Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fenian's Irish Pub - A Somewhat Hidden Emerald In An American Landscape

If you wind your way back through the crisscross of country roads around the Northwest region of Grand Rapids, Michigan and then beyond, traverse some hills and dip through modest valleys, pass orchards where the smoke from wood fires carries the aroma of dreams, and remain vigilant for a sign which reads "Conklin," you might just find Fenian's Irish Pub. It's positioned prominently on the village's Main Street, which is an apt name for it appears to be the only street in Conklin of any importance. So, cease the aimless wandering which carried you over the distance, park your vehicle, and shuffle on inside. 

My wife and I made such an excursion a few years ago and have found ourselves drawn back randomly ever since. Whenever we hear a spot of Irish music or if I find myself suddenly salivating over the thought of a Guinness with a basket of fried pickles and chips we, like enchanted pilgrims, strike out near the end of day, Conklin-bound.

Truly, there are few places which hold any significance for us around Grand Rapids (where we've lived for too many years). Most of the places in this area which one might haunt are geared toward a clientele consisting of neophyte drinkers, aspiring alcoholics, or sad folk who have become so invested in the idea of having themselves defined by the fleeting fancy of a fad-fueled scene. Organic, comfortable environs are a rarity in this burg of cheaply manufactured culture and hollow motivations. It is its distance from such a shallow hive, not only in miles but also in spirit, which makes Fenian's a wondrous escape.

I learned of its existence and heard hints of its character while attending college. It was during Professor Roger Schlosser's Irish History course that I was informed of Fenian's charm and warmth and its owner's ability to pour what might possibly be the best pint of Guinness in America. After a time, well after I started living with the woman who would one day be my wife, I suggested that we locate the pub and give it a shot. It turned out to be one of the best suggestions I've ever made. 

For years since we've made a point of paying as many visits as we can. It's especially magnificent toward the fall when the apples are ready for picking and the Fall weather is at its most magical. It's then that the shimmering green hills and the multi-colored leaves of the Autumn season inspire dreamy thoughts. It is this aspect of Fenian's and its surroundings, often enhanced by drink-fueled mists of the days and nights of pint guzzling, which I think will stay with me and forever preserve it in my mind.

Now we're readying ourselves for a move to Atlanta, Georgia, and we've spent the last couple of weeks making an attempt to visit the few places we hold dear. Last Wednesday, Irish Music Night naturally, we ventured out to hear the old songs and enjoy the food and drink. Classics were played and sung, with the usual renditions of "The Old Dun Cow" and "The Old Triangle." We drank and ate and conversed with familiar faces, and some new ones as well. At the end, riding high in a fog of Guinness and joy, I had the opportunity to finally personally thank the owner, Terry Reagan, for everything he and his pub have done for me. Quite the bittersweet moment.

And so ends an era of my life. The pub lives on, though, like the legend that it is and still lies out amongst those beautiful hills and stands of marvelous trees. If you find yourself in Grand Rapids, Michigan, do yourself a favor and go exploring out Conklin way. Tell Mr. Reagan that Jonathan Sample said, "Hello."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Batman: The Cult


Four prestige formatted books, bound together in a Mylar bag rested upon a glass-encased shelf at one of West Michigan's greatest comic book stores. In spite of the sizable bundle of single issues I had already selected from the numerous back issue boxes which crowded the center of the store, and the fact that I was in the process of exceeding my self-imposed ten dollar budget for comics, I scoffed at the $12.95 price tag and asked the clerk to pull the set for purchase. It never hurts to have too many comics to read, I thought, and besides, I had been anxious to read Batman: The Cult since I first heard Kevin Smith discussing it during an episode of his Batman-centric podcast, Fatman on Batman. 

I won't extensively delve into my history with the character of Batman here, but I have been a dedicated fan since I was a very small child and my father thrust me in front of the television while Tim Burton's film played. My father had just purchased a VHS of the movie from the local grocer Winn Dixie (we resided in Florida at the time), and the hype he raised for it completely sold me on the character before the tape even left its box. So, I've known of and loved the character since then and have only become more familiar with and dedicated to him since. 

Returning to the present and my tale, I eventually made my way home after a Saturday afternoon spent observing the holiest of days in the week of any fan of anything either cartoon, comic, or in any way related to either cartoons or comics. After bagging and boarding something like thirty single issues, all great stories published within the last twenty to thirty years, I pulled out The Cult and proceeded to dive in.

One of the first things a reader will notice about The Cult, and one of things for which I was most excited, is the exceptional and atmospheric artistic style of Berni Wrightson. Having co-created Swamp Thing with Len Wein, Berni Wrightson has been a brilliant force in the medium since the late 1960s, working with characters like Batman and various others from both DC and Marvel Comics. I first discovered his work through a House of Secrets reprint, which bore a cover depicting a stunning Swamp Thing being assaulted by a posse of random townsfolk; a reprint which Mr. Wrightson was kind enough to sign for me at a comic convention a few years back. 

Few other artists can capture anatomy in as powerful and as effective a way as Wrightson, whose Cult renderings of Bruce Wayne in particular display a weight and dimension as well as a sturdiness seldom seen in other depictions of the character. In moments throughout the mini-series he composed several memorable panels which conveyed Batman's suffering, the grim nature of Gotham after the main events of the story, and the gradual restoration of Batman's psyche as he struggled to free his mind from the hallucinogenic effects of the antagonist's tools of manipulation. Also, his skill with what is often labeled a "Horror Style" is evident in sequences throughout the series in which Batman is exposed to macabre piles of corpses and the many hanging bodies of Gothamites on display in order to discourage rebellion. In my opinion Wrightson's work was most definitely the best part of the series.

In regard to the story itself I found that I was both impressed at the scale of the events which transpired and disappointed at how the writer, Jim Starlin, used the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman throughout the series. Firstly, for those who are unaware of this fact or have not yet read this series, The Cult was one of the greatest influences upon the story of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's The Dark Knight Rises. From the secret society of driven individuals operating out of the "Underworld" of Gotham to that society's charismatic, extremist leader to the shift in power in Gotham into the hands of the band of extremists, so much about The Cult is familiar after having viewed Nolan's film. In terms of scale, what occurred in Gotham City through the four issues of this series was incredibly epic and dramatically altered the landscape of this familiar comic book setting. 

To provide some background before proceeding into my opinions of the story, The Cult follows Batman through both maddening internal struggles and his physical journey through a crumbling society which slacks permissively before the forces of chaos which aim to surge forth from the sewer tunnels of Gotham City. His adversary this time is a character named Deacon Blackfire, a shaman with a mystically enhanced vitality and a desire to bring Gotham under his control by utilizing the down-trodden and unstable members of society. Through religion and chemical manipulation Blackfire manages to convince a sizable portion of Gotham's homeless to aid him in combating the criminal elements of the dark metropolis, and any non-criminal obstructionists, so that he might seize control of the city.

Batman falls into the hands of Blackfire after making an unfortunate mistake while dealing with street toughs attempting to rob a food vendor one evening. Having suffered a wound from a gunshot, Batman hangs chained in captivity from the beginning of the series. From there he's drugged by Blackfire and indoctrinated into "The Cult" as the Deacon discusses his warped philosophies. We follow him then through torture, mental anguish, drug withdrawal, and the crumbling and eventual rebuilding of his personality and crusade against crime. 

Starlin wrote a version of Batman in The Cult which, in my opinion, proved to be both fascinating and incredibly disappointing. I found his Bruce/Batman to be interesting because he was a version of the character which seemed more human than in most other story lines. This Batman actually seemed to feel fear, he explored that fear, and often expressed serious doubts which almost completely shattered his mind. I consider this to be a brave approach to a character who is often written to be a near-deific archetype. 

What I found to be disappointing about the character of Batman in The Cult was the way in which he seemed so unprepared for what occurred while in Blackfire's custody. This wasn't a version of the character which seemed to have trained himself to combat various types of mental manipulation and physical torture. He collapsed quite easily, and was almost willing to completely abandon his philosophies and mission simply because he had been starved, abused, and chemically manipulated. Now, I understand that Batman is a human - though, he is an idealized one - and that my complaints might suggest that I expect him to be handled as the archetype and immutable hero he's become, but he is also a character who exists in a world detached from reality and has conditioned himself in such a way that it's understandable to expect him to be damn near impervious. Also, he has been driven his entire life by a mission which has caused him to go beyond, establishing hard set principles from which he could not possibly stray, for such behavior would betray the very fabric of his being. 

I don't believe, having read and watched various incarnations of Batman/Bruce Wayne for most of my life, that being starved, drugged, beaten, and pursued through the corpse-ridden bowels of Gotham would cause Bruce to take up a gun or cower from combat or allow the citizens of his city to be victimized. These things occurred throughout The Cult as Batman wrestled with horrific nightmares, fled from the bloodthirsty members of Deacon Blackfire's fold, crawled about in a drug-tinged stupor, allowed Robin to take a beating while leading him out of the tunnels, and sat by as an innocent woman of Gotham was dragged into an alleyway to be brutalized and slowly murdered. These things, in spite of the events through which he travailed, are not things that Batman - the man who has trained himself for every possibility and holds firmly to strong beliefs - would allow. But this is my opinion of the nature of the character and my response to how he behaved throughout this particular story. 

Despite my complaints, Batman: The Cult is a compelling read for any fan of the character because it's sure to, at the very least, incite a genuine emotional response, whether positive or negative. It's aided by the masterful renderings and compositions of Berni Wrightson through which any reader can be transported to the Stygian bowels of Gotham where madness, chaos, and suffering dwell. It features a different approach to Bruce Wayne/Batman, a glimpse into the inspiration for plot of Dark Knight Rises, and one of my favorite depictions of The Joker (again, Wrightson nailed it!). It's an experience few comic books offer. 


Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Post-Viewing


I discovered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien when I was about twelve years old (sometime in 1997). It began when I chose The Hobbit at random from a list for a Seventh Grade book report, not knowing anything about its history or its exceptional and incredibly interesting author. Reading it opened a whole new world to me. 

During my freshmen year of high school I read The Lord of the Rings. I didn't leap right into the trilogy after reading The Hobbit, even though I had heard of it in passing, because copies of the books were unavailable to me, and for some reason the idiom "Out of sight, out of mind" described my way of life in those early teenage years. However, I did see the title and cover images for the other books inside the cover of my copy of The Hobbit and I wondered at them, but I was unable to track them down until later. Though it took me a couple of years to explore the rest of Tolkien's writings, after reading The Lord of the Rings I completely immersed myself in the world of Middle Earth. I learned of its history, its peoples, its languages, and its heroes and villains. It became my universe for escape and fancy, especially when life fell apart around me. 

When the films of Peter Jackson's trilogy were released I excitedly watched all of them, anxious to see my beloved literary universe brought to life. They came to theaters during a time when my family was going through several extreme rough patches and was rapidly dissolving. In those days the books and movies were a powerful comfort and very much my "World beyond the wardrobe" or simply a spiritual link for me to the beautiful dimension of imagination. They sustained me long into adulthood.

Then came Peter Jackson's take on The Hobbit, about ten years later.

News of an adaptation of The Hobbit to film had been around since just after Jackson wrapped his Rings trilogy. I, along with many of my fellow appreciators of Tolkien, were naturally very excited for this news. Even though initial reports suggested that it probably would not involve Peter Jackson, I was simply anxious to see another piece of Tolkien's Middle Earth brought to the screen. When it was eventually announced that Jackson would once again take up the reins I was thrilled because he had already given us a fine adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and in so doing, proved his understanding of and respect for the source material - even though he did take some liberties with The Lord of the Rings. Then I heard that he wanted to convert the novel into another trilogy. A single novel into three films. At that announcement I suddenly remembered my concern when I heard that he wanted to add a sword-wielding Arwen to Helm's Deep. Odd changes were afoot. Frustration and concern began to set in. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which I wrote on last year - here) was an enjoyable film, though I did have some issues with certain aspects of the movie's story progression. In the end I chose to view it with the idea that it was an adaptation apart from the source material in several respects and should therefore be appreciated for what it was. So, time passed and I waited patiently for the second part of what I still considered an unnecessary trilogy.

My wife and I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night, the Saturday of its opening weekend. My initial reaction after viewing the film was one of anger and supreme disappointment. This stemmed mostly, again, from my feeling of unease with Jackson's desire to produce a trilogy and, considering what I had just seen, his decision to justify and make that trilogy by packing in absurd filler, seemingly to placate simple-minded movie audiences who care nothing for the source material. At least I hope that's why some of that material was included, though I detect a certain Del Toro influence in some of the story decision making, which is likely since he co-wrote the screenplay. What I mean by that statement is really a reference to my opinion that Del Toro tends to include sudden, heavy, awkward, and lengthy action sequences and to explore aspects of the characters which interest him and generally tend to have little to no connection to the source material, if he's adapting.

To state it plainly, my biggest issue with the movie was the excessive insertion of additional material and the strange diversions from the original story. Without giving too much away, I found myself bothered by the inclusion of a ridiculous and highly unnecessary love triangle, which included a character created by the filmmakers. One not pulled from Tolkien's writings. Then there was an alteration of a certain major player toward the end of the The Hobbit's tale, the addition of a video game-like sequence which went on for far too long, the poisoning of one of the dwarven party so that the filmmakers could include a nod to Frodo's plight in Fellowship of the Ring, and finally, the games of "Tease the Dragon" and "Let's Light the Forge" played by Bilbo and the dwarves near the end of the film. There were other additions to the original story, but in my opinion, those made sense in terms of creating a film experience for the every-viewer. 

Many things in The Desolation of Smaug excited and very much pleased me, though. Beorn was fantastic, though he was underused and the sequence in his home was unfortunately diminished. The Mirkwood sequence was well executed, and they even thought to include Bilbo's time above the canopy of the wood, surrounded by the butterflies. The elven hall was exceptional, though the film did not need either Legolas or his manufactured counterpart Tauriel. I also thought that Lake Town was well done, and I appreciated the culture of the Lake Folk which the film represented. There were other moments or locations which were exciting to watch, and for most of the film I found myself wanting to both desperately reread the books and to quickly strike up a game of Dungeons and Dragons.



In regard to any feelings of inspiration or longing generated by this film, the largest impulse I had when leaving the theater was to go and seek out a copy of the Rankin-Bass animated feature. Of all the Tolkien adaptations, the Rankin-Bass Hobbit came closest to the tone, style, and overall feel of what I felt was at the heart of the novel. Sure, it left out some great sequences from the book, but the character and world design along with the flow of the story matched my original feelings when I first read The Hobbit. Perhaps I'll pay a visit to Amazon after writing this post so that I can finally own a copy.

It was not my intent to write a scathing review of the movie, but I did want to explain my perspective and my reaction to the film in hopes that other Tolkien enthusiasts would read this and use caution when viewing it or contact me with their opinions of the movie. The above consists greatly of my opinions, so know that I don't claim to have the correct outlook on the film or the only valid view. Basically, see it and decide for yourself, but know that someone who grew up loving the books upon which this film was based felt mixed-to-disappointed about the film.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game - A Review

From the off I'll just state that it's unfortunate that the man who wrote the book upon which the film Ender's Game was based is the reason why so many of those who chose to boycott it won't be viewing it. I understand that there is a lot of anger and quite possibly a bit of hatred out there for Orson Scott Card because of the fact that he chose to share his ridiculous opinions, but the film and the book, for that matter, don't represent or support the negative opinions of the author. So, whether you see it or not, let me get into what I enjoyed about the movie Ender's Game.


Humanity is preparing for war, frightful and driven by their hatred toward an extraterrestrial enemy which suddenly appeared and threatened them fifty years prior to the period of the main story. Since that time humans have gone further out into space and evolved their methods for combating this ominous foe. Children have been recruited to train as leaders in the coming war because of their abilities to learn and adapt in a manner superior to adults. This is the universe of Ender's Game.

This movie was the type of science-fiction film which excites me. In design and composition, it closely resembles a future which could very well be our own. Like all great science-fiction it explores who we might be and how we might function in the future. It's a film with advanced technology and aliens, but most importantly it's a movie about humanity and life. 

The components of Ender's Game which really made the film for me were the cast and the design. An exceptional cast brought to life a variety of deep and complex characters. Ender was well represented by Asa Butterfield, who managed to display the curiosity and sensitivity of a child while maintaining the calculating, tactical, and sometimes cold demeanor of Ender Wiggin. Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, and others filled out the cast wonderfully as people who both shaped and shared the life of the main character in a universe of impending war. 

In regard to the design of the film, it appears that those in charge of its look chose to build upon our currently technology to create a future which feels not only possible but, in some ways, probable. The station upon which Ender and his fellow cadets train appears to be an extended International Space Station, though with segments supporting artificial gravity (if only we had something like that available currently). The carriers and other ships appeared to be logical projections of what our current battle and space exploration tech might be in a future of a little more than half a century away. These decisions grounded the film so well that I found myself at times experiencing the awe I feel whenever I read or behold dazzlingly prophetic sci-fi. 

There were points in the film which could have been better developed in my opinion. For one thing, the ending lacked the power it deserved, especially considering what occured. I think it's safe to say that it fell a little flat toward the closing portion. Also, there were portions of character development and story progression which felt rushed. I don't feel like we were given enough time with Ender as he made his way through training toward the end. Overall, the story either needed more screen time for proper development or an adjustment of some of the less important portions, though this is only my opinion.

Regardless of the poor and public decisions of Orson Scott Card, specifically in regard to the expression of his opinions, I think that those who appreciate the novel and the science-fiction genre will love this film. From what I've gathered it's release was one which caused many long-time fans to grow a bit more than concerned, but I think many of them, if they can accept this as an adaptation (something that is based on the book and not a direct filming of the book), will enjoy it for what it is. For everyone else, I think it will be entertaining as just an exciting space tale about humanity in the future as we deal with who we are and how we interact with other forms of life in the cosmos. This will be one of those films science-fiction folks will be discussing for quite some time, I think.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Forced

Why can't I just write like me? That's all I want to do in this moment, but I am instead finding myself incapable. The writing sounds off or foreign. It sounds like attempts at being someone I'm not.

I had a voice once, or so I was told. Professors, confidants, and my wife have all identified it at one point or another. It was mine. Leave it to me, the guy who couldn't detect it in the first place, to go and lose it.

I've been away from writing for too long. So many plans were made in the last few months, plans to redirect my path toward something more profitable and bearable as a future career. Plans to do anything other than write.

I was writing. Eventually I discovered that writing wasn't something I could continue. I became afraid of it. Too afraid to try, apparently. So, here I am, a clock-punching stooge like a majority of people in the world. I've turned my back on the last year of half-hearted attempts and failure of self.

I still have ideas. There are pages and pages of notes and fragments detailing potential  stories, comics, plays, movies, etcetera. All of it is going to sit there, now because of avoidance begotten by dread. Why?

I'm going to try and break through. I don't know if this will work.

This is all I could get out tonight. Maybe I'll manage more some other time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Return to the Life of Sisyphus

The dream has ended and the work is frozen. That line accurately describes both the status of my life and of my ailing sprout of a writing career. The development of the composing of stories has been arrested by the needs of life. I have had to return to a punch-clock job to help my wife and I recover and maintain. Once again it is time to push the boulder back up the hill and then to chase it down again, to repeat the process without ceasing.

I must admit, the work I do for my new employer could be worse, and it does pay very well, but a tiny portion of me, powered by a nagging trait carried by my unfortunate genes, demands that I dissect this new way of living and never give up on finding a reason to complain. I tire of being me, or at least that version of me. So, I've all but completely dispatched my inner self and found a way to bite down, ignore the life that moves around me, and ride out this ride known as "The Way Things Are."

I mean, it's only for now. Right?

As for creative pursuits, I'm sure that I'll find the will to continue them and to continue trying to put stuff out there for people. Eventually malaise will evaporate, giving way to partial numbness, and I'll feel okay about continuing my efforts. For now things of that sort are the last things on my mind.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Home Intruder

My wife and I arrived home after attending a gathering at her friend's house. I was exhausted and Trudy was a little tipsy from a few drinks. All we wanted was to unwind and drift off to sleep. 

As soon as we walked into our apartment, though, I noticed an offensive odor. It was a revolting amalgamation of ammonia and dung. I immediately assumed that one of our cats had released some foul waste product in their litter box, but the smell from the "Cat hallway" was not as nearly as offensive as the smell in the dining room. 

After half an hour of wondering what was causing the smell, relaxing, and swearing harm to the cats if they took up urinating in the dining room, I noticed a flicker in the air beyond our bedroom door and a sudden wave of panic which rushed through our cat Molly and our dog Goldie. When they both settled into a half-seated stance we noticed that they were both gazing at the top of the refrigerator. What the hell, I wondered?

Some more time passed and they became less concerned with the fridge. We assumed that it must have been some noise from our upstairs neighbor and nothing more. We assumed incorrectly. 

My curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I went out to begin to remove items from the top of the fridge. I took down some spray bottles and a box of garbage bags. I grabbed the dog food bag and a container of dog treats. I then went for one of the two last things atop the icebox, a package of paper towel rolls. That's when the panic returned in full force and all sorts of hell broke loose.

A winged shadow leapt into the air and began bobbing around about me in a mad flight. I quickly fell back into the bedroom and shouted, "It's a bat!"

A small brown bat was apparently nesting behind the paper towels inside a small cooler we were storing up there. We don't know how long it had been in the house or how it managed to make it inside. All I knew was that it was in the dining room flying circles around the ceiling fan, attracting the attention of both of our cats. 

Furious, I considered my options and shouted back potential plans to Trudy who just wanted it out of the house. It took some time for me to figure out where it might be, how I might approach the removal, and to steel myself for facing a small, speedy flying grotesquerie (I'm not a fan of bats). Eventually, with winter gloves pulled over my hands, stretched as far as they would go up my forearms, and with a tan fedora atop my head, complete with a small brown feather in its band, I charged out to survey the room.

It didn't take long to find the fiend, dangling from atop a slightly ajar cabinet door. Jellybean, the older of our cats, was watching it, showing an uncharacteristic interest in this new oddity. I moved to the kitchen to retrieve a broom, certain that my initial plan of braining it with a wooden dowel would be fairly ineffective in comparison.

With broom in hand I moved up, positioning my legs for a stance which would allow a lung as well as the opportunity to dive into the bedroom should my aim fail and the creature dive at me. I swung and dislodged it, which naturally sent it back into a frantic spin around the ceiling fan. It managed to dodge the broom head several times, making several more rounds, until the broom finally connected and sent it crashing to the floor. After it hit it went somewhat limp and supine, apparently only able to move its head from side-to-side. I was certain that I'd caused enough damage to prevent it from moving, but I couldn't just let it sit there suffering or throw it outside to slowly die in agony. 

I brought the broom head down upon it slowly, and with my free hand I aimed the dowel so that I could strike at it through the straw of the broom. One. Two. Three. Four heavy strikes rained down upon it, and I gently lifted the broom to verify its expiration. Based on what I saw, it was quite deceased. 

The clean up was fairly easy, though. I found a spare rag to throw over and wrap around it, and then I threw that into the cooler which held a few pieces of what must have been its feces. I carried it out to the dumpster and threw it away. 

Our animals have calmed down now, and Trudy seems to be resting easy, though she showed significant fear in response to my killing of the bat. Perhaps it was the irrational anger I released upon it. I know that I loathed killing it. I'm sorry that I was too disturbed in the moment to think of another way. 

So, that's tonight's bat story.