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The whole goddamn “drug war” is such a clusterfuck of bad ideas that it’s a wonder the premise in Justin Jordan and Raul Trevino’s new four-part Boom! Studios series — that of a frustrated DEA agent “going native” and crossing the border into Mexico to take the fight to the cartels using the same brutal methods that they themselves are infamous for — hasn’t played out in real life already. Or maybe it has and they’ve just managed to keep it out of the press?

It’s certainly been explored in fiction before, no question about that — Joseph Conrad’s timeless classic Heart Of Darkness did it first, and Francis Ford Coppola famously transposed that story into Vietnam for Apocalypse Now — so we can’t go so far as to give Jordan any particular points for originality here, but he adds an interesting new wrinkle into the proceedings by having the agent assigned to bring rouge operative Conrad Marlowe (methinks our author wears his influences on his sleeve) “in from the cold” turn out to be his own daughter. So, yeah, derivative or not, I’m liking where this one’s heading —

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Jordan’s other recent-vintage projects such as John Flood and Strayer have shown him to have a real penchant for creating strong and memorable characters, and the same appears to be true one chapter in here, albeit with a political and bureaucratic twist given that the powers-that-be on both sides of Donald Trump’s imaginary wall seem less than enthusiastic about the prospects of our would-be heroine actually succeeding in her task. Which rather leads me to wonder why she was even given it, but that’s just one of many intriguing questions that will hopefully be addressed in due course as events play out in this book.

Complementing the sharp dialogue and smart story hooks is the smooth, gritty-but-stylish art of Raul Trevino, who hails from Mexico himself and imbues his locales with an authenticity that is, fair enough, sometimes photo-referenced, but still wildly effective on the whole. His action sequences have a real snappy rhythm to them, as well, and as exposition gives way to violence in future installments that’s going to come in real handy, you can already tell. Juan Useche’s largely-subdued color palette aids an air of moody immediacy to everything, and the end result is a comic that both reads and, crucially, looks much like a William Friedkin crime flick.

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I’ve gotta give the brain trust at Boom! props for issuing a Spanish-language version of this comic,too — that can’t be a move without a considerable amount of financial risk attached to it, but given the subject matter it would almost seem remiss not to do it, so I hope it pays off for them. I’m a little bit less enthusiastic, it must be said, about them putting out this first issue with something like four or five different different covers, but that’s just how it goes these days, I guess, and if “main” cover artist Jilipollo continues to knock it out of the park as he does here (as pictured at the top of this review — Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi’s far uglier one being shown underneath it), well, there’s no real reason to pick up any of the variants, anyway, unless you’re some kind of die-hard completist. Which, fortunately for both my wallet and sanity, I’m not.

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Anyone who’s been around comics for any length of time can tell you that sometimes you just “get a feeling” about a book, and I’ve definitely got that — in spades, no less! — about Sombra. If Jordan and Trevino can manage to follow up this opening salvo with three more rounds that hit their target as surely and confidently as this one does, we’re in for one hell of a memorable ride. You’d be very foolish indeed to miss out on it.

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Trying to review the new Image Comics series Snotgirl is a bit tricky because, frankly, I’m not sure how much a reader like me is even supposed to like it, given that it’s clearly aimed at a younger — and decidedly more female — readership. All in all this is a good thing given that books aimed at a 30-and 40-something male readership are absolutely saturating the market, whereas titles squarely aimed at women in their 20s are depressingly few and far between —the problem with this book, though, is that it seems to be trying more than a little bit too hard to connect with its intended demographic and ends up feeling like it’s pandering, rather than speaking, to its hoped-for audience.

The creation of writer Bryan Lee O’Malley (of Scott Pilgrim fame) and artist/webcomics sensation Leslie Hung, Snotgirl follows the so-far-quite-dull exploits of one Lottie Person, an L.A. (I think, at any rate)-based fashion blogger with severe allergies, perhaps even more severe anxiety, and green hair. This debut installment introduces us to Lottie, her largely vacuous circle of shallow “friends” (who are also all fashion bloggers), and a new wannabe-addition to her social circle who’s too perfect and stylish for words (and has also just started a fashion blog herself). None of ’em do much beyond text each other constantly and silently compare every single aspect of each other’s appearance, resulting in an overall portrayal of young women that’s as offensive as it is overly-generalized, but that’s sort of endemic of the main problem that’s festering away at this series’ core — ya see, it comes off as a story written by an older guy who’s read a little bit about what his “target market” is into, and how they act, but doesn’t have the first fucking clue about what they’re actually like.

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For one thing, you can probably count on two hands the number of people in the entire country who are managing to earn a living as fashion bloggers. Sure, style blogs are a dime a dozen (as are — gulp! — movie and comic review blogs), but it’s largely a voluntary enterprise for most involved with it, and the idea that there is a veritable army of young women (in just one city alone!) who are making enough money at it to pay the bills is at least as ludicrous as the idea that being bitten by a radioactive insect will give you super-powers rather than kill you. And ya know what? Even the few actual, paid fashion bloggers that are out there probably don’t celebrate their “blogiversaries,” much less even know when they are, but if you’re getting your ideas about the (again, largely unpaid) “blog economy” from Snotgirl, you’d think it was the most important day of the year for all of them.

Next up, we’ve gotta take a closer look at this whole texting thing. Yes, younger folks tend to text each other pretty frequently, but they don’t do it all the goddamn time like the characters in this comic do, nor do they still use the abbrvtd txt lngo tht wnt by th wysde when “smart” phones came along and you no longer had to type the frigging number keys to write out words anymore. Yeah, they still say shit like “LOL” and “WTF,” but by and large text messages are written in semi-coherent form these days. And I’m sorry, but no one sends a text to their friend sitting in a coffee shop from right outside that same shop’s window to tell them that they won’t be coming in. People — even young people — still actually do talk to each other once in awhile.

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Once O’Malley starts delving into the murky depths of Lottie’s personal insecurities things take a turn for the (slightly) more interesting, but by that point his “forced-contemporary” narrative style has already succeeded in completely alienating anyone (young or old) who might still be paying attention, and just to underscore the point he’s already accidentally made, he manages to more or less squander any chance of reviving your interest on a more permanent basis by wrapping the issue up with a cliffhanger that by all rights should be surprising but is detailed in a manner so ambiguous and bereft of coherence that you couldn’t even be bothered to care about it if the preceding 20-or-so pages had been any good. In short, this is a horribly-written comic that treats its subjects more like exotic germs being examined under a microscope than actual, flesh-and-blood people, and is every bit as condescending toward the “millenials” of today as Reality Bites was toward the “Generation X”ers of 20 years ago.

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All of which, of course, does an incredible disservice to the artwork of Leslie Hung, which well and truly does have an air of genuine youthful authenticity and energy to it as one panel flows freely and seamlessly into the next in a quick-but-not-rushed, almost dreamlike fashion. Yeah, it’s all a bit “cartoony,” but that’s okay in my book under most circumstances (these included) if the end result has freshness and vitality to it, which this most certainly does. It’s nowhere near enough to elevate the proceedings in Snotgirl #1 above the level of profound and borderline-offensive over-simplification, though, and all in all it doesn’t seem like O’Malley — who’s known, perhaps ironically, for having a pretty solid handle on “youth culture” —understands the reality of young women’s lives any more than your crotchety old uncle who’s constantly spouting his “let me tell you what’s wrong with kids these days” nonsense.

 

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On the one hand, it’s sort of easy to slag writer/director Mickey Keating’s 2015 indie horror offering Darling as a pretentious, overly-self-conscious, hopelessly derivative knock-off of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion with, sadly, no trace of Catherine Deneuve in sight. In fact, if we get right down to brass tacks here, it’s more than fair to say this film is, at its core, simply an uncredited remake of that earlier — and admittedly superior — work.

On the other hand, though, that’s giving pretty short shrift to what Keating actually has managed to accomplish here, which is to craft a visually stunning, intensely moody, deliriously provocative, and painfully believable tale of a young woman’s descent into madness that, while being far from original, is certainly harrowing and memorable enough in its own right.

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Shot — as its predecessor was — entirely in black and white, Darling follows the downward spiral of its titular character (played by Lauren Ashley Carter, who delivers a truly gutsy performance) after she accepts a job house-sitting at a clinically austere New York mansion with something of a foreboding history. Dialogue is often sparse and extreme close-ups are the order of the day as we follow Darling from room to room, each door-opening and even footstep rife with tension and import. On a purely surface level, sure, there’s not much going on — but just beneath that surface, shit, there’s a veritable cauldron of apprehension brewing that threatens to boil over at any moment. The house is obviously haunted as shit from the outset, but the film’s deliberate snail’s pace ensures that each piece of evidence we receive to support that pre-determined conclusion, no matter how small, is weighted with near-otherworldly significance. The spirit of the home’s former devil-worshiping owner (Sean Young in a too-brief but welcome appearance) looms large over much of what’s happening here, but for the most part this is a very solitary character study that adopts a very insular and claustrophobic feel despite the fact that so many of its sets are, indeed, quite vast. Carter has to absolutely kill it in her role because, apart from a few other folks drifting in and out for specific plot purposes (the most notable of which being Brian Morvant as “The Man”) she’s literally it — and as her mental condition deteriorates you feel frightened both of and for her in equal measure. If you’re into spending a lot of time inside somebody’s mind, this is going to be right up your alley — if not, well, bail out quick before you go fucking crazy yourself.

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Another bunch that might want to take a pass on this one are those folks who either need answers or who appreciate, at the very least, a nice, tidy ending. Darling offers none of that and counts on you to fill in many of its numerous blank spaces for yourself. As our “heroine” finally cracks she may (or may not) do something that’s so damn diabolical that her mind would snap if it were still actually functioning, but by this point what’s “real” and what’s feverish hallucination can’t truly be discerned and you’re left entirely up to your own devices when it comes to determining what’s actually taking place and what isn’t — or, for that matter, if the distinction between the two even matters anymore.

To me, that’s a sure sign of good psychological horror even if, again, it’s not particularly original psychological horror. And that’s probably why this film — which is now available on Netflix (which is how I caught it) as well as on Blu-ray and DVD — is garnering a bit of “buzz” around it. Certainly all of the core concepts, conceits, and visual trappings of Darling are borrowed and/or swiped, but you just don’t see many films of this type anymore, and for that reason it feels like a breath of fresh air in the contemporary horror landscape. Even if, strictly speaking, it isn’t.

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Obviously, though, Keating’s film is going to alienate at least as many folks as it enraptures, for reasons already stated. I’ll assure you of this much, however, without the slightest little bit of  hesitation — if this sounds like your cup of tea, then it absolutely is, and you’re going to love every taut, terrifying second of this stylish throwback. Somewhere in Poland, I like to think, Roman Polanski is smiling — deviously, of course, but appreciatively.

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One thing I’m kind of digging about Hulu these days is that you can find a decent number of really low-budget, truly “indie” horror flicks on there (the rights to which were probably secured at sub-fire sale prices) that Netflix wouldn’t touch in a million years. Granted, most of these are every bit as amateurish as you’d expect, but that doesn’t always mean that they’re necessarily bad. Case in point : director Andy Palmer’s Colorado-lensed 2014 effort, Find Me.

This is obviously a get-some-friends-together-in-front-of-the-camera affair, given that co-stars Cameron Bender and Kathryn Lyn are credited as co-screenwriters along with Palmer himself, and as ghost stories go it’s nothing beyond the standard, plot-wise : newlyweds Tim (Bender) and Emily (Lyn) are starting a new life in the unnamed small town where Emily grew up. Tim’s landed a gig as a teacher at he local high school and Emily’s still looking for work, but hey, they’ve managed to score a nice little “starter house” for themselves, her old best friend Claire (played by Rachelle Dimaria) is still around — things aren’t looking so bad, all in all. Except for the fact that the place is, ya know, haunted and all. So right off the bat you know that execution is going to be what matters most here, because originality is something they probably can’t even afford to try. And that, fortunately, is where Find Me manages to stand out above most of its peers.

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The malevolent presence destined to fuck up everyone’s lives makes itself known pretty early on here, but the movie doesn’t sustain that quick pace for very long, and soon enough you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching some sort of wanna-be art film, given the amount of time that’s devoted to talented-if-amateur cinematographer Josh Gibson’s contemplative views of melting icicles, bleak midwinter landscapes and the like. This gives Palmer and company time to establish some pretty firm characterization for all the principles involved, but if you’re looking for our resident entity to graduate from simple bumps in the night to full-blown violent attacks in short order, you’re bound to feel a bit disappointed. I’m not griping — much — because it’s all reasonably effective and the actors, while far from professional, are good enough to carry most of the weight of the production on their shoulders. but for those afflicted with short attention spans, Find Me may prove to be a bit of a rough slog. Fair warning.

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I’ll tell you what, though, once things really do get moving, it proves to be worth the wait — there’s a double-whammy of secrets going on here, with both the history of the house itself as well as buried memories from Emily’s past factoring into who it is that’s haunting the couple and why, so if you’re into satisfying payoffs, this is a film that definitely has ’em for you on multiple fronts. None of it amounts to anything tremendously groundbreaking, it’s more than fair to say, but it’s all handled in immensely believable fashion and you won’t feel in any way cheated by this flick the way you do by 75% or more of the horror offerings out there these days. For that reason alone, I’m sort of tempted to say that Find Me is worth watching at least once. Are my standards incredibly low? Well, sure — the name of this site isn’t “Quality Films Guru,” after all. But Palmer manages to deliver far more than anybody can realistically expect from a production this obviously (and, it has to be said, charmingly) modest, so major props to him for that.

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To the best of my knowledge, this was never released on DVD or Blu-ray — at least not yet — but no matter, it’s not strong enough for me to recommend purchasing it even if it were. But if you’re home some night with nothing else to do and there ain’t a damn thing worth watching on TV — which, let’s be honest, is usually the case — you could do a lot worse things with 85 minutes of your life than give Find Me a go. There’s a sizable amount of heart on competence on display here, and if nobody involved with it either in front of or behind the camera should feel anything but pride for what they’ve accomplished.

How many multi-million-dollar Hollywood horror productions can you honestly say that about?

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So far, DC’s newly-launched revamps of classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon properties have ranged from fairly traditional takes (Future Quest) to radical re-imaginings (Scooby ApocalypseWacky Raceland) with not much in-between and, if I’m being brutally honest, fairly limited success. Scooby Apocalypse is an atrocious mess, Wacky Raceland is at least an interesting mess, and Future Quest — well, even a hardened cynic like yours truly has gotta admit that book is just plain cool. Into the breach next, then, comes writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh’s updated version of The Flintstones, and if the first issue is any indication, it seems to be the first of these titles to stake out something of a “middle ground,” remaining fairly faithful to the core characters and concepts but updating them for a contemporary, and somewhat older, audience. Sure, there’s nothing in here to prevent 20-something, 30-something, or (shudder!) even 40-something parents from reading this book with their children, but given that it seeks to address (in rather rapid-fire fashion) issues such as economic exploitation of immigrant labor, the re-integration of combat veterans into civilian life, and the existential ennui of bored suburban housewives — with perhaps even a knowing nod cast in the direction of John Zerzan-esque anarcho-primitivism — you have to wonder how much of what’s going on here a young kid is even going to understand, much less care about.

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Still, for this reader/critic, at any rate, The Flintstones #1 was an enjoyable-enough four-color romp, and while Russell’s ambitions so far seem to outstrip his actual ability (the laundry-list of socio-economic “challenges” referred to above giving his script more a feeling of a series of strung-together scenarios rather than an actual, cohesive narrative), it’s well past time that somebody brought 100,000 B.C. (or whatever) into the 21st century — and turning Fred and Barney’s Stone Age-equivalent of the Elks’ Club into a support group for veterans of the “Bedrock Wars,” making Slate’s Quarry a hotbed of Cro-Magnon (or maybe it’s Neanderthal) workers’ rights struggles,  giving Wilma artistic ambitions, and openly asking whether or not the conquest of wild nature in service of establishing the first civilization was even worth it seem as good a place to start that process as any. Yeah, things may get a bit heavy-handed in the “preachiness” department at times, but at least the author’s clearly-expressed sentiments appear to be in the right place.

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Admittedly, Barney and Betty Rubble get the really short end of the stick as far as character development goes — and there’s no sign of either Pebbles or Bam-Bam at this point (wait’ll you get a load of the “new look” Dino, though!) — but there’s actually an impressive amount of depth added to Fred and Wilma Flintstone’s relationship and “re-purposing” quarry owner George Slate as a Donald Trump-esque villain is a move that’s equal parts genius and painfully obvious. Stick all this within the context of a framing sequence set in a modern-day museum that shows us a caveman frozen in ice at the outset and then returns to him at the end after we know how he came to be stuck in said predicament and what you’ve got is a good old-fashioned “one and done” comic that gives you enough tantalizing glimpses into the world it’s just starting to (re-) explore to make you want to stick around for more.

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I’ve always liked Steve Pugh’s art, going all the way back to his ought-to-be-legendary stint with Jamie Delano on Animal Man, and while his work here is pretty far-removed from that stylistically, it suits the material well and his updated designs of our various cast members are uniformly successful and believable. Chris Chuckry’s colors are serviceable if unspectacular, but overall this comic’s visuals offer a pleasing and just-different-enough-to-keep-us-interested take on characters, and a world, that we thought we already knew pretty well — much like the script, I suppose. If this group of  creators can remain together for a nice, extended run — and if editorial affords them the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the subjects they scratch the surface of in this issue — then who knows? This new version of The Flintstones may prove to be the most satisfying — as well as, obviously, the most topical — one yet. I’m certainly game to give ’em all a few more months to see where they take things.

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I’ll be blunt — given what a mess otherwise-celebrated writer Gene Luen Yang made of things during his run on the “main” Superman title recently, I was initially in the “think I’ll pass on that” camp when I heard that his next project for DC would involve chronicling the exploits of the Man of Steel’s new Chinese counterpart/knock-off. The idea of a teenager given super-powers in a clandestine government-funded experiment sounded kind of played-out, as well, and the more I heard about it, the more I thought the book sounded like a loser.

But then a few preview pages began to leak online, and I had to admit that Viktor Bogdanovic’s art looked pretty good. The small sampling of the script we were able to glean from said pages read reasonably well. And hey, who knows? Maybe heavy-handed editorial dictates — always a strong possibility whenever supposedly-“reformed” serial sexual harasser/assaulter Eddie Berganza is in charge of a comic — were more to blame for the woeful direction of Yang’s tenure on Superman than anything the writer himself did or didn’t do. The possibility therefore existed that, given a bit more “free reign” with a character of his own semi-creation, America’s newly-appointed Ambassador for Youth Literature (not sure what that job exactly entails, but it certainly sounds impressive) might just come up with something at least kinda good.

Besides, who do I think I’m fooling here, anyway? I’ve given every other DC “Rebirth” debut issue a shot (frequently to my regret),  so what was the harm in gambling another three bucks on New Super-Man #1?

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Granted, one could argue as to whether or not the introduction of a Shanghai-based Superman is any way necessary, given that DC already has a little-used Chinese super-team called The Ten that they seem to have no real clue what to do with, but who are we kidding? Giving that bunch of also-rans a monthly series would amount to nothing so much as a countdown to cancellation from the outset, so it makes a lot more sense, at least from a business standpoint, to foist upon the world’s most populous nation its very own Last Son of Krypton — even if he’s, ya know, every bit the Earthling that you and I are. And if issue one is any indication, it’s that very humanity that will — or at least could — prove to make 17-year-old Kenan Kong a character worth following for the foreseeable future.

He initially comes off as something of an arrogant ass, to be sure — maybe even a bully. But it’s an instinctive act of bravery in service of a schoolmate that he typically picks on (a kid whose family he has a bit of a history with, as we come to learn) that first brings him to the attention of aggressive “new media” journalist Laney Lan (even in China all the women in Superman’s — sorry, Super-Man’s — life get the “LL” treatment) and , later, to a top-secret experimental research division of the Chinese government. As you probably gleaned from the opening paragraph, these are the folks that bestow upon him the “gift” of his new powers, but what he does with them — or perhaps what his would-be “masters” force him to do with them — well, that remains an open question. We find out pretty quickly that he’s not the first “guinea pig” they’ve tried this on, but he is the first to make it out of their lab alive — unless you count the Bat-Man and Wonder-Woman that he meets in the book’s actually-pretty-kick-ass cliffhanger. Yeah, I’d say things might just have the potential to get a little interesting here.

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Whether we’re talking watches, sunglasses, suits, or stereos, the cheaply-made imitation of popular and/or prestigious Western products has inextricably woven itself into Chinese economic life at this point, so it’s no surprise that even the fictitious representatives of the “powers that be” we’re briefly introduced to in this comic would look westward for “inspiration” in the creation of their own super-heroes. American cultural exports are a big business, as everyone knows, but something almost always gets lost in translation in foreign markets, and for those who prefer something with a bit more of a “close to home” feel, the gap between exported image and importing customer base has been closed by any number of “Chinese Madonnas,” “Chinese Michael Jacksons,” and “Chinese Whitney Houstons” over the years. Why should Superman escape the grip of cultural appropriation when Pamela Anderson can’t?

Okay, fair enough, Clark Kent was raised by two loving parents who instilled him with values so unshakable that his status as the last survivor of a doomed planet with literally no one else he can actually relate to only seems to trouble him on the rarest of occasions, while Kenan Kong was raised by a cold and emotionally distant single father who seems constitutionally incapable of showing his son anything even remotely resembling concern, much less actual affection, but for us hopefully-lucky (it remains to be seen) readers, that just means that he might have a more difficult — and consequently interesting — time of it when it comes to adapting to his new status as National Hero Who Can Do Just About Anything (NHWCJ — nah, an acronym just doesn’t work). So far, at least, all evidence seems to be pointing in the direction of a bumpy and memorable ride.

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Bogdanovic’s art, it bears repeating, is really nice here and captures enough of the vitality and optimism of Chinese youth culture to make me think he’s actually visited the place (which, for all I know, he may have), and Hi-Fi’s bright and energetic color palette adds a welcome exclamation point to the book’s visuals. Throw in some cool costume designs and dynamic (if brief) fight sequences and you have a book with sufficient artistic “chops” to match Yang’s rapid-fire pacing, authentic dialogue, and involving characterization. Add all this together with the fact that the Asian and Asian-American fan bases are woefully under-represented in the comics medium (something you’d think Jim Lee would have done something about earlier in his tenure as co-publisher at DC) and I feel perfectly comfortable in calling it : New Super-Man is going to be the surprise hit of the whole “Rebirth” initiative.

Another new one from yours truly for Graphic Policy website.

Graphic Policy

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A fair number of critics that I know of choose not to follow comics creators on twitter simply because they don’t want their impression of any given writer, artist, etc. beyond the printed page to influence their opinion of said person’s work, and I can sort of see the wisdom in that — after all, if you’re obviously “twitter pals” with a certain creator, and then you write a glowing review of their latest project, you’re going to be subjected, rightly or wrongly, to speculation that you’re just doing your friend a favor by telling folks to buy their book.

And then there’s the simple fact that a fair number of creators just don’t seem to like us critics very much. Don’t get me wrong — they absolutely love us when we have good things to say about their comics, but there’s a small but vocal number of freelancers out…

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