Comics, Reviews

Pop Culture Update: Locke and Key

One of the genuinely distressing news of 2011 was the failure of the pilot episode of Locke and Key to be picked up for regular programming. This is bad for three reasons – because Locke and Key is one of the finest comic-books being published right now, and the success of the TV show would have no doubt brought in more readers to the series (consider how many people have read Game of Thrones this year, to get an idea of what I mean). Because from what I gather off internet reviews, the pilot episode is really well-made, with superb casting and a great script. But most of all, it sucks because a lot of shitty TV series got green-lighted at the cost of this. Seriously, makes no sense.

But still, the comic stands on its own. It is written by Joe Hill,  a man who, under normal circumstances, be known as Stephen King’s son; but right now, he’s known as the guy behind ground-breaking  genre novels such as Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It is drawn by Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Together, the two are magical. This book happens to be one of the most perfect collaborations I’ve seen, where the art enhances the story and vice versa.

Among the things that I love about Locke and Key is that it’s among the most structured comics I’ve read. Not a wasted, throw-away chapter, page or panel on this one. It helps that the story was already planned out into three acts, each act made up of 2 miniseries. This ensures that Hill knows exactly how his story is being framed, giving us just the right amount of information, teasing us with flashbacks and tertiary characters that flicker into the overall plot at the right time. Currently, we are on miniseries #5, entitled Clockworks, where the mythology of the world is being explained by a series of flashbacks. Which brings me to –

The fact that Locke and Key is one of those rare horror comics that gets horror. Which is not surprising, considering Hill’s literary antecedents. But really, do you have any idea how hard it is to do horror in comics without falling back into icky-gore-territory or ho-hum-shock-ending cliches? This book manages to creep into your head in strange ways – through childhood fears, unexpected plot twists, and by a genuinely frightening Big Bad Villain, one that manages to stay one step ahead of the protagonists at nearly every turn.

The first miniseries, Welcome to Lovecraft, introduces us to the principal cast of characters, the Locke family and the three siblings – eldest brother brother Ty, the sister Kinsey and the youngest, six-year old Bode. The death of their father brings them and their mother to their ancestral family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where strange things begin to happen. Bode, for example, finds a strange lady calling for his help from beneath a well. This is also where we start understanding that the tragedy that has befallen the family is not a random incident, but is connected to keys. Keys that do stuff, like turning Bode into a ghost. Or letting people go anywhere they want, or doing distressing things to their psyches.

Finally, Locke and Key is one smart comic that brings unexpected things to the fore on repeated reads. Small example: the second volume is entitled Head Games, and all the covers have a common theme.

In case the image on the right looks a little familiar, here’s why – it’s a riff on an iconic cover from the 1950s that was used by the US Senate to ban horror and crime comics. This particular cover was printed by EC Comics, run by publisher William Gaines, who founded Mad magazine later on. There is this legendary story of Gaines trying to defend this cover as tasteful in court. He did not do a good job of it – in his defense, he was completely doped up on cough medicine when invited to testify.

Oh, and the college the Locke kids go to in San Francisco, before they move to Lovecraft? William Gaines Academy. Ha!

But the smartness lies not just in homages or sly winks at the audience – the smartness lies in the way Hill seems to know exactly when to let certain characters take center-stage, or to subvert a known trope at just the right time, or to let a throwaway part of the scenery become a crucial cog in the battle between good and bad. The two, writer and artist, seem to have fun when telling their story, and that fun is infectious! One of my favorite single issues deals with epic battles and mundane day-to-day affairs, and there are those single-panel settings that hide worlds and untold stories in them, the kind that would make lesser writers milk them through crossovers and back-stories. Hill and Rodriguez do it in single wordless panels, the magnificent bastards!

All said and done, what is the series all about? It helps that every chapter starts with a one-page cheat-sheet, that tells you the bare bones of what’s going on and where we stand.

Locke and Key, ladies and gentlemen. The best fucking comic being published right now, BAR NONE. It helps if you get all the chapters and read them at one go, because every miniseries ends with cliff-hangers. And these are not your everyday, how-do-they-get-out-of-this-level cliffhangers, these are the holy-shit-this-did-not-just-fucking-happen kinds, the ones that make you grab for the next book in the series at 4 AM in the morning, even though your eyes are puffy and you’ve got to be at work at 9.

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Books

Pop Culture Update: Books

I haven’t really been writing much about things that matter, like books and comics and things that make me want to run around my room shrieking with happiness. This post tries to fill that gaping void in your life.

There are a lot of shitty fantasy trilogies around, but Hunger Games is not one of them. The books were recommended to me by a librarian who sat next to me at a Neil Gaiman show. The movie trailer came out a little while ago, and no doubt I would have dismissed it as another of those post-Twilight teen-angst bubbles. But hey, librarian-recommendation. So I read book 1, and was blown away, and finished books 2 and 3 the same week. It’s hard to read when you’re on vacation, but these were just that good.

What’s the series about? If you’ve read/watched Battle Royale or The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King, you will understand that Suzanne Collins takes familiar tropes, at least in the first book, and then takes those to their logical conclusion in the sequels. The protagonist is a girl that plays with metaphorical fire, and kicks up a political hornet’s nest of epic proportions. The cast of characters features a gruff Mentor-figure, a star-crossed relationship , a Diabolical Villain (who does not even make a proper appearance until the beginning of the second book – well-played there, Ms Collins), a Faithful Confidante, and surprisingly, the most awesome Fictional Fashion Designer you’ve ever seen. The three books work beautifully well together, and I loved the way how the storyline unraveled the world’s back-story slowly, the characters acquiring voices of their own. The books brought me on the brink of tears multiple times, and made me skip a healthy regime of sleep just so that I get my pulse-rate back to normal.

I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War on a recent flight. Had heard good things about the book on Joe Hill’s Twitter Geek list, even though I had known of Brooks as a parody guy. Expectations were low – how much more can this whole zombie fad be milked anyway? Turns out it can, and wonderfully at that.

Brooks looks at the zombie outbreak as an actual worldwide event and examines its sociopolitical implications. He presents it like a documentary-style set of interviews with survivors, soldiers, politicians, inventors, people from all over the world – much unlike traditional zombie media, where the focus is on a small band of individuals. The interviews lay out the timeline of the “war”, from the time the zombie outbreak caused society to break down, the slow and eventual return to some form of normalcy, and finally, the climactic showdown. In the process, it covers how every aspect of society is changed as a result – from racism to film-making, military strategy to everyday slang, how certain countries take the lead in containing the social meltdown, and how society mutates to keep up. The interviews lead into one another, jumping across continents, showing just how random events on one side of the globe affect other countries.

The book has tonnes of disturbing moments – a traumatized young girl’s account of a zombie attack, political shenanigans that lead to loss of lives, a zombie vaccine that turns out to be a marketing placebo, the build-up to nuclear war between unlikely enemies. And it has moments of stunning epicness – I refer to them as F!$* Yeah Moments. The Japan arc, for example, blindsides you completely, with two unlikely “protagonists” undergoing their own trials against the zombies. Pay close attention to the real-world nudge in the South Africa arc – where a plan concocted during the apartheid years to contain race mobs is resurrected to contain the zombie attack.

The movie is in production right now, but with stars like Brad Pitt attached to the movie, I have a feeling that the everyday aspect of the book will be abandoned in the favor of focusing on specific individuals. This book offers the refreshing view that human society as a whole can be heroic, somehow I do not see Hollywood subscribing to that utopian ideal. Oh well.

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Uncategorized

Surprise #1: Donald E Westlake’s Parker novels ( which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark) are back in print. You would know about the first novel, The Hunter as the basis for the Mel Gibson movie Payback. One amazing book that is – sharp, precise, and filled with wonderful crime writing that I hadn’t seen read since my first Elmore Leonard. I saw the reissued versions in Walden, Penguin publications, 295 Rs each. There are about 25 Parker novels, out of which I’ve read only two ( the one mentioned above and Slayground, which I found in Best Book stall just after I passed out of college) – I will pick up the ones I see as soon as I get myself some warmer pockets.

The Richard Stark/Stephen King connection: King took the first part of his pseudonym – the ‘Richard’ – from Westlake’s nom de plume. Later, when he wrote about the outing of Bachman in The Dark Half, he made the writer-protagonist Thad Beumont’s pseudonym ‘George Stark’. Parker became the antihero Alexis Machine in George Stark’s novels. ( incidentally, the fictional excerpts from George Stark’s novels-within-the-novel, that served as chapter headings in The Dark Half made me want to read the Parker novels in the first place. ) ( Which also reminds me, King’s latest, Duma Key is also out. I would have been interested once upon a time. Not now. )

Surprise #2: I saw a colour Asterix and Obelix piece on sale for the first time. A friend of mine was approached by a French collector who had this among his Uderzo pieces. The quoted price was 80000 euroes. *Sigh*

While reading Absolute New Frontier and falling in love with Darwyn Cooke’s art all over again, I also read this graphic novel called 5 Is The Perfect Number. It was originally in Italian, written and drawn by a cartoonist named Igort, this being the only work by him that has been translated into English. He’s also editor for the Ignatz series of books brought out by Fantagraphics publications – a line of graphic novels by the likes of David B, Gilbert Hernandez and Richard Sala, just to name a few. Igort has also done some manga titles ( notably for Kodansha publishing, one of the biggest manga houses in Japan), and the manga influence leaps at you in 5. It’s the most cinematic book I’ve read in a long time, and I mean this as a compliment. The pacing of the story, the storyline itself, the characters and their dialogues, Igort gets the big picture perfectly, and also manages to make the small moments work. His duo-tone artwork comes off as very abstract at times, but using shades of blue and black in a noir book works, and how. I am not going to say anything about the story here, read it if and when you can. It just makes me wonder how many untranslated graphic novels there are, mostly in the Spanish-Italian-French belt, just waiting to be discovered. ( Umm, yeah, I know, quite a bit of English stuff I haven’t read yet…)

The No Smoking DVD is out. Much happiness!

I am a Walter Moers fan!! The Thirteen and A Half Lives of Captain Bluebear is a riot! The book deserves a post in itself, and I will write about it later, when I have some more time. I am on the lookout for more Moers books, notably Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures. It was available in Blossom a couple of months ago, at full price, which is why I didn’t buy it then. But now, let’s see the next time I’m in Bangalore…

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Uncategorized

I’ll keep it brief

I lke Stephen King a lot, ever since I read The Shining on a train journey from Delhi to Guwahati and shivered to myself on the upper berth halfway through the book. True to the way I behave, I began to scrounge out Stephen King books right after that. I think I bought close to 7 books in a month, the same month I was coming down to Warangal to join the college. My father and I stayed in Calcutta for a day, and I spent the better part of that afternoon at Gol Park, haggling with the booksellers there for a bulk discount on the Kings I bought from them. Then I bought a couple more at Vijaywada station, where I got them for 95 Rs each, by some strange coincidence.

One of those books I bought and read in that initial white-heat period was Insomnia. Probably not one of King’s finest, the book was engaging enough because it seemed to be linked to King’s other works in odd ways. There were nods to The Dark Tower, and to Pet Semetary, and because most of the characters of all these books were fresh in my mind, I could enjoy the book a lot. You know what the most important thing about Insomnia was? The way it talked about sleep-deprivation. The main character – Ralph, I think his name was – slowly begins to sleep less and less. It’s not like he doesn’t want to sleep, it’s just that he could not go to sleep. He used to twist and turn in his bed and manage to sleep for an hour or so, and even that got chipped down to a couple of minutes per night. And it was then that Ralph starts seeing colours. Auras around living things. And small people in white coats with scissors in their hands.

Needless to say, this completely freaked me out.

Oh yes, I do know how to seperate fact from fiction, thank you. Especially fiction of the Stephen-King-kind. But what happened was – the book made me promise myself that I would never ever forsake sleep or change my sleep-cycle, that every night I would get a minimum of six hours of sleep, regardless of whatever else is going on in my life.

That resolution held good for all of four years in RECian life, except for a night when I had to sit and design a poster on my computer. Photoshop 5, 32 MB RAM. By the time morning came, I was a completely frustrated wannabe designer – woke up the guys who were sleeping on my bed ( they had come on over to offer moral support through the night, and had dozed off at around midnight). Technically, what I am saying is, I have never done a “night out” before, be it before an exam, or after, or because of college fests or whatever. Well, sure, I would stay awake late, but I could not do things like – I had to grab some sleep when it was dark, or else Stephen King’s Insomnia would come to haunt me, and force me to close my eyes and shut down my nervous system. On the positive side, this meant I could fall asleep under any circumstances, with loud music playing in the background, on a bare floor, on a chair, inside a train toilet…

Over the last two weeks, things have changed a bit.

I begin working in the evening, at about five or six PM if things are really tight, and continue until about seven AM in the morning. I see the sun rise every day, and shiver in the cold morning breeze every time I head home. I sleep until about noon, and then I listen to music and read Doom Patrol until it’s time to come to the office again. (Must. Resist. Doom Patrol. Rave. Must. Resist.) Four hours of sleep every day, food at slightly odd hours ( I have been having a very heavy breakfast, courtesy this really swanky restaurant near my place that offers a buffet from seven AM onwards. 45 Rupees only. And they serve pancakes and honey among other things, yummy!) Lunch gets postponed until the evening, and dinner gets done sometime at midnight.

But the fact is, I’ve never really felt better. It’s actually quite fun to work at this time, I have found that more work gets done because of lesser distractions, and also because I am working in synch with the overseas team. I can play Juno Reactor really loud if I want to. I can play anything loud if I want to, hee-ah. I have a secret stash of chocolate bars right here in my office drawer, and the pantry has an ample amount of coffee to soothe my tastebuds at times. It’s not like I stay tired during the daytime, or that I am over-working, none of it at all.

You know what? I think sleep, and the concept of sleep-cycles are a tad overrated.

Social life, you ask? Not too bad, really. My “window” for a social life is between three and six PM, which means that most of normal human society stays away from me, muwhahahaha. But yesterday was good. Managed to catch a surprisingly good Jazz concert at this cafe yesterday evening. Got drenched too, while coming to the office later in the night. I did what a self-respecting software engineer ought to do against natural born dilemmas – I used my credit card. Saw a sale going on at an Arrow outlet and bought myself a couple of shirts. (Had to pinch myself later to see if I was still sane.) But yesterday was a good day, in fact. I found my USB drive again. Yes, the same one that had gotten itself dunked into the washing machine the last time ( that’s called transference of guilt, for the uninitiated). I could not find it for about a week, and just as I had given up all hope of finding it altogether ( I thought it had fallen out of my pocket), there it was, inside the pocket of a shirt that I was about to put into the washing machine. I have a feeling this little bugger likes refreshing its memory every now and then in the washing machine.

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