09 September, 2014

A Trailer, a Thought, and More Defensiveness About Movies I Love

This looks like it might be a winner, right?

After watching the trailer for Automata (which is way too close to the warmed up left overs that is the Penny Arcade crew's Automata), I wondered something: Are we quietly living in the best era of science fiction since the late 70's/early 80's?  While that decade had Silent Running, Alien, and Star Wars and in the early 80's you have Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator, and Outland.

Now, we have Looper, Moon, District 9, Inception, Primer, Her, Attack the Block, Snowpiercer, and the new Planet of the Apes series. . . I mean, these movies aren't perfect, but we're in pretty good shape here, right? They're either great pieces of cinema or they're interesting pieces of cinema.

And with that said, look at how good our big, dumb blockbusters are! Did anyone expect Guardians of the Galaxy to be that hardy of a picture? And while Edge of Tomorrow might be a lark, it's a smarter film than a lot of other sci-fi films that I do not care to name. Then there's Pacific Rim, which is a movie that I could go on about forever (and have).

And what did the 90's have? Total Recall (a great, great movie) followed by a bunch of Will Smith movies (you could argue for Terminator 2 (but that's more action than it is science fiction and that seems to be an outlier). Then you've got the 2000's which are stained with the legacy of the Prequels That Shall Not Be Named and, what? Avatar?

Oh yeah, Minority Report was awesome. Good call on that one, reader.

Maybe I just have a selective memory or a kind of blind confirmation bias. Who knows? Whatever the case is, we're lucky to be in an era where special effects have finally caught up with screen writing.

I don't know. Movie are cool. I guess that's what I'm getting at. We should be exicted about them. Which brings me to the next item on the agenda:

The script of Blade Runner 2 is complete.

There's been a lot of boring, Internet skepticism about this and as much as we all love a good skeptic now and again, it's important to remember you can shut the fuck up we have a goddamn Blade Runner sequel here. Thirty fucking years in the making do not take this away from me!

There's every reason in the world to trust Sir Ridley Scott on this one, too. I mean, he did make Blade Runner.

And Alien. And Gladiator. And Kingdom of Heaven. And Black Hawk Down. And Prometheus and fuck you, Prometheus is awesome. And sure, he's done quite a number of highly questionable films-- some of them as recent as the past year-- but, hey, when you're one of the greatest film makers of all time, you're entitled to a slump here and there. HE MADE BLADE RUNNER, YOU CURS.

In the meantime everybody go read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a warm up for Automata. And toss Neuromancer and Akira in there while you're at it, because, you know, they're great.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

*Notably I've left out Kathryn Bigelow, who would be perfect to take the mantle from Scott, except that she's already at work on Alien V, which is a fact that I am 100% is true.

01 September, 2014

It's All Over

Things Not Worth Knowing
A review of Unknown Soldier (1997).

I was trying to eat a cheeseburger the other day when my dad, watching the TV, started complaining that Al Jazeera wasn't "Pro-American."

To him, the BBC is offensive enough, but Al Jazeera is a news company that is most definitely in the hands of Islamo-fascists (or "Islamo-Nazis," depending on the mood he is in and the beer he is on). The rest of the burger was eaten in an uncomfortable, one-sided silence as I wondered if he knew where Qatar was.

Nevermind that we were actually watching NHK.

But, as I began to think about, I realized that he had hit on something. Watching a piece of media that you think hates you can really put you off. But it really puts you off when the story isn't any good. By staring into Unknown Soldier, I finally understood my dad's madness. To engage with something and the overriding thought that you have is "I think this book hates me" is a bit distracting.

The story begins with a fine hook: Agent Clyde, an All-American, Boy Scout-type finds a list of mysterious names on his computer. The names all have one thing in common: A covert agent code named "Unknown Soldier," a man who does not, and should not exist. It's at that point that his whole world turns into a carnival of violence that only becomes more bloody and terrible as he gets closer to this legendary secret agent.

It's a story full of tropes, characters, and ideas that Ennis revisits time and time again-- especially in the exceptional Fury: My War Gone By. The difference is that with decades of experience under his belt, My War Gone By, is a story that manages to move quickly through conflicts and through time without ever sacrificing its themes. It's a story that doesn't get lost in its size. With Unknown Soldier, as soon as the premise is laid out, the story takes a nose dive. The last issue closer resembles wreckage than an actual, working story.

The problem is that the book never gets properly started. Clyde is a boring character. Which is fine. Superman is a "boring" character. James Bond is a "boring" character. The problem is that Clyde is a boring character that exists in a boring world. You neither like him nor do you want to follow him into interesting scenarios. It's pointless on both counts.

It is further frustrating (and a bit of a consolation) in that Ennis has written about the same subjects Unknown Soldier concerns it with, but he's done it better. Again, My War Gone By, stars a straight-laced true believer in the American way (and so does Graham Greene's The Quiet American. His CIA agent Pyle is basically the prototype for that archetype). In those cases, the "boring" character works because they're either in a world that is interesting or they exist as a counter-point to warfare's more cynical characters. This book has neither of those things.

When Clyde is confronts the actual Unknown Soldier he's less a character than an emotion with two legs.. He doesn't argue for some kind of sanity. He sits there and takes it and then rants for an entire issue, I guess, the story ends. And it's all wrapped up in this half-baked idea that he fights for America because it's "always right," whatever the hell that means. It's odd, because Ennis has written scenes where a scumbag argues with an idealist before. He has also written tightly plotted and compelling stories, but I guess nobody is perfect.

It makes me pine for better espionage books like Greg Rucka's Queen and Country or better thrillers like Who is Jake Ellis? and Velvet. Hell, it even makes me pine for lesser Ennis war books like the prurient Fury MAX or the nihilistic 303. Or even Dancer.

(But, hey, at least it isn't The Programme.)

Then there is Kilian Plunkett's art. Man. I hate to hammer on this book, any more than I already am, but Plunkett's art in this book is some of the murkiest, low quality work that I've seen in a book in a long while (at least since The Programme).

But the shame of it is that I mean, is that the actual scans and the printing quality is atrocious. The actual line work from Plunkett seems to be fine and so are his layouts, but it's completely compromised by the piss poor workmanship of whoever slapped this book together (or, possibly, whoever assembled it back in 1997). If DC was capable of shame they should find some time to be embarrassed about shabbiness of this book. If a comic is going to suck, at least let it suck as it was intended to.

Again, it's a point of both exasperation and consolation that there are much better espionage books than this poor mini-series. In fact, a better contemporary Unknown Soldier story is the run Joshua Dysart and his crack time of artists created back in 2008*.

The 2008 Vertigo run of Unknown Soldier is a book that, like the 1997 mini-series, has a sense of outrage. It's brutal, it's violent, yet, the difference with Dysart's story is that he doesn't get lost in the anger and the spectacle. Instead of it being driven solely by some poorly thought out emotion, it delivers a story full of action and intrigue. It's also one of a rare few books that I would call "important" without meaning it as an insult. It's a book that has something to say.

And if I could speak as a fan for the moment, my distaste for this book partially comes from the fact that Garth Ennis, of all people, has misread the character of the Unknown Soldier. He's turned him into the cynical, fist of American exceptionalism. It's a concept that doesn't develop into anything.

I might just be a drunk, barely employed loser, but I know the Unknown Soldier and this isn't him. Reading this book is like seeing Sgt. Rock burn a Vietnamese hooch or, I don't know, Superman snap a guy's neck. If you're going to break from tradition, it isn't enough that it's edgy, there has to be a reason. There has to be some kind of a heart. Unknown Soldier has none. Beyond the anger, beyond the pointless violence, it is this lack of meaning that makes Unknown Soldier so offensively ugly.

Or maybe he didn't misread it. Maybe it was all on purpose. And maybe I don't care.

What are we left with? Read a better book, first of all. If you want to read a spy story or a war story, go read  Ennis' War Stories or Battlefields first. Then read Fury: My War Gone By. Then read Punisher Max. Then, if you have time, read Fury: Peacemaker. Or maybe even Adventures in the Rifle Brigade or even. . . anyways. . .

The other thing that we're left with is that as much as it seems that Unknown Soldier was written by an angry poli-sci major with an axe to grind, that is not the real reason you should hate this book. There are plenty of stories where I disagree with the politics, but I enjoy them anyways. A good story should transcend our petty political biases. It should give you something to think about or maybe teach you something. This book doesn't do any of that.

Saying that the Unknown Soldier is anti-American isn't strictly true. It just feels like it is. The reality is much more mundane and depressing. This isn't a book that has a point of view, anti or pro or otherwise. The reason that I hate this book is because it commits the most unforgivable sin of all: It's boring.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and a war comics snob. You can follow him on twitter.

*Here's an interesting piece on the Unknown Soldier and Dysart's run with the character.

23 August, 2014

Another Quick Note About "Sahara". . .

As you might recall, I said that Sahara is a great film (that is also about a tank), but don't just take my word for it! War is Boring agrees!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be inside of this cardboard box pretending to hunt down the Desert Fox. . . This could be a while.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and is glad Bogey and Bacall are finally back together. You can follow him on twitter.

12 August, 2014


Not Quite Like Pulling Teeth
Thoughts on Secret (2014).

Secret is one of those books I skipped reading in issues because I figured I was just going to get it in the trades. Manhattan Projects is one of the best books I've read in a long while (as far as super-science books go, I think Nowhere Men just barely edges it out). Considering the book's subject mattr, in addition to its pedigree, it seemed like a slam dunk. Having now finished it, having done some measure of meditation on the book, I kind of wish I had only bought the first issue instead.

And I am not entirely disappointed. Secret is a fine book. Perfectly fine, even. While I still really like Jonathan Hickman as a writer, this book feels sparse. In that way, it's less Manhattan Projects than it is Red Wing. It's an odd thing to accuse a Hickman book of being insubstantial. Overall it feels like a story that was sitting in Hickman's drawer for a couple of years until he became Mr. Crossover at Marvel. Good for him if he's got that kind of heat behind him. There's certainly less deserving creators out there and it's a hard enough trade, the comic's game, even within the halls of the Big Two.

On that same note Secret is fairly vapid. It isn't that it's dumb. I've read dumber books than Secret that don't move as quickly and as viciously as it does. The Programme is a book that is both dumb and slow. As a dressed-up genre book, it's doing something right. It's violent. It's mean. It's got twists. And that's about it.

When I approach some of the book's deeper meaning, I don't come away looking for more answers. I come away slightly more confused, as if the answer isn't even worth knowing. The artistic style leaps to mind.

The concept behind Michael Garland's color palette is my main stumbling block. In the book, it leaps from black and white to monochrome to sepia, with the odd splash of blood here and there. Think a collision of Sin City, Casanova, and, for flavor, the opening of The Big Red One.

Is it symbolic? Is it tonal? Is it just quirky? Am I an idiot? If so, why? Or is it just there as chaff to distract us all from the fact that there's basically nothing beneath the surface of this book? At least when Hickman did it (and I'm sure it was his idea, it almost has to be his idea) in Manhattan Projects there is a clear connection to either a character or a timeline. It works in conjunction with Nick Pitarra's art (also Jordie Bellaire, the fairy queen of coloring works on the book, which doesn't hurt). Here. . . I don't know it's just weird.

Other than that, the art is excellent.  Ryan Bodenheim does a fine job of differentiating characters and generally making Secret's world of office blocks and cubicles into something visually arresting. Or at least as visually arresting as those things can be. I'd be interested to see what Bodenheim does in the future and what he's done in the past. Even if this isn't the perfect project, his art carries the story along nicely. Then again, it'd have been nice to see some color thrown in there somewhere.

It's frustrating to not know how dumb or how smart it is. It's like Lost. Or The Leftovers. Is it me? Is it this dumb book? Both, maybe? Are you leaving us a mystery to solve or did you just plain forget to fill out the details? With Manhattan Projects there is no such doubt. And, hell, it isn't Hickman's experiment on SHIELD, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

But it's Jonathan Hickman making an industrial espionage book with a fairly talented artist and I am perfectly okay with that.  It's also only $9.99, so who the hell am I to complain? Image drives a hard bargain. Just read Manhatattan Projects or Nowhere Men and let's call this whole thing a wash, okay? Or maybe Zero if you want some crazed ultraviolence. Or East of West 

Hey, the world is your fucking oyster, okay? Go out there and read something.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

02 August, 2014

GOTG is Dead

Another GOTG in the Machine
A review of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest entry in Marvel's series bed sheets and back packs. This one is about space.

From start to finish Guardians of the Galaxy is a carnival of colors, light, and sound, often used in conjunction, to convey a story about people, space, and space people. Sometimes those people are actually a raccoon. Also sometimes these things blow up, because, if you hadn't noticed, it's Summer.

At points in the story it delivers exactly what you would expect a movie named "Guardians of the Galaxy" would deliver. Sometimes though, in it's running time, it is less than that. Sometimes though, it is more than that. Also sometimes things blow up because, if you hadn't noticed, it's Summer.

Where Guardians of the Galaxy gets interesting is. . .You're not even listening, are you?

You're watching the movie right now. Aren't you?

Come on, guys. This is my job.

UPDATE: I wrote an actual Guardians of the Galaxy review. Read it/get angry with me here.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

21 July, 2014

No, No. The OTHER WWII Fury.

I know I'm late to the party on this, but I am excited for Fury.

In preparation for what I hope is a decent movie (consider the director's track record: End of Watch is supposed to be great and Sabotage, um, not), let's go over a pair of WWII tank movies that are worth seeing:

Kelly's Heroes has greatest straight up tank fight in cinema history. And that's mostly because it might be the only tank duel in cinema history (which just can't be true, can it?).

As a film, Kelly's Heroes is more on par with something like Catch 22 than The Dirty Dozen. Or Where Eagles Dare, for that matter. It's gleeful and irreverent, and it takes the second world war about as it does a clown with his pants down. Or maybe it just doesn't take WWII movies seriously? Either way, Kelly's Heroes is a butt-load of fun and a perfect encapsulation of what Hollywood thought of the 1960's counter-culture.

It's a movie that laughs at the kind of square-jawed heroes that populate 1940's and 50's war movies.Yet it's savvy enough to know that tanks are cool and that Nazis are bad and it's fun when these things are slammed together.

I won't spoil the ending, but the entire climax of the film is built around the idea that the Tiger tank is the baddest piece of machinery ever built and that a rag tag bunch of screwballs may not be up to the task. Then it gets weird.

Then there's Sahara (the Bogart one). While a tank (an M3 Lee) is central to the plot, it really isn't about tanks. It's about the men who ride in and on them. The tank itself is a piece of shit, but it's got a kind of can-do charm of a dog with three legs. It's also notable for including just about every single member of the Allied Forces in some capacity helping our heroic tank crew along the way (it also includes both Italian and German enemies, which is about as rare of a feature in a film as a tank fight).

Sahara survives as an interesting film for a few reasons. The first, and the most important being, it's a Humphrey Bogart movie. While not all Bogart movies are created equal (there's Casablanca and The African Queen and then there's Beat the Devil and Sirocco), a good Bogart film is a great reminder of just what a presence he was as an actor. (There's a reason he's Michael Caine's favorite actor.)

The second reason is that Sahara is a perfect example of "the kind of movie they don't make any more." It's a war film, but it's light and it's loose and there is no question as to what the good guys need to do. There's a clear line in the sand as to what good guys do and what bad guys do. While it is the kind of film that helped to build up the myth of World War II, watching it, even now, it's not hard to see why we see the war the way we do. Sahara paints a picture of a war that needs to be fought and is worth fighting for. And hey, that's not such a bad thing, is it?

So, before you see Fury, go see these movies. At least we know they're good movies. And if not. . . Well, screw you. You don't want Clint Eastood and Don Wrickles on a caper? You don't want Humphrey Bogart and Jeff Bridges' dad defending your freedom? Are you so joyless?


With no little retinence, I am excited about Fury.

Despite Sabotage. Despite Mr. The Beef and his almost certainly mentally ill antics. Despite having recently been burnt by another special effects driven WWII movie. Despite always getting burnt by having any sort of investment in anything, I am excited. And there's a lot to be excited for. The movie has a great lead, a director who has turned out at least one impressive film in his burgeoning career, and the technology exists to make the convincing and worthwhile tank that I that we deserve.

That is until somebody finally gets the guts to adapt The Haunted Tank into a movie.

James Kislingbury makes comics, hosts podcasts, and generally just does his thing. You can follow him on twitter, too.

06 July, 2014

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Lord I Believe I'm Freezin' to Die
A Kind of Review of Snowpiercer (2014)

After a long and unnecessary battle with theWeinstein Company, Snowpiercer has finally been allowed to come out in the States, uncut and uncompromised. In its current state, it is a movie that was certainly worth fighting for. It is also a movie that is well worth the wait.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer tells the tale of the last remnants of humanity. Broken into a rigid class system, those to the rear of the train are brutalized and exploited at the leisure of those in the front of the train, who get to enjoy the pleasures of the eponymous train's "sacred" perpetual motion engine. As you can imagine, things come to a head rather quickly.

From there the movie follows Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow revolutionaries (and hangers on) through the absurd, yet grimly down-to-earth cars of the Snowpiercer. From there we get a kaleidoscopic view of a species on the edge. We see it at its best, its worst, and at every odd stage in between. More importantly, we also get to see one of the best rides of the year so far.


If you hadn't noticed, Snowpiercer has one of the best ensemble casts this side of Days of Future Past (or the next Christopher Nolan movie).

If I start talking about the cast, I'll be here all day, so I'll try to be brief. So, real quick, remember when Chris Evans was a joke? Like, before Captain America, he was on his way out? I mean, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (always with the rise, how come nothing ever ascends? Or flight? Things used to take flight all the time) and, boy howdy, that's a terrible film. If things hadn't gone the way they had-- if things were just slightly differently, he would have disappeared, unwanted and unloved onto the heap of other handsome white action heroes like a Ryan Reynolds or a Taylor Kitsch. Instead he can probably stand slightly behind Matthew McConaughey and maybe adjacent to Channing Tatum making us feel slightly stupid for writing them off.

As with the rest of the film, everybody comports themselves wonderfully. From Octavia Spencer as a tortured mother turned soldier to Tilda Swinton trying her best to act through more prosthetics than she had in The Grand Budapest Hotel to John Hurt who is, as you may well know, John fucking Hurt..

The only weak link that I can think of is Jamie Bell's accent. And I don't mean his acting or the quality of the accent, I mean, the actual accent. Why is it there? How did he get it? Nobody else around seems to be Irish. Why is he Irish? What gives? Did John Hurt imprint on him? Maybe he got it from the same post-apocalyptic accent store that the military guy from Doomsday got his Scottish accent.

The stand out is an actor that should be familiar to anyone who has watched a Korean film before because he is literally in every Korean film ever made. That man is, of course Song Kang-ho, star of The Host, Thirst, JSA, and, again, every other Korean film ever made.

While everyone else is running around, bleeding over things, Kang-ho sits confidentially in the background, either feverishly getting high or redefining how to look cool while smoking a cigarette. If you're a foreign film nerd you get the pleasure of seeing him paired with some of the most interesting Western actors around.

Even the bit roles of the film are well done. From the wordless henchman played by (name) to the cultishly cute school teacher played by Alison Pill to Ed Harris' who plays the man at the front of the train like a combination between the Great Oz and Lucifer. It is one more example of how much care and attention was given to the film.


What holds the film together is its ability to weave together several different kinds of genres and several different characters and idea and molds them into a single, wonderful product.

In the first half of the film, Curtis and his revolutionaries are pitted against a train car full of masked butchers. It's a scene with a lot of things going on in it. First and foremost, it takes Tilda Swinton's dentured and pig-nosed visage and manages to put it amidst a gang of hooded butchers and it seems like the natural, normal choice. It then manages to address the silliness of the train's traditions with utter carnage. And in all this, a spectacular action sequence is taking place. It is the film in microcosm and a wonderful sequence in a film overrun with wonderful sequences.

Another strength is that, like the train, it continually moves forward. We aren't ever bogged down in needless narration or we're left to think about what it all means. It plows forward. Through action, through dialogue, through characters. It moves. It moves at such a clip that the weaker moments of the movie are flattened by the momentum.

And there are moments in Snowpiercer where it threatens (you ready for this?) go off the rails. There's a distinct moment about half of the way through where it threatens to turn into a French film, where suddenly, Curtis and his cadre are going to be seduced by the decadence of the bourgeoisie*, that we're going to somehow end up with a Lois Bunuel film, but with more hatchet-based violence. Thankfully, it never tips over into full-blown satire. It's nice to see considering the the inexplicable shifts in tone of The Host.

The Host is a fine movie. It's a lot of fun and it's a kind of entry level foreign film that something like Wild Strawberries simply cannot be. It's more Jaws than it is The Seventh Seal, so maybe thinking about it critically is slightly missing the point, but, man, that film takes some weird turns. By the end of the film most of the principle cast dead (which includes an old man and a child). At the very end we're then left with a couple of characters who are, at best, catastrophically traumatized, but we're meant to believe it's a happy ending. On Christmas. In a kind of hobo lean-to/snack shack.  It's literally as baffling as I just stated.
Snowpiercer has none of these shortcomings. It's a movie that doesn't drag and it doesn't shoot off into any weird directions. It plows forward, working action, absurdist satire, petulent humor, high science fiction concepts, and a kind of gritty realism into a single working piece of machinery. It's violent. It's funny. It's smart. It's emotionally touching. Snowpiercer is the perfect example of a film that can have its cake and eat it too.


As I said above, this is a violent movie (which should come as little surprise if you're familiar with "extreme cinema"). As many ideas about society and class and destiny as there are on display, it's also about scrappy revolutionaries killing people with axes. It's about giving these people a reason to act and it's about us enjoying them move forward car by car. What I'm saying is that it's a smart movie that is also pretty awesome.

And it doesn't waste your time getting you there. It's odd that the Weinsteins wanted to cut the film, because I have no idea what they'd cut. A guy loses an arm to frost in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

From the very first moments of the film, you hate the upper class. You hate the system they've set up. You hate Wilford. You hate everything about this world and you just want people to be happy and you want certain other people to see the business end of a shank.

As with the humor and the drama in the film, Joon-ho doesn't ever lose control. The film's point of view never turns into mere satire and the violence never tips over into fantasy. Or into purience. It's as brutal and as intense as it needs to be to excite you, but to also make you feel a little bit sick. It's a fine act to balance and, once again Joon-ho nails it.

You believe this conflict just like you believe the characters, just like you believe that there's a magic bullet train shooting through the frozen future. It's visceral, it's believable, and it's a whole lot of fun, and that's kind of what movies should be, right?


Besides the odd moment where the film threatens to careen into the fantastic, the film has a few other flaws. They aren't major, but they're there, whipping by us as we watch the movie.

As in Days of Future Past, the most obvious shortcoming of the film are in its visual effects. While much of the special effects and computer effect go unnoticed, the exterior shots of the film look less like a frozen wasteland than they the Uncanny Valley after a blizzard.

What's more is that they aren't just iffy CGI shots, they're iffy in a weird way. They somehow look like computer generated miniatures. Meaning they somehow look both fake and small. The wonky visual effects are even more apparent when you consider how fully realized the rest of the film is. Unlike Days of Future Past, I at least understand why the CGI doesn't look great.

Then there's the woman in yellow. She's dubbed, right? Like, terribly? Right? Am I crazy?


Go see Snowpiercer. Show the braintrust in charge of the Weinstein Company-- and the rest of the goons running Hollywood-- that America wants more than dumb, ugly schlock. Show them that we like intelligent, well made science fiction films. Show them that we don't need any more fucking robots.

What is more is you should see Snowpiercer because it's an excellent film.

It's international in the way that David Lean movies are international. Or Akira Kurosawa movies are international. The creators of the film set out to make a particular kind of movie about a particular subject. It isn't a perfect movie and there are some truly harrowing parts in it, parts that in the hands of a lesser director would come off as crass. Instead, it's one more example of the fact that this film works. You should see it because good art, made well deserves to be seen.

But don't just take my word for it. It's coming to VOD on Friday.

*It is about much more than the corruption of the underclass or the compromising of a bloody revolution (we have Bioshock Infinite for that).

22 June, 2014

Nippon by Numbers

"I'm the Most Acceptable at What I Do"
Thoughts on The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine is pretty good. It's competent in all the right ways and even has the odd moment of brilliance sprinkled through out the narrative. There isn't anything that is terribly objectionable. Overall, it's as challenging as a cup of cocoa. And not even, like, Mexican hot chocolate, I mean plain ass, straight up hot cocoa. Maybe some whipped cream on top.

It's the definition of a movie you watch on cable because there's nothing else on.

My main problem with the movie is also kind of the charm of it. Japan is as much of a character in The Wolverine as anyone else and, like everyone else, that character is a cartoon. The world that James Mangold has carved into celluloid (or, from the looks of it, binary code), is less an NHK documentary as it is a series of knobs and cranks doling out exactly what kind of Japanese we're going to see and how much.

Over the course of the movie Wolverine battles his way from a POW camp to fighting the Yakuza in modern day Tokyo to fighting ninja and then, finally, a giant robot. It's literally every home grown bad guy Japan has to offer.

There was a time when all I knew about Japan and Japanese pop culture I gleaned from the pages of PSM. It's fun to revisit these things. It's fun to not have to think about politics or thousands of years of wood carving or tea ceremonies or whatever. It's a cartoon. It's simple, it's fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

Basically, Japan is The Wolverine.

But a few other things come to mind, such as how it treats Imperial Japanese soldiers and the dropping of the second A-bomb. Even in a movie that is as pop corn munchingly throw away as this movie, it gives you something to think about. Or it at least tries, and that has always been the hallmark of the X-Men film franchise, which started with the Holocaust, for God's sake.

The Japanese Army's track treatment of their fellow man is well established. Anybody who knows anything about world history or World War II knows about how they treated civilians and natives and enemy combatants. If you don't, I'll be brief and tell you that they did not treat them especially well.

The Wolverine doesn't deal with those things. I doesn't need to. It doesn't even pay lip service to these things. At the risk of white washing history, I think it's a smart move on the part of the film makers. There's a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is practical. We have to spend two hours with this country (and almost exclusively this country, all but two of the leads, are Asian), so bringing up Unit 731 or bringing up "comfort women" or mass executions isn't going to make this narrative very palatable. Plus, it's a PG-13 movie. We don't need to see murder contests in a movie about a super hero vigilante trying to get his groove back.

When X-Men began with the Holocaust, it was a smart move. Maybe not in the best taste, but it was smart. It set up the plight of the mutant species (by showing both the specific plight of Magneto and by stating that the Final Solution is, in some way, analogous to the persecution of mutants). It also makes us sympathise with the villain of the piece, which, again, is one of the ongoing themes of the X-Men franchise.

Secondly, it goes against the spirit of the movie. In the opening minutes of The Wolverine, we see Wolverine in a hot box reminiscent of Bridge Over the River Kwai, but before that we see a Japanese officer freeing Allied (presumable ANZACs or Canadians) and waving off a guard from shooting them.

By doing this, it elevate the Japanese as more than brutal fanatics and it makes one particular Japanese man (who later turns out to be the villain) into a good guy. When the A-Bomb does detonate, it becomes  less an instrument of punishment as it is a force of nature.

In these ways it also injects a kind of basic human decency that is in keeping with the best of the series (or at least just Days of Future Past). It's a smarter, kinder move than a movie like this needs and if only for that it makes The Wolverine a better movie than it has to be.

It isn't changing history, it's choosing to deal with it in a different way. I like that.

And I can always watch Nanking if I want to be reminded of the actual facts. But sometimes I don't want to. Sometimes I just want to see a movie where a guy does what he does best and what he does ain't pretty.

04 June, 2014

More like "Days of Future BLAST"

 An Unwanted Rundown of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Everyone expected Days of Future Past to be a shitshow, right?

There were too many characters. At best there are only two good X-Men movies, the last one coming out nearly a decade ago. There was Superman Returns hovering in the background, the creepy, pseudo-deadbeat dad that he is. Then there's those horribly misjudged Carl's Jr. ads, which seem to dare you not to rip your eyes out and throw them at the screen. That's not even to mention that it seemed as though Fox decided they were going to beat the Avengers in a Reagan-like gambit by outspending them. There have been superhero flops before, yeah, but it looked like the House of Ideas was poised to have its very own Heaven's Gate.

I'm sorry to say that Days of Future Past is not the shitstorm of the century. It isn't even going to be the shitstorm of the year. I'm sorry to say that it is actually quite good and might be a perfect counter-point to the soft-focus antics of the Avengers on one side and whatever the fuck DC thinks it's doing on the other.

What Days of the Future Past does do, is something that we all thought was impossible: Tell a storythat jumps between time lines, tries to weave itself into real world events, and still deliver an adventure that is about conflicting ideologies rather than about how big of a building our heroes can blow up. Thought it does have a lot of that too and it's really awesome.



Like most people my age my first exposure to the X-Men was via the Fox Kids cartoon. That lead to buying the toys (Mr. Sinister, two different Cables, two different Apocalypses, the Wolverine with the spring-loaded claws), which, in turn lead to me picking up a book or two. There's a certain snobby class of people that look down on the cartoons, but these people are snobs and can go get fucked. For a lot of people the X-Men cartoon wasn't just their first exposure to the X-Men, it was probably their first exposure to comics.

I never got into the comics. If we exclude Wolverine, I can probably count the number of X-Men comics I've bought on one hand. There's something about a story that never ends or can get reset or can languish for years under the control of any number of idiots. It's why I stick to "indie" comics. It's just easier to find somebody to blame when it comes to those sorts of things.

There's something about a cartoon that keeps a sprawling world like that of the X-Men managable. I'm sure they're great, they're just not my thing. For that same reason, the movies work. They took a concept that we like and consolidated decades of back story into a serviceable, enjoyable package.

The first two X-Men films, while not perfect, as great pieces of popcorn entertainment. They renewed my interest in the X-Men and, whether the purists like it or not, they're more or less responsible for the state of the modern blockbuster. We wouldn't have Avengers or the Dark Knight trilogy. Then again, if it wasn't for Bryan Singer we wouldn't have the Man of Steel, The Last Stand, Iron Man 2, or Green Lantern.

You know what, maybe those snobs had a point. . .


I'll say this: Ian McClellan and Patrick Stewart are, as always, absolute delights. It feels that somehow, despite themselves, they actually seem to enjoy playing superheroes on screen. They're men that have truly embraced the "Wizard Phase" of the elder British actor's cycle. They're men that are better than the film around them and, yet, you couldn't imagine having this film without them.

The problem is that, while there are plenty of great actors milling about, almost every single one of them is underused by design. There's Halley Barry, who seems to be flying by to pick up a paycheck. There's Ellen Page who is saddled with the clunkiest, Basil Expositioniest dialogue in the entire film.
Even Jennifer Laurence, she of the Academy Awards, takes a backseat to the film's lead trio of James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Hugh Jackman. Academy Awards or not, the film belongs to them.

Luckily, the film is in great hands. Like some artsy superhero team, each actor is capable in their own way. Fassbender does his intense staring thing, MacAvoy suffers like no one else can, and Jackman stands around being charmingly buff. It's everything you want out of the film and it's everything the film needs for its story. They're serious enough for you to buy all this time travel and Kennedy assassination bullshit, yet fun enough to forgive all this time travel and Kennedy assassination bullshit.

The one notable addition to the franchise is Peter Dinklage playing the evil genius Bolivar Trask. As an actor, Dinklage is a known quantity and in Days of Future Past, he brings the same sort of energy that he brings to Game of Thrones. And he gets to appear just long enough to give a kind of oppressive weight to the otherwise bright 1973 timeline (I mean, without all the Vietnam War stuff and terrible shades of brown).

The only unfortunate part of his performance is the same albatross around everyone's neck: He has a kind of silly look and a pretty stupid name. But he, like everyone else, moves deftly enough through the script that you barely bat an eye at the fact that his first name is “Bolivar.” Even if you are the type that giggles at the word midget, in a world full of blue people, giant robots, and Richard Milhouse Nixon, Dinklage is one of the most anchored characters in the movie.

Singer carefully jumps between characters (and timelines) just enough to remind you that there is a world outside of the younger Wolverine, Magneto, and Professor X. And if he isn't doing it carefully, he's doing it with enough energy that you don't really notice that Rogue was on a magazine cover and that she's, literally, in three seconds of film. It's incredible to see, not only because, like the rest of the film, it works and there's no damn reason that it should.


Days of Future Past might represent the moment when comic book movies, or at least X-Men movies, cross the event horizon and finally, exorably disappear up their own ass for all time. In that way it might be the world's first true comic book movie.

That isn't to say that a film can't be complicated and still be enjoyable (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy always jumps to mind). What I am saying is that comic book movies should take a moment to check themselves before a graph is a required hand-out before the film starts.

I find that drama works if you can trust in the main characters. I might not know what the score is, but Harry Remas seems to be making a fine go of it, so I'm going to play along. This film does a solid job of that because, as a human being, one cannot help but love Hugh Jackman, but it's hard to go along a character when his relevant backstory is buried in a movie that's fifteen years old.

It's an odd place for me. As a nerd, I get it and I appreciate it. I like that it rewards those who pay attention. As a film snob enthusiast, I wonder how good a story can be when most of it isn't getting told. Why should my sister have to spend nine hours getting caught up to make a movie watchable? Looking at the box office receipts, I'm probably making a mountain out of a mole hill.

I guess maybe the possible confusion around the plot is one more point in its favor. Most blockbusters-- like the kind of mind-numbing dreck that Michael Bay turns out-- lean towards making blockbusters dumber and dumber. Singer might have bitten more than he could chew with this one, but at least he's trying. This isn't Inception, but he's willing to give the audience some credit when it comes to them no being braindead, popcorn munching faces. That's obviously more than I'm willing to give. . .


Oh man. Remember this?
Good God, some of the CGI in this movie sucks.

 It's bad enough to look at crappy CGI, it's even worse when you realize that this movie cost over two-hundred million dollars and this was the best they could come up with. Ignoring the tacked on post-credits scene, which was probably whipped up out of the money that fell out of Bryan Singer's pockets, this movie has some surprisingly bad looking visual effects.

What's annoying is that it isn't all terrible. Some of it is downright awesome. For example, there is a scene towards the end of the film where the Sentinel carriers being hit by some ill winds, stands out as an exceptional piece of visual effects. They look cool, they carry with them this sense of heavy forboding, and they're so good looking, they almost looks like miniatures from the 1970's.

On the flip side, we have Magneto, spoiler alert, moving a massive piece of real estate to do some dirt. It's an ingenious bit of imagery until the damn thing starts moving** . At that point it looks as though somebody dragged and dropped it from an old version of Photoshop. It looks like somebody wanted to do a few more passes on the shot, but then somebody else higher up went “Fuck it, I'm not losing my lunch break.”

Again: It cost 20th Century Fox 200 million dollars to make a movie where parts of it might have been put together by people who were drinking on the way to work.

To end this on a positive note: I was actually taken out of a scene-- maybe the best in the film, no less- by how good it looked. There weren't any special effects. There was just a camera, lighting, and two people talking in a room. It's in that moment that as great as the special effects may or may not be, it's these characters that keeps you coming back.


Despite its size, Days of Future Past doesn't lose sight of its characters or its core message. It's a testament to Bryan Singer's skill as a director. It's also proof positive that, like Inception and even Avengers (or maybe even Godzilla by a cat hair), that storytelling and character does not need to disappear in favor of spectacle. For some reason we need to be reminded of this every once and a while.
I've done little to mention the action, but it's damn good. Singer handles these scenes as well as he handles the characters (and without a balance between the two we either end up with a boring action movie or a stupid drama). The scenes involving Blink, a mutant who can generate portals, stands out the most. Each scene she's in has complexity to the action that looks like a blend between a good Jackie Chan movie and Portal.
Days of Future Past is guilty of a lot of sins, but it powers through these awkward moments, making you forget these flaws long enough to enjoy the film. In a market where as most superhero films seem to be getting more cynical and involve destroying bigger and bigger cities (and in one case  a bunch of disabled veterans), it's good to see a movie find strength in the idea of simple, human decency. It's a movie that makes a stand and says that good people matter in the world and that they matter in a narrative.

In all of this we get a movie that is as complex as it is complicated. As much as it is a movie about clashing ideologies, it's also full of giant robots, time traveling, and a climax that revolves around Richard Nixon being a decent human being. It's a damn good film and if this represents the future of super hero movies, that's something that I can live with. We could all use a lot more blockbusters as messy as this one.

That ain't it. Maybe this is. . . 


No? Fuck  it. Whatever.


It is then followed by a title card-- and this is the only time I've seen one like this-- that said "This film helped provide 15,000 jobs." And all I could think was "Uh, yeah."

I saw this at the Arc Light in Pasadena, and while waiting for the movie to start at the bar, one of the bartenders was getting rid of old stock. I piped up when he mentioned how some of the beer had gone bad. So, he offered me a free beer to “taste test” because it went bad. I work at a market, so I'm aware that most food that's past its sell by date is perfectly fine, and, as a God-fearing Christian, I would never turn down a free drink.

It wasn't until I drank a glass that I checked the bottle. It did indeed expire on the 24th of May, more specifically, it expired on the 24th of May 2013. This beer was one day short of having expired one year ago. It was then that I realized it wasn't the coffee and the Fat Tire that was making the beer taste funky, it was year old funk that was making my beer taste funny.

It was a fine gesture on behalf of the bartender and I'm grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to both drink beer and be a bonehead for free. Mostly I'm grateful that my movie going experience wasn't interrupted by explosive diarrhea. It's always nice to reflect on something like that, it's even nicer when you're watching a movie that you're genuinely enjoying.


* There are some “vintage” Adidas ads in the background. Am I stupid for thinking that an Adidas billboard in 1973 is an anachronism? Does it matter?

James Kislingbury writes comics and records podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter @kislingtwits.

31 May, 2014

I'd Hate to See The Union Busters

I'll be brief: You should read COWL #1.

As though engineered to anger my father, COWL tells the story of the world's first unionized superhero team.

Rather than using that idea as a set-up for some kind of reflexive, high-concept nonsense that floods the pages of Previews every month ("Hey, what if Batman was actually a vampire!?" and "Hey, what if Superman retired and got into cock fighting!?" they all said, choking on their own sick), COWL actually uses its concept to tell a story which, again, looking at the pages of Previews, actually is a kind of high concept in and of itself. . .

In short order, we're thrown into a familiar (but not too familiar) 1960's Chicago where we see a team of heroes closing out a case against a supervillain. It's a high concept deployed correctly and it's a story that feels new and different instead of playing off of a story we've seen a hundred times before (but with, I don't know, more drugs and uses of the c-word). If it's playing off anything, it's Mad Men and even that's only in the comic's set dressing.

It's the comic book that I didn't know I wanted. It's also mature in the proper sense of the word. Yeah, it has the murder and death, but so does Law and Order. By sprinkling in some sexism or brutality, writers Kyle Higgins and Alex Siegel are informing the world and the narrative, not just thumbing their nose at the Big Two's editorial policies. They aren't pushing buttons, they're creating a world.

Besides the sex and violence (and one delightful bit of public urination), it's also a book with a sense of humor. It also deals with complex relationships between people and it does so all in a very short amount of time. It's a fun book that smartly plays between the kind of "realism" we're used to seeing in superhero comic books post-1985 and the kind of fun that made us pick up comics in the first place.

And the art. . . Oh man, the art. You ever have that moment where you see an indie book that looks interesting and you pick it up to see what it's like inside and it looks like somebody who couldn't get work at DC? This isn't that.

As strong as the cover is, the interior is even better. Rod Reis' work looks like a comfortable mix between Bill Sienkiewctz and Phil Noto. It's a look that almost any book would be lucky to have and in this case, with this story, it feels a bit magical. Something special is going on in this first issue and I'm really excited for what the future might bring.

Go support good comics. Go support weird and new ones. Go read COWL.

Oh, and here's a free blurb: "COWL is Watchmen and The Wire meets FIST."

There. That blurby enough for ya?


There's a character called Arclight. And he flies. And I should have thought of it. But I didn't. And I hate it.

James Kislingbury writes comics and records podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter @kislingtwits.

26 May, 2014

And Death Stomped With Him

Some Thoughts, Feelings , and Pained Metaphors on Godzilla (2014)

If you asked me a year ago about how much we need a Godzilla reboot, I'd say that we need one about as bad we need teeth in our asshole.

Ignoring the brain-dead fiasco that is Roland Emmerich's 1998 fiasco, even the original Godzilla movies are silly, if charming, balls of cheese. At worst, they're Final Wars. They're the kinds of film that you watch because you've either got a real yen for camp, you're eleven years old, or you're very, very high.

That is to say, overall, with the exception of the very first film, Godzilla movies are not high art that has changed the way we watch movies. So, yeah, the idea of a remake, even one helmed by the director of Monsters made me feel like I ate too much burrito: Tired and a bit queasy.

And I'm not alone. In 2004 Toho, the "Owners and Creators" of Godzilla, pulled the plug on Godzilla. Or, at least they saw fit to have him hibernate until there was a worthy reason to bring him back. And that's how I thought it would be until the end of time.

Then the teaser came out.

And then I realized that a new Godzilla is exactly what we needed.


Gareth Edwards' first big foray into Hollywood is exactly what you want out of a Godzilla film: It's a B-movie told with the seriousness and professionalism. It also does so without losing any of the energy or charm that made you fall in love with those old rubber suit movies. It's an actual film about giant monsters and it isn't embarrassed about it. If Pacific Rim hadn't come out last year Godzilla would have been the giant monster movie we've been waiting for.

One of the biggest complaints about the movie-- that Godzilla is held back for so long-- is proof of how well it has been made. Holding back the monster is what you're supposed to do. That's how these things work. Alien does it. Jaws does it. The Thing does it. Pacific Rim didn't do it, but Guillermo del Toro can do whatever he damn well pleases. Godzilla (1998) didn't do it either and look how that turned out. By holding Godzilla back, Edwards firmly places this movie alongside some of the best monster movies of all time. It shows that he knows what he's doing.

By building up the anticipation, it make Godzilla that much more of a mythical figure. It somehow tricks us into thinking that we've never seen something like this before. It makes us wonder when will he show up? What will he do? What exactly is this behemoth capable of? It makes that initial Godzilla scream that much more impactful. To take a sixty year old property, one that even its owners aren't too fond of, and gives it back its mystique.

But, of course, I'm burying the lead: Godzilla clocks in at a mere two hours. That gives the director plenty of time to establish a world before it starts blowing it up. It has a human length. If only for that Godzilla might be the best blockbuster this year.


As much as Godzilla is about watching cities that didn't do anything wrong in their life getting smashed like your drunk grandpa's vase, it's a movie about people. . . and whether or not these people are going to get smashed. For the most part, the characters that aren't giant monsters are perfectly capable of moving things along.

As far as square-jawed leading men are concerned Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a perfectly acceptable collection of right-angles. While I loathed Savages, he was one of the less loathsome things in the movie. I mean, beyond his hair. But in this movie he has a crew cut, so it's fine. He actually reminds me of Orlando Bloom's performance in Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say neither of them are very good, but at least they've got the good taste not to get in the movie's way.

Elizabeth Olsen also delivers a perfectly fine performance, giving scene an emotional grounding when they need it or accentuating the drama where needed. While I don't buy her as a mother of a five year old for one single second, at least she doesn't look entirely ridiculous.

Where the film's strength lies is in its supporting cast-- a collection of actors either too old, too talented, or too expensive to give the lead to. They elevate every scene. It's a thankless task, but it serves the movie's purposes. It's a better drama for them being wasted.

Right off the top, we have Juliette Binoche who even when collecting a paycheck delivers a performance that is far greater than the length of time she is on screen. Then there is Sally Fields also shows up if only to remind us that Happy Go Lucky has been on our Instant Queue for two years now and that we still haven't watch it.

We also have Bryan Cranston. He's great. We all know this. He's about as underused as the rest of the cast that doesn't have a military haircut. Fortunately, in the few scenes that he has, he acts his ass off. Like Binoche, he isn't on for long, but he makes those moments count.

Then, of course, there is Ken Watanabe (who, like Morgan Freeman, is the kind of actor you patch into a movie if you need a scene to have gravitas). Even in sillier films like The Last Samurai, he's a man who commands your attention and Godzilla is no exception. Even in a room full of military goons, he's the man you're waiting to speak. Every film he appears in, he seems like the perfect choice. Godzilla is no exception.

The best moment in the movie-- that doesn't involve monsters duking it out-- focuses on Watanabe. In it, he and David Strathairn are looking over a seemingly doomed San Francisco, wondering what the hell to do.

There's something beautiful about that little moment. It's about monsters fighting as much as it is about everything but monster fighting. It's one of the few scenes that match up to the promised metaphorical heights that Edwards mentions in interviews and that the original film was built around. It also doesn't make me think about weird 9/11 allegories and that's always a good thing.


I like the new Godzilla. He looks like Godzilla. That's always a good start for a Godzilla movie.
Keeping in the tradition of other recent franchise reboots, this incarnation of Godzilla is meant to be  realistic take on the the King of Monsters. Or as realistic as a 300+ foot tall lizard is ever going to get.

But the Weta-assisted design actually works. Unlike a lot of CGI, eveven recent CGI, this is a monster that has real weight and impact. As easy as it might be to poke fun at Godzilla's bulk, everything suddenly makes sense when the first move he makes in a fight is a two-handed sumo wrestler slam. Even the sillier bits of the design have a well thought out function. That's always nice to see.

As important as Godzilla is, the mark of a good Godzilla movie is a good villain. King Ghidorah, Biollante, and Mechagodzilla and Charles Barkley are just as significant as the King of the Monsters himself. Fortunately, this time around the film makers got it right. The baddies are smartly designed and have the same kind of heft that Godzilla does.

What's interesting is that they don't just look like bugs that have been scaled up. Instead, they look like living fossils. They look like they are of earth, but that they don't quite belong. They look like they fall somewhere between something at the Natural History Museum and a Pokemon. They're anchored in this world, yet there's something fantastic going on. That's a good place for a kaiju to be.


A lot of the flack being hurled at Godzilla centers around what polite people would call “pacing problems” and what others would call “boring.” Over the years I've backed away from spitting venom at people with whom I disagree,* but it needs to be said: These people are idiots. Godzilla, for all of its smashing, is not a movie made for or by idiots. For all of its special effects Godzilla is a movie about the human beings. Apparently that makes things "boring" now instead of "dramatic."

While I'll agree that the human aspect of the film leaves something to be desired, Gareth Edwards still delivers a rock solid action film. It looks great, it moves along nicely, and it delivers exactly the kind of thrills that you want out of a giant monster movie. It doesn't quite have the depth that some other action movies might have that doesn't mean that it still isn't worth your time and money.

The original Godzilla practically invented a genre. This film does not do that. What it does do is deliver an exciting action film that belongs in the pantheon of monster movies. It's the kind of movie you would love as a kid and unlike a lot of crap that you watch as a kid this movie might actually deserve it. A lot of people are mentioning Steven Speilberg in the same breath as this film. While Godzilla does not hit the highs of those great blockbusters, it is a fun film and a fine start to the blockbuster season. If only more blockbusters could be as insubstantial as this one.



I'm a fan of Vice and this article is no different. With a headline like that, I can't resist it.

Here's a more coherent review of the film from Rafael Gamboa. Even though I don't agree with it, I went to high school with this guy and he wasn't terrible, so I'm going to be nice. Also, it's really well written.

As always: Kermode is also available.

Since we're at it, why don't we all relive Roger Ebert's amazing review of the 1998 Godzilla.


My current feeling on the movie is that I think it'll slide into obscurity and only be viewed by the odd Godzilla nerd or kid who is getting into scary movies, but can't quite handle actual scary movies. That is until the sequel, which has already been green lit. As cynical as I sound, I'm kind of excited for what that movie will look like. I'm excited by the idea of Gareth Edwards (or whoever) trying to square Mu or King Ghidorah into this semi-realistic world that they've built. I want to know how they're going to meld Battle of Algiers with Cloverfield.


*Yes, I realize that I complained that Only Lovers Left Alive left me a bit bored, but that also didn't have giant bugs and reptiles smashing things for an hour. Being a bit boring is also a part of that movie's charm.  And, yes, I know that I also complained that The Wind Rises was boring, but fuck The Wind Rises. And another thing, Only Lover Left Alive was two hours of people talking in rooms and that was boring. Godzilla is maybe an hour of people talking in rooms and then it has another hour of monsters smashing shit. What the fuck do you morons want?

14 May, 2014


Or "How I Got My Shit Together and Finally Started Reading Akira"

I started reading Akira.

More specifically, I finally started reading Akira. I might have been inspired by iFanboy's series on the show or I maybe Spex mentioned it to me one time to many. Or maybe my collective ignorance finally made me feel guilty enough to finally check the damn thing out. Maybe I just broke. You happy now?

I think the first time I ever saw this book on display was at the Virgin Records in Burbank. If you're looking to help date this: Virgin Records no longer exists. I'm fairly certain Burbank has been taken by the mole people, as well.

It wouldn't have been too long after seeing that I began my short foray into the world of anime. It's not a time I'm super proud of, but it wasn't nearly as dark as it could be. One of the reasons for this is that Akira was being re-released in theaters with a new voice acting (I didn't let the fact that Tetsou sounded exactly like one of the Digimon kids distract me. . . Mostly because I really like Digimon).

I might have seen Princess Mononoke at that point (on a VHS tape at my friend's house along with The Big Lebowski and Rushmore and, for whatever reason, Heavy Metal 2000), I was certainly aware of the medium-- but seeing Akira play out was like hearing Led Zeppelin* for the first time. It was the kind of seminal moments that you get when a work of art completely expands your horizons. It was what the medium was supposed to be. Looking at the comic book, even with it being nearly thirty years old, I realize that it still is everything the medium should be.

Akira is the first comic in a long time where I've though "Can you even do that?"

Katsuhiro Otomo does things in the comic that should be impossible to do in the medium. You see a lot of this in bad comics. You see people trying to fit too many words onto a page. You see people used to working in one medium (almost always film or prose and almost always as failed movie pitches) failing to work in the other. You see all kinds of mistakes based on a basic misunderstanding of how comic book grammar works.

As an amateur, I've caught myself doing this when I write. Most of my mistakes involve a character doing too much in a panel (like, you know, moving) or it involves a sound effect (Note: You cannot cut on a sound in a comic). It's a terrible habit and it's something easy to do if you aren't completely versed in what a comic book can and cannot do.

With Otomo what you see is a man who knows the rules and who breaks these rules whenever he feels like it, and who then gets away with it.He inverts panels, he turns them on their head, he stacks them up and cuts up their borders. He chops things up, he shifts back and forth. He hides things from the reader. This comic has dissolves-- dissolves, for God's sake! That's not a thing you can do in comics! But he is and he's getting away with it!

What's impressive, beyond the strength of the actual artwork, is how seamless it all looks when you're reading it. It doesn't read as a man showing off what he can do, it just reads as good comics. It's the kind of good that seems so simple and so obvious that I wonder why more people don't straight rip it off. At least I know why I haven't ripped this book off.

In all those decades I can't think of anybody that has done what Otomo has done. I can only think of imitators and I can only think of imitators that fall short. And, really, that's all there is. There is Akira and then there's everything else that came after Akira. It isn't only that Otomo is a master draftsman, there is something magical going on inside this book that I can't quite put my finger on.

Again, it makes me feel like an idiot for having waited this long. Don't be like me, go out and read it right now. You won't be sorry for long.

I'm two volumes into the book. I only stopped because, for whatever reason, I'm missing volume three (which means I need to drive over to Long Beach and steal that copy from my friend Alex or just break down and actually buy the damn thing). I can't wait to blaze through the rest of this book. And to finally pick up Domu, which has sat in the back of my mind for nearly two decades with the rest of my hazy memories of Dark Horse's ads. That is if I can find a copy of Domu. After that I'm going to watch the movie again. And then I'll check out Steamboy one more time. And then. . .

James Kislingbury writes comics and podcasts. You can follow him on twitter.

Actually, you should all go and see Memories. I think I wrote about it once. . . Anyways, one of the shorts in the film is directed by Otomo and you should check that out, because nobody directs rusty industrial design quite like Otomo.

*I now realize that Zeppelin is one of the most profoundly over-rated and over-played bands in all of time and space, but we were all fourteen at one point and, thankfully, we were only fourteen once.