Review: 52 Volume 1

52 Vol. 1

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Storytellers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 2016

Page Count: 584

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: 52 is one of those comics where lighting was caught in a bottle. Four talented writers each working on a weekly comic which spanned the entirety of the DC Universe over the span of one year in a particular context of in-story continuity was something that needed a perfect storm to be pulled off right. If this series means anything, it’s that the right team with the right vision can make a pretty darn good comic. Contrast this with the more recent Batman Eternal, which basically tried to be 52 in the Bat-verse. The result was less than satisfactory. Like I said, lightning in a bottle. 52‘s formula would be very hard to replicate, as seen with the equally ill-reputed Countdown to Final Crisis.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: Keith Giffen did most of the art on this trade, and his art is pretty solid, from a DC “house” style perspective. It’s nothing special, but it helps maintain a feeling of narrative cohesiveness, which is nice. Having a different artist for every issue, which was the case for much of Batman Eternal wouldn’t have done the story any favors. Getting experimental and dabbling in more unorthodox art styles probably wouldn’t have helped either, so in this case the powers-that-be made the right call.

Recommendation: C+

Notes/Review/Synopsis: This my first time reading 52, and I think it captures the zeitgeist of contemporary cape-comics. It’s hard to believe that it’s been some ten years since it’s original run concluded. The whole shared-universe continuity that started at the tail end of the ’80s, got its foundation laid in the nineties, blossomed into something beautiful in the 2000s. I’m more of a Bat-verse guy, but I gotta say, DC is being really dumb not capitalizing on the rich interconnecting continuity they have at their disposal with books like 52. As long as they keep ignoring the source material, Marvel won’t even have to try to stay ahead at the cinema.

Image from Amazon.com

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Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

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Storytellers: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 1986 (original run); 1997 (trade paperback)

Page Count: 224

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Frank Miller’s approach to comic book storytelling breaks every rule of comics writing that I am accustomed too. None of the individual issues open with a splash page. The pages are crowded with sometimes up to a dozen panels each. If I learned anything from reading The Dark Knight Returns, it’s that once you think you’ve gotten your writing craft narrowed down until it’s almost a science, everything you know is blotted out when you read something that does the job in an altogether different fashion.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: The fact that Miller is both the artist for and the writer of The Dark Knight Returns earns him the designation of Cartoonist. Will Eisner reserved this distinction for comics creators who both wrote and drew. Eisner operated on the philosophy that the writer and artist should be one and the same, so as to better translate the story that the writer had in mind onto the drawn page. In other words, if the writer and artist are the same person, then the artist won’t be able to misunderstand what the writer wants drawn. This point is crucial to Miller’s ability to tell the story of The Dark Knight Returns. He is able to draw the story exactly as he has written it.

Recommendation: A

Notes/Review/Synopsis: When reading The Dark Knight Returns, I realized something that was missing from all the debates about grim-and-gritty versus fun-and-light: The Dark Knight Returns is a work of satire. It’s meant to be ironic and humorous. The comic book that drove the over-the-top excesses of comic books in the nineties (along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen) wasn’t mean to be taken as seriously as it was.

From the opportunistic media and the exaggerated caricatures of Ronald Reagan and Superman to the grinding and course narration of the titular Dark Knight, this book was meant to poke fun at Miller’s favorite whipping boys while at the same time mocking the Batman of the 1960’s television show. The fact that an entire generation of comic book creators took it at one-hundred percent face value and poured that same style into their own comics as a result is at the same time farcical and unsettling, just like this comic.

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Review: Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963

Storytellers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Publisher: Marvel

Year of Publication: 2007

Page Count: 347

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: In this massive tome, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s collaborative use of the Marvel method of writing comics is again on display. Speech bubbles and captions are voluminous in comparison to today’s comics, seeming to copy in words what the art already shows. However, given the method in question, the story would probably be hard to understand without the words, the comic itself being a product of a unique way to writing. However, Lee does know his stuff in terms of writing comics. Every page ends with a panel that makes you want to turn to the next. The first page is always positioned to draw the reader into the story from the very first. Nearly every first page is a full-page splash panel. Speaking of which, that brings us to…

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: As with the previous volume I reviewed, Kirby’s art is definitely the driving force of the narrative. Lee’s captions and speech bubbles are what provide meaning to it, but the art is a foundation of the whole story. Kirby is very good at creating impressive visuals which are very good at propelling the story along. For instance, the Molecule Man lifting up the Baxter Building in one panel is an excellent visual, as is Namor’s coronation ceremony, spread over two pages near the end. I learned here that the art and the writing are inseparable. They need each other. This much easier if the writer is also the artist, but in a collaborative work, as is the case much of the time, the roles are symbiotic.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Review/Synopsis: The Fantastic Four is definitely fun reading, what with the bickering heroes and the over-the-top villains. It’s a product of a different era of superhero comics, when the audience was chiefly made up of ten-year old boys. Marvel needs to get back in touch with that particular demographic with its current line of comics. It made impressive gains with the Marvel Adventures line a while back, and it would probably do them good to go for that demographic with its comics again. Either that, or they could market these collections of old reprints not just to fanboys (and girls!), but to parents with kids who are looking for fun reading material for their children. I’m sure they’d find a ready audience.

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Review: Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 1

I have decided to begin reviewing a new graphic novel or comic book collection once a week. This blog will now be updated every Monday.

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Storytellers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Publisher: Marvel

Year of Publication: 2003

Page Count: 251

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: I’ve read about the Marvel method of writing comics versus the full script method of writing comics, the former being pioneered by Messrs. Lee and Kirby. The idea behind is that the writer gives a summary of the comic to the artist, who then draws the thing, after which the dialogue is added in as needed. I could see that this was definitely the case for this collection, where the writing and dialogue are definitely an outgrowth of the art, not the other way around. Lots of captions and big dialogue bubbles are present, trying to fit in as much plot as possible.

The actual stories of these early issues of The Fantastic Four were apparently very innovative for their time, such as setting most of the stories in New York City as opposed to a fictional municipality, and having the Four deal with internal strife, money problems, and a hostile media in additions to wacky supervillains.  Oddly enough, The Fantastic Fourfirst few stories don’t take place in New York, but in “Central City.” I wonder if they ever ran into the Flash? :lol:

What I Learned about Art/Storytelling: As previously mentioned, the art is definitely the main driver of the plot. Kirby knew how to create amusing and interesting visuals, such as the Thing dressed up as a pirate, or the various sci-fi backdrops which populate these pages. Bill Watterson once said that the best comics have good writing and good art, but sometimes the strength of one can make up for the weakness of the other. In a collaborative project, this maxim is doubled in importance, as the writer and the artist have to work together to create the best comic book story possible. Conflicting visions are possible, but in a great team like that of Lee and Kirby, the result is pioneering creations such as these.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Reviews/Synopsis: This book collects the first nine issues of the original The Fantastic Four series from the ’60s. Although it may bore older audiences, younger readers, especially those who have never been exposed to comics, will probably get a kick out of it. It’s harmless, silly fun that will spark young imaginations and help them learn to like reading.

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Great Movie Round-Up

In the last few weeks I’ve watched several very good movies. Here’s a quick rundown of each:

  • Zodiac – This movie is an intense crime drama which depicts a hunt for a vicious serial killer in the 1960s and ’70s. Very tight plot and excellent performances by every actor involved. I liked how the movie made it plausible that the police involved in these sorts of investigations aren’t the infallible experts you might find on television, where everything gets wrapped up in a nice tidy bow.

 

  • Schindler’s List – A very artsy portrayal of the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who goes from opportunistic profiteer to selfless humanitarian. A very hard film to watch, very much like the more recent 12 Years A Slave. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever seen Liam Neeson in. The only other one that comes close is Batman Begins.

 

  • The Big Short – Promoted as a comedy, this expletive-riddled picture successfully dramatizes an explanation of the 2008 financial crises in a compelling manner. It’s humorous at some moments, and the plot is tight and smart, but it hardly qualifies as a genuine comedy, or even as a dark one. Christian Bale shows off his acting range nicely.

 

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – This movie was very long, very quiet, and very slow. Gary Oldman, another Dark Knight Trilogy alumni, does a good job with his role, as does every other actor in this movie. The film is something like a roller coaster: It slowly rises to the top of the ridge, before rushing downward and whizzing about through all the loops and sharp turns, and then grinding to a halt.
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Goodreads Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie adaptation of this gripping slave narrative on DVD three years after it came out in theaters.

The movie brutally related a terrible, horrifying, heartrending tale of pure injustice. My history teacher said that the movie reminded him of the film “Schindler’s List”, in that he thought it was a good movie, but would never want to watch it again.

Putting aside the movie, the book “Twelve Years a Slave” adds layers of personality to our narrator, Solomon Northup, renamed “Platt” after being kidnapped from his life of freedom in the north and being sold into slavery in 1850s Louisiana.

Northup relates his tale of woe in grinding detail. He relates the general customs and traditions of enslaved blacks, the way of life of a local Indian tribe, and the range of personalities exhibited by his several masters, from the kind-hearted Baptist minister William Ford, to the lecherous and sadistic Edwin Epps.

Frequently given are the full names of persons involved in the events Northup recounts. He wanted to demonstrate that it is a wholly true story. A modern writer would have gotten lost in these details, but Northup’s aptitude for succinct descriptions and biting sarcasm result in a slim read which could be finished in a weekend.

Padding out my edition, which I acquired at a bargain price from Barnes & Noble, are a series of essays. The include an essay by Steve McQueen, director of the 2012 film, along with essays on the subject of slave narratives by a handful of academics.

Unfortunately, I was not able to finish the final, concluding essay in my edition, as I unfortunately misplaced it soon after I had reached that portion. A pity, but I am glad to have read the book at all.

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Thursday Round-Up

Now that I’ve gotten back to blogging, I have a lot of books that I’ve read that need to tell you all about!

Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer gave great insight into how a Christian out to approach the arts. Written in the heady days of the 1970s, this very literate musing on the place of art in faithful endeavors was no doubt a catalyst in the Christian art movement, such as Christian rock music, church drama ministries, and unfortunately, Christian movies.

In sum, Schaeffer has many wise things to say, but the author of its introduction apparently thinks that the book’s chief lesson is that it’s okay for Christians to make rock music. While true, that is not the main point.

Related to this book were The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson and The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani, which both address through different avenues the problems associated with the church-growth movement and “seeker-sensitive” churches.

The Prodigal Church more specifically discusses the issue from Wilson’s perspective as a product of the seeker-sensitive church. His boots-on-the-ground approach is endearing, but he borrows many of his ideas from Jethani’s book.

The Divine Commodity is a much more intellectual approach to the matter, with Jethani eloquently considering the strategy of many modern churches, which often judge success by how full their pews are instead of by the spiritual health of their congregants. Both authors could learn much from Warren Cole Smith’s book, A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church.

In terms of comics, I’ve read a beautiful hardback collection (Invincible: Ultimate Collection, Vol. 1), a graphic novel (The Complete Maus), and a 1999 book containing interviews with some of the top comic book writers of the day (Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, Vol. 1).

Invincible and Maus were absolute masterpieces, and I am glad to have acquired them for my personal library. Writers on Comics Scriptwriting was an enjoyable read, in spite of the interviewer’s fawning over his subjects. It was good to get into the heads of scribes such as Chuck Dixon and Jeph Loeb. I’ve already begun reading volume 2.

Finally, I recently read two business books, one horrible and the other fantastic, plus an eBook on statistics.

Network Like a Fox by Nancy Fox is a poor man’s McBook, which is saying something. It would be much easier to digest what advice it offers if the author had bothered to hire a decent proofreader. Its sloppy editing severely drains its credibility.

Ogilvy on Advertising, on the other hand, was out of this world. It was unlike any book related to business that I’d ever read. David Ogilvy was the man on advertising, or so my Uncle Bill, who worked in advertising, told me. An Englishman, his book is more literate and authoritative than any business book I’ve ever read.

His advice is practical and backed up by experience. The principles he espouses remain sound to this day. His is not the 1983 equivalent of a punch of stitched-together blog posts, but an actual book its own right.

Thinking Statistically by Uri Bram was a short, quick book which gives a hilarious and interesting look at statistical theory. It’s very accessible, and for the first time in my life, it made me think of math as fun.

It was also useful for helping me to understand exactly how statistics work, and how errors in methodology can fowl up survey results.

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To Catch a Thief: Better Days with Better Movies

In 1984 by George Orwell, the people of Oceania are tranquilized through an endless stream of mass-produced, low-quality entertainment, from pop music to pornography.

Winston attends a movie featuring the gruesome deaths of a ship full of refugees. Julia works as an operator of novel writing machines, all part of the sinister Party’s propaganda apparatus.

In our own world, things are little different.

The state may not directly control the American entertainment industry. But that does not change the fact there are few recent films which are both popular and good.

This was not always so. Case in point: To Catch a Thief, a thriller in which there is not a single gunfight, sex scene, or four-letter-word.

To Catch a Thief demonstrates that it is entirely possible to make a thrilling, high-caliber film without resorting to vulgarity and shock-value.

The film tells the story of a retired cat burglar living in France who must now clear his name after a new “cat” begins pinching the valuables of American tourists.

Released in 1955, the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant in the lead role. By today’s standards, it is rather tame for a thriller.

At the same time, it would probably bore young children who have spent too much time on the internet or watching television.

But for those with an appreciation for vintage cinema, it is a wonderful, beautiful film.

From the opening scene which abruptly cuts from a pleasant opening credits montage to a screaming woman, to the car chase along a narrow country road, to the final revelation of the thief’s identity, there is not a dull moment in it.

The plot is smart and airtight. Everything makes sense and every detail matters.

Even a dilettante such as myself can see that it is a technical masterpiece. From what little I know of cinematography, To Catch a Thief excels. It did after all win an Oscar for it.

Nor is there a shred of real indecency. No blood is shed, no skin is shown, not a single obscenity is uttered.

The action is focused on the events taking place, in keeping with the chief strength of film.

Where gravity is required, subtler means are in place to communicate the feeling, such as when an angry cook crushes a handful of carrots in his fist.

There is romance, and plenty of smooching, but not in the egregious, titillating way found in modern films. Where such displays today are meant to sell tickets, in To Catch a Thief they are meant to sell characterization.

Nor is there a trace of profanity. I have heard plenty of reports about how films such as Manchester by the Sea are fawned over by critics, despite their rejection by mainstream audiences.

The chief complaint of such films is that they are both inanely bleak and utterly polluted with swearing.

(I have not seen Manchester by the Sea, chiefly because I do not care to spend $13.00 to sit through that sort of thing.)

Andrew Klavan has noted that in the days of the Hayes Office, in which Hollywood self-regulated the content of its films, even the mediocre films were good by today’s standards.

Now, says he, filmmakers can show anything on screen, and now most films “kinda suck.”

I firmly believe that with the Hayes Office in place, filmmakers were forced to be creative with the limits they had to work with.

They knew that if they wanted to appeal to a mass audience, they had to make their films as decent as possible. To Catch a Thief was a product of this age, as are many classic films.

The system worked because the majority of moviegoers were average Joes living in middle America who just wanted to watch a good movie without having to endure an exercise in pointless vulgarity.

Things have changed.

In the words of Cal Thomas: “Many old films are watchable today. Some are considered classics. I doubt most of today’s films will be worth watching in 50 years. They aren’t now.”

Image from rubinmuseum.org

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Monday Round-Up

Before I finish my series on Talk Radio, I thought I’d give a quick update about what I’ve been reading lately, some movies I’ve watched, and an idea I had for a startup.

Books

I recently finished reading two books related to Christianity and the church.

Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer is a short, slim read that concisely and brilliantly makes the case for involvement by Christians in creating works of art, whether they be the fine arts or more popular mediums like cinema or the novel.

The only flaw was the truly asinine introduction by Michael Card. You can read my full Goodreads review here.

The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson details how the modern American Evangelical church has embraced secularism in a misguided effort to attract large congregations.

Wilson is sympathetic to the motives behind this shift, but seems indecisive of whether the “church-growth” or “attractional church” models of churching are totally flawed or mildly good. You can read my full Goodreads review here.

Movies

I watched The Sound of Music all the way through for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s a truly charming film, containing many elements which are completely foreign to the modern era, such as positive depictions of the church and large families. I’d even go so far as to say that Maria von Trapp ought to be hailed as a Feminist icon.

My full review on Letterboxd here.

I also finished watching the German film Downfall last night. It was a very difficult film to watch, similar to Twelve Years a Slave. Depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler during the Battle of Berlin, we see that one of history’s greatest monsters was in fact quite gentle and kind in his private life, even if he believed and acted on truly reprehensible ideas and ambitions.

I intend to review the film in more detail on Letterboxd shortly.

Ideas

I’ve recently been going through some of the books listed in The Personal MBA reading list.

As a Bible and theology enthusiast, I began to realize that something like that really needs to be provided for pastors, preachers, and ministers.

I began doing research on whether you really need to have a Seminary education to be a pastor. I found this article by Albert Mohler who stated that in the end, the answer is “no.”

Mohler opines that while having a formal education in the Bible’s original languages, church history, systematic theology, exegesis and homiletics would be a splendid thing for all preachers to have, the fact is that the cost of such an education is incredibly high.

The result is that seminary graduates tend to leave with tens of thousands of dollars in debt with no way of affording the meager salary a small church can offer them.

This gave me an idea: What if there was a resource website, similar to that of The Personal MBA, which provided a list of the 99 best books on Pastoring and related topics?

What if someone created a website or wrote a book detailing such knowledge, intended for use by lay ministers or preachers who can’t afford a formal seminary education?

I could call it, “DIY Seminary.”

Must investigate further.

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Rated P for Passable – An Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation Review

Note: This review is adapted from an article I wrote on LinkedIn on November 4, 2016, which was in turn adapted from a review I wrote for Ancient Secrets Of Lead Generation: Your Primitive Business Guide To Better Leads With Less Effort on my Goodreads.com account.

Today’s business blogosphere is teeming with thought-leaders and wannabee-thought-leaders, including myself.

The ones who manage to grow a big enough following are invariably offered book-deals.

The typical result of such book-deals is a compilation of the newly minted thought-leader’s most popular blog posts.

Combine that with a sliver of original content and a punchy-sounding title, and you’ve got something that will fly off of conference room tables and help fuel the thought-leader’s personal brand.

Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation by Daryl Urbanski is one such book. Although it contains legitimately good business advice, it is without a doubt the most sloppily-written eBook I have ever read.

I put this book on my to-read list after I saw it on Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA reading list. After having read it, I concluded that Ancient Secrets does have some good points.

Unfortunately, they are rendered nearly moot by its chronically haphazard editing. This is another hallmark of the books put out by mini-thought-leaders such ask Urbanski.

Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation is a slim volume with advice which is almost as gaunt.

The basic principles of hanging out where your target audience is and using targeted ads for different demographics are rather elementary, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

What’s unique about Urbanski’s book was that he made me rethink my ideas regarding these tactics.

I guess you could say that Urbanski gave me perspective on this strategy by giving an example of it in practice, via his anecdotes of running a small martial arts business.

But that’s where my admiration ends.

The eBook’s core flaw is that it’s littered with typos, misspellings, and bad grammar.

This takes the reader out of the experience of reading to an intense degree, making it difficult to absorb the author’s platitudes. It also undermines Urbanski’s credibility as a marketing guru.

If he cannot produce a high-quality product, then his marketing scheme will only serve to fuel the dubious reputation that reviews like mine will give him.

Again, a lot of eBooks written by mini-thought-leaders such as Urbanski tend to be a bit spotty in terms of editing, but this book left me utterly flabbergasted.

To wit, Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation presents old ideas in a new perspective, making them easy to grasp for relative amateurs such as myself.

Sadly, the book’s execution is critically lacking. It would have been improved a hundred times over if Urbanski had hired a decent proofreader.

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