The Dead Girl’s Guide to Leading the Blind and Killing All Trespassers - A Review of The Dark, Directed and Written by Justin P. Lange

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Movie poster for The Dark.

Imagine being violently murdered in your own home as a child, the deed done by someone you know. You come back to un-life, but you’re now a zombie that preys on and eats the living. Now imagine a man named Josef kidnaps you as a child, tears you away from your family and renders you blind. This is the narrative framework of The Dark, a film written and directed by Justin P. Lange.

Mina is the undead girl, whose flashbacks reveal a fractured home life composed of a deadbeat mother, her abusive boyfriend, melancholy music, and visual art. After being killed and buried, Mina is revived by an unexplained force, going on to haunt the house in which she was psychologically haunted. One day, a fugitive and kidnapper on the run named Josef heads into the Devil’s Den (where Mina used to live and where she now hunts) where he’s killed by the dead girl after invading her house. After killing him, Mina discovers a young boy named Alex in the back of Josef’s car. Alex has developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome regarding Josef and persists in asking where his captor is after meeting Mina. From there, the two slowly learn more about each other as Mina helps Alex get back to safety, acting as his eyes and his guide.

Mina, in all her undead glory.

The Dark isn’t an easy film to watch. I don’t say that because the movie is terrible or downright unwatchable, but because of the subject matter. Mina suffered a great deal of psychological trauma both when she was alive and the way in which she was killed, and even more while she’s undead. Alex was kidnapped and abused physically and psychologically. The movie also has plenty of gruesome deaths. To me, the movie is about being lost not only in the physical woods, but in the woods of your mind. Mina and Alex are thrust into horrible circumstances beyond their control, and they’re both abandoned by adults who have no business taking care of them, but who also provide them with a deeply twisted semblance of affection.

When I first watched this movie, I wasn’t entirely blown away by it. The script isn’t the greatest, one specific character decision didn’t ring true to me, and I would have liked a bit more explanation as to how Mina came back to “life.” It wasn’t until I watched it the second time, skipping parts I’d already latched on to, that the themes started to solidify a bit better. It’s one of those films where you blindly put the puzzle pieces together as the story moves forward. When you reach the end, you feel like you’re missing pieces; the image isn’t complete, and you aren’t sure you assembled everything the right way. It’s when you watch the film a second time that you have the box in front of you and have a better idea of how the completed puzzle is supposed to look. For some viewers, that may prove to be too frustrating and too much of an investment, and I 100% understand that.

Alex and Mina.

With the recent discussions about trauma and how the body and mind respond to it, Lange gives a valiant effort at blending childhood trauma with elements of the supernatural. There have been plenty of zombie and kidnapping movies, but not all of them explore what it’s like to come back to life with the realization that you’re dead and remember how you were brutally murdered, or what it’s like to be physically scarred as a child by a kidnapper you view as a sort of parental figure. Even fewer combine the two. I feel The Dark is an atypical horror movie that focuses less on jump scares and external horror and more on the psychological horror of trauma and how it can turn the world into a type of horror movie. Or maybe I’m reading into it a bit too much.

So, did I like The Dark? I...liked the internal dialogue it sparked, which is better than a movie that instantly fizzles from memory as soon as the credits roll. It reminded me of how abuse can act as an undead zombie shambling through the halls of your life and gnawing away at your peace, or how abuse can blind us to what others see with 20/20 clarity. Maybe the true horror is realizing that there’s a version of Mina and Alex inside of us looking for a way out, a way home.

Runtime: 94 minutes

Recommend Buy New, Rent, or Skip: Rent (available for streaming on Amazon Prime, as of this review)

Book cover for Normal.

Up Next: Normal, by comic book writer Warren Ellis, is the story of Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist who’s paid to “gaze into the abyss” imagining various worst-case scenarios for geo engineering and smart cities. Suffering from “abyss gaze,” Adam goes to a “retreat” called Normal Head to recover. Soon after arriving, a patient disappears from his locked room, leaving behind a pile of bugs. Adam finds himself heading into the abyss of the abyss in a novella that explores “the core principles of how and why we think about the future—and the past, and the now.”

Cosmic Texts From Cthulhu - A Review of SemiAutomagic, Written by Alex de Campi, Illustrated by Jerry Ordway & Marissa Louise

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Semiautomagic.

There are plenty of shows, movies, books, comic books, and various other media that blend the supernatural/horror with urban fantasy. But not all of them accomplish their goal of scaring the souls right out of our bodies, and even fewer manage to do so in a way that relies on more than just lazy jump scares, half-baked dread, and been-there-been-bored-by-that attempts at body horror. Thankfully, Alex de Campi, Jerry Ordway, and Marissa Louise have come together to remind us of what it means to be gleefully terrified and deliciously horrified.

Semiautomagic is comprised of a series of short stories that explore the life and horrors of Alice Creed, professor and occult investigator with a penchant for ditching her own classes to save the lives of victims of the supernatural. Originally included as part of Dark Horse Presents, Semiautomagic seamlessly combines (truly) Lovecraftian-horror with a Black Mirror-esque exploration of the unforeseen consequences of technology. From children’s fantasies corrupted into devious demons and soul-sucking computer games to actors who use necromancy to secure a coveted role, Alice has seen and done it all.

We all have that one friend who’s unstuck in time.

What truly elevates this body of work is that the evil isn’t familiar. There are no werewolves, vampires, evil elven queens, or familiar god-like creatures to be found between these pages. Instead, readers are treated to the stuff of TRUE nightmares, visions that lurk in the corners of the Devil’s yellow eyes and make him want to churn up the fires of Hell to keep the darkness at bay. Imagine tripping on ‘shrooms, smoking a blunt and taking a hit of LSD, all before watching a horror movie while inside a haunted house. That’s what it’s like to read Semiautomagic. And I loved every second of it.

Last class.

While Alice isn’t the most fleshed out character, it’s the world she inhabits that gets the most development. De Campi does a great job of teasing the story and intrigue out, and Ordway and Louise are fantastic at using images and colors to translate the team’s shared vision of slowly dragging the reader into their wholly original universe. There’s an undeniable 80’s style to the work here that helps invoke that feeling of classic horror. That said, I’m not the biggest horror connoisseur, so your opinion and mileage may vary. The accompanying images should give you enough of an idea of what to expect.

As I said earlier, the stories of Semiautomagic were part of Dark Horse Presents from 2014 to 2015. Since then, the tales were bound together with the help of the collaborative magic of Kickstarter. There are also three additional stories made available only through Kickstarter, including a special story focused on Alice’s time-twisted friend, Harriet. If you have any way of getting a hold of the additional three stories, I highly encourage you to check them out. The selections do a great job of fleshing out the world and stretching your unease to the limits.

Lovecraftian lice.

You can finish all the currently available stories of Semiautomagic in a day, even sooner if you devour them like I did. Afterward, don’t be surprised if you start digging for more works from de Campi, Louise and I did. But now, I can’t help but wonder: Did the three creators sacrifice their own souls to Cthulhu to create such imaginative cosmic dread, or the souls of their readers? Either way, I hope the bill never comes due.

Page Length:

104 pgs (an additional 80 pgs with the Kickstarter-exclusive box set)

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip:

Absolutely buy new! (Or check with your local library)

Movie poster for The Dark.

Up Next: The Dark, written and directed by Justin P. Lange, centers on Mina, an undead teen cursed to haunt and hunt the woods of her childhood, and Alex, a blind teenager with problems of his own. Together, they’ll forge an unusual friendship, one built on a pile of bodies.

The Eureka! Memory - A Review of Genius (Written by Steven T. Seagle, Illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen)

Written by O’Brian Gunn

Cover of Genius

Life would be a lot easier if you were a certified genius, right? You’d probably have an easier time getting the job you want (or at least the experience necessary for the job you want), you’d likely have a higher salary and the standard of living that comes with it, and it would be a breeze to think of the name of the many songs that pop into your head at random times. In Genius, main character and physicist Ted Marx has a different take on what it means to be a genius. His particular work and home life situations lead him to consider stealing a secret idea from one of the most notable geniuses in history, Einstein himself.

Growing up, Ted Marx had a natural aptitude for learning and grasping concepts that left even the most intelligent of students bewildered. Even though he skipped grades, he still found himself bored. While he was a mental genius, Ted lacked emotional intelligence, which means that when it came to matters of the heart, Ted practically had a learning disability. Fast-forward a few decades and we find Ted married with two kids and working at a think tank with several other geniuses. Even though he excelled in school, he finds himself stagnating in the working world when he’s no longer the smartest person in his zip code. With his job on the line if he can’t come up with a new idea, Ted turns to his elderly father-in-law, Francis, (who lives with him and his family at home), who served as Einstein’s bodyguard. Apparently, Einstein told Francis a dangerous secret, one that could be what Ted needs to secure his job.

Brains aren’t everything.

(One of the things I enjoyed most about this short read was the artwork. Teddy Kristiansen has a simple style, but his blend of inks, pencils and watercolors helps bring the story to life and set the mood. Subtle shifts in font and visual style act as great scene changers. This is one reason I love reading graphic novels and comics from smaller and lesser-known publishers, to explore more of the infinite possibilities of using this particular medium to tell a story. That’s definitely not to say that the artwork released by major publishers is trash, just that you’re usually free to be a bit more experimental with your storytelling when you’re working with a smaller publisher.

You can’t outthink time.

In regards to the writing, Steven T. Seagle does a competent job of weaving Ted’s story together, showing his struggles to connect with his teenage son, who seems to have inherited Ted’s intelligence, but has molded it into something much less refined, yet more emotionally insightful. There is a bit of a cliché to be found, which I won’t get into here. I’ll just say it’s a trope-fueled motivation for Ted doing everything possible to keep his job and doing anything he can to get Francis to reveal what Einstein told him. Make no mistake, this doesn’t take away from the narrative, I just thought it could have added a little something special to see Seagle provide Ted with a different catalyst for being pushed down into the murky depths of desperation. Seagle and Kristiansen both add a few other details that help make up for this particular issue.

Genius amongst the stars.

Genius makes for a quick, simple and overall enjoyable read. Seagle and Kristiansen demonstrate that even the geniuses among us don’t always have the answers, or if they do, they aren’t always the right ones. So maybe life wouldn’t be so simple if you were a genius, you’d just live in a world where life’s struggles have the same IQ as you.

Page Length: 126 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy New

Cover of Semiautomagic.

Next Up: Semiautomagic, written by Alex De Campi and illustrated by Jerry Ordway and Marissa Louisa. Professor Alice Creed is a techno-occult adventurer who slays monsters when she’s not skipping her own lectures. It’s Lovecraftian horror in a modern setting, brimming with an evil army of mannequins, demonic possession, and friends unstuck in time.

There’s Something Strange in the Neigh-Poe-Hood - A Review of The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, Written by Suehiro Maruo

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Impostor syndrome. It’s something we all get, but it’s especially palpable for writers, visual artists, and practically every other creative occupation. We have a deep-seated fear that nothing we do is good enough, that we can chalk our accomplishments up to sheer luck rather than raw talent. In Suehiro Maruo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, main character Hitomi Hirosuke experiences a different type of impostor syndrome - one that leads him down a dark criminal path to assume the life and luxury of a legitimate and proven success, one who goes by the name of Genzaburo Komoda.

When we’re first introduced to Hitomi, he’s dreaming of a beautiful island filled with tropical birds, gorgeous landscaping, towering waterfalls, actual towers, and people (mostly women) frolicking in the nude. He wakes up in his tiny, cramped apartment brimming with books and echoes of his setbacks as a writer. His latest work, “The Tale of RA,” mirrors the work of Edgar Allan Poe and is the story of a man with a limitless fortune who builds his own paradise in the form of a remote island.

Oh, Poe is me.

Hitomi goes on to lament being stuck in a creative and financial rut. Then, he receives word that one of his old classmates, Genzaburo Komoda, has died. While shocked, Hitomi remembers how the two of them were often mistaken for twins, and how Komoda was the noble son of a wealthy family. The seeds of a nefarious plan are sown by hands wracked with desperation. From there, Hitomi hatches a scheme to essentially kill his own identity and take on his friend’s identity.

To that end, Hitomi digs up Genzaburo’s body from his grave, extracts his gold tooth (yanking out his own tooth in the process), and removes Genzaburo’s burial clothes so he can wear them himself to make it look as if his friend washed up on the beach, miraculously alive. When he’s found and assumed to be Genzaburo, he infiltrates Genzaburo’s life. Hitomi struggles to truly mold himself in Genzaburo’s image, holding his chopsticks the same way, reading without his glasses, and remembering the names of those closest to, Genzaburo, rather. His biggest obstacle is fooling Genzaburo’s wife, Chiyoko.

Digging down into the depths of desperation.

While enjoying the Komoda family’s wealth, Hitomi enacts the lofty goal presented in “The Tale of RA.” He plans on turning an island into a tourist destination, complete with an undersea tunnel, and is willing to displace families living on the site, sell businesses, and offload Genzaburo’s expensive art collection to bring his dream to life. It’s here that the meat of the story starts to sizzle...only to quickly fizzle out.

Maruo has some fantastic panels and arrangements, ones that easily transport you into the inner workings of Hitomi’s mind and the beauty of his island. It’s easy to see that our main character has some psychological issues that go deeper than wanting to be rich and leaving behind a legacy, and it’s apparent that Hitomi has “some thoughts” regarding sexual liberation. The set up was great, but the follow-through left a lot to be desired.

The inner workings of Hitomi’s mind.

One of my biggest gripes is the story feels a bit rushed. There are only eight chapters, but I think that adding two more would have fleshed out the narrative better. I would have loved to dive more into the motivation regarding some of Hitomi’s actions that come later in the story, one specifically that I won’t spoil if you’d like to check the story out yourself.

Here, I need to point out that The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is an original story by novelist Edogawa Rampo that Suehiro Maruo adapted. Rampo himself was an admirer of Edgar Allan Poe, so perhaps if I were more familiar with Poe, I’d have a deeper understanding/appreciation of this particular tale.

A feast for the eyes.

This is most certainly an adult manga, one with graphic depictions of sex. That said, I didn’t find it to be terribly pornographic (your mileage may vary); it’s more frank than anything. There’re drawings of both male and female genitalia, as well as both heterosexual and homosexual sex, but neither is so overwhelming that I felt like I was reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Hogg (a story you can explore on your own).

All in all, I don’t want to write off The Strange Tale of Panorama Island. If you’re looking for a solid story, this one may not sate your appetite. That said, the artwork and detailed page spreads are certainly enjoyable to behold. At the very least, it got me wanting to explore Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, so that’s something. Maybe what makes Panorama Island truly strange is that it’s a getaway destination where you don’t realize where you went or what you saw until you’re back home.

Page Length: 274 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy Used (if you’re in it for the artwork, or want to explore Japanese manga), or check out from your local library

Cover of Genius.

Next Up: Genius, written by Steven T. Seagle and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen, is the story of quantum physicist Ted Marx and his desperate attempt to keep his job at a think tank. When you’ve got the chance to steal a secret idea from Albert Einstein, is it possible to make the math of your moral calculus equation add up?

Far Away Enough To Touch - A Review of Everything Beautiful Is Far Away, Directed by Pete Ohs

Written by O'Brian Gunn

How can an object/concept/person be simultaneously within arm’s reach and so terribly far away? This is one of the many questions Pete Ohs tackles in Everything Beautiful Is Far Away. In the film, Lernert has grown tired of the noise and suffocation that come with living in a city packed shoulder to shoulder with so many people. To that end, he takes to what I call the “full emptiness” of the desert with his android, Susan, who is whittled down to just a head by the desert sand. Along the way, they’re joined by a young woman named Rola. Together, the three set off in search of the fabled Crystal Lake. (Not to worry, there aren’t any hockey-masked murderers at this particular Crystal Lake.)

One of the first things I have to say about Everything Beautiful Is Far Away is the fact that it’s a simple, flowing movie. It only has four characters from beginning to end (counting Susan), there are no jerky-cam ridden action scenes, it doesn’t go out of its way to try to shock or amaze you, and it doesn’t try to reinvent the cinematic wheel. The movie can best be described as a lazy Saturday afternoon lounging outside with a psychologist, philosopher, bohemian, and an indie musician passing a blunt.

Lernert and Rola

Let’s start with the characters. Lernert is a logical as frak, by-the-book, no-words-wasted character. At times, I wondered if he was an android himself (not going to say whether it turns out he is). It’s hard to say if he’s low-key misanthropic or introverted, or if he just prefers the company of androids to humans. Other than the fact that he once lived in the city and emigrated to the desert where he built Susan, the movie doesn’t give us much of his backstory (more on that aspect later).

We first meet Rola when Lernert finds her sprawled out in the sand, foaming at the mouth as the result of eating dactyl root instead of kernyptus root, differentiated only by a green ring. The always-prepared Lernert saves her and instructs her on the difference between dactyl and kernyptus root. Rola rebukes Lernert’s efforts to connect with her, making sure he gives her plenty of physical space, takes her meager supplies, and resumes her journey. She and Lernert reunite when it’s her turn to find him sprawled out unconscious. Rola helps him...but not before rifling through his belongings to see what kind of person she’s dealing with. Rola finds something that makes her want to trust Lernert, and from there, the two set out together in search of the mythical Crystal Lake...and parts for Susan’s new body.

Susan says.

There’s a lot of symbolism to dive into with this film. Mainly, I feel it’s an examination of the multiple layers of distance that divide us as human beings. The movie gives us plenty of wide shots that draw attention to how near or far objects are. With the lack of character backstory in this flick (something I’ve remarked on in past reviews), it got me thinking: This is a film that mirrors how we can meet someone for a season who serves a purpose in getting us to where we need to be in life, all without us learning more than immediate, surface information about this person before s/he fades into the background. That’s how it is when we first meet our two main characters, but the film and story make it so that we really don’t need to know a lot about Lernert and Rola’s pasts. It’s almost like we can see their blurred backstories winding behind them in the undulating depths of the sand dunes. We have to use their present actions to attempt to bring their pasts into focus.

An additional theme the movie gracefully grazes includes the subtle programming we’re subject to in our day-to-day lives. Just as Susan is programmed with specific, manufactured emotions regarding Lernert - we, too, can be programmed for certain knee-jerk responses during certain situations. Immediately responding with “fine/good” (or “well,” if ya nasty) when someone asks how we are, even if we’re going through a small snarl of emotional turmoil, or even asking someone how they are when we don’t give anything resembling a damn regarding their feelings. How would we be deprogrammed/reprogrammed if we lived in the desert for a few years and hardly came into contact with another human being?

As intimate as it gets sometimes.

As intimate as it gets sometimes.

I’d also like to touch on the film’s soundtrack, scored by Alan Palomo of Neon Indians. Much like water in the desert, musical beats are few and far between, but when we stumble upon them, they’re wonderfully refreshing. I can only describe the overall feel of the soundtrack as “delightfully indie.” The beats are effervescent, dynamic, and...intimate. I can easily imagine myself listening to the soundtrack while working or reading.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started watching Everything Beautiful Is Far Away, but I enjoyed where Pete Ohs took me, and how he took me there. The next time you find yourself with some free time and in a mood for a solid indie flick, check it out for yourself. Maybe you’ll find that distant, fully realized beauty you can see but not touch is just as enjoyable as imminent delights.

Runtime: 91 minutes

Recommend Buy, Rent, or Skip: Rent (or stream on Hulu)/Buy (I say this because a single viewing may be enough for you, or you may want to buy it and share it with your friends and family again and again)

Cover of The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

Next Up: The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, by Suehiro Maruo, is a pulpy manga centered on a novelist named Hitomi, who fakes his death to impersonate the recently deceased son of a wealthy industrialist family. The intrigue mounts as Hitomi drapes himself in the industrialist’s fortune, company, and marriage. What mysteries await in this tale of horror, the grotesque, and...“perverse aims?”

Mark Millar’s Moral Superior-ity - A Review of Superior (story by Mark Millar, art by Leinil Yu)

Written by O’Brian Gunn

Cover of Superior #1.

If you were allowed a single wish, what would it be? To wake up every morning at peace without worrying about your finances, health, or safety? That George R.R. Martin would publish his next book before at least the end of the year? To do away with your need for sleep? Or would you do what 12-year-old Simon Pooni did and wish to become a superhero? Writer Mark Millar and artist Leinil Yu show us what this wish looks like in 2010’s Superior, a seven-issue miniseries from Marvel’s Icon imprint.

What makes Simon wish to become Superior is the fact that he has multiple sclerosis, also known as MS. For the uninitiated, MS is a debilitating disease that causes the immune system to gnaw away at the nerves, resulting in vision loss, coordination issues, problems with walking, incontinence, and much more. Currently, there are treatment options for MS, but there isn’t a cure. MS crept up on Simon, his diagnosis progressing from problems moving his fingers and toes to blindness in one eye and trouble pronouncing his own name. The disease kept him from playing basketball, spending time with his friends, and even removing the wrapper from DVDs.

One wish is all it takes.

I break all this down to give you a solid idea of the physical and mental condition Simon is in when he’s visited one night by a spacesuit-wearing monkey named Ormon who informs Simon that he’s been chosen for The Magic Wish. In a puff of smoke, Simon goes from using a wheelchair to learning how to master unaided flight and yankin’ trains to get yoked as the superhero known as Superior.

After spending an issue testing the limits of his Superman-like abilities, Simon/Superior decides to use his newfound powers to prevent and respond to major disasters all over the globe. Simon/Superior’s deeds catch the eye of reporter (of course) Madeline Knox, who’s so bloody ravenous for a story she makes Lois Lane look like a weekend blogger. Millar never lets us know why she’s so dang thirsty for an interview with Superior. For me, it wasn’t enough that she’s a reporter. We all have our reasons for being either passionate or dispassionate about our jobs/careers. I felt like Madeline needed a reason for being desperate enough to drive her car into the sea in the hopes that Simon/Superior would hear her screams for help. I’m all about knowing what motivates a character and why s/he wants what s/he wants. Thankfully, this didn’t bring my story engagement to a screeching halt, just made me pump my brakes.

Obligatory mass destruction and superpowered showdown.

Issue four is where things really start to gel. Simon/Superior is starting to come into his own as a hero, we learn a bit more about Ormon’s true motives, and a figure from Simon’s past is set up as his proper nemesis. I like the flashes of levity and humor Millar included in the story to show that underneath the jacked physique, feats of herculean strength, and flowing cape, Superior is a 12-year-old kid at the end of the day. I won’t go into any more of the plot, as I feel that would spoil things. Sure, you can guess where the story goes, but I want you to experience it for yourself.

Another one of my minor gripes with Superior (other than some of the language usage being a bit off for a kid Simon’s age) is the unnecessary/gratuitous fanservice via Madeline’s generous offering of boobage with nearly every panel she’s in (maybe that’s just part of her personality? It’s something else that’s not made entirely clear). On the flipside, there is a single panel of Superior’s beefcake booty reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s flying skirt; and it is, indeed, delicious. Oh, well, I guess you’ve gotta do what you can to cater to your audience (no matter their sexual orientation). As someone with a book coming out next month (which also has superpowered characters in it), I understand doing what’s necessary to get your product into the hands of your target customer.

Don’t have to budget for the valet if you don’t drive to your fancy dinner.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the upcoming Shazam! movie, which has a verrrry similar premise to Superior. The Shazam! trailers have left me underwhelmed, but I do like the depictions of Billy Batson in the Young Justice and Justice League Unlimited animated series (both of which I highly recommend you check out). One of the big differences between the two properties is that Simon/Superior doesn’t have fellow superheroes to mentor him or turn to for help in learning how to be a proper superhero the way Captain Marvel does. It would’ve been interesting to see how Millar would have handled this thread had he made Superior a longer series, especially given Simon’s medical diagnosis.

After reading Superior, I was pleasantly reminded of the magic of being a kid, that feeling that comes from the fresh-faced and unblemished belief in fairy tales, Santa Claus, and heroes with the unshakable morals of Captain America. As we grow up, I feel it’s not that we lose that magic, but that we allow it to be washed away to the rising tides of life, that we tuck it away to make room for pressing adult responsibilities. It collects dust, gets a little dingy, tries to remind us it’s there between the bills and work weeks and attempts at figuring out our love equation. Then, it flickers at the edges of our attention, just as strong and bright and reassuring. Thanks for the reminder, Simon/Superior, keep doin’ the Lord’s work.

Page Length: 200 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy new, or (as always) check with your local library

Poster for Everything Beautiful Is Far Away

Next Up: Everything Beautiful Is Far Away, an indie sci-fi film directed by Pete Ohs, is the tale of a man, his robot head, and a young drifter as they trek across a sand-shrouded planet in search of a legendary water basin and the key to their survival. Will the film live up to its promise of an examination of love, loneliness, and relationships in the modern world? Only one way to find out.

Reflections of the Way I Used To Be - A Review of Luisa: Now and Then, art and story by Carole Maurel, translated by Mariko Tamaki

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Luisa: Now and Then

Growing up, most of us wanted to avoid turning into our parents. But what if you wanted to avoid growing up into your older self? That’s the question Carole Maurel and Mariko Tamaki tackle in the graphic novel Luisa: Now and Then. In it, 32-year-old Luisa Arambol is working as a photographer in Paris when she gets a knock on the door from her 15-year-old self. What follows is a journey of both discovery and rediscovery, and the insight that comes from a different type of self-reflection.

Where Alex Robinson explored the idea of going back in time and inhabiting your younger self with your grownup mind still intact in Too Cool to Be Forgotten, Maurel heads to the same destination via a different route. Rather than reliving your teenage years all over again with the knowledge and wisdom you have now, how would you react to meeting your younger self in the present day? Would you both get along? Would you feel tempted to warn yourself of mistakes, heartache, turmoil, and the like you were once too young to recognize and avoid? Would just talking to your past self cause your present self to shift into something neither of you recognizes?

When past meets present

In Luisa’s case, she uses meeting her younger self as an opportunity to gain clarity on memories and mindsets muddled by the passing of time. The novel includes flashbacks that establish both Luisas and what brought them to their present circumstances. We see where a younger Luisa started to understand her sexuality, all while she struggled to understand why she wasn’t allowed to see her friend Lucy, whom she developed feelings for. Younger Luisa is disappointed by who (and what) she grows up to be, which is essentially someone who’s settled in life, both professionally and romantically. The rest of the story is an exploration of ghosts that have yet to be and those brought back to life through the ritual of repetition and rumination.

Canned heat

Overall, I enjoyed Luisa: Now and Then. The narrative fumbled a bit of its momentum in the middle, but it found its footing again toward the end. Both Past Luisa and Present Luisa have to reach back into their shared bloodline to truly make sense of their shared lives. Speaking of shared lives, I like how Maurel gave the story a sense of urgency by rapidly aging the younger Luisa and de-aging the older Luisa. There’s a risk of both disappearing into the other if they can’t work together to sort things out.

Where it all started

Something else I enjoyed was how Luisa’s sexuality wasn’t the sole focus of the story. True, it consumed a large portion of the narrative, but I felt it was never overbearing. Instead, Maurel chose to focus on how our heart’s desires play a part in shaping who we are and influencing the decisions we make. After all, who can say they didn’t learn more about themselves by being in a serious relationship, or even having deep, unreciprocated feelings for another person? There’s also the fact that those closest to us are impacted by our decisions and desires, which is something else that’s explored.

Luisa: Now and Then wraps up in a way that’s heartfelt and earned. No matter your age or sexuality, it’s a great exploration of what happens when we neglect to get to know and stay connected to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s a lesson on the razor-thin edge that divides now and then.

Page Length: 272 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy used/on sale, or check with your local library.

Cover of Superior #1.

Next Up: Superior, Mark Millar’s tale of 12-year-old Simon Pooni, who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his transformation into the ultra-powerful superhero known as Superior. What happens when a pre-teen is given the powers of a legend, and will he have to go back to life in a wheelchair? The (unintended) exploration of the crossroads of adulthood and childhood continue next month.

Who’s That Unmasked Woman? - A Review of Alias, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Michael Gaydos

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Alias (2001) #23, cover by David Mack.

It’s simultaneously frustratingly difficult and ridiculously easy to find new, exciting ground to explore when it comes to superheroes. Popular comic book publisher Marvel has explored every origin story from scientific experiments gone wrong and mutated genes to gods on Earth and super soldier serums. What about the characters who are granted superpowers and find the life of superheroics just isn’t for them? This is the question Brian Michael Bendis tackles with Jessica Jones in Alias, which originally debuted under Marvel’s MAX imprint in 2001. It’s also been adapted into a Netflix show, which premiered in 2015.

Alias is the story of Jessica Jones, a one-time superhero who went by the codename Jewel. After being kidnapped and psychologically tortured by mind-controlling Zebediah Killgrave, also known as The Purple Man, Jessica hangs up her costume and opens Alias Investigations. Rather than starting with either of Jessica’s origin stories (her start as a superhero or her start as a detective), Bendis instead jumps the series off with Jessica flinging an unruly client through a door window. This is the perfect intro to Jessica and her world.

That time Jessica had a heart-to-heart with Captain America.

From there, the narrative is built from several different cases that Jessica takes on. A woman goes missing, and Jessica finds herself involved in conspiracy. A missing young girl and possible mutant is wanted back in her small town home. Jessica finds a disoriented Spider-Woman (Mattie Franklin) in her bathroom. The Purple Man returns. Jessica handles it all with a little help from the bottle and a few visits to (and from) The Avengers.

This book simply sings in gritty five-part harmony. Rather than go large scale and put the entire city, world or universe in peril, Bendis brings the story down to the cracked and crime-riddled streets of New York City. I enjoyed how small blips of standard superheroics were scattered about in panel backgrounds with small details like an Avengers hotline. I also liked the generous amount of text on the page and how Bendis captured the nuances of how people talk, such as pauses and scrambling to find the right words and phrases. The panel arrangement makes great use of the page and became almost like a signature of the story.

Purple reign.

As for the parts I felt could have been done better, the way the Purple Man/Killgrave storyline wrapped up left a bit to be desired. I won’t ruin anything, but I will say that Killgrave was set up to be a menacing character and a huge part of why Jessica is the way she is when we first meet her. I didn’t expect a knock-down, drag-out fight across the city that leveled buildings and left titanic craters in the pavement, as that wouldn’t have matched the story’s tone. That said, I do prefer a more fleshed out resolution. Then again, I guess the TV show took care of that.

So how does the TV show compare to the comic book series? Krysten Ritter does a fantastic job of balancing the grit, vulnerability and smarts of Jessica Jones. One thing I like more about the comic book is how The Avengers and a few other aspects of the Marvel universe are sprinkled throughout the narrative. It would be great to see Ant-Man and Jessica go on a date, or Black Widow come to Jessica for help tracking down a criminal organization. But who knows how the MCU and Marvel Netflix shows may change in the future?

Jessica’s version of afterglow.

One interesting tidbit I learned about Alias while preparing this review is an interracial sex scene between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones was deemed “offensive content” for Marvel’s then-printer in Alabama (my home state). Bear in mind that the scene isn’t overtly graphic and doesn’t go on for several pages (only five total panels). It’s important to note the panels suggest anal sex, which may have been what the original printers took issue with. While the creative team could have changed the suggestive pose, Marvel instead switched to Canadian printer Quebecor Printing, which has since become a major publisher for big comic book companies. I can see why Bendis and the others didn’t budge to appease the original printer, as the position and the suggestion it makes provide the reader with a deeper insight into Jessica’s personality and how she operates as a character. She’s anything but vanilla in more ways than one.

Alias makes for the perfect break from typical superhero stories, and it’s a great pick for those who’d like to see a different side of Marvel. This was my first time reading the famous/infamous (depending on who you ask) Brian Michael Bendis, and I can say I’ll be open to picking up anything else he writes, no matter what alias he uses.

Page Length: 720 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Absolutely buy new (look into the Ultimate Collection Books 1 and 2 if the hardback omnibus version is out of your price range)

Cover of Luisa: Now and Then.

Next Up: Luisa: Now and Then, drawn by Carole Maurel and translated from French by Mariko Tamaki. Much like Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to be Forgotten, Luisa is the story of adult Luisa coming face-to-face with a younger, queerer version of herself. Find out how the Paris setting, gender switch (in character and in writer) and queer main character differentiate from Robinson’s exploration of the same concept.

Bitcoin Dreadfuls - A Review of Modern Dread, compiled by Ryan Fassett and Pat Shand

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Modern Dread (2018), cover by Mike Capprotti.

While I’m not the biggest horror fan, I do enjoy being creeped out and horrified in a way that clings to me and slithers over my skin for days to come, leaving me looking over my shoulder and calling on Jesus like my mama taught me. I’ve never read a horror comic before, but Modern Dread is certainly a solid introduction. Created by a variety of artists and writers, including Ryan Fassett and Pat Shand, Modern Dread is a modern graphic novelette take on Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Originally a Kickstarter project, Modern Dread taps into current-day anxieties and fears to give readers something new to lose sleep over. You know, other than worrying if you have enough in savings to cover a medical emergency, if you’ll ever find someone who truly understands you, and how HBO plans on wrapping up Game of Thrones. The result is seven vignettes that explore everything from demonic tattoos to internet trolls who invade our homes. The stories are told by five friends (and one houseguest) who gather for a classic horror movie night but end up sharing their own original horror stories.

A horrific wake-up call. A page from Alone At Night by Ryan Fassett & Chandra Free.

Besides tattoos and internet trolls, Modern Dread also explores the risks of using ridesharing services that extend beyond assault and having a horrible driver. A story titled “What You Need” explores the sometimes-thin line between harmful, addictive drugs that can lead to regret and medication that can help us live our best lives. Just as some classic horror movies have held up rather well by focusing on universal themes and eternal anxieties, I have a feeling the tales in this particular anthology will stand the test of time for quite a while, tapping into dread that’s likely to linger with the human race for decades to come. I’m already thinking about future horror stories involving robots/androids programmed by disabled serial killers and bionic limbs infected with techno viral-demons.

I really enjoyed how Pat and Ryan nailed modern vernacular in the continuing narrative between stories. Even though I truly dig the deep, opulent dialogue in shows like Penny Dreadful and Hannibal, I also appreciate writers who give us characters who speak like someone we might interact with on the street, and that’s exactly what we’ve got here. I also liked how each story had a different artist, something I felt was a great way to get inside each storyteller’s head and experience the story from her unique perspective.

Car trouble. A page from Caught On the Web by Ryan Lynch & Fabio Ramacci.

I will say that not all the stories were direct hits for me. There were moments when I felt the narrative territory had been explored time and time again and didn’t give me anything new to chew on. That said, I do feel a majority of the stories delivered on the thrills and chills.

Don’t feed the trolls. A page from The Comments Section by Katie Tuohy, Pat Shand, & Olivia Pelaez.

Even though Modern Dread is a quick read (hence the short review), it gives you a lot to think about and explore long after you’ve finished. Whether all that contemplating is good or bad is entirely up to you. While focusing on the positive is great for your mental health, it’s sometimes nice to look down at the old demons we’ve risen above. Let’s just hope they haven’t made any new friends and grown wings while we weren’t looking.

Page Length: 72 pgs 

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy new...if you dare

Alias (2001) #23, cover by David Mack.

Next Up: Alias, by Brian Michael Bendis, the story of Marvel one-time-superhero turned-detective, Jessica Jones. It’s got purple men, high school drama, and dates with an Avenger. How does the Netflix show stack up to the original work? Find out next month!

That One Time Crime (and James Gunn) Shut up and Took a Long, Hard Look at Itself - A Review of Super, Directed by James Gunn

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Crimson Bolt in all his glory.

When it comes to the superhero genre, there’s a paradox of there being similar origin stories told over and over again with minor tweaks standing alongside a limitless glut of ways to explore untread ground. James Gunn’s Super (released in 2010) embraces both sides of that paradox but, like its main character, it lacks the abilities necessary to be truly effective.

The film’s plot involves a human doormat named Frank Darbo who dons the vigilante persona Crimson Bolt when his wife and the love of his life, Sarah, becomes strung out on drugs and moves in with a drug dealer named Jock. The film occasionally flashes back to Frank and Sarah’s relationship, one that’s based on two damaged people (Sarah a recovering addict and Frank with obvious undiagnosed mental health issues) trying to hold and build each other up when it’s clear they need to be focused on their own recovery, something Sarah’s sister points out when the couple first announces their engagement.

While leveling up to saving Sarah, who seems just as disrespectful and dismissive of Frank as everyone else in his life, Fra--ah, the Crimson Bolt takes on drug dealers, robbers and pedophiles. It’s here that I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversial dustup regarding James Gunn and the recently dug out skeletons in his social media closet. The film deals with a lot of the very same content James tweeted about a decade ago (as of this review) that got him fired from Disney. Thankfully, James has gone on record apologizing for his actions.

Crimson and Boltie.

Getting back to Super, Crimson Bolt reminded me a lot of the psychologically shattered Rorschach/Walter Kovacs from Watchmen, but Rainn Wilson’s Frank lacked Kovacs’ depth, rich backstory and fully fleshed out characterization (all of which I made sure to include in my own debut novel, FURIES: THUS SPOKE, a graphic novel in prose about six people who are casualties of circumstance becoming accidental heroes after being involved in the murder of a renowned superhuman family). I never found myself caring about Frank or the Crimson Bolt, nor did I develop any sort of attachment to his sidekick Boltie, a girl named Libby who is an employee of the comic book shop where Frank goes to research how to be a superhero.

I hate to write a review brimming with nothing but gripes, but that’s all I have for this movie. Stereotype after stereotype fills the movie’s runtime. From black drug dealers, jokes about being raped in prison and glorifying (damn-near-fetishising) gratuitous violence without consequence, to an actual rape of Frank, and the use of the n-word - this movie’s got it all in unflattering spades. Rather than keep pointing out the many missteps, I’d like to focus on what could have been done better, in my opinion, and how James has grown since releasing Super.

Take that, Crime!

It would have been interesting to see Frank acknowledge the fact that he needed mental help while acting as Crimson Bolt. I feel that would have added a great bit of nuance to his character, and it would have been interesting to see how therapy helped shaped both his identities. This small inclusion may have been enough to keep Frank from being essentially the same character at the end of the movie that he was at the beginning. Libby could have acted as his support system both psychologically and while the two were out in the field, and maybe that desire to be a supportive force could have been her catalyst for becoming a sidekick rather than a solo hero.

While I didn’t at all care for Super, I do like how much James Gunn has improved as a storyteller. This may have been something he needed to purge from his creative system to give us gems like Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, some of our greatest triumphs blossom from the seeds of our greatest personal failings. Rather than watching his parents or uncle die before being compelled to become a hero, it seems as if Gunn was instead compelled to kill off his immature persona before donning a new one. And that’s an origin story I don’t mind watching again and again.

Runtime: 96 minutes

Recommend Buy, Rent, or Skip: Absolutely skip, unless you’re a die-hard James Gunn fan. Even then, you may find this one isn’t worth your time.

Cover of Modern Dread.

Next Up: Modern Dread, a horror anthology focused on modern fears and anxieties. What eldritch horrors have yet to be unleashed from our high-death-inition screens? Not to worry, there’s an app and a graphic novel for that!

Rebirth of Andy Wicks (Cool Like Dat) - A Review of Too Cool to Be Forgotten, by Alex Robinson

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Too Cool to Be Forgotten.

While some of us may have more than a few not-so-bad memories of high school, we can all agree that none of us knew quite what the hell we were doing other than trying to figure ourselves out - just like we had to figure out the right way to use the Pythagorean theorem and how to untangle the mysteries of Middle English. In Too Cool To Be Forgotten, Alex Robinson gives main character (Andy Wicks) an unexpected opportunity to get high school right (if that’s at all possible to do) when he’s hypnotized in an attempt to undo his smoking habit.  

Same body, different mind.

Too Cool is a quick read with a tight, satisfying plot. Andy Wicks has tried anything and everything to quit smoking, but smoking seems to have made him a habit just as much as he’s made smoking a habit. Desperate, Andy goes to a hypnotist, an opening scene that brilliantly gives us most of his history and character profile with a single page displaying his new patient form at the hypnotist’s office. Rather than ending up as the next Manchurian Candidate or being pulled into The Sunken Place, Andy is instead swayed back into his high school body with his adult mind intact. What else does he change besides his answer the first time he was offered a cigarette?

Something that immediately struck me upon cracking open Robinson’s short but sweet selection was his use of light and shadow. While the utility isn’t original or isolated (Sin City immediately jumps to my noir-infused mind), what I liked most was how Robinson uses the composition juxtaposition to paint the picture of a man trapped in the shadow of his past while attempting to spark a light for his future. Robinson also paints a literal picture with words that was a nice alternative to the typical thought bubble.

Moving past the artwork and digging into the story, I enjoyed how Too Cool touched on how everyone has contemplated returning to high school with the knowledge and wisdom they have now in an effort to do better. But if you had done things “better,” would you still have the same insight that allowed you to change things in your favor? Would you still be the same person? Because Andy is a geek and relatively happy with his present-day life, he’s careful not to make too many ripples in the time stream; although, he is certainly tempted to shuffle the cards more than a few times.

Worth a thousand words.

While Andy re-lives his way toward “that moment,” he thinks about how he lost touch with some of his high school friends/classmates and how some of them eventually ended up as adults. Even with social media, we can still easily lose contact with people from high school that we still consider friends. Friends who may have turned out completely different from what we expected when we knew them in high school. Popular kids can have their popularity snatched away from them as soon as they walk across the graduation stage; the quiet kids can later find their voices in surprising and bold career choices; and the geeks and nerds can prove to be the only ones who truly know, understand, and accept who they are from the jump.

At one point in his journey, Alex almost gives in to his raging teenage hormones when he’s at a party, the very one where he lit up his first cigarette. But because he has the mind of a 40-year-old, Andy feels he is taking advantage of the high school girl - one who’s young enough to be his daughter. While the two are biologically the same age, Andy still feels as if he almost committed statutory rape, a detail I’m glad Robinson explored. It’s this knowledge of the present and the past that brings our main character equal measures of grief and comfort.

Don’t we all.

And I cannot end this review without talking about “the conversation” at the end of the story. I would be utterly ruining the experience by revealing the details, but I will say that it was every bit as emotional as promised and fit the narrative perfectly. When it comes to bad habits, it’s not enough to quit, you have to have a bone-deep reason to stay off the wagon day after day no matter how tired you may be of walking.

I enjoyed the hell outta Too Cool, as you can easily see. It’s a rapid read that hits all the right notes. Rather than wishing we’d done things differently in high school (or any other time in life), maybe it’s better that we focus on manifesting a present that’s free of regrets. As long as you can say that you do the best you can with what you have, you’re sure to have memories of a life that’s too cool to be forgotten.

Page Length: 125 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Absolutely buy new

Movie poster for Super

Next Up: The black comedy/drama Super is directed by James Gunn, who tells the story of a short-order cook (played by Rainn Wilson) who takes on an alternate superpower-less alter ego called the Crimson Bolt to save his ex-wife from the wiles of a drug dealer. Should be interesting to see how well (if at all) this movie holds up after it was first released in 2010, especially since Gunn went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy.

Girls? Girls. GIRLS! - A Review of Girls, by the Luna Brothers

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Girls

Growing up in a small town in Alabama, I always wished that something exciting would happen, something that would take me out of the soul-numbing, small-town existence that made me feel as if life were on an infinite loop. I was immediately reminded of that feeling when I started Girls, which is set in Pennystown, population 63. Besides small-town life, the Luna Brothers’ series also focuses on the age-old theme of gender differences, but with a sci-fi backdrop.   

The story starts with an introduction to one of the main characters, Ethan, who is...enjoying some gentleman’s time with a soft porn magazine. From there, we follow Ethan to his job at the local grocery store where he bumbles his way through an attempt at flirting with the new girl in town (she sprinkles the conversation with heavy sexual innuendo, so it’s no wonder that he thinks she’s hitting on him). Later, he meets up with his friend Merv at a bar where they demonstrate a textbook-perfect definition of “incel,” topping things off with a misogynistic tirade against all the women in the bar.

From there, Ethan is 86’d from the bar, and there’s a tremendous BOOM! that’s powerful enough to make it stop raining (cue The X-Files theme). Our Debonair Dan speeds away in his car, which is when he almost hits a naked woman in the middle of the road. Out of the goodness of his dic--eh, heart, Ethan takes the silent femme fatale home and offers her food and shelter. In contrast with his earlier interaction with a woman where she droped sexual hints with her words that didn’t match her true intentions, the mysterious woman practically clubs Ethan over the head with sexual hints with her body that more than match her true intentions.

And so it begins

The two engage in the dance of the two-backed beast, but instead of a Shakespearean play, the act results in Ethan finding several eggs of various sizes in his bathroom...which hatch into several clones of the dark-haired woman. Clones that want to repeat the sexual cycle with any male they can get their hands on while ripping apart any female they can get their hands on. And then there’s the giant, translucent sperm monster in a cornfield and the massive force field surrounding the town that keeps anyone from getting in or out. Again, cue The X-Files theme.

Besieged on all sides

The rest of the graphic novel explores the men and women of Pennystown coming to grips with the fact that they’ve been infiltrated and trapped by a beautiful alien invasion, trying to keep the men from succumbing to their baser desires - and keeping the women and children safe. All the while, tempers flare, more clone eggs are hatched, and the statuses of relationships/marriages are discussed between clone skirmishes reminiscent of Attack on Titan.

Bears aren’t the only things to watch out for in the woods

One of the things I liked most about Girls is the fact that it’s a character-driven story with text-heavy speech bubbles. That said, the Luna Brothers paid equally close attention to the visuals of their tale, with frames having a cinematic feel with special focus on the background or foreground. The brothers also don’t shy away from a deep examination of the differences in perspective between men and women - not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to relationships. While the story does have a gay character, I feel it could’ve been interesting if it had had a gay couple as well (male or female) just to see how that dynamic would have played out.

The women fight back

One thing that I didn’t care much for is the fact that most (not all) of the male characters are unlikeable assholes, while most (not all) of the female characters are treated like shit. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but I felt it cost the story opportunities to have fewer gender stereotypes and be more polished, more multifaceted. Something else I didn’t like was how the characters kept calling the clones “girls” (practically on every page). If I’d just witnessed a gang of clones rip a woman’s hair from her scalp, gnaw through her neck/stomach, beat her senseless, and try to tear her arms and legs off, the last thing I would call them would be “girls.” There were also a few character reactions I felt were mishandled and implausible, such as attempting to grab a loaded gun from someone’s hands and smacking a pregnant woman out of anger.

Going back to the character-driven elements of the story, it was a great shift when the torch was passed (a little inside joke) to the female characters in the middle of the series, especially Nancy. I don’t want to give the impression that none of the male characters have any redeeming qualities, because some of them do - especially Wes and the reverend. My main beef with most of the male characters is the fact that they usually acted like horny adolescents who didn’t give a damn that they were trapped behind a force field with a giant sperm monster next door. I want depth, layers, nuance!   

Overall, Girls is worth reading for the excellent horror, survival, and suspense elements alone. The Luna Brothers had some solid ideas, and they stuck more landings than they bumbled, but know that they do leave a few questions unanswered, as you may expect. It would be interesting if they had a follow-up series called Boys where they explored what would happen if the aliens were male rather than female.

Think twice if you ever see a beautiful, dark-haired naked man wandering the streets alone. No matter how enticing he might seem, he just might tear your heart out.        

Page Length: 624 pgs hardcover, 608 paperback

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy paperback used/on sale (I’d also check with your local library)

Too Cool To Be Forgotten cover.

Next Up: Too Cool to Be Forgotten, by Alex Robinson, is the story of Andy Wicks, who tries hypnosis to break his smoking habit, only he finds himself blasted back into his high school body with his 40-year old mind. Will he use the opportunity to change more than his smoking habit, or is his life written in cigarette ash-dusted stone? Mortality, compassion, algebra class, family relationships, and a sneaky tear-jerker of an ending await!

Everybody Was Wuxia Fighting - A Review of The Four Trilogy, Directed by Gordon Chan and Janet Chun

Written by O'Brian Gunn

The gang’s all here.

My first introduction to the wuxia film genre was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before that, I’d always been a fan of martial arts flicks, especially those that came out of China/Hong Kong, but there was something especially captivating about watching characters flow across the screen in gravity-mocking leaps and graceful fight scenes that were more like ballets with weapons. With The Four Trilogy, one of my favorite film genres was combined with another one of my favorites: superheroes. So did the three films Wing Chun punch me senseless with cinematic glory?

In the original The Four, audiences are introduced to Department Six, a government police force, and the Divine Constabulary, a small secret service whose members have supernatural abilities. Emotionless has the ability to read minds/auras and is telekinetic, and Iron Hands can make his arms hard as iron and can project chi from his fists. The two newcomers are Life Snatcher, who is a master tracker and projects chi from his superpowered kicks, and Cold Blood, who is essentially a werewolf with a mystical sword that can emit blades of green energy.

Enemies, lovers or friends?

The plot focuses on a counterfeit coin operation and Cold Blood being fired from Department Six and sent to infiltrate the Divine Constabulary to bring them down from the inside - due to a rivalry between the two forces. There’s also another double agent in Department Six, Ji Yaohua, who’s working for the film’s main antagonist, An Shigeneg. It’s not a spoiler to reveal the moles, as the movie makes their identities known fairly early on. What I like about this is that you don’t spend the film wondering who the double agents are, but focusing more on their motivations and how their roles impact them psychologically.

One thing you should know about this film is that there are a lot of characters to keep up with. The film does a pretty good job of not overwhelming you, but there were times where I had to pause to match faces with names. As far as what the film does right, the physical setting and costuming looked fantastic, there’s a contingent of female warriors in Department Six, and I like the bits of philosophy (doing the wrong thing for the right reasons) that were added. Areas I felt needed some fleshing out included character development and making the final battle less confusing in regards to just how the characters’ abilities worked and giving their powers limits. There’s also a love triangle between Cold Blood, Emotionless, and Ji Yaohua that didn’t really resonate with me.

Overall, The Four is a decent introduction to the trilogy, one that was enough to leave me wanting to learn more about the characters and the world they inhabit. The Four II (also titled The Lawless Kingdom) is where my prayers were answered.

In the second installation, the counterfeit operation plotline is tied up, and another is kicked off in the form of the discovery of several bodies of men who were supposed to have died 12 years ago. At the center of the mystery is Zhuge Zhengwo, the leader of the Divine Constabulary, mainly because it is he who attacked Cold Blood at the beginning of the film before the bodies are discovered, and because he is connected to the bodies. The story is tighter, we finally understand how the characters got their powers (chi manipulation), and the film dives headfirst into its mystical world rather than shuffling around it - as they did in the first film.

Fun with acupuncture

There were some truly great bits in The Four II. Emotionless and Zhuge Zhengwo are blocked from using their abilities by acupuncture, the jailbreak scene towards the end is a fantastic visual feast and well-paced, and the new antagonist (Lady Fog) reminded me of a villain from Power Rangers, but with less camp. I also liked how most of the minor characters from the first film had larger roles, and how the story is more character-driven. I won’t spoil the revelation towards the end, but I will say I loved the direction it took the characters and story in. This installation was my absolute favorite of the three.

The third and final entry (also titled Kingdom of Blood) is...regrettable. The events from the second film carry over, but the way they’re handled and tied up leaves a lot to be desired. In the final installation, there’s an assassination attempt on the emperor, and Zhuge Zhengwo does his best to get the divine band back together before An Shigeneg fills the void left by the absence of an emperor or heir. Because events from the last film left Emotionless with little choice but to leave the team, she’s reluctant to work with her old teammates again to investigate the murder, and she tells Cold Blood as much when he tries to bring her back into the fold. The only problem is that she immediately throws her hat in the investigation ring with no discernible reason why as soon as Cold Blood leaves. Maybe she’s not as emotionless as her name implies when it comes to him.  

The rest of the film was mostly a let down for me; fight scenes are uninspired (although there is a slight improvement with the final battle), and the delightful Lady Fog is barely even in this one! That said, I did like the development of Ji Yaohua’s duplicitous character, and there were a few solid attempts at humor that actually stuck their landings.

The requisite martial arts flick villain

The Four Trilogy makes for okay viewing if you’ve got a free afternoon/weekend and some popcorn you’ve been looking for a reason to devour. If you’re a completionist (like myself), you’ll likely be unable to bear the lingering loose ends left dangling by skipping the third movie, especially after viewing the end of the second movie. That said, you might have a different opinion than mine. Bear in mind that I like a wuxia film that has just as much of a compelling story/script/characters as it does breath-snatching fight scenes, so your movie mileage (and expectations) may vary.  

If you’re interested in plunging into the X-Men-esque trilogy for yourself, both The Four and Kingdom of Blood are currently available to rent on Google Play, and The Lawless Kingdom is available to view for free on the Tubi TV app, which is compatible with several devices.

Girls by The Luna Brothers.

Next Up: Girls, written by the Luna Brothers, depicts what happens when rural Pennystown is visited by beautiful aliens who want one thing in particular from the men and nothing from the women...except for their lives. Lines are drawn around the town and between the sexes as we figure out just what these girls want and what Pennystown’s residents are willing to do to see that they don’t get it.

Alan Moore & The Supremes - A Review of Alan Moore’s Supreme: The Story of the Year

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover for Supreme: The Story of the Year

Almost every comic book publisher has its own version of Superman, the archetypal superhero with superior strength, speed, senses, looks, and morals all paired with a gleaming Colgate smile. While you might be (understandably) tempted to groan in frustration at the idea of reading yet another comic book/graphic novel with a Superman-esque character and premise, that frustration can easily morph into intrigue upon learning that it’s Alan Moore at the helm ready to take you on a supreme ride that’s totally unlike the experience of Watchmen (in a good way), but with the same level of care and attention to intricate detail. Now embarking on Supreme: The Story of the Year (S:SY).

One of the first things you should know about S:SY is that it’s not packed to the spine with leap-off-the-page action, slick-looking characters, or a complex story. But sometimes, just as it’s nice to take a breather from reality by immersing yourself between the pages of a comic book, it’s nice to take a break from the riveting, nail-biting action and mosaic comic book narrative/universal event that aims to blow your mind. Sometimes, it’s nice to enjoy the ride down a lazy 2D river and remind yourself of how far comics have come.

Doesn’t get more nostalgic than this

Jumping right into the story, Moore opens his retro-infused tale with our titular hero returning to Earth, only it seems as though his home has blended with a parallel universe revealed to Supreme’s special senses. Our main character has also recently dealt with alternate versions of himself, which only adds to his bewilderment. Upon landing in Omegapolis, Supreme is hit with a feeling of deja vu as he’s greeted by several other Supremes, including a black female Sister Supreme, a mouse named Squeak the Suprememouse, and another that has a strong resemblance to DC’s original Shazam.

After reaching a loose understanding, Supreme and his superhuman siblings travel to The Supremacy, which serves as a nexus for the many different versions of Superma--eh, Supreme throughout the decades, Moore’s way of paying homage to the various iterations of Superman that have been revealed since his original debut back in the late 1930s. There’s even a version of Supreme that’s only lasted “one short month, without even a second appearance.” The stockpile of Supremes (and some of their side characters) have been waiting for each other since their respective runs ended, gradually being joined by the next generation's iteration that will be replaced by an even newer, sleeker model. Moore gets a bit meta at this point (as if we’d expect anything less from him), explaining that “our” Supreme has gaps in his memory because those memories haven’t been written yet.

The new old Supreme.

The story soars off in earnest when Supreme learns that he has an opportunity to return to his “newly-revised Earth,” an opportunity that none of the other Supremes have had. Our hero climbs up a golden staircase to his homeworld where he’ll fill in the blanks of his past and bear witness to his future.

From there, Moore uses a 50s-style comic book format blended with Supreme’s late 90s comic book look to explore our main character’s memories, which are all too reminiscent of The Superfriends and the Silver Age Justice League of the 50s. There’s so much to unpack with this dense graphic novel, from Supreme/Ethan Crane’s job as a comic book artist (who works on a comic that features a Supreme-like character) and his time as a member of The League of Infinity to the hero’s rogues’ gallery and the final showdown that you’d expect from a classic comic book between Supreme and a certain archnemesis.

The many faces of Supreme.

One thing worth noting is that S:SY is Moore’s mea culpa for the dark tone steeped in his earlier works, such as Batman: The Killing Joke and Swamp Thing. Moore’s lighter tone is reminiscent of the hopeful, World of Tomorrow-esque and (now) slightly cheesy feel imbued in Golden and Silver Age comics. If you’d like to explore more of that bygone era, I highly recommend Brian Fies’ Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? graphic novel.

While S:SY might sound like little more than a creative writing exercise, it’s a collection that should be considered required reading for comic book fans of all ages. It takes you back not only to Rob Liefeld’s long-legged and barrel-chested art style, but to the birth of comic books. Compared to other Superman riffs, this selection reigns Supreme.   

Movie poster for The Four.

Next Up: The Four Trilogy. Warriors with superpowers. Wuxia. ‘Nuff said.

His Power Level Is Over 9,000! - A Review of Chronicle, Directed by Josh Trank (with mild spoilers)

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Chronicle movie poster.

Many of us have wondered what it would be like to have superpowers, but Uncle Ben would probably agree that it’s unfortunate that power and responsibility aren’t always a package deal. In 2012, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis gave audiences a lot to think about when they debuted Chronicle, the documentary-style film about three high schoolers - Andrew, Matt, and Steve - who are given the power of telekinesis when they discover an alien object (reminiscent of a crystallized Shuma-Gorath) burrowed underground.

Andrew, the main character, keeps to himself and is usually seen (when he’s not behind the camera) in black. At home, his loving mother is dying of cancer, and his verbally and physically abusive father is a disabled former firefighter who feels as powerless as his son, but deals with his circumstances in a much more toxic way. At school, Andrew is a target for bullies and often perceived as creepy and severely withdrawn. His cousin Matt is a touch more sociable and encourages Andrew to crack his way out of his shell, and Steve is a rare popular kid who doesn’t seem to mind associating and being seen with the not-so-popular kids.

Who’s behind the camera?

What drives Chronicle’s narrative is the question of “does power shape us, or do we shape power?” Both Matt and Steve are set up as the good guys, saving a man from drowning in a car after Andrew “accidentally” hurls him off the road for tailgating and blaring his horn at them, while Andrew remains as an unknown throughout a majority of the film in regards to whether he’s a protagonist or antagonist; he has just as much potential for either.

Andrew quickly takes to his abilities, easily mastering flying, finesse, and great displays of power as he, Steve, and Matt weave between being mischievous teenagers playing pranks on random people and testing the limits of their new abilities. Andrew starts to gain more confidence, adds some color to his wardrobe, and opens up more to Steve and Matt, noting that he’d like to travel to Tibet for a slice of serenity.    

Andrew also experiences both the sweetness and bitterness of putting yourself in the public spotlight, flooring his high school during a talent show in which he uses his powers masqueraded as magic tricks, and being humiliated when he drunkenly vomits on a girl as they’re hooking up. Matt is on the receiving end of a flicker of the depths of Andrew’s still-unresolved rage when he tries to capture the moment on film. This is a catalyst that reminds Andrew that despite all his power, he’s still trapped, still powerless to save his mother, still the same old Andrew.

A side of telekinesis with every order

It’s when Andrew’s mother’s condition worsens that he uses his abilities to rob neighborhood bullies and a gas station. An accident leads to an explosion at the gas station, which likely killed the owner and leaves Andrew with severe injuries. When Andrew’s father visits him in the hospital and informs him that his mother has died and starts to hit him, Andrew’s eyes snap open and he rages into full Phoenix mode for the duration of the movie before Matt, unable to calm him down, has no choice but to kill his cousin, a self-proclaimed apex predator.

This movie was a jab in the gut for me. I could easily identify with Andrew, as I’m also an introvert (I hesitate to use “loner”), was bullied for a period of time in high school, and my home life wasn’t the best, either. Andrew isn’t much different from the many school shooters who seem to crop up damn near every day, and Chronicle gives us an example of what can happen when we don’t handle our emotions in a healthy way and when we feel like we have no agency in life. While I can understand resorting to criminal actions for what you see as a noble outcome and standing up for yourself by any means you feel necessary, I also feel that Andrew had opportunities to let Matt, Steve, and his mom provide him with the support he needed to work through his anger and gain much-needed clarity. But then again, how much help do you think you need when you can fly and lift cars with your mind?

Apex predator mode

And this review wouldn’t be complete without touching on Josh Trank and Mike Landis, both of whom have sordid and controversial pasts, and both of whom seem perfect to write/direct a movie about a self-destructive adolescent who has power but often seems to lack the temperament to use it wisely. After all, creative types can’t help but imbue a bit of themselves in their creations.

Chronicle might not bring anything new to philosophical discussions about morality and power, but the documentary style offers up a deeper insight into the film’s characters. It’s deeply personal to be captured and preserved on camera, especially without filters, editing, or special effects. And much like receiving superpowers, the camera has the ability to show you facets of your true personality that simmer just underneath the surface, waiting to be revealed to yourself and the world.

Cover of Supreme: The Story of the Year.

Next Up: Alan Moore’s Supreme: Story of the Year, which offers an alternate take on Superman. In this self-contained story arc, Supreme explores his origins after losing his memory (in typical comic book fashion), taking readers on a journey through Little Haven and Omegapolis as Moore serves up his distinct commentary on not just superheroes, but comic books as a colorful and historic entity.  

The Ol’ One-Two Mind Punch: A Review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (with mild spoilers)

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Fight Club 2

Over the years, Fight Club has become more of an experience than a movie, one that has shaped many a mind and outlook on life. While it was considered a box-office failure when initially released in 1999, it has since become somewhat of a lifestyle, mostly for men. I admit that when I first watched Edward Norton and Brad Pitt pummel each other’s bodies, lives, and minds, I, too, was a bit taken in with the message about the dangers of toxic consumerism. It also didn’t hurt that the film had a healthy dusting of homoerotic subtext, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Sebastian & Marla

With Fight Club 2, Palahniuk and artist Cameron Stewart lull us back into the head of The Narrator (now going by the name Sebastian) to explore his life 10 years after Project Mayhem. He’s married to Marla, lives in the suburbs, and has a son, all the trappings you think he’d avoid at all costs. But just like with typical life in the suburbs, a white picket fence isn’t enough of a barrier to hold back the dual-darkness churning within the seemingly happy home.

Sebastian still has Tyler Durden haunting and rearranging his mental house, despite his taking medication and working with a therapist to keep his alternate personality under control. The fact that Marla is willingly undoing her husband’s mental renovations by replacing some of his pills with aspirin so she can feel alive again with Tyler also doesn’t help matters. Readers are treated to the familiar narrative voice, well-marinated revelations, and turns of phrase that glazed the movie script, easily drawing you back into the jangled world. But just like the inside of Sebastian’s skull, there are some major differences.

With the help of members of Project Mayhem, Tyler has birthed a new movement called Rize or Die. Just as Sebastian shifted his life to the suburbs, Tyler has shifted his focus to the entire world, inciting wars and terror in various countries in the hopes of sieving through mankind to leave only those who are worthy of inheriting the earth...or at least what remains of it once the dust has settled, the fires of war have been extinguished, and the casualties have been taken care of.

Just like in Fight Club, Sebastian acts as the fly in Tyler’s psychedelic ointment, this time fighting to save his son, who has been kidnapped by Tyler and the rest of Rize or Die/Fight Club in an attempt to turn the child into a military leader. Tapping into newly developed maternal instincts, Marla does her part by working with a progeria support group (which she infiltrated in her usual fashion) made up of computer geniuses who help her track down her son.

Throughout the novel’s 10 chapters, plus a revisited ending to the original novel, Palahniuk and Stewart weave an at times confusing tale that still manages to offer up some insightful commentary about the banal prison of routine that suburban and married life can sometimes become, the current state of masculinity, and the concept of ideas shaping humanity rather than humanity shaping ideas.

A Family dinner in Fight Club 2.

That’s just the general foundation of the plot. To avoid ruining the full experience, I won’t go into too much detail about Tyler’s origins; the meta tissues powering the movement of the narrative; or how parts of the story reminded me of Mr. Robot, Legion, and the Metal Gear Solid series. What I will do is say that the “2” in Fight Club 2 not only signifies the fact that it’s a sequel, but also the fact that you’ll likely have to read the story twice to truly start to wrap your mind around what’s really going on...and maybe even “2” for the number of alternate personalities you’ll need to not just know, but understand what’s going on.

Fight Club 2 pummeled me to a bloody, confused pulp, but that literary beating is balanced out with a full mental massage of introspection administered by the same hands that frenetically put together the puzzle of the original Fight Club. I didn’t love this graphic novel, but I didn’t entirely hate it either...which might be intentional in a story about someone with dual personalities, to add a hint of dualism to the narrative. I’m gonna need some time to recover before round three.

Chronicle (2012)

Next Up: Chronicle, film director Josh Trank’s initial 2012 foray into the cinematic world of superpowers before the much-lambasted Fantastic Four. Chronicle is the story of three high schoolers given the power of telekinesis and their shared journey down the fine line separating heroes from villains.

Fade to Black & White Under the Plague Moonlight: A Review of Charles Burns’ Black Hole

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of the hardcover collection of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

Growing up, most of us learned the consequences of sex, whether it was the consequences of unprotected sex, sex with someone of the same gender, or not waiting until we’re mentally and emotionally ready to have sex. In Black Hole, Charles Burns teaches readers another thing about sex: that it can physically transform you for what might be the rest of your life.

Black Hole is set in Seattle in the mid-70s. A strange plague is spreading through the town, one that affects sexually-active teenagers and no one else. It would be easy to call the plague just another sexually-transmitted disease, but this contagion acts more like a physical mutation, one that leaves deformities that are both minor enough to be easily concealed underneath a shirt, and extensive enough that some live hidden on the outskirts of town.

Burns’ black and white images do a great job of setting the scene, visually taking readers back to the mood and aesthetic of the 70s. The lack of color also helps lull the reader into the characters’ heads as they descend into a mental labyrinth looping, spiraling, and curving across the brain’s hemispheres with images that are visually arresting one moment, and stomach-churning the next. Rather than a fever dream, some visuals are more like fever nightmares, ones that make you wonder  what kind of trip Burns was on when he conceived of them.

Page 5 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

When not treated to horrors and glories pulped and sculpted from the sides of Burns’ skull, the reader pieces together the narrative with help from a generous cast of characters. But this is where the story stumbles a bit for me. My main issue is that not only are the characters similarly drawn, making it difficult to tell them apart sometimes, they also have similar stories and personalities.

The female characters are also a bit of a letdown. Nearly all of them have the same voice; the same personality; and the same need to be saved, sustained by, and cater to the whims of male characters. This could just be Burns’ interpretation of the teenage (both male and female) hormonal confusion and near-constant desire to be with the one you “love”/are infatuated with, but it often comes across as disappointment and more missed opportunities to flesh out a story, a story in which one character actually sheds her flesh.

That said, there is one male character who’s emotionally floundering his way through his transformation and reaches out to a female character in search of stability, albeit in a way that’s anything but stable. This particular character only makes a minor, supporting appearance in the story, and I would’ve liked a deeper look inside his head.

Page 32 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

There’s also a plot point in the middle of the story that’s as unexpected as an unplanned pregnancy. The graphic novel is told through a series of vignettes, and this particular plot point appears in three different narratives, but it’s never either explained nor resolved. But maybe it’s not supposed to be?   

But focusing more on the positive and accentuating less of the not-so-positive, Burns does a great job of injecting sensual imagery and symbolism throughout the story that make you view each individual panel as a work of art rather than outright pornography. Oddly, this also lends a hint of paranoia to the tale as the reader wonders if certain images are meant to be purposefully sexual or nothing more than regular objects, a bit like a teenager might think during his or her sexual awakening.

While I certainly have a few qualms about Black Hole, including the confounding soft and hard ending(s), they weren’t major enough to make me swear off anything else Charles Burns conjures up. Much like It Follows, this is a graphic novel that makes you rethink the psychological “afteresex” of such an intimate sharing of your body and identity. Maybe Burns imbued his story with a plague of his own, because after reading it, I learned that a film adaptation of Black Hole is in the works by New Regency and Plan B. In the words of Diana Ross, “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.”    

Fight Club 2, by Chuck Palahniuk & Cameron Stewart.

Next Up: Fight Club 2, the graphic novel follow-up to the cult classic film Fight Club that explores The Narrator’s life 10 years after Project Mayhem. Will a wife, a kid, and a handful of pills be enough to keep Tyler Durden away? Doubtful.   

The Method Behind the Unabridged Madness

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Might be best to wait until the final coda of  A Song of Ice and Fire  before we dive back in.

Might be best to wait until the final coda of A Song of Ice and Fire before we dive back in.

So why only review finished stories? Mainly because we’ve reached (and seem to be surpassing) peak content overload these days. How many TV series, books, podcasts, movie franchises, comic book/graphic novel series are you in the middle of watching/listening to/being delightfully assaulted by right now? And how many other things do you have going on in your life that are eating away at your time, no matter how much enjoyment you might derive from them? More than likely, quite a lot.

I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved how you can watch/experience characters from your favorite stories grow, change, and learn in ways they usually don’t or can’t when it comes to the standard movie/TV show format. That being said, it can also be more than a little exhausting keeping up with so many different characters, story developments, and plot twists (Who’s the father of Debra’s baby again?). Gotta have Netflix and Hulu and Comixology and Amazon Prime and HBO GO and whatever other new streaming service is rolling out. Now your wallet is burning along with the hours of the day.

With finished stories, you have an easier way to get your fix without the stress, nor is there a lengthy commitment contract that makes you feel like you’re being locked into an apartment lease (but much more enjoyable, and with muuuuch better neighbors). You know for a fact how many seasons/chapters/books there are, there’s no need to worry about the story being canceled right when things really start (or fail) to take off, you don’t have to worry about waiting in anticipation for the next season to premiere, and you don’t have to rewatch or reread past episodes/seasons/books as a refresher before the next installment (I know I’m not the only one who does I?).

When an oh-so-very intriguing comic book run comes out right as you're financially recovering from your last haul at the comic book store.

When an oh-so-very intriguing comic book run comes out right as you're financially recovering from your last haul at the comic book store.

Something else to think about is that there are plenty of graphic novels/comic books, movies, and TV shows that have had a complete run that you might not be aware of, ones that just might become some of your new favorites. Who knows?

            At the end of every month, I’ll share in-depth reviews from both major and minor creators, leaning toward independent and lesser-known names and publishers to give them the exposure they rightfully deserve. After all, it’s no secret that the indie and creator-owned scene is one that truly dives fathoms-deep into the expansive creative ether and brings us pearls we’ve never dreamed of before, ones untarnished by corporate agendas, checklists, interference, and the like.

Hopefully, you’ll be introduced to more than a few new narratives and creators you’ve never heard of from a variety of mediums as you’re between ongoing stories, or when you’re ready to take a breather from climbing Mt. Colossal Content.

And don’t worry, I won’t wake you ‘til it’s done.

Cover of Charles Burns'  Black Hole .

Cover of Charles Burns' Black Hole.

First up: Black Hole, a graphic novel from Charles Burns set in 1970s Seattle that explores what happens when teenage sexual contact becomes a sexual plague, one that leaves behind physical deformities that are subtle for some and so grotesque for others that they are forced to live outside of town.