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Comics Roundup: Judge Dredd 3 & 4, Two-Step, Grindhouse

Judge Dredd, Volume 3 Judge Dredd, Volume 4 Two Step by Ellis and Conner Grindhouse, Vol 1

Judge Dredd, Volumes 3 and Volume 4 by Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel
Volume 3 finds Dredd in the wastelands, trying to track down criminals to save Mega-City one from “The Big Fail.”  Think of it as “Dredd visits The Hills Have Eyes.”  It’s a delightful, if goofy, adventure for everyone’s favorite Clint Eastwood doppelganger.  Dredd’s celebratory return to Mega City 1 is hampered somewhat, by the return of a villain from a previous storyline, and the murder of oodles and oodles of judges.  The tale continues to be enjoyable for its basic elements mixed up in new combinations.  The short story one shots included in Volume 4 were particularly good.

Two Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner
When a mercenary gangster and a bored “camera girl” accidentally bump into one another on the streets of a futuristic London, all chaos breaks loose for a romping ride through the city.  While the comic teems with funny ideas (as with the part of Chinatown where dudes in suits are shooting at one another all the time amid flocks of doves), the characters and the story never really come together for me.  I also found the depiction of Rosi Blades, the girl who makes her living streaming her life and adventures 24hours a day, too exploitative without compensating for it with an interesting character.

Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Vol 1 by Alex De Campi et al
“Bee Vixens from Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares” are both great schlocky titles, and the stories that accompany them are delightfully bloody and awful, in the way grindhouse movies were (and that Tarantino and Rodriguez captured so well in their double-feature).  Alas, De Campi and the artists working the stories spent a lot of time on naked ladies as well, which detracted, for me, from the stories they were trying to tell.  I suppose this is to be expected in a comic drawing on exploitation films, but I think the stories would have been more enjoyable if that aspect of the genre had been kept in check a bit more.

 

Farside

farsideFarside
written by Ben Bova; narrated by Stephan Rudnicki

On the far side of the moon, a new observatory is building the biggest telescopes ever crafted by Man.  These massive instruments, combined with the Moon’s airless surface, and the far-side’s shelter from the brightness of the Earth, give its scientists the ability to see things much more clearly than ever we have before.  Alas, amid the excitement of the project, trouble is brewing.  And in the vacuum of space, even a small problem can become a big problem quickly.  A few thoughts:

  • This is only the second Bova book I’ve read, and it seems to be in the middle of his “Grand Tour” series.  As such, there’s some context I’m missing, but generally it’s readable on its own.  The characters are believable, even if they’re drawn a bit quickly, and their emotional lives take a stronger center stage than in most SF novels.
  • Bova’s hard SF angle works really well here, as the entire structure seems cogent and potential.  Of course, it’s infused with current worries, but at least thinks through the potentials of the next century or so.  I also didn’t catch any years listed in the dates, which will help keep it relevant longer.
  • I particularly liked the depth of the characters as the novel progresses.  Often, quickly drawn characters prove to be two dimensional, lacking believability or depth that’s part of the human experience.  As the novel goes along, the characters become more complex, and more interesting, and it works well.
  • Aside from thinking through the Moon stuff, the use of Nanotechnology plays a big role in this book.  I like the discussion very much, and think it would make a nice entry into the field.  A reader who finds this idea interesting should next explore The Diamond Age.
  • Stephan Rudnicki’s reading is excellent, and his voice is awesomely deep.

A good read – enjoyable and quick, with cool ideas and a strong story.

Tweets from 2015-01-18 to 2015-01-24

Thoughts on next year’s zombie class

Dead Snow

Dead Snow would fit as Nazi, Fast, Humor, Meta, and Cabin in the Woods

I’m wondering how the course would work if I re-worked it next year as a series of Zombie subgenres (Hollywood, Vodou, Cyborg, Alien-slug, Fast/Virus, Philosophical, Nazi) and we approached the material from that perspective.  This would make the experience of the course way different from what it is now, and give me some variety in film selection and approaches.  Other kinds of zombie films to think about:

  • Cabins in the woods
  • Splatterhorror
  • Meta
  • Humor

I think I will probably re-organize the class under this new structure next year, to get a bit of variety into the experience for myself, and try out a different order of films, etc.  Plus, then we can include the Thing.

Unholy Night

Unholy Night

Unholy Night
by Seth Grahame-Smith

What if the Three Wise Men of the nativity story weren’t, in fact, scholars, but were rather disguised thieves on the run from Herod?  And what if they happened upon a young woman and her husband and the baby they said was destined for great things?  And what if there were a bunch of swordplay and adventure?  Seth Grahame-Smith answers all these questions.

A few thoughts:

  • As with his past outings (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Grahame-Smith’s expertise lies in crafting stories that live in the gaps of other famous stories.  Unholy Night could fit entirely within the Biblical nativity story, using the gaps (such as “where did the wise men come from”) as opportunities for creativity and excitement.  He shows a lot of reverence toward his source material, even as he turns it from a religious tale into an adventure story.
  • Balthazaar, the protagonist through whom we see the tale unfold, is a deep character, with well-founded motivation and a believable backstory.  Very entertaining.
  • The story walks a fine balance, too, in its evocation of the supernatural.  The Biblical God is certainly present in the tale as the unseen actor, but it isn’t too heavy-handed.

As with Grahame-Smith’s other books, well worth the read, though not likely to warrant multiple reads.

January 21st, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

Lt King listed his occupation as “Scholar.”  I can just tell his classes would have been awesome.

I bet IT help calls were a lot more fun in those days:

“Did you open the side drawer and check the huge rack of tangled wires?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s the first thing you should do whenever there’s a problem.  Call me back after you check.”

The Thing

The Thing

One of my students stared agape at me when I admitted, last week, that I’d only just watched The Thing for the first time.  “Really?” he gasped.

Really.

But oh man, it’s pretty damn great.

I knew the story before I went in, but I think it would be great for the film to be surprising, so here’s what I’ll say.  A group of researchers at a remote Antarctic station find themselves under attack from a strange creature they’re incapable of understanding and that’s virtually impossible to understand.  Filled with John Carpenter’s classic gross-outs and great character tension, The Thing is a fantastic movie.

But in order to write about it as a zombie film, I’ll need full access to the plot.  So, Spoilers ahead.

The Thing

The Thing

So first, we must ask if this is a zombie film at all.  On first glance, it isn’t:

  • There are only aliens, no zombies.

But consider:

  • People get taken over and act against their will
  • The creature’s touch is extremely infectious
  • The people appear to be alive but aren’t
  • You can’t always tell if someone is changed or not

Since I’m willing to take Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Slither in my class, I say this counts too.  The film plays on the same fears of bodily violation, of self-erasure, and the grotesque.  It also ingeniously prods us to intense paranoia, something we don’t see in very many other films (except maybe Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

One big difference from Body Snatchers is that both Slither and The Thing aim for speed and surprise, more than assimilation.  The aliens in Body Snatchers try to convince everyone that things are better once they’re assimilated.  The Thing doesn’t go for such niceties.  Instead, it tears you open and sends tentacles out to do its damage.

A couple more thoughts:

  • Carpenter makes great use of the isolated wastes, building a tension only available in remote locations (see also: Cabins in the woods)
  • The creature effects in this movie are amazing.  This goes right toward the top of the list in terms of excellent disgusting movies.  It makes me think Dead Alive, Slither, and The Thing would be a great triple feature.
  • MacReady makes me love Kurt Russell all over again.  After Wham Bam Pow reviewed Big Trouble in Little China last week, I find myself wanting to watch that again too.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen The Thing, you should do so.  Right away.

 

In which my course “doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it”

The Times of India has joined the “look at all these stupid courses” game with their own collection of summaries, including a bizarre summary of my course (and PERHAPS a course about embalming as well?  It’s weird).  Here’s the relevant text:

Class on zombies
Official course title: Zombies In Popular Media What it means: Slacker heaven Possible career paths: Mortician? Nothing like the undead to liven up a boring year of college. The object of this course is to “foster thoughtful connections between student disciplines and the figure of the zombie” (that just doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it). The syllabus includes movies, books and comics that focus on the undead along with lectures on individuality, xenophobia and capitalism (because, as we all know, zombies are the paradigm of capitalism). And the cynics out there can scoff now, but when the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll wish you’d taken this course instead of algebra. (link)

This text is posted as it appears on the site.  I suspect the bit about the mortician is supposed to be in parenthesis or between dashes, or there should be a period after “heaven.”

Thinking about dead bodies: Stiff, by Mary Roach

Stiff by Mary RoachStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach, narrated by Shelly Frasier

As always, Mary Roach explores a topic of interest and (perhaps) disgust with tact, verve, and lots of humor.  In this book–the first of her science books–Roach explores the myriad ways we deal with death and dead bodies, and explains how science uses them.  A few thoughts:

  • The history of medical cadaver use is interesting, particularly the lengths to which early doctors had to go in order to study the human body.  Many dissected their own family members, since these were the only corpses they could get hold of legally.
  • Many military applications (such as body armor for mine sweepers) aren’t tested on human cadavers because of the potential bad PR — there’s a distinct worry that people would be upset to learn that the cadavers of family members were used in this way.  Roach puts it succinctly, “How do you ask someone if you can shoot their grandfather’s corpse in the face?”
  • This book marks a couple early and amusing appearances of Dennis, Roach’s husband who appears in many of her books, often reluctantly participating in zany adventures in the name of science.  One of Roach’s experts is “New York Heart Surgeon, Mehmet Oz.”  This was in 2002 or 2003, before he first appeared on Oprah.
  • The section on transplants was most informative.  We’re already at the point where we could, if needed, do a full body transplant — just moving the head.  The limits on this surgery are significant — the new body would be a quadriplegic since we can’t repair spinal columns yet, but it might add decades of life to someone who was already in a similar situation, even giving them the ability to speak.  One of the big objections, aside from the extreme expense, is that a healthy body could save many lives if its organs are shared.
  • Most fascinating was the innovation of ‘human composting,’ designed to be an alternative to funerals that produce a more environmentally friendly message.  Plus, you have a memorial bush or tree at the end.

It’s a great read, fascinating and wonderful and horrible.  It might not, however, be good lunch reading.

Tweets from 2015-01-11 to 2015-01-17

One more week

La Horde

The busiest time of the year, for me, is early January.  It’s crunch time over at the PCA, where we’re solidifying our schedule, finishing registration, and getting ready for the conference.  We’re preparing for a new semester at Columbia College Chicago, so there are syllabi to finalize and other administrative work to do.  And I’m teaching my zombie class, which is five-six hours of class and screening each day.

So please forgive the pre-written posts.  I’ll get back to more timely stuff after next week.

Where’d you go, D.B. Cooper? Skyjack

Skyjack by Geoffrey GraySkyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper
written and narrated by Geoffrey Gray

Gray starts the tale of famed plane hijacker D.B. Cooper with his own introduction to the tale — a visit from a private-eye friend who wanted to pitch a story.  What follows is a three-year odyssey into one of the modern rabbit holes, a chasm of mystery littered with half-baked theories, impostors, and secrets.  Gray does a nice job chronicling his own trip into the Cooper mythos, chasing leads, and learning all about the people who might have been the “Robin Hood of the skies.”  A few thoughts:

  • At the beginning of the tale, I was a little irritated by the way Gray inserted himself into the story — it seemed to get in the way of what could have otherwise been a very interesting tale to tell.  But as the book wore on, it became clear this was a good choice, since so much about the aftermath of the Cooper case is about the personalities involved in the investigation and theories.  Without the centering presence of his own narrative, it would have been hard to digest.
  • I like Gray’s method of introducing several different leading suspects during the early stages of the book — this helps keep the reader guessing.  Otherwise, Gray’s early leading candidate (the subject of his 2007 article) would have made the story too narrow.  Alas, in the audio book, it was difficult to keep track of the separate threads without better section titles.  The dates all run together in the audio version.
  • The later part of the book, which focuses on the diverse (and kinda loony) bunch of people who obsess over the case satisfies in a different way than the detailed story of the hijacking itself did.  I especially like the part toward the end where people are suddenly unwilling to share ideas with Gray as they worry about being ‘scooped’ from the book they are working on. (In looking at Wikipedia, I see that at least one of them did write their own book, and published it before Gray finished his.)

Overall, an interesting, detailed account of the current state of the D.B. Cooper case.

Here’s a theory Gray didn’t mention:

XKCD on D.B. Cooper

XKCD on D.B. Cooper (cc licensed http://xkcd.com/1400/)

January 14, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

Herbie vs. Superman

Herbie Man of Steel

Recently watched, on the same day, both Man of Steel and Herbie: Fully LoadedMan of Steel is the recent Superman reboot, featuring the lantern-jawed Henry Cavill as the titular hero punching his way around the U.S. fighting General Zod.  Herbie: Fully Loaded is the decade-old Herbie reboot, featuring the titular zany car once again winning races and hitting ne’er-do-wells with his doors.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films arrive atop a pile of earlier movies, and have to figure out how to define themselves in the new context.  Herbie assumes continuity, imagining that all the previous Herbie films happened and this is the next moment in the life’s car.  Man of Steel starts over, beginning a new cycle of Superman movies.
  • The burden of parental obligations is high in these films, with Jar-El (Russel Crowe) expecting that Cal will become the savior of the human race and of Krypton, and with Payton (Michael Keaton) expecting that Maggie will not lie to him or engage in illicit street racing.
  • Both films use too much computer graphics.  It’s inevitable in a super-hero movie, but the squiggy spaceships and nano-tech arm-claw things in Man of Steel were not to my taste.  Equally annoying were the few times they made Herbie digital — as when he waggles his whole chassis at Matt Dillon, a moment my children thought was hilarious.
  • The untold stories at the heart of these films are key as well — what happened to Clark between his adolescence and his appearance as a crab fisherman?  Like Jesus, he goes from being 12 to being 32.  Maggie, too, has a dark past in which she totaled a car on a tree in her street-racing days.  Yikes!

And regarding the films separately:

  • Herbie was a cute film, with enough poignancy and real story to give the adults something to hang onto, and with enough slapstick for the kids to like.  Michael Keaton is underused, and Herbie falls in love with a modern Beetle.  When they leave to go on a date, Avery theorized that they were going to a car wash.
  • Man of Steel was better than I thought it was going to be, but horrific toward the end.  The New York-wrecking finale of The Avengers had nothing on Man of Steel, in which thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people died while two superhumans battled it out.  Really, Supe?  You couldn’t lead the guy away from the population center?  You had to drag his face across the side of a sky-scraper?

Herbie: Fully Loaded – recommended, especially if you have to watch a movie with diverse child ages

Man of Steel – Meh, recommended for a lazy afternoon where you want to see some flyin’ and some punchin’.

 

Tweets from 2015-01-04 to 2015-01-10