Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade

Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley.

Best buddies Hap and Leonard have some time to kill so they end up sparring, eating ice cream, and generally farting around as they bullshit extensively about their past.

If this sounds more like a trip down memory lane or a clip show episode of a TV series than the fellas having a new crime adventure then you’d be right because the idea of H&L wandering around to some of their old haunts is just the framework used to string together some short stories about the good ole days which weren’t always so good. Along the way we hear about their first meeting as well as the early days of their friendship, and there’s a lot about Hap’s childhood and teen years with stories that involve his parents as well as good deal about racial issues.

Overall, there’s some interesting stuff for H&L fans, and I’d only seen a couple of the stories before. However, by sticking to their early days we don’t get much of the what I love which are the guys bumbling their way through some kind of mess as they try to play detective and usually get themselves in a whole lot of trouble. There’s still some crime elements to it, but I gotta say that Hap ran across so many dead bodies in his younger days that he probably missed his true calling of being an undertaker.

They’re all pretty decent, but it fell into a weird grey area for me where I felt like I was getting more history than I really needed or wanted about the guys rather than another one of their hilarious adventures.

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Review: Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground

Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

2016 killed so many talented people that it got hard to keep track after a while, and one of its overlooked victims was Darwyn Cooke who died of cancer last spring. Knowing that, I held off on reading this for some time because it’s going to be the last time I get to crack open one of Cooke’s fantastic adaptations of the Parker series and get to enjoy his illustrated interpretations of one of my favorite crime fiction characters.

At least it ends on a high note with Cooke’s version of Richard Stark’s (a/k/a Donald Westlake) Slayground. After the heist of a armored car goes sideways Parker has to hole up in an amusement park that is shut down for the winter, but some local mobsters and dirty cops know that he’s in there with a bag full of cash so they go in after him, but they make the critical error of giving Parker enough time to prepare.

Essentially this is Die Hard in an amusement park done years before Bruce Willis walked into Nakatomi Plaza, and it’s a hoot. As with the other Parker novels that Cooke did he sets them in their original time frames and the artwork gives the whole thing a retro charm. Cooke also uses the format to do clever things like provide a fold-out illustrated map of the park like the one Parker uses to make his plans. Once again the graphic novels of Stark’s novels seem like stylish storyboards for a movie that sadly never got made. (Hint hint, Hollywood.) There’s a bonus with Cooke also doing a short version of The Seventh.

As with all great things I’m sad to see it end but happy I got to experience them. Cooke’s vision of Parker make for excellent companion pieces for fans of the books.

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Review: These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1

These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One: 1 by Marc Cushman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Star Trek just turned fifty, and since I’m a fan only a few years younger than it I’ve soaked up enough of its history and trivia over my lifetime to qualify as a bridge officer on the USS Nerdlinger. Yet this book opened my eyes to all kinds of things about the show including debunking several myths I’ve taken as Trek gospel.

It starts off as kind of your standard behind-the-scenes story of how a pilot turned cop turned TV writer/producer named Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea for a sci-fi show, and then it describes the often painful process by which it eventually was brought to life by a dedicated cast and crew. That’s a fascinating story in itself, but by going through the production documents like script drafts, shooting schedules, and memos as well as drawing on personal recollections of those involved Marc Cushman also provides what becomes almost a daily diary of the initial creation and filming of each episode.

So we get a big picture view of things like how the television industry worked at the time so that the executives of Desilu Productions had good cause to think that shows like Star Trek and Mission Impossible might bankrupt the studio, and how Lucille Ball had to repeatedly step in to override her own board to keep them from being scrapped. We also drill down to the level of noting exactly who wrote each draft of a script and what changes were made as well as personal stories for all the guest stars and crew as well as the major figures like Roddenberry, Shatner, and Nimoy.

What emerges from all of the this is an intriguing picture of the controlled chaos that the production of the show frequently was. It also provides a lot of facts that contradict the general wisdom we usually hear about the original series. The story I always heard was that the show was low-rated at the time, cheaply done, and that the broadcast network NBC frowned on it’s progressive social messages and attitudes. In fact, the show had very respectable ratings in its first season against stiff competition from other networks, it was one of the most expensive made at the time, and NBC was actually encouraging things like diverse casting.

So why does nerd lore tell us something else? It was probably a variety of misconceptions and myths that grew up for a variety of reasons. Networks didn’t release ratings back in those days, and in fact might not want the producers of a show to know exactly how popular it was to prevent them from asking for more money. The show often looked cheap and slapped together because the technical demands had them constantly over budget and behind schedule. As for why NBC was often painted as a villain you could probably say that's due to Gene Roddenberry's habit of blaming NBC when he had to make an unpopular decision.

In fact, while Roddenberry certainly deserves a huge share of the credit for creating the show his behavior frequently caused issues that probably hurt the show and helped lead to its cancellation after three seasons. His style of dealing with freelance writers and insisting on unpaid revisions which he would then rewrite himself rubbed many the wrong way, and he routinely pissed off NBC. Roddenberry would then spin these disagreements as examples of the network pushing back against his social messages when the reasons might be directly due to his more selfish motives. For example, Majel Barrett was cast as the first officer in the original pilot, and the story I’d always heard was that the network didn’t think a woman should have such an important role and made Roddenberry change it in the second version. In reality NBC balked at Majel Barrett because she was Roddenberry’s mistress at the time so it seemed like bad business, and it’s hard to fault them for thinking that.

At the same time we learn how the show was hiring people like Gene Coon, a veteran writer/producer who stepped in at a critical time and showed an amazingly quick ability to to write his own scripts and revise the problematic work of others. Dorothy Fontana was an aspiring screenwriter who initially took secretarial jobs to get her foot in the door of the industry which she first used to sell scripts to TV westerns as D.C. Fontana. Eventually she became Gene Roddenberry’s secretary, then a freelance writer for him, and finally took on the position of story editor which made her one of the most important Trek creators.

The only problem is that sitting down and reading about all these episodes in a row gets a little repetitive. The production of the show fell into a rhythm that the book captures, and that starts to feel monotonous after a while although there’s always plenty of amusing anecdotes like how they got an actor to be in the rubber suit of the lizard-like Gorn creature by calling the guy in at the last minute without telling him what he’d be playing.

So as a straight up reading experience it can get a little tedious after a while although I think any TOS fan would like the initial stories about the show’s creation and find it a great reference when revisiting individual episodes.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4

Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4 Jessica Jones: Alias, Vol. 4 by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one collects the final issues of Marvel’s MAX version of Jessica Jones adventures and while I’m sad it didn’t last longer I also realize that all good things must come to an end. Or in superhero comic books it’s more accurate to say that one good version of the title has to come to an end and then start up again in another version.

Brian Michael Bendis saved the best for last in which he concludes the character arc for Jessica as well as giving us her origin story via flashbacks, and we also learn what was behind her decision to turn away from being a costumed superhero and drove her self-destructive behavior. It’s a remarkably deft piece of storytelling that manages to mix in bits of Marvel history like Jessica going to high school with Peter Parker with the raw and gritty portrayal of a hard-drinking self-loathing private detective. I also loved how the art was done in this with the flashbacks to Jessica’s superhero days done in the bright clean style of a more typical Marvel book back in the day which contrasts with the darker grittier tone of a MAX comic with plenty of profanity and sex.

We get the revelation of Zebediah Killgrave a/k/a The Purple Man as the main cause of Jessica’s pain. One of the most impressive things that Bendis has ever done is to take a B-list minor supervillain and turn him into one of the most dangerous and repulsive Marvel bad guys I’ve ever read without any major retconning. By digging into the full scope of what mind control powers could be used to do by a complete sociopath we get a chilling portrait of pure evil.

Bendis also does a nice bit of metafiction here with Killgrave taunting Jessica with the idea that she’s a character in a comic book. That also works with the other tricks like changing the art styles to put a sly level of self-awareness and commentary about the whole thing.

Overall, Alias was a great title that blended the realistic adult themes of the modern PI genre with Marvel characters and history to give us a fresh perspective on that universe as well as an intriguing character story.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow

In Sunlight or In Shadow In Sunlight or In Shadow by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t you hate it when you’re hoping for great and get merely pretty good instead?

I was really excited about this going in. Lawrence Block edited a collection of short stories in which each one was based on an Edward Hopper painting, and the writers include some of my favorites like Stephen King, Megan Abbott, and Joe Lansdale as well as many other publishing heavyweights. What’s not to like?

Sadly, this is one where the concept was better than the execution. Block’s introduction certainly got my hopes up, and I completely agreed with his idea that each Hopper painting seems to invite the viewer to create a story for it. The results ranged from straight crime and spy tales to more character based Lit-A-Chur. There’s nothing I actively disliked or found terrible in any of them, but none of the stories really blew my hair back. In fact, it sometimes seemed like the writers were really trying too hard to be clever to fit the premise.

It’s no great shock that the best story Block’s since the whole thing was his idea, and what he came up with seems the most effortless that still feels like a Block story even as it fits his painting perfectly. (And I’ll make a special note to any King fans out there that if you’re getting this just for his story you’re gonna be disappointed because while his is OK it’s also very short.)

It’s not a bad collection, and it’s certainly an interesting theme. As much as I wanted to love this I kept finding other things to do rather than pick it up, and it took me a couple of weeks to finally get through even though it’s less than 300 pages so it never really hooked me completely.

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