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Recent Books of Interest
Shanghai Devil by Gianfranco Manfredi and Massimo Rotundo (Sergio Bonelli editore)
So this is my first review of a non-English language comic, by which I mean "not in translation." I
was left to figure out plotting, character arcs, etc., almost solely by looking at the images, with
the 2 percent or so of the Italian I could figure out. My engagement with Shanghai Devil
came when a producer friend (this happens in L.A., and really isn't as glamorous as it might
sound -- our respective sons were finishing up a sleepover, and we were having coffee in the
kitchen) mentioned she'd optioned these graphic novels from her native Italy. Did I want to
have a look at them, to see what I thought of them as comics? Sure! So I was handed the
half-dozen issue run of the series, and was reminded of that cool niche that Euro comics
had even before American comics got there. They served as platforms for interesting,
perhaps lavish, "costume dramas" (think of all those French and Italian Western comics,
for example) that movies didn't, or couldn't, always do. Replete with the kind of gritty
character development you might find in some of the better cable TV
shows. Shanghai Devil concerns the adventures of a certain Ugo Pastore, a late 19th
century "salesman" with a penchant for exotic locales. Here, he starts by visiting his
uncle (I think), because he has to lay low. But his sense of justice, or injustice, is
piqued when he witnesses various warlord-y, opium trade-connected atrocities (perpetrated
both by local Asian crime lords, and their European colleagues), so he dons a càrnivale-like
mask, and a gun, and becomes "The Shanghai Devil." It's high-spirited, Indiana Jones-like
stuff. Issue number 4 takes on an even more somber tone, with warring guerrilla/druglord
factions (I think) running up a body count in a more remote village. The Shanghai Devil
is just barely spared, and has to make an alliance of convenience. If you read Italian,
you should definitely check these out. And furthermore, when will some English-language
publisher get off the stick and translate these?
Pulp! magazine #1 by various contributors
OK, let me get the disclaimer stuff out of the way, because it's germane here: My son is one
of the contributors to this start-up, having written one of its short stories (and no, he
didn't know I'd be mentioning the thing in my column). So obviously I can't really "review"
it as such, but just wanted to note this plucky collective of far-flung creators (from a
bunch of different countries, communicating internet-ishly; I believe they found each other
via Reddit, unless, of course, it was 4Chan) is making good use of digital media to simply
get their work out, without waiting for permission. The issue isn't hosted online -- you
download it as a PDF and start reading. And of course, the work is uneven, as the
contributors feel their way through -- and toward -- whatever storytelling voice (or drawing
chops) they will grow into. Give it a read and drop 'em a line. Or, heck, become a
contributor yourself! It's an ongoing collaboration -- time to get your own work out of
the drawer (or at least your head) and onto a page!
Supurbia #1 & #2 by Grace Randolph (writer) and Russell Dauterman (artist) (Boom! Studios)
This is an intriguing blend of superhero book as viewed through a prism of
Desperate Housewives, with all the intrigue that one suburban street or
cul-de-sac could muster. Especially if each of the neighbors belonged to something
like The Justice League or The Avengers. Though the main point of the tale is how the spouses
(including the "househusband" of the Wonder Woman-analogue) and children of these heroes fare
in their "regular" lives, which, of course, aren't regular at all. The caped group here is
called The Meta League, which probably seems a little more Justice-y than Avenger-y, though
there's a main plot point with this assembly's version of Captain America. The Batman analogue
is gay -- which harkens back to Rick Veitch's Brat Pack, among other things. And the
intrigue is good, but perhaps my favorite thing, so far, is the hinted-at cold bloodedness of
this world's Superman, here known as Sovereign, which could have truly chilling
implications. The tales -- two issues in -- are a promising "backstage" look at superhero
lives in a soap operatic way. One wonders how Supurbia might work on television?
So, yes, it's a big comic-y summer at the cineplex this year, what with Joss
Whedon's Avengers adaptation kicking things off, and leading eventually to new
Batman and Spider-Man installments later this season.
Copyright © 2012 Mark London Williams
Everyone has been waiting for Avengers for awhile of course, because the trailers
look cool, because it's Joss Whedon, and because, well, how many multiple superhero movies
have there ever been? (Does Scarlett Johansson's team-up as Black Widow, in the previous
Iron Man film, count?)
In fact, so many appetites have been whetted for this movie that anything I say here would
scarcely matter, which is as it should be. Go see the thing. After all, it's pretty good.
Right. I was lucky enough to see it (in glorious 2-D!) on the Disney lot somewhere in
early/mid- April. This may have been more owing to the fact I'm writing an article on the
film's visual FX, rather than the presumed clout of the Nexus Graphica beat, but heck, I
get to write it up in two places now.
The film's a lot of fun, the set pieces are terrific (the battle scenes have a nice logic
to them -- in, of course, a "superhero movie" way -- as well as a good sense of staging
and physical space, which is rare enough in action films these days), the banter between
superheroes is good and it's the best Hulk movie yet made.
It may not be quite a transcendent piece of work that goes deeper than the material
itself (like, say, superhero flick faves Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight,
or even V for Vendetta), but you will get plenty of summer bang for your buck. You
will even be left looking forward to a sequel.
So all is good in Avengers-land, but my goal here isn't to run a straight review anyway,
since you'll be reading the proverbial bazillion of those, and none of them -- as already
noted -- will actually matter, since you've seen, or are seeing, imminently, the film anyway.
What I might talk about is the press conference I went to, with most of the Avengers
cast. Since that was held mid-April, too, it has since been "leaked," written about, and
Tweeted as well, in terms of anything still being revelatory, but hey, I'm not necessarily
sitting a room with Joss Whedon, Samuel Jackson, et al., every day of my writing life. The
afternoon added to my whole Avengers experience, except that S. Johansson
canceled out at the last minute.
What was interesting is how various cast members talked about how they all geeked out (they
didn't use the phrase "geeked out") when they saw the rest of the Avengers all, well,
assembled, on set. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner all mentioned this -- whatever
the first time on set was, for each of them, where they saw everyone else in their costumes,
and suddenly that sense that "hey, we're the 'Avengers!" became palpable to them (or: "we're
playing the most boss game of 'dress up and pretend'... ever!")
As noted here, though, I found Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of Bruce Banner, and his various Hulk
transformations (which included, for the first time, some motion capture with the actor playing
Banner, as well as a mix, in the CG components, of "Banner's" face, resulting in a continuity
of character not seen in the previous films) to be quite effective and affective. Ruffalo
said that Whedon made note of always liking what Bill Bixby did with the character in the
old TV show (where he'd become Lou Ferrigno), so he went home and worked his way through a
box set of old episodes, with his 10 year-old son at his side. "Papa, he's so
misunderstood!," young Ruffalo exclaimed, which provided his father with his first
valuable insight into how he would play the character.
Jackson talked about his Nick Fury character having less latitude to ad-lib and improv than
Downey's Tony Stark, and he wasn't sure why. He wanted to say to Loki, at one point, "I don't
come to your planet and blow shit up!" Luckily, a line retaining that sensibility remains
in the finished film.
As for finished films, one writer from ComicBookMovie.com asked what advice Whedon would
have for Warner Bros. on getting a Justice League film done. "Call me," he quipped. But then
he also mentioned how DC's characters are "bigger than life," whereas Marvel had strived
to show people who happen to have superpowers, so he allowed it might be harder to fit
them all into a single movie.
But talking about comics-into-movies earlier, Whedon also opined that it was important to
remember what works in a comic book story, but that ultimately you're making a movie, which
is different. He arrived at a kind of Goldilocks "just right" formula, saying comic movies
don't work if you throw out the whole story, à la League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (examples
his), or stay slavishly close to a frame-by-frame retelling, à la Watchmen.
"The hardest part," Whedon said, "is always the structure." More so, on a multi-hero saga
like this. How do you get the audience to feel involved?
And that's the thing I'd look forward to in any putative Avengers sequel -- the very thing that
Marvel tried to pioneer in its Lee/Kirby/Ditko/Romita, et al.-era books -- a sense of emotional
involvement with these otherwise demigods. There could be more of that here, perhaps in the nature
of a more palpable threat (here it's Loki, shaping up to invade the Earth with some alien
allies). Emotional stakes, in other words.
But Avengers remains a great ride, and on that basis, expect audiences to feel involved -- over
and over again at the box office (and the subsequent DVD incarnations, etc.) All of which means that
after the now hoped-for next Hulk film, we'll back writing about an Avengers sequel or three in summers yet to come.
Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series,
and is mulling turning the story-within-a-story, the monster-themed "Barnstormers," into its own comic.
But right now, he has a lot of "prose work" stacked up.
Info on his work can be found at marklondonwilliams.com.
Meanwhile, did we mention Danger Boy #1, "Ancient Fire," is back out on eBook, and is
currently free at Amazon and Smashwords?
Meanwhile, he gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.