GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between November 2009-July 2010. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. One of the teenagers, Sam Lesser, escaped from a mental institution and followed them to Lovecraft to try to kill them again, with the assistance of a powerful but mysterious supernatural entity that is connected with Key House, the family estate in Lovecraft.

Key House has a lot of secrets, many of them taking the form of magical keys with incredible powers. More and more of them have been turning up, both to the kids themselves and to the entity that opposes them. It’s a magical arms race with high stakes, where their enemy is more powerful and knows all the rules.

The series continues to be riveting, creepy, and fun. Highly recommended!

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 2: Head Games, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 2: Head Games is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between January-June 2009. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here.

In the previous volume, the Locke family move to Key House, an old family estate in Lovecraft Massachusetts. They are a mother and their three kids: Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey, the father of the family murdered not long ago by a teenager who then escaped from a mental hospital and tried to kill them all again in Lovecraft with supernatural assistance from a mysterious and powerful enemy that has a history with Key House.

The kids have discovered that Key House is full of secrets: among other secrets they have discovered supernatural keys scattered around the grounds that have bizarre and mind-blowing powers: such as the ghost key which allows the user to separate their spirit from their body for a time and observe others on the grounds invisibly and silently.

Sam Lesser, their would-be murderer is dead, but the supernatural creature that enabled his escape is still at large and they don’t know what she wants. They can’t get any help from adults, whose minds are dulled to the magic of Key House. When a local teacher is murdered in his own home, signs start to pile up that it’s only the beginning.

This volume introduces my favorite of all of the keys in the series, the head key on the cover page, which sets up a lot of fundamental ideas for later books and really solidifies Rodriguez’s illustrations as chilling and bizarre and fun.

Highly recommended!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #11: Firework by Katy Perry

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2010 film Firework by Katy Perry, a fantasy story about people finding emotional acceptance of themselves and their life situations and harnessing that power in visible and fantastic and potentially hazardous ways.

The film starts with panning across a city-scape, and zooming into Katy Perry (as herself) on a rooftop singing: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”

As she sings this, we see other people dealing with their own life situations:

  • A brother and sister trying to stay out of an angry, loud, and violent conflict between their parents.
  • A teenage girl at a pool party, afraid to show her body enough to get in the pool with the rest of them.
  • A child in a children’s hospital with no hair, presumably a cancer patient.

Katy Perry sings: “You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine, just own the night like the Fourth of July.” As she sings this self-affirming mantra, a visible and dangerous change overcomes her as she literally starts shooting fireworks from her chest as her voice swells in volume and intensity, starting with minor sparks like sparklers but with larger bursts like Roman candles. In some ways, her choice of location for unleashing this firestorm is probably safe, in that she is on a rooftop shooting the fireworks into the open air, so the chance of fire is perhaps not too high, though I would like to see firefighting equipment and support staff on the rooftop with her. It’s not clear if these fireworks are something that she calls at will whenever she feels like it, or if it’s something that swells up and happens on its own and she just does the best she can to mitigate the risk. It seems to be an emotional outlet to some degree, presumably cathartic, but to what degree it can be guided or controlled is unclear.

What becomes clear, though, is that her condition is either contagious to the general population, or there is a subset of the population that has the same latent ability that is awakened upon witnessing her rooftop display. So, even if she herself is trying to prevent fire risk, there are additional potentially exponential risks. Others in difficult emotional situations start showing their own fireworks–the boy trying to avoid his parents fighting gets between them to separate them as fireworks burst from his chest (as a threat/dominance display apparently?) , the girl at the pool party sheds her cover-up and joins in the fun, a teenage boy who has apparently been afraid to tell people he is gay approaches his crush and they kiss.

In the most confusing but perhaps helpful variation of this spreading ability, a teenage boy is mugged by a group of other teenage boys but when they try to rifle through his clothes they find only an endless chain of handkerchiefs and a pair of live doves. They stand transfixed at the sparklers bursting from his chest as the boy does a series of card tricks. It’s not clear if the effort at the act is necessary to maintain the frightening display or if he actually thinks that what they are transfixed by is the card tricks themselves.

The child in the hospital wanders down the hallway and finds a room where a woman is giving birth and manifesting her own fireworks. Considering the size of the city that was panned at the beginning, this is a bit confusing, as most hospitals in major metropolitan areas will have large departments physically separated from each other–and it’s confusing that a birthing suite is just a couple doors down from a child’s hospital room, doesn’t the shouting and other noise from the birthing suite keep the children awake who need to be resting? And wouldn’t the expectant mothers prefer to not have random kids walking into their room in the middle of delivery?

When the girl at the pool party surfaces after jumping into the pool, her chest is bursting with flame as well. Thankfully whatever energy it is doesn’t seem to be conducted by the water, as the others in the pool don’t appear to be electrocuted, but we don’t see further in this scene, so it’s entirely possible that her manifesting powers will raise the pool temperature–hopefully just to make it a hot tub rather than raising it to boiling.

Finally, Perry leads an excited throng of people into an open plaza by what appears to be a government building where they dance in formation as they all manifest their own fireworks. This seems to suggest that she is intending to not only unleash this intimidating power in the youths but to teach them to use it as responsibly as she has, favoring open spaces where fire hazard is minimized. And, hey, if these people can express themselves, can discover something new about themselves, and the rest of the city gets a free fireworks display, that could be a net benefit to most. Though, for the sake of any pets living in the area or any veterans with PTSD I hope they don’t do this every night and I hope they announce their intentions ahead of time so people aren’t surprised by it.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: Brawl of the Wild by Dav Pilkey

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: Brawl of the Wild is a 2018 graphic novel for kids, the sixth in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

Our hero Dog Man (half dog half policeman) is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, robbing a bank, and he is confined to jail where he is ridiculed as a misfit. His friends work to free him from confinement while Dog Man tries to reconcile with his dual nature as being both man and dog but not entirely in either world. Meanwhile, Dog Man’s friend Lil’ Petey continues to insist to his “papa” (from whom he was cloned) is not irredeemably a villain, and the Fleas from the last book return to wreak havoc once again.

Another fun romp in this kid’s book adventure!

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between February-July 2008.

After the murder of their father by a couple of a teenagers, Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey Locke move with their mother to a family estate they’ve never seen in Lovecraft, Massachusetts known as Keyhouse. As if the trauma of their father’s death and uprooting of their entire lives isn’t enough, their lives soon get more complicated as they discover the house has secrets. Bode, the youngest of the kids, discovers a supernatural key that when used to unlock a particular door allows someone’s spirit to move invisibly and independently of their body, and he starts hearing voices from the well. Meanwhile, Sam Lesser, the surviving teenager who killed the Locke kids’ father, is receiving supernatural visits from a creature that can talk to him through the water in his sink in his cell.

This series is a horror fantasy masterpiece. The images are incredible and striking, the characters are well-defined and interesting even as they are flawed, and the magic system in the series is extremely fun and compelling to watch. I first started reading them mid-series when one of the volumes was nominated for the Hugo Award and although I didn’t read them right away I never forgot them and when I heard they were making TV adaptations I wanted to finish reading them before I watched the TV version. Highly recommended!

TV REVIEW: Star Vs the Forces of Evil Season 4

written by David Steffen

Star Vs. the Forces of Evil is an action comedy cartoon about an interdimensional mage-warrior princess (Eden Sher) who was sent to Earth for a while where she made friends with earthling Marco Diaz (Adam McArthur) . Season 1 was previously reviewed here, Season 2 reviewed here, and Season 3 reviewed here. Season 4, the final season of the series, aired between March 2019 and May 2019. This review will have spoilers for previous seasons.

Season 3 ended with the resolution of an epic threat against the kingdom of Mewni from the half-monster half-Mewman Meteora (Jessica Walter) is achieved when her mother Eclipsa (Esmé Bianco) casts a spell that reduces her to a baby. Star, who had been acting queen because her mother Moon (Grey Griffin) is missing, cedes the throne to Eclipsa who is the rightful queen of Mewni, who has been imprisoned in a crystal for hundreds of years, also giving her the family wand as her rightful property. Eclipsa immediately begins work reversing many of the laws that supported the royal family’s anti-monster sentiment, as Eclipsa’s beloved is a monster, and her daughter a half-monster. Meanwhile, Star and Marco search for Moon based on a series of half-formed rumors about sightings of her. Eclipsa’s beloved, Globgor (Jaime Camil), is imprisoned in crystal and she has not succeeded in freeing him.

Everything that the series has built up to comes to a head in this season. It still has a lot of fun and moments of levity, but the stakes are higher than ever. Again at the end of the last season the world as we know it has been upturned with the succession leaving Eclipsa in charge of the kingdom, and Star and her parents shown to be descendents of impostors to the throne. With the threat of Meteora gone, new threats arise, threats that put the very existence of Mewni in question.

I love this show so much, I highly recommend it!

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas is a 2018 graphic novel for kids, the fifth in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

The story starts out as Dog Man (half dog half cop), Lil’ Petey (friendly non-evil immature clone of the villain Petey), and 80-HD (their robot friend) form the superhero group Supa Buddies where they each have alter-egos that fight crime. Shortly after, Petey arrives claiming to be the psychiatrist Dr. Katz to take Lil’ Petey too school, but soon is forced to reveal that he has done so under false pretenses because Lil’ Petey is in danger. Lil’ Petey’s history is coming back for him as he recounts a story from when he was a child when he and members of his scout group were stranded on a desert island. Those other members have a grudge against Petey for his actions that day and they have returned for revenge!

Very fun series for kids, and simple enough that kids learning to read can make a lot of progress with a book like this, motivated by the humor to learn more.

TV REVIEW: Star Vs the Forces of Evil Season 3

written by David Steffen

Star Vs. the Forces of Evil is an action comedy cartoon about an interdimensional mage-warrior princess (Eden Sher) who was sent to Earth for a while where she made friends with earthling Marco Diaz (Adam McArthur) . Season 1 was previously reviewed here, and Season 2 reviewed here. Season 3 aired between July 2017 and April 2018. This review will have spoilers for previous seasons.

Some context from Season 2: It is traditional for princesses in the Mewni royal family to have a princess song written about them when they come of age. Most of the songs are vapid fluff pieces, but Star insisted that the piece should have substance. But this idea backfires when the song reveals the major family secret that Star lost the book of spells that has been handed down from generation to generation, and Glossaryck the magical guide to the book, as well as revealing that Star has a crush on Marco. These revelations cause riots among the citizens of Mewni for their Queen Moon (Grey Griffin) keeping secrets from them, and the news of Star’s crush drives a wedge between her and Marco. Shortly after, the villain Toffee (Michael C. Hall) in control of their common enemy Ludo’s (Alan Tudyk) body manages to suck the souls from the Magical High Commission, the highest magical authority, leaving any sort of authority in shambles. Star leaves Earth to deal with matters on Mewni, leaving Marco behind.

The series has always had short episodes that often have seemingly random unrelated plots but has also had building of overarching consequences, and the end of season 2 is the most catastrophic of them all, breaking up the dream team of Star and Marco, leaving the Butterfly family’s most powerful villain on the loose with the magical authority disabled, Season three starts off with the stakes already high and our heroes’ support system in disarray. I loved the series since the start, but Season three shows how intense it can really be, while still having plenty of fun and silliness that is also a great part of the show. I highly recommend it!

MOVIE REVIEW: The Jungle Book (2016)

written by David Steffen

The Jungle Book is a 2016 live action plus CG action/adventure film by Disney Studios which is based on the 1967 animated Disney film of the same title which is in turn based on a collection of stories with that same title published in 1894.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a “man cub”, a human boy who was separated from his family when he was just a baby and raised by the wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and her pack after he was brought to her by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who still visits them as a friend.

Mowgli lives peacefully among the animals for a number of years, until one year while at the watering hole during a drought they encounter a fire-scarred tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who has a vendetta against humans for disfiguring him. He tells the wolf pack that if the boy isn’t gone by the end of the drought then he will kill Mowgli. The pack debates what the best thing to do is, but Mowgli decides that he should leave for the benefit of the pack and Bagheera offers to guide him to the nearest man-village.

Shere Khan hunts them as they try to travel safely and Mowgli makes new friends along the way who help him on his journey, including Baloo the bear (Bill Murray). Mowgli’s clearest route to safety is to be returned to a man-village, but he doesn’t know their language or any of their ways and he doesn’t want to leave the wolf pack who have been his family his whole life.

This movie has a great set of voice actors, and it’s fun to see these actors apply their voice talens to a familiar franchise, though, as with many of the Disney live/CG remakes it did sort of leave the question “why did this need to be remade? Wouldn’t the time and effort have been better spent on something new?”

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #10: Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2013 film Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe, a freedom anthem in a science fiction dystopia, part of a series of interconnected films based in the future city (city-state?) of Metropolis, and in particular The Ministry of Droids of Metropolis.

Note that I covered one of Janelle Monáe’s films previously in Music Video Drilldown #1 about her film Tightrope. Tightrope has a number of similarities to Q.U.E.E.N. and although I think one could make an argument for them being part of the same continuity (more on that later), I don’t see anything that makes it obviously meant to be related from the films I’ve seen so far.

“It’s hard to stop rebels who time travel. But we at the Time Council pride ourselves on doing just that” a recorded video introduction welcomes visitors as they enter the Living Museum, with mellow string music playing the background.

An emblem in the background of the video gives us a great deal of information about the setting. Around the edges of the circular emblem is written “MINISTRY OF DROIDS” and “METROPOLIS”. Neither of these names is further mentioned in this film, but this makes clear continuity connections with other Janelle Monáe films like Many Moons which will be a subject of a future Music Video Drilldown. In the inner circle of the emblem the motto is “Vita En Machina”–I am no Latin expert, but I think it means something like “Life to a Machine” or “Life Within a Machine” which makes sense as being related to the Ministry of Droids which create artifical humanoids. And at the bottom of the inner circle, the year they were established, which at least on my screens is a little bit too blurry to read, but I think it might be in the 2700s, perhaps 2710?

This is no ordinary exhibit, as the narrator explains, “rebels throughout history have been frozen in suspended animation”. The particular exhibit that we are viewing is titled “PROJECT Q.U.E.E.N.”, featuring the rebel group Wondaland and their leader Janelle Monáe (played by Janelle Monáe herself, naturally), as well as her accomplice Badoula Oblongata (Eryka Badu). Project Q.U.E.E.N. is described as a “musical weapons program in the 21st century”, the nature of which is still not understood (at least, by those who prepared this exhibit). It mentions that they are still hunting the various “freedom movements that Wondaland disguised as songs, emotion pictures, and works of art.” So this is not only an exhibit about Janelle Monáe, what strolling museum visitors are looking at is actually the Janelle Monáe themself who has apparently been captured and is being held prisoner here. Within this first half-minute or so the film has set the stage for multiple interconnected films, establishing Janelle Monáe as both an actor and a character, and largely establishing her goals to fight the establishment.

Two young black women enter the scene. Unlike the other museum goers who are wearing formalwear (black suits and black dresses), they are dressed more casually. As the narrator finishes her spiel about disguised freedom movements, one of the young women pulls a vinyl record labeled “Q.U.E.E.N.” and places it on a display with a skull record player, and starts it playing. The mellow instrumentals are replaced with a more jazzy beat (electric guitar). This change in music alerts the museum guards and the women act quickly to incapacitate the guards and duct tape their unconscious forms to keep them from interfering.

The music begins to wake Janelle Monáe and the other members of Wondaland, and Janelle Monáe begins to sing: “I can’t believe the things they say about me”, “they call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules now”. She speaks on how they are criticized for not fitting into the roles that are expected of them, and muses aloud whether it makes her weird or makes her a freak to dance alone late at night. “And tell me what’s the price of fame”–although Janelle Monáe came from humble beginnings in a working family, now that they have become a major celebrity in both music and film, what is the cost of that? How can she stay true to herself with all eyes on her, with the temptations of celebrity lifestyle that are available?

It’s not only her identity as a Black person who has a strong sense of integrity at stake, as they reference their queer identity as well with lines like “is it weird to like the way she wears her tights”. This is a segue to religion as she asks “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? Say will your God accept me in my black and white? Will he approve the way I’m made?” The colors of black and white are repeated multiple times during the song as well as the visual design: much of the exhibit is in stark black and white colors, and almost all of the costumes are entirely black and white apart from a red sash on Janelle Monáe’s initial costume. Her conclusion to this self-reflective musing is the declaration: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”

These questions are asked from a different scene, rather than the Janelle Monáe at the museum, it features Janelle Monáe in a couple of different outfits with a group of Black women dressed in black and white striped clothes. Another analysis I read of Q.U.E.E.N. indicated that the character portrayed in at least one of those scenes is not meant to be the character Janelle Monáe herself but is instead meant to be the android Cindi Mayweather (who is not explicitly mentioned in this film, but who will be discussed at greater length in the next Janelle Monáe film analysis in this series, of the film Many Moons). It is entirely possible that that IS meant to be Cindi Mayweather, it’s possible that there are some visual indications that this is Mayweather, or it’s possible that Janelle Monáe has stated this in an interview or something, but the only ways I know how to differentiate Cindi Mayweather from Janelle Monáe visually is: 1. Cindi Mayweather’s skin color is configurable, seeming to default to a chalky white, but she can configure her skin to look exactly like Janelle Monáe’s skin, so this would only be a clear indicator if she did look chalky white. 2. She has a function button on her left temple as seems to be standard droid design in Metropolis, but in the scene in question her hair is covering the area where the button would be present.

At this point in the film, Badoula Oblongata rouses from her suspended animation and joins the song. In the exhibit at the beginning she is shown wearing a white coat that resembles a doctor’s coat, worn as a dress, with golden forearm guards, accompanied by two men in pristine white suits and white berets overlooking a table that has a camera and some rolled up papers that might be blueprints. She is walking a gray standard poodle.

Badoula Oblongata has a solo section of song where she has a more mellow musical line with lyrics including: “Baby, here comes the freedom song” “There’s a melody, show you another way” and coming to what seems to be the thesis statement of this section: “you gotta testify, because the booty don’t lie”. My interpretation of this is that she (along with Janelle Monáe who is dancing and lipsyncing along to this with supporting gestures) that the way to get through to people about matters of equality of justice is to incorporate it into music that is extremely catchy–so that people will be attracted to the music to sing and dance along to it, and will absorb the truth of the underlying lyrics as they do this. This ties into the museum’s statements about it being one of a number of a series of what they consider to be “musical weapons programs”. This is especially apt in a film which establishes the musician Janelle Monáe themself as a rebel who time-travels because this well describes Janelle Monáe’s music which is incredibly catchy, especially when combined with the visuals from her films, but always (or at least always in the subset of their music that I have heard so far) contains an underlying message about equality and justice and the state of our world which is all the more effective at getting into your head through the medium of an “earworm” song that gets in your head and you find yourself singing the lyrics days or weeks after you last heard it–how can you help but consider and examine lyrics that are constantly repeating in your head?

As the music continues, one of the members of Wondaland sits at a typewriter and types the same line of text over and over again: “We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years.”

At this point in the film Janelle Monáe says “I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say” and changes musical format to finish the song with a rap, now wearing her iconic tuxedo for the first time in this song–talking about being part of a lost generation of people “add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal”. I think this may be referring to several things, but the first that comes to mind is Jim Crow laws and other societal structures that perpetuated the oppression of Black people even after slavery was officially ended. “They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, but when it’s time to pay they turn around and call us needy” and makes it clear that she is tired of watching her people be taken advantage of. She ends the film with a call to action “Will you be electric sheep, electric ladies. Will you sleep? Or will you preach?”

In an interview with Fuse HQ Janelle Monáe explains the acronym of the title of this song:

“‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ definitely is an acronym,” Monae explains during an interview at Fuse HQ. “It’s for those who are marginalized.” She says the “Q” represents the queer community, the “U” for the untouchables, the “E” for emigrants, the second “E” for the excommunicated and the “N” for those labeled as negroid.  “It’s for everyone who’s felt ostracized,” she adds. “I wanted to create something for people who feel like they want to give up because they’re not accepted by society.”

Back to Tightrope for a moment. There are similarities between the two films. They both star Janelle Monáe playing Janelle Monáe. Both films begin with Janelle Monáe held prisoner (in this case a museum, in Tightrope, an asylum), along with members of Wondaland, with music identified as the source of their power (in Tightrope dancing was outlawed because of subversive tendencies and that it leads to illegal magic). There might not be a clear contuity between the two, the powers that are holding her prisoner in each film appear to be very different… but given that Janelle Monáe is canonically a time traveler, it’s entirely plausible that these are different organizations, perhaps in entirely different centuries or that one organization developed into the other over time. The only other clue to the connection might be the shoes on one of the pedestals at the exhibit which seem to be the same shoes Janelle Monáe and her entourage wore in Tightrope (although it’s possible they wear the shoes at other times, I know Janelle Monáe wears tuxedoes many times especially in their earlier work but I’m not sure about the shoes). Are the shoes on the pedestal a hint that this is a single continuity? Or since this exhibit is about Janelle Monáe is that a hint that that was a music video made by Janelle Monáe in the history but not necessarily a historical record? Or was it just an Easter egg with no particular meaning?

Janelle Monáe is a master at doing exactly what is described within this song–writing songs that are catchy as hell, that make your foot tap, that make you want to dance (even for those of us who have never had a talent for dancing), that are full of truths about the problems with our social structure that you find yourself singing along to and getting in your head.

A future Music Video Drilldown will feature Many Moons by Janelle Monáe. I am greatly looking forward to that one because that one has clear connections with this one–not least of which that both take place in Metropolis and involve the Ministry of Droids, but that one stars the android Cindi Mayweather, which to this day is referenced in the dual name of Janelle Monáe’s Twitter account.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Firework by Katy Perry.