23 June 2013

Review: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures
by Dave Stevens
Collected edition published 29 December 2009
144 pages | $29.99

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Rocketeer first came to my attention when Disney made the movie in 1991. I wanted to see it, but didn't. In fact, to this day I still haven't seen that movie! I get a crack at it on the big screen 27 July when Baxter Avenue Theatres will play it at midnight and I'm hopeful to make it to that. I discovered that the Oldham County Public Library main branch has this hardcover collected edition of the original comics and decided it was high time I checked it out (literally).

I didn't realize until I got hold of this collected edition that there were so few actual Rocketeer comics - a mere eight issues that comprise two different story arcs. The old school pulp influence is easy to see, from the very concept to the characterization and visual aesthetics. Betty clearly embodies Bettie Page, for instance, and Jonas is almost certainly The Shadow. Fans of that era - particularly its entertainment - will find plenty of homages and Easter eggs to appreciate. Dave Stevens's artwork is clean, easy to follow and imbues the narrative with a specific lighthearted energy that makes it a pageturner. I finished the entire volume in just under an hour.

One thing that I liked is that even though the story is clearly a celebration of the stereotypical juvenile male fantasy, Cliff Secord is not a particularly effective hero. He's clumsy. He's selfish and a bit cowardly, and he isn't much good at all in a fight. In fact, other than his daredevil piloting and the stolen jetpack, there's not a lot to him. He's an everyman kid, kinda like Peter Parker.

Cliff's competition with Marco the Hollywood photographer for the affection of Betty is the dominant arc of the two stories. It's accessible because petty jealousy and insecurity are both (unfortunately) so universal. Just when I'm ready to roll my eyes that Betty is nothing more than a trophy for Cliff to win, she speaks up for herself on page 32:
"Grow up, Cliff! It's not money--I've told you! You can't own me!"
Cliff is certainly still an intellectual and emotional adolescent, as witnessed by him directing "Colonel Mayberg" to Betty's apartment. That wasn't done to get Mayberg off Cliff's back nearly as much as it was a prank pulled out of spite against Betty. (Seriously, who would do that?!)

Reading The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures leaves the impression that Dave Stevens didn't have a big picture story idea in mind and sort of made it up as he went. It's also highly likely that the difficulty finding a publisher for each issue not only hindered the publication but the writing of the stories. It's hard, I think, these days to properly understand how difficult it must have been for Stevens to get The Rocketeer onto comic book shop shelves in the 1980s. We're used to Dark Horse Comics, Image, IDW and other independent publishers making a strong showing, and now crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter make it possible for creators to get their content out to readers a whole lot more easily than could be done 30 years ago. It's important to cut Stevens some slack in that respect.

Betty suffers most from the inconsistency of publication. There's a sense that Stevens had in mind a maturation for both Betty and Cliff as individual characters and as a couple but we're left with only their squabbling over his insecurities provoked by her refusal to commit to him monogamously, to further her modeling career. Cliff is the kind of guy that Nicholas Sparks fans would adore, and would incite the ire of self-determining feminists. I'm in the middle. Part of me understands Cliff's thinking; that if he could just provide for Betty what those other guys could provide by throwing money at her, he would distinguish himself. Women want security. That's not unfair. Not being able to offer that puts a cap on how far a relationship will go and Cliff was at that cap. I get that.

The breakthrough on page 97 is cynical and embittered, but under that it's also healthy for Cliff to see Betty as more than just a prize to be won. They have different wants and needs, and it's okay that they do. It's a shame that Stevens didn't get the chance to write any further stories because I would really like to have seen both characters address those wants and needs, and to grow. Leaving them where we do, we have just enough reason to be hopeful but we're also left having to speculate for ourselves what became of them.

One last note: It's amusing to me that the language consists of such terms as "danged" and "blamed", evoking the "aw, shucks" era of tamed dialog while also presenting Betty's backside on page 47, or with her breasts all but completely bared to us on page 57. It's all in the spirit of the pinup, of course, but it doesn't quite jibe with the more wholesome aesthetic of the movie serials that set the tone for the rest of the comic.

I'm hopeful that I'll get to go see the 1991 movie version at Baxter next month, and I'm also hopeful that the screenwriter(s) addressed these characterization issues. There are kernels of really likable characters here, but going no farther than they do it's difficult for me to say just how much I actually like and care for Cliff and/or Betty.

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21 June 2013

Unsolicited Advice for Newlyweds

It's summer, which means wedding season is in full swing. I myself was looking at possibly attending as many as three weddings this summer but I couldn't work out the traveling logistics of one wedding and my brother and his fiancee postponed theirs so they could work out plans that they really wanted - which just means that I'll not only attend their wedding next year but in all likelihood I'll be roped into playing some role. My brother was my best man, which meant he had to give a toast. I wouldn't put it past him to return the favor. Even if he doesn't, I know one thing that has become customary at wedding receptions is for attendees to be solicited for marital advice. Often that's asked only of presently-married attendees. I don't think that's necessarily fair or thoughtful since there may be widows and widowers in attendance. They're the only ones who have actually discharged the duty of the office of spouse to its fullest so they shouldn't be excluded from chiming in about how to do that.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about what I might say to newlyweds. It would certainly be tempting by cynical but that's not who I want to be. I'm reminded of the beautiful song "Dreaming My Dreams with You", written by Allen Reynolds (who later became Garth Brooks's producer) and first recorded by Waylon Jennings:
"But I won't let it change me, not if I can
I'd rather believe in love
And give it away to those that I'm fondest of"
With that in mind, then, here are the few things I have to offer on the subject.

Praise Whoever Washes the Dishes
Washing the dishes isn't quite the tedious chore it is with a dishwasher, but I'm still adamant that of all the household chores to be done, this is the one where you want to make a point to say, "Hey! I just noticed you washed the dishes. Go, you!" Laundry is an even more obnoxious chore, but that's one that's best left unspoken. There's no need to draw any more attention to laundry than is absolutely mandatory.

Don't Turn Off the Car Mid-Song
You pull into the parking lot. Your spouse is singing along with a song. Don't shut off the car just because you're parked. Let him or her have the moment. Stopping at an instrumental solo is acceptable if the song has just started playing. It feels like unfinished business to get out of a car without having sung along to the end of a song, and that can dampen the energy of the evening before you've even gotten out of the car.

Sub-point: Don't use time together driving to make a phone call unless absolutely necessary. The other person is completely trapped, unable to play music or do anything except hear one half of your conversation.

Turn Off Your Alarm Promptly
If you adapt to your morning alarm and it stops being effective, don't start setting it for an earlier time so that you can hit "snooze" repeatedly. You'll just continue to adapt and soon find yourself sleeping through the alarm entirely. Just get a new alarm. Make your ears react to a new tone. Because one day, you've become immune to your alarm and your spouse has become tired of fighting with you to turn it off and it's just a matter of time before your spouse is weighing the pros and cons of smothering you with your own pillow.

When Talking to Single Friends...Shut Up
You've got a marriage license, not a shared doctoral degree in human relationships. You're not actually qualified to talk to single people as though you're in the big leagues and you think if they open up their stance and choke up on the bat some that they can hit their way up the big leagues, too. For one thing, your single friends may not even be bothered by being single. And if they are bothered by it, the last thing they want is for you to sound off about how patient they need to be and how blessed you are and how their time will come, etc. Think back to when you were single and didn't feel all that patient or blessed. Remember wanting to slap some people? Yep. That's exactly how your single friend feels when you open your trap and start droning on about how being married is "so different" from what your premarital relationships were like - which, in turn, means it's superior to all the meaningful relationships your single friend has ever had.

Shut. Up.

Businesses Run All Kinds of Promotions. Use Them.
One day you'll find yourself chatting with a younger couple and they'll namedrop all kinds of places they've been and things they've done and all you'll have to talk about will be whatever plot lines have been running through the shows on USA. It will be humiliating for you to see the true scope of the rut you didn't even know you were in. Fortunately, you live in the time of online promotions. If you pay close enough attention to sites like Groupon, Coupons.com and Fat Wallet, you can go out together semi-regularly on the cheap...which is probably important considering the state of the economy and the complete lack of confidence any of us have that our dollar will be worth more tomorrow than the three seconds of warmth we can get from it by setting it on fire tonight. So go ahead and go ice skating. It's just $8 a person, with skate rental included. It'll be fun.

Remember: It's YOUR Relationship
No matter how many universal truths there are about marriages and relationships, no matter what every other marriage you know has in common, at the end of the day there are only two people in your marriage and you're one of them. Whatever works to make your marriage satisfying, do that. Some people scoff at the idea of a semi-regular girls' night out, thinking it unseemly for a wife to "step out like that". Some will roll their eyes and puke their guts up if you gush that you always do everything together and can finish each other's sentences. There'll always be someone who wants to project their experience onto you and to tell you what red flags to look for and to fear, or to shame you for not doing what a good spouse does.

So what? They're not in the relationship. Whatever works for you [plural], works. Period. If that means going into business together just so you can literally be within eyesight of one another at every moment until you die, so be it. If it means trolling Craigslist for swinging partners, fine. Going to church every Sunday and Wednesday keeps you grounded? Terrific! One spouse goes out drinking and the other stays home playing poker every Friday night? Have fun! You only conduct disagreements in a private online chat room instead of actually speaking to one another? Sounds measured and patient.

The point is, it's your relationship constructed from the dynamics shared between your spouse and you. Don't try to emulate another marriage and don't let someone else try to terraform yours.

(But I'm serious about that alarm clock business. I almost had to go to prison on numerous mornings over that.)

15 June 2013

"The Movement" #2 and "Batgirl" #21 by Gail Simone

I'm down to just two monthly books now, and since both are written by Gail Simone it seemed expedient to write one blog post to cover both books. I'll probably stick to this format. I picked The Movement to lead off this review because it was published the week before Batgirl and also because I read them in that order. Since I started reading new monthlies again, I've always read Batgirl last because it's my favorite.

The Movement #2
"With No Hint of Malice"
Gail Simone - Writer
Freddie Williams II - Artist
Chris Sotomayor - Colorist
Carlos M. Mangual - Letterer
Amanda Conner - Cover
Dave McCaig - Cover Color
Kyle Andrukiewicz - Asst. Editor
Joey Cavalieri - Editor
Matt Idelson - Group Editor
32 pages / $2.99
Date of Publication: 5 June 2013

I found The Movement #1 a bit too frenetic for my taste, with my chief concern being that I didn't have much of a feel for any of the characters. Issue #2 paused long enough to bring me up to speed, though, and now I feel like I have a grip on the players in this new book. I have to say, it's kind of fun to read a book with an original cast of characters where I have absolutely no preconceived ideas of personalities. Gail Simone is a very socially-conscious writer and I admire that about her work.

She's also apparently demented. Seriously, Gail - what the hell is wrong with you?!

I don't even know what to make of Mouse and poor little Trouncer. Story pages 5 and 6 are sad but kind of sweet...until that last panel on page 6. Then there's panel 1 on story page 10, which is something that can't be unseen once it's seen. What the hell is wrong with you, Gail? We learn more about the Movement team, or at least its "war council" and its base of operations at the 181/Sweatshop.

The history of the building is unfortunately not without actual precedent, though offhand similar known incidents did not take place in secrecy. Those kinds of fatal sweatshop conditions were an important part of the Industrial Revolution that our public school system doesn't acknowledge because "Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin" is much easier to write into a test than "Exploitative greed combined with misogyny to place women and girls in deplorable working conditions that cost the lives of a few hundred of them."

One thing I really like about The Movement, and I meant to comment on this in last month's review, is that its visual aesthetic doesn't seem as homogenized as the other New 52 books. Freddie Williams II's art is rawer and a lot less sleek than the other comics I've seen from DC. It gives the book a very specific personality and helps set it apart. It's a shame that all the other books are expected to conform to a singular design because this is the kind of thing that I always liked about reading comic books in the first place: Contrasting not just the work of one artist from another, but enjoying the impact that specific artist's work has on the storytelling of a given book.

The most striking image of the issue is that aforementioned first panel of story page 10, but I really liked those last three panels of story page 9. That's a terrific eye-roll! It's nice to see this kind of work in a comic. Then there's the visceral shot at the top of story page 31 of Katharsis, seething with rage and her face bloodied. That's more consistent with mainstream books, but it's done so strikingly well that it's a standout image.

When I picked up these two books, I formally added The Movement to my pull list. That makes it my second ever pull title, after...

Batgirl #21
Gail Simone - Writer
Fernando Pasarin - Pencils
Jonathan Glapion - Inks
Blond - Colors
Taylor Esposito - Letters
Alex Garner - Cover
Katie Kubert - Editor
Mike Marts - Group Editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
32 pages / $2.99
Date of Publication: 12 June 2013

This issue opens with Nightwing calling to check on Babs while simultaneously fighting some Scarecrow-themed thugs in Chicago. Their conversation recalls their sparring in issue #3, and it's nice to check in on that relationship again. His fight has nothing to do with anything else in Batgirl to date; it's just there (I think) so that we have some action to look at in the first few pages because otherwise, we don't see Babs back in action until the last of story page 10.

Which itself is kind of peculiar, actually, because we've just spent the first third of this issue watching her make the argument to Nightwing that she's incapable of being Batgirl at present. "...I can't wear the bat right now, Dick. I don't deserve it," she says on story page 4, panel 3. But then as soon as you turn the page your eye darts ahead and there she is on story page 7, busting a right into traffic on her Batcycle? I totally buy that she's having mental and emotional issues at present that make being Batgirl upsetting for her. That's actually one of the plot points of the book that works really well and appeals to me.

To see her go straight from the "I can't wear the bat" talk into wearing said bat just doesn't track. It feels incomplete, like there were a couple of pages originally intended to get us from Emotional Point A to Action Point B that somehow were truncated. I don't know. It's a sharp change of emotional tone and kind of jarring.

Once we get to Shauna's home on story page 9, things become pretty dark. I love that there's no actual explanation for how Shauna manipulates Ferdie or the corpses. I can be fickle about the supernatural in my superhero comics, but this is creepy as hell and works nicely. Readers I know through Twitter seem to feel that this Ventriloquist is pure evil, devoid of the sympathetic nature of other adversaries in the book so far. I disagree with that. I look at Shauna and see a broken young woman who has retreated into being the Ventriloquist in large part because that's where her life pushed and pulled her. I can easily envision her sitting in a group therapy session and being the one to break everyone's heart.

Speaking of emotions, my favorite panel of this book is the very last panel of the pages 2-3 splash, of Babs crying on the phone. The tightened eyebrows, the quivering lip, even the hand holding back the falling hair; just heartrending. That's actually the key reason I found it so confusing to go from her telling Dick she can't be Batgirl to her hacking the GCPD website to get back to looking for the kidnapped singer, Xavia. I just stopped reading and stared at that panel of Babs crying for probably five or ten seconds because it exuded such desolation.

I also liked the last panel of page 6, with Babs passing Alysia on her way out. Their brief handholding as part of saying goodbye/goodnight was sweet. Story page 8, with Babs's parents saying their goodbyes, was bittersweet, but it's kind of a strange interlude and it's kind of frustrating that Barbara doesn't set Jim straight on what happened to James, Jr. since she's the only one who could. (Or, I suppose, James, Jr. could since DC made a point to advertise that he's just joined one of the team books.)

Both The Movement and Batgirl issues include attacks on peoples' eyes. That's one of those things that squicks me right out and I'm pretty sure somehow, Gail Simone knows it. Which begs the question:

What the hell is wrong with you, Gail Simone?

08 June 2013

Merle Haggard "Same Train, A Different Time"

Same Train, A Different Time
Merle Haggard
sings the great songs of Jimmie Rodgers
Originally released 1 May 1969

This tribute album has been on my radar for years. I never came across it on any format, though I admit I didn't really actively look all that hard for one. Wednesday night, though, I turned up a copy on vinyl at Half Price Books for $3.99. Score!

What makes Same Train, A Different Time work is the obvious passion that went into it by Merle Haggard. Here's a guy essentially at the height of his commercial career, taking the time to record a double-LP tribute to an artist already fading from popular consciousness. These days, Rodgers is known almost exclusively to music scholars and fans of artists old enough to have paid tribute to him at some point in their career, as Hag did with this album.

Sometimes people who know about my political views are taken aback to find out that my favorite music genre is country. The part of me that intended to teach history really enjoys the genre's longstanding emphasis on tradition. Every genre keeps its history alive in one way or another, but country does it more formally through the Grand Ole Opry. There's something special to me about the intergenerational relationships of country music, tracing cultural roots through time and space. Same Train, A Different Time isn't just an album of a recording artist covering songs of one of his influences. It's a history lesson, as much about early 20th Century rural America as it is a music lesson about the beginnings of country music as a formal genre.

To that end, Hugh Cherry's liner notes and album narration help to document the context of some of these songs. Cherry prefaces "Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)", for instance, with a brief explanation of what a mule skinner was because even in 1969 it was being forgotten. In those days, younger listeners might at least have heard the term from old-timers, but in 2013 our old-timers weren't even that familiar with it.

There's something romantic to conjuring images of hoboing across the turn of the 20th Century. Sure, the reality was rough and not at all romantic, but that doesn't stop the thrill conjured by these songs. Rodgers, like Haggard, celebrated the life experiences of his social class and peers through song. Cherry notes that Rodgers had never set foot in California when he wrote and recorded the album opening "California Blues", but what does it matter? Rodgers knew the subject matter well enough that his imagination could fill in the gaps. "California Blues" feels authentic.

It's certainly interesting to hear this version of "Frankie and Johnny", a song I know best through Johnny Cash's recording. Cash's version has a happy ending, unlike pretty much every other version out there. I've heard the Rodgers version lyrics elsewhere, but it was still surprising to hear Frankie gun down Johnny and be sentenced to death by electrocution! Cash's version also includes Frankie's sister, a character absent from the Rodgers version. I'm fascinated by these kinds of variants among songs of this vintage; "Frankie and Johnny" was already an old song when Rodgers recorded his version 10 August 1929 in Dallas.

The musicianship on Same Train, A Different Time is the other reason why the album is so compelling. There's an energy throughout all four sides of the album that bespeaks of the devotion to the source material on the part of both Haggard and the other performers. This doesn't feel like an album recorded for commercial purposes, but instead as something between a private jam session and a historical document. Hag loved the music, and he wanted to ensure its survival by lending his own star power to it.

Jimmie Rodgers was just shy of his 30th birthday when he first recorded "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" for Ralph Peer in 1927. He died at age 35, 36 years before Same Train, A Different Time was recorded by Merle Haggard in 1969, 44 years ago. That means that this album is now closer in time to Jimmie Rodgers's life than it is to today. I confess, part of me was disappointed to learn that none of the songs Hag selected for this album were ones that Rodgers originally recorded in his June 1931 sessions in Louisville.

That said, I only recently learned that Rodgers recorded in Louisville at all and it's directly because of Merle Haggard and this tribute album that I'm now more resolved than I previously had been to truly explore Jimmie Rodgers's music. If there's any question how successful Hag was with his ambitions for Same Train, A Different Time, I think that's testament enough.

04 June 2013

Another Open Letter to DC Comics

Every week, the comic book blogosphere justly calls out shenanigans at DC Comics. It's been an endless parade of a misogynistic portrayal of that character, firing this writer, killing that character, canceling this book, etc. since The New 52 launched in September of 2011. In December, I wrote An Open Letter to DC Comics asking them what they were thinking by allowing Brian Cunningham to fire Gail Simone from Batgirl - a completely terrible decision that DC thankfully reversed and rectified swiftly. I've groused elsewhere, but I haven't been so frustrated with DC that I've been compelled to write another open letter...until now.

Dear DC Comics,

Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee recently announced that this September, for The New 52's second anniversary, they're launching a project called "Forever Evil". Forever Evil itself will be a seven-issue mini-series featuring literally every character in the DC Universe, according to DiDio. Because, you know, nothing says "thoughtful storytelling" like cramming every primary, secondary and tertiary character the company owns into 280 pages (7 issues x 40 pages each). This seems creatively bankrupt to me, but it's easily skipped so no harm, no foul. That mini-series will be just one more thing I don't read.

However, it doesn't end there. No, just like last year's "Zero Month", the marketing department has run roughshod over creative vision. Last year, you arbitrarily inserted origin stories for all 52 books into one month, interrupting arcs already in progress. That caused me to wait two damn months for the resolution of the story Gail Simone was telling in Batgirl, just because someone (DiDio? Lee? Johns?) threw up his hands and yelled, "WAIT! I HAVE IT!" This time, the idea is to spotlight villains in all the books. That actually isn't a terrible idea. 3D covers on all the books isn't a good idea, but even that isn't terrible.

Having several of the books go weekly throughout the month? That's a terrible idea.
  • Batman
  • Detective Comics
  • Batman: The Dark Knight
  • Batman and...
  • Action Comics
  • Superman
  • Justice League
All of those will have four issues in September, priced at $3.99 apiece. (The Flash will also have three issues and Aquaman has two.) That's the standard cover price for some of the books, but it's a $1 increase for Batman: The Dark Knight and Batman and... It would cost me $15.96 to buy just September's issues of Detective Comics.

At least, it would have cost me that if I was going to continue buying and reading Detective Comics.

The purpose of this open letter to you, DC Comics, is to inform you that I will no longer be buying or reading Detective Comics as a direct consequence of "Forever Evil", effective immediately. Issue #21 comes out tomorrow and it's the first issue of the book I won't be buying. It's a shame, because I've enjoyed it so far but I won't play these games with you, DC.

I've enjoyed the book so far, with both Tony S. Daniel and now John Layman writing it. If there had been just one issue of that book in this "Forever Evil" stunt, I'd simply buy that one issue and ignore everything else - which is exactly what I did during both "Night of the Owls" and "Death of the Family". I resented those tie-ins, but whatever. This is different, though, because this affects the actual publication of Detective Comics - not because the story required four issues within a month, but because your marketing department insisted upon it.

This leaves me buying Batgirl and The Movement. Those are just two books, but they're still two books more per month that you'll be selling me than you did for a decade. How long that continues is up to you. My advice is to keep your marketing department out of Gail Simone's way and let her write. That's why I buy those books: for her storytelling. Not to keep up with a crossover. Not for 3D covers. For storytelling. I'm old-fashioned like that.

Maybe you won't miss selling me Detective Comics each month any more than you miss selling me Batwoman each month (remember when I quit reading that book?). Maybe you don't even care whether I continue to buy Batgirl or The Movement. But see, I care. I care because I want to enjoy these things and I wish your "leadership" would let me.

Very Sincerely,