Monday, February 27, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 2

The first of the stories is "The Long Dark Night of Fortunato" by Lewis Shiner. This story introduces another character who will be a major player, a pimp known only as Fortunato. When a serial killer begins targeting the girls he work with, Fortunato is at a loss until the Wild Card virus grants him pseudo-mystical powers. (He can best be  be described --- and there is absolutely no good way to say this -- as a sex powered wizard.) Forutnato soon discovers that the killer has ties to an ancient cult with sinister designs.

This story is probably the most violent and disturbing of the many stories in the book, primarily for one of the most uncomfortable interrogation scenes ever set to paper. However, it is actually a fascinating character study both for what it reveals about the larger universe and what it reveals about the main characters. First, the story explores is the first to really explore the idea that the Wild Cards virus acts on the subconscious thoughts of it's hosts. Thus, the abilities and deformities it grants its hosts are based on their subconscious beliefs and fears. Fortunato is, uh, practicing  a Tantric ritual when his powers emerge and, as a result, his vast powers only work when he preforms the appropriate spell.

The idea of the Wild Card begin able to grant people abilities baed on their beliefs allowed the series to bring in characters who would normally be outside its scope in a world where super-powers come from a single source. Fortunato is an uncouth analogue for mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate. In later stories, the virus  would allow for the creation of an android hero similar to Marvel's Vision and mythological figures who serve as Thor analogues.

Fourtunato himself is a rather complex character. Technically a "hero", simply because he sets himself in opposition to an unquestionably evil organization, he is still a criminal himself who exploits women for a living. His greatest fear is that, to quote Spider-Man, "with great power comes great responsibility." The character's constant struggle with the idea that, as much as he may deny it, he has an obligation to uses his powers to help others or, at the very least, for things other than criminal activities drives much of his actions throughout the series.

The next story is "Transfigurations"by Victor Milan is set in the late 60 and early 70s and follows Marc Meadows, a MIT student who has become enamored with the hippy movement and is looking to enter the drug scene. The plot is pretty impossible to discuss without spoilers so SPOILER WARNING. Meadows spends most of the story awkwardly courting his old grade school crush and dithering back and forth on whether or not to take LSD for the first time. He finally takes his first dose as a fight between two aces breaks out, a fight which is then broken up by the appearance of a third ace called the Radical, who subsequently disappears. Mark wakes up the next day with vague memories of participating in the fight and begins experimenting with drugs in an attempt to determine if he was, in fact the Radical.

This story feels the most frustratingly incomplete.  Give what we learn about Meadows in the next book, his quest to become the Radical is merely the beginning of his transformation into an ace. Thus, "Transfigurations" reads more the first half of an origin story and since Meadow's transformation is already complete in the second book, the reader doesn't get to see the second half. Furthermore, the story sets up a subplot about the conservative ace Hardhat and his quest for his daughter which is then completely dropped as the character never appears again. Despite this, it's impossible to hate this story as Meadows himself is the nicest character in the first part of the series and quickly endears himself to the reader.

The next interlude gives us a status update of the world in 1971. Written as a Tom Wolfe pastiche, it introduces the celebrity culture that has sprung up around the aces in the wake of the Turtle's emergence as a crimefighter. This interlude primarily serves to introduce the cult of celebrity that has grown around aces, and flesh out a location that will important in later books: celebrity restaurant Aces High, run by Hiram Worcester, formerly the Fatman, a retired hero turned restaurant owner.

The next story is "Down Deep" by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper which introduces a group of sewer dwelling heroes. The main protagonists are Mafia princess and aspiring social worker Rosa-Maria Gambione, her client Bagabond, a homeless woman who can talk to animals, and "Sewer Jack" Robicheaux, a were-alligator sewer maintenance worker. When Rosa's fiancee, a member of the local mob, is murdered by the mysterious Subway Vigilante, it precipitates a gang war that draws all three protagonists to the sewers to stop the Mafia from carrying out a massacre.

This story, though better than "The Sleeper",  introduced what are honestly my least favorite of the Wild Cards characters from the first book, Bagabond and Sewer Jack. They're not terrible characters by any means but they always seemed disconnected from the other characters and more like they should be part of a separate series. There are lip service mentions to characters from the previous stories but they really do not figure into the action. (Admittedly, a major character in this story had previously made a cameo earlier in the book but that was more to set up their appearance in this story then anything else.)

According to Martin, this story was written before the decision was made to set the first Wild Card outbreak in the 1940s and had to be re-edited later to fit the setting. This definitely shows in the story. A scene where Bagabond and Sewer Jack come to realize that they are both Aces makes sense in a context where the virus is a relatively recent phenomenon but not so much in a setting  where Aces have been around for over twenty years. The story is not bad. I just wish it felt more like it was part of the larger series.

"Down Deep" is followed up by a story that focuses more on the true victims of the Wild Card virus: the disfigured jokers. Another interlude show establishes two revival joker advocacy groups operating out of Jokertown, a joker ghetto in New York City. One is the The Joker Anti-Defamation League, which advocates for non-violent resistance led by an elephant Joker who goes by the name of Xavier Desmond. (No points for guessing who inspired this character). Opposing him is the militant Joker's for a Just Society, led by Tom Miller aka Gimli, whose Wild Card virus has turned him into a super-strong dwarf.

This situation is then explored more thoroughly in the disturbing story "Strings" by Stephen Leigh which introduces the Wild Card's universe first major super-villain and is impossible to discuss without SPOILERS so consider yourself warned. The story starts, in the 1940s, with a brutal murder instigated by the emotion controlling ace known as Puppetman, who we soon learn is only 11 years old. The story then jumps to 1976 where the Jokers for a Just Society are threatening to riot if their demands aren't heard. The story follows Succubus, a joker prostitute, who is spying on one of her clients, pro-joker right Senator Gregg Hartman, on behalf of Gimli. There are several hints throughout the story that Puppetman is actually Gimli, but we eventually learn that Puppetman is Senator Hartman, secretly using his powers to provoke the jokers to riot as part of a bid for the Presidency. Eventually, Puppetman's powers lead to his own undoing but he escapes detection to plot again another day.

This story sets the tone for what villains are like in the Wild Cards universe. Since the heroes are themselves incredibly flawed, the villains, by contrast, are all massive psychopaths so the audience knows who to root for. This is true of this story which also includes fun little bits of world building: the Jokertown Riots of 76 will be a plot point throughout the series and the story include an action-packed team-up between several of the ace heroes which introduces several new characters. The story also adds an element of suspense as Gregg Hartman is almost universally loved by both jokers and aces, all of whom are unaware of his inner depravity.

Unfortunately, this story highlights what can be the most maddening aspect in the Wild Cards universe. Because of the multiple writers working on each story and the needs of each book, plot threads and characters introduced in one book can be ignored for multiple books before being followed up on, if they ever are. Despite being Wild Card's first major villain, Puppetman does not appear outside of cameos for the next two books which is a shame because he turns out to be a fascinating character. Another character introduced in "Strings" the enigmatic Black Shadow, won't show up again for several more books despite the story dropping hints that he is more than he appears. The downside of setting up an interesting world with lots of characters is that you have to wait awhile before some of them get a turn in the spotlight.

After another brief interlude consisting simply fictionalized media quotes from various characters in the book, we come to the 1980s with "Comes a Hunter" by John J. Miller, the  final story in the book excluding the epilogue. This story depicts Daniel Brennan, an army deserter, who receives a letter from an old friend telling him that Kien Phuc, the South Vietnamese general behind the deaths of Brennan's old army unit and his wife, is in New York City. Brennan arrives in the city to find his friend murdered and his friend's daughter, Mai Minh, kidnapped. Adopting the costumed identity of Yeoman, Brennan must rescue the girl from Kien's ace lieutenant Scar.

I have mixed feelings about this story and they all stem from Yeoman himself. He's an interesting character, a non-powered vigilante in a world of super-heroes but-- and this is important-- his main weapon is a bow and arrow.  He's one of the more competent heroes in the series but -- he uses a bow and arrow. His stories, especially in this book, introduce elements that become important in the larger series, especially the joker information broker Chrysalis, but --- he uses a bow and arrow. Bow and arrow characters, like Green Arrow and Hawkeye, always strained suspension of disbelief when they appear in comics so when one appears in a book series with pretensions to towards realism like Wild Cards, the same suspension is totally shattered.

The book as a whole is probably my favorite of the first three Wild Card novels but it's also the hardest to judge as a single work. The book is more concerned with world-building than with telling a singular story but it does a good job with what it sets out to do. Each story in the book introduces new plot threads and characters that suggest potential stories of their own. Believe me, this retrospective doesn't even begin to cover all of the minor characters introduced in this book, some of whom will become major characters in subsequent volumes.  Overall, the book does it's job which is to suck you into the world of Wild Cards.

That's it, then. The book's over right. Well no. See, when Tor Books, took over the publishing of the series in the late 2000s, they reissued the first book with three all new stories. And I'll go over the stories in part three.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Super Short Reviews: "A Cure for Wellness" runs on too long but is worth a watch

Pretty much every reviewer is asking themselves the same question about "A Cure for Wellness": namely, how in God's name did this movie get made? It's the kind of movie that Hollywood executives generally shy away from: a big-budget horror film that traffics primarily in surreal unsettling images and a general weird atmosphere. Movies like this don't get bank rolled by 20th Century Fox. They get made on a shoe string budget in the filmmaker's back yard and go straight to DVD.

I suspect the reason this movie exists is that director Gore Verbinski is a big enough name in Hollywood to pursue passion projects like this dues to his success with the Pirates of the Carribean movies. And though he's mostly associated with those films these days, it's important to note that he also directed the seminal 2000s horror film, The Ring, so it's not like he doesn't have genre cred. But the film itself is so strange and non-commercial, that it's hard to see anyone green lighting it. It's possible the studios didn't know what the film was going to be like when they read the pitch. As a bare bones outline, the plot isn't something that hasn't been done in horror movies before.

The story involves Lockhart, a young stock-broker played by Dane DeHaan, who is tasked by his employer to locate the CEO of his company, Pembroke (Harry Groener). Pembroke has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and is refusing to return from a trip to a health spa in the Swiss Alps known for its healing waters.

Lockhart goes to the health spa but, after a car accident, he suffers a broken leg and stays at the spa while he recuperates. He begins to suspect that the director of the spa, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), is hiding something. He soon discovers that he can not leave the spa and begins to investigate the strange goings-on which have a mysterious connection to an incestuous family of nobles killed in a fire hundreds of years ago. So far, this sounds like the standard set-up for a haunted house/ castle with a dark secret movie.

But the plot of the film is mostly an excuse for a variety of disturbing set pieces many of them involving eels. (This, by the way is the first horror film, I can think of that makes use of the fact that eels are kind of terrifying. I, personally, have always felt that they have disturbingly human eyes.) "A Cure For Wellness" by the way ,is the kind of film, where any Freudian overtones that come from having the main character menaced by eels are, of course, completely intentional.

Anyways, the set-pieces, long with some truly good acting, are the real reasons to see this movie. Dane DeHaan, an actor who always looks like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown anytime he appears on screen, is perfectly cast as Lockhart. Casting Jason Isaacs, a steel,-jawed, classically handsome, non-nonsense type as the main antagonist makes an excellent counterpart to the manic, increasingly unhinged DeHaan. And Mia Goth's odd and etherial performance as Hannah, a young patient at the clinic who Lockhart befriends, is captivating.

 Unfortunately, the movie starts strong but runs out of steam in it's third act where it begins to drag. (After about the third unsuccessful escape attempt, you'd think they'd realize keeping Lockhart around is more trouble than it's worth and just kill him.) What begins as a horror story that plays with ideas that the true disease of mankind is the scourge of wealth and capitalism become a more straight-up monster movie. The ending play out like an R-rated Universal monster movie, while one revelation recalls the 1971 Vincent Price mad scientist movie The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Furthermore, you get the sense that the only reason that the movie wind up this long is that Verbinski and the studio decided to change the ending. Without to much spoilers, there's a bit towards the end of the film with a gorgeous shot of the Swiss Alps, that would have been a great place to end the movie.  As it is, allthough the film is worth a look, it runs out of steam in the last half-hour

Monday, February 13, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 1

The first Wild Cards book, and not incidentally my favorite so far, is ironically one of the ones I read most recently.  Unlike most of the other books in the series, the first book is almost entirely set-up and therefore, is not as concerned with running plot threads. It's mostly about introducing the characters and getting things set up for the next book in the series.

A warning: Because this book sets up so much of the rest of the series, it is impossible to discuss large potions of it without spoilers. I am going to attempt to do this while giving away as little as possible. Also because a lot of the stories work as  character introductions, I am giving a lot of the pieces more analysis than I would otherwise. This means book one will be split up into multiple posts.

The "heroes" of Wild Cards tend to be an erratic bunch. Though capable of genuine heroism, they are  also largely neurotic, self-destructive, and sometimes plain unlikable. Nor are all of them crime fighters, although most of the Aces are at least part-time adventurers, if only to keep up appearances. Although they are often drawn into conflict, many of the "heroes" choose to use their powers in other ways.  For instance,  Dr. Tachyon, the character who is arguably the protagonist of the first ten books in the series (as much as Wild Cards can be said to have protagonist), is a medical doctor who occasionally forays into fighting criminals and aliens.

Dr. Tachyon is introduced in the prologue material that is found to the first volume (brilliantly presented  as a pastiche of the writing of Studs Terkel).  Tachyon is an alien Takisian and one of the designers of the Wild Card virus. He arrives on Earth with good news and bad news: On one hand, he has successfully stopped his fellow Takisians from dropping the virus on Earth. The bad news is, in the process, five canisters containing the virus have been lost somewhere in the United States.
This leads to the first story in the book "Thirty Minutes over Broadway! Jetboy's Last Adventure!" Jetboy is Robert Tomlin, a war veteran at 19, who thanks to his natural skills and a series of improbable circumstances found himself the pilot of an experimental jet plane at the the age of 12. A lost soul, he returns to America after World War II where he finds himself lost as his exploits have been mythologized to the point where the population considers him a super-hero.  Unfortunately, his plans to retire and write his memoirs are derailed when a disfigured criminal calling himself "Dr. Todd" finds the lost canisters of the Wild Card virus and threatens to drop it on New York. Jetboy is called into stop him but, as you probably guessed from the title of the book and the stories, he doesn't succeed.

This story probably had the strongest impact on the Wild Cards series as a whole, simply in terms of setting.  George RR Martin had  approached his friend science fiction writer, Howard Waldrop, about contributing to the series. Coincidentally, Waldrop had been kicking about an idea for a short story about a character named Jetboy and offered it for inclusion in the anthology. The only catch was that Waldrop wanted his story to be set in the late 1940s. Martin had originally intended for the Wild Card virus outbreak to occur in modern times (which would have been the late 1980s when the book was written) but Waldrop refused to budge on the issue.

Ultimately, Martin decided that he wanted the Jetboy story in the book and significantly altered the scope of the novel. Instead of taking place in modern times, the stories in the first book would take place in chronological order, exploring the history of the world, spanning from the late 1940s to the present era. This works to the novel advantage as the history of super-heroes in the Wild Cards universe  was the able to mirror the history of comic books in the real world. Pulp adventurers like Jetboy give way to superheroes like the Four Aces. This is followed by a period in the 1950s what the heroes are gone or operate outside the public eye before the return to prominence in the 1960s. Someone familiar with the history of comics will recognize the metaphor for how super-hero comics rose to the prominence in the Golden Age of Comics and then suffered a decline in popularity before resurging as the dominant force in the medium during the Silver Age.

The story itself works as a good starting point for the series. It starts of as a deconstruction of pulp adventure stories. Sure, Jetboy is a remarkable pilot but his adventures have been exaggerated by the media. (At one point, he complains that his comic book series has crafted fictitious super-villains for him to fight.) However, as the story progresses, the Wild Card virus eventually turn the story into a straight example of an adventure story complete with a real super-villain for Jetboy to fight. This sets up the greater theme of the series that the  mere existence of the Wild Card virus quite literally transforms a previously realistic world into one where the tropes of fantasy and science-fiction are part of everyday life. Plus, it's a fun story with a great final confrontation scene on Dr. Todd's blimp fortress.

The next story in the book is "The Sleeper", by Roger Zelazny, which focuses on one of the first victims of the virus' release, 14 year old Croyd Crenson, the titular Sleeper.  Caught in the initial outbreak of the virus, Croyd falls into a coma and awakens transformed into an adult man with invisibility powers. Croyd soon discovers that every time he goes to sleep, he awakens months later with a new appearance and Wild Card power. Sometimes he awaken as a powerful ace, other times as a hideous joker. Croyd turns to crime to support his family and, fearful of the changes that come when he's sleeping begins abusing methamphetamines.

At the time the story was written, Roger Zelazny was portably the most popular writer working on the Wild Cards series. (In fact, when the book was written in 1986, Zelazny was more well-known than Martin himself). Furthermore, Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, would become a mascot for the series often appearing in the stories of the characters. This makes sense given the characters versatile nature: Though he was generally a lovable outlaw, if he took to many amphetamines, he would become a paranoid lunatic who could serve as a formidable antagonist.

And yet the stories with him as the protagonist tended to be pretty weak. In fact, I would say that "The Sleeper" is the weakest story in the whole anthology. It just kind of meanders from plot point to plot point. Croyd gets his powers and commits some robberies. He accidentally kills a security guard while high and feels kind of bad about it but the thread is dropped and goes nowhere. He commits more robberies and ruins a wedding and that's about it. The story doesn't end so much as it just sort of stops. When the character's cameos in other stories are more compelling than the character's own stories, you know there's a problem.

The book begins to shift into high gear with "Witness" which introduce Jack Braun, a.k.a. Golden Boy, the fallen Superman of the Wild Cards universe. A war veteran like Jetboy, Braun is a young aspiring actor who finds that he can generate a golden force field that renders him bulletproof, super strong and (eventually) ageless. The handsome Braun is soon recruited into the organization known as the Exotics for Democracy, popularly known as the Four Aces, a group brought together to overthrow dictators and impose democracy worldwide. At first regarded as heroes in America, the Aces are accused of having Communist ties after a bungled mission to China and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Braun, desperate to preserve his burgeoning Hollywood career, names names with disastrous consequences for the rest of the Four Aces.

"Witness" was nominated for a Nebula award and it's easy to see why. The story is by far the best in the book. Superheroes opposing HUAC is not a new idea but usually the heroes stand fast and re-affirm their integrity against the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. As nice as that might be to believe, the truth  of what would happen is probably closer to what happens in this story. Under the pressure to conform or be labeled Un-American, even the best people can crack and wind up doing damage to those closest to them. (A message particularly relevant to those of us living in the Trump administration). The story is a tragedy where heroism vies with self-interest and looses.

We see the other side of the story in "Degradation Rites", by Melinda Snodgrass, where Dr. Tachyon, having been deported to Europe by HUAC,  takes the lead for the fist time. Having become an alcoholic drifter, he finds an American newspaper announcing the death of Blythe van Rensaeller a.k.a. Brain Trust of the Four Aces. Gifted with power to permanently copy the minds and personalities of others, Brain Trust meets Dr. Tachyon in early days of Wild Card outbreak and she leaves her abusive husband for the alien. Their affair is passionate but she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the other personalities in her head, a situation that ultimately comes to a disastrous resolution at the HUAC hearings.

No two ways about it: This story is bleak. Tachyon begins the story and ends it as a street person.  As result, you know from the beginning that the story is going to end badly: there is an air of melancholy even during the happy parts.  It does bring up a problem with the early Wild Cards novels in that there are not a lot of female perspectives. Importantly, the first female "hero" in the Wild Cards universe exists entirely to be killed off, giving Dr. Tachyon angst and provide a motivation for his rivalry with Golden Boy. On it's own merits, the story is another strong tragedy: I just wish it's portrayal of female characters had aged better.

The story is followed by an interlude which provides further background  prosecution of Wild Card victims during the HUAC era which eventually leads to the formation of the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors.  The unholy lovechild of HUAC, Marvel's SHIELD, and the Avengers, SCARE initially drafted Aces and forces them to use their abilities, in secret, on behalf on the US Government. By the end of the book, the organization has become more public and morphed into the closest thing the Wild Cards would  have to a superhero team for a while but its history lent its activities a vaguely sinister cast throughout the series.

Public heroes will not return until the 1960's with the story "Shell Games" by Martin himself. Having been allowed back into the country by President Kennedy, Tachyon has remained a drifter. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, a powerful telekinetic Ace named Thomas Tudbury decides to use his powers to fight crime.  Hiding his identity inside an armored shell propelled by his telekinesis, he dubs himself the Turtle and begins fighting crime. When a Joker bartender who has befriended Tachyon is kidnapped,  Tachyon is forced to team up with the Turtle to find her.

This story is a fun little adventure story. The Turtle makes a good twist on the armored superhero, concealing his identity with a mobile assault vehicle rather than a suit of armor but he's not as developed here as he is in later stories.  "Shell Games" is slight if read on its own but if read in conjunction with "Witness" and "Degradation Rites", the stories work as a mini-trilogy detailing the fall and ultimate redemption of Dr. Tachyon. Along with an brief interlude, establishing that Dr. Tachyon ultimately opens up a clinic in Jokertown designed to treat Wild Card victims, these three stories contain the closest thing the first novel has to a narrative arc, one which ultimately comes to a satisfying conclusion. The remaining stories in the book will be devoted to setting up plot threads and characters explored more closely in future books.