Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing is Hard: Starting with short stories

At SpringCon this year I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Mike Bullock (The Phantom, Lions Tigers and Bears). Mike and I had been acquaintances for a while, but it was the first time we'd had the opportunity to sit down and really talk. We chatted about a lot of things - books and comics we like, the recent resurgence in pulp, stuff like that - but one of the things that's stuck with me longest from that conversation was Mike's interest in writing prose, particularly short stories.

I'd already begun thinking in that direction when I discovered how much fun it was to write "Bigfoot and the Bone Face Murders" for the Mondo Sasquatch anthology. The more I think and learn about it, the more I want to work in that format. Jeff Parker recommended short-story writing in an interview he gave to Newsarama shortly after my conversation with Mike:
It really is mostly practice, the art. Writing too, but you have to go through a number of stories to start making leaps. That's why short stories are important to do, and there need to be more venues for them.
That's similar to advice George RR Martin recently gave at a signing. Literary agent Kristin Nelson was there and summarized Martin's comments this way:
...he said that being a beginner, unpublished writer declaring that he's writing a 7-book series is kind of like being a guy who has just started rock climbing and announcing to the world that the first climb he's going to do is a little hill called Mount Everest. That's absolutely not what you want to do. It's too hard. Too big in scope. If you are a beginning rock climber, you want to start with the climbing wall at your local REI or a small hill that won't kill you first.

As an agent, I've given this advice any number of times but in the end, writers don't believe me. Okay don't believe me. Believe George instead! Forty years in this biz, he knows what he's talking about...Start with short stories where you are forced to have a beginning, middle, and end. You are also forced to nail plot and character in a short amount of space. Then graduate to something bigger--like a novella or one stand-alone novel. Master that. Then tackle the big series.
I'm not planning any multi-novel sagas (though I've certainly got ideas!), but I'm still taking to heart the encouragement to practice my writing through short stories. I've sold three of those now and loved the experience each time. They don't take a lot of time, but Parker, Martin, and Nelson are right: writing those has taught me more about the craft of writing than any number of author interviews, articles, or books (though I've learned a lot from those too). When Jason and I finish Kill All Monsters, I'm going to take some time off from comics and focus on short stories for a while. I'm already working on the first of them, a mystery about a guy in the 1940s who wears a Freddie Krueger-like mask to fight crime.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Mighty Cave of Cool Survey

[From CCCoC, of course]

Ice cream!
NAME: David Michael May, Jr.
NICKNAME(S): Michael, Mike
BIRTHPLACE: Cocoa Beach, Florida
WEBSITE: Yer on it.
FAVORITE SALAD DRESSING: Ranch. Just 'cause it's so versatile.
FAVORITE ICE CREAM FLAVOR: Kemps' Under the Stars (peanut-butter-filled chocolate stars in chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls).
FAVORITE FOOD: Lately, chili.

Bearded dragon
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR TOWN: Lots of places to see plays, movies, and concerts.
GREATEST ADVENTURE: Visiting Haiti during food riots.
MOST ROMANTIC MOMENT: Too many to pick one.
PETS: He's actually David's, but a bearded dragon.
THREE FAVORITE MOVIES (SO FAR THIS YEAR): Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, and Crazy Stupid Love.
THREE FAVORITE MOVIES (ALL TIME): Casablanca, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark

THREE FAVORITE TV SHOWS (THIS YEAR): Justified, Downton Abbey, and Modern Family.
THREE FAVORITE TV SHOWS (ALL TIME): Batman, Doctor Who, and The X-Files.
THREE FAVORITE SONGS: It's futile to try to pick just three, but ones that have endured for me have been "Ruby" by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, "Gloria" by U2, and "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash.
THREE FAVORITE ALBUMS OR CDs: The Joshua Tree by U2, Cosmic Thing by the B-52s, and No Angel by Dido.
THREE FAVORITE MUSIC VIDEOS: "White Wedding" by Billy Idol, "Why Can't I Be You" by The Cure, and "Brand New Lover" by Dead or Alive.
FAVORITE CELEBRITY: Right now, Timothy Olyphant.

Action hero
LEAST FAVORITE CELEBRITY: Anyone who's only famous for being rich, on a reality show, or both.
FAVORITE MALE STAR: Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Indiana Jones.
FAVORITE FEMALE STAR: Kate Beckinsale in any film where she kicks butt.
BODY PIERCINGS OR TATTOOS: I have my left ear pierced.
WHY WOULD YOU GO THERE: Probably something from the American Revolutionary War. Maybe Paul Revere's ride? Washington's crossing the Delaware? The signing of the Declaration of Independence? It was such a cool, adventurous, but totally scary time in the history of my country.
WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT YOURSELF IF YOU COULD: I really should lose some weight. Fortunately, I can change that.

I could spend the rest of my life right here.
IF YOU COULD LIVE ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHY: An isolated island in the Caribbean. With WiFi. I'd be near the ocean and away from crowds, but with the ability to interact with people and enjoy culture when I wanted.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR LAST MEAL (INCLUDE EVERYTHING): As long as I'm able to pig out: chili (topped with shredded cheese, sour cream, and tortilla chips), pizza (Italian sausage, mushrooms, and onions), a burrito, cream cheese won tons, Vietnamese egg rolls (with fish sauce), a prime rib sammich (with A1), and Mountain Dew. Pecan pie for desert.
THREE BOOKS TO TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND:  The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Riverside Shakespeare, Bone One-Volume Color Edition.

The perfect spaceship
THREE PEOPLE TO TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND: My wife, my son, and Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe)
THREE WISHES (NO FAIR WISHING FOR MORE WISHES): World peace, enough food for everyone,  and my own spaceship with a hyperspeed drive.
WHAT DO YOU COLLECT: Books and movies.

Welcome to the 18th century
WHAT HISTORICAL PERIOD WOULD YOU HAVE LIKED TO LIVE IN: The eighteenth century. You've got pirates, revolutions, and gothic romances all in one place.
FAVORITE MONOPOLY PIECE: The dog. And don't you dare run it over with that car.
FAVORITE ANIMAL: Today, gorillas.
BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN THE FUTURE: The best parts are the jetpacks, flying cars, rayguns, and bubble helmets. The worst parts are all the alien warlords.
DO YOU PREFER CATS OR DOGS: Cats. For the most part, they mind their own business.
DO YOU PREFER COKE OR PEPSI: Pepsi! If a place serves Coke products, I'm ordering the water.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is a mixture of an Arthur Conan Doyle short story and then-current events. Unlike the previous movie, Secret Weapon successfully inserts Holmes into a spy thriller while keeping everything likeable about him.

The secret weapon of the title is based on the Norden bombsight, a revolutionary device manufactured by the Carl L Norden Company in WWII. It was a closely guarded secret (in fact, airmen who flew with the device had to take an oath that they’d destroy it if they landed their planes in enemy territory and would defend its secrets with their lives), but the technology was leaked by a German spy who worked for Norden.

In Secret Weapon the bombsight is developed by Dr. Franz Tobel and the Germans are already after it when the movie opens in Switzerland. In a great cold open, Holmes uses his mastery of disguises and his gift for subterfuge to help Tobel escape Nazi agents and flee to England. But because no one but Tobel knows the secret of the sight’s design, the danger to him isn’t over once they hit London. Moriarty himself (Lionel Atwill) is after Tobel and his secret, hoping to sell it to Germany.

The Doyle story comes in when Tobel sneaks out of Holmes’ house to visit his girlfriend who lives in London. It’s not just because he wants to see her; Tobel’s devised a scheme that will allow the Allied forces access to his bombsight without letting anyone know exactly how to make it. He’s divided the sight into four pieces and distributed each piece to four London scientists, none of who know whom the others are or how his piece fits into the larger puzzle. The only clue to Tobel’s plan is a cipher like the one used in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” Tobel gives it to his girlfriend with instructions to hand it over to Holmes if anything happens to the scientist. Unfortunately, Moriarty gets his hands on both Tobel and the code.

Tobel resists Moriarty’s torture and Holmes is able to reproduce the code from Tobel’s notepad, but it’s a race between the detective and his nemesis to see who can decipher the note and get to the four scientists first. Basil Rathbone is always brilliant as Holmes, but it’s nice to see a film (the first since Hound of the Baskervilles) in which the character lives up to its actor.

Nigel Bruce’s Watson has his bumbling moments (like sleeping through Tobel’s escape from Baker Street), but he’s also the first to recognize the page full of dancing-men as a secret code. Atwill is fine as Moriarty – I always enjoy Lionel Atwill – but I missed George Zucco’s deliciously evil performance from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Weapon’s Moriarty is a good super villain – complete with a trap-filled secret lair – but though he’s clever, he’s not Holmes’ equal. I’d prefer to see Adventures’ Moriarty vs. Secret Weapon’s Holmes, but if there has to be an imbalance, I’m relieved to see Holmes as the smarter one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Choosing a bookseller (and books)

As someone who enjoys shopping for and buying books, I struggle with where to spend my money. Movies are an easy decision because the only specialty store for movies I’ve ever seen was Suncoast and it was their lack of knowledge about their product that drove me into Amazon’s loving arms in the first place. I got tired of being told that a movie wasn’t available to buy only to go home and find out from Amazon that it was. But bookstores…

The Twin Cities has a ton of great, independent bookstores and I try to use them as much as possible. It hurts to pay more for the same product I can buy online, but I remind myself that I’m also paying for the knowledge and curation of the staff. And I’m a big fan of forming relationships with people I do a lot of business with. As much as I love Amazon’s customer service, there’s no one for me to talk to when I shop there. Sure, they can generate recommendations based on my purchase history and I can read customer reviews and those things are great. But I can’t have a conversation with an expert about books we both liked.

Though I struggle, I do have one rule that’s served me pretty well. As much as possible, I reward recommendations by purchasing the recommended book at the place where it was recommended. I’m in my local comics shop every week and buy all my single, periodical issues there, but I’ll often buy graphic novels and collected editions from Amazon, especially expensive hardcovers. The exception to that is when someone at the store recommends a book. If they sell me on it, they have the right to my money. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to hit a lot of other independent bookstores to just visit and browse.

Instead, I get my recommendations online. Not directly from Amazon most of the time, but there are a couple of great sites that cover books I’m interested in. Bookgasm is awesome and offers reviews of all sorts of genre books, but one of my favorite features there is Book Whore. I like reading reviews, but Book Whore is great because it’s purely a browsing experience. They just post book covers and short blurbs from the publisher. If I see something I like, it goes on my Amazon Wish List. I’ve started browsing Bookgasm’s reviews the same way; looking first at the cover, then – if I like that – reading the first sentence or two to get a feel for what the book’s about or if it’s any good.

Another great review site for genre books is Calico Reaction by my friend Shara. I still tend to browse covers to help me decide what I want to read more about, but Shara helps with that even further by the way she formats her reviews. She’s always got a clearly marked publisher’s summary of the book right near the top of the review and if I’m still interested I can either read the review (she also lets you know up front whether or not there will be spoilers) or skip to the end for her rating. (I just noticed that she also puts the rating at the top of the page for quicker browsing, but I’ve come to love scrolling down to see what it is if a book’s grabbed my attention that far.) She also has other sections in each review where she reviews the cover art and talks about why she picked the book (she buys most of the books she reviews). It’s an extremely well-done site.

Another great site for finding new things to read is Goodreads. I’ve been on that site for a few years, but they’ve recently made it extremely easy to find new books by introducing a monthly newsletter tailored to your preferences. Since it’s a social site in which you’ve been recording (and rating) your reading choices, it’s easy for them to highlight new books by authors you’ve liked. And if nothing in that list tickles your fancy, they also include new releases in broader genres and categories. From there, it’s just a couple of clicks to the online retailer of your choice.

The problem with making online browsing so easy is that it doesn’t help with the guilt I feel over not supporting more of my local bookstores. But that guilt isn’t entirely external. In other words, I don’t feel guilty just because people tell me I should. I feel guilty because there’s something I love about physical bookstores and I don’t want to see them go away. As Pimp My Novel once pointed out, physical bookstores have some advantages that online retailers can’t replicate: in-store appearances and community events, for example.

One of the things my comics store has done really well – though I haven’t taken enough advantage of it yet – is to build a sense of community with their customers. Even my local Barnes & Noble does a fantastic job of hosting book clubs and writers’ groups, though I haven’t participated in those either. That’s just because I’m busy, but I love knowing that those things exist and I know that they exist in the independent stores as well. Minneapolis has a fantastic mystery bookstore called Once Upon a Crime that always has signings and readings and launch parties going on. I only get to one or two a year, but I’d feel incredibly guilty thinking that I contributed to that store’s hypothetical demise by only shopping Amazon because they have the cheapest deals. If I want to buy a mystery book, I make a point to drive over there.

It’s tough to balance these loyalties and I don’t think I’ve hit on the perfect formula yet, but it’s worth trying to figure out. I’m curious to know what other people do. Do you choose retailers based on price, convenience, community, loyalty, or something else?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Western Wednesday: The Angel, the Brute, and the Wise

Quentin Tarantino's connection to the Django spaghetti-westerns doesn't end with his upcoming film Django Unchained. He's also got a cameo role in another Western starring (and apparently produced by) the original Django, Franco Nero.

Titled The Angel, the Brute, and the Wise, Nero's film is an homage to John Huston (who discovered Nero) and Sergio Leone. It sounds like it's still trying to find financing, but hopefully that'll happen and we'll get to see it. Click the link for more details, including other cameos Nero has planned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Seasonal Genres

Over at Byzantium's Shores, Jaquandor made an observation about his tendency to read certain genres at certain times of the year. For him, it's sci-fi and horror during the warmer months and fantasy when it gets cooler. Though my genres and seasons align differently than his, I thought I was the only one who did that.

It started with horror and Autumn. I've always loved Halloween, so to prepare for it I've always read and watched horror in October. But as my collection and interest in the genre grew, I had to expand into September and even into August some. August however doesn't feel like horror time to me though, because I've come to associate the genre with that nip in the air while walking around for Tricks or Treats. And since I'm usually not quite done with the genre come November 1st, I've started letting it creep that way instead of into August.

This year, I've also added some mystery to my Autumn reading and watching, especially murder mysteries. As the seasons turn toward death, it seems as appropriate as horror. I used to think of mystery as summer reading, but it's really not. The kinds of mysteries I like are more thoughtful than thrilling.

There's an easy transition from horror to fantasy. Fantasy that's set in our world is just horror (or the kind of horror I like) without the threat of death. Both deal with the intrusion of the supernatural into the mundane. So as Autumn gives way to Winter, I find it easy to transition into fantasy and from there to space pulp, which is really just fantasy with technology instead of magic. I don't do hard science fiction.

The Summer months are for excitement and adventure stories. It's appropriate in the season of blockbuster movies and beach reading. My summer starts in May when the snow's finally off the ground for good in Minnesota.

 I don't read "romance novels," but I do like dramas and comedies with a strong romantic angle and I tend to gravitate towards those during February. Spring also seems like a good time to cleanse the genre palate with some general drama, comedy, and non-fiction. I've never been able to do that exclusively for three months though; I'm always sneaking in genre stuff at the same time.

I'm curious to know if any of you do something similar. Do you tend to gravitate towards certain genres at particular times of the year?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Legend has it that Twentieth Century Fox decided not to make any more Holmes films after The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, possibly thanks to poor critical reception of Hound of the Baskervilles in the UK. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce continued playing Holmes and Watson on the radio though, so when Universal decided to try their hand at Holmes movies, Rathbone and Bruce were natural, popular choices to play the main characters again.

By 1942, period films were out and modern day adventure movies were in, so Universal decided to update the setting to 1940s England. According to Rovi this was pretty common practice for film adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories up to that point; the two Fox films being notable exceptions. That’s hard to verify, but a quick look at IMDB shows that Holmes films were made long before Rathbone and Bruce came along, going as far back as 1905 and including an extremely prolific silent series in the early ‘20s. If Rovi is accurate, many of those were contemporary updates, possibly for cost reasons.

What’s apparently unique about The Voice of Terror is its use of the new time and setting as integral elements of its plot. Universal had rights to some of Doyle’s short stories and had originally planned to adapt some of them, but perhaps decided that Holmes’ chasing down blue carbuncles in Christmas geese would be a weird activity for wartime London. If they were going to modernize Holmes, they’d have to go all out and give him modern villains too.

Not only did they have him fighting Nazis, they did it with a ripped-from-the-headlines approach. The Voice of Terror has Holmes’ being called in by British Intelligence’s Inner Council to help them discover the source of a series of Nazi radio broadcasts. As acts of terrorism are being perpetrated all over England, the Voice of Terror announces and describes them, warning England to give up and accept the rule of benevolent Germany. The country’s morale is plummeting and the Inner Council is helpless to stop it. Not all of them agree that it’s the best idea to call in a consulting detective who typically works from his sitting room, but left with no other leads, even the dissenters come to accept Holmes’ help.

The plot is loosely based on the activities of William Joyce, an American fascist who fraudulently obtained British nationality before fleeing for Germany just before war was declared in ’39. From there, he and other English-speaking Germans broadcasted propaganda messages to Britain, relating the destruction of Allied aircraft and ships. Since that kind of information was strictly controlled by the British military, Joyce and Company’s Germany Calling broadcasts were widely listened to by people anxious for news of loved ones serving in the war, even though they hated the program’s mocking tone.

Though the broadcasts in The Voice of Terror all relate events happening on British soil, it’s not hard to imagine the compulsion to listen in and find out what the Germans are up to, especially if the British government is suppressing that kind of news. Even today, with our easy access to a wide variety of news sources, people crave information, regardless of the emotional and spiritual affect it will have on them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about any of that while I was watching the movie. I would have enjoyed it more if I had, but I was too busy grieving the loss of gaslights, cobblestones, and hansom cabs.

The film prepared me up front for the shift. It opens with text about Holmes’ being an “immortal,” “ageless,” and “unchanging” character. That was partially effective, because I do tend to think of Holmes as all those things, but only in the sense that Doyle’s stories are well-crafted enough that they’re still exciting to contemporary readers over a hundred years later. I have a difficult time separating him from Victorian England though, mostly because it was my love of Holmes that directly created my love for that time period. I imagine it would be easier if Holmes was working on the kinds of cases I’m familiar with (one of the reasons I’m eager to see the recent adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch is to test that theory), but the spy stuff was a difficult adjustment.

Not that espionage is completely foreign to Doyle’s Holmes. “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” both have spy elements, as does “His Last Bow,” the story that The Voice of Terror credits as its inspiration. In fact, the last line of Voice of Terror is a nearly word-for-word repeat of the last line in “His Last Bow” where Holmes describes the coming war (WWI in Doyle’s story) as a cold, bitter, East wind that will wither “a good many of us…before its blast,” but leave England “a greener, better, stronger land…in the sunshine” once it’s cleared.

“His Last Bow” itself though demonstrates how difficult it is to marry detective and spy fiction. It’s not impossible of course, because there are similar elements in the two genres, but one of the biggest criticisms in “His Last Bow” is that it ends like a detective story and not like the spy story it actually is. In classic detective fashion, Holmes reveals to a German agent that he’s been working undercover and feeding the agent false information. At that point, the police show up and cart the agent off to jail. In a real spy story, that tactic doesn’t make any sense. Holmes (and Britain) would be much better off letting the agent escape with his bad intelligence; none the wiser.

The Voice of Terror errs in the other direction. It’s a fine spy story, but not much of a Holmes film. There are some nods in Doyle’s direction, but it’s mostly cutesy, hard-to-buy stuff like Holmes’ knowing where someone’s been walking by visually identifying the mud on his pants leg. I did though enjoy one gag when Holmes and Watson are leaving their apartment and Holmes instinctively reaches for his deerstalker cap. “Holmes,” Watson says, “You promised.” So Holmes grabs a fedora instead. I felt like the movie was sort of making fun of the version of Holmes I like, but unlike the similar gag in the Clash of the Titans remake in which Bubo is rejected, this was actually funny. I like the idea that Watson and Holmes have some long-running disagreement about the deerstalker.

Holmes spends most of the movie not solving things, but using his human assets. His first lead comes from a spy he’s had nosing around the case who dies uttering the single word, “Christopher.” Holmes can make no sense of it, so he recruits the agent’s wife (Lon Chaney’s girlfriend in The Wolf Man) and has her in turn recruit others to learn the meaning of the mysterious word. It’s the wife and her informants who do all the real work in the story: discovering where the German agents are meeting, going undercover to get close to one of them, and learning the location of the invasion the Nazis have been planning all along. Holmes steps in at the last minute to use one last flashy deduction and reveal the true mastermind behind the plot, the Voice of Terror himself (who also ties the movie into “His Last Bow”), but it’s just a flourish on an otherwise Holmesless investigation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Western Wednesday: Hawken

Tim Truman's one of the people most responsible for making Jonah Hex cool again, so it's exciting that he's got another Weird Western coming in November. According to the press release, "Hawken tells the story of aging gunman Kitchell Hawken and his bloody, one-man vendetta against the Tucson Ring, a brotherhood of arms merchants and corrupt politicians who once employed him."

Where the Weird comes in is with his traveling companions: the ghosts of every person he's ever killed, cursed to assist the old man against their wills. "In many ways," Truman says, "it’s not the ghosts who haunt Hawken; it’s Hawken who haunts them. They try to trip him up at every turn."

Hawken is a six-issue limited series and is written by Truman's son, Ben Truman, who developed the story with his dad on an Arizona road trip.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Terror on the Planet of the Apes

I'm probably done posting thoughts about Planet of the Apes for a while, but I'm certainly not done enjoying stories about it. If you're not either, check out Diversions of the Groovy Kind for the first part of Gerry Conway, Doug Moench, and Mike Ploog's "Terror on the Planet of the Apes" from Marvel in 1974.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Campfire)

I’ve wanted to check out Campfire’s comics adaptations of classic literature for a while now. I keep seeing them listed in Previews and wondered if they were any good. Adaptations like Graphic Classics and All-Action Classics have raised the bar for this kind of thing and my expectations have gone up too. Campfire was nice enough to send me a few titles to review and since I’ve just seen the Rathbone Hound, I put that comic on top of the pile.

As I read it, I was reminded of Siskoid’s comments about the Classics Illustrated version of Hamlet: “Plot, plot, plot. The original Classics Illustrated is driven by it rather than poetry or emotion.” Not to compare Doyle to Shakespeare, but that’s the feeling I got about Campfire’s Hound too. Doyle’s novel is atmospheric with its vivid descriptions of the eerie moor. It’s a wild place with only a few, scattered houses and every walk home is filled with peril. If you’re not straying over sudden cliffs or falling into bottomless mires, you’re on the run from supernatural dogs and homicidal madmen. It’s a setting full of adventure. It’s too bad that the Campfire volume captures so little of it.

For example, Doyle’s novel begins spectacularly with a cold open of an old man being chased by an unseen pursuer down an alley of ancient yew trees. He falls dead within sight of the door to his lavish mansion. JR Parks begins his adaptation with a history lesson.

To be fair, the history of Baskerville Hall is thrillingly gruesome, but it requires some set up before getting to the part about the cruel nobleman, his capture of a beautiful girl, her escape, and his doomed pursuit of her across the moor. Doyle brilliantly does his set up with the novel’s opening scene. Readers are introduced to Baskerville Hall by seeing Sir Charles Baskerville die there. So by the time we hear the backstory, we’re already on edge and very interested.

Parks, on the other hand, presents things logically, orderly, and rather dispassionately. He relates the backstory almost like a prologue except that as we read we learn that it’s being told to Sherlock Holmes by Dr. Mortimer. And since we’ve been plopped into the middle of this conversation with no context for why these men are talking about this history, Parks has to catch us up with clunky dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but Holmes essentially says, “That’s very interesting, Dr. Mortimer, but why the hell did you travel all this way to tell me this?”

Gone also are the bits where Holmes and Watson speculate about Mortimer based on the cane he left earlier when they were both out. Holmes mentions the conversation to Mortimer, but we don’t get the fun of seeing it. That’s the main problem with this comic. It gets the job done of telling the story, but has no fun doing it.

Vinod Kumar’s art doesn’t help. He does a nice job with landscapes and architecture and creating an environment that stays consistent from panel to panel, but nothing feels solid. Interiors are especially sparse as if the people who live in these places haven’t quite moved everything in yet. Kumar also has a hard time drawing people. Heads are frequently too small for their bodies and no one’s clothing fits correctly. There are also a limited number of faces and body types that Kumar’s comfortable with, so he relies a lot on facial hair to tell the characters apart.

I’ve still got a few other Campfire books to read, so I’m not giving up on the publisher just yet, but their Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t a promising start.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

When Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes came out a couple of years ago, there was some complaining about the portrayal of Holmes. I heard a lot of buzz that while Robert Downey Jr. may have been playing a cool character, he wasn’t playing the guy that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about. I feel the same way about Basil Rathbone’s role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles (released the same year, amazingly) is disappointing after the relative faithfulness of the first movie. If – like me – you tend to think of cash-grabbing blockbusters that care little about the source material as a recent phenomenon, Adventures should cure you of that. The word “blockbuster” may not have been in use in ’39, but the concept was clearly there. Adventures is a fun, but careless movie. While it includes many of the tropes people associate with Holmes, it fails to capture the overall tone.

It’s supposedly based on William Gillette’s stage play, but Wikipedia tells me that little of the play’s plot remains except for the Holmes/Moriarty conflict. Adventures begins as Moriarty (George Zucco) is in court, being pronounced innocent for a murder everyone knows he committed. Holmes rushes in just after the verdict’s been read and announces that he has new evidence that destroys Moriarty’s alibi. Unfortunately, the case is now over and can’t be retried, so Moriarty goes free. This sets up the entire relationship between Holmes and his opponent for the rest of the film. Moriarty is always one step ahead.

There’s a nice scene after the trial where Holmes and Moriarty share a cab. It’s a weird scene (because why would these two men share a cab?), but Rathbone and Zucco play it wonderfully. They made me believe that they simultaneously respected and loathed each other in equal amounts. That was cool. I also dug Moriarty’s setting the movie’s plot in motion by declaring that he would commit a great crime of historical importance right under Holmes’ nose. That’s a great challenge and I love how Moriarty carries it out.

As soon as he gets home he sets two criminal schemes in motion with a couple of letters. One is to Sir Reginald Ramsgate, the guy in charge of protecting the Crown Jewels, and anonymously implies a threat to the collection. The other letter is to a young heir named Lloyd Brandon and includes the date May 11 and a drawing of a man with an albatross around his neck. Moriarty rightly assumes that both plots will get back to Holmes and also rightly assumes that Holmes will be far more interested in the exotic mystery of the drawing (Brandon and his sister believe it to be a death threat, because their father received one just like it shortly before he was murdered) than a mundane threat to the most heavily protected treasure in the country.

Zucco’s Moriarty is deliciously evil. From his genius plan to his horrifying treatment of his butler, he’s a nasty threat. If heroes are truly defined by their villains, Holmes deserves his reputation as the Great Detective merely for having Moriarty as a nemesis.

Rathbone is still the perfect Holmes in Adventures. He looks and sounds like Holmes in every way. The problem is that the story doesn’t allow him to act like Holmes very much. His deductions are limited to the parlor game variety, his disguise – while remarkable – is impractical and silly, and he never really figures anything out. He picks the wrong case and doesn’t even solve that one so much as just follow the victim around until someone attacks her.

There are a couple of other flaws in the story. As much as I enjoy watching Zucco as Moriarty, the movie wraps little mystery around him. Some details of his plan are obscured, presenting the illusion of a mystery, but the film follows him around so much that we see all the important bits as they unfold. We know he’s after the jewels and we watch him prepare for the heist, so the story is kind of a Columbo-like mystery where the point isn’t so much who did it, but how will the detective figure it out?

I’m going to need to spoil the rest of the film to talk about it, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know how it ends.

Eventually, Holmes does figure out that there were two crimes, but not until Moriarty’s heist is already being carried out. Another flaw in the film is that in any reasonable timeline, Moriarty should have been long gone with his prize by the time Holmes showed up to stop him. The film shows Moriarty at work in the treasure room, then cuts away to show a ridiculous amount of activity in which Holmes and Watson travel to various locations as they catch up to the plot. Once they do, we go back to Moriarty who’s still working away without having made much progress until Holmes gets there.

Once Holmes does arrive, he still doesn’t outthink Moriarty; he leads him on a chase to the roof (why Moriarty follows him up there instead of making off with his loot is one of the film’s biggest mysteries). There, atop the Tower of London, Holmes and Moriarty slug it out like a couple of characters from an ‘80s action flick and Moriarty suffers the most cliché fate any villain can aspire to.

Adventures has a great bad guy and an excellent concept for a plot, it just needs fixing in a couple of significant ways. First, it shouldn’t show us everything that Moriarty’s doing. If the audience was as much in the dark about Moriarty’s schemes as Holmes is, Holmes’ assumptions and bad choices wouldn’t be so glaring because we’d be making them too. But the bigger fix would be reworking the timeline of the third act to let Holmes figure things out before Moriarty’s already in the Tower stealing the jewels. Tension could still be kept high by making Holmes wrap up the murder case and save the day there before he can get to the Tower, but he should’ve already had Moriarty’s second plan figured out by the time he finished solving the first one. That would make Holmes look better and ironically, since Moriarty wouldn’t have to stall his heist until Holmes showed up to stop him it would make the evil Professor look more competent too.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Man from Atlantis on DVD

The Warner Archive is selling not just the complete Man from Atlantis TV series, but also the movies that inspired it. I have no idea how well it's held up, but I loved that show as a kid in Florida. Every time we went to the pool - or better yet, the beach - I became Mark Harris, lurking below the waves, looking for ways to beat evil Victor Buono and his awesome submarine.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wonder Woman vs Sea Monsters Ascendant

Back in May, I noticed that as I was being born, Tarzan was fighting an underwater triceratops. I mentioned that that may be a revealing piece of information, but it took Siskoid to not only turn it into a meme, but improve on it with a second feature. My comics birth sign (as Siskoid's dubbed it) is based on a comic with the same cover date as my birth month, but if you visit that same Comics Time Machine, you can also show all the comics sold during your birth month. Siskoid calls this "you ASCENDANT, a secondary sign that has a strong influence on you, especially during your upbringing." Naturally, I had to find mine.

Wonder Woman vs Sea Monsters is an entirely appropriate ascendant sign for me. If there was anything that combated my interest in exciting adventure fiction as a kid, it was pretty, strong-willed girls. Other than the girls becoming women, not much has changed since then.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Yuki 7: Looks That Kill

It's Labor Day in the US, so I'll just post this. It's more awesome than anything else I'll likely post all week anyway.

Looks That Kill - HD from Yuki 7 on Vimeo.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

With the Sherlock Holmes sequel coming up at the end of the year, it seems as good a time as any to dig into some Holmes stuff. It’s been years since I’ve read any of Doyle’s stories and I’ve never seen most of the really good, classic Holmes movies. My only experience with the Basil Rathbone films has been catching part of one of them on cable and not being impressed that Holmes and Watson were fighting Nazi spies. I’m usually all for people fighting Nazis, but that seemed to be stretching Holmes’ milieu further than I wanted it to go. I’ve always been curious about those movies though (mostly because Rathbone is such a perfect actor to play Holmes), so I wonder if seeing them in the context of the whole series will make the time shift easier to take.

There’s no time shift in the first one. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a more-or-less faithful adaptation of the Doyle novel, including its Victorian setting. I have to say “more-or-less” though because it’s been so long since I’ve read that novel and don’t remember many details about it. Even though I’ve read a few comics adaptations of it (I’ll talk about them in future posts), I never can remember who the villain is until its revealed. I usually only recall some impressions about the story: the body in the alley leading onto the moor, the demon-hound, the gothic flashback, the madman, the bottomless bogs, Holmes in disguise. It’s a fantastic story filled with impressive imagery. No wonder it’s a favorite and a natural pick for adaptation.

Right after I watched this version, I described it on Facebook as “the Universal monster people doing Sherlock Holmes.” Even though it’s actually a 20th Century Fox film, I still feel that way. The cast is a big part of it with Rathbone and Lionel Atwill (Dr. Mortimer) facing off again after Son of Frankenstein (also from ’39). John Carradine (Barryman the butler) would go on to play Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula and EE Clive (a hansom cabby) was in both Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, but I remember him best as the constable in The Invisible Man.

Even more than the cast though is the mood of the thing. Baskerville Hall and its neighbors on the moor look and feel a lot like the castle and village from the early Frankenstein films. What’s more they look better than what I ever imagined when reading the book as a kid. Everything’s dark and spooky; the moor's full of treacherous pits, jutting crags, and ancient ruins. It's the perfect place for Holmes and Watson to run around while investigating supernatural murders. As I read and watch other adaptations of Hound of the Baskervilles, this will be the one to beat.

I should mention Nigel Bruce as Watson. Though I’ve always heard people speak highly of him, I’ve also somehow connected his performance with the stereotype of Watson as kind of a bumbler. I don’t know why; it’s just a prejudice I’ve had for years. It’s not from this movie though. Bruce’s Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles is a lot like the literary one. He’s not in Holmes’ league of course (no one is), but he’s learning and he’s already competent enough to have earned Holmes’ respect as a companion and student.

The only glitch in the film was a small speech that felt tacked on at the end. One of the characters (I won’t say which for fear of 70-year-old spoilers) fawns over Holmes: “Mr. Holmes, we've admired you in the past as does every Englishman. Your record as our greatest detective is known throughout the world. But this - seeing how you work - knowing that there is in England such a man as you gives us all a sense of safety and security. God bless you, Mr. Holmes!” I’m used to people being impressed by Holmes, but this seems to overdo it a bit.

The line about safety and security was especially jarring as I recalled what England was going through in 1939. Though it was a Hollywood film, I couldn’t help wondering if the line was written with then-current events in mind. “If only England had such a man now.” That pulled me out of the Victorian fantasy. Not as much though as relocating Holmes to 1940s Europe would later in the series.


Related Posts with Thumbnails