Comics

Anticipating Comic-Con '09

The San Diego Comic-Con starts on Wednesday with preview night. There will be plenty of pop-culture bliss to spread around to the 125,000 attendees, but actual comic books don't have nearly as much impact at the event as they once did.

Another Comic-Con gets going on Wednesday with preview night, San Diego's 40th. I love Comic-Con and this will be my seventh in a row. But even in the relatively brief time I've been attending, the event has changed a great deal. Despite retaining the name "Comic-Con", these days the convention bills itself as the largest pop-culture gathering in America. Comic books still have a presence, of course. Panels involving Marvel and DC's biggest titles can come close to filling the mid-sized 1,400-seat rooms, and occasionally a creator will build a big enough name for himself to hold court in the 3,000 or 4,000-seat rooms. But that's a rarity. Those rooms are mostly reserved for television shows these days.

Down on the main floor, several dozen retailers sell current graphic novels and individual issues, while an entire section of the floor is donated to dealers who trade in comic books from the golden (1930's, '40s) and silver ('50s, and '60s) ages. Individual comic publishers have booths on the floor, everything from the biggest (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image) to small press imprints you've probably never heard of. Not to mention artists' alley, where dozens of artists, some famous, some not, set up to sell their work, talk with fans, and create new sketches. But even on the massive main floor, the comic book people and the major tv and movie studios don't always get along. In the wake of Comic-Con 2008, Chuck Rozanski, who runs Mile High Comics, one of the largest dealers at the show (and in the United States, for that matter), had a long and fascinating column about the dealers being virtually ignored in favor of catering to the major film and television studios. Comic-Con PR man David Glanzer's take was that the same percentage of floor space is dedicated to comic books as in previous years. But if we're to take Rozanski at his word then clearly something that was once the lifeblood of the show is now more of an afterthought.

It's interesting to watch this process happen, in slow motion, over a period of years. Comic book movies are a big, big draw at Comic-Con, but comic books themselves, maybe not so much anymore. Has the event sacrificed its soul as Hollywood has taken an ever-greater interest? Rozanski seemed to think so last year, going so far as to utter the dreaded "sell-out" in his column. This year, since it's the 40th anniversary, Comic-Con will have daily panels with people who were there reminiscing about what the convention was like back in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and 2000's. But there will also be more television panels than ever, some for shows that are not even close to Comic-Con's target demographic.

In previous years, series like 24, Bones, and The Office snuck in amongst the sci-fi and fantasy. But those are programs with passionate fanbases and at least ancillary geek appeal. This year, there are panels for Burn Notice, Psych, Glee, and The Middle. Burn Notice I get- it's a cool action/spy show and it co-stars Comic-Con and B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, who will of course be in attendance. Psych isn't really even close to a genre show, but since the USA Network is already bringing Burn Notice, it seems like they thought they needed to bring something else along, too. It's telling that the latter two, though, are relegated to an offsite room at the new Hilton Bayfront hotel. Fox is clearly still working hard to build buzz for Glee, but a series about a show choir, even one populated with misfits and outcasts, doesn't really fit very well at Comic-Con. Most egregious, though, is ABC's The Middle, a middle-of-the-road family sitcom starring Patricia Heaton that may have the least appeal to the Comic-Con crowd of any event I've ever seen at the convention.

This struggle between the old Comic-Con and the modern Comic-Con is also evident in the evening programming schedule. The traditional Saturday night highlight of the convention is the Masquerade, where regular attendees sign up to be in the show, dressing in elaborate costumes and performing skits of wildly varying quality. The Masquerade fills the 4,000-seat Ballroom 20, and the convention even runs the live video feed of the event in several smaller rooms to accommodate overflow. But this year the convention is also hosting a Saturday night screening of Watchmen: The Director's Cut with director Zack Snyder in attendance to provide commentary and analysis. If there was ever a movie that fit right into Comic-Con's wheelhouse, it's Watchmen. This screening could easily fill the 6,500-seat Hall H, but instead it's being relegated to the 3,000-seat room. I'm betting there will literally be thousands of fans locked out of this event, but Comic-Con has never used Hall H for nighttime programming. I also imagine they're reluctant to admit that something besides the Masquerade may be the main draw on Saturday night this year. Of course, Warner Bros. themselves may also share some of the blame for the room choice, as Glanzer has been quoted saying that studios would often rather have hundreds of people shut out of a panel than risk their "talent" seeing empty seats in the room. Either way, this particular choice seems myopic of everyone involved.

Regardless, the 40th San Diego Comic-Con will fondly remember its past while, it seems, struggling mightily to not think too hard about what will happen after 2012, when the current contract with the city of San Diego runs out. Even if the Convention Center receives its proposed expansion and staves off the show's likely move to Las Vegas (trading beautiful west coast weather for scorching desert heat in the name of more space), I can't see comic books ever reclaiming their spot as the main focus of Comic-Con. Comics will always have a place at the convention, but that place seems to get a tiny bit smaller each year.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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