Monday, May 24, 2010

X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back!

I often wonder how series like this slip through the cracks; this four-issue miniseries stars a third-tier X-character who debuted in 2004, has nothing to do with any major storylines, and tells a surreal and off-kilter story that doesn't conform to typical superhero expectations. Then again, those last two also described writer Kathryn Immonen's last Marvel miniseries, Patsy Walker: Hellcat, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite its being somewhat incomprehensible. Pixie Strikes Back definitely has that same baffling but amusing sensibility, and similarly uses reality-warping characters to tell a dreamlike story shot through with meta-humor.

I can't say that I now care enough about Pixie to follow her further adventures (unless Immonen writes them), and the series falters a little when depicting her teenage female teammates, who are dragged along with her into a funhouse version of high school conjured up by a demonic adversary. I kept having to flip back to Immonen's sarcastic little intros to tell Armor from Mercury from X-23, and Sara Pichelli's generally strong art didn't help to distinguish them. Other than that, though, Immonen does a good job of writing the older, established X-Men, giving them a sort of mysterious air to show how untouchable they might seem to the younger characters.

As for the way Immonen fills in Pixie's backstory, I haven't read enough about the character elsewhere to say if it makes sense to me. Having her mother reveal secrets about her past gives the story some weight, but I didn't feel like it needed that significance. Immonen's sense of humor and flair for the absurd, combined with Pichelli's dynamic, expressive art, is what made the book entertaining and worth reading for me, in the same as in Hellcat. Pixie no doubt will go on to participate in some giant X-Men crossover that I won't care about, but I'll definitely be looking for what Immonen does next.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Zatanna #1

It's been a really long time since I was a regular reader of a DC universe ongoing title; other than my brief stint following Detective Comics starring Batwoman, I think the end of the fairly short run of The Monolith in 2005 was the last time I picked up a DCU book every month. In recent years, the continuity on those books has only gotten tighter and more tied up with endless crossovers, and constant creative-team changes mean that taking a risk on picking up a book is likely not to pay off anyway. (I did pick up two issues of the recently launched Azrael series because I like Fabian Nicieza's writing, and it didn't really grab me. But Nicieza was dumped after nine issues anyway.)

But something about this new series starring magical hero Zatanna sparked my interest, and I decided to give it a shot. The first issue is nothing groundbreaking, but it's a solid, well-paced superhero story that gives a quick introduction to who Zatanna is and what she's about while also setting up a clear conflict and a menacing villain. As far as I could tell, it's not connected in any way to any big event story past or future, and in fact requires no knowledge of any other DC character or series in order to make sense of it.

That's fairly faint praise, and I certainly wasn't blown away. But given how many current mainstream superhero comics start by assuming you have read the set-up in five other series already (Azrael did this), the fact that I could jump right into the story easily was a big deal. I also immediately liked Zatanna as a character; DC has a better track record with strong female solo heroes than Marvel does, and this seems to fit into the same tradition as the DC superhero book I stuck with the longest, Peter David's Supergirl. Writer Paul Dini has been talking about doing this book for a long time, and he clearly has great affection for and interest in Zatanna, and it seems like that will be explored in issues to come.

The art by Stephane Roux is also excellent, detailed and dynamic but also clear and concise (and it makes Zatanna look quite sexy). If DC can manage to keep this creative team together for a while, and not drag the book into a bunch of drawn-out crossovers that never end, I might just be a regular DC reader for the first time in quite a while.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Friday the 13th

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

That would be the original Friday the 13th, not any of the ten sequels, or the 2009 remake. This 1980 slasher movie, which features no deranged killer in a hockey mask, no supernatural elements and, until the final moments, no Jason Voorhees at all, is pretty much dwarfed by the rest of the long-running franchise, and not necessarily unjustifiably. Sure, many (most) of the sequels are terrible, but they did all the work in establishing the memorable iconography of the series and creating a template for the entire slasher genre. It's Jason in his hockey mask wielding a machete that's burned into the pop-culture consciousness, not his middle-aged mom in her dowdy sweater.

Of the four big movies that gave birth to the slasher genre (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street), Friday the 13th is easily the least distinctive, and the only one without a strong auteurist vision. Director Sean S. Cunningham is a journeyman producer whose filmography as a director is undistinguished aside from Friday the 13th. He worked as a producer on Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, and envisioned Friday the 13th as a way to capitalize on that filmmaking style. But while Last House is a weird, uneven creative vision (for better and worse), Friday the 13th is a mostly soulless exercise in dispatching one-dimensional characters, devoid of social commentary or personal expression.

That's not to say it doesn't succeed at what it sets out to do, though -- Cunningham stages some good shock moments, and uses point-of-view shots to establish a sense of unease about the mysterious killer. Harry Manfredini's eerie score is rightfully the one element of the movie that's become indelibly part of the franchise, and is often the only thing that people remember. And while Mrs. Voorhees didn't last as a villain, having the matronly woman as the serial killer is a sort of offbeat choice that mostly works.

The camp-counselor characters, however, are completely uninteresting and useless except as fodder for the killer, and their interactions are the movie's weakest part. Other than Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) musing about her dreams of raining blood, there's nothing to indicate any personality or inner lives on the parts of these characters. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street created strong, interesting heroines who were as important as their adversaries, if not more so. Here, I could barely tell the characters apart half the time.

So Friday the 13th is a horror classic almost by default, and not really in a league with its supposed peers of the time. But it's also worth looking back on for horror fans, to see how different this franchise was when it started out, and to spot a few interesting elements that have since been lost.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Conan O'Brien live

Although I was suitably outraged at the treatment Conan O'Brien got from NBC at the end of his short Tonight Show run, I've always been a rather inconsistent O'Brien fan. Since I'm not really a dedicated late-night TV viewer, I caught only bits and pieces of his Late Night over the years, although what I saw I always liked. When he transitioned to The Tonight Show, I watched the whole first week's worth of shows to write a review, then caught only snippets here and there afterward. It took O'Brien's final episode to get me to watch an entire Tonight Show again.

So I wasn't wearing a Team Coco shirt coming into the Pearl at the Palms here in Vegas on Saturday night for the first of two local performances on O'Brien's Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, and I feel like I've heard enough about how rough the guy's had it; with his new TBS show on the horizon, things have worked out pretty damn well for him. But the show still felt like a unique cultural moment, and it's something I'm glad I got the chance to witness. Although there were a lot of familiar elements from O'Brien's TV work -- sidekick Andy Richter, most of the Late Night/Tonight Show band, the Masturbating Bear (renamed the Self-Pleasuring Panda for copyright purposes) -- the live show was more like a concert than a TV taping, which was definitely the right way to do things. It didn't feel like sitting in a TV audience. It felt like a unique live performance.

Much of it, certainly, was the same as in other cities. The jokes about O'Brien's despair at not having his own TV show already felt a little stale, honestly, given the huge deal he's signed with TBS. They were still funny, but they felt like a leftover element from the original concept that's due to be dropped. Better were the bits tailored to the city, which didn't sound like pandering at all. O'Brien's extended opening monologue had a lot of decent Vegas jokes, and Andy Richter did a whole bit about local seedy strip club Larry's Villa that sounded disturbingly authentic. Even the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog segment, which was all pretaped, made use of exaggeratedly fake inserts to make jokes about the city (which are obviously piped in for each tour stop, but, again, sounded like someone actually bothered to research them).

The other main difference was the emphasis on music. The band stayed onstage the whole time, and the show opened with two straightforward musical numbers. O'Brien himself sang several songs, including modified versions of Elvis Presley's "Poke Salad Annie" and disco classic "I Will Survive," poking fun at his own life. There were no surprise guest stars as there have been in other cities, which was the one big disappointment. Granted, most Vegas performers were probably onstage at their own shows during the O'Brien performance, but there must have been someone who would have been willing to show up (Wayne Newton, maybe?). Instead, we got a mediocre stand-up set from former Tonight Show writer Deon Cole, definitely the least exciting part of the show (weird alt-comic Reggie Watts, who was the opening act, was much funnier).

The tour represents a strange in-between point for O'Brien, but it does seem to have reenergized him. I don't know if I'd want to see this sort of Conan O'Brien variety hour on TBS every night rather than a traditional talk show, but if O'Brien is smart, he'll take some of what works in the live setting and incorporate it into his new show. Even if he doesn't, he's shaken up his act in a way that never would have happened if NBC hadn't pushed him to reinvent himself.

[Photo from L.A. show, April 24]