Friday, January 31, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: January 2014

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: Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
Writer and Artist: Peter Bagge
via Drawn & Quarterly
As discussed previously (here), I generally try to avoid both politics and religion on my blog.  However, the intersections of those spheres with the arts are numerous and inevitable.  If I can write about Israel/Palestine without ruffling too many feathers, surely I can manage the same with birth control, right?

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) opened the first birth control clinic in America.  She was an outspoken international advocate for women's reproductive rights and many of the organizations she established eventually evolved into Planned Parenthood.  While current public perception of that entity might lead one to expect otherwise, Sanger was firmly anti-abortion.  Her mission was preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, especially for women in poverty.

I will admit upfront that I'd never heard of Margaret Sanger before My Wife bought this book, a biography in graphic novel form.  While I certainly found her to be an admirable person, I have issues with the comic book treatment of her life.  For starters, the story moves too quickly, decades covered over the course of a few pages.  There are extensive notes at the end of the book for those eager to learn more but 20 pages of footnotes for a 72-page story is bassackwards by my reckoning.  Also, Bagge's artistic style is too caricature-esque for the serious subject matter.  Comics can work for darker topics - Maus, Palestine, Louis Riel - but matching the style to the content is crucial, just as it is with any book.

My petty gripes aside, I do think it's a good book and well worth reading.  Any frank discussion of responsible sex that's accessible for young readers is fine by me.  While Bagge's book only scratches the surface of the issue, it does provide a meaningful introduction.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post February's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is February 28th.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Star Trek: This Side of Paradise

Episode: "This Side of Paradise"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 24
Original Air Date: March 2, 1967
via Memory Alpha
One criticism of Star Trek's original series, particularly from Trekkies who prefer The Next Generation, is that characters are not as well developed as in later series.  Few of the episodes provide insight into our heroes' back stories or deeper motivations.  However, from time to time, the unusual circumstances of a given narrative pull the players out of their usual elements and reveal well-guarded truths about their basic natures.  "This Side of Paradise" is such a story.

The Enterprise visits the planet Omicron Seti III, site of a recently established Federation colony.  Unbeknownst to the original settlers, the planet is flooded with deadly Perthoid rays.  As such, it is assumed that the colonists had all perished but the landing party discovers survivors - and darn happy ones at that!  Apparently, they are living under the controlling influence of plants which also protect them from the rays.  I expect the story was a less than subtle dig at the counterculture/flower power demographic of the era.

One by one, crew members are sprayed by the flowers and submit to their influence.  When Spock is sprayed, we see the First Officer smile for the first time since the pilot.  As an added bonus, one of the settlers happens to be an ex-girlfriend (!!!) of Spock's, played by Jill Ireland.  Our half-Vulcan friend proves to be quite the romantic at heart.

Before the power of the plants is fully understood, a few specimens are naively transported back to the Enterprise, where they infect the crew.  All but Kirk abandon ship in favor of a blissful existence on the planet's surface.  The episode's most poignant scene finds the captain alone on the bridge, coming to terms with his dire situation.  He sounds almost like an empty nester when he says "I'm beginning to realize just how big this ship really is."

via Memory Alpha
Jill Ireland was born April 24, 1936 in London.  For better or worse, most of her high-profile work came starring opposite her husbands.  She married David McCallum in 1957.  The two appeared together in several episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  In 1967, the couple divorced.  The following year, Ireland married Charles Bronson, with whom she appeared in several films.

Ireland was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 and became a strong public advocate for the American Cancer Society.  She published two books about her struggle and testified before Congress.  The disease claimed her life in 1990.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Family Movie Night: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Title: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Director: Blake Edwards
Original Release: 1961
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Breakfast at Tiffany's was almost certainly Audrey Hepburn's most famous movie.  Her image on the poster in the slinky black dress with the 20-inch long cigarette holder is one of the greatest icons in all of film.  Yet she considered Holly Golightly to be one of her most challenging roles.  A natural introvert, the larger than life Holly took Hepburn far beyond her own comfort zone.

Based on Truman Capote's novella of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany's is hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.  Holly is a society girl in New York, living off of the generosity of her dates - not quite a prostitute and not quite a kept woman either as she never seems to sleep with any of them.  Paul (George Peppard), most definitely a kept man himself, moves in upstairs. The two become friends and gradually fall in love. 

My favorite scene is the only one that actually takes place inside the jewelry store Tiffany's.  Out on a day of adventure, Holly and Paul are in search of a $10 gift.  The exchange with the store clerk, played by John McGiver in a brilliant dead-pan, is hysterically funny.

The story and characters are tied together wonderfully in the movie's musical theme, the song "Moon River" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.  I'm a sucker for Huck Finn references and the song is dripping with them.  Are Holly and Paul equal to Huck and Jim on the raft?  Well, no.  But the lonely romance of life's journey is certainly a shared theme for the two stories.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • Mickey Rooney's portrayal of cranky neighbor I.Y. Yunioshi is obnoxious, offensive, ridiculous, inappropriate, insensitive and just about any other negative adjective you could heap on to the pile.  There's just no getting around it.  It was wrong in 1961 and it's wrong now.  We stopped the movie to talk about offensive stereotypes when he first came on screen.
  • We also warned Our Girl ahead of time that Holly is not always very nice to her cat.

Australian Open 2014: Wawrinka!

via Wikipedia
Stanislas Wawrinka (8th seed, Switzerland) is the Australian Open champion.  There shall be no asterisk.  He was dominating the final match even before Nadal's back problems.  Stan played the tournament of his life, the first man in 20 years to beat both of the top two seeds at a Major.  For the first time in over four years, a man outside the Big Four has won a Slam.  Perhaps most amazingly of all, on Monday, Roger Federer will be only the second-ranked Swiss player in the world.  Tennis has a new story.

Nadal missed this chance to catch Pete Sampras on the all-time Slams list but he seems likely to take care of that in Paris in June.  He missed last year's Aussie entirely so his trip to the final secures the top ranking for the foreseeable future.  Hopefully, the back situation isn't serious and he'll be ready to go in time for Indian Wells in March.
via Wikipedia
All famous athletes, perhaps all famous people, should be like Na Li (4th seed, China), the women's champion.  Please enjoy her post-final speech here.  She is the most likeable player on tour, no contest.  This was her second Slam title, virtually ensuring her enshrinement in the Hall of Fame one day.  Tennis is booming in Asia and the sport could not ask for a more charismatic ambassador.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

On the Coffee Table: The Joy of Rice

Title: Oishinbo: A la Carte - 
- Volume 5: Vegetables
- Volume 6: The Joy of Rice
Writer: Tetsu Kariya
Artist: Akira Hanasaki
via Paper Chimes
I have always loved rice.  Growing up with parents who had spent most of their young adult lives in Asia, I suppose it's not surprising that the starch of choice at the dinner table was frequently steamed white rice.  From an early age, I could never get enough, soy sauce my favorite dressing, though I've learned to appreciate other options over time.  We got a fantastic rice cooker as a wedding present and it is one of the most frequently used appliances in our kitchen.

Rice is the heart of Japanese cuisine, period.  The olfactory connection between my love of the food and my love of the place is very powerful indeed.  As such, Volume 6 of the Oishinbo: A la Carte series was a very easy sell.  (I have previously reviewed installments of this long-running food manga both here and here.)  The stories in this collection explore the broad impact of rice on Japanese society: economic, cultural, historical, environmental, etc.

The most mouth-watering tale for me is the three-issue long Rice Ball Match, in which onigiri are explored.  I think of onigiri as train food.  I'd usually grab one or two at the station convenience store before a long train ride.  The salmon ones were my favorite.  I didn't care so much for the other popular option, umeboshi (pickled plum).  My Wife read this book first and was inspired to try onigiri.  Fortunately, there's a relatively new restaurant in Burlington, called Bento, that specializes in Japanese comfort foods: onigiri, miso soup, bento boxes and so forth.  It's not quite what I remember from Japan but it's not half-bad for northwest Vermont.
via Amazon
Last summer, I read Volume 5 - Vegetables.  I wasn't as impressed by that one which is why I didn't blog about it.  Part of the problem was personal taste.  I'll eat vegetables but they're not usually the inspiring part of a meal for me.  Also, the protagonist's rival and father played a more prominent role in that collection and that aspect of the story grows tiresome for me.  I am, however, very excited to read Volume 7 - Izakaya: Pub Food.  While the thing I miss most about Japan is the trains, second place would definitely go to the bars and the food is an essential aspect of that culture.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Star Trek: A Taste of Armageddon

Episode: "A Taste of Armageddon"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 23
Original Air Date: February 23, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"A Taste of Armageddon" is a dystopian narrative.  The Enterprise travels to Eminar VII in hopes of establishing diplomatic relations.  Upon arrival, our heroes learn that the Eminans are at war with the nearby planet of Vendikar.  However, the war is fought entirely by computers - essentially an interplanetary video game.  Here's the catch, though: citizens of each world must submit to execution in order to meet the resulting casualty totals.  To complicate matters further, the Enterprise has been caught in the virtual crossfire and Captain Kirk is expected to turn over his crew for sacrificial disintegration.

via Memory Alpha
David Opatoshu played the role of Anan 7, leader of Eminar VII's planetary council.  He was born David Opatovsky on January 30, 1918 in New York City.  His father, Joseph Opatoshu, was a Yiddish writer.

The younger Opatoshu had a television career which extended for over 40 years, first appearance in 1949.  In 1963, he co-starred with Trek's James Doohan (Scotty) in a Twilight Zone episode entitled "Valley of the Shadow." He won an Emmy in 1991 for a guest appearance on Gabriel's Fire.

He had an interesting and varied career on the big screen as well.  He performed in 1939's The Light Ahead, filmed entirely in Yiddish.  In 1958, he had a supporting role in The Brothers Karamozov alongside William Shatner.  As a writer, he adapted one of his father's novels, Romance of a Horse Thief, for the screen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Family Movie Night: An American in Paris

Title: An American in Paris
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Original Release: 1951
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
As discussed in my Singin' in the Rain post, Our Girl is a big Gene Kelly fan.  We had introduced An American in Paris to her a few years ago, just as her interest in dance was starting to take off, though we hadn't watched it in quite a long time.  A winner of six Academy Awards including Best Picture, An American Paris is a dazzling film both visually and musically. 

The story is inspired by the music of George Gershwin, particularly his great orchestral composition of the same name. Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is an ex-GI who stayed on in Paris after the war to pursue an art career.  He's got woman troubles.  Heiress Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) is an enthusiastic champion of his work but is clearly interested in more than just his brushstrokes.  The object of his own pursuit is Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron).  Alas, Lise is involved with another man, eventually revealed to be Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a successful singer and a friend of Mulligan's.  Meanwhile, mutual pal Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) mopes as he burns his way up and down the keyboard.

The love story's cute enough, but not the main selling point for the film.  That said, one refreshing difference with An American in Paris is that the romantic rivals, Milo and Henri, are both appealing and sympathetic.  They deserve happiness as much as the two leads do and one hopes in the end that they might find each other.

The strengths of the film are aesthetic - visually stunning, snatching up Oscars for art, cinematography and costumes.  Colors are vibrant and meaningfully implemented.  The music, of course, is top notch with the three men all applying considerable talent to the Gershwin classics.  Kelly choreographed the dancing, the highlight of which is a 16-minute ballet in the movie's final act.  Unlike Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain, Caron is perfectly capable of holding her own with Kelly on the dance floor.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Australian Open 2014: Middle Weekend

via Wikipedia
Six of the 16 men in the fourth round of the Australian Open are 30 or older.  Tennis still definitely favors the young but players seem to be remaining competitive for longer than in the past.  The sport is more physically demanding than ever so what accounts for the change?  Improved fitness and nutrition?  Is experience worth more in the sport than it used to be?  Have extracurricular drugs played a role - either fewer recreational ones or more performance-enhancing ones than in the past?  Is this a trend we can expect to continue or is the current 30+ cohort an exceptional group?

One fourth round matches pits two 30+ players against one another: Florian Mayer (Germany) vs. David Ferrer (3rd seed, Spain).  Ferrer is a regular in the late stages of Majors, having made at least the quarterfinals of all four multiple times.  He is one of the most respected players on tour and is the easy choice as best active player never to have won a Slam. 

For Mayer, making it this far is a much bigger deal.  When healthy, he has been a solid top 100 player.  However, this is only the third time in his career that he has made it past the third round of a Major and the first time he's done it at a tournament other than Wimbledon.  Ferrer's a tall order for any player but Mayer may have a shot.  His head-to-head record against the scrappy Spaniard is a respectable 3-4, including a hard court win this past fall in Shanghai.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Star Trek: Space Seed

Episode: "Space Seed"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 22
Original Air Date: February 16, 1967
via Memory Alpha

"Space Seed" introduced Khan Noonien Singh, a villain who continues to fuel Trek stories in the 21st century.   Khan is the leader of a group of genetically engineered super-humans discovered aboard an early model Earth vessel adrift in space.  Amazingly, the group had been preserved in a sleeping state for centuries, before being awoken by our heroes.  Khan and his gang attempt to take over the Enterprise.  The story explores the nature of man as Captain Kirk and his friends wrestle with Earth's troubled past and Khan questions whether the character of humans has advanced apace with technology.

via Wikipedia
Ricardo Montalbán (Khan) was a genuine television legend.  The long-term success of the character is due in no small part to Montalbán's charismatic screen presence.  The actor was born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino on November 25, 1920 in Mexico City.  Despite spending most of his life in the United States, he remained a Mexican citizen until his death in 2009.
via Corona Coming Attractions
From the beginning of his career, Montalbán was a trailblazer for Hispanic actors.  Upon arrival in Hollywood, the studios wanted to change his name to Ricky Martin but he refused.  In 1949, he became the first Hispanic actor to appear on the cover of Life magazine.  Over the years, he played other ethnicities as well: Japanese in the movie Sayonara, for instance.  The character of Khan, in fact, is supposed to be Indian.
via Wikipedia
Montalbán's most famous role was Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island, which ran from 1977 to 1984.  However, he is almost as well-remembered as the longtime spokesman for Chrysler, extolling the virtues of the "Corinthian leather" upholstery.  He had numerous other screen roles and a long career in Spanish-language radio dramas, preparing him well for voice-over work later in life.  He was even a capable singer, starring opposite Lena Horne on Broadway.  He devoted much of his career to advocating for minority actors, co-founding the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee in 1972.

Montalbán reprised the role of Khan in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, undoubtedly his most enduring big screen performance.  Wrath of Khan is considered by many to be the very best Trek film and Montalbán is a big reason why.  Benedict Cumberbatch proved a worthy successor playing the part in 2013's Star Trek: Into Darkness

Montalbán was married to his wife Georgiana Belzer for 63 years.  The couple had four children.  He died of congestive heart failure at the age of 88.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Shop Around the Corner

Title: The Shop Around the Corner
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Original Release: 1940
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
You've Got Mail, a highly successful 1998 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, was an Electronic Age update of Lubitsch's 1940 classic.  In The Shop Around the Corner, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) are coworkers in a Budapest gift shop owned by Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan).  They hate each other, except of course for the fact that they're falling in love through an anonymous correspondence.

The Shop Around the Corner is a quiet movie.  In most films of that era, actors bellow their dialogue, projecting their voices in accordance with years of stage performance.  The Shop Around the Corner is the rare film performed in an easy, conversational tone.  As a result, the story atmosphere is quite intimate. 

Most of the narrative focuses on the love story but there is a subplot at the store around Mr. Matuschek's marital troubles.  My favorite scene comes late as Matuschek, suddenly alone on Christmas Eve, fishes for an invitation from each of his employees.  Finally, the newly hired errand boy, on his own in the big city, is tickled pink to be treated to dinner by his boss - a wonderfully sweet exchange.

The Shop Around the Corner is a charming film - good acting, clever though unspectacular dialogue, rich visual texture.  The love story is believable, though more from Kralik's side than Klara's.  The movie is categorized as romantic comedy.  However, the story gets pretty heavy at times.  Comic relief usually comes via Pepi, the ambitious gofer played by William Tracy.

Australian Open 2014: Squid Picks

I'm gearing up.  I've got Melbourne time and weather set up on my phone apps and I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that Chromecast will come through for my match streaming needs.  The Australian Open tennis tournament begins today - well, tomorrow Melbourne time.

As I've written in previous posts, the Australian - long the forgotten stepchild among tennis's Majors - may well be my favorite.  For starters, Southern Australia looks amazing in January.  Most players are well-rested, having just come off tennis's skimpy off-season.  The hard court surface is a happy middle ground between clay and grass.  All courts have lights, so plenty of night tennis.  Perhaps best of all, the Australian has two courts with retractable roofs.  The time zone is a bummer from the Eastern US perspective but otherwise, Aussie has positioned itself very nicely as the Slam of the Future.
via Shrewd Tennis
Melbourne has become Novak Djokovic's kingdom.  The 26-year-old Serb has won the Australian each of the past three years and four times overall.  He finished 2013 in good form and always trains hard so he should be the man to beat once again.  Nadal is always a threat, of course, but he's on the tougher side of the draw.  Murray's recovering from back surgery.  Federer's still a joy to watch but at age 32, days of winning Majors may be over.  (First time admitting that to myself, by the way.)  So, until proven otherwise, the defending champ is the favorite.

The narrative in women's tennis is very different these days.  When she is in top form, Serena Williams is not only the best player on tour, she's the greatest female athlete in the world.  Case closed.  Also 32, she seems as invincible as ever, last year becoming the oldest woman to be ranked #1 in the world.  Every tournament is hers for the taking unless she finds a way to beat herself through injury or emotional meltdown.  She has a history of ankle troubles Down Under so there's always a possibility someone else will snag the big paycheck.  The best bet to do so is Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.  Vika is the two-time defending champion, not usually the sort of player one would consider a long shot but such is the state of the sport in 2014.
via Wikipedia
Azarenka's my pick.  If you do catch one of her matches on the tube, keep a finger on the mute button.  She's a screamer!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Star Trek: The Return of the Archons

Episode: "The Return of the Archons"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 21
Original Air Date: February 9, 1967
via Wikipedia
The Enterprise arrives at planet Beta III to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the USS Archon, lost 100 years before.  The crew discover a society dressed in 19th century Earth garb, living under apparent mind control.  The story reminds me a bit of The Prisoner, actually, a BBC series that would premier in September of '67.  I can't say I particularly cared for this episode, except for one very important feature.  "The Return of the Archons" is the first Trek episode to mention the Prime Directive.

In the Star Trek universe, Starfleet's Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.  As I have said before, I believe the best Trek stories are the ones in which the crew is faced with an ethical dilemma.  The best of those usually bump up against the Prime Directive.  As a literary device, the Prime Directive ranks with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics as one of the best in science fiction.

The Prime Directive is not quite so ironclad as the Three Laws.  Asimov's robots will cease function before they break their laws.  The puzzle of each story usually involves figuring out how the robots manage to cause such trouble while still playing by the rules.  The Laws themselves, are never wrong. The problem is always a matter of human failure to understand them.

Enterprise captains get a bit more wiggle room.  In the case of "Return of the Archons," the Prime Directive is violated practically the moment it's introduced.  When Captain Kirk advocates destroying the computer he expects is controlling the planet, Spock invokes the Directive.  Kirk's response: "That refers to a living, growing you think this one is?"  In Trek, it seems we are always encouraged to side with the captain whether s/he is violating the Prime Directive or not.  The consideration is the important thing.

via Memory Alpha
Harry Townes plays the part of Reger, a resistance member who helps Kirk & Company.  Townes was born September 18, 1914 in Huntsville, Alabama.  In addition to Trek, Townes made multiple guest appearances on Perry Mason, Bonanza and Gunsmoke.  In 1974, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and served at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Hollywood.  He died in Huntsville in 2001.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Family Movie Night: The Sound of Music

Title: The Sound of Music
Director: Robert Wise
Original Release: 1965
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
By any measure, The Sound of Music is one of the most commercially successful and culturally iconic films ever made.   Adjusted for inflation, it is one of the highest grossing movies of all-time.  In addition, the soundtrack is one of the best-selling recordings ever.  While Julie Andrews had rocketed to stardom in 1964's Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music was the film that cemented her status as the undisputed queen of movie musicals.

The story is well-known, though far from historically accurate.  Maria is an aspiring nun in Salzburg, Austria.  She goes to work as a governess for the family Von Trapp.  The stern sea captain and his seven children are a tough sell but, of course, she wins them over.  Then, with the Anschluss, the Nazis demand the captain join their navy, so the family must leave the country.  The truth was less dramatic.  Yes, there was a musical family Von Trapp but they left by train rather than hiking over the Alps.  The real-life Georg Von Trapp had an Italian passport so there was no need to hide behind gravestones at the abbey.

The Sound of Music is front-loaded, not uncommon for musicals.  Most of the best songs and charming scenes occur in the first half.  The second act is darker and slower.  We watched the movie over two nights which worked out well.  Otherwise, the story drags towards the end.

Sometimes, the saccharine sweetness can be a bit much.  Christopher Plummer (the Captain) once described working with Julie Andrews as "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card, every day."  However, there is one scene that gets me every time - guaranteed waterworks.  When the Captain discovers his children singing to the Baroness for the first time, his expression is so pure, so genuine - unmistakable paternal pride.  It's a scene I never fully appreciated until I became a father myself. 

Mainly on the strength of her two most famous films, Julie Andrews was the biggest movie star in the world in the mid-to-late 1960s.  Her career has been unspectacular ever since but with The Sound of Music still airing on television every year at Christmas, she is assured of her place in world culture for generations to come.  Mary Martin, however, was upset not to get the part of Maria as she had originated the role on Broadway - similar to Andrews having been passed over for My Fair Lady.  But Ms. Martin was a smart lady.  She managed to get a cut of the movie's box office take.  She made $8,000,000 on the film as opposed to the $250,000 Andrews got for playing the role.

On the Coffee Table: The Twelve

Title: The Twelve: A Thrilling Novel of Tomorrow, Volume 1
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Chris Weston
via Wikipedia
J. Michael Straczynski is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic book writers.  After I reviewed the first collected volume of Rising Stars, my blogger pal Tony Laplume recommended The Twelve.  For this series, Straczynski and Weston resurrected a dozen obscure characters from Marvel's Golden Age, back when the company was known as Timely Comics.  With shades of Rip Van Winkle, The Twelve were cryogenically frozen by the Nazis in 1945, forgotten, then discovered and awoken by the U.S. military 60 years later.  The story chronicles their adjustment to 21st century society.  Volume 1 collects the first six issues of a twelve-issue run.

The adventure for the reader is in learning more about the individual characters, rather than marveling at the heroic or not so heroic exploits.  What I enjoy about Straczynski's work is his ability to dig into the personal insecurities of his super-powered beings.  A superhero team is hardly a new idea but the writer's investment in each member is deep in The Twelve, just as it is for Rising Stars.

Weston's art is vivid and engaging throughout.  I'm also very impressed with the cover art.  The image at the top of my post is from issue #1, cover art by Kaare Andrews.  Andrews also did the covers for #2-4.  Here's #2:
via Comic Art Community
The covers for #5 and #6 were by Paolo Rivera.  Here's #5:
via Wikipedia
Thanks for the recommendation, Tony!

On the Coffee Table: The Batman Chronicles

Title: The Batman Chronicles, Volume One
Writers: Bill Finger and Gardner Fox
Artist: Bob Kane
via Wikipedia
DC Comics's Chronicles series collects many of their classic comics in full color and chronological order of publication: exactly what I want.  Batman, Volume One, for instance, runs from the Caped Crusader's first appearance in Detective Comics #27 through issue #38 (May 1939-April 1940), plus Batman #1 (Spring 1940).  While popular in his own right, Batman in the beginning was riding the coattails of Superman, as was the rest of the comic book industry.  However, I have always considered Batman to be a more interesting character than Superman.  True, he has no real superpowers and is far from invincible.  But from a literary perspective, his vulnerability only serves to make him more compelling.  The Batman story is darker and earthier (literally: Batman is a native, Superman an alien from Krypton).  However, the best part of the Batman universe has always been the villains, especially the greatest of all superhero nemeses: The Joker.
via Wikipedia
The Joker made his first appearance in Batman #1.  From the beginning, there was something different about him, something that set him apart.  He announced his crimes before committing them: "At precisely twelve o'clock midnight, I will kill Henry Claridge" and sure enough, at 12, Henry dropped dead.  His victims died with a maniacal grin.  He already had his own evil lair with a throne and everything.  He taunted Batman and Robin.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I root for the Joker but, as with Long John Silver in Treasure Island, the story is always more interesting when he is around.

Catwoman also debuts in Batman #1, though she is referred to as simply "The Cat" and has yet to discover bodysuits.  She, more than the Joker, Robin, Commissioner Gordon or anyone else, provides some character development for Batman.  Turns out, he has a weakness for women, even the evil ones.  He essentially lets her escape because he's smitten.

Over the decades, Batman stories have not always worked for me.  I'm way behind on the movies.  The Dark Knight Returns comics by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson are good, though not enough to inspire my long-term devotion.  I preferred the Green Lantern stories in the New 52 relaunch a few years back.  The old 1960s TV show is fun, though I know it irks many among the devoted.  I'm not even sure I like Batman himself as much as I enjoy the supporting cast.  I enjoyed these early stories, though, and will keep an eye out for others - especially if they include The Joker!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

On the Coffee Table: The Dragonslayer

Title: Bone, Volume 4: The Dragonslayer
Writer and Artist: Jeff Smith
We got Volume 4 of the Bone series for Christmas.  Well, it was technically a gift for my daughter but I got to read it after she did.  My thoughts on the first three books can be found here

The story is gradually getting darker.  Fone Bone, Thorn and Gran'ma have all abandoned the farm for the safety of the inn at Barrelhaven.  Meanwhile, at the inn, Phoney Bone is playing on the townspeople's fear of dragons as part of a broader scheme to get out of debt, then out of town with riches aplenty.  More is revealed about Thorn and her special powers, though it is apparent that she still has much to learn about them.

As I wrote in my previous post, the strength of the story lies in its balance between lighter and darker elements.  The most endearing light element in Volume 4 is the appearance of an adorable rat creature cub in town.  The cub takes a shine to Fone who hides it in the barn.  When Fone reveals it to Thorn, though, she threatens to kill it - there's that balance.  Rat creatures killed her family so she wants revenge.  Fone, however, manages to protect the cub.

Looking forward to Volume 5: Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border.

Star Trek: Court Martial

Episode: "Court Martial"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 20
Original Air Date: February 2, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Happy New Year!

In this, Star Trek's second courtroom drama episode, Captain Kirk stands trial on charges of perjury and negligence.  A crewman, Lieutenant Commander Ben Finney, has died in a freak accident.  Kirk's account of the incident conflicts with the ship's computer record, thus the charges.  To complicate matters further, the prosecuting attorney is Lt. Areel Shaw, his ex-girlfriend!

I won't spoil the plot twist, except to say that I did not see it coming myself.

via Memory Alpha
Elisha Cook plays Kirk's defense attorney, Samuel T. Cogley, Esq.  The eccentric Cogley is highly amusing, though if I were Kirk, I would have been nervous about the fact that his lawyer slouched in his chair and stared off into space during the trial. 

Cook was born December 26, 1903 in San Francisco.  Growing up in Chicago, he started as a traveling actor on the vaudeville circuit at the age of 14.  He got his big break when he was cast in the Broadway play Ah! Wilderness for a two-year run.  His on-screen resume is lengthy, including films such as The Maltese Falcon, Shane and Rosemary's Baby.  In addition to Trek, his television series appearances included Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, Batman, The Bionic Woman and Magnum, P.I.

He was married twice but was apparently a bit of a recluse.  According to director John Huston,
[Cook] lived alone up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films. When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent word up to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture, and then withdraw again to his retreat.
Cook died of a stroke in 1995.