Archive for March 5, 2017

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Once upon a time, Jeff Lemire was one of the most interesting up-and-coming cartoonists around. Essex County landed with a bang — rather surprising considering its slow-burn, quiet pace — and seemed to announce the arrival of a major new talent with a highly personal, indiosyncratic vision. His career seemed poised to take off, and take off it did — although perhaps not in the direction many (most?) of us expected.

Enter “The Big Two.” Lemire’s wistful, free-flowing art style was never going to be seen in a Superman or Spider-Man comic, to be sure, but his writing was another matter, and while for a time he was able to balance his more personal, nominally “independent” projects such as Sweet Tooth and Trillium with “corporate comics” like Animal Man, once he signed on with Marvel, he started writing damn near everything in sight — with decidedly mixed results. His take on Moon Knight, for instance, has been uniformly interesting (thanks in no small part to Greg Smallwood’s superb artwork), and Thanos seems off to a promising start, but the less said about his X-Men work, the better.

In recent months, however, there have been promising signs that Lemire is looking to get off the corporate treadmill, or to at least find more time for work he can pour his considerable soul into. His revisionist super-hero title with artist extraordinaire Dean Haspiel for Dark Horse, Black Hammer, is a tour-de-force of inspired creativity that pays homage to men-in-tights tropes while smartly deconstructing them in plain sight, and his lavish watercolor-tinged illustrations in A.D. : After Death, a collaboration with superstar writer Scott Snyder, are gorgeously evocative things to behold. It was probably only a matter of time, then,  before he assumed full writer-artist responsibilities on something near and dear to his heart, and last Wednesday that project arrived in the form of the over-sized first issue of Royal City, his new monthly ongoing from Image Comics. It’s time to let Lemire be Lemire again.

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The watercolors are ported over from A.D. and  Trillium for this one, but so are the more tightly-refined lines (comparatively speaking, mind you) of Essex County, making this something of a mix of the old and the new as far as the art goes, and the same appears to be true of the writing : the strong sense of place so integral to earlier works is here in spades, with the titular city immediately and fairly effortlessly establishing itself in our minds as a former industrial hub fallen on somewhat hard times, while the central characters, the Pike family, are experiencing something of a Twilight Zone-ish series of visions of their deceased son/brother at various stages in his life. Where that’s all headed no one knows, but Lemire’s explored the power of memory-tinged apparitions before in his graphic novel The Underwater Welder, and my best guess is that the long-form narrative structure of a proper series will be a more successful format to explore those themes than was that self-contained book, which missed its marks as often as it hit them, resulting in a decidedly “mixed bag” affair. Our various protagonists are fleshed out in broad and basic strokes here, it’s true, but that’s nonetheless effective as an exercise in small-scale “world building,” especially when this story is so obviously determined to be every bit as much about a place as it is the people who inhabit it. We see enough of everyone and everything to know all we need to know about them here, and you really can’t ask for a whole lot more from a first issue than that, can you?

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That being said, there’s also something missing here, and it was only on second read-through that it finally hit me what that was : while this is undoubtedly a very personal piece of work, the older and (hopefully) wiser Lemire seems, at least to this point, to be maintaining a certain clinical distance between himself and his characters, almost like he’s observing them rather than fully engaging with them. We’ll see if that continues to be the case as events (and issues) unfold, but for the time being, it’s definitely not what we’re used to from this creator.

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Still, who knows? Even if that does prove to be the tone going forward, maybe it’ll turn out to be a good thing. I certainly trust Lemire’s storytelling instincts enough to go wherever he’s leading us, and to let him guide us there in whatever manner he sees fit. This comic seems to be “item one” on Lemire’s still-quite-busy agenda, so chances are better than good that it’ll prove to be something quite special by the time all is said, drawn, and done. I was happy with, and intrigued by, my initial foray into Royal City, and I think that visiting it again every 30 days will prove to be a very rewarding experience, indeed.

 

 

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As far as modern UFO “flaps” go, none are more well-known than the so-called “Phoenix Lights” incident of 1997, and while I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten anything like an “official explanation” as to what went down, I’ll guarantee you this much — the reality of the situation, whatever it may be, is probably far more interesting than 2016’s “found footage” indie micro-budgeter The Phoenix Tapes ’97. Even if all it was all just swamp gas or reflections of the planet Venus.

The authorship behind this particular piece of garbage is difficult to ascertain — the film has no credits, but that’s par for the course with these things. What’s far less common is the fact that this flick has no IMDB page, and that its official website lists none of the names of the people involved in its production, either. It does, however, make the more-than-dubious claim that the flick was “banned” from all streaming services save for Amazon Prime (which is where I caught it, obviously), a pathetically transparent slice of old-school hucksterism designed to foll the gullible into thinking that maybe this is the “real deal,” after all.

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Which, needless to say, it isn’t — but if it were, events would purportedly have happened thusly : a guy named Dustin Miller was a “top-secret government agent” of some sort who was killed during a routine traffic stop in Texas. His father, Pete, was never satisfied with the authorities’ accounting of his son’s death, and when he finds a barely-plastered-over “cubbyhole” in his deceased offspring’s home, he thinks he’s found the real reason for the young fella’s untimely demise : hidden videotape recordings that shows the “truth” about what those mysterious lights in the sky were all those years ago. Pete’s determined to put put this material into the public’s supposedly eager hands, and so while he may be on hand to say a a few words at the starting and finishing lines, the rest of the movie is the “unedited footage” just as he found it.

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Trust me when I say you’re gonna wish he’d left the whole thing alone. What we’ve got here is tedious “road trip” nonsense featuring four dumbfuck “bros” who have rented an RV to go spend a weekend in the Arizona desert. All they wanna do is get drunk, talk about girls, give each other shit, and crack dick and fart jokes, but instead on their very first night “away from civilization” (but evidently not that far away — listen closely and you’ll be able to hear somebody’s dog barking in their back yard) they hear loud explosions and see a meteorite (or something) crash into the nearby hills. This affords us the only mildly interesting and competently-executed scene in the film, but things go from almost-worth-staying-awake-for to depressingly dull in a hurry when we get the usual shaking of the RV and noises on its roof right after the big boom. When they wake up, the Winnebago’s dead and one of our quartet of clowns is missing, but don’t worry — his friends will be joining him soon enough, as on night two, shortly after witnessing those famous light in the sky, they’re dragged off, one by one, by a vaguely-visible shape that’s just, ya know, gotta be an extraterrestrial invader of some sort. With the tape still rolling the whole time, of course. The end. Sound like something you want to check out? Nah, I didn’t think so. You are, after all, much smarter than I am.

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Look, I get it — evil aliens have become a staple of the “mockumentary” subgenre in recent years, and if I had no money and wanted to make a film with my friends for some reason, this might be the way I decided to go. Or not.  Thankfully, I have a job and other shit to do, so it’s not like it’s something I need to think about. It’s just too bad that whoever really is behind this thing (my money is on one of the film’s nominal and nameless “stars” being the guilty party) didn’t listen to the little voice in their head telling them that they were wasting their time by doing this.

I’ll tell you one thing, though — if I ever made anything as dull, predictable, amateurish, and just plain lousy as The Phoenix Tapes ’97, I wouldn’t put my name on it anywhere, either.