Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My conflicted feelings about the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge

I feel the need to say something about this newest Internet/Facebook sensation.  I’m really quite conflicted about it.  And my wife is even more so.

We have some “history” with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  In early 1998, my wife’s father was diagnosed with it.  It was heartbreaking to watch him decline, fairly quickly, over the next year and a bit more – he died in the summer of 1999, a wasted shell of a once-robust man.  My mother-in-law never really got over it, and his absence has been a hole in my wife’s – our – family ever since.  The first “Ice-Bucket Challenge” I remember seeing, just a couple weeks ago, was of my wife’s niece, who was only two years old or so when her “Poppa” died, taking up the challenge explicitly in his memory:  [LINK – but I don’t know if Facebook videos will show up].

My wife’s family’s story is not unique, by any means.  ALS is a devastating affliction, that seems to be on the rise for whatever reason.  My wife and her siblings have supported ALS research in many different ways through the years – ALS Walk-a-Thons, fundraisers, donations, and so forth.  And that support has pretty much all been channeled through the ALS Association, the organization that has been the major beneficiary of the Ice-Bucket Challenge. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Great Martian War: 1913-1917 (2013)

Directed by Mike Slee

As you may have gathered, I’m sometimes ‘way behind the times in watching things, even things I want to see, sometimes things I have queued up to see – such as this, which has been sitting on my TiVo for at least a couple of weeks since it aired on BBC-America.  Turns out, however, I’m even further behind than that, seeing as I discover now that this movie actually debuted last year on The History Channel.  Actually, the fact that I missed it there is not that surprising to me.  Even though – more probably, because – I’m a historian, I actually watch very little of The History Channel.  Yes, there’s some good stuff on there.  There’s also some very bad stuff.  (That’s besides the ridiculous stuff like Ancient Aliens and the uh-why-is-this-on-The-History-Channel? stuff like Ice Road Truckers.)  And of course, it seems that the closer the subject matter is to something of scholarly historical interest to me, the more superficial and downright mangled their treatment of it is.  So I just don’t watch very much.  And hence The Great Martian War flew entirely beneath my radar last year.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Library-Bound Comics: 1960s and New 52 Legion of Super-Heroes; 1970-1971 Aquaman; New 52 Wonder Woman; and New 52 Action Comics correction

A couple of weeks ago I got the much-anticipated email from Herring and Robinson Bookbinders out in California that my most recent batch of library-bound comics were ready, and about a week after that I received the books. The turnaround from shipping the books out to getting them back this time was about seven weeks, I think, which pleased me mightily. It also pleased a colleague of mine who dipped his toe into the wild world of comic-book binding by sending along three volumes of his own comics, to whom I had high-balled the estimated turnaround so he had a nice surprise. This post is, of course, only about my own books, but it sounds like he will do at least some more volumes, when he can piggy-back onto one of my orders.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Heretics (1905)

By G. K. Chesterton

I am even more convinced that this is absolutely required reading as an introduction preceding Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Of course, Chesterton himself says as much in calling the latter book “a companion to 'Heretics,' […] put[ting] the positive side in addition to the negative” (Orthodoxy, “Preface”). I would not, however, characterize Heretics as “negative” in the sense that we usually thing of it, as simply an unrelenting attack on ideologies with which Chesterton disagreed. Rather he presents carefully reasoned and always clever refutations of those ideologies, eloquently demonstrating the limitations and implications of disordered moralities and philosophies that erupted into the 20th century as traditional notions were increasingly turned on their head, old certainties being questioned and rejected, in favor or … what, exactly? – more or less, nothing. Presciently, Chesterton realized the deleterious effects on society that would be wrought by the current advent of relativism, the abolition of the absolute or any accepted societal consensus of right and wrong, of good and evil:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

20 July 1969 … From the Earth to the Moon (HBO, 1998)

Produced by Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and others.

Today is the 45th anniversary, to the day of the week, of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, and – although few really recognize it as such, given how little fanfare it receives each year – one of the most important events of the 20th century, even of human history: When Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle and planted his boot on the ground of another world, the Earth's moon, mankind left his infancy and became a toddler in the perspective of the universe. It's tragic that we barely followed up on that event and, realistically, do not look like we will be taking any further steps any time soon, possibly not even within my lifetime. I hope I'm wrong. I am grateful, however, that I did witness that event with my own eyes, late in the evening of Sunday, 20 July 1969. [LINK]

For my own celebration of this year's “Moon Landing Day,” I finally started watching earlier in the week the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. In 1998, of course, as a recently minted Ph.D. struggling to secure a tenure-track university position while cobbling together teaching assignments at several different institutions in and around Baton Rouge, I did not have HBO. I still don't, but I picked the DVD set up a couple of years ago. I was actually under the misimpression that From the Earth to the Moon was another product of collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, done after Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It's obviously not, but it matters not. It is of similarly outstanding quality, telling the story in a docudrama format, varying the storytelling style and perspective in an interesting fashion from episode to episode. I am particularly impressed by the special effects, although I guess if I think about it by the late 1990s CGI had indeed advanced very far. Honestly, they look entirely modern, 2010s-era quality, to me.  My son says I don't have a very discerning eye, though.

Actually, since I typically limit myself to an hour of “summer series” watching, whether via Netflix or DVD, per day – working my way through various series that I've either never seen or not seen in a long time (I set aside my first viewing of HBO's Rome since its initial airing, and for which I benefited from a generous colleague who taped them for me then, after its first season in order to take up with this) – I'm only a few episodes in at this point. I'm hoping that this evening I can monopolize the TV and watch the few episodes I need, back to back, to get to their depiction of Apollo 11 at approximately the right time.

Cheers! – and Ad Astra!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Son of Batman (DC Universe Original Movie, 2014)

Directed by Ethan Spaulding

Although the outer sleeve of the Blu-Ray packaging sports a sticker touting this as “Based on the Graphic Novel Batman and Son,” that is only very loosely the case and in its broadest strokes. And if Grant Morrison, who wrote that story arc at the beginning of his seven-year epic run metatextually de-/re-/a-constructing the very definition of the Dark Knight Detective (for more on which, see the just-published Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker, see below), is actually acknowledged in the credits, I missed it. There's not much Morrison here anyway.  For all intents and purposes this movie takes the basic idea of Batman unexpectedly being presented with the fact that he has a son by Talia al Ghul in the context of a struggle for power within and over the League of Assassins and leaches it of any of Morrison's quirky psychological brilliance. I would have hoped for more, given it is now credited as “a story” by James Robinson, who can himself be awesome – but who can also be pretty uninspired. We get the latter Robinson here, depending on how much of his story passes into the final script by Joe R. Lansdale.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by Mel Gibson

This is a movie I've long wanted to see but never got around to for whatever reason. Thanks to TiVo and a BBC-America showing a couple weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched it yesterday. I do not believe it was edited in any way except cutting away to commercials.

It has a fairly simple plot (SPOILERS AHEAD): A Mayan forest village is raided and destroyed by city-dwellers, the majority of its adults being led away to be sold into slavery or sacrificed to Kukulkan. Desperate to save his wife and son, whom he had secreted in a deep pit at the beginning of the raid, one captive escapes the bloody altar and leads his captors on a running chase, picking them off one by one, until he and the last two pursuers emerge from the jungle-line to the stunning sight of Spanish ships landing conquistadores on the beach. He does save his family from drowning as rain fills the pit, and the little family, all that's left of their tribe, retreat further into the forest, “seeking a new beginning.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel (2010)

By David C. Downing

I found this novel, also published by Ignatius Press, via Amazon's suggestions based on the fact that I'd read Toward the Gleam [LINK]. This is not Toward the Gleam. Although I found the description enticing – American graduate students in England in 1940, interacting with the Inklings, on a quest for an Arthurian relic – and was immediately hooked by the first chapter or so in the Kindle preview so that I immediately purchased it, I ended up being disappointed by it. There are elements of this novel I really liked. It opens at one of my favorite places in the world, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in southwestern England, the reputed resting place of King Arthur, and much of the story takes place at other significant medieval sites that I'm familiar with or are on my list of places I would like to get familiar with (two trips are not nearly enough!) As the narrative progressed it takes an unexpected turn in that the object of the quest becomes ultimately less King Arthur than one of my subjects of historical interest, King Athelstan (r. 924-939), probably the most important of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England, a true “Christian King and Hero” [LINK] who may well have come into possession of one of the most powerful relics of the Crucifixion.  Frankly, for all his importance, Athelstan is largely forgotten in the memory of later ages, overshadowed by his grandfather Alfred the Great, and it is cool beyond words to find his legend at the heart of a modern novel.  Looking for the King is suffused with the early medieval England that I love, and seems well researched as evidenced by a good set of historical notes and a bibliography at the end. (The mistaken identification of the foes defeated by Otto of Saxony at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955 as “Mongols” rather than Magyars I'm willing to dismiss as a literary slip of the tongue.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Green Arrow (New 52), Volume 4: The Kill Machine (DC Comics, 2014)

Reprinted from issues #17-24 and 23.1 (2013) by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino

Green Arrow has never been a character I really followed. I liked him well enough in the context of Green Lantern's “hard travellin'” partner in the classic Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams stories of ca. 1970 (which I didn't really read many of or appreciate at all until much later, but I was only eight years old), in the context of the Justice League (especially as Hawkman's political opposite – although I was always far more on Hawkman's conservative side than Green Arrow's liberal side), even occasionally in his own stories (e.g, The Longbow Hunters), but beyond that, not so much. It was mainly as a second-tier character that he worked best for me. I had no interest in the new, beardless, younger Green Arrow of the series which came in with the New 52 in 2011, and frankly found him an uninteresting character those times he did appear in titles I did get. Green Arrow can be interesting – I particularly liked him in the Smallville TV series, and when I first heard that the CW was developing a [Green] Arrow follow-up, I was quite disappointed that it would be an entirely new reimagining of the character with no connection to Smallville. I've written elsewhere of my revulsion at the debut of Arrow in 2012 [LINK], but in the same place of my giving it a second chance at the end of the first season such that it became one of my most highly anticipated shows through the second season. It's surprisingly good, with a rather broad appeal. I was surprised along the way to find that my parish priest watches it, as well as our parish liturgical director and his wife (who are avid archers themselves); my wife doesn't actually follow it, but she will watch it with me if she happens to be in the room; the show is a runaway success by CW standards.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Batman Eternal #1-4 (DC Comics, June 2014)

By Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Jason Fabok, and others

DC Comics are trying to recapture the magic they inadvertently stumbled on back in 2006 (eight years ago?!) in the year-long weekly 52. As usual these days, it seems they are blundering right in with little thought – in the next few months no less than three (is that all? – this one plus Future's End and Earth 2: World's End) new weeklies will be going. Hey! – If one is a good idea, three must be a better idea, right? – Throw 'em at the wall and see what sticks!  Whether they will “stick” and be going “strong” is another matter, but I am happy to say that this first one out the gate is a winner in my book. I'm not going to say a whole lot about it, except that this is the kind of Batman story I like – characterization and action, fast-paced, an intriguing mystery, involving both the full range of primary Bat-family characters (including the New 52 debut of Stephanie Brown!) and secondary (sometimes new, sometimes just New 52 reintroduced) characters including the Gotham City Police – all graced by dark, moody, but cleanly realistic art. Makes me wish I had a local comic shop so I could be there every Wednesday for the newest chapter rather than waiting until the end of the month for my mail-order subscription service to dump them all on me at once. Which is part of the strategy of the weekly model in the first place – to encourage that weekly compulsion to get thee to a comic shop! I'll make do, but at the moment, just four weeks into the story, Batman Eternal has catapulted to the top of my short list of titles I'm really looking forward to each month. It sets a very high bar for those to come.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

Reviews [LINK]

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Dark Horse, 2009)

Reprinted from three six-issue comic-book miniseries (1995, 1998, and 1999) based on the prose novels by Timothy Zahn (1991-1993), adapted by scripter Mike Baron and various artists

I was there, nigh on two and a half decades past, when Star Wars seemed a fad of the past after a dearth of several years in the late 1980s after the completion of the “trilogy” with the appearance of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Little if any merchandising was being published when suddenly there appeared in 1991 a new novel, Heir to the Empire. I was there … but I didn't actually pick it up until it appeared in paperback the next summer, and read it during that bit of a lull in my graduate studies between finishing up my M.A. thesis and beginning my doctoral studies. I thoroughly enjoyed it, of course, picked up the paperbacks of the sequels – Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – as they appeared in paperback the next two summers. Together, they told one long, fast paced, intricate story that basically created what came to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Characters, worlds, concepts, a history spanning millennia would be elaborated by many other creators in both prose and comics – some even being “canonized” by incorporation into the revived film series, most notably the Imperial Capital of Coruscant, which was first named and described in Heir to the Empire.