Friday, May 31, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: May 2013

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Aline and the Others
Author and Artist: Guy Delisle
Image via R-Galaxy

Guy Delisle is a Quebecois creator best known for his travel narratives.  My Wife has been working her way through his books over the past several months, including one in the original French.  Aline was her least favorite so far but it seemed a good one for me to start with because it is the shortest, only 72 pages.  Such a lazy man am I!

Aline collects 26 short, wordless comic stories, entitled with women's names from A to Z.  "Aline" is the first, "Zoé" the last.  The stories offer a deeply twisted exploration of female sexuality.  I won't kid you.  There's a lot of sex in this book - not for children.  However, it's far from sexy - more a visual approximation of what it would look like if figures in abstract sculpture decided to get it on.

Not all of the stories are about sex.  Francine is a small child, sitting crying on the floor.  Her tears run out so she storms off to the kitchen for a glass of water.  Her fluids replenished, she goes back to the same spot and resumes crying.  Irene manages to remove her arms while examining herself in the mirror, much to her own amusement.  The rest of her story recounts her struggle to get them back on.

Delisle did create a companion volume from the male perspective: Albert and the Others.  While Aline is amusing, I can't say I'm particularly interested in reading more of the same.  I will reserve judgement of Delisle's work in general until I've read his travel works.

Are you eager to share your own review of a book you enjoyed over the past month?  Please sign on to the link list below.  I'll keep the list open until the end of the day.  Future meetings shall be held on the final Friday of each month.  June's bloghop is thus set for June 28th - new link list to be posted tomorrow.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Baseball Tunes: Tessie

"Tessie" has been associated with Boston baseball since the 1903 World Series.  The team then known as the Boston Americans came from behind to win that year's championship with the support of their Royal Rooters who bellowed the song from the stands.  The song itself comes from a long-forgotten Broadway musical called The Silver Slipper.

The Dropkick Murphys, a Boston institution in their own right, updated the song in 2004:

The song more closely associated with the Red Sox these days is "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond.  After the Boston Marathon bombing in April, the song was played and sung in baseball stadiums across America in tribute to the victims.  Most notably, the song was played at Yankee Stadium, home to the Red Sox' hated arch-rivals.  I really want the following video to be more than it is but it's the best recording I could find of that moment:

More satisfying is the following from the Salt Lake City Marathon:

Eyes still dry?  This one might do the trick. Neil Diamond himself showed up at Fenway in Boston to show his support and lead the crowd in a rousing rendition:

The lesson is clear.  Music can heal and small gestures are powerful.  "Where it began, I can't begin to knowin'..."

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: won, 6-2-2 (42-29-9 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: won, 4-3-3 (38-36-6, 4th of 10)
Public League: 84 Rotisserie points (2nd of 12)
My Player of the Week: Anibal Sanchez (Starting Pitcher, Tigers) with 1 win, 12 strikeouts, a 0.00 ERA and a 0.44 WHIP
Photo via Bleacher Nation

Sanchez only had one start last week but it was a beauty: a one-hit, complete game shutout against the Twins.  It wasn't even the best game of his career.  He pitched a no-hitter in just his 13th Major League start on September 6, 2006.  I've got him in both the Vermont and Maryland leagues. 

Family Movie Night: Tales from Earthsea

Title: Tales from Earthsea
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Original Release: 2006
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

Tales from Earthsea, based on the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, was the directorial debut for Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.  The hero Arren is an unusual one (more on that in a bit).  Having committed a horrible crime, he runs away from his castle home.  A wizard named Sparrowhawk saves his life and takes him under wing (so to speak).  After more misadventures, the two make their way to the farm home of Tenar.  They are pursued by slavers employed by an evil wizard, Lord Cob.

The film has received mixed reviews, both domestically in Japan and internationally.  Le Guin herself was displeased with the film as Miyazaki changed much of her original story.  The narrative is complicated - not exactly unusual for either Le Guin or Studio Ghibli - and can be difficult to follow. 

However, the movie is generally praised, even in poor reviews, for its visual presentation.  Most impressive to me is the use of light, not something one normally considers in regards to an animated film.  In general, I think Ghibli is at its best with landscapes and Tales from Earthsea is extraordinary.  If you look at a hillside on a sunny day in the real world, its color is vivid, though hardly uniform.  Animation rarely reflects such subtle shading but Earthsea does so marvelously.  Furthermore, much of the story is set at either dawn or dusk.  Shadows lengthen and colors deepen accordingly.  I have often perceived Impressionist influence, Monet especially, on the art of Ghibli in its landscapes.  Monet himself did numerous studies of the effect of light at different times of the day and the year.  He, of course, was in turn influenced by the Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige.  All comes full circle.


Arren's crime is patricide.  He kills his father, the king, and steals his sword.  This is difficult to reconcile with his generally sympathetic character.  Arren's moral ambiguity is explored thoroughly late in the story, though it is unclear whether or not he was driven to the crime by outside sorcery or by his own internal conflict.  At the end of the film, he heads home to accept responsibility for his crime.


Multi-generational considerations:
  • The film was rated PG-13 in the US for violence.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Roland Garros 2013: My Picks

Photo via

Roland Garros (a.k.a. The French Open) begins in Paris today.  RG is the world's biggest clay court tournament, the second of four Majors on the tennis calendar.  For The Squid, a couple of changes are afoot.

Change #1: We ditched satellite television about a month ago.  For the most part, we were already watching all of our shows by DVR so streaming via Hulu or Amazon Prime works just as well.  Live sporting events were the big question mark.  Most importantly, would I still be able to watch the tennis Majors?  NBC Sports appears to be fairly accommodating.  We shall see.

Change #2: It's time to streamline my tennis posts - weekly rather than daily during Majors.  The daily posts were fun but burdensome and inflexible.  If I spend more time analyzing draws and schedules than actually watching and enjoying tennis, there's a problem.  I realize I may be the only one who really cares but The Armchair Squid began life as a tennis blog and I'd like to hold onto that element as part of the broader mission.  Increasingly, the tennis posts were feeling like a chore - time for a change.

What better way to kick off the tournament than with my picks to win the men's and women's singles titles...

My choice on the men's side is an obvious one: Rafael Nadal (3rd seed, Spain).
Photo via AceShowbiz

Nadal has played this tournament eight times and has lost a grand total of one match - a breathtaking achievement under-appreciated in the broader sports world.  Picking anyone else seems absurd.  Novak Djokovic (1st, Serbia) is the biggest threat.  Eventually, he will win RG, completing his Career Slam.  I don't think this is the year.  His results have dropped of late, whereas Rafa is peaking at the right time.  If the two meet, it will be during the semifinals.

My women's pick is more of a stretch: Agnieszka Radwanska (4th, Poland).
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Radwanska is the highest-ranked player without a Major title and RG has been kind to first-time Slam champions in recent years (Francesca Schiavone, Na Li, Ana Ivanovic).  As such, Radwanska doesn't appear too much of a stretch.  However, despite the smaller physique and tactical acumen which would generally lead one to expect otherwise, Radwanska is not at her best on clay.  In her favor, though, is the fact that the players ranked above her aren't either.  Even Serena Williams (1st, USA), world's greatest female athlete, and Maria Sharapova (2nd, Russia), defending champion, are most vulnerable on dirt.  Williams is currently in top form and should that continue, there's not a player on earth who can touch her.  Should she stumble, Radwanska might just be the one to capitalize.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On the Coffee Table: I Never Liked You

Title: I Never Liked You
Writer and Artist: Chester Brown
Image via Wikipedia

Chester Brown was a big part of my A-Z Challenge this year as artist and writer for four of the 26 comic books I featured, including two of my favorites: Louis Riel #4 and Yummy Fur #27.  As noted in my A-Z post, Yummy Fur issues 26-30 were collected in graphic novel form as I Never Liked You.  The story is an autobiographical account of Brown's teenage years in the Montreal suburb of Chateauguay. 

Chester's a quiet guy.  Kids at school make fun of him because they know he never swears - strictly forbidden by his parents to do so even away from school.  He has friends, though, many of them female.  One of the girls, Carrie, is clearly in love with him but he has no idea how to respond to it.  His true affections are directed towards another girl in the neighborhood, Sly.  Much of the story revolves around Chester's inability to relate to the women in his life, especially his mother, whose struggles with mental illness feature prominently in the narrative. 

Just as I wrote in regards to Louis Riel, much of the power of Brown's work derives from its simplicity.  Dialogue is sparse, the black and white panels uncomplicated and to the point.  Chester shuts the people in his life out but as the readers, we are afforded an intimate view.  He doesn't divulge many secrets but he doesn't need to.  For us, at least, the important details are made plain enough.

I'm still undecided as to how I feel about Chester Brown.  While I thoroughly enjoyed both this book and Louis Riel, the other works I've explored thus far have either disgusted me (Ed the Happy Clown #2) or left me cold (Underwater #2).  I suppose I can say that I prefer his non-fiction to his fiction.  I am genuinely curious about his other autobiographical works.

On the Coffee Table: Extraordinary Gents, Vol. 2

Title: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O'Neill
Image via Wikipedia

The League of Extraordinary Gentelmen is Moore's and O'Neill's spoof on the superhero team genre, incorporating characters of Victorian era literature.  The League consists of Mina Murray (Dracula), Allan Quartermain (King Solomon's Mines), Hawley Griffin (The Invisible Man), Henry Jeckyll/Edward Hyde and Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).  My review of Volume I can be found here.

Volume II draws heavily from the works of H.G. Wells.  The overarching plot is based on War of the Worlds.  In addition to Griffin, Dr. Moreau plays a vital role in the story. 

The fun of The League is in waiting to see who will pop up next, what other literary references will find their way into the story.  Many of the allusions are obvious, others more subtle.  The League lodges at an inn called "The Bleak House," for instance.  Just as with Volume I, the story whets my appetite for the source material as much as for The League story itself.

Definitely for adults only: depictions of brutal violence between league members as well as a nude sex scene with Mina and Allan.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Baseball Tunes: Thank God I'm a Country Boy

Since the glory days of the 1970s, the Baltimore Orioles have played John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch.  I have never understood this tradition.  I grew up in Maryland - granted DC area, not Baltimore.  I know the town well enough to say that it's about as urban as an American city can be.  How anyone in Baltimore can claim to be a country boy (or girl) is beyond me.  Maybe Earl Weaver was a John Denver fan.

At any rate, it's a fun song.  My favorite rendition, however, is Jim Nabors's performance on The Muppet Show:

Nabors is actually quite an accomplished singer - his recordings a fair sight better than the usual celebrity vanity project.  He made his television singing debut as Gomer Pyle - his career-defining role - on The Andy Griffith Show:

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: won, 6-4 (36-27-7 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: lost, 3-6-1 (34-33-3, 4th of 10)
Public League: 84 Rotisserie points (2nd of 12)
My Player of the Week: Carlos Gonzalez (Left Fielder, Rockies) with 3 home runs, 8 RBI, 8 runs, 3 stolen bases and a .375 batting average

Photo via Denver Westword Blogs

Family Movie Night: Star Trek into Darkness

Title: Star Trek into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Original Release: 2013
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

My Wife has a serious Benedict Cumberbatch crush.  As such, she'd been looking forward to Star Trek into Darkness for quite a while.  As for myself, I have misgivings about the Abrams relaunch of the Star Trek story.  The alternate history introduced with the 2009 film just doesn't sit well.  However, I do realize that Trek is a fictional universe to begin with and one history is, at least theoretically, as valid as another.  As such, I am prepared to give the new concept a chance, even if it doesn't completely jive with my sensibilities.

Just to give you folks an idea of her level of infatuation, My Wife has all of Cumberbatch's lines from the trailer above memorized.

Cumberbatch plays the role of Khan, a villain first introduced in the original television series in 1967, performed by Ricardo Montalban.  Montalban reprised the role for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), generally considered to be the best of the Star Trek movies.  So, it is hallowed ground upon which J.J. Abrams treads in this latest installment.

In his interview with Jon Stewart last week, Abrams acknowledged the challenges of reinterpreting such a treasured franchise.  He himself did not grow up as a Trek fan and hopes that the new film includes satisfying material for both newcomers and devotees.  For newcomers, there's all the bells and whistles of 21st century film: dazzling special effects, frenetic action and plenty of eye candy in both dressing rooms.  For the Trekkies, there are ample satisfying allusions to the original Khan movie.  So, the pitches are made.  Did he succeed?

As for mainstream success, the opening weekend was apparently disappointing.  $84 million sure sounds like an awful lot of money to me but it fell short of the $100 million goal.  As for the purists, I can only speak for myself.  I preferred this movie to the 2009 film.  Now that the alternate history has been established, I find it easier to settle in and appreciate the new timeline on its own merits.  I was grateful, too, for the homage to Khan.  I could have done without the close-up stubble shots of the men but My Wife assures me those were just fine by her.

There's loads of extra geek-satisfaction in this one.  Cumberbatch is quickly becoming Hollywood's go-to man for the smoldering villain.  He's also the voice of Smaug in the new Hobbit trilogy.  His rich, deep, melodic voice alone will keep him employed for many years to come.  The casting of both Noel Clarke (Doctor Who alum) and Peter Weller (Buckaroo Bonzai and RoboCop) are meaningful nods to the broader science fiction fan base. 

Multi-generational considerations:
  • The movie is rated PG-13, most certainly for violence.  I had to turn away myself during a head-crushing incident.  Mock (who was sitting right next to me - he and his son joined us) assured me they didn't actually show it.  The sound was more than enough for this guy!
  • The theater may simply have had its sound system cranked up beyond necessity but the film is definitely loud.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Marvel Star Wars, Vol. 3

Title: Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 3
Image via Wookieepedia

As part of its Omnibus series, Dark Horse Comics have compiled collections of Star Wars comics from the franchise's days with Marvel in the 1970s and '80s.  Not a comic fan in my youth, I never gave the series much thought at the time but I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring them over the past couple years.  I have reviewed Volume 1 and Volume 2 in previous posts.

Volume 3 includes issues 50-67 plus King-Size Annual #2.  As noted in earlier posts, the Marvel comics are considered lower canon than the Dark Horse comics as so much of the material was later contradicted by the films.  This wasn't Marvel's fault, of course.  George Lucas and his minions were not forthcoming with their own narrative plans.  The comic artists had to generate years' worth of stories with very little guidance.

As such, the comics followed an evolutionary path all their own with fascinating results.  Characters and settings that were introduced in the movies were explored more deeply.  Entirely new ideas were initiated, including characters who have endured in more recent works.


Cloud City on the gas giant planet Bespin is, of course, the setting for the climactic scenes of the film The Empire Strikes Back.  Lando returns to Cloud City at the end of issue #55, entitled "Plif!"  All has gone very poorly in Lando's absence. He is attacked almost immediately upon arrival by his former right hand man, Lobot.
Photo via Wookieepedia

Lobot - listed in the credits simply as Lando's aide - has no lines in the film, though he is crucial to plot development.  I have to admit that I'd never really given Lobot much thought, assuming he was a human with a really cool headset who didn't speak because he didn't have need.  However, the comic identifies him as a cyborg - a fact I'd never considered.  Upon research, I found that the headset is actually a cybernetic implant.  He is mute from the required lobotomy for the implant.  "Lobot" is short for lobotomy.  Who says you can't learn anything from comic books?

The Ugnaughts return in issue #56, "Coffin in the Clouds."  The gas mine workers, disgruntled with the imperial administration of Cloud City, have planted bombs throughout the installation.  Lando and Captain Treece, the Empire's man in Bespin, eventually work together to dismantle the bombs.  However, Treece predictably betrays Lando, literally kicking him off the city's edge to plummet to his death.  Fortunately, Lobot has come to his cyborg senses and rescues Lando. 
Photo via Wookieepedia

The two land safely in a Bespin marsh.  Not long after, they encounter an Ugnaught news crew eager for a story.  Apparently, at least in the Marvel Universe, Ugnaughts talk like pirates.

Shira Brie
Image via

Issue #56 also introduced the character of Shira Brie (spelled Brei initially), a fighter pilot for the Rebellion and apparent aspirant for Luke Skywalker's affections.  However, in issue #63 ("The Mind Spider!"), we learn that Shira is not quite what she seems.  She is an Imperial agent groomed by Darth Vader to destroy Luke.  Eventually, Shira evolves into the Sith character Lumiya (first appearance Marvel #88) who has been featured in numerous Expanded Universe story lines ever since.

While I dabble in other idioms, Star Wars will always be geek home for me.  I can't help feeling a twinge of regret at not having found these comics when I was a kid and so eager for more Star Wars stories between movies.  I was too busy saving my allowance for the action figures, I guess.  While my interest in superhero comics is in serious jeopardy, I expect I'm into Star Wars comics for the long haul.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Double Barrel #10

Title: Double Barrel
Issue: #10
Release: May 2013
Writers: Kevin and Zander Cannon
Authors: Kevin and Zander Cannon
Image via ComicVine

Both Zander's Heck and Kevin's Crater XV are speeding towards their conclusions.   Only two more issues to go!  In Heck, the embittered Hector passes on the message his client/love interest Amy sent him to find.  In Crater XV, crucial details of the characters' pasts are revealed.  Extras include part two of Tim Sievert's The Clandestinauts, Kevin's Penny from the Front and Zander's True Tales of Jin.  In this month's How to: section, Kevin offers "Basic Design Concepts for Cartoonists." I will admit upfront that most of the material is way over my head, yet I am grateful for the insight into such matters as resolution, font and color.

Double Barrel is available anywhere electronic comics or eBooks are sold.  I got my copy at ComiXology

Monday, May 13, 2013

Baseball Tunes: God Bless America

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "God Bless America" has become the seventh-inning stretch song of choice at many American ballparks, supplanting "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  Tin Pan Alley legend Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1918 while serving in the Army.   While the song does have a verse, most performers skip it and go straight to the chorus.

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: tied, 5-5 (30-23-7 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: won, 6-3-1 (31-27-2, 4th of 10)
Public League: 85.5 Rotisserie points (3rd of 12)
My Player of the Week: Evan Longoria (Third Baseman, Rays) with 3 home runs, 11 RBI, 8 runs and a .464 batting average
 Photo via Tumblr

Family Movie Night: A Town Called Panic

Title: A Town Called Panic
Directors: Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar
Original Release: 2009
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

A Town Called Panic was the first stop-motion animation movie ever to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.  Based on a television show of the same name (Panique au Village in French), the Belgian/Luxembourgish/French production follows the zany adventures of three plastic toys: Horse, Cowboy and Indian.  The story begins with Cowboy and Indian in a - you guessed it - panic over what to get Horse for his birthday.

From there, the plot follows the sort of nonlinear trajectory one might expect from a child at play.  We meet the crazy neighbors, mermen and scientists determined to build the perfect snowball catapult.  There's a love story, too, as Horse rather sheepishly pursues the affections of Madame Longree, a music teaching filly. 

The frenetic pace and sensory barrage can be overpowering but overall, the movie's a lot of fun.  Over the rest of the weekend, My Wife and I would occasionally call out to one another with "Chaval!" and "Indien!" just as the characters do in the film.  For now, once is enough but I have a feeling this one may creep back into the Family Movie Night rotation at some point.  Even the trailer is hilarious:

Cross-generational considerations:
  • As the film began, Our Girl did moan about the subtitles but I think she was won over by the humor.
  • There is a bit of language - not the best choice for the youngest of children, though Our Girl (age nine) didn't seem troubled by it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Baseball Tunes: Centerfield

John Fogerty's 1985 single "Centerfield" had only modest chart success, topping out at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100.  28 years later, it is on the must-play list at every baseball game with an adequate sound system.  The song references players both real - Mays, Cobb and DiMaggio - and fictional - Casey at the Bat.  Part of Fogerty's inspiration came from a Chuck Berry song, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."  The following lyric was lifted directly from the Berry tune:
Rounding third he was headed for home,
It was a brown eyed handsome man.
To me, "Centerfield" is so much more than a baseball song.  No rock tune better encapsulates the pure joy of a beautiful summer day.  Eat your hearts out, Beach Boys!

Wanna get your music geek on/drive yourself insane?  Try to do the claps and sing the guitar riff at the same time without messing up the rhythm of either.  It's a cross-rhythm.  If you can do it, go sign yourself up for percussion lessons right now!

My Baseball Fantasy

Vermont League: lost, 4-5-1 (25-18-7 overall, 1st place out of 12 teams)
Maryland League: lost, 1-9 (25-24-1, 6th of 10)
Public League: 80.5 Rotisserie points (3rd of 12)
My Player of the Week: Mike Trout (Center Fielder, Angels) with 3 home runs, 10 RBI, 7 runs, 1 stolen base and a .313 batting average
Photo via The Sports Quotient

I am playing in three very different fantasy baseball leagues this year.  This is my fourth year in the Vermont league with Mock and his cousins.  It's a live online draft, head-to-head league.  I am commissioner and three-time defending champion (coincidence, I swear).  The Yahoo! public league is live online draft, Rotisserie.  New this year is the Maryland league, started by a high school friend who wanted a league his kids could join - an auto draft, head-to-head league. 

My daughter technically has a team in the Maryland league, too, though she is essentially a non-participant.  Her one parameter as I helped her set up for the auto-draft was that she didn't want any Yankees on her team.  She has ignored her team ever since.  Oh well, free win for everyone else.

For the most part, all three teams are doing well.  My Maryland league team survived a weak start - partially due to not entirely understanding the league rules - to climb to second place as recently as a week ago.  As you can see, though, I had my hat handed to me in my most recent matchup and my standing tumbled.

Mike Trout, one of last year's wunderkinds, also started the season slow but has been a beast of late.  I had first pick in the public league draft and grabbed the Angel outfielder, Yahoo!'s top-rated fantasy player heading into the season.  His performance will be key to my own success.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Family Movie Night: The Princess and the Frog

Title: The Princess and the Frog
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Original Release: 2009
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Disney Wiki

Our nine-year-old daughter had some extra motivation in her movie pick this week.  Her dance studio is using The Princess and the Frog as its theme for the end-of-year performance.  The film is loosely based on The Frog Princess, a novel by E.D. Baker which is in turn based on the Grimm brothers' story, "The Frog Prince."  While she has a basic familiarity with the original fairy tale, Our Girl had never seen the movie before so entertainment doubled as research. 

The story is set in 1920s New Orleans.  Tiana, a waitress, dreams of owning her own restaurant.  She kisses a frog expecting him to turn into a prince only to become a frog herself.   From there, she pursues two goals: to break the curse and to realize her ambition.

I enjoyed this movie more than I expected.  The story is fairly predictable but there are a few pleasant surprises, my favorite being the resolution of firefly Ray's unrequited love for the Evening Star.  The music is excellent, as it darn well better be for any movie set in New Orleans.  The ever-dependable Randy Newman composed both songs and score.  Two of the songs - "Almost There" and "Down in New Orleans" - were Oscar-nominated but lost to "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart.  The film is cel-animated and the artwork for the musical sequences is especially nice.  This one was my favorite:

Friday, May 3, 2013

A to Z Reflections, 2013

May is here and so, A-Z is over.  As always, the opportunity to make new friends and enjoy their alphabetical explorations has been wonderful.  A big thank you to all on the A-Z team for another fine year.

Some final comic book thoughts: given how little advance planning went into selecting my scavenger hunt comics, I've been both surprised and delighted by a few exceptional finds.  I felt all five of the following were strong enough to inspire further exploration of their series:

Louis Riel
Next Men
Yummy Fur

Less surprising, at least to me, is that three of the titles are published by Drawn & Quarterly, a Montreal-based outfit which specializes in offbeat comics and graphic novels.  They also operate a bookstore in Montreal which has become our family favorite.

As much fun as the challenge provided, it's also nice to get back to regular programming.  I hope you'll all come back to visit for Family Movie Night and Baseball Tunes next week.  Also, I've started a bloggers' book club which is holding its first "meeting" on Friday, May 31st.  See details here.

Be sure to check out the A-Z reflections of other participants. You'll find the bloghop list here.

See you 'round the 'sphere!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Louis Riel

Title: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Writer and Artist: Chester Brown
Image via Drawn and Quarterly

I first discovered Chester Brown's Louis Riel as part of this year's A-Z Challenge.   While intended as a single graphic novel, Brown's biography of Riel was originally serialized.  The one issue I read inspired me to read the entire collection.

I've developed a strong interest in Canada recently.  The Vermont/Quebec border is under an hour's drive from our house and we've paid quite a number of visits to our northern neighbor over the past year.  Louis Riel is one of many reminders that my knowledge of Canadian history is embarrassingly lacking.

Riel (1844-1885) was a political and spiritual leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairie.  The Métis are technically of mixed-race heritage: First Nations and European.   Their resistance to Anglo-Canadian domination played a crucial role in the formation of Canada's western provinces, beginning with Manitoba, Riel's home. 

Riel enjoys widespread folk hero status today but was far more controversial in his own lifetime - celebrated by French Canadians, mistrusted by the English speakers. In the end, the Canadian government hanged him for treason.  Brown's work is certainly sympathetic to Riel and his cause.  However, this well-researched biography also documents Riel's history of mental illness (diagnosed posthumously as megalomania by historians) - an important theme of Chester Brown's other books as well.

Louis Riel is very highly regarded within the comics industry, considered a ground-breaker for non-fiction graphic novels in English.  As I wrote in my A-Z post, much of the book's effectiveness derives directly from Brown's minimal artistic style.  If anything, the dialogue is rather dry and to-the-point but the drawings afford the reader an intimacy with the historical figures that few text-only renderings could allow.

On the Coffee Table: Rising Stars

Title: Rising Stars: Born in Fire
Writer: J Michael Straczynski
Artists: Keu Cha, Christian Zanier and Ken Lashley
Image via Read Comics

Rising Stars was first published in August 1999 by Top Cow/Image Comics. The story follows the "Specials," a group of 113 people born with special abilities following the appearance of a mysterious light in the sky above Pederson, Illinois.  Rising Stars draws heavily upon the comic classics.  There's definitely an X-Men influence with the idea of public mistrust of genetic mutants. 

Even stronger is the Watchmen legacy.  The storyline, at least initially, treads a very similar path to Alan Moore's masterpiece: the Specials are being murdered, probably by one of their own.  John Simon (like Watchmen's Rorschach) sets out to find out whom.  From here the paths diverge. The whodunnit question is resolved relatively early. Alliances are formed and battle lines are drawn between factions.  These lifelong friends still have a lot to learn about one another in this time of crisis.

Born in Fire collects the first eight issues of the series.  Despite the allusions mentioned above, Rising Stars goes far beyond the merely derivative.  The artwork of the series is lush but not overwhelming.  The characters are well-developed.  The end of each issue leaves you eager for more in the next.  The writing feels a little forced at times but overall, this one's definitely a keeper.  I knew I was hooked after issue #5, "The World Between."