Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Comics: There's no business like it, no business I know.

There's something self-defeating about the venerable genre of the showbiz satire.

First, they're blatantly the product of such massive egocentric self-regard that they end up mash letters no matter what the original intent was. This problem is further compounded by the fact that, in the audience versus entertainer dynamic that these satires inevitably evoke, its clear the entertainers would rather be entertainers – regardless of what the satirist claims about the breed – than one of the faceless crowd.

Second, done well, the showbiz satire is so damn entertaining. Since that's the point of the entertainment industry, the whole is thing is like shipping botulinum to the Platinum Triangle. But, from West's Day of the Locusts to Stiller's Tropic Thunder, from Fritz Freleng's "Show Biz Bugs" to Altman's The Player, top notch showbiz satires deliver the goods.

But it's the latter, more than any presumption of a moral good or the idea that we've seen the real face of the man behind the curtain, that keeps us coming back.

While not a Day of the Locust or The Player, Harold Sipe and Hector Casanova's Screamland is a smartly done light satire of the dirty business of dreams and a heartfelt ode to the Universal Age of horror cinema. Collected in a new trade with some additional materials, this 5-ish mini is built around the premise that cinematic monsters are real, very much alive, and mostly residing in the Los Angeles area.

The comics begin with Frankenstein's monster, now a marginally functional alcoholic living off sickly replacement parts from second-tier donor sources. Through a series True Hollywood Stories-grade flashbacks, the reader gets a quick overview of how Frank got to this sorry state. After his golden age as king of the cinematic monsters, Frank found himself out of date and unfashionable during the space aliens and giant insect days of the 1950s. Falling in with Ed Wood, he made a few cheapie T&A features before dropping off the radar altogether. He could have lived well off his legacy, but he dumped all his scratch into an ill-advised monster-porn Web site that went belly up and left him busted. Hence his current wallowing in loserhood: balding, pickled, and shriveled next to ill-kept pool at a run down condo complex in some L.A. armpit nabe for the forgotten and unmourned.

But all is not lost . . . Frank's agent is getting the band back together.

The wonderfully named Trent Octane, a videogame designer making the leap to cinema, is adapting Monsterhunter 3000, think a manga Buffy with less soap opera bloat and more Asian schoolgirl fanservice. To seal the directing gig, Octane has to go all live action, a stipulation that includes the monsters to be hunted. The film's producers think the project can snag some of the aging demographic is Octane taps the legends: Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and Dracula.

What follows are three single issues, each focusing on one of the series's monster stars, then a final tie-it-all-up issue on the set of M3K.

The Mummy, my least favorite of the actual Universal stable, gets the most interesting single issue. The first of he quartet to fall out of favor with the fans, Mummy's career tanked fast. Then, in the 1950s, he fell under suspicion in the case of a missing stand-up comedian who had roasted the ancient monster as part of his act. After landing some embarrassing television guest spots, Mummy packed it up and headed back to Egypt. Once back in Egypt, Mummy sued the United States to recover Egyptian artifacts kept in various American museums. During the long suit, words were said, accusations leveled, and, ultimately, the acrimony attracted the attention of Homeland Security. Mysterious figure with a shady past goes back to Islamic North Africa and starts snatching up valuables that could be used for funding who knows what – yeah, somebody makes the no-fly list.

With its nod to security fears and the on-going efforts of second world nations to repatriate masterworks of their cultural heritage, the Mummy's tale is the most original of the background stories. The Wolf Man, whose recap occurs during a Sci-Fi convention and includes some fish-in-barrel shooting of Trekkers, and Dracula, a Rock Hudson-esque tale of life in celluloid closet with a nice Red Scare overlay, are a little too familiar. When dealing with Drac and Wolfie, the series becomes less a show biz satire than a mirror of the show biz press and it suffers slightly for the added distance.

Still, despite the occasional lapse into simple mimicry rather than parody, the story keeps a rapid pace and the characterizations are strong enough to carry readers over any rough patches.

Casanova's art is a mixed bag, always nice to look at if not always effective. His stylized characters are great. He's able to communicate what was so awesome about these horror icons while still communicating how far they've fallen. Frank's spindly frame suggests the strength he once had. Drac's sinister cool still peaks out from behind a jaded and tedious Euro-trash, cheek air kissing exterior. The Wolf Man's pear-shaped body hints at still ravenously destructive appetites and urges. The character designs are top notch.

Sadly, his work on other aspects of the book seems rushed. Panel flow, great in some places, falls apart in others. There are some wonderfully detailed splash pages, but on other pages minimally sketched characters will just hang before a completely empty background for a handful of panels. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I'm going to assume that Casanova's best work in here is the rule and not the exception. By that standard, I'm hoping he'll have whatever he needs to avoid corner cutting in future issues (though this seems like a complete story, there's a teasing "1" on the spine). That said, I love Casanova's brilliant covers, all reproduced within the trade. Riffing off everything from 1960's psychedelic poster-art to the ink work of Gorey, the covers for the original series are pretty damn nifty.

More a love letter to a quartet of classic horror icons than a poison pen screed to Tinsel Town, Screamland is going to appeal more to fans of the former than folks looking for the latter to take Hollywood down a peg. In this, it is more Who Framed Roger Rabbit than The Stunt Man. For those fans, Screamland is a real treat.

The trade is out from Image and will run you $17.

Plus, even I, Lucas, have heard that there's a cameo appearance in the comic by everybody's favorite Fish-Man.


Sasquatchan said...

Fish man ? Isn't that the creature from the black lagoon ? (plus some random star wars cantina characters in the background ?)

But you missed two modern parodies that fit the bill for skewering hollywood: "Get Shorty" and "Bowfinger" Classics..

The Inkwell Bookstore said...

sounds interesting. thanks for the heads-up.

Anonymous said...

A good segue from this article would be to give a listen to the Nekromantix' "Where Do Monsters Go (When They're Not On The Film Set)?"

...I do not know how to properly indicate the possessive case when confronted with the letter x when it implies a plurality.

-Troy Z

when is evil cool? said...

i got this for xmas i think. i only know cause it's not on my amazon wishlist no more. i had heard nothing but good things about it. tanks for the review.

CRwM said...


That's exactly who it is. And I can't mention all the Hollywood satires, I'm just one little blog. You're looking for IMDB.