alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Snatching a few hours sleep at an odd hour, my subconscious served up a surprise: a previously unseen collaboration between Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre, The Deep Underground.

It’s one of those films where the setting (and set designer) is of equal importance to the actors and director. It is set in an old, never-named city, located on the side of a steep mountain. Streets are all switchback and the sidewalks are stairs as often as not. Shadows fall swiftly down the slopes. Night comes early here.

Like all old cities, it has another city beneath itself. Basements, sewers, ancient tunnels of secret and unknown purpose, all interconnecting in a labyrinth. But this labyrinth has a famous difference from many others. Usually, if one is lost in an underground maze, one can escape by always trying to go up; “up” is reliably towards the surface. Not so, here. In the deep underground, you could climb upwards for a mile, always within 100 yards of the outer world, but never actually reaching it. It’s a threat used to keep little children out of the underground, but it’s true for all that.

In this nameless, steep city, Peter Lorre is a denizen of the underworld in two senses: a petty criminal, and someone who has spent much of his life exploring the deep underground. Another criminal recruits him for a job. He has found the existence of a treasure vault, guarded well – on the surface… If Lorre can get them close enough to drill in from beneath, they can share a fortune.

As they travel through the deep underground, sometimes Lang uses shots from street level. You’ll hear just a snatch of clear dialogue echoing up through a sewer grating, accompanied by the merest flicker of torchlight, indirectly reflected below

The exact details of the plot evade me (as is typical in dreams). The treasure is found, there is betrayal in the dark, Lorre survives and emerges with a double handful of jewels. Jewels that are SO valuable, that he cannot immediately convert them to currency…

Later, there is an investigator. He probably would have found nothing on his own, but Lorre is seized by that classic hubris, and offers to guide the investigator through the underground. After all, the underground is HIS domain, and he is proven himself invincible within it. He’s already effectively hidden one body down here, another should prove no difficulty. Down in the dark with a soon-to-be-dead man, Lorre can show off his mastery, and boast of the cleverness of his crimes.

In the inevitable climactic fight, Lorre is blinded by an errant torch. The investigator escapes to the surface, with a solution, if without a prisoner.

Lorre, master of the underground, discovers that though he knows these spaces better than any other man, he does NOT know them blind. Lost, he begins to struggle upwards in montage. Daylight filters in, but he can no longer see it. On the surface, little children sing a nursery rhyme about how when you’re lost in the deep underground, going up will not save you. The rhyme echoes through the underground halls; Lorre hears it, but cannot identify its direction. He struggles frantically upwards… and inwards, away from the light. Fade to black. The End. Credits.
alexxkay: (Default)
Had two interesting media experiences yesterday, which almost seemed to be commenting on each other. Both dealt with themes of free will, and whether humans can ever escape their tribal roots.

First up was a play; "1001", by Jason Grote (playing at the BCA through August 13th). It's a riff on the Arabian Nights, but unstuck in time, crossing over into other periods and settings. Like the source material, the stories are nested, but in a much more non-linear fashion, with sub-stories often containing their own parents, and pieces of story happening out of order (though never in a way I found confusing).

The actors playing mad king Shahriyar and brave storyteller Sheherazade also play a young couple in modern-day New York, one arabic, one jewish. The other actors in the ensemble have about 6 roles each, but the changes in voice; posture, and costume make it quite clear who they are being at any given time. This massive overlap of roles is not due to a low budget, but built into the structure of the play; many of the characters are reflections or distortions of other characters played by the same actor.

Favorite bit: Sindbad, lost for an eighth time, encounters Jorge Luis Borges walking on a beach. Borges gives a short bio of himself, including the date and circumstances of his own death, then proceeds to explain how he -- and Sindbad -- may not even exist. Sindbad, portrayed as a fairly mellow surfer dude, responds, "You're freaking me out, Jorge Luis Borges!"

The 9/11 terrorist attack eventually emerges as a major plot point (though, now that I think of it, never *directly* discussed). While there are lots of laughs, the fundamental plots of these stories are mostly quite grim. At the end of the play, hope is not entirely dead, but is effectively on life support. If you can stand the lack of a Hollywood ending, recommended.

Also yesterday, I read Charles Stross's new book, _Rule 34_. I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it, which gives you a positive review right there.

It's a near-future police procedural set (mostly) in Edinburgh. There are three main protagonists, along with several minor ones.
* Liz Cavanaugh is a Detective Inspector who works for a section of the police which watches out for virulently dangerous internet memes, and also tries to track down illegal 3D printing outfits. She gets caught up in the investigation of a spammer who dies in a way that seems too poetic to be accidental. But this spammer is only the first corpse in the case...
* Anwar Hussein, family man and small-time criminal. He's trying to go straight -- or at least not get caught violating parole. A friend connects him to a job opportunity that, though unusual, will be easy, legal, and get his parole officer off his back. It seems to good to be true, and, of course, it is.
* The Toymaker--real name unknown. A psycopath working for an international crime syndicate. He's in town to improve profitibility in the local franchise, but his contacts keep turning up dead. He* is* clearly paranoid, but maybe someone* is* out to get him after all...

Most of these characters are genderqueer in one way or another. None of them are pathologized for that, though the plot unfortunately ends up including an element of the 'sex is always punished' trope.

There is material some people may find squicky, especially regarding the Toymaker. For a book with this title, though, I was surprised at how little there was. No actual brain-bleaching required on my part. There were occasional references to things I've seen online and wished I hadn't, but no actual* descriptions* of them. Tip: do not google any unfamiliar references from this book which contain the strings "girl" or "goat", you can't unsee this sort of thing.

The book reached a satisfactory ending. Surprising, yet well foreshadowed. I was especially intrigued because it seemed almost as if it was aimed at my personal definition of what makes a story noir. Depending on how you look at it, this is either the most hyper-noir story that is even conceivable, or the anti-noir, a refutation of the entire genre. To say more would be spoilers, so I won't do so here, but would be interested to discuss this elsewhere.
alexxkay: (Default)
Ed Brubaker has been writing good comics for some years now, and is finally beginning to get the widespread recognition he deserves, landing him high-profile writing assignments like X-Men, Daredevil, and Captain America. But forget the superheroes. The genre Brubaker has always been best at is Noir. And now he has the chance to let that talent shine.

Brubaker and Phillips first worked together at Wildstorm, where they did the excellent, but under-appreciated Sleeper, a book which deftly mixed superhero and noir tropes for a unique mix. Sadly, that mix never quite found a sustainable audience, despite being given a decent amount of marketing support.

As Brubaker's star began to rise at Marvel, he was given the opportunity to work on a creator-owned project, and made the decision to stop trying to please noir and superhero fans at the same time, and go for the pure strain, with no fantasy elements. The result is less original than Sleeper was, but is no less entertaining.

The first Criminal story arc, "Coward", is now done, and will be out in collected form soon. The second arc will start serializing soon, following a different protagonist, though in the same setting, so many familiar characters will appear.

some spoilers )

As a way to try and keep the monthly comics relevant in this age of the book, Brubaker includes text back-up features, where he and guest writers discuss their favorite film noir and crime novels.

No fan of hardboiled crime drama should miss it.
alexxkay: (Default)
Ed Brubaker has been writing good comics for some years now, and is finally beginning to get the widespread recognition he deserves, landing him high-profile writing assignments like X-Men, Daredevil, and Captain America. But forget the superheroes. The genre Brubaker has always been best at is Noir. And now he has the chance to let that talent shine.

Brubaker and Phillips first worked together at Wildstorm, where they did the excellent, but under-appreciated Sleeper, a book which deftly mixed superhero and noir tropes for a unique mix. Sadly, that mix never quite found a sustainable audience, despite being given a decent amount of marketing support.

As Brubaker's star began to rise at Marvel, he was given the opportunity to work on a creator-owned project, and made the decision to stop trying to please noir and superhero fans at the same time, and go for the pure strain, with no fantasy elements. The result is less original than Sleeper was, but is no less entertaining.

The first Criminal story arc, "Coward", is now done, and will be out in collected form soon. The second arc will start serializing soon, following a different protagonist, though in the same setting, so many familiar characters will appear.

some spoilers )

As a way to try and keep the monthly comics relevant in this age of the book, Brubaker includes text back-up features, where he and guest writers discuss their favorite film noir and crime novels.

No fan of hardboiled crime drama should miss it.
alexxkay: (Default)
I'm still reading the Harry Dresden books. They're improving slightly in quality as the series goes on, though I still wouldn't say that they're 'good'. And yet, he does keep me turning pages and buying books...

I've been buying these in omnibuses from the Science Fiction Book Club. The cover artist generally does a good job of conveying the feel of 'hardboiled fantasy', although the first two covers were more symbolic than actual depictions of anything that happened in the book(s). I was happy to find that trend broken with the third collection. It was such an awesomely cool cover image that I would have been disappointed if it was only the artist being imaginative. But yes, in the climax of book seven, Harry Dresden does get to ride around the storm-tossed streets of Chicago on the back of a Zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The actual scene is even wackier than the cover image conveys. This is just any random T-rex; it's the reanimated remains of Sue, from the Museum of Natural History. And Harry's, er, 'copilot' isn't depicted. Within the mythology set up in this book, keeping an undead under control requires the use of a 'drummer' to keep up a constant beat. Harry, as usual, doesn't have the time or resources to hire good help, and has to make due with whatever eclectic friends are handy. So further down the back of the dinosaur is a mortician wearing a one-man-band "polka suit".

But when it comes to film noir / fantasy gumshoes in a wacky environment, Dresden is still second-rate at best. I was reminded of this recently, when I picked up the latest reprint volume of Grimjack.

This volume is the start of the run with Tom Mandrake doing art, and probably the highest point since Tim Truman left. It starts with a lengthy story of Grimjack helping his girlfriend, the ghost known only as 'Spook', find a sort of peace in her home dimension, though getting more emotional trauma for himself in the process. The trauma piles deeper when he returns to Cynosure, leading him into a dangerously suicidal attack on some old enemies. In which he gets himself *killed*. The final stories in this volume are the funeral and the wake.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that he doesn't stay dead permanently. But one of the benefits of being an independent comic is that the death wasn't trivialized. He stayed dead longer than any headliner for a non-cancelled Marvel comic would have in the 1980s, and the event did have permanent consequences on both Grimjack himself and on his entire supporting cast.

I know all this, because I have the entire run in the original issues. So why is a cheapskate like me buying the reprint volumes? Several reasons. The book format makes it easier both to re-read these, and to loan them to friends who've never read them. I've gotten enough enjoyment out of these stories over the years that I don't begrudge the authors extra money on them. Most importantly, though, I want to read *new* Grimjack stories, and keeping the property alive and profitable makes that more likely.
alexxkay: (Default)
I'm still reading the Harry Dresden books. They're improving slightly in quality as the series goes on, though I still wouldn't say that they're 'good'. And yet, he does keep me turning pages and buying books...

I've been buying these in omnibuses from the Science Fiction Book Club. The cover artist generally does a good job of conveying the feel of 'hardboiled fantasy', although the first two covers were more symbolic than actual depictions of anything that happened in the book(s). I was happy to find that trend broken with the third collection. It was such an awesomely cool cover image that I would have been disappointed if it was only the artist being imaginative. But yes, in the climax of book seven, Harry Dresden does get to ride around the storm-tossed streets of Chicago on the back of a Zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The actual scene is even wackier than the cover image conveys. This is just any random T-rex; it's the reanimated remains of Sue, from the Museum of Natural History. And Harry's, er, 'copilot' isn't depicted. Within the mythology set up in this book, keeping an undead under control requires the use of a 'drummer' to keep up a constant beat. Harry, as usual, doesn't have the time or resources to hire good help, and has to make due with whatever eclectic friends are handy. So further down the back of the dinosaur is a mortician wearing a one-man-band "polka suit".

But when it comes to film noir / fantasy gumshoes in a wacky environment, Dresden is still second-rate at best. I was reminded of this recently, when I picked up the latest reprint volume of Grimjack.

This volume is the start of the run with Tom Mandrake doing art, and probably the highest point since Tim Truman left. It starts with a lengthy story of Grimjack helping his girlfriend, the ghost known only as 'Spook', find a sort of peace in her home dimension, though getting more emotional trauma for himself in the process. The trauma piles deeper when he returns to Cynosure, leading him into a dangerously suicidal attack on some old enemies. In which he gets himself *killed*. The final stories in this volume are the funeral and the wake.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that he doesn't stay dead permanently. But one of the benefits of being an independent comic is that the death wasn't trivialized. He stayed dead longer than any headliner for a non-cancelled Marvel comic would have in the 1980s, and the event did have permanent consequences on both Grimjack himself and on his entire supporting cast.

I know all this, because I have the entire run in the original issues. So why is a cheapskate like me buying the reprint volumes? Several reasons. The book format makes it easier both to re-read these, and to loan them to friends who've never read them. I've gotten enough enjoyment out of these stories over the years that I don't begrudge the authors extra money on them. Most importantly, though, I want to read *new* Grimjack stories, and keeping the property alive and profitable makes that more likely.

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Alexx Kay

August 2017

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