Review: Ready Player One

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When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

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When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

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A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

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In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

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My 2017 in Film

Macario

2017 was a strange, rough year for everybody. Like a lot of people, I’m looking back at my output in the last twelve months and finding that the impulse to blog was either weak or nonexistent. I was, at the very least, distracted by a heavier workload and by events in the world at large (I managed to put in some writing on some larger projects as well, but those remain unpublished). If it weren’t for serials and the Kamandi Challenge I wouldn’t have posted very much at all. The same lack of motivation also hit my movie-watching: I don’t think I watched any less than last year, but the quality of what I watched was much lower, with a lot of cheap thrills and junk food in the mix. I just wasn’t in the mood for movies that promised to be too heavy or challenging–I was getting enough of that from real life.

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So while last year I watched enough new releases to compile a respectable Top 10 list, I don’t think I’m going to take that approach this year. (I won’t be writing a year in television column at all, but for the record I watched and recommend GLOW and American Vandal on Netflix.) Instead of highlighting and ranking individual films, I’m going to examine some common themes that emerged in my viewing. This includes both 2017 releases (of which I watched 21) and older films that I caught up with for the first time this year.

Friendly monsters
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My love of monster movies has been no secret in this blog, so you might consider this an extension of my heavy kaiju viewing from 2016: I continued to watch entries in the Godzilla series, and of course I went through the (much shorter) Gamera series for my discussion with Zack Clopton. But filmmakers were, for once, on the same wavelength as me this year, and it was possible to draw out this theme even from new releases. Okay, King Kong is not exactly “friendly” in Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), but as in most classic kaiju movies he does eventually get the audience’s sympathies on his side in this interesting mash-up of monster and Vietnam War movies. I happened to watch this a second time at home (whenever my wife and sister get together, Tom Hiddleston is sure to be on the viewing schedule) and I felt that it was even tighter on a repeat viewing; it left me eagerly awaiting a continuation of the “Monsterverse” that began with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla in 2014.

Colossal

In another shake-up of the typical formula, Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalando) put a magical-realist spin on the kaiju genre, with Anne Hathaway as a woman with a mysterious psychic connection to a giant monster appearing in South Korea. Again, it might be a stretch to call the Colossal beast a “friendly” monster, but as in the best fairy tales, what starts out as a source of fear helps lead the heroine to understand her own strength. To reveal any more about this one would be unfair–it works better unspooling at its own pace–but suffice it to say that there are worse monsters in this film than the big critter on the poster.

The really cuddly monsters could be found in releases like Monster Trucks and Okja, and even (thematically) in the otherwise imperfect Ferdinand: kids are the true fans and friends of monsters, and as with Gamera they sometimes end up protecting these fantastic companions just as much as the monsters protect them. With Okja, Bong Joon Ho continues his genre-bending critique of capitalism and imperialism, introducing a genetically-engineered “superpig” designed as an ideal, environmentally-friendly source of meat, if it weren’t for the creature’s friendship with the little girl (Seo-hyun Ahn) who raised him on her isolated family farm. Tilda Swinton is also memorable in a dual role, and I don’t care what anyone says: Jake Gyllenhaal is good in this.

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In 2016, when I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, the preview for Monster Trucks (dir. Chris Wedge) preceded it, and the little boy sitting behind me said after every other preview, “I want to see Monster Trucks!” This led me to overestimate its box office potential by a wide margin, but I still found it a charming (if familiar) movie. Reportedly inspired by a Paramount executive’s three-year-old son (it shows), Monster Trucks asks the question, “what if monster trucks were literally trucks powered by monsters?” The adorable “Creech” (an oil-eating, amphibious blob halfway between a manatee and a squid) has become something of a mascot for the Dissolve Facebook group, but I’m equally charmed by the chemistry between leads Lucas Till and Jane Levy as the human teenagers who first befriend Creech and then help him return to his home deep underground. With its nefarious oil company baddies and truck-themed shenanigans, Monster Trucks could be described as “Splash + Pete’s Dragon + License to Drive.” Worth noting is its troubled production history: initial designs for Creech and his relatives were much too scary, leading to disastrous test screenings that sent terrified children running for the exits; if it weren’t for the expense of redesigning them, Monster Trucks might have had a shot at turning a profit.

The Day of the Dead
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Somehow I ended up seeing three films centered on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration this year: Pixar’s latest, Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina), of course, was one of them, and one of my favorites of the year. (It was refreshing to see Pixar’s world-building applied to themes and characters that weren’t white office park dwellers, although plot-wise I might have liked it even better if I hadn’t seen any previous Pixar films: one might say this perfects the formula they’ve been working on for some time.) I also happened to see the other animated Day of the Dead feature, The Book of Life from 2014, which I enjoyed for its flights of fantasy: instead of the supernatural bureaucracy depicted in Coco, which (like all Pixar settings) is set up with rules to make the action that follows clear, The Book of Life has the logic of a dream or a fairy tale (although there are still rules, they are on the scale of balancing universal principles of light and darkness rather than the regulations of a post-mortem customs agency). This makes it sound like I’m putting down Coco in favor of The Book of Life, but I liked both: they just take different approaches (however, The Book of Life has banditos whose sombreros are spinning saw-blades: advantage Book). At the beginning of the year, following my interest in Mexican horror, I watched the 1960 classic Macario. Macario turned out to be less of a horror story than I expected, and more of a supernatural fable in the vein of Ingmar Bergman, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Troubled visionaries
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Brigsby Bear (dir. Dave McCary) was a film I almost didn’t get to see this year: I don’t believe it screened in Wichita, but I heard so many raves about it I felt compelled to pick it up when a used Blu-ray turned up at my local CD Tradepost. I was fortunate to go into it without much foreknowledge of its plot, so I won’t say more than what I knew: in the words of the Blu-ray package copy, “James has grown up with the goofy kids’ show Brigsby Bear and the program has grown with him as well. One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended. Upon learning the series has been cancelled, he adopts the old adage that the show must go on. By becoming Brigsby Bear‘s new creator, James finally builds meaningful connections his life has lacked.” The theme of an amateur filmmaker using his movie to work out his issues is similar to The Disaster Artist (a movie I enjoyed but didn’t love quite as much as some did), but it most reminded me of a movie I watched for the first time at the beginning of the year, Gentleman Broncos, and the two might make an interesting double feature. Like Brigsby Bear, Gentleman Broncos includes an amateur production of a science fiction epic, but in Broncos the film is a travesty that humiliates its creator, and in addition the quirkiness of the film feels contrived; Brigsby Bear‘s oddity flows directly out of the circumstances of its central character, James (Kyle Mooney, who came up with the story), and achieves a striking level of empathy. In it, creation becomes cathartic in itself, regardless of how others perceive the final product. Also, both films take place in Utah, so make of that what you will.

Space opera
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2017 was a great year for space adventures. Sequels to the Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn) and Thor (dir. Taika Waititi) series felt more like science fiction adventures than superhero slugfests. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, for its part, actually increased my appreciation for the first GotG, as it completes several arcs set up in the first movie; it’s the rare sequel that really feels like a resolution of unfinished business from the first film.) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson) had some fantastic visuals and wild ideas (and an optimistic prelude set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that justified the price of admission, even if the rest of the film couldn’t live up to it). More pessimistic and existential, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve) takes place in a space opera universe, but on ground level, among the detritus left behind after humanity makes its push into the stars. From that angle, it makes sense that the most cosmic-minded character, the replicant-production mogul Wallace (Jared Leto), is presented as a terrifying monster with delusions of godhood (and while the Blade Runner universe has become quite distant from its roots in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the author’s skepticism of typical heroic narratives still comes through). Speaking of subverted expectations, the lastest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson), capped off the year with a visually striking and heartfelt journey that managed to call into question many long-held assumptions about the Jedi, the Force, and the narrative rhythms of the series. I loved the twists and turns the story in The Last Jedi took and found the moral complexity exhilarating; the sequence in a high-class casino, among the arms dealers and black marketeers who profit from the conflict no matter who wins, was a highlight. Writer-director Rian Johnson took risks and created something challenging and affecting, especially surprising for a franchise that has mostly played it safe since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

Musical fantasy
Musicals continued to be a source of escapism as well, although some ended up being better than others. As I mentioned in my round-up of this year’s reading, Star! turned out to be a dud, although the musical numbers are the only parts that redeem it. At the beginning of the year, last year’s La La Land made it to Wichita. I’ve been a fan of director Damien Chazelle’s earlier work, and I liked La La Land, but it would have benefited from a little more of the perfectionism Chazelle explored in Whiplash. As far as older musicals, I revisited The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I ended up liking much more than the first time I saw it, years ago) and explored its 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment (maligned and misunderstood at the time, but increasingly the object of its own cult; it’s the product of a different, more anxious moment in time, and its obsessions with celebrity and television were ahead of its time).

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I ended up enjoying Madam Satan, the bizarre musical comedy from director Cecil B. DeMille (not noted for his intimate chamber pieces, although he handles the slamming-door farce very well); the musical elements are pretty dated and bound to the conventions of Broadway circa 1930, but the dazzling art deco visuals of its third act, a masquerade ball aboard a zeppelin (!), are still striking, and Kay Johnson is wonderful in the film as a jilted wife who adopts a femme fatale persona to win back her husband (no, it isn’t exactly woke).

Boyfriend

Best of all was The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s 1971 adapation of Sandy Wilson’s hit stage musical, a spoof of 1920s Noël Coward and Cole Porter shows. True to form, Russell adapts his sources by first turning them inside-out, with the film a stylized backstage musical that amplifies the cheapness of a threadbare production and contrasting it with the outsized dreams of the cast and crew. Among my favorite sequences of any film I’ve seen this year is an extended dream of a Greek pastoral filtered through a Jazz Age bacchanale, a frenzy of jitterbugging nymphs and satyrs poised halfway between Jean Cocteau and Max Fleischer. Every once in a while you encounter a film that feels like it was made just for you: for me, this is one of them.

Pure crap
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As I indicated above, I watched a lot of stuff this year that’s hard to justify as anything more than comfort food, and some of it failed to even live up to that low ambition. In some cases, I found myself disappointed by choices I hoped would be more rewarding: this is the state almost all fans of genre fiction or films end up in at some point, the “victory of hope over experience” in the pursuit of thrills. Such was the case with A Werewolf in the Amazon, the fourth film in the collection of movies by Ivan Cardoso that I began in October; the first three films were varying levels of engaging, but Werewolf was just bad. Seeing something you don’t like is sometimes the price of expanding your horizons: they can’t all be winners.

Batwoman

I have a harder time explaining how I spent so much time delving into the filmography of Jerry Warren, the 1960s shlock auteur whose motto was “Never, ever try in any way to make anything worthwhile.” I’m not a big believer in “hate-watching” or even the concept of “so bad it’s good”–if something entertains or interests me, I’ll say so, whatever its flaws. The film that sent me down the Warren rabbit hole was 1966’s Wild World of Batwoman, a spoof on the TV superhero craze that attracted the unwelcome attention of DC Comics itself: beyond that loopy film (the only Warren joint I’ve seen that comes close to justifying comparisons to Edward D. Wood, Jr.), only one or two even rise to the level of being almost good. So why did I subject myself to them? Ironically, it’s Warren’s antagonistic attitude (according to those who worked with him, Warren claimed that audiences couldn’t recognize anything good anyway, so there was no point in trying, although that sounds at best like a preemptive excuse) that attracted my interest. Sitting down with a Jerry Warren film felt like pitting myself against an opponent, with extracting the entertainment value that Warren was determined to withhold from me as my goal; or like a wrestling heel, whose whole performance depended on my negative reaction, I suspected that Warren’s negativity was an act that I was determined to see through. Well, folks, it wasn’t an act, and for the most part he succeeded in creating products that had me scratching my head afterwards: the worst of them weren’t merely boring or incompetent–they weren’t anything, just footage edited together (in many cases “patch-ups” from Mexican or South American films to which he added his own connecting scenes) until it hit feature length. No point other than sucking dollars out of the pockets of teenagers at the drive-in who weren’t going to pay attention to the screen anyway.

The best of the year
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It wasn’t all bad, however: one side effect of only seeing a few new releases this year is that I didn’t see very many that I really disliked. Most of the new films I saw this year were at least passable, and a few were downright great. Aside from films already mentioned, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) deserves every bit of acclaim that has come its way. Get Out has already inspired thousands of words as a sharply-observed horror-satire, a “socially conscious thriller” that takes its charge from the real-life horrors daily visited upon Black America in ways large and small, from overt racism to the insidious microaggressions that add up over time. I have little to add other than to say it is one of the most vital films of the year (as well as another one that benefits from knowing little about the plot going in), but also one of the most entertaining.

My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

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After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

Kamandi Challenge no. 12: the Conclusion

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Cover by Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair

“The Boundless Realm”
Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Jill Thompson and Ryan Sook
Colorists: Trish Mulvihill, Laura Martin and Andrew Crossley
Letterer: Clem Robins

“Epilogue the First: The Answers”
Storytellers: Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López
Inker: Joe Prado
Colorist: Trish Mulvihill
Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Dan DiDio and Brittany Holzherr

KC12Kamanda

Kamandi Challenge‘s double-sized twelfth issue (“The Boundless Realm,” written by Gail Simone, and “The Answers” by Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López) performs the difficult task of reconciling and bringing closure to all that came before. That it does so with the help of a little Deus ex machina is understandable, but the appearance of Jack Kirby himself as an angel of (re)creation makes the yearlong tribute to the King of Comics explicit (Kirby’s name, and those of his chief collaborators, has been dropped here and there throughout the series, but only here is he presented as the man himself, rather than in winking references). As Kirby himself says in the course of the story, “D’jinn–genie–genius–what’s the difference?”

But before the fourth wall breaks completely, Gail Simone provides a labyrinth of nested and interlocking narratives: “The Boundless Realm” begins with a genderswapped retelling of the first pages of Kamandi‘s very first issue (stylishly illustrated by Jill Thompson), as “Kamanda, the Last Girl on Earth” is shown rafting through the flooded ruins of New York City. She finds Kamandi, face down in the water, and brings him aboard, praying that he will recover. When he regains consciousness, unsure of how he got there, the two exchange notes: she explains her upbringing in the bunker “Command A,” mirroring the origin of “classic” Kamandi, and he struggles to recall the small town he grew up in, protected by robots. She warns him of the threat of rats, run by a warlord named Gnawbit.

Just as it seems that these two were made for each other (“I feel like I’m falling,” Kamandi says) and the plot turns toward romance, Kamandi is awakened from this pleasant dream and we find that he is still falling through the upper atmosphere with Silverbeck and Royer, the apes with whom Kamandi assaulted the Misfit’s Tek-Moon before being ejected into space at the end of the last issue. Kamanda was only a dream, a hallucination preceding death.

Ryan Sook takes over the artwork for the remainder of “The Boundless Realm,” providing a visual contrast and grounding this part of the story as the “real” events with his classically rendered, near-photorealistic style. (Sook has prior experience with this world, having illustrated the Kamandi story in Wednesday Comics in the style of a Hal Foster Sunday page; here he takes full advantage of the dynamic possibilities inherent in the comic book page, using interesting panel layouts and shapes, as opposed to the old-fashioned illustrations-with-text approach he borrowed from Tarzan and Prince Valiant for Wednesday Comics.)

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As the trio falls to Earth, Silverbeck honors Kamandi by adopting him into the gorilla tribe and encourages him to prepare for death. Not quite ready to give up, Kamandi finds the gauntlet that controls the jet pack he got from the shark in the last episode and summons the (slightly malfunctioning) pack to him. With the jet pack, he is able to grab Silverbeck and Royer but can only slow their descent. Silverbeck directs Kamandi to fall in the jungle (“I’ve always wanted to die in the jungle”) and takes the brunt of the impact, saving Kamandi and Royer at the cost of his own life. Royer recognizes Kamandi as the new chief, claiming to be too old for leadership himself.

Almost instantly, Kamandi and Royer are confronted by rats; hearing the name of their boss, “Gnawbit,” Kamandi realizes that the dream of Kamanda was somehow a warning, and he fights back, shocking the rats with his ability to speak. When the rats subdue Royer, however, Kamandi knows that he must surrender. The rats, having heard Kamandi speak, are now reverent and promise to take him straight to Gnawbit, who has predicted his arrival.

Gnawbit is a rodent Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader commanding his forces from the ruins of an old bank in the city. Although blinded, he sees with the help of an amulet in the shape of OMAC’s Brother Eye; he describes to Kamandi the “Farm” at which humans are bred in a manner similar to contemporary factory farms. Although he admits his disgust at the practice, he defends himself against Kamandi’s horror by pointing out the cruelties practiced against rats by humans in the past; all of his atrocities were born of the best of intentions. His goal was the same as Kamandi’s: to save the Earth.

Inside the bank, the letters of the sign (“Continental Annuity”) are teasingly rearranged into “Continuity” over the vault containg Gnawbit’s treasures, long boxes full of old comic books (including–somehow–Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth). It was in the pages of these comics that Gnawbit read of Kamandi’s impending arrival, and he shows Kamandi the possible futures that the comics portray in their narratives of heroism and self-sacrifice (note that all of the characters shown are, like the Legion of Superheroes, heroes of the future, and leave it to Gail Simone to make sure that one of those heroes is Space Cabbie instead of the usual suspects).

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Cross-cut with Kamandi’s encounter with Gnawbit, the Misfit, dying alone in his disabled Tek-Moon, dispatches one last superweapon to destroy all life on earth: the giant robotic Terror-Naut. Gnawbit has seen this, too, and calls upon his rat forces to form a “rat king,” a giant-sized collective figure that can meet the Terror-Naut head-on (the rats need Kamandi to “drive,” directing them by pulling their tails in a sort of reverse-Ratatouille); armed with Renzi’s “cyclo-heart” from issue no. 6, the rats defeat the Terror-Naut. Although this is the requisite comic book action for the episode, it feels almost incidental, a loose end that needs to be tied up before we can get on with the real thrust of this episode: Kamandi’s discovery of who he is and where he came from. The eye amulet that Gnawbit wears reveals the spirit of Kamandi’s “father”–Jack Kirby!

In “The Answers,” Kirby-as-godhead pulls Kamandi completely into his orbit, giving him the opportunity to remake his reality in the classic “three wishes” formulation. Kamandi still doesn’t quite understand who Kirby is, and verbally spars with him in the same way he argues with almost every other authority figure he comes across. His first wish is to be reunited with his parents; when this turns out to be a video farewell message, he rebels. For his second wish, he asks for the leaders of the world to be brought together, as he has a few words for them: the gallery is filled with King Caesar, Prince Tuftan, and Doctor Canus; the leader of the jaguar sun cult; and other characters from Kamandi’s previous adventures. Vila, the plant girl, is among them, and she encourages Kamandi to say what he came to say. Kamandi urges the leaders to work together to make peace and to make the world a better place for everyone. As Kirby observes, Kamandi has become more powerful through his experiences, and he is at this moment taking possession of the birthright implicit in his name: to command.

KC12Kirby

This leads into Kamandi’s final wish, and the final hidden meaning in his name: Kamandi took his name from the bunker Command D in which he was raised, but Kirby guides him into speaking his name as “Command-D,” the computer command for redrawing or resetting a file (a retcon, to be sure, but a clever reimagining of Kamandi’s identity and purpose). After a giant “Whooosh,” Kamandi–or Cameron–is back in his small town, with short hair and dressed in regular clothes, walking past a zoo containing normal, nonspeaking animals. Putting his bizarre experiences in Earth A.D. down to a dream, he meditates, “Humanity’s too smart to ever have that kind of Great Disaster, aren’t we? . . . Aren’t we?” The spirit of Kirby hovers nearby, reminding the readers that while Kamandi may think everything’s back to normal, something has grown and changed inside him.

Interestingly, the last word goes not to Kamandi or Jack Kirby, but to Detective Chimp (from within the walls of the zoo), who addresses the reader directly to thank us for reading and bid us farewell. “This is comics at its best, breaking rules and having fun,” he says, and after this final issue it’s hard not to agree. (He also commiserates over that “Command-D” pun to make sure we know that they know it’s a groaner.) (The choice of having Detective Chimp deliver this epilogue makes for an interesting link between the futuristic talking animals of Earth A.D. and the mainstream of DC continuity; his appearance is also a nod to writer Paul Levitz’s contribution to the DC Challenge of 30 years ago: see below.)

Now that this series has reached its conclusion, it’s interesting to look back and see how it did (or didn’t) coalesce into a single narrative. The first and last few chapters have the most direct involvement with the “save the world” narrative, while the middle chapters have the luxury of being more episodic. Interestingly, Tom King’s “Ain’t It a Drag?”, which ran in issue no. 9, is (in serial terms) an “economy chapter” or (in TV terms) a “bottle episode,” taking place entirely in one location. It even contains a recap of the story so far, not in flashback but in a short monologue that catches up readers who may have missed the beginning. In film and television, such episodes really do serve a purpose of saving money on production costs which can be applied to the rest of the series; comics have no such budgetary restrictions, and original artwork still has to be drawn, but it is telling that this sprawling, episodic story still had room for a more meditative chapter in a single location. Aside from the recap, such chapters are about the essences of the characters, the kinds of insights that can be gleaned best when the action slows down.

ScanKC93

Indeed, the range of types of stories seen in this series–always containing action, but within the varied context of adventure, horror, comedy, and fable, to name a few examples–is a good example of the breadth of storytelling styles still alive within this industry, and a strong defense of the monthly single issue in the face of trade paperbacks and other competing formats. (I plan to read this series straight through again, so perhaps the seams will show more in that context, but as I’ve stated before I consider seamlessness an overrated virtue in art.)

KC5.doctor

So did Kamandi “find his parents and save the world?” Er, kind of. Turning it into a metaphor is probably better in the long run, even it doesn’t follow a completely straight line from the first chapter. Was such a project ever going to be completely satisfying from a narrative perspective? That’s the risk of round-robin stories, of course, but that possibility that the story will refuse to come together is what gives it its edge, its sense of danger. By making the continuous cliffhangers part of the explanation, by making Kamandi’s fall from one peril to another seem like a narrative as well as a formal necessity, the last chapter retroactively imposes a sense of orderly progression on his adventures (this conveniently overlooks that not all of the cliffhangers involved Kamandi falling–most did, but not quite all).

More importantly, the idea that danger and its attendant adrenaline rush was necessary for Kamandi to realize his own power keeps it from being a pointless return to the status quo: yes, the rewriting of his reality is essentially a Wizard of Oz move, but as in that story, the lessons learned along the way–about loyalty to friends, about standing up for yourself, about what you’re capable of–are apt to stick even as the adventure itself recedes into a dream. “Sometimes being scared or going way out of our comfort zones is good for us,” Kirby tells Kamandi, and we recognize that as a truth that applies to both fictional characters and their creators.

The truth is that an ongoing narrative by a single creator takes the same risk as a round-robin: the plot might not add up, events may not be resolved in a satisfactory way, the story may not even reach its conclusion. (And in comics, creative teams are frequently changed from issue to issue for logistical or editorial reasons anyway.) The competitive aspect of the Kamandi Challenge, in which each writer lays a trap for the next, is only an extreme form of the way in which writers try to top themselves, writing their characters into corners without exactly knowing how they’ll find a way out, but having confidence that they’ll figure out something. It’s not that different from the way in which Kirby himself and other prolific comics creators approached their plots. Even at its worst, that approach can get by on energy alone, the Edgar Rice Burroughs rush of incident piled on incident; at its best, there is room for considerable depth and thematic development alongside the thrills and spectacle. Kamandi Challenge‘s most rewarding decision, one seemingly made independently by many of the contributors over its run, has been to turn the formal requirements of the round-robin story into reflections on Kirby: his methods, his themes, his legacy.

“The Answers” is also something of a double tribute: to Kirby, of course, but also to prolific writer and editor Len Wein, who was originally scheduled to conclude the series, but who passed away this year. Wein was a contributor to the original DC Challenge, as is Paul Levitz, who stepped in to replace him. I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the DC Challenge when I started reading Kamandi Challenge. Although I was reading and collecting comics in 1985, the DC Challenge was a direct market-only publication, and I didn’t have regular access to a comics store in those years. I’ve since picked up some copies of back issues, and it is . . . well, interesting, to say the least. Like Kamandi Challenge, it invited writers and artists to write stories and set up impossible cliffhangers for the next writers to get the characters out of. The DC Challenge used the backdrop of the entire DC universe as its playground: any and all characters were at the writers’ disposal (including oddballs like Detective Chimp!), and the whole thing appears to be considerably more tongue-in-cheek (in one issue, Albert Einstein appears, using his mastery of space-time to set things right, much like Kirby does in “The Answers”). In some ways it appears to be a dry run for Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which worlds would collide with much higher stakes than the amusement of continuity nerds.

DCC6cover

Kamandi Challenge benefits from a narrower focus–Earth A.D. is a large place to explore, but unified by a common theme and by a single central character–but it also takes itself more seriously than the DC Challenge did. There is humor, but it is mostly in the form of banter rather than silly situations (I will admit, however, that I measure silliness on a bit of a sliding scale when we’re talking about communist bears and machine-gun-wielding sharks).

Ultimately, exercises like this are useful antidotes to the pervasive notion that narratives are airtight constructions, that creators don’t change their minds in midstream when they come up with better ideas, or that having one’s preconceptions confirmed is the highest pleasure in absorbing a story. Surprise is a crucial element, and while some twists can take things too far (always a matter of taste as to what constitutes “too far”), sometimes the best surprises come from collaborators surprising one another (the “yes and” of improvisation) or of artists surprising themselves (the happy accident, or simply a case of getting into the zone and coming up with better ideas than one thought possible when in the planning stages).

As a fan, it has been gratifying to see so many talented comics creators try their hand at writing and drawing Kamandi. The different perspectives on what makes him tick, or how his past adventures do or don’t deliver for modern readers, have been fascinating to observe. And even the weaker chapters in this series have included the gut-level pleasures of sci-fi action in a unique atmosphere. At its best it’s a jolting reminder of just how much influence Jack Kirby still has on individual artists when they’re invited to dwell on it. Continuity is perhaps the big theme of this series, in the small sense of connecting all the diverse strands of narrative and reconciling them, but also in the big sense of handing down traditions and influence, of telling the story of how we tell the story, and why. Kamandi himself is a character who, since passing out of his creator’s hands for good, is often used as a symbol for alternative paths of history, for how individuals might become different people were they born into different circumstances. Back in his idyllic home at the end of Kamandi Challenge, our young hero knows that things could still change: there are many paths forward that life could take. Likewise, there are many paths forward, for both the characters of Kamandi and the medium of comics, represented by the approaches in Kamandi Challenge. It’s not a question of which one will lead to the future: they all do, one way or another.

KC12Chimp

Guy Guests, Gabs Gamera

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A while back I sat down (virtually, that is) with Zack Clopton of the Bangers n’ Mash podcast to talk about everyone’s second-favorite giant Japanese movie monster and friend to all children, Gamera. That discussion is now posted, so please give it a listen. Zack and I share our opinions and trivia about the twelve entries of the series, from the goofy installments of the 1960s to the very serious trilogy of the 1990s (and beyond). Zack has also edited in some cool audio interstitials from trailers, soundtracks, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 (I swear those weren’t there when we were talking!) Even more amazingly, Zack has made it sound as if I know what I am talking about! (Sort of–even digital wizardry has its limits!) Enjoy!

Kamandi Challenge no. 11

KC11.cover

Cover by Nick Bradshaw and Steve Buccellato

“Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!”
Writer: Rob Williams
Artist: Walter Simonson
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

Things are coming to a head: after the Death Worshippers stormed the Tower and shot Kamandi’s mother (who turned out to be the Commander of the Tower and leader of the robot forces who are trying to wipe out all animal life) at the end of last issue, she dies trying to tell Kamandi something about his still-missing father. However, she turns out to be a robot (I knew it!) with a secondary mission. The Tower is not only a building, but an actual rocket, and as the Death Worshippers continue to fight with the robots, the rocket launches into space, taking Kamandi to a final confrontation with the true power behind-the-scenes.

Kamandi continues to fight the robots alongside the Death Worshippers, joined by the shark crew from last issue (now wearing jet-packs: ah, comics!). Although the fight goes against Kamandi and his comrades, he is given a jet-pack by one of the sharks and, after wiping out some more of the robots, makes his way to the control room of the rocket. There, protected from the robots, he sees his friends cut down and realizes that he is once again alone.

Until, that is, one of the screens in the control room comes to life and the true commander of the rocket reveals himself: the Misfit, a genetic freak with a brilliant intellect, who has summoned Kamandi in order to extract the secret that lies in Kamandi’s genetic code. The Misfit, enthroned on his “Tek-Moon,” an armed space station, plans to launch the Anti-Cortexin from space!

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Examining a map, Kamandi sees that the ship is heading over an area marked “UFO activity” and hatches a plan: “Maybe if I press these controls I can somehow uncloak the ship so others below can see it and destroy it,” he says to himself. “A suicidal hope, but what other choice do I have?”

Soon after Kamandi disables the rocket’s cloaking device, a squadron of flying saucers attacks! Not only that, they are being flown by gorillas! (Sharks with jet-packs! Gorillas in flying saucers! Although Kamandi was a Bronze Age creation, there’s more than a little of the free-associative qualities of the Silver Age in this chapter.) The simian saucer pilots, led by the enormous ape Silverbeck, succeed in boarding the rocket with the intention of destroying the Tek-Moon once and for all. An orangutan named Royer (undoubtedly a nod to Jack Kirby’s long-time inker Mike Royer) discovers Kamandi and convinces Silverbeck not to kill him. Kamandi reveals the projected image of the Misfit to Silverbeck and Royer (“By the Severed Paw! What horror!”), who exchange threats.

The Tek-Moon opens fire on the rocket; when the Misfit lets slip that he could reunite Kamandi with his still-living father, Kamandi commandeers the rocket controls and prepares to ram into the Tek-Moon (suicide missions are a theme in both this chapter and the series as a whole), determined to find his father or die trying.

Fighting against the ape warriors who would pull him back, Kamandi flies directly into danger, set on learning the truth about his parents; but the Tek-Moon’s weaponry is too much for the rocket, and the bridge is blasted open and exposed to the vacuum of space just before it reaches the Tek-Moon. Kamandi is flung into space and the last shot we see is him tumbling toward the Earth below. To be continued?? (Yes, two question marks are needed to convey the uncertainty of this cliffhanger!)

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“Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!” has a bit of a Star Wars vibe, at least visually: the command center of the rocket ship resembles the bridge of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and of course there is the armored space station, poised to rain death on an unsuspecting world below. Such doomsday weapons are a staple of science fiction, but the Death Star is the most obvious example. So, too, the Misfit (a Kirby creation who first appeared in Kamandi no. 9, with a similar germ warfare scheme) reminds me of Emperor Palpatine: a fitting antagonist to introduce at this point, warped physically and mentally, but holding out the tantalizing promise of solving the mystery of Kamandi’s origins and destiny. (Walter Simonson, the artist, worked on a number of science fiction comics over the years, including Marvel’s Star Wars adaptation, but he is best known for his long run on Thor, and the combination of far-out, alien places and weird characters is a good fit for him.)

The map that Kamandi studies aboard the rocket ship is, of course, modeled after the map that Jack Kirby provided during the early days of Kamandi, and which was fleshed out by later writers. Greg Pak, who wrote last month’s chapter, mentions in his afterword in this issue (in which he describes how he would have gotten Kamandi out of the cliffhanger if he had continued writing it) that he was assigned sections of the map to include in his chapter. I hadn’t realized that the challenge included specific territories, but in hindsight it explains the thoroughness with which Earth A.D. has been explored in this series. Some have been returns to places Kirby and his successors already visited in their series; others have been freshly revealed glimpses of places that were only names on the map up until now.

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Over the course of this series, it has been interesting to observe how different writers treat the influence of Jack Kirby. Some have used Kirby’s characters and settings to tell stories more or less within their own style, while others have either emulated Kirby’s dynamic (some might say bombastic) manner or turned their stories into direct tributes (if Royer in this chapter is an homage to Kirby’s collaborator Mike Royer, does that make Silverbeck Kirby himself, I wonder?). In this chapter, writer Rob Williams seems to delight in some old-school comics techniques, most notably the use of play-by-play dialogue that describes things as they happen (“The talking human fights like a three-armed ape! We are wiping out the robot crew!”).

Nobody talks like this except comic book characters, and here it takes the place of verbose caption boxes, which otherwise appear only at the beginning and end of this chapter. It frequently turns toward the goofy (Kamandi says of the Misfit, “Indeed, he is truly a pumpkin-headed toad!”), but Silverbeck and the Misfit are especially prone to the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that Kirby deployed regularly (and which my regular readers know that I am powerless to resist). Whether it is the “Misfit majesty” giving orders to “Open fire with every weapon upon this bountiful and deadly Tek-Moon!” or the gorilla UFO commander calling Kamandi “a fool and not of the Silverbeck wisdom!”, “Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!” is, from its title on down, a story that oozes an affection for the comics medium and its more whimsical expressions.

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Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!