invent contradictory accounts of the ghost Erin encountered as a child. Shaffer's account is more farcical and set around Halloween; Holder's account offers background on the old woman ghost and why she would want to haunt Erin. Shaffer and Holder also can't agree on how many hard copies of Ghosts From Our Past were self-published by Erin and Abby before Abby ultimately made it available on Kindle: Holder limits it to two copies, Shaffer implies far more, but never gives an exact number; just enough copies for other characters - debunker Martin Heiss in particular - to discover. These examples of discontinuity are not exclusive to these two; Ozzy Osbourne's cameo has a completely different line of dialogue in the junior novel and in Holder's novel! I prefer "I can't follow THAT!" (junior) to "SHARON!! I'm having another flashback!" (Holder novelization), but in this case, I'll bet the latter is in the final cut.

The guidebook is hilarious...though I wonder why they could make room for John Belushi and Chuthulu, but have no room for likely-to-have-been-seen-and-documented-before Ghostbusters rogues like Slimer, Viggo the Carpathian (whether you like him or not), Gozer the Gozerian, Vince Klortho and Zuul. Why not? This shit had rules? Nerds.

Hands down, the best passage in the guidebook was an Epitaph purportedly from Kevin, still completely at sea, trying to write abouta guidebook he opted out of reading...and trying to see if he can see the movie, instead...

...writing-wise, I think Kevin's my intellectual opposite/counterpart in the fictional world...

At the end of the day, I thought it was all okay...kind-of middle-of-the-road, story-wise. It's a story built on the outline of a plot I've seen before, so the interesting stuff was all the character could fashion a plot around this team never encountering any ghosts at all and still be entertaining...but that's not Ghostbusters...the appeal of this franchise is the blue collar approach to encountering the paranormal - like bug exterminators! It's a deceptively simple dynamic..but they got it half-right! It could've been much worse..