Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Marvel – Wolverine: Blood & Sorrow

Wolverine is a pop culture staple. Whether hopping around your child’s TV screen as an animation or swaggering in a Hugh Jackman incarnation, the yellow and blue uniform with jutting blades is almost instantly recognizable. What has made Wolverine stand out above his fellow X-Men is his dark past and morbid personality. The anthology “Wolverine Blood & Sorrow” collects four of the darkest comics starring him. The trade paperback (as such things are called) is heavily weighted in the early-2000’s. Two of the stories originate in 2006, another in 2003. The remaining story is from 1991.
                I picked up this book at a local comic-con some months ago and had very low expectations for it. It was from a bargain bin and the cover art left much to be desired. It looked cheap and thrown together. I am also not a particularly strong fan of Wolverine. However I could not turn down such an inexpensive collection and was pleasantly surprised to find some great storytelling within.
                The first comic was originally in X-Men Unlimited #12. A popular series, each comic tells short vignettes that take place between the major points covered in X-Men proper. This one, entitled “The Healing,” seems like the opening to an action film. Wolverine lies surrounded by wolves in the great Canadian Arctic nothingness horrifically wounded. Though his powers allow him to heal, he is still weak and in great pain. The writing (by Stuart Moore) is clear and compelling, not an easy task in a story that contains nothing but a man bleeding. C.P. Smith’s art mostly satisfies, with strong palette choices and rough, edgy strokes.
                The second comic, “The Package,” dates from 1991’s Wolverine #41 and is a bit of a train wreck. The writing in the story is amusing. Wolverine has to transport the infant daughter of an assassinated African leader to the border without falling into the hands of General Lago, a Kony-like figure. While watching Wolverine play babysitter is amusing, and the story is relatively well-done, the art is a mess. Also by C.P. Smith, many panels contain far too many lines and scribbles, obscuring the action while othes have big empty spaces that likewise fail to do the scene justice. Onomatopoeia graces far too many panels and some of them (Snikt! Buddabuddabudda! Kassh!) would be better suited to Adam West’s portrayal of Batman than anything else.
                Fortunately, Smith’s art had greatly improved by the time of Giant-Size Wolverine #1 (2006). The art has a haunting, Lovecraftian feel with a palette relying heavily on eerie greens and sickening browns. The story is a big confusing out of context, but David Lapham nevertheless turns an interesting tale.
By far my favorite story in the collection is the final one: 2003’s “Wolverine #49.” Wolverine is sent on a last-minute Christmas shopping errand by Kitty Pryde, a younger X-Men able to move through solid matter. Of course, the trip quickly turns sinister as a violent cult attacks and takes a young heiress hostage. The villain is wily, insane, and fabulous to watch. Wolverine is at his cynical best and the artists due a great job of translating the blinding fluorescent lights and fake cheerfulness of a mall at Christmastime.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for newcomers to the comic scene. It requires too much prior knowledge of the Marvel universe. For loves of Wolverine (especially those on tight budgets) this is a fair buy.

For those of you who would like an introduction into X-Men I highly recommend “Origins,” the critically celebrated explanation of Wolverine’s birth and childhood. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Norman Mailer - "The Executioner's Song"

Norman Mailer would have had a masterpiece on his hands if this book was about half its length. At over a thousand pages long, The Executioner’s Song is an imposing tome. The book follows the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore, who was the first man executed in the United States after it was made legal again in 1976.
                Mailer’s intention in writing the book is unclear. The first half, the better half, wants to understand what drove Gilmore to his senseless crime. It starts shortly before Gilmore’s release from a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery. Having spent over half his life in jail, Gilmore has trouble adjusting. He begins to drink, fight, and generally piss people off. He also falls madly in love with Nicole Baker, a twenty-year old with two kids, three ex-husbands, and a boat-load of troubles. Their stormy relationship and Gilmore’s pride in being a hardened “con” drive him, in a fit of post-break up rage, to shoot and kill two working men in separate robberies.
                The description in this part of the book is impeccable. Mailer finds ominous threads woven in seemingly innocuous objects and interactions. This is what sets Mailer apart from other crime writers and what makes the first part of the book a delight. Whereas other authors fetishize the crime, spewing blood and guts all over their pages, Mailer focuses on the little things that surround such shocking event. This reminds readers why these crimes are so terrible, they involve real people not movie-of-the-week monsters.
                Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire book is during Gilmore’s first murder. After robbing a gas station Gilmore forces Max Jensen, a new father and devout Mormon, to the bathroom:

It was a bathroom with green tiles that came to the height of your chest, and tan-painted walls. The floor, six feet by eight feet, was laid in dull gray tiles. A rack for paper towels on the wall had Towl Savr printed on it. The toilet had a split seat. An overhead light was in the wall.
                Gilmore brought the Automatic to Jensen’s head. “This one is for me,” he said, and fired.
                “This one is for Nicole,” he said, and fired again. The body reacted each time.

However, after Gilmore’s trial The Executioner’s Song takes a drastic dive in quality. The book becomes a series of squabbles between an endless barrage of lawyers and reporters. It is hard to tell characters like Schiller from characters like Stagner and even harder to care about any of them. Part of me wishes I had just stopped reading after Gilmore’s sentencing because everything else seemed a waste of time. Oddly, in this section Mailer takes no position on whether or not the death penalty is appropriate. Instead his narrative appears to rely on suspense over whether Gilmore will be executed or not. This is incredibly foolish as Gilmore is more famous than this book and is famous specifically for being executed.
                I do not know if Mailer is simply trying to create a compendium extolling every event in the entire story, or if he is trying to say something meaningful about the death penalty. Either way it is not particularly satisfying.
                If any readers are looking for a meaningful exploration of the death penalty I would suggest either the 2011 film “Into the Abyss” by Werner Herzog or the 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine by Albert Camus.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

George R.R. Martin - “A Game of Thrones”

The much lauded TV series seduced me into reading “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (of which there are currently seven). I was not disappointed. Martin manages to create a fascinating high fantasy world without falling into the pit so many fantasy author’s tumble down into: he does not fall in love with his own setting. There is far more going on than gory battles and demonic wraiths, this is a story about the strength of family and the alluring, violent world of power.
The book centers around members of three important families in a world where summer last up to a decade and winter twice as long. Bids for power are just as raucous as the climate. The land is comprised of an assortment of kings ruling under a high king, surrounded by free cities, a mysterious land where men originated, and the lands of the cruel horse people the Dothraki. The three families: the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryen each attempt to grab or maintain power from their own unique positions. The Starks, led by the honorable yet troubled Eddard Stark, rule the northernmost kingdom and are at the narratives heart. The Lannisters are a cruel and cunning folk who are most shown through the eyes of Tyrion, the Lannister patriarch’s dwarf son who secretly despises them. The Targaryen were originally the high kings. They are a powerful people called “the dragonborn” whose military strength united the kingdoms. They also practiced incest to keep themselves “pure” which probably did them in, as their last ruler was mad and was removed from power. Poor and exiled, the two surviving Targaryen’s try to reclaim their throne by trying to curry the favor of the Dothraki.
I could hardly put this book down. Though nearly nine hundred pages long, it never seemed slow and at times felt agonizingly slow I desperately tried to learn the fate of one character of another. The characters are strong and dynamic even when villainous. Death seems to lie behind every corner and no character is safe from plots and counterplots, and most make plots of their own. Martin wisely pays attention to both those at the center of power and those at the fringe, giving voices to Eddard Stark’s bastard son, prostitutes, and elderly scholars.
The settings are strong. Martin takes the reader from the great untamed wilds of the north to the bustling, treacherous marketplaces of the free cities to the grand epicurean halls of the southern kingdoms. Geographically it is all hard to figure out. It is unclear to understand the relationship between the mainland, which comes illustrated, and the outlying continents including the Dothraki homeland. Nevertheless, the landscapes of most of these places are clear. Take for example Martin’s description of High King Robert Baratheon’s throne room:
Though the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes across the walls where the heads of dragons had one hung. Now the stone was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and browns and blues, and yet it still seemed to Ned Stark that the only color in the hall was the red of blood.
                This is a must-read for anyone with an interest in fantasy and is also a good place for the curious to start (though I would recommend “Lord of the Rings” first for newbies). While it relies heavily on many of the common tropes of high fantasy (kings, wars, Norse influence) it focuses more on characters than on fantastical voyages.