Archive

comics

big-hero-6-movie-sharedBeginning last year, I started keeping a journal in which I write down every movie that I watch. If I’ve already seen the movie before, I put a black asterisk by it. This serves a lot of purposes, including helping to jog my memory, but it’s also helpful at the end of year when it comes time to assemble the top 10 list that I’m expected to compile for Downright Creepy. It also helps me to keep a running tally of how many movies I’ve seen that came out this year, and in order to make end-of-the-year lists easier on myself, I’ve been keeping that tally in rough order of preference.

This weekend, I passed on seeing Interstellar–which I saw someone on Twitter describe as “Bullshit Space Dad Feelings Movie,” which probably isn’t at all fair, but more or less sums up my impression of the trailer–and instead caught an unexpected late showing of Big Hero 6, which rapidly jumped up near the top of that list.

There are a half-dozen or so movies jostling for my top spot of the year, and three of them are Marvel movies, and I think there’s something going on there, besides just that Marvel has got this making-movies-out-of-comic-books thing down. Big Hero 6 doesn’t look like it needs any boost from me–it beat Insterstellar at the box office, has an 89% at Rotten Tomatoes, and seems to be doing just fine for itself–but while I’ve seen several people talk about Big Hero 6 in a mostly positive way, it’s typically also been in a way that dismisses it as “entertaining and pretty,” as in the consensus over at the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes. While I’m sure someone somewhere else has tackled this already, and probably more intelligently than I’m about to, I do think that, just as with my pick for number one movie last year in Pacific Rim, there’s something more important going on here than just a pretty, agreeable kids movie, and something that’s reflected in the other great superhero movies that came out this year, and that are rubbing shoulders with Big Hero 6 for my top spot.

In a word: Optimism. I grew up as a kid reading comics mostly in the 90s, during the Image boom which was defined by holographic foil variant covers, ridiculously big guns, and grim-n-gritty storytelling. As a kid, I didn’t mind. I ate that stuff up. I had tons of Spawn comics and WildC.A.T.s and all that other nonsense, and my best friend’s favorite artist was Rob Liefeld, and we didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.

But for a long while now, grim-n-gritty story lines have dominated the comics landscape, and pretty much until the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were all there was when it came to even halfway decent superhero films. Grim-n-gritty has its place, and while we all may now look back and make fun of the early Image comics lineup–which we’re allowed to do, because we did time in those trenches–there are plenty of good comics that are grim-n-gritty. But while that may work for Batman, superhero comics (and films) are capable–I’d argue uniquely capable–of being a lot of other things, too. While Alan Moore’s (impeccable, don’t get me wrong) work on Watchmen and its various imitators have forever codified the previously-unspoken connection between superheroes and fascism (not to mention fetishism), superheroes are also inextricably linked to that much more pleasant -ism, optimism. And this has been a good year–maybe the best year in cinematic history–for optimistic superhero movies.

While you may be able to debate the optimism of what is probably this year’s best superhero flick, Winter Soldier*, it seems pretty indisputable that Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6 are situated firmly in optimistic territory. In the former we have a movie in which a lovable band of misfits literally save the world by holding hands, and both are films that are emphatically about the importance of teamwork and believing in the best in yourself. I’ve already talked about Guardians of the Galaxy, so let me touch briefly on Big Hero 6.

One of the key things preventing Big Hero 6 from being discussed in the more serious terms that we mostly seem to reserve for live action films and Pixar movies is that, on the surface, it isn’t really doing anything particularly new. The animation looks great, and San Fransokyo is a great setting, but fundamentally, a lot of Big Hero 6 feels pretty familiar, from the standard-issue comic book origin story to the action sequences and a flying scene that–while still touching–could have been lifted straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Like with Pacific Rim, the important stuff in Big Hero 6 is hidden under the hood of the narrative. But under that hood, a lot of big stuff is going on.

Not only is this a movie about teamwork and being yourself, and a flick that actually earns its “revenge isn’t the answer” message, it’s also an extremely science-positive, all-ages adventure that champions learning and caring–as exemplified by the diverse team of geniuses whose powers all derive from their interests and personalities, and the fact that Baymax, the movie’s symbol and anchor, is actually a caregiver robot. Given that, pretty much until the release of Iron Man back in 2008, superhero movies almost universally downplayed the intellects of their characters in favor of their more aggressive traits and cool emotional problems, that’s a big deal.

Like I said earlier, there’s a place in superhero comics and movies for grim-n-gritty story lines, but for my money what superheroes do best is to highlight the best of what people are capable of. When they’re firing on all cylinders, superhero stories can tell optimistic, all-ages tales about teamwork, friendship, and believing in yourself better than just about any other medium. It’s easy to dismiss optimistic stories in favor of grimmer ones, but looking around the world right now, I think those messages are ones that we sorely need, and I’m thrilled to see them getting the kind of big screen treatment that they deserve. Long live the optimistic superhero movie!

* I’d argue that Winter Soldier is as much about teamwork and believing in people (instead of systems) as any of the other movies I talked about here, but those themes are encased in a more chilling paranoia-driven thriller story structure that makes them perhaps a bit less accessible.

You know I’ve been busy when it takes me over a week to post about this:

Hellboy in Hell, as anyone reading this probably already knows, marks Mike Mignola’s first time drawing Hellboy in way too long. It also marks an entirely new chapter in Hellboy’s existence as a character, and one that I’ve been very excited about since it was first announced. There’ll be some mild spoilers, so read at your own risk.

I like Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. and Baltimore and everything else, but so far my favorite of anything I’ve seen Mignola ever do is the Amazing Screw-On Head & Other Curious Objects book. The big star of that book for most people is the reprint of Amazing Screw-On Head, but the best stuff for me is the more recent stuff that Mignola drew to fill out the rest of the book. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s Mignola completely unfettered. It’s pure imagination, distilled onto the page, and nobody does that better than Mignola. Two, though he claims to be rusty, Mignola’s art has really jumped up a notch in recent years, and he’s at his best in stories like “The Witch and her Soul” and “The Prisoner of Mars.” The exciting thing about Hellboy in Hell is that, not only is Mignola back on art duties, but both of those things that made the Amazing Screw-On Head book so magical are largely true here, too. Though still telling the larger, interconnected story of Hellboy and his mythos, the move to send Hellboy to Mignola’s version of hell has freed Mignola from the constraints of a story set in the (increasingly complex) real world of the ongoing B.P.R.D. comics, and gives him free rein to pour his imagination directly onto the page again, both in storytelling and in art.

As a result, Hellboy in Hell #1 is probably the most abstract Hellboy comic to date. There’s a fantastic transition in which Hellboy’s heart becomes Hellboy himself. There’s the panel referenced on the regular cover, which may be among the most striking Hellboy panels I’ve seen. Hellboy in Hell #1 is also about as close to what I think of as “pure Mignola” as anything you’ll find. There’s what appears to be a visual nod to Goya, and there’s a fight sequence that’s more Kirby than anything Mignola’s done in a while. There’s weird leaning Victorian houses and portraits of random people, and of course there’s a puppet version of A Christmas Carol, which actually provides some tantalizing hints of the structure of this first Hellboy in Hell story arc. 

Really, the only problem with Hellboy in Hell #1 is that it feels too short. Not that it’s any shorter than normal, it isn’t, but it’s something I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for that I want it all right now. I think this first story arc is one that will benefit from multiple readings over time, and I’m really looking forward to reading the whole thing again when it’s collected into a trade.

It’s no surprise that any new Hellboy book is a big deal for me, so I was very excited to get my copy of Hellboy: House of the Living Dead last night. I wrote up the following review, which is copied from my Goodreads account:

Normally I’m not a fan of what I think of as “gimmick” stories. All too often, the gimmick is all they have going for them. In less capable hands, the stand-alone “Hellboy in Mexico” one-shot comic could have been one of those gimmick stories, but instead it became one of my very favorite Hellboy stories to date. Instead of just resting on the concept of Hellboy teaming up with luchadors to fight vampires, Mignola invested the book with a surprising amount of pathos. So when I heard that there was going to be a follow-up graphic novel, I was ecstatic, and when I heard that it was going to be a nod to Universal’s “monster rally” pictures, I was doubly so. And House of the Living Dead doesn’t disappoint.

As an homage to the Universal monster rally films it is almost beat-for-beat perfect, including the weird tendency of those films to wall off each monster’s story from the others, and a late-in-the-comic gag about the suddenness and ease of Dracula’s death in each of the Universal House of … movies. It also manages to be a pretty good homage to classic Mexican horror cinema, and really does feel sort of like what might have happened had there been a Mexican version of House of Frankenstein, only now with added Hellboy.

Once again, the art chores play to Corben’s strengths, with lots of ruined buildings, brambles, and other weird stuff. Several panels are as good as any he’s ever done, including the one that was wisely chosen for the back matter of the book, and his gawky, awkward, slope-shouldered Frankenstein’s monster is very effective.

House of the Living Dead isn’t quite as poignant as “Hellboy in Mexico,” but it comes close, especially near the end. There’s a really spectacular moment between Hellboy and the monster in a bar, and the last pages are a nice foreshadowing of the forthcoming Hellboy in Hell storyline, a way to bridge these older stories with what’s happening in current Hellboy continuity.

It’s no secret that Mignola can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes, but he’s really struck a rich vein with these stories of Hellboy’s “lost weekend” in Mexico, so I’m really glad to know that we’ve got more of them to look forward to, including at least one short one drawn by Mignola himself!

I avoided talking about this for awhile, in order to avoid spoilers, but I think we’re past that time now. It’s been reported by major news outlets, it’s plastered up all over the Internet, there’s a big banner at Dark Horse.com, the comic has been out for a week now, and I’ve even seen a cake commemorating the event. Hellboy is dead.

The death of a major character has never carried much weight in comics. In comics, people die all the time, and everyone always makes a big fuss, and then they’re back again before you know it. Even the death of Superman some years ago, which made the national news, was overturned in relatively short order. I remember when I was a kid there was a joke amongst comic fans that the only person who ever stayed dead in comics was Bucky, and last I knew he’d actually been dusted off recently and brought back as the Winter Soldier.

In the wake of the announcement of Hellboy’s demise, I saw a lot of people reacting the way that they would in response to the deaths of one of these characters, the kind who are always back again shortly. But Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has never been a normal comic. We’ve lost major characters in it before, so we have some idea of what to expect here. As Mignola himself says, when people die in his comics, they just get more interesting. Rasputin died at the end of Seed of Destruction, the first Hellboy mini-series, and he stuck around to bedevil Hellboy as a ghost for a long time to come.

But there’s something else that Mignola always says about his comics, which is that when they break stuff in them, it stays broken. This isn’t some kind of publicity stunt death, and it’s not something some other writing is going to ret-con or overturn in a few months or even a few years. Hellboy is dead, yes. And he’s not gone, no. But he is changed. That’s what death is, in the Hellboy comics. It’s a change. And once things change, the status quo is never restored.

But we don’t really have to speculate too much on what this means for the future of Hellboy. We’ve already been told. It’s right there in the title. Hellboy in Hell, coming in 2012.” There was never any illusion that this was The End. For some time, Mignola has been saying that he’s going to be returning to regular art duties on Hellboy once this arc with Duncan Fegredo was done. Now we just have a little bit better idea what those drawing duties are going to entail.

So what is Hellboy in Hell going to be like? The best explanation I’ve seen from the horse’s mouth is here, but really, even that tells us only a little. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re looking at a somewhat more surreal, dreamlike series of Hellboy stories. I once said of The Amazing Screw-On Head & Other Curious Objects that the stories in it felt like “pure Mignola,” unfiltered by the needs of an ongoing comic franchise. I think Hellboy in Hell will skew more toward that “pure Mignola” aesthetic. Mignola has called it his “semi-retirement” book, and says that it’ll “drift him off into this Hellboy inside my head, just rattling through all the images I want to draw and all the stories that I’ve collected over the years that I want to do.”

I’ve seen a lot of people worried, but I’m not. Mike Mignola is my favorite creator, full stop, and I trust him pretty implicitly by this point. Whatever he does, whatever direction he goes, I’m sure it’s going to be cool, and I’m even more sure that it’s going to be inspiring. And if what we’ve got in store is more “pure Mignola,” well, that’s even better.

So, Hellboy is dead, long live Hellboy!

I-don’t-know-how-long ago, Jesse Bullington suggested to me that I check out some manga by Junji Ito. Much to my chagrin, it took me until now to do it. More’s the pity, as it turns out that Jesse was (unsurprisingly) absolutely right: Junji Ito is a genius.

I started out with the third volume of Ito’s Museum of Terror series, because I figured it was stand-alone stories, so I could get a feel for whether I liked them or not without getting plunked into the middle of something too big. I didn’t just like them, though, I was addicted. I followed that up with the other two Museum of Terror volumes, which featured Ito’s Tomie series, and then I couldn’t stop. I wanted more. And when I couldn’t find more Ito to read right away, I delved into the works of Kazuo Umezu, one of Ito’s influences and the “godfather of horror manga.”

Junji Ito
What is there to say about Junji Ito, really. As of the time I write this, I’ve read almost everything of his that’s been officially translated into English (and a couple of things that were unofficially scanlated, I admit). I’m still waiting for the second volume of Gyo. And I already want more. I promise that I’m not engaging in my trademark hyperbole when I say that Junji Ito is one of the most consistently brilliant creators–in any medium–I’ve ever encountered.

His two most famous series–Tomie and Uzumaki–are both actually sequences of short stories that stand variously well on their own. The majority of the Tomie stories could probably be read entirely out of context and enjoyed just fine, though there’s the occasional continuity between a couple of tales, but when they’re read all together (as they’re currently collected in the first two volumes of the Museum of Terror) they create a kind of mythology, a building sense of dread that’s at once claustrophobic and yet immense (yes, even cosmic) in scope. It’s an approach that he’d perfect in his Uzumaki saga.

To describe the plots of any of Junji Ito’s stories are to miss the point of them, largely. He’s a creator whose work succeeds mostly on the level of atmosphere, of pacing, of sudden reveals and potent images. Uzumaki, for instance, tells the story of a town obsessed with spirals, but it’s so much more than that.

Junji Ito cites Lovecraft as one of his influences, and Uzumaki is often credited as a Lovecraftian work, but, again, it’s much more than that. Like Laird Barron or Thomas Ligotti (to name a couple), Junji Ito starts from a position of Lovecraftian cosmic terror, but uses that influence to create something wholly and uniquely his own. Viewed in the context of Ito’s other works, Uzumaki feels less like an homage to Lovecraft, and more simply the culmination of Ito’s own unique vision. Whatever it is, it’s a true modern masterpiece of weird fiction, of a type and scale that’s rare and breathtaking. As I said near the beginning of this post, Junji Ito is a genius, and Uzumaki is his masterpiece. I’d recommend all of his work about as highly as I can recommend anything, but Uzumaki is pretty much required reading for anyone with an interest in weird horror.

Kazuo Umezu
As I said before, Kazuo Umezu is one of Junji Ito’s claimed influences, and is considered the “godfather of horror manga,” according to the Internet. Unlike with Ito, I haven’t read nearly all of Umezu’s output, but I’ve read quite a bit, starting with the first volume of his Cat-Eyed Boy series (the second volume is waiting for me as I type this) and moving on to the first volume of his Scary Book series, and all of his epic The Drifting Classroom.

Umezu’s work is mostly from the 60s and 70s, and his art style is reminiscent of older anime/manga work like Astro Boy. This, and the child-age protagonists, make his occasionally incredibly gruesome stories seem all the stranger. While the Cat-Eyed Boy stuff is a lot of fun, Umezu’s masterpiece is widely considered to be The Drifting Classroom, and I’ve certainly never read anything else quite like it. I initially compared it to a cross between Lost and The Mist, but with elementary school kids. Certainly there’s more to it than that, but it gives you an idea. There’s more than a little Lord of the Flies thrown in as well, and the violence by and against children is as unflinching and gruesome as any you’ll ever see, but it never feels exploitative. It really is a truly amazing series, especially considering it was initially published in the early-to-mid 70s.

Further Reading Viewing
There’s a particular kind of weirdness in these manga. It’s most prominent in Junji Ito’s stuff, but you can see it a little bit in Kazuo Umezu’s work as well. It’s uniquely Japanese (and to some extent uniquely their own), but it seems to come from the same well as the great weird and cosmic horror of folks like Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, etc. (I can definitely see a bit of Hodgson’s House on the Borderland in The Drifting Classroom, for example.) If, like me, this unique weirdness is something that you kind of can’t get enough of, you’ll appreciate knowing that I’ve found a couple of movies that I think kind of capture it.

Matango (1963)
Pre-dating much of the stuff I’ve mentioned here, Matango is a Toho-era adaptation of Hodgson’s weird fungus classic “The Voice in the Night,” complete with amazing rubber-suit mushroom people. It’s remarkably better than you could ever imagine, and has an almost perfect tone of spiraling madness and increasingly psychadelic, otherworldy weirdness. I’ve posted a longer review of it as part of my old column on international horror cinema, which you can read here.

Uzumaki (2000)
Obviously an adaptation of Junji Ito’s manga of the same name, Uzumaki fails to deliver on the same level of genius as its source material, but it comes surprisingly close. Cherry-picking events from across the Uzumaki series, and changing many of them around, it nonetheless gets the very unusual tone of the story down almost perfectly, and is as good a cinematic channeling of Ito’s unique weird energy as I’ve ever seen. Things definitely don’t get nearly as big as they do in the manga here, but the atmosphere is almost exactly right, and the sense of something much bigger than what you’ve seen at the end is very nice.

I had a surprisingly good Free Comic Book Day yesterday. I made it out to Elite, where I was surprised to see Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, which is always a pleasure. I wish I’d known they were gonna be there, I’d have planned for more time out.

I picked up the Baltimore/Criminal Macabre issue, as well as the Mouse Guard/Dark Crystal issue. I also picked up while I was out a copy of the latest issue of Rue Morgue, which has an artist’s tribute to Vincent Price, including work from Mike Mignola, Belle Dee, and Gary Pullin, among others. Really awesome.

Then, because the optometrist had unexpectedly gotten my glasses in that morning, I went out with Jay to see Thor. The short review is that I really liked it, and don’t have any relevant complaints. It did everything I wanted a Thor movie to do, short of having some Jack Kirby-style trolls, but I guess frost giants, some kind of Kothoga-like monster, and the Destroyer will have to suffice.

In the evening, Grace and I went out to The Steel Show, where we were able to catch a couple of acts, notably John McKenna and the Blue Sea Fishermen’s Union, featuring the husband of one of my wife’s coworkers on drums. Unfortunately, we had to turn in before we could catch most of the rest of the show, but what we heard was pretty fun, and hopefully we’ll be able to make it out for something like that again soon.

All in all, it was a really pleasant day, though I spent less of it at home than I had anticipated. Today gets to try to make up for that, because I’ve got a lot of writing to do, and there are old movies sitting on my shelf just begging to be watched.