Saturday, June 2, 2018

June Releases

June Releases

You know what time it is...
We're hitting the mid-year stride, and the first month of summer blockbusters already reels us in with some major hits in the cinema game.  The two most anticipated films are undoubtedly Pixar's long-awaited sequel to their 2004 flash of superhero brilliance, The Incredibles; and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a continuation of the less-brilliant-but-still-fun Jurassic World.  Not sure what it says that when the two hottest tickets in a month are both emblematic of Hollywood's sequelitis, but eh - moving on...

Friday, May 25, 2018

One Punch Man: Deconstruction and Reconstruction - Part Two


 (This is Part Two of my analysis of the deconstructive elements of One Punch Man; click here to see part one.)
(WARNING: Contains manga/webcomic spoilers for those who have only watched the anime.  Consider yourself warned)

A couple of moons ago, I made a post outlining some of the key features that made manga creator ONE’s signature series, One-Punch Man.  This superhero parody took the anime world by storm when it premiered, launching a loyal (some might say rabid) fandom and inviting endless questions about how we’re supposed to approach it: Is it merely a parody?  A straight send-up?  How seriously does it take the archetypes and tropes it plays around with so ruthlessly?  In the last post, I pushed forward the argument that One-Punch Man, far from being a “gag manga,” is a pretty effective deconstruction of both the superhero and shonen genres, despite being a seinen series.  In this respect, it is a close elder cousin of My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (an excellent series in its own right, which demands an examination all of its own) in that both are popular takes on the superhero convention from a Japanese perspective with some deconstructive elements thrown in.  But while the generally straight-shooting and optimistic MHA uses deconstruction as a tool to shore up narrative weaknesses in the shonen paradigm and create a stronger and more original storyline, One-Punch Man, at least initially, definitely aimed for ridicule and and a rather cynical take on what happens when heroism becomes a commodity. 

But things started shifting a bit after the Boros Arc.  True, the concept of heroism as a cash-cow business still gets a merciless skewering, and by ways sharper and more vicious than even MHA at its darkest.  It also continues to make Swiss cheese out of some standard superhero tropes, like the superhero team-up, or even the power of anger/drive/love/whatever to turn the tide of a battle.  But as a whole, One-Punch Man takes a somewhat kinder and more generous approach to the idea of heroism itself after awhile.  This is different and indeed, the inverse from a series like My Hero Academia; there, the general shonen archetypes are followed, with the occasional dark deconstruction thrown in to shake things up and spur on character development.  The value of both heroism and the nature of heroes, meanwhile, is taken as granted, with the question “What makes a true hero?” posed only by characters who are murderous and/or hypocritical.  For One-Punch Man, though, the heroic luster has clearly rubbed off, while the nature of the hero business is rot and corruption, with glory hounds and sharks all vying for the public eye.

But acts of heroism itself are still held up favorably by the narrative, and I suspect that ONE is trying to get us to see heroism in a different light; not as a business, or even as a vehicle for exploring the drives and passions of youth, but as an act performed for the benefits of others.  He employs this via a gradual shift away from Saitama’s perspective and towards those of other characters in the story, thereby maintaining the deconstructive parody, but giving flashes of light which help to reconstruct heroism as an ideal, if not necessarily a profession or reality. 

The Deconstructive Elephant in the Room
Of course, our stalwart “hero” Saitama hasn’t changed much; he remains the same lazy, lackadaisical, brutally-efficient parody force he’s always been.  He seems to have drifted a bit towards a more ideal hero as the webcomic goes by and he gets more comfortable with actually instructing (however unintentionally) the people he encounters.  But his main purpose remains to mock and destroy any semblance of conventional hero and/or manga tropes the fall within his languid reach.  His character has all the dynamism and spontaneity of static cling, but that’s not a bad thing at all in this case.  Rather, it gives the other characters in the series a stepping point as well as a benchmark by which they can measure their growth and see how closely they approach the ideal of heroism.  Remember: the primary marker distinguishing  One-Punch Man from something like My Hero Academia - rooted in the demographic difference between the two - is the degree to which cynicism entwines itself into the plotline of the former, while remaining only a necessary but avoidable element in the latter.  And Saitama, our lazy, destructive little protagonist, points to a rebuilding of these hero tropes just by standing in contrast to the small but steady trickle of optimism slowly seeping into the story.

Meaning of a Hero
I brought up the Deep Sea King arc in part one, but it’s worth revisiting here to get a sense of how the reconstruction of the story builds up even at this point.  That arc was a first glimpse of what would be a recurring pattern for the series: a bunch of heroes gain tremendous amounts of resolve, trudge through dung heaps of doubt, before finding the will to fight on - and get utterly curb-stomped for their efforts before Saitama swoops in and cleans house in his own lazy way.  While an obvious knock against the whole hero paradigm, it also quietly opens the conversation on what, exactly, makes a hero.  The fat heckler towards the end had his own opinions, of course; a hero beats monsters, and anyone who can’t doesn’t deserve the moniker.  But Saitama begs to differ, for despite his lackadaisical nature, he grasps more than anyone in the crowd what makes a hero: the willingness to fight, not because you’re guaranteed to win, but because of the dire consequences if you do nothing at all.

“If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”
All through the Deep Sea King fight, the titular antagonist racked up an impressive casualty count among the heroes.  Much of his rampage served only to hammer home the problems and flaws of the Hero Association system, but amidst the darkness, a few flashes of genuine heroism came to light.  The most well-known - and inspiring - of these is of course Mumen Rider’s famous Last Stand against the vile villain.  I brought it up last time just to show how One-Punch Man knocks down the second wind archetype so often abused in shounen series against all logic and reality.  But the C-Class hero’s speech while facing down the creature is what really sets it apart.  On the surface, it’s just another defiant stance, a mental pep talk to set up the nakarma power-up that gets dashed by the show’s deconstructive railroad.  But beneath the viciousness lies a resolve of heroism as, not a job or an ego boost, but an ideal: the act of giving your life for the safety and protection of another.  Mumen Rider understood that it wasn’t about winning, necessarily, but buying time for the people under his watch.  The same may be said for All Black Man, the cowardly hero in the evacuation dome.  Though he’s probably best known to for pissing his pants in fright when the Deep Sea King showed up, he still braved the danger said villain presented, even if only bolstered by the false reassurance of three other heroes backing him up.  No matter how hopeless the odds or impossible the enemy, these heroes and all the others who laid down their lives against old fish-face still rose to the challenge.  Their courage and skill levels may have varied, but all still heeded the maxim Saitama himself stated just a few episodes prior: “If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”

Giving Credit where it is Due
But Saitama doesn't just spout occasionally insightful nonsense; he actually walks the walk.  He doesn’t sit back and pontificate the true essence of being a hero, but he puts it to practice, even at great cost to himself.  After his signature one punch victory against the Deep Sea King and the heckling loser’s tirade against the Hero Association, our hero beats back the cynicism by playing the cheat, making the spectators turn on him to hoist the other heroes to a better light.  In any other anime, this might have been a scene just to show a hidden faucet of Saitama’s character - to give the fans a glimpse of the man beneath the apathy.  But in this case, it had a social function as well.  The spectators, in turning against Saitama, developed a newfound appreciation for the weaker heroes who nonetheless put their lives on the line for them.  And indeed, there’s more than a little truth in Saitama’s grandstanding; while his yarn on fighting the Deep Sea King in a “weakened” state is demonstrably false, many of the evacuees, and even some of the heroes, wouldn’t be there were it not for the defiant actions of Mumen Rider, Genos, All-Black and even Snake-fist Sneck, among others.  Saitama, in effect, wasn’t giving credit to the others; he merely distributed the credit they deserved for their roles in protecting the peace and saving lives.

The Elephant Revisited
We come back full circle with a reexamination of Saitama’s unique and pivotal role in the deconstruction-reconstruction seesaw this series goes through.  The Deep Sea King arc, as mentioned, merely lays the groundwork for what will become a recurring pattern in the series as it moves forward.  Though mentioned earlier how Saitama often serves the roll of reluctant mentor while interacting with the other heroes, he just as often leaves the spotlight altogether, letting focus shift to the struggles of the other heroes.  These characters go through a whole panoramic of character development while facing the arc’s villain: an initial arrogance or dismissiveness, followed by a big ole’ dose of humility and a resolve to become better - whether a better hero, or simply a better person.  Saitama often plays no role in this development whatsoever; while his laziness often belies a tendency to dole out advice like some latter-day bodhisattva, sometimes, he really is just that lazy, and true to form, throws all attempts to paint his actions in a higher light out the window.  He still usually saves the day in the end, but only as a sort of deus ex machina, sweeping in to mop up after the focal character has had his or her epiphany after their moment in the light.  Even then, none of that diminishes what that character went through.  For Saitama, it was just another boring battle; but for the other character, an eye-opening insight into what makes them tick - and, often enough, what makes a real hero.

The above ties the various threads of this series together.  ONE created an almost textbook deconstruction of the superhero genre in the first part, where he keeps the focus on Saitama and his existential malaise, but after a while, he opens the floor a bit to let other players in.  With the inclusion of folks considerably less overpowered and more introspective, the series shifts away from the deconstructive inclinations of a bald-headed demigod.  Instead, One-Punch Man gently transitions into a look at what it means to be a hero through the angsts and actions of characters like Genos, Fubuki, and Mumen Rider - with Saitama playing the role of unlikely, and unintentional, facilitator.  While Saitama's presence alone ensures the series never strays far from its deconstructive roots, and it certainly never reaches the optimistic heights of My Hero Academia, ONE shows that he’s not afraid to crack open a few windows in his snarky and cynical parody.      

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Releases

May Releases

May's here, and it's bringing more than flowers this time.  After the big superhero stink kicked up by last month's Infinity War, many fans are ready to settle down a bit and laugh with everyone's favorite R-rated "hero" in his second film showing, Deadpool 2.  Other big news is Star Wars's nostalgia grasp examination of the early life of arguably its most famous icon, the late great Han Solo.  Other debuts include a gender-flipped version of the 1987 classic Overboard, and Melissa McCarthy's single-mom comeback tale in Life of the Party.

On television, May 6th brings new STARZ dramedy Vida about two estranged Mexican-American sisters returning to Los Angeles to bury their deceased mother, only to discover that she had a few buried secrets of her own.  

In the world of video games, the long-awaited launch of the full release of Conan: Exiles will hit the nexus of platforms come May 8th.  This brutal survival game with multiplayer options caused a bit of a stir with its early access launch last year, but now gamers will get the full monty (in more ways than one) as they trek across the open-world madness of the Barbarian's storied homeland.

For more info on these programs and more, follow the links below:




See you at the movies! 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Review: The Valley so Low

Hang your head over...

Book: The Valley so Low: Southern Mountain Stories
Author: Manly Wade Wellman; compiled by Karl Edward Wagner
Publisher Information: New York, NY: Doubleday, c1987
Genre: Fantasy fiction

Fantasy fiction feeds off a certain collection of well-defined settings and tropes.  Sure, some level of diversity has always existed, but by and large, most fantasy is cut from the medieval template developed and codified by such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: kings and queens in high castles, a feudal economic and social system, and heroes clad in armor and wielding swords or spell books.  But every once in a while an author shakes up the paradigm by adding different cultures and inspirations into the mold.  Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), born in Portuguese West Africa and raised in North Carolina, is perhaps not as well known in fantasy circles as the above two dignitaries, but he held a commanding place in the pulp fantasy publishing world of the 60s and 70s.  He bucked the usual trend by infusing his stories with the folk culture and customs of the southern Appalachian environment in which he was raised.  Over many decades, he created a number of memorable heroes: Judge Pursuivant, a former judge and scholar of the occult; John Thunstone, supernatural detective and playboy, who smites evil with a silver sword-cane; and his most famous creation, a wandering bard with a silver-stringed guitar known as John the Balladeer, Silver John, or simply, John.  This slim volume, compiled by author Karl Edward Wagner, contains a varied collection of stories made by the writer in his last fifteen years of life.  Though often predictable and somewhat formulaic, Wellman has a magic touch for old-fashioned spooks, shifting from old-fashioned campfire tales to almost Lovecraftian levels of creepiness, and dedicated fans will definitely enjoy these last glimmers from an old master’s twilight.

The stories are arranged in an orderly fashion, based on who the headliner is.  Silver John takes the fore, of course, being central to the first five tales and beating out the other contenders for percentage of the total volume.  This was my first encounter with the mysterious bard, and I must admit that I can easily see the appeal of the character.  John is a humble, plain spoken fellow, but don’t let that fool you; he has a brilliant mind, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the folklore and deadly supernatural threats that haunt his land.  Though a vet of the Korean War and hence trained for combat, he’s more of a backwoods Dr. Who than an action hero, relying on his wits, his vast knowledge, and the occasional white magic spell usually channeled through his songs and strings to vanquish his otherworldly foes.  And speaking of his adversaries, the varied beings John and his compatriots face are a curious blend of folk myths and cosmic horror; though many are familiar creatures, like vampires ("Chastel"), witches (The Witch for All Seasons"), and good ole’ fashioned haunts, many others feature terrifying specters of another world running roughshod over the good folks of this slice of Appalachia.

But this is still Lovecraft Lite, for no matter how alien the nemesis or its power, our heroes always prevail.  This is both a blessing and a curse for the anthology, for while the element of wish fulfillment remains intact, the stories are very predictable if headlined by one of Wellman’s protagonists.  If there’s a good, virginal, innocent girl, expect her to live through the book, and maybe even become a love interest.  If there’s a “bad” (read: not sexually-repressed) girl, or a crook, or anyone with the slightest bit of taint on their souls, expect them to be the villain - or at least, meet a bad end by the conclusion.  The blatant morality play can get tedious, and when the stories are led by Lee Cobbett or Hal Stryker — newish protagonists who feel more like knockoffs of Wellman’s more established figures than characters in their own rights –  the tedium climbs to staggering heights.  This is mitigated a bit in the last couple of stories; the morality play is still there, for sure, but the main characters are now a varied collection of one-offs who may or may not live through to the end depending on their moral alignment.  While still predictable, the eerie, Lovecraftian karma seep gives these tales the impact of a well-told campfire yarn.  Wellman understands that the scariest entities are the ones built up only to be left unexamined, and while throwaway explanations are given in stories like “The Petey Car” and the unnervingly creepy “Rock, Rock” and "Along About Sundown," they do little to make the entities encountered any more understandable - or less frightening.

If you’ve been a Wellman fan for years, this collection may seem like a let-down, though a poignant one, as they reflect the very last of the great writer’s works.  If this is your first encounter, then it’s recommended that you take a gander at his earlier stories, especially the Silver John tales.  If you’re looking for homegrown American fantasy with a touch of horror, you can do much worse than Wellman and his backwoods clashes between heroes and the dark forces of the world.