FESTIVUS EDITION

Airing of grievances, feats of strength! All proceeds go to The Human Fund

The mission of Milton’s Comics + Culture Radar, for 364 days of the year, is to highlight what’s good to read and watch. To shine a light on hidden sources of excellence. To raise the banner for high quality comics, films, television and other entertainment.

But today’s a different matter. It’s the holy day, the Festivus for the rest of us, and:

Airing of Grievances

The Wasted Opportunity that Was “Away” from Netflix

As a proud Houstonian, I’m a wee bit sensitive to the portrayals of NASA in popular culture. NASA is not only a symbol of local pride, it’s a shorthand for the virtues of excellence, attention to detail, competence, and problem-solving. And yet the showrunners of this program decided to make their version of NASA be populated by morons with petty squabbles and exhibits A, B, and C of the Peter Principle. The head of mission control, in particular, is an insult to the institution. A role renowned for decisiveness, clarity, and strength is warped into a bumbling buffoon, filled with doubt. The character was written - and the directors apparently asked for - a performance more befitting a crazy aunt or uncle.

And then there’s the astronauts, who are largely given shallow personality defects and interpersonal conflicts befitting a poorly run daytime soap opera.

This is an act of criminal squandering of potential. Netflix clearly felt strongly enough about the concept to give it a serious budget and excellent production values. The otherwise incredible talents of Hilary Swank and Josh Charles are not enough to save the omni-shambles collapsing around them in every corner of these episodes. It continues to baffle me when writers given the privilege of telling stories like this, they choose to awkwardly focus on badly-conceived borderline reality-tv “personal drama” antics instead of the inherently dramatic condition of humans exploring the frontier of space.

The fatal miscasting in “DEVS”

Alex Garland is one of the most talented writer-directors working today. “Ex Machina” was a brilliant exploration of the coming age of artificial intelligence, it had a flair of Kubrickian contemplation about the near future. It made me doubly excited to see him given an opportunity to explore sci-fi ideas at length with a show on FX.

Apparently, when casting the main character, Garland put all of his faith in the Kuleshov Effect - a concept that suggests film actors can convey more with less. It’s a common detail to see in a behind-the-scenes documentary on filmmaking - if you see a director interacting with an actor, it’s often to tell them to do less, to pull back. The subtlety of film acting almost requires a form of restraint.

The lead performance in “Devs” isn’t subtle. It’s void of anything resembling human emotion. If they had cast a muppet instead, it would’ve been a better choice - at least with a muppet, audiences can project human emotions on to the puppeteer’s movements. Instead, we get this travesty. I had to stop watching the show about 3-4 episodes in, I just couldn’t continue. I’ve never had to do that based on a single performance, in any film/tv project I’ve ever seen. And it’s frustrating because the rest of the cast is stellar and the ideas explored in the first few episodes seemed rewarding and challenging. It’s only the first year of the 2020s decade, but worst television performance of the decade is already locked up.

The Ahistorical Stank of “Mank”

On paper, this was the film I should’ve most enjoyed in 2020. The “citizen” part of my Twitter handle @citizenmilton is a reference to my favorite, and still the best, film of all time - Citizen Kane. One of my favorite directors (David Fincher) chose to make a movie about it, focusing on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.

There is a wealth of dramatic potential in exploring Mank as a character - and the film often succeeds - but it is ultimately a failure, in that it revives a thoroughly debunked claim that Orson Welles did not deserve co-writing credit for “Kane.” There is a voluminous record on this false claim, but here’s one of many essays about the issue. Fincher could’ve spent 45 minutes at any public library to learn more about the topic. Instead, he propagates a false narrative that serves the surviving Mankiewicz family members view of events. Had this alternate history served some dramatic narrative purpose, I could’ve enjoyed the film as a whole, but focusing primarily on the authorship claims robs the otherwise fertile territory. These are titanic figures in film history! Exploring the actual truth of their relationship - even speculatively - would’ve been fascinating.

Rapid-Fire Grievances

  • The big twist in the second episode of the anime “Deca Dence” reveals that everything they got you emotionally invested in the first episode was actually just B.S. It felt like a betrayal. I stopped watching. I’ll maybe give it a second shot, I hear so many good things, but this was an unforced error at best.

  • The faux shock wannabe antics of Amazon’s “Utopia” sank what could’ve otherwise been a timely and immersive piece of entertainment. Unmotivated acts of extreme violence, for the sake of shock-value, completely took me out of it.

  • CAN WE GET AN EDITOR (TV)? The fascinating HBO documentary “The Vow” about the NXVIM sex cult was a 9-hour slow-boiling epic that could’ve covered all of its topics in about 100 minutes.

  • CAN WE GET AN EDITOR (PODCAST)? The “Winds of Change” podcast about the idea that the Scorpions’ hit cold-war anthem was actually written by the CIA spent untold hours speculating and speculating - the whole thing could’ve been told in 25 minutes.

  • The lack of audience and impact of AppleTV’s “For All Mankind” is an outrage. Everyone needs to see this incredible television program!

  • Rude-ass people spoiling every episode of The Mandalorian. You know who you are. Tsk tsk.

EVERGREEN GRIEVANCE

Until such time as this cultural sin is rectified, I will bring it up every year at Festivus:

COVID19 - THE MOTHERSHIP OF GRIEVANCES FOR 2020

We all know the suffering that Covid19 has caused: the toll in human lives, the depression-level slide in employment numbers, the strain in our everyday lives as we try to go on and stay safe. This newsletter isn’t the place to expand on that topic, and frankly all of these cultural complaints are inconsequential in the grander scheme - it’s a privilege to even be in such a condition to complain about such trivial matters. I’m thankful for the health of my friends and family. I have already written at length on my sadness at the loss of moviegoing rituals. Here’s hoping 2021 ushers in a new roaring ‘20s, filled with celebrations and deeper connections for all of us.

Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar #3 - IN STORES TOMORROW!

The mini-series finale + a soundtrack + bonus newsletter this week!

The third and final issue (of the first arc) of Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar hits stores this Wednesday! We’re particularly proud of this issue.

This one's off the chain, out for lunch, insane in the membrane, and culminating in a visual symphony of madness that'll leave you wanting a sequel - or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona!

After a few cases that were pro bono (voluntarily or involuntarily), Heller’s got to pay some bills and take on a high-dollar client. This chapter is a crescendo in an important pivot-point in our space-gumshoe’s personal and professional life. This concluding chapter delivers hellacious contributions from the entire creative team: Dave Chisholm’s art and Fabian Cobos’s colors are truly next-level.

And although this wraps up the first arc, this won’t be the last you see of Thompson Heller. Stay tuned for more on this in coming weeks.

The official “Thompson Heller” Playlist - now on Spotify!

We’ve compiled three hours of space noir grooves for your listening pleasure. When you’re reading this comic series, this music is the perfect soundtrack. There are some deep cuts here and several artists you’ve probably never heard of before - this is also sonic fuel for creative folks - put it on while you get into the flow on your next project.

In-depth discussion on the journey to making this book

The generous Daniel Kaufman of The Electric Agora invited me back onto his program to discuss several dimensions of comic book creation - from industry-wide trends on storytelling, down to the minutia of how Thompson Heller was produced. Daniel prompts a fantastic discussion with his probing questions and makes me look far smarter than I actually am. Please check it out:

Bonus special newsletter edition coming soon:

Three Cathedrals

cruciatus in crucem

According to the 2014 Pew Research Center, 36% of Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis, with another 33% going once or twice a month or a few times a year. I do not attend religious services, but I frequent many cathedrals.

Last weekend, I drove by one of my favorite sacred locations and saw an empty parking lot and it nearly brought me to tears. Whereas many of my fellow citizens find comfort, community, and transcendence in the rituals experienced in churches, temples, or mosques, my sanctuary has always been in movie theaters. There, the sacraments take the form of passing the threshold guardians at the box office, the dimming of the lights, the screening of trailers, the procession of studio logos, culminating in the apotheosis of the feature presentation; the shared silence, the gooseflesh and raised hairs on the back of our necks in moments of awe, teary-eyed moments of sadness or joy, the exaltation as the action hero delivers the coup de grâce and the cathartic laughter as it is punctuated with a catch-phrase. With the future of the theatergoing experience in doubt, I would like to give tribute to three theaters that have been essential to my moviegoing life in Houston, Texas.

The Spectrum (Cineplex-Odeon)

In the era of 35mm film fed by sprockets through a projector, the quality of presentation couldn’t have been any better than what was offered at the Spectrum. The Spectrum was one of the first theaters to install digital sound using the DTS format. The booming sound systems in Screen #2 and Screen #8 at The Spectrum were certified by Lucasfilm’s THX - and a part of the religious moviegoer’s experience in those screens was being overwhelmed by the crescendo of the THX trailer - demonstrating the power of those auditoriums - sound you could feel rumbling from the floor and resonating inside your chest. In the 90s, several other locations had THX-certified houses but none of them ever matched the might of Screen #2 at The Spectrum.

I saw many films of note at the Spectrum - but the highlight that most demonstrated the uniqueness of that theater was seeing Jurassic Park on opening night. DTS was new, and that film utilized digital sound in a way that’d never been done before. As the T-Rex stomped, and the pools of water vibrated, the tension in the house was palpable. This metamorphosis of the analog sound era to digital was a transformative moment - moviegoing would never be the same after.

I have many important film memories at that location. I saw Back to the Future III there on release night (as part of a marathon of the entire trilogy) with a packed house. I saw Schindler’s List on its first screening on a mid-day afternoon, with about four other people. The Spectrum was where I saw Stanley Kubrick’s last film and a good friend of mine turned, as I was absorbing the totality of the moment as the final credits began to roll, and my friend said: “the last word ever said in a Kubrick film is fuck!” I saw Casino during my time as a critic for the University of Houston school newspaper and stood on the steps outside in a crisp night, clutching a souvenir poker chip, filled with disappointment - perhaps learning for the first time about getting too overhyped and seeing one of my cinematic heroes underdeliver.

The Spectrum was located next to my favorite burger joint in Houston - Beck’s Prime - and it formed the foundation of what has since become my tradition for any heavily-anticipated film: a trip to Beck’s followed by the opening night movie.

Landmark River Oaks

The River Oaks Theater in Houston was built in 1939 - an art deco classic theater, the old-timey kind with an enormous screen with a large balcony upstairs. In the mid-1980s, the balcony was turned into two smaller theaters, bringing it to a three-screen capacity.

It has been the anchor for art-house cinema in Houston for decades. During the ‘90s, there was a glorious period where they’d expanded into two other unique locations (the Saks and Greenway) - but eventually receded back into the one location. In addition to being the home base for period pictures, indies, classics, and foreign films, on the weekends it often screens Rocky Horror and an assortment of cult Midnight Movie fare.

I’ve seen so many brilliant films in that location, it is my primary moviegoing home. As various other chains have risen and fallen in terms of their abilities to have the best picture and sound quality for mainstream releases, the Landmark River Oaks has always been the place to go for H-Town cineastes.

The greatest experience I had there was seeing Citizen Kane for the first time. Alas, it was upstairs on one of the smaller screens (a crime!) - but that didn’t take away from the enormity of the moment. I walked out of that theater a different person.

It was at the River Oaks that I also saw Hamlet in 70mm, introduced by Kenneth Branagh, as well as Bubba Ho-Tep introduced by Bruce Campbell. It’s where I saw Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Tree of Life. In the past two decades, probably half of my top-10 lists have been filled with titles screened there. I even used it as a primary location in my comic book short story Roger Ebert and Me (art by Rem Broo).

Palladium (renamed to Regal Grand Parkway)

In recent years, the championship belt for best quality presentation in the Greater Houston Area goes to the Palladium (now named Regal Grand Parkway).

Its biggest auditoriums have screens nearly the size of IMAX (and yes, I can remember without having to look up the fact that they are screens #8, #9, #10, and #11).

The Palladium’s projectors are kept bright - bulbs are replaced within the properly expected timeframe (in contrast to many poorly run theaters that let bulbs go too dim before doing anything about it). Their pictures are kept in focus, and the sound systems bring the thunder. The seats are comfortable, and the angle of view is almost never compromised. Many stadium-seating venues have awkward gaps or a limited “sweet spot” zone of only 1-2 rows, but the heart of the biggest screens at the Palladium - there’s about 5-6 rows of unobstructed, clear center-view seats.

The interior? I admit, it’s over-the-top. It even has a bowling alley and a couple of bars, which brings the occasional rowdy drunk patron into a screening. Sometimes meandering to and from screenings can feel a bit like you’re in a weird shopping mall.

But if there’s a movie that calls for the best quality projection, large screens, and packed-house audiences ready to have fun, The Palladium is the best place in town to go.

The Future…

The pandemic has robbed us of the moviegoing experience for much of 2020. It’s been over nine months since I’ve seen a film in a theater. Several chains are completely closed. Most are struggling. Some industry watchers proclaim this is the death of the theatrical experience. I believe they will be proven wrong, and in the second half of 2021, we will return to theatergoing.

I can’t remember how long ago it was that I started referring to movie theaters as my church, but it’s been many years now. In Joseph Campbell’s works, he describes a strong connection between humankind’s primitive mythologies, the major world religions, and the creative mythologies of contemporary culture - that they can serve the same need. That desire for a collective experience of the numinous.

One key difference from cinematic churches and those of the major world religions is that when we cinema-church types go to our sacred space and go through the rituals, we are often vastly outnumbered by the heathens surrounding us.

Before the pandemic, I must confess to a degree of snobbery and condescension towards the, shall I say, less maniacally-devoted seat occupants next to me in the holy house of movies. When they would talk during the feature, or whip out their phones to send a text or scroll social media, it would irk me. Occasionally enrage me.

But now, after having it all taken away for such a long stretch, I even miss that too. The imperfections and chaotic influences of a random collection of people in the dark are the essential ingredient. There’s something undeniably special and real about the the audience at a movie theater. When a film falls flat, it’s obvious - but when it’s working - oh my goodness, when it’s working - there’s a tangible energy in the room and our connection to it - individually and collectively at the same time - there’s nothing else like it. I cannot wait to experience it again.

Dave Chisholm: Chasin' Interstellar Birds

  
0:00
-1:03:24

Comic creator and musician Dave Chisholm (@chisholmdave) is here to talk about the release of his new graphic novel Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California, and his ongoing collaboration with me on Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar.

Podcast introduction by Meredith Nudo (@meredithnudo).

Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar #2 - IN STORES TODAY!

No shipping delays this time!

Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar #2 hits shelves today! Since issue one had a bit of a delay, that means there’s only a 3-week gap between issues 1 and 2. We’re very proud of this issue and think it’s a step beyond the first. This story is titled “Who Killed Elbee?” - and it’s an investigation into the killing of an artificial life form; it’s a standalone story but develops relationships established in the first issue.

Ronins and Birds

Recently, two of my closest collaborators and comic-world friends just released stellar new work.

The two episodes (plus a bonus prologue) of Renton Hawkey’s Ronin Digital Express are now on Webtoons - it’s a post-apocalyptic samurai-western-cyberpunk - a little bit Star Wars, a little bit Mad Max, a little bit Akira Kurosawa, and a whole lotta fuckin’ awesome. Be sure to check it out & subscribe to be alerted when there are new episodes.

Chasin the Bird: Charlie Parker in California by Dave Chisholm is a bright ray of comic incandescence - a graphic novel celebrating the centennial of jazz legend Charlie Parker. It’s told as a series of vignettes, a Rashomon-like series of narratives, and it brings to life a specific period of time and place and makes music come alive on the page. It’s now available for order direct from the publisher, including a beautiful deluxe edition, and it will arrive in comic shop on Dec. 9th!

Radar Pings

  • The fourth season of The Crown maintains the series’s high standards for storytelling and exquisite period-specific production detail and gorgeous cinematography. The show continues to do a marvelous job of making every episode a singular unit of story and entertainment, while weaving in longer themes and character arcs. The standout fifth episode of the season, “Fagan,” is my favorite - a relatively arcane event that non-Brits will find surprising.

    Evidently I’m in Anglophile mode, as I’ve been diving deep into the rabbit-hole of British TV Game shows. Would I Lie To You features Peep Show’s David Mitchell among dueling panelists who try to ascertain the veracity of a given story. 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown brings panelists into a match of wits involving word and number games. Both shows feature hysterical improvised banter from their brilliant contestants. For some sample clips, check out the panelists uncovering this mystery person or Mackenzie Crook’s Orchidometer.

Superlative Tweets

On the Podcast…

Latest episode of Milton’s Comics & Culture Radar podcast features Rick Quinn talking about his bundle o’comics and his newest comic, “Chameleons”. It was a fascinating discussion and covered a lot of terrain. It’s my most-downloaded episode to date, and with good reason - it’s Rick’s pod debut and he has a keen analytical mind when it comes to comics and writing.

https://milton.substack.com/p/rick-quinns-bundle-ocomics

Loading more posts…