Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lord of Light part 5: Heaven's Prisoner

When humans first colonized the planet, the original crew used their advanced technology to make themselves gods, ruling over the colonists and their descendants and establishing a society based on ancient Hindu culture. Sam, one of the First, has decided to challenge Heaven by introducing Buddhism. But his campaign against the gods has hit a snag. His attempt to recruit the Rakasha, the original natives of the planet, ended with him being posessed by the Taraka, chief of the Rakasha. Now he has been captured by his former comrades, the gods, and is being taken in chains back to Heaven.

Sometimes it sucks to be the Buddha.

During the late 1970s, there was a project to do a screen adaptation of Lord of Light. Comics legend Jack Kirby was hired to do some conceptual artwork for the project. The project, alas, never came to anything, (although it was peripherally involved in a CIA scam that saved some of the American hostages in Iran). I always wondered a bit about the choice of Kirby for the project: his cosmic epics seem a poor visual fit for Zelazny's story about Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. But reading this chapter, I can see the connection. Kirby wrote about and drew gods and beings who weilded god-like technology. He would have been right at home striding among the inhabitants of the Celestial City as he was in Asgard or on New Genesis.

The Celestial City is located at the planet's North Pole, high on a mountain range that has been artificially leveled into a plateau and covered with a huge transparent dome. Beneath the Dome of Heaven it is eternally summer, a veritable Xanadu. In fact, although Zelazny never mentions Coleridge, his description of the Celestial City does sound a bit like the "stately pleasure dome" from the poem "Kubla Khan."

Vishnu the Preserver, the divine architect and one of the ruling Triumvirate of Heaven, designed the city to be a perfect dwelling place for divine beings. To mantain a balance between Wilderness and Civilization, Vishnu established greenspace: a jungle within the dome adjacent to the city, the Forest of Kaniburrha. But to maintain the separation between the two, the great cats who dwell in the forest have been programmed so that when they wander from the Forest to the City they do not percieve the buildings or the people therein. Anyone who wanders from the City to the Forest, however -- even one of the gods -- is fair game. Fair is fair, after all.

In vingettes we meet several of the gods. We meet Kubera, divine craftsman and member of the Lokapalas. Kubera is an amiable, easy-going fellow with the power to instill his creations with emotions that can affect the people who use them. He is a member of the Lokapalas, a band of gods consisting of Agni, Yama, Krishna and himself, united by close bonds of friendship. He is a stout fellow, not only in that he is steady and reliable but also in that each new body he reincarnates into quickly goes to fat.

We see hairy Krishna, who plays music on his pipes which inspire drunkeness and lust in whoever hears it. He is also a formidable wrestler and greatest among the gods in terms of physical strength... when he's sober.

We meet Rudra the grim, god of hunting, with his bow of heat-seeking arrows, and Murugan, god of youth and fertility. Although he will deny being any more than friends, Rudra was once interested in Kali. When the mortal poet she spurned him for reincarnated as a jackbird, Rudra took to slaying every jackbird he saw. "I do not care for their singing," he says.

We meet Tak the Archivist, custodian of the library of Heaven, who bears a shining spear. Tak is actually Sam's son, although he doubts that Sam is aware of this. He is a philosopher with a wry sense of humor; and very much aware of the political undercurrents in Heaven.

We don't meet many goddesses; or rather, we encounter them, but they don't do or say much of significance. Kubera chats with Lakshimi the lovely. And then they have sex. Tak flirts with Maya, goddess of Illusion, as he explains to her about the Accelerationist political doctrine Sam has been preaching in Heaven. And then they have sex. One exception is Ratri, goddess of Night, whom we met in the first chapter and whom we see being pursued by the lustful Krishna. She decides she's had enough and uses her power over darkness to remind him that even if you're the god of Lust, No Means No.

In none of these cases is the sex explicit; the author just lets us know where things are going, and leaves it at that. But the it does sort of become a recurring theme.

"You fertility deities are worse than Marxists," Rudra grumbles to Murugan. "You think that's all that goes on between people." Well, considering what everyone else in this chapter is doing, perhaps Murugan has a point.

In a place called the Pavillion of Silence, on the outskirts of Heaven, Sam meets with Kali, also known as Durga. The Pavillion had been built by Kubera and each of its rooms resonates with a different emotion: Memory, Fear, Heartbreak, Dust and Despair. At one time, Sam and Kali had been lovers, back in the days when they first began forging their godlike powers to tame the planet and when the now goddess of Destruction was known as Candi the Fierce. She wants to reminisce about those days.
"Sam," she finally said, "were they not good?" 
"Yes," he replied. 
"And in those ancient days, before you left Heaven to dwell among men -- did you love me then?" 
"I do not really remember," he said. "It was so long ago. We were both different people then -- different minds, different bodies. Probably those two, whover they were, loved one another. I cannot remember."
Kali insists that they haven't changed that much, and that things could be just like the way they used to be between the two of them. Sam disagrees. "It is not really the man whom you have been remembering. It is the days of carnage through which the two of your rode together." He reminds her of Yama, whom she is about to marry; but she admits that she really only loves the Deathgod for his Aspect, not the man himself.

Kali offers to join Sam in his campaign against Heaven; but Sam knows that would never work out. "If I won my freedom and you joined with me and we fought, perhaps you would be happy for a time. But win or lose, in the end I fear you would be unhappier than before." Sam is trying to create a more stable, peaceful world and Candi the Fierce lives for chaos.

They argue; she becomes angry and spurns him. And he becomes more tender towards her.
"If it will give you any satisfaction in the end, I still care for you. Either there is no such thing as love, or the word does not mean what I have thought it to mean on many different occasions. It is a feeling without a name, really -- better to leave it at that. So take it and go away and have your fun with it. You know that we would both be at one another's throats again one day, as soon as we had run out of common enemies. We had many fine reconciliations, but were they ever woth the pain that preceded them? Know that you have won and that you are the goddess I worship -- for are not worship and religious awe a combination of love and hate, desire and fear?"
They end up in each other's arms and retire to the room called Despair. And then they... well, you can guess.

We see a conversation between Brahma, ruler of the Triumvirate, and Vishnu. Brahma has decided that for official purposes it will be decreed that the teacher known as the Buddha was actually Vishnu, who had taken human form to teach them the Way of Enlightenment. Since they haven't been able to root out Buddhism, Brahma has decided to assimilate it. But that leaves the question of what to do with Sam. Vishnu suggests incarnating Sam as a jackbird, but Brahma observes that someone else might wish to incarnate that jackbird as a man. For the time being, Brahma is willing to postpone his sentence.

Kali comes to him and asks that Sam be given another chance to renounce his opposition to Heaven and join the gods. She suggests that Sam's mind could be altered to make him more in line with the wishes of Heaven. Brahma is willing to entertain this notion and suggests that Kali come to his house for a day or three to help "convince" him. It so happens that her finance Yama is busy on a project that will keep him occupied for a few days. No need to guess where this is going.

Sam has a chance to speak with Helba the god and/or goddess of thieves. Helba is one of three transgendered characters in this novel. We've met Brahma, who was originally a woman who wanted to be a man, and who despite now possessing an extremely macho body still feels secretly insecure in his masculinity. Helba seems to be more comfortable about gender roles; the god of thieves switches gender with each new incarnation, alternating between male and female, so that no one remembers anymore what his or her original sex was.

Sam wants Helba's help in stealing an item from Heaven's Museum; a belt he once owned containing a device that helped him focus his powers of electrodirection. He needs that belt to escape from Heaven. Helba sadly informs him that she only steals things while in a male body, and that she is currently a woman. But the caper sounds intriguing...

"Come sit by me, Binder of Demons, and tell me of the days of your glory... and I will speak again of mine."

Dignitaries and demigods from all over the planet are now arriving at the Celestial City for the wedding of Death and Destuction; which provides ample distraction for Sam's heist. Well, almost.
Tak is summoned by an alarm in the Archives and arrives in time to confront Sam; but he finds he cannot attack his father, and Sam, using the Talisman of the Binder around his waist, binds the forces of gravitiation about him and flies off.

"Why did you not stop him?" Yama asks, arriving at the scene.

"I could not, Lord. I was taken by his Attribute," Tak lies.

But one more guardian stands between Sam and freedom. Mara, the Dreamer, intercepts him and casts a disorienting illusion about him. Once again, Sam is captured.

In what seems to be an irrelevant aside, (it isn't), Murugan arrives at the Hall of Karma to receive a new body to wear for Yama and Kali's wedding. It's not ready and he pitches a snit. "Brahma recommended the transfer, and he would be pleased for me to appear at the wedding party at Milehigh Spire in my new form. Shall I inform him that the Great Wheel is unable to comply with his wishes becasue it turns exceedingly slow?" The technician promises to have the body ready for him by tomorrow, and makes "an ancient and mystic sign" behind Murugan's back.

Kali has changed her mind again. She's decided she wants to celebrate her wedding to Yama with a human sacrifice: Sam's. "You are even more sentimental than I thought," Brahma replies. But given Sam's recent escape attempt, he agrees it's probably for the best.

From here Zelazny backs off again and the text assumes the voice of the storyteller. Instead of being shown what happens next, we are told what it is said happened. We are told that Brahma had Mara create a powerfull illusion allowing the Phantom Cats of Kanniburrha to see the City for the first time so that they can pursue Sam and Helba into it, hunt them down and kill them.

We do get a brief conversation between Sam and the jackbird-who-once-was-a-poet. The jackbird is overjoyed to see Sam, having prophecied his coming. Sam is currently more concerned about how he's soon going to exit life and so is less than impressed. The poet flies off and gets killed by someone's arrow. Then we go back to legend.

We are told that it is said that Tak of the Archives attempted to defend Sam and was able to slay two of the white tigers before the rest outnumbered him; and we are told that it is said that some of the cats participating in the hunt were gods wearing cat-bodies. The narration does not say if it is said that Kali was the one who personally ripped out Sam's throat, but the suggestion is there.

Afterwards, Kali and Yama are married. There is a celebration which lasts for several days. And more sinister things occur. Vishnu, revolted by the manner of Sam's execution, withdraws to his home. Varuna the Just leaves Heaven all together along with his retinue. Tak is tried for his involvement in the affair and condemned to be reincarnated as an ape until such time as Heaven decided to extend clemency. The Triumvirate begins compiling lists of gods who seem to have been sympathetic to Sam and his cause and who bear watching.

And on the last night of the celebration, a lone god goes to the room called Memory in the Pavillion of Silence and lingers for a time. And then laughs.

NEXT:  Chapter Six: Someone murders God; a whodunnit in Heaven; Kali gets a job offer; a desperate escape and Sam's covert campaign against the gods breaks out into open war.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A brief Commentary regarding 1984 and A Brave New World

I was taken to task via email regarding my article regarding 1984 and A Brave New World.   Particularly the email writer thought that I was hiding a Republican party agenda behind a popular culture article.

Well I disagree but I think you can see for yourself a wide assortment of words that reflect the newspeak I mentioned.

"Collateral damage" is when people die.  Not simply from damage, but from an act of violence, or war in specific.

"Ethnic cleansing" is not a job some cleaning woman can do, it is the murder of a group of people due to their being of one ethnicity and the murderers being of another.

"Police action" is usually a war by any other name.

"Freedom Fighter" might well be called a terrorist, and vice versa depending  upon the side you sit upon.

"Chemical Dependency" means you are addicted to something.

"Enhanced Interrogation" is torture, with a goal of extracting information.

"Correctional facility" is otherwise a prison or jail.

This isn't to say the words don't mean something, just that, we've created a language to avoid saying what something is, rather than, saying what is, unless it is to apply a label to someone who doesn't follow the proper protocol of acceptable culture.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

DCnU: The Huntress

ci·pher    [sahy-fer] noun
1.  Zero.
2.  Any of the Arabic numerals or figures.
3.  Arabic numerical notation collectively.
4.  Something of no value or importance.
5.  A person of no influence; nonentity.

The DCnU's first complete mini-series "Huntress:  Crossbow at the Crossroads" is, as stories go, number 4, a complete cipher.  There is barely one issue's worth of story, but it is spread out over six 20-page $2.99 issues.  Although the series is beautifully illustrated by Marcus To (with covers by Guillem March & Tomeu Morey), there simply is not enough plot to justify this book's existence.  This is narrative decompression run amok.

You would think Paul Levitz, creator of the original Pre-Crisis (if you don't know, don't ask, as there is no easy answer) version of this character and writer of many classic comic book stories, would have the ability to give readers their money's worth but apparently not.  Here's the complete story of the first and last issues, spoilers (such as they are) and all:

Issue #1 - Huntress arrives by plane in Naples, Italy.  She goes to the docks looking for illegal cargo and on one ship finds white slave girls.  She saves the girls, taking out the thugs holding them in the process and blows up the ship.  One of the thugs reports the loss to Mr. Moretti, the boss of the slaverunners; Moretti then shoots and kills the thug.  The Huntress (in her identity as "Helena") talks to a local journalist (Alessandro) to find information about the slavery ring.  At her hotel, Helena pays to have one of the girls brought to her room (as an "escort") and takes out the thug delivering the girl, but the girl is scared and calls for help.  Before the help (more thugs) arrive, she changes into her Huntress costume, then knocks out the thugs.  When they come to, they report what happened to their boss who then shoots and kills them.

Issue #6 - Moretti's death is reported to Ibn Hassan, who is apparently next up the chain in the criminal organization; Hassan orders an ambassador to have the Huntress killed.  Meanwhile the Huntress is driving down a coastal road when the Italian police confront her, though she manages to escape.  She steals a boat and calls Alessandro for information.   She then breaks into Ibn Hassan's mansion, takes out his thugs and confronts him.  He begs her to let him live in exchange for lifting the billion-euro bounty on her head.  For no good reason, she agrees, simply warning him to give up the slave girl trade, and saying she doesn't even care if he lifts the bounty or not.  She then goes to an airport, avoids the security and finds her flying friend Kara.

We actually learned more about the Huntress in the last page talking to her friend Kara than we did in the previous 119 pages.  This series had no character development, no climax, no humor.  In the intervening four issues:  She encounters thugs, she defeats thugs.  Most of them have no names, they're just random Italian criminals.  The moral of the story, I guess, is slavery is bad, and so are the people involved.  Gee, way to go out on a limb there Paul.  With 120 pages, you couldn't throw a theme in there?  Some metaphors, maybe?  An explanation of the story's tile, perhaps?  You couldn't mix the location up a bit?  Couldn't you even try to give your villains any motivation?  Something besides generic henchmen with guns?   Maybe have your antagonists be colorful or memorable?  I mean, there was that one big dude wearing the keffiyeh, but only the size and headdress stood out,  not the personality.  Hell even the Huntress had no personality; she was just someone with an axe to grind against slavers, but this time it wasn't personal as you have to have a personality for it to be personal!

There was more entertaining stories in those old 8-page DC stories in the House of Mystery or in those Silver Age yarns with a cover blurb saying "Why is Robot Pa Kent spanking Matter-Eater Lad?"  I would advise against not only buying this series, but against reading it at all.  Don't check it out of the library, don't download it, don't read online pirated copies.  Just don't.   If you like Marcus To's art, see if you can find some illustrations online, because the vapidity of the story serves as a vacuum sucking the enjoyment out of it in this series.   If you're interested in the the new World's Finest series co-starring this character, there is nothing here needed to enjoy that series.  This series is totally mindless; I mean there isn't even good old fashioned slugfests.  Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris movies have a lot of mindless violence, but this doesn't even have that.  I mean, some people like schlock, but this isn't even schlock.  This is just... a cipher, something void of content or importance.

From 1978's "Legend of the Super-Heroes"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Before Watchmen: Comedian #1

"You never struck me as an idealist, Eddie."  Thus speaks First Lady Jackie Kennedy as she urges Eddie (The Comedian) Blake to assassinate Marilyn Monroe in the third chapter of the DC Comics' 35-part event.  The 20-page lead story ("Smile") by Brian Azzarello (writer), J.G. Jones (interior and standard cover artist), and Alex Sinclair (colorist) may be the best chapter yet.

As a stand-alone tale, the readers are led through a tale of political intrigue as the middle-aged (about 40) but not-yet-jaded Blake is a trusted confidant of the First Family, playing football at Hyannisport between hit jobs.  Azzarello throws several curves in this issue, as Blake is portrayed in a sympathetic manner, palling around with Jack & Bobby, swigging drinks with his old enemy Moloch, and exchanging banter with J. Edgar's g-men.  Not only was the Comedian an antagonist in the original series, Darwyn Cooke also played up Blake as a sadistic juvenile in BW Minuteman #1.  Here though we see Eddie's softer, gentler side.  Well, after we first see Blake's hard nude body sitting next to Monroe's corpse.

The art by the usually polished Jones is less detailed than his usual work, though still adequate.  His skill shows in capturing the various characters' conflicting emotions, be it JFK's sunny discipline, Moloch's tears of tragedy, or Jackie's homicidal seduction.  The action scenes are laid out well, be they Eddie's sportsplay or with Blake defying the FBI agents in a hormone-filled rage.  And Sinclair's colors take advantage of the palate options available to set the perfect ambiance for Jones' illustrations of '60s ambivalence.

And this chapter is the perfect encapsulation of '60s contradictions:  Love vs. devotion.  Hope vs. heartache.   Duty vs. calling.  Law vs. justice.  As always, here's hoping next week is as good or better!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I am no longer going to review many products here. I am aware of my limitations more than ever, I read someone’s work and if I like it, I like it, and if I don’t I try to find something good to say about it. That tends to make some people think I am giving a publisher a blow job , but, honestly, I just tend to think that way. We are all different, and I tend to either not try something, or I tend to like it.


Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston

The present world is more and more under the eye of government, both for reasons of safety, and for invasion of privacy. Robert Venditti, of Surrogates fame, a near future dystopia, is best when asking the reader to consider the tough questions about our world. Before in Surrogates he did so asking the question “where are we going?” in the present work he asks, "if we are so very deeply mediated and watched, how can there be questions of who, where, or why?". The government in this work, and the conspiracies that fester deep within the state are the real villain here.

I liked this work very much.

Publisher Book Description Publication Date: June 7, 2011

As head of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Dr. Laura Regan is one of the world's foremost authorities on viral and bacteriological study. Having dedicated her career to halting the spread of infectious disease, she has always considered herself one of the good guys. But when her research partner is murdered and Laura is blamed for the crime, she finds herself at the heart of a vast and deadly conspiracy. Aided by three rogue federal agents who believe the government is behind the frame-up, Laura must evade law enforcement, mercenaries, and a team of cyber-detectives who know more about her life than she does - all while trying to expose a sinister plot that will impact the lives of every American. Set in the Orwellian present, The Homeland Directive is a modern-day political/medical thriller from Robert Venditti (creator & writer of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel The Surrogates).



MOSH GIRLS & MONSTERS: The Art of Josh Howard volume 2
Josh Howard

A couple years ago I asked Jessie Garza at Viper if I could get a copy of this, and apparently he had sent it, but I didn’t find it until this May, when I was going through my office and all the boxes from previous years of review products. Breaking down the box that Viper had sent, it appears that this book had become stuffed behind the bottom flap of the box. So it was like a hidden treat, and I am sorry to not have seen it until now.

Josh Howard’s work is special, because while he is able to draw in a purely animation influenced style, there is more character, depth and layers of quality about his work than most anyone who draws in a similar fashion. This book is a collection of sketches and works I think are quite nice to look at, and are quite amazing given the vast number of people trying to work in the style. Josh is quite good, quite unique in his ability, and someone who makes me want to know the story behind each of the characters.



Writer: John Wagner
Artist: Pete Doherty, Frazer Irving, Andy Clarke, Dean Ormston, Alex Ronald

Good lord. Judge Dredd and the various Judges are not nice folks. Face it, they live in a purely dystopic world without much hope to stop the crimes outside of blinding swift justice and mind numbing violence. Judge Death fulfills the role of a villain in this collection, and while it is thoroughly well written and illustrated, it is rather dark. I think it would qualify as horror, but being that it comes from the Judge Dredd millieu it is dark crime fantasy. I think this is very good, but perhaps not towards everyone’s taste.


Writer: Gordon Rennie and John Smith
Artist: Fazer Irving

This collection is best described with dark fiction, funky heroes, and some horror. The concept here of taking real life people who were famous and making them characters of fiction is well done. And the quality of story and characters, both in writing and art is good. Having said that, calling this horror didn’t work for me so much. For a work, say the Judge Death mentioned above, to be called horror it needs to evoke a feeling of dread, fear, avoiding the thing behind the door... And this work didn’t do that for me. However, it is very well done for what it is.

“In Necronauts, world famous escapologist Harry Houdini must join forces with novelists H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and phenomenologist Charles Fort to defeat an unholy force which has followed him back from a place beyond human imagination...”


Editor: Jonathan Oliver

Haunted House stories in general are considerably underwhelming to me. I read a great number of them in the past, and pretty much, I think, that there needs to be a factor of reality to go alongside what is very clearly fiction. As such, to me at least, most haunted stories don’t reach enough into believability of setting to make me feel the horror in the fiction.

However, House of Fear is a truly scary work. Jonathan Oliver as editor has clearly sorted through many entries, because the stories here are uniformly good. The quality of an anthology I think isn’t the subject, but how well each of those in the collection succeeds. That is, is there two good, three ok and four bad stories in the collection, and, if so why did you pay full price for the work? This is a good quality throughout product, and even if the subject isn’t my thing, I would say it succeeds on all fronts.


Lord of Light part 4: The Binder Bound

Continuing a look at Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light.

On a planet where the human colonists have established a society based on ancient Hindu culture, and where the members of the original crew have used high technology and science-spawned super-powers to assume the role of gods, one man has decided to challenge the Heavenly Establishment.

In last week's chapter our hero, who is called by many names, including Sam, began his campaign against the gods in an improbable manner: by preaching nonviolence. Taking the name Tathagatha, (the One who has Attained), he planted the seeds of Buddhism, a subversive element in the Hindu-based culture established by the gods. The gods sent Yama, the deathgod, to kill him; but Sam managed to escape and, having accomplished his goal, has left his disciples to start a new phase of his campaign.

When the human colonists first came to this planet, it was already inhabited by beings the humans called Rakasha, after the demons of Hindu mythology. The Rakasha once had physical bodies, just as humans do; but in their own quest for immortality had learned to dispense with physicalities and exist as beings of energy. But unlike other energy beings in science fiction, these are not creatures of Pure Intellect; they are creatures of Pure Id. The arrival of the humans reminded them how much fun physical forms were; and so they preyed upon the humans, stealing their bodies when they could.

Although never directly stated, it is implied that the crew of the colony ship originally cultivated their superhuman powers to be weapons against the Rakasha and the other powerful creatures of the planet. During those early years of warfare against the shapeshifting demons, Lord Kalkin, also known as Sam, led the fight. With his power of electrodirection, he was able to constrain the energy-based Rakasha into magnetic bottles, which the gods placed into a mighty cavern called Hellwell. It is for this reason that Sam is also known as The Binder of Demons.

Now Sam returns to Hellwell. He needs allies to aid in his war against Heaven and he's desperate enought to make a deal with a devil.

Hellwell consists of a deep shaft going down into one of the highest mountains and connecting with a complex system of caverns. It's entrance is a huge bronze door set near the top of the mountain with a complex pressure lock and an inscription reading roughly:
"Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be cursed. If somehow you succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers." Signed, "The Gods."
Sam enters the mouth of Hellwell and descends the long spiral path to its bottom. As he goes, he passes glowing balls of flame trapped in niches in the rock that call out to him: "Free me, Master, and I will lay the world at your feet!" "Free me! Free me!" they say; some threatening, some pleading. Sam ignores them and continues to the very bottom of he well where the largest one, a blaze twice his hight, pulsating and twisting behind its invisible barrier. "So, Hated One, you have returned!" It is Taraka, chief of the Rakasha. He recognizes Sam despite his wearing a different body. "I look upon the flows of energy which are your real being -- not the flesh which masks them."

Sam sits down and begins to dicker. He wants Taraka's help in fighting Heaven, but wants to make sure they can strike a bargain. The Rakasha are notoriously decietful and honor only gambling debts. But he releases Taraka on a trial basis to have him scout out the Celestial City's defenses. As soon as he is released, Taraka tries attacking Sam -- just to see if the Binder's powers are as formidable as they were in the old days. They are; and Sam easily stuffs the genie back into his magnetic bottle. Contritely, Taraka agrees to do as Sam wishes.

The Rakshasa flits off on his reconnaissance mission. As Sam waits the other captive Rakasha wheedle, threaten and curse him until he tells them all to shut up. Finally, Taraka returns with the information Sam wants. The Celestial City is covered by a dome these days, but it has openings large enough for one of his kind to enter; and other doors for men to pass through.

Sam plans to return to the kingdom he once ruled as Prince Siddhartha and raise an army. With an army of Rakasha to aid him, he intends to sack Heaven. This sounds like fun to Taraka and he promises that his people will follw his commands. Sam decides that he'll just have to trust the demon.

Sam goes through the caverns an releases about sixty or so of the Rakasha, and then sits down to rest. As he dozes, he dreams of running, being pursued by some unknown threat whose shadow lies cast before him. He awakens to find that he is no longer in control of himself; his body has become possessed by the Demon lord.

"...how does it feel to be bound yourself, Binder -- in your own body?" he hears his own lips say.
"I did not think any of your kind capable of taking control of me against my will -- even as I slept.""To give you an honest answer," said the other, "neither did I. But then, I had at my disposal the combined powers of many of my kind. It seemed worth the attempt."
Taraka assures Sam that he will carry out his promise to attack the gods -- it sounds like fun; he doesn't know why the idea never occurred to him before -- but not just yet. First he wants to party with his new-found freedom and his brand-new body. Sam protests that there is no time to waste; sixty-six demons are now loose in the world who weren't before and the gods are going to notice pretty quickly. Taraka dismisses Sam's worries. It's not like Sam can do anything about the situation.

Taraka takes Sam to a nearby kingdom and usurps the throne. Sam is mostly unconscious through this next part, getting only occasional kalidascope glimpses of bacchanalia. Sometimes, he sees the world as the demon sees it, people stripped of their physical forms and revealing their passions and desires as dazzling patterns of energy.

One day, Sam has a shocking realization.
Siddhartha had visions of riding through the streets of the town on the back of an elephant. All the women of the town had been ordered to stand before the doors of their dwellings. Of these, he chose those who pleased him and had them taken back to his harem.. Siddhartha realized with a sudden shock, that he was assisting in the choosing, disputing with Taraka over the virtues of this or that matron, maid or lady. He had been touched by the lusts of the demon-lord, and they were becoming his own. With this realization, he came into a greater wakefulness, and it was not always the hand of the demon which raised the wine horn to his lips, or twichted the whip in the dungeon. He came to be conscious for greater periods of time, and with a certian horror he knew that, within hemself, as within every man, there lies a demon capbable of responding to his own kind.
But Sam has also been gathering his own energies and finally feels strong enough to attempt to wrest control of his body from the demon.

"Oh man of many bodies," Taraka says as they engage in psychic battle, "why do you begrudge me a few days within this one?"
"It is because I am what I am, demon.... I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus. I am not the saint the Buddhists think me to be, and I am not the hero out of legend. I am a man who knows much fear, and who occasionally feels guilt. Mainly, though, I am a man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my way. Thus you inherit my curse -- whether I win or whether I lose now, Taraka, your destiny has already been altered. This is the curse of the Buddha -- you will never again be the same as once you were."
Taraka summons his fellow Rakshasa and under their combined force Sam is once more subdued; but the words of the Buddha stay with him.

Sam returns to the nightmare revelry; but now Taraka's demon minions have joined the party and the Rakasha's bacchanal has taken a turn into Hieronymous Bosch territory. Yet Taraka is not happy. "My pleasures diminish by the day! Do you know why this is, Siddhartha? Can you tell me why strange feelings now come over me, dampening my strongest moments, weakening me and casting me down when I should be elated...? Is this the curse of the Buddha?"

The curse is one which Taraka has inflicted upon himself. Just as he has forced Sam to partake of his hedonistic lusts, so has he partaken of Sam's revulsion of his own depravity. And thus the demon has learned the thing humans call guilt. He now bears the taint of conscience, and it will be forever with him.

But Taraka has tarried too long. As Sam feared, the gods have caught up with the. Agni, the god of fire, comes to the palace Taraka has appropriated. None can flee him, for his telescopic goggles can see to the farthest horizon as well as into the infared and ultraviolet spectra; and the wand he bears, devised by Yama himself, fires a beam of energy so powerful, it is said that Agni once used it to score the surface of one of the moons.

Sam urges Taraka to flee, but the demon is curious as to how tough Agni really is. It's his chief flaw; Taraka always wants to test every opponent he meets to see how he measures up. He reassures Sam that he doesn't have to worry about his body being destroyed."...I have strengthened your flames after the manner of my own kind. If this body dies, you will contine to live as a Rakasha."

A brief skirmish with Agni is enough to convince Taraka that Sam was right. Wrapping his energies around Sam's body they fly back to the refuge of Hellwell. Sam knows that even Hellwell will not withstand a determined assault by the gods. He's sure that next time Yama will come, "the One in Red... who drinks life with his eyes..." Sam and Taraka liberate the Rakasha still imprisoned to give them a fighting chance.

Before too long the thunder chariot of Shiva, the mighty fighter jet designed by Yama, lands on the mountain and four gods emerge: Yama, the deathgod; Agni, god of fire; Shiva the destroyer whose trident disintigrates atomic bonds; and Kali, goddess of destruction, whose death-gaze matches Yama's own and who's skull-scepter emits a sonic attack. Their weapons and their powers are capable of destroying even the bodiless Rakasha; and the demons find that they cannot get close to them because they have been treated with a kind of "demon repellent." Despite a spirited defense, the best the demons of Hellwell can do is slow their progress.

Seeing the futility of the fight, Taraka finally agrees to retreat. Under the cover of the Rakasha's attack they bolt past the gods in an attempt to steal the thunder chariot. It almost works too; but before Sam can get the jet's engines to warm up, Agni shows up. Using his electrodirection powers, Sam causes Agni's fire wand to malfunction; but then Yama and Kali arrive. Their combined death-gazes drive Taraka out of Sam's body and knock Sam unconscious.

Sam wakes up in chains in a small compartment aboard Shiva's thunder chariot. "Brahma is particularly anxious to see you once again," Yama tells him.

"But I am not especially anxious to see Brahma,"

"Over the years, that has become somewhat apparent." Yama is a master of understatement.
The two enemies have a friendly little chat. Yama asks him what demonic possession feels like.
"To have one's will overridden by that of another? You should know." 
Yama's smile vanished, then returned. "You would like me to strike you, wouldn't you, Buddha? It would make you feel superior. Unfortuantely, I'm a sadist and will not do it." 
Sam Laughed. 
"Touché, Death," he said.
Yama once again extends the possibility that Sam might be forgiven if he elects to join with Heaven and speaks about the nature of godhood; "Being a god is beign able to recognize with one's self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them ino alignment with everything else that exists... Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, 'He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.'..."

Sam is unimpressed. "If someone asks you why your'e oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no, I guess there can't be a meeting of minds."
"The goddess of dance was once the god of war. So it would seem that anything can change." 
"When I have died the real death," said Sam, "then will I be changed. But until that moment I will hate Heaven with every breath that I draw. If Brahma has me burnt, I will spit into the flames. If he has me strangled, I will attempt to bite the executioner's hand. If my throat is cut, may my blood rust the blade that does it. Is that a ruling passion?" 
"You are good god material," said Yama.
Whatever happens, Sam will not be executed just yet. He will be permitted to attend the wedding. Yama and Kali are going to get married.

NEXT: Chapter 5: How do you solve a problem like Siddhartha? The gods discuss what to do with Sam; old lovers reunite; Sam plans a heist and has a conversation with a jackbird. All this and the phantom cats of Kaniburrha. Is this the end of the Lord of Light?

Rock of Ages

Sonic hellfire assaults your ears, converting and empowering you to take on the world.  The writhing passion inside you yearns to pick up a sword and engage in a mystic attack on the fortress of modern conformity.  Angels and demons live in ecstatic combat, warring for your soul.   To which side will you yield?

The metal musical "Rock of Ages" debuting this weekend hopes you'll yield to their side.  The film stars the beautiful freak Tom Cruise as Steve Jackson, a Michigan rock god spreading his profane gospel to '80s metalheads.  Yet many of his former acolytes rebelled, tired of his putting sex & booze above rock & roll.  Now he must submit to penitence at nightclubs instead of stadiums, laying bare his heart and soul to an intrepid preppy Rolling Stone reporter, Constance Sack played by Malin Ackerman, in order to expiate both his own sins and those of his sleazy manager, Paul Gill played by Paul Giamatti.

Young love beats within the hearts of Sherrie Christian and Drew Boley, played by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta.  These are the faithful, the true believers, the devoted disciples of metal, wanting to parlay their menial nightclub jobs into a shot at fame.  Not-so-young love beats within the hearts of Dennis and Lonny, the nightclub owner (Alec Baldwin) and his bumbling sidekick (Russell Brand), trying to further their cause, listen to the gospel, pay the bills and keep their temple open for some time to come.  And the threat to the temple comes from Los Angeles Mayor Mike Whitmore (Brian Cranston) and his perfect wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), pious political posers who want to tear down the center of sin on the Sunset Strip and replace it with something more prophetic (profitable) to their faithful (financial) followers (masters).

The film (directed by Adam Shankman with a screenplay by Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo and Allan Loeb based on the broadway musical book by D'Arienzo) is powered by some of the heavy metal and hard rock songs and power ballads of the '80s.  Succeeding in its ambitions, "Rock of Ages" serves its sacrament of sonic salvation sensationally.  However the power of this pageant lies in the music, not the characters. 

The deity in this passion play -- Cruise's Jackson aka Stacee Jaxx -- is not the central character.  Jaxx exists as the focal point onto whom the other characters project their hopes, fears, and lusts.  The arrogant but talented Cruise plays the arrogant but talented Jaxx to the hilt, but the devoted disciples played by Boneta & Hough are the heart of the film, singing well but lacking the charisma of the more experienced actors.  Brand & Baldwin play their parts well, but while Brand does his usual affable airhead schtick, the usually corporate Baldwin does not lose himself in the part.  Cranston and Ackerman's performances are adequate but not much more.  Giamatti seems almost typecast in his role, delivering nothing new but delivering it well.  But Zeta-Jones manages to sell her part with zeal, revealing the lust beneath the piety.  But for all the lust the film is perhaps too nice in some regards, showing sex without nudity, decadence without drugs, and temptation only in good taste.  The storyline is adequate, showing us the temptations within and without the metal lifestyle, and manages to set up the songs nicely.  And in the end rock ravages rap, metal beats boy bands, and the headbangers live happily ever after.  Just like in the real world.

But you don't go to a rock concert expecting Shakespeare in the Park.  The songs soar and fill the theater with their metal majesty.   If you had a radio in the '80s, you probably already know them.  If you thought they were awesome then, you will be enraptured by their presence here.  If you thought they were crude expressions of juvenile emotions, promising and delivering nothing more than pernicious ear-splitting howls of anguish suitable for blue-collar adolescents venting their frustrations at the world that doesn't include them:  Well, duh, that's the point.  And if you appreciate that point, you will appreciate this film.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

What can you do to make yourself happy?  And what can you expect from others in your pursuit of such happiness?  These are the questions that lie at the heart of the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel".  The 2011 film by director John Madden from a script by Ol Parker (based on the novel by Deborah Moggach) was only recently released in U.S. theaters, but it is well worth the wait.
The story involves a group of assorted English retirees who decide to take up residence in what they were led to believe is an exotic but inexpensive retirement community located in Jaipur, India.  When they arrive their expectations are dashed, finding the brochures were photoshopped and the facility is in disrepair.  This serves as a metaphor for their lives, where they were promised much and were not satisfied with what they received.

One of the most prominent characters was Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson), a former British high court judge raised in India who hoped to return his birth land to find a part of him that he had left behind.  Another is Evelyn Greenslade (played by Judi Dench), a gentle widowed housewife who feels that she must stand on her own for the first time in her life, moving thousands of miles from her adult children.  Then there is Douglas Ainslie (delightfully played by Bill Nighy) and his wife Jean Ainslie (played by Penelope Wilton), a retired yet optimistic civil servant and his pessimistic wife who are pinched financially due to a loan to their daughter of much of their savings.  Additional retirees include Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a bigoted maid in need of a cheap hip replacement; Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) a sharp-tongued widow looking to find a quality new husband; and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), a lonely old man in search of a lonely old woman.  Finally there is Sonny Kappoor (Dev Patel), the well-meaning but hapless young hotel manager who lives by the slogan "Everything will be alright in the end; so if things are not alright, it is not yet the end".

All of the actors are excellent performers, each making it difficult to imagine their other roles, which is an impressive task; I have not a bad word to say about any of the performances.  Judi Dench has played queens and a spymaster, yet here she displays a very convincing vulnerability.  Bill Nighy is barely recognizable from his roles as a vampire king or pirate sea monster, playing a very sympathetic henpecked husband in this film.   And Tom Wilkinson has played a general, a mob boss, and a stripper but here he plays a quiet, respectable gay man who travels around the world to reclaim his lost youth and finds that everything is alright.  No "scene-chewing" is needed here, as the talented thespians draw you into their characters with a subtlety and deftness rarely seen in films released in the summer.

Like all great stories, "Best Exotic..." tries to ask questions leaving the answers up to the audience.  Should you settle for love?  Should you love for duty?  How do you balance your duties to your loved ones and to yourself?  How do you cope when those to whom you dutifully serve reject you? 

The film smartly asks these questions by showing both the culture shock and familiarity of the denizens of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful" to the city of Jaipur.  Jaipur is not the most familiar of Indian cities to westerners, and like many parts of the world is struggling to maintain its cultural heritage while modernizing to the 21st Century.  Yet the beautifully filmed scenes evoke that tension well, with motorcycles dodging through traffic with elephants, 500-year old buildings trying to offer wi-fi access, swimming pools that look like they came out of an M.C. Escher drawing, and magnificent ancient Hindu temples within sight of, yes, call enters.

While the acting is exemplary and the script/novel outstanding, the direction in the film is merely functional.  This is not an insult; perhaps the best thing Madden could have done with this cast, story, and dialogue is hand the actors their lines, point the camera in the right direction and then get out of the way.  Without inventing new cinematographic flourishes, John Madden has still delivered the finest film I've seen all year.

Moreover, "Best Exotic..." works as a metaphor not just for individuals facing life in their twilight years, but also for Englishmen and Europeans as a whole.  What does it mean to face one's senescence, having to entrust yourself and the future to those whom you may have treated with disdain and/or ignorance?  You will leave this film thinking about it, and the answer is up to you.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


 Hysteria Poster

Last night my wife and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary and went out for dinner and a movie.  So after sushi and sashimi at our favorite South Lansing sushi joint, we went to the South Lansing cinema and picked the movie with the most convenient start time.  That happened to be a film we hadn't heard of until the previous evening, and it was named "Hysteria".

Apparently this was first released in Europe in late 2011, but the comedy from director Tanya Wexler is only now being shown in U.S. theaters.  It is appropriate that  it is out at this time as my community is currently embroiled a huge feminine controversy; more on that later.  I don't recall hearing anything either last year or this year about this film, which is surprising as my wife and I go to the cinema on average once a week.

The primary actors in the film are Hugh Dancy (as Dr. Moritmer Granville), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Charlotte Dalrymple), Jonathan Pryce (as Dr. Robert Dalrymple), and Felicity Jones (as Emily Dalrymple).  While the ladies playing the Dalrymple sisters seem rather bland for their roles, many of the supporting actresses (such as Sheridan Smith, Kim Criswell and Georgie Glen) shine in their brief appearances.  The lead actors do  their jobs well, as Pryce and Dancy seemed born to play their roles as physicians in Victorian-era London.  What really shines though is the script.

The writing credits for the picture are for Stephen & Jonah Lisa Dyer and based on an original story by Howard Densler.  The film follows the mostly true story of young Dr. Granville who is rejected by the London medical establishment in the late 1800s, due to his fanciful notion about so-called "germs" and how leeching patients is not medically productive.  He can only find work as an assistant in Dr. Dalrymple's practice which exclusively treats women suffering from the bourgeois "disease" of hysteria.

According to the book "Hysteria Beyond Freud" (by Gilman, King, Porter, Rousseau, & Showalter), hysteria "...was extraordinarily prominent in nineteenth-century medicine and culture."  The first physician known to have diagnosed hysteria was the first physician, Hippocrates, and throughout history the term was used to describe almost all ailments that were singularly feminine.  By the time period of this film the condition was considered to include symptoms of "violent muscular contractions..., paralysis, loss of voice, retention of urine, anesthesia, and blindness"  all the way to less severe ailments of "loss of appetite..., menstrual difficulties, and fainting spells".  Modern medical historians  view pre-Freudian diagnoses of hysteria as predominantly a catch-all for feminine depression or other emotional or physical disorders that the physician could not attribute to any other cause.

For the purposes of this film, Dr. Dalrymple would attribute hysteria to any bored, depressed, lonely, and/or unsatisfied housewife with the ability to pay for his "services" of "hysterical paroxysms".  Because his "services" were not inexpensive, only women of significant means could avail themselves of his practice.  Women or others with genuinely diagnosable and treatable conditions -- such as broken legs or malnutrition -- who could not pay were turned away, left to suffer and die.  The surface tension of the film was Dr. Granville's struggle between on the one hand a wealthy and comfortable living "treating" the clients of his practice with a chance of assuming not just Dr. Dalrymple's practice but also a betrothal to his obedient younger daughter Emily and on the other hand treating the genuine illnesses of London's poor with little financial reward alongside Dr. Dalrymple's rebellious older daughter Charlotte.

The true theme of the film though is the more subtle tension between logic & equality vs. superstition & hierarchy.  This is explored to hilarious effect, with the Dyers' script providing numerous illustrations of answers to questions such as:  Should bandages be changed?  What constitutes prostituting oneself?  Should you earn your way in the world if it is not necessary?  And is it necessary for women to live in the world on their own terms?  While some are questions we now would consider answered (yes, bandages should be changed at least daily) the current political and social debates about women's reproductive health shows that modern society is still wrestling with some of these issues.

But the film provokes as many laughs as it does thoughts.  Dr. Granville's influence on Victorian women -- heck, his influence on Victoria -- continues through today.  Although it's not a must-see in the theater and will likely be just as good on your home screen, women and men alike will find it, as my wife put it, "hysterical".

After the film I took her to Burger King where we enjoyed bacon sundaes.  Truly it was a memorable anniversary.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lord of Light part 3: Death and the Buddha

(Continuing my look at Roger Zelazny's novel, Lord of Light.)

On a planet where the human colonists have established a society based on ancient Hindu culture, and where the members of the original crew have used high technology and science-spawned super-powers to assume the role of gods, one man has decided to challenge the Heavenly Establishment. His name is Sam, (although he goes by myriad other names as well, such as Siddhartha and Binder of Demons) and he too is one of the First. In last week's chapter, he raided the Hall of Karma in the city of Mahartha, where temple-sanctioned technicians performed the act of reincarnation by transferring a person's mind into a new cloned body. He slew the Masters of Karma, stole as much of the body-transfer apparatus as his caravan could carry and gave a big fat raspberry to Brahma, the ruler of the gods.

Now the war begins. But it's going to be a war on Sam's terms.

Like Dune, the chapters in Lord of Light all start out with an excerpt from a supposed document commenting on the story. In Dune the excerpts carried the voice of the historian and the scholar; but here, the opening passages have the distinct voice of the storyteller and give the narrative an additional wrapping of legend. This myth-filter is further intensified by the quotation of authentic Hindu scriptures as a bumper between the excerpt and the chapter itself.
It is said that, when the Teacher appeared, those of all castes went to hear his teachings, as well as animals, gods and an occasional saint, to come away improved and uplifted. It was generally conceded that he had received enlightenement, except by those who believed him to be a fraud, sinner, criminal or practical joker. These latter ones were not all to be numbered as his enemies; but, on the other hand, not all of those imporved and uplifted could be counted as his friends and supporters.... It must be noted that while the godess Kali (sometimes known as Durga in her softer moments) never voiced a fomal opinion as to his buddhahood, she did render him the singular honor of dispatching her holy executioner to pay him her tribute, rather than a mere hired assassin...
It is festival time in the city of Alundil and many travelers have come; some to pay their respects in the city's great temple, but many to hear the Teacher who resides in the grove of purple trees outside the city. One pilgrim in particular has other goals. His name is Rild.

He is found by one of the Teacher's saffron-robed acolytes: a seeming youth of slight build and with abnormally white hair and jet-black eyes, lying unconscious from a fever contracted while passing through the swamps. The monks bring the traveler to the Teacher, called by his disciples Mahasamatman and Tathagatha, meaning He Who Has Achieved.

As Sam examines the feverish traveler, he notes that although the youth wears the robes of a pilgrim, he also carries the crimson strangling cord which is the badge of the holy executioners of Kali. The stranger's body has also been given the death bath, a treatment making his skin as hard and inpenetreable as steel, in select places. Clearly, this is one of Kali's elite.

The monks too know that the stranger is an assassin, and are concerned; but Sam tells them to leave him here. The Teacher himself will tend to the mysterious white-haired pilgrilm.

A couple days pass before the fever breaks and Rild regains consciousness, and another day before he is strong enough to converse. During that time, Sam takes care of him and never leaves his side.

When he awakens, Rild does not understand why Sam did not simply kill him while he was helpless. The Teacher merely replies with zen serenity and returns Rild's strangling cord. "I have no need to move or to act. All things come to me. If anything is to be done, it is you who will do it."

Rild finds himself in a puzzling dillemma.
"You have offended Heaven," he stated. 
"Of that, I am aware." 
"...But I owe you my life, and I have eaten your bread... Because of this, I must break a most holy vow," finished Rild. "I cannot kill you, Tathagatha."
Having failed in his mission, he cannot return to Kali. Sam offers to let him stay here in the purple grove for a time, and Rild agrees. And after a couple weeks, listening to Sam teach, he approaches Sam again and asks to become one of his disciples.
"I have held your words within me and felt the truth which they contain. In the service of the goddess have I slain more men than purple fronds upon yonder bough.... So I am not easily taken in by words, having heard too many, voiced in all tones of speech -- words pleading, arguing, cursing. But your words move me, and they are superior to the teachings of the Brahmins. Gladly would I become your executioner, dispatching your enemies with a saffron cord... but I know that such is not your way. Death and life are as one to you, and you do not seek the destructuion of your enemies. So I request entrance to your Order. For me, it is not so difficult a thing as it would be for another. Once must renounce home and family, origin and property. I lack these things. One must renounce one's own will, which I have already done. All I need now is the yellow robe." 
"It is yours," said Tathagatha, "with my blessing."
Later, Sam goes alone into the city and visits the temple. He places Rild's garrote before the shrine of Kali. "It's a resignation, my dear.... You have lost this round."

Rild takes on a new name, Sugata, and immerses himself in the Eightfold Path of Enlightenment. And somehow, a miracle occurs. He develops a deep undersatnding of the Tathagatha's teachings and displays an ablility to express those teachings to others, such that the Teacher himself will pause to listen to him. Before too long people are speaking of Two who have attanined Enlightenment: the Tathagatha, and his small, dark-eyed pupil.

A year passes. One day as Sam and Sugata are walking together they hear a noise like thunder: the Garuda bird, a jet aircraft used by the gods, passes overhead, circles the area and lands. briefly. Sugata guesses that the craft has dropped off a passenger, and does not like what this suggests. What Sam thinks, he does not say.

The passenger is Yama, god of Death and consort of the goddess Kali, sent to complete the mission Rild failed. We have met Yama in Chapter One, and know he will eventually become Sam's ally. Although an enemy now, he is an honorable man and not unsympathetic despite his grim divine portfolio.

As Yama walks to Alundil, he meets a young man in the robes of a pilgrim and carrying a sword who blocks his way and challenges him. "Give me a name to tell the priests, so that they shall know for whom they offer the rites," Yama says.

"I renounced my final name but a short while back," Rild replies. "...By opposing you now and in this manner, I also betray the teachings of my new master. But I must follow the dictates of my heart. Neither my old name nor my new do therefore fit me, nor are they deserved -- so call me by no name!"

And here we launch into one of the things Zelazny does so well: kick-butt fight scenes. It occurs to me that fencing figures in a number of the science fiction/fantasy novels I like from this era: Dune has them; Zelazny's Amber series has them; Robert Heinlein's sole foray into Heroic Fantasy, Glory Road, also has them. This particular fight scene, between the master assassin and the the avatar of lethality has an additional layer to it.

During a pause in the fight, Rild calls out to Yama asking him to answer a question: "'There is some doubt concerning a man when he is dead. Some say he still exists. Others say he does not. This thing I should like to know, taught by you.'"

Yama recognizes this as a quotation from the Katha Upanishad, an ancient Sanskrit poem in which a young man encounters Death. He replies by reciting Death's answer. For a while the two men re-enact the ancient dialogue; Death trying to dissuade the youth from his boon, and the young man insistent upon learning Death's secrets.

In the poem, Death ultimately accedes to the youth's demands and reveals deep spiritual truths; in this case, Yama finally says, "Very well, Rild... but it is not a kingdom subject to words. I must show you." He resumes the attack, stunning Rild with his deathgaze; his godly power to draw the life out of the living.

The fight continues, until finally the two men grapple with each other in a stream. Yama drags his opponent to the deeper water and holds him under. "None sing hymns to breath... But oh to be without it!"

Yama continues on to the city, where he rests for a bit. In the evening he vistis the temple where stands the shrine to Kali directly opposite one to himself. He falls into conversation with a priest of that temple, who is somewhat shocked at how casually Yama speaks of the goddess of Destruction: "We think alike, the goddess and I. We generally agree on most matters. When we do not, I remember that she is also a woman."

"I live here and I do not speak that intimately of my charges, the gods," the priest says.

"In public, that is," Yama replies.

Yama goes on to ask why the shrine to Death, directly facing Kali's, has no offerings as do the shrines to the other gods; some wreathed in so many flowers that they are difficult to identify.
"No one gives flowers to Death," said the priest. "They just come to look and go away... Other than we priests, when the calendar of devotions requires it, and an occasional townsman, when a loved one is upon the death-bed and has been refused direct incarnation -- other than these, no, I have never seen sacrifce made to Yama, simply, sincerely, with good will or affection." 
"He must feel offended." 
"Not so, warrior. For are not all living things, in themselves, sacrifices to Death?"
The priest admits that in the case of Death and Destruction, he wishes a case could be made for atheism; but that he has seen too much evidence of both. Yama finds this amusing and the two men, reluctant priest and incognito deity, share a couple drinks. Yama asks him about the Buddha, but the priest is reluctant to speak of him. "So, he's gotten to you too?" Yama says.

Leaving the city, Yama comes to the purple grove. He finds a group of monks praying, They make no reply to his questions, and Yama realizes that he has no way of knowing which of them -- if any -- is Tathagatha. So he waits; and as he waits, he falls asleep.

In a passage that reads like a tale from an ancient myth, he dreams that Buddha is sitting beneath a gigantic tree; a tree so big that it's very roots support the world. The Four Regents of the Earth, representing the four points of the compass, arrive to defend the Buddha, and one by one Yama dispatches them. The final Regent declines to fight Yama directly, but instead casts a great shield into the ground, saying, "I do not actively contest. I merely defend. Mine is the power of pasive opposition." When Yama attempts to threaten the Buddha, the branches of the trees knock the sword from his hand, and the grass of the earth hides his weapon and grasps at his feet. In exasperation, Yama finally utters a blasting curse, blighting the grass, the tree, the hill and everything. And then he awakens.

He proceeds onward and finds Sam sitting in the middle of a field. Sam asks him why he is here, and Yama answers, "It has been decided that the Buddha must die."

"You have already succeeded in what you set out to do. You slew the real Buddha this day... The real Buddha was named by us Sugata... Before that he was known as Rild."

Yama laughs."Is this not a pacifistic religion, this thing you have been spreading? ...Then it is well you are not preaching a militant one! Your foremost disciple, enlightenment and all, near had my head this afternoon!"

But Sam is serious. From his time with Sugata he knows that the former assassin truly had achieved the Enlightenment that he only pretended to. "You know what I am," Sam says.

"I know that you are a fraud," Yama agrees. He knows that Sam lifted his Way of Enlightenement from ancient sources and pretended to be it's originator. "You decided to spread it, in hopes of raising an opposition to the religion by which the true gods rule... You are trying to be a one-man antithesis to Heaven, opposing the will of the gods across the years, in many ways and from behind many masks. But it will end here and now, false Buddha."

Sam persists in asking him "Why?" "Why have you, master of arms, master of sciences, come as lacky to a crew of drunken body-changers, who are not qulaified to polish your blade or wash out your test tubes?"

As with his earlier conversation with Brahma in the previous chapter, Sam continues to prod him, needle him, and provoke him. Until one of his barbs sinks home.

"What's she like, that bitch Kali? There are so many different reports that I'm beginning to believe she is all things to all men--"

That provokes Yama to attack. He charges Sam, and runs right into the patch of quicksand.

"Some quicksand is quicker than other quicksand," Sam explains. Although trapped in the mire and unable to escape, Yama has some time before the sands completely engulf him. And Sam promises to have his disciples rescue him... eventually. "For the moment, however, you are something every preacher longs for -- a captive audience, representing the opposition. So, I have a brief sermon for you, Lord Yama."

His sermon is part parable and part shaggy dog story; and it is a warning against Kali.
"You would not give power into the hands of the unworthy if that woman did not bid you do it. I knew her of old, and am certain that she has not changed. She cannot love a man. She cares only for those who bring her gifts of chaos.... Cross her once to try the truth of my words, even in a small matter, and see how quickly she responds, and in what fashion."
Yama responds by glaring at him with his deathgaze. Sam's own powers are sufficient to block the deadly power, although it does give him a hell of a headache. Sam tells Yama that his monks have been instructed to come if they hear a call for help; that they will bring him to solid ground and not try to harm him. "I like the thought of the god of death being saved by the monks of Buddha."

Sam picks up his traveling gear to leave. His work in the purple grove is completed and the religion he has planted will grow without him. He's ready to begin a new phase of his war.
"And you may want to mention in Heaven," he said, "that I was called out of town on a business deal. ...I think I am going to make a deal for some weapons," he finished, "some rather special weapons. So when you come after me, bring your girl friend along. If she likes what she sees, she may persuade you to switch sides."
NEXT:  Chapter Four: Sam goes to recruit new allies; the Binder unbinds... and is himself bound; the Curse of the Buddha; and Heaven comes to Hellwell.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Continuing the 35-part review of DC Comics' 35-part Before Watchmen event, this week the first issue of Silk Spectre is out.  This week's 23-page lead story is by Darwyn Cooke (co-writer) and Amanda Conner (co-writer and artist).  Conner also provided the standard cover art. 

Cooke, as mentioned in last week's review, is best known for his writing and artwork on DC Comics' "Selina's Big Score", "The New Frontier", and "The Spirit" as well as adaptations for IDW Publishing of Donald Westlake's "Parker" graphic novels.  Conner on the other hand is best known as a "good-girl artist" for her work for various companies on such titles as "Gatecrasher", "Vampirella", "Soulsearchers and Company", and "Power Girl".

While it is not known which portions of the plot, layouts, and dialogue can be attributed to Cooke and which to Conner, there is clearly a woman's touch on the story.  The series' lead character is Laurie (Juspeczyk) Jupiter the second superhero known as the "Silk Spectre", who in turn is the daughter of the first Silk Spectre, Sally (Juspeczyk) Jupiter.  The story "Mean Goodbye" focuses on Laurie's struggle with both living up to and living down her mother's reputation.

In 1966 Sally wants the teenage Laurie to take up the superheroine and celebrity mantles that she worked hard to develop, both with her own talents and with the management of her ex-husband.  To that end Sally becomes more Marine drill sergeant than caring mother, pushing Laurie to her physical limits.  But Sally also has a ribald nature, which affects Laurie tremendously whether Sally is present or not.  Since Laurie was both raised without a father figure and to be tough as nails, she naturally rebels against Sally's strictures and runs away from home, only to encounter Fred, Shaggy, and Daphne.

From a superheroic point of view, it is unusual to see a teenage girl being brutally pushed by their parent into that lifestyle.  Other elements of the story are not so unusual, from Laurie's "mean girls" classmates to the "Harper Valley PTA" community in which they live to the troubled jock on whom Laurie has a crush.  So as in last week's Before Watchmen installment, there is little new thematic ground being broke, although the emotional turmoil of a teenage girl has not exactly been done to the death by the American comic book industry.

And while Conner's artistic style, like Cooke's last week, differs from the majority of 21st-Century superhero illustrations, unlike Cooke she seems to have made a conscious choice to echo the style and layouts of original Watchmen series artist David Gibbons.  From the cover illustration to the first page snowglobe sequence throughout the book, there is a marked similarity to Gibbons over Conner's usual body of work.  However she does manage to sneak in a few unique touches, like Laurie's pictographic emotions.

Furthermore, the Cooke-Conner team deliver dialogue that is just as good as last week's, the coloring (by Paul Mounts this week) is just as good, and the scene transitions are functional but not clever.  The 2-page "Crimson Corsair" installment reveals a little bit of where the plot is going, but not enough to tell if there is any relation to the main narrative(s).

In summary, while Before Watchmen's sophomore issue continues to lack the originality and complexity of the original series, Amanda Conner (with Darwyn Cooke) has delivered more than the usual superhero comic.  Here's hoping the next installment is as good or better than this week's!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I picked up the first issue on Thursday, but I haven't had time to review it until now.  Obviously you can't judge a 35-issue series by the first installment, but as that is how DC Comics is releasing it, so shall it be reviewed.  I'm going into this as someone who has wanted more since the first series ended in 1987, but also as someone who hopes this story lives up to the same high standards as the original.  So with a guarded optimism, let us begin:

Based on the first issue, the series does not plan on replicating the format of the original series.  The original series had each issue be a 32-page installment with no ads on "baxter" paper using a rather garish color process, and the 32 pages being divided between a "graphic novel chapter" taking up the majority of the book (with scattered sequences from a fictitious 1950's pirate comic called "The Black Freighter" dispersed throughout) and an illustrated text piece in the back of the issue.  The first issue of the new series is a 32-page installment using the standard paper and coloring process that all of DC's regular comics currently use; there are also ads (on 3 pages only) in the book and instead of a text feature we have a two-page installment of a pirate story called "The Crimson Corsair", which we will discuss in a bit.

Firstly I'd like to start with an outright improvement this issue has over any of the 12 original issues:  the coloring.  The original series whether by artistic intent or by the process used, too often made everything look like it was colored with neon crayons.  Now however Phil Noto enhances the different media used in the illustrations; for example, black-and-white photos, firelit glows, and cityscapes by sunset all look appropriate.  Furthermore he does an excellent job in setting the mood for the various scenes while not detracting from the art. 

Both said art and story as well are supplied for this issue by Darwyn Cooke; he also provided the standard cover (as opposed to the many limited edition variant covers) as well.  Cooke is perhaps best known for his other DC work such as the Catwoman graphic novel "Selina's Big Score", "The Spirit", and of course "The New Frontier".  Cutting to the chase:  this issue is what you would expect the creator of "New Frontier" would deliver in fleshing out the details of "The Minutemen".

The Minutemen, for those of you unfamiliar, are the original superheroes in the world of the Watchmen.  While these costumed crimefighters got their start in the late 1930's and operated throughout World War Two, unlike the majority of superheroes published in comics at the time in the real world none of this team had powers or abilities beyond those of extraordinary humans.  Their membership consisted of "Hooded Justice", "Nite Owl", "Silk Spectre", "The Silhouette", "Mothman", "Dollar Bill", "The Comedian" and "Captain Metropolis".

The 26-page introductory story  "The Minute of Truth Chapter One:  Eight Minutes" is narrated by Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), primarily as lines from his autobiography.  The story focuses on vignettes from the eight members' early adventures:  a page of Dollar Bill's origins here, a three-page  sequence of the proto-Rorschach Hooded Justice there.  Little new information is gleaned about these characters that we didn't already know from the original; the Comedian has a juvenile record and the Silhouette was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria.  On the other hand, the issue can also be viewed simply as an introduction to the characters to any reader who may be unfamiliar with them; and my optimistic side hopes that in the coming issues we will see both an original plot and an original theme.

Artistically, Cooke definitely deviates from the original, as the series looks like his own work and not at all like the style or structure original series artist Dave Gibbons used.  Cooke's retro style serves the retro series that this is very well.  Hollis Mason as an old writer, a young police officer, and a newbie masked adventurer is given the emotional weight, the determined awe, and the do-gooder intensity that the age and scene demand.  The way Cooke shows different emotions, such as the Comedian tearing into a "dirty egg" or the urgency Silhouette feels in breaking up a child pornography ring, shows the thought he puts into his illustrations.  His linework is deceptively simple, evoking cartooning legend Alex Toth more than anyone else.

What is simple though, are the layouts.  Aside from the first two pages, Cooke's layouts eschews the complex patterns of the original, moving more towards narrative than subtextuality.  As both plotter and penciller, Cooke gets sole credit (or blame if you will) for this, whereas the original layouts had to do both with Gibbons and the original series' writer Alan Moore.   However while Moore's story structure and ideas appear (at this point anyway) to be more sophisticated than what Cooke has displayed, the new issue's dialogue is just as good and perhaps a tad more authentic.  The veddy English Moore often writes clever dialogue but his "American voice" appears to be forced at times, whereas with Cooke it seems much more natural.  Whether it is the banter between Silk Spectre's manager and a police chief or Captain Metropolis's bathtub dictation to his butler, the words genuinely seem to fit the characters, and that is definitely to Cooke's credit.

One thing Moore did in the original which Cooke does not do here is create "clever" transitions between scenes, where the text, dialogue and/or pictures would lead us from one scenario to the next either literally or thematically. If you like that sort of thing, the absence will be missed.  However few writers can pull it off as effectively as Moore did, so the fact that Cooke chose the more natural method of simply having one scene end and another begin does not bother me.  And while DC has chosen to continue the notion of having a pirate tale intertwined with the main superhero tale, they wisely chose not to have the pirates interrupt the heroes, as the random shift of genres did not serve the original story well.

And since there were only two pages of the pirate story this issue, it is surely too soon to judge what writer Len Wein and artist John Higgins have begun.  The wordcrafting by Wein is at least above his usual standards.  Wein & Higgins, it should be noted, are the respective editor and colorist of the original series, so their inclusion in this effort is appreciated.  While the coloring of the pirate sequence is just as subtle as the lead-in story in comparison to the original series, the colorist credit is not given for this aspect, so it is not known who to credit.

In summary, while the introductory issue lacks the originality and complexity of the original series, the artwork and dialogue are just as good and the coloring is better.  Here's hoping the next installment is as good or better than this week's!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lord of Light part 2: The Prince and the Body Merchants

Last week we met Sam, an ersatz Buddha who was exiled to Nirvana as punisment for opposing the gods on a planet where the ruling class uses mutant powers and super-tech to create a society modeled on Hindu mythology. Sam has been restored to mortal form by his former enemy, Yama, the god of Death. As they plan their next move against Heaven, Sam muses on his past lives.

Cue Flashback!

A wealthy prince named Siddhartha arrives with his retinue in the city of Mahartha. His body, although healthy and reasonably hale, is growing old, and he has come to visit the body merchants to purchase a new one.

The author chose the name quite deliberately; Siddhartha was the name of the Buddha before he embarked upon his path of Enlightenment. This prince is Sam; one of the First who tamed the planet in the early days of colonization. Since that time, for the past century or so, he's been living quietly in his backwater kingdom, engaging in "Tiger hunts, border disputes with neighboring kingdoms, keeping up the morale of the harem, a bit of botanical research -- things like that -- the stuff of life."

Sam stays at the hostel of Hawkana, an opulent place worthy to serve clientele of the highest caste. Hawkana brings forth the finest of wines, brandy from vanished Uratha blessed by the god Krishna himself to preserve it from age. Sam has Hawkana bring forth his oldest musician -- "Old not in body, but in years." A lad who from previous lives remembers the music of another world; and at the prince's request he plays "The Blue Danube" waltz.

The next day, as is his custom when visiting Mahartha, Sam disguises himself as a beggar and slips out into the city. He wants to scout out how things look from the street level and how the city has changed since last he was here, nearly half a century ago. He also wants to look up an old friend.

He first encounters a sea captain, who has recently returned from a voyage to the south whre his ship was damaged by "the cannon of Nirriti", apparently an active and dangerous volcano. The captain is wary and speaks guardedly. The city of Mahartha has become a lot more authoritarian than when Sam was here last; and although the captain decides he can trust Sam, he is still cautious. He warns Sam to beware of dogs that might follow him.

Following the captain's directions, Sam passes a temple where he sees a peculiar sight: a line of people waiting to use a device which, from its description, sounds very much like a slot machine but which apparently is a coin-operated prayer wheel. Sam dubs it the "pray-o-mat."

Continuing on to the Street of Weavers, Sam finds the friend he is looking for, "captain of a ship which did not sail these oceans." Jan Olvegg, or Janagga the sailmaker as he is now known, was once the captain of the Star of India, the colony ship which first brought humans to this planet. Now Jan is lying low, trying to avoid notice by the religious authorities.

From their conversation, we learn a bit more of the political situation on this world. For many years after the intial taming of the planet, the First, with their superior technology, powers, and practical immortality, had neglected the rest of the settlers, including their own children by their successive
bodies. The settlers had fallen into comparative barbarism and have a medieval technology. A split arose among the members of the First between the Accellerationists, who wished to re-introduce technology to the general population and raise their tech level; and the Deicrats, who wished to maintain the status quo of the godlike First maintaining control over their more primitive children.

Sam has missed most of this. Hitherto he has been mostly apolitical, attending meetings of the Council of the First for an excuse to party, but ignoring the infighting. Eventually he stopped going to Council meetings altogether. But recently things have changed. The Deicrats have come out on top; have officially declared themselves as gods and have used their technology and powers to establish and enforce this religion.

Previously, acquiring a new body when the old one grew too aged was simply a matter of going to the technicians who operated the devices to tranfer one's mind into a clone and buying it. Now the body merchants have been re-named the Masters of Karma and are part of the Temple heirarchy. Candidates for a new body are subjected to a mind-scanner capable of reading a subject's memories -- ostensibly in order to judge if the person is worthy of reincarnation. In practice, the Masters of Karma use this to screen out political undesirables. A person with Accellerationist views might find himself denied a new body; or worse yet, be given a body ridden by disease, or the body of a gelded oxen -- or a dog. Sam remembers the sea captain's warning.

This is why Jan Olvegg has been living quietly and postponing his own visit to the Masters of Karma. Sam realizes that he won't pass the mind-scan either, because of all sorts of sins which he hasn't committed yet, but intends to. He's decided it's high time to take a more active interest in politics after all.

Sam changes back into his personna of Prince Siddhartha and goes to visit the city's temple. Slipping the chief priest a heavy bag of gold, he requests to use the temple's telephone. "Communication system. If you were of the First, such as I, you would understand my meaning." The promise of another donation convinces the priest to give him access to the video screen connecting the temple to Heaven.
Sam's former collegues, the gods, are ruled by the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, with Brahma being pre-eminent. So it is Brahma, relaxing by the pool with his harem, who takes Sam's call. Brahma was originally a woman, before becoming a god.
But though his special and improved body permitted feats no mortal man could duplicate, still he felt uneasy in the presence of an old war horse like Lord Shiva -- who, despite his adherence to the normal body matrix, seemed to hold far more attraction for women. It was almost as if sex were a thing that transcended biology; and no matter how hard he tried to suppress the memory and destroy that segment of spirit, Brahma had been born a woman and somehow was woman still. Hating this thing, he had elected to incarnate time after time as an eminently masculine man, did so, and still felt somehow inadequate, as though the mark of his true sex were branded upon his brow. It made him want to stamp his foot and grimace.
Okay, that last sentence was a bit gratuitous. But this links into a point that is brought up elsewhere; that a person carries more than just memories when his mind is transferred to a new body. In a later chapter, Yama explains:
"Because your really have only one body-image, which is electrical as well as chemical in nature. It begins immediately to modify it's new physiological environment. The new body has much about it which it treats rather like a disease, attempting to cure it into being the old body. If the body which you now inhabit were to be made physically immortal, it would someday come to resemble your original body."
Brahma greets Sam cordially, and invites him to join the rest of the gods in Heaven. "A pantehon has room for many, Sam. There is a niche for you, if you choose to claim it." Sam is wary and reluctant to commit himself, to Brahma's growing irritation. Sam finally comes out and states some of his concerns:
"...I felt that we should be doing something about the passengers, as well as the offspring of our many bodies, rather than letting them wander a vicious world, reverting to savagery. I felt that we of the crew should be assisting them, granting them the benefits of the technology we had preserved. rather than building ourselves an impregnable paradise and treating the world as a combination game preserve and whorehouse."
Brahma counters that the people are not ready for advanced technology. "Had we acted immediately -- yes, this thing could have been done." But by the time they addressed the question, too much time had passed. "They are not ready, and will not be for many centuries."

They continue fencing, with Brahma becoming more and more piqued at Sam's argumentative stance, when Sam comments: "Yes, Madeleine... and did anyone ever tell you how lovely you are when you're angry?" He's been trying to figure out which of his former companions Brahma was, and now he makes a guess.

"How could you? How could you tell?"

Sam teasingly tries to mollify the angry deity, but he has struck a nerve. He talks Brahma down, agreeing to accept Heaven's offer, and Brahma grudgingly forgives him. He promises that when Sam reports to the Masters of Karma tomorrow, he will be given a new body without having to undergo a psych-scan and that an aircraft will be dispatched to carry him to the Celestial City.

That evening, Sam dines with another guest at Hawkawa's hostelry; the Shan of a province neighboring his own kingdom. Sam plies him with good drink and has his servants slip drugs into the Shan's dessert to make him susceptible to post-hypnotic suggestion. Sam tells him that the Shan is Prince Siddhartha and has an appointment with the Masters of Karma to pick up an new body.

The next morning, part of Sam's retinue accompanies the false Siddhartha to the Masters; while Sam's warriors scope out the defenses of the Hall of Karma and some of his other staff perform another secret errand. When the Shan leaves the Masters with a seemingly young and healthy body, Sam fears that he has misjudged Brahma; but almost immediately, the Shan falls to the ground in a siezure; he has been given the body of an epileptic.

Sam storms into the Halls of Karma, demanding to see the chief of the Masters. He defeats the Master in combat and his men raid the facility. Sam then forces the technicians to give him a healthy body, and provide one for Olvegg as well. Once this is accomplished, Sam has his men sieze as much of the body-transfer equippment they can load onto their caravan, and burn the bodies of the dead.

"This day your sin account is filled to overflowing," Olvegg tells him.

"But, ah, my prayer account!" Sam has sent his people to every pray-o-mat in the city. "Future theologians will have to make the final decision... as to the acceptablility of all those slugs in the pray-o-mats."

He has officially declared war on Heaven; and has left the gods with one last parting message. Before Sam left the hostelry that morning he told Hawkana:
"If any ask after me, tell them to seek me in Hades... It is the southernmost province of my kingdom, noted for its excessivey warm weather. Be sure to phrase it just so, especially to the priests of Brahman, who may become concerned as to my whereabouts in the days to come."
NEXT: Chapter Three: A new Teacher appears, bearing a message of Enlightenment; the goddess Kali dispatches her personal assassin to put an end to him; and when that fails, Death comes to visit the Buddha.