Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy - A Great Loss

I was little. By little I mean I was three or four when my uncle first introduced me to the original Star Trek. It's been in my life since such an early stage that it's a part of how I began to perceive the universe around me. It's practically a part of my personality's core, its DNA. Basically, I can't remember a time when I didn't know the Enterprise and her amazing crew or think about them as regularly as I thought of family members.

While I didn't grow up in the 1960s, or the 70s when the original series was in syndication, Star Trek was present at such an early period that I feel an ownership of it similar to the folks who were watching back when. Before I saw The Next Generation, which was a whole other part of my childhood, I was aware of the men I'd come to call my "Three Dads." James T. Kirk, Leonard McCoy, and Spock were the power trio of the Enterprise and each an equal part of my early concept of manhood. They taught me to think, to feel, and to face life in both good and bad times. There are days throughout my life when I know I would have faltered and possibly shattered if I didn't have their lessons ingrained in the structure of my thinking processes.

So, to simply state my point, Star Trek is such an important series to me that it defines me in a way. That being said, the news I received today that actor Leonard Nimoy passed away hit me like train. I read a text from my wife before my lunch break at work. It just read, "Leonard Nimoy is gone." Like that, gone. Even at this moment I'd rather think of it in those terms than to use the word "Dead." To say that he is gone or that he's away is accurate, and it's certainly far more comforting. Not to mention, it's appropriate for a man who seemed to be the kind of celebrity and actor who was able to transcend this existence and become a genuine living legend. He's gone. The legendary Leonard Nimoy is away.

Not only was Leonard Nimoy a great actor who defined one of the most iconic characters in Twentieth Century Popular Culture, he was also an incredible artist and from most accounts he was a kind soul. I never had the chance to meet him. I heard he retired from conventions years ago anyway, so I didn't expect to ever get the opportunity. I wish I could have, though. There are so many things I would have said. I would have thanked him for his acting, his art, and for his contributions to my personal development. I would have asked silly questions about Star Trek, and I would have thanked him for his part in The Pagemaster, an animated film which really affected me when I first saw it (I knew his was the voice of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as soon as I heard it when I first saw this movie).

One often reads or hears accounts of how Star Trek actors are confronted with the differences they made by just putting on a suit and standing on a sound stage for hours, days, months, and years. I can't imagine what it's like to be a working actor who suddenly, one day, is told that they actually saved a life by bringing their craft to some words on a page. Leonard Nimoy, I'm certain, was informed of this constantly, and I'm equally certain that almost all of those claims are true. For my part it is, at least. If it wasn't for his portrayal of Spock I'd have had no model with which to confront technical and complex forms of work or thinking strategies to sort out the chaos of life. Whenever things get rough I I think of his Spock and I get a sense of clarity. I can't explain it more than that. I just do.

I hope he's well wherever he is. He's done more in his long life than most people ever do, and that is really amazing when you think about all he accomplished. It's heartbreaking to know that he's gone, but he'll never be forgotten. I'll see him again soon, sitting there at his station on the Bridge of the Enterprise or in a documentary. I'll hear his voice when I go "In Search Of" one mystery or another through his classic series on the strange and paranormal. He's one of the amazing few who, unlike most who pass on, will always be with us. That's comforting, enough to diminish the sadness. He will still be sorely missed, though.

Thank you, Mr. Nimoy.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nintendo Kid - The First Glance

I'll take you back in my timeline for a moment. It was a Christmas in the late 80s. The fog of age slightly obscures certain details, but there are those portions which remain crisp regardless. We, my little sister and me, were handed a large box and told by our grandparents that, "This is for the two of you to share." The wrapping paper quickly gave way as clumsy kid hands desperately assaulted the generic holiday designed layer to tear free a box with an image which will remain burned into my memory for all time. There, in front of a star field background was the image of a grey and black box with two rectangular items adjacent to it. Above this curious-looking object was emblazoned, in silver and white, the name "Nintendo." At that moment I had gazed upon one of the things which would influence my creativity and provide me entertainment in various ways for the rest of my life.

I wonder if the heads of the Nintendo company could have realized the impact of their decision to branch out and experiment in the video gaming industry. This was something beyond mere novelty items, toys, or hanafuda cards. They were going to be making legendary items which would be revered by millions for many generations to come. They were, themselves, becoming legends.

I look back on my early Nintendo days and can't help but feel that warmth which pervades the center of my being whenever I gaze back fondly on the good times of old. I spent so many hours beating bosses, wandering through dungeons and levels, and bathing in the flickering glow of power-ups and in-game success. Those were truly halcyon days for a kid who didn't have much else. Nintendo, comics, cartoons, and some toys all made my childhood and shaped who I was and who I became. I owe so much to those stern old Japanese guys (and that one amazingly eccentric guy, Shigeru Miyamoto) in suits from years past. It's been almost thirty years since I first joined the elite of "Club Nintendo." My glob, has it been that long?!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Akira Toriyama's Jaco the Galactic Patrolman

Akira Toriyama has been providing me and thousands of others with entertaining material for decades. He is definitely amongst the elite in my opinion, which is why he's safely within my "Top five" favorite mangaka. After creating many amazing and beloved works - such as the Dragonball series, Dr. Slump, Sandland, and others - he's returned to offer up another charming title, which I feel will soon find as dedicated a fanbase as his other creations (even one apart from the Dragonball/Z fanbase, **SPOILER** to which this title should technically be tied).

Jaco the Galactic Patrolman (or 銀河パトロール ジャコ Ginga Patorōru Jako) is a single volume manga which consists of 247 pages of what I think is some of Toriyama-sama's best work. It details the Earth-bound adventures of an egotistical, clumsy, "Elite" Galactic Patrolman, named Jaco, a member of a galactic police agency which serves the Galactic King. After bumping into the moon on his way to Earth, Jaco makes a less-than-graceful landing in the ocean just a few feet from the docks of an unnamed island upon which only an old man resides. After bringing his damaged craft ashore the relationship between this quirky alien cop and old man Omori, the narrator of the tale and a scientist/engineer living amongst the ruins of his failed time travel experiment, begins to awkwardly grow. Through the events which follow their meeting a bizarre friendship is formed, one which I would gladly continue to read if Toriyama ever decides to revisit these characters.

In terms of characters, this manga has some interesting folks to offer. Omori is a quiet, aged, misanthropic man who keeps a simple home, overlooking the destruction caused by his attempts to meddle with time - meddling which cost him his wife's life. He remains in a sort of hermitage away from the rest of the world and even harbors a strong resentment toward other humans. Jaco, somewhat annoying yet fascinating to Omori, is a braggart who fails to grasp the gravity of his consistently clumsy nature. He is on Earth, though stuck here because of the damage caused by his moon collision, in advance of the arrival of a potential world-destroying alien being who is supposed to land on Earth sometime in the days following his arrival. He is to eliminate the alien threat or, if he proves unable to do so, he must use an "Extinction Bomb," which would wipe out all human life on Earth. It would also be of tremendous interest to him to be able to acquire some "Sky Gold" in order to power his ship so that he can return home, though he and Omori realize that this would require something like seventy-six million yen to pull off. So, not easily attainable, to say the least.

Eventually the two head toward the mainland for supplies (Jaco craves milk and cheese, the closest approximations to items from his regular diet) and encounter the first of several other characters, a girl named Tights (I'm sure some of you might note that this is yet another Toriyama character named after clothing, hmm...wonder what the connection could be?). Jaco meets her as he goes to her aid while she is being harassed by a gang of anachronistic street toughs, which Jaco pummels along with two policemen which he mistakes as being part of the gang. To show her gratitude she helps the two escape the attention of the police and get back to the island. Other characters show up as the story progresses, most of them are tie bear-collecting government agents trying to take the island from Omori or capture the "Mask Man," the name applied by the media to Jaco, much to his supreme dislike. Eventually we learn who Tights is and how she connects to an annoying (annoying to Omori) background element of a pop idol who is soon to be soaring into space aboard a rocket as a publicity stunt, according to the television media. That's not the only or most interesting connection Tights has within this world, though, but I'll let you read the manga to find out the rest.

Regarding the style and feel of this manga, as I've already state, I feel that this is one of Toriyama's best works. I found myself constantly studying his simple, beautiful line work. The dynamic posing and simple character design of Jaco is something I feel only an experienced artist, such as Toiryama, can attain. With any character created by someone who has been doing such work for years, Jaco is minimal in detail and yet so very expressive. He might be my favorite manga character in terms of design alone. Also, I was often lost in the detail of Omori's face, and speaking of Omori's design, the scars marking his body tell his back story better than any flashback sequence. You only need to read that he was present for a technical accident and see him to know that some rough stuff occurred in his past. 

The world has some wonderful design as well. Occasionally you'll see crabs, cats, some dinosaurs, or the random ant-eater on the island or in the city on the mainland. This is typical if you've read Dragonball, but it's such a nice touch which does so much to place you in this unfamiliar yet Earth-like world. In terms of landscape design, I think that Omori's island is one of my favorite sets from any graphic story. I badly want to live on that island, so much so that I've been dreaming about it since I started reading this manga!

Now, the ending chapters of this title are what will matter most to long-time fans of Toriyama, especially those who are dedicated to the Dragonball universe. That being said, this manga is a perfect stand-alone which offers a complete story and incredible characters, so don't be turned off by the end tie-in to Dragonball if you're not interested in that series. What you get at the end is a look at the Saiyan people and Goku's origin, which is advertised on the cover of the manga so this isn't really a spoiler. Turns out, and this is a spoiler, the world-destroying alien Jaco was sent to destroy is a sort of refugee from planet Vegeta. If I tell you that a certain Son Gohan discovers this child alien and adopts him I would have done enough to tell you just who was meant to be in Jaco's sights, but since Jaco is Jaco, and you'll understand this better when you've read the manga, he misses his opportunity. Would you believe me if I told you it's because he was explaining how his species pees to Tights? This is surprisingly the most immature moment of this manga, one obviously meant for the shonen audience.

So, there you have it. My review of one of the best new manga I've read in a while. I first learned of it through an email advert from Viz, and after looking over the preview chapter (available for reading through the Viz Media app on Android or iOS) I decided to rush out and buy a physical copy (because paper is always going to be better to me!). I'm happy with that choice, and if you do the same I'm certain you will be, too. Here's hoping we see more of Jaco in the future, but if we don't I'm happy with what we have. What we have, by the way, is a fun and endearing manga. 

Thank you for reading.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Giant Monster Movies and Childhood

There was a time during my early childhood when my family would gather and watch a large assortment of bizarre science fiction and monster movies. To this day I still can't recall how my uncle acquired copies of some of those movies, whether through some unknown cable channel or a video source. Regardless of how we were able to view them, we watched all kinds of films and classic series, some of which I can't easily find today. It was during that period that I learned of Godzilla, Rodan, and several other amazing Japanese giant monsters. Come to think of it, that was probably also when I watched my first Ray Harryhausen films, as we would occasionally throw old black and white American monster films into the mix. No offense to the great Harryhausen, but I found and still find the Japanese monsters to be the best.

Over the years since that time I've been fortunate to discover so many other giant monster-related wonders such as the Ultraman and Gamera series. I was that kid who took part in one those typical and silly discussions with classmates about which was the stronger monster, Godzilla or Gamera. I even attempted to draw the great daikaiju legends from time to time, never quite to my satisfaction.

These days I find that I keep returning to those old films. Maybe it's my subconscious reaching out for a connection with my childhood. Perhaps it's just the nerd in me flexing itself in a different direction for a change. Whatever the reason, I have to say that I can't help but dismiss the poor effects, the floopy storylines, and the overacting. I feel compelled to embrace the "Suit-mation" created and perfected by the mighty Eiji Tsuburaya. Kaiju Eiga (Japanese monster movies) was and remains a genre which knows itself, and it's that confidence and the continued honoring of that approach to movie-making which makes it so endearing.

So, join me when you can. Pop in Destroy All Monsters or Gamera vs. Barugon. Sit back and enjoy the high sci-fi look into a world where giant monsters walk the Earth!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

Sifting through tears over the last nearly twenty four hours I realized that the death I first heard about yesterday evening after completing the unpacking of our library was the most powerful death of a non-family member I could possibly endure. Robin Williams' passing was like hearing that a beloved uncle or father-figure had died. It was, and still is, like an unrelenting shockwave of sorrow.

I interact with entertainment media with an open heart, and if it's media I enjoy then I embrace it wholly - I suppose it's why I'm such a fan of movies and such. Robin Williams' work has been some of the easiest to embrace and the warmest, most beautiful to enjoy. I grew up with Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Hook, Bicentennial Man, What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, and others. In some way each character Williams played in each of those films reached me. They were pitiable, loveable, and they led the viewer into the heart of humanity and, to a certain extent, the meaning of existence. If you were to watch them with the right eyes and in a certain emotional state you could find yourself understanding them and, surprisingly, better understanding yourself.

I can't get rid of the thought of a lonely, horrifically depressed genius making a horrible decision because all hope had fled. The thought is like a nightmare which won't fade no matter how distracted I attempt to be or how much I think of other things. I just replay the imagined scene of a crying man lost in despair. I think about that and I unfortunately relate. I've known something akin to those kinds of feelings. I even believe that I can in some way understand what led to that tragic choice. 

Even now I'm still processing all of this. At this point I'm certain that I need to escape the world for a few days to clear my thoughts. It's difficult not to be in a dark place now, especially since a person who seemed to posses the soul of joy surrendered to the darkness surrounding life. What good can possibly be left if the good people willingly lay down?

I hope that Mr. Williams' family will be able to get through this and that they will be well. I hope that they can process all of this at some point and move forward. I hope that they can find a reason in their lives to illegitimatize the shadowed logic of their lost loved one.

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.