Monday, September 4, 2017

Total Skull - August 2017

Things that brought me delight in August, 2017:


Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram, Dave Stewart, House of Penance
House of Penance is a heavily fictionalized and substantially spectralized take on Sarah Winchester and her obsessive construction of what would come to be called the Winchester Mystery House. It's a consideration of the guilt and complicity that violence brings, and about the ghosts you can't (or won't) outrun.
Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles, Pretty Deadly vol. 2: The Bear
I must have been in the mood for comics that are meditations about death in August; such is the end of summer, I suppose. In this arc of Pretty Deadly, the interconnection between death and war comes to the fore. Interestingly, I've seen criticism that this second volume doesn't live up to the explosive debut of the first, but I completely disagree. The story is different, but the nuances are there and the art goes from strength to strength.

Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens Volume OneTwo, and Three
It took me a while to warm up to Rat Queens. I love the premise--following the travails of an adventuring party that tends to cause more destruction than good in the town they're based out of--but the self-conscious D&D-isms kept getting in the way. I've gotten over that criticism; the art and heart in the comic have officially won me over, and gotten me to consider the D&D-isms in another light: it's the inverse of branded D&D novels, which attempt to be like fiction first (and often fail at it) and like D&D second. The second volume's storyline did feel a bit rushed compare to the first's, and I just don't like the art in the third volume as much as the others, but I'm glad I gave this another try and persevered. 

Aurelio Voltaire, Chi-Chian 
I hadn't re-read these since the late 90s when they came out. I was ready for the weirdness of the world-building: Chi-Chian is the story of a cast-out daughter who uses a Cronenbergian bio-tech suit to correct derailed worm trains; her best friends are a teddy bear-who-is-a-doctor, a sexbot whose head has been implanted into a war machine, an albino do-gooder in a rabbit-themed mecha, a cultured giant roach, etc. And that's just scratching the surface because I could be telling you about the invading spider-monks, the giant samurai mech with fire-breathing dragon arms, or Chi-Chian's time-traveling "evil sister." What I didn't remember was how weird and disjointed the narrative delivery is; the comic packs in so much unrelenting (and unexplained) weirdness that the story barely holds together. Taken as a conventional narrative, it doesn't work--best to treat it as an allegory, or a modern Buddhist fable, or a sci-fi revision of Hindu legend instead.


Atomic Blonde
When I was a kid my dad joined a video club where they would send you a different James Bond movie on VHS every month, so I have semi-fond memories of the action-spy genre. It turns out, though, that modern James Bond movies don't do much for me. It also turns out that if you put a beautiful woman in the Bond role, allow her to kick metric tons of ass in Berlin at the end of the Cold War, and set it all to an 80s soundtrack, it does do something for me.

Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield
If Atomic Blonde is deluxe action-spy movie, the Worricker films are the exact opposite of that: these are homespun-feeling films about spies past their middle years waging wars of quiet intelligence and force of will. Strangely compelling.
Train to Busan
There are a lot of garbage zombie movies out there, but Train to Busan is the good stuff. It's got claustrophobia where it counts: in the setting (the confined space of a train filled with zombies) and in its emotional center (the relationship between a self-centered father and his young--but vastly more empathetic--daughter). The movie makers were also clearly aware of the tradition they're working in; by the end you realize that they get why Romero's zombie movies are the template from which all other zombie movies spring, unbidden.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Critics have been unjustly hard on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Yes, the main cast comes off strangely in places (which might partially be due to miscasting of the lead roles, but also partially down to the French comics as source material--characters just say and do weird stuff in those, it's a trope of the form) and there are some clumsy sequences (anything to do with Rihanna's character) but overall I thought this was a decent way to spend a couple hours. My perspective on the movie might have been colored by the fact that I got to watch it alone in a theater, which is one of my favorite things ever. Sure, it's no Fifth Element, but what is?


The Expanse, Seasons 1 and 2
I did not have high hopes for something from the Syfy channel, but The Expanse is actually pretty good space opera. It has its moments of overacting and poor writing, but overall it has a good, popcorn-munching plot and decent world-building from its basis in a long-running series of novels. It's got a bit of everything in the mix: political intrigue, war drama, space-traveling rogues over their heads but doing the right thing anyway, and even a bit of detective noir in the first season. Plus, it's nice to see Cara Gee is something; loved her in the criminally underrated Strange Empire.

Game of Thrones, Season 7
I nearly gave up on Game of Thrones during the plodding, poorly written fifth season, but Season 6 redeemed things a bit and Season 7 has kept the course. Sure, you have to overlook some convenient travel and time shenanigans--and I have to say I have been equally amused by both the angry internet commentary trying to plot out how fast a dragon can fly and the attendant apologia from hardcore fans. Since none of that stuff means much to me, I'm happy to be along for the ride, although I do have to say that the viewing experience is definitely bolstered by having a few good friends to discuss it with the next day because it is, obviously, a soap opera at heart.


Sigh, Scorn Defeat; Infidel Art; Hangman's Hymn; Scenes from Hell; Graveward
Rather than listening to a variety of albums in August I instead focused on listening to the back catalogs of a couple specific bands. Sigh began their lengthy career as an interesting eastern take on black metal, but over the years they've expanded their palette to add progressive, experimental, and symphonic elements to their sound. The changes from album to album are vast, and interesting to chart. Not everything in Sigh's repertoire is to my taste, however; if your sonic aesthetics are anything like mine, consider avoiding Gallows Gallery, Imaginary Soundscape, Scenario IV: Dread Dreams--those are just a little too out there for me.

Alcest, Kodama; Ecailles de Lune; Les Voyages de L'Ame; Souvernirs d'un Autre Monde
Alcest is the other band whose albums I delved back into in August. They're at the forefront of the post-black metal or blackgaze sound--whatever that means. All I can tell you is that their records are epic and moving. Confession: I didn't listen to Shelter, their pure shoegaze album. It's a fine record, but in all honesty I find it a little on the boring side.

Graveworm, Ascending Hate
Frankly, with all the expansive albums I listened to in August I needed some straightforward brutality as a chaser and Graveworm's Ascending Hate was my choice. Somehow I missed this one when it came out a few years ago, but it's damned good.


Andreas Walters, Baby Bestiary and Baby Bestiary 2
Awww. But also: thoughts on raising and training baby monsters. If the party had kept the grub that got dug out of a patient in that one Scarabae game I totally would have mined these for guidelines on bringing up a monstrous pet.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Francesco Nepitello, Wilderland Adventures
I'd definitely like to run a darkened-up version of this as a Black Metal Middle-earth campaign.

Big Pile of Old Dragon Magazines
I get more mileage out of old issues of Dragon Magazine that I do from whatever the (inevitably disappointing) old-school darling is, no lie.