Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hipster Vampires of Detroit

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Loki, Jadis the White Witch, Jane Eyre, Chekov, and Mr. Ollivander

This movie was not what I expected. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Still not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The plot runs something like this: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician and aesthete living a solitary existence in an old house in Detroit that he got on the cheap, supporting his art and music habits by composing indie rock records and selling them to record companies through a human middleman named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is unaware that his sort-of-mentor, sort-of-friend is really a vampire. Bored to undeath with the endless stupidity of "the zombies" (mortals) and a general crushing sense of ennui, Adam considers killing himself with a specially-made .38 caliber bullet made from ultra-dense cocobolo wood. But before he can muster the will to end his undeath, he gets a video call from his vampire "wife", Eve, who's been unliving it up in Tangiers with her old friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe (played delightfully by John Hurt), who as it turns out really did write all of Shakespeare's plays.

Eve, fearing that her semi-estranged husband needs some cheering-up, catches a redeye to Detroit, and Adam gives her a grand tour of the ruins of Detroit: lots of weed-choked fields, coyote-haunted ruins, empty streets and houses, and of course the Michigan Theatre (a movie-palace-turned-parking-garage), the old Packard Plant, and all the favored haunts of urbexers and ruin-pornographers alike. Maybe this stuff is still news to people outside the Midwest, but for me, living so close to Detroit, it just comes off as trite. News flash: Detroit isn't a ghost town there are still 700,000 people living in there right now. It's easy and terribly romantic to write it off as a lost cause, but that's pretty demeaning to the people who actually live there. It's like unironically posting "RIP Native Americans" in your tumblr feed: they're still very much alive, thank you very much, and they resent the assumption that their struggle to survive is over.

Which brings me to another problem I had with this movie: like Gran Torino before it, Lovers is yet another movie set in Detroit (a city where 80% of residents are black) which features virtually no black people. The one black man in this movie is a medical technologist, so the film gets points for not giving in to easy stereotypes. But besides that guy, I think there's one black extra in the whole movie; that is the full extent of their representation onscreen. Clearly, since the director must have been to Detroit in order to film this thing, the only explanation is that he (or the studio) isn't interested in portraying Detroit accurately.

Anyway, getting back to the summary: Eve shows up and Adam shows her around, and they talk and philosophize and opine about just how tragic it is that the zombies can't be as wise and good and refined and civilized as they are. Adam seems to cheer up for a while under Eve's influence, but their reverie is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Ava, Eve's "teenage" sister from LA, who shows up uninvited in their house one night, asking if she can crash on their couch and eat their "food".

Mia Wasikowska is spot-on with her portrayal of Ava as a bratty, self-absorbed teenie-bopper who either can't read anger in other people's voices and faces, or else has complete faith that pouting and begging will get her out of trouble when said people inevitably explode at her. The character is grating, but that's definitely intentional here, since she's practically the only character who induces change at all: without her, Adam and Eve would probably spend the whole movie lounging around, listening to indie music on vinyl, and drinking type O negative out of crystal absinthe-glasses. Their existence is stable and comfortable, if a bit dull: Ava throws a wrench into all that.

The main reason I tuned in was for the promise of a vampire movie set in Detroit. With its wide-open spaces, appalling murder rate, spotty law enforcement, and large numbers of streetlights that just don't work, Detroit seemed like the kind of place where vampires would run wild.

But Hiddleston's Adam and Swinton's Eve are anything but wild: they're refined, elegant creatures who've had centuries to cultivate perfect taste in music, literature, and even science. They're epicures and philosophers who, instead of spending their (un)lives on the Eternal Hunt, drink sparingly and spend most of their free time creating art. Definitely an interesting take on the standard vampire, a creature ruled by its passions, but I was kinda hoping to see the undead going completely apeshit in the D.

This movie is definitely not for everyone; I don't think it was for me, personally. At least, not more than once. But it was certainly interesting to see vampires as something other than villains or protagonists in an action, horror, or action/horror movie. It was interesting to think of them as people with houses, careers, long-distance relationships, and in-laws they can't stand. But that's part of why I watch movies about vampires in the first place: I want to be entertained with tales of Gothic horror and gratuitous bloodletting.

If you're into indie music and sadness and being too tragically hip for this world, these are definitely your vampires. But I think my palette has been thoroughly cleansed, and I'm ready to get back on the vampire-as-monster bandwagon, thanks.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

[Movie Review] Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, Orson Welles
Screenplay: Ray Bradbury

For years I've been getting suggestions from authors whom I greatly respect and admire that Herman Melville's epic masterpiece Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a tale which is worthy of that nebulous and ill-defined distinction of being a "Great American Novel". I had never really given the book much thought, and never seriously considered reading it, until I realized that the recommendations were really starting to pile up: once I realized that this book had been recommended by no less than Nicholas Meyer, Mike Carey, even the astonishingly-talented Ray Bradbury, I decided I really had to see what all the fuss was about.

But I'm a man of limited means, so I thought I would rent the movie from my local library before committing to the novel. After all, that thing is HUGE! You might even say it's a whale of a tale.

"Haunting" is the best word that I can think of to describe this film. I think I finally understand why people keep reading the book, despite its forbidding size: the tale of Ahab and his mad, all-consuming quest for revenge has a way of gripping the mind. I keep finding myself thinking about this story and its characters, even several weeks after watching this film for the first time.

(Oh yeah, I guess there are spoilers ahead. Even though I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers expired a long time ago.)

I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic outline of the story, even if you've never read it or seen the movie: Captain Ahab is maimed in an ill-fated encounter with an unusually large and intelligent white sperm-whale named Moby Dick, and spends the rest of his life (as well as his ship and the lives of his crew) in a Quixotic, suicidal quest to take his revenge against the monster who took his leg and scarred his face. Sure, there's all that stuff about Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck and all the rest, but make no mistake: Ahab is the real star here, even if it's the White Whale who gets the title.

Peck gives a commanding, sonorous performance as the crazed-but-brilliant Captain Ahab, master of the whaling ship Pequod. He's a bit more handsome than I expected Ahab to look, but Peck's Ahab is scarred more deeply inside than out. Ahab is not just a gibbering madman, though: he is an accomplished leader of men, an experienced sea-captain, and possessed of a brilliant analytical mind.

Orson Welles gives an unexpected cameo as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon (on the subject of Jonah and the Whale, of course) which closes out the first act. Watching Welles transition smoothly from glowering intensity to thundering rage to pious tenderness is a fascinating study in emotional nuance from a master actor; do not skip this scene, however you might feel about listening to sermons.

As I watched, I was struck by the diversity of the Pequod's crew: in an era where segregation of the races was still enforced by law in many parts of the world, the crew of the Pequod includes Irishmen, Africans, New Englanders, Native Americans, African-Americans, and even a Polynesian Islander. The tasks assigned to various crewmen do not seem to hinge on race (though it's worth noting that the captain and all three of his mates are white), and race is not a barrier to promotion. After demonstrating his considerable skill with a harpoon, Queequeg is immediately recruited to the Pequod with a whopping sixtieth part of the voyage's profits (compared to Ishmael's measly three-hundredth).

Bradbury's screenplay is axiom-dense. It seems like every other line is some sort of pithy maxim that could easily spark hours of book-club conversations and classroom debates:
  • "Better a sober cannibal [for a bedfellow] than a drunken Christian." ~Ishmael
  • "Captain Ahab did not name himself. .Sign the paper now, and wrong him not because he happens to have a wicked name." ~Bildad
  • "Captains can't break the law. They is the law, as far as I'm concerned." ~Flask

Moby-Dick is actually a very philosophical film, despite the blue-collar setting. Lots of thought-provoking dialogue on the nature of Man, the sea and man's place upon it, what rights (if any) one man may hold over another), the extent of obedience and duty to one's captain, and whether it is moral to seek revenge against an unthinking animal. As First Mate Starbuck warns his captain, "To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct... is blasphemous." There's a lot of deep thought here, and (at least initially) the viewer might even feel some sympathy with Ahab's desire for what he sees as justice, when he explains why he acts as he does:
Look ye, Starbuck... all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me. He heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. It is the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate. The malignant thing that has plagued and frightened Man since time began. The thing that mauls and mutilates our race... not killing us outright, but letting us live on... with half a heart and half a lung.
But over the course of the film, we come to have less and less sympathy with Ahab, as it becomes clear just how many people he's willing to take down with him. Besides risking his own life and (remaining) limbs, he risks his ship, the Pequod, which he does not own; the financial well-being of all the New Bedford families who depend on this voyage's success for their sustenance; the lives of his crewmen, and the wages they bring home to their own families; and even (some might argue) his very soul.

In the course of his quest, Ahab encounters other captains who have had their own run-ins with Moby-Dick. Captain Boomer, who lost his hand to the whale (an even greater blow to a seaman than the loss of a leg!), makes jokes about his hook ("Better than flesh and blood! Like her so much, I've a mind to have me other arm cut off,") and professes that he is simply grateful to be alive after such a harrowing encounter. Ahab, of course, refuses to hear the wisdom of these words, and plunges on. The second captain, Gardiner, has suffered an even more terrible loss than either Ahab or Boomer, though not to his own body: his twelve-year-old son was killed by the whale, and the body was lost overboard. Gardiner begs Ahab to stay and help him search for his son's body, but Ahab, throwing Christian charity aside, and continues in his quest.

Sadly, unlike the acting, the script, and pretty much everything else about this movie, the whales of Moby Dick are merely "passable" at best. The first whale-chase was convincing enough that I, having never seen real whales up close, briefly wondered whether they might be real. But the illusion only remains convincing because all we see of the fleeing whales are their humps: as soon as I understood that that was all the prop-makers had built, and this was all of them we were going to see, it became a little harder to suspend my disbelief. When the White Whale himself breaches for the first time, it is instantly clear that he's a puppet, and not an especially convincing one. To be fair, this was 1956, and filmmakers were fairly limited by the technology of their day, but it was still something of an anticlimax that the main antagonist looked so fake.

Despite its technological shortcomings, Moby Dick is absolutely worth your time and attention. If you've ever wondered whether the book is any good, but been scared off by its tremendous size and "SERIOUS BUSINESS" reputation, then this film is the next best thing. Your knowledge of this tale will impress the hell out of your friends at parties, and Peck's crazed, throat-shredding screaming of Ahab's final lines - some of the best last words ever penned - is worth the price of admission alone.
"Ye damned whale! From hell's heart I stab at thee! For hate's sake... I spit my last breath at thee...thou damned whale!"

Monday, April 27, 2015

Read Before You Recommend

An Open Letter to TIME Magazine

Dear Editor,

I recently came across an article from your Entertainment section, entitled "Five Fantasy Epics That Would Have Made for Better TV Than Game of Thrones", by Chris Wilson. While I agree with his assessment that the books he recommends would probably do well as high-budget cable TV shows, I'm curious as to how he can make such a recommendation in the first place, since he admits in the article that he hasn't actually read most of the material he's "recommending".

He begins by stating that he never actually finished reading the first installment of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire; in fact, he gave up completely, less than a third of the way into the first book. He's admitted he never read the books, and it's not even clear whether he's watched the show they were adapted into, so how can Mr. Wilson seriously suggest that these other properties would make for better television than Game of Thrones?

When Roger Ebert posted a review of the film Tru Loved without actually finishing it, his readership were so outraged at his lack of professionalism that he was forced to re-watch the entire film, review it again, and issue an apology. I'm not so cruel as to suggest that Mr. Wilson be made to read all of books in all the series he's recommending (since this would likely amount to a life-sentence for the poor man), but he certainly shouldn't be recommending books he hasn't read, and doesn't even seem to respect.

Not only has he not done his research, he also confesses that virtually every series he "recommends" has a dramatic drop-off in quality later on, or that he simply got bored with them after a few volumes. I came away from this article with a strong impression that Mr. Wilson doesn't actually enjoy reading fantasy novels in the first place. In fact, he seems to have nothing but disdain for the genre. Of the eight fantasy series which he mentions by name in his article, he tells us that he never finished reading five of them. Some of them, he never even started reading: he prefaces his recommendation of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by saying "I never actually got into these books".

TV shows cost a lot of money to produce, so if Mr. Wilson is going to recommend a property to be developed into a full-fledged television program, he had better make sure it's a cracking good read, not just something that someone else told him was probably alright.

Why is this guy recommending that people make TV shows out of books he hasn't finished reading, and didn't enjoy in the first place? And more importantly, why are you guys paying him to do it?

Monday, April 20, 2015

[Movie Review] It Follows

It Follows made it hard for me to fall asleep the night I saw it. Hell, it made me look behind myself more than a few times as I walked back to my car, even in a well-lit parking garage in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. I think this is mainly because the film feels so familiar and essentially Midwestern, making it much more plausible that this could happen to me, personally. A horror movie set in New York or L.A. could never match It Follows for creepiness, because they could never pass for where I live. This isn't a ghost story that happened in a land far, far away; it happened right here, in these very woods, on a night very much like this one. And the quality of plausibility, the idea that this could happen to you, is what separates a merely spooky story from a terrifying one.

Californians are used to seeing themselves and their neighborhoods in movies, but those of us who grew up in Southeast Michigan have a harder time finding media that accurately represent our home region. In fact, there are only a few big-name films (Gran Torino, Robocop, 8 Mile) and TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, Hung) that spring readily to mind, and even the most recent of these is already four years old.

Because Southeast Michigan movies are such a rare breed, it was somewhat surreal to see teenagers on the big screen that actually looked like my own school-friends, living in houses that actually look like the houses I grew up around. The exterior shots are full of cozy working-class two-stories with white aluminum siding and blue vinyl above-ground pools in the backyard, often installed behind fully separate one-car garages, separated from one another by a grid of chain-link fences . t's all hauntingly familiar to me, which probably explains why I found this movie was so singularly creepy: everywhere in this movie reminds me strongly of places that I've actually lived in or visited with some regularity, from the neat little rows of suburban houses to the pacific splendor of an "up north" cabin to the hauntingly empty shells of burned-out homes and abandoned parks within Detroit itself.

Just try driving past one of these at night,
and tell me it doesn't freak you out. I dare you.

Although the geography of the film is explicit, the time is left ambiguous. The main characters (all in their late teens or early twenties) spend much of the first act lounging in living rooms and basements that look like they haven't been redecorated since the seventies, complete with dark wood-paneling and beige shag carpeting (I think I even saw a macramé owl in the background at one point), but homes that look like this are extremely common in the Detroit area, even today. The kids drive cars that look like they're from the 1980s, but they wear their hair and clothes more-or-less like modern teens and twentysomethings do (though not quite; something's missing, I'm just not sure what). Cell phones never appear, but one of the main characters is repeatedly shown reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on a Kindle-esque clamshell e-reader.

The plot of this dark and twisted tale follows Jay (short for Jamie), a freshman or sophomore a local community college, who's been dating an older guy, Hugh, who she's been thinking about sleeping with for the first time. After doing the deed in the backseat of Hugh's hot rod, the young man goes to the trunk to get something while Jay idly soliloquizes, then returns - major shocker! - with a chloroform-soaked cloth which he presses to Jay's face until she passes out. She wakes up some time later, handcuffed into a wheelchair, on a wall-less upper floor of one of Detroit's many abandoned factories. Slowly walking around her, pointing his flashlight out into the night, Hugh explains that something, some unknown entity or person, has been following him for a long time; someone passed it to him through sex, and now he's passed it to her. She can get rid of it by passing it to someone else in turn, but until she does, it will be moving towards her. It only walks, never runs, but it never sleeps, never stops, and only she (or someone whom "it" has pursued before) will be able to see it. No matter what she does or how far she flees, no matter how sturdy the doors she bolts herself behind, it will always be out there, day and night, never stopping or resting, always walking straight towards her.

That's one helluva setup, right? I won't spoil the rest of the movie for you (if you want to know how it ends, look it up on Wikipedia or something), but I can tell you this: I've never felt so uncomfortable while gazing on the figure of an attractive female, mainly because this film is very much aware of the male gaze and how it works, but makes you feel uncomfortable for looking. Jay is definitely sexualized, but it's a kind of coquettish, awkward sexuality that makes me, as a male in my late twenties, feel unsure whether it's OK for me to look or not; this creates tension and cognitive dissonance which reverberates throughout the film.

An example: when Hugh brings Jay home after showing her "it" for the first time, he unceremoniously dumps her on the street outside her home, and zooms off into the night. As her friends rush towards her, the camera affords us a full view of Jay's pink-panty-clad buttocks as she drops to her knees in tears on the front lawn of her parents' home. In another context, this shot would be nothing but empty-headed fanservice, but here it just feels deeply wrong. The audience is made to feel uncomfortable for watching her from this angle while she's having a complete (and totally understandable) emotional breakdown, because there's dissonance between the content of the shot (shapely female buttocks) and the mood (sorrow, vulnerability).

The soundtrack, by Disasterpeace, will definitely be a hit with the hipster crowd. It's all 80s-style 8-bit chiptune synthesizers playing slow, eerie moodscapes, interpsersed with a few high-tension, nerve-janglers. Each piece develops slowly out of layered and riffs, usually with a noticeable echo-filter overlaid. Everything is dark, cold, and minor key, and just as circular/repetitive (in a good way) as the titular it-that-follows. Cold, artificial, unearthly, and highly atmospheric; definitely worth a listen, but only in a well-lit room. Listening to it, I can't help but be reminded of the Lavender Town Syndrome creepypasta that's been passed around the virtual campfires for who-knows-how-long.

I was also impressed with the way the director extracted maximum creep-factor from a minimal special effects budget: since "it" can look like anyone, and changes its appearance to avoid easy detection by its prey, they didn't even need to stick with just one person to play "it". The fact that its appearance changes is key to the story, as well as the overwhelming sense of forebodeing that permeates this film. You find yourself scanning the background every time Jay is in a public space, looking for any extra that seems to be walking towards the camera; we feel distracted and mentally taxed by the need to observe Jay's surroundings, helping put us even more thoroughly in her shoes.

Some critics have been talking about how "it" stands for the relentlessness of urban decay (in Detroit and elsewhere, as the economy limps along and America's preeminence begins to tarnish), but I'm not sure I buy it. The director has said in interviews that he doesn't really care what people think "it" is, as long as they're frightened. Personally, I think that it stands better as a metaphor for STDs (and AIDS in particular), but better still as a parable of teenagers coming to grips with their own looming mortality. As one character says late in the film, quoting Dostoyevsky:

When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.

...and that's enough to freak anybody out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Movie Review] The Howling (1981)

[Warning: this review contains mild spoilers, but probably nothing you couldn't have figured out from the fact that it's a 1980s movie about werewolves. There are only so many ways it can turn out for anyone involved.]

The Howling is a good werewolf movie, but the script doesn't really stand up as well as the special effects do. Don't get me wrong though: the fact that the special effects are still creepy and disturbing even today, over thirty years later, shows just how groundbreaking they must have been in 1981. This was the first movie to feature werewolves transforming onscreen, in full view of the moviegoing public, without resorting to what amounts to stop-motion animation of hair being glued to an actor's face and hands. The viewer can, in special-effects designer Rob Bottin's words, "see the body really stretching, the nose breaking and twisting, the ribs starting to burst out."
Archive footage from the days before werewolves 
were considered even remotely sexy

The Howling also deserves bonus points for being (the first?) movie to feature werewolves as something other than poor, tortured souls who spend a month or two guilt-tripping themselves over their monthly rampages until a loved one puts them down like a rabid dog. These werewolves are in full control of their transformations (which can happen at any time, including during full daylight), and they never ask anyone to chain them up for the night: in fact, they fully enjoy their condition (going so far as to call it not a condition, but "the Gift"), and they chafe at even the relatively minor restrictions they must undergo in order to avoid detection. As one grizzled old werewolf angrily proclaims, 'humans should be our prey [not our livestock]".

My real problem with The Howling is with the flailing ineptitude of the main female character, Karen White (played by Dee Wallace). For someone who seems so utterly incapable of defending herself, or even standing up for herself, it beggars belief that she would survive as long as she does, particularly when more self-possessed characters bite it before her. She spends the whole movie getting pushed around, threatened, herded, cajoled, frightened, stalked, attacked, and even backhanded at one point (to which her immediate reaction, rather than fighting back or getting angry or leaving, is to collapse on the bed and start crying). I get that it's draining to have to spend eight hours a day in a state of frightened agitation, but Dee Wallace doesn't even convince me that she's scared in a lot of scenes: sometimes, she just looks sad, or like she's having stomach cramps. Maybe if the director gave her something to do besides screaming and crying, his leading lady wouldn't have been so drained by the experience that she'd still have the energy to act.

Pictured: a woman in the grip of utter terror

I realize that The Howling is a product of its times, when people paid for tickets to horror movies specifically so they could see a pretty young woman being menaced by terrifying monsters, but watcing this makes me really appreciate how far we've come in thirty years, and how much broader the range of options are for female characters in general, and for the female protagonists of horror movies in particular.

Monday, October 27, 2014

[Movie Review] Dear White People


If you're a white person who was hoping that Dear White People would tell you how you should feel (or even how black people feel) about affirmative action, randomized housing for students, or even race-relations in general, then I'm afraid you've got another thing coming; this isn't a movie about answers, it's a movie about questions. Like everything related to race (and sex, and gender, and sexual preference, and politics) in America, this film is thorny and complex, full of pitfalls, and doesn't really give us a sense of closure, or that anything has been "resolved".

It's also pretty funny and very smart , though I got the impression that if I were black, or knew more about black culture, that it would have been even funnier (judging from the number of times that half the audience laughed uproariously while the other half sat there with a blank look on their faces). I caught a few words and phrases that I remembered from my African American Lit class (like "the talented tenth"), and a few I knew on my own ("mulatto", "HBCUs"), but some were totally unknown to me ("redbone"), and by the time I had realized that I didn't have a clue what they meant, the actors were already two sentences ahead of me, and sometimes this meant that I lost the thread of the conversation entirely. Everyone in this movie is very smart and well-spoken, so dialogue moves along at a steady clip, not waiting very long for anything to sink in.

Dear White People does an excellent job of calling people out on their BS, but it also refuses steadfastly to pick a side. No viewpoint in this movie is presented as "right", and even the de facto "villains" of the film (the mostly-white student satire magazine editors who throw a 'hood-themed Halloween party) raise a few points which, while crass, are still difficult to dismiss outright. In the end, we're left to draw our own conclusions about what really happened, who did what, and what we should do next.

I would give this film a higher rating, because I really wanted to like it (and I did!), but the fact is that I was confused at several points in this movie. Part (maybe even most) of this was due to my own lack of familiarity with the signals and lexicon of black culture, but I feel like I can't be held entirely responsible if the movie wasn't highly comprehensible to its audience.

And that's another thing: it's not totally clear to me who the intended audience of this movie is supposed to be. Obviously it can't be entirely directed at black people if the title itself explicitly addresses white people, but it felt more like the director was trying to start a conversation within the black community about how it relates to white culture and to itself (and in particular, LGBT black people and interracial couples), rather than trying to build bridges to the white community.

 Then again, I feel like I'm a little more well-versed in the various arguments that are floating around out there in Black America's shared consciousness (and White America's, for that matter), so I guess that Dear White People accomplished its goal after all.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

[Graphic Novel Review] The Stuff of Legend, Volume 2: The Jungle

The Stuff of Legend, Volume 2: The Jungle
Th3rd World Studios, 2009
Writers: Mike Raicht, Brian Smith
Penciler: Charles Paul Wilson III
Colorists: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling
Editors: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling

The second volume gets off to a strong start, and the plot is solid up until the genuinely shocking plot-twist near the end of Act II (a disturbing revelation about the past actions of one of our own heroes!) and even right on through to the end (which is truly unexpected and even a little heartbreaking). Characterization continues to be solid, psychological, and interesting, adding the the complexity of the growing relationship between Jester and the Princess.

However, despite the promise of the first volume (and its excellent concept), there are a few things about the series so far that bug me:

  1. The Princess isn't the badass we were promised. In one of the extra features of Volume 1, "The Colonel's Journal", he comments that The Boy may have made a mistake not using her in the frontlines of more imaginary battles, since she's proving so tough and strong. Yet even by the end of Volume 2, we have still yet to see her do anything that's truly badass. We hear a lot about how well she fights, but she does most of that fighting off-camera, and it's not really any more spectacular than the fighting that other characters do. It's a little insulting to insert a "strong" female character, tell us what a BAMF she's going to be, then have her spend the first volume existing solely as a love-interest for a male character, and the second volume either injured, slowing the party down, teetering on the verge of death, and needing medical attention from everyone else. I really hope that the Princess turns it around in Volume 3 and displays some of her fabled battle-prowess.
  2. There are some embarrassing errors of spelling and word-choice mistakes. Mixing up fair with fare is a common word-choice mistake, and easily forgivable in everyday writing, but it's the kind of mistake that one expects not to see in a professionally-published graphic novel which has crossed the desk of at least one editor. There are several examples of poor word-choice in this book (counsel vs. council, for example), and as an English major they bother more than they might for others.
  3. "The Boy" still doesn't have a name. I understand that the author was trying to make The Boy a little more universal by not giving him a name, so he could seem to be anyone, but by Volume 2 it's getting kind of weird that nobody refers to him by name, not even his parents or little brother in flashbacks. I would have thought they'd go with "Johnny" or something, but that's already his kid brother's name, so no dice on that option. Perhaps we'll find out in Volume 3?
  4. Use of dialect is spotty and inconsistent. At one point, the escaping Boy and his mysterious companion jump a train and meet with a friendly conductor and his talking steam-engine. The two of them speak a version of American English which is slightly more dialectical than what the other characters speak, but only by a hair; it feels like the author filled in their speech-bubbles with a rough approximation of the dialogue of Yosemite Sam (sans the profanity), but never bothered to go back and make sure that it actually sounded like real people speak, or even like they speak in Western movies. The same thing applies to Jester, come to think of it: he gives the impression of being vaguely British and medieval, but nothing more.
  5. The characters' expressions don't always match the action at hand. The artwork is gorgeous and atmospheric (I'm still loving the 'sepia-toned photo album' layout and the extensive use of chiaroscuro), but sometimes - let me reiterate: only sometimes - the facial expressions and body-language just don't match the action at hand. I feel like I'm not watching someone react to a thing, I'm looking at an artist's rendition of how an actor might react to that thing. It puts an extra layer of distance between me and the characters, like I'm watching them through a layer of Saran-wrap. for I feel like this happens with The Boy in particular, but it happens to most characters in at least one panel.
Overall, The Stuff of Legend continues to be a highly enjoyable series, based on one of the most original and intriguing concepts I've encountered in a long time. Unfortunately, in execution it still falls a little short of the high promise of said concept; here's hoping the author and artist can still wow us in Volume 3!