Author Archives: Ricardo Denis

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Review: Beta Ray Bill #1

Beta Ray Bill
Beta Ray Bill #1

There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in Daniel Warren Johnson’s new Beta Ray Bill mini-series. In fact, it’s what stands out despite a giant set-piece fight in Asgard against a Fin Fang Foom bearing the mark of the King in Black. What’s at the heart of this comic is a very aesthetically charged look at beauty and self-worth, one that takes place amidst perfectly chiseled Vikings and Norse gods.

Beta Ray Bill #1 is basically a character study of the titular Korbinite (whose origin story sees the character transformed into the cybernetic creature he is today after the destruction of the Burning Galaxy by the hands of Surtur). Set within the events of The King in Black, Beta Ray Bill is tasked with protecting Asgard as its Master of War, wielding every weapon available to him except Stormbreaker, his iconic hammer. Thor broke Stormbreaker during a disagreement with Bill.

The story is adamant on getting to Bill’s insecurities and frustrations quick. Without spoiling much, his battle with Foom doesn’t go all that well and he’s upstaged by Thor. Bill thinks he’s at a disadvantage in these cosmic battles given Stormbreaker isn’t available to him, which makes him feel somewhat unprepared, inadequate even, to uphold the title given to him by Thor.

Daniel Warren Johnson, who also scripted the comic, portrays Bill like an exposed nerve, a powerful being that—regardless of being considered one of the strongest heroes in the galaxy—is still destined to lead the life of an outsider based on the way he looks. Johnson takes full advantage of this characterization to set him almost completely apart from the Asgardians, all of which are gloriously sculpted to physically embody the very concept godhood. Bill, on the other hand, looks uncomfortable in his own skin, self-aware. The comic points to making this type of self-perception the crux of its narrative, seemingly with the intent to challenge it.

Along with Mike Spicer on colors, Johnson’s art is outstanding. The energy he brings to all his stories have a deeply metal feel to it, almost as if you could hear Iron Maiden or Dio blasting in the background as the story unfolds. Beta Ray Bill is no exception. If anything, the book forms a certain kinship with another of Johnson’s books: Murder Falcon.

Beta Ray Bill
Beta Ray Bill #1

In Murder Falcon, heavy metal and giant monsters clash in a story that’s also about the emotional composition of a person’s sense of self, about how people feel in terms of regret, time, and death. That story’s approach to raw emotion seems to carry over somewhat to Beta Ray Bill, as does its contemplation on relationships and how they can be both restorative and destructive. For Bill, this aspect comes up with through his relationship with Lady Sif.

This is where the comic finds its most heart-wrenching moments. The degree of honesty behind them result in a series of emotionally harrowing sequences that make Bill questions his feelings as to his place in Asgard, among those he’s either befriended or expressed a more intimate kind of love to. By the end of my first read of this first issue, I felt my heart give a heavy pound or two as certain intimate things came to the fore. It’s a testament to how well-crafted Johnson’s script is and how good he is at capturing emotions in his comics.

Beta Ray Bill #1 is primed to be an emotional adventure with a mind to keep things cosmic both inside and outside its main character. To say that it’s exceptionally illustrated and colored is to state the obvious. Johnson and Spicer are a formidable storytelling team and if there’s one guarantee in all this is that the comic’s visuals will settle for nothing less than unforgettable. While that is special in itself, it’s the story’s heart where new narrative possibilities spring forth to entice readers. Expect this journey to tap into your entire emotional spectrum and remember to take your time enjoying each panel. Wondrous things abound in every one of them.

Script/Art by Daniel Warren Johnson Colors by Mike Spicer
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy and keep a box of Kleenex close by.

Marvel provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Movie Review: The Vigil turns Jewish folklore into claustrophobic horror

Much has been said about how The Vigil ventures into Jewish folklore to create a truly genuine Jewish horror story. The movie accomplishes this convincingly and it’s nothing short of impressive, especially when one considers how much of it happens almost exclusively in a small house setting.

The Vigil is a very focused horror movie. It takes place in a small Hasidic household that hides more secrets than one thought possible along with a Jewish entity known as the Mazzik (from the Hebrew word mazikeen which translates into “damager” or “destroyer”). A member of the Orthodox Jewish community has passed away and a man called Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis) is asked to become the body’s shomer from midnight to early morning, a religious responsibility that entails acting as the deceased’s watchman. He’s supposed to care for the dead man’s soul as it crosses over.

The Vigil
The Vigil

Complications arise as we learn Yakov has recently left the Hasidic community after a traumatizing experience. In the process, his faith has been broken, leaving him somewhat isolated while in the process of dealing with his separation from the life he’s always known.

Director Keith Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script, decided to cram as much as possible into the story to create a fully realized nightmare specific to the Jewish experience. The intention is to get at the terror behind trauma, memory, and the unknown.

It all speaks to Thomas’ ambitiousness and drive to create an authentic Jewish horror film by fully committing to the culture behind its subject matter. The film goes as far as shooting on location at Williamsburg and Borough Park, two places known for their Hasidic populations, to capture as much as possible from the community that hovers around the main character.

Horror
The Vigil

Despite these elements being put firmly in place for maximum narrative effect, what makes The Vigil intriguing is its decision to keep to an enclosed place as it makes Yakov relive his traumas just as the house’s cursed memories start spilling out.

The small, two-story house the story takes place in carries itself like an old and bruised place, overtaken by shadows that seem to only recede in dimly lit spots. Light sources themselves are tinged with opaque reds and greens, making everything seem somewhat shapeless. It makes for a location that comes across as ill-intentioned, persistent in boxing in its chosen victim with no escape in sight.

Thomas uses this to his advantage and amplifies it by keeping the camera close to Yakov. And yet, there’s always enough space left over to peer into the background and see if something unnatural moves closer to him. It allows for a heightened sense of tension and dread to build up and it results in some great scares.

Dave Davis makes the entire experience work with his measured and tortured performance as Yakov. His fear is palpable, but so is the pain he carries. The house and its entity put Yakov inside a black hole of fresh wounds and traumatic memories, all concerning his decision to leave the community he’s currently back in for the night, in spite of his best efforts.

Davis lets the viewer in on his character’s suffering and makes him infinitely relatable, even in the face of his character’s specific cultural traits. The house’s lack of big open spaces creates the eerie sensation one is also trapped inside it with Yakov, making us feel the same claustrophobic terror he’s engulfed in.

Jewish horror
The Vigil

In this regard, The Vigil reminded me in parts of Scott Derickson’s Sinister. That movie’s demon also turned the house setting into a place where memories and hard life choices became things an evil entity could feed on. It exposed them and turned them into nightmares of their own. The Vigil showcases a similar approach to its horror, basically turning the house into a representation of the character’s fractured psyche.

In the middle of all this, the movie also finds a way to comment on antisemitism—from the Holocaust all the way to more modern forms of it—but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or forced. It’s presented as a constant that doesn’t need to rear its head on-screen to remind viewers of its existence, but it’s present enough to also play a role in creating its own sense of claustrophobia for whose who are victims of it.

The entity that attacks Yakov, both spiritually and mentally, is cleverly allowed to be seen in key moments so as to not allow the film to be solely consumed by its metaphors. The Vigil has a lot of things to say, but they don’t get in the way of making sure the movie also gives its audience a proper horror experience. The Jewish demon is memorable and is given the full weight of myth and history to have it embody a kind of evil that is ancient but still relevant.

The Vigil
The Vigil

The Vigil succeeds at making each story beat and horror sequence correspond organically with its Jewish folklore influences and elements. The demon, the house’s haunted memories, and the trauma are all specific to the Jewish experience, but they never close the door on audiences from other cultural backgrounds so they can relate to the horrors on display. It’s claustrophobic and it actively tries not to make anyone feel safe within its story, all attributes of a great horror movie.

Review: Two Moons #1

Two Moons #1
Two Moons #1

War is never short on metaphors for violence, especially in terms of being represented as something that is literally monstrous. John Arcudi and Valerio Giangiordano’s Two Moons #1 is very aware of this, but the monsters that populate their version of the American Civil War seem to have been called in to help carry some deeper metaphors into the story. Surprisingly enough, what makes it through is largely concerned with the violence that always seems to follow identity and assimilation.

Two Moons #1 introduces readers to Virgil Morris, born of the Pawnee Nation and originally given the name of Two Moons. Virgil is presented as an assimilated American, a man that left his roots behind only to see them come back to claim him. Virgil starts seeing monsters, spirits, and dead men who won’t stay quiet as he fights for the Union during the Civil War. The things he sees might be all in his head, but the comic is leaning hard on making them feel very real to him.

Arcudi and Giangiordano appear to be gearing up for a slow burn of a story centered on the resurgence of Virgil’s Pawnee heritage and how it intends to remind him of who he is and who he should be, that is if it’s proven that he can trust both the mystic aspects of his process and himself, for that matter.

Giangiordano illustrates the story’s version of America as a place that’s always thirsty for blood, a place that thrives in war. The characters are presented as forces of nature that, to an extent, make them look like walking manifestations of anger and violence. This extends to the overall setting of the story, which sticks mostly to the American wilderness. Locations come off as unwelcoming and uncooperative, as places eager to be turned into battlefields.

Two Moons #1’s script focuses on introducing Virgil’s struggle with his Pawnee identity to readers, but Arcudi also takes the opportunity to introduce another character that’s coming to terms with identity and what it means to be an outsider in America: Nurse Frances Shaw, an Irish immigrant.

Two Moons #1
Two Moons #1

Nurse Frances is forming her opinion on what America is and what it stands for during one of the most unstable and uncertain moments in its history. The soul of the nation was quite simply fractured. The idea that the Civil War was a bloody and merciless fight between brothers was something people were constantly reminded of.

Negotiating one’s identity in the midst of all this inviting chaos into one’s own sense of belonging. Arcudi’s script is approaching it in a smart and intriguing way. In addition, her inclusion in the story serves as a good counter balance to Virgil’s own journey.

And then there are the monsters and all the other things that roam the wild. Giangiordano imbues each creature design with a considerable amount of storytelling. There’s a lot one can learn about them just by scanning their bodies. On a side note, they also look like they could effectively work in a film adaptation of the comic through practical make-up effects. Their designs are nightmarish but strangely realistic. They’re instantly memorable.

Two Moons #1
Two Moons #1

Two Moons is a new series with a lot of promise. It’s in a position to offer an appropriately confrontational take on what makes an American and if it’s even possible to identify anyone as such. The art is exceptional and it takes command of the story in unexpected ways. The book welcomes questions, demands thought, and values different angles. Come ready into the story or it will sneak up on you with its dark intricacies.

Script: John Arcudi Art: Valerio Giangiordano Colors: Dave Stewart
Story: 9 Art: 9 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy and dust off your old Civil War History books!

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Movie Review: Saint Maud offers a disturbing portrayal of faith and loneliness

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

Pay attention to the title of the movie Saint Maud. Really think about what it is that makes someone a saint. In fact, if you look up some of the key saints from Christianity you’ll find the path to sainthood is often paved in blood. Be it through obscure instances of violence or culpable sin, the title of saint is still considered as an undertaking of absolute faith with the good grace of God standing as its ultimate reward.

Rose Glass Saint Maud looks at all this through a different lens, employing psychological horror to produce one of the most disturbing explorations of faith, devotion, and mental illness in recent memory.

Written and directed by Glass, Saint Maud follows a young, pious nurse called Maud as she comes to terms with the meaning of her relationship with God. In essence, Maud lives to answer the question of what God wants with her. As she looks for answers, she’s assigned to take care of a woman dying of cancer. Maud believes she can save the troubled woman’s soul, but God seems to have a harder test in the works for her.

The movie’s most resounding successes rest on the shoulders of actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud. Clark masterfully captures the title character’s tug and pull with being both hopeful and lost at the same time. Clark plays Maud as a young woman constantly teetering between a full-blown mental breakdown or a divine revelation.

Maud is given brief but revealing bits of internal dialogue that keeps viewers informed on the latest developments on what she thinks God is asking of her. Morfydd’s narration does a great job of showing Maud’s frustrations with her lack of understanding, always aware of the mounting pressure she faces while trying to make sense of her situation.

Saint Maud plays a bit with what’s real and what’s inside the main character’s head, but it prefers the less ambiguous approach to what’s actually happening. There’s more evidence of Maud suffering from a severe mental illness rather than a fundamental crisis of faith. And yet, it’s her faith that wins out as the thing that guides her in this new phase of life as a recent convert. Maud wasn’t always religious. There’s an obscure trauma at play that the movie cleverly keeps pretty much under wraps. It’s what might explain how God has so completely taken a hold over her.

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

The manifestations of her faith do one very unique thing here that not many other horror movies can claim to do. It makes the movie unfold as a kind of possession story where God is the invading spirit. Maud’s religious devotion plays a central role here as her decision to give in to faith keeps her isolated from almost everyone else.

Glass’ script is careful not to overindulge with the supernatural elements, but whenever something gives the appearance of being otherworldly, the horror gets ramped up considerably. Glass does an excellent job of playing with shadows and dark corners without stripping a single scene of all color. In fact, the movie contains a very clear and solid color palette that serves to heighten the terror at the heart of Maud’s process.

This figures into Glass’ decision to put Maud in big open spaces that aren’t exactly crowded with people. Quite the opposite. Maud seems to live in a world devoid of meaningful human contact. This becomes an especially powerful source of pain while in the presence of male characters, none of which see Maud as someone worth being treated with care or respect. Maud’s world is hostile and even God is suspect.

Saint Maud has a lot of moving parts, each made more complex and disturbing thanks to the fact the element of faith serves as its source of horror. Clark’s performance elevates the story’s focus on the consequences of unchecked piousness with an eye to question not just religious behavior but also the effects it can have on a troubled mind. As far as explorations into these matters are concerned, Saint Maud stands as one of its greatest.

Review: Fear Case #1

Fear Case #1
Fear Case #1, cover by Duncan Fegredo

Matt Kindt and Tyler and Hilary Jenkins are tapping into some True Detective vibes with Fear Case, the team’s new fantasy horror book for Dark Horse. To tie it only to that show, though, does a disservice to the range of ideas unleashed on this story. There’s a dark fantasy undercurrent to the plot that looks like it will grab hold as the comic progresses and there’s a Philip K. Dick reference in there that provides a big hint as to what’s coming. What’s certain is that this story has the potential to be among many ‘best of’ lists come year’s end.

Fear Case #1 focus on two Secret Service agents, one a New Age enthusiast with a love for speculative fiction (called Winters) and the other a more old-school agent that’s not keen on entertaining fantasies (called Mitchum). They’re on the last three weeks of a mysterious case assigned to them concerning a strange box that’s been seen in some of the world’s most enigmatic tragedies. It’s a case that’s eluded many other agents, driven some to madness even. It’s because of this that those who get the case have a one-year deadline to solve it, if they withstand it.

The setup is clean, enticing, and beautifully presented without really getting bogged down by insider shop talk, which tends to make reading procedurals and detective stories a bit cumbersome sometimes. Kindt’s dialogue smoothly transitions from light exposition to character development and it does look like one won’t overpower the other, something that tends to hound True Detective.

Tyler and Hilary’s art, an illustrator and colorist combo, keeps the tone dark and heavy but not to the point of making the book feel like a walk through hell to get at its mysteries. Their approach to tone is not meant to oppress the reader rather than to offer a counterbalance to Kindt’s lively and quick dialogue. They play off of each other nicely. It shows how synchronized this creative team is on this book.

Fear Case
Fear Case #1

The mystery behind the fear case has an air of conspiracy theory behind it, making the interaction between Winters and Mitchum unravel as a clash of worldviews. Winters indulges the more mystic elements of the case while Mitchum is willing to go beyond his comfort zone but only within reason. It’s a refreshing state of affairs that thankfully doesn’t result in the two characters sniping at each other from opposite extremes. They prefer the grey area, perhaps alluding to the possibility no clear answer will come from the case and that a lot will be left up to interpretation.

There’s enough in Fear Case’s first issue to justify following the series at a monthly basis. This is the kind of comic one desperately wants to continue reading once an issue is done. It just comes off as a very good pilot episode for a TV series, like the first episodes for Fringe and The X-Files. Much like those shows, Fear Case hooks you in immediately and I doubt you’ll put up much of a struggle given how good it is.

Script: Matt Kindt Art: Tyler Jenkins Color: Hilary Jenkins
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy and brush up on your Philip K. Dick

Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Review: Abbott 1973 #1

The minute I finished the first Abbott book by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivelä it became my go-to recommendation for people looking to get into comics. It still holds that position. A lot of it is due to how much like a contemporary comic it feels like, as if you were reading something that couldn’t have come out any other time, despite it being set in 1970’s Detroit while also borrowing ideas from the political thrillers and horror movies of that decade.

To say I was anxiously awaiting the first issue of its second arc is an understatement of the highest order. Following the investigations of journalist Elena Abbott—“a  detective for the people,” as the comic proclaims—feels like taking a journey through the underbelly of America’s unique version of systemic racism, a brutal trek through it with the intention of deconstructing all of it with dark magic thrown into the mix to further power the metaphors at play in the story.

Abbott 1973

The second arc seems to be operating on the same wavelength, with Abbott facing yet another supernatural threat fueled by racial animosity, only this time the powers of corruption are looking to dismantle the candidacy of a Detroit mayoral candidate poised to become the city’s first black person to take up the position.

Set in 1973, Ahmed and Kivelä keep the titular journalist from straying from her old-school investigative methods, echoing movies like All the President’s Men in terms of how it develops a sense of danger that bubbles up with each attempt at shedding light on the potential sabotage of the black mayoral candidate. Each new sliver of information dug up through her investigation raises the stakes not just for the story she’s working on but for her very own sense of safety.

Ahmed and Kivelä achieve this in the first book, which focuses on elected officials dabbling in dark magic to keep black communities in a constant state of chaos and instability, a tactic that allowed the ruling class to justify anti-black measures in the name of public safety (not to mention precious votes).

In Abbott 1973, the protagonist is now well aware of the dark influences that are trying to disrupt Detroit’s political structure while also being conscious of the fact magic and journalism have a complicated history with the public standard of veracity and reliability.

Abbott 1973

While these ideas are difficult to separate from the character and her story, Ahmed and Kivelä manage to complicate Abbott’s daily grind even more with an added focus on social notions of femininity in the public arena and in the professional workspace.

The comic dives into these obstacles through a new black character that comes into Abbott’s newspaper organization as its latest publisher, a man called Mr. Manning. This new figure of authority insists on keeping up appearances concocted by male-dominated notions of etiquette and behavior, instructing Abbott on how women should dress and behave in the workplace.

Given the story’s focus on change, and how the election of Detroit’s first black mayor stands as a plea for it, Abbott 1973 #1 looks to the country’s past to reflect on the current state of politics, be it racial or otherwise. Just how deep the comic will go to comment on this remains to be seen, but it’s well on its way to add something to the conversation (especially in the context of a very divided United States that’s growing further apart on a daily basis).

Kivelä’s art continues to favor that 1970’s grittiness prominent in that decade’s movies, deftly weaving realism with supernatural sights that carry a kind of violence to them on mere presence alone. Each character looks storied, the result of a long line of personal experiences that carry over into their overall looks.

Abbott 1973

Mattia Iacono’s colors complements the seventies vibe of the story beautifully with muted colors that make the darker elements jump out of the page even more when they manifest themselves. It creates a heaviness around the more horror-inclined sequences and can feel downright oppressive when Abbott as at the receiving end of them.

On the dark magic side of the story, Abbott 1973 is careful not to allow it to get lost in the social commentary that’s clearly in display in every page. Be it in hints of paranormal activity or outright terror, the hauntings Ahmed and Kivelä have cooked up for Abbott feel like an organic element of the story and they do their fair share of the worldbuilding. They are integral to the comic’s message and are smartly implemented.

Abbott 1973 #1 is a perfect continuation of Elena Abbott’s investigations into how magic has been taken over by racists bent on keeping America divided. Ahmed and Kivelä have one of the best characters in comics in their hands and they seem to be well aware of it. Abbott is the kind of creation one hopes becomes an industry staple, producing hundreds of stories for years to come.

Script: Saladin Ahmed Art: Sami Kivelä
Color: Mattia Iacono Letterer: Jim Campbell
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy and brush up on Detroit history


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The true star of The Next Batman is Derington and Bonvillain’s Gotham City

For a DC Comics first, the publisher’s first black Batman as part of its official cannon and multiverse, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is somewhat underwhelming. That’s not to say it’s a bad comic, but given its short runtime and the fact this was to be a momentous occasion, this first entry of the miniseries set within the world of Future State is not the statement on the future of DC I thought it would be.

But these observations largely concern the new Batman’s character development and plot progression domains. I believe writer John Ridley could’ve gone for a more explosive opening rather than the more subdued and slow-paced intro he settled for.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Fortunately, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is very much a two-sided coin, with the other side belonging to Nick Derington’s kinetic and vibrant illustrations and Tamra Bonvillain’s pop-like colors. What this team achieved with their share of the storytelling goes above and beyond what the words accomplished, giving us a new and truly different take on Gotham City.

Future State is presented as a dystopian version of the DCU in which a private police force called The Magistrate is cracking down on masks in the name of law and order. As such, this short jump into the future feels more science fiction than the usual superhero comic. There are traces of cyberpunk and classic police state imagery coursing through the majority of the Future State stories. Derington and Bonvillain take full advantage of this to give a masterclass on worldbuilding through their version of Gotham while still honoring the city’s past iterations.

In a surprise twist on the traditional Batman formula, Derington and Bonvillain decide to bathe Gotham in colors. Whereas artists such as Greg Capullo, J.H. Williams III, Frank Miller, and Jim Lee have gone for more of a modern gothic look for their Gothams (all unique in their own way), Derington and Bonvillain aim at altering the city’s very identity with more lights, which means less shadows to hide in.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Whereas the artists gave us a city defined by dark alleyways and towering symbols of moral corruption, Derington and Bonvillain opted for a Gotham that’s wide awake and somewhat paranoid. It’s hard to escape the sensation that Batman is being watched from all sides and that Gotham is playing against the hero’s strengths. As consequence, Future State Gotham becomes a living trap that forces Batman to do his bidding while being completely exposed to the police force that patrols the city.

Bonvillain’s colors excel at creating this effect. Even when in an alley, nothing is entirely drenched black. There’s a light source in every panel, as if a spotlight were always trained on Batman. It creates a sense of inevitable surveillance and raises the stakes in each action sequence because of it.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Derington’s line work is full of movement and fluidity, taking a step away from the brooding and inky settings Gotham is known for. For a dystopian version of iconic city, the comic prefers to keep things from looking too futuristic. In fact, it’s in the Magistrate’s security officers and gadgets that The Next Batman finds its science fiction elements. Batman’s mouth covering does give the character a semi-futuristic look and sets him apart from the previous Batman, but Derington and Ridley put him in a future in which architectural and technological change has come slowly.

Despite that, the comic emits an almost neon glow that remind readers that the new Gotham is no longer the hunting ground of Bruce Wayne’s Batman. It seems to demand a new Batman take to patroling its streets. It adds to the comic’s sense of discovery and strangeness. This Gotham doesn’t belong to the New Batman yet. It has to be tamed. As a result, this turns the caped crusader into a candidate for the title of city protector. As of yet, he’s merely in the running for the position.

Future State: The Next Batman #1
The Next Batman #1

Fans of Batman Universe, written by Brian Michael Bendis, will have a lot to look forward to in Future State: The Next Batman series as well given Derington’s already impressive interpretation of Batman and his world in that book. In Batman Universe, colored by Dave Stewart, Derington goes for a more Brave and the Bold vibe that highlights Batman’s visual versatility. He gets to play with more fantasy elements here than in Next Batman, but the sense that he’s talented enough to make Batman his own is already present there.

The visual quality of Future State: The Next Batman #1 guides Batman’s character development down less conventional paths. That the city is so new as well means we as readers are also testing this Batman out. He has to win our hearts and our hard-earned money come new comics Wednesday. So far, Derington and Bonvillain are making a strong case for it on visuals alone.


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Why the Best Horror Book of 2020 is Clown in a Cornfield

Clown in a Cornfield
Clown in a Cornfield, cover

To an extent, the title of Adam Cesare’s latest book, Clown in a Cornfield, feels like an affront to expectations. We have a YA horror book about teens navigating social media, high school, and rage-filled teachers all hinging on the promise of an actual clown possibly picking off kids in a cornfield. Having read Cesare’s excellent, and surprisingly meta, cannibal movie homage Tribesmen, which shows a profound love and understanding for 1970s horror cinema, I knew something else was hiding in the fields. And that something turned the book into one of the best examples of horror fiction in the context of Trump’s America, and the year’s best in the process.

Clown in a Cornfield follows Quinn, a high schooler that moves into the town of Kettle Springs with her dad following the death of her mom. Now an ex-city girl, Quinn goes about understanding the town and its people but also the looming presence of its recent past, the thing that divides the town into those who see progress as moving forward and those who see it as keeping up with traditions. This is where the titular clown comes in. The rest deserves to be read.

The setup is deceptively recognizable, seemingly on purpose. The story starts with a look at Quinn and her dad going though a short adjustment period, Quinn in particular getting to know the people she’ll eventually get to rely on to survive the deadly events that clown authors.

Cesare takes his time putting every piece in place before taking the reader through a hellish gauntlet of inventive slasher violence, all of which takes cues from John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and a lot of 1990’s horror movie imagery if only to build on them and make them his own. Once the killing begins, the book settles into high tension and doesn’t let up even when commenting on the ideas that prop up the story.

The buildup to the clown horror comes with a few twists on the formula that sets this story apart from the conventional slasher. The teens that drive the story don’t fit the traditional mold of jock, nerd, hot, or final girl characters of old. Instead, Cesare skillfully dodges some of the sexual and “school as a rite of passage” subtexts that govern a lot of classic slasher stories in favor of showing a group of teens that more genuinely reflects the current state of American society.

Adam Cesare

Instead of prom and homecoming queen and king competitions or relationship woes tied to characters losing their virginity, Cesare creates a cast of young Americans that talk about guns, are comfortable around them, and know how to handle them; that embrace social media and make it a point to flirt with its most dangerous aspects; and who know perfectly well what they represent to the older townsfolk (hints of The Lost Boys here).

Kettle Springs is a small town where it’s not hard to imagine every other car sporting a ‘Make America Great Again’ bumper sticker. And yet, the book doesn’t judge the entirety of the town for its conservative leanings. On the contrary, it provides a more complicated human panorama of it, with varying degrees of political inclinations even within the targeted group.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive things Cesare accomplishes with his characters. He breaks away from the black and white morality of the traditional slasher, in which the ‘good’ teens and the ‘bad’ teens could be identified from a mile away, in favor of presenting teens that are not just different from one another but also from the preconceived notions we have of them. This bleeds over into the book’s take on what small-town America was, is, and could be.

Explaining what Cesare does with slasher morality in the story would result in spoiling some the book’s biggest surprises, but it does make for one hell of a killer clown. Frendo is a part of the town’s economic history, being the face of an abandoned factory that at one point was at the heart of Kettle Springs. He was a symbol of success at one point only to later become an imposing symbol of defeat.

Frendo wastes not a single instance of violence on simplicity. Every death, blood spurt, or dismemberment is masterfully choreographed, unafraid to go into detail, leaving the reader with just enough information to let him or her fill in the rest. It’s also hauntingly realistic in parts. Whereas many slasher movies go over the top to create memorable death sequences, Clown in a Cornfield keeps things more plausible, holding back to make the more explosively violent parts truly unforgettable.

Frendo is one unsettling clown, but what drives the killings and how sinister things get in the process is what really scared me to the core. Unlike the Freddies and the Jasons of the genre, Frendo is one killer I completely believe can come after me. Whereas the aforementioned slashers are known for carrying a sense of dark fantasy and myth about them, Frendo seems like an actual inevitability should America continue on the path it’s currently on.

Adam Cesare gave us an important horror book in 2020, one that hits closer to the real horrors America has lived through these past four years. Its commentary on tradition, progress, and what’s expected of newer generations is as sobering as it is terrifying. Give Clown in a Cornfield a read and make sure your windows are closed and your doors locked because Frendo isn’t the stuff of nightmares. It’s the stuff of reality.

Movie Review: The Dark and the Wicked will settle for nothing less than your soul

There’s no other horror movie out there, this year, as sinister as The Dark and The Wicked. It’s relentless and cruel and impossible to stop watching. Director/screenwriter Bryan Bertino has put together a legitimate gauntlet of horrors in an almost micro-setting, focusing on a sister and brother duo that return to their farm home to take care of their haunted and lonely parents. Whatever’s oppressing this family takes no prisoners and is dead-set on indulging in as much evil as it can. It’s some of the scariest stuff to ever have been put on celluloid.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Bertino has chosen to put loneliness under the proverbial microscope with his movie. It’s mostly about the demons that such a circumstance invites and how family can be the antidote and the poison that enables it all. The small family at the core of the story have all become distant from one another. The siblings went their separate ways at one point in time and looks as if they didn’t keep in touch as they probably should’ve. Their only true connection is a bed-ridden father and an emotionally disturbed mother.

What’s impressive about this setup and how each character develops around is that none of the family’s prior history is flat out explained or dumped on the viewer through exposition. The way the siblings react to each other and speak tells you enough about the distance between them.

Keeping the story so focused on just a few characters really helps drive the point home. The farm where most everything takes place seems remote, almost devoid of motion even. Night scenes are drenched in deep shadows and the knowledge of remoteness heightens the tension. It always feels as if of some impending horror is primed and ready for torture at any given time.

Cinematographer Tristan Nyby deserves a lot of praise for this as the movie’s dread factor comes straight out of carefully selected shots that play with negative spaces and different tones of darkness. This is amplified by the film’s sound design, which refreshingly opts to interrupt silence with demonic growls and hellish sounds that few horror stories opt to indulge in.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Of course, this all rests on the shoulders of a tight script that wants to play up the devilry, without leaving doubt as to the source of the evil that’s invaded the family. There’s very little time spent with traditional horror tropes such as the one where the people involved spend a good portion of the movie trying to decide if the haunting is real or not. The siblings come to this conclusion fairly quick and know they have to do whatever they can to get everyone far away from their family home and its devil. Their disagreements and unresolved issues, though, is what holds them back.

Actors Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. are exceptional in their roles as the siblings. They project the burden of family and responsibility in their body language alone and excel in presenting their characters as people that do not know how to navigate the problems they face. Their reactions to the horrors is convincing to the point one can easily relate and see themselves in their position. They transform into people that are just like us. Not special. Just ordinary with a liberally portioned side of hell.

In a way, it does remind somewhat of movies like Hereditary and The Exorcist. The evil is real, which allows the narrative to go deeper into the terror. As a result, we get a story that’s heavy and overwhelmingly oppressive at certain points. The punishment the main characters are subjected to is relentless, but it really opens up the playing field for some very intense and very scary sequences. I won’t spoil those here but get ready for horrifying stuff.

The Dark and The Wicked is also well-paced. Though it hits hard and insistently, the movie never feels lethargic and it makes good use of its hour and a half runtime with something new happening in every scene. There are no repeated instances of self-slamming doors or flickering lights. The entity likes to go straight to the hard stuff.

Bryan Bertino should have everyone itching for a hint of his next movie, whatever that may be. The direction, the writing, the performances, and the tech artistry on display is impeccable. His movie is one that continues to haunt in the days following the first watch. It’s a story that has to be endured, but the reward is an experience unlike no other.

Election Terror: What Happens when the Dead Come Back to Vote in Homecoming

Homecoming
Homecoming

Jane Cleaver: “It’s words. It’s a game. You say whatever it takes to win.”

David Murch: “Well, maybe that’s the problem.”

This dialogue exchange happens early in Homecoming (dir. Joe Dante), a strange but unique zombie story from the Masters of Horror anthology series created by director Mick Garris (The Stand). It serves as a preamble for what’ll come soon after the two conversations between the two characters ends, which flips the zombie formula on its head with bravado. An army of undead war veterans rallies from beyond the grave for one final mission: to vote against the president that sent them to war based on a lie. A lie that killed them.

The episode came out in 2006, two years into George W. Bush’s second term as president, at a point where the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ excuse used to justify the War on Terror was wearing off and being heavily portrayed as the lie that got the US stuck in the Middle East (and the reason why dead soldiers come back to vote in Homecoming).

Homecoming follows a White House speech writer called David Murch as he navigates Bush’s reelection with a team of public relations pundits hellbent on winning the election, by any and all means necessary. During a televised panel discussion, Murch is confronted by the mother of a dead soldier who’s protesting the war, which inspires the conflicted speech writer to sincerely wish her son could come back and tell the world why he died for his country. He gets his wish, only it comes with a battalion of undead combatants desperate to fulfill their civic duty.

Watching it now, just as Americans are casting their ballots on the Biden v. Trump election, it’s unsettling how relevant this story still is, if only for its discussion on how politics is ultimately a game of words. As Murch and his team pick up on the fact zombie votes are leaning towards the other side, a mad dash for control of the narrative takes place. What was first scene as an act of patriotism—rising from the grave to vote—becomes an un-American rebellion looking to steal the election from the living.

Homecoming
Homecoming

While Homecoming is firmly rooted in the context of the Bush presidency, it comments enough on the dangers of political storytelling to effectively turn its metaphors on the politics of today. Murch will struggle with his own morality throughout most of the episode, always hesitant as to how and when to use the undead as part of the campaign. Here’s where Jane Cleaver comes into play.

Basically a stand-in for Ann Coulter, Cleaver becomes the right-wing commentator that puts on her radical pro-America persona when in front of a camera only to later admit she’ll say anything to secure her party’s victory. She basically stands as the unethical extreme of public discourse. The game, as Cleaver puts it, is won by the best storyteller. Homecoming does a magnificent job of proving this point through her, with the other PR people acting as her chorus, encouraging her to further spread her warped political views.

There are a lot of parallels between Cleaver’s philosophies and Kellyanne Conway’s media performances (which she had to put on as the former counselor to the President), especially when she was asked to explain or defend Trump’s comments on most about everything. There’s a scene in Homecoming, after the soldiers have revealed who they’re voting for, where Cleaver doubts the legality of undead voting after previously championing it. She supported the undead vote before she knew the problem it posed to her party. Conway’s “alternative facts” statement comes to mind here, which was uttered when asked to comment on the actual number of people that attended Trump’s inauguration. It’s as if you can trace a solid genealogical line, if you will, from Bush era politics to Trump era politics. The side with the best spin on information wins the crowd, and potentially their vote.

Homecoming
Homecoming

It should come as no surprise to Joe Dante fans that this movie is as blatantly political as it is. As Homecoming’s director, Dante pulls out every trick in his book to make each metaphor land. Be it the violent nature of American politics (seen in his werewolf movie The Howling) to a people’s inability to keep chaos at bay by following simple instructions (Gremlins), Dante likes to put his movies’ messages in full view, covered in blood if he has to. Homecoming is no different.

During a televised Presidential rally, Murch and Cleaver ruminate on Bush’s ability to command an audience. Cleaver asks just what it is about the President that makes people adore him. Murch responds, “He’s not stupid. He has a way to make stupid people feel like they’re just as smart as he is.” A bit crude, but it speaks to the power of storytelling. In Bush’s America, militaristic values were the way to win hearts and minds, especially after 9/11. There was an appeal to patriotism that the Bush administration took and turned into a party value. As a result, to criticize the war was to criticize the need to protect America, to badmouth its soldiers. Being anti-war meant being un-American.

Homecoming

In Trump’s America, the idea is to show America as a place that’s been robbed of greatness by liberal policies that see their own country as the problem. The principle is the same. It’s just a matter of taking outdated story elements out and putting new ones in. By then, it’s a race of two stories and it all boils down to the side that tells it better.

Homecoming is a horror story with a call to action. It’s not cynic in its entirety but it’s not entirely hopeful either. It’s about awareness. Stories are never one thing or another in the world of politics. They’re in constant spin and can spiral out at any moment to the benefit of those who can harness their power best. It might take zombie voters to come back and put us all in our place for things to get better. Until then, it’s up to the living to make sure we don’t screw up so bad this time.

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