Monday, May 29, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 034: Metropolis”

Osamu Tezuka – Metropolis (1949/2003) [Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian]

Osamu Tezuka is one of the most famous comics artists that Japan has ever produced, but I’m not real sure how well known he still is today. Some people may remember Astro Boy (which I loved as a cartoon as a kid), or they might know Kimba the White Lion, who was borrowed by Disney and recast (and recolored) as the character Simba for The Lion King---and it’s interesting that Disney eventually borrowed from Tezuka because (as I’ve read) he was very influenced by Disney animation. In fact, there is a scene in Metropolis were a pack of giant rats attacks a factory---and all of the rats’ heads look just like Mickey Mouse! One character, Dr. Bell, gives the rats’ scientific name: “These animals are called Mikimaus Waltdisneus.” Yeah…

Metropolis is a strange book. It’s a science fiction tale which doesn’t bring to mind Fritz Lang’s film of the same name so much as it does Karl Capek’s R.U.R. (a play from 1920 in which a company makes robot slaves, and the robots eventually rise up and kill everybody…) In Tezuka’s book, the evil Duke Red and his group of villainous cronies, called the Red Party, are attempting to take over the world and are creating robot slaves to do their bidding. Duke Red, a master of disguise and clever as a snake, discovers a brilliant scientist, Dr. Lawton, who is working on “artificial cells” and kidnaps Lawton to try to force him to make an “artificial being” with super-powers that would be the ultimate slave/weapon. Once the being has been created, however, Dr. Lawton escapes with the artificial being, now called Michi, and attempts to raise Michi as his own child. (Oddly, the being called Michi is both male AND female. There is a switch down Michi’s throat that can be pushed to change Michi from a boy into a girl and back again. Other than one scene where Michi, as a girl, is able to hide from Duke Red for a few seconds, this fluid gender doesn’t seem to have much of a point in the tale.)

Over the course of this strange story, the robot slaves created by the Red Party are abused by Duke Red, and Michi is also traumatized by various experiences, and the slaves and Michi eventually decide to revolt and go on a murderous rampage, killing and destroying everything in their path. Although the art style of this comic seems very kid-oriented to me, and according to a short note at the end of the edition that I have, Tezuka says that this WAS a kids’ story, there is still a lot of death and gruesomeness here. There’s even a one very creepy scene where a police detective (one of the main characters in the story) skins one of the Mickey rats and wears the creature’s carcass as a disguise to escape from the Red Party’s hideout!

Yeah, this story is dark, especially for a kids’ book, and it does tend to be a bit preachy. (One character at the end of the story has a monologue where he looks the reader in the eye and says, people will “wipe themselves out” if they aren’t careful!) It’s also not paced as well as some of Tezuka’s later stories, like Dororo, which is absolutely fantastic! But with all of this said, Metropolis is such an odd and creepy story that it’s worth reading just for the WTF factor. It has metatextual moments, lots of inside jokes (pay attention to what the characters in big crowd scenes are saying), and the art is clean and cartoony, which contrasts in an interesting way with the dark subject matter. Also, if you’ve seen the 2001 anime film and you’re hoping that the comic is similar, you might be disappointed. The comic is less coherent---simpler and less sophisticated in tone---and much goofier than the anime, but like I mentioned above, it is weird and fun. Give it a try if you get a chance, and get a glimpse of what comics were like in Japan way back in the 1940s!!!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Friday, May 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 033: Living Dead in Dallas”

Charlaine Harris – Living Dead in Dallas (2002)

This is the 2nd book in the Sookie Stackhouse series of vampire/romance/mystery novels written by Charlaine Harris. (I reviewed the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, a few weeks ago.) This is my third or fourth time reading this book, and I still found it entertaining. I’m a bit burned out on vampire stories at the moment, but despite this fact, the characters in this book are like old friends or family members that I can stop by and visit every once in a while.

This particular book has two (essentially unrelated) story-lines in its pages, one of which is pretty interesting, while the other is somehow brilliant and flat at the same time. In the first story-line, Sookie (the psychic waitress) is sent to Dallas by a powerful vampire, Eric, to help the Texas based undead find out what happened to one of their missing vampire buddies. (It seems silly when I write it out, but the storyline comes across well enough in the book. You need to have the ability to suspend disbelief with a series like this, but if you can go with it, the experience can be fun.) The perps who have nabbed the missing vampire are a religious group, the Fellowship of the Sun, who are planning on sacrificing the abducted vampire in a weird sunrise ritual. Because vampires are tough to kidnap, they have enlisted the help of an ancient, child-molesting vampire, Godfrey, who has come to believe that he is TOO evil and so he must destroy himself. (Again, you’ve got to suspend some disbelief…) This storyline is pretty fun and satisfying.

The second plotline involves Sookie trying to solve the mystery of who murdered Lafayette, the gay cook from the bar. Part of this second storyline involves a creature from Greek mythology, a maenad---one of the handmaiden’s of Dionysus (a true party god!)---and this character, as presented in the novel, is one of my favorites in recent history. She is crazy, chaotic, and mysterious---a force of nature, like a little, naked tsunami, covered in blood and leaving bodies in her wake---a truly frightening and entertaining character!

The storyline involving the murder of Lafayette almost seems like a throwaway, isn’t that interesting for most of the pages that are dedicated to it, and it doesn’t have any connection to the Dallas plotline at all, but this bookend section DOES eventually let the reader spend some time with the maenad character, which is great. In fact, her scene is so fun that this otherwise flat element of the book suddenly becomes worthwhile, thanks to the few pages that are devoted to her! (This bookend plot structure, a storyline introduced at the beginning of the novel, which is then dropped while a second story unfolds, and then returned to once the main story is over, is pretty common throughout Harris’s Sookie books. Personally, I don’t mind it, but it is a bit clunky and might get irritating for some readers.)

As I mentioned in my review of the first novel, H.B.O. produced a television show based on the Sookie books, which they called TrueBlood (named after the of brand synthetic blood that many vampires in the series drink.) For the 2nd season of the H.B.O. show, the producers chose to change several key elements from the novel. Of these changes, two were actual improvements, and the third was a complete tragedy and infuriated me beyond measure. The first change, which ended up being extremely significant, was that Lafayette was NOT found dead in the back of a parked cop car at the beginning of the first episode, but instead lives and becomes a major character in the series---and this was a great move, in my opinion. The actor who plays Lafayette, Nelsan Ellis, was so charismatic that the producers just couldn’t bring themselves to kill him off!

The next change was that the ancient vampire from the novel, Godfrey, (called Godric in the t.v. show,) was dramatically revised, and again this was for the better. The child molesting Godfrey, despite his told-not-show past, is actually a rather flat character. He doesn’t do much or say much or make much of an impression. He does save Sookie from being raped in one scene, but he seems uninterested in what he’s done after doing it, and then disappears without make any real impact. However, the t.v. series makes some dramatic changes to Godfrey and reimagines him as the character Godric (played by Allan Hyde in the H.B.O. show) who is a truly fascinating character. He’s played as a powerful, ancient, but young-looking near god-like figure who has come to a point where he is tired of life after spending thousands of years on this planet. He appears to be a brilliant, wise, and sad figure who has seen it all and done it all, but now just wants it to end. His fascinating storyline almost makes up for what I’m about to talk about next…

The maenad, who only appears at the very beginning and very end of the novel, becomes a central figure in season two of the TrueBlood series, which seems like it would be a cool thing. But, unfortunately, the producers of the show had no idea what the fuck a maenad IS, so they just simplified her and turned her into a Satanic priestess. (Dionysus, who is a JUSTICE figure in Greek myths, has NOTHING to do with Satanism…) This decision was infuriating and ridiculous, and the only reason I can guess at for the producers to choose to go this direction was so that the show could have a bunch of ritual orgy scenes, which are pretty boring and do nothing to further the plot. (It should be noted that the t.v. show ALWAYS has more sex than the books---and that’s saying something because these books are definitely on the EROTIC end of the spectrum.)

Unfortunately, the long and nonsensical plot involving the priestess in the t.v. show quickly becomes very tedious, and almost makes the 2nd season unwatchable. If it weren’t for the pathos injected into the show by the Godric storyline, I would probably never watch that season again. As it is, I’ll wait a few years, then give it another try.

With that said, the novel is very entertaining and a quick read. Harris strikes a solid balance between the humor, the supernatural horror, the sexy bits, and the mystery-thriller elements, and the solid storytelling should pretty easily carry most readers through to the end of the book. Again, I wouldn’t recommend this novel for fans of realism or for people who are squeamish about violence or explicit sexual situations---but if you like vampires and mystery novels and psychic waitresses, Living Dead in Dallas will be worth the short amount of time it will take most readers to get through it.

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 032: Understanding Comics”

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, comic books were HOT! Mainstream comics (Marvel & DC) were doing well, collectors’ prices were up, and the classic characters were on everyone’s mind. Tim Burton’s Batman film (from 1989) smashed box-office records and stayed in the local theater here in our small town for about a YEAR. Comic shops seemed to be on every corner---and there were about a million INDIE comics companies (Comico, Eclipse, Blackthorne, Caliber, First, Jademan, Fantagraphics, Renegade, Vortex, Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse…some are still going) putting out exciting books left and right. But for most comics readers---for almost EVERYONE---“comics” meant one of two things: either superheroes OR funny animals. Along comes Scott McCloud, and he says, DEFINITIVELY, no…

Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)

According to McCloud, comics is not just men in colorful tights or mice throwing bricks at cats (see my George Herriman review for more on this topic.) Comics are a unique visual communications medium. The conceptual and abstract world of writing is added to the perceived and immediate world of visual imagery, but in a way that involves the reader on a deeper level than just watching a film or viewing a static, single panel cartoon or painting. With comics, the reader has to make the MOVEMENT from panel to panel happen in their own mind.

McCloud uses the following example: a cartoon panel shows a maniac chasing his intended victim with a wild, vicious look on his face and raised ax, poised to strike. The next panel is a shot of some rooftops, and a sound effect drawn above the buildings of someone screaming in pain. According to McCloud, when we as readers make that connection, from the panel with the maniac and his ax to the panel with the screaming sound effect, WE THE READERS are complicit in committing that murder. We connect the dots. We let the ax fall! Unlike in films, such as Saw or Friday the 13th, where we actually SEE movement, see the ax hit the head or the skin split open, with comics---THERE IS NO MOVEMENT unless we connect the action from panel to panel. Each individual panel just sits there, doing nothing, already all draw out from beginning to end, and we as readers have to understand the concept that one panel leads to the next and have to move our eyes from panel to panel, connecting each separate image in our heads, building the story as we go. Comics won’t do it for us, unlike a song on the radio or a television show, which keep going whether you’re paying attention or not.

Reading forces us to move from point to point and connect the images to make sense of what we are seeing, but words are COMPLETELY abstract, with no immediate image to anchor us (or unhinge us) like comics have. The experience of reading a comic requires effort on the part of the reader, but also gives the reader a visual starting point, a MOOD or SETTING in which the concepts can unfold. McCloud is one of the few people who have bothered to try and figure out how comics work---and how WE work so that comics can work.

The other important point that McCloud makes in this book is that comics are NOT just for superheroes. Comics are a medium with almost unlimited possibilities for expression or information exchange. From “How to Change a Tire on a Car” to the history of the Roman Empire, there are really no restrictions on the TOPICS that can be covered in comics. And, again, those indie publishers have often shown us just how interesting and free comics can be.

Hopefully I haven’t made this book sound too dry, because it’s not. The narrator, a simplified cartoon of Scott McCloud, is very funny, and the art is a brilliant mesh of various styles and examples from the worlds of art, psychedelia, optical illusions, and classic comics from throughout the lifespan of the medium---and did I mention that McCloud actually pulls all of this off in comic book form? That’s right, it’s a comic book about comic books!

Understanding Comics is a great book. I’ve read it at least five or six times, and each time through I feel like I’ve picked up something new. It’s funny and fascinating and worth your time, whether you’re a big fan of comic books or not. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in design or visual storytelling or art production, as much of what McCloud discusses is how humans perceive the world and what we find tantalizing. This book might also be of interest for people interested in psychology and human cognition. AND, it should go without saying that if you are a FAN of comics, you NEED to read this book! Even though it’s over 20 years old, it’s still as relevant today as it was when it first came out!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 031: KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money”

Although I wasn’t ever a huge KLF fan---they had a couple of good techno songs, but I never bought their album---I LOVED the Dr. Who novelty song, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” which the same artists released in the late 1980s when they were calling themselves The Timelords. So, when I saw that there was a book written about the band, I was immediately interested---and when I saw the word CHAOS in the title, I was sold. I grabbed the book for my e-reader, and read it rather quickly. (Reading this book inspired me to buy Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s conspiracy trilogy, The Illuminatus!) It was two or three years ago when I originally read this book, and since then, my fascination with the band has grown, and just recently The KLF have released a cryptic video suggesting that they are coming back! To be clear, this book is not just about that techno band who released “What Time is Love?” Get ready for totally insanity!

JMR Higgs – KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money (2012)

Twenty-three years ago, two fellows (Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) had already been in the music industry for many years as performers and producers and provocateurs---they were involved with acts as diverse as the following: The KLF, The Timelords, The JAMS, Brilliant, Big in Japan, The Orb...and Drummond produced seminal works by Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, as well as starting the Zoo Records label.) These two guys, twenty-three years ago, took a million pounds (that’s British money) and burned it---on camera. According to Higgs’s book, they did it to try and get their souls back… How did they lose their souls? That’s a long story---better read the book.

This is a fantastically well written account of the lives of two maverick performers, which reads like a conspiracy theory novel and involves an unbelievable number of elements and actors: Discordianism, the goddess Eris, Lee Harvey Oswald, comic writer Alan Moore, a bevy of new wave and punk and alternative music performers, the Illuminati, authors Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Abba, rave culture, magic, Satanic rituals, the Dr. Who t.v. show, chaos theory, the art world...and more. I’m not kidding when I say that I read this book TWO TIMES in preparation for this review because the tale is so complex (and the story is interesting enough that I didn’t mind reading the book two times in a row---I really needed to, just to get enough of a handle on all the concepts to try and say something intelligent... I said TRY...)

It’s a fun story and bizarre as hell (if any of it is true…) The coincidences and connections that had to stack up for Drummond and Cauty to have ended up where they ended seem unbelievable. I hope it's all true!

I’m going to recommend this book for fans of conspiracy theories, fans of magic and magical thinking, fans of Alan Moore who want another perspective on his particular brand of genius, for fans of punk or post-punk or alternative rock or techno-dance music, for people who are interested in contemporary art, for fans of Dr. Who, for fans of The KLF, and for anyone who loves a page turning yarn! Higgs is an exceptional writer who finds connections in a sea of chaos, and this book is one of the best I’ve read in a long time… Let me repeat this: I’ve read it three times already, and I’m sure I’ll read it again!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 030: Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book”

Shel Silverstein – Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961)

Most people probably know Shel Silverstein from his kids’ books: The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic---and these books are great. They are funny, clever, sometimes sad, sometimes a bit subversive, but family friendly. (Well, except “Dreadful” from Where the Sidewalk Ends, which starts with the line “Someone ate the baby…” That one’s a bit…dark.) However, there is also a decidedly ADULT side to Shel Silverstein, still funny of course, but much more in the counter-culture spirit. He actually won two Grammys, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “WHY?” You might ask. Well, for writing classic songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball” of course! (The last two were both covered by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show!)

And no discussion of Shel Silverstein would be complete without considering his famous “Primer for Adults Only,” Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book. (Sadly, I purchased my copy from the children’s section of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon!)

This rather short book (most people can probably read it in one sitting) was written and illustrated by Silverstein, and it almost looks like a kid’s book, but it ain’t. Disguised as Uncle Shelby, Silverstein provides an alphabet song with the letters out of order, tells kids to give “poor daddy” a haircut while he’s sleeping, suggests that drinking ink might be a good idea, and gives the reader this advice:

“K is for kidnapper / See the nice kidnapper / The kidnapper has a lollipop. / The kidnapper has a keen car. / The car can go fast. / Tell the nice kidnapper that your / Daddy has lots of money. / Then maybe he will / Let you ride / In his car.”

Dripping with irony and vicious humor, and with a high potential body count, this book probably isn’t for everyone. If you don’t find serious injury to children funny, I would definitely avoid. Most of the jokes are subtle by today’s standards---no foul language or Saw style gore---but that might be why the book works so well. Subtly is a lost art. These are jokes that build slowly and let the evil concepts simmer. Overall, I find Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book to be very funny. If you appreciate the DARK SIDE of life, if you like Edward Gorey’s evil little tales, or if you just hate kids, this book will probably make you smile. (Where the Sidewalk Ends is also very good, of course!)

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Read a Damn Book - 029: Flaming Carrot's Greatest Hits"

I had the great pleasure of meeting Bob Burden once, back in 1988 at Golden Apple Comics in L.A. My uncle and I drifted into the comic shop, late, for a Burden appearance, and we got there just in time to see the man surrounded by admirers, with an old, dirty sock pulled over his hand with a few holes cut in it for his thumb and a finger or two to slip through. He was holding a pen with the sock covered hand and drawing on a page on table and saying something about how the sock kept his sleeve clean. After a second or two, Burden says, “I need a smoke,” and he got up and went out the back door---and everyone left. Since my uncle and I had just gotten there, we decided to stay and shop for a few minutes. (I found a few Flaming Carrot issues and a copy of Robot Comics #0, another Bob Burden classic.) After we’d browsed about the place for a bit, Burden came back into the shop and said, “Where the hell did everybody go?” I said that I guessed they thought that he was done so they left, and he just shrugged and said, “Oh well, what do you want me to sign?” And, to my surprise, he signed several comics, drew me a picture of Limbo Man on a clean sheet of paper, and we sat and talked for what must have been another half-an-hour, at least! He was incredibly funny, and just a great guy overall. In similar circumstances, I think a lot of artists would have gotten angry and left, but not Burden! He’s a stand-up fellow, just like his most fascinating creation: THE FLAMING CARROT!

Bob Burden – Flaming Carrot’s Greatest Hits (1998)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with F.C. Comics, the Carrot is, essentially, a mentally disturbed man who read 5,000 comics in one night on a bet, then emerged the following day wearing a carrot mask, flippers, and feeling compelled to fight crime---although, honestly, he seems to spend almost as much time chasing women as he does battling evil. This particular collection was the THIRD produced by Dark Horse Comics which reprinted the early, now incredibly difficult to find, independently published issues of Burden’s comic. Even if you’ve never read any Flaming Carrot stories before, this is a great place to start---a fantastic collection of tales. The stories include Carrot doing battle with a dead, flying dog, an army of cloned Hitler feet, various inter-dimensional monsters, and a mail-order jungle bride. There are TWO issues in this book (told as flashbacks while the Carrot dozes in a hammock) about The Mystery Men, a 2nd tier superhero group that Flaming Carrot supposedly belonged to back in the 1970s. (The Mystery Men eventually got their own film starring Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Reubens and a few others. It wasn’t as funny as the comics, but it wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. That would probably have been Body of Evidence starring Madonna...)

These stories are very silly stuff, absurd to say the least, and quite fun. The first tale in the book, “The Dead Dog Leaped Up and Flew Around the Room” is possibly my favorite comic story of all time! (Definitely the best title ever.) However, Flaming Carrot is not for the thinned skinned, as the stories drift into some rather un-P.C. areas. Some would probably consider quite a few of the jokes to be sexist, and the final story, in which Uncle Billy orders a mail-order bride from an unspecified jungle, is pretty far over the line, but it’s also so silly that I think it’s safe to call it satire. There are also some awkward party sequences in these stories, and as these tales originally appeared in the 1980s, they tend to reflect the atmosphere and the attitudes of that era. (In one great scene, Flaming Carrot even puts on a checkered sport coat to go hang out in the hotel bar and try to pick up chicks!) Think Revenge of the Nerds meets Less Than Zero, maybe…but with more Nazis.

I love Flaming Carrot, and I think the humor holds up well, despite being over three decades old. Again, readers who are sensitive to sexist humor will probably be annoyed by much of the book, but for those who like alternative humor, odd characters, monsters, or really silly “adult” laughs, this collection will be right up your alley!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 028: The Robot Who Looked Like Me”

Robert Sheckley - The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1982)

Robert Sheckley has written some of my favorite stories of all time. He was a science fiction author (sadly, no longer with us) who started publishing in the 1950s, but who (unlike most science fiction writers) tended to write HILARIOUS stories. His logic is unassailable, and the topics he covers would suggest that he’s just your standard pulp sci-fi writer (robots with feelings, alien invasions, time travel, World War Three…), but for each classic trope that Sheckley tackles, he invokes a powerful twist that turns the topic on its head. His stories are clever, thought provoking, and sometimes extremely weird, like if Alice in Wonderland took place in a Post-Apocalyptic Theme Park.

I should be clear about one thing, Sheckley gets dark. His death toll is high. His characters can be deeply flawed. There are even bad words and naughty situations that creep up from time to time. (A quick look at WHERE these stories were originally published: Penthouse, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, etc…---real sick magazines---and one begins to understand the tone.) These are not children’s stories. For instance, in the disturbing but hilarious post-WW3 tale, “I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair is Biting His Leg,” a man contracts a fatal, mind-altering illness, so he decides to retire to an underground city (which makes Vegas seem like Disneyland) where he can spend his remaining time gambling, fighting, and satisfying every sickening lustful appetite he can imagine. It’s dark. VERY dark, but somehow not as depressing as your average Philip K. Dick tale. Sheckley’s magic is his ability to make a sick, disturbing, fatal illness FUNNY!

If you’ve never read anything by Sheckley, this book would be a great place to start. The stories are fun, and he actually manages to hit some real high points in this collection. I loved the entertainment-gone-bad themed “The Never-Ending Western Movie,” and I think the dream-like story, “Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead,” which is told is short, disturbing fragments, is among the finest, most poetic tales Sheckley ever told. However, if you’ve read some of his older stories from the 50s or 60s, or any of his crazy novels, like Dimension of Miracles or Status Civilization, this book will seem a bit tame. This collection is certainly entertaining and fun, but nothing here will completely destroy your brain like Sheckley’s wildest work can.

Like I said, this would be a great place to start if you’re new to mind-altering sci-fi comedy, and if you’re amused and want more, I recommend moving on to Status Civilization or the collection, Citizen in Space, which has my favorite Sheckley tale of all time, “Skulking Permit.” Really, if you can FIND anything by Robert Sheckley, grab it. He’s always worth reading!!!

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)