God drives a Cadillac

If you’ll allow me to be crude for a moment: more often than not, gods are dicks. They’re narcissists and sociopaths. They crave your worship and don’t think twice of smiting you if you displease them the teensiest bit. They like a spot of sacrifice, ideally of the human kind – the bloodier the better. Whoever thought it was a good idea to give such hypersensitive, overpowered egomaniacs with the maturity of toddlers even the slightest bit of power?

What’s that you say? We did it? By believing in them, we invested them with power?

… literal theocracy sucks.

American Gods

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Would you kindly…?

My apologies for the posting delay – I was laid low the last two days with a stomach bug. I’m still home from work, but now I have no more excuse to dawdle… So here, without much further ado, the latest entry. I promise not to throw up while writing it.

I’ve been re-reading The Sandman from beginning to end. About a month ago I got the last of the Absolute Sandman volumes – gorgeous hardback large-format reprints of the original comics, with tons of extras such as additional stories in the Endless universe or scripts of some of the most important issues.

Yes, I know, I'm a book fetishist.

This is probably the fourth or fifth time time I’m reading the series in its entirety, and I still have the same favourites: A Game of You (vol. 5), Worlds’ End (vol. 8) and The Kindly Ones (vol. 9 – more on that later). However, Brief Lives (vol. 7) has grown on me, especially the last few chapters. I’m still not all that hot on its art, but the storytelling is fantastic – Gaiman at his finest – and it’s pretty much the volume when Delirium comes into her own.

I’m currently halfway through The Kindly Ones, and even at a fifth re-read, it still packs quite a punch. I love the art (which some found too cartoony – but I definitely prefer it to the more generic comic-book art of some of the other volumes, even though they all have their inspired moments), but even more, I love how Gaiman manages to bring together dozens of threads from the previous volumes in clever but not ostentatious ways. He makes it all feel natural and, as in all the best tragedies, inevitable.

Imagine him brushing his teeth (and flossing) and he'll get a lot less creepy...

There are a number of things that in the hands of a lesser writer would feel like fan service, especially the return of the Corinthian, or indeed the extended scenes with Mervin Pumpkinhead. But what Gaiman pulls off is something that few series (in any medium) have managed so far: reading The Kindly Ones, you get the impression that he’s always known where he was going. And you want to follow him, even though you know it’ll all end in tears.

I haven’t been all that hot about most of Gaiman’s work since The Sandman. His recent short stories, and indeed his novels, have seemed too twee, too enamoured with their cleverness. There are always great bits, but in between those bits I feel I’m reading some Gaiman imitator who does an okay job but simply isn’t the same. Fragile Things was a shadow of Smoke and Mirrors (which contains some of my favourite short stories). Anansi Boys was fun but pretty forgettable. I liked Coraline a lot, though – perhaps Gaiman tries too hard to be clever and Gaimanesque when writing for adults, and when he writes for children he simply focuses on telling a good story. Which, in Coraline, he very much does.

Talking of Gaiman: this animated short reminded me of him – most of all because Nick Cave’s narration sounds exactly like some of Gaiman’s readings:

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj4RBmU-PIo]

Whys and wherefores: hot monkey love for Brian K. Vaughan

I’ve been re-reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man over the last week or two, in preparation for the last volume to come out. (It shouldn’t be much longer than another month or so.) In the last few years, Vaughan has become one of my favourite comic writers. He’s no Alan Moore and he’s no Neil Gaiman (then again, these days Gaiman himself is no Neil Gaiman, it would seem), but his appeal is entirely different from those. In style, and in quality, he’s much closer to Joss Whedon – Vaughan knows how to tell a good story with wit and people it with characters you care about.

Like most of the Vaughan comics I’ve read, Y: The Last Man is a great example of high concept: the story’s premise is that every male mammal on Earth dies under mysterious circumstances, except for one Yorick Brown, ex-literature major and hobby escape artist, and his monkey Ampersand. However, it isn’t the premise that makes this a fun, exciting, witty ride. The world of Y takes a sketchy starting point and fills it with credible detail. (Well, mostly – I’m still not sure I buy the S/M intervention staged for Yorick in volume 4…) And, just like Whedon at his best, it’s just great fun to listen to his characters. This is one of the comics where much of the action is in the talking – but when there is action, it means something more than the nth installment of Super Guy vs. Evil Dude.

There\'s a monkey on your back, dude...

There’s perhaps one thing that I dislike a bit about Y, and it’s no coincidence perhaps that Vaughan also writes for the TV series Lost: at times the narrative meanders, goes zig zag. Most detours are fun enough to follow, but like Lost this is a series that at least pretends to have a plan, and just like Lost this pretense isn’t always very convincing. Without a plan, it feels like the story is arbitrary, which weakens the central mysteries and unanswered questions, such as, “What killed all the dudes?”, arguably a bigger question than “What exactly is that Smoke Monster?”. At times, if it wasn’t for the writing and characters, you’d be tempted to say, “So? Where exactly is this going?” I don’t mind some element of making it up as you go along, but arbitrariness is poison for a plot-heavy narrative.

And this might out me as the biggest closet case in history (which would come as a surprise to myself, really), but… Why is it that 90% of the women in Y are hot, slim, curvy babes? For once, we can’t blame the comic artist – Pia Guerra, the series’ co-creator and lead penciller, is very much a woman. So, for once, don’t blame us XY types!

P.S.: Other Brian K. Vaughan comics that come with the Goofy Beast Seal of Approval: Runaways, Ex Machina and the one-shot Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad

His name is Snot Boogie?!

This film nerd here is a complex beast. On the one hand, I get as much childlike joy out of well-executed genre films that follow the formula to a T. I enjoy the climactic showdown between Hero and Villain. On the other hand, I cackle gleefully when a film (or a book, for that matter) frustrates my expectations. No Country for Old Men is a good case in point, where the supposed hero dies off-stage and isn’t even killed by the bad guy of the piece. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark, a genre movie if there ever was one, doesn’t end with the hero triumphing: it ends with the hero tied to a stake as the ultima deus ex machina comes and melts the faces off a bunch of undeserving unbelievers.

I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I’d last read it in the summer of 2001, just after graduating. I have fond memories of sitting in a French café in Edinburgh during festival time, drinking good coffee, eating croissants and not looking up from my book until I’d finished half of it in one sitting. What I remembered much less was the plot, at least beyond the broad strokes. What I definitely didn’t remember was how differently it told its story from how Hollywood would (and, from what I’ve heard, did) do it. Here too, we don’t get a showdown with the villainess – instead, we get a melancholy coda and a bittersweet ending that made me realise how rarely Hollywood does “bittersweet”. I know that most Gaiman fans prefer American Gods, but I must say that even without Charles Vess’ pictures (I have the non-pic edition), this is a beautiful, wonderfully light, exquisitely crafted fairytale. In comparison, I feel that American Gods collapses under its own ambition, because its dozens of ideas never really come together in a fully satisfactory way.

Narnia it ain\'t...

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the title of this entry? Well, we’ve just started watching The Wire season 1. Very different fare from Buffy, if you would believe it… But intriguing, with carefully drawn characters and lots of shades of grey. Definitely looking forward to seeing more of it – and telling you all about it, in epic detail. Shudder and despair.

A hellish slice of throat for the gentleman?

It’s been a while since I really liked a Tim Burton movie. Sleepy Hollow looked great, but I felt that the romantic subplot between Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci was tacked on, and largely as a result the film felt mean-spirited to me. Mars Attacks! was half an hour of great over-the-top black comedy padded to an indecent extent with boring SFX bits and cameos. Planet of the Apes was, well, Planet of the Apes. Big Fish annoyed me more than most movies I’ve seen in the past few years; it was aggressively sentimental and the old guy simply angered me with his chronic need to be the centre of attention. (If I’d been the Billy Crudup character, I would have suffocated Daddy Dearest with a pillow ten minutes into the movie.) Corpse Bride was okay and nicely done, but it was no Nightmare before Christmas – the characters were flatter, the music less memorable, and the bits that were best felt like rehashed bits of Halloween Town.

 As I wrote recently, I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory quite a bit, but it’s not the sort of film that I’d need to see more than once. All in all, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sweeney Todd, since I’d heard mixed things. I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (even though I keep finding myself wanting to rewatch “Once More, With Feelings”), and I wasn’t sure whether anything new or interesting would come out of Tim Burton working with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter yet again.

They’re my friends…!

We sat in the very front row at the cinema, since all the other seats were already taken. Not the best starting point for an enjoyable evening at the cinema (and I’d rather not tell you about the Mexican restaurant beforehand… I may very well have woken tonight, screaming the lyrics of that horrible Latin-y Happy Birthday song they played at top volume).

I think I was riveted about two minutes into the film. Like Sleepy Hollow, the atmosphere was great – the film was one of those that you should be able to frame and hang on the wall. But unlike that throat-wounding movie, this one had better writing and, accordingly, better, more believable characters. While the film was visibly artificial, it didn’t feel fake like many of Burton’s worlds tend to do. And the emotions on the screen felt more… well, more grown up, for want of a better term. There’s something very child-like (sometimes indeed childish) to many of Burton’s works, and in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood it works quite well, but it was getting tired and stale. By comparison, this film felt like Jacobean revenge tragedy – bloody, passionate, alive and raw.

P.S.: It’s a shame that Anthony Head (yes, I squeaked “It’s Giles!” at the cinema) didn’t get to do more on screen. Apparently he recorded some songs, but they didn’t make it into the final version of the film.

P.P.S.: For the first time, in this movie I saw why some people think Neil Gaiman and Alan Rickman look alike. When the latter doesn’t do his patented “Where are ze fucking detonators?” sneer, he does look and even sound a bit like Mr. Sandman.

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part I

I came to comics fairly late. Of course I read the odd Asterix, Tintin and Disney comicbook when I was a kid, but I never really read those adolescent fantasies with guys in tights and big-breasted caped beauties fighting dastardly villains when not moping about their lovelives.

When I was 26, I went to Glasgow for a few months. Being a literature nerd, one of my favourite pastimes was to go to Waterstone’s (or, on my most nerdy days, Forbidden Planet), grab a book or five, sit down on one of the couches and read. That’s when I came across Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’d heard of it before, and I’d read Gaiman’s Smoke & Mirrors and Good Omens, the novel he’d written with Terry Pratchett. I’d always wanted to check out Sandman, but since I wasn’t into comics… I didn’t. Until Glasgow.

Smoke & Mirrors

And there, within the space of one or two days, I got hooked on Gaiman’s mythopoetic world. (Yes, I’ve always wanted to use the word “mythopoetic”. Now I have. Life suddenly feels empty.) And I started to think, “Hmm. Maybe there’s something about them there comics after all.”

Shortly after I started looking for other comic book authors of similar renown as Gaiman. Names like Mike Mignola came up, or Daniel Clowes, or (of course) Will Eisner. But the name that came up most insistently was Alan Moore. And the titles that were mentioned were Swamp Thing, From Hell, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. So I got started on From Hell, not knowing what to expect – and got hooked. Yup, the book grabbed me pretty much like a sharp hook to my belly, pulling my insides out. But metaphorically. And in a good way.

Ahem. Anyway, after reading V for Vendetta and then Watchmen (rather unsettling, as I read it just after 9/11), I knew that Moore was my kind of writer.

From Hell

 Next: Top 10, Promethea… and the League.

P.S.: Here’s a little bonus, at no additional charge, for the Neil Gaiman fans among you:

The man who loved fish (but did they love him back?)

Okay, today’s going to be short on words by me – and long on irony/hypocrisy/YouTube videos! (Well, I did say I loved YouTube, I don’t just hate it…) I’ve been looking at my book of Sandman dustcovers, and I remembered how much I like Dave McKean’s work. Not all of it – I was less than keen (yes, I did misspell that as ‘kean’ first) on Mirrormask, for instance – but much of it is beautiful and disturbing to me. Most of all his illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch, probably.

The man himself - Mr Punch

So this is where I shut up and give you two YouTube videos. One is by McKean himself, and it combines my love of his work and of Shakespeare’s writing; the other is by Jan Svankmajer, an obvious influence on McKean. Don’t watch the latter if you’re easily freaked out – or if you like your animation quick and frantic.

The beginning of Svankmajer’s Alice

I hope you enjoyed these as much as I do…

And another evocative McKean work…