Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Gigantic Melancholies of Conan

Last night, we went to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN, which folks are calling a "remake" of the 1982 John Milius flick starring the former governor of California, even though both are adaptations of a pulp character created in the 1930's by Robert E. Howard.

The best part of the movie was Jason Momoa's portrayal of Conan himself, with Momoa conveying both the look and the attitude of Conan as envisioned by such artists as Barry Windsor-Smith.

The minus -- and the factor that likely caused the movie to tank at the box office -- was the story. Here are some ways that, in my humble opinion, the movie went wrong (and yes, there are minor spoilers):

-- When it comes to pulp and comics heroes, Hollywood is far too deeply in love with origin stories. In print, the creators dispose of a character's origin as quickly as possible. Sometimes, as for Conan, there is no "origin" at all, except that the character is born and gains a lot of life experience. But here, as in the Milius movie, the writers come up with a traumatic origin for him, and then tell the story of how he seeks revenge on the folks who messed him up. Which is ultimately not very interesting.

-- The prologue revolves around this starfish-like mask supposedly made of kings' bones (although the pieces don't look like human bones) which is a One Ring sort of device that makes the wearer world-dominatingly super-powerful (when combined with another Maguffin). In the prologue, the mask is broken, and the pieces spread out so that they won't be found. Really. Never. No explanation of why the other folks didn't simply destroy the pieces, rather than turn them into a scavenger hunt.

-- When you're hiding a piece of a weapon of mass destruction, why hide it under the floorboards (seriously!) of the most important building in the village? Why not just stick it in a rhubarb patch, or bury it in the woods?

-- At one point, with the heroine in the clutches of the bad guys, Conan makes a completely unnecessary trip to the City of Thieves to collect a completely unnecessary one-eyed thief character so that he can haul one-eye back to, I don't know, pick some locks and whine. Not only does Conan not need this guy (Conan himself was a pretty good second-story man, as the film points out a couple of times), but by the time Conan sails over to a foreign country, collects this guy, and sails back, I expected the evil wizard to greet him with, "Oh, sorry, barbarian. You're too late. Already sacrificed the girl. Evil won. Kneel, slave."

-- I did appreciate the creators of the movie referencing Conan's adventures in the past -- i.e., the actual Howard stories -- such as The Tower of the Elephant and his time sailing with pirate queen/exotic dancer Belit. But why not tell those stories on film? Folks seem to think that the appeal of Conan is simply that of a long-haired tough guy in a world full of supernatural menace. But you can find that in the stories of Conan's many imitators. No, what made the Conan stories special was the stories themselves, the crazed fever-dreams that the mentally unstable Howard (see the excellent movie "The Whole Wide World," or the many scholarly writings about Howard) brought vividly to life. If you turned something like Red Nails or Queen of the Black Coast into a movie, and retained at least some of Howard's imagery and dialogue, that might be worth seeing.

I'm willing to see Momoa as Conan again. But I'd prefer a better movie. Give a barbarian a chance.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

DC Retro-Activity

In recent years, DC has taken advantage of the summer (when traditionally students released from school for vacation swell comics sales) to release special projects, often ones that appeal to nostalgia. A fondly-remembered one is the "DC Wednesdays" series of sunday funnies-type tabloid comics. For this summer's project, DC has released a series of "Retro-Active" one-shots, each featuring a character as written and drawn in the '70's, '80's, or '90's, each written by and (usually) drawn by an artist who illustrated the character's adventures in that era. Each also includes a reprint of a comic book of the character from that era, usually one tied into the new story. It's an expensive package ($4.99 per comic), but an entertaining one.

What the project highlights, though, is some of the directions DC Comics have changed -- and not always for the better. In the '70's and '80's, comics editors emphasized individual comics issues that were paced as individual issues -- with beginnings, middles, and ends -- even when the comic was part of an ongoing storyline. In subsequent decades, paperback compilations of comics stories eclipsed the sales of individual issues, with the result that creators paced individual issues like chapters of a book -- meaning that individual issues joined stories in mid-stream, and left them that way.

To some longtime readers, like me, the pacing of most modern comics seems off. Fewer individual comics offer a satisfying reading experience when taken out of the context of long continuing storylines. Sometimes it takes a revival of the past to remind you of some of the shortcomings of the present.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Playing Cowboys and Aliens

We saw COWBOYS AND ALIENS last night, and I can't figure out why so many folks are disappointed with this movie. In my opinion, it was a perfectly good summer movie that accomplished exactly what it set out to do: entertain. Further, it did so by featuring action movies stars of the past (Harrison Ford, in at least his second movie with a James Bond actor, along with Clancy Brown, who never fairs well in this sort of movie) and the present (Daniel Craig, a bit bland but fun, and Olivia Wild) in a movie that never loses its focus on its human characters despite their extraterrestrial antagonists.

Everything's Archie

The history of Archie Comics is without precedent in American comic book publishing. While the other surviving long-lived comics companies -- National/DC and Timely/Atlas/Marvel -- have each been handed around between multinational corporations, and are each now owned by conglomerates (Warner for DC, and Disney for Marvel), Archie Comics and its predecessor, MLJ, started as family-owned companies, and have remained so for 70 years. Further, although the company has published other titles, it made its reputation with a single set of characters: Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie and Jughead.

Now, in celebration of those seven decades, Archie Comics has released one of the best comics reprint packages I've ever seen.

This digest-sized book contains over 400 pages and dozens of short stories that span the entire history of the Archie series, from 1941 to the present. Each story has a brief introduction, and many are annotated with comments from folks like Frankie Avalon, Stephen King, Gene Simmons and Stan Lee. Although the collection does not contain any of Archie's various action or superhero series from decades past, it does contain a decent sampling not only of the Archie gang's stories, but also those of their hangers-on -- both well-known ones such as Sabrina and Josie and the Pussycats, and more obscure ones such as Ginger, Katy Keene, and That Wilkin Boy.

The volume is directed to both collectors and kids. Collectors have the benefit of a smorgasbord of stories and styles from across the decades, belying any notion that the Archie stories have been restrained by any particular bland house style. Collectors will also benefit from the credits the volume provides for the creators of the stories.

And for kids, the book is just the right size for consuming in the back seat during a long summer roadtrip. And parents should appreciate the family-friendly price: In an era where a normal comic book will set you back $3 or $4, this 400+ page color volume is retailing for just $9.95.

I don't know if Archie will make money on this book. But as both an introduction to its publishing history, and a retrospective, it's a great publication.