Monday, May 29, 2006

Alex Toth, R.I.P.

On Saturday, comics and animation artist Alex Toth passed away at age 78. He reportedly died at his drawing board.

Ironically, although few in the general public knew Toth by name, or were familiar with his comics work, his versions of the DC Comics characters are likely the most familiar ones to millions of people who grew up in the '70's. That is because he was the initial character designer for Super Friends, the Saturday-morning cartoon version of the Justice League that lasted for nearly 15 years. Further, anyone who saw Hannah-Barbera's various animated adventure series from the sixties and seventies, as well as other studios' series in the eighties, should know Toth's style; he did character designs, storyboards, and layouts for such series as Space Ghost, The Herculoids, Sealab 2020, Fantastic Four, Bionic Six, and many, many more.

Toth was one of the finest creators in the comics medium. He started in the forties, and continued working into the 1990's. He refined and simplified his style into one where every line was essential to his picture. He mastered the dramatic balance of light and shadow, as well as the illusion of kinetic movement. The best artists working today are those who learned from his work.

The above page, from Death Haunts the Skies, a 1974 Batman story written by Archie Goodwin, shows off some of those talents. (It's copyright 1974 DC Comics.)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Massive Moolah for Marvel's Merry Mutants!

Showing once again that movie audiences don't listen to critics, estimates peg X-Men: The Last Stand at a Memorial-Day-Weekend box office haul of $107 million. That is the highest MDW gross in history, and the fourth highest weekend gross in history. (The all-time highest weekend still belongs to the X-Men's fellow Marvel misfit, Spider-Man.)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Marvel Movie Musings

Since X-Men: The Last Stand is currently burning up the Memorial Day Weekend screens, I thought I'd take this opportunity to throw in my two cents on the various big-screen adaptations of Marvel characters over the past two decades. These capsule reviews are written from the point of view of someone who's been collecting comics for a little over thirty years; and who has been aware of Marvel characters (initially from the first TV cartoons) for nearly forty.

A preliminary comment: One of the main differences between the Marvel movie adaptations and the original comics is the lack of a unified universe. Back when Stan Lee was both editing all Marvel comics, and writing about 70% of them, he tried to position all the books as not only taking place in the same fictional world, but as multiple chapters of the same ongoing story. Thus, the Fantastic Four might be touring the campus of Empire State University, and Peter Parker would walk by in the background. A caption in a Hulk story would refer to ongoing events in the Doctor Strange feature. But each movie series takes place in its own little world. There are two likely reasons for this: First, the movie rights to Marvel characters have been so balkanized that one character can't legally appear in another's movie; and second, movies tend not to imagine too many impossible things before breakfast. The comic-book X-Men may deal with space travel, alien invasions, demons, and vampires; but the X-Men movie has its hands full just dealing with the concept of mutants.

Here's my short takes on the various movies:

Howard the Duck (1986): The first big-screen Marvel movie. A legendary failure, and justifiably so. It was awful. The problem wasn't so much the rubber-duck suit as the failure to capture the sardonic spirit of the comic.

Blade (1998): This came out of left field. Blade was a third-banana character out of the Tomb of Dracula comic. The movie makers (writer David Goyer and director Steve Norrington) ignored most of the comic, created their own world, and threw in quite a bit of style. Not a great movie, but a fun one -- and financially successful.

X-Men (2000): Terrific. This one set the template for future Marvel super-hero adaptations. It created its own universe based on the comic, and made judicious changes. But it did an excellent job of both capturing the spirit of the comic, and making the superhero-villian dance believable in three dimensions. A lot of the credit goes not only to director Bryan Singer, but to the great performances by Hugh Jackman (an excellent Wolverine), Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan.

Spider-Man (2002): The gold standard. Definitely my favorite of all of the Marvel adaptations. The main liberty it took was in omitting one of Spider-Man's trademarks: His running patter of puns and put-downs whenever he fights, designed to both bolster his own confidence and to drive his opponents crazy. But visually, the movie captured one of the most visual comic-book characters of all time; and story-wise it did justice to the admixture of angst and comedy that underlies Spider-Man. I saw it with a comic-book writer; and he turned to me after the credits rolled and said, "Dude. That was Spider-Man."

Blade II (2002): I really didn't like this one. It lost the urban style of the first one, and went for gothic. Gothic vampire hunters are a dime a dozen. The director did a much better comics adaptation later on, when he directed Hellboy.

Daredevil (2003): Eh. I liked the pas de deux between Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck; taking some of the dialogue from Frank Miller's comics, and images from Joe Quesada's work, was fun; and Michael Clark Duncan did well as the Kingpin. But overall, it left a bad taste in my mouth. I did not like the Daredevil costume, nor the lousy wire effects or Colin Ferrell's Bullseye.

The Hulk (2003): A noble failure, but a failure. There were hints of a greater story: The Hulk sprinting through the desert, leaping a mile, tossing tanks into the horizon, and tapping his palm with a tank cannon were a delight to watch. But the story was muddled and slow-going; and the split-screen storytelling showed that Ang Lee didn't really understand that the goal of a well-done comic is to make you forget that the comics page is divided into panels.

X-2:X-Men United (2003): The good adaptation of 2003. Another excellent effort from Singer, better than the first X-Men movie. Exciting, touching, and great to look at.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): Another excellent sequel. Although the first Spider-Man movie means more to me emotionally, this one continued to capture the spirit of the character.

Blade: Trinity (2004): I liked this better than Blade II, mostly due to Ryan Reynolds's portrayal of Hannibal King. King snaps off the type of smartass bon mots I'd expect from Spider-Man.

Elektra (2005): An example of what happens when creators jettison everything that works about a comic book character and then make up their own (not as good) character. An especially bad performance by the usually good Jennifer Garner; when she gets kicked out of the temple where she's training, her facial expression is one usually reserved for eight-year-old girls who find out they're not getting a pony for their birthday. The cinematography is far better than the movie deserves.

Fantastic Four (2005): I posted my thoughts on this last year. Underrated by the critics, this was an imperfect, yet fun, adaptation. The best part was Michael Chiklis's spot-on portrayal of Ben Grimm, alias The Thing.

That brings us up to date, with the review of X-3 below. Two movies I didn't see: The Punisher (not much interest) and Man-Thing (didn't even make it to theatres; it screened on the Sci-Fi channel).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Fastball Special

Insanely, I just got home at 2:35 a.m. because I (and a whole lot of other people) attended one of the midnight showings of X-Men: The Last Stand.

My verdict: It 's pretty good, but doesn't quite measure up to the standards of the first two. One certainly misses Bryan Singer's touches, especially his ability to elicit fine performances and his quest for beautiful images.

But the third act is a treat, with in my opinion the best superhero donnybrook ever captured on film. It -- and other scenes -- toss a lot of valentines to old-time fans.

And remember: Don't leave before the credits are over!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Lex Nexus

Last night's season finale of Lost had commercials for the new feature Superman Returns, which stars Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The episode also featured Clancy Brown in his recurring role as a U.S. Army intelligence officer.

Clancy Brown has been the voice of Lex Luthor in various Bruce Timm produced animated series -- most recently, Justice League Unlimited.

On Justice League Unlimited, veteran voice actor Michael Rosenbaum provides the voice of The Flash. A recent episode had Lex Luthor's and the Flash's minds switched, so that Rosenbaum was essentially portraying Lex Luthor.

On the live-action series Smallville, Rosenbaum plays . . . Lex Luthor.

As Denis Miller once said, "It's all as interrelated as an Appalachian Mining Town."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Naked and the Dead

UC Berkeley's infamous "naked guy" passes away in jail -- under circumstances suggesting suicide -- at 33. He was facing three felony charges for battery and -- er -- assault with a deadly weapon.

Having lived in the Bay Area for 3 years, I marvel that he never died from exposure.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

It's a Raid

Both Colleen Doran and Mark Evanier have posted accounts of a raid on Motor City Comic-Con yesterday by police who arrested dealers in bootleg DVDs of TV shows.

Having seen tables full of these copyright-violations sold in Southern California conventions (even those where folks from the industry often walk around), I'm just surprised something like this hasn't happened earlier. Many fans seem to think that the dealer isn't violating anyone's copyright when they put out a show that isn't commercially available on DVD yet. Not only is that just plain wrong (at least according to the copyright classes I took in law school), but it doesn't explain the bootlegs fans continue to sell after the shows copied are commercially available in the U.S.

When you consider case law holding flea markets liable for sellers of bootleg audio recordings, you have to wonder why show runners allow bootleg sellers in dealers' rooms.

Pryde and Respect

The TV ads for X-Men III: Last Stand have been highlighting a character who appeared in the previous two films, but who received surprisingly little attention concerning her importance to the X-Men comics: Kitty Pryde.

Kitty's 1979 debut in the X-Men was auspicious for several reasons. First, it was during a time when there was only one X-Men comic (instead of dozens, like today), and only a handful of X-Men (instead of legions, again like today.) Second, she debuted during what was arguably the creative peak of the comic -- the four-year run of writer Chris Claremont, co-plotter and penciler John Byrne, and inker Terry Austin -- and during the most acclaimed storyline of the Claremont-Byrne-Austin run, The Dark Phoenix Saga (which appears to provide part of the storyline for the upcoming movie.) Third, after decades of Jewish comic-book creators turning out wasp-ish male superheroes, Kitty was a 13 and a half year old Jewish girl from a Chicago suburb, her Mogen David dangling from her neck. I know of at least one woman who started collecting and reading comic books in the early eighties because she was amazed by the sight of a teenage girl with a Star of David necklace walking through walls on a cover.

John Byrne created Kitty, and reportedly intended her to be an average girl except for her powers. (He drew her with the features he generally used for Jewish females at the time: curly hair, tiny nose, big eyes, and gigantic mouth.) Claremont, who apparently doesn't like to write average people, turned her into a girl genius, a gifted dancer, and later a brainwashed ninja. (It was the mid eighties. Everyone was going ninja.) Subsequent creators straightened her hair, shrunk her mouth, and often de-semiticized her. Eventually, she was aged (slowly -- instead of being in her late thirties, as she'd be if she aged in real time, she's depicted as around 19 or 20 now); and as the page on the right shows, in the Joss-Whedon-written ASTONISHING X-MEN, she even consummated her longtime relationship with the occasionally-dead Colossus.

The first X-Men movie had heavy Senator Kelly mention Kitty on the Senate floor (scaring constituents with stories of a girl from Illinois who could walk through walls); then had a nice cameo of her putting an apple on Professor Xavier's desk and then running through a closed door. In the second X-Men movie, she was played by a different actress for an even shorter cameo, in which she escapes commandoes trying to kidnap her by sinking through her bed and running through walls.

In this movie, she's played by yet another actress (Ellen Page, star of the recent revenge flick Hard Candy), finally wears an X-Men uniform, and apparently features in some nice set pieces. Maybe she's finally getting the cinematic respect she deserves.

The above images are copyright 1980 and 2006, respectively, by Marvel Comics (or whatever the company is officially called these days).

Boy! Beverly's Blogging is Back! (Bravo!)

A few posts ago, I wrote about how, after a several-month hiatus, my friend Rick Marshall recently posted several erudite entries on his blog.

Now, after an even longer hiatus, his wife Beverly Saling has also treated us to a new post -- this one about the Best Disneyland Ride Ever.

Coincidently, my cousing Tod Goldberg posted his own story about a recent trip to the Magic Kingdom.

Myself, I haven't been to Disneyland since New Years' Eve 1999. (But I've been to Downtown Disney a few times since then -- most recently to see Melissa Etheridge at the House of Blues Anaheim; and I attend Anime Expo every summer in the convention center across the street from the House that Mouse Built.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Return to Mars

Some good news for the fall --Veronica Mars has been renewed for a third season, now on the newly-formed CW network. Considering that our plucky girl detective squared off against LOST in her timeslot this past year, renewal is quite an accomplishment.

For a breathless recap of the breathless season finale, click here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

Today is the busiest brunch day in America. My mother passed away in 1997, and Amy's mom passed away in 2004. So we celebrated Mom's Day by going to Mimi's Cafe in Palos Verdes (one of Amy's Mom's favorite places) for brunch (we went to the counter, so we managed to eat without much of a wait); and then heading over to the cemetary where Amy's parents are buried. Amy placed on the grave two red roses that she had cut from our garden.

I hope that wherever you are when you read this, you are honoring your mother if she's still with us; and honoring her memory if she's not.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Wi-Fi Watering Holes: C & D's Welcome Cafe

This cafe is located in the southern part of Redondo Beach, near Palos Verdes Estates, on PCH. I went there today to work while Amy worked in the quilt shop in the northern part of Redondo Beach.

Pluses: Lots of space. Amiable neighborhood feeling. Comfortable seats and sofas. Large drink menu. Tons of covered free parking (it's part of a restaurant/retail mini-mall). Free wi-fi. The art on the walls (like most coffee houses, they are displaying local artists) is nice. Acoustic music in the evenings (although I didn't get a chance to hear it today).

Minuses: Pretty far away for me. Only two electrical outlet plates (that I could find), and each has an outlet occupied by a lamp; power strips might be good. One single unisex bathroom. Wi-fi signal could be stronger. The iced soy cappucino I had was on the bitter side; the soy cappucinos at Starbucks tend to be sweeter -- I don't know whether Starbucks or this cafe is doing it the right way. The second drink I had (a hazelnut latte) was better.

A $110-Million Pile of Dirt

For the last several months, workmen have been demolishing the former Fox Sports building next to the hi-rise in which I work. My office is not hi-rise; it's on the fourth floor. So the jackhammers and other heavy machinery (they have what used to be called a steam shovel; it doesn't work on steam, but it's got a combination claw and battering ram) have been working right outside my window as they've destroyed the entire above-ground portion of the parking structure, and are now breaking up the concrete in the subterranean levels, picking up and tossing tons of rubble and rebar like pebbles and spaghetti.

Turns out that noisy pile of rubble and rebar is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. As the article indicates, Donald Trump and SunCal Cos. have been bidding massive bucks for the lot, with the plan to build condos and sell them for around $4 million each. The last I heard was that SunCal outbid The Donald, and nabbed the lot for a tidy $110.2 million -- about $1,056 a square foot.

I won't see any of that money, of course. I'll just get the noise when they build on the rubble of past destruction. Plus, when the condos go up, some folks will probably get a ringside view of my office. There's an incentive to clean my desk.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Oh Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven

I have warm fuzzies for the 7-Eleven franchise that opened on an Alder-street corner in Walla Walla in the mid-Seventies. Not just because the owners held a hot-dog picnic in the nearby Pioneer Park for their kid customers; not just because I used to peruse comics at the spinner-rack there before and after Boy Scout troop meetings at the nearby Central Christian Church; but also because the seventies were the age of the collector Slurpee cups. The store went through two series of Marvel cups during the Seventies. My favorites were the first series, from 1975, with a character pose on the front and a little head on the back with a word balloon giving an often-cryptic one-sentence description of the character. But the second series, the fat cups with the wrap-around artwork adapted by production artist Paty Cockrum from covers and splash pages, were fun too.

The Alder 7-Eleven is gone now, but the trading cups are back -- sort of. This evening, we went over to one of the many 7-Elevens in West LA for the X-Men III: Last Stand Slurpee trading cups. But there were only four cups available, as opposed to the several dozen Marvel cups that I used to hunt down. And all four were available there. And we didn't even buy any Slurpees; I just took the Slurpee-less cups up to the counter and bought them outright. Still, it's the thought that counts.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Wi-Fi Watering Holes: Westsubs

This is a fairly new cafe that opened in the place of an ice-cream parlor in the mini-mall on Overland, between Venice and Washington, in Culver City. (The mini-mall is also the home of a Bally's, a Best Buy, and lots of other stores.) The address is 3863 Overland.

Pluses: A big parking lot (albeit with lots of Bally's cars parked there). Bright lighting. Pretty good boba. Relatively comfortable seats (lack of lumbar support is a given, but otherwise okay.) Lots of strategically-placed electrical outlets. Strong signal. Friendly service. Clean. Pretty good working music on the sound system (while I was there this evening, they played the Beatles, Chuck Mangione and John Coltrane).

Minuses: According to the signs, they don't turn on the wi-fi until 3 p.m. The posted parking time is a maximum of two hours. The oven has an incredibly loud and persistent beep when it's done heating something up.

Hero Head-Scratcher

Even in LA, where the LA Times Calendar-section reporters might be expected to know their subject matter, I encounter what-was-he-thinking? statements that make me wonder whether the reporters (or their copy-editors, or the research department) all nod off narcoleptically at times. (For instance, a few months ago a photo caption called "Lost" ratings-challenged.) Here's one in the current issue's interview of Brandon Routh, the new movie Superman, by Times staff writer Geoff Boucher:

"This new Man of Steel points out that Tobey Maguire, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have recently portrayed superheroes and have not been confined to those personas by the movie-going audience. True, but those actors, unlike Reeve and Routh, were not virtual unknowns when they suited up."

Really? And what exactly was Hugh Jackman known for when he played Wolverine in 2000's X-Men movie? A review of IMDB shows that he wasn't in any American films before that feature put him on the map. I don't think a history of Australian and British stage and TV work make one a "known" actor in the US.

Rick Hits the Blog Again

Those who click on the links located to the right of this deathless prose should take a look at my friend Rick Marshall's blog. After a few months' hiatus, Rick has been blogging with a vengeance. Considering that his posts are all well-thought out, publication-quality essays on philosophy, ethics, morality, politics, and alternative medicine (as opposed to mine, which are three-sentence links to anime trailers), his blog is well worth your time.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Distant Songs of Future Hellsing

The second Japanese DVD volume of the Hellsing Ultimate OVA "drops" August 4, 2006. You can find a brief trailer for it here.

The official Japanese-language website can be found here.

No word yet on when the first volume will be released in the U.S., but I'll bet there will be news on that before or during Anime Expo this July.

Happy Free Comic Book Day!

Yes, it's the holiday that even Hallmark has never heard of. The first FCBD was held in 2002, in conjunction with the record-breaking opening of the first Spider-Man movie; and has been held every year since. In the early years, stores would have special creator signings and other events on FCBD; now, if my Google search is accurate, even the many comics stores around SoCal simply hand out their publisher-supplied free comics if you stop by today. Still, free is free, so head over to your local four-color-phantasmagoria emporium and ask for your free fix.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Tired CS Eyes

Tonight, to clear out the DVR, we watched both last week's and this week's CSI nearly back to back (with an episode of Justice League Unlimited, ginger-like, to clear the palate). Watching a couple in a row, you get to really appreciate Keith Moon's work with the brushes on the cymbals in the opening credits. I have to say I preferred last week's episode, "Rashomama" (how many people who write these shows have actually seen "Rashomon"? Certainly one of the few police procedurals where the cops interrogate a dead witness!) to this week's fantasy-Island-goes-wrong one, although seeing Darla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Judd Nelson essentially playing Joel Silver, was fun. Incidently, I found it hard to believe that there were only something like 2 red Ferrari Spyders in Vegas. I mean, come on, it's Vegas!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Teaser. Bond Teaser.

I may have bagged on new Bond Daniel Craig in the past (and may do so again), but this new teaser trailer for Casino Royale looks damn cool.

The Family that Blogs Together

Much like the historic episode in which The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres crossed over, here's a nexus of bloggers in one photo. From left to right, you'll find me, Lee Goldberg, Karen Dinino, Burl Barer, and Linda Woods
at the Borders booth at the Festival of Books on Sunday. (I'm the one who hasn't written a commercially-available book. Yet.)

How are we all related? Well, Burl is my father's first cousin; and Lee, Karen, Linda, and (not pictured) Tod are the children of Burl's sister, Jan Curran. So Burl is my first cousin once removed; and the others are second cousins. Got it? There will be a test later.

Clap for Joy

I found this on Neil Gaiman's blog. It's a Public Service Announcement from 1969 that attempts to deal with a particularly sensitive type of disease -- but soft-pedals it to the extent that the infections in question not only don't sound so bad, but seem like the sort of thing one should rush out and buy right away. Such are the perils of Madison Avenue advertising.