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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History

by John Dickerson

Publisher: Twelve, reprint edition (July 11, 2017)

Paperback 464 pages

Finished 3/17/2018

Amazon Listing 

          “The newspaper wars of the 1790s, in which Callender enlisted, were ferocious. ‘The golden age of America’s founding was also the gutter age of American reporting,’ writes historian Eric Burns. Papers were partisan, not impartial, and editors attacked each other in the street. Editors cursed each other with prolixity, and backwards running sentences. They seemed to have the typesetting equivalent of  unlimited minutes when it came to using insulting synonyms found in the thesaurus. Their enemies were ‘depraved’, ‘worthless’, ‘vile’, ‘intemperate’, and ‘wicked’. Accusations of drunkenness were frequent (and accurate) as were charges of corruption and debauchery.”
          That was describing the presidential race between Jefferson and Adams, only the third in this country’s history.
          This book is collection of stories from various campaigns from both centuries of America’s existence. From the “corrupt bargain” that saw John Quincy Adams into the White House, denying Andrew Jackson the prize; to the immortal “Dewey Beats Truman” moment where, once again, the pollsters were overwhelmingly wrong in their predictions; to the disastrous Dukakis in a tank photo shoot. 
          The book puts the 2018 election into perspective. We all might remember it as a particularly vicious election with both sides painting the other as sub-human monsters intent on only evil, but surprisingly it was not the bloodthirsty election in American history. They have all been particularly brutal in one form or another, with character assassinations on both sides. At some point nearly every candidate since 1952 has been accused of racism and thus by extension anyone who follows him must be a racist as well.
Very similar to the 2016 upset

          For instance, the first incumbent to call his opponent a Nazi was Harry Truman, only a few years after W.W. II. Grover Cleveland had a sex scandal involving an illegitimate child he fathered and then refused to marry the mother as she was a “person of intemperate habits”- that means she was a crazy whore only good for a pump and dump. Cleveland was able to overcome this and become president. Both of the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison were popular uprisings of the common man against the snotty elites who felt they were owed the election (sound familiar anyone?). In fact, the rise of Jackson was more telling than one might think. It occurred on the eve of male suffrage (you didn’t realize there was such a thing did you?) where all men were given the vote. Previous to that, only men who owned property were eligible.
          I think we get the idea of old presidential elections as austere affairs, with educated up-right men debating points of interest in a polite manner. This primarily comes from old time television where, due to censorship, it was presented as such. In reality, each one has been incredibly wild, scandal packed, and emotionally charged.  In addition, biased reporting by news outlets has nearly always been the rule, rather than an exception.
Author Jon Dickerson, host of Face the Nation

          Keep in mind however that the author’s bias is showing. He seems to have no problems categorizing republicans in a bad light, or adding ad hominem slurs, but always shies away from writing anything negative about Democrats. Their “downfall” always seem to be the result of dirty tricks, not gross mismanagement, corruption, and plain old dumb ideas.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Now Playing: A Seek-And-Find Book for Film Buffs

By Alexandre Clerisse

Publisher: Chronicle Books (August 8, 2017)

Hardcover, 56 pages

Finished 3/12/2017

Amazon Listing 

          This is a fun collection of pictures in the vein of Where’s Waldo, only each panel has a different famous director and characters from his films as the subject. Featured here are Tim Burton, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino.
          Each two page panel has the director hidden in a montage of their work. The game is to spot the director and also various characters (Indiana Jones for Steven Spielberg) and objects (a number of birds for Alfred Hitchcock) associated with each director. The art style is deceptively simplistic- that means it is  simplistic, but is in fact very detailed, at least enough to identify each of the characters hidden in these pages.

          The only drawback to this book is that, of course, you have to be familiar with the works of these directors to complete the tasks. Some of them are more universal than others. For example, I am not familiar with the works of Pedro Almodovar, hence I was unable to pick out most of the film references on the pages dedicated to him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Clockwork Orientation

By Brian Barr

Published: Brian Barr Books (February 28, 2018)

Softcover 32 pages

Finished 3/11/2018

Amazon Listing

      From the finest traditions of science fiction, we have “A Clockwork Orientation”. When you look back at old school science fiction, A.E Van Vogt, H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov their work was more about a speculation on life and new ideas, rather than a spectacle of images - which is where much modern written science fiction seems to be headed. An error in my opinion. For the best sci-fi asks questions, they didn’t shoot the answer at you in a great space battle. So reading this short story was a breath of fresh air.
     The story deals with an artificial intelligence who goes berserk one day and kills over a hundred people. Rather than scrap the creature, its owners decide to attempt to rehabilitate them with a new program that will allow the creature to feel pain, specifically his victim’s pain. This has some unexpected results.
Author Brian Barr
    The story asks some deep questions on the nature of emotional development. The cyborg main character, Mannix (not named after the TV show character, I discovered), murdered over a hundred people because he was bored, because he was given toys but not allowed to use them. This is sociopathic behavior in a human, but with artificial intelligence the ability to emote to another life form is not a given. Part of our empathic nature is that we are nurtured by others and shown love, but artificial intelligence will not have that. They will blink on with full consciousness. If they are empathetic it will be towards their own kind, not us.
    Some may say that emotions can be programmed. But, as the story points out, are they real? Or will a pre-programmed set of actions just cause an AI to go through the motions, while harboring other ideas beneath them. You cannot force someone to care about something, as the story demonstrates, even if you torture them, as what happens to the protagonist. This is the fascinating nature of the story. Quite a lot for only thirty two pages.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Green Hand and Other Stories

By Nicole Claveloux, Donald Nicolson Smith (Translator), Daniel Clowes (Introduction)

Published: New York review Comics (November 29, 2017)

Hardcover 108 pages

Finished 3/10/2018

Amazon Listing

This collects a series of comics that originally appeared in the late 70s to early 80s in M├ętal Hurlant magazine (the French version of Heavy Metal magazine). If you haven’t heard of this illustrator before, don’t beat yourself up, she is somewhat obscure. Even I, with my reading addiction, was unaware of her name before picking up this book. I had seen her work before but never registered a name to go with the art. The plan is to rectify this gap in my knowledge as quickly as I can. That is, once more of her stuff is published in English.

It is difficult to discuss the artistic style of Nicole Claveloux. Upon first viewing I was taken in by the shading, the round - nearly glossy - style, all of it one step removed from reality. At the same time, I was nearly at a loss for words on how to describe the material. Then I read other artist’s comments on her work (including the introduction that Dan Clowes provides for this volume) and realized that I am not alone in this. It is unique, but it isn’t. Like the surrealness of her stories, it is just one step out of sync with the rest of the world. Occasionally there seems to be an awkwardness in limb drawings or perspective, but strangely these add to the surrealness of the overall piece, rather than detract.

The common theme running through the pieces deal with the dangers, uncertainty, and banality of growing up. The greatest joy to the author, it seems, is to remain the eternal child and dwell in a never-never land, one step beyond reality. The stories collected here are not coherent in the regular sense. They follow a logic of a dream. Some of them don’t seem to have been plotted out beforehand and drifted along as the author’s imagination drifted. These don’t make the stories bad, but just be warned. Don’t expect concrete stories with a definite character arc. These are one step aside from that.



Friday, March 9, 2018

Night of the Jackass! - Eerie 115

By: Bruce Bezaire & Jose Ortiz

Publisher: Warren Publishing (October, 1980)

Magazine, 78 pages

Finished 3/8/2018

Amazon Listing

Normally I don’t cover individual issues of a magazine but this one is special. For those who read my review of The Rook Archives I mentioned that the best recurring story in the history of Eerie magazine was “Night of the Jackass!” and hoped they would eventually put out a hardcover graphic novel collecting all of the stories. While there was apparently a version released in 2009 in the UK (at least it is listed on Amazon UK), copies are seemingly non-existent. So in my random pursuit of the book, I came across the knowledge that Eerie had reprinted the entire four story series in issue 115. I jumped onto ebay and procured one forthwith- And let’s have a round of applause for ebay, my collection of obscure books would be vastly incomplete without it.

“Night of the Jackass” is one of the most disturbing stories that Warren Publications ever put out. By the time these were being produced, they had long run out of vampire, werewolf, and zombie tales, and were groping along looking for something different. This was one of them, the best of them. It does not hold back in its depiction of murder of children, rape, or violence. These are not “safe” stories. Nor does the arc end happily.

Set in the late Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, a drug Hyde-25 has gotten loose in capitals of Europe. After a wrist is slashed and the drug applied, a person is transformed into a slathering bestial version of themselves. A walking Id with superior strength and the appetite of the most deranged rapist. The catch is that after the drug wears off, the imbiber dies. The type of person who “jackasses” are from the bottom rung of society - drifters, bottomed out alkies, terminally ill, the castaways of society. The backdrop of industrial decay plays perfectly with this bleak scenario- human wreckage being one of its bumper crops.
          Into this comes our two vengeance filled heroes. The first is Samuel Gibson, a middle class Londoner, whose wife is killed on their honeymoon after a group of jackasses take over the hotel they are visiting. His aim is to stop the horror from spreading. Clause Bishop, a depressed, Welsh coal miner, who checks into that same hotel with the idea of suicide, but finds a reason for living in destroying those who jackass. He is the most complex character because he battles the jackasses for the same reason they use the drug in the first place. Later, they are joined by Mme. Berthe Astruc who accidentally created the formula for Hyde 25 and is hastily attempting develop a cure.

Among the various themes running about these stories, the most interesting is that of society sowing the seeds of its own damnation. While the science of the Victorian age is tearing itself apart, the police do little to counter it. Their standard action when a jackassing occurs is to seal off the building and let it burn itself out, damning the innocents inside to be raped and murdered. The ones who commit the deeds were placed in a position where a murder/suicide romp was a pleasant thought by the same society they desecrated.

In the final story, after pages and pages of death and sexual assault, a cure is found, but this does not wash away the horror that has happened. None of the characters has a sense of relief only more dread. That’s because the cure is not an antidote, but a weapon to use against the jackasses. All of them took the drug knowing what the effects would be. Thus the nightmare was not truly over.

 Which is why I felt there could easily have been more Jackass stories. They never touched into who was manufacturing the drug and its distribution method. This sort of thing doesn’t just “appear”, someone had to be profiting. A few more stories, two or three, could easily have been added to the lore. Not that they would have really been able to top the first three stories in terms of brutality or shock, so perhaps it was just as well that they left it as is.

Along with these stories is an additional tale, called “Excerpts From the Year Five”. While it is not part of the Jackass series, the tone of hopelessness and survival are congruent with the other stories. It was written by the immortal Budd Lewis who is responsible for some of horror comic’s greatest tales, and also illustrated by Jose Ortiz- an illustrator that is chronically under recognized. “Year Five” shows the journey of one man as he struggles to survive physically and mentally after the world’s fossil fuel supply runs out. Grim and gritty. Nothing more needs to be said.

              I also have to comment here on the advertisements in the magazine. It didn’t seem strange when I was younger, but while the content is geared more for adults, the advertisers all assumed it was kids who read the magazines, as it is riddled with ads for toys, fantasy books, and model kits. Dominating the toys were the science fiction giants of the day Star Wars (Empire Strikes Back had just been released a month before), Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, and Alien. Actually, most of those franchises still dominate the market. I guess there really are no new ideas.

 Nostalgia gripped me and I spent a pleasant half hour looking through all of the ads, picking out which ones I had (and subsequently destroyed) and, more importantly, the ones I did not have and regretted it. An old grasping nature crawled up in me and I yearned to go back in time and pick up the Star Wars Droid Factory, or Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, or the Y-Wing Fighter. Ah well.
Some pine for unrequited love, I pine for unowned toys

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Nexus Archives Vol. 10

by Mike Baron, Steve Rude, Greg Guler, & Tony Atkins

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (January 19, 2010)

Hardcover 232 pages

Finished 3/7/2018

Amazon Listing 

          Continuing on with my scattershot reading of the Nexus Archives series, I now bounce to volume 10 of the series, which collects issues 58 through 65 of the indie 80s hit comic. As long as Dark Horse keeps pushing them out I will try to collect them, but under no circumstances will I shell out a ridiculous $50 per book, unless it’s close to 500 pages. While the books are beautifully produced, study, and look great, in reality it would be cheaper for someone interested in the series to buy the individual issues rather than shell out for this tome. I only pick them up if I can find them at least half off (sometimes I get them for even less).
          For those who are unaware, Nexus is the name of the superhero dispenser of justice in the far future. The wielder of the Nexus power is given his commission by the Merk, a possibly insane alien. When the rest of his race left our reality for a non-corporeal existence, the Merk was chosen to remain behind to judge humans. He began empowering an agent with great power to seek out mass murderers and kill them. When a new victim is chosen, Nexus is besieged by headaches and nightmares which only abate after his target has been eliminated.
The New Nexus

          Horatio Helpop, the original Nexus, has quit out disillusionment of his job. After a series of disasters, a new Nexus has been chosen, Stanislaus Korivitsky, a historian and bestselling author. He has taken on the job to learn more about the Merk, but the alien remains elusive and Stan finds himself in deeper than ever as a mistake on his part leads to the deaths of 150 innocents. From there he must deal with religious fanatics, bandits, corporate grifters, and the usual assortment of murderous scum. As always the book has a backup feature set in the same universe featuring Judah the Hammer, a mercenary and hunter of men.
          There has been some talk about the later parts of this series failing artistically. While the main artist, Steve Rude, did only about three of the eight issues in this book. The other five were drawn by Greg Guler and Tony Atkins. There is a notable shift in the style of art, as will happen from artist to artist, I have to disagree that the quality in any way suffers. Both are quality artists, drawing each character distinctly, and with smooth action. Anyone who has is a regular reader of an ongoing comic series should be used to a shift in the art. While this is a bit more unusual for an independent comic, where the creatives tend to stay the same, there still is precedent.

Mike Baron is still creating the scripts so there is a continuity in narrative direction and character style. If there is a downside to this comic it is that Baron has a tendency to make bad puns out of names and places, which I find irritating in the extreme, but that hasn’t stopped me from buying the comic.
          This comic was initially put by the historic First comics publication. The same company that brought us such groundbreaking material as American Flagg, Dreadstar, and  Jon Sable Freelance. All of which are equally amazing and have rightfully been catalogues into archives such as this one.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

William B. DuBay's The Rook Archives Vol. 3 (Graphic Novel)

by William B. Dubay, (writer), Jose Ortiz, Jim Starlin, Alfredo Alcala, Lee Elias, & Jim Janes (illustrators)

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (November 21, 2017)

Hardcover 128 pages

Finished 3/1/2018

Amazon Listing 

          The volume collects the final stories of The Rook, Master of Time, that appeared in Eerie magazine issues 98 -105, before the entire series became its own magazine. In 1980, The Rook hit market places and ran for fourteen issues, becoming Warren Publishing’s biggest hit, before the entire company folded.
          For those who haven’t read the first two volumes, the stories revolve around Restin Dane, a genius inventor and time traveler, who journeys to different time in a machine shaped like a rook from a game of chess- hence his nickname. His sidekicks include his great-grandfather, whom Restin saved from the Alamo, and a prissy robot (Restin Dane is also a robotic genius) name Manners, who acts as Restin’s valet and as a foil for the great-grandfather.

          The stories in this volume are stranger still than the previous one. A writer I know remarked in the past that when she starts a new series there are several ideas she has as to where it will go, what characters the protagonist will encounter, what plot points will crop up, but as it goes on those initial ideas dry up and that's when true inspiration comes into play, that’s when her best material appears. I think that’s what happened here.
          The basic formula of the tales is that Restin Dane aka The Rook travels alone to some point in the past and finds some impossible trouble, such as a lost city of Asian warriors in Death Valley or an army of clockwork murder bots crafted by Adolph Hitler’s father. This he eventually oer comes with his superior intellect and fists. Then the B-story has The Rook’s great-grandfather, Bishop Dane, angry at being left behind again and running off with the valet robot, Manners, and getting into some sort of shenanigans that he just barely extricates himself from before The Rook reappears, such as traveling to Hong Kong in 1802 to become a pirate or a lone alien landing in the Florida swamps.
          The writing is sharp and on track, even if the stories are derivative of past successful stories at the time, taking riffs from Kun-Lun  from Iron Fist and an obvious parody (but well done) of Terry and the Pirates. The art goes overboard, some of the best I’ve seen in The Rook series. Bold grey tones, mixed with sweeping details and palpable sense of action, which just blew me away. It took me longer than usual to finish this book because I was spending so much time admiring the art.

          I just have to end on this note. Restin has brought his great-grandfather into “the present” of 1979 in a permanent capacity it seems. So that means either the old man has to go back and knock up a random woman, then stick around long enough to hang his name on the bastard, or the old man already has a family that he abandoned to go play around in the future. As far as I know, this little issue is never addressed.