Tuesday, February 28, 2023


From time to time Your Humble Narrator likes to sort through the stacks of old comic books of which he has far too many. A recent such rummage led me to reflect, on the last day of Black History Month, that I learned a fair amount of what little I know about black history not at school but from comics.

Although Adalifu Nama's Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011) is a lively and accessible study, its focus is deliberately narrow. As far as I can find, a comprehensive history of the black presence in comic books, both as characters and as artists, writers and publishers, is yet to be written. Reading up to review Marvel's Black Panther a few years ago, I came across a reprint of All-Negro Comics from 1947...

...which contained probably the earliest black superhero, Lion Man; even though the title was run out of business after only one issue, it left me wondering if it could have influenced the creation of T'Challa years later over at Marvel.

But in my collection, amongst the superhero, scary and funny titles, I found a number of civic-minded, non-fiction comics devoted to black history, most notably...

...the 169th issue of Classics Illustrated, Negro Americans: The Early Years, from 1969.

Classics Illustrated were highly abridged and expurgated adaptations of literary classics intended to interest kids in reading, and I was their success story: the dorky kid who actually became a bookworm at least partly because of the hours I spent poring over these mostly lame versions of Wells and Verne and Hugo and Melville and even Homer and Shakespeare.

Negro Americans was different than the other Classics Illustrated titles, however, in that it wasn't based on a classic book; no author is credited. On the table of contents page it says "...we try to give accurate accounts of some of those black men and women who gave their talents and lives to their country during its formative years. Space allows us to show only a few of these black heroes...The efforts and triumphs of these black men and women live as their legacy to American heritage."

I bought this comic off the stands sometime in the early '70s, and learned from it--not from school--that Crispus Attucks was arguably the first man to die in the American revolution when he fell in the Boston Massacre...

...or about the advances in heart surgery by Daniel Hale Williams...

...among many other extraordinary accounts.

I also have the Classics Illustrated version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, from 1944...

..with better-than-average art for the series.

A while back I acquired (for a dollar an issue!) a full run of the Golden Legacy comics, a series of 16 books on black history published from 1966 to 1976. Most of them concern African-American history--Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Martin Luther King, Jr., arctic explorer Matthew Henson, Amistad mutineer Joseph Cinqué, and two volumes on Frederick Douglass, among others. But there are also issues on ancient African civilizations, on Toussaint L'Ouverture and the founding of Haiti, and on the ancestry of Dumas and Pushkin. Again, they didn't teach most of this stuff at my school.

The art was pretty cool, too.

My stacks yielded a couple of '70s-era comics featuring Quincy, the everykid from Ted Shearer's newspaper strip...

They were published by King Comics, the periodical arm of King Features Syndicate. Along with Quincy's adventures with his white pal Nickels and others, the books featured educational content, teaching readers proper grammar, etc...

Moving away from educational comics, I found several issues of Midnight Tales, a creepy Charlton Comic that ran from 1972 to 1976. It's noteworthy not because of any specifically black content, but because the artist, the marvelous Wayne Howard (1949-2007), was probably the first African-American comic book artist to get a "Created by" credit on his title. Indeed, he was one of the first artists of any race to do so; comic books were usually uncredited in earlier decades.

In Midnight Tales Howard, in collaboration with writer Nicola Cuti, dreamed up Dr. Cyrus Coffin, aka "The Midnight Philosopher," who collected strange yarns with his beautiful raven-haired neice Arachne. I still think it would make a wonderful TV series on, say, the CW Network.

I love the macabre wit in Howard's artwork...

Or my favorite of his covers, from the first issue...

How much had Dr. Frankenstein been drinking when he made that mistake?

Finally, I came across a striking 1984 issue of All-Star Squadron,  DC's superhero team-up title set in the 1940s. This particular story...

...is set against the real-life backdrop of the white mob violence against residents of the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit in 1942. More strikingly, it features black superhero Will Everett, aka Amazing Man, facing off against a hooded supervillain wonderfully called "Real American," who has the hypnotic power not only to turn the white citizens into mindless, violent racist rioters, but to have the same effect on some of Amazing Man's superhero allies.

Hard to imagine that some Republicans in congress wouldn't love to get their hands on that technology...

Friday, February 24, 2023


Opening in theaters this weekend...

Cocaine Bear--This shocker has at least as much right to claim "true story" status for itself as Fargo or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There really was a Cocaine Bear: back in 1985, an American black bear was found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, just south of the Tennessee line. The poor creature had OD'd, having ingested more than 30 kilos of cocaine, valued at tens of millions of dollars.

The stuff had been dropped from an airplane by a smuggler who then died himself in a parachuting mishap. The unfortunate ursine, dubbed "Pablo Eskobear," was stuffed by a taxidermist and ended up on display in a shopping mall in Kentucky, where it reportedly still stands.

The movie, directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script by Jimmy Warden, is set in 1985 and uses some real place names and at least one real person's name (the smuggler's). But it's still a load of gleeful b.s., a highly entertaining sick joke. Unlike the real animal, the movie's bear--arguably the newest addition to the stable of Universal Monsters--turns into a drug-crazed spree killer, mauling and dismembering hikers and park personnel, as well as the drug traffickers that enter the forest in search of the lost product.

Cocaine Bear is as violent and gory as any big-studio movie you're likely to see. But it isn't scary, and isn't meant to be; the splatter is played entirely for gruesomely slapstick laughs. Indeed, the exuberance with which the blood and brains and guts fly is the central recurring and escalating gag.

Except for a single mom (Keri Russell), searching the woods for her daughter and the daughter's friend, most of the major characters are scoundrels or cretins or both, though not necessarily unlikable scoundrels and cretins. All of them are broadly played caricatures, so Banks invites us to leave our empathy at the door, take a cathartic break from compassion and hoot at the horrors which befall them. I indulged, and so did the audience with which I saw the film.

The title character, generated through some reasonably seamless combination of virtual and practical effects, has a guileless personality that contrasts with the bloody mayhem. Indeed, you're more likely to feel for the blameless beast than for most of the humans.

The cast is nonetheless excellent, even if most of them are not employing ten percent of their talent. I've long thought that Russell is one of the more underrated and underutilized lead actresses now in movies. I also don't understand why Alden Ehrenreich hasn't become a bigger deal; he's comically muddled yet sympathetic as an elaborately bereaved drug operative. So is O'Shea Jackson as his weary partner, Aaron Holliday as a dimwit would-be mugger they encounter, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as a cranky detective.

The film was one of the last in which the late Ray Liotta appeared. He's in his usual strong form as Ehrenreich's father, the heartless local boss of the drug dealers. It's not a rich enough role to be a worthy swansong, but it's a good performance, and the film is dedicated to him. The great Margo Martindale nails every line and facial expression as a hard-up park ranger trying to get the attention of a naturalist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Maybe the best of all are Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery as the two kids, who get across a genuine affection behind their mild, familiar ragging and posing and their dares of each other. They, along with Russell, offer us somebody to unambiguously root for.

Banks has a lot of fun evoking '80s-movie atmosphere, not only with the costumes and cars and posters and overheard pop songs but with her direction. From the full opening credit sequence to the leisurely camera movement to the driving synthesizer score by Mark Mothersbaugh, the film is as much a throwback to the decade in which it's set as last year's Top Gun: Maverick, and the response to both of those films suggests that maybe today's audiences wouldn't object to a return to that style.

Friday, February 17, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania--Paul Rudd, aka Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, is taking a little hiatus from front line superhero duty. On inactive status with The Avengers, he's written a book, so he's giving readings, and hanging out with family, and smugly basking in celebrity. That's the set-up, in a few quick scenes in San Francisco, for this third eponymous Ant-Man feature.

Then, thanks to science experiments by his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) gone wrong, Scott and Hope Van Dyne, aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) get swept into the "Quantum Realm," along with Cassie, Hope's Mom Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and dad Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). The Quantum Realm is a subatomic micro-verse teeming with life in which Janet was stranded for decades.

Thus Janet knows the turf, and she knows that the people there are ruled over by the tyrannical Kang (Jonathan Majors), a dimensional conqueror who she marooned in QR before she escaped. Kang would like very much to be reunited with Janet. Far-out fantasy adventures ensue.

Director Peyton Reed seems to pays heavy homage to the original 1977 Star Wars; the Quantum Realm is full of cousins of Tusken Raiders and Jawas. There are also strong echoes of the Avatar flicks, of Zardoz, and of Dr. Who, and maybe a thematic hint of Horton Hears a Who.

This is yet another Marvel entry featuring alternate universes; it has a somewhat similar look to Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from last year. As with that film, I went in with the feeling that the This-That-Or-The-Other-verse conceit that the Marvels have leaned on so hard in recent years is of limited sustainability, as it has a tendency to dilute the dramatic stakes.

On the other hand, also as with Multiverse of Madness, taken on its own terms Quantumania is perfectly enjoyable. The visuals, however derivative, are elegant, witty and well-executed, and the glamorous cast is in pleasant form. Rudd's sly, subtle clowning is always good company, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

The best performance, however, is by Jonathan Majors, from The Last Black Man in San Francisco. His Kang is quiet, subdued, even sad, as if haunted by the joyless drive to conquer and rule. As with Christian Bale's Gorr in last year's Thor: Love and Thunder, Majors brings a needed edge of serious, almost tragic menace that helps to ground this silly sci-fi spoof.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


 This is Billy the Beetle:

And this is how I came to meet Billy and some of his exoskeletoned pals last week:

One Sunday afternoon last November I was driving through Phoenix with my cell phone in my hand. I doubt I'll get much sympathy when I tell you that I suddenly noticed a police officer on a motorcycle with his lights flashing in my rearview mirrors. I spit out an expletive and pulled over.

"Important call?" the cop asked drily, when he walked up to the car.

"Not important enough, I'm guessing," I said with a sigh.

He explained to me that it's now illegal to have a cell phone in your hand, on or off, while you're driving, unless you're calling 9-1-1. There was no such urgency to my call; embarrassingly, I was taking the opportunity of a boring drive home to catch up with a friend back east. I was sufficiently chastened that I hoped the cop might let me go with a warning, but it was not to be; he wrote me a ticket and encouraged me to get a hands-free device.

What can I say? As the Brits put it, "It's a fair cop." I was totally guilty. If my kid was doing it, I'd be furious, so I could hardly make excuses for doing it myself. I resolved then and there to put my cell phone down while I'm driving, and to pull over if I had to make a call, and I've stuck to it. So I guess it's a just and effective law.

This didn't mean, of course, that I wanted to pay the fine of over two hundred bucks, so I looked into taking an online traffic class. Trying to enroll in the CHEAP EASY FAST Arizona Defensive Driving video course, I soon found that all three of the titular adjectives were questionable. Between the tuition and various other fees, the course came to an amount remarkably close to the amount of the fine. Not so cheap, then. But I didn't want a conviction, even a no-points conviction, on my record, so I signed up anyway.

Turns out that by law, the course has to be at least four hours long. So the claim that it's "fast" is based on the fact that it's as fast as is legally allowed. And easy? Well, the multiple-choice quiz questions are easy enough as long as you listen carefully to the video segments, but if you fail to catch a tidbit of information that's asked and guess wrong, you have to watch the whole segment over again from the beginning, and some of the segments are more than ten minutes long. So for me, the class, which after weeks of procrastination I finally took a week or so ago, lasted well over four hours, alas.

What I didn't expect in all this, is that the course would be hosted by bugs.

Not Bugs Bunny; bugs. As in insects. Billy, who appears to be a purple stag beetle with mandibles rising over his head like Viking horns, is the courteous, slightly stuffy host. His cohosts are Larry the Locust, a sensualist who thinks mainly of his stomach...

...and Beatrice, or possibly Bee-Atrice, the Honeybee...

As they explain, who better to teach us about driving safety then the hapless creatures who regularly splat into our windshields? And teach they do, in comprehensive, sometimes repetitive detail and at a leisurely pace; it led me to the suspicion at times that they were vamping to fill up the four hours. There's a surprisingly philosophical deep dive into the psychology of driving, as when they note that road rage can result when our "belief system is challenged," as well as of the physical impacts of poor driving, as when they note that anger management reduces the chance of a heart attack by 44%.

This unhurried atmosphere also allows for rich character development and interpersonal dynamics between the bugs. For instance, when Billy reproves Larry for his tardiness and self-indulgence, Beatrice challenges him for unfair self-pity. Maybe it's just me, but I thought I detected a hint of sexual tension between Billy and Beatrice.

Even with all of this, however, Billy, Larry and Beatrice are not sufficient to fill the time requirement all by themselves. Much of their role is introducing video segments on safe driving sourced from all over the place, especially YouTube. At least one came from England; a likable young Brit calculates the kinetic energy of two vehicles at different speeds.

There's candor, too, as when Scottsdale-based lawyer Robert Gruler of the R&R law firm discusses how commonly Arizona police officers hand out the charge of Criminal Speeding: "It's ridiculous, but they do it." The effect of this jumble of information offered in a jumble of formats and presided over by arthropods was deeply weird. It was also, I must sheepishly admit, informative and thought-provoking.

At one point Billy and his pals note that as we age, our senses and reaction times lose their sharpness. When I looked up the life spans of the stag beetle (1-2 years) the locust and the honeybee (both under a year) it gave this lesson an extra poignancy, especially considering that you have to have your learner's permit for at least six months.

Friday, February 3, 2023


In theaters this weekend:

80 for Brady--It's a testament to the star power of the four leading ladies in this movie that I didn't resent that their characters were Tom Brady fans. Not that much, anyway. I didn't even resent that the film amounts to a feature-length commercial for the NFL; it's being released the weekend before Super Bowl Sunday, almost as if the league is trying to offer its own counterprogramming.

Who cares? At this point in their careers, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Rita Moreno could pretty much read grocery lists and it would carry a certain pop-culture gravitas. The script, by Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern and inspired by a real-life circle of elderly Boston-based fans of Tommy Boy and the Patriots, doesn't really offer them much more to work with than a grocery list would, and they still come off all right.

Tomlin, a cancer survivor, is the outspoken instigator who insists that she and her friends must go watch Brady play in the 2017 Big Game. Fonda is a flirt given to romantically leaping before she looks; she's also successful writer of erotic fiction about Rob Gronkowski. Field is an academic weary of her dependent, literally absent-minded professor husband (Bob Balaban) and Moreno yearns to break free of assisted living despite a fellow resident (Glynn Turman) who likes her.

The quartet ends up in Houston having wacky adventures at the Super Bowl Experience and at parties and poker games and chicken wing eating contests and such. All does not, it need hardly be said, go smoothly. They're befriended by the choreographer of the half-time show (Billy Porter) and if you think they don't end up dancing to get past security, think again.

With her blunt, urgent delivery, Tomlin somehow emerges as the team captain of the ensemble. But all four are infectiously energetic and seem to enjoy goofing around with the supporting players shoved in their paths, like Porter, or Harry Hamlin as a love interest for Fonda, or Sara Gilbert as Tomlin's daughter, or Andy Richter as a high roller in a skybox, or Alex Moffat and Rob Corrddry as a dyspeptic sports-talk team, and of course Brady and Gronk and Guy Fieri and others as themselves. Even the bit players include the likes of Patton Oswalt and Sally Kirkland.

80 for Brady starts slow, but it should be said that as it progresses, and gets broader and sillier, it also gets better; both livelier and more heartfelt. By the end these women had me absurdly emotionally invested. This is, possibly, the lamest and most ridiculous film that has ever brought tears to my eyes.