Sunday, January 25, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Carrie (2013)

CarrieThe Carrie that I'm a huge fan of is a novel by Stephen King. It is his first published work and is about the tragedy of a girl set up for failure who just happens to have powers beyond her understanding or control that are set off by her misery. It's an early look at several of what would become Stephen King's tropes, and a splendid look at the human condition as envisioned by someone whose gift is to look at things in the most disturbing way possible.

Of course, a good film cannot exist without someone capitalizing on it. Since its release, Carrie has inspired 4 films that I know of: direct adaptations in 1976 and 2002, a loose adaptation/sequel in 1999, and the adaptation we're looking at today, made in 2013. The original version, created and released within the year following the publication of King's novel, is widely considered to be the best by fans, despite taking a small number of liberties with the source material.

Perhaps out of knowing that the MPAA would be unlikely to pass anything that could honestly compete with the opening shower room scene of Brian De Palma's classic, this version starts a bit differently from the others. This film starts with Margaret White, screaming about how she is dying of cancer, lying on a bed covered in blood...as she gives birth to a baby girl. We watch as she tries to bring herself to kill the child as atonement for her “sin” of conception, but can't bring herself to do it.

This sets the tone for the Margaret White of Kimberly Peirce's Carrie. Throughout the film, her affection toward Carrie seems completely at odds with the rest of her personality. Equally at odds with her affection are her occasional steps toward killing her daughter, approaching her room with a knife as the lights flicker in the night and finally stabbing her in the back during the climax of the film. While Margaret was always a caricature of an extreme fundamentalist and the type of person you would never want to expose a developing child to, here her disturbance is less in the form of Biblical outbursts (often, as Carrie points out, passages that “aren't even in the Bible”) and more often in the form of self-harming, even going so far as to repeatedly stab herself as penance for making a prom dress for a customer.

None of this makes Margaret's parenting any more normal – if anything, it would make growing up in her home a bit worse. Despite this, Carrie seems to have come out more normal than she has in any other version. While growing up in an emotionally abusive home is generally likely to produce either fears to stand up for their self, lashes out, or both, Carrie has grown into a girl who can stand her ground and evenly argue with her mother without fear. This is made even more patently ridiculous by the fact that it's clear that she needs her telekinesis to do even this as Margaret is unrelenting.

Carrie being in more control than she should be doesn't only hurt the realism of the story, but it hurts the story itself. The story of Carrie is about a girl with an incredible power that she can barely control, that is keyed more into her emotional state than her rational thought. She is hurt and humiliated and lashes out, with the faintest glimmer of control when her thoughts and emotions coincide. But Carrie in this movie is studying telekinesis, practicing it. When she's humiliated for the second time, rather than lashing out, she makes clear, calculated decisions to kill in specific ways. Her level of control lessens the tragedy: she can do other things and she knows she can do other things, but she makes a conscious decision to hurt people.

A relatively minor, but still distracting thing about this movie is the Youtube product placement. There is a scene – a short scene, but still an unnecessary one – whose primary purpose seems to be to demonstrate that Youtube videos can be played in full screen. And no, it's not a generic video site – the scene in which Chris uploads a video for the purpose of cyber-bullying clearly demonstrates a Youtube logo.

Kimberly Peirce's Carrie isn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but it's certainly not the best. What it is, is the worst movie with the Carrie title that I've seen. The Rage: Carrie 2 is a better Carrie remake than this was, and I see no reason to recommend it to anybody unless they're trying to watch the full set.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy

GOTG-posterIt almost doesn't feel right to look at Guardians of the Galaxy as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2. Not that it isn't; it clearly is. It features the end credit scene villain from Avengers who is said to be the villain of Avengers 3 as the all-but creator of the Big Bad, the Big Bad's Lieutenant, and and one of the heroes, and it features a metaplot that started in Captain America and continues through The Avengers and Thor: Dark World. But while Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (seriously, is Hulk the only one who gets his superlative?) featured well-known characters that were part of the early team of Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy features an obscure team of heroes from a branch of Marvel that the movies have all but ignored, unless you count the ones that aren't part of the MCU (Silver Surfer is part of the Marvel Cosmic line). While the aforementioned movies are primarily action-dramas that draw comedy from the larger-than-life personalities of their protagonists, Guardians is arguably a comedy first, then an action movie. And while the other MCU films have all featured members of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy...does not.

Comparisons aside, one of the things I like best about the MCU is that its films don't all have to fall into a single genre. Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier are more along the lines of what I'd expect a James Bond film to be like (knowing of the series only second-hand) than something like Spider-Man. Each film is unique, or at least they can be. And as Phase 2 continues, they only become more unique.

When Guardians was announced, I was extremely excited. How could I not be? The studio behind Avengers was producing a space opera. I wouldn't be myself if I could suppress my excitement at the idea of a cross between Star Wars and The Avengers. That isn't exactly what we got, however. As I described earlier, Guardians of the Galaxy is far more of a comedy than either of these features and, unfortunately for me, it was not the type of comedy that I look forward to. Rather than the type of comedy exemplified in Joss Whedon's writing – characters that match the dramatic stylings of the universe but surprise you with their whit and reactions due to simply being intelligent snarking people - this is the type of comedy that has a character trying to force their self-described “outlaw name” down the throats of everyone he meets and a bunch of characters using the phrase “a-hole”. This detracted from the film somewhat for me, though I am well aware that not everyone shares the same feelings.

The characters are a mixed bag. While Avengers introduced one hero to the audience and seven to one another, Guardians of the Galaxy has Rocket, Groot, Starlord, Gamora, and Drax to introduce both to the audience and to one another – and without the help of the creator of Buffy Summers and River Tam to introduce the only female in the team (seriously...I'm hoping that Carol Danvers, Janet Van Dyne, Doreen Green, Jessica Drew, and Jennifer Walters all make their way into the MCU by the end of Phase 3 to even things out). The result is that all characters are given a motivation and a backstory, but not much else. There are one or two scenes designed to explain why they are willing to work as a team, but they leave the hope for further development and deeper relationships with one another for the next film.

The result of this, along with other elements, is that Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it is playing it safe for much of the film. There is enough focus on female posteriors and arbitrary default love interests that people who think superhero stories exist for that have them to see, but not enough that people who notice them have a whole lot to complain about. The anthropomorphic raccoon is played completely seriously, contrasting with the comedic stylings of the world around him so that the two seem to have an equal level of ridiculousness for those who are assumed to scoff at the idea of Rocket in and of itself. All of this combined says to me that Marvel carried no faith in the film on its own and did everything in its power to avoid any sort of criticism that could be leveled at it, rather than allowing the film to live on its own merits.

Despite all of that, though, Guardians is a good, and enjoyable film. Its soundtrack is amazing. I love films and television shows that combine sounds and scenes that would normally not be expected but create a memorable experience together, and I'm never going to be able to hear “Hooked on a Feeling” without thinking of its use in the film again. Some of the comedy is particularly good, even if I don't care for about half of it. And, of course, the action.

Fist-fights. Armed fights. Shoot-outs. Super-powered brawls. Starfighter battles. Name a kind of action you would want in a superhero film, and Guardians of the Galaxy probably has it. No, there are no Phantom Menace-esque protracted duels in the film, with the primary unarmed combatants being played by Nyota Uhura and Amelia Pond, but quantity does its best to make up for quality here. Besides, seeing Rocket Raccoon live up to his name is worth the absence of Ray Park any time.

Speaking of which, the sheer magnitude of Sci-Fi actors appearing here is worth all the geek cred the film loses by playing it too safe. Park might not show up to do battle with Ronan the Accuser, but the other half of Darth Maul – Peter Serafinowicz – has a role. I already mentioned Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan. Vin Diesel of Chronicles of Riddick appears as Groot, Benicio Del Toro (brother of Pacific Rim director Guillermo) plays a recurring MCU role, and Nathan Fillion, Lloyd Kaufman and Seth Green all have cameos. The week after the film's release felt like a game of Bingo trying to recognize various actors from Sci-Fi franchises that appeared in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy has been a huge hit, largely winning over fans and, depending on how you see it, either proving to executives at Matvel Studios that the film didn't need to play it so safe to be a huge hit or proving that it appealed to the largest possible audience by doing so. Regardless, the first films of all of these franchises are usually a flop for me, and with Guardians doing so well, I'm expecting Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be my favorite Marvel film. If any form of fun Sci-Fi film appeals to you, odds are that you will also come to love Guardians of the Galaxy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: The Runaway Bride

Slim crew, Bill, Matt, and Ran-San talk about the second Christmas Special. P.S. Sorry for the opening, live show problems.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

7 Days of Movies: Captain America 2

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-PosterCaptain America was not one of my favorite superhero films. It was yet another hero origin retelling, so it already had an uphill battle to get on my good side. Perhaps more importantly, it was boring to me. It was a story about an unlikely candidate fighting in a war, winning the day and taking the MacGuffin away from the bad guy. I don't watch those types of movies, because I normally look for something a bit more engaging, with unique elements. When I do watch action movies, they are martial arts movies, and while Cap can fight, he's nowhere near as entertaining to watch as Jet Li. The only thing that made the movie stand out was a sub-plot designed to justify the costume, as though the filmmakers were a little embarrassed to include it. It wasn't the worst movie of Marvel's Phase One – that honor goes to Thor – but it was the least memorable.

Still, Avengers was a game-changer. It brought action, comedy and drama to the right levels to make it my favorite comic book film up to that point, and set a new standard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to live up to. While Iron Man and Iron Man 2 continued a trend of uninspired, okay-but-not-great superhero films, Iron Man 3 met the standard set by The Avengers, taking the story in multiple directions with a primary crime of not being completely faithful to decades of not-always-coherent comic continuity. While I missed Thor: Dark World for personal reasons, I was still psyched to see the rest of Phase 2, Winter Soldier included.

Captain America: Winter Soldier follows the events of The Avengers with the continuing adventures of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury in a world influenced by Tony Stark. One of Marvel's strengths as a comic book company has always been how easily Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, and its other properties fit together (except for the occasional mutant prejudice strangeness) into a shared world that is different from our own but with key similarities, compared to the DC universe where it often feels like any crossover between Batman and Superman involves hopping between disparate worlds. That is on full effect here and, once faced with the idea that Stark is making suggestions and doing contracting work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Armed Forces, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that the military is running tests with the equipment that gives Falcon his name.

Amidst all this, plot-lines from Captain America return. Hydra gives Cap and his fellow agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an external opponent while they also deal with internal issues of trust and identity. Identity also plays a role in Cap's personal struggle, in which he must go toe to toe with his cybernetically enhanced and memory-wiped former sidekick.

Did Winter Soldier live up to the bar set by The Avengers? I'd have to say it did. Unlike the standard action fare, there are enough elements to the climax to provide true suspense, as it seems almost impossible for the five heroes to faces the forces that have been arraying themselves against them for seventy years. Like Iron Man 3, the story bleeds personal drama, spy movie action and mystery, and super-heroics to create a balanced breakfast.

The only thing I'm not completely sold on is the titular subplot. While it's thematically appropriate and definitely a challenge that Cap will have to overcome, nothing came of the Bucky plot except for a few fight scenes and a lead-in for the next sequel. While this sort of lead-in would work perfectly for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode this sort of is, it doesn't make for a very complete movie. It's almost enough to make the case that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is less a series of movies and more a premium version of something like BBC's Sherlock, a show that airs three feature length episodes per season.

Despite the thirty minutes of lead in for the next movie and the misleading title they lend the film, it's still great fun. The character interactions are handled excellently, and it is quite possibly the first thing to get me excited about Captain America. It also does the job of selling a Black Widow film, with the Widow having somewhere around the second or third most screen time of the five featured heroes. Despite this, the film doesn't feel crowded, and Steve Rogers has plenty of time to shine.

Captain America: Winter Soldier is a great film for anybody who loves superheroes – in film or comic form – or anybody who enjoys movies in general with a bit of action in them. As with any other comic film, there's a hearty bit of Science Fiction in there to go along with everything else, and of course plenty of fight scenes. With so much more to this film than the action scenes, though, you don't need to be a fan of the genre to find something to like.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Novel Review: Star Wars–Tarkin by James Luceno

TarkinCoverWhile my review of Darth Plagueis has only been seen by myself and my editors due its being held in reserve for my temporarily delayed chronological look at the Star Wars (Legends) universe, I find it no less worth referencing as I dig into its spiritual successor. The review, written in 2013, starts by discussing “the singularly named Palpatine” and ends with contemplating a sequel book, jokingly named Tyrannous. It's worth acknowledging these things because Tarkin is both a novel that addresses Palpatine's singular name and functions as a sequel to Darth Plagueis.

It's not a perfect sequel, of course: the default mode of being for the Emperor being in the shadows, even if fans such as myself are always clamoring for more of an inside look – but it does the job as closely as can be expected. In this vein, there are even scenes of the Emperor and Vader that the titular character is completely unaware of; these are included, it would seem, for the sake of fans of Luceno's previous novel.

Starting with this review, my look at Star Wars media is going to have manifold purposes. As always, I do my best review the material both with a look at the established Star Wars timeline and the real-world events surrounding the publication. Starting with Tarkin, however, I have two independent Star Wars universes to look at: the original universe spawned from the films in 1970s (and more seriously, in the early 1990s) and the rebooted universe, which is establishing a new timeline with an alternate take on a universe that can produce the seven theatrical films (as of January 2015 and discounting the two films not released Stateside) and the two most recent televised spin-offs.

Before I look at Tarkin compared to what came before, though, what is Tarkin? As I said before, it is in many ways the successor to Darth Plagueis. While Wilhuff Tarkin does not have Force powers and lives only as long as a regular human, the novel nonetheless does its best to tell the same type of story about Tarkin that Plagueis does about Palpatine. Palpatine takes Plagueis's place as a form of mentor character, although in this case he is neither the only nor a point of view character. His role in Tarkin's story is similar to his role in Skywalker's, providing guidance and encouragement to nudge him into the direction of future Imperial leadership over time.

With Wilhuff being an adult before he meets Palpatine, there is much more room for his own story. The story is split up three ways: the present-day story, set in what was once – or may still be – known as the Dark Times, approximately five years following the Battle of Coruscant; the origin story, featuring Tarkin's childhood training on Eriadu; and the interim story, featuring the details of how he made his way from Eriadu to Sector Moff. This third story receives the least attention, given just enough to get from Point A to Point B, although given that distinction it could certainly have included less of worth than it did.

The narrative focus – the story featuring stakes beyond those of character development and inspirations – is the modern-day story, featuring a mission in which Tarkin works alongside Darth Vader. The novel reveals that this is a turning point for both Tarkin and the project he oversees: the Death Star.

I was a big fan of Plagueis, with the exception of preferring more in-depth stories over the “movie adaptation” style in which the novel is written. That is not to say that I dislike movie adaptations or Darth Plagueis, only that in attempting to be understood by the widest audience possible, the total amount of content in the novel tends to be diluted. This means that the chance for a miss is severely diminished, but equally diminished are the chances to be the next great space opera epic. Like its author, Tarkin shares its tone and quality with Plagueis, certainly doing a good job of providing the definitive origin story of a key character in the new continuity.

Which is what this is. In the reboot canon, seven films, two television shows, two comic series and two novels define what is and what isn't. Of these, Tarkin has appeared in two films and one television show. Tarkin begins Wilhuff Tarkin's story well before The Clone Wars and ends it in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, telling a complete story about how a young noble from an Outer Rim planet went on to become the man that would one day unilaterally destroy a Core world (which must have been cathartic for him), and doing it fairly successfully. The novel includes many references to The Clone Wars, with it being the primary source of canon in this universe (and in any other, at this relatively early point in Tarkin's career). The novel also includes heavy references to Sheev Palpatine's past in Darth Plagueis, doing its level best to bring the events of Darth Sidious's training into the rebooted canon.

As for the Star Wars Legacy universe, this is a fairly easy choice in that most of the sources overlap and it would be very difficult to contradict established continuity without contradicting The Clone Wars. One of the ways in which Luceno could have done so would be to establish a first name other than “Wilhuff” for the Grand Moff, and it is telling that such a decisive break was not made.
Tarkin is a novel that lives up to James Luceno's reputation as one of the premiere writers of Star Wars media, and it makes me optimistic for the revitalized future of the Star Wars franchise. This might not be the best novel for those who cannot root for Imperials, even in dire circumstances, but I do believe that most fans of Star Wars will find Tarkin to be more than worth it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An Unearthly Podcast: Web of Fear

 

The final episode of 2014 “Lost and Found” episodes, it's “The Web of Fear”.

Monday, January 19, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Blackest Night–Batman

Blackest_Night_Batman_Vol_1_1_VariantBlack Lantern Corps is an Omnibus of isolated events during the Blackest Night series. As such, it effectively acts as Blackest Night: Justice League, except with a cooler title. I’m going to be taking a look at each chapter within the book, and the first is Batman.

Some backstory might be required. In Infinite Crisis, Batman was killed. There were… questions and complications about this raised later, but for the purposes of this event comic, Bruce Wayne is dead. Following his death, his first protege, Dick Grayson, takes up the role of Batman for the sake of Gotham City, which has descended even further into chaos without its symbol. Dick’s first action is to retire Tim Wayne (formerly Tim Drake) as Robin, as he sees his most recent successor in the role as an equal. In Tim’s place, Bruce’s biological son, Damian, has become the new Robin.

This being an event comic, of course, everybody key to the Batman mythos is involved. With one fatal exception, but that’s not something that’s unique to this story: DC in many ways seems to be afraid of the two Robins that were brutally murdered. And came back to life. That said, I’m not asking where Red Hood is right now, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Spoiler.

Probably the biggest exception to the Batman idea is Deadman. I have no idea what his history with Batman is, but he didn’t know Bruce was dead, and the main reason he’s here is because of his role in the greater story of Blackest Night, which is essentially a prologue for his much greater role in Brightest Day.

The story opens with Batman and Robin – Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne- taking the corpses of the Waynes out of their graves and bringing them back to Wayne Manor, after witnessing what was left of Bruce’s grave, desecrated by Black Hand. Meanwhile Deadman is experiencing his own body’s reanimation, and after realizing he, as a ghost, can’t fight it, he heads to find someone he knows can help him: Batman and Robin. When he possesses Batman, he realizes it’s not who he expects, but they share intel. When Tim Drake’s parents rise as Black Lanterns, Batman calls Tim, now the most recent Red Robin, to come and join them.

The story is two parts from here: the fight against the zombie infestation, which includes the group picking up Commissioner and Barbara Gordon and even forcing Etrigan to join them against his will, and the emotional game played by the Black Lanterns. This is what sets Blackest Night apart from other zombie stories. Knowing the emotional depths that the former Robins are capable of and what drove them to the profession in the first place, the Black Lanterns stage re-enactments of both of their parents’ deaths. The only question is whether the Black Lanterns will strike at the right time, or get too greedy and lose the pot.

The only flaw to this story is that it’s a little obvious. Stop me if you think that the former leader of the Titans and his friend and equal are going to be killed by the henchmen before the Big Bad shows up. As a result, the big setup comes across as more an example of how the Black Lanterns can fail than as a suspenseful story. Maybe it’s too many big names or maybe it’s a lack of red shirts to include- with all of these big events it’s not like superhero deaths are rare enough that including them in every event is an option without depleting the population.

The story has its suspenseful moments, but the fact that the Black Lanterns miss their opportunity to take out a major hero (despite actually having that opportunity) is pretty disappointing. Ultimately that makes this big event in our hero’s lives come out as an average comic. It’s still entertaining, but once I saw what was going on I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seats. It’s another part of the Blackest Night saga, and an entry in the lives of heroes that I never followed on a month to month basis, both of which are welcome things, even in an average comic.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Green Lantern–Emerald Dawn

greenlanternemeralddawn6

Emerald Dawn is a story about a self-destructive man who drives drunk, paralyzes his best friend in an accident, evades the law, and finds himself able to control enough power to become one of the deadliest supervillains in the DC universe. Now, you might be waiting for me to redeem the story or the character here – “But wait! He has a heart of gold.” or something like that. And I apologize for that. I really do. Because I’ve got nothing. Emerald Dawn is the single worst thing to happen to a superhero’s characterization except for maybe All-Star Batman and Robin.

What is it about this book? Pretty much everything I just said. The hero of the story is introduced to us as a silent, moping individual who refuses to face up to his actions and their consequences. We don’t know what caused Hal’s fall from grace, but we know that he has been dumped by Carol Ferris and fired from his position as a pilot for Ferris Air before being re-hired as a simulator tester for the sake of his dead father. From there, Hal proceeds to get completely wasted (along with his friends) and drive into a sign with his friends in the back seat. He wakes up, discovers what has happened, and adamantly states that it is the fault of the sign and not his own.

Hal is still some mixture of concussed and hungover from this when he sneaks out of the hospital to avoid arrest and goes to work the next morning, before Abin Sur’s Green Lantern ring decides that this is the shining example of humanity who shall be chosen to be his successor as Green Lantern.

Hal Jordan has received a lot of criticism over the years, both in the pages of his book and out of them. He is impulsive, doesn’t plan ahead, and doesn’t answer to authority well. He has been accused of being given a gift he doesn’t deserve, and of being a stain on Abin Sur’s otherwise impeccable record. In the past, I’ve always been able to see much of this as a positive. His impulsiveness is part of why he is one of the highest willed creatures in the universe – he is the human stereotype that we present in Science Fiction, taken up to 11. He has used his single-mindedness to always to the right thing regardless of whether or not it was the thing most likely to lead to his continued survival. And that last complaint was just Sinestro being Sinestro.

Then I read Emerald Dawn, and I found myself agreeing with every complaint. Blue collar archetype or not, there is nothing heroic about a man who will drive drunk, injure someone close to him, and then shift the blame onto an inanimate object. That’s not the ability to overcome fear, and it certainly has nothing to do with the “honesty” that impulsive assholes are normally credited with and that writer Kevin Dooley talked about in the trade paperback’s introduction. That is a spineless, snivelling worm who has no business being handed trust in anything, never mind the lives of other human beings.

The fact that Hal “proves” himself by being the only individual in the Green Lantern Corps with the foresight to try something new, and in the process pull Ion out of the Central Power Battery a decade before it would be named and over fifteen years before it would truly be identifiable as such. Taken in conjunction with the Emerald Twilight, and the idea of Hal losing it, becoming a supervillain and being possessed by a massive power living within the Central Power Battery seems to be inevitable and planned ahead, although we know that Twilight wasn’t planned until Green Lantern sales were found to be disappointing, while Dawn was created around the time Green Lantern Volume 3 was initially launched. Still, virtually everything about Hal in this story leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s only the way in which he swears to change in some vague, undefined way thanks to his newfound responsibility that I can start to view him as some kind of worthwhile character and not just a stain who should have been left at the side of the road.

The best thing Green Lantern: Secret Files and Origins did was to effectively erase Emerald Dawn from existence, while the best thing Emerald Dawn did was to just be vague enough that we could pretend most of the stories from the Silver Age happened in between. That’s not to say that there aren’t valuable story elements here, such as the hints of corruption within the Guardians and of Hal needing to work to earn a special future, but they’re muddled beneath a story where a drunk is selected to be the hero after standing out against his less likable colleagues, the apathetic and selfish Guardians, the villainous Legion and the often pointless Green Lantern Corps. When you need to tear down everything in order to give your long-standing hero something to stand out against, maybe the whole story needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Friday, January 16, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Dark Tower–Gunslinger Born

Gunslinger Born

The Dark Tower is the crowning epic of Stephen King’s career. The series – consisting of seven primary books and encompassing much more of the author’s universe – is all the more notable because, unlike the majority of King’s work, it is not horror in and of itself. There are a lot of horror elements to the series, particularly in the later chapters, but they are not the main focus of the series, which started with 1982’s The Gunslinger and ostensibly ended with 2004’s The Dark Tower. Since 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, the series has ceased to be a story being built up in the background when King isn’t working on something else and has become a major project.

From 1982 to 2002, four items titled The Dark Tower were released. All of them were novels. Since 2003, however, four more novels were released, not to mention the birth of a comic series of at least 11 collected volumes. This is, of course, ignoring links between The Dark Tower and other Stephen King work set in the same universe, some of the most notable being IT, The Stand and The Talisman.

Since the “end” of the novel series in 2004, much of the work has focused on prequels. Roland’s story was largely kept a mystery, until the popular comics recounting a flashback told in Wizard and Glass, the fourth book of the series, continued further. The eighth Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is much in the same vein, recounting a story of Roland’s youth and a fairy tale he heard as a child.

Today, though, we’re here to talk about the first Dark Tower comic: Gunslinger Born. Originally told in the pages of Wizard and Glass, this tells the story of how Roland Deschain became a gunslinger. The story introduces to us the concept of ka-tet, going on to include a story of star-crossed lovers. Stephen King knows what’s disturbing, and it’s filled with innocents getting abused. For example, let’s look at the tragedy of Susan Delgado:

Her father is murdered (by the villains of the story). Her aunt sells her as a sex slave to the mayor. She’s sent to an old witch (in the most archaic, negative meaning) in order to have her virginity checked, which is as invasive as it sounds, though not visible in the comic. She proceeds to fall in love, and then be treated like a whore when the person she fell in love with when he finds out her station in life. He repents, and when he takes her virginity, she almost falls victim to a spell placed on her to cut her hair off the night she loses her virginity, which seems to have been placed on her for shits and giggles. Susan later discovers that her and Roland’s romance has not only caused a schism between him and his friends, but put all of their lives at risk. She discovers she’s pregnant, but before she gets a chance to tell the father, she is beat up, dragged away, and burned at the stake.

Mixed in with all this is a lot of world-building, action, and all of the emotions implied in the above story. Gunslinger Born is, at its heart, a dramatic story about how good wins because it’s better, but it takes a hell of a thrashing in the process. This is only made more dramatic by the realization to anyone who has read the novels that evil is going to win for a long time after this. John Farson is not around by the time of The Gunslinger, sure, but neither are Steven Deschain, Cuthbert, Alain or Gilead.

Unfortunately, the comic format does force the story to be somewhat abbreviated. The comic actually draws attention to this: twice, toward the end, the words “Charyou tree” are uttered – once by the disembodied voice attributed to the “thinny”, and once as Susan is burning. “Charyou tree” became an important concept during this point of Wizard and Glass, and its several meanings are stressed at this point in the original flashback. In the High Speech, charyou tree is used to usher in the harvest, as well as to indicate a human sacrifice for the sake of harvest. In addition to this, it refers to a specific tree used for this purpose. Finally, because it is a word in the High Speech rather than English, it has relevance in English: specifically, that “char” is another word for “burn”, the manner in which the sacrifice is usually carried out.

It would be almost impossible to fit this kind of word-play in the last issue of a seven part comic story – particularly if you’re trying to keep the story from being too wordy. In creating this comic, everyone involved was fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the comic and novel structures, and writing endless paragraphs about the way a word itself manipulates the reader and the story is, sadly, not one of the comic’s many strengths. To this end, it’s rather baffling that the comic draws attention to it, by using the word “charyou tree” without any sort of description.

The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born stands right up there with the best of the Dark Tower series. It doesn’t have the long, drawn out feel of a series that didn’t find its footing until it was twenty years old, and it combines the world-building of several volumes into one volume that fits perfectly for it. This is a story written with the clarity of hindsight, and a great story for adult comic fans that are new to Stephen King, new to Dark Tower, or serious fans of both.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 Days of Comics: Star Trek–The Modala Imperative

Modala_imperative

Since the late 1980s, some of the most celebrated events in Star Trek were crossovers between the original cast and that of The Next Generation. This started in the first episode of The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint Part 1”, which featured Admiral Leonard McCoy as a guest visiting the Enterprise-D, and continued prominently in “Unification” and “Relics”, as well as the film Star Trek: Generations. Novels and comics continued to feature further crossovers between the two series, which brings us to where we are today.

Star Trek: The Modala Imperative starts off like no comic I’ve ever read: it starts with Walter Koenig apologizing for being butthurt about The Next Generation. Koenig writes a long and involved introduction regarding why he felt defensive about a new Star Trek series, what excuses he used to attack it, and how he realized how foolish he was being and came to enjoy the series. While I can’t help but to wonder how he feels about the new films, for which his attacks of Next Generation are more valid than they ever were for TNG, this is a touching tale of personal growth which can’t help but to set the mood for the story to come.

Despite this story of unity, “Bones” McKoy and Spock are the true stars of this story. The reason for this is fairly simple: those are the only two characters who are confirmed as alive and available throughout the runs of both shows. Despite this, The Modala Imperative tends to play this fairly straight: these characters are the most involved because they’re in both legs of the story, but in each story the spotlight is shared equally among the main cast the same way it would be in an episode of Star Trek. The first part focuses on Chekov, Kirk, Scotty, Bones, Spock, Sulu, and even Transporter Chief Kyle, with moments set aside for Uhura and several other characters. The second part focuses even more equitably on Picard, Troi, Spock and Bones, as well as giving attention to Riker, Data and Worf.

Despite this, this is a story that would have been almost impossible in the original series. The first story is reminiscent of the episode “A Private Little War”: a potential Federation candidate’s fascist faction has been armed by a mysterious benefactor with advanced weaponry. Unfortunately, it is all that Kirk and Chekov (and their rescue team of Spock and McCoy) can do to get back off of the planet without breaking the Prime Directive, and the source of the weapons remains a mystery for another one hundred years. It’s not until a celebration for the 100th anniversary of Modala’s entry into the Federation that the suppliers of the weapons show their faces, and it’s not the Klingons: it’s the Ferengi!

Perhaps more interesting than the plot – which is good, but is standard episode fare – is the arc for the characters in question. This is Pavel Chekov’s first away mission, and he is dealing with issues ranging from nerves to hero worship of his Captain. Throughout the first four issues Scott, Sulu and Kirk all lend their hands to help Chekov develop, while McCoy, Kirk and Spock debate the wisdom of taking him along on this particular mission. The end result is a great story for Chekov in addition to a standard one for the more seasoned officers.

The second story is about aging. McCoy fears he might grow irrelevant, and he even implies that the existence of Data indicates that Spock himself is becoming outdated. Unfortunately, this leg of the story is hurt by the fact that Bones really is pretty pointless in a crisis at this point. At close to a century and a half, there is not much he can do to defend himself. He’s not needed for any medical situations, either; the most he does is to influence morale simply by being his abrasive self. Bones and Spock do bring up the age-old “Kirk vs Picard” debate, but they cop out by choosing “Spock” as the answer.

The first story is significantly better than the second. Not only does it focus entirely on its regular cast members of its own show, but it also provides character development for Chekov of the like that the character rarely gets (doubly so because it provides similar development for his actor). The second story, on the other hand, focuses more on guest stars Spock and McCoy, with nobody really developing in a way that they wouldn’t on the average episode. It’s not a bad story by any means, but it has no particular edge on the average episode other than the novelty of seeing Spock and McCoy together on the Enterprise-D (or possibly E), which loses some of its effect in trade, as the two are seen interacting for the first half of the book.

The end result is that I can easily recommend The Modala Imperative to any Star Trek fan. There are better stories, but at the worst these stories are on the high end of average and there are definitely unique moments that make this worth reading. Fans of Pavel Chekov would really be doing themselves a disservice by staying away from this comic.