Friday, December 31, 2010

One Hundred Books in 2011? Yes I Can!

Now I've done it!

I've gone and signed up to be part of Book Chick City's "100 Books in a Year" reading challenge (many thanks to A.L. Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books for the heads-up on this).

I average close to 100 books in a normal year without even trying, but now that I'm actually going to be trying and keeping track... well, I hope Uncle Murphy gives me a pass.

I don't suppose I get to count finishing books that I've started in 2010 toward that goal, though, do I?

Just for fun: here's my current list. I read a lot of books at the same time!

THE BIG SHORT - Michael Lewis*
INHERENT VICE - Thomas Pynchon
BONESHAKER - Cherie M. Priest
LAVINIA - Ursula K. LeGuin

Plus I keep dipping into a few short story collections. Sigh!

After that, well, watch me go!

*UPDATE: I finished THE BIG SHORT at 11:04 am on New Year's Eve Day. My mind is still boggling from this one and I'm contemplating a blog post on it, but I want to see how far along I can get on the other incompletes.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Seth Harwood's YOUNG JUNIUS and the Problem with Prequels

Prequels can be problematic.

Seth Harwood's latest page-turner, Young Junius, both is and is not a perfect example of why this is so. Set in the extremely troubled youth of an interesting but somewhat minor character in Jack Wakes Up, the book that has made his name in crime fiction and Podiobooks circles, it thus sets itself a huge problem from page one: maintaining the tension and a sense of jeopardy regarding a character whose ultimate fate is already known to almost everyone who's reading the book.

Fortunately for these readers, Harwood has a fine sense of drama, even of tragedy, and found lots of other ways to keep the story of Junius Posey, who will become the rich, powerful and toweringly intimidating Junius Ponds in Jack Wakes Up, from ever getting tedious, though it does get confusing at times.

Most of the confusion comes from the sheer number of characters with which Harwood populates the small and constrained world of Cambridge's famously depressed and depressing Rindge Towers and their environs. While everybody gets a believable and distinct backstory and a vivid moniker to go with it (Big Pickup, Milk, Roughneck, Elf, Rock), sometimes it gets hard to keep sorted who is on whose side -- not because this is handled sloppily, but because their allegiances shift within the story, as real people's might, and the action shifts chapter by chapter, floor by floor, tower by tower, sometimes with a bewildering rapidity that ironically demands a slow and careful reading to keep things sorted. This is problematic, however, because that kind of reading is most obviously not what Harwood had in mind; he ends so many chapters with breathtaking, one-sentence mini-cliffhangers that the reader rushes along to see how each gets resolved. Its a technical feat requiring a great deal of skill, which Harwood has, but it makes for a certain degree of reader punishment.

It does keep said reader from dwelling on the fact that Junius' ultimate fate is known, however!

I opened the pages of this very handsome book (and handsome it truly is; Tyrus Books did it proud for the hardcover special edition which I, a diehard "Palms Momma," had to have: the dust jacket is gorgeous and features a great piece of fan art depicting Junius and his Tec 9 on the back cover, the pages are substantial and crisp and include a small spread of exquisite photos of the real-life settings where the book's action takes place, and yes, there is a bookmarking ribbon) expecting more of a formative study of how Junius got to be Junius, though, and this I did not really get. At age 14, his admired older brother barely cold in the ground from his murder, Junius' character is largely formed: he is smart, resourceful, tough, ruthless and ready to do what he must. He merely lacks experience, which quickly makes him the (dangerous!) prey of the more-experienced and less-straightforward inhabitants of his world who see in him an ideal pawn. The story we get is a wonderful encapsulation of who he is and how he crystallized into the pure badass we quickly come to admire in Jack Wakes Up, but it is not an origin myth.

It does have mythic overtones, however, and those both of Greek tragedy and Graeco-Roman war epics like the Iliad and the Aeneid. As the eXile's War Nerd, Gary Brecher has famously observed, these classics play out exactly like "primitive" wars throughout history and even today, and Harwood's fictionalized version of the Rindge Towers is as soaked in this blood-and-soil ethos as any bush war or peasant uprising you'd care to name. Women are either prizes to be carried off and kept, or serve as oracles (Young Junius has two of these, a false and a true one, and like good oracles should, they drive much of the plot while sitting calmly still in their domains); men are kings, soldiers or helots (In Young Junius, one king is exiled -- to MCI Billerica -- with his Oracular sister serving as an unsteady regent, fending off the advances of the other king, who holds only one of the three Towers but wants to take everything), and loyalty is demanded and paid over in the form of seeking bloody, eye-for-an-eye revenge for harm done to one's boy.

Shades of video gaming, too, appear in this book; whole scenes unfold before the mind's eye as side-scrolling shoot-outs, taking place in confined housing project corridors, platform jumpers in stairwell battles, as Junius storms the stronghold of Rock, the enemy king who has introduced the scourge of crack cocaine to his world. These fights are swift, brutal and intricate, complicated again by the difficulty keeping track of who is on whose side, and the characters' tendency to lie about it.

Disappearing in all of this drama and bloodshed, often, is Junius himself. He is a cypher, a figurant, a non-character, the cold little center around all else revolves, even as he is in almost constant, relentless motion. We see less of his interior self and inner motivations than of anyone else's, but I think that's a wise choice on Harwood's part because, again, most of his readers know that Junius is the one character whose future is known; it would be a ham-fisted mistake of Whovian proportions to make too much of the story's drama revolve around putting Junius in false jeopardy.

Missing, too, and this is my only genuine regret about the book, is, alas, what was most powerful in the Jack Palms novels it pre- and succeeds. It's a quality I'm having trouble describing well, even to myself, but its absence glares out at me to such a degree that I can't just leave this out.

Jack Palms, as we first come to know him in Jack Wakes Up, is a character in recovery, who has been lying low and healing from a prior life of damaging excess. His return to meaningful interaction with others, to action, to anything resembling a game in which to have skin, is a poignant subtext to all of the mayhem of his career through the drug-dealing, gun-toting, club-hopping San Francisco in which that novel takes place. His hard-won return to health and balance and fitness is constantly tested; he is constantly having to evaulate its worth to him in the face of temptations to backslide, which he does, but only to a minor degree; he's not a boring recovery saint, just saying no to everything, but a man, a real and ordinary man who would still like to have a little fun now and then. The delicate tension achieved there is what I have admired most about Harwood's work to date, and there's nothing really to match it in Young Junius -- at least not overtly.

But maybe I'm not looking for it in the right place.

A word about this milieu, and Harwood's relationship to it. As anyone who listens to the man for even a moment detects immediately, the Boston area is Harwood's home, and he grew up, to some degree, in the shadow of the Rindge Towers.* He's a white boy, though, of no inconsiderable education, and so some might question how accurate his depiction of this day in the life of another socio-economic class, another race, another world within his world. More sensitive/angry souls might even question his right to do so. I give him a pass on this, myself; the story is well and vividly told, heartfelt, and feels true in that deep, mythic way that, for me, transcends any questions of journalistic "true life" veracity. I am, of course, a white girl from Wyoming, so feel free to question my right to make that judgment if you like. I imagine this story, perhaps, first occurred to Harwood as a young man, as he looked up in awe and perhaps terror at those towers, and imagined what life within them must be like; a strong and sympathetic imagination can go as far as direct experience when coupled with talent and drive, which Seth surely has proven he has in plenty.

And perhaps that is where the poignancy and the real tension I'm looking for went, this time.

A final word about Harwood and how he rolls. As you'll see if you click on the hotlink above to Jack Wakes Up, he releases all of his fiction as free audiobooks at his website, via iTunes and at That's how he first built up his fan base and drew the notice of his first publisher, Three Rivers Press/Random House. While some might say that now he's made a name, he doesn't need to keep giving away his work for free this way, but we Palms Mommas and Palms Daddies agree that while his narration of his fiction is top-notch and adds immensely to his audience's experience, there's still nothing to beat having the book (or e-book) in one's hands. But you can go judge for yourself! Go listen to a chapter or two of Jack Wakes Up, Young Junius, or his extraordinarily moving short story collection A Long Way From Disney, and I bet you'll wind up casting a few ducats his way.

*I spent a few years in that shadow, after a fashion, myself, though mostly just through riding the long escalator at the Porter T-stop on my way to buy Japanese junk food and other amusing sundries at the Porter Exchange Building. I remember admiring the odd bronze mittens along its rails that Harwood so lovingly described and photographed. At the time I always just thought it was an odd bit of public art, not thinking too deeply about the history of the North Cambridge neighborhood which the stop served. Retroactively now, the bronze mittens give me the chills and feel like a sad little memorial to the lost innocence and innocents of the crack epidemic that had raged there most seriously a few years before my soujourn in the Boston area in the mid-90s.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Favorite Comics of 2010: A Very Biased List

On the whole, I dislike all of this Top Ten ____ of the Year foofraw we get in December, though I can understand a big impulse behind it: creating new content all year long is exhausting, and the short, grey days and long dark nights with which the Northern Hemisphere concludes a calendar year lend themselves to a certain tendency to look back and reflect. Was it a good year? Was it horrible? And we all like to choose a lens through which to do so.
I have succumbed to this, but draw the line at choosing an arbitrary number of things to highlight, so I'm just throwing this out to the ether as my personal list of favorite comics of 2010. I list them in no particular order except that in which I thought of them, which may or may not indicate a measurement of my passion for them.
You will notice there are no superhero comics on this list. I'm not a superhero comics reader. I'm not a big fan of the genre generally, and I especially dislike what the Big Two publishers have done with it -- all the spinoffs and extra titles, the storylines that disappear up their own assholes, the variant covers. Bah! I fully admit this is at least, in part, a wholly irrational prejudice of mine given that I do like, e.g. Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY and the occasional superhero novel (for an excellent discussion of the superhero novel and if its day has finally come, I refer you to my good friend Adam Christopher's recent essay on the subject HERE).
As for what I do like, well, dear reader, read on!
META 4 - Written and Drawn by Ted McKeever (Image Comics/Shadowline Publications)
I have already shared my overwhelming love for this series, in great detail, via a formal review over at Indie Pulp. Since the appearance of that review, two more issues of this mini-series have hit your Friendly Local Comics Store, and my appreciation has only grown. This is a complex and demanding book with precisely the right title, as much an exploration of metaphors and how our brains work with them as a tale of an amnesiac astronaut, a muscle woman who speaks only in dingbats and an ambiguous quest that leads them from Coney Island to a missile testing site in Nevada. Every single panel of this book demands very careful examination, and seems to communicate a slightly different message each time it is examined. The fact that McKeever's art is deeply meditative and gorgeous and and all but tactile (McKeever's expressionistic style features a lot of thick and powerful brush strokes one wants to just reach out and trace with a fingertip) makes this re-examination a pleasure. Four issues in, I still can't say for sure what this story is about in the traditional narrative sense, but that's rarely the point, with McKeever. What it's about, is its impact on you, which is profound, and profoundly enjoyable. Plus, this book marks McKeever's return to creator-owned work, in which milieu he shows even long-time fans of such McKeeveriana as Metropol, Eddy Current, Toxic Gumbo and the like, that we really ain't seen nothing yet!
A trade paperback will appear when the series is complete, and will, I suspect, vastly augment the already astonishing experience of reading the floppies -- and since with every new issue I've felt the need, more than with any other book, to go back and re-read from the very beginning, I know whereof I speak, here.
Chew - Written by John Layman, Art by Rob Guillory - Image Comics
My love for this series is also no surprise to anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads Suppertime Sonnets, where I've rhapsodized a bit about it. Since it won the Eisner Award for Best New Series, and two Harvey Awards (Best New Series and Best New Talent), and since its trade paperbacks tend to show up on the New York Times Bestseller lists a bit, most regular comics fans are already pretty aware of it, but if you're not one who follows that kind of news, I'll give you a thumbnail as to why you don't want to miss this before the TV show debuts (for yes, there will be one).
Following the exploits and pratfalls of FDA agent Tony Chu and his colleages as they try to bust black market chicken rings and stranger cases, Chew is a fine stew of crime fiction, science fiction and satire. Its world is one in which a supposed outbreak of bird flu has led to a government ban on chicken and FDA agents are the new crime-fighting superstars. Enter Tony, perhaps the FDA's dream agent, for he is a cibopath: one bite of anything and his weird psychic ability absorbs its whole story. Contemplate how a guy like that investigates a homicide for a moment. Ew. And yes, Chew goes there, hilariously.
The story so far has incorporated a strange fruit of unknown (likely alien) origin that tastes just like chicken but may be far more than that, a romance between Tony and a newspaper's food columnist whose own psychic gifts give her readers a visceral experience of her meals (imagine the effect of such a power if used to explore the delights of a restaurant that has failed many health inspections. Yes, Chew goes there, hilariously), one sidekick who dies and is resurrected as a cyborg, and the exploits of a rooster named Poyo, King of Cocks. All drawn in Guillory's wildly cartoony style. This is funky, funny stuff, even without Guillory's tendency to leave seriously thigh-slapping easter eggs in lots of his panels, which he does with gleeful abandon.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough.
The Sixth Gun - Written by Cullen Bunn, Art by Brian Hurtt - Oni Press
Weird westerns grow more popular by the month, and The Sixth Gun is a fine example of why. Exploring the aftermath of an alternate U.S. Civil War in which some of the worst of the bad guys got their hands on some of the worst mystical weapons in human history -- weapons which change form to suit the times and currently manifest as otherworldly six-shooters -- this book puts the last and most powerful of these guns in the hands of an innocent young woman, matches her up with a gunfighter with a history of fighting the occult and the awful, and pits them against the aforementioned baddies, who need all six weapons to bring about their longed-for Apocalypse, with spectacular and cinematic effect. This comic needs a score that's half Ennio Morricone and half Angelo Badalamenti, as plots within plots unfold and horrors are unleashed on a seriously epic scale. Artist Hurtt brings Bunn's terrible visions vividly to life (I still shiver at the image of the mystical tree from which dead, hanged bastards serve as oracles). Bloodbaths, undead armies, unwashed mountain men and evil, witchy widows with a penchant for bringing their dead husbands back to life over and over again populate this universe, which never loses its plausibility for a second. It's great, pulpy fun and one of the best examples of sheer storytelling power on the comics market today.
iZombie - Written by Chris Roberson - Pencils by Mike Allred - Colors by Laura Allred - Vertigo
My pupils must become positively saucerlike that Wednesday every month when a new floppy of this comic comes my way. For my money, it's the prettiest book currently coming off the presses, as I find myself gushing pretty much every month. Mike and Laura Allred have given this book a serious Roy Liechtenstein pop art gloss that's a joy to look at (I'm not usually one to dote on colors, but Laura's palette is a sheer delight - soft periwinkles and limes, smooth midnight blues... yum!), and makes the very entertaining story all the more enjoyable. The fact that the characters are as fun to read about as the art makes them to look at is a huge bonus, of course. We have Gwen, a gravedigger by choice, because that is the only way she can legitimately get at the relatively fresh brains of the recently deceased she needs to keep from transforming from her sentient and human undead self into a classic, mindless Romero zombie (and who absorbs the entire life-experience of the brains she eats as a side effect); her best friend, Ellie, a ghost who still affects the hair, dress and mannerisms of the go-go 60s; Scott, the were-terrier (that's right: were-terrier!), a classic comic book-loving, sci-fi watching nerd who has recently discovered he's not the only member of his family with a weird paranormal secret, and a cast of villains that includes a gang of hot chick vampires who lure their victims via their hip and happening paintball club, Blood Sports. Recently, Gwen has acquired an intriguing, Templaresque love interest from whom she is desperately trying to hide her zombie nature, which just adds to the fun. A trade paperback of this one is in the offing and should be on anyone's list, especially those nerds who are maybe trying to convince their girlfriends that there's more to life than Twillight.
The Signifiers - Written & Drawn by M.R. Neno - M.R. Neno Productions
The Signifiers is another I had the opportunity to review for Indie Pulp, but I still don't think I did it justice there. This is one of the quirkiest books to cross my radar in a long time and, like Meta4, one I'm still puzzling over months after I first pored over its pages. Neno's work is often praised as wonderfully Kirbyesque, and this is not wrong, but he's also his own man and The Signifiers is very much his own idiosyncratic story, full of strange characters (a guitar messiah, a heat-seeking dwarf, a woman in the process of metamorphosing into a dog, an alligator who is also a professor of linguistics, a jetpack-powered farm girl) and even stranger settings. Its world is part threatening, post-apocalyptic wasteland and part groovy hippie playground. All of these are presented in bold, lush strokes in glorious black and white, with blacks into which the eye just sinks and wallows. I'm a fan of a somewhat obscure novel that surfaced in the 1990s in Boston, Lars Paul Linden's Eating Eight, which describes a comic book script upon which people can get high. The Signifiers is high on my list of candidates of what kind of comic book would arise from that imaginary script.
Rotten - Written by Mark Rahner & Robert Horton - Art by Dan Dougherty - Moonstone
Did I mention that Weird Westerns are getting popular? Well here's another comic in that subgenre on my favorites list, one that's very different from The Sixth Gun but still excellent. A lot of reviewers have complained that Rotten is too heavy on the cliches as it explores the exciting question of what the Wild West would have been like with zombies, but it's what's interlarded amongst the cliches that makes this one a standout. For instance, while zombies are very commonly used as a metaphor for disease or our darkest impulses or our tendency to shut off our braiiiinnnnnsss way more than we should, Rahner and Horton (both of them veteran film critics in Seattle) resist the temptation to beat that (un)dead horse, going instead for a more subtle and interesting kind of social commentary. As the story of special agents William Wade and John J. Flynn unfolds, the narrative is peppered with loads of tart remarks about the legitmacy of the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. It's not hard to read these as veiled remarks about our own recent experience with the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Not everybody can pull that off in a zombie comic! Nor is the Presidency the only present-day controversy echoed in the pages of Rotten: a storyline involving what to do with a beloved family member who has "turned" manages to echo, very movingly, the story of Terry Schiavo. All of this is fantastically, gruesomely and brilliantly brought to life by the amazing Dan "Beardo Comics" Dougherty, whose meticulous line work and brilliant coloring are a pleasure to look at even when they aren't depicting seriously gruesome undead menaces, the deployment of the nastiest set of brass knuckles you've ever seen. Sure, there are other zombie comics out there, but this one is not to be missed!
Atomic Robo - Written by Brian Clevinger - Drawn by Scott Wegna - Red 5 Comics
Atomic Robo is quite possibly my favorite on-going series, one whose new runs I anticipate like my dog does table scraps from dinner. Any fan of good old-fashioned pulp storytelling should have this at the top of her pull list, as should any fan of first-rate sarcastic dialogue, Nikola Tesla, H.P. Lovecraft, science and skepticism, and really stupid dinosaurs. Robo has teamed up with everyone from Lovecraft himself (in a storyline which pits the author against a creature straight out of his fevered imaginings) to Carl Sagan and always holds his own, as thoroughly at home kicking vampire ass as he is rebelling against "daddy" Tesla. He's got one of the silliest and most awesome arch nemeses, maybe ever in Dr. Dinosaur, a widly incompetent but hilariously persistent Tyrannosaurus Rex, and, thanks to Wegna, one of the most expressive faces in all of comics -- quite an achievement for a ROBOT! The current run features Robo in his rebellious teenage years, another impressive achievement for a robot. Like Chew, this book also rewards carefull attention to the background art; many howlers, like a sign in Robo's headquarters that reads "Remain Calm - Trust In Science," lurk, and have extra impact when paired with an invasion of extra-dimensional vampires. Unmissable!
Daytripper - Written and Drawn by Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon - Colors by Dave Stewart - Vertigo
It's not every comic that can make the reader cry every month, but the incredibly beautiful and moving ten-issue Daytripper did just that. In lesser hands, this book could have been so horribly gimmicky -- protagonist Brás dies at the end of every issue -- but here it becomes a genuine source of honorably earned drama and heartfelt emotion. Bá and Moon, twin brothers who hail from Brazil, are producing some of the loveliest comic art on the modern scene, with lush linework, delicately observed character images and expressions, and backdrops that are both breathtaking and misleadingly simple, deftly drawn in with just a few penstrokes and achingly beautiful even when they show something happy. Enhancing this work tremendously is the perfection veteran colorist Dave Stewart achieved here. This entrancing beauty lowers the reader's guard just right, making the emotional impact of the story all the more powerful as we explore all of the different points in Brás' life when he could have died, even as we watch him mature, marry and father a son and finally die of old age. In the process, we get a wonderful meditation on love, friendship, choices, opportunities and yes, loss. If this book doesn't devastate you, you probably don't have a heart.
Sweets - Written, Drawn & Colored by Kody Chamberlain - Image
This project began its life as a Kickstarter proposal, and was successful there, giving creator Kody Chamberlain the financial wherewithal to make it happen until he ultimately made a deal with Image to publish it. A look at the short video he made to encourage backers there showcases wonderfully how this book came to be, and how it came to be great. As its subtitle indicates, Sweets is a "New Orleans Crime Story," which should already have you hooked even if you're not attracted by the beautiful, subdued tones of the cover image. Detective Curt Delatte is on the trail of a serial killer with a penchant for pralines in the days before Hurricane Katrina changed his city forever -- which means there are amazing layers of subtext drama underlying the mystery plotline as people prepare to flee or to tough out the storm. Multiple points of view are highlighted, each with a different drawing style, vernacular and palette, making the reading of Sweets as rich an experience as eating a really great praline. As of this week there is still one issue to go, so I don't know how this ends, but I'm dying to get my hands on it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Thousand Poems

These evening I hit a milestone that I never would have even imagined as part of my life two years ago: I wrote and posted my thousandth (1000th) poem over at my other blog, Suppertime Sonnets. I started that blog on New Year's Eve, 2008, as a way to hijack my brain and heart out of a long spell of writer's block, after hearing about some photographers who had taken a photo at the same time every day for all of that year. It had changed their sense of themselves as artists and the way they thought about time, they told an interviewer on NPR. It had given them renewed discipline. I wanted that, I realized, as I sat in dismal solitude in my old apartment in what I (charitably, I assure you) called the Vertical Trailer Park. But what was the writer's equivalent of a photo a day? It had to be something more than just starting another blog. It needed to be short and tight and formal. Hence the habit I began to cultivate, the bet that I made with myself: I would write a sonnet a day, no matter what, in 2009. To make it a little more challenging, I'd have it up by suppertime (hence the blog's name). If you look over that blog, you'll see that I went a bit above and beyond the original parameters of that bet. Some days I wrote more than one sonnet, some days I tried my hand at sestinas and villanelles -- oh yeah, and I kept going well beyond 2009. I decided then that I'd see how many days I could go without missing getting at least one new sonnet up each day. That turned out to be 635. That number I reached ignominiously. As many of my friends can attest, I went to comically heroic lengths to make sure I not only got one written but posted to that blog every day -- even when I was on vacation. The challenge on vacation was usually a matter of achieving internet access; I grew adept at using my iPod touch and once, even my Kindle when I couldn't get to a computer, but Wi-Fi signals, especially in airports, are not always so easy to come by. Given that, what caused the halt at 635? Simple forgetfulness. I had rather a bad day at work on Saturday, Sept. 25. Nothing tragic or huge or spectacularly bad, just an ordinary blechy day that had me a bit in the dumps. Usually, on such days, writing the day's sonnet (I often get them done well before suppertime, and write and post them from work) cheers me up, but I skipped it and figured I'd write one when I got home. When I got home, I just sort of sacked out for a little bit and went to bed early, near as I can tell. And thus ended the streak. Six hundred and thirty-five straight days of sonnet-writing is still something to be proud of, and I was, once I got over kicking myself for letting something so trivial end it. I had help from some dear friends in picking myself up and dusting myself off (one of my closest, who was witness to some of my most frantic efforts to get a sonnet posted to the blog while out in the wild, told me that it wasn't that I managed to do it every day that mattered so much as that I was doing it at all), and got right back on task. As I look over what I've pulled off as of today, I'm kind of amazed. I had never written a sonnet before in my life before I started those, and now I quite possibly hold world records for speed (once I wrote one, in front of the late Chris Al Aswad and his lady friend Teia Pearson and in a busy coffee shop, in five minutes. Chris timed it) and maybe for aggregate number, too. That's something, no? I should clarify, though: on that blog you will find, as of today (Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010) 986 sonnets. This year, as I started wanting to stretch a little bit, I branched out and tried my hand at sestinas and villanelles. Those are both even more challenging than sonnets and take a lot more time and planning, so there are only 12 sestinas and two villannelles on the blog at present. I quite like both forms, though, especially when I'm feeling like trying for a narrative, so hey, stay tuned. I still think I'm around 1000 sonnets, though; I've written a few privately here and there offline for special occasions. For that matter, I've a sestina published in a charity anthology, From the Dark Side (the charity it benefits is the Office of Letters & Light, the power behind National Novel Writing Month). Click on the title and buy a copy; there's tons of great, creepy prose fiction and poetry packed into that little volume for your $4.99 and it's a great cause. End shilling. Looking ahead to 2011 (wow, 2011! Insert remarks about flying cars and jetpacks here. Me, I'd settle for biosoft I can plug into my head that lets me speak and understand foreign languages), I'm uncertain if I'm going to keep writing formal poetry at that breakneck pace. As I said in a recent sonnet, it's starting to feel more like a stunt than like real creative work, and I worry I'm becoming a hack. And other challenges beckon; I've signed on with some Twitter friends, Capnmarrrrk and Amuckdesign, to do a joint sketch blog! I sketch a bit (you'll notice a bit of monomania there), but this will be a true stretch for me, and I'm excited! And there are other projects, some I can talk about and some I can't. I'm co-writing a weird western with my friend, the novelist and columnist Adam Christopher (who lives in the country outside Manchester, UK; we plot and plan by the magic of Skype. Who needs jetpacks; living in the future is damned cool!). I'm still beavering away at producing a print collection of my best sonnets, as an ebook at first and on dead tree later on, but DAMN sorting through hundreds of poems and picking the good ones is a lot of work! I occasionally lend my voice to other people's podcasts and see no sign of that stopping anytime soon, and I'm also still contributing pieces to Indie Pulp, the webzine that "wallows in the coolness of indie comics," and have joined two new crazy stables of nerd contributors, at The Functional Nerds and Guerilla Geek. All this while pursuing at least two groovy secret projects. So, am I resting on this arbitrary set of laurels? I am not. But feel free to send me chocolate to congratulate me for this achievement 8)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Dollhouse Collapsed

I'm late to the party. When Joss Whedon's Dollhouse premiered in 2009, I took a look at the premiere and, despite the presence of the weirdly disarming Tamoh Penikett, yawned. When friends of mine started nagging me to give it another chance, I dug in and became stubborn about it -- as is my wont, for the more I am nagged, the less likely I am to comply.

Oh come on, they said. At least check out Episode Six, when everything goes through the roof.

I dug in some more. My time is valuable, and I hate wasting it on crap.

It never entirely disappeared from my radar, though, and when it showed up, both seasons, as available for streaming via Netflix, I decided to take another look.

And, well, having watched it all in a compressed time frame, having, in effect, taken it in as though it were a 20+ hour movie, I can see why it got the axe; indeed, I am somewhat stunned that it lasted as long as it did.

That is not to say it was bad, though. Far from it. That's not to say it was good, however. What it was, was challenging, and not in the ways America really likes.


I dig Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was lots of fun, adventurous, amusing and full of cracking good storytelling. Angel somewhat less so, but it contributed some fine characters to our pantheon and had its own melodramatic charm. Firefly was his real triumph to date, and its premature death was a true tragedy. And Dr. Horrible was just goofy, in all of the best ways.

I dig Joss Whedon.

But I am in a minority.

Sure, it doesn't feel like a minority. On the internet, everybody feels like he or she is part of the great cultural zeitgeist. Everywhere one turns, because one does not generally turn in directions that face stuff we don't like, she finds people in agreement. Captain Mal is a big damn hero. Jayne is awesomely quotable. Buffy kicks ass. Willow is adorable. Cordy should STFU. Felicia Day is our geek sweetheart. Yes, yes, yes.

But there are just as many spheres out there who cherish Sarah Palin as a model for modern womanhood. Who think vampires should, and do, sparkle. Who think television exists only to bring Sports Center and Monday Night Football. Who think gays not only shouldn't be allowed to marry, but shouldn't be allowed to exist. Who think if English was good enough for Jesus it's good enough for them. And they all hang out in consensus clusters that amplify and rebroadcast those opinions right back at them.

We all hang out in the echo chambers that please us.

So when Joss Whedon -- good old Joss! -- came out with a new TV series, starring one of his discoveries, Eliza Dushku, alongside Mr. Penikett, beloved for his turn on Battlestar Galactica, of course this was exciting news for our consensus cluster. And it was going to be all science fiction-y! Neuroscience, even! So we -- and only we -- flocked to watch, ready to be pleased, so ready to be pleased that we were, overall, whether it was actually any good or not.

And we weren't entirely wrong to be, those of us who, unlike me, watched beyond the pilot. There was some good stuff on offer -- daring stuff. Even smart stuff. Challenging allegories, red herrings, villains that were really heroes and heroes that were really the ultimate over-arcing bad guys.

And as the show progressed, more and more of our gang joined the reunion: Amy Acker from Angel! Alexis Denisof, of Buffy and Angel fame! Vincent Vintresca, The Invisible Man! Summer Glau from Firefly and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and The 4400*! So many familiar faces, of course we were happy!

But what about people outside our consensus cluster. What did they see when they tuned in?


Neuroscience is the new bugbear, which is no doubt why Whedon chose it as the hook for his latest show. Those who aren't actually involved in the study of brains and the nervous system entertain all kinds of shibboleths about the goals of those who do, and mostly seem to focus on the scary idea of brainwashing in one form or another.

We all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals, self-directed and in control. A lot of us were taught in Sunday School and church that man is the pinnacle of creation, fundamentally different from and better than all other life on earth because we possess immortal souls. OR, we got a skewed idea of how evolution worked, that it was a progression from lower or less-developed to higher or more-developed, with man as, again, its pinnacle and goal. Either illusion is comforting and safe -- and is fundamentally challenged when someone comes along and suggests that the soul is just a pattern of data, or that we are just as manipulable as lab rats or pet cats and dogs. Or both!

Enter Dollhouse, the premise of which is that someone has found a way to reduce souls to patterns of data, to remove them from people to be copied and stored, and to install new ones in bodies at a whim. Furthermore, those souls can be altered, bits kept, bits erased, new bits added on. People are suddenly not just trainable, but reprogrammable.

And a commercial use for this tech has, of course, also been found, and found to be hugely profitable. And of course that use is mostly for sex. Specifically a highly specialized form of sexual slavery.

This is ugly, ugly stuff. Squirm-inducing and uncomfortable, and it's supposed to be. But it's not to everyone's taste, is it?

And that's even before the show's heavy rhetoric is taken into consideration.


Nobody likes big corporations, even though many, if not most of us owe our livelihoods entirely to their activity. Soulless, powerful, bottom-line driven, they are not nice. They make a convenient villain, even when they are not engaged in obvious evil.** In fact, it's very hard to create a corporation that is not, in some way, villainous, because corporate ends are not our ends as individuals.

With an ice queen like Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) in charge of operations, we are quickly shown that the Dollhouse here is no exception to that trope. It's all about pleasing the client and the corporate overlords/shareholders, not anyone's consciences, and anyway, the dolls volunteered to be dolls, as Adelle never tires of reminding folks. They sign contracts, agree to be wiped and put to use as mere receptacles, and are well-compensated for their time.

There is an implicit contempt for humanity inherent in Adelle's attitude, and the corporation's -- not as much for the dolls as for the clients. This is your fantasy. This is what you really want, you creeps, and you'll pay whatever we charge you for it, and keep coming back for more (just like you, yes you, viewer on the other side of the glass, do for internet porn).

This may be going out there, but I also think I detect a weird attitude towards the acting profession in this set-up. Here are people who completely lose themselves in the role and are absolutely convincing, but when the director yells "cut", they do not flounce off to their trailers, do not demand massages and bowls of green-only M&Ms, do not get themselves caught in tabloid scandals, do not in any way misbehave. When the director says "cut" -- or offers a "treatment" -- these actors become perfectly tractable. They won't even binge and gain weight! Sure, they require looking after, but they eat their vegetables, do their exercises, and even go to bed when you tell them to!

And finally, well of course this show turned out to be an apocalypse fantasy. As we've known since Edith Nesbit's The Magic City, if not before, once we've wished for a machine, we're stuck with it; if we don't use it, someone else will. Either despite or because of our heroes' corporate-busting efforts, the tech that allows the erasing and re-writing of human brains has been augmented (now it works on everybody and has been weaponized) and is loose in the world with civilization-wrecking consequences. !

Wish fulfillment, all of it -- with a nasty edge. And you who are watching and loving it must be nasty, too.


As conceived, Dollhouse was a show that demanded a lot of its actors. Everyone playing a doll not only had to play that doll but also every role that doll had to play -- and these dolls all were called upon to play a wide variety of "characters" in the run of the show.

Unfortunately, only one of them -- the amazing Enver Gjokaj -- was up to the task. The first surprise doll reveal, he spent the first several episodes playing a Russian or Eastern European gangster, carefully leaving a trail of crumbs for our FBI hero (Penikett) to follow, and then, once revealed as Victor, a dizzying array of other characters. His accent as Adelle's loverman Roger was upper-crust British and as flawless as the one he sported as a gangster, with subdued mannerisms to go with it. He was a soldier. He was one of the other characters in the show, the neuroscience mastermind Topher -- admittedly one written with lots of hooks and idiosyncrasies that made him easy to ape. He was a pleasure to watch every time, and as the show progressed Whedon and co. seemed to notice that he had more chops than the rest of the cast put together and gave him more to do.

The rest of the crew, well, they tried. This was as much Dushku's baby as Whedon's from the start, that is clear (Dushku has a producer credit, I believe from the beginning), a showcase for her talents and... well, she sure is pretty. And athletic. And very good at playing a tough, bad girl (which is exactly who she played in Buffy/Angel, to great effect as the dark Slayer, Faith). Unfortunately, that seems to be the only character she ever plays, so even when she is an asthmatic psychological profiler (as she is in the very first episode) or a happy housewife, she seems seconds away from clenching her jaw and delivering a roundhouse kick. That many of the clients she's servicing deserve little better is beside the point.

I wouldn't mind this in the slightest if she weren't the focal point of the entire show, and the one character who is supposed to seriously develop and change as the arc of the story progresses.

Gjokaj should have been the star.


I sound, by now, like I hated the show, but that's not really the case. Had I hated it, I wouldn't not, finally, have watched, not only Episode 6, where everything did ramp up and change, but the rest of the series. But as I watched, I saw exactly why it was only and ever my consensus cluster who was ever going to even give this show a chance.

Because we who were watching and loving the show, at the time and later on, were not really loving the show as it was, but its potential, which it was just beginning to realize. We were forgiving flaws that most people won't, out of faithfulness to Joss and Eliza, out of curiosity about the premise, and out of a certain desperation because at the time (and arguably still) TV science fiction was offering us precious little that didn't suck a lot worse.

And let's face it: after Firefly's premature demise, we were all waiting to see just how long this new effort of poor Joss's would survive. We tuned in, in part, to watch something die. Because Joss is our standard-bearer, and while we think we're vast and mighty, the rest of society is still vaster and more mighty, and it's the guy in front, carrying the flag, who gets cut down first and hardest. And we love him for it. And when he gets knocked down once, we yell at him to get up and wave the flag again, however tattered it may now be, until it gets shot to pieces again.

And we hope that somewhere he's busy with his sewing machine and his scrap-basket, working on a new one.

*Summer Glau is assembling a c.v. that is riddled with characters that require her to play blank or damaged or not altogether there, isn't she? A crazy, damaged girl who is secretly a psychic and a killing machine (Firefly), a killer robot (Terminator: SCC), a crazy, damaged girl with the power to compel others to do her will (4400) and now a neuroscientist with zero affect and social skills (Dollhouse). She's a lovely woman with a stunning resemblance to Sigourney Weaver (it's all in that wide, wedge-like jaw and small mouth) and a prima ballerina to boot. Will she ever get to play a real person? Or is she not actress enough to do so? Maybe she needs to fire her agent? It's puzzling, this case of Miss Summer Glau

**Serious sci-fi geeks howled when the Dollhouse's parent company was revealed to be a corporation called Rossum, a shout-out to Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the play that introduced the word "robot" to the English language. Capek's robots are not the metal creatures the trope became later on, but more like clones or otherwise artificial humans (perhaps shades of the "skin job" Cylons of Battlestar Galactica), from whom unproductive qualities like emotions, preferences and individual will have been removed. In other words, Rossum's Universal Robots are the originals for Whedon's dolls.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Unnecessary Violence: The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I always approach film adaptations guardedly, expecting unexpected blows to my expectations. It seems that the more I love a story, the more it suffers at the hands of Hollywood. Rarely have I ever seen such violence done to one, though, as is done in the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' charming novel of exploration and remediation, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
That's not to say there is nothing to love about this rather pretty and well-made film. As has been the case with the previous two Narnia films, the production design and visual effects departments went all out to very attractive effect; the ship in particular is vividly realized and owes much to other seafaring films that have served that aspect of life and travel far better than did Lewis in his book. The crowding above and below decks, the intricacies of a sailing ship's workings, all brought to mind the best of modern sailing films, Peter Weir's wonderful adaptation of six or seven Patrick O'Brian novels into Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (a film that is, in its way, a textbook example of how, if you must play with a story or series in adapting it for the big screen, that should be done).
The casting, too, is nothing to complain of. Georgie Henley and Skander Keynes are back as the youngest Pevensie kids, and own their roles nicely, as do Ben Barnes as Caspian, Liam Neeson as Aslan and Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (which, huh? What's she doing in this thing? See below). The masterminds behind this film could not help but find a way to include Anna Poppelwell and William Mosley, too, in a bit of shoehorning that was far more graceful than many other improvements made to the story, and I don't begrudge their presence; I don't know how much work either is getting and perhaps they've been typecast.
The exceptional bit, though, and one thing I must applaud, is the addition to the young cast of the Narnia cycle, Will "Son of Rambow" Poulter as Eustace Clarence Scrubb, the Pevensies' annoying cousin who is redeemed by Narnia. Poulter simply steals the film, once again playing a Bully Who Learns Better (in a nice touch, he's an intellectual bully, a scoffer who refuses to be taken in, instead of a physical brute). His character is the only one who really develops or grows in the novel and this is given full expression in the film -- though even when he's being beastly, one can't help liking him. There's too much mischief in that face.
A lot of my lingering inclination to like this film rests on young Mr. Poulter.
Really, there isn't that much that is merely bad about this film, something I can only say because there is a heading yet to come, which is The Horrible. That said, well, some of the most charming scenes and peoples the book has to offer are given short shrift, repurposed, or removed altogether. I'm talking the Monopod/Dufflepuds, Coriakin and the People Beneath the Waves. The former's appearance is cut short and their charm lost (their tendency to agree with each other and their visual funniness remain, but gone or so-close-to-gone-as-might-as-well-be-this-film's-Bubo-the-Owl is their complete misunderstanding of their relationship with Coriakin and of themselves); the middle is warped into a mere signpost and engine of foreshadowing (See below); the last, an element of the end-tale to which I most looked forward, expecting it to be given wholly over to the wonderfully competent effects and design crew, reduced just to a lot of lilies floating on the surface of the sea. Boo!
The first two books/films in The Chronicles of Narnia are all about overcoming invasion and great evil, the White Witch in the first tale, the usurper Miraz and the Telmarines who subdued the real Narnia in the second. Because of this, I can almost understand the filmmakers' obvious concern that Voyage of the Dawn Treader does not fit this plot at all. Voyage is a story of exploration and mystery, of questions posed and solved; the engine that drives it is not a quest at all, but rather discovery (rediscovery, actually, if one wants to go deep in to the Narnian backstory, for many of the places found in Voyage were known to the Pevensies of old but lost and forgotten by the sea-fearing Telmarines, except for a few intrepid souls). What happened to those seven lords who ventured forth in Caspian's youth and never returned? What's out there? Can you really sail to the end of the world? Good and interesting questions all their own, and interlarded well with the story of Eustace's redemption. Quite enough to make a fine film, I would think.
But no. We had to trash that perfectly good plot, invent a quest-and-conquer-evil plot in its place, and force the characters from the first to instead enact the second. Suddenly the seven lost lords disappeared with Magic McGuffin Swords, and an island that is quite frightening and interesting just as it is is suddenly the home of Great Threatening Evil the likes of which we've not seen since Luke insisted on entering the Dark Side Tree on Dagobah. Except somehow it is a threat to all of Narnia and is stealing/swallowing up innocent villagers from a Narnian colony. Coriakin tells Caspian and the kids all about everything that lies ahead of them up to and including the Star's Daughter and the island of Ramandu (and there's a Blue Star to guide them there, FFS) and charges them with purging the icky evil of the Dark Island by dumping the aformentioned swords (after they collect 'em all, Pokemon!) onto the table on Ramandu's island. Dumb, dumb, dumb. But not a huge surprise because this is Hollywood.
But oh, what had to be sacrificed. Like most of the genuine drama and wonder that made Voyage of the Dawn Treader many people's favorite of the Narnia books (and I count your humble blogger in that number). Eustace's transformation into a dragon, for instance, is robbed almost completely of the horror of discovery and the pathos of Eustace's experience (all that is left of the former is some tears the blue-eyed dragon sheds early on). Every time I read this book, which I do often, I'm always moved and kind of amazed at the gradually dawning horror achieved in the transformation's reveal, and the dumb misery of it, the physical agony of the bracelet digging into the dragon's arm (and it most decidedly does not grow to fit the dragon uncomfortably snugly - it stays man-sized and digs and tears into the dragon's flesh; in the film it doesn't even leave a mark!) and the logic behind the transformation (the film just says, as a graceless throwaway line, that dragon's treasures are enchanted). That this sub-plot is then prolonged stupidly -- Eustace's tow service and a visually exciting but kind of stupid (and wholly invented by the filmmakers) Dragon Eustace versus the Sea Serpent monster fight -- is not nearly as unforgiveable as the cavalier way in which the transformation is effected and lived out in the film. Turning into a dragon was meant by Lewis as a lesson and a punishment, not a chance to be a hero. Rubbish.
But the real horrible in this film is the loss of wonder and mystery. Knowing already where all the ship is going to sail takes the fun out of the tale. Collect all the baubles and bring them together. Yawn.
Green mist to signify the eeeeeeevil of Dark Island? Wrong.
Cameo appearances by The White Witch to personify the eeeeeeeeevil? Also wrong. Are we going to see her in every movie? Is she going to take the place of the Lady of the Green Kirtle in The Silver Chair?
And sea serpent as Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man? Really? Wrong. So wrong.
As I final note, I will also observe that the 3D was used to no great effect except to induce the headaches that ill-done 3D so often brings. I'll put up with a little pain for something seriously immersive like Avatar, but anything less? Ugh (but this is my bad; another theater in town had both the 3D and the 2D versions but was out of my way; I saved some gas and time but at what cost? Ask me if/when the Tylenol kicks in).
Good thing they cast Will Poulter, that's all I can say.
Ha and also rumph.