Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What I'm Reading: Nine Princes in Amber

Like the Dune series, the Amber series by Roger Zelazny is one I enjoyed greatly when I was younger and have decided to revisit. The first rather slim volume, Nine Princes in Amber, came out in 1970. I first read it in probably the 10th grade and immediately noticed it was different than other fantasy books I'd read. Although it does have kings and magic and such, it eschews the warmed-over Lord of the Rings-inspired cliches so often found in other fantasy books, as well as their flowery language. Indeed, its clipped, dry style is far closer to a detective novel by Hammett or Chandler than to Tolkien or Terry Brooks.

Its main character is Corwin, who wakes up in a hospital room with his memory gone, but realizing that he's being over-narcotized. Why? Probably somebody doesn't want to kill him outright, but doesn't want him waking up. He drags himself out of bed, rips out the IV, pushes aside the nurse and stumbles down to the hospital director's office, where he bluffs his way out with the threat of a lawsuit. But where to go from there? Indeed, after this first chapter we very easily could have ended up in a mystery.

But instead, as Corwin's memory gradually returns, he learns (and so do we) that he is actually one of nine princes of Amber, heirs to the throne of that kingdom which is the only real place in the universe. All other places are mere shadows of Amber, their realness and solidity dictated by their distance from Amber itself. Earth is a fairly important place for it is where several shadows cross, making it somewhat more real than most places and something of a crossroads for travelers through shadows.

Corwin discovers that during his stay in the hospital (and how long was he there, anyway...?), his brother Eric, a cruel and merciless man, has positioned himself to take over the kingdom and is in fact only a few weeks from his coronation. The book relates how Corwin gains his full memory of his true self, and his joining the tangled alliance of brothers who have decided to fight against Eric. But if you think you have already predicted the ending from what I've written, you are quite wrong. I meant it when I said this book eschews the fantasy cliches, and it ends up in quite a different place than expected, seemingly teasing the reader with certain fantasy tropes only to veer off in other directions entirely.

This book held up for me as an adult better than the Dune books. In fact, I'd say Nine Princes of Amber was full of pleasures. I've mentioned the writing style and the unexpected plot twists, but the characters also are superbly drawn: some have a measure of nobility but all have weaknesses and vices, and take time for the simple pleasures of food, beer, cigarettes, even walks in the woods or games of chess. All have mixed motives, complicated relationships with the other characters, and conflicting desires. This is the first of ten books, and I will definitely be reviewing the others over the coming year. I only ever read the first seven or eight of them in high school, but I have recently purchased The Amber Chronicles, which has all ten in one volume.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world's oldest known story. Although our most complete version of it is from Assyria around 700 B.C., fragments of the story have been found from as far back as 2,000-ish B.C. Any writing that we have older than that consists only of records of commercial transactions, plus maybe some poems or prayers. If there are older written narratives than Gilgamesh we don't know of them.

It must have been fairly widely known around the Middle East back at that time because fragments have been found in several languages--for instance, its most famous episode, an account of a flood that destroys all life on earth except one righteous family, of course appears in an only-slightly modified form in the Bible, and was found also in the traditions of many other peoples. However, from the time of antiquity until an archeological expedition uncovered it in the early 20th century the rest of the story was lost.

The story follows Gilgamesh, a young and vigorous king of Uruk. Unable to find a match for his physical prowess among civilized peoples, the Gods send the wild man Enkidu to Uruk, where he engages with Gilgamesh in a wrestling match. After battling to a draw, the two become the best of friends, and set out on adventures together. They defeat a monster in the cedar forest of Lebanon, attracting the attention of the love Goddess Ishtar. She proposed to Gilgamesh, who turns her down. In revenge, she casts a sickness on Enkidu, killing him. Heartbroken after the death of his friend, Gilgamesh sets out for the garden of the Gods to find the secret to immortal life. He arrives and encounters several strange characters, including Utnapishtim, the only mortal man ever to be granted immortality, who relates to him the Flood story. Finally, Gilgamesh finds a kind of undersea plant that grants immortal life, only to lose it again. Upon his arriving again at his home city of Uruk he finally realizes the fate of all men is to die, and the best a man can do is achieve glory for himself while upon the earth.

I've wanted to read this book for a long time and I don't know why I never did before; it's pretty short and easy to read. It's basically an adventure story with larger-than-life heroes and epic journeys and magic artifacts. I would think anybody from high school on with an interest in fantasy or fairy tales would find it interesting, and it's also an intriguing document of life in earliest recorded history. Yet despite its distance from us in time, I find the problems and concerns of Gilgamesh are not so different than those of people today: friendship, romance and spurned love, finding your place in the world, and coming to terms with the inevitability of disease, aging, and misfortune.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Ranking the non-DC and non-Marvel Comic Movies

So far I've ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, and the X-Men movies.  There's only one major franchise of super-hero movies I haven't ranked yet, and that is the Spider-Man franchise.  But for now, let's rank the comic-based movies that aren't based on DC or Marvel superheroes.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

American Splendor--Based on Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comics about life as a blue collar worker in Cleveland. Parts of the movie are "real", with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar himself, other parts are animated. Includes all the famous episodes--Pekar's friendship with cartoonist R. Crumb, his appearances on David Letterman, his work at the Cleveland VA hospital as a file clerk. Highly, highly recommended.

Conan, various movies--I've decided the Conan movies are based on R.E. Howard's original stories, and not the 1970s Marvel comics, so these don't earn a review.

Crumb--About the life of underground cartoonist R. Crumb and his exceedingly strange family. Robert Crumb and his two brothers grew up with a brutal, physically abusive father and turned to drawing their own comics as an escape. They continued this practice into their teenage years and beyond, with Robert especially sublimating his repressed personality and sexual desires and frustrations into increasingly bizarre comic art. This became the basis of a whole career for him, producing such 60s comics icons as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. The movie is endlessly fascinating and most certainly not for kids.

Creepshow--A horror film based on the spirit of the old 1950s Tales From the Crypt comics, but not on any particular stories that were actually published. As with Conan, I've decided these don't meet the threshold for inclusion.

Fritz the Cat (1972)--An X-rated animated movie based on R. Crumb's stoner, ne'er-do-well cat. Do not, do not show this movie to your kids. But don't show it to your adult friends either. It feels highly dated, the racial and sexual scenes are just embarrassing, and it is awfully hard to get through.

Heavy Metal (1981)--Unlike Fritz the Cat, and perhaps this is just personal bias showing, but I find this film to be the height of lurid pulp entertainment. Taking several of the best-loved stories from the long-running science-fiction comics anthology magazine Heavy Metal, adding a hard rock soundtrack anchored by Sammy Hagar, and not toning down the sex, nudity, violence, and weirdness of the original material one bit, this movie achieves a sort of dream-like id-driven erotic nirvana. Voice work is done by John Candy and Ivan Reitman, among others.

Hellboy--Haven't seen

Judge Dredd--Haven't seen

Mystery Men--Reasonably amusing send-up of superheroes based on a popular DC comic from the early 1990s.

Sin City (2005)--Ultra-violent anthology with stories from Frank Miller's popular 1990s comic. Noir atmosphere and truly over-the-top murder and mayhem featuring bent cops, femmes fatale, and private eyes.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)--Haven't seen

V for Vendetta--Haven't seen

Watchmen (2009)--This 1986 comic by Alan Moore featuring superheroes facing the real-life consequences of their actions is considered one of the finest comics ever made. A nearly scene-for-scene transfer to film somehow results in a fairly mediocre movie. Huh. I've re-read the comic lately, it's still pretty good, you should read it too if you haven't yet.


Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
Swamp Thing (1982)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014): Haven't seen
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)