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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Week That Was: Classical Composers, Canadian Americana, Lipstick Lesbians, Crime-Scene Cleanups and Naff Holocaust Films. (Part 1)

Here, basically, are some of my favourite comics, movies, DVDs and albums of the week of Monday 22 June 2009. Also, a bit of a rant for a very undeserving multi-Oscar nominated Holocaust-related film.

I'm going to break this down into seperate posts in order to ensure that this comes out before mid-August. Starting off with:

Comic of the week: Batwoman in Detective Comics #854.

A few years back, there was something of a fuhrer whipped up by the mainstream press in America about the debut of an all-new all-"lipstick lesbian" Batwoman. Presumably it was a slow news day as she was hardly the first gay mainstream comic book character but, for some unknown reason, a very big deal was made out of this.

Brilliantly, DC Comics responded by totally downplaying her character by limiting her to various small supporting appearances. Now, with this non-news story far behind them DC have finally turned the spotlight onto this mysterious character with an (at least year long) starring role in DC's longest running title, Detective Comics. Detective Comics has primarily been home to Batman himself but after a long series of events that I really don't feel like getting into right now, Batman is missing/ presumed dead and Bruce Wayne's large supporting cast have been thrust into the spotlight, each taking up one or two of the 6,823 Batman comics that traditionally come out every month. All I can say is that if these comics maintain the levels of (from what I've read) these re-tooled Bat-books so far, I'm all for the "real" Batman being out of commission for quite some time.

We may only be one issue in but Batwoman in Detective Comics has quickly jumped to the top of my must-read pile. On the writing front, the book was given to Greg Rucka and considering his greatest strengths lie in crime comics, street-level superheroics and strong female characters, I can't think of a better guy for the job. And, man, does his first issue not disappoint.

To be sure, there's nothing wildly groundbreaking about his first script and there aren't any of the kind of explosive, surprising moments that first issues so often like to use to hook new readers. What we have instead is simply a master scripter doing what he does best: a beautifully controlled story with intriguing characters and note-perfect dialogue that has you eagerly awaiting to read what happens next. There's a great balance between quiet character moments and the more story-driven noir/ superhero elements and, best of all, Rucka steadfastly refuses to give into the exposition-heavy pratfalls that plague so many opening issues. Kate Kane, our titular protagonist is still something of an enigma but already it's easy to see that she is far more than her sexual persuasion and even if we don't really know her yet, it's pretty clear that Greg Rucka does. He could have started off with an origin story, instead he's apparently saving that for later instead offering us a glimpse of the character in action - both in her shambolic personal life and her more assured role as Batwoman.

Simply put, Rucka delivers a thoroughly satisfying start to what promises to be an extraordinarily well-written comic for however long it lasts. Astonishingly though, brilliant a job as Rucka clearly did here, his writing isn't even the main attraction of the comic. No, that honour belongs to artist extraordinaire, JH Williams III. He has long been one of my favourite artists but his artwork here defies even the highest of expectations. This is, in no uncertain terms, the best looking comic I've read this year. It's the kind of art that you would expect to find limited to hugely hyped, special once-off comic products, not on the 854th issue of a monthly series.

I barely even know where to start with his artwork here so I'll start with the part that has nothing to do with JH Williams himself. The first thing that you would probably notice as you crack open this issue is Dave Stewart's vibrant colours be it in the grittier, darker "action" pages or the softer character pages. Colourists are often overlooked when it comes to evaluating the quality of the art in a comic but without Stewart's superb work here, William's art wouldn't be anywhere near as striking - and that's really saying something when you consider just how great a job Williams has done here.

Williams is a guy who is known for his experimental page layouts but this issue takes it to a whole other level. While the quieter moments are laid out in a fairly conventional manner, the pages that feature Batwoman in action forgo conventions grid-layouts entirely, as you can see in these sample pages I've included. Most importantly, however unconventional these pages look, they're never hard to follow and his storytelling is pretty much impecable. His fairly realistic figure work is also faultless, as are his highly detailed backgrounds with each pannel being "directed" with a world-class cinematographer's eye. As if all this wasn't enough to set him apart from his contemporaries, he also does something which is very unusual for a superhero comic: he changes his style dramatically between the pages featuring Kate in her civillian guise and those featuring her as Batwoman. It's such a seemingly obvious and yet highly effective choice that it's hard to believe it isn't a tecnique that's used more often. Perhaps after this, it will be.

As if all this wasn't enough there's a whole other story that's part of DC's new/ resurrected co-feature program featuring a character who has been constantly linked with this new Batwoman: Renne Montoya, The Question. Again written by Greg Rucka and with art by Cully Hamner, this co-feature is a great addition to the comic though it was too short to really form an opinion on yet. Rucka's writing seems to be hardly any less impressive than it was on the main feature and while Humner's art isn't as strikingly brilliant as Williams', the fact that he isn't completely overshadowed speaks volumes about just how impressive his art is in it's own right.

This was really everything that superhero comic books should be.

(All Images taken from the preview of this issue on

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is It In My Head

OK, after a bit of an absence (for any of you who might have noticed) and a grand total of two posts, I'm back with some brand new ramblings. I do have some random thoughts and reviews to post over the coming days but first I want to start what will hopefully be only the beginning of a series of posts dedicated to some of my all time favourite comics/ novels/ TV shows/ films and, in this case, albums.

It has to be said that I have no idea whatsoever what my single favourite album is of all time but I can usually narrow it down to three possibilities. Two of these hopefuls are always an album apiece by my two favourite musical artists, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The catch is, however, that the specific album has had a habit of changing over the years. For the Beatles, I've gone from Revolver to Abbey Road and, as it stands right now, Rubber Soul while The Stones' golden years yielded three albums that vie for my affections in the form of Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. I'm sure I'll return to all of these albums - and more of course - over the course of however long I run this blog.

The third album, on the other hand, is always the same, bringing us to the matter at hand: Quadrophenia by the Who.

Before I get into telling you why Quadrophenia is such an indispensable piece of art and why it holds such a special place in my own heart (that's right, I'm going to get very slightly biographical here), I think a bit of an introduction would be in order.

Originally released in 1973, Quad was Who leader, Pete Townshend's second attempt to follow up their massively successful breakthrough rock opera, Tommy. The first attempt, the infamous Lifehouse, could easily be considered one of popular music's great failures if its implosion had not resulted in one of rock's most played and beloved albums, Who's Next. Nonetheless, undeterred by Lifehouse's failure, Pete again set out to out-Tommy Tommy with a story that was as grounded as its predecessor's were, shall we say, esoteric.

Quadrophenia tells the story of a teenager, Jimmy, sitting on a rock out at sea, reminiscing about how he got there. To be sure, there are several elements at play, including 1960s Mod culture (basically a gang of youths who drove around on scooters in their zoot-suits and listened to American Rhythm and Blues) and the protagonist's double-barrelled "schizophrenia" (as the album's liner notes put it: "Schizophrenic? What a laugh! It must be all right to be plain old mad.") but at its heart, Quad is, very simply, all about adolescence.

And that, right there, is the secret to why it resonates so strongly with me.

The first time I heard the album, I must have been somewhere around nineteen or twenty-years old. This was an early part of my grand voyage to expand my musical repertoire beyond the exclusive relationship I had with the Beatles and their various solo careers in my formative years. Along with the Rolling Stones, the Who were the first band to really capture my attention with the explosive Who's Next but it was Quadrophenia that ultimately ensured that Townshend's music would forever be close to my heart in a way that even the Beatles and the Stones aren't.

Of course, anyone paying attention would quickly realise that I only discovered Quadrophenia and its adolescent concerns as I was leaving what conventional wisdom would call my adolescent years, thereby surely lessening its effect on me. Well, as I like to say (though mostly only in my own head) to hell with conventional wisdom!

Don't misunderstand me, my high school years were hardly free of some good ol' teenage angst. There were those terrifying physical changes that come with puberty that are too embarrassing even to write about now. There were also those psychological changes that went some way towards molding who I am today, for better or worse and at the time ensured that, like any teenager worth his/ her salt, I felt forever misunderstood by absolutely everybody. And don't even get me started about my general debilitating shyness - especially around all 'em terrifying GIRLS.

With all of that teenage angstiness though came some equally potent teenage arrogance. No one else may have understood me but I sure as hell did! Add to that a rather enjoyable high school experience, a sheltered middle-class, Jewish, white South African life and a (not so) healthy diet of frankly embarrassingly closed-minded religious beliefs and you end up with a relatively content teenager. A relatively content teenager who was about to get his ass kicked just by the simple act of graduating high school.

Teenage adolescence was, as far as I'm concerned, merely a warm up for the truly horrible adolescence that came with my late-teens/ early-twenties. It's not so much that my external circumstances changed very much (I still lived at home and I was fortunate enough to still live a nice comfortable life) but internally I was a mess. I may not have plunged head-first into the scary "real" world but it was there and I had no idea whatsoever where my place was in it. I was at a total loss as to what do with my life professionally and my arrogant certainty of who I was and my relationship with the rest of the world very quickly crumbled. Hell, spending three years in a yeshiva (for all those not in the know, that's a school of sorts where Jews spend their days involved with religious studies) didn't even prevent me from having a religious identity crisis of sorts.

It was in this state of mind that I came across Quadrophenia.

The themes that shone through every wonderful song that Pete Townshend wrote for the album resonated with me more than anything I've heard before or since. He uses the "rock-opera's" protagonist, Jimmy, as a vehicle with which to explore all the contradictory aspects of adolescence.

Jimmy has troubles with his parents, with girls and with school-hood friends and fellow gang members but it is his own inner struggle that resonates most profoundly. He tries to make sense of a world filled with injustice, with shameless compromise and with gross unfairness, all the while trying to balance his need to be an individual with his need to belong. As an individual he may have a sense of who he is and may feel uncompromised by a world that seems intent on breaking him down but with that individuality comes the inevitable loneliness. Belonging to the Mods would give him a sense of belonging and would go some way towards healing his loneliness but would cost him his integrity and his true sense of who he is. He feels like four (only four?) different people all at once and he starts to lose himself because of this. And in the end, this being a Townshend story, he does come to a spiritual revelation that ultimately saves him.

Needless to say, Jimmy's (narratively vague) story struck many a chord with me and the entire album became a fixture of my day-to-day living. I literally listened to the entire thing at least five days a week for months on end. That I don't listen to it as much these days has as much to do with having the entire thing in my head as it does with my making some headway away from those tumultuous years.

It also goes without saying that while the lyrics may have spoken to me on a very personal level, the music can hardly be ignored. After all, I could hardly have listened to it as much as I did had the music been written by, say, whoever "writes" the music for Nickleback or Creed. Pete Townshend is very simply one of the best melody writers in all of post-war 20th (and 21st, if we're being honest) popular music and Quadrophenia has brilliant musical ideas bursting out of its seems. It is moody art-rock taken to heights that even respected bands like Pink Floyd could only dream of.

Not to be outdone, while Quad may very much be a Townshend creation in conception, the entire band never sounded better this side of Live at Leeds. Pete himself uses synthesizers with the kind of subtlety and tastefulness as only he could in his prime. His guitar playing, meanwhile, may not be as upfront as it was on previous albums but he certainly makes its presence known with some powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful guitar lines that crop up all over the place.

Quad also makes a water-tight case for there being absolutely no one who could stand up to Keith Moon (drums) and John Entwistle (bass) when they were at their best and that their untimely deaths have left a gaping hole in the music world that persist to this day. The first real song on the album (the opening track, I Am the Sea, is more a sound collage than actual song) The Real Me alone showcases their incomparable mastery over their respective instruments and they don't let up for a moment throughout the rest of the album.

As for vocalist, Roger Daltrey, he may claim that he was never as at home on Quad as he was on Tommy but you would never be able to tell that from his performance here. His roaring, soaring vocals have as much power as they did on Live at Leeds (incidentally, if you haven't heard Leeds, run out and get it with Quad - it's the greatest live band ever at their very best) but he brings a tenderness and a restraint to his work here that meshes absolutely perfectly with the sometimes rocking, sometimes sweeping backing instrumentation. The occasional lead vocals from other members of the band may not be on the same level but they work perfectly for their respective songs.

I really can talk about this stupendous masterwork forever but this entry has gone on long enough. All I can say is that not only is Quadrophenia one of the greatest amalgamations of music and lyrics you will hear in your life, it is essential listening to every adolescent and, indeed, to anyone who ever went through that particularly trying period of one's life.

Get it. Now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Starting off with a rave and a shrug.

As is the way of these things, what I consider to be the best film to hit South African screens so far this year was released well over a year ago in Europe and America and much like the best films of the last two years - Pan's Labyrinth and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - also happens to be in a foreign (i.e. not English) language. Most surprisingly, it's an animated film that has nothing whatsoever to do with those magic-makers at Pixar.

Persepolis is based on Marjane Sitrapi's auto-biographical graphic novels of the same name (that I haven't read, admittedly) and tells the story of a young woman growing up under the oppressive rule of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic regime that rose to power in the late 1970s. The film charts Marjane's growth from a vivacious, Bruce-Lee loving young girl to a headstrong, independant young woman and all points in between as Iran goes through its own revolutions and transformations.

What makes Persepolis such a spectacular piece of storytelling is that it never loses its focus on its wonderfully complex and all-too-human protagonist. The film could easily have gotten lost in its fascinating backdrop but viewing Iran's downward spiral from secular fascism to religious tyrany through the eyes of this thoroughly relatable and sympathetic "everywoman" give it a poignancy that it would never have had as a straight-on quasi-documentary. What could have been a film bogged down by a relentless onslought of horror and despair i
nstead became a film whose angst, misery and pathos is leavened by healthy doses of warmth, compassion, hope and an endless amount of laugh-out-loud humour.

It's a film that is finely directed, sharpy written and perfectly (voice) acted with beautiful hand-drawn animation that is simple yet imaginatively executed and, most of all, wonderfully expressive.

I'm sure that the very idea of watching a sub-titled animated film would send 90% of the two of you reading this screaming and running for the hills but I really can't recommend Persepolis enough.

On the other hand, we have X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that is the very definition of bland mediocritry. It has apparently been seen by absolutely everybody and, in spite of having been available as an illegal download weeks before the films hit cinemas, has set the Box Office charts on fire, thereby disproving that little piracy theory. I wish I could really tear into Wolverine but it's such a nothing of a film that there really isn't that much to really get fired up about.

In short,I have absolutely no idea why this film exists beyond your usual cynical, money-grabbing reasons. For the record, I really liked the first two X-Men films and despite my being underwhelmed by the third installment, I was hardly predisposed to not liking this. The problem is though that the entire story can be ascertained pretty much wholesale from the dialogue in X-Men 2 and the plot presents little in the way of any real surprises or revelations. Worse however, is the title character himself. While I do very much like Hugh Jackman in the role, the character simply isn't in any way interesting when taken out of a supporting role.

The only X-Men comic that has ever really wowed me was Buffy-creator, Joss Whedon's 25-issue run on Astonishing X-Men and one of the most impressive things about his run was that he understood that Wolverine works best when he is working against other characters, not when he is in the spotlight. Despite Wolverine's appearance as the lead-character in the previous films, he still was defined very much by how he interacted with his supporting players. In Origins he is very much in the spotlight and despite still having a great look to him, is a total bore of a character, exhibiting very little in the way of any real personality.

Add to that some dull action scenes (there really is no tension when everyone involved in a fight-scene is indestructable), ropey-at-best CGI and weak dialogue and you have a superhero flick that may not be as toe-curlingly bad as Catwoman but still refuses to truly take off.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An introduction.

Welcome to yet another in a long line of some random bloke's self-indulgent ramblings and rantings on matters both trivial and meaningless. Oh joy, it's another scintillating addition to the "blogosphere" for you all to ignore in droves!

I suppose I should introduce myself at this point so let me just say that my name is
Ilan Preskovsky and I'm from South Africa and not, as the surname might suggest. Russia. Also, I'm Jewish and am apparently in my late 20s though I still have no idea how that happened. Most pertinently for the matter at hand however, I am enough of a liberal to have the sort of opinions that would piss off both the left and the right and am basically, for lack of better words, a bit of a geek.

That's right, while I might usually express the odd "real-world" opinion or two when I feel like getting flamed, I'm generally going to spend my time and yours
yakking on about films, novels, music and, oh yes, comic books. I'm not going to divulge much in the way of what's happening in my life because I'm way too comfortably middle-class for that to ever be of any real interest. And, well, it's none of your business anyway.

With all that out of the way, on with the show...