Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives (2001)

Author: Ed Brubaker | Illustrator: Bryan Talbot | Page Count: 96

"At that moment, Edwin Paine remembered exactly why he used to be afraid of the dark."

The DBD miniseries features Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, characters first introduced in The Sandman: Vol IV: Season of Mists (1992). Some other supporting characters from the Sandman universe pop up and will leave new readers confused because the book offers no explanation of who they are.

It's set in England. The dialogue is supposed to reflect that, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. It's more like an outsider's view of how English people sound. It's easy to overlook because the characters existed before author Ed Brubaker took the reins, so he was tied to them having a different geographical origin than himself.

What's more difficult to ignore is the lack of danger or urgency. The youthful Holmes and Watson-esque relationship on the verge of maturity yet still clinging to the ties of childhood was certainly a sensible approach, but deeper introspection, or perhaps more of a focus on the boys' unique position within the world they inhabit, could've improved the narrative.

Brubaker went on to pen some of the genre greats (including Batman, Daredevil, Captain America and the X-Men!) but Dead Boy Detectives isn't something I'd recommend to anyone who isn't a fanatic Sandman collector. It feels too much like an attempt to mimic Alan Moore's period pieces, without the gravitas. If the series had been continued it could've explored a small pocket of the Sandman universe from a murder mystery perspective; that would've been really interesting.

The book collects together The Sandman Presents: Dead Boy Detectives Issues 1-4.

1 smile, because even dead people read Batman out of 5

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (2009)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrator: P. Craig Russell | Page Count: 144

In the flickering light ... the monk experienced a strange illusion – it occurred to him that a scrap of his shadow was missing, gone as if it had been torn away.

For the 20th anniversary of Sandman, Gaiman permitted an adaptation of his 1999 novella of the same name into comic book form.  I didn't buy it at the time because it seemed unnecessary; the original was perfect so why bother making it into something it wasn't meant to be?  It smelt like an easy cash manoeuvre.  I relented (after 3 years!) and bought it recently because it was on sale.  It turns out it’s equally as good--and in places even better--than the novella and actually feels like it could be a part of the original comic book series.  It could easily be included in one of the stand-alone collections and it wouldn't feel out of place.

The obvious difference is the art.  Yoshitaka Amano, who illustrated the original novella, has a unique painting style.  Rather than try and compete with that, Russell presents his work in a palette of autumnal colours that he styled on ancient woodblock paintings.  His lines are perfect, and his colouring non-intrusive.  He restructured small parts of the dialogue to fit the serialised format, and imbued the remainder with something it didn’t have before; in short he successfully made it into a comic full of grace and passion.  His version of Morpheus is so damn good.  He’s a history of doing adaptations; this one is by far the most successful of the ones I’ve read.  Even if you own the novella, this is still a worthy purchase.

5 fox tails and fairy tales out of 5

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

VideoHound's Horror Show: 999 Hair Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies (1998)

Author: Mike Mayo | Page Count: 525

We’ve gone from the darkened movie house to the darkened den … but our expectations of horror have not changed.

Before the popularity of DVD, and the advent of the availability of any movie on the internet, came VideoHound, a series of tomes each dedicated to a specific film genre, in an effort to aid the collector of hard-to-find video titles.  VideoHound's Horror Show focuses on the frightening, the macabre and the weird, even including such fringe titles as The Wizard of Oz, Taxi Driver, Deliverance, and Apocalypse Now as they fit the criteria for being scary and traumatizing to many.

Now, a book published in 1998 which aids in tracking down obscure videos may not be as pertinent today, with such websites as IMDB and Wikipedia detailing all things movie and otherwise but it's still a replete reference, and a fine read for anyone interested in the origins and history of the horror film.  The movies are alphabetized, each including a small plot synopsis, review and rating from author Mike Mayo, and a small amount of credits including the release date, actors, director, writer, etc.  The opinions of Mayo will undoubtedly clash with yours as they did with mine but that doesn't defeat the fact that he has an intelligent grasp of how a film is made, and the story devices and underlying themes which pervade a script.

As you flip through the pages you will come upon stark B&W photos of horror icons as a blood-drenced prom queen, a Pazuzu-possessed little girl, a poised yet grotesque Erik and a furry-faced lycanthrope stare back at you.  Besides the reviews, another main attraction is the detailed history of horror films throughout the years.  Each era has an assigned essay describing the origins of trends and a list of standout features.  Other stops among the assemblage are 'Hound Salutes' which include directors, actors, and writers among other important roles that defined and refined genres and paved the way for future horror film-making.

I will say now that I have not read every word in this book. I've only read through the essays, Salutes, and select reviews, as I still hold it as a future reference and guide to more obscure titles I wish to unearth.  From reading what I have, I came to notice an appreciation the author had for certain ground breaking titles such as Fritz Lang's M, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Brian De Palma's Carrie, and John Carpenter's Halloween.  Now while these titles obviously have held a major influence on later films, Mayo holds them in too high a regard, labeling most other films that came after as derivations or even rip-offs of their general formulas and themes.  Though dated, there are many great titles within waiting to be discovered and a flood of information and knowledge that can still gorge the ravenous horror fan.

3 Woofs! out of 5

Nutted by Borderline

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990)

Author: Douglas Adams & John Lloyd | Page Count: 146

A revised and expanded version of the previous edition, which was called simply The Meaning of Liff (1983). It’s a dictionary of things there aren't any words for yet. All those little hells that torment us each day and the simple pleasures that make life bearable are accounted for. It’s impossible to describe properly, so a few examples will have to suffice. (There should be a word to describe writing a review about a book that is impossible to describe properly.)

  • Gulberwick (n.): The small particle that you always think you've got stuck at the back of your throat after you've been sick.
  • Acklins (pl. n.): The odd twinges you get in parts of your body when you scratch other parts.

If you know Douglas Adams' work you'll know that he labours over every word, sometimes for days. If you're new to his brand of humour, this is a good place to start. If you happen to be Scottish (that's not an insult) you'll find even more to laugh about than the rest of us.

  • Skibbereen (n.): The noise made by a sunburned thigh leaving a plastic chair.
  • Keele (n.): The horrible smell caused by washing ashtrays.

You can read half a page with a minor titter or maybe a half-smile, and then without warning you'll piss yourself royally at a particularity poignant and wry observation. It’s perfect for leaving in the shitter for those times when you expect to be two minutes but end up twiddling your thumbs for twenty minutes with nary a toot from your anus. Curses!

5 doses of best medicine out of 5

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrator: Yoshitaka Amano | Page Count: 128

"The fly crawled into the fox's eyeball.  She did not blink, although the tickling felt like madness in her mind."

Some stories have to be written; they make your brain itch until you relent and put them down on paper.  I can’t say if that was the case with The Dream Hunters but it certainly feels like it was from a reader’s point of view.  It’s a novella, not a comic, a fairytale for adults, but one that will stir your withered heart out of its apathetic and cynical safe haven.  It'll remind you why life and love deserve more attention than most of us are apt to give in these hurried and dark days.

Gaiman teamed with legendary Japanese illustrator Yoshitaka Amano to achieve the task.  Together they created magic.  If the book had a soundtrack it would be played on harp strings spun from silk, coupled with the sound forest winds make as they brush past golden leaves.  It’s a love story, of sorts, between a Monk and his admirer.  If the idea of a love story scares you, it also has a wicked, selfish onmyoji (magician) to keep the narrative from being too one-sided.  His story unfolds parallel to the Monk's, as almost a mirror image.  It makes sense when you consider the origin of the work and the setting, as you'll discover.

Being a stand-alone means no prior knowledge of the extended Sandman universe is necessary, so it'll make sense on its own.  It’s one of those tales where Morpheus makes a cameo, serves as a catalyst for something and then steps aside to allow the story to continue along its own organic path.

Amano compliments Gaiman’s prose with a number of full page paintings in his usual fluidic, sketchy style; the almost translucent watercolours are something you’ll either love or hate.  There are occasional cluttered perspectives that make you work hard to find the focal point but at other times the page is almost empty, with a serene, heavenly quality.

Characterisation is slight, forcing the reader to fill the recognisable shapes with their own ideals.  I don't believe it's an oversight or sloppy writing.  It's more likely a clever trick to make the story more personal than it otherwise could've been.

5 servings of Amano goodness out of 5

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Sandman: Vol X: The Wake (1996)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrators: Michael Zulli / Charles Vess / Bryan Talbot / John Ridgway | Page Count: 185

"Even in this half-assed medieval Milton Keynes there's got to be somewhere a man can get a pint of beer."

Book 10 of 10 in the Sandman saga is a quiet, reflective piece wherein Gaiman says goodbye to the enduring characters he created and the stories that he felt he was fit to tell; it’s a bitter-sweet reading experience.  Like I’ve said before, Vol IX: The Kindly Ones (1996) is the true end, this is merely an epilogue.  However, it’s notable for giving us the second thing that a man in a tavern promised the Dream King twenty years previous; the first was in Vol III: Dream Country (1991).  Yes, that guy; and the gift given is perfect in every way.

The book is split into two distinct parts: a three issue farewell that wraps up the Endless story, and three stand-alone works that serve to tie up loose ends of some of the more long-lived secondary characters.  The sense of loss and of inevitable new beginnings permeates every aspect of the book.  It also manages to be a celebration of the long tradition of spoken word storytelling, and of the comic book format.  As such, it’s less immediate than what came before.

Reading it feels like wanting to stay home when you know you have someplace important to go; you go because you know you must but part of you remains in the safe home environment; a part of you that you can't define but can invariably feel.  That might sound like I’m talking out of my ass (you should hear me whistle) but if you’ve walked with Morpheus, and love the art of storytelling, you’ll understand what I mean.  If you didn't already love Matthew, you will.

I felt a little guilty consuming all 10 volumes in such a short space of time but that won’t stop me doing it again someday.  When something is this good, binging is a justifiable act.

The book collects together Sandman issues 70 – 75.

3½ cameos by some of DC's finest out of 5

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Brief History of Underpants (2008)

Author: Timothy James Brown | Page Count: 128

"Some extremists refused to let their patriarchal oppressors remove their trunks before stuffing them with fire-lighters."

The book takes the view that underpants are hilarious. It proposes that underpants played a key role in shaping great historic events. It tries to convince the reader that it's the most piss-inducing, rib-tickling piece of prose ever written. Farting in a lift is sometimes funny. Urinating in the frozen food aisle of Tesco may even raise a titter. But underpants don’t. It's 128 glossy pages that smelt funny, half of which contain, I quote, "…some spectacular pictures of pants," is the author’s idea of a quality read. Thank Christ I only paid 49p for it.

American readers should note that "pants" in Britain is short for "underpants." The phrase "ants in your pants" is much more terrifying to us than to you. And when you ask, "does my fanny look big in these pants?" we have been known to occasionally drop our chips.

0½ for Raquel Welsh in her furry bikini out of 5

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft (2006)

Author: Andrew Migliore / John Strysik | Page Count: 352

H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer of science and horror fiction, not only influenced generations of authors but inspired hordes of filmmakers as well.  And it is these films which Lurker in the Lobby focuses on, indexing and chronicling their stories (in front of the camera and off) and general worth to the Lovecraft fan.  The book begins with the HPL quote, "I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalised and vulgarised into the flat infantile twaddle which passes for 'horror tales' amongst radio and cinema audiences!"  His warning is actually quite apropos as most of these films hardly live up to the maddening horror described in his works.  Some of the movies therein are direct (and indirect) adaptations while others only contain certain reoccurring Lovecraft themes.

The authors do a good job of pinpointing a variety of Lovecraftian cinema including stronger representations such as The Dunwich Horror (1970), In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and Re-Animator (1985) to the lesser known yet respectable Call of Cthulhu (2005), The Resurrected (1992) and The Shunned House (2003) to the "flat infantile twaddle" Lovecraft prophecised with Die Monster Die (1965), The Shuttered Room (1967), and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (2004).  Though I warn the potential reader, the films' plots are entirely synopsized, so beware of spoilers throughout the book.  After the Features is the Television section which documents episodes from such series as Masters of Horror, Monsters and Night Gallery to even Digimon and The Real Ghostbusters.

The Gallery section exhibits a range of pre-production sketches from an array of made and (mostly) unmade features to poster art and production stills.  The artwork is truly grotesque in its beautiful depictions of Lovecraft's menagerie of creatures, curiosities and gods.  The Interviews to some will be the most fascinating section as the authors converse with such directors as Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, and Stuart Gordon among other artists willing to discuss behind-the-scenes tidbits and their adoration for HPL.

After finishing the book I found myself delving deeper into Lovecraft's literature and indulging in the films mentioned in this collection, even searching out some of the lesser known ones, having a great time understanding and studying the influence that is H.P. Lovecraft.  Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft is a well organized reference for the followers of Lovecraft who wish to learn more about their preferred film adaptations and perhaps shed new light on a few forgotten gems.

4 concluding conflagrations out of 5

Nutted by Borderline (He’s a Crafty Lover)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Death: At Death's Door (2003)

Author: Neil Gaiman / Jill Thompson  |  Illustrator: Jill Thompson
Page Count: 208

" ... the dead are coming back, little brother ... 
... and they all want to sleep over at my house ..."

A flimsy volume that runs concurrent with The Sandman: Vol IV: Season of Mists (1992) and contains more spoilers for that book than actual plot of its own.  If you read ADD first you’ll likely regret it.  It’s the story of what happened to three of his siblings while Dream was busy trying to right his wrongs in Hell.  It contains cutesy manga versions of the Endless, the best of which, and the one that would be hard to fail at, is Delirium.  The kooky, young, muddled-up persona is a perfect fit for the style.  She needs her own series.  And an animation.

Jill Thompson’s lines are excellent and her understanding of the regular/chibi forms at the correct times can’t be faulted, but it feels like Sandman fan-fic written by someone who attained the blessing of the creator.  The humour relies on the fish out of water scenario, which is fine for this kind of thing.  What isn't fine is the characterisation, and unless you embrace that side of it you’ll put the book down unfinished.   Besides Delirium, the other main characters are little like their Gaiman-penned versions (except when they’re using his words).  It doesn't really go anywhere structurally and there's no progression of character but it’s a fun aside to the main series.  For a younger reader it may hold the attention more.

2 weird ice-creams out of 5

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Sandman: Vol IX: The Kindly Ones (1996)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrators: Kevin Nowlan / Marc Hempel / Glyn Dillon / Charles Vess / Dean Ornston / Teddy Kristiansen / Richard Case | Page Count: 352

It was then that Delirium noticed that she had absent-mindedly turned into a hundred and eleven perfect, tiny multicoloured fish.
Each fish sang a different song.

Book 9 of 10 in the Sandman saga is the largest volume of the series, containing one 13 part story, and a short 14th piece which acts as a prologue.  All good things must come to an end and this is it.  There is a 10th volume but this book is the real end of the series, and it doesn’t disappoint.  The Kindly Ones gathers together threads from all previous volumes, and weaves them into a blanket of deep synchronicity; don’t even think about reading this unless you’ve read Vols I, II, IV, V and VII.  Up until now Morpheus was the thing that most of the characters had in common, that begins to change.  Events that seemed minor in previous books have grown to encompass most of the people that the Dream King has touched over the years.  There are subplots in the weave that aren’t strictly necessary but they serve to make the pattern much more beautiful than it already was.

That sense of change that was apparent in Vol VII begins to have unavoidable repercussions; this volume is about collecting payment, and about paying your dues.  It's about acting according to your nature and accepting what that means for others.  It’s essential reading for any comics fan.  Gaiman fans in particular will drop their chin on the floor at the structure, the beauty and the complexity of his greatest work.  It's a master-class in how to wrap up a multi-part narrative in a satisfactory manner.  My chin is still on the floor.

My only criticism is some of the artwork doesn’t suit the mood of the piece.  It detracted a little from the darkness that was ever present.

The book collects together Sandman issues 57 – 69 and Vertigo Jam #1

5 dream a little dream of Dream out of 5

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film (2000)

Author: Ang Lee & James Schamus | Page Count: 144

"The film is not crafted in the realistic style, as my earlier films have been, but the emotions it conveys are real."

Illustrated with more than 80 full colour photographs, this lavish companion book includes the entire screenplay of the film, alongside short essays and commentaries about the production from director Ang Lee and his screenwriter James Schamus.  There's also some words from cast and crew.  Scholars David Bordwell and Richard Corliss give an introduction and some brief history lessons throughout.  The text gives insights into what went on behind the scenes; it exposes the tragedies that dogged the production and the triumphs that elevated it but there isn't enough content to warrant the hefty price tag attached.  Half of the introduction is reprint from elsewhere.  The other half drifts off to become an appreciation of Hong Kong cinema as a whole, and while that was certainly fascinating it begs the question why it was included at all.  Smells like filler.

It's hard to score this one.  Let's say you liked the film and you find screenplays interesting.  Lets also imagine behind the scenes photos excite, you find small snippets of info from cast and crew insightful and you can afford to pay $32.95 for something that when distilled down to only text would fill about six A4 pages (that’s not counting the actual screenplay), then I guess you could give it a try.

The two most interesting things I learned was that Chow Yun-Fat wasn't Lee's first choice to play Li Mu Bai and only one of the cast spoke any mainland Mandarin that the director demanded.  I just saved you money.

1 pretty but hollow volume out of 5

Saturday, April 7, 2012

High On Arrival (2009)

Author: Mackenzie Phillips, Hilary Liftin | Page Count: 292
"Not now darling, Daddy's shooting up."
The controversial memoir of Mackenzie Phillips following her from childhood to the present. It is a story almost typical about how child stars can spiral out of control into self destruction with drugs, sex and daddy issues and how she overcame these problems. As to the more salacious revelations in the book, I'll say free loving hippies + lots of drugs = I believe it.

There is certainly plenty of stuff to work with in her story, it is just hampered a bit by the writing. It's clear Phillips wrote most of it herself with constant overuse of certain words and phrases and while it is mostly chronological she does tend to drift at points. I suspect Liftin was just hired to clean up the manuscript after Phillips wrote it all down, but there is an interesting story with some fascinating details like how before rehab was a regular thing, addicts were still allowed to drink alcohol as it was considered separate from drugs. How far we've come.

I suppose other addicts could sympathize more out of 5

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Sandman: Vol VIII: Worlds' End (1994)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrators: Alec Stevens / Bryan Talbot / John Watkiss / Michael Zulli / Michael Allred / Shea Anton Pensa / Gary Amaro | Page Count: 168
"Is there any person in the world who does not dream?  Who does not contain within them worlds unimagined?"

Book 8 of 10 in the Sandman saga.  Gaiman has previously referenced and paid homage to Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, it was only a matter of time before he turned his attentions to Chaucer.  He uses the frame narrative style used in Canterbury Tales (late 14th Century) to tie together a number of standalone episodes in a Mise en abyme that is both hit and miss.  He doesn't stop at just one layer, he gives us a story within a story within a story within a story within a story but it remains easy to follow.  The titles of the individual tales give their own extra nods to classic literature, A Tale of Two Cities, Cluracan's Tale, Hob's Leviathan, The Golden Boy etc.  The Chaucerian pilgrimage pervades them all.  

A lot of different illustrators with dramatically different styles worked on this book which gives each entry its own identity; cleverly the frame that holds it all together is pencilled by the same person every time, Bryan Talbot.  The first of the tales was my favourite.  It has a very overt nod to Lovecraft, and the art by Alec Stevens is sublime.

What may upset some readers is the fact that Morpheus is largely absent.  The Endless play almost no part directly in half the works, although their influence can be keenly felt as a subtext and by the end you’ll understand why.  Despite sitting largely removed from what has come before (there is someone from Vol II: The Doll's House that reappears but it’s of no great importance) it is deeply referential to what follows in the next book.

My closing argument was going to be ‘where else can you find Chaucer wedded to Lovecraft?’ but in truth, if you’ve followed the series thus far you don’t need a reason to continue, you’ll know already if you want to see it through to the end, which is very close now.

The book collects together Sandman issues 51 - 56

3 smiley buttons with a splash of blood out of 5

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Sandman: Vol VII: Brief Lives (1994)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrator: Jill Thompson | Page Count: 256

You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.

Book 7 of 10 in the Sandman saga is a big one, 9 chapters long.  It uses that extra space to tell a different kind of story, to give the narrative room to breathe, and within that same space it gives the characters room to grow.  The girl with the coloured hair wants to find her missing brother, who up until now has been mentioned many times but rarely seen.  It’s a road trip, both in essence and in actuality.  What do all road trip stories have on common?  Character growth and change.  The concept of 'change' is this volume distilled to a single word.  There is change for Dream, change for the worlds he inhabits and change for the Endless, forever.  Consequences are ripples; they are perpetual when the pond that the stone is cast into lacks boundaries.

The term Graphic Novel is a bullshit banner to imply literary connotations to something that the majority of the public don’t understand.  Comics may have the ‘Graphic’ side covered but 99.9% of them aren't ‘Novels’ (Alan Moore is the exception) but this volume of Sandman is structured so very differently from comic book form that it almost feels wrong to be reading it within those terms.  In these pages we're given a glimpse of the novelist that Gaiman would become.
His novels are often a journey full of whimsical characters that at times are much too generic for their own good but by the end they become a commentary upon those very conventions of genre, they step outside themselves; the pay-off is worth the investment of time the reader gives it.  This volume has that same feeling; it may appear to be going nowhere very fast but when it pulls into a stop you'll be shivering with anticipation for the next volume.

The book collects together Sandman issues 41 – 49

4 all labyrinths lead to the same place out of 5