Movie review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A not-very-long book stretched into three full-length movies? Part of me was dubious, but I trusted Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and all the others to respect the source material and deliver another great trilogy.

A not-very-long book stretched into three full-length movies? Part of me was dubious, but I trusted Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and all the others to respect the source material and deliver another great trilogy.

I was right. An Unexpected Journey added a lot of material to the story (from the beginning up until Thorin’s company is saved from the orcs by the Eagles and deposited in Beorn’s land) but it never feels like padding—well, except the present-day scene between Bilbo and Frodo, which I think was necessary to tie in to the earlier movies, but probably should have been moved to the third installment. Then again, maybe not; I don’t know exactly how the story will play out.

So in addition to the book’s basic story, we’re treated to: Azog the Goblin, just a footnote in the books, now an ongoing villain probably for the remainder of the trilogy; Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman returning for an meeting of the White Council, discussing the Necromancer and what to do about him; Sylvester McCoy making a surprisingly awesome appearance as the druid-wizard Radagast the Brown, going around on a sled pulled by giant rabbits and briefly facing off against a Nazgul; a flashback of Smaug attacking the Lonely Mountain, following an absolutely dazzling look at a Dwarf city in its full glory; and various little bits of world-building taken from appendices or later books.

All great stuff, and that’s not even counting familiar elements brought to life: our old friend Gollum, alternating between creepy-sweet and murderous-creepy; the heart-stoppingly poignant rendition of “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold,” which I saw in the trailers but still got me; edge-of-your-seat action; the lovely shots of Hobbiton.

Yes. A beautiful movie, and a wonderful start to another masterpiece. Can’t wait for next year!

Movie Review: The Last Airbender

Against my better judgment I went to see The Last Airbender. Ohmygod, that was bad. I blame the heat wave and needing to spend an afternoon in an air-conditioned theatre. Plus, let’s be honest, a sick train-wreck curiosity. I just had to see if the movie was as bad as everybody said.

Against my better judgment I went to see The Last Airbender. Ohmygod, that was bad. I blame the heat wave and needing to spend an afternoon in an air-conditioned theatre. Plus, let’s be honest, a sick train-wreck curiosity. I just had to see if the movie was as bad as everybody said.

I loved the original TV show. It had a great story, well-developed characters, cool mythology, amazing visuals and exciting action. This movie… has none of that. The acting is sub-par, the martial arts and special effects are just about decent, the writing is awkward and painfully expository, the characters are boring and one-dimensional, with none of the zip and fun of the TV show. Shyamalan claims to be a fan, so I hear, but nothing about this movie tells me he really respects the source material. None of what made the show really come alive was translated to the big screen.

Part of the problem, I’ll admit, is that Shyamalan decided to condense all of season one into 1 hour and 45 minutes of movie. Fair enough, I guess, though it does mean dropping a lot of excellent characters and world-building, not to mention development of the characters that remain. The Kyoshi warriors? King Bumi? the “sexyfine” Haru? Jet? Jeong Jeong? Bato? The mechanist community? Master Pakku? Avatar Roku? Fucking Koh the Face Stealer? All gone, sorry. Gone also is the chemistry between Aang and Katara, gone is Katara’s growth into Team Mom and badass waterbending fighter, gone is Iroh’s sweetness and coolness, gone is most of the world’s mythology, the Avatar’s history and their relationship with the spirit world.

What’s left? The bare bones of the first season story arc: the premiere (Aang is found and captured, escapes, and head north with Sokka and Katara, pursued by Zuko and Zhao); a bit of The Southern Air Temple, where Aang deals with the loss of all his friends and his culture; a bit of Imprisoned, which begins a fairly irrelevant subplot of the Gaang fomenting rebellion in Earth Kingdom villages; most of The Blue Spirit, where Aang is captured by Zhao and broken out by Zuko; and the finale, where the Fire Nation attacks the Northern Water Tribe city (more about that later). In between all that we get told some of Aang and Zuko’s backstories, in flashbacks and amazingly awkward exposition.

What’s also left, of course, is the magical kung fu, but that mostly falls flat. The FX are competently done, and so are the martial arts (I guess; I’m not an expert), but together they just don’t work. The connection between physical movements and elemental effects are broken because for some reason, Benders need to do various moves for a few seconds (to “warm up” their ch’i, I guess) before anything happens. These moves are usually too quick and small to really look good on screen. The end result isn’t cool, it’s not pretty, it’s just really distracting. Maybe it was a mistake to translate an animated show to live action, or maybe a better director could have made it work, I don’t know.

Shyamalan’s failure as a writer is most obvious in the climactic battle between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe: almost all of the amazingly epic scenes in the series were either left out of the movie, or simply ruined. Not just done badly: done wrong. Zhao killing the Moon Spirit, Iroh unloading a can of whoop-ass, Yue’s sacrifice, Aang saving the day, Zhao’s death, every single one of them was a middle finger aimed at the fans. I honestly can’t understand how Shyamalan could think his changes are an improvement on the series. I’ll just highlight a couple:

In the TV series, Yue’s farewell scene was touching and wonderfully done. She becomes the new Moon Spirit, ascending to a higher plane of existence, and even has time for a final ethereal kiss with Sokka. In the movie she just… dies. Her life energy flows into the Koi fish, and her body stays floating in the pool. Lame.

In the TV series, Aang merges with the Ocean Spirit to lay some righteous smackdown on the Fire Nation fleet, in an awesome spectacle that combined stunning visuals, lovely music, and epic action. In the movie, Aang was never near the spirit pool. But that’s okay, I thought, he doesn’t need the Ocean Spirit. Yeah, he’s in the Avatar State now, that’s awesome! And summoning a tidal wave, like he almost did a couple of times before. He wasn’t ready then, but “water is the element of acceptance,” so let your emotions flow, and unleash all your rage and grief at the Fire Nation fleet!

… any minute now…

No? You’re just going to… hold it there? Oh, you’re waiting for the fleet to turn and run? Huh. Okay. I was hoping for some epic kickassery, but whatever floats your boat, I guess.

The movie ends with Aang accepting his destiny and the Firelord expositing about Sozin’s comet, thus setting up the rest of the trilogy. But with the horrible reviews this movie’s getting I’d be very surprised to see the sequel. Good thing, too. The last thing I want to see is Shyamalan fucking up Toph, Azula, Zuko’s change(s) of heart, and all the shadowy, creepy plots in Ba Sing Se.

Mind you, if he does make that movie, I have a feeling I might go see it. Because I am weak that way. Though if it’s any comfort, I promise I’ll feel really bad about it.

Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Well, now I totally want to play God of War and Dante’s Inferno

Well, now I totally want to play God of War and Dante’s Inferno

A nice little movie, following in the original’s mix-and-match approach to Greek mythology, though adding the whole “rage against the heavens” plotline. Pretty entertaining, with some nice special effects, though a couple of fight scenes did those annoying rapid-fire cuts that actually hide the action, which action-movie editors seem so fond of these days.

I’m not going to compare this movie with the 1981 original; all I’m going to say is that they’re equally cheesy, both having shallow storylines and an overreliance on fancy effects. Still, they’re both fun, so I’m not complaining.

What I Used To Write

Talk about a blast from the past. A few months ago my folks found a few binders full of notes and writings from long ago, and asked me to take a look at it before throwing it out. What a find!

Talk about a blast from the past. A few months ago my folks found a few binders full of notes and writings from long ago, and asked me to take a look at it before throwing it out. What a find! The treasure trove includes:

  • Some printouts of my finished short stories, written around 1994, plus 2/3 of the final version of my first novel (finished 1992). Plus the maps that went with the novel. Can’t have a cool fantasy novel without maps, dontchaknow.
  • Notes and drafts for two more short stories, which I finished but don’t have the final versions of anymore; reams of notes on poems and various half-finished projects; all written 1994–1995
  • A dream journal I kept up for a few months in ’94. A self-hypnosis journal around the same time
  • Drafts of my Web site (first online in September 1995). Including notes of me learning HTML, and printouts of some of the pages.
  • Notes about my evolving spirituality—not beliefs, because at that time I was sliding into agnosticism, but playing around with symbols, rituals and made-up mythology.
  • Various odds and ends: a couple pages of quotes I really liked; episode guides to Star Trek: TNG and Space: 1999 for some reason; notes on an unsent letter to Phil Farrand, with feedback on nits he missed and criticism of his occasional heterosexist attitude; a map for an AD&D campaign I briefly DM’d sometime in the mid-80’s. The overall plotline, IIRC, was “inspired” (by which I mean, “ripped off”) from Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné and Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; maps and world-building notes for another AD&D campaign, a couple of years later, that I never got to play in.

I’m throwing most of it away. The story notes, the poetry? Gone. The dream and self-hypnosis journals? Outta here. The novel? Recycled (no, I don’t have a soft copy). The Web site drafts? Like you really need to ask.

Let’s be honest here, aside from the very temporary nostalgia value, I’ve got no reason to reread any of this stuff. It’s coming at me from long ago and far away, and is pretty well irrelevant. There’s nothing useful this motley assortment of words can give me. I haven’t written fiction or poetry in over ten years, and have no particular desire to pick it up again. I haven’t played D&D since the early ’90’s, and likewise don’t miss it. And if the journal isn’t helping me remember any of these dreams from 15 years ago, what good is it?

And, with all due respect to my younger self: my prose and poetry was mostly crap. I mean, there’s a reason why I never tried to publish any of it, with one exception. The novel was mediocre clichéd sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the shorts were a little better but mostly written for myself as creativity exercises, and the poems… okay, some of them weren’t bad. I put a few up on my site for a while, back in the day. But still, nothing to write home about, and I took them down when I began blogging more regularly.

The self-hypnosis stuff… yeah. I was trying so hard to deal with my many issues, and figure out where my life was going, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. I was so used to living inside my own head anyway, so this seemed like a good idea. In hindsight, it proved mostly just a lot of mental masturbation. I say “mostly” because I did get a couple of useful insights and actions out of it. I guess it was a bit like cognitive therapy, except without a trained professional.

The spirituality stuff was more interesting, but even then (late ’95–early ’96) pretty much on the decline. I’d gone through my my kinda-Pagan phase and was sliding into agnosticism, then atheism. None of these made-up rituals and things were ever that useful—see “mental masturbation” above—and I eventually dropped them by late ’97 (after I started identifying as atheist, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).


Still, in a more or less direct way, it’s all got me to where I am now. That first site evolved over many iterations, leading to this here blog, plus giving me the skills and confidence to branch out in the last year. Those fantasy stories got me used to putting words on paper or computer screen, which led to articles in student papers, and eventually this blog.

Doesn’t mean I need to spend much time navel-gazing, fun though it could be. It’s a brand new day, a brand new year, and I need to look forward, not backward. I’ll just take a few select pieces that have real sentimental value, and move on.

A couple of belated book reviews

Hey, didn’t I resolve in January to read fiction and then to blog about it? Why yes I did.

Hey, didn’t I resolve in January to read fiction and then to blog about it? Why yes I did.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City

I’d started Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in April, shortly after finishing The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, and eventually finished it on my vacation in June. And just like Five Books, as with the previous book, I had a hard time getting into it. The problem, I think, was that there wasn’t any plot, just a bunch of characters living their lives and interacting.

But it grew on me. The lack of an overall plot stopped bothering me, and I just let Maupin lead me by the hand into the lives of these oddballs—not as sideshow freaks, but as interesting people who made San Francisco the city he loved. And hey, I can definitely relate to Mary Ann, the innocent newcomer.

Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.

She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her Mood Ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.

Hee. “Mood Ring.”

And another sign of the times: all the scenes of cruising (both hetero and otherwise) at Safeways and laundromats. I mean, granted, they didn’t have the internet back then, but did people really do that? Oh my god, maybe they still do that! Have I been blind to all the hooking up going on at the Safeway on Davie? Damn, I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.

William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land

I totally forgot about this book, until I dug it up again in Ottawa, and decided to bring it back with me.

A bit of history: way back when, I borrowed from a friend a complete compilation of HP Lovecraft’s stories, in three large volumes. The second (IIRC) contained a review by Lovecraft of about a dozen horror/fantasy novels of the era. One of them, The Night Land, sounded intriguing—a story of the far future, where the last remnants of humankind are huddled in a massive fortress and the rest of the Earth is filled with horrible monsters. Lovecraft appreciated the weird and creepy settings, but objected to the silly pseudo-Olde-Fashioned Writing style, and the schmaltzy love story that drove the plot.

Don’t ask me how I got my hands on an obscure horror novel published in 1912, but I did. And say what you will about Lovecraft (like, that he was a creepy misogynistic bigot), but when it came to fiction the guy knew his shit. Everything he said in his review was absolutely on the nose. In fact, rereading The Night Land the second time around was even more painful than I remembered:

And I stood me up, and did peer about for any dread matter; but all seemed proper, and I began to stamp my feet against the earth, as that I would drive it from me, and this I do say as a whimsy, and I swung mine arms, as often you shall do in the cold days; and so I was presently something warmed. And I dismantled my cloak, and wrapped it around me, and did feel that the Diskos [his weapon, like a circular vibro-blade] was safe to my hip.

Then did I sit me down, and did glow a little with relish, in that I should now eat four of the tablets; for, indeed, these were my proper due, by reason of my shiftless fasting ere I came so wotless to my slumbering.

Now imagine 500+ pages of that. And I’ve spared you the really nauseating parts after he rescues his lady-love and takes her back to the Pyramid. They alternate between being all lovey-dovey, and her being an arbitrarily silly bitch so the big strong protector male has to hit her a few times so she’ll behave. Yeah, I’d forgotten how stunningly sexist the book was, and “Well, it was written in 1912” isn’t much of an excuse. Hodgson deliberately went for old-fashioned, not just in the language but the story dynamics, creating something I’d describe as “medieval”. As much as I hate doing it on principle, I had to skim a lot of passages until I got to the next plot point or action scene.

Some bits were interesting, though. The description of the Evil Forces was indeed pretty cool, as was the narrator’s musing that most of this future Earth wasn’t so much evil as just alien; dangerous to humans, sure, but not actively hostile to them, and still not without beauty.

At one point the protagonist was wondering if Naani (the love interest) had had other lovers between the present day and this future (because they’ve both been reincarnated many times) and actually got jealous over the possibility. That was just so silly to me that I felt sure the whole novel was a subtle deconstruction of the reincarnation romance trope. However, everything else seemed to be played completely straight, so I don’t know.

Bottom line: meh. It was kind of interesting as a specimen of old-time literature, but it fails as a love story, and only somewhat succeeds as horror and adventure. Only hardcore fans would enjoy this.

Comic Book Review: The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic was an ongoing series published under the Vertigo imprint from 1994 to 2000, spanning 75 issues. It told the story of Timothy Hunter, a thirteen-year old dark-haired, bespectacled British boy who learns he is destined to become the most powerful magician of his era. The Books of Magic followed Tim as he learned to handle the usual problems of being a teenager, all the while growing into his power, learning about his heritage and future, and dealing with supernatural enemies.

The Books of Magic was an ongoing series published under the Vertigo imprint from 1994 to 2000, spanning 75 issues. It told the story of Timothy Hunter, a thirteen-year old dark-haired, bespectacled British boy who learns he is destined to become the most powerful magician of his era. The Books of Magic followed Tim as he learned to handle the usual problems of being a teenager, all the while growing into his power, learning about his heritage and future, and dealing with supernatural enemies. I discovered this series shortly after discovering Sandman, in the summer of 1994. The Books of Magic was a wonderfully written and illustrated series that mostly lived up to its name, and I faithfully kept up with it right until the end. After Sandman ended in 1996, it was the only comics series I collected.

Tim’s adventures actually began in a four-part miniseries (entitled The Books of Magic), which came out in 1991. Written by Neil Gaiman, it introduced the twelve-year-old Tim, who is accosted by four mysterious strangers (John Constantine, Doctor Occult, the Phantom Stranger and Mister E); they tell him he is destined to become the most powerful magician of this age and offer to show him the ways of magic. Tim is taken on a whirlwind ride to yesterday, tomorrow, and all places in between. Beautifully illustrated (with different artists for each issue) and thoroughly spellbinding, with appearances by many of DC Comics’ occult players, past and present (including Zatara, Zatanna, Doctor Fate, the Spectre, Sargon the Sorcerer, Dream, and many others I’m not familiar with), the miniseries nevertheless didn’t have much character development. Tim was shown to be a sarcastic boy, always ready with a flippant remark even when completely inappropriate; he didn’t really believe in magic although he used to, and kind of wished he still did. His home life (what we saw of it) was pretty dreary, with no mother in sight and a father who seemed to mostly ignore him. But that kind of setup is par for the course with this kind of tale, isn’t it? The miniseries ended with Tim performing a single real act of magic: turning his yo-yo into an owl—or back into an owl, actually. Doctor Occult had turned it into an owl in issue #1, and it followed Tim on his initiatory journey. But it died (and turned back into a yo-yo) at the End of Time, protecting Tim from a murderous Mister E.

Tim’s story continued in The Children’s Crusade, a Vertigo crossover published in late 1993:

East of the sun and west of the moon, somewhere between the endless summer afternoons of childhood and the shifting clouds of magic, lies the land called Free Country. For centuries it has served as a haven for abused, unwanted and endangered children. But now the ancient, childlike denizens of Free Country have embarked on a plan to rescue all the world’s youth, beginning with a small group of very special children.

These exceptional children are Suzy, the child Black Orchid (Black Orchid) Maxine Baker (Animal Man); Tefé Holland (Swamp Thing); Dorothy Spinner (Doom Patrol); and, last but not least, Tim Hunter.

The Children’s Crusade caught up with Tim (now thirteen) some time after his initiation. Life had—unfortunately—gone back to normal for our hero. Instead of the beautiful, dangerous worlds of magic, now there was nothing but the grey, dreary streets of East London. Instead of the “Trenchcoat Brigade,” Tim only had a father who ignored him, and still grieved over the death of his wife in a car accident years ago, drowning his sorrow in beer and TV . Tim even doubted the memories of his adventures across time and worlds; magic seemed only a wonderful and frightening dream. All that changed when a wizard called Tamlin kidnapped Tim to ascertain his magical potential. After being tested and left alone in a dead region of Faerie, Timothy managed to find his way home where he was accosted by Marya, an emissary from Free Country, who convinced him to join them in the Crusade.

Only problem: while everyone in Free Country believed Tim to be a great wizard, Tim was alone among the special recruits in being powerless. Or at least believing himself to be powerless, despite the previous reanimation of his pet owl. But as it turned out, Tim learned he did indeed have incalculable—though still uncontrolled—raw potential power. Along the way we got a bit more insight into Tim: seemingly friendless and withdrawn, snapping at his (equally withdrawn) father, and talking to himself a lot because there’s nobody else to listen. As for Bill Hunter, his pain was elegantly shown without a lot of clumsy exposition, in subtle hints and wordless panels. Well done. Oh, and Tim’s glasses are to correct his farsightedness.

The Books of Magic (the new ongoing series) started off in May of 1994 with a four-part storyline entitled “Bindings,” in which Tamlin returned to enlist Tim’s aid in saving Faerie. The “Land of Summer’s Twilight” was being slowly destroyed by the Manticore. This monster’s purpose (as it explained itself to Tim) was “simplifying the world,” removing all silly unnecessary beliefs such as belief in magic or mythical creatures. Its first victim (or “specimen”, now stuffed and on display), long ago, was a unicorn which it coldly “tested” and found to be quite mundane, not magical at all. This somewhat echoed a conversation between John Constantine and Tim in the original limited series, about the necessity for belief to be able to see and work magic. According to Constantine, if you’re a skeptic, then everything can be explained logically and scientifically, and magic will simply not exist for you. And so it was with the Manticore, though it took this to an absurd and cruel extreme, actually destroying the magic inside people and creatures.

“What… if I lose?”
“Then you’ll accept my tutelage. And I will liberate you from all your illusions.”
“And then you’ll eat me.”
“Eventually, yes. But you won’t care when that time comes. You won’t care at all. You see, I’ll consume your magic before I touch your flesh. You might be surprised to learn how little one cares for one’s flesh once one’s soul has been stripped away.”

Interesting that the Manticore equates magic with the soul. Interesting, but not too surprising: one of the recurring lessons of the original miniseries was that magic isn’t just power. It’s wonder, and myth, and dreams, and a special way of looking at the world. Magic is something you are as much as something you do.

Part of the plot of “Bindings” also involved Tim looking for the truth of his parentage. In issue #1 he was told that Tamlin was in fact his biological father; a bit of questioning got out the fact that his mother was pregnant before his parents married, and his father (i.e.: Bill Hunter) was never entirely sure Tim was really his son. However, Tim had a bit of a chat with Death—lovely girl that she is—while poisoned by the Manticore’s fangs, and she set him straight. Tim had been obsessing about finding out which of his alleged fathers he “belonged to,” and Death pointed out that chromosomes and heredity had nothing to do with identity, and he belonged to no one but himself.

But then, if that wasn’t enough, Titania, Queen of Faerie, told Tim that she was his mother, calling him a “changeling.” And calling him a few other nasty names, since Tamlin had sacrificed himself to cure Tim of the poison, and she blamed the boy. But Tim didn’t much care at this point, and told her off, calling Titania “your Royal Bitchiness” before heading on home. Good for him.

“Bindings” was note-perfect in every way. I loved the Manticore, equal parts vicious predator and pompous, Latin-spewing professor. Death is always welcome in my comics, of course, and her sweet down-to-earth attitude was the perfect foil to Tim’s drama-queeny self-absorption. John Ney Rieber’s writing was exquisite, as was Gary Amaro & Peter Gross’ art. It was exciting to see Tim take baby steps towards mastering his magic; some of his feats were still involuntary (bringing the stuffed unicorn to life), but he’s growing in control and awareness, keeping his eyes and ears open, and remembering the lessons he learned.

The next issue introduced two important recurring characters: first, Molly O’Reilly, a classmate of Tim’s who eventually became the first of Tim’s mundane friends to know his true nature. I loved Molly: she was the grounded, experienced yin to Tim’s self-absorbed and relatively sheltered yang. She always kept him humble and honest; she was brave and fierce, and not above kicking the bad guys in the nads when necessary. Molly immediately accepted Tim’s magic, and the two of them eventually started dating. Second, Tim’s future self. We’d already glimpsed him once, in the original miniseries, when Tim and Mister E were on their way towards the End of Time. That Tim (in one of many possible futures) was an evil mage, waging a war against the forces of light. Now, readers saw that Future Tim, though supremely powerful, was in fact a puppet of his time-traveling hench-demon Barbatos. We also learned that his attraction to Molly had continued into adulthood, and he kept a whole harem of docile, beaten-down Mollys for his own use. Future Tim’s plan in issue #5 was to travel back to the present and meddle with his own history, to make sure our hero grew up to be him. He failed, and returned to a drastically changed future where his money and power had evaporated, and Barbatos had even more control over him.

The first twenty issues of The Books of Magic were pure gold. There were fascinating, classy villains, subtle humour, sharp dialogue, great characters and interesting plots. Rereading them, a large part of the appeal of those issues was seeing Tim slowly getting more confident in using his power, and gathering a rich tapestry of friends and allies where before, he had nobody. Allies like Marya (who chose to stay on Earth instead of returning to Free Country); Araquel, a slightly-fallen angel, his lover Khara and daughter Nikki (introduced in issue #5); Happy the golem and Leah the succubus, both of which used to belong to a yuppie sorcerer who planned to bind Tim’s power to his own (the “Sacrifices” storyline, issues #6–8); the Narls and Awn the Blink, Tim’s imaginary childhood friends come to life (“The Artificial Heart”, issues #9–11).

You’re three, say… maybe four. Your telly isn’t working. So you ask your dad, What’s wrong with the telly? “It’s Awn the Blink,” he says. And you, being an imaginative young broccoli sprout, you envision me. An extraordinarily talented unrepairman, coming and going as he pleases, disabling appliances with the greatest of ease. And since the times I’m interfering with the telly are the only times your dad pays attention to you, you calculate I’m your friend.

Tim’s story took a sharp turn over the next few issues. Having (accidentally) learned about his evil future self, Tim decided to take some drastic steps to avoid turning into Future Tim, and abusing Molly the way he would/did: he made a deal with Circe (the mythical Greek sorceress) to put magical tattoos on him that caused him intense pain whenever he tried to work magic and (though he didn’t realize it at the time) push him away from all his friends and loved ones (including Molly). Probably due in part to this tattoo, and partly to yet another near-miss magical attack on his family on his fourteenth birthday, Tim decided to run away from home.

At this point, The Books of Magic split into two stories, running in parallel for the next dozen issues. On the one hand, Tim’s travels in the United States. His first plan had been to meet Zatanna in San Francisco, for protection and training (and probably just to get far away from England), but she wasn’t home. In the meantime he lost one of his tattoos (the one that kept him from doing magic), met up with Leah (she had a modeling gig), got lost in the desert, then lost in Faerie (again). Though he met some interesting people they didn’t stay in his life long enough to make real connections. Thematically, this was a useful and important storyline. Tim was on a journey of self-discovery, leaving the comfort of home to find his own independence and strength, and a journey like that must be undertaken alone. Emotionally, it was a bit less satisfying. I missed the old, more innocent Tim, and all the wonderful characters we’d gotten to know and love.

Meanwhile, Molly had some adventures of her own. In issue #24 she attempted to summon faeries, hoping to bring Tim back to her or at least find out where he was. She succeeded, but inadvertently challenged The Amadan, Fool to the Court of Faerie; if she could prove she could be a greater fool than him, she would be granted her heart’s desire. The challenge was never decided since Titania, annoyed at Molly’s unself-conscious foolery (by Faerie standards) tricked the girl into eating Faerie food and so trapped her in their realm—she could not eat normal food anymore, and if her feet touched normal earth she would die. But after Faerie was destroyed and reborn (a long and interesting story, going back to its very creation as a province of Hell), Titania relented. Though she couldn’t reverse the curse, she enchanted Molly so that her feet would never quite touch the ground, and provided an unlimited supply of Faerie food to eat.

Tim and Molly were reunited in issue #39, and stayed for a bit at Zatanna’s place in San Francisco, but things had changed. Tim’s magical tattoo enhanced his natural self-absorption and the magic and power revealed under Zatanna’s tutelage were far more important and real to him than Molly (or her curse, which he never even noticed until it was pointed out to him) and the others around him. So, realizing that he wouldn’t change anytime soon, Molly left Tim for good.

John Ney Rieber’s run on The Books of Magic ended with the “Slave of Heavens” storyline: a weird, headscratchingly pointless tale where Tim decides to give up his magic but is swept up along with Araquel into a bit of an apocalypse. His last tattoo came off, but I don’t think it made much difference at this point since he had already alienated all the people that mattered to him. I have to question why Tim has to give up his magic. At the time, it made sense and was perfectly in character. But looking back it feels less like a natural progression, and more like writer’s whim. By the time Tim left home, he was well on his way to becoming the stupendously powerful magician he was prophesied to be. Circe’s warding put a stop to that for a while, and now he’s done it to himself voluntarily. It seemed like for every step forward there had to be a step backward. “Slave of Heavens” was a somewhat unsatisfying story: it came out of nowhere, ended abruptly and anticlimactically, and even the recurring characters (Circe, Araquel, Reverend Slaggingham’s head) didn’t have the zing and presence they used to. There was a lot of death and mayhem, but it wasn’t fun. I hate to say this, but maybe it’s just as well Rieber stopped writing for the series, since it felt like his well was running dry.

Issue #51, entitled “A Thousand Worlds of Tim,” kicked off a long storyline that lasted 25 issues, right to the end of the series. The premise was that Tim, over the course of his life, unknowingly spawned a large number of parallel worlds where another version of him lived, each containing a small fraction of his magic and power. Every world was different in some way. In some, his mother never died in a car accident. In others, he was never accosted by the Trenchcoat Brigade and thus never took up magic. But now one of these “shadow” Tims had broken free of his own world, and was traveling across the multiverse killing off all the other Tims and absorbing their essence, to end up with the True Tim (the one whose adventures we’ve been following). Unable to fight this shadow of himself since he lost his power, Tim was forced to flee.

The basic plot itself wasn’t earthshatteringly brilliant, but hey, it worked, and it fit pretty well with what we already knew about Tim’s power. What was less fine is the way Mr. Currie (a refugee from such a shadow world who had come to warn the True Tim) constantly referred to the rogue Tim as “the Other.” Now, readers were already familiar with this term. The water elementals in the Infinite Ocean used it (in issue #31). So did the secret-hoarding gargoyles in San Francisco (issue #41). But to them, Molly was Tim’s Other. I’m guessing it meant “soul-mate” or something similar—and it’s true, Molly and Tim were pretty good soul-mate material. I don’t understand why new writer Peter Gross decided to throw all that into question. Also not entirely welcome: more mysteries concerning Tim’s heritage. It seems his dead mother, Mary Hunter, may not have been human after all. In issue #51 Tim found a strange necklace in her open grave that turned out to be a glamour stone, an item commonly used in Faerie to disguise its wearer’s appearance. Tim worked out the necklace’s use (but not its greater meaning) and wore it to hide his identity while on the run from his Other. In an interesting twist, Tim’s new appearance was female, strongly resembling his mother’s. And so, for several issues, Tim travelled the realms passing as a girl named Mary.

I have to say, it was a refreshing change. The first few issues of this new story arc were fairly dark and paranoid, with Mr. Currie retraining Tim to work magic (even though his power was gone, there were things any normal person could do with the right practice), and just waiting for the Other to appear. But once Tim/Mary was on the road, we got to meet some interesting new faces, just like old times: Joh and Rosehip the Flitling and Brother Hugh and Henry the Rocket Boy and that cute little inadequacy dream. He stayed for a while at the Inn Between Worlds (a neutral house between realms) and formed a friendship with Joh (who happened to be the innkeeper’s daughter), where we got to see yet more exotic travelers.

Eventually Tim got swept up along with the Wild Hunt (imprisoned for millenia but recently released by Tim’s Other, just to cause chaos). Instead of being killed, he successfully challenged the leader and took his place. With the Wild Hunt at his side, Tim realized he finally had the power to move against his Other. But first, he had to strike a bargain with Barbatos. Not the one he’d met before, the Barbatos from Future Tim’s time: this was a younger Barbatos, who’d never met and controlled Tim. The price, as expected, was a memory—and though Tim knew this was the first step towards becoming that evil future self, he had no choice. In the end, Tim beat both Barbatos (through trickery) and his Other (through force). Tim had set up a timeline where his future self would exist, but still die (in the present) as in issue #20, while Tim’s soul and essence would be safe inside Barbatos himself, ready to rebuild a new body when the time was right. So Tim was complete at last, having gathered all stray fragments of his power. Complete, but alone: Molly was gone, his father was dead—killed by Currie just before Tim went on the run.

And so ended The Books of Magic, after 75 issues. I don’t think the plot with Barbatos was necessary, since Future Tim had always been only a possibility; there would have been no paradox if Tim never grew up to be him. But, I have no real complaints, because Barbatos is so damn entertaining. There are still a thousand worlds of Tim, a thousand choices. Not in the past, but in the future. Though I questioned (and still do question) some of his plot directions, Peter Gross very ably filled Rieber’s writing shoes, and he provided a satisfying end to the series. At its best, The Books of Magic was absolutely enchanting and breathtaking. Even at its worst, it was still very, very good.

Tim’s adventures continued in a five-issue miniseries entitled “Names of Magic”, taking place immediately after this series ended. I found it all right, but ultimately unsatisfying, addressing the paradoxes of Tim’s heritage (Tamlin vs. Bill Hunter as father? Mary Hunter vs. Titania as a mother?) but not really trying to resolve them. There was another ongoing series a bit later, “Hunter: The Age of Magic,” lasting a couple of years which I read a couple of issues of but never got into. Maybe because it featured an older Tim (seventeen, I think) and part of the appeal of The Books of Magic was a young, still relatively inexperienced Tim just starting out in life and in magic. Or maybe it’s simply that these new series just didn’t have the spark, the life, the… magic, of Gaiman’s and Rieber/Gross’s series.

Comic Book Review: Xombi

Xombi was one of the two series introduced during the Shadow War, the first crossover event of the Milestone universe. It’s also the only one in the whole lot that looks nothing like a superhero comic. With its unusual artwork and mindbogglingly weird plots and characters, Xombi is in a class all by itself.

Xombi was one of the two series introduced during the Shadow War, the first crossover event of the Milestone universe. It’s also the only one in the whole lot that looks nothing like a superhero comic. With its unusual artwork and mindbogglingly weird plots and characters, Xombi is in a class all by itself.

The central character is one David Kim, a scientist whose body—mostly by accident—has become host to thousands of microscopic robots which negate the effects of aging and disease, as well as immediately heal any injuries. Now he is a xombi, a mortal person rendered immortal through artificial means. At the same time, he has crossed the line into the world of the bizarre, which exists side by side with our own. No matter how much he wishes to, David Kim can never return to his normal existence.

The series is divided into several long storylines. The first, “Silent Cathedrals,” introduces Kim and his new companions, including Nun of the Above (a clairvoyant nun) and her associate, Catholic Girl. This spunky blonde adolescent has many neat powers, including flight, projecting a force field around herself when she recites the “Hail Mary,” and firing energy bolts from her rosary. Which, I admit, sounds completely ridiculous when I write it out like this, but that’s part of the series’ charm: writer John Rozum shamelessly mixed creepy horror, gratuitously absurd settings and silly puns and made it all work. That’s genius, right there.

“Silent Cathedrals” concerns the plans of Dr. Sugarman—an evil man with bizarre magical powers—to achieve immortality and summon a creature called Boraxis Megatheros, the incarnation of pollution. Servants of his break into David Kim’s lab to steal a supply of the regenerative nanomachines, killing David Kim in the process. His assistant, Kelly Sanborne, injects him with the nanomachines which bring him back to life. However, Kim’s body has been so badly damaged that the machines have to find an outside source to rebuild his tissues. That source is Kelly Sanborne’s body.

In the end, Kim and his friends manage to re-imprison Megatheros, but Dr. Sugarman escapes. The epilogue to this storyline (issue #6, entitled “Resurrection”) is one of the most beautiful and moving issues of any comic I’ve ever read. Feeling responsible for her death, Kim decides to bring Sanborne back using the same nanomachines that revived him. Most of the issue is taken up by quiet reminiscence and flashbacks as Kim looks back on her life.

It’s amazing how well you think you know someone, without really knowing much about them at all. She was one of my closest friends, yet I know next to nothing of her childhood, her friends from high school, her favorite color, her favorite flavor of ice cream, whether or not she wanted children. This time around, I’ll be sure to ask.

But upon finding that Sanborne’s remains were cremated, he realizes the nanomachines will be useless, so he has to accept her death.

The second main storyline, “School of Anguish” (starting with issue #7) pits Kim and his associates against a cult called “the Beli Mah.” Their central belief is that “the world can be made ideal by reducing everything to an abstraction of what it represents. A true form of itself, with no masks to be misinterpreted. They feel that the world is full of masks behind masks behind masks.” Accordingly, the Beli Mah create and use as their assassins creatures called the Painful Inscriptions: physical embodiments of certain abstract concepts. There’s Manuel Dexterity, crafted out of all the unfulfilled intense desires in the world; his twin sister Manuella, the embodiment of deep-rooted shame; Bludgeon, crafted from misdirected rage; Blister Ed, a construct of words spoken in anger, which can’t be unsaid; and many others, each stranger than the last.

Xombi’s last storyline (issues #17–21) is entitled “Hidden Cities.” Finally accepting that his life would never go back to normal, David Kim decides to learn more about the worlds beyond normalcy. With every page I got the feeling that everything we’d seen up to this point was just to get us in the mood, and the serious fun was about to begin. The hilarious (if slightly disturbing) lecture on sidewalk piranhas… David’s first meeting with another xombi, who tells the tale of how he became immortal (a magical healing concoction called the “serpent’s tail” that inexplicably stayed active in his body)… The visit to “Elsewhere,” a parallel world that is the source of all true artistic inspiration in our world… David’s meeting with yet another xombi, this time a forty-thousand-year-old woman living in a flying pagoda who has been having repeated visions of Kim and their life together in the centuries to come, and fell in love with him though they had never met… David agreeing to bait a trap for the Bogeymen Dread, evil creatures from Elsewhere feeding on hope, that invaded our world leaving a trail of death by suicide. Only David Kim can survive an encounter with the Bogeymen since he cannot kill himself. With his help, the Elsewhere authorities are able to imprison the Bogeymen again and save countless lives.

And… that’s where Xombi ended, with Kim realizing that his power could be used to help others, and finally accepting his place in the shadow worlds. A shame: though it was a good place to end, positive and hopeful, David Kim’s story had hardly begun, and I’m sure that Rozum’s twisted, fertile imagination would have been up to the challenge.

Dust, Magic and Carnie Freaks: HBO’s Carnivàle

Warning: Spoilers a-comin’

Right, so this review’s a few weeks late, but I had other commitments.

I’ve been watching both seasons of Carnivàle since the beginning, and I’m here to say it’s been a hell of a show. The story—taking place in 1934 in the American Southwest—focuses on two characters: first, Ben Hawkins, a troubled young man picked up by a traveling carnival; he has the power to heal and even raise the dead, but only by taking energy from other living beings. Second, Brother Justin Crowe, a California preacher who can look into people’s souls and make them face their greatest sins.

Warning: Spoilers a-comin’

Right, so this review’s a few weeks late, but I had other commitments.

I’ve been watching both seasons of Carnivàle since the beginning, and I’m here to say it’s been a hell of a show. The story—taking place in 1934 in the American Southwest—focuses on two characters: first, Ben Hawkins, a troubled young man picked up by a traveling carnival; he has the power to heal and even raise the dead, but only by taking energy from other living beings. Second, Brother Justin Crowe, a California preacher who can look into people’s souls and make them face their greatest sins. Though they don’t know it at first they are nemeses, destined to meet and fight to the death—which they end up doing in the second season finale.

But there’s a lot more to Carnivàle than a plain old good-vs-evil story. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Depression-era America. To be honest, I don’t know how historically accurate it really is, but I appreciate that there was no attempt to sanitize or romanticize the era. These are not the Good Old Days. There’s dust and dirt everywhere (with a few exceptions, the carnival people rarely wash much). There’s bigotry and segregation. There’s poverty and fear, with Communists, Jews and atheists blamed for the nation’s problems. (Good thing that doesn’t happens anymore, right?) It was a different world, a bigger world with no television or internet, where news and people travelled slowly, and to many of these people, the big cities of the East Coast might as well be on the Moon. And in this world, it was okay to pay money to gawk at bearded ladies or Siamese twins or midget strongmen or some guy in a tux biting the head off a chicken. Nowadays people gawk at white trash losers on Jerry Springer or deluded famewhores on American Idol. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if we’ve changed all that much.

The show has both a great cast and great characters: there’s the very fey Lizard Man (played by the equally fey John Fleck, who sadly didn’t stay on for season two). The Cootch dancers (i.e.: strippers), a mother-and-daughters team that take their clothes off on stage and turn tricks for the patrons, with the father as barker and pimp. Interestingly, two of the strippers are pretty large and curvy women, quite unlike today’s stick-thin performers. Samson, the Carnivàle’s assistant manager, funny and sometimes tender yet taking no bullshit from anyone. Far creepier is Apollonia, the Carnivàle’s extremely accurate Tarot reader, completely paralyzed for years and only able to speak through her daughter. Kudos to Diane Salinger for her performance. I imagine the role probably wasn’t very tempting—she only moved twice in the entire first season, and spoke a total of five or six words—but she managed to bring Apollonia to life with tiny, subtle facial expressions. Also, Tim DeKay’s biceps? Whoof.

The story moved along slowly for the first season, revealing this fantasy world little by little, taking its time, always leaving the viewers hungry for more. Visions and vague hints gradually fleshed out the truth about Ben’s past, Justin’s past, their future together, and their ties to other characters: the enigmatic leader of the Carnivàle known only as “Management;” Henry Scudder, a “gentleman geek” who worked with the Carnivàle many years ago, and has powers similar to Ben’s; Professor Lodz, the resident mentalist who can actually read minds; Sofie, daughter of Apollonia. It was a rich history and mythology that was not spoonfed to the audience, and that’s the way I like it. This is a show that forces you to pay attention.

The problem is that there’s such a thing as too much mystery. It’s fine to tease and slowly reveal a world, but eventually you need to deliver. And now that Ben and Justin have had their confrontation, too many questions are still left unanswered. First of all, what was at stake? Why exactly were they fighting? It was never revealed why Belyakov tried to kill Scudder a generation ago or why he kept looking for him for twenty years. Hints from Management and some of Ben’s visions suggest that Justin’s victory (especially now that he’s received his boon) would lead to the Trinity site bomb test—and thus a nuclear holocaust? I don’t know. Does this mean we’re living in a world where the Creature of Darkness won? That would explain a lot, even though Ben did kill Justin. Maybe fighting each other is just something that Avatars do, which makes the conflict a lot less interesting. What does it mean that Sofie is “the Omega,” as Lodz’s spirit wrote? Samson’s opening monologue in the series premiere says that the Age of Magic will end with Trinity. So, does that mean she’s the last Avatar? Will she have to face Ben someday (in the series finale)? Sofie seems to be neither Light nor Dark: though she rejected Justin, she later on apparently tried to resurrect him. There had been some previous hints that she had a dark side, especially the visions about her mother being raped by the Usher but this “Omega” business basically came out of left field and was never explained. And yes, it’s fun to speculate, but that can only carry me so far.

Maybe all of this will be explained in later seasons (if they’re ever produced), and Dan Knauf has apparently clarified some aspects of the background and mythology in online chats and such, but I haven’t read them and I shouldn’t need to. The show should stand on its own. All this, and the many season two sub-plots that went nowhere (Lila’s quest for revenge, Lodz possessing Ruthie, Stumpy’s money troubles, Iris and Norman plotting against Justin) make me feel that they’re winging it, and it’s not a good feeling.

Finally, I really wish they hadn’t turned Brother Justin into a gloating villain.

Really, that’s my biggest disappointment with the finale. It was only halfway through the first season that viewers were sure he even was the villain. Yes, he was a religious fanatic, who preached a lot about God’s wrath and smiting and not so much about love and giving (one big reason, for me, to see him as evil. The atheist in me does not react well to hellfire preaching). Yet, at the same time, he was the only one of his congregation to welcome the Okie migrants, those who had lost everything to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. While the rest of his prim-and-proper California church (seemingly untouched by the Depression) tried to ignore the migrants’ dirty, off-key-singing selves or made veiled complaints about the church being “too crowded”, he pushed for a proper church in which the Okies could pray. The place he had in mind was Chin’s, a local Chinese brothel which he planned to convert to a mission after using his mojo to convince its owner to donate it to his church. It was a nasty scene that showed Justin’s ruthlessness and total conviction in his own rightness, but I couldn’t feel too sorry for the brothel owner even when he later committed suicide, because he was a massively hypocritical, bigoted pedophile.

It seems on some level Justin was aware of his evil side, and his powers, but tried to repress them, or saw them as a test from God. After a particularly intense vision (lasting most of an episode), he began accepting that this was his nature, and referring to himself as the “Left Hand of God”—the hand that deals out wrath and smiting, as opposed to the right hand, that deals out mercy. Yet even that was interesting, because, really, he was still a man of God. Just a somewhat different god.

Now, Ben seemed like a nicer guy, but he was wanted for murder—the details never known, unfortunately, and that fact seemed only there to drive a couple of subplots along—and his powers were definitely a double-edged sword. The series premiere showed that clearly, as he healed a crippled little girl and killed her family’s crops at the same time. Sure, she can walk now, but they will probably either starve or have to move, and it’s doubtful whether they’re any better off. Also, let’s be honest: Ben wasn’t all that bright, so it was hard to see him as any kind of hero. He was essentially a passive creature, led by Management’s advice or commands and whatever clues he picked up along the way in his quest to find Henry Scudder, rarely trying to take control of his life.

The main characters lost most of their nuances in season 2, and the main plot simplified. After killing Management and receiving his full powers, Ben grew a few brain cells but no extra depth. Justin didn’t get any more nuanced either: he reveled in his dark powers and the control he had over his flock, delighted in mentally torturing Iris and Norman, and… well, the less said about what he did to his maids, the better. But the worst part was his final confrontation with Ben in the finale. At the end Ben was helpless, his father’s special trench knife snapped off at the hilt, and what does Justin do? Does he immediately kill his nemesis with that nasty-looking sickle he’s been waving around for the last ten minutes? No. To quote Frozone, “He starts monologuing!” Yep, Brother Justin takes a moment to gloat, giving the boy enough time to grab the knife blade and skewer the evil preacher. Two years just to get to this? Blah. Justin deserved much better.

Don’t get me wrong: it may sound like I didn’t enjoy the later episodes, but the good definitely outweighed the bad. I loved the show, and will definitely be tuning in if a third season is produced. For all its flaws, Carnivàle stands heads and shoulders above most of what’s on TV these days. If you like your TV literate and pretentious, if you like your heroes dirty, if you like your freaks freaky, if you like your magic down-to-earth, if you like your fiction historical, if you like your story arcs long, then this just may be the show for you.