Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Conventional Guy

We've been making plans to attend several comics, anime and science fiction conventions this year. The most exciting trip (for me) will be to Yokohama/Tokyo around Labor Day Weekend for Nippon 2007, the World Science Fiction Convention. We were last in Japan in 2004 for Anime Expo Tokyo -- the first fan-run anime convention in Japan -- which was apparently a try-out for hosting the Worldcon. Also, all of the Worldcon's I've attended (in 1984, 1996, and 2006) have been the Anaheim ones, largely run by LA-area fans; so I'm looking forward to one in a different country, run by different folks.

We have our hotel reservations in Yokohama. We're planning to spend about a week in Tokyo after the convention, and we've got a travel agency working on our accommodations there. There's Internet everywhere in the Tokyo area, so I hope to be blogging about the experience.

A con that is coming up sooner is Sakura Con, an anime convention in Seattle that we decided to attend fairly suddenly. I'm not sure how attendance will be, since it's being held (a) Easter weekend and (b) the same weekend as Norwescon, a large regional science fiction convention. True, not all anime fans are SF fans, or vice versa, but it seems like there'd be an overlap.

Other cons we've arranged to attend are Anime Expo 2007, to be held in Long Beach; and (of course) Comic-con International: San Diego. Believe it or not, this will be my 22nd San Diego Comic-Con. It was fairly big when I attended my first one (with my father and older brother) in 1980; but it's become unimaginably huge, with an attendance that topped 114,000 last year.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Outer Space Scenes, Are They Holding Their Breaths?

When I was a young kid, I heard or read somewhere that TV shows were filmed on a "stage." Since my parents had always been active in community theatre, my conception of a "stage" was a theater stage, with a curtain, a proscenium, and an audience. The misapprehension was amplified by the voiceovers that used to run after the opening credits to sitcoms ("_____ was filmed on stage before a live studio audience!") and variety shows like The Carroll Burnett Show, which showed the actors on a traditional theater stage.

One show that perplexed me was the late '60's Irwin Allen epic "Land of the Giants." I wondered how they were able to show giant people on a theater stage. Since I knew nothing of double-exposure photography, giant props, or forced perspective, I thought they used giant mechanical puppets. (I was an imaginative child.)

What brought all this to mind was cousin Lee Goldberg's blog post about conversations he had with members of the public at a library event -- including this one:

A woman asked me if she could visit the set of MONK when she's in Los Angeles with her family. I said it wasn't open to the public.

"You mean it's not filmed in front of a live audience?" she asked.

"No, it's not," I said. "Haven't you noticed that it's shot outdoors as well as indoors and that you don't ever hear anyone laughing or applauding?"

She shrugged. "I just thought they were being very quiet."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Marshall Rogers Originals

As promised below, here are photos of my three Marshall Rogers original art pages. The top one is from a circa-1981 Doctor Strange story from the anthology series MARVEL FANFARE. It's written by Chris Claremont, and features Rogers's only (to my knowledge) collaboration with artist P. Craig Russell, who inked this page. In the middle is a page from Rogers's run on the regular DOCTOR STRANGE comic, also circa 1981. This page is from DOCTOR STRANGE #50, and features the time-travelin' sorcerer supreme meeting his old STRANGE TALES roommate Nick Fury (and one of his Howlin' Commandoes) in a blitz-period London pub. The inker is Terry Austin, and the writer is Roger Stern. The third is one of the gems of my collection: The splash page from the first issue of Rogers's 1977-1978 run on DETECTIVE COMICS with inker Austin and writer Steve Englehart, hailed as one of the best depictions of Batman in the character's multi-decade history.

All three pages show many of Rogers's strengths: His expressive faces, his cartoony touches, his skill at depicting architecture and stage settings, and his marvelous ability with comic-book storytelling. Each panel communicates more story than most artists can fit in an entire page.

The Doctor Strange pages are copyrighted by Marvel Comics. The Detective page is copyrighted by DC Comics/Warner Communications/Etc.

Marshall Rogers, R.I.P.

This one hit me in the gut. Marshall Rogers was one of those rare comic book artists who (a) had a style all his own and (b) carried it off brilliantly. His versions of Batman and Doctor Strange, along with the characters he created or co-created (Coyote, Scorpio Rose, Cap'n Quick, the Foozle) were unforgettable.

He didn't make it out to the West Coast much, but he did appear at an LA convention in 1991 and I had a nice chat with him. I also have three of his original art pages up on the walls of my house. I'll post pictures of them soon.

The only fortunate part is that he and writer Steve Engelhart were able to create one more Batman story together, last year, before Rogers succumbed at the far-too-young age of 57.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Spoilers of War

Older folks like me will recall that TV Guide, back when it was a force in the publishing world (and before there were 10,000 stations) would have a capsule description of the plot of each TV show; and often a cast list for prime-time shows, set forth in its own indented paragraph. There is obviously an art to writing those summaries in such a way that they intrigue the potential viewer, without giving away the plot points of that show.

When I record shows on my DVR, the shows are organized by their TV Guide online capsule summaries, so that in order to start the show I have to see the summary. One would think that the summary writers would therefore practice circumspection in writing their blurbs. One would think.

This morning, I watched a DVR recording of the episode of EUREKA SEVEN, a science fiction anime series that is being broadcasted on Cartoon Network at one a.m. Sunday mornings (and anyone who did not watch that episode from this morning should stop reading now. I'll even put in a few extra carriage returns to facilitate it.)

The episode features a surprise plot development in which one of the protagonists, Eureka, who had strange luminous growths on her arm, suddenly sprouts wings! That is, it would have been a surprise had not the TV Guide summary read something like: "Eureka, nursing Renton's wounds, sprouts wings . . . ." The summary went on to list every other plot development in that episode.

The quality of writing program summaries is not strain'd.

Sgt. Leonidas and His Howlin' Spartans

I've seen three recently-made war movies in the last few weeks: 2006's LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and JARHEAD; and, this morning, 300. All from different eras (WWII, Desert Storm, Ancient Greece); yet all with striking similarities. Indeed, if LETTERS and 300 were not based on historical events, they might be criticised for the similarity of their plots. Both feature groups of soldiers facing invading forces. In both, the defending soldiers have no hope of victory; their plan is to make the invasion as costly as possible. In both, soldiers assert a "no retreat, no surrender" approach to warfare. Both feature resolute commanders who fight undermining forces from without and within. Both are filmed with a dark, brooding work -- the work of filters in LETTERS and wholly-artificially-created scenery in 300.

As for JARHEAD, its depiction of the Marine training and ethos harkens back to that of the Spartans in 300, who have provided an inspiration for fighting men for centuries. Parallels can be seen in the training scenes: For both the Spartans and the Marines, rough training can cost lives.

The differences are striking too. In 300, most of the movie is battle. In LETTERS, we see bits of the battle, but the focus is on the Japanese soldiers' reaction to the battle, both in anticipation and during the fighting. In JARHEAD, the Marines are trained to kill, come under fire, and see the horrible results of war -- and yet never really get to fight. Further, in JARHEAD, the Marines are the invading force, rather than the defenders.

Another important difference is how the "no surrender, no retreat" philosophy is depicted in practice. In 300, it is a mark of honor; the Spartans succeed in turning their sacrifice into an example which fires Greece (sorry) with the will to defend. In LETTERS, the Japanese soldiers who respond to the order to retreat and regroup (which if obeyed might have resulted in a more effective defense) by committing suicide, blowing themselves up with grenades, are shown as dogmatic and foolish, accomplishing nothing. Further, the sacrifice of the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, from the perspective of history, accomplished little except persuading the Allies to try out the atomic bomb on Japan rather than risk an invasion.

As somebody who read the 300 comic book miniseries by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley when it came out in 1998, I have to laugh at some of the criticisms leveled at the movie. Although the film seems to be commenting about the current situation with Iran (aka Persia) and Iraq (and the scenes added in the film version involving Sparta's legislature add to that image), the story is really another chapter in Miller's ongoing obsession with tough folks. He therefore focused on the toughest warriors in the history of western civilization (the Spartans), and on the toughest Spartans in history (the 300). The speeches -- many of them taken directly from the comic -- about the defense of western civilization are inherently political; but nearly all of Miller's work (excepting maybe some of his DAREDEVIL and SIN CITY stories) are inherently political.

The silliest criticism I've heard is that the foes the Spartans battle are nonwhite, while the Spartans are all white. I'm sorry, but I don't think there's any history of the Spartans being a melting pot of ethnicities; they were all Greeks. It might make a more politically correct story if they were like SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLIN' COMMANDOS -- which, as comics fans will recall, contained one Irishman from Boston, one Jewish soldier from Brooklyn, one Italian soldier who looked like Dean Martin, one African-American soldier who played a bugle, and one Englishman who wore a beret and used an umbrella as a weapon -- but that's not this story.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wi-fi Watering Hole: Synergy Cafe II (Sepulveda)

Synergy on Overland, which I previously posted about, now has a satellite location on the much busier Sepulveda Boulevard (4437 Sepulveda Blvd), from which I'm now blogging. I like it better than the other location: it has two rooms, both of which have ample-sized tables with outlets. One has the stage. The live music is pretty good. The panini are impressive, and the espresso drinks (from Groundwork) pretty good.

Idle Thoughts

Today's Los Angeles Times Calendar section features an essay by Monty Python's Eric Idle about the adaptation of his Broadway musical, SPAMALOT -- itself adapted from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL -- for Las Vegas. I think Idle's humor works better when spoken than written (an attempt to play off the similarity of "pawn shop" and "porn shop" falls flat in the absence of Idle's English accent), and he strains with jokes like, "Sadly Terry Jones can't make it. He is wrestling with chemo. Pity, I rather hoped he would be here wrestling with keno." Still, it's fun.

It also got me thinking (always a dangerous prospect): Is there any hit Broadway musical that wasn't adapted from another source? The only one that comes to mind is Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN. Musicals have been adapted from films (SPAMALOT, THE PRODUCERS), animated films (THE LION KING), comic strips (ANNIE), short stories (SOUTH PACIFIC, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF), songs (MAMMA MIA), biographies (THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and other, non-musical plays (MY FAIR LADY, HELLO DOLLY, WESTSIDE STORY). There are even musicals adapted from books that are adapted from other books that have themselves been turned into musicals (WICKED). What is it about musicals that is so inimical to original ideas?

Ninja-ing the Bestsellers List

Not that long ago, English translations of Japanese manga were mere curiosities -- particularly those that were "unflopped," that is, printed from back to front, with the panel flow running from right to left (requiring a bit of mental retraining to read) as in the Japanese original. Such translations probably sold, at most, a couple thousand.

Flash-forward to today, and the Los Angeles Times' So Cal bestsellers list for fiction paperbacks. Ensconced at Number 6 is the latest English-translated volume of Naruto, the fantasy ninja manga currently being printed in the American version of SHONEN JUMP magazine, and the animated version of which is playing Saturday nights on Cartoon Network. I can't recall many, if any, American graphic novels (apart from collections of newspaper comic strips) that have acheived the same rank.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In the Desert, Remembering My Name

This past weekend, Amy and I made our annual pilgrimage to the desert (specifically the Palm Springs environs) to visit family. And visit we did: Along with Dad and Regina (who live out there during the colder parts of the year), we got to see Uncle Arny and Aunt Carol (bottom two photos), visiting from the Seattle area; and lunched with desert inhabitants Tod and Wendy Goldberg (top), in the process giving Tod a framing device for one of his insightful blog posts delving into the psychology of readers of Parade Magazine.

What else does one do in the desert? Why, one watches movies! I managed to catch two cable flicks with Dad, along with a theatrical release with the whole family:

-- DONNIE DARKO: One of those movies that everyone would think I'd have caught when it came out, instead of on cable six years later. An entertaining film, but one that fails to live up to its premise. The journey is much more satisfying than the destination.

-- PHFFT!: A screwball comedy from 1954, with Jack Lemmon and Judy Holiday as a formerly married couple struggling futilely to keep their divorce alive. One of the few American movies to be named after a vowel-less sound effect. The only other one I can think of is SSSSSS, which starred a pre-Galactica Dirk Benedict.

-- AMAZING GRACE: The theatrical film. The story of abolitionist MP William Wilberforce. Nicely acted and filmed, if a little too earnest for its own good. I wonder if star Ioan Gruffudd -- who has also played Horatio Hornblower and Reed Richards -- has a proviso in his contract requiring that he play heroes with alliterative names.

The Language of War

This magazine ad urges parents to "Find out how you can help your children become an Army officer."

Apparently, not by teaching them subject-verb agreement.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Arnold Drake, R.I.P.

Mark Evanier's blog contains the sad news that comics writer Arnold Drake has passed away. Drake is little known outside the comics world (and to some degree within it), because the famous characters he worked on (like Little Lulu) he did not create; and the characters he created generally did not become famous. The one exception was Beast Boy, a supporting character from his DOOM PATROL comic who gained a measure of fame on the recent animated TEEN TITANS cartoon. Not that his characters weren't clever. DOOM PATROL was an offbeat comic about a group of freaks led by a genius in a wheelchair. Yes, the concept was amazingly like X-MEN. That isn't sarcasm; it is amazing, because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's X-MEN appeared almost simultaneously with the DOOM PATROL. The DOOM PATROL also became a group that lived up to its name: In the final story, the entire team died, sacrificing themselves to save others. (Alas, it didn't last; they came back.) DEADMAN was another clever concept: His name was literal. He was a murder victim who hunted for his killer, as a ghost who could possess people. Although Deadman was executed (sorry) to perfection later by writer Jack Miller and artist Neal Adams, Drake conceived him.

Drake had recently become a familiar sight at the San Diego Comic-Con, wandering around with his walker or his scooter, delivering some well-weathered wisdom at panels and awards presentations. He was always easy to spot with the colorful, African-looking skullcaps he wore. He'll be missed.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Captain America -- Dead Again

So Marvel has cannily managed to land on the front pages of newspapers around the country -- and incidently sell out of the latest issue of Captain America's comic -- by printing a story in which the Star-Spangled Avenger gets assassinated, a la Oswald, on the way to his arraignment.

One comics scholar reacted to the news by reprinting the Jim Steranko cover to the Captain America comic from 1968 in which The Living Legend of WWII was supposedly ventilated by bullets and killed -- complete with a funeral -- only to come roaring back (on a motorcycle filled with explosive fuel, no less) in the middle of a graveyard. That storyline only took one issue to bring Winghead back to life; I suspect this one will take months or years -- much like the storyline in the early '90's in which Superman was temporarily killed off.

As all long-time comics fans know, Superhero Heaven has a revolving door.

Since this is the Era of the Pundit, lots of editorials took this opportunity to crank out op-ed pieces on Cap, what he means to America (and what he has meant at various times in the past, his character shifting as the definition of patriotism shifts), and (invariably) why we need him more than ever. And radio shows have used the occasion to dust off the cheesy theme to the cheesy 1960's CA cartoon -- the one where comic panels were shown with a character's lips or leg moving to give the illusion of animation.

Will this create any new comic buyers (besides the ones who bought CA #25)? Maybe, but not likely in any numbers. The public is going to forget this; it probably already has. But sometimes comics marketing needs an adrenaline shot like this.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lemme Eat Fries, with My Burger in the Sun

This morning, I heard a radio commercial for the latest Wendy's Old-Fashi0ned Hamburger's monstrosity (something like mozzarella lover's heart attack on a bun) accompanied by the instrumental bridge from "Blister in the Sun" by Violent Femmes.

This has to be the most appropriate pairing of product and anthem since the cruise line commercials started using "Lust for Life." After all, what's more appropo for a family outing to Wendy's than:

"When I'm walkin'
I strut my stu-uff
And I'm so strung owwwwt
I'm high as a kite
I just might
Stop to check you out."

Not to mention the appetizing pictures conjured by:

"Body and beats
I stain my sheets
I don't even know why.
My girlfrie-end
She's at the end
She is starting to cry."

Has somebody told the Wendy's folks that junkies don't eat lots of burgers?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Wi-fi Watering Holes: The Rumor Mill Coffee & Laundry

This WFWH on Washington Boulevard in Culver City has two storefronts. One holds the coffee/food bar, tables and chairs, and a bay of about five desktop computers. The other holds a coin laundry. Not that important to me (because I have a washer and dryer at home) but probably a godsend to anyone who has to labor on the computer while doing the laundry.

Pluses: Nice facility. Very busy on a Saturday afternoon (i.e., now). Nicer decor than many; the place did not merely throw a bunch of eclectic couches, chairs and tables together for a faux homey effect. There's the usual art on the walls, and the condiments sit on an antique white stove. The espresso drinks and tea are very good. Open from the morning until 10 p.m. During the week, it has an open mic night (although I have not seen this yet). Lots of outlets, and the tables are located convenient to them. The Wi-Fi signal is strong. The free desktop computers are a nice touch.

Minuses: The concrete floor and bare-joist ceiling translates into a noisy space. This afternoon, the PA was playing Jack-FM, complete with commercials, unlike many WFWH which either play satellite radio, CDs, or their own Ipod playlists. Plus, the radio had some interference at one point, leading to irritating static and distortion. Parking is mainly on the street.

Babylon 5: The Return

I don't know how this flew under my pop-culture radar. My Google search for the correct spelling of J. Michael Straczynski's name for the blog post below pulled up the information that JMS is writing and directing a series of 20-minute direct-to-video films about characters in the Babylon 5 Universe. Apparently the box sets of B5 DVDs have been selling briskly, stoking Warner Brothers' interest in making more moola out of the franchise. The link goes to JMS's own photos from the set.

Buffy's Four-Color Season

Tomorrow's LA Times has an article (available on the Website today -- another sign of the Times' announced commitment to focus its attention on its Website instead of its paper) about Joss Whedon's plans to produce the eighth season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in a 30-episode comic book series from license mavens Dark Horse.

This isn't the first time that TV creators have supplemented TV series with comics miniseries; J. Michael Straczynski wrote or co-wrote several comic books that told side stories concerning his BABYLON 5 TV series; and Whedon himself wrote the comics miniseries FRAY, a story about a future vampire slayer that dovetailed into the final TV season of BUFFY.

But this series is innovative both in continuing the plotline of a finished TV series; and in Whedon's plan to produce the series like he show-ran the TV series: He will write the first five issues, and then have subsequent issues written by staff writers (drawn from his staff writers for the TV series) in collaboration with comics writers.

Comics writers, movie writers, and novelists writing comics series have been the rage for a few years, ever since Kevin Smith wrote a memorable run of DAREDEVIL in the late 90's that in part led to the run's artist, Joe Quesada, becoming editor in chief of Marvel. Some are better at it than others: Whedon took to comics like a natural; Smith started out too verbose, but adjusted; mystery novelist Greg Rucka became a fantastic comics writer; and novelist Brad Meltzer has been hit-and-miss. Comics writing is tricky, in that comics resemble movies and TV (they tell stories through the interaction of words and pictures, and the rules of panel-to-panel storytelling resemble those of movie directing and editing) but are ultimately different (comics stories must be told through a series of static images that give the illusion of action; movement within a panel must be implied; and comics offer the advantages of image juxtaposition and page design which can only be artificially and clumsily duplicated in movies through split-screen). It will be interesting to see how Whedon's staff writers adjust.

The image is from the LA Times Website; and doesn't carry a copyright notice, but I'm guessing it's copyrighted by Dark Horse and Warner Brothers.

Linda Lea's New Lease on Life

When I drive to the Second District Court of Appeal (located in the Ronald Reagan State Office Building -- yes, the Ronald Reagan SOB -- on Spring Street) to argue a case, I usually park in a pay lot just north of Third Street. The lot abuts what used to be the Linda Lea Japanese Movie Theater; and I could just see the back of the theater and the sign from the lot. According to this article in today's LA Times, the theater closed in the early '80's, and has just been demolished (a good thing, too; apparently the facade crumbled when removed).

The property's owners have plans to build a new "Imaginasian Center" in the theater's stead, showing Japanese, Chinese, Hong Kong and Indian movies. They believe that the current interest in Asian pop culture is strong enough to support the venture.

I wish them luck. Although the home movie market has made a dent in art house and foreign-movie theater attendance, nothing replaces watching a terrific movie -- especially a Hong Kong martial-arts extravaganza, a samurai flick, or an anime film -- on a big screen.