The Sunday Magazine: X-Men Comics a Year Later

If there has been a consistent disappointment in my life of reading superhero comics it is the follow through on big events. Every hero has had giant big climactic things happen only for a reset button to be pushed. This happens a lot of the time before we can even explore the ramifications of said big change. It is why it has been so refreshing to see that the Marvel X-Men series have not been doing that over the past year.

My favorite comic series of last year was the complete shuffling of the X-Men universe in House of X/Power of X by writer Jonathan Hickman. I expected to get a few issues of pleasure before things began to decay back to baseline. A year later I am here to say that hasn’t happened. The template Mr. Hickman laid down has been picked up in six series which have hit issue 12 in the last month. I have continued to read the new books because there hasn’t been any attempt to backtrack on what was done. I don’t think I’ve read as many X-Men books in a row in many years.

The series I am enjoying most is the Marauders written by Gerry Duggan. One of my favorite pieces of the X-Men comic universe is the Hellfire Club. With Emma Frost as one of the main characters the now renamed Hellfire Trading Company has Kate (not Kitty) Pryde leading a team of mutants into the machinations of the Hellfire world. I have enjoyed everything Mr. Duggan has done on this series.

One of the interesting offshoots of the House of X was the integration of the mutant villains into the fold. Mister Sinister has always been a favorite one I’ve loved to hate. In the six-issue limited Fallen Angels he pulled the strings in the background for Psylocke, Cable, and X-23. That segued into Hellions where he oversees the more ethically challenged mutants. Psylocke is again with him and it is this story which has drawn me in. Over the past year he has been feeding Psylocke what she needs but whether it is with good intentions is still TBD.

One of the best things about the original 70’s resurrection of X-Men by Claremont and Byrne were these huge cross-over events involving all the titles. Mr. Hickman is getting ready to take his turn as he starts the X of Swords from mid-September through November. For many years these have just been giant unfocused disasters. I am looking forward to what Mr. Hickman and the other writers on the other titles can do here. If you need any more evidence of how I feel about X-Men a year later that excitement should provide a clue.

Disclosure: I have purchased all the comics mentioned.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chadwick Boseman

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One of the things I’ve written about before is how important representation is in geek culture. The ability for anybody to look on the movie screen and see a hero that looks like them. Two years ago “Black Panther” gave that to the African American community and the world. The person who lived that beyond the movies was star Chadwick Boseman who died on Friday. There are few movie stars who took on the extra responsibility more graciously than he.

Chadwick Boseman

We live in the Washington DC area and Mr. Boseman is an alumnus of Howard University. As a result we got to see a lot more of him. What always struck me is he knew what an impact he had made in his portrayal of an African king of a nation that was technologically advanced populated with fierce warriors. He knew this was a new way for people who looked like him to see themselves. That meant once the cameras were off and the movie long gone from the multiplex Mr. Boseman still had to represent Black Panther.

Most actors would shy away from that responsibility. I watched Mr. Boseman lean into it time and again. Whenever anyone crossed their hands across their chest in the “Wakanda Forever” salute he returned it. I know this because Mrs. C and I were out walking around DC over a year after the film was released. I saw these kids making the arm gesture wondering what was going on until I turned around. Mr. Boseman was a few yards behind me with a big smile on his face as he returned the salute. There were no cameras or anyone to notice yet he lived the responsibility of his movie role in his life.

When I read that all of this came after he had been diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer it makes it even more beautiful. He was one of the few who knew he wasn’t going to be around to watch Black Panther grow old. He seized every opportunity to make sure it didn’t go by without notice.

He was a talented actor in so many roles. Yet it will be this portrayal of a comic book superhero that will allow him to live on for decades. He will inspire for as long as people watch. Truly living up to “Wakanda Forever”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Umbrella Academy

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Ever since the success of The X-Men there has been a place for angst filled superheroes. There is an appeal in watching characters who aren’t heroic but who just want to get through the day. The latest iteration of this is the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy.

The series is based on the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. It just released its second season at the end of last month. The premise is on October 1, 1989 43 women gave birth without having been pregnant until they began the birth. A billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, adopts seven of them. He realizes there is something special about them. He learns they have superpowers and trains them to be a force for good known as The Umbrella Academy. As teenagers they are a part of pop culture until something happens to cause them to separate. When Season 1 begins they are drawn back to the mansion they grew up in for Sir Hargreeves funeral. While there they learn they are responsible for a future event which will end the world.

The entire first season is all about learning the backstory of the characters as they try to avert the coming disaster. The story strikes a balance between the interpersonal and the heroics. As adults each member carries the effects of an upbringing from a man who saw them as a tool for good rather than the children they were. Those psychological scars lead to an explosive climax.

The second season picks up after that, where the members of The Umbrella Academy have been scattered through years in the early 1960’s in Dallas Texas. Each of them finds their own way to cope with their new circumstances until they all find their way back to each other in November of 1963 just prior to JFK’s tragic trip. This time left on their own each of them finds a measure of happiness in their respective time in 1960’s America. To avert disaster they must give up something that was missing from their previous life.

The show is marvelously cast with an ensemble cast which shines in their respective roles. There really isn’t a single stand out as they are all excellent. Even though I have described a serious plot above there is a lot of fun in between. The writers have a particularly good time having our 2019 heroes assimilate in the 1960’s. The early moments of each of them and how they make their way in the past are a lot of fun.

The Umbrella Academy is the kind of superhero fun that feels exactly right these days.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: November by Matt Fraction

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If there is anything readers of this column should know after six years, it is this. I love noir. I love non-linear storytelling. I love graphic novels. I love good writers. When all those things come together it is a gimme that I will want to write about it. The new graphic novel November by Matt Fraction checks all those boxes.

November is a story being told in three volumes. The first one came out last year and volume two a few months ago. I thought the first volume was amazing, but I wondered if it could continue. Volume two was even better. I believe in Mr. Fraction’s ability to tie up everything he has put in to play.

The plot was inspired by a real-life incident outside the home he lives in. There was a significant police incident outside his front door. A few days later they would discover a gun in one of their bushes. They called the police. Mr. Fraction’s mind did the “what if?” a person didn’t. November is that story spooled out through three women he describes as “a survivor, a Good Samaritan, and one struggling against her own obsolescence.”

As I mentioned the narrative jumps back and forth in the time frame covered. Mr. Fraction is such a talented writer that it isn’t always apparent when we are at the beginning of a conversation. It is that which makes November such a fun read. I was constantly trying to put the pieces together. Much of it feels like a verbal jigsaw puzzle where the outside frame has been completed but the picture on the inside is still forming.

Elsa Charretier is the artist working with Mr. Fraction. She seems to enjoy laying out this dialogue in equally interesting visuals. There are a couple of scenes where her panels brilliantly mirror what is happening.

I am being purposefully obtuse about the plot because much of the enjoyment of this is figuring it out for yourself. November is worth spending some time with.

Disclosure: I purchased the book being reviewed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Summer 2020 Playlist

It is a different summer when I think of the music I have been listening to. In a typical year, my mega summer playlist would have been on constant shuffle. I looked at my stats and it has been over three weeks since the last time I cued it up. This summer has been less about a song of the summer than a group of four albums which have helped provide the contours for this year.

One of those is Haim’s “Women in Music Part III” I spent a whole column on it a few weeks ago. But I find the songs “Don’t Wanna”, “The Steps”, and “Gasoline” add some pop to the summer days.

I have always felt Taylor Swift was underestimated as a songwriter. It is easy to dismiss her because she seemingly aims her music at a younger demographic. It wasn’t until a few different musicians decided to do acoustic versions of her songs that the smart lyrics became evident to me. Underneath the cotton candy was a woman with something to say. The recent album “Folklore” is her attempt to do that without the glitzy pop trappings.

She shows off her ability to capture the current zeitgeist. Nowhere does that come out than in “epiphany” which is about the frontline workers dealing with the pandemic. I find it uplifting there is a real feel of the enormity of the job we are asking these people to do. Through the album there is a three-song story of a love triangle from each participant’s perspective. “cardigan”, “august” and “betty” form a tale of summer lovin’ with the sweet and bittersweet on display. This is a great piece of musicianship which reminds me there will be a world of emotion to return to. For now I’ll let Ms. Swift invite me to hers.

My final two are full bore dancehall discs. Even by myself I just want to dance and swing my arms around. Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa both dropped their latest just as things closed down. Both women harness the energy of dance floor beats from past time. Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” goes right back to the era of 1970’s disco given a new spin. She doesn’t look down upon disco she exalts it. The first single “Don’t Stop Now” had a little time to rule the dancefloor. The rest of the songs are just as hook laden and fun.

Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica” has the song which I think would’ve ruled the roost in a normal summer; her duet with Ariana Grande “Rain on Me”. For all that Gaga has embraced other musical forms her return to what put her on the map shows it is where she thrives. “Chromatica” slips into gear with the first track “Alice” and then accelerates from there. Her other collaboration “Sour Candy” with K-Pop girl group Blackpink is another standout. “Chromatica” reminds us no matter how far Gaga moves away from the dance floor she is just one step away.

I hope you are finding some music to lift your spirits this odd summer.

Disclosure: I purchased all the music reviewed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Old Guard

By the first weekend of August I am usually sated on action movies I’ve gone to see at the theater. It is part of summertime. The very definition of popcorn movies. Find an air-conditioned dark room to watch larger than life thrills and chills. Except 2020 is not a normal summer. Black Widow, James Bond, and The Fast and Furious crew are all delayed. What am I supposed to eat my popcorn with? Netflix to the rescue with one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while; “The Old Guard”.

As it seems almost everything is these days “The Old Guard” is based on the comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka. This is one of the rare occurrences where the movie was better than the book. The big reason for that is the director and the star. It is not that there are significant differences in the plot since Mr. Rucka wrote the screenplay. It is that Charlize Theron who plays the lead character Andy adds so much to the nuance of the character. Plus director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the action pop.

The premise of the movie is there are a team of assassins led by Andy who are immortal, kind of. You send them on a mission they get killed only to rise and take down those who killed them before. Andy is short for Andromache of Scythia and she has been doing this for centuries. When a new immortal comes into being, they dream of him or her and are compelled to seek them out. At the beginning of the movie a new immortal arises from the fighting in Afghanistan. Having a new member allows for all the audience’s questions to be asked by the newbie. The villain is a maniacal preening pharmaceutical executive who wants the immortals’ genetic secrets to make a profit.

As I watched this, I realize how reliable an action star Ms. Theron has become. Her physical ability to lay down the stunts is impressive. She spends most of the movie with the new immortal Nile played by KiKi Layne. Ms. Layne also successfully transitions to action star.

The Old Guard has a little more on its mind than the typical action movie. There is a twist which is not in the comic book which provides a greater meaning for the lives of these immortals. It really appealed to me making a good plot better.

By the end we are left with a potential lead-in to a sequel. I really hope to see these characters again. Maybe next time in a future summer at the theater.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The New Normal for Geek Culture

It is a given once this worldwide virus is controlled everywhere, things will be different. We won’t be going back to normal but defining a new normal. There have been too many summers where I have spent part of my life in a convention center at a Comic-Con and/or gaming con. It is the geek version of summer camp; even when you’re 60. This weekend has given a preview of what these events might look like once things become virus-free.

If you are a fan of popular culture the middle of July means San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). Writers and artists of comic books mingle with stars of our favorite television and movies. This year the organizers had no choice but to cancel the live event. In its place for the past three days has been what they call SDCC @ Home. The same panels which would have taken place in Hall H are now happening over video meeting. All the things I would have eagerly waited to hear reports about I have been to watch live from my living room.

Concurrently if you are fan of mobile gaming and specifically Pokemon Go, July means Go Fest. In the US it took place in Chicago turning the city in to the epicenter of Pokemon Trainers. This year that was also not going to happen. What the game company behind it, Niantic, chose instead was a worldwide event. One where everyone could play if you bought a ticket. It turned what was an event for a few thousand people into something global. I spoke with other players from all over the world during my playing time. I played in cooperative events that were taking place in Tokyo, Johannesburg, London, and San Francisco. No longer just Chicago.

Here is the thing that ties this all together. I never left the house. All of this came to me using current technology. If I had been on my feet crossing convention centers while doing either of these, I’d normally be leg weary and dehydrated. Instead I’ve been safe at home as the world of geek culture comes to me. I feel certain the success of events like these will be the beginning of a new way for geek culture conventions to take place. Now that I am an old man, I am happier on my own sofa.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney

I have a book genre I enjoy reading. It is a non-fiction story of a person from a different culture going to live in a faraway place with different customs. “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle is the best-known probably.  When done by a talented author it provides insight into both sides of the culture gap and how to build a bridge. The most recent entry in my tiny bibliography is “The Only Gaijin in the Village” by Iain Maloney.

The culture change comes when Scotsman Mr. Maloney and his Japanese wife Minoru move from the Japanese city to the rural countryside. They had spent ten years in Japan, so the language was not a barrier. Other things would provide the differences.

Both were anomalies within the village. Mr. Maloney because he was the only Caucasian the “gaijin” from the title. His path was going to be the one of learning to fit in. More interestingly was his wife’s experience. The youth of the rural parts of Japan have mostly abandoned the country for the cities. She had some fitting in to achieve as well.

Mr. Maloney has an affable style of writing littered with amusing similes. They might be too much for some readers, but I found them endearing. He uses their life in the village to comment on the world at large. It was funny to realize there was a comment on US politics which popped up and then moved on. There is a bit of stand-up comedian timing to the way he writes. Set up and punch line. He even skewers the idea of the “this is my first year in a new culture” stories.

When I finished, I felt like I had leaned a little more about the stresses undergoing Japanese society. While also enjoying the amusing life of Iain and Minoru in this small village life.

Disclosure: this review is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Women in Music Part III by Haim

In the half a decade I’ve been listening to popular music there are two things which have never changed. Good lyrics paired with a great hook are an equation for a great song. The test for that is always after I hear something for the first time what manages to linger with me after the sound is turned off. Is it a clever turn of phrase or a bass line to die for. One band which regularly gives me both is Haim. Their new album Women in Music Part III is full of these moments.

Musicians and the way they release new material is becoming something different. For Haim they had released six videos of the 16 songs on the album every few months starting a year ago. That first song “Summer Girl” is the three sisters who make up the group walking the streets of LA shedding their winter clothing followed by their own saxophonist. It felt like their take on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. When I read they had given him a songwriting credit for the track I realized it was intentional.  I knew it was going to be an eclectic album if this was the first song.

Each new video showed a band playing with genres. I mentioned it as my favorite single of 2019 when “Hallelujah” came out at the end of the year. It is based on Alana Haim’s loss of her friend along with the bond between the sisters. The emotion of this song would be replicated in multiple tracks on the album as each sister opens up about their own personal tribulations. Each of these tracks come from a genuine place of emotion as each woman finds her voice to speak about it.

One of the best tracks is “Man From the Magazine” where in a very folky Joni Mitchell-esque way they skewer the misogyny they deal with. This album is full of tonal shifts from track to track. That they don’t come off gimmicky probably speaks to the respect the sisters have for the genres they are working in.

I know we are in a time where sitting down and listening to sixteen songs by one artist seems quaint. The beauty of queuing up Women in Music Part III is you’ll hear a self-shuffled playlist from a single artist.

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Doom Patrol

For all that I take my comic books seriously some of my favorites are decidedly not. As the potential of what comic books could be evolved throughout the 1970’s there were two series which enjoyed making fun of that. One was Marvel’s “Howard the Duck”. The other was writer Grant Morrison’s mid-70’s tenure on DC’s “Doom Patrol”. Both comics took the oh-so-serious desire of comics to be given respect and gave it no respect. Both series at their best pointed out the silliness at the foundation of superhero culture.

When I heard there was going to be a television version of “Doom Patrol” I wondered whether it could be translated. Writer Jeremy Carver has deliriously taken the no subject can’t be broached style of the comic and broadened it to all of pop culture. With an excellent cast of actors who bring these damaged characters to life it is one of the best television series out there.

The basis of the plot is Dr. Niles Caulder aka The Chief has saved a group of people who have extra normal abilities. We meet him through the story of stock car driver Cliff Steele. He has a fatal accident leaving only his brain intact. The Chief houses it in a robot body. As Cliff awakens, he meets the others. Jane a split personality of 64 each of whom has a specific power. Rita Farr movie star of the 1950’s who has an accident which provides her powers she can’t control. Larry Trainor a test pilot who survives the crash of his X-15 by taking in an extraterrestrial spirit. That is the core team.

Facing them is the villain Mr. Nobody. One of the best parts of Doom Patrol is many of the episodes are narrated by him. As portrayed by actor Alan Tudyk each of this poke fun at the tropes of voice-over narration. There is a sequence in the first ten minutes which sets the tone for the entire show.

For the rest of the first season Mr. Carver and his writing team take every crazy idea to heart. As insane as parts of it are there is a real emotion in the stories of the members of Doom Patrol. As their backstories get filled in it allows the writers opportunities to comment on over five decades of social change. It is intelligently achieved by wrapping it in absurdities.

If you haven’t heard of this show it is because up until recently it was on a fringe streaming service, DC Universe. Happily, the new HBO Max service is giving it a wider platform to be discovered. It is currently halfway through the second season and it hasn’t lost a step from the excellent first season. When you’re exploring the new streaming service give the first episode a try. You’ll know almost immediately if it is your kind of television.

Mark Behnke