Friday, August 22, 2008


One of my favorite films in recent years is Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also were involved with another cult-favorite effort, Shaun of the Dead. Though I knew Hot Fuzz was a parody of high-octane Hollywood buddy cop films, because of my preconception of it as an English movie (and mind you, foreign movies are a fairly regular staple of my movie-going diet), I was nevertheless completely taken by surprise by how slick and sophisticated a production it was, as well as funny. Discovering brilliant gems like this is what makes movie-going so worthwhile.

Just released in a deluxe DVD package is the BBC television series Spaced, an early project on which Wright, Pegg and Frost first worked together. The series played for two seasons, for a total of 14 episodes, in 1999 and 2001, and was the brainchild of Wright, Pegg and fellow actor Jessica Hynes, who also stars in the show.

Pegg and Hymes play Tim and Daisy, two slacker types who meet in the first episode after each having just ended their respective relationships. Tim is a struggling comic-book artist and Daisy is a wannabe writer/journalist. In need of fresh starts, they find an affordable flat to rent together as roommates but only can do so by posing as couple. The core cast of characters—eccentrics all, in the best English tradition—includes their heavy-drinking divorcee landlady, Marsha; Mike, Tim’s best friend from childhood, who is obsessed with guns and playing army (played by Frost in his very first acting job); Twist, Daisy’s best friend, a fashion plate; and Brian, the tortured artist who rents another flat in the house.

The show is heavy on pop culture references and incredibly self-referential, containing homages and references as varied as the Star Wars films, the Shining (and all matter of horror films), the Matrix, Grease, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the A-Team, and the films of John Woo. Along with its hilarious quick cuts, fantasy sequences and flashbacks, you can clearly see the beginnings of the style that would evolve into Hot Fuzz. While much of the comedy are in the characters themselves, what also distinguishes the show's work is the way it uses the conventions of genre films and direct visual homages of pop culture to heighten and punctuate the humor. Much like a DVD Easter egg, these pop culture references add another layer of subtext and hilarity to the show.

Like Hot Fuzz though, the show’s comedy and heightened reality never predominate the show or the characters: the filmmakers and the actors clearly worked to create recognizable people and situations that audiences genuinely care about. Taking advantage of the truncated British television season format, the series creates a genuinely heartfelt story and character arc within the two 7-episode seasons—much of the tension of the show is built around the complex relationship between Tim and Daisy, and the question of whether or not their relationship will go to the next level. It’s a remarkably well-done balancing act the way that the show can simultaneously feel emotionally grounded yet veer into near-surreal moments as well.

The bottom line, however, is that the show is laugh-aloud funny, and flies its geek flag proudly.

Friday, August 15, 2008

See This

UPDATE: My family and I saw this show on Saturday, August 23, and had a grand ol' time—we even spotted Actor's Gang director Tim Robbins was spotted after the show!

When I attended UCLA in the early '80s, there was a real confluence of talent in the theatre arts program. Since then many of the actors who I saw in theatre productions there have found varying level success in Hollywood. These include performers like screenwriter/director Shane Black (creator of the Lethal Weapon movie franchise), charactor actor Lee Arenberg, and actor Jack Black. Given this deep pool of talent, I developed a real appreciation for live theatre when I was at UCLA.

Also among this group was actor/director/producer Tim Robbins who, after UCLA, went on to found the Actor's Gang theatre group, many of whose productions I have seen over the years. Several years ago, the group moved to a new facility local to me in Culver City, so it's been a treat to rediscover them. (Recent productions I've seen are "Gulliver's Travels" and "Klub," the latter of which I saw when it was originally mounted back in 1992.) I've been impressed by how active they are in the local community, particularly in reaching out to youth through shows and acting campus.

One of their regular activities in this area has been free summer productions they mount for families and children. I saw last year's production, "Titus the Clownicus," a comedic adaptation of one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare's blood plays, "Titus Andronicus." It was hilarious, and like most Actor's Gang productions, edgy, with plenty of layers of comedy to entertain both children and adults.

This year's production is "King O'Leary," an adaptation of "King Lear," set during the days of California's Gold Rush. The show runs Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m., August 9 – 31, on the front lawn of the Actor's Gang home at the historic Ivy Substation in Culver City. (The address and directions can be found here.)

Below is a promotional video from last year's "Titus the Clownicus."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Prince Valiant Page

As a fan of classic comics, I’m very familiar with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Foster’s enormous talent as an illustrator and his attention to detail. However, I never read the strip much—it wasn’t carried by any newspapers I read and I’ve never made an effort to pick up any of the reprints because of my focus on other strips.

A book I was interested in seeking out at the San Diego Comic-Con was Alex Raymond: His Life And Art, about the Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby artist. While seeking it out at the Bud Plant booth at San Diego, however, I came across the Prince Valiant Page by Gary Gianni, the current artist on the strip. (Gianni is only the third artist to work on the series: Foster created the strip in 1937, passed it on to his personally-chosen successor, John Cullen Murphy, in 1971, who then passed it on to Gianni in 2004. Xenozoic Tales creator Mark Schultz currently writes the script.)

While I was completely unaware that another artist had succeeded Murphy (himself a well respected comic strip artist), the samples of Gianni’s work in the book impressed me enough that I ended up picking it up instead of the Raymond book.

The Prince Valiant Page is a wonderful book. In a very simple and straightforward matter, the modest Gianni talks about the challenges and process involved in working on a syndicated strip, particularly one that requires as much work as Valiant. It’s clear he honored and appreciated the work that came before him, but he also has tried to make the strip his own. I was especially impressed by how candidly Gianni speaks candidly about his use of models, as well as reference material and “swipes.”

Perhaps because I found the book so compelling I was surprised how quickly I read it—but there are plenty of wonderful examples of Gianni’s work (roughs, original art, printed pieces, etc.) to pore over. This is a great book for any fan of Valiant or illustration in general, and certainly for aspiring artists.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Dark Knight: Cure or Symptom?

Until recently, beginning with the original Superman starring Christopher Reeve, and continuing through the Spider-Man franchise and this summer’s Iron Man and Hulk movies, superhero film adaptations focused on serving up to audiences—and comic-book fans— faithful live-action recreations of their favorite comic-book characters. The franchises and their concepts usually drove these films, and getting it “right” was the primary goal. After several mis-fires and re-boots (reaching a new nadir with the ‘90s series of Batman films), Hollywood has finally shown it has both the technology and respect for the material to make superhero adaptations that are entertaining and faithful to the source material.

The Dark Knight takes this natural progression to a new level. Moreso than any with previous superhero film adaptation, in the Dark Knight, director and co-writer Christopher takes his audience to a new place by taking an existing superhero character to explore complex themes and ideas that go beyond the franchise.

Though Nolan has been rather oblique about the message of the Dark Knight (he has acknowledged it can partly be seen as a commentary on the blowback the U.S. has experienced in recent years due to its foreign policy escapades), one of the issues the film addresses—which the characters in the film explicitly raise themselves—is whether the Batman (Christian Bale) is a cure or a symptom.

While the Batman’s intentions to serve as his city’s guardian are honorable, in the film his presence and methods seemingly make things worse by ratcheting up the violence, inspiring copycats who get in the line of fire, and attracting new levels of villainy, as embodied by the Joker. As a result there are plenty of casualties in the film, many of them innocent victims. And at various points, the Batman’s faithful lieutenants—his valet Alfred (Michael Caine) and his technology guru Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman)—openly question the Batman’s tactics and whether he may be partly to blame for what has occurred.

Without giving too much away, regardless of whether he’s to blame or not, or indeed making a different (the film ultimately doesn’t answer this question), it’s telling that, at the end of the film, the Batman literally and symbolically assumes full responsibility for what has transpired. And like the archetypal Western, after having cleanses the city, he leaves town a hunted man, alone.

Like Batman Begins, this re-boot’s first installment, the Batman and his story arc are central to the Dark Knight. And although the secondary cast and, particularly, the villains are strong and colorful, unlike the previous Batman series, they never threaten to overshadow the film, and they always serve to advance the film’s main story and central themes.

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has justifiably received universal acclaim (and is nicely analyzed here), so there’s no need for me to add to to the praise. But it needs to be noted that Ledger (and Nolan) have done an extraordinary job in successfully re-imagining such an iconic figure. The Joker in this film is faithful to the very chilling first appearances of the character in the 1930s and his more recent re-inventions in graphic novels like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke,” while also being completely new and fresh. It will be interesting to see how Ledger’s interpretation filters down to the comic book series.

Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), and especially Maggie Gyllenhall (Rachel Dawes) and Aaron Eckhard (Harvey Dent/Two Face) all are given meaty roles even if they have limited screentime. And one should not overlook the fine performance of Christian Bale in the lead role, who inhabits the character with great respect, conviction and vulnerability.

It’s probably too early to call the Dark Knight the “best comic book movie ever”—certainly not with Watchmen on the horizon in 2009— but it’s among the most ambitious, mature and sophisticated. Plus, the increasing sophistication and varied textures of superhero films—ranging from summer popcorn flicks like the Spider-Man films and Iron Man to now darker fare like Dark Knight and Watchmen—doesn’t easily lend itself anymore to judging these movies with the same broad measure. Regardless, with the Dark Knight’s complex storyline and multiple rich character arcs, and the reviews that have acknowledged the film’s ambition, the superhero film has truly grown up.

One final comment: I had the fortune to see it in Imax format. Six scenes were filmed in the oversize, crystal-clear Imax filmstock. When the Imax sequences initiate, the film takes up the entire Imax screen, then reverts back afterwards. It is quite impressive, without being distracting or taking you out of the movie.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

2008 San Diego Comic-Con Report: Something for Everyone

NOTE: This was originally posted at the WCG Comics website and has been moved and archived to this blog on February 2020.

Click here to skip this report and go straight to my photogallery slideshow for the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con International. Short video clips from the show are available here.

Trying to get your arms around a show as fast-moving, varied, and all-encompassing as the San Diego Comic-Con is undoubtedly a fool’s errand, but below is my attempt to summarize the show from my tiny vantage point as a small press exhibitor.

First, thanks to everyone who stopped by my booth. This was my 11th appearance at Comic-Con as an exhibitor. I’m delighted that people continue to enjoy and follow the series—a few fans pointedly told me that mine is the first booth they visit when they attend the convention. It also was great to hear that people were aware of my appearance in advance through my website and blog, as well as through online plugs like Heidi MacDonald’s webcolumn, The Beat.

It's a great experience that new fans continue to discover the series. Very often, people are first struck by the art, become sold by the concept, and then pick up a sample issue or two, or a sample pack. Many even return before the convention ends to pick up the remaining issues after they’ve had a chance to sample the series! Other times, people have needed little persuading to simply pick up the entire series at once, causing me to remark that I wish selling the series was always so easy!

Still, sales overall were slightly lower than last year (which ranked among my best ever). This seemed to be the case, anecdotally, for many of the small press exhibitors I spoke with. I attribute this in part to the sheer overwhelming scale of the show. With so many comics, movies, television shows, toys, games, and round-the-clock programming competing for people’s attention and hard-earned cash, small exhibitors like myself are the proverbial needle in the haystack, making it difficult for new readers to take everything in and process it, and difficult for even those who should be my target audience to even come across me and my work.

Even after all these years, readers discover me at the show for the first time by accident, even if they have attended for many years. While some will say they vaguely recall hearing about my book online or in a review, others sometimes say they picked up issues many years ago but didn’t realize I was still publishing!

Figuring out how to cut through the noise (both during the show and the other 361 days of the year!) will be my goal in the coming year.

In order to avoid rush hour traffic, it’s become my habit to leave Los Angeles for the show very early in the morning in order to set up for the “Preview Night," which is traditionally held from 6 to 9 p.m. the Wednesday evening before Comic-Con’s official opens on Thursday. This year I left L.A. at approximately 4:30 a.m. and arrived in San Diego at 6:20 a.m.! (It’s about a 130 mile drive.) For the third year in a row, I ran into 1995 NCS Reuben Award winner and fellow CAPS member Sergio Aragones upon my arrival at the convention center. We discovered we both employ identical strategies for setting up and departing the show. I guess great minds think alike!

My brother, who always attends and is a great help, flew in on an early morning flight to help me set up my booth. He was there by 8:30 a.m., but we were delayed by the fact that my section of the small press area was not yet set up because it's a staging area for the convention’s workers who are responsible for setting up the convention hall and delivering pallets of goods throughout the floor. (At this hour the floor is teeming with workers and forklifts, and legally off-limits to minors!) In their rush, they also forgot to install the curtains behind our booths, so the booths in my section looked a bit less dressed than usual.

As noted at my blog, I designed a new booth banner and display stand because last year’s banner, which was new last year, required too much jerry-rigging. The new display went up easily, required little sweat and effort, and actually is taller than last year’s display. So it looks like I have a keeper! (The art to the booth banner is pictures at left. Click on it to see it full size.)

After finally assembling the booth in quick order, my brother and I went into San Diego’s Gaslamp District downtown for lunch, just across the street from the convention center. I then parked my car at the hotel, picked up my family’s complimentary guest badges at the convention center, then met and checked in my wife and two children at the hotel when they arrived mid-afternoon. This was the first time they came down on the Wednesday before the show. In past years, they usually drove down the first day of the show, Thursday.

This turned out to be fortuitous. In one of the biggest snafus of the show—though it was through no fault of Comic-Con—there was a major accident early Thursday morning, the first official day at the show, on Interstate 5. The I-5 is the major north-south freeway artery that connects San Diego to L.A. and the rest of the state. As a result, rush hour and Comic-Con traffic became snarled and bottlenecked into a single lane into San Diego. People I spoke with at the show (including cousins of mine who came down and surprised me), were trapped in their car from 5 to 7 hours for what normally is a 2 to 2.5 hour drive!! Thus, by coming down a day earlier than usual, my family saved themselves a lot of grief and frustration. (Better yet, I didn’t have to leave my booth in the middle of the show to help them check in at the hotel!)

The properties that received the biggest buzz at the convention were the upcoming Watchmen film adaptation (whose movie trailer debuted right before the show) and, to a slightly lesser extent, the upcoming Spirit movie, as adapted and written by cartoonist-turned-film auteur Frank Miller. (A video link to the Spirit movie teaser is provided at right.) The presentations for both films were held in the 5000-seat Hall H on Friday, which strangely made the rest of the show anticlimactic in some ways.

As always, there were many celebrity cameos at the show, with people like Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, Paris Hilton, and Keanu Reeves making appearances. I personally spotted on the floor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and Scotty in the upcoming Star Trek relaunch); Breckin Meyer; Robert Culp; William Katt; actor-comedian Jay Johnston (walking rather incognito and sporting a bushy mustache—he smiled when he saw my daughter in her Batgirl outfit); and several cast members of NBC’s “The Office” television show, who appeared on a “Writers of the ‘The Office’” panel: Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak, and Melora Hardin. (Pegg understandably declined to take a photo on the floor requested by a fan because of the fear it would set off a frenzy on the floor. Novak similarly declined my own request as he walked past my booth, though he did thank me when I said, “Love the show!”)

Sergio Aragones
The Comic-Con also is a place for networking and business-dealing, and I must admit I engaged in a little of that. However, compared to past years, I saw fewer professional friends and colleagues, something I again attribute to the size of the show since there is so much going on that demand people's attention. Some fellow pros I saw included, as mentioned above, Sergio Aragones (pictured at left, who I visited with my two children); Batton Lash; and Len Wein.

Some relaxing moments I enjoyed were the late night dinners after the show with friends and family, often at fine restaurants not far from from the more crowded eateries. Once again, we varied our cuisine each night, having Indian, Japanese and Afghan food on different nights! One night was set aside for a poolside pizza party with some old friends by one of the nicer hotels, watching the kids enjoy themselves. (My family, without me, also went to LegoLand on Friday.)

As usual, since my wife and I had our two young children with us, I had little time for extracurricular or evening program and activities. But I did get plenty of good firsthand reports from friends and family who got to take advantage of the diverse programming. On the plus side is that I was in bed at a relatively reasonable hour and fairly fresh and rested for the next day's efforts!

Reflecting the ongoing evolution of Comic-Con, many of the projects featured at the convention had very little, if any, connection to comics or even the broader “geek” ethos. Though people in recent years have expressed concern about this continuing trend, the incursion and creeping dominance of the entertainment industry at Comic-Con seemed more apparent than ever this year. The L.A. Times (here and here) and other outlets and observers —including bloggers and commentators like Heidi MacDonald—have run stories noting that comics seem relegated to the background at its own party.

I’ve long maintained that as long there are other comic-book conventions around the country that possess the aura and flavor of the Comic-Con's early days as a showcase for just comics—and there are—I think it’s fine and, I must admit, validating to have a show like this that shines such a huge public spotlight on the field.

This year, however, I saw the flip side of the coin. As I mentioned in my blog prior to the show, Comic-Con attracts people who I suspect simply want to be part of the spectacle but have very little (if any) interest in comics at all.

Though I'm not sure I completely agree, respected comic-book retailer Chuck Rozanski goes as far to say that he feels “greed” now drives many attendees and that the focus on freebies and Comic-Con exclusives are a recipe for disaster. He also makes the interesting distinction that because of the shift in Comic-Con's focus, it can no longer claim to be North America’s biggest comic-book convention since comic-books are so secondary.

Nevertheless, Comic-Con is a "big tent" event that accommodates a wide range of interests. An NPR reporter, as quoted by CBG editor Maggie Thompson at her blog put it best: "Comic-Con is whatever you want to make it." So if all you’re interested in is comic-books, you can still find plenty of gems on the floor. (For myself, the First Second Books booth of its line of graphic novels was a delightful discovery.) Admittedly, the convention’s frenzied, circus-like environment makes it difficult to browse in a leisurely fashion, but you'll certainly find the full range of comicdom represented there under one roof.

But it will be interesting to see whether the organizers decide to draw a line in the sand to protect the heart and soul of the event, or instead allow the entertainment juggernaut to slowly take over more of the show in pursuit of growth and size. Given the attention and money they bring, one can see the allure of going over to the dark side. (Already one major lower-tier publisher that has emerged strong in recent years, IDW Publishing, has made noises about not returning to Comic-Con, despite the fact that they actually are based in San Diego and local to the show. IDW's president, Ted Adams, speaks thoughtfully on this subject, and seems to focus on whether the marketing value is worth the expense and time away from production. The varied reactions to his public ruminations can be found here.)

As mentioned above, comics retailer Chuck Rozanski—no doubt expressing the private thoughts of many of his peers who remember the Comic-Con from its early days—spoke frankly about the things he thought was wrong with the current show. By the same token, Rozanski also acknowledged that, “Upon reflection, I keep coming back to the fact that I love this convention so much that I would miss it beyond all words if I did not come each year…. After 36 consecutive years of exhibiting here, this convention has become ingrained into my spirit and soul.”

That pretty much sums up my own feelings. I grew up professionally with Comic-Con, and have established a presence at the event. It’s also in my own backyard here in California which is also why I attend. Rumors have emerged in recent years that Comic-Con is considering other venues to accommodate its continued growth. L.A., Anaheim, and Las Vegas are usually mentioned as possible new locations. While I probably would still attend and exhibit if the show was in L.A. or Anaheim given their proximity to me, I doubt I’d go to the show as regularly if it were in Vegas or any other place. At that point it would cease to be Comic-Con for me.

Click here for my photogallery slideshow for the 2008 Comic-Con International. Video clips are available here.

Fun Facts:
  • Soundtrack for this year's drive to and from San Diego: Duffy’s “Rockferry” (after several years of Ben Folds Fives’ “Whatever and Ever Amen” and William Shatner’s “Has Been”)
  • Fun Swag: Barry Allen Flash ring and Attack of the Clones button
  • Purchases: Alex Toth: Edge of Genius (Vol. 1), Pure Imagination Publishing; The Prince Valiant Page by Gary Gianni; Studio Space by Joel Meadows and Gary Marshall; Comics Foundry #1 and 2

For additional coverage, visit the following sites:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Comic-Con Report Now Online

My report and photogallery on the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con International are now online.