Friday, May 29, 2015

Jacobean Slapstick: Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

(Continuing from Part 1)

A telling exchange occurs in the second chapter of Shadows & Light, Andrew Helfer's first six-issue story-run for The Shadow, rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. It follows the conclusion of the previous issue's cliff-hanger, Cranston-Shadow commenting on the hair-raising escape with a blithe near-indifference. Mavis, a newer recruit who has just pulled his fat from the fire, snaps:

It doesn't seem like much -- it's possibly the quietest moment in a story bracketed by considerable flash and snap -- but it's remarkable for two reasons. It distinguishes Helfer's vision for the title character from his predecessor's, and it marks just how long a view Helfer had for the story-line he'd only recently set in motion.

Howard Chaykin's resurrection of the Shadow posited Cranston as an uber-Alpha Male, against whom no regular human could offer anything but superficial resistance. Helfer retains the Shadow's uncanny powers of persuasion, but makes it clear it has limits -- limits which Cranston-Shadow is aware of, thus making him reliant on agents who, of their own free will, choose to call him "Master." Their limits are the hero's limits, also. Good thing he has a "contingency plan" for when things get unruly.

By the time Kyle Baker takes the artist's chair, "unruly" is becoming the norm. Agents are getting increasingly uppity:

And circumstances seem to require "The Master" to initiate contingency plans with greater frequency. At one point, The Shadow fires his Uzis on yet another washed-up loser he's recruited, fully intending to kill the man -- The Shadow doesn't recognize him, because this is the first they've met. The master-disciple relationship is off to a rocky start -- best initiate another contingency plan.

Cranston-Shadow's chess-piece maneuvering is looking decidedly rusty. Fortunately, his chosen nemeses -- an Irish-mafia family named the Finns -- possess no chess-playing skills whatsoever. Here the six surviving Deadly Finns "mourn" the first Finn the Shadow has dispatched, a lethargic and indulgent slug -- Errol, who represents "Sloth," of course.

Perhaps this is the moment to explore how Kyle Baker enlivens Helfer's scripts and story-boards. This is the next eight(ish)-panel page:

Reading Helfer-Baker back in the day left me with a distinct sense of on-the-fly improvisation. Reading them 25 years later, it's clearly nothing of the kind. Baker's literalist approach to Helfer's story-boards provides a comic framing that is the cool precursor to Seinfeld, which was still a half-decade to come.

That sense of improvisation was probably encouraged by Baker's skills as an artist, which he freely admits were rudimentary at the time. His characterization does have a childlike simplicity, but it contributes to the cheekiness of the humor. Facially, Baker's characters either speak with closed mouths, or howl with enormous gawps. All figures have an absurd plasticity, including The Shadow. Only when he appears as Cranston does Baker bother to render him remotely realistically, penning him in rough approximation of the Chaykin style.

This is not the preferred representation, however -- for The Shadow, or (one senses) for Baker or even Helfer. Although Baker's Shadow can still muster a threatening mien, more often than not the cloak and hat take on a swaddling characteristic, suggesting their implied threat and mystery mean more to the (often shrunken) man within them than to the world at large.

In the 80s, the Brooding Hero was on the ascendant, thanks to Frank Miller's surly Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But no-one did "brooding" quite so petulantly as Helfer-Baker's Shadow. Thus is our near-anti-hero transformed from fascist with a rocket launcher to puppet-master of dubious qualifications.

The villains are certainly "bad guys," selfishly committed to the propagation of their representative vices. But in their pitiful defensive improvisations they become as humanely sympathetic as the Shadow and his agents. It's as if we're watching a Chuck Jones cartoon show, with the roles reversed: Wile E. Coyote is catching and roasting every Road Runner in the desert.

By story's end, The Shadow's manipulations appear to be largely victorious -- the Finns are all felled, and dozens of their minions are mowed down by the Shadow himself. Throughout the bathetic romp, Cranston-Shadow recites his own chorus of triumph and self-glorification, made ironic by his evident lack of awareness. He remains a deadly presence, to be sure, but much of the triple-digit body count is unrelated to his activity. It's like Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" has gone psychotic.

The Seven Deadly Finns concludes in the manner of all great story-arcs: our hero is betrayed by a follower, killed by a villain, then . . . six issues are devoted to the physical abuse of his corpse, while his followers grow ever more erratic in their behavior.

Part 3, the endnote to all this, is over here. If your appetite has been whetted, you may read these adventures in print, available at Amazon, among others. Or, take the more highly recommended route, and get the digital editions, brilliantly recolored in high definition, at Comixology, here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Promissory Notice

Not to worry: I've still got Shadowy thoughts -- life is just getting in the way of their expression. Go here for the three-page lead-in to the splash page of the first Helfer/Baker free-for-all: The Seven Deadly Finns. I'll do my best to explicate by next Friday. Cheers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

To my surprise and delight, the movie is as unhinged and intense as advertised.

It brought back memories of 1981, when I persuaded a friend that if we acted mature, we'd be mistaken for 18-year-olds, and allowed into the Restricted Adult fare that was The Road Warrior. The matron in the ticket booth took pity on us, and let us in. And our minds were blown.

Fury Road out-furies that movie by a very wide margin, and even manages to scorch out most of the sad and curdled memories from my one and only viewing of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Most, but not all. Honestly, the scenes that brought me right to the edge of my seat were those quiet interludes between the 30-minute chase scenes -- scenes when the actors started talking. Would Miller keep the pontificatin' down to "You're out there among the garbage," or would he succumb to a lengthy "Time counts and keeps countin'... etc"?

Good news: all pontificatin' is super-brief. Also simplistic, fueling the sort of gender-politics flame-wars that get ignited over such things. And, sure, it's a little rich to suggest women would never fuck up the planet as badly as men have, but within the framework of the film, it's an argument that persuades. What we see in 110 minutes of car chases is the masculine id completely freed of feminine tethers. Who does not feel genuine horror while watching all this feral masculine energy bear down on a truck full of girls? Just a glance at today's news headlines more than confirms that this scenario plays itself out in real time, again and again.

So, yeah: it's a message movie. And if you're feeling the thrill, you're getting the message.

Locke Petersheim pens my favourite review, over here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Shadow As Silli-Putti: The Resurrection! And Second Death! And Second Resurrection! And Final(?) Death Of A Pulp "Hero!" Brought To You By: ANDY HELFER & KYLE BAKER!!!

Truthfully, the initial resurrection of Lamont Cranston, aka, "The Shadow" was brought to us by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin was still gathering kudos for his hyper-stylized and (to one, somewhat fixated, way of thinking) sexualized American Flagg! when he picked up The Shadow for DC's "Suggested For Mature Readers" line of comics.

Flagg was set in a nearly-conceivable future, 50 years from the then-present (2030); Chaykin's Shadow plucks a character from the 1930s and deposits him abruptly across 50 years of history into contempo-1980s NYC. In Chaykin's hands, the fascist tendencies of the title hero are brought to the fore. Although present-day characters act as an ineffectual chorus, complaining of the man's brute behavior, it is an incontestable fact that the man and his methods are right at home in this supposedly more enlightened age.

If Chaykin's stylistic and thematic template strains, or perhaps signifies the sort of growing rigidity that frequently consumes a successful "breakout" artist, we nevertheless owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for pulling the title character into the age of continuous Soft Cell airplay, and introducing rocket launchers and Uzi machine guns to our hero's arsenal.

Chaykin's deal with DC was for four issues; he moved on to more enticing projects, while DC passed the script and story-boarding reins to Andy Helfer, whose concepts were engagingly rendered into the brown acid stylings of Bill Sienkiewicz.

"Mature readership" still very much suggested.
Helfer had a remarkable eye for the long story-arc. Consequently there was no way he could completely buy-in to Chaykin's conceit -- the sum of which, once expressed, can only be repeated until boredom sets in (the Achilles Heel to all pulp writing).

At the outset of his six-issue run with Sienkiewicz (Shadows & Light) Cranston-Shadow is still a grim and imposing figure. His team of operatives, however, expands to include increasingly eccentric, erratic, even pathetic characters -- most notably the pharmaceutical expert (and indulger) "Twitch" Twitchkowitz, and his paramour Gwen, a fired nurse and retired wrestler.

"The Master" might retain his unassailable and perversely beguiling sense of entitlement, but to the reader his wisdom and overall game-plan look increasingly suspect.

Sienkiewicz's star was really taking off by this time -- and so did he, to other projects (including Elektra: Assassin). Helfer followed Shadows & Light with a one-off, Harold Goes To Washington, penciled by Marshal Rogers and inked by Kyle Baker.

Harold ties up some loose ends from the earlier story-arc and does a little ground-work to situate the next, but struggles to find its "tone." It is a morbidly weird and unsettling narrative failure, frankly. But something must've clicked, because Rogers disappeared, and Helfer and Baker launched the next 12 issues into the giddy ether, doing stuff that nobody has seen -- till then or since -- in comic book pages.

Still "Suggested For Mature Readers"

Next: Bathetic Romp? Jacobean Farce? Or...? Part 2

Monday, May 11, 2015

"I think we've learned a little something about human nature, haven't we?"

Back in the '80s, most of my favoritest people in the world were in the habit of watching David Letterman.

A life of late nights, free of regret.
No such habit for me. Not that I was ignorant of his shtick (how could I be?). I'd watch, alright -- sometimes several nights in a row. Then I'd flee.

His guests were frequently unknown eccentrics, with dependably strange, even alarming proclivities. But it was Letterman's behaviour that rattled me the most.

To wit: here we have 17 minutes of television history, from 1982: Put-On Artist Andy Kauffman re-connecting (and how) with wrestler Jerry Lawler, arguably another variety of Put-On Artist:

Winner-by-a-melt-down, David Letterman -- Put-On Artist, nonpareil. That was several degrees cooler than I cared to get comfortable with.

"Cooler than being cool is ice-cold," said OutKast, in 2003 -- probably the same year I discovered that yet another pair of my favoritest people in the world had established a nightly habit of watching Letterman -- my parents.

What else to add, now that he's retiring? I wish him well, I suppose -- to roughly the same degree I once wished he hadn't been quite so universal in his appeal to my late-adolescent peers.

H/t to Scott Dagostino for the found footage.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Bellowvian Vapours

Saul Bellow seems to have been blessed with more personality than he could responsibly deal with -- he, and anyone who spun into his orbit.

A week or two ago, my usual daily clicks were linking up with quite a number of "My Time With Saul Bellow" accounts. Quite a number, but so very little to differentiate one from the other. I'd say Lee Siegel embodies the extreme -- by the midway mark, my body was in a permanent muscular clench thanks to all the cringing his admissions induced, and it didn't let up until I closed my browser and refreshed my coffee -- but even the normally steely gaze of Martin Amis turns hazy with nostalgia as he meditates on the man he met, the man he knew.

"Zachary Leader met Bellow only once. That was in 1972, at a party near Harvard, where Leader was a graduate student and Bellow was being awarded an honorary degree. Leader says that Bellow seemed bored, and he remembers nothing of what Bellow said. In the genre of Bellow biography, this counts as a credential." So says Louis Menand, as he warms up to his review of Leader's new biography of Bellow, the stimulant to this public resurgence of memory. Menand's gaze does not get blurry in the least, not when staring at Bellow and his foibles, nor when appraising the man's work -- and Leader's. And for that, "Young Saul," his review at The New Yorker gets my recommendation.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


I've noticed my Facebook feed has become increasingly parsimonious about what it bothers to share with my friends. And vice-versa, natch -- which means I'm missing some primo links-of-note. As are you. Surely this provides the incentive we need to slip the surly blue-and-white bonds of that juggernaut corporate algorithm and get back to our humble blogs, with their charmingly retro HTML feeds?

Alright, I'll go first -- here's some of the internetty goodness you may have missed:

"Infomercials of the gods!" "As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot" -- Scott McLemee reviews Richard H. Davis' biography of the Bhagavad Gita.
"It was all really bad and scary, and kind of broken, and everyone loved it, especially me" -- Leigh Alexander explains why the demise of Silent Hill, video gaming's most successful (in every sense of that word) horror franchise, matters.

2015 is the year I finally got on-board Quartz. If you don't know what I'm yakking about, check Quartz out. The past week alone has yielded some trenchant stuff: Forbidden from riding bikes, fearless Afghan girls are skateboarding around Kabul -- photos; Michael Smith's applied wisdom re: the artist's life is getting lots of link-love, for very good reason; and RIP Dan Fredinburg, a Google engineer killed on Everest who photographed some of the world’s highest peaks for “Street View.”

Speaking of Nepal, my wife's organization is involved. Good people, already there, already doing good things. You've done the research and have your charities, I'm sure, but I'd be thrilled if you gave CBM some thought as well.

If you are ever a Mennonite, you will never not be a Mennonite:
A shot from my childhood town. A museum piece, in fact.
"I am an atheist. I am also a Mennonite." So concludes Robin A. Fast, (despite his grandmother's fervent protests).

PopMatters has a spanky new website template -- a genuine improvement on their old one, for once. Now, thanks to them, I've discovered The Dirty Aces:

Assuming these guys can get a distribution deal worked out for our side of the pond, their album From The Basement could well become this summer's Roll Down The Windows soundtrack.

Finally, RIP, Grace Lee Whitney, Star Trek's "Yeoman Janice Rand." My inner 12-year-old will forever have a crush on your outer 35-year-old.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Bob Dylan, Pugilist At Large

My first Bob Dylan "Live" experience was in the Winnipeg Arena, 1988. Timbuk3 opened for him, followed by a merch booth break, then the headline act. It was a "band" show, with SNL then-staple G.E. Smith keeping the train on the rails.

It struck me at the time as a perfunctory bit of business. I can't recall if the set lasted an hour, but there's no way it exceeded it. While the crowd whistled and stomped for the expected encore, Dylan and band took a smoke break. The most memorable visual I have of that evening is of the sparks flying off Dylan's discarded turkey-butt, which he flicked out before him onto the stage, then crushed with his Frye boot.

Two more songs, and the show was over.

It came out later that, following the show, Dylan and Smith high-tailed it to Corner Boys, a struggling dive owned by famed "Golden Boy" Donny Lalonde, where they delivered the more memorable show, to a considerably smaller audience. Lalonde was apparently, as the parlance goes, "a close personal friend" of Dylan's.

Me and my mates had a lot of fun improvising conversations between the singer and the boxer. But nothing so strange as what probably did, in fact, take place. Anyway, this weird little echo from a distant corridor of my mind comes tumbling into the foremost chambers thanks to Sarah Kurchak's profile of Dylan's lifelong love (and practice) of The Sweet Science -- "Cassius Clay, Here I Come: Bob Dylan and Boxing" -- over here.