Saturday, January 29, 2011

X-Factor #214: Gunslinger Misfire

One of the interesting things about the comic book industry is that it can respond fairly quickly to changes in media trends.  One of the other interesting things about the comic book industry is that these quick responses often look very strange.  For example, I imagine a conversation much like the following took place at Marvel Comics sometime in mid 2010:

Joe Quesada, then Marvel Editor in Chief: “Hey, that new Cohen Brothers version of True Grit looks like it will be pretty good.  A lot of people who read comics also liked The Big Lebowski.  Jody, let’s try to have one of your writers come up with an excuse to run a western themed cover around the time True Grit comes out."

Jody Leheup, Editor: “Um, okay, I guess we can do that.  Peter David is writing some of our books.  He the co-writer on the Dark Tower adaptations and wrote those funny space westerns.  Peter, what do you think?”

Peter David, renown comic book writer: “Well… sure, why not.  I can maybe drop a story in as an interlude between X-Factor stories, sort of a dream sequence that looks like a lost chapter from Wolves of the Calla?

…and that appears to be the origin of X-Factor #214.  Turns out it was actually meant to be a tie between the Marvel Universe and the ongoing Dark Tower stories, but the licensing agreements fell through.  Not a bad comic, but weirdly conceived, weirdly executed, and despite the cover not really a western.  Also probably doesn't make any sense unless you have at least a passing familiarity with the Dark Tower series.

Dang it!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Professor Elemental’s Fighting Trousers

One of the interesting things about the setting of “traditional” Westerns (west of the Mississippi, after Lee’s surrender in 1865 and before the Ghost Dance / Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890) is that they take place at the intersection of Immigrant American, Native American, and Mexican cultures, all being influenced by encroaching Victorian English sensibilities.  It is in this world that the town taming, buffalo hunter, frontier gambler Bat Masterson drifts to Manhattan to become a journalist, eventually best known for his cane and derby hat in a 1960’s television show and for inspiring the character Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

In tribute to the people that brought fashion and taste to the land of six-guns and saloons, I give you Professor Elemental and his Fighting Trousers.

Thanks to the Steampunk Tribune for point this one out!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rawhide Kid?!?: The Covers

One of my favorite western comic book characters has been and will likely continue to be The Rawhide Kid.  There have been a lot of incarnations of the Kid, including the original lonely wandering cowpoke, the hardened gunhand, and the latest version (and my personal favorite), an erudite, sophisticated, arrogant, and narcissistic paladin of the plains.   This last version has caught some attention of the media, mostly because he is also homosexual.  The Kid came out way back in 2003, two years ahead of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist of Brokeback fame. 

Really?  Should we be shocked?  A sample of covers from the Kid’s earlier adventures shows him often in compromising positions with a wide range of, ahem, cowpokes.  Methinks the Kid rode his own path from the start. 

Regardless, The Rawhide Kid remains among my favorite comic books, period, and I hope to speak his praises more in future posts.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Red Dead Redemption: Second Chances

 I have only had this blog going for a few weeks, but I have spent an inordinate amount of time knocking Red Dead Redemption.  As a fan of third person shooters, westerns, and games that have wildly ambitious storytelling goals, I went into Red Dead Redemption with a lot of hope and expectations.  The opening of the story, largely telling the story of a troubled ranch on the Mexican border, was a lot of fun.  I never could get into the main character of John Marsten, or understand this redemption that he droned on and on about.  Eventually I just gave up on the game.

Apparently I picked just the wrong time to do that.  A few weeks ago, after stumbling on some spoilers from the fabulous tvtropes pages for Red Dead Redemption, I decided that I had to jump back into the game.  Whereas I am used to and more fond of games where you control the story (like my beloved Mass Effect series), Red Dead Redemption takes a different approach.  Although you play as John Marsten, you only slowly get to see who he is and how his life has shaped him.  Over time Marsten has gone from a bland, incomprehensible gunhand to one of the more interesting characters in gaming.  I rounded out the second major storyline of the game last night and while caught up in the emotions of the scene chose to resolve a problem with gunplay where it may not have been needed.  I immediately regretted the decision and wish that I had taken a more peaceful approach.  A shooter that can make you wish you hadn’t taken a shot is a rare thing.

Over the next few weeks I will likely finish Red Dead Redemption and eventually will post a more thorough review.  In the mean time, it turns out that this self described “semi-literate farmer and hired killer” is one heck of a character.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Steampunk Palin: 'Nuff said

Steampunk Palin.  ‘Nuff said.

Note that this is not Sarah Palin's first comics appearance:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jubal Sackett: This Thing That Is Me Is Not Yet Finished

I find myself early in my blogging life facing a fairly frightening, anxiety inducing situation involving my future health and well being.  Last night as I drifted off to sleep, facing the long dark night, my mind kept coming back to a single phrase that anchored me: this thing that is me is not yet finished.

It is a somewhat inexact quote from Jubal Sackett, one of the Louis L’Amour Sackett series, detailing a family’s history from the 16th century Fenlands of England to early America and eventually into the 19th century West.  The series is 17 books long, covering the lives of 13 main family members.  I have been an indifferent reader of Louis L’Amour for many years, never quite enthralled but never disappointed enough not to pick up another novel every few years.  The Sackett series in particular has always appealed to me, as the year I spent living in the East Anglian Fenlands was the year that I consider myself to have become an adult.

Last year I sought out a just opened used bookstore in a local college town, intent on buying something off of their western shelf.  The shelf was a total of four novels, one of which was Jubal Sackett.  I had a vague memory of reading that Jubal was the quiet and introspective member of the otherwise raucous and adventuresome group, so I selected that novel and set about reading.

It turns out that Jubal Sackett was the last of the series that L’Amour wrote, and one of the last novels written in an amazingly prolific career towards the end of his life.  Jubal Sackett seems to be a departure from his previously formulaic books, where L’Amour clearly had some things to say.  Jubal, the “ghost in the woods”, the proto-mountain man, is loner, wanderer, natural philosopher, who drops lines like the following throughout the course of the novel:

“It is not enough to do, one must also become.  I wish to be wiser, stronger, better.  This… this thing that is me is incomplete.  It is only the raw material with which I have to work.  I want to make it better than I received it.”

This thing that is me is incomplete.  This thing that is me is not yet finished.  Thank you, Jubal Sackett.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Darkwatch: There is Such a Thing as Too Much Sex & Violence (NSFW)

If the purpose of this blog is to help me define the perfect western, I should start to lay out some of the attributes that I am hunting for.  My first reaction when thinking about what I look for in any book (or comic book, movie, video game, audiobook, etc) is that it has to have sex and violence.  A little more thought though, shows that it is really eroticism and adventure that I am looking for, which often overlaps with sex and violence.  As an example of where the two don’t quite line up, lets take a look at the video game Darkwatch.

Darkwatch: Curse of the West, is a 2005 western / horror / steampunk mashup of a first person shooter video game.  The game actually loses points right there, as I tend not to enjoy first person shooters (games where your perspective is first person, what you see on the screen is what your character sees out of his or her eyes).  I find in these games that I have a hard time relating to the main character, either as a playable part of the game or as a sympathetic character, if I can’t actually see them as you can in a third person (camera over the shoulder) game.  Since the game involved outlaws, vampires, steampunk, and was rumored to have at least one nekkid scene, I had to give it a shot.

Let’s start with the violence.  As outlaw turned vampire secret agent Jericho Cross, you encounter a lot of violence.  Constantly.  There are elaborate supernatural gunfights in beautifully rendered Victorian gothabilly settings throughout the game.  What I found is that I wanted to take a quick break now and then from the violence to take in the scenery.  You can’t really do that, though.  There is always some gunslinger zombie, flying witch, or dynamite totting golem screaming at you waiting to kill you.  The dramatic tension is always in the form of violence, which is always solved with explosions or bullets.  This is where I start to realize that what I want in a story is that same dramatic tension, but crafted in such a way that you can appreciate every part of the story that got you there.  The novel Shane, for example, builds up tension in the small town for 115 pages before the release of the single gunfight the ends the story.  Speaking of a long, slow, sensual buildup…

Darkwatch oozes sexuality.  There are two main female characters that serve as the good and evil axis upon which the Jericho Cross dances.  Cassidy Sharp is a blond, perky Midwestern farm girl- think 19th century Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Her counterpart is Tala, a generically Native American sexpot brujah (if you are offended now, wait till you read this article) who wants to become a vampire, I suppose so she can go out and kill some palefaces.  Both of these women start as agents for monster hunting secret society Darkwatch, which apparently requires its female agents to wear high heeled boots and skin tight black leather catsuits that show off a lot of cleavage.  The dynamic between Jericho and Tala plays out until you hit this tawdry (and NSFW) scene:

Didn’t know that kind of thing happened in video games?  Scenes like this pop up periodically in games without notice, usually because video games like this fly under the radar.  One game that did raise the ire of the noted morality experts at Fox News was my much beloved Mass Effect.  Commander Shepard, the main character of the game, spends a good part of the game developing relationships with the other characters in the game.  Depending on how you direct the story and (some may say unfortunately) the gender of the Commander Shepard you chose to play, you can also pursue a romantic relationship with one the characters.  This clip is gameplay that culminates about half a dozen scenes of a male Shepard getting to know Space Marine Ashley Williams over the course of the game:

This scene, which shows genuine romantic affection, is the one that had Fox News in an uproar.  I suspect that it is because in Mass Effect you have to make choices in the game to pursue a sexual relationship, whereas in Darkwatch fucking simply happens to you.  Mass Effect also dangerously shows that a woman might want to have sex because she admires her partner and thinks he has a nice ass, rather than because she is a blood sucking vampire wannabe.

Finally, take the following passage from early in Robert F. Jones Deadville, where a young man new to the mountain man life takes his ease during a hunting jaunt with two young Blackfoot women:

…the Plover rolled against me and gave me a long, warm kiss full on the mouth, her tongue hungry for mine.  Then I felt the Yellow Calf’s soft hands touch me… privily.  Well, events ensued that might best be described in biblical terms, if you know the passages to which I refer.  The Song of Solomon comes to mind… frankincense; sweet dripping myrrh, breast like unto two fawns of the roe deer.  Back flowing dressed adorned their pretty heads; their lips smooth as hot oil.

This passage both anoints our narrator to mountain life and gives a sensual, emotional anchor to the tragedies and hopes he will share with these two women.  A western should have action and adventure, perhaps even violence, but that violence should have meaning to the character and to the story.  Likewise, to me a good western has some level of sensuality and eroticism, perhaps even explicit sex, but it has to be meaningful.  Throwaway token sex scenes add nothing to a story, and do much to detract from it. 
Darkwatch's Tala was also the first video game character to appear nude in Playboy

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lone Ranger’s Creed: “God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself"

The final issue of Dynamite Comic’s current run of The Lone Ranger is coming to an end this month, and with that it is a good time to take a look back at the Ranger.  A jaded 21st century audience will remember the hokey black and white television show or perhaps even the radio show and think of it as silly and innocent, and some days I would agree.  However, I have occasionally come back to The Lone Ranger Creed, written as a moral guide to the character, and seen that something pretty good.

The Lone Ranger Creed

"I believe.....

That to have a friend, a man must be one.

That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.

That God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself.

In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.

That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.

That 'this government of the people, by the people, and for the people' shall live always.

That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.

That sooner or later...somewhere...somehow...we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.

That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever, in my Creator, my country, my fellow man."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Last Rites of Ransom Pride: Art House Acid Western

I have been laid up at home for a few days, possibly turning into a few months, but thanks to the digital world (as one friend calls it, “the interwebs, a series of tubes and wires that carry dirty pictures”) I still have access to a wide array of western entertainment.  Having Netflix stream right to your television, for example, opens up a wide array of truly terrible movies that I sadly wasted time with.  I confess that I did not make it more than a couple of minutes into either Defiance or Dan Teaser’s Ghost Town.  A crazy little film called The Last Rites of Ransom Pride caught my attention, though, enough to watch this short 82 minute western.

The power players of this cast are Kris Kristoferson and Dwight Yokem, a pair that are to westerns what Christopher Walken is to crime stories: good actors who never turn down a role, no matter how bad the script.  I spent a lot of time looking at the other characters and remembering them from other roles.  "Hey, look, there’s Felicity’s boyfriend, and that bartender from Deadwood, and the dude from the Station Agent, and the funny one from Party Down."  Jason Priestly is in the credits, but I didn’t see Brandon Walsh anywhere.  I’d tell you more about the acting, but Last Rites is about the visuals more than about the acting, with lingering shadowy cuts interspersed among overly bright shots of lonely alkali deserts.

Speaking of Deadwood, from scene to scene the movie plays like the brothel scenes from Deadwood, the angry God parts from Pale Rider, Jim Morrison wandering the desert in The Doors, or some combination thereof.  Last Rites is a weird acid trip of a twisted, multilayered revenge story. The film takes place along the US / Mexican border in the early 20th century allowing for some interesting automatic vs revolver gunfights and horse vs Model T Ford chases.  I thought that the gunplay would constant and bloodier, but the films is much more moody than frantic.

Did I mention the scarred, sexy witch, shotgun toting dwarf carny, or the opium addict Siamese twins?
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting out of this movie, but this sure wasn’t it.  I can’t quite say that I liked it, but when I step back I have to admit it does make a nice little art house western.

Post Script: I just learned who Jason Priestly played in the movie.  Totally unrecognizable from the much side-burned Brandon Walsh of 90210.  Look for him listed as the “illiterate imbecile” at 0:14 into this video.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jonah Hex #63: Your Monthly Dose of Frontier Justice

I have enjoyed the current Jonah Hex series from the start.  With its consistent pair or writers (Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray) and rotating group of artists, the comic delivers great western stories every month.  It is amazing that DC Comics would keep publishing this book month after month, especially since their Jonah Hex movie flopped (hopefully it will get a True Grit bump, though). The comic is in fact much closer to True Grit than to the Jonah Hex movie.

Each incarnation of Jonah Hex has been a mix of violent and funny, with the latest issue #63 taking us to new levels.  Palmiotti and Gray have a way of periodically weaving flashbacks into stories, fleshing out Jonah Hex’s back story as well as explaining how one man can be so honorably good yet violently sociopathic at the same time (hint: it almost always comes back to Daddy issues).  This issue walks us back through Jonah’s early encounter with a child molester meeting frontier justice, an experience which determines the kind of bloody justice he will exact on another criminal later in life.

Like most of the series, issue #63 is a standalone story.  With a few exceptions the Jonah Hex stories from this run are either single issue stories or told in two to three issue arcs, and these stories don’t take place in any particular chronological order.  This makes the series particularly easy for a new reader to jump in and read an occasional issue, as you don’t need to understand an exhaustive back story and mythology to enjoy an occasional issue, unlike so many other comics published today.  Also, at $2.99 per issue they remain one of the most affordable comics on the market.  Go pick up a copy, pard, and enjoy a face full of justice. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Come back, Shane, the bed is getting cold!"

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to read as many classic westerns as possible, starting with Shane.  It may be a sign that I spent too much time in college in late night discussions of Quentin Tarantino movies, but I am seeing homoeroticism everywhere.  I am only halfway through this book, which deserves a more thorough posting, but I am really shocked by what I see.  At first I was a bit taken aback at the long, languid, loving descriptions that the narrator gives of Shane, from his dapper clothes to his lean, taught body.  Shane then goes on to pluck a flowers from the garden before proceeding to discuss ladies fashions with a ranchers wife.  In the next chapter Shane and the rancher go out into the field, take off their shirts, and get to work on a stubbornly erect stump.  Much of the chapter is devoted to the men working up a sweat as they silently gaze into each other’s eyes, ignoring the rancher’s wife who desperately wants to be let in on their manful activities. 

“Shane, opposite him, stiffened, and together they pushed in a fresh assault…Father climbed slowly out of the hole…Shane was with him, across from him, laying a hand gently on the old hard wood.  They both looked up and their eyes met and held as they had so long ago in the morning hours.”

Oh my.