Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #7: A Book, a Movie, a TV Show, a Concert, and a Comic Book

Nothing huge this week, just a bunch of little things that together make up a column. Column-ettes. In no particular order… You know how this works. So let’s get to it.

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An idea we were kicking around as a possible continuing series here at the Junk Shop was that we’d take turns revisiting something that never really got a fair shake its first time out, something that was worth a second look.

As it happens we recently acquired a DVD that’s practically the poster child for this: Strange Days.

I hadn’t seen this in about twenty years. I remembered liking it; but in the years since, I kind of forgot about it. It was at a library sale for a couple of bucks so I thought why not? and into the cart it went.

Upon viewing it again, I realized that I like it a LOT. In a just world this would be the movie that is cited when people try to explain the science-fiction sub-genre ‘cyberpunk,’ not Blade Runner. Science fiction is usually really shitty at predicting the future, despite what fans claim. But this one is weirdly prescient, especially when you remember that it was made long before anyone really was thinking about ‘social media.’ Here’s the trailer.

Take a minute to appreciate the amount of talent lined up here. A young Ralph Fiennes paired with a young Angela Bassett, both of whom are doing amazing work (I was especially impressed with how Fiennes makes us care about Lenny even though for most of the movie he’s kind of a creep and a loser.) Also young Vincent D’Onofrio and young Tom Sizemore (before he self-destructed.) Co-written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Also — I know you all are probably sick of me riding this hobbyhorse but dammit it MATTERS– it works not just as science fiction and social commentary but the PLOT is a really tight thriller/fair-play whodunit with actual clues, and I am picky about that sort of thing. A very noir piece and it perfectly captures the then-current cyberpunk aesthetic of so much of 90s SF, as well as exploiting the concept of ‘jacking in’ to the internet much better than William Gibson’s own Johnny Mnemonic, despite the fact that Gibson basically invented the genre with Neuromancer and even did the screenplay for Johnny.

Strange Days tanked at the box office so badly it almost derailed Bigelow’s career, mostly because nobody in Hollywood or in the press understood what the hell it was. But it’s great. You can probably find it for a buck or two online. Well worth it and I’m glad to have it in the library. Julie had never heard of it at all and she dug it too.

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In the course of writing the four-part musical series of columns, I mentioned that lately I’ve been getting into the jazz/funk fusion style of music generally referred to as “acid jazz.” As luck would have it I found all sorts of cool examples on YouTube. But the ones I want to commend to your attention are from the Estival jazz concerts, held annually in Lugano. Some good angel has uploaded full shows and they are great fun. Since Julie and I will likely never get to go to Switzerland ourselves, these are the only way we’ll get to see these shows and they’re great.

Here’s the Brand New Heavies in 2013…

Incognito in 2010

..and Tower of Power, baby. Also from 2010.

Thought I’d share before they get taken down for copyright violation.

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Hard Case Crime sent along their latest a few weeks ago and I finally found some time to read it.

Understudy For Death is the latest example of probably my favorite thing Hard Case does — unearthing lost or long-out-of-print works from classic crime novelists. In this particular case it’s from Charles Willeford, one of those guys that never really got to be a household name but whose work is hugely admired by actual working writers.

Here’s the blurb for Understudy: Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself? Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out – and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era. On the 30th anniversary of the death of the masterful novelist the Atlantic Monthly called the “father of Miami crime fiction,” Hard Case Crime is proud to present Charles Willeford’s legendary lost novel, unavailable since its original publication by a disreputable paperback house in 1961. One of Willeford’s rarest titles (copies of the original edition sell for hundreds of dollars), Understudy for Death still has the power to disturb, half a century after its debut.

And it is really creepy and disturbing, but impossible to put down, as well. I don’t know that I enjoyed it so much as admired the way it came together… it’s not exactly happy good times writing. But it’s good stuff, and recommended.

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So here’s the thing. I have hated the original Lost In Space pretty much since the first time I saw it at age 8. Despite my ungodly love for all the other cinematic efforts of Irwin Allen, no matter how awful (yes, even Land of the Giants and The Swarm) Lost In Space always has annoyed the crap out of me. I’ve never been able to get through more than five minutes of the original without cursing and changing the channel.

The big-screen movie reboot, though, I admit kinda liked (though it falls apart at the end, and the excessive shout-outs to the original annoyed me just because I’m so NOT sentimental about it.)

So I was all set to skip the new one. But a lot of writers I follow on Twitter and elsewhere were very high on it, so I thought we’d give it a look.

And you know what? It really is pretty good. Julie adored it and we ended up binging through the whole thing over a couple of days.

For one thing, Parker Posey as Dr. Smith is just blood-chilling in her sociopathy.

There is nothing of the Jonathan Harris, lovable-rascal, comedy-relief version here. This Dr. Smith is fucking SCARY in her madness, and more than any other depiction of this kind of character I’ve seen on screen, Ms. Posey really nails the aspect of the random lying and constant me-first jockeying for advantage that you rarely see done in film or TV, but is painfully reminiscent of every real sociopath I’ve ever met. Most of the time this sort of character is shown as the conscienceless Lex Luthor archetype, but if you’ve ever had to deal with this kind of person in real life (several maddening relatives of mine come to mind) Posey’s Dr. Smith is much closer to the real thing. Her conviction that if everyone UNDERSTOOD what she was trying to DO they wouldn’t be so MAD, and her manipulation of young Will Robinson, gave me actual chills. Seriously.

But my favorite thing was the new Dr. Maureen Robinson.

Just a week after the column lamenting how we never see this kind of character any more, the new Lost In Space gives us the new Dr. Maureen — and Molly Parker just takes that role downtown. She is wonderful as a genuine Heinlein-esque science BADASS. She’s still a caring mom and a loving wife, but Maureen also is clearly the most capable person on the ship and everyone knows that and respects it, including her husband. I loved that. She’s not flawless, certainly, but her flaws are not related to her intellect. There’s none of that quirky-geek stereotype to be found anywhere on this show. I was happy every time the focus was on Maureen and her husband… the kids were mostly in the way as far as I was concerned. The episode where Maureen and John were trapped in the tar pit, especially, was a standout.

Those things were enough to get us over some seriously stupid plot holes (Like ARRGH why in the world do people on TV keep secrets from each other for no reason? Especially in a situation like that faced by the Robinsons and their fellow colonists, survival trumps embarrassment!) we are on board for season two, which I understand is a go. Provisionally recommended for the reasons above, but with cautions about some dumb plot things.

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I feel kind of guilty because Will O’Mulhane at Titan Comics faithfully sends review copies of their stuff every month and I hardly ever look at it. But they’ve been on a roll lately– first the introduction of the Hard Case Comics, and now there’s a new version of The Prisoner.

I first saw the show when I was in high school, when it was rerun on the local PBS affiliate.

I was interested mostly because Byron Preiss had mentioned in Weird Heroes how it was an inspiration for Ron Goulart’s Quest of the Gypsy, which I adored; and also because Steve Englehart had talked about doing a comics version in the Dr. Strange letter columns of the time.

The Englehart comic never panned out, nor did the rumored Jack Kirby version. It’s probably just as well. The trouble with revisiting The Prisoner is that McGoohan’s original TV finale is pretty much impossible to follow. It’s a surrealist hot mess.

So the only way to make a pastiche work within McGoohan’s continuity (we will not speak of the abomination starring Jim Caviezel) is to find some sort of work-around for the finale. The one from DC Comics dismissed it as a hallucination.

That worked okay, but though it looked gorgeous and it was clearly done with tremendous affection, the story itself wasn’t all that engaging. I didn’t HATE it but I didn’t love it either.

This new one from Titan, though, I loved. It neatly disposes of the finale problem on page one.

It’s written by Peter Milligan with art by Colin Lorimer. The plot is very clever and also serves as a great way to introduce the concept; our hero is tasked with assassinating a female agent, with whom he has had a fling, before the Village gets to her. But he determines that he will rescue her instead, which gets him disavowed by MI6, and while evading their people, he embarks on a campaign to GET himself taken by the Village so then he can break both himself and the woman out.

What I loved about this was that it managed to update the concept without throwing anything away (well, except the original’s finale, which you kind of have to.) The espionage stuff has a great sort of Le Carre/Jason Bourne vibe.

And the transition to The Village works well, with a nice little nod to the original.

First issue out on the 25th. Check it out.

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And there you go. Back next week with something cool.

12 Comments

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Ironically, I just reviewed/encapsulated the history of Malibu Comics and discussed Barry Blair. I was never a fan of his style; but, his Logan’s Run and Logan’s World wasn’t bad, for what it was. The characters at least looked to be of the right age range, since they only lived to 21, in the original novel. However, he wasn’t very expressive with his characters and they had a sameness about them. I side with the Comics Journal, about Ripper, which is filled with some pretty racist stuff. It’s supposed to be told through the viewpoint of the unbalanced vigilante; but, it isn’t very effective about separating his warped view and reality. His Gun Fury, though, was a flawed but somewhat entertaining comic.

        Vomic, for me, would be some of that ultra-violent junk from the 90s, like Tim Vigil’s Faust and stuff from Verotik and their ilk. I could never understand any entertainment derived from that much graphic violence and cheap sex. Made Howard Chaykin’s stuff look prudish.

        1. True fact: I worked at a comics coloring company in the mid-nineties, and one of the companies we worked for was Verotik… for one issue. Most of the staff took one look at the first story, a disgusting tale of rape and torture, and noped out of it. One staffer sighed and said she would do it. She got the author’s notes for revision back, and they were so gross and vulgar that when she finished the job, she informed the bosses that she would never touch a Verotik page again, and if they asked her to, she would quit on the spot.

          That story remains the appalling example of the lowest I have ever seen the comics industry go, and “vomic” is too mild a word for it.

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Wow, interesting to find someone else who not only remembers Strange Days but also liked it. Yes, it’s actually a really well-done film, with just a damn-good, suspenseful story. I always thought it suffered from the fact that it predicted the too-near future, i.e., released in 1995 but set in late 1999 – and we still don’t have those devices that record people’s memories, and feelings (that we know of). I’d never thought about that concept as a predictor of social media, though. Very interesting – I really need to re-watch that movie, as the last time I watched it was, I think, some time in the late ’90s or early ’00s.

    As for the Prisoner comic, I don’t know. I’m pretty doubtful that anybody, working in any media, will capture the magic of the original series, surreal finale and all. And until this moment, I never even knew there was a remake, with Caviezel of all people. Not interested…

    1. Oh, the Prisoner remake has Ian McKellan too.

      So it was Jesus versus Magneto.

      I watched it, and I think I have it on videotape somewhere too, but yeah, it’s not very good. It was on AMC, and iirc, it was spoiled by the movie they showed right before it (as in, pairing that movie with the show “revealed” the story behind the Village, iirc).

    2. Greg Burgas

      Edo: Strange Days is far more remembered than you might think – a ton of pop culture writers on yonder internet have written about it for some time now, as the world it shows becomes closer and closer. I suppose not a lot of people know about it, but those who do seem to love it.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I’m a big fan of the Motter/Askwith comic. I felt it nicely encapsulated much of the series. It may not be as engaging; but, I thought it was a bit more cerebral than a lot of what was on the stands, at the time. motter was a good fit as Mr X was very steeped in the ideas of The Prisoner.

    Thomas Disch’s novel is a decent one to try, as it kind of handles the ending and launches a new Prisoner story. The Hank Stine novel was a decent, average Prisoner story, seemingly set at any point of Number 6’s history, within the village.

    The Avengers did a cute little spoof of The Prisoner, with Steed stuck in a little country lodging, with an injured leg, and Tara King trying to find him and help him escape.

    I did a review of the AMC one, on IMDB and said it was “beige.” That is what I recall: beige sand, beige clothes, beige acting, beige writing. Mcgoohan was inspired by Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, while the AMC thing seemed to be inspired by Eckart Tolle and other New Age mumbo-jumbo. Ian McKellan was so wasted in that.

    Back in the days when IMDB had message boards, I posted a couple of Prisoner pastiches: one where Harry Palmer arrives in the Village, only to find that Col. Ross is Number 2 (since Guy Doleman was in the pilot) and one with David Callan, from the Edward Woodward series, where he is brought there and finds out that Lonely (the poor, exploited character, played by Russell Hunter) was actually Number 2. I always felt both series had a lot in common with The Prisoner and they blended quite well (especially Callan, with the amorality of much of his work). Palmer was filled with so many lies and double-crosses, it felt like the Prisoner, with more guns.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    ps. The pilot and first few episodes of Lost in Space are quite good, from a story standpoint, where Dr Smith is more menacing than comical. Once they softened him, it lost the edge and the second season went into pure comedy. I haven’t watched a ton of it; but, early is definitely better than later. The movie left me pretty cold, though it looked good. I still think they should have taken up Bill Mumy on his offer to play the adult Will Robinson, in the time distortion sequence. he was a better actor than the one they used and it would have been better than a silly cameo, like the rest (apart from Jonathan Harris, who told them “no.”)

    Mumy’s Lost in Space comics were pretty good, and more in keeping with the first season stuff. He actually wrote a script for a potential movie; but, kind of got told off by Irwin Allen and let it go.

  4. Well you’ve actually gotten me interested in Lost In Space, though I doubt I’ll have time to see it any time soon.
    I agree with Jeff about the Motter Prisoner comic. Very well done. I once concotced a fanfic of my own involving Michael Knight and Emma Peel busting Steed out of the Village, but my friend’s fanzine died before I ever got to it.

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