Reviewsday – Wolf in White Van

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Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle

There is, for those who may not know, a legitimate difference between a maze and labyrinth. A maze is a complicated series of twists and turns designed to allow its follower to choose a path and direction. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is a fixed path which leads to a definite center. The course is predetermined and the road easy to navigate. There is no promise, of course, that that labyrinth itself is an easy journey. After all, the most famous labyrinth, created by Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, was so complicated, he himself barely found his way out.

In John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van (I’m counting his Masters of Reality 33 1/3 book as more of a novella), he has created the second greatest labyrinth. At the center of his tale is Sean Philips, disfigured from a violent accident, who is the creator of Trace Italian, a turn-based RPG played via the mail. The game allows Sean minimal, but essential, contact with the world outside and the ability to control the fate of those adventurous enough make the first of numerous scripted choices. Players enter a pre-constructed post-apocalyptic world set on finding refuge at the heart of a monolithic fortress called Trace Italian. However, when two stalwart adventurers, believing Trace Italian to be more than mythological, attempt to find it, Sean is forced to defend his creation and, in turn, retrace the steps of his past.

Like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Wolf in White Van takes various chronological leaps and slides which create a sense of distortion; like the pieces of a half-remembered life. Nothing in its place. The effect of this jumbled plot works both for and against the work. As a strength, it grips the reader and compels them to, like players in Trace Italian, mark their moves and push on, uncertain of what exists beyond the next turn. As a weakness, it can sometimes be too disjointed and sections need a quick reread in order to reestablish literary footing.

At the heart of the novel exists a beautiful tale of choices and actions. Each player in Trace Italian pushes on under the illusion that they control their own fate while traversing an essentially predetermined road. Sean reveals to us that no one will ever reach the safety of Trace Italian. None of us can ever change the outcome of the myriad of life’s puzzle pieces and no matter what order we assemble the fractured picture, the image will always be unchanging. But that is in the game. In reality, Darnielle suggests, those decisions aren’t as scripted. The reader’s journey to the center reveals something much more unnerving about Fate and pathways. But you’ll need to walk the labyrinth yourself to discover it.

Tapping the Point Break Source

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“I am an FBI…”                              “I KNOW!”

“He thought about it all morning, watching the small peaks take shape and break, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea, until at last he admitted to himself there was more to it than ust getting closer to the action. There was something in the shape and movement of the waves, something in the polished green faces laced with silver while the moon hung still visible above the town. A person could lose himself there…” – Tapping the Source

Every time a new film or show comes out based (however loosely it may be) on a novel everyone gets their bookmarks in a knot and starts screaming which was better. Often, the deciding factor rests on which one was experienced first or how you were introduction to the material. Say for example, you were high on pain killers when you first saw Blade Runner and you experienced VALIS. Then you read Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep and were blown away by the comparison of Munch’s The Scream to slavery. How do you even begin to consider which one is better?

VENN DIAGRAM THAT SHIT!

I recently read, as you may tell, Tapping the Source. It’s an amazingly dark and ravenous tale of a young boy’s search for his missing sister. It’s a tale of surfing, fighting, screwing, and philosophizing about the ocean. It’s a fantastic read.

Then there is the 1991 film, Point Break, which was ‘inspired’ by the aformentioned novel, but shows little resemblance to the tapped source material. It’s about a rugged Keanu Reeves, as FBI agent Johnny Utah, going mano y mano with surfing bankrobbers or bankrobbing surfers. It’s an all-star cast that also features the under appreciated Lori Petty.

Which one is the winner? You decide.

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Of Ape and Ape-Men

If I learned one thing from reading TitanBook’s reprinting of artist Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan series (which ran weekly for 12 years), it’s that the African jungles are lousy with nefarious hunters, deadly beasts, savage tribesman, and hot women.

Most of us familiar with Edgar Rice Burrough’s noble savage ape-man recognize his human gal-pal Jane, but here, in this gorgeously illustrated and well-crafted tales, Tarzan is the Lothario of the jungle beat.

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The brunettes…
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The blondes…

 

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The simian…
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Everyone fights for Tarzan

In most cases, Tarzan works as an intermediary between the cruelty of the civilized world and the violently defensiveness of Africa. But in every case, there is a princess, a hunter or prospector’s daughter, or a lion-tough Amazon warrior, ready to become swept up in Tarzan’s mighty arms. But there’s never any kissy-face. Remember that this is a family strip.

Instead, Hogarth and writer Don Garden build adventure on adventure never relenting from the action and, like Tarzan, swinging from one predicament to the next. Ignoring the socio-political arguments of Tarzan’s Brit-gone-wild savior of the African planes colonialist wet dream, these stories are a ton of fun. It’s easy to see why an America reeling from The Great Depression would love this escapist fantasy. Here is the son of nobility turning his back on the outside world to live a live free and, at the same time, working to bridge cross-cultural gaps. In every few pages Tarzan raises animal armies to fight advancing invaders, mediate conflicts between tribes, and fights to keep peace in his land. Or at least long enough so he can get a night’s rest.

TitanBooks once again provide gorgeous reprints and color enhancements. The text is clear and the lines are tight.

Review: Odds On by John Lange aka Michael Crichton

Odds On
Zero Cool
Grave Descend
Michael Crichton
Hard Case Crime

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Michael Crichton is a staple in world of pop culture. Prior to his passing, Crichton left a legacy of rich vibrant texts which melded hard science and adventure. From the Congo to Isla Nublar to the depths of the Pacific, Crichton brought us to exotic locations of the imagination. But all writers need to start somewhere.

Michael Crichton’s start was as John Lange: a pseudonym for his low-brow entrance into the world of pulp. Now, after decades after their disappearance from bookshelves, Hard Case digs up these archeological curiosities and gives them some new life, courtesy of Crichton himself.  The results, however, are mixed.

The first book in the eight volume series is Odd On. It’s a heist novel of epic proportions as a team of professionals use a computer to intricately plan the perfect caper -so long as no new data enters the equation.  And it does: in the form of three nymphomaniacs.

In all fairness, Crichton wrote Odds On while in med school and it was his first published novel. His protagonists do well to break beyond cardboard cut-outs and the cliché, but it reads like the fantasy of a guy who can’t afford the movies or pornography. When in doubt make your own. Nature will find a way.

The heist itself is interesting, although bland by today’s standards, and the dialogue is realistic and intriguing, but overall, the story feels like a neophyte exploring the genre. As pleased as I am for these book to be back in print, I have yet to be overwhelmed with any of them. I gave up on Zero Cool and grudgingly finished Grave Descend when they were first published by Hard Case several years ago. As a collector and completionist, I’m also not too overly-thrilled to be purchasing them a second time as part of the series.

For scholars and followers of Crichton, I can understand the allure of reading his humble beginnings. The stories are intricate and sophisticated, but I found that I was reading them more out of intellectual curiosity than a passion for Crichton’s later work.

The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald

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The Secret Lives of Married Women
Elissa Wald

I have to admit that I was thrown for a loop with the latest release from Hard Case Crime. Over the past several years I have read numerous re-released and forgotten classics. I’ve even been introduced to some fantastic current authors. All of which have provided rugged, bare-knuckle hard boiled experiences.

The Secret Lives of Married Women is a different sort of sordid tale. It’s sold as a sensual thriller. A erotic expose. It’s a double tale of twins who are each experiencing their own form of awakening.

In the first half, The Man Under the House, Leda and her husband Stas have moved to a quiet town. Things seem to be plan and bland in suburban monotony, until a neighbor begins to feel too welcome in their lives. Here, the horror is not typical to Hard Case Crime. Instead of manly bravado, it is the horror many women face across the world: The creeping line of uninvited attention and a man unwilling to comprehend or respect boundaries.

In Abel’s Cane, it is Lily, Leda’s sister, who tells a story of crossing lines. It a tale of her most recent case involving a blind attorney and his ex-submissive secretary. As the case unravels and Lily learns more about the players, she finds herself becoming too embroiled in the secretary’s past. The tales weave together well and the book reads like a recorded conversation. The narrative is simple and to the point without ever feeling as though it is trying to be exploitative. It is, in a word, real.

Of course this is not to say it is perfect. The second story is a bit too heavy handed with the religious allusions: The submissive is named Nan Magdalene,  the lawyer is Abel, and it is not until Lily becomes a disciple and Nan sacrifices herself that a lesson truly surfaces.  The tale also has an odd timelessness to it. Although there are comments that this takes place in the age of cell phones and in the the early 2000’s, the feeling is more early 80’s. Perhaps it’s the idyllic eerieness of middle America or the ‘housewife exploring the world’ motif, but the setting appears dated. Finally, both stories are told in first person with little build-up. It feels more like a conversation that’s being eavesdropped on instead of a prose tale setting a scene.

Its disorienting, its confusing, but succeeds in making us feel like we are part of a dark dirty secret.

Hardcovered Time Machinces

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Hagar the Horrible: 1979 to 1980
The Wizard of ID: 1973
Titan Books

For anyone who has ever held a newspaper, there are more than a  few icons of the Funny Pages; but none as lazy, boorish, or endearing as Hagar the Horrible.

Maybe it’s nostalgia or reminiscence of a simpler time, but these strips hold up in the same way that your grandfather’s jokes hold up. They are a time capsule from when humor was a play on words or snare drum rim-shot.

Hagar, for those not familiar with this King Features Syndicate classic, now finds new life from Titan Books in a beautiful hardbound collection. The strips are a bit dated and the humor tends to arouse chuckles rather than the guffaws of childhood, but they are presented with reverence and care for the original strips. Hagar is the ubiquitous nuclear-family father figure; a man who gets no respect and doesn’t necessarily deserve any. His family works better without him and the jokes are at the expense of his alienation and being the dumbest guy in the room who still manages victories.

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Like its historical counterpart The Wizard of Id, Hagar relishes in anachronism and playing loose with the source material of pre-Christian Scandinavia or the England in the Middle Ages. But if you came here for a history lesson, you may be in deeper intellectual trouble than Hagar.

The Wizard of ID of course it a tale of medieval knights and wizards juxtaposed over contemporary issues. It reads like Archie Bunker in that the progressive issues of the early 1970’s are approached with jovial charm and the joke is almost always on the one’s behind the times. My favorite of the pack is the one in which a woman draws four queens during a poker hands. The punchline of course reads:

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I’m not implying many of these jokes hold up. Many fall flat and have corroded with age, but it does bring me back to a time when gin and tonics were king, golf was a sport for suburban men, and America laughed at things that made it uncomfortable.

Review: Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca

Midnight-Picnic

Midnight Picnic
Nick Antosca

Bram is a mysanthropic loner who lives in a shabby one room sublet above Mom’s; a bar built into the rotting corpse of a Victorian mansion. Mom’s rests at the edge of a deep woods and is guarded by an old mutt named Baby. Returning late one evening, Bram crushes Baby’s back legs under his car. Deciding to do the right thing and put her out of her misery, Bram goes off to borrow a rifle. When he returns to the scene of the accident, Baby is gone.

The following day, Bram receives the bones of a child long since dead and long since forgotten. Soon Bram is contacted by the owner of the bones who asks for his help in setting things right.

Bram soon embarks on a quest to avenge the death of a murdered child in a world that has fallen out of joint. As Bram chases after the child’s killer he becomes lost in a limbo of souls meandering through  the bowels of America’s heartland. It is a complex tale told in simple sentences and devoid of all but the most rudimentary and necessary details. The stripped-down prose may cause confusion and discomfort, but it reads quickly allowing for a single read which cranks the suspense to a fiery pace.. This is a ghost story worthy of campfires or nights curled up in a dark room. The terror comes not from  outside bumps and howls, but the idea that our sins are never forgotten and echo soundlessly in the dark of night.

Review: Flash Gordon: The Fall of Ming

Flash Gordon: The Fall of Ming
Sundays 1941 – 1944
Alex Raymond
Titan Books

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The Story So Far…

It’s been sixty-nine years since Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon graced the full color Sunday comic sections of local newspapers. Since that time, Flash has been the subject of movies, Saturday morning cartoons, songs, and fueled countess homages. But time has managed to do what his arch nemesis Ming the Merciless could never do: relegate him to relative obscurity. Ask a baby-boomer and they’ll bend your ear about the exploits of the world’s greatest interplanetary traveler and man of valor. Ask a Gen-X’er and they’ll tell you about Queen, tight white T-shirts, and kitsch.  Ask the folks at Titan Books and they’ll tell you about Alex Raymond: Flash Gordon’s creator, its greatest writer/artist, and a run that ran every Sunday for nearly ten years.

Freed now from a tomb of relative pop obscurity Titan Books has put together three volumes collecting Raymond’s work. Each page contains a week’s strip in saturated full-color printed on heavy paper, bringing it leagues away from its inaugural appearance on flimsy newsprint. It is more than a coffee table book: it is a time capsule. Much like Flash’s own narrow weekly escapes, these pages preserve a story rich in sci-fi operatic and fine beautiful line-work from falling into history’s dark corners.

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Each installment overflows with rich imagery, expressive characters, and compulsive visual world-building. There are no corners cut in these panels; no black backgrounds and no half-tone filler. Instead we get detailed views of pre-computer schematics, diverse alien landscapes, and tables littered with utensils and discarded missives. This is a world to lose oneself in and study. Raymond invites us to be flies on the wall and witnesses to daring escapades and nefarious plots. We become the hero’s unseen companion and invisible conspirator.

In my favorite series of strips, “Upside-Down World”, Raymond flips the panels as our protagonists find themselves trapped without gravity. The end result leaves us unsure as to whether we should read the panels first or focus on the art. The effect is one that mimics the same strange sense of disorientation Flash and the gang must feel. There are no editor’s explanation or fan forums to detail the rationale, Raymond assumes that we invisible onlookers simply understand it is all part of the adventure.

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As the age of Sci-fi serials died and WWII ushered in a wave of existential cynicism, Flash couldn’t keep up. The age of wonder became an age of fast cars, Rock’n’Roll, and superheroes. Without Raymond’s sense of story pacing, his eternal supply of cliffhangers, and precision line-work, Flash appeared even more lost. But Titan has preserved those glory years and transcended time and space. They have given us a crystal clear view into a world many of us never knew existed.

Hard Case Crime in October

In the ‘Take All My Spare Money” Department, Hard Case Crime will be releasing eight Michael Crichton crime novels from the late ’60’s and early 70’s when he wrote under the name John Lange.
Both Zero Cool and Grave Descend have been published before, but you really should order them all for the integrity of the set.

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Here’s the lowdown from the Titan Publishing press release:

ODDS ON (1966): The perfect heist, planned by computer, in a luxury hotel off the coast of Spain.

SCRATCH ONE (1967): On the French Riviera, a case of mistaken identity could cost an American lawyer his life when a group of international assassins confuse him for the secret agent sent to take them down.
EASY GO (1968): Can an Egyptologist and his band of thieves find a lost tomb buried for centuries in the desert – and get away with its treasure?
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ZERO COOL (1969): An American doctor vacationing in Europe gets caught between rival criminal gangs who both demand his help to find a legendary gem.
THE VENOM BUSINESS (1970): An expert on venomous snakes and smuggler of rare artifacts accepts an assignment working as a bodyguard to a man everyone wants dead.
DRUG OF CHOICE (1970): Bioengineers at a secret island resort promise pleasures beyond imagination – but what’s the secret behind the strange drug they’ve created?
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GRAVE DESCEND (1970): A diver in Jamaica, hired to search the wreck of a sunken yacht, uncovers secrets deeper and darker than the waters in which the ship rests.
BINARY (1972): A terrorist mastermind and a federal agent wage a battle of wits and of nerve when the villain plots to unleash poison gas on San Diego, killing one million people…including the President of the United States.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction

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Jack Kirby.

I really feel that name alone should be the push you need to run out and buy Titan Books’ The Simon and Kirby Library: Science Fiction. If it isn’t, allow me to expound.

First, this gorgeous coffee table book contains Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s science fiction tales from 1940 – 1966: That amazing time of wonder, cold war paranoia of the Bomb, and expostulation on the world to come. The draw though is reproductions of the classic newsstand adventure ‘Blue Bolt’.

“Blue Bolt” is a precursor to the type of hero Kirby will perfect during his Marvel years. In these pages, American son Fred Parrish is imbued with lightning powers to fight the Green Sorceress who wants to rule the world and continually get knocked unconscious. These stories are incredible pulp adventures with only an occasional hint of camp or kitsch.

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As the years go on, the stories become tighter and Kirby’s art builds into his iconic line. There isn’t anything here nearly as strong a ‘Street Code’, but tales like ‘Space Garbage’, ‘The Space Court’, and ‘The Boys from Up There’, perfectly capture the popular Twilight Zone form of story telling that ruled pulp publications.

After reading through 348 pages of gorgeous reproductions on the highest quality paper these tales have ever been printed on, we are treated with a view of Jove U.N. born and his Check Mates. It’s Simon’s  proposed tale of ‘an unknown soldier, all but destroyed by nuclear warfare, who was rebuilt by scientists….’ Jove’s face could be transformed into various ethnicities and he had a female companion for each identity. It’s an idea so embedded in ‘60’s spy silliness, I’m surprised that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely haven’t revamped it.

Titan Books have a history of putting a ton of love into each of their collections: The colors are vibrant, the extras exhilarating, and the content unearths pivotal moments in comic history.