Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Capital Punishment

Greetings Dear Readers,
Today's post has nothing to do with civil rights or the justice system in America.  No, that is better left for other blogs.  This post is dedicated to Greg Rucka and his run on The Punisher/Punisher War Zone for Marvel Comics.  As a huge fan of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, I could not be more thankful for the incredible storytelling and characterization of my favorite comic personality over the past two years.  When Marvel handed the reigns of Frank Castle's lore to Greg Rucka, I am not quite sure they even knew or appreciated the depth of talent, thoughtfulness, and inspiration that resided in this man's mind.  Rucka also had the help of Marco Checchetto and Carmine Di Giandomenico who took Rucka's vision and brought it to life on the page in a way that this fan had never before seen.  These are undoubtedly two of the fastest rising stars in graphic novel art today!

The character I love so dearly has been through a sort of creative purgatory over the course of the past twenty years.  Originally appearing in Amazing Spider-man #129, in the 1970's, Punisher began as a mercenary hired to end the famed hero.  Gaining popularity after more guest appearances in various stories, a limited series was launched in the mid-80's at a time when gun-toting action stars ruled the big screens.  Modelled after Charles Bronson's Death Wish character and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, Frank Castle was a Vietnam vet who came home from one war and found that he could not escape it when his family was gunned down after witnessing a mob execution.  He survived to wage a one-man campaign against organized crime, murderers, and deviants of all stripes.  Somehow becoming what he despised most, yet keeping a code of honor simultaneously.  The perfect Great White Shark of graphic novelty. 

After many years of popularity, the Punisher went through a bit of a transformation as Marvel saw fit to have Castle go off the rails and assasinate Nick Fury (as known to most audiences as the cool head of SHIELD portrayed by Samuel Jackson in the current Avengers series).  This led to Marvel coming up with the terrible idea of making him the head of a crime family.  That short-lived incarnation later led into the character becoming some tool of divine judgement using angelic weapons (in a thankfully shorter lived series), before Garth Ennis saved The Punisher character by returning him to his roots.....fighting a dirty mob war without the supernatural enhancement package (sarcasm mode off).  Garth Ennis righted the Punisher ship for many years giving fans just what they wanted.  It was a no holds-barred Frank Castle.  A force of nature doing what he does best.  But he kept him mainly in his own little corner of the Marvel world, separated from the larger Marvel cast of characters.  And when he did write Castle in a space occupied by the superhero community, he did so in such a way that reflected the writer's own feelings on spandex-clad characters.  He just didn't like them, and it showed.  Following Ennis' departure, Matt Fraction took over the Punisher storytelling to mediocre result, followed by Rick Remender who in spite of his talent decided to drop the character down one of the weirdest rabbit holes in all of comic history.  Killing the Punisher in one of the most epicly horrific ways, and having him reassembled into some Frankenstein creature.  ACK!  Somebody stop the madness! 

Enter Greg Rucka!  Returning Castle to his roots, Rucka created a world heavy on supporting cast, which was a huge departure from the previous 10-15 years of Punisher storytelling.  Fleshing out the world around him, and allowing Castle to be a shadowy force of nature working in the story's backdrop proved to be masterful.  Introducing characters that people could care about (two detectives assigned to solve the Punisher killings, the lone survivor of a mob execution that wiped out an entire wedding, the leadership of a new crime syndicate called The Exchange), while also intergrating in existing supporting characters from other Marvel books, and then having some very logical appearances from other featured Marvel heroes, Rucka's Punisher run can only be considered a shining moment in history for the character.  Sixteen issues of a regular series returned Castle to being what I believe he always was at the heart of the character.  A highly principled killing machine that also happens to be a brilliant field strategist and soldier.  Rucka knows Frank Castle, and it is apparent that he holds the character in the highest respect by not minimalizing his attributes. 

By the end of the 16 issue run, we are left with a sincere and deep interest in Frank, his relationship with Seargant Rachel Cole-Alves (lone survivor of her ill-fated wedding), and where the story would go from there.  There is some real gut-wrenching stuff in these pages.  And the artwork is spectacular.  If gritty could ever be beautiful, it is demonstrated here. 

After finding out that Marvel was going to add Punisher to a team book, Rucka knew his run would have to come to an end and he delivered the 5 issue Punisher War Zone to bring his story to a grand finale.  What happened in the pages of the preceding 16 issue run causes The Avengers to stand up and take notice.  Something would have to be done to solve the "Castle problem", and Rucka masterfully develops a condensed character study on each of these Avengers, which is reflected in the progression of events and in the actions/words of the heroes with respect to dealing with the Punisher.  It is great to see a writer go to great lengths to honor the histories and motives of the many characters in the story.  In life there is rarely the black and the white.  Most live in the gray, and I think the sophisticated storytelling by Rucka relfects in this work perfectly. 

I just read the final issue, which was released to stores today, and I have to say that it is the finest run of all Punisher stories.  I say that with great joy and also a feeling of great remorse.  Knowing that it is not likely that we will ever see Greg Rucka deliver another Punisher story to the masses is a bitter pill, but I am most thankful for his time with the character that got me started in comic books so many years ago.  I raise a celebratory glass to you Mr. Rucka (and to both Marco Checchetto and Carmine Di Giandomenico) for two years of graphic novel bliss.  Thank you for returning Frank Castle to such a high place creatively, with honor, respect, and dedication to your art. 

As for me, I will be seeking out Greg Rucka's past, present, and future projects with eagerness.  And I encourage any of you readers out there to do the same.  The Punisher trade paperbacks would be a great place to start!

Chris (for the Great Stories team)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Storm of the Century

Greeting Everyone,
I'd like to apologize for the extended absence, as it is my intention to update this blog at least once per week.  Some weather patterns that moved into the New England area caused some changes in our update schedule as we worked to unbury ourselves and our neighbors.  That being said, we are right back to it, and thankful in some ways to this recent storm and the additional snowfall we are getting at this very moment to inspire the next topic of discussion here at the Great Stories blog. 

For me, these winter days make me want to find some warm and comfortable place in the house and open a good book.  In between the shoveling, frostbite, and watching the neighborhood kids laugh and play, there really is nothing better than to grab some hot chocolate and some peaceful reading least for me.  In keeping with the theme of winter storms, Stephen King has provided us with a great haunting tale sure to keep your eyes glued to the page and pull your family a little closer to you.  "Storm of the Century". 

King originally wrote this story back 1999 and it was released as a screenplay with a TV movie released to viewing audiences directly after.  The book form is actually in screenplay form, which is exactly how King wrote it, which makes for a vastly different reading experience.  The premise of the screenplay centers on the community of Little Tall Island, off of the coast of Maine which is in preparations for the biggest storm to hit in 100 years.  With access to the island being blocked off by the impending blizzard, the town suffers a tragedy as one of their residents is brutally murdered by a mysterious stranger named Andre Linoge, who seems to know all of the dark secrets of the town and makes a promise to spare the town if given a young child in exchange.  You see, Andre is an emissary of Satan himself, and he needs to train another soul to take his place in this unholy mission.  As King reveals the true nature of the antagonist and the hold he has over the town, we the readers are left with only shock, amazement at the plight of this town, and a shiver in our bones as if the cold of the Storm of the Century was ours to experience. 

I cannot recommend this decade plus old story enough to you all the next time you are snowed in, and feeling warm and cozy in your favorite chair, under your most comfortable blanket, and sipping at your mug.  Escaping into the imagination of a great storyteller can be just the thing to pass the time.

What story can you recommend to those of us, who don't mind feeling a bit of a chill in the comforts and safety of our own homes?

Until next week,
Chris &The Great Stories Team

Friday, February 1, 2013

February Theatrical Releases

It is that time…..Great Stories previews the cinematic releases for the month of February.  Movie trailers are our source, and here are our choices for movie dollar spending!
February 1st
Bullet to the Head (Warner Bros):  Sylvester Stallone sets out to prove that old action heroes can still rake in the dough at the box office in this film about a hitman (Stallone) teaming up with a cop (Sung Kang) to hunt down the people responsible for killing their respective partners.
Stand Up Guys (Lionsgate):  Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Allen Arkin play old friends who reunite after one of them is released from a 28 year prison sentence.  Rekindling their friendship, they make up for lost time with more mayhem in this comedic drama.
Warm Bodies (Summit):  A zombie falls in love with a human survivor after the apocalypse and sets off a chain of funny events that might change their world.
Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (Lionsgate):  A family moves into a historic Georgia home inhabited by some restless spirits.
Great Stories Pick:  Bullet to the Head
We have to go, once again, with the re-emergence of the classic action heroes of the eighties.  After Schwarzenegger’s lackluster box office in The Last Stand, we are rooting for a Stallone success to help preserve a moral victory for that generation that brought so much joy to our movie palates so long ago.  Though, the Pacino/Walken coupling is quite intriguing as well  and could prove to be a winning combo.  As for the zombie apocalypse done for laughs and love?  Well, zombies are just starting to get a little too played out, and we will wait for the DVD in spite of the presence of John Malkovich.  And what does  A Haunting in Connecticut have to do with a Haunting in Georgia?  I would love to hear the explanation for that title, or not.
February 8th
Identity Thief (Universal):  Jason Bateman plays a family man victimized by an identity thief (Melissa McCarthy).  He tracks her down and gets more drama than he bargains for in this comedy.
Side Effects (Summit):  Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum star as a couple whose world is turned upside down after a new psychiatric drug is prescribed to Emily(Mara) by her doctor (Jude Law). 
Great Stories Pick:  Side Effects
After a week of mindless action, following it up with a thriller starring the talents of Jude Law and Rooney Mara (who comes off the gripping The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), seems to be in order.  We are fans of psychological thrillers here at Great Stories, and this one promises to be worth a look.  That is not to take anything away from Jason Bateman’s adult comedy effort, which certainly had some good moments in its trailer.  Only two movies this week, and they both look solid!
February 15th
A Good Day to Die Hard (20th Century Fox):
  John McClane (Bruce Willis) teams up with his son to defeat terrorists in Russia as the Die Hard series continues on. 
Beautiful Creatures (Warner Bros):  A young man meets a beautiful and mysterious young girl as he plots to escape the confines of his small town, and in so doing learns some dark secrets. 

Safe Haven (Relativity):  Julianne Hough plays a woman running from her past where she meets a widower and has to deal with her secrets.  From the author of The Notebook. 
Escape from Planet Earth (Weinstein Co): Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jessica Alba lend their voices to this animated feature from the makers of Hoodwinked about an alien who comes to Earth to rescue his brother from Area 51.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Film Buff):  Charlie Sheen returns to the big screen and is joined by Bill Murray.  Sheen plays a graphic designer whose world spirals into despair after his girlfriend breaks up with him.
Great Stories Pick:  Safe Haven
Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, and as much as we would love to see Bruce Willis save the day again, Safe Haven’s trailer makes it look like a movie you can enjoy together.  And you and your loved one should be on this of all weekends.  With the story coming from Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook, there is even more promise to be had.    On the other hand, if you prefer to be served up another dissatisfying dose of teen schlock, you could always jump on the Beautiful Creatures bandwagon.  Or if you want to see an actor circling the drain of life in a movie where he portrays a man going much the same direction, go check out Charles Swan III.  As for Escape from Planet Earth, it feels one part Monsters Inc. and one part Toy Story to me.  I am sure the kids will eat it up like cotton candy!

February 22nd
Snitch (Summit):  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a Dad who goes undercover for the DEA to help clear his son’s name in this action/thriller.
Dark Skies (Momentum):  Keri Russell stars in this horror/thriller about a family that is accosted by strange phenomena in their neighborhood and seek to uncover its origin before it tears them apart.
Great Stories Pick:  See Below
After spending our money on a sugary romance movie last week, we were all set to admit to you that we would be foregoing the February 22nd releases in favor of that Die Harderest of Them All movie, or whatever it was called.  Bruce Willis is the man, after all!  But wait….Snitch and Dark Skies both delivered trailers that have set our genre-meters buzzing in excitement.  What should we do?  I think the only natural thing is to take a vacation day from work, start counting all of that loose change in your car and around your room to spend it on an extra tub or two of popcorn (make sure you ask for extra butter while you are at it) and wash it all down with a nice cup of satisfaction because this week is looking like the definition of a good time at the theaters.  Yeah!
J  Chris @ Great Stories