Monday, June 28, 2010

So Cal Cons are Steaming Away

If you're attending Anime Expo in Los Angeles or Comic-Con in San Diego next month, and you enjoy viewing outfits and gadgets from the future of the past, check out one of these steampunk gatherings, just scheduled this past weekend:

Anime Expo: Saturday, 5:00 p.m., outside West Hall of L.A. Convention Center. (

Comic-Con: Saturday, High Noon, on the back steps of the San Diego Convention Center. (!/event.php?eid=139542939389760)

Barring ill fate, I'll be at both, so see you there!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Leading Man

Having watched two high-profile mid-sixties films in as many weeks -- first TO SIR WITH LOVE, and then COOL HAND LUKE -- I have a renewed appreciation for the current sentiment (which has probably been around since the early days of film) that there are no leading men now of the caliber seen in times past.

TO SIR WITH LOVE is a slight film with a less-than-credible premise and an uncomfortable atmosphere of encouraging teacher-teenager flirtation. COOL HAND LUKE is a well-written, well-directed, beautifully shot movie with a great ensemble cast. Neither movie would have worked nearly as well (and TO SIR would not have worked at all) without its charismatic leading man: Sidney Portier in TO SIR, and Paul Newman in LUKE.

How many current leading men (or women) can take a mediocre movie and make it memorable, or take a good movie and make it a classic?

The Theme Parks Took the Kodachrome Away

Well, actually, Kodak took the Kodachrome away -- the company doesn't make that film anymore. But that's not my point.

Yesterday, Amy and I spent a delightful afternoon behind the Orange curtain. We went to our grand-niece's 6th birthday party (which included some Wii Sports Resort playing for the adults). Since the Southern California Quilter's Run is on, Amy then visited three Anaheim - Garden Grove area quilting stores in quick sucession. Quilting stores generally have a spouse-depository area to park whichever spouse is not into quilting, and I brought my Nook along, so I passed the time polishing off the pilot script to "The Glades" (smart marketing move, to give away the script as a free ebook to promote the upcoming TV series) and worked on Patricia Briggs's first Mercy Thompson story.

We finished up our Orange-tinged afternoon by visiting the chicken restaurant at Knotts Berry Farm (, where the fried chicken is just as good as advertised. Afterward, we hit the souvenir shops. When I was a kid, the souvenir shops at theme parks were as much fun as the rides. They don't hold quite the same wonder to an adult, but I did find the two we visited impressive. The first was Snoopy Headquarters, which featured a dazzling array of Peanuts collectibles -- comparable to the collection I saw at the Snoopy Town store in Yokohama, Japan, but with different merchandise. (Where else can you get stuffed animals not only of Snoopy, but also of his brothers -- not to mention the rarely-seen Franklin?) The other was a general gift store that had collectibles that spanned pop culture -- Elvis, Disney, Harley-Davidson, Lucy, Hello Kitty, Harry Potter, etc. We didn't buy anything there, but the browsing alone could consume hours.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. One thing that was ubiquitous at the park souvenir shops I visited as a kid, but was absent at the Knotts stores: Film. Just a few years ago, you could get all sorts of still and movie film at theme parks (although always with a single brand, Kodak or Fuji, throughout the park). Now the Kodak displays at both stores we visited had a couple of single-use cameras, some AA batteries, and nothing else. I wonder how much damage the prevalence of cellphone and other digital cameras has done to the bottom line for souvenir shops (and film companies).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

E-asy Reader

The e-reader/ebook market is going in some interesting directions. The Borders chain is having financial problems, and one of the issues appears to be that it doesn't have an associated e-reading device, as Barnes & Noble does with the Nook. (It does seek the Sony Reader devices in it's stores.). Amazon and Barnes & Noble have expanded the points of sale for their respective devices; while a short time ago you could find them only at the respective stores, now Best Buy carries the Nook and Target carries the Kindle. Meanwhile, the Nook has expanded its functions. It now provides simple games (chess and sudoku), and a bizarre rudimentary web browser that is in black and white except for the small portion in the color touch screen. B & N has also been bribing Nook owners (and others with the B & N reader app) with free book downloads and food goodies at B & N stores.

The main force behind these changes is likely the iPad, on which I'm typing these words. According to Steve Jobs, the iBooks online store now accounts for some 22% of ebook sales -- rather surprising, because the selection in the iBook store is smaller than that on Amazon, and the prices often higher. Both Amazon and B & N have released apps for the iPad that enable folks to read any kind of ebook, whatever the seller, on the iPad. I'm quite impressed with the B & N reader app, which allows readers to select not only the font but also the margins of their books; see large-sized color covers; look up words on Google and Wikipedia; and share books between the Nook and iPad, as well as lend them to others with the app.

One of the biggest advantages of the iPad is color. Books with color photos show up in color on the iPad. So far, few graphic novels have appeared to exploit this capability. (Some manga creators and other GN publishers have also created standalone apps for the iPad that contain a single GN, along with special effects such as multilingual settings.). And magazines and newspapers look far better on the iPad than on other ereaders.

I'm not ready to ditch my Nook. It's still lighter and more portable than the iPad; has a longer battery life; and is easier to read for an extended period. But I'm interested to see where the ebook market goes -- especially when other tablet computers with features similar to the iPad begin to compete.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Marvel of Bronze

In the early 1970's, Marvel Comics, enjoying success with its license of Robert E. Howard's pulp-magazine hero Conan the Barbarian, licensed another pulp hero: Lester Dent's Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. Now, in a strange twist of licensing fate, Marvel's short run of Doc Savage color comics has been reprinted for the first time by the current holder of the license -- DC Comics.

DC's paperback collection of the Marvel series shows how a license that would seem to be a natural for comics can fail. Doc Savage seems tailor-made for a Marvel series; after all, he is one of the prototypes of the comic-book superhero who would come along just shy of a decade after Doc's debut. Although Doc had no superpowers per se, he was a physical and mental marvel who had an origin story (a father who had a squad of scientists raise him to be the pinnacle of human development), a warehouse full of crime-fighting vehicles and gadgets, a Fortress of Solitude (which Superman would appropriate), a life mission of selflessly vanquishing evil, and a horde of weird super-science ne'er do wells to battle. He influenced Superman, Batman, and any number of four-color folks.

Moreover, although Doc's pulp magazine died in the post-war era (during which he was already becoming an anachronism), Doc, like Conan, had a revival of popularity in the 1960's paperback market. Conan's sales were fueled by Frank Frazetta's book covers; Doc's can be attributed to James Bama's stunning cover paintings, which transformed the wavy-haired Doc of the pulps into a Lee-Marvin-like bronze giant with a crewcut and widow's peak.

The Marvel Doc Savage comics did not want for creative talent. The writers included Marvel second-in-command Roy Thomas; Steve Engelhart, who wrote some of the best-remembered comics stories of the seventies, for both Marvel and DC; and Gardner Fox, who actually wrote pulp and comics stories in the '30's and '40's. Artistically, the comics boasted knockout covers by Jim Steranko; and the interiors of most of the issues combined the fluid, cartoony art of Ross Andru with the dramatic finishes of Tom Palmer.

So why did the comic last only eight issues, plus a giant-size reprint (done to tie-in with the abysmal 1975 Doc Savage movie)? It's hard to say nearly forty years (eep!) after the fact. The pacing of the issues (which adapted some of the Doc Savage novels in two-to-three-issue arcs) seems clunky, with lots of exposition mixed haphazardly into the action sequences. One problem was likely the editorial choice to deliver a lot of the exposition through Doc's dialog (even when no one else is present), likely to prevent the comics from becoming masses of narrative captions. The result turns the taciturn Doc of the pulps into a nonstop chatterbox. Or perhaps he merely fell victim to the chaotic world of 1970's comics publishing, in which rising paper and printing costs threatened to destroy comics, and Marvel and DC published tons of reprints in an effort to force each other off the newsstands.

This certainly wasn't the end of Doc's adventures in comics. Marvel ran a black-and-white Doc Savage magazine (tying into the movie) from 1975-1977; and numerous other comics companies have licensed the Man of Bronze since then (including DC, in a prior attempt in the late eighties). But it's interesting to see comics from 38 years ago adapting stories from 30 years before that.

A World of Hurt

We watched "The Hurt Locker" on Video on Demand last night. (And parenthetically, I can see why movie theaters are having a lousy summer. Last weekend, we saw "Kick-Ass" at the upscale Arclight Theater in Hollywood. It's a great viewing experience, but tickets for two set us back a total of $32. Using the Time-Warner Video on Demand service, we downloaded "The Hurt Locker" to our cable box, and were able to watch it in high-def -- and even pause and rewind it -- without leaving our house. Total cost: $5.99. Between VOD, Netflix, and Redbox, it takes something Avatar-nifty to get people into theaters.)

"The Hurt Locker" makes an interesting bookend to the recently ended miniseries "The Pacific." "The Pacific" depicted brutal warfare, but we could feel some distance from it; after all, it was set in 1942-1945, and was filled with the atmosphere of the 1940's. "The Hurt Locker," on the other hand, is set in 2004; and involves a war that is still going on (although it has dropped from news coverage). It's hard to distance yourself from the mayhem when the soldiers are watching DVDs, playing Nintendo videogames, dealing with bombs planted in Hyundais, and fighting in an urban landscape that doesn't look that different from American cities.

The movie is a terrific piece of low-budget filmmaking. It elevates story over showmanship, character over special effects, and tension over slam-bang action. The set pieces in which the protagonists in the bomb squad encounter and deal with a variety of IEDs are all riveting, especially as the explosive devices become more and more horrifying. If the film has a flaw, it's the one my wife pointed out: Several sequences are so realistic that the scenes of obvious "drama" -- such as the soldiers' interaction in their downtime, or various character monologues -- stick out as artificial.