Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two week's notice

Today I set out for Freetown, Sierra Leone to begin a two-week mission there, hopefully helping to build a school. Blogging will probably be nil during this time. Stay out of trouble while I'm gone!

Bitter Fruit#6: "The Princess of Death"

As I head out the door, let's check in on the Shadow again; I left off during Archie's the Shadow#3. The back-up feature is "the Princess of Death." Look, an old friend is back:

Yes, behind that mask is Princess Lua, whom you'll recall from "Shiwan Khan's Murderous Master Plan! As you know, she's an Asian mercenary who was helping the CIA stop Shiwan Khan from activating a doomsday bomb. For some reason, the Shadow thought he had to belittle her, hit on her and brainwash her.

As you can see in the above, Lua has been masquerading as Margo Lane and even typed up a letter for Lamont before discarding her mask. Her, uh, mask which appears to be a flat piece of cardboard depicting Margo's face. And I suppose Lamont didn't notice her melanin is different from Margo's either?

Three of Lua's men enter the office and join their boss as she points a gun at Lamont. She reveals she's sent Margo and Shrevy away so they could have some privacy; she wants information on the Shadow. Lamont claims he knows nothing about the Shadow, but Lua observes the Shadow is always turning up in plots which involve Lamont. Lua's henchman Iko karate chops Margo's desk in half as a warning to Lamont.

Lua's other two men, Karl & Ali, set a time bomb for ten minutes after they leave the office. Lamont wonders "how can anyone as lovely as you be so evil?" Lua replies she's being paid by a "foreign power" to liquidate the Shadow and everything must go! She fires an anaesthetic needle into Lamont's back then orders her men to carry Lamont out of the building before the bomb explodes.

As they head down the staircase of Lamont's townhouse, suddenly Lamont springs into action, kicking the man ahead of him down the stairs. It turns out Lamont was wearing a bulletproof vest, so the needle had no effect. Lamont judo throws a second henchman, then switches off the lights. As Lua and her last henchman (Iko) look for Lamont, Lua remarks "He is as wily as the Shadow himself!" How can anyone as lovely as her be so dense?

Somehow, Lamont switches into his spandex Shadow costume between panels and climbs up in the banister in his "specially-treated rubber-soled shoes." Fancy dancy! Those super heroes and their improbable gadgets... The Shadow kicks Lua's gun from her hand then defeats Iko in hand-to-hand combat, declaring "What Iko knows about karate, I forgot!"

The Shadow leads Lua back into Lamont's office and demands to know who hired her; she refuses at first, but when he ties her up and places her own time bomb in her hands, she relents: it was the Boldavian Embassy. The Shadow calls up the FBI and a half hour later Lua is lead away to prison. As she departs, Lua remarks to Lamont she was right about thinking the Shadow keeps an eye on Lamont; he tells her she has years in prison to try and figure it out, but "only the Shadow really knows!"

As with the main feature, the Grand Comics Database attributes the story to writer Robert Bernstein and artist Paul Reinman. I do prefer Reinman's artwork over issues #1-2's art, but Bernstein's scripting remains unremarkable. After using Lua as an ally in her previous appearance, it seems wasteful to reduce her to another Cold War menace and considering what a terrible job Lamont does at separating he and the Shadow's activities, it's preposterous to think no one's guessed his secret. The Shadow's powers aren't employed at all in this story; Lamont could have defeated the villains without even changing his clothes.

The text feature "the Adventures of the Shadow" continues in this issue with chapter three, carrying on the story of how Lamont became the Shadow. It relates how after Lamont discovered he had the power to control minds he wondered what to do with it; while taking a boat from Egypt to Greece, he saw two men beating a third man on the deck of the ship; cutting up a tarp into a poncho, Lamont defended the victim and defeated his assailants; when asked who he was, he answered: "Only THE SHADOW knows!"

Review: Lackadaisy volume 1

For all my interest in comic books and comic strips, I have to confess the webcomic revolution has mainly passed me by; occasionally I find a series which seems interesting, but I find it hard to develop a keenness to check the site for the next installment and gaps between the arrival of new pages erode the momentum of the story for me.

However! Fairly recently an article at Comics Alliance alerted me to the existence of Tracy J. Butler's Lackadaisy, comparing the series to Blacksad. As an avid Blacksad, I was intrigued. After an afternoon spent reading the webcomic archive, I was hooked.

Set in 1927 St. Louis, Missouri, Lackadaisy is a speakeasy operated by Mitzi May, who inherited the establishment after her husband's death. However, the business has seen better days. Fast-talking and just barely competent, Rocky Rickaby is trying to help keep Lackadaisy's lights on, assuming the job of obtaining their illegal stash of alcohol. This places Rocky in the forefront of violence with rival establishments, which is a problem since Rocky is not a gunman - he's a violinist. Fortunately, Rocky's soft-spoken loyal cousin Calvin has an explosive dark side. Is that all you need to know?
Oh, right. They're all cats.
So far there's just one print volume of Lackadaisy; despite bearing a copyright notice dating back to 2006, there's only so much content in existence. The story being told within Lackadaisy moves at an interesting pace; lackadaisical, you might say (ha, ha! don't hurt me). By the end of volume one, about 48 hours have transpired for the cast; since then, the website has added perhaps 24 more?
Lackadaisy has a vast cast of characters and takes its time establishing them and their relationships to each other; as noted, the Lackadaisy establishment has a history, one which is gradually developed: there's just barely a few pages in which one character, the assassin Mordecai Heller appears, but he's established as a quirky, violent yet cultured man; Lackadaisy employee Ivy Pepper is presented as a fun, vivacious character... but there are hints to her troubled history with boyfriends who wind up in the hospital; band leader Zib just barely tolerates working with Rocky; Slovakian bartender Viktor Vasko is the one Lackadaisy character suited to the violent world they live in, but the years are catching up with him.
Although the comparison to Blacksad caught my eye, it was ultimately the series' dialogue which kept my attention; it would have been too easy to let myself glaze over the pages of material and just the strip's sequential storytelling chops first, but the clever wordplay demanded close attention; attempts at period dialogue run throughout the series, but Rocky receives special attention for his harried jabbering, occasionally pausing to wax poetic. Further, the voices of the many characters come through as distinct as their grammar reflects their class, upbringing or ethnicity.
While Blacksad populates its detective noir world with many types of animals, comparisons to Lackadaisy are no doubt encouraged because John Blacksad is himself a cat. Both series' use the funny animal characters in a period setting to help diffuse what could be much more bleak material. However, Blacksad is still a noir and an air of futility and failure infuses everything in Blacksad's world. While Lackadaisy does feature violence and its repercussions (repercussions are unavoidable thanks to the aforementioned gradual pace), primarily it's written for comedy. You know, for laughs, son. If I must compare Lackadaisy to another funny animal comic, I would prefer Usagi Yojimbo: both tell stories of drama and comedy side by side.
Considering Butler has revealed she didn't attend art school, I'm very impressed with the end result: she's no Rob Liefeld (although she has made the comparison). I'm fascinated by how she uses the unique body types provided by her cat people to reveal character. In the above image, note how Calvin's head and ears tilt back while he attempts to hide his face from Ivy. The postures characters adopt while speaking, the way they manipulate objects and how their faces contort all help to establish character, as much or moreso than the dialogue.

If Butler does have a failing, it's in the art of speech balloon placement. Although she has some interesting ideas about overlapping speech balloons to indicate voices being drowned out:
...She struggles with balloon placement in back & forth conversations such as this:
The balloons need to be closer to each other on the page or the reader will simply read all of Zib's balloons on the left before starting Rocky's balloons on the right.

This collected edition of Lackadaisy includes various bonus sketches and gag cartoons. The strips themselves are presented in sepia and run for 68 pages, usually featuring three rows of panels per page. Strangely, three rows per page is not the standard format in the website version - in fact, there is no standard format as many pages go beyond three rows. Consequently, some of the "beats" between pages play out differently in the collection than they did on the website, but it's something only a person who's read both would notice.
Lackadaisy. It cures what ails ya.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Walked With a Xombi, Part 2 (of 2)

"...Please remember that being deeply weird is supposed to be FUN. You seem to think that weirdness makes a comic IMPORTANT. There's already a Vertigo out there; last time I saw him, there was already a Grant Morrison, too." - John Rozum, letters page of Xombi#2

Although Milestone was barely one year old by the time Xombi launched, already its fans had certain expectations about the super heroes who inhabited its shared universe. As the letters page of Xombi bears witness, many thought the adventures of David Kim did not belong on the Milestone label, repeatedly wondering why it hadn't been published with Vertigo. Frequent comparisons were drawn to Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, as you can see in the quote above.

What I have to say about shared universes might be the last thing you'd expect from a former Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe contributor. I feel within shared universes, even when the caretakers of said universes attempt to maintain consistency, the wonderful moments where multiple creators compliment each other's efforts are balanced by the frequent contradictory statements they make. But there is nothing offensive about this; when you consider the sheer number of extraterrestrial races, superhumans, hidden civilizations and advanced technology in every shared super hero universe, you realize no real universe could function this way. It's a good thing, then, that comic books are fictional, not real! The worst thing about the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe - before and during my involvement with it - is how it codifies what supposedly exists, robbing its world(s) of a sense of mystery.

After the careful and gradual universe building seen in other Milestone titles (many of the Milestone superhumans shared a common origin), some readers seemed unable to comprehend how quickly Xombi suggested a much larger universe living side-by-side with Icon, Static, Hardware and their friends. Not only does the foreground of "Silent Cathedrals" feature Sheer Shears, Rustling Husks, Lesion Dogs, the Garden of Spires, Carnivore Clouds, the Lord of Fumes, Nomatoads and Meat Man, but we only learn in passing of other weird characters inhabiting this world such as Trapeze, the "secret society of blind aerialists."

Those of you who came to super hero comic books since the rise of the super hero action movie phenomenon may be surprised to learn there was a time when heroes and villains need not shared common origins, nor even obey the same scientific principles. In fact, there was a time when super hero comic books had no particular structure in how they were maintained, it being left up to the talent of the creative people involved. Jack Kirby's one-time assistant Mark Evanier tells a story about how Kirby created the Black Racer for the New Gods and Evanier thought he convinced his boss to hold the character back for at least another issue and spend some time on the newly-introduced Metron instead. But after just two pages of drawing Metron, Kirby shrugged his shoulders and introduced the Black Racer.

It's this same love of creating for the sake of creating which permeates John Rozum & J.J. Birch's Xombi. Much as Bob Hope would tell his jokes quickly then move on to the next one to avoid dwelling on jokes which didn't work, Rozum & Birch's "Silent Cathdrals" introduces one bit of weirdness, then moves on to the next one. The caretakers have told us this isn't how you build a shared universe - there have to be rules and classifications within classifications. Rozum & Birch were under no illusions: they knew they were crafting a work of fiction. I believe their efforts produced heartfelt and genuine moments (some discussed in the previous blog entry), but primarily they were seeking to create, to have fun and to entertain others. There may be no "importance" behind the Carnivore Clouds, nor a need for the Sheer Shears to be the villains masterminding the latest super hero crossover; Xombi was a pure comic book, a throwback to the days before rules and expectations were institutionalized. Defy your sense of order and seek it out for yourself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Walked With a Xombi, Part 1 (of 2)

In 1994, John Rozum and J.J. Birch served up the comic book series Xombi, which survived for 22 issues (issue #0 + 1-21). It was briefly revived last year by Rozum with artist Frazer Irving for a mere six issues, which is where I first discovered it. Eager to learn more about the series' backstory and to learn whether the initial series was as fascinating as the latter, I recently purchased the original Xombi#0-6.

Xombi#0 actually doesn't belong with the other six issues - it was the first published issue of Xombi and explained the character's premise, but it was set chronologically at a point after issue #6. It served primarily to establish the hero, David Kim, and set him up within the Milestone Media comics universe (I didn't recognize any Milestone characters in issues #1-6). Arriving in stores six months before issue #1, the #0 issue was really just a teaser and featured Milestone founder Denys Cowan on art, rather than Birch.

This out of the way, let's look into "Silent Cathedrals," the six-part story which opens Xombi.

We meet middle-aged scientist David Kim as he welcomes his one-time student and protege Kelly Sanborne to work at Organitek; because Kelly is a woman and David is presently engaged to someone else, David's co-workers delight in teasing him about being involved with Kelly. The truth is, David and Kelly are immensely close friends, not lovers, but platonic friends in the truest sense.

Kim is developing "the Cabinet Beast," a nanotechnology device which can reshape organic materials into other substances (ie, paper can become chocolate). David doesn't think his work is particularly impressive, not compared to his collegue Gerald, who trains ants to perform in a miniature circus.

As you may have gathered, the world of Xombi is not quite ours and I haven't spoken of the man made from sausages or the ghosts of dead insects. In the course of issue #1, David is fatally wounded by creatures who are after his nanotechnology; Kelly saves his life by using the nanomachines to repair his cells. It works: not only are David's wounds healed, he becomes physically younger and his nearsighted vision is fixed. Unfortunately, the process requires raw materials and because Kelly was hugging David during the ordeal, trying to comfort him, the machines used her body for spare parts. David awakens to find Kelly's partially decomposed body next to him, in the story's most horrific visual.

In what follows, David sets after the creatures responsible for Kelly's death, soon discovering because of his rebuilt body, his nanomachines have rendered him unkillable. He soon finds allies, such as Catholic Girl (a Catholic schoolgirl who can fly by crossing herself, create a force field by chanting the Hail Mary and shoots energy beams through her rosary), Nun of the Above (Catholic Girl's superior, who can view people within a 30 mile radius), occultist Julian Parker and Rabbi Sinnowitz and his two Golems.

The latter characters are worth highlighting because I had met each of them in the 2011 Xombi series. There, I noticed not much effort was made to reintroduce the characters to newcomers, but looking back to "Silent Cathedrals," I see little was done to introduce them in the first place - like so many of the elements which emerge during the storyline, people like Catholic Girl simply are; from their dialogue, you quickly grasp they've been dealing with strangeness for some time (and thus readily accept David as their new ally), but you learn more about them from their following actions, rather than any exposition. In Xombi, weirdness seems to have always existed, it didn't originate with David and it certainly doesn't end with him.

Amidst the weirdness, Xombi reveals itself as a super hero story, a horror story and a comedy. You really must appreciate all three genres to have any hope of enjoying Xombi, but the fast-tracking narrative mostly encourages good-humour. For instance, there's the sequence in Xombi#3 where Julian and David are attacked in a library by "Sheer Shears," creatures with scissors instead of heads. Julian explains them thusly:

"The Sheer Shears. The best agents to send into a library. That book won't do you any good. You can't use books, or the ideas contained within, against them. Which is why magical spells are useless. Anything you've learned from reading is ineffective. Only the oral tradition is effective, because as everyone learns as a kid... scissors cut paper. But... rock smashes scissors."

Julian delivers this speech solemnly, but the entire concept is so absurd - and yet logical! - that his eventual solution was a laugh-out-loud moment for me. Perhaps your mileage varies?

Xombi's strengths do not entirely revolve around the weirdness. Probably the book's greatest asset - because of the quick pace, gigantic cast and aforementioned weirdness - is how Rozum develops his characters. Everyone, even the series' villain Dr. Sugarman possesses at least a quirk of some sort which makes them stand out. In issue #1, a security guard is introduced and killed in a single page, but Rozum spends the page developing the guard's personality and his love of composing poems while working; when the guard dies, we feel the tragedy of a human life snuffed out; he was not a faceless extra, we glimpsed something of the uniqueness in every human being.

One of David's earliest quirks is his fear of pain. Before he gains his powers, David is mocked by his co-workers about wincing when his blood is drawn. Even after become unkillable, David flinches at pain. It's no small thing for David to break his arm because he reacts like a human being whose arm has just been broken. Compare this to comicdom's most famous unkillable hero, Wolverine, who shrugs off fatal wounds with "clever" one-liners. When a giant monster steps on David he can only gripe with his allies who want him to get back into action: "I think every bone is my body is broken, and you want me to move?"

By the end of "Silent Cathedrals," David has saved the world, but failed to capture Sugarman, the man who orchestrated the death of Kelly. But it wasn't just Kelly who died that night at Organitek, with security guards and a cleaning woman amongst the victims. One of David's co-workers remarks "I heard about what they did to the cleaning woman." David answers: "Her name was Cecilia." It's an insight into David; not only is he sensitive to pain, he's sensitive to others. Throughout issue #6, David recalls his friendship with Kelly, recalling the party games they would play, strange things about her diet, her favourite jokes... not only do these memories seem to keep Kelly alive, he hopes his nanomachines will be able to restore her body, just as they did for him. Unfortunately, Kelly's body has already been cremated, scuttling David's plans. David is forced to make his peace with Kelly's memory, deciding he doesn't even want vengeance on Sugarman, knowing it wouldn't bring Kelly back to life. Since his body was rebuilt using Kelly's, he decides part of her is alive within him and he will live as she would've wanted to.

Comic book culture commonly derides the 1990s and the glut of over-produced material was certainly a nadir for the industry; however, quality work existed then and it's worth unearthing it now and granting it the recognition it deserves; if you think you've read all the 90s had to offer, think again: you need to reckon with Xombi. I hope to visit the other 15 issues in time, but I'm now certain "Silent Cathedrals" is one of the best super hero tales of the 90s.

More on Xombi #1-6 tomorrow.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Amazing Race 20-09 recap: "Bollywood Travolta"

This will be my last Amazing Race recap for a couple of weeks as on Saturday, I'll be starting my own international adventure in Sierra Leone! I'll catch up on the two remaining episodes at some point after my return.

In short: last week's advertisements promised a major breakdown on Mark's behalf and they did not lie; this was a difficult episode to watch, but those same elements made it the best of the season thus far.

We resume the Race near Lake Manyara, Tanzania. Bopper is very concerned about his knee, which gave out on him near the end of last leg, opening up some problems he's had from earlier knee surgery. During the Pit Stop rest time, Bopper sees a doctor who confirms Bopper should be able to stay in the Race, provided he keeps wearing his brace. Bopper & Mark depart in first place and are directed to fly to Cochin, India, then ride a bus to Sacred Heart College and find their next clue. The duo head to a travel office, with Rachel & Dave leaving next, close behind them. Dave notes how Art & J.J. are upset with them for not using their U-Turn on the previous leg, breaking an an earlier arrangement the two teams had made. "If the relationship can be restored, then excellent, if not, Rachel and I will continue to race as we have." Dave seems very mature about this assessment. At the travel agency, Bopper/Mark & Rachel/Dave make their flight arrangements; they won't depart until the morning, so it seems as though all the teams will be caught up.

As Art & J.J. begin the leg, J.J. sums up his feelings about the U-Turn incident: "We're done, Major Dave. Take your Army ass and get out of my face." At the travel agency, Bopper & Mark see how Art & J.J. are treating Rachel & Dave icily; Bopper thinks they're acting like babies. "They are babies." Mark opines. And this is coming from the nicest, most easy-going team on the Race, the guys who Art & J.J. declared were their "friends for life;" check yourself before you wreck yourself, Art & J.J. As Brendon & Rachel depart, they note they're "over" being U-Turned by Art & J.J. It's interesting to see only one team seems to be acting petty about the U-Turn and it's the people who used the U-Turn, not the U-Turnees! Vanessa & Ralph leave in last place, noting Brendon & Rachel ("AKA Big Baby, Crybaby..." "...Duck-billed platypus." say Ralph & Vanessa) U-Turned them, but they haven't used their own U-Turn yet. Say, this would be a unique bit of revenge - no one on the Amazing Racae has ever been able to U-Turn the person who U-Turned them, since until the Double U-Turn's arrival, the U-Turned teams were always eliminated. Vanessa & Ralph find a different flight at the agency which will get them into India earlier than the top four teams! Cheese and crackers! They've finally outplayed the competition!

We move to Cochin, India, but while Vanessa & Ralph do arrive first, the other four team's flight seems to set down about 5 minutes later! So, teams head to the bus station and Rachel & Dave get the first bus, Art/J.J. & Brendon/Rachel second, Vanessa/Ralph third and Bopper & Mark, because of Bopper's bad leg, miss the first spread of buses and wind up on the fourth bus, quite a bit behind the others. The drive through Cochin is the team members' first real interaction with India and a few observations are made; "I feel like I'm so much bigger than everybody here, everybody's so small." is Brendon's contribution. He does seem to be about a head taller than anyone around him. Mark's recurring problem with motion sickness comes up again on the bus.

Rachel & Dave arrive at Sacred Heart College and find teams of dancers waiting for them. It's Roadblock time and the person taking the challenge has to become a dancer. After learning the routine, they have to perform in synch to the satisfaction of a judging film director. Dave quickly tells Rachel to take the Roadblock, knowing she's familiar with dace. Noting the clue, Dave says, "Thank God it alluded to dancing and I didn't inadvertantly select it." Art & J.J. arrive and J.J. thinks Art should take the challenge, but Art reminds J.J. of the bottle dancing Roadblock back on leg 3; in a clip from that episode, Art mopes "You owe me." to J.J. and it seems he's calling in the debt. Meanwhile, Rachel and Vanessa take the Roadblock for their partners.

As Dave's Rachel begins the Roadblock, we learn she took dance from elementary school through high school, giving her the best qualifications of all the racers attempting the task. "Had I selected this, we would probably have been here for hours." Dave notes. Big Brother's Rachel manages to wind up with a team of dancers colour-coded green, which for some reason is Brendon & Rachel's team colour. "This is a great day to have a female partner on your team." is Brendon's observation as he sees J.J. try to learn the dance moves. J.J. growls at Art, thinking Art would have been better at the challenge. "I felt like a fat elephant." is how J.J. sums up his ability.

Bopper & Mark are still traveling by bus to the college. Mark notes the smog in the air is contributing to his ill stomach; trying to get air through the window just makes him more ill. They finally reach the college and Mark agrees to do the Roadblock because of Bopper's knee. "I feel like I'm about to let my partner down in the Race." is Bopper's instinct; he doesn't think Mark will do well at the Roadblock and wishes he could've been the one to do the task. Brendon chummily asks Bopper, "How's Mark's rhythm?" Bopper replies, "He ain't got much rhythm, but he's got heart."

J.J. is the first to try the Roadblock for the judge, despite Big Brother's Rachel summing him up as "a clumsy oaf." Sure enough, J.J. fails and has to resume training. "Dudes can't dance like chicks, man, just can't happen." is Art's justification for J.J.'s failure. Rachel goes up next and smokes it handily, proving her credentials and exciting Dave. Rachel & Dave receive their next clue, sending them via rickshaw to the Indian Coffee House to receive a clue from a head waiter. "Chicks 1, dudes nothing." says Art. The other teams continue to struggle with the Roadblock, especially Mark, who's feeling sick from the bus ride and suffering from the intense heat.

Rachel & Dave retrieve their clue at Indian Coffee House and it's Detour time: they can either "Cricket" or "Clutch It." In the first, each team member must hit a cricket ball with their bat and hit the boundary line. In the latter, each team member must navigate an auto rickshaw through an obstacle course without hitting the direction posts. Rachel insists they should try "Clutch It," despite Dave's wistful misgivings:

Dave: "I definitely would have loved to play cricket though."
Rachel: "You don't have skill and ability in cricket."
Dave: "I have skill and ability in nearly every sport."
Rachel: "Ugh!"

I can't do Rachel's eye-rolling "ugh!" enough justice; see the episode for yourself. They begin to try the auto Rickshaw out, although Rachel's first attempt sees her striking a post; she laughs it off but Dave, as usual, takes this all very seriously, so Rachel lets Dave try the Detour first.

Back at the Roadblock, Mark is struggling and still hasn't tried for judging. Bopper notes how badly Mark wants to succeed, noting "He's been a fan of the Race a lot longer than I have. He really wants this, I have faith in him." Meanwhile, Big Brother's Rachel loses out on another judging attempt and gets mad. Other teams take the opportunity to rag on her behaviour, notably Art saying "Rachel looked like the cheerleader who didn't make the cheerleading team but kept trying." Weirdly, it started out like an insult, but for some reason Art softened it by the end. Art has now come around to J.J.'s way of thinking: he would have been better at the Roadblock than J.J.

As Dave prepares to try the rickshaw, Rachel opines it's hard to turn "on a dime." "No it's not." says Dave, who has yet to actually drive. Dave hits one post on his first attempt, but on the second attempt succeeds. "I made it a lot more fun and I hit a bunch of poles." is Rachel's summary. As Rachel begins the Detour, Big Brother's Rachel whines to Brendon, "Please don't tell me I'm emotional, I'm a girl, of course I'm emotional, I'm frustrated." Here, Rachel wields her gender as a shield ("Don't criticize me, I'm a girl."); stay tuned for Rachel wielding her gender as a sword ("I did it and I'm a girl!"). Meanwhile, Art has another quip for his partner: "He looks like a gorilla in a chiffon suit. He's tryin' his ass off, though." Vanessa completes the Roadblock on her third attempt, while Rachel finishes after her fourth try. "Chicks 3, dudes nothing." saith Art, still keeping score.

On his fourth attempt, J.J. finally succeeds at the Roadblock. "You're a Bollywood Travolta." says Art, providing this episode's quote-title. Only Bopper & Mark are left at the Roadblock and Mark is trying his hardest, but he can't find the right steps. "I can barely raise my arms." says Mark, whose strength is seriously ebbing. Back at the Detour Dave asks Rachel, "Baby, can you listen to me when I tell when to turn?" Rachel answers: "If you're nice about it." After he helps her navigate a turn Dave proudly declares "See? Listen to your husband!" then later, "See? Listen to your frickin' husband!" He needn't be so small about these issues, although Rachel is certainly willful. Rachel finishes the Detour and they head via taxi to the Pit Stop, Bolgatty Palace. They've finished the Detour before anyone else has begun!

Vanessa & Ralph also choose the "Clutch It" Detour, even though Vanessa admits she failed driver's education. "Driving in San Antonio, I've hit a few things... trees, street signs, other cars, the Alamo... it was an accident." Vanessa's driving is seriously questionable, to the extent she looks like she could run someone down. Elsewhere, Brendon & Rachel and Art & J.J. both choose the "Cricket" task at about the same time and begin playing.

Back at the Roadblock, Mark has tried six times with no success. He's drenched with sweat and his strength and spirit have been drained. Bopper asks Mark if he's all right. "No, I am not Bopper." Bopper suggests Mark should give up on the task if it becomes so strenuous his health is at risk.

At Bolgatty Palace, Rachel & Dave claim first place for the fifth time and this time win a trip to St. Lucia. Summing up their ability, Dave notes "With regard to Art & J.J., we'll resolve the situation..." Rachel interrupts, "If not, we'll just beat 'em." This little spat is just giving them more drive to succeed.

At the "Cricket" Detour, J.J. tries some of his psychology on the pitcher. "I got you! I'm in your head now!" he claims. Back at the Roadblock, Bopper is very worried for Mark. "Just take the penalty." he advises. "I ain't takin' nothin', do or die." is Mark's weary answer. When Mark fails for the 7th time, Bopper demands he give up. "Hell with that money, I want you out, out, out, I want my buddy." says Bopper. Mark still refuses.

At "Cricket," Brendon & Rachel wrap up before Art can get his hit; Rachel gloats a little, providing the aforementioned "sword:" "And it was a good feeling to know that they both got beat by a girl!" Art finishes the Detour soon after them, while Vanessa & Ralph finish "Clutch It."

At the Roadblock, Mark says, "If it weren't for my kids, I would quit right now, 'cause it's killin' me." Bopper ponders, "If I'd knowed he'd be put through this I'd have tried it myself." Mark goes through his 11th attempt and still fails. Owww. Bopper again insists they take a penalty. "We might be able to catch up, man. I can do it man, I'm just sick." is Mark's response. Bopper pushes the issue, concerned Mark could suffer a heart attack. "We was given an awesome chance, we come here, we done our best, man. Come here friends, gonna leave here friends, blood. That's it." He reminds Mark about his three children and asks, "You have a heat stroke, what can you do for them?" Mark thinks he's close to finishing the Roadblock.

At the Pit Stop, Brendon & Rachel claim 2nd place.

At the Roadblock again, Mark intones "I had to sit back and reevaluate the things that's important in life and my kids went through my mind, what they would do without me and it got very, very, very emotional. I got three kids I gotta raise. I'm goin' home, man. Is it all right?" Bopper answers, "It's cool." Bopper is in tears, even as his dance choreographer tries to insist he resume the task. "It broke me down and I had to just stop. Was a million dollars worth not walkin' my kids down the aisle? Was a million dollars worth not goin' to my youngest boy's games and I just come to the conclusion that it wasn't." Mark removes his costume, but the choreographer pursues him, insisting "Only one more dance!" Mark sobs back, "No! I'm goin' home to my kids!"

Art & J.J. hit the Pit Stop in third place. "That's the most excited you've seen a third finish team in your life, Phil!" Art remarks. I'm assuming they're happy because they were in fourth - earlier in the Race, these two would be put out at ranking in third. Vanessa & Ralph arrive immediately behind the border patrol agents, claiming fourth place.

At the Roadblock, Bopper has had a change of heart and wants Mark to try one last time. Choking back sobs, Bopper says, "Let's finish this for our kids. Calm yourself down. You suit right up and we're gonna give 'em one more dance. Then we'll be out of here. Let's take what's been given to us right now. You hear me?" The choreographer stays with them through the ordeal, comforting Mark. It sounds like some sort of deal has been made - the choregrapher & Bopper are both so convinced Mark will succeed on the next attempt that I wonder if it's already been decided - no matter how good Mark's performance is, they'll let him go on the 12th attempt. Regardless, Mark agrees to try once more noting if he tries once more, "Our kids will be proud that we at least finished the leg and didn't quit on nothin'. I hope that it proves to my kids that your daddy loves you more than anything in this world." Mark makes his 12th effort and the director judges it fine, awarding him with his clue. The entire dance troupe cheers as they move on with the Race.

We don't see much of the remaining leg for Bopper & Mark, other than a brief clip of them running the "Clutch It" Detour while a montage of clips from earlier episodes play and the duo reflect on all the opportunities the Race has given them. When they arrive at the Pit Stop, Phil informs them it's a non-elimination leg! They still have a chance, despite the odds. "When I looked in his eyes and I see nobody home, he was that tired, and I knowed he was doin' it for me. For me and his family. We could use some extra money, but you can't replace this guy!" chokes Bopper, reflecting on his partner. Three cheers for Bopper & Mark! "Someone's gonna have to fight the Kentucky boys for the million dollar prize on the way home." says Bopper. I hope he's right!

Thoughts on the remaining five teams:

  1. Rachel & Dave: Not much has changed; Rachel continues to be a fun, vivacious personality and Dave remains an ol' stick in the mud. He was, however, superlative in his praise for Rachel at the Roadblock and kept his cool at the Detour; he's not all bad, but I hope seeing himself on television at home has awakened him to his behaviour.
  2. Brendon & Rachel: These two keep performing much better than I expect them to. It's also nice to see Brendon making friends with Bopper, contrary to the team's earlier self-declared "pariah" status.
  3. Art & J.J.: J.J. seemed pretty cool this week, not getting too upset about how other teams were performing or revisiting the previous leg's drama with Rachel & Dave. They were also pleased to be in third, which is a change from earlier behaviour. They're still my second-place favourites.
  4. Vanessa & Ralph: These two continue to slide by, making just a few less mistakes than other teams. Getting to India first showed some serious moxie, it's too bad it didn't pay off for them.
  5. Bopper & Mark: My heart goes out to these two; of all the teams on this Race, these two are really putting themselves on the line, taxing their bodies and emotions to stay in the game. I would have understood Mark's decision if he gave up on the Race, but I'm proud of him for overcoming the Roadblock. As I've said before, I like to see teams defeat tasks they don't think they're capable of. As Bopper has said, he and Mark have heart; they're not just my favourite team on this Race, I'm seriously considering them one of my all-time favourite teams in 20 seasons of the Amazing Race.

Next Week: Enjoy your Amazing Race people, I expect to be wrapping up about a day and a half of non-stop travel. What do the advertisements portend? Big Brother's Rachel freaks out over a head shaving task, evidently similar to the old Fast Forwards from seasons 5 & 7 (plus last year's Amazing Race: Australia). Also, Vanessa falls and hears her knee pop! This really is the season of the walking wounded!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: The Original Johnson, Book 2

Having looked at the Original Johnson volume one earlier, I knew I'd get around to the second half of this biography eventually. However, I have to say: I'm not impressed by some of the creative decisions.

In the continuation of Trevor Von Eeden's adaptation of the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the story resumes as Johnson's career soars, leading to a run of successful bouts and eventually to Johnson's victory over Tommy Burns for the title of heavyweight champion, then defending his title against Jim Jeffries, but years later he lost his title to Jess Willard. Along the way Johnson's relationships with various women are recounted with erotic detail.

I felt the first volume spent too little time on Johnson's boxing career so I'm pleased to see the second half gets into the sport itself, even providing a quick history of boxing, properly framing Johnson's ascension through the ranks. Further, the Burns and Jeffries bouts are depicted in great detail.

However, Von Eeeden's depiction of Johnson's love life continues to be an unwelcome distraction for this reader; pages and pages are devoted to Johnson's lovemaking. I still feel Jack Johnson's biography belongs in high schools, but Von Eeden's graphic sex scenes will ruin this particular version's chances. The most glaring bit of business is Johnson's relationship with Dominique St. John, a wealthy white female painter. I don't know if St. John was a real person or not, but the entire sequence (48 pages long!) reads like the first chapter of "the Erotic Adventures of Jack Johnson," not the continued narrative of Johnson's life. Further, Dominique is dropped from the story when the 48-page sequence is over.

Many of the scenes involving Johnson and his partners devolve into lengthy speeches as Johnson opines how much better he is than other people; it begins to feel as though Von Eeden is using Johnson as his mouthpiece for his own view of the world, rather than summarizing Johnson's own life. As to Johnson's life, Von Eeden's version is ultimately a very idealized interpretation. Johnson's achievements are lauded, but his negative aspects - like his deteoriating relationships, his reckless driving and his eventual defeat by Willard - are glossed over. In fact, when the defeat by Willard enters the story, Von Eeden doesn't relate the story as it happened (as he did earlier with Burns & Jeffries), but instead tries to "set the record straight." He tells the audience about "the famous photograph." What "famous photograph?" This is clearly your version of Johnson's life, Mr. Von Eeeden - all along, you've been our guide. Why the sudden assumptions that we came into this book with certain facts or prejudices about the Johnson-Willard fight? His writing here becomes hopelessly hyberbolic: "No one ever noticed this -- ever."

The Johnson-Willard fight is still a point of controversy - that is, did Johnson throw the fight (as he later claimed), or did he honestly lose the match. It's up for debate, which is to say, there's no clear answer. I'm reminded of a piece of dialogue from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, concerning how Davy Crockett died: "The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died." Thus, your informed perspective on the Johnson-Willard fight has more to do with your belief in Johnson's legend than anything; Von Eeden is firmly in the grasp of the legend.

I wish Von Eeden had delved more closely to the events of Johnson's life - in chronological order and with weight given to both his highs and lows - and that he'd let Johnson speak to us rather than Von Eeden speak through Johnson. But as this is the only graphic novel of Jack Johnson's life I know of, it is, by default, the best.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Amazing Race 20-08 Recap: "Let Them Drink Their Haterade"

This week's recap will be a little different - due to lack of time, I'm writing the recap as I watch the episode. Thus, let us begin!

The opening music has been spiffed up again, with some teams receiving new footage of them on the Race. Eliot & Andrew are still depicted throwing a fit, though.

We resume in Ngorongoro, Tanzania. Rachel & Dave begin in first place and receive instructions to drive their safari jeep into Ngorongoro Crater and find Safari Junction where a shop dubbed "Hillary Clington" is located. As Bopper & Mark depart, Bopper points out how he injured his knee on the previous leg, but is trying to overcome the pain. The duo note at one time no one considered them threats, but that's probably changed. As Art & J.J. leave in third place, they note "Double U-Turn ahead" in the instructions, the first time this message has appeared on this Race. It seems three legs earlier, Art & J.J. made a pact with Rachel & Dave and Joey "Fitness" & Danny (now eliminated) while they were in Bavaria, promising one of them would use the U-Turn on Brendon & Rachel.

As Brendon & Rachel leave in fourth place they realize they'll be targets for the U-Turn. "The more the haters hate, the more stronger Brendon and I get, so, let them drink their haterade and uh, Brendon and I will be the ones that benefit from it." And thus, we have this episode's title. Vanessa & Ralph leave next in fifth place.

Teams really enjoy the spectacle of driving through the crater; the footage here is utterly beautiful! Outstanding sunrises, lush growth, animals everywhere! "We seen animals - we didn't know what they was!" says Bopper. "One of the best parts was that Vanessa and other people we don't like were nowhere to be found." says Rachel (Big Brother). It seems Vanessa really wanted to see an elephant some day, so she's elated by the safari.

As Rachel & Dave and Bopper & Mark search for the "Hillary Clington" stall, another stall reads "Barack Obama." Heh. The two lead teams find their next clue and it's time for the Detour: Water Supply or Air Supply. In Water Supply, teams must load a cart full of water for a home owner; in Air Supply, teams must repair a bicycle tire. Both teams decide to do Air Supply. Art & J.J. arrive next and decide on Water Supply.

At Air Supply, Rachel asks Bopper & Mark to agree not to U-Turn each other. Mark says he had to make his own bike while he was growing up, so the task seems to be his suit. Art & J.J. think Water Supply is easy until they reach the line; seeing how many people there are ahead of them and how long it takes for water to come out, they estimate a half hour wait just to reach the front of the line.

Brendon & Rachel choose Air Supply, while Vanessa & Ralph get lost searching for "Hillary Clington." Bopper & Mark finish the Detour first and are directed to Jack Stelzer Pub, where the Double U-Turn is located. Rachel & Dave finish just as Brendon & Rachel arrive at Air Supply. Back at the Pit Stop, Nary & Jamie are only just departing; they realize they're way in the back, so they hope to have a good time and fight to stay in the Race. Bopper & Mark arrive at the pub and choose not to U-Turn. Rachel & Dave decide they don't want to create any enemies, so they choose not to U-Turn. Both teams head to Gem Gallery & Arts. Vanessa & Ralph wander by the Air Supply Detour, still without their clue.

Vanessa & Ralph finally get to "Hillary Clington" and decide to do the Air Supply Detour since they know where it is. While riding by taxi, this exchange happens:

Rachel: "It was nice a couple of hours ago looking at all the bamboons and the zebras, it was nice and relaxing and now all of a sudden now it's race time! So..."

Dave: "Did you say bamboons?"

Rachel: "Bamboons?"

Dave: "Baboons."

Rachel: "Baboons. Yeah. Those things."

It's nice to see Rachel & Dave having a bit of fun. They arrive at Gem Gallery & Arts, where the Speed Bump sign for Nary & Jamie is visible. The next clue directs Rachel & Dave to Mto wa Mbu, Monduli at "Margaret's Farm." Bopper & Mark's taxi is close behind. Bopper & Mark are happy just to stay in the game, but they'd dearly love to claim first place. Art & J.J. finish delivering their water and head to the pub. They think they're in first place when they see no one's used the U-Turn, believing Rachel & Dave would have honoured their arrangement. Thus, they choose to U-Turn Brendon & Rachel. Art & J.J. head to Gem Gallery & Arts. Still thinking they're in the lead, they hope Rachel & Dave will U-Turn "The teachers... or cops." Recalling how they earlier exposed Nary & Jamie's cover story about being teachers, Art notes "it was fun to call them on that."

Bopper & Mark's taxi passes Rachel & Dave on the road. At Air Supply, Brendon & Rachel finish their task and head to the pub, just as Vanessa & Ralph are heading to the task. Nary & Jamie have only just found "Hillary Clington." As Vanessa & Ralph begin their work, Vanessa sagely notes, "Better get used to thinking about the next challenge because you know we'll be doing it. I know Brendon & Rachel are going to U-Turn us." Yes, exactly; so why did you go out of your way to antagonize them during the Race, knowing it would ensure they'd wield the U-Turn?

Art & J.J. head to Margaret's Farm, J.J. supposing they're at least third, but only if Rachel & Dave didn't honour their word, "which I don't think they'd do." Brendon & Rachel, seeing they're U-Turned, they quickly decide to U-Turn Vanessa & Ralph, their least favourite team. Nary & Jamie head to the Air Supply Detour as Vanessa & Ralph finish. Vanessa & Ralph aren't surprised to see they're U-Turned and head to Water Supply. Brendon & Rachel are stunned to see how long the Water Supply line is.

At Margaret's Farm, Bopper & Mark arrive first and it's time for the Roadblock: "Harvest Honey." One team member has to harvest 500 grams of honey from a beehive; Mark volunteers because of Bopper's bad knee. Rachel & Dave are close behind as Dave takes the Roadblock. Bopper reveals he had knee surgery recently, which is why it's such a problem for him.

On Water Supply, Rachel drops a container, hurting her foot. She flips out at Brendon, causing him to spill their cart. Good gosh, someone needs self-control lessons.

At Margaret's Farm, Mark finishes the Roadblock first: they must head on foot to the Pit Stop, Lake Manyara. On foot? Poor Bopper. Art & J.J. arrive at the farm and see Rachel & Dave ahead. J.J. is not pleased. Art takes the Roadblock. J.J. asks Rachel & Dave why they didn't follow the agreement and Rachel replies because of the Speed Bump Nary & Jamie were facing, they didn't see the point in wielding a U-Turn. J.J. is offended by this, declaring to Art "You and I race, and that's it." He doesn't want to maintain his alliance with Rachel & Dave, which had lasted since the first leg.

Bopper's knee gives out en route, but he and Mark soldier on to the finish. They are, for the first time, in first place! Rock on! Rachel & Dave are close behind and Rachel remarks of Dave, "I'm happy, he's being a poor loser." This draws Phil's notice and he asks if Dave is being a poor loser. "She should have contributed more." is his response. For goodness sake... Dave is one of the most sour leading contestants I've ever seen. Keep searching for those grey clouds in every silver lining! Phil rewards Bopper & Mark with a trip for two to Hawaii. Bopper says, "Team Kentucky is definitely in the house, baby!" Mark adds, "And we're comin' on strong." Amen.

As Art collects his honey he says he feels like Winnie the Pooh. "Yeah, man, that's how Winnie rolls!" J.J. is still upset as they head to the Pit Stop, but Art is trying to calm him down. J.J. now wishes he'd been ahead of Rachel & Dave so he could've U-Turned them.

Back at the Detour, Brendon & Rachel finish Water Supply, with Vanessa & Ralph after them and Nary & Jamie finish Air Supply; all three teams are racing to not be last! Rachel is starting to sob as she & Brendon get in their taxi. As Vanessa & Ralph set out in their taxi, Vanessa says "We have the best luck with cabs." Soon after this, their taxi blows out a tire! Man, what a gift to the editors!

Nary & Jamie arrive at the gallery at the same time as Vanessa & Ralph; now they can finally take their Speed Bump task! They must set up an art display stand according to a provided diagram. Brendon & Rachel arrive at Margaret's Farm, where Rachel takes the Roadblock task. She finishes quickly and takes fourth place. Vanessa & Ralph arrive and Ralph takes the Roadblock, just as Nary & Jamie finish the Speed Bump.

However, Ralph has already finished the Roadblock, pretty well dooming Nary & Jamie. Vanessa & Ralph are once again fifth place and this seems to be the first time in Amazing Race history that the U-Turn has been wielded, yet no U-Turned team was eliminated! Nary finishes the Roadblock and she and Jamie are eliminated. I'm sorry to see them go, they were good friends and always positive, unlike much of the competition.

Thoughts on the last five teams:

  1. Bopper & Mark: My favourite team is finally on top! This was a great outcome, the best result I could've hoped for.
  2. Rachel & Dave: I try to imagine Dave doesn't realize how negative his tone toward Rachel often is and I look for moments where he demonstrates humour or general pleasantness. However, it's becoming very hard to remain positive about him. Dave is one Negative Nellie and it's frustrating because Rachel has the right attitude for everything Dave gets wrong.
  3. Art & J.J.: J.J.'s way off-base for being upset with Rachel & Dave, it's hardly worth throwing out a potentially-useful alliance. There's usually two U-Turns, man, maybe the next one won't be on the same leg as a Speed Bump.
  4. Brendon & Rachel: Even with the U-Turn, they did very well; Rachel lost her cool a few times, but not in such a way that it wrecked their gameplay, unlike earlier legs.
  5. Vanessa & Ralph: These two are squeezing by on some serious luck, because a U-Turn and a flat tire combined would elminate most teams; at least they're well aware of their shortcomings.

Next week: The Race goes to India, which almost always tears down even the strongest teams. Art & J.J. are still bitter about Rachel & Dave, while Mark appears to have a meltdown during a Roadblock. Whimper.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: Fish Police Vol.1

I'm rather curious about the independent comic book scene and how it's evolved over time. Some 1980s titles like Scott McCloud's Zot! and Dave Sim's Cerebus have reputations which continue to create new fans, but so many others have been lost to the dustbin of history. Thus, I decided to give IDW's new Fish Police Vol.1 collection a try, seizing the opportunity to review one of the minor hits of the 80s.

What we have here is a collection of what seem to be the first four Fish Police stories by Steve Moncuse, a tale called "Hairballs." It involves police inspector Gill (seen above on the cover), a fish man in a world of fish people, but he seems to be the only person who finds his reality fairly unplausible. As Gill delves into an investigation pitting him against the crime cartel S.Q.U.I.D., it becomes clear Gill is singularly different from the other characters (and strongly hinted he used to be a human being).

Much of this volume is spent introducing the world of Fish Police, albeit in media res. The more the series reveals about its world, the more questions arise as virtually every character has a secret and these secrets are mostly hinted at. Further, "Hairballs" has no conclusion - the book ends with very little resolved and S.Q.U.I.D.'s plots still in motion.

Fish Police succeeds thanks to Moncuse's sense of humour. Gill's repeated observations of how unlikely their world is are constantly amusing (such as wondering how beer remains in a glass in a water world). There's also a winning series of brief scenes focusing on the prawns who provide S.Q.U.I.D.'s security. Although visually the prawns are built like armoured football players, they're actually very emotionally sensitive to insults and worried about being forced into fights.

The biggest problem with this book is that I have no idea why it exists in the form it does. There is no introduction explaining the history of Fish Police to the curious, nor the story of how IDW came to be reprinting it now (the closest information to be found is what's printed on the back cover). Further, there's no description of what exactly this book is reprinting. It seems to be Fish Police#1-4, but I sure couldn't tell you - not even the indica reveals where these stories first appeared. Finally, being such a slim volume and Fish Police having been wrapped up decades ago, one wonders why IDW didn't simply publish the Complete Fish Police, which seems to be about 24 issues in total. The art of the introduction is lost on most comic book collections these days and the business is poorer for it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nick Spencer, Comicdom's Answer to Ingmar Bergman, Part Five

This one has been making the rounds lately, so I felt compelled to include it. From Thief of Thieves#2 (some words by Robert Kirkman, all art by Shawn Martinborough):

As noted in the links above, this page demonstrates storyboarding for a film/television project, but little in the way of comic book storytelling. Sure enough, it's already been optioned for television, so I suppose whatever you might think of it, you can't say this comic failed to do its job.

Sure, it's a page of exposition, but at least nothing visually interesting happens. It's fit for TV.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Amazing Race 20-07 recap: "I Didn't Make Her Cry"

After a week's absence, the Amazing Race returned last night with a new episode! In spite of some childish bickering, this is another fine program thanks to some beautiful locations and people. Further, now that the Race is down to just six teams, there's more time to see each player's personality, which is all for the better.

We resume the Race in Baku, Azerbaijan and we go straight back to business as Rachel & Dave depart in 1st place, directed to travel to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. The couple visit a travel agency and book a flight which leaves in the morning with a connection via Nairobi. Wow, Kenya and Tanzania?! This show makes me so jealous of the Racers. Each of the teams seem to be very excited too, which is good to see.

As Art & J.J. leave in 2nd place, J.J. talks about the competition: "We're hopin' that some of the dead weight jumps off, ie, Big Brother team. I'm so tired of them following us. And we're getting to the point where we're kinda getting a little cranky about it." This does go back to the first leg, in fact.

At the travel agency, Art & J.J. ask their travel agent to avoid sharing information with Brendon & Rachel. Noting the animosity between their two teams, Rachel remarks, "We didn't even do anything to them, they just don't think we deserve to be here." Er... I only have what footage CBS chooses to edit into the program, but based on what's been aired, it was Brendon who started the feud back on the first leg with his "I'm half-Mexican and I hate them for a reason" comment.

As Bopper & Mark enter the agency, Bopper sees a candy dish. "Ooo! Free candy!" and grabs all the candy he can muster. It's pretty funny and a gentle reminder of how the Racers are on a budget when it comes to luxuries like food. As Nary & Jamie depart in 5th place, we hear a story about how Jamie once shot herself with her gun, shattering her femur; Nary stuck with Jamie through her recovery, which is the basis of their tight friendship. It occurs to me now, Jamie does most of the talking for their team, Nary seldom seems to pipe up.

Before Nary & Jamie arrive at the agency, Art & J.J. start chatting up Bopper & Mark and Brendon & Rachel about them, opining "they're not teachers." Nary & Jamie have been pretending to be schoolteachers since the start of this Race, but it seems during the last leg, they slipped up. While talking to Art & J.J. about UC operations, Jamie asked "what kind of UC operations do you have in Border Patrol?" Art was certain no schoolteachers would know about UC operations and believes they're some sort of police officers.

Nary & Jamie arrive just as Art & J.J. leave; the border patrol agents note even if Nary & Jamie aren't cops, it will "stir the pot," creating problems which might benefit their own team. Brendon & Rachel and Bopper & Mark do confront Nary & Jamie about what Art & J.J. claimed, but don't really seem to care what their jobs are; Jamie confides to the camera, "finally the gig will be out that our agency's better than theirs! Hah!"

As Vanessa & Ralph arrive, Rachel muses aloud how she wishes there was an earlier flight than "10 AM," although her flight is actually 8:30. Vanessa sees right through Rachel's bad acting and calls her on it. Well, kudos, Vanessa. All six teams wind up on the same flight.

At a connecting flight, Brendon pushes past Vanessa & Ralph in the hallway; the cameraman is filming from the rear as it happens, but Ralph claims as Brendon ran past he flipped him the middle finger. All six teams wind up in line at the transfer gate and an argument breaks out when Vanessa & Ralph start relating what Brendon & Rachel did. Brendon responds to Ralph with a cocky, "I'm here to play, baby." Prompting this delicious response:

Art: "Naw, you're here to follow." J.J.: "You ain't played the game yet.

So, because this is a conversation involving both Big Brother's Rachel and Vanessa, it quickly descends to the level of junior high school taunts. Ralph tries to maintain some decorum, observing he's not getting loud or angry. Suddenly, Rachel begins denying any shoving or finger-flipping occurred and inverts it, claiming Vanessa shoved her! Long-time fans will be reminded of the original Amazing Race's Joe & Bill causing an altercation and then claiming they were victims... except, Joe & Bill were deliberately playing head games, Rachel really does seem to think she's a victim.

Nary/Jamie, Bopper/Mark & Rachel/Dave seem to do their best to ignore the other teams. It's weird how these three teams don't wind up in these constant squabbles. Ralph finally tells Vanessa "Just stop." Vanessa promises she will, but when Rachel starts another tirade, Vanessa can't resist:

Rachel: "I hope insulting people makes you feel good about yourself." Vanessa: "I hope running your mouth makes you feel better about yourself." Rachel: "How old are you? Aren't you like, 38? Grow up!" Vanessa: "Yes, I'm 38. And somehow I still look younger than you. Honey, get your nose done before you get your boobs done. Do everybody a favour."

J.J. sums up Brendon & Rachel: "That they're even in the same race as us is disgusting." Rachel is seriously losing her cool and is once again, near tears, leading us to the title of this week's episode:

Ralph: "You made her cry?" Vanessa: "I didn't make her cry. Her lack of self-esteem made her cry. If you can't take it, don't dish it out."

Daaang. I don't enjoy these schoolyard shenanigans, but I have to admit, that is one terrific put down.

Elsewhere, Art & J.J. confront Nary & Jamie about knowing "UC caseloads," demanding to know their real occupations. Bopper & Mark are listening in, making it less likely they'd fess up. Nary & Jamie refuse to give up their story, even though it's become something of an open secret. Art & J.J. hope they're stirring the pot, but Nary & Jamie think by denying Art & J.J. the information they want, they'll waste energy.

Finally, we head to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Teams have to head to a small airport and sign up for charter flights. Art/J.J. & Brendon/Rachel take flight 1; Bopper/Mark & Rachel/Dave take flight 2, 15 minutes later; Nary/Jamie & Vanessa/Ralph have the last flight, 15 minutes after this.

Vanessa: "It's kind of upsetting team Big Baby got ahead of us." Ralph: "We need to worry about us today. To heck with them."

Ralph is seriously climbing in my eyes this week; he was pretty immature back in Bavaria, but this time he's the adult half of his team.

Both Art/J.J. & Brendon/Rachel are fired up at the idea of racing against each other for first place. Rachel wants to "destroy" the border agents. Art remarks, "I think somebody's gonna end up crying by the end of the day." J.J. answers, "Just don't let it be you, Art." As the plane takes off over Tanzania we get some gorgeous photography, seeing vast planes, canyons, volcanoes, flocks of flamingos, herds of oxen. In the third plane, Nary has her head flung back, seemingly drooling at the sight of all they're seeing. That, or she's so tired she's fallen asleep with her eyes open.

Off the charter flight, teams have to take a safari jeep (with provided driver) to Ngorongoro Crater for their next clue. Art/J.J. find themselves following Brendon/Rachel's jeep as both teams ask passerbys for directions. Both teams enjoy the outfits the Masai wear, as well as herds of zebras. As Rachel & Dave choose their jeep Rachel tells their driver "We're your boss, applesauce!" Mark talks about his great-great-grandfather, who was a slave: "I think he come from this area." Uh, probably not Mark - while knowing nothing of your family, it's more likely he was from Western Africa, right?

At Ngorongoro Crater, Art/J.J. & Brendon/Rachel reach the Detour site! The options are to either throw a hunting club at a pottery target, or to perform a Masai courtship dance. Either way, teams have to ride on bicycles to the Masai village, then dress up in Masai garb before taking on the Detour. Art & J.J. opt for the clubs, but it's tricky to hit the pottery targets, which spin around on a bicycle wheel. However, Brendon & Rachel find the courtship dance is very easy: they just have to jump up and down for one minute. As usual, the clues don't tell all of the details, so while we viewers can see the dance is the quicker option, the Racers have no idea. Consequently, Brendon & Rachel leap into first place. Rachel even tries to sing along with the Masai as she dances! She does have her good moments, y'know. Teams have to remove their Masai garb then take their bikes back up to the crater before continuing to the next location, a campsite.

As Rachel & Dave take the bicycles they have a few words; Dave actually articulates himself rather well: "You're doing awesome! Don't misconstrue my support for yelling!" Rachel & Dave opt for the marksmanship, but as Bopper & Mark pass Art & J.J., their buddies advise them to take the courtship Detour, having seen it's the quicker option. Brendon & Rachel fall back into second place while leaving the Detour and once again, they choose to follow Art & J.J.

Bopper & Mark wind up loving the courtship dance. "White man can jump!" Bopper declares. "We coulda jumped for ten minutes, I believe." Mark decides. Rachel is pretty funny at her Detour, yelling "Die, rabbit!" and "Rabbit stew!" while trying to hit her pottery rabbit target. Nary & Jamie and Vanessa & Ralph both choose the marksmanship Detour, but Vanessa has serious trouble trying to ride the bicycle, which is evidently too tall for her. After falling off the bicycle several times, she finally has to walk with the bike.

Art & J.J. get lost looking for the campsite and come across a bunch of Japanese tourists visiting some locals. Art & J.J. keeping heading in the same direction, but Brendon & Rachel stop and ask the locals for directions; they find out they've been heading in the wrong direction, so they turn back, pleased their rivals Art & J.J. are in the wrong direction. Because of this, Rachel & Dave reach the campsite first, having received correct directions sooner. They begin the next task: build a campsite using a steel frame tent and outdoor shower, imitating a model provided. When they're done, they'll head to the next Pit Stop. This instantly left me assuming this is a non-elimination leg - who could imagine building this tent and then being eliminated? Also, this means there's no Roadblock on this leg... or there was a Roadblock, but they decided not to air it.

As Dave sets to work he muses, "This might be in the deep recesses of my Army skillsets, though. The attention to detail and emulating a model definitely is, I won't have any problems with that, especially with my OCD." Nary/Jamie & Vanessa/Ralph have only just finished the Detour, but Vanessa's inability to ride her bicycle is slowing their team down. Meanwhile, Art & J.J. finally learn they're heading in the wrong direction. Bopper/Mark & Brendon/Rachel arrive at the campsite and head to work. "I'm no African safari Bushmaster, but I've camped before." saith Rachel; honey, a Bushmaster is a snake. Lucky Vanessa isn't around to catch this quip. Brendon remarks "I feel like this a Kentucky challenge." which provides a nice moment of friendship between his team and Bopper & Mark. Hey, they don't just make enemies!

As Vanessa & Ralph head to the camp site, Ralph is feeling fatalistic, telling Vanessa they're out, so "enjoy this." Vanessa apologizes to him, but he makes his position clear: "You don't have anything to be sorry for. Baby, I'm not upset at you, I just hate losing. It just bothers me. I hate it. It's not just you. I'm proud of you. You did good." Once again, Ralph impresses me.

Art/J.J. & Nary/Jamie both begin working on the campsite at about the same time. Dave gets testy with Rachel as they work on their site. Dave seems to have a sarcastic remark to everything Rachel says; she seems to be blocking him out, reacting with a chirpy "Thank you!" to his attitude. "God, you're being annoying." says Dave (alias the pot). Vanessa & Ralph are energized when they arrive and see every team is still there and most of them are arguing. Even Bopper & Mark are getting testy! J.J. overhears some of Rachel & Dave's arguing and sums it up: "That's why we're not here with our wives."

Vanessa & Ralph pull ahead of Nary & Jamie; Nary & Jamie are the only team without a male member, thus lacking some of the sheer physical might other teams have and it takes a lot of muscle to get the steel frame set up. Vanessa is nearly crushed by a piece of the shower. Ralph assures her "Just relax, it can't kill you." Vanessa answers "Yeah, well... it came close." Bopper & Mark are almost finished first, but they don't have their shower filled with water. Thus, Rachel & Dave finish first, but Bopper & Mark finish next.

Rachel & Dave head out in their jeeps to find the Pit Stop, which isn't too far away; they take first place for the fourth time in this Race and win a trip for two to Travelocity. Bopper & Mark take second place, their best finish yet! Art & J.J. are third, which they're a little disheartened about. Phil asks the duo about the "rift between the teams" which they claim they want to minimize... uh, except they don't. Brendon & Rachel take fourth. Phil remarks how "the Race has taken a bit of a turn." and repeats this again, suggesting the producers have dictated he use it. Vanessa & Ralph take 5th place. Vanessa says she has no desire to speak with Brendon & Rachel.

As Nary & Jamie build their shower, Jamie says: "This is what a lot of guys at work have been wanting is Nary & I in the shower together, well, they got it but, we ain't lookin' so hot right now." They finally finish and head to the Pit Stop. En route, they see herds of elephants and stop the jeep so they can admire them, which is a beautiful little moment. Finally, they head to the Pit Stop, where Phil reveals it's a non-elimination leg, just as they were hoping.

My thoughts on the six remaining teams:

  1. Rachel & Dave: This is certainly a team of ups and downs. Still, their squabbling does feel authentic, like something they do in their normal lives. They don't seem to be genuinely offended by each other's behaviour, but it has made for some unpleasant moments.
  2. Bopper & Mark: Still lovin' these two, I only wish they'd won first place. Their upbeat attitude and supportive relationship puts all others to shame.
  3. Art & J.J.: These two make too much of the "political" side to the game, but I enjoy their gameplay. They're the most intense team in the Race, but they're very cool with each other and often rather funny.
  4. Brendon & Rachel: Rachel was actually on good behaviour this week, outside of the airport incident where she felt threatened by the other teams. When she isn't trying to put down her competition, she's actually not bad and seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself.
  5. Vanessa & Ralph: I wish Vanessa would avoid the catty and "quotable" dialogue - the video camera seems to bring out her worst side. Ralph, on the other hand, has shown a great attitude this leg in how he faces adversity.
  6. Nary & Jamie: I finally have a feel for these two and their friendship, I only hope it hasn't come on the eve of their departure. I love that they've hung to the fringes of the game, not developing explicit drama like other teams. Art & J.J.'s attempt to manufacture drama over their occupation led to a strong moment as they avoided being trolled into a confrontation.

Next week: We have the first double U-Turn of this Race! Judging from reactions seen in the previews, it looks like Brendon & Rachel are U-Turned; there's also something about Art & J.J. being upset at Rachel & Dave, suggesting they're the other targeted team. Next week could be a very heated episode! Plus, it appears they'll still be in Tanzania, which means more great African footage!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bitter Fruit#5: "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!"

The premise behind "Bitter Fruit" is to examine Archie's version of the Shadow, who was infamously dressed up as a super hero. Thus far, I've been quite surprised to see the Shadow#1-2 were not super hero comics, but rather super-spy books. Have we finally reached the super hero iteration? The cover is promising. My copy of the Shadow#3 is missing its cover, so I've brought this from the Grand Comics Database:

Once again we see the Shadow battling Shiwan Khan; perhaps he could use a second adversary, eh? Once more, he'd depicted in his super hero costume, although this time with black hair (he's been blond in the interiors of issues #1-2 and red-headed on the cover of #2). This is the best look we've had at the Shadow's super hero costume thus far, as it only appeared on the cover #2, not in the interiors. What we have here is a desperately average super hero suit. It has the spandex-trunks-cape-mask-gloves-boots found in so many outfits with nothing remarkable to set it apart. The Shadow doesn't belong in spandex to begin with, but they might as well have given him a chest insignia while they were about it. One blurb promises: "Special Bonus Book Length Novel... 'Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!'" Where to begin? Last issue the cover promised a "book length" story but it was just a regular-sized main feature. Even if this does turn out to be a "book length" tale, how it that a "bonus?" It's not as though it's in addition to the regular content - it is the content!

Ah, well. Let's deal in with "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!" We open on a splash page depicting... well, you have to concentrate to make it out because shadows in the foreground and incompetent perspectives are conspiring to make this image illegible. The Shadow appears to be falling through a skylight surrounded by shattered glass. Below him is a water pit filled with sharks, while two tanks approach from north and south, a lion pit lies on the west, a tiger pit to the east and Shiwan Khan watches from above aboard a crane. I don't want to sound like I'm taking this rubbish seriously, but is it ever smart for friendly tanks to line up opposite each other? Wouldn't this trap work as well if it were a shark pit surrounded with barbed wire?

It's difficult to soldier on to page 2, I'm not going to lie. The Shadow is such an inept comic after just the cover and splash that I dread the story itself. Just knowing I'll be returning to the splash page image at some point is punishing.

We open the story at Lamont Cranston's town house. Lamont is still wearing glasses in his secret identity, but now his hair is black instead of blond. I suspect this is the first of many between-issue alterations. I wonder if he's still a secret agent? At least black hair is a better visual for a man called the Shadow. Lamont is getting ready for a date when his lady friend, Dina, appears at his door. She was afraid Lamont would brush her off, so he came to his home rather than wait to be picked up. Lamont phones downstairs to check in with his secretary Margo Lane before leaving for the day, when Margo suddenly screams. Margo, by the by, is now brunette. Perhaps she gave her old hair dye to Lamont?

Lamont tells Dina not to follow him downstairs "unless you want to die young!" Jogging to the office, he finds five men with guns are carrying Margo out the window. Lamont defeats most of them in a fist fight, but one gets away with Margo. Dina has phoned the police while Lamont takes stock of the situation; Margo Lane and his chauffeur Shrevy have both been kidnapped. How does he know Shrevy was kidnapped? "Shrevy would've come charging up from the garage when he heard the shots!" Oh, so it couldn't be that Shrevy was simply knocked unconscious? I don't know what became of Shrevy, but I suspect more off-panel excitement, the Shadow way!

On Margo's desk, Lamont sees an "X" crossed on a picture of Governor Moore, which he surmises is a message left by Margo, indicating the governor is in danger. Wait, so in the 60 seconds it took for Lamont to dash downstairs, the kidnappers told Margo who their eventual target would be? Thoughtful crooks! Lamont would be up a creek without them! Lamont tells Dina to file a report with the arriving police and he dashes to his "basement radio room," calling up Weston to let him know about the implied danger to Governor Moore. I assume Weston is still Lamont's CIA contact, but there's been no mention of Lamont's super-spy status thus far. Leaving the radio room, Lamont finds Shrevy in the garage. Lamont's surprised, but Shrevy explains he stepped out to buy a newspaper. Pan over Lamont's face, cue sad trombone.

Lamont ushers Shrevy into his Rolls Royce, telling him they're headed to Chinatown to rescue Margo Lane. Shrevy surmises Lamont thinks Shiwan Khan is the kidnapper and that Lamont hopes to obtain intelligence from his Chinatown sources (actually, Shrevy seems to claim they're his Chinatown sources). However, at another location, Shiwan Khan watches Lamont & Shrevy's Rolls Royce over a video screen. I suppose he has hidden cameras hidden throughout the city? Margo watches over Khan's shoulder, evidently unguarded and at liberty. Why doesn't she bash Khan over the head while his back is turned? Khan explains he caught Shrevy earlier and brainwashed him. Right on cue, Shrevy locks Lamont in the back seat of the Rolls Royce.

At this, Khan decides to switch off his magical camera, assured of Lamont's imminent death. He thinks with Lamont & Shrevy dead, the Shadow will come to Margo's rescue. So, we have just another Shiwan Khan story on our hands, but check out the above panel: it's easily the best image so far, granting Shiwan Khan a sense of shadowy menace he's lacked up to now.

Shrevy drives the Rolls Royce off an incomplete bridge, but en route Lamont switches into his Shadow costume... oh good, I'm sure different clothes will help. Because Shrevy is brainwashed, he won't retain knowledge of who the Shadow is, maintaining this series' inexplicable decision to have Lamont living a life of dangerous adventure and yet still pretend he has a secret identity. Lamont notes there's "a duplicate panel controlling the car's emergency escape mechanisms near the steering wheel." If you recall the first story of the Shadow#1, you'll recall how Lamont escaped from the Rolls Royce thanks to all his emergency gadgets. I credit the writer for being smart enough to explain the continuity, but doesn't this "duplicate panel" render Lamont's mechanisms pointless? Couldn't the hijacker in issue #1 have simply shut the mechanisms off?

Just as the Rolls Royce falls into the water, the Shadow hypnotizes Shrevy by glaring into the rear view mirror, catching Shrevy's eyes. The Shadow compels Shrevy to release control of the emergency mechanisms to him, enabling the Shadow to open the windows and swim to safety with Shrevy.

At Shiwan Khan's base, one of Khan's men turns the monitor back on and sees the Rolls Royce has fallen into the river. Now Khan is ready for the Shadow to come and rescue Margo, then he'll continue with his plan to kill Governor Moore before the governor can become his party's presidential candidate. Comparing himself to Genghis Khan, Shiwan declares, "Where Genghis failed to subdue the universe, Shiwan will succeed!" The universe? Uh, buddy, even Genghis didn't aim that high!

The Shadow brings Shrevy to a nearby wharf, which inexplicably isn't noticed by Khan, even though the camera is presumably still focused on the scenes of the crash. The Shadow decides he'll continue to fight Shiwan Khan in his costumed identity, taking advantage of Lamont Cranston's supposed death. At this point, it's clear we won't be receiving an explanation for why the Shadow is wearing a super hero costume all of a sudden. The Shadow hides Shrevy's body where no one will find him, evidently wanting Shrevy to remain unconscious until Khan is defeated. Seriously? Between being brainwashed by Khan and knocked out by the Shadow, I think Shrevy needs to exit this series - the author has it in for him!

Heading to Chinatown, the Shadow decides he needs a disguise, so he takes a mask from a Chinese souvenir shop. Seriously? The Shadow needs a disguise? What is the blinking point of his cape and mask if not to provide a disguise? Or how about his power to "be-cloud" men's minds so they cannot see him? The Shadow wanders through "carnival" and visits the home of Hi Sing Wan, who previously worked for Khan. Two men refuse to let the Shadow enter, so he attacks them using karate, losing his mask in the process.

The Shadow breaks into Hi Sing Wan's office and demands to know where Shiwan Khan is, menacing Wan with a gun. At first, Hi Sing Wan claims he's ready to die, but after the Shadow fires a shot near his head, he reconsiders. Say, doesn't our hero have the power to force information from men's minds? I mean, wouldn't he obtain more reliable data if he used his powers?

Hi Sing Wan tells the Shadow Shiwan Khan is at the World's Fair, building a pavilion on the site. Once the Shadow leaves, Hi Sing Wan phones Shiwan Khan to happily report the Shadow is headed into his trap. Too bad the Shadow didn't know it was a trap; it's not as though he reads minds, eh? Or he could've remained in the room, hidden from Hi Sing Wan's sight by "be-clouding" his mind so he could eavesdrop on him.

As the Shadow journeys through the World's Fair, he muses Hi Sing Wan is an untrustworthy source and might have been lying. Again, that's where your powers are supposed to help you! However, "strangely enough," Governor Moore will be dedicating a pavilion at the World's Fair and the Shadow is certain Weston will be guarding the location.

Entering a pavilion which is supposed to open the following week, the Shadow ventures into a room surrounded by statues with strange cracks on the floor. Suddenly, Shiwan Khan appears above, operating a strange egg-shaped crane. Margo Lane is being held by Khan's men nearby in a glass domed room. With the press of a button, the floor beneath the Shadow cracks open, exposing a shark tank! And two lions emerge from a nearby lion cage! And a tank with an armored car rolls into the room! Overkill, or just enough kill? Comparing this to the splash page, it's worth noting on the splash, the Shadow seemed to be falling through the air on pieces of glass. Now I see the Shadow was actually falling through the floor. The artist seriously failed to make this action clear on the splash, all because of how the pieces of the floor were floating in space, with no conception of how they related to the environment.

The Shadow pulls out his gun (don't ask me where he kept it all this time) and empties it into the sharks, killing four of the six sharks; he knows the remaining two will be overcome with frenzy and thus leave him alone. To stop the lions, the Shadow hypnotizes the men operating the guns on the tank and armored car so they turn their guns on the lions. Seriously? The Shadow could make eye-to-eye contact with someone inside a tank? Not bloody likely... not without being shot first.

Now the Shadow directs the tank gunner to aim at Shiwan Khan; the shell blasts Khan's egg-shaped thing, injuring him. Shiwan Khan flees as the room bursts into flames, endangering Margo's life. Good job, hero. Don't worry though, the Shadow knows what to do! He sends the armored car and tank to kill the men who were going to kill Governor Moore. We don't get a clear look at the assassins... they seem to be two men hulking in the shadows. Killed by a tank! The Shadow's certainly not taking prisoners. Weston sees this and wonders why they killed their own men and how they knew which of the people in the crowd were the assassins. Yes, good questions; only the former is explained by the story. We close on Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane meeting with Weston, with Lamont revealing he's still alive. And so it ends.

What became of poor Shrevy, unconscious on a wharf, suffering from Shiwan Khan's brainwashing? What became of Shiwan Khan, injured but seen running from the fire started in his pavilion? Was Hi Sing Wan ever rounded up for his crimes?

The Grand Comics Database attributes this issue's credits to the usual suspects - writer Robert Bernstein and artist Paul Reinman. Regarding his work at Archie's super hero line ("Mighty Comics"), blogger Steven Thompson recently called Reinman, "the Jack Kirby of the Mighty Comics Group." This is as much an indictment of Archie's super hero books as you'll find - Reinman was not up to being anyone's Jack Kirby. Kirby at his most frentic still gave the audience a clear understanding of what had happened from panel to panel.

So, we've finally reached the costumed adventures of the Shadow, the aspect about this series which has earned it much of its contempt from audiences. Certainly, making the Shadow over into a super hero is needless. As it is, the Shadow predates super heroes and yet inspired many of them with his multiple identities, sidekicks, special powers, recurring adversaries and mixture of horror-fantasy-science fiction-detective genre details. If there'd been no Shadow, there might not have been a Batman.

What we have here is simply a paycheck comic. It was turned out quickly and without presumption anyone would care to revisit it a year later, much less 48 years later. Then again, the Shadow's radio program from the 30s-50s was knocked out quickly and with no sense of future audiences, yet its stories had a much better sense of internal logic. Paul Reinman is a good artist, but I have to imagine he didn't have much to work with here - the story jerks about with no particular intelligence, just a mix of standard action genre tropes. If the Shadow actually used his powers cleverly, as I often observe, it would require a standard of creativity which - at the time - was found in DC & Marvel's super hero books, but not at Archie, where the staff were out of practice with the genre.

Once again, "book length" is a meaningless term. The Shadow#3 contained two stories, just like every issue thus far. We'll check out the second story in the next installment of Bitter Fruit.