Saturday, May 31, 2008

Baron Death

I can't write a comprehensive history of Steel, The Indestructible Man's first villain, as I only own his first appearance. Still, good luck funding reference anywhere to Baron Death, absent from the web when not confused with Commander's Steel's other major foe, Baron Blitzkrieg. As I understand it, Steel supplied the acid the concentration camp prisoners of the sadistic Nazi commandant Reiter eventually used to blind and scar the future Blitzkrieg. That Baron in turn brainwashed Steel into an assassination attempt against FDR, and one wonders if perhaps there were after-effects, given Heywood's troubled later life. Regardless, that was another baron.

Baron Tödlich and his henchman Bruno attended the German medical conference in August of 1939 where Doctor Gilbert Giles and his student assistant Henry Heywood mounted a disasterous presentation. Heywood had developed a biological "retardent" that allowed damaged limbs and organs to be replaced surgically without rejection. No, the rejection instead came from the German scientific community. "How may you Americans accomplish what the Reich's finest surgeons cannot?" The men were declared frauds and were demanded to leave the country. Tödlich however was not so blinded by nationalism. "I believe Doctor Gilbert Giles... He may prove useful to us, someday-- when we make our-- visit-- to America!" Heywood noticed Tödlich as well, but didn't care for the sight.

A few months later, off the shore of Long Island, a black U-Boat fired a torpedo-shaped missile at the shoreline. A hulking figure rode atop it, then drug the device with him onto the beach, where he met with three Fifth Columnists. "We were told to expect a weapons drop from off-shore... but nothing was said about a new saboteur... Particularly one dressed as flamboyantly as you!"

"Ignorance excuses your insubordination this time, schwein. No warning was given of my arrival because my mission is an ultra-top secret... known only to Hitler and Göring themselves! As for my costume, it will prove necessary! And as for my name-- IT IS BARON DEATH! You will find the name most appropriate once you have used-- these! Experimental weapons to be tested here in America for their effectiveness against the U.S. military machine! Each machine gun may fire up to two hundred rounds a minute-- four times as fast as the fastest American gun! If these weapons work, Germany will use them to smash America-- and then the world! Heil Hitler!"

That same night, Hank Heywood uncovered saboteurs while in boot camp, and was caught in a near fatal explosion. Months later, he had transformed into the cyborg super-hero Steel, and his first tussel was with some of Baron Death's men. "We have a mission, to steal American weapons for comparison with our exprimental ones..." These men carried only conventional machine guns, whose bullets bounced right off Commander Steel. Essentially defenseless, Steel made short work of the trio, and left them for the MPs. Baron Death would have to be dealt with at a later date.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Steel, The Indestructible Man Vol.1, No.1 (March 1978)

The story was titled "From Hell Is Forged ...A Hero!" I was wondering "what the hell" myself, so at least that's one question sorta-kinda answered. I mean, not only did this nostalgic World War II patriotic throwback arrive too late to cash in on the Bicentennial celebration, but coming after Watergate, he just seemed naively trite. Heck, even "The Six Million Dollar Man" had been cancelled the same month as this first issue's cover-date. Maybe Conway's prior run on Captain America was too brief for his taste, or perhaps Commander Steel was intended to be the first dedicated super-hero of Earth-1? Regardless, he saw cancellation after a scant five issues, based as much on lack of creative merit as the general casualty of all "DC Explosion" titles that were snuffed by economic reality.

As depicted by Gerry Conway and Don Heck, remarkable Princeton biology student Henry "Hank" Heywood visited Munich, Germany, a city and nation he spends four panels venting against. Comparing Nazism to the Black Plague, and rightly disparaging Prime Minister Chamberlain's appeasement policy, Heywood moaned in his journal "God, I wish I'd never let Doctor Giles talk me into coming with him to this German medical conference... Why did we ever bother? The Germans won't even listen to the Doctor's discoveries..." As one, the German doctors decried Giles as a fraud... or actually, as five, their balloons somehow more hateful than Heywood's journal entries. Heywood and Giles exited the auditorium as German professionals pumped their fists and demanded their departure from Der Fatherland.

On their way to the airport, Heywood spied a pair of Brownshirts beating an elderly "Juden pig!" Hank let his own fists do the talking from there: "Forget the old man, Ludwig-- WHY DON'T YOU TRY STARTING WITH ME?" The Jew thanked Hank for his foolish bravery, then pulled a Yinsen, drawing Goosestepper fire while the hothead escaped.

The pair returned to the States in August of 1939, where Doctor Giles was met by his daughter, Hank's horse-faced girlfriend Gloria. The fiery mare presented Hank with a newspaper announcing Hitler's invasion of Poland. "Then that madman's going to spread his hate across Europe... maybe the world! There'll be more old men like that Jew in Munich... Perhaps... millions!" Dr. Giles didn't feel this needed to be America's war, but Heywood's vision of the future compelled him to enlist. "Why I chose the Marines, I'll never know. Maybe because they were the toughest... maybe because of old Victor McLaughlin* movies... or maybe because the young intellectual had something to prove to himself." Gloria Giles neighed heartily at this turn, "Play soldier if you want-- but don't expect me to be waiting when you're finished with your toys!" In her defense, Heywood was quoting scripture at her to validate his decision.

Heywood drowned his sorrows with his boot camp buddies at a local bar, but was gripped by self doubt on the lonely walk back to base. "Maybe Gloria's right. I have been playing this like Gary Cooper playing Sergeant York... Am I kidding myself? Grand-standing-- for my own ego? NO! This is something I believe in!" Just then, Heywood spied Ratzi saboteurs planting dynamite along the base perimeter, and introduced one's face to his knee. Another was dealt a hay maker right into an explosive plunger, blowing the lot of them to kingdom come. Oopsie-doodle.

Investigating troops scraped up what was left of Heywood, who miraculously survived. "Regaining consciousness was like slipping into a vat of boiling oil. Everything hurt so much, I could barely see straight... until I saw Gloria..." The poor thing was in tears over her hurtful parting words, while her father discussed with Hank the pseudo-science the pair specialized in that would make Heywood whole again. "Every day, there were operations... and more operations! Using the bio-retardent[sic] we'd developed together during my years as his student, Giles rebuilt my ravaged body from the skeleton up... First there was steel alloy tubing to replace pulped bone in my arms and legs and ribcage... Then a metal casing to protect my skull... and micro-motors in all my joints to help me move all that steel... Then more substitutions-- an artificial lung for the ruined one... and back-up devices to aid my damaged heart... and finally, most-- most painfully, the bio-retardant was used to induce skin-regrowth over the burned areas... covering the whole patchwork contraption with a flesh that made it my own..." By November on '39, Heywood had gone from invalid to superman. The new lung could sustain Heywood for a half hour underwater, he was super-strong, and nigh impervious. These breakthroughs remained a secret.

"I returned to duty, but with a hitch. Because of my recorded 'medical disability,'
I'd be a desk jockey..." Gloria continued to fume and threaten Heywood; "She hates war-- and so do I. But I'm still going to do my part somehow--" Heywood fashioned a uniform and dubbed himself Steel, The Indestructible Man! "This outfit may be colorful, but it's also far more-- flexible steel alloy, not strong enough to protect an ordinary man from gunfire-- but just tough enough to give me a crucial edge!" Steel then stole weaponry from the Westchester Federal Armory that he could later modify for his own purposes. First though, he happened upon yet another group of Fifth Columnists on his way out. "It's no movie, Nazi-- and I'm no Clark Gable!" Steel chuckled as he brutalized the baddies, going so far as to use the body of one to strike another. "Ever go bowling, friend?"

"Slipping away was easy-- a ten foot leap, and a 50MPH dash into some convenient foliage... Maybe this is why I survived the bomb-blast, to fight rats like the boss of those saboteurs... Baron Death! ...I'm going to use those powers and abilities in my own private war, until America wakes up to the menace of Hitler and Stalin and Tojo and Mussolini. It may be a lonely war, it may be unpopular just now-- but it's got to be done, and I'm the guy cut out to do it!"

Also of note, an interesting article on the anachronistic costumes of 40's retconned characters, including Steel, Baron Blitzkreig, and more.

* Presumably, he meant Victor McLaglen.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Frank Review of "The Fountain" (2006)

The Short Version? Love transcending time and adversity.
What Is It? Sci-Fi Drama.
Who's In It? Hugh Jackman and Rachael Weisz.
Should I See It? Yes.

The Fountain was intended to be a $70 Million epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. That movie would have been lame, so I'm glad Pitt killed that incarnation of the project. Instead, it was made for half that price with Hugh Jackman and Rachael Weisz, and earned back only half that amount again. I'm sure the producers weren't thrilled, but I can't say as I mind, as I think the end result was a masterpiece. Unable to afford CGI, the visual effects relied heavily on creative lighting and angles, as well as the filming of chemical reactions, a process little used outside of science films and "head" pictures. The effect, however, is stunningly beautiful-- something clearly more alive than processed. In place of the numbing spectacle of a cast of thousands is a cast of dozens on a sound stage. At times things look a bit low-rent, but the artifice is more akin to a stage play, lending it a intimacy routinely lost amidst the hubbub of more grand productions.

The film was written as a response to "The Matrix," delving less into science-fiction than philosophy, the organic and indigenous rather than otherworldly cybernetics. Also, it is at its core a tearjerker, but there should be enough bloodshed and heart to earn a pass from men. The film takes place in three separate time periods, casting the lead actors in five roles between them. Both are outstanding in each incarnation. Hugh Jackman shows incredible range and depth, masterfully affecting changes in posture and tone to inhabit three distinct manifestations of one soul. Weisz suffers from the same English actress disease as Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter, which turns their American accents into a hoarse East Coast hash spoken by no one ever. However, she's redeemed by her sensitivity and accessibility in her roles, gently but irresistibly forcing the audience to feel for her.

Clint Mansell's score was six years in the making, is ever present, and is endlessly touching. The story works on multiple levels, and allows for many interpretations. Fans of comparative religion and mythology are given much to chew on. The film received mixed reviews on release. Some people find it abrupt and pretensions. It certainly isn't for everyone, but I can't imagine anyone not finding something to love here, if only with the sound down and the closing sequence on a loop. The whole of the film won me over though, and I'm notoriously picky.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Grand Old JLA

Not so long ago, I gave my opinions on the political affiliations of The Avengers and The Man of Steel. With DC Comics now releasing a mini-series called "Decisions" openly exploring the same themes with their characters, I thought it would be a good time to handicap the positions. I'm a Liberal myself, so I started with the Republicans, since I like to think I can detect "otherness" in these characters...

Green Lantern (Hal Jordan): Ollie Queens's counterpoint, but since he was being written by Denny O'Neil, that only went so far as moderate Republicanism. He's a space-cop who works for a legion of blue-skinned David Ben-Gurions. Sure he has issues with authority, self-doubt and is a bit flighty, but when it comes right to it, Hal knows what side his bread is buttered on. He helped pull the original Angry Black Superman, John Stewart, from the militant left to a more moderate position, and his return to form included reconciliation with Reagan-loving Guy Gardner. Still, Hal's moderate enough to get along with artboy Kyle Rayner.

Hawkman & Hawkwoman(Carter & Shayera Hall): Hawk, man. Sure the Ostrander take dabbled with liberalism in the early 90's, and the current Hawkgirl has been hanging out with Roy Harper lately, but we're talking about brief bouts with juvenile rebellion here. They say everyone becomes more conservative as they get older, and you don't get much older than this reincarnation of an Egyptian prince.

The Atom (Ray Palmer): I know what you're thinking... a college professor created by Gardner Fox and Gil Kane, who's arch-enemy was the spitting image of Richard Nixon? Well, let's not be too hasty. This guy spent the 1960's fighting other scientists-- sure notable nutjobs like Jason Woodrue and Dr. Light, but still. Ever see Atom in a lefty PSA? Didn't he spend a lot of time with Hawkman without the slightest squawk of dispute? When he found out his wife was cheating on him, what did he do? Fly off to the Amazon to live out his fantasy as a sword and sorcery hero. It's not like Ray tried to lift the yellow-skinned natives out of barbarism. He just wanted to poke their men and women with one sort of sword or another. Didn't Bill O'Reilly write a book like that? Maybe not, but Ray sure did, outing his secret identity and leaving his trifling ex vulnerable to reprisal while he returned to the jungle! What does he do when he returns? Start using his body like a living bullet through the bodies of alien invaders. Lend out his powers to clandestine government operations like Amanda Waller's Suicide Squad. Work with the C.I.A. And when he commits his now crazy, murderous ex to, of all the hellholes on Earth, Arkham Asylum? He disappears to another, simpler Earth while assigning a Chinese national his abdicated role. I'm telling you, Ray Palmer is one of those quiet, objectivist Libertarian types you do not want to serve jury duty with. He was after Tricky Dick for being too soft.

The Flash (Barry Allen and Wally West): Barry strikes me as one of those salt of the earth Midwestern types who can't understand the objection to prayer in the school, or even Intelligent Design. West, meanwhile, has a long history of Red-baiting self-righteousness. That kid blew through a fortune, and happily traded on his celebrity for perks and his share of (occasionally adulterous) bed-hopping. None of that would separate him from a democrat, except that he decided to put that all in the past and lord over other heroes with his moral superiority, a decidedly Republican inclination.

Elongated Man and Sue Dibney: Comfortably rich amateur super-sleuths with public identities? Moderate Republicans, I assure you.

Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein): A nuclear scientist and a jock who only protested a nuke plant in a bid to get laid? Yeah, Red Staters.

Blue Beetle II (Ted Kord): A genius inventor, athlete, and industrialist vigilante created by Steve Ditko? Also able to hang with Ditko's Question and Captain Atom? Even his latter-day mismanagement of Kord Industries and pursuing super-heroics with a heart condition point to this guy being a friend of the Bushes.

Booster Gold (Michael Carter): An unapologetic capitalist and best friend of Blue Beetle.

Captain Atom (Nathaniel Adam): Leaned Democrat immediately Post-Crisis, but this is another Ditko creation with a military background, so he inevitably swung back far right. If nothing else, his recent power and war mongering as Monarch seals the deal.

Huntress (Helena Bertinelli): Can't you just picture Helena at a Young Republicans rally with Shannon Doherty circa 1993? Is it just me, or does Helena share much of Ann Coulter's demeanor? Batman pretty much hated her on sight, Dick still feels guilty for sleeping with her, and Chuck Dixon claimed her for himself for most of the 90's. All signs point to Neo-conservative.

Metamorpho (Rex Mason): I'm mostly going with my gut here, although his famed adventurer shtick and association with the Staggs play into that. I don't know about the comics, but in the cartoon he was also ex-Marine, as far as that goes.

Power Girl (Kara Zor-L): I'll be the first to admit this one seems a stretch, with PG being such a vocal feminist. On the other hand, association with the JSA always bestows an air of Conservativism, and she always seemed more out of place among the Left Coast Infinitors and even the JLE. She's pro-interventionist, happily uses her sex appeal to her advantage, and was even an industrialist at one point. She feels right here.

Big Barda: Born and raised on Apocalypse. 'Nuff said.

Faith: Ex-Military Black Ops. Do the math.

See also: Steel II (Hank Heywood the Third) Dr. Light II (Kimiyo Hoshi,) Orion, Maxima, Agent Liberty, Triumph, Antaeus, and Jason Blood.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Frank Review of "Aeon Flux" (2005)

The Short Version? Spandex heroine versus totalitarian regime.
What Is It? Sci-Fi/Action.
Who's In It? Charlize Theron.
Should I See It? No.

I remember when the credits began to roll on my first viewing of "The Matrix." A triumph number by "Rage Against The Machine" played, inciting rebellion and leading into the bludgeoning nihilism of Marilyn Manson's "Rock Is Dead." That's how you ended a great counter-culture cyberpunk movie in 1999. I don't know offhand how one should have done the same thing in 2005. Neither did the Wachowskis, based on their lousy sequals to "The Matrix." The same would seem to apply to "Aeon Flux" director Karyn Kusama, who played out her epic with a low-key, droning electronica number. It perfectly encapsulated her movie, however.

The "Aeon Flux" animated short for MTV's "Liquid Television" were high on imagery, short on narrative. A nearly nude woman in shiny vinyl killed hosts of masked troops in her dogged pursuit scientist/tyrant with fashion model looks, which might explain the frequent sexual tension between the two. In fact, the whole series seemed more than anything to be about sexualized violence and victimization through circumstance. All the characters were anorexic, with predatory eyes and obscure motivations. It was like the distilled essential appeal of the 60's spy thriller, untroubled by the particulars of purpose and recontextualized as sci-fi for modern consumption.

"Aeon Flux" the movie tries valiantly to retain the off-kilter orientation and intriguing visuals of the shorts, but marries it to a somber, sexless engine that ultimately owes more to melodramatic 50's Hollywood tearjerkers and the cold dystopic speculations of 70's films like "Soylent Green" and "THX 1138." The action choreography is serviceable, but veers too close to "Charlie's Angels" flaunting of physics without going far enough over the top to accurately reflect the cartoons. The vivid production design and Berlin location shooting was chosen to steer the visuals far from the terrain of the many "Blade Runner" imitators, but at its heart it is as dour as any of them. Perhaps this was a conscious choice, as the film's characters are existentially conflicted through most of its running time. Regardless, the audience is tortured by quirkty CGI and wonderful costumes in service to an idling story with lifeless performances.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Frank Review of "The Running Man"

Truth to tell, I probably haven't seen "The Running Man" in twenty years, and I expect to wait that long until my next viewing. It isn't so much that the movie's bad as I need such a broad span of time to forget Arnie's constant, loathsome puns. Beyond the disregard for human life that comes with making light of the gruesome fare this film serves up, the jokes are just obvious, "Batman and Robin" caliber duds. If you can set these pathetic attempts at Connery Bond gallows cool aside, and for me that takes decades, it remains a fine romp. Richard Bachman's (aka Stephen King's) story allows for plenty of Orwellian allusions and criticism of the media, which seem odd in a Arnold Schwarzenegger film, unless you imagine his character's battling Left Wing bias. Hard to swallow, as the flick clearly served as the template for "American Gladiators," which was about as pinko as G. Gordon Liddy.

Set in 2017, its future seems more likely as the date nears, unlike the embarrassing lack of foresight assumed by most sci-fi action spectacles. Schwarzenegger plays a military man who, after refusing to fire on a crowd during a food riot, is framed for the subsequent massacre and sent to prison. After effecting an escape with fellow political prisoners Yaphet Kotto and Caucasian Cannon Fodder, Schwarzenegger tries to leave the country with hostage Maria Conchita Alonzo. Failing that, Schwarzenegger is conned into taking part in a reality show pitting him against "Stalkers" in a bombed out ghetto, with freedom as his prize. Richard Dawson of "Family Feud" fame was so deliciously convincing as the shady host of the program, I'm amazed he was able to return to his game show duties. Schwarzenegger runs a gauntlet against the "Stalkers," who are basically sports-themed super-villains, while taking in to what degree the reality of his situation is warped for mass consumption in the editing room. What seemed far-fetched in 1987 isn't at all far removed from what the networks have been offering up for years now, which I would like to applaud as prescient but was more likely a dire inevitability.

Sadly, what is at times wicked fun becomes mired in action tropes by the final reel, as liberation comes through automatic weapons fire, Austrian muscle, and a not remotely credible command of the airwaves. Still, enough good will has been earned by this point to allow for some slack, at least so long as I've given myself enough distance to forget the few zingers left to offer.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Captain America "Fortitude" Inspirational Sign (2005)

I thought this would be an appropriate post for Memorial Day, although the sentiment is perhaps a tad severe. Yeesh! I couldn't find an artist credit on the sign, but it's by Boris Vallejo, originally for Marvel Masterpieces '96. The New York skyline from the painting has been Photoshopped out in favor of the Capital Building, which I actually prefer.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

1969 "Take A Tijuana Taxi" Monogram Model Kit Ad

Look, I'm not trying to make excuses for backdating my 1:56 a.m. post to 11:59 p.m. so that I can keep up with my "daily" posts. I'm just saying, despite a great many pluses, the Tijuana Taxi is perhaps not the best choice for timely transportation when a deadline is approaching. I really do need to work up a back cataloge of ...nurgh... autoposts for when I know I'm going to be tied up all day.

Anyhow, enjoy this 1969 model kit ad, as I hope you enjoyed yesterday's '68 advertisement for the Biblical sin of divination. Let your children while away their free time with abominable prognostication and gross racial sterotypes, while their older brothers are dodging VC sniper fire in 'Nam. Gosh, but to have those good ol' days of innocence again...

Friday, May 23, 2008

1968 Transogram "You Are Under The Spell of Ka-Bala" Ad

You belly will be bountiful with children, and despite your best efforts, no harm will come to them! You hair will become fine, if brittle, like that of a doll or scarecrow! Your inane "reality" television shows will be picked up by the networks! You will have the body of a twenty year old at fifty, although still be severely off-putting! This is the power of Ka-Bala!

Funnily enough, a sidestepped many opportunities to take an interest in my Jewish heritage, until a book of excerpts from the Zohar turned me around. I know enough about archeology to realize it, like the Tanakh, is more book than holy word, but I still find merit in its teachings. That said, the only way you'd get me to even consider a $200 bottle of "Kabbalah water" is if I get to see Madonna treat it like the one in "Truth or Dare."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jordan League of America

In case you hadn't heard, there's a new Justice League book coming out. Brian Bendis recently pulled this same shtick with "Mighty Avengers" of mixing a few headliners with third-stringers, driven partly by their being among the only Marvel heroes to work as Republicans (in contrast to the criminally liberal "New Avengers.") Unless this new Hal Jordan-led outfit is going to use lethal force or find themselves shedding numbers ala Suicide Squad, I fail to see the point of staffing the team with so many bottom feeders. The DCU has always suffered from a dearth of viable super-teams, with only the League, Titans, and Legion seeing consistent respect and usage. This new outfit as launched seems likely to be a failure on its own, and as an added bonus could harm Jordan and Queens only recently respectable reputations. Perhaps I come off pessimistic, but after reading James Robinson's interview at CBR, I found only more cause for concern.

  • "Robinson’s concept for “Justice League” is fuelled by the notion that while some of the world’s greatest heroes react in perhaps a more methodical and pensive way to the murder of a DCU character in “Final Crisis,” others, namely Hal and Ollie, are ready to strike down with great vengeance and furious anger as if Samuel L. Jackson was calling the shots." Has this sort of hardcore, pro-active approached ever worked with established heroes? "Extreme Justice?" "The Elite?" And their motivation for going this route is Martian Manhunter? Way to honor his memory, asshats.
  • “I have a theory about certain characters. They are meant to be supporting characters. They are meant to be backup characters. The moment you give them books, it never completely works." How many ways can I call bullshit on this? James Robinson only long term major critical and commercial success was "Starman," a character and concept that failed to connect with the public for nearly fifty years before the strength and sincerity of the creative team made it work. Why would that be any less true of characters he singled out for shame with his statement, like Hawkman and the Atom, who've performed better and more consistently than Starman for most of their existence?
  • "I defy you to tell me what Ray Palmer’s personality is? There has never been a personality. So that’s one of things I am going to do with him as well, is give him a personality." Bullshit. I've been a fan of the sophisticated, subtle characterization of Ray Palmer since the 80's, whereas the overblown Jordan and Queen have mostly left me cold for as long as I've been reading comics.
  • For years, I loved Hal Jordan's look, but never read his series. Meanwhile, I was disinterested in the Flash on every level. In the 90's, I got my hands on a fat chunk of Flash & GL back issues, only to realize that I really liked Barry Allen's laid back charm, while Jordan was kind of an flaky idiot jerk. I still like the Green Lantern Corps and am disinterested in the Speed Force, but both Barry and Wally West are just much more palatable and heroic individuals than Hal Jordan. That said, I'd take Ray Palmer over the lot of them. If Ray Palmer doesn't have a personality, neither does Alan Scott. He's the only reason I would buy this book.
  • I discussed my issues with Ollie Queen a week or so back in "The Bane of Multiversalism." When you team-up Ollie with Hal, he becomes Hawkeye, and I don't read Hawkeye comics.
  • “Geoff and I have made a solemn vow in terms of the Superbooks, that it’s not two books that we are doing " ‘Action Comics’ and ‘Superman’ -- it’s three, with ‘Supergirl.’" So does that mean they're going to carry Puckett via crossovers, or override him with this new book as leverage? I flippin' hate the Jeph Loeb/Michael Turner anorexic bimbo Supergirl. This character's continued existence sets back her entire gender, and if everyone's being written in character, Hal totally has to fuck her. It's the Arisia thing all over again, and that was disturbing enough the first time. Alternately, they can kill her yet again, in which case I have a bitchin' reboot premise already in mind...
  • So there's finally going to be a Batwoman series? “To be honest with you, I am a little hands off with that character. She’s Greg Rucka’s character. She’s in the book to give the book a ‘Bat’ emblem. I don’t really have the greatest handle on her. She’s going to be more off to the side." So the dyke sits on the bench, useful only for notoriety? How progressive...
  • “Do you know the whole thing with Captain Marvel Jr. and Elvis Presley?" Yes we do, but you're to tell us anyway, pretty well undermining anyone's ability to take the new "Shazam" seriously. Not that there was much hope to begin with.
  • Congorilla? Anyone remember Grant Morrison's Liefeld parody "Doom Force?" DC seems to be killing off all its Silver Age super-chimps, so smart money's on Bill buying it next.
  • In case you missed it, the book is actually called just "Justice League." Confusing much? Diluting the brand any?
  • At least they got Mauro Cascioli for this, who seems poised to become DC's Gabriele Dell'Otto. Let's hope his schedule isn't comparable...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Frank Review of "Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns"

The Hollywood Pitch: Johnny Depp's character from "The Ninth Gate" tracking down the videotape from "The Ring" through the underground distribution network of "8mm." You might be saying to yourself, "didn't all of those films fail to deliver?" Well yes, whatever horror that may have been intended in Polanksi's film was overwhelmed by quirkiness and a weak final act, and yes, the another was a David Fincher knock-off as directed by the man responsible for Bat-nipples. I suppose the Naomi Watts starmaking vehicle worked out alright, if J-horror retreads are you thing. So if one in three obvious sources didn't work, what can we expect from a second pass by John Carpenter? See, if you're asking yourself that, you may have a shot at enjoying this tale.

Norman Reedus plays a recovering junkie film-buff hired by Udo Kier to find a rare 70's film that incites people to violence at its every rare showing. To prove the depravity of the work, Kier shows a cast member he's "acquired," an angel in chains with its wings chopped off. Kier is Kier, so exult before his haminess. Reedus looks less like the handsome vigilante from "The Boondock Saints" and more like post-boxing but pre-plastic surgery Micky Rourke, but I suppose that's all to the good of the character type. Reedus is still mourning his fellow-junkie-turned-suicide wife, a major plot point to which a motivation is never ascribed. Not unlike that bit about the angel, the acquisition of which seeming like a more interesting tale. That's actually the main fault of the script: lots of details left undivulged, replaced with an excess of repetitive exposition regarding matters the viewer could have just as easily assumed.

When the movie works, it's building up the elusive evil-on-film through descriptions from its surviving viewers/participants. Where it fails is, well, everywhere else. As I said, you've seen this movie before, and nothing much is added here. For instance, there's the filming of a snuff movie straight out of Hostel, which proves the near final gateway to acquiring the film. The problem being, if the filmmakers have so little regard for human life, why haven't they taken possession of the sought-after celluloid? Best not to think about it too much, as that's just another plot hole in one rough stretch of road.

How does it all end? You know already? Will you be disappointed? You know that too? Will you at least reach that end in a fraction of the time as the referenced material? Indeed, so it isn't all bad. For instance, when was the last time you saw death-by-movie-projector? Just be sure to pop in the disc with diminished expectations, and let the not entirely unpleasant familiarity wash over you. This is especially true for the gorehounds, as there's a surprising level of violence for a direct-to-Showtime affair.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Frank Review of "Ghost Rider" and "Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer"

Ghost Rider (2006)

The first thing I thought when I saw the "Ghost Rider" trailer in the theater? "That looks really bad." What exactly was I referring to? I suppose I could narrow it down to the terrible dialogue, lousy acting, video game cut scene CGI, and the Nicholas Cage factor, but really, why limit the scope of the pronouncement? Was there really an upside to this flick, beyond a relatively short running time and its lowering the bar on entry to avoid any expectation of quality? Taken as a bad movie from the start, it has its moments, though I had to rewind to see them all after falling asleep shortly after the first transformation. Shall I damn it with faint praise, like it was much better than Daredevil, though the direction and production values still fell within the lines of a genre show on the CW network? How about Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott being predictable in their reliable, expected goodness? Also, Donal Logue, but obviously to a lesser degree. Or that there are at least a few cool visuals, though my favorite remains Eva Mendes' semi-lifelike persistent cleavage? Because beyond that, I'm out.

The script is smart in its cobbling together of many of the better elements from all previous interpretations of Ghost Rider. That it the last time a word resembling "smart" will come up here. Johnny Blaze had the best origin and character, the penance stare, general look, and villainous types from the 90's relaunch, plus the sense of legacy for recent work. On the other hand, the havoc of Zarathos is replaced by the bland Spirit of Vengeance, when Cage isn't hamming to within an inch of the lives of all supporting actors never to have uttered he phrase "the dude abides." Wes Bentley, despite lots of digital assistance and quite a body count, is possessed of slightly less menace than Dennis, with a voice pitched an octave or two higher. His minions aren't especially threatening, nor of much interest. Your mileage on Eva is dependent on your enjoyment of her contributions to Mr. Skin, as she has zero chemistry with Cage and no acting chops besides. There's a sort of nod toward a Spider-Man romance and a story in general, but what you really have here are just set pieces with padding. If McG were to develop a Valium addiction, this might be the result.

I'd also like to point out that the DVD has the requisite comic book tie-in documentary, though it seems to abandon the source material within about five minutes, leaving us with more time for Mark Steven Johnson to explain his process. Yeah...

"Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer"

First off, let me say that I not only enjoyed the first film, but preferred it to "Batman Begins." Pardon my bellyful of Bat-pretensions and consistently thwarted expectations, but I got a kick out of Tim Story's lighthearted and tonally true-to-source effort. It should then come as no surprise that I enjoyed about half of his follow-up, before it was decided to focus as much on the areas where the director has continued to fail as possible. The miscast Julian McMahon as not-Dr. Doom returns to not quite being Lex Luthor. The flick becomes burdened with heavy drama, which initially contrasted well with the Fantastic Family's humor, until it overwhelmed the production. This is doubly shameful because the gravitas that should have come with the scale and circumstances is nowhere to be found, and squanders the easy charms of the core cast.

The miscast Jessica Alba continued to supply prurient thoughts, but is given less opportunity this time, replaced by demands for "quality acting" time that led everyone to really hate Halle Berry as Storm.

The miscast Laurence Fishburne provides the voice of the Silver Surfer, which forces him to utter Silver Surfer dialogue. He's a Shakespearean actor, so he manages well, except that we all know Silver Surfer should sound much more whiny than Larry could be expected to stoop. When rendered in CGI, the Surfer looks pretty much exactly as everyone has expected since the T-1000 was introduced by James Cameron about a decade-and-a-half back. I much preferred when he switched to prosthetics that were beautifully sculpted and allowed more of Doug Jones' excellent physical acting to come across.

Andre Braugher is great as always as an antagonistic military figure, as is the returning Michael Chiklis as the Thing, but both are in glorified cameos. Chris Evans' continues to dominate the screen as the Human Torch, but his presence is tempered by a dull love interest and misguided attempts to give Johnny Storm depth. Ioan Gruffudd fairly well inhabits Reed Richards, which unfortunately translated into too much screen time for one of the least interesting super-heroes ever. It isn't Gruffudd fault-- we all know Mr. Fantastic has always been oxymoronic when applied to Richards.

The big let down is of course Galactus, but I won't spoil that particular disappointment. When you're upstage by [invisotext enabled] Dr. Doom on a fuckin' surfboard, you know things have gone terribly awry. The resolution to the problem the Devourer of Worlds represents is simple-minded to a degree that shatters any suspension of disbelief in even the uninitiated. Worse, it effectively excludes the titular stars from contributing, leaving them disposable guest-stars in their own feature. The whole third act fairly screams "backdoor pilot," which "Iron Man" effectively proved serves a post-closing credit sequence far better. Sophomore slump, I'm afraid.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Frank Review of "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare"

Oh, where to begin? As I've mentioned in the past, I was quite the little pussy when it came to horror movies, avoiding them almost entirely until I was 9 or so. The primary boogieman to bust my cherry after that point was Fred Krueger mom, Fred Krueger. I think I caught most of the second installment on video first, when my hands weren't over my eyes, then progressed to the third installment on the big screen. I then tracked back to the first, which by that point seemed a bit slow moving and lacked the humor of the follow-ups. By the time I saw the fourth episode at the movies, I'd become disenchanted. I'd really enjoyed the "Dream Warriors," and the next batch of victims seemed awfully whitebread by comparison. Also, the gags seemed to detract from already unimpressive kills. I waited until the dollar cinema for my fifth serving, which came off as overly grim and excessively gory, even by my now elevated standards. The final Freddy movie, at least the Earth-2 version, I caught first run for the 3-D.

To this day, "Freddy's Dead" is the only movie ever I saw on the silver screen in the chessy anaglyphic format with the dorky red/blue cardboard glasses. At the time, I remember being bored by everything that led up to the 3-D sequence, but wowed by the finale. Today, even using the 3-D specs I had lying around the house, the experience was consistent in its banality. Suddenly, I remember why I stopped giving a crap about Freddy Krueger as a character.

Robert Englund is sleepwalking through this thing, and his dialogue in this flick was at the series' nadir. Director Rachael Talalay has the thing lit and filmed like a sitcom, so there's never a hint of horror in the preceedings, outside of the cameos. The film is full of thirty-second shots of star power that would rip you right out of the movie, if you'd ever been able to invest anything into it. Roseanne and Tom Arnold, Breckin Meyer, Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper-- make it stop! I'd like to think the 3-D process necessitated this look and feel, but as Talalay's went straight to tv after "Tank Girl," I figure she's just plain awful.

The acting in this one is also particularly lousy, with only the always fun Lisa Zane showing any spunk, though at times she seems to be confused about not having been cast in a 40's screwball comedy. I also enjoyed Yaphet Kotto, not because he brought much here, but just because he's Yaphet Kotto. Otherwise, avoid if at all possible. Terrible kills, awful effects, lame story-- and this is by horror movie standards, kids. There's even a clip feature over the credits nicely illustrating how suprior every other installment of the series was to this finale.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Delano Theory of Seminal Integrity in Super-Heroic Fiction

Every good comic book commentator should probably have at least one pet theory about what makes comics work. John Seavey has his breakdown of Storytelling Engines. Scipio is fond of his notion of Dynastic Centerpiece. Mine regards the theory of seminal integrity, or to put it simply, staying true to a character's roots.

In serialized fiction, characters regularly change hands, guided by commandments from on high. Over the last few days, I've talked about the responsibilities creators have to their creations, to one another, and how all of them should ethically be treated by publishers. I don't believe fictional life begins at conception, but at publication. At this point, an idea has been processed and presented to, and thus absorbed by, the greater world. It seems to me even the creators have to recognize that while still the guardians in charge of nurturing their concept, it now exists separate from themselves. From then on, it has an organic existence, and the integrity of the initial conception and the changes wrought by development and final presentation should forevermore be considered in all future developments by everyone concerned. It isn't that the property can't develop further, showing new facets and such, but these developments should not, generally speaking, violate the basic principles established for the property upon its debut. Otherwise, you risk creating a second property out of the first, and thus compromise the being of both.

For decades, comic creators understood this principle, and observed it as a basic courtesy. Upon the rise of fan-professionals, there was a sense of a proprietary relationship with characters they had not created and did not own, based on familiarity and affection. This gave the fan-professional a belief in their entitlement to do as they wished with said creations, so far as it was allowed by the publishers. These liberties can result in good stories, sometimes, but just as often divide and alienate the fan base over reaction to the changes. Quite hilariously, these same fan-pros then grow older and bemoan the fact their "legacies" have been negated by following generations of fan-pros who treat their past victories with the same disregard, leading to a cynicism amongst the readership bordering on the nihilistic. Who cares about this alteration or that death, when you know it will all be reversed or further manipulated until it all amounts to nothing in the heart and mind? Typically, only the most sensationalistic elements ever take root-- the hero commits an act of domestic violence-- the supporting character who is molested by a super-villain-- and so on. It isn't that you can't allow such sordid elements into the cannon, but forethought has to be given as to whether these acts are appropriate for the premise and in keeping with the vision of its originators. Otherwise, defenders rise up to challenge the offense, decisions are reversed, and it all ends up a muddle. Besides which, turning back to the origins of the property offers not only a clarity of vision, but often prospects for new stories based on the property's initial potential that remain true to the core.

I alluded earlier the damage Frank Miller did to Batman, and I suppose I could elaborate, but I think a stronger example would be Superman. Upon his debut, Superman was an unimpeachable force for good, regardless of the opposition. If he heard a man beating his wife, damn the restraining orders, he'd just give the batterer a taste of his own medicine. If he knew an innocent woman was about to be put to death for a murder she did not commit, he'd barge into the governor's mansion and demand a stay of execution. Only later did all this mild-mannered business make its way from Clark Kent to his alter ego, as he began to salute the flag and bow to outside authority, polluting the essential appeal of his dynamic identity. Despite the actual good the Superman concept has done for the real world, association with authority figures and the means of surviving the Wertham witch hunts yielded generations that view the once clearly altruistic Man of Steel with distrust. By the time Frank Miller handled the character in the 80's, this cancer had spread to the point of turning Superman into a ineffectual lapdog for the Reagan administration... so impotent as to face defeat at the supposedly righteous scalloped glove of fury borne by the Dark Knight. To some degree, I think Miller was subverting seminal integrity in order to spotlight the abuses of prior hands, but his result added to this injustice. Further, by shackling the Superman concept to a shared universe, attempts to show the Man of Steel at his full power ends up being perceived as rubbing in his superiority over the majority of less omnipotent heroes. Rather than a champion of the oppressed, Superman is suddenly the arrogant oppressor. Oh, how the mighty have fallen from virtue.

Another good example would be the time Hal Jordan, repeatedly deemed the greatest member of the thousands strong Green Lantern Corps., would turn on his fellows and commit mass murder in pursuit of selfish, delusional ends. It isn't difficult to find evidence in Jordan's thirty year history that could reasonably support the logic behind this sinister turn, but that doesn't change the fact that it betrays the charter set forth by the basic premise. At its inception, Green Lantern establishes that there are other "space police" on the same force, allowing for the replacement of Jordan if he became commercially unsound. However, the premise also centered around the worth of the individual corps ring bearers, and quite simply after three decades, creators shouldn't treat the most visible representative of the Corps and his fan base with such contempt. On the other hand, the new creators resolve to portray Hal Jordan in the most negative light possible morphed him into an entirely extant character-- a black hole of villainy to face their new hero, the soul surviving corpsman. It might have worked, if only their new ringbearer, Kyle Rayner, had been given a stronger motivation for being the one true Green Lantern. Instead, he was chosen for the role at random, and defined mostly by his conflict with Jordan. Once Rayner's nemesis was removed, it became clear Rayner himself had no more reason to be Green Lantern, as he'd found himself absent an origin to sustain him.

Very rarely will you find a super-hero who survives for any length of time without a strong origin and the guiding sense of purpose it bestows. If a hero is already possessed of such a thing, altering it only confuses the readership and diminishes the character. Also, readers can only manage so much enthusiasm for all that backward glancing and navel gazing. It will always be important to know where a character has been, but what everyone really wants is to be compelled by where they are headed. Much of that compulsion hinges on maintaining the seminal integrity of the character that attracted fans in the first place, or else they might find themselves less than enthused to keep up with what amounts to a new character. If you sign on to write Spider-Man, you should damned well write Spider-Man, or else find another book to collect a check from.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Absence of Origin

Another problem with continuity in the shared universe is the passage of time. In Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis decides six months have passed between issues, so every single comic book to connect with all subsequent storylines must have also lost half a year somewhere, right? Not likely. History is so much easier to chart when it's subjective and limited in scope, with neither being an option in a shared universe without being highly subjective in application. Still, that's just a suspension of disbelief that comes with the territory if you're a fan.

No, the real problem is with lifetimes catching up. Dick Grayson being a Boy Wonder for over thirty years can be managed, until you decide to make him a Teen Wonder. Robin is inextricably tied to the Batman, so if one ages from 8 to 16, so too must the other. Now you just know Bruce Wayne's best years are behind him, so it may be time to start grooming Nightwing as his successor. This leads to a new problem: what about the origin? Sure, both Grayson and Wayne were exceptional boys who's parents were slain by criminals before their very eyes. However, this senseless act drove Wayne to create the identity of the Batman, while the Grayson slaying drove Wayne to create the identity of Robin for Dick to inhabit. It isn't that Grayson's origin isn't good, nor that it can't sustain a super-heroic identity, but it just isn't Batman's origin, is it?

Alternately, you can write Robin off to college or into a team book for a few years, have him "become his own man," and scoop up Jason Todd to succeed Robin instead. Now Batman's back to being a vital young man with a boy sidekick named Jason Todd, and let us never speak of Dick Grayson again. Except everyone knows Robin is Dick Grayson, and that Grayson is now Nightwing, and Jason Todd is just a pale imitation. So we still have the problem of Dick needing to succeed a now even more aged Bruce Wayne, or else continue on his own and allow Jason Todd to do it... but how are we supposed to allow for a kid who doesn't even measure up to Grayson becoming the Batman? Jason Todd's first origin was a carbon copy of Grayson's, and the second in no way can stand on its own without Batman, nor stand up to the superiority of Grayson's. This leaves us with a third Robin, somehow possessed of an even worse origin entirely dependent on the reputations of both Batman, Robin, and even Jason Todd, with all the accumulated time wearing on the lot. Tim Drake doesn't have an origin, but Bruce Wayne sure has an albatross, all because he didn't just pack Dick Grayson off for summer camp for a decade-long summer vacation when he decided to become a Dark Knight again.

Speaking of Dick Grayson, much of the fault for this whole Robin mess falls on Marv Wolfman, for clearly having the character embrace adulthood and a new identity, not to mention helping to create Tim Drake. Wolfman's sin didn't end there, as he also wrote the death of Barry Allen into his Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the passing of his mantle to the former Kid Flash, Wally West. For a long time, this was proclaimed a triumph that redeemed the concept of the kid sidekick and congratulated the progress of continuity. One problem though: Wally West didn't have an origin. Sure, the original Flash's origin, in which Jay Garrick inhaled "hard water" that inexplicably gave him super powers, was pretty weak sauce. However, Jay was a charming sort with a distinct look, and was among the first super-speed heroes in comics. Barry Allen not only ushered in the Silver Age, but also improved heavily on his predecessor in his role as a slow moving police scientist who's lab was struck by lighting. The mix of energy and chemicals imbued Allen with super-speed, though his distraction of routinely saving Central City from fantastic threats still meant he was late as always for Barry Allen's doings. Further, Allen had one of the most impressive rogue's galleries in super-herodom.

Wally West? He was the nephew of Barry Allen, who somehow had the same origin as the Flash while visiting his lab. Wally manages to have an origin that is not only entirely derivative of Barry's, but remains entirely dependent upon him in context. Also, while West inherited the villains, his creators set about ridiculing them to impotence while failing to replace them. Instead of carrying on for Barry Allen, Wally West served as both a retread and a creative void. At least in the early going, Wally was an emotionally difficult, irresponsible adulterer with a personal fortune and a conservative streak to set him apart. By the time Mark Waid was done with him, West had become a true hero, meaning he lost everything that made him a unique character and accepted a "family" of like heroes that made him seem more like Superman's natural successor than Flash's. Shouldn't it be a little troubling that the center of that family had no origin or strong motivation of his own to ground him in the absence of Barry Allen?

Returning to Wolfman, both Kid Flash and the real Robin proved their commercial viability as New Teen Titans against fearsome foes like Deathstroke the Terminator. Slade Wilson was a mercenary who turned down an assignment against the young heroes. However, he was also a lousy father who's son took both the gig and a treatment that awarded him super-powers at the cost of his life. In a fit of misplaced duty, Wilson took up the unfinished contract of his dead son against the Titans, and as an added bonus took up with a fourteen-year-old girl who eventually infiltrated the team. Together, the pair defeated the Titans and fulfilled the contract, only to have the girl go mad and die in a fit of sociopathic fury. In order to let the now very popular villain Deathstroke off the hook for his statutory rape, it was revealed that he had been manipulated by the evil girl, as if that weren't about the most pathetic and self-serving excuse possible. Still, it allowed Wolfman to turn a once great villain he had co-created into a rather sordid and compromised anti-hero, eventually allowed his own title. Where once Deathstroke was a certified bad ass who single-handedly fought whole super-teams, racked Green Lantern in the balls, and traded blows with Aquaman & Hawkman, he was now routinely felled by the most random and unimpressive of adversaries. Worse, Wolfman would do things like have Deathstroke defeat Batman in combat, which would be refreshing, if not for his ephebophila turning their very contact into something distasteful for general audiences.

Years later, other hands would reveal this heroic turn was in fact from the influence of a spirit that possessed him, and even went so far as to reveal he had drugged his teen aged girlfriend to turn her into a villainess, redirecting all the blame back to where it always belonged, the adult evildoer. Here was an instance of an outside creator correcting the adulteration of a character by his very creator. Proof positive of the important of retaining the integrity of the original concept of a character by all parties, including its implied guardian.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Bane of Multiversalism

After the last couple days discussion, one might come to think of me as a comic book isolationist. That is to say, up until the 1960's, it was fairly uncommon for the stars of one comic book feature to have any impactful relationship with those in another feature, regardless of whether they shared a title, much less a company. Sure, you had team features like the Justice Society of America, but the only change in the characters from story to story was literally a change in what characters appeared from story to story. Most all stories in the Golden and early Silver Age were by a set group of creators under the command of one editor that valued consistency, and they ended up in neat little packages by the end of a given story's page count.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I grew up on Claremont X-Men and Wolfman Titans. I am all about complex universes of interrelated characters featured in extended stories that span decades. I loath most DC Silver Age stories, rigidly structure in the manner I described in the first paragraph to insure the least threat of change or depth. Call it the tendency toward conservatism that comes with age, but only in recent years have I begun to see the merit in such a process, and recognize the terrific fault in overlapping continuity.

Part of this comes from having lived through the 90's and seen the intercompany crossover reach critical mass and take a large percentage of the reading audience with it, myself included on many properties. Lord knows any affection I had for the X-Men was pretty irreparably damaged by that sort of thing. DC Comics has spent most of the Didio years doing their damnedest to ingrain a similar aversion to their entire universe. Another problem is that once the fanboys became professionals in the 70's, also known as the lunatics running the asylum, a sad homogeneity fell over comics to rival those crumby DC Silver Age comics. Where once the Justice League was a book that only featured DC's biggest starts, where the Avengers swiftly became a book comprised of heroes without features of their own, fan creators applied a mix of both philosophies to both books. The Justice League and Avengers books, in terms of dynamic and creators, were largely interchangeable throughout the 70's. Where once you had two distinct properties was now DC and Marvel's separate versions of the same essential book, often starring variations of the same character types (Scarlet Witch/Zatanna, Vision/Red Tornado, and so on.) Things only got worse for the Justice League, as they saw miserable failure in attempting to restart the team as an X-Men knock-off, some redemption as a new type of serio-comic team concept mingling the grandest and least of super-heroes, then returned to being a poor Avengers substitute. Grant Morrison went from critical darling to fan favorite by simply recognizing that perhaps the Justice League of America should go back to being comprised of its original elite membership, and saw massive sales follow. It proved so successful, in fact, that Marvel then aped the format and turned the Avengers into their own JLA. That's all well and good if you felt Spider-Man and Wolverine needed another series to dominate, but your Hawkeye fans aren't likely to appreciate it.

And what about Hawkeye? Super-hero comic books have a disproportionately large number of archer characters, mostly due to their having been created in the heyday of Errol Flynn in Robin Hood movies, and likely kept alive by the cowboys and indians that reigned over Western culture until sometime in the 60's. Hawkeye was probably the last great super-hero archer, and his being created just before the end of the popularity bowmen in outside media likely didn't hurt. Also, part of his initial appeal was that he was a villainous bowman, an anachronism pitted against the technological marvel Iron Man. He was pretty much always sympathetic, manipulated as he was by his love for the beautiful Soviet spy Black Widow, but his intended purpose was to serve as an exceptional man capable of facing a super-heroic Inky-Poo. Only later did he choose the side of angels alongside Captain America as the familiar wiseacre Avenger. This would have been all well and good, except he parallelled DC's own archer Green Arrow on their Justice League. Eventually, Green Arrow took on many of Hawkeye's personality traits, until he was nearly indistinguishable aside from his appearance, politics, and long suffering girlfriend/partner Black Canary. Of course, Hawkeye married his Black Canary proxy Mockingbird, and was her widower, until she was recently returned to life. This takes place shortly after Green Arrow finally married the original, which by this point makes me wonder how anyone can like Green Arrow or Hawkeye over the other, since they're now the exact same character.

It makes perfect sense to me for a creative individual to cast a glance at what others are doing with a similar idea and respond to it. Ideally, this would offer an opportunity to keep their work as original and innovative as possible, to validate their project and remain competitive. Instead, fan professionals just merged the two similar concepts in their collective minds and treated them as interchangeable, variant only in who published them. In other words, creatively speaking, we get the most common and uninspired of both worlds, 16 flavors out of what was once 32. So much for the spice of life...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Obligation of Renovation

I ran two comic shops over eight years time, so I can point to any number of examples in my personal history of disgruntled fanboy syndrome. If you're reading this, you've probably suffered from it to some degree yourself at various times. As an example, I give you "Clint." There were lost of reasons to take jabs at Clint, as he still worked a McJob and lived with his parents at an age when he should have been many years deep into building his own home. Clint loved lots of comic book characters, and visited my shop very regularly, but bought very few comics. He would go on and on about how much better they were decades prior, and how no one ever got them right anymore. He particularly loathed Frank Miller, who he even then credibly blamed for destroying the Batman, but more incredulously, also felt the same about his work on Daredevil. I'd never met anyone who hated Miller on Daredevil, and for the most part knew hardly anyone who bothered to even read the character before Miller. Before the 80's, DD was basically just a lukewarm Spider-Man knockoff with a few minor adjustments, so who cared about that guy until he was recast as a pulp detective in long underwear, Dashielle Hammett by way of Don McGregor?

That's where things get sticky. No matter how many people adore Miller's groundbreaking work on Matt Murdock and related characters across two decades, the fact remains someone kept Daredevil's book in print for nearly as long before Miller ever laid a finger on him. It isn't just that Daredevil had a lengthy history of outstanding artists and some fine stories to his credit-- the character continously sustained an audience through some of the lowest periods of comic book publishing history of enough size as to never be cancelled until well after Miller said his final goodbye to the concept. That being the case, how can you not acknowledge the work that came before Miller, and who can dismiss the grievances of fans who felt Miller betrayed the qualities that endeared them to the character in the first place?

On the other hand, people who hate Miller for his Daredevil run, then and now, seem to be in a fairly dismal minority. If you work in a field where by and large a corporation owns and is legally considered the creator of the characters they publish, it could be argued that serving the publisher's demands is equivalent to doing the creation due justice. I for one have never had much sympathy for creators like Steve Gerber and Marv Wolfman, who intentionally withheld signing away their creations as works made for hire. Knowing full well they were incorporating them into a publisher-owned universe of characters with the intent of exploiting their commercial prowess only to withdraw said characters after they achieved popularity seems to me to be a matter not of creator's rights but of bad faith. However, for most of comics' history, their creators have not enjoyed the option of retaining any ownership or management of their creations, and it seems to me it is also an act of bad faith for publishers to utterly exhaust their talent, strip mine their efforts, and turn out the husks of their ideas into other hands to molest however they need to in order to restore commercial viability. Creators may not be legally recognized as such under works made for hire, but they willingly bestow a small measure of their hearts and souls into their concepts, and it strikes me as immoral to abandon any responsibility to upholding the creative integrity of that gift.

Now, comic book publishers are not the Amish, so they will not freeze a character in amber for all eternity to nurture a feeling of security in fanboys. Characters have to grow and change not just to remain viable from a sales standpoint, but also to remain relevant to shifting culture over the great expanse of time. The reason why every modern comic book creator doesn't just retain majority rights to all their works is because writing a character like Batman assures them a measure of immortality. Super-heroes are the American mythology, passed down through the generations to be both glorified and modified to maintain their power over the imaginations and inclinations of mankind. They are our role models and emotional escapes. We love them and wish to commune with them as either revelors or prophets. In the 1980's, Daredevil was barely limping by as a hall closet in the House of Ideas. Frank Miller renovated around the character, and in the end added on a whole room around that small space. You may miss the comfortable nook that was, but in his wake Daredevil became unforgettable and indispensable. Again though, Miller expanded from an existing space into a more substantial quarters. While he took Matt Murdock to some dark places that forever removed his from his earlier, lighthearted leanings, the core of the character's concept and subsequent development allowed for Miller's new path. In other words, this remodel was structurally sound, aside from the occasional creek out of the Clints of fandom.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Baby's First Comic Book Writing Principle

When I was a boy, I would see a movie, read a comic, or some such passive entertainment, then reenact a variation of what I saw using action figures. If I had an Indiana Jones doll in my hands, I would invariably have him take part in adventures in that guise and along the expected lines of fantastic archeology in a period setting. If I had in my hands a toy based on a licensed character I had no real affinity for, like He-Man, he would invariably substitute for a character I did like, but who possessed no such toy, like Conan the Barbarian. Alternately, I would either develop a derivative personality around the toy as a supposedly "new" character, or treat them as a cypher to assume whatever role my afternoon's fiction required (thug, victim, etc.) This is how I learned the fundamentals of storytelling, through naked imitation.

As I aged, I accumulated both more toys and more personal experience to inform my play time. Even when a Wolverine action figure would be produced and purchased, I would have already spent years projecting my interest in that character upon a proxy, who would have had his own adventures separate from his inspiration. Also, various influences would overlap, so that my Conan would team-up with my Wolverine and perhaps be joined by Indiana Jones on a mission against robots sentries in outer space. In my dramas, my Jean Grey proxy would fulfill my desire to see her shacked-up with Wolverine instead of Cyclops, while my Conan might have lost a leg to poor quality control standards at Mattel and become a team leader or a sleuth to compensate. Circumstance and variation would cause my substitutes to become developed characters in their own right, and cause me to focus on their stories as Indiana Jones fell by the wayside. This is how one progresses beyond imitation into actual creation.

Like most teenagers, I wanted to bless the world with my new found powers, which of course meant inflicting my prejudices and ineptitude on other people's creations. Shouldn't all comic books, if they're to be worth reading, be written and drawn in the manner of the creators I liked, and any other tastes be damned? Shouldn't the spotlight always fall on the types of characters I was interested in, with all others serving as fodder in service to their glory? Wouldn't Superman be cooler if he used his incredible strength to karate chop people's heads in two, or Mr. Fantastic could form knives out of his fingers, or the Disco Dazzler could use her light powers to slay vampires? Shouldn't Moon Knight just stomp on Spider-Man for once, and could Booster Gold just die already?

Well, no, obviously. Beyond being terrible, degrading alterations based on sheer lack of merit, they would also afflict existing characters in a manner that would only serve to dismay their creators and fans. Further, new characters created with these same slight "innovations" might be welcomed by fans who would turn away from their being applied to characters with histories previously unpalatable to them, and the preexisting fans would constantly seek to reverse the subversion of character concepts they had embraced before you ruined everything.

That, dear reader, is an extreme example of my theory of seminal integrity in sequential art. It's essentially the golden rule for comic book fantasists working with characters not of their own creation. Do unto others' creations that which you would have done to your own. I'll be discussing this over the next few days...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Obscure Character Handbook: The Wonder Man

Real Name: Fred Carson
Other Aliases: None Known
Dual Identity: Secret
Occupation: Radio Engineer and Inventor
Legal Status: Citizen of the United States with no known criminal record.
Place of Birth: Unknown
Marital Status: Single
Known Relatives: None
Known Confidants:None
Supporting Cast: Donald Hastings (boss,) Brenda Hastings (imperiled boss' daughter and love interest,) Reggie "Playboy" Berold (well-heeled jerk and fiancee of love interest)
Known Allies: None
Major Enemies: General Attilla
Base of Operations: Unnamed city
Place of Employment: IBC Incorporated (International Broadcasting Company)
Group Affiliation: None
Extent of Education: Likely extensive
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Blond
Other Distinguishing Features: Narrow face, high cheek bones, slightly receded hairline.
Intelligence: High, as he is a brilliant inventor, logical and clearly aware of happenings in the world.
Strength Level: High, with upper reaches unknown. Could rend steel like paper and lift massive objects.
Skills: Talented inventor, airplane pilot.
Superhuman Powers: Endowed with "Herculean Powers" that include supernatural strength with the potential to be "the strongest human on Earth." Impervious. Uncanny accuracy. Can bound hundreds of yards. Mighty lungs.
Special Limitations: All powers derived from ring.
Source of Powers: Supernatural ring.
Special Weaponry: "A new type television apparatus... so small you can carry it on your belt." Long-range televisor. Tiny radio transmitter/telephone.
Personality: Supposedly "timid" as Carson, but actually just well mannered and gung-ho to take on new challenges and dangerous assignments. Terrifically assertive if judgmental as Wonder Man.
First Appearance: Wonder Comics #1 (May, 1939)
Origin: Unrevealed
Publisher: Fox Feature Syndicate
Status: Public Domain
Tagline: Mightiest Human On Earth
Mission Statement: Pledged to be forever the champion of the oppressed, defender of the weak and relentless foe of all that is evil and unjust.
Created by: Will Eisner (credited as "Willis.")

"So, Fred Carson, wear this ring as a symbol of the Herculean powers with which you are endowed-- as long as you wear it, you will be the strongest human on Earth-- you will be impervious-- and now in the name of humanity and justice, go forth into the world."

For reasons unrevealed, Carson visited Tibet, and through unknown circumstances was given a ring by the Old Yogi and a mission to use the abilities it bestowed for the common good. His employer was impressed with Carson's work on returning to the States, but still insisted "I've no time to listen to your goofy ideas," unless of course he saw immediate profit potential.

When the boss' spoiled dilettante daughter Brenda announced she had joined the Red Cross as a nurse in civil war torn Tatonia, Carson was assigned to chaperon the girl, against either's wishes. However, when Carson used his "long-range televisor" to view the thousands of starving, destitute refugees set upon by soldiers in the foreign land, he changed his mind. Flying Brenda out in a two-seater, Carson landed to meet her wealthy fiancee, Reggie "Playboy" Berold. The surly Berold grabbed Carson by the collar and threatened him after taking offense to his use of the "Playboy" nickname. That bit of unpleasantness was was diverted by another, a immanent bombing raid on the hospital base. Carson volunteered his plane to Brenda and Reggie, the latter of whom showed gratitude with a "So long, sucker!"

Carson removed his civilian garb to reveal his Wonder Man costume, and stood ready to take on the incoming planes. "Bomb hospitals, will you? I'm going to teach you a lesson!" The Wonder Man caught a bomb in midair, landed on his feet, and launched it like a football back at its deliverer to explosive result. He next righted a truckload of refugees and directed them to safety, calling ahead for the return of hospital staff.

Meanwhile, evil rebel leader General Attilla's forces had downed Brenda and Reggie's plan, intent on holding them for ransom.

The Wonder Man made his way to the rebel forces' headquarters, outside of which hungry masses were denied food horded for troops. "I think it's time someone stopped this horror!" The Wonder Man leapt to the top of the towering building, smashed through a wall, and manhandled Attilla and company. "Here's a little love tap to put you to sleep 'til I get back." Wonder Man shrugged off all manner of attack, snatching shells from the air and launching them back at mighty cannons. The hero released the rebel's prisoners, including Brenda and Reggie. The former had stolen a gun she intended to use against a guard, while the latter had been reduced to whimpering cowardice. In fact, Wonder Man had to seize Reggie and force him to help control the hungry masses as Brenda doled out food. Reggie proved ineffective, so Wonder Man, "endowed with mighty lungs... bellows above the tremendous roar of the crowd."

The Wonder Man continued his assault on the rebels, "with no apparent effort... rips through steel doors," and carried food reserves to the people. "Personally, Wonder Man aids in the distribution." By nightfall, Brenda was so exhausted from the effort she fainted in Wonder Man's arms. "Tenderly, the Wonder Man kisses the unconscious girl," before taking her to safety. The coward Reggie was next located, and commanded to fly himself and his intended home in a vacant plane. Finally, the Wonder Man threw General Attilla another beating, scarring his face. "The Wonder Man stamps an indelible impression on him with his ring..." He leapt off into the night, suggesting, "If you ever feel like starting trouble again, just look at yourself in the mirror and remember me!"

Carson radioed a report into Mr. Hastings. "Say-- Carson's gadget worked after all-- great work! With this new invention, we'll scoop every radio news service in the world!" By the time Carson returned home a few days later, Reggie Berold had painted himself a hero. "What? He did--? How nice--" That was all well and fine, as Carson's only thought was for lovely Brenda, and he claimed to have never heard of "this mighty Wonder Man everyone's talking about..."

According to Ain't It A Wonder, Will Eisner produced a second Wonder Man story, which never saw print, thanks to an injunction from National Periodical Publications accusing the character of infringing their Superman copyright. It took a few years and Eisner's honest testimony that Wonder Man's creation was intentionally derivative of Superman per publisher instruction to insure the end of Wonder Man's heroic career.

Brenda was accidentally called "Nora" twice.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ineffectual Video Commentary

I was at The Aquaman Shrine yesterday, where I came upon the following embedded video...

This fellow, speaking as a representative of Aquaman fandom, repeatedly states that he has no idea why he's a fan, has little idea why people make fun of Aquaman, and offers up exactly one example of quality Aquaman reading. Also, he attributes the non-starter Aquaman/Wonder Woman romance to writer Grant Morrison, when in fact it was the criminally unappreciated Christopher Priest. More and more recently, I've been exposed to guys like this and those nimrods at The Stack, and I've got to say, epic fail. These people are neither funny nor informative, and they irritate me something fierce.

They say that on the internet, everyone is famous to fifteen people. With this quality of banter, I'd add that fame will only last Andy Warhol's prescribed fifteen minutes. I love the democratization that has come in the age of YouTube, but if fifteen million people post videos where they ramble on for fifteen minutes to no positive effect, who on Earth will have the time to bother sifting through all that garbage. If you're going to broadcast your opinions in this manner, you must be articulate, focused, and entertaining. If you cannot manage that on the spot, write a script and stick to it. Also, honestly, none of these dorks are doing any favors for the image of the fan community in their ill-fitting genre t-shirts, so it might not be a bad idea to distract from this with more comic book imagery.

It seems to me this sort of material should be like blipverts-- so quick and effective they're over before you've fully digested them into your consciousness. Instead, I'm left sitting with my head in my hand, waiting for these assholes to stop bickering and/or stammering, not unlike what I too often had to do in my comic shop days. Come to think of it, one of the main reasons I closed my shop was because my partner and I were so sick of hearing this kind of inane bullshit repeated ad nauseum, at greater length, and on a daily basis. Please, people, get your shit together or shut the hell up.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Matthew McConaughey as Captain America? FUCK NAW!

Look, I'm going to say this plain-- "Iron Man" wasn't all I'd hoped it would be. I'm not trying to disparage the movie, as it was better than either of the Spider-Man movies I've seen, and those made lots of folks really happy. I'm just saying, with that kind of talent, I'd hoped the flick would transcend the boundaries of the comic book movie, as opposed to nestling in the comforting familiarity of that genre's better examples. While the film was exceptionally cast, no one would have thought about Robert Downey Jr. during a fan casting session. However, once the name was uttered, it settled rather nicely in my brain (not to mention the aforementioned bar-raising on the entire production.)

You know who isn't? Matthew McConaughey. I like the guy generally, but let's be honest, the guy stars in light comedies where Kate Hudson has to do the heavy lifting. He appears in "action movies" like "Sahara," where he manages to come off slightly less charismatic than Steve Zahn. I'd have felt better about Luke Wilson being approached to play a super-hero in a serious take, because at least he's capable of something resembling nuance-- for another totally mellow abiding dude. So imagine my horror upon hearing that not only might McConaughey play a long underwear type, but possibly my favorite, Captain America.

Asses need to be kicked as though by a human fighting machine. Iron Man gets to be played by one of the finest actors of my generation, with fine support. Though I think the end result looks awful, Ed Norton and William Hurt seem to have been damned solid choices for the new Hulk movie. And Captain America, the man who's voice can command gods, may well be played by a drawlin' redneck who consistently sounds like he's taking a nip of helium with his drag off the bong? Can you imagine Cap's storied speechifying as interpreted by this dipshit? Did you not see "Reign of Fire?" It's not like picking a well bit young brunette to play Colossus with a handful of lines... this is the Sentinel of Liberty!!!

Also, the proposed new Captain America film, already assigned a 2011 release date, does not yet have a director. Can you imagine a talented craftsman signing on to this movie with Matthew McConaughey anchored to it? Hell, even a hack director would have to give serious consideration to following in the wake of Iron Man's good fortune with the high probability of box office poison Matt brings to the table. Added bonus: the movie is in pre-production under the title "The First Avenger: Captain America," with an Avengers film set for release a few months later. Gee, that's worked out so well for pictures not directed by Peter Jackson, I'm sure Marvel will be beating off prospective filmmakers with a stick. For God's sake-- even Paul Walker would be better, and my understanding is that his abs came at the his immortal soul, which explains his lack of any discernible personality.

The two names that tend to pop into people's minds when Cap comes up, myself included, remain Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. One was Tyler Durden, so you know he can inspire legions, while the other exudes intelligence and strength in a manner most becoming. Both are also getting their middle age on, so it's important to take advantage of these guys physiques and chops while they're still viable. Both are also new fathers, so you've got to figure kid-friendly fare and their immortality are fresh in mind. As they're both serious actors, it will take that sort of motivation to get them into a funny costume to sling a rather cumbersome shield.

I expect those two would come with a rather sizable price tag as well, so I recognize some discounted choices may be necessary. You can still find some bargains in their age range that I could get behind, like Brendan Frasier or Ewan McGregor. Sure, both are aging with less grace than the A-listers, one's a brunette, and the other's Scottish. Both are charming, can affect strong heroic voices, and can still get physical when necessary.

Okay, I'll admit I see the same problem as you-- the first film has to feature the origin. That means a young, 4F Steve Rogers on display, a suspension of disbelief that gets highly problematic after 40. Sure, but we don't won't Chad Michael Murray or any other WB/CW types doing to the Living Legend of WWII what George Miller nearly did to the Justice League. How about some guys who can play young? I don't care how often he works with Martin Scorsese-- Leonardo DiCaprio is gettable. Any actor who's shorter than Tom Cruise and still looks like he's working his way through puberty at 33 is dying for the chance to play a super-hero. Ryan Reynolds can't seem to avoid getting attached to super-hero movies with is physique, and shouldn't Cap be made a priority over a friggin' "Deadpool" movie? Didn't Clint Eastwood already make one of those anyway?

I've got a couple more for you that I doubt have ever been much considered: Joaquin Phoenix, who's both respected and a draw, plus brings a lot of the same gravitas as Damon to the table. Alternately, if you're just set on getting an Oakie type for the role and want to save every dime for those Avengers special effects, how about Nathan Fillion? He's far from ripped, but he's one of those guys everybody just loves, and can be commanding when the role calls for it. So what if he's Canadian? Given a choice between Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jessica Biel-- well, let's just say the casting would become festively imaginative...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Vice Guide To North Korea: Final Episodes, 13-14

This is an outstanding documentary in which a crew of counter-culture types manage to get into North Korea and discreetly film the bizarre world of Kim Jong Il. Each segment is roughly four minutes, and it runs a great many parts, but the footage is incredible. The documentarians are straight-shooting and keep your attention, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to follow the whole film. I'll help by backdating the last few days worth of missed posts to allow for Sunday spare time...


Episode Thirteen: Arirang
100,000 North Koreans participate in the world’s greatest eyefuck.

Episode Fourteen: Anarchy in the N.K.
Bringing the whole trip into perspective.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Vice Guide To North Korea: Episodes 11-12

This is an outstanding documentary in which a crew of counter-culture types manage to get into North Korea and discreetly film the bizarre world of Kim Jong Il. Each segment is roughly four minutes, and it runs a great many parts, but the footage is incredible. The documentarians are straight-shooting and keep your attention, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to follow the whole film. I'll help by backdating the last few days worth of missed posts to allow for Sunday spare time...


Episode Eleven: The Barrage
The pinnacle of human engineering and famine induction.

Episode Twelve: The Schoolchildren's Palace
Meeting the country’s creepily overtalented future generation.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Vice Guide To North Korea: Episodes 9-10

This is an outstanding documentary in which a crew of counter-culture types manage to get into North Korea and discreetly film the bizarre world of Kim Jong Il. Each segment is roughly four minutes, and it runs a great many parts, but the footage is incredible. The documentarians are straight-shooting and keep your attention, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to follow the whole film. I'll help by backdating the last few days worth of missed posts to allow for Sunday spare time...


Episode Nine: The Pyongyang Metro
The most lavish two-stop subway money can buy (from East Germany).

Episode Ten: The People's Study House
Headquarters of the North Korean philosopher hotline.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Vice Guide To North Korea: Episodes 7-8

This is an outstanding documentary in which a crew of counter-culture types manage to get into North Korea and discreetly film the bizarre world of Kim Jong Il. Each segment is roughly four minutes, and it runs a great many parts, but the footage is incredible. The documentarians are straight-shooting and keep your attention, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to follow the whole film. I'll help by backdating the last few days worth of missed posts to allow for Sunday spare time...


Episode Seven: Pangasumnida
Letting loose with the guards at state-sanctioned karaoke.

Episode Eight: Memorials and Gifts
VBS pays its respects to the Eternal President and views his amazing collection of presents.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Vice Guide To North Korea: Episodes 5-6

This is an outstanding documentary in which a crew of counter-culture types manage to get into North Korea and discreetly film the bizarre world of Kim Jong Il. Each segment is roughly four minutes, and it runs a great many parts, but the footage is incredible. The documentarians are straight-shooting and keep your attention, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to follow the whole film. I'll help by backdating the last few days worth of missed posts to allow for Sunday spare time...


Episode Five: The Tea Girl (3:40)
We may still be the last people this girl has hung out with.

Episode Six: The Northern D.M.Z.
The North Koreans bring us back to the border.


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