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Review: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby, via Tom Scioli, tells his own story.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.

A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.

Page excerpt

Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.

Yes, Jack Kirby worked alongside Bob Kane for a time.

Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here.  As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.

Page excerpt

One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!

Jack Kirby by Tom Scioli

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Animation Review: SUPERMAN: RED SON

Superman: Red Son. Made-for-Video Animation, 84 minutes. Directed by Sam Liu. Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Executive Producers: Bruce Timm and Sam Register. DC Entertainment. Release Date: March 17, 2020

The timing could not be better for one of the great Superman stories. DC Entertainment presents the 2020 animated feature adaptation to Mark Millar’s 2003 Superman: Red Son. This time around, the script is by another DC Comics stalwart creative, J. M. DeMatteis. This is a great time for the alternate-history genre. There’s For All Mankind on Apple TV, a what-if about the Soviets landing on the moon first. And there’s The Plot Against America on HBO, a what-if about a Fascist America. Now, make room for a what-if about a Soviet Superman. This is about what would happen if the future Superman never crash-lands in some corn field in Kansas. But, instead, baby Superman crash-lands in the heart of Cold War-era Russia.

Comrade Superman?!

This is arguably the very best of DC Elseworlds adventures. In this very heated and confused time for U.S.-Russian relations, a story like this provides refreshing perspective. What would Superman do if he found himself part of Mother Russia and developed a loyalty to Communism? Apple pie and baseball don’t mean a thing to the Man of Steel. Superman is more loyal to the latest five-year plan for the people. Capitalism is just a funny concept and the U.S.A. is more suspect than respected. And leading the “greed is good” pack is, of course, Lex Luthor.

What will appeal to a lot of viewers is the clever look at how the world works. No sooner does Superman, innocently enough, prove to be the strongest man at the Kremlin than he’s elevated to the post of supreme leader. To Superman’s way of thinking, he is genuinely compelled to do good. That’s just how he’s built. But he has to do it within the confines of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Lex Luthor, not so innocently, proves to be the strongest capitalist, riding an “America First” campaign, that lands him in the White House. Along the way, we have different versions of the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, and even a taste of Dr. Strangelove thrown in for good measure.

If you’ve never read the original comic book or collected graphic novel, then you’re in for even more of a treat as this story unfolds. I think the animated feature hits all the right marks and could not be better. Voice actors like Jason Isaacs, as Superman, and Vanessa Marshall, as Wonder Woman, lead a lively cast. This is something that I could even see as a major live action movie version. It is certainly a compelling example of what can be done within the formidable world of the DC Universe.

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Eisner Awards 2020 and Observations

SDCC 2020 Judges!

Much like the winners list for the Angoulême Comics Festival and the Small Press Expo, it is very useful to take a close look at the Eisner Awards at San Diego Comic-Con. A reliable prime source in the study of comics comes from the biggest and most well-established comics festivals/conventions. Because of COVID-19, SDCC was a virtual event for 2020 and that has created added benefit. For starters, it’s a pleasure to have actor Phil LaMarr as host. It’s also an uncanny pleasure to have such a documentation of the winners. I doubt this will become the norm but this special video recap is priceless. One essential fact that ended up getting more attention than it might usually have gotten was a moment to focus on the panel of judges! It is so important to know who your judges are for many reasons including insight and credibility. This years judges: Martha Cornog, Jamie Coville, Michael Dooley, Alex Grecian, Simon Jimenez, and Laura O’Meara. Ah, perhaps one of these years SDCC will choose yours truly as a judge. I was a judge for SPX some years back so it could happen, but I might need a storage locker. Anyway, it’s a very big deal to know who your judges are and it makes industry news.

Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me

The top winners of the evening were Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me (Best Publication for Teens, Best Writer, Best Penciller/Inker; published by First Second/Macmillan) and G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s comic book series Invisible Kingdom (Best New Series, Best Writer, Best Painter; published by Berger Books/Dark Horse).

Multiple Eisners also went to Lynda Barry for Making Comics (Best Comics-Related Book, Best Publication Design; published by Drawn & Quarterly); Raina Telgelemier for Guts (Best Publication for Kids, Best Writer/Artist; published by Scholastic/Graphix); and Stan Sakai for Best Lettering (on Usagi Yojimbo, published by IDW) and Best Archival Collection/Project (Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter; IDW).

The Best Graphic Album–New trophy went to Are You Listening by Tillie Walden (published by First Second/Macmillan), while Best Reality-Based Work was awarded to George Takei’s memoir They Called Us Enemy (by Justin, Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker, published by IDW/Top Shelf). In the comics categories, Image’s Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene won Best Continuing Series, while Best Limited Series went to Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram (also Image).

The publisher that can boast the most winners is Dark Horse, with the three for Invisible Kingdom plus Best Graphic Album–Reprint for LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford, Best Adaptation for Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran, and a share of Dave Stewart’s award for Best Coloring. Other publishers with multiple awards include First Second/Macmillan (for Laura Dean and Are You Listening); Image for Continuing Series, Limited Series, Cover Artist (Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly), and shared Coloring; IDW for Sakai’s works and They Called Us Enemy; and Drawn & Quarterly for Making Comics and for Best Short Story (Ebony Flowers’ “Hot Comb”). Publishers with two trophies each include Fantagraphics, Scholastic Graphix, and VIZ Media.

The event was hosted by voice actor/comedian Phil LaMarr (MadTV, Samurai Jack, Futurama, Justice League), who announced the nominees and winners in 31 categories. Eisner Awards Administrator Jackie Estrada opened and closed the ceremony.

Sergio Aragonés presented the Hall of Fame Awards. The Judges’ Choices were Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell. The elected inductees were Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Louise Simonson, Stan Sakai, Don and Maggie Thompson, and Bill Watterson.Bechdel, Simonson, Sakai, and Thompson all accepted their awards via videos; Cruse’s husband, Ed Sederbaum, accepted on Howard’s behalf.

The Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, presented by Bob’s daughter Ruth Clampett, had three recipients this year: The Hero Initiative, Creators4Comics, and Comicbook United Fund.

The Eisner Awards are part of, and underwritten by, Comic-Con International: San Diego, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to creating awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contributions of comics to art and culture.


2020 Eisner Awards Winners

Best Short Story

“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers, in Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Single Issue/One-Shot

Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)

Best Continuing Series

Bitter Root, by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (Image)

Best Limited Series

Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest andIan Bertram (Image)

Best New Series

Invisible Kingdom, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Publication for Early Readers

Comics: Easy as ABC, by Ivan Brunetti (TOON)

Best Publication for Kids

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Publication for Teens

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Humor Publication

The Way of the Househusband, vol. 1, by Kousuke Oono, translation by Sheldon Drzka (VIZ Media)

Best Anthology

Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, edited by Diane Noomin (Abrams)

Best Reality-Based Work

They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)

Best Graphic Album—New

Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Graphic Album—Reprint

LaGuardia, by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Adaptation from Another Medium

Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran (Dark Horse Books)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material

The House, by Paco Roca, translation by Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia (TIE)

Cats of the Louvre, by Taiyo Matsumoto, translation by Michael Arias (VIZ Media)

Witch Hat Atelier, by Kamome Shirahama, translation by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips

Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays, by George Herriman, edited by Alexander Braun (TASCHEN)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter Artist Select, by Stan Sakai, edited by Scott Dunbier (IDW)

Best Writer

Mariko Tamaki, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (DC); Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan); Archie (Archie)

Best Writer/Artist

Raina Telgemeier, Guts (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Painter/Digital Artist

Christian Ward, Invisible Kingdom (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Cover Artist

Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly (Image)

Best Coloring

Dave Stewart, Black Hammer, B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know, Hellboy and the BPRD (Dark Horse); Gideon Falls (Image); Silver Surfer Black, Spider-Man (Marvel)

Best Lettering

Stan Sakai, Usagi Yojimbo (IDW)

Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism

Women Write About Comics, edited by Nola Pfau and Wendy Browne, http://www.WomenWriteAboutComics.com

Best Comics-Related Book

Making Comics, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Academic/Scholarly Work

EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers University Press)

Best Publication Design

Making Comics, designed by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Digital Comic

Afterlift, by Chip Zdarsky and Jason Loo (comiXology Originals)

Best Webcomic

Fried Rice, by Erica Eng, https://friedricecomic.tumblr.com

Hall of Fame

Judges’ Choices: Nell Brinkley, E. Simms Campbell

Voters’ Choices: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Stan Sakai, Louise Simonson, Don and Maggie Thompson, Bill Watterson

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Comics Picks: BRAVE NEW WORLDS in Philadelphia

BRAVE NEW WORLDS, your local comics shop in Philadelphia, has reopened, following all COVID-19 protocols, as of June 5th. At Comics Grinder, we salute all of the amazing local comics shops keeping it real. Henry Chamberlain, your host and fearless leader, has taken it upon himself to ask this basic question: “What do you recommend these days, especially with Covid in mind?” Of course, folks can get creative and take the opportunity to answer that however they choose. It’s understood that it can depend upon who you ask and when you ask. Here is what BRAVE NEW WORLDS has to say:

Once & Future by Keiron Gillen and Dan Mora

Recently we’ve been really enjoying “Once & Future” by Keiron Gillen and Dan Mora, “Something is Killing the Children” by James TynionIV and Werther Dell’Edera “Wonder Woman Dead Earth” by Daniel Warren Johnson Jeff Lemire and Kevin Walta’s “Sentient” from TKO “Strange Adventures” by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Evan Shaner,….

Low, Low, Woods by Carmen Maria Machadoand Dani

Low, Low, Woods by Carmen Maria Machadoand Dani, Thor by Donny Cates and Nic Klein,…

Silver Surfer Black by Donny Cates and Tradd Moore

Silver Surfer Black by Donny Cates and Tradd Moore, Doomsday Clock vols 1 & 2 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank,…

House Of X/Powers Of X (Hardcover)

House of X/Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, and R. B. Silva,  Hellboy Omnibus by Mike Mignola et al, Box Brown’s titles. Anything Junji Ito.
BRAVE NEW WORLDS carry a wide variety of comics, game cards, graphic novels, children’s books, Gundam model kits, action figures, Hot Toys figures, Sideshow statues, back issues, t-shirts, posters, board/card games, and many collecting supplies. BRAVD NEW WORLDS have been selling comics, games and toys in the Philadelphia area (Philly and Willow Grove) for over 30 years!

Brave New Worlds, Philadelphia

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Interview: Sarah Mirk, the World of Zines, and Visual Storytelling

Sarah Mirk self-portrait

Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?

SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.

From Interviewing 101 zine by Sarah Mirk

From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?

I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.

Page 1 and 2 from Interviewing 101

You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.

Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.

Pages 3 and 4 of Interviewing 101

I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.

I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.

Pages 5 and 6 of Interviewing 101

Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.

I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.

Back cover to Interviewing 101

Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.

Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.

Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.

Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.

Sarah Mirk

Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.

I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.

The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.

That’s definitely true.

Oregon History Comics by Sarah Mirk

Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.

That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.

I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.

I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.

Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk

Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?

I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.

Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women by Sarah Mirk and Lucy Bellwood

I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?

I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC,  The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.

Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?

I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.

I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.

That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?

No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”

The Nib

How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?

At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.

You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?

At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.

I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!

Any final thoughts?

I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.

Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.

Thank you, Henry.

Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.

Keep up with Sarah Mirk right here.

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Filed under Comics, Interviews, Zines

Book Review: IMPACT Comics from Dark Horse EC Archives

EC Archive: Impact

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

EC Archives: Impact. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2020.  168 pages. $49.95.

Impact Comics, which lasted only 5 issues, would be memorable if for only one story. As Greg Sadowski, the forgotten fan-biographer of artist Bernard Krigstein suggests,”Master Race,” a mere eight pages and scripted by Al Feldstein (Mar., 1955), is the masterpiece of anti-fascism but also of comic art design and execution. It enters the mind of the Holocaust survivor as he discovers, tracks down and wreaks revenge upon a human monster within the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system.

How could this humble popular art carry the weight of serious modern art, so serious that it escapes the then-current cult of abstract expressionism? This is the story worth telling.

Impact Comics (1955) may be viewed simply as a technical triumph of popular might. The story lines are taut, the art is crisp, and if we were to choose a single outstanding feature, it might actually be the coloring work of Marie Severin, master craftsperson of the field. We might also view Impact within a broader context.

MASTER RACE, original first page, March, 1955.

Comic art, comic book art and narrative, must be amongst the most improbable subjects in all of art history. Or perhaps this was true until the recent rise of comic art studies in college courses, online journals,  and Comi-Con panels bringing together living artists with aficionados. But never, since the rise of the fan world and press, has the comics field been without its own small legion of self-taught scholars and devotees, going way back to the early 1950s. In this small world grown surprisingly larger, EC publications have had a special place of honor. EC war, science fiction and above all humor publications brought traditional comic book art to its apex and….edge of demise. Impact, with only a handful of others, remains or rather retains in its best stories, a treasured sample of what might have been.

The longer backstory will be familiar to most readers, and can be noted briefly here. Comics publisher Max Gaines’s sudden death in 1949 threw his mini-empire into the hands of his widow and son. The younger Gaines, to his own surprise a shrewd and driving businessman, hired some of the great talents of the field, including of course Harvey Kurtzman, destined to transform the field of printed humor with Mad Comics and, more famously, Mad Magazine.

By the early 1950s, time was truly running out for EC comics as constituted. Congressional investigations and the imposition of the Comics Code would drive the most lucrative EC genre, i.e., horror, to the wall, and with it the whole venture of EC comics. Perhaps television would have swallowed up the field soon enough anyway? We do not know. But millions of readers, not all of them under the age of 20, were reading and buying comics of a wide variety so long as they were available, with print runs often in the hundreds of thousands.

EC became known, through nearly all its lines of merchandise, for “snap” endings, the surprise on the last page or even in the final panel, carrying the message of the story at large. Strikingly unlike its competitors, EC also had an unusual propensity for what might be called social themes. Its Sci Fi line featured the world of post Atomic war destruction, or space travel revealing some weakness—less often, strength—in human nature. (Some of the best story lines were adapted, or swiped, from Ray Bradbury.) Military history offered something almost unknown in other companies’ war comics: the tragedy faced by civilians in both sides, and the horror that might be found in the eyes even of the victorious American patriots.

Artist Bernie Krigstein taps into the zeitgeist of an anxious era.

In the “Age of Anxiety,” when psychoanalysis was said to have replaced Marxism or any other social reform theory as a favorite pastime of intellectuals, EC actually had its own short-lived Psychoanalysis Comics. But seen carefully, psychological issues penetrated all of EC’s lines, as soldiers, space travelers and even perpetrators of murder seemed terribly troubled, driven by urges that they finally could not control.

Bill Gaines evidently viewed the creation of Impact as a kind of bracing mechanism against the end of his little empire. Al Feldstein, the all-purpose editor also taking over Mad Magazine from Kurtzman, who resigned in 1956, was the hard-driving editor seemingly willing to take on anything, and make Impact as nearly perfect as he could. The determination by writer (often enough, Feldstein himself) and artist, shine through in one way or another on nearly every page and every panel.

ShockSuspense (1954), the earliest entry in the then-new Impact series, was closer to horror comics with violent and sometimes supernatural stories. It was also more politically dramatic, now and then. A KKK-style lynching story of Southern life substituted a bosomy white dame for a black man, but dealt heavy blows to violent prejudice. Another story showed a redneck crowd beating to death an actual veteran who did not take off his hat to salute the flag because…he was blind.

Most of the Impact under review stayed closer to the hard-hitting, small films and often live television drama of the time, where a rising business executive realizes the more rottenness of the world he has entered, or the frantic striving for domestic happiness in the suburb leads to bitter alienation and heavy drinking. The protagonists here are cheating themselves and others of happiness, cutting corners in business and life, or even by accident of some childhood trauma cutting themselves off from adult fulfillment. What remains the most vivid, in the “snap” ending, is that uncertainty of life itself in the supposed paradise of modern consumerism at its apex.  And the possibility, if not perhaps likelihood, that wrong-doers will get their punishment in one way or another.

Steven Ringgenberg’s Foreword offers us a general picture of the publication within EC’s frantic efforts for life, Grant Geissman’s Introduction expertly guides us through the intentions of Gaines and Feldman as they marched through the bi-monthly schedule toward something that, as it turned out, was only a prelude to the fabulous success of Mad Magazine.

Excerpt from MASTER RACE, known as “The Citizen Kane of Comics.”

It would be almost inside baseball to note that Jack Davis, among the most brilliant of all Mad Comics artists, did all the front covers of the series, or that he was joined in the stories themselves by a distinguished crew of George Evans, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall and of course, Bernard Krigstein. And of course Marie Severin, who was also the last of the EC bunch to live well into the 21st century.

Only those who went on to Mad Magazine, foremost Orlando, were to gain much recognition. Krigstein, who led the failed effort to unionize the field of comic book artists (publishers bought off the best talent and threatened to fire everyone else) during the early 1950s, became an art teacher and painted for his own pleasure, mostly landscapes.

Thus did a genre and its makers disappear. But not without leaving behind a legacy of sorts, and a print item to be repurposed for the next generations. Impact was first reprinted by Gemstone Publishing in 1999 and here, by Dark Horse, presented again in fine form with fresh introductory and explanatory material.

EC Comics Archives: Impact is published by Dark Horse Comics.

Paul Buhle‘s next comic, drawn by Sharon Rudahl, is a life of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, October, 2020.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Guest Column, Paul Buhle

#StayAtHome and #ReadComics for Free with izneo!

izneo

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Build your digital manga library on a budget! During the month of April, the latest publisher to join the platform is having a massive sale. Kodansha Comics is offering 270 volumes at 99c. Find renown titles like Attack on Titan, Princess Jellyfish, A Silent Voice, Witch Hat Atelier, Parasyte, Battle Angel Alita, FAIRY TALE, The Seven Deadly Sins, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Flying Witch, Space Brothers.. 

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Howling Metal

Métal hurlant #57. The only collaboration between Moebius and Phillipe Druillet.

Comic books are perhaps the most popular sources of inspiration for moviemakers in this decade. Just think of all the movies of a highly variable quality that have been released since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started on its glorious assault on our pockets more than a decade ago. And it’s not only movies either. From broadcast channels to the most popular and accessible streaming services online are filled with content inspired by graphic novels and comic books – some of them are better (like Amazon’s acclaimed “The Boys” series), others, not so much.

The comics flocking to the screen these days have one thing in common: they are American. Of course, comic books are a typically American form of entertainment – this doesn’t mean, in turn, that they are unheard of in other parts of the world such as Birmingham in the UK. On the contrary.

France too is famous for its wines, cheese, and landmarks – and also, in some circles, for its comics. One of its most widely-known titles is “The Adventures of Asterix”, a series of bandes desinnées created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959. The stories revolve around Astérix, a mighty Gaul (and his oversized sidekick Obélix) and their adventures in defeating the Roman conquerors trying to overrun their village. This proves harder than it seems thanks to Getafix, the village druid, and his magic potion that gives the villagers superhuman strength. The two were the protagonists of countless comics, ten animated features, four live-action movies, not to mention the theme parks, the board games, and the first French satellite named after the mighty Gaul warrior.

There’s more to Francophonic comics than Asterix (and the Smurfs that were born in Belgium), more than the lighthearted fantasy stories above. The hallmark of the French comics’ golden age was a magazine called “Métal hurlant” (Howling Metal) created in December 1974.

Les Humanoïdes Associés

The United Humanoids (Les Humanoïdes Associés) consisted of comic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud), Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, and Bernard Farkas, who acted as the financial director of the publication.

Les Humanoïdes Associés

Giraud was already an acclaimed cartoonist and writer at the time, having released several Western and science fiction and fantasy comics in the previous decades, Druillet won the European SF award for Comics in 1972 for his comic series Lone Sloane at the first Eurocon, and Dionnet was a long-time collaborator of the two, writing scripts for them at the comic magazine Pilote.

Métal hurlant

At first, the magazine was released quarterly – it had 68 pages (18 of them in color), and the first editions consisted entirely of works by the founders, Mœbius and Druillet. These early editions contained several Lone Sloane comics, and experimented with new formats and storytelling methods – they were, among others, home to Arzach, a silent warrior riding a pterodactyl-like creature through a desolate arid landscape. The “Arzach” comics have no dialogue, telling the stories through visuals alone. Later, many other artists published their works in the magazine, like Chilean-French artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Enki Bilal, Francis Masse, Milo Manara, and many others.

Arzach by Mœbius

The content of the magazine was later expanded to include not only comics but articles about science fiction books and movies, later music and video game reviews. It remained true to its origins, though – it is considered one of the first examples of comic books for mature audiences, focusing on surreal, complex visuals, often cinematic graphics, and complex, experimental storytelling.

Métal hurlant has published 133 issues between 1974 and 1987, then for another brief run between 2002 and 2004, with 14 more.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal was the American version of the original French magazine – at first, it was the licensed translation of the original, later evolving into a publication featuring the works of North American artists like Stephen R. Bissette (Swamp Thing), Alex Ebel (Friday the 13th), Gray Morrow (Man-Thing, El Diablo), and Bernie Wrightson, the co-creator of Swamp Thing. The magazine published a blend of science fiction, dark fantasy, steampunk, and erotica, often explicit and ultra-violent, intended for a mature readership.

RanXerox by Tanino Liberatore

The magazine is still published today, albeit the ownership has changed – it is currently owned by David Boxenbaum, and Jeff Krelitz, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman serving as a publisher.

Heavy metal on the screen

Heavy Metal was adapted to the silver screen before it was cool thanks to director Gerald Potterton and producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel (who was also the publisher of the magazine at the time). The animated anthology contained several stories taken from the magazine as well as original stories in the same spirit – and it is as adult-oriented as its printed original. The overarching story revolves around the “Loc-Nar”, a sentient orb that describes itself as “the sum of all evil” traveling across the galaxy, causing harm wherever it can.

Heavy Metal

The stories in the magazine were also adapted to the small screen in a series called “Métal Hurlant Chronicles” but the English-language Franco-Belgian series, written and directed by Guillaume Lubrano, failed to live up to its name.

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5 Highly Anticipated Thriller Films in 2020

You know you’ve found the right thriller movie when it’s full of suspense, tension, excitement, and a compelling plot. One of the more offbeat and unusual examples of this is the 2017 movie, Hangmanstarring Al Pacino, Karl Urban and Brittany Snow, which lived up to its promise of keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

So, let’s take a look at some of this year’s highly anticipated thriller films.

Vivarium (March 27)

Vivarium (Credit: Variety)

Ireland’s famous director Lorcan Finnegan will be showing an unconventional and sinister portrait of marriage through his latest film, Vivarium. In the film, Tom and Gemma, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, are looking for a place together. In their search, they find themselves in a suburban neighborhood of never-ending rows of eerily identical houses with no person or car in sight. After their realtor suddenly disappears, the couple soon realizes that there is no way out of the village. Screen Daily’s review of the film highlights that the low-key science-fiction thriller confidently executes the hells of aging, commitment, and parenthood in the most unconventional way possible. Have a look at their mind-boggling trailer:

Swallow (March 6)

Swallow (Credit: Roger Ebert)

While many consider pregnancy as a miracle or gift that should be celebrated, it made life even more miserable for Haley Bennett’s character, Hunter, who may seem to have it all. As the pressure of her controlling in-laws’ and husband’s expectations weigh her down, Hunter develops a dangerous disorder called pica – a condition that has her compulsively swallowing inedible and life-threatening objects. Rotten Tomatoes’ write up on Swallow outlines how the film directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis tackles the unfortunate ways people try to reclaim independence in the face of an inescapable and oppressive system. Here’s a clip to give you a peek at some of the things Hunter swallows:

The Card Counter (Early 2020)

The Card Counter (Credit: The Hollywood Reporter)

Oscar-nominee Paul Schrader’s next film is the revenge thriller The Card Counter. It will star Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a gambler who just wants to play cards, and Tiffany Haddish as a mysterious gambling financier named La Linda. The movie will follow Tell as he sets out to reform a young man seeking revenge and help him win the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas with La Linda’s aid. While regular audience members might not be able to aim as high, CardPlayer Lifestyle’s review of PPPoker explains that casual players can participate in online tournaments and clubs to seek their next thrill. The popularity of online gaming is sure to drive a lot of the interest for this film; however, unfortunately, Paul Schrader reported that they had to stop production after one of the actors tested positive for the novel coronavirus. With the filming abruptly halted, no poster or trailer has been released yet, but rest assured that the filming will commence once the pandemic dies down.

A Quiet Place 2 (March 20)

A Quiet Place 2 (Credit: Insider)

After surviving the deadly events at home, the Abbott family must now face the outside world where monsters that hunt by sound and many others can be found. Entertainment Weekly’s preview of  A Quiet Place 2 expressed that the movie will also provide viewers with a sense of what the world and the family were like before the nightmarish events happened. As the family realizes that there are other survivors out there, the movie will touch on how far an individual in distress can extend a hand to others in the same situation. Emily Blunt, who plays Evelyn Abbott, shared that it is important that the movie talks about the fractured sense of community that’s happening right now on a global scale. See the new creatures that will haunt your dreams through this trailer:

The Woman in the Window (May 15)

The Woman in the Window (Credit: Sinefesto)

Based on The New York Times bestselling book The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn, the film of the same title, starring Amy Adams, will be a psychological mystery thriller you should definitely look forward to. The film follows Adams’s character Anna Fox who is a child psychologist consumed by a case of agoraphobia and a hefty amount of wine and pills which leads her to obsess over her neighbors. One day as she looks outside the window, she witnesses what looks like a murder. Coming off as a closed-off drunk, the police didn’t believe Anna when she reported what she saw. The rest of the movie will revolve around unearthing the truth behind Anna and her claim. With its Oscar pedigree cast and addictive plot, Pop Sugar’s spoiler feature highlights how the film will be just as big of a hit as the book it was based on. Watch the trailer and see for yourself: did Anna really witness a murder or was it just a product of her hallucinations?

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Filed under Lists, Movie Previews, Movie Reviews, Thriller

File Under #TwilightZone Movie Review: The Vast of Night

Everett and Fay light up the basketball court.

The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, screenplay by Craig W. Sanger and James Montague, cinematography by Miguel Ioann and Littin Menz, Amazon Studios, release date May 29, 2020 (USA)

I enjoy exploring a broad range of topics but my core niche resides somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Go back far enough and maybe it’s the same for you. It sure is with this film. It begins with a retro living room scene and an antique television with a flickering image. An announcer refers to a “frequency caught between logic and myth” and introduces Paradox Theatre and that night’s episode, The Vast of Night, which is also the title of this film. As an added bonus for any loyal Twilight Zone fan, the next scene is set in Cayuga, New Mexico. Rod Serling’s prodcution company during TZ was named, Cayuga Productions. So, the bar is set pretty high and it follows through. I simply could not stop once I began.

Fay picks up strange signals.

The camera proceeds to snake its way into that night’s basketball game at Cayuga High School. It’s the 1950s and it feels like it in a glorious way. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a teenager set on becoming the next Edward R. Murrow. Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a teenager completely enthralled with Everett. They both wander around the high school gym with a tape recorder making the most of the latest technology. Everett is so poised and Fay is so frantic. It seems like anything is possible with an added tension that maybe more is possible than anyone could ever have imagined.

This film makes me think of some of my favorite period pieces, like Back to the Future or The Last Picture Show. What The Vast of Night does so well is completely embrace its time period and manage to give it new life, say something new about it. The viewer enters into a complete and fully realized world. In fact, some of the best moments are when the camera is set loose and, like a snake, slithers about town, taking us on a ground level tour through main street, back to the high school basketball game, and over to the local radio station.

The camera slithers along like a snake.

However, in the end, it’s the dynamic performances by both Horowitz and McCormick that really steal the show: the chemistry between them; and the lonely moments when they’re apart. McCormick is especially engaging as an expert switchboard operator. I don’t know if, in fact, operators could work from home but Fay does in this movie. Fay and that enormous switchboard are quite a sight to behold. And, of course, all of this is leading up to something. These characters can’t be too far from Roswell, New Mexico. And those strange sounds that Fay is picking up must mean something. Overall, this is one of the most charming and engaging movies I’ve seen in a long while. Oddly enough, it fits right in with the strange times we’re all currently living through. This film won’t be out until May so keep an eye out for it.

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