Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reforging the Man of Steel (with some spoilers)

Steel is not a pure metal.  It is an alloy, iron mixed with other things to shape it in different ways.  Its virtues include its strength, its durability, its flexibility in some configurations, and its ability to be melted down and reforged for different uses.  Bear that in mind when you watch MAN OF STEEL.

Superman is one of the most durable characters in popular fiction.  He has many times survived that crisis point every long-lived fictional character faces:  When every story that can be told about him has been told, sometimes multiple times, and those creating his stories wonder what the hell else to do with him.  His story is several stories, often contradictory.  Sometimes he is a young, rough-hewn reformer fighting strike-busting goons and manufacturers of unsafe cars in the depth of the depression.  Sometimes he is a fatherly renaissance man of the fifties and sixties, devoting godlike strength to charity events, teaching his idiot friends Jimmy and Lois life lessons by humiliating them, and occasionally fighting off mad scientists.  Sometimes he is teenager in the era of Bonnie and Clyde, sometimes a kid of the mid-2000s.  Sometimes his birthplace is a sterile crystalline planet.  Sometimes it is a Flash Gordon paradise of ruby forests and giant rideable dragonflies.  Like contradictory legends of Norse gods, they are all true, each in its way.

Bryan Singer and the other folks who made 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS did not seem to understand that.  Their idea of reviving the big-screen adventures of Superman was simply to recycle a previous big-screen version -- the Christopher Reeve Superman, who starred in one great movie, one pretty-good movie, and two awful movies -- as if that was the only version of Superman that would survive on the big screen.  But Superman cannot be adapted by simply copying what has gone before -- especially when "before" is 20 years previously.  They underestimated Superman's ability to be reforged.

Fortunately, MAN OF STEEL has found the right forge and the right composition for its alloy.  The Superman in it is, portrayed with great humanity by Henry Cavill, still recognizably Superman.  He still adheres to a moral code, the ideals that are all that prevent an all-powerful man from simply turning into a raging ball of ungovernable selfishness and destruction.  He still asks less-powerful people to trust him, instead of forcing them to obey him.  He still is a dream come true:  He has all the power in the world, and he just wants to help.

And of course, there are still the tropes of superhero fiction, the ones Superman pioneered.  There are threats to face -- bullies who use their superior abilities to harm humanity rather than help it.  There is the superhero method of solving problems:  fisticuffs, here writ large and with lots of collateral damage.

What has put off some folks (including many reviewers) is the approach the filmakers take in recasting the Adventures of Superman.  They test Superman's reserve and self-control by setting him in an uncomfortably realistic world, one where a frightened humanity learns of his existence at the same time as they learn of others of his kind -- others who lack his control.  They have only his word, and his apparent acts of submission to authority, to believe that he is any different.  And they must make the leap of faith to believe that someone with such power will not use it for either personal gain or an ideal at odds with the safety of humanity -- like those whom he faces.

This is a different approach from the eye-twinkling, winking presentation of the Christopher Reeves films, so poorly aped in SUPERMAN RETURNS.  This is a more science-fiction oriented extrapolation.

And other changes have been made.  The entire dynamic of Lois Lane's relationship with Clark Kent is changed to reflect an audience's need for a heroine who is not simply lovesick and imperceptive to the point where she fails to realize that the man she spends most of her time watching is also the man sitting next to her in the Daily Planet office.  As enacted by Amy Adams, Lois is less a damsel in distress than a sidekick -- someone who learns the truth early on, and uses it to help the hero.  And yes, even a Superman sometimes needs help.

On top of it all, we've got the sheer joys of fantastic cinema.  A lush-but-doomed Krypton where Superman's father battles tyrants and rides a giant dragonfly.  Epic flying scenes, something that can be portrayed in movies better than in any other medium.  Lots of exciting battles (although at the end they do go on too long -- and our excitement is tinged with regret as we watch buildings crumble and presumably thousands perish as super-beings clash).

That is why MAN OF STEEL, in my opinion, is a worthy entry in the crowded contest of film and TV portrayals of Superman.  It's yet another way that a metal of 75 years' vintage can be reforged for a new audience.  And it's a testament both to the strength of the metal and the skill of the forgers that it remains so strong.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.": Joss's Your U.N.C.L.E.

Here's the way things work in pop-culture land, where derivation eclipses source, young creators inject new vitality into old properties, and you're only as old as your last blockbuster. In the beginning (the 1950s), there were the Ian Fleming James Bond novels.  These begat the ultra-popular film series that began in 1962.  The Bond novels mentioned the real-life spy organization SMERSH and the made-up crime syndicate THRUSH, each of which was an acronym.  In 1963, TV producer Norman Felton, inspired by the Bond novels, collaborated with Fleming in developing a TV show about a spy.  The only lasting contributions from Fleming were the names Napoleon Solo (which Fleming recycled from the novel GOLDFINGER) and April Dancer (later to be used for a spinoff series).  The series debuted on NBC in 1964 as "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."  (For a great account of the making of that series, I recommend "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." book by Jon Heitland from St. Martin's Press.)  The series was wildly successful in the spy-crazed, hero-crazed Sixties.
And in the manner of pop-culture phemonena, U.N.C.L.E. begat similar anacronymed spy organizations in other media, including several in comic books.  Oddly, the only one that endured was a derivation of a derivation.  Around the time of the TV series's genesis, Marvel Comics progenitors Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created a World War II-set comics series, "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos," about a cigar-chomping noncom who led an ethnically-integrated squad of special forces soldiers.  It achieved some success (the title lasted from 1963 to 1981, although it consisted only of reprints after 1974).  So in 1965, Kirby and Lee copied the U.N.C.L.E. formula by taking the Sixties version of Fury (in his forties, with salt-and-pepper hair) and made him the head of the Marvel Universe's version of U.N.C.L.E., S.H.I.E.L.D. Lee and Kirby did some issues of the S.H.I.E.L.D. strip in STRANGE TALES (the Marvel comics of that time often carried the titles of former monster comics, due to postal regulations limiting the new titles that could be offered), and then passed it off to others.  While their version played like an updated version of the Howling Commandos comic (complete with other middle-aged "Howlers" joining Fury in his antics), the series did not catch fire until a young writer-artist-entertainer-entrepreneur named Jim Steranko became the writer-artist on the series.
Steranko's work on the feature -- in the remaining issues of STRANGE TALES, and then the first few issues of a Nick Fury comic -- were spectacularly entertaining, setting standards for art and excitement in comics that have rarely been equaled. Although relatively few comics fans today have read a Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. comic, his work was likely the reason that the concept hung around after the Sixties -- that, and the utility of having an international spy group in the Marvel universe that could readily supply supporting characters when needed. Hence, while the U.N.C.L.E. series faded away, never to return except for a 1983 TV movie, S.H.I.E.L.D. stuck around.  It even made its way to TV in the late 1990s, when a spate of Fox pilots included one for a Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. series starring none other than David Hasselhoff as Fury.
It didn't sell.  Imagine that. Nevertheless, S.H.I.E.L.D. proved such a useful concept for a universe of superheroes that when Marvel started its own movie studio, it used the organization as a plot element in its wildly-successful IRON MAN film, capping the movie with Samuel L. Jackson's post-credits appearance as Fury.  It wove S.H.I.E.L.D. through its successive films, using it to bring the Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor movies together, culminating in 2012's blockbuster AVENGERS -- er. MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS -- movie.  That flick introduced the S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuits so well known to comics fans, along with the spectacular vehicle Jack Kirby created back in the very first  S.H.I.E.L.D. story, the Helicarrier.
And now, thanks to the success of THE AVENGERS, Joss Whedon, the TV impressario who wrote and directed that movie, is bringing "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." to TV.  Specifically, the now-Disney-owned Marvel Studios is bringing the Disney-owned series adapting the Disney-owned Marvel Comics property to Disney-owned ABC.
Thus do derivations of derivations of derivations -- British spies, World War II noncoms, super heroes, spy organizations with acronyms -- intersect and breed and result in what looks to be a pretty entertaining series for the 2013-2014 fall season.  From Agent Solo to Agent Coulson, from James Bond to Joss Whedon, it's all about heroic folks and high-tech toys and high-stakes battles for the safety of the world.
Perhaps it's best to ignore the sources, and just enjoy the result.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gallifrey One: 24 Years of Who

The Los Angeles area hosts many genre conventions, but Gallifrey One is an extraordinary one.  Although it generally celebrates British science fiction (and, to a decreasing degree, television science fiction in general), it has always focused on a single venerable science fiction series:  DOCTOR WHO.  It has been put on every year for 24 years.  That means that it started just a few years after Sylvester McCoy closed out the 26-year run of the original DOCTOR WHO series.  It continued during several years when no new WHO material came out, and fans were left to pore over the existing episodes and reconstruct the episodes that the BBC simply erased from existence to save tape space.  It was buoyed by the 1996 Fox pilot that attempted to resurrect the series (with McCoy regenerating into Paul McGann), but that boost faded when the pilot was not picked up.  When we attended some Gallifreys in the mid-to-late '90s, the show was frequented by a few die-hard Who fans, and featured extensive programming on then-current non-who SF shows such as BABYLON FIVE.

And the con has benefitted from the 2005 resurrection of DOCTOR WHO into a critically-acclaimed series, with first Christopher Eccleston, then David Tennant, and currently Matt Smith playing The Doctor in a sophisticated, well-crafted show that has become beloved on both sides of the Atlantic.

No wonder that the most recent Gallifrey One -- the first one that we have attended all three days of -- became the first to sell out, with some 3,500 attendees.

And the con bent over backwards to entertain those attendees, bringing a huge number of guests from England and other countries to meet the fans.  There was a confluence of guests from the ongoing series (most prominently, Freema Agyeman, one of the companions to David Tennant's Doctor and a frequent guest star afterwards, and several actors from the most recent season) and the original  (including Sylvester McCoy, his popularity rekindled by his appearance in Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT:  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY), as well as behind-the-scenes folks.

The diversity of guests was demonstrated by the meet-the-guests brunch we attended on Sunday.  Within the course of an hour and a half, we dined with Phillip Hinchcliffe (producer of the series in the 1970s), Dick Mills (who did sound effects for every episode of the original series), and actors who had played companions to various Doctors in the '60s and '70s.  Further, each was a gifted raconteur, delivering often fascinating stories in that cultured British accent redolent with the entire history of english-language theater.

The fans definitely got into the act.  The costuming at the convention is at a near professional level, bringing admiring words from one of the guests who made costumes for the actual series in the 1970s.

Now that the convention is a commodity that sells out, those who want to attend should remain alert for the March 8, 2013 sale of memberships to the 2014 convention.  It's a great way to spend Valentine's/President's day weekend.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The "Doctor Strange" Movie: How Not to Mess It Up

The word on the Internet (or, more precisely, from Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios) is that one of the Marvel heroes not licensed to another studio who will appear in a forthcoming Marvel Studios movie is Doctor Strange.  Now, Marvel Studios has already taken my all-time favorite Marvel comic book, The Avengers, and turned it into a film that pleased both me and the movie-going public, to the tune of over a billion dollars at the box office and probably a few more in merchandising tchotchkes.  So the studio probably doesn't need my advice for adapting the good doctor, one of my favorite Marvel characters, into a film.  Nevertheless, I'm going to offer it.  Here are my suggestions for making a successful Doctor Strange film that conveys the spirit of the comic book:

1.  Focus on who Doctor Strange is . . . but don't make him Tony Stark.

Strange's character arc is that of an arrogant, greedy, successful man who loses everything; who is deeply wounded in spirit, and does not heal until he is willing to put the welfare of others above his own; and who constantly struggles with the conflict between his inherent arrogance and the nobler parts of his being.  Sound familiar?  Boiled down to its essence, it's the approach Jon Favreau and the various writers of the two Iron Man films have taken in adapting the character of Tony Stark.  The writers of the Doctor Strange movie will have the tricky job of  bringing out and focusing on the essential aspects of the central character (something the Marvel Studios movies have been good at) without duplicating Stark.

2.  Don't give him instant powers.

Doctor Strange is not necessarily original (he follows in a long line of comics sorcerers, and his origin is redolent of pulp mysticism and Lost Horizon), but he is unusual among comics heroes in that he neither obtained his powers in an instant (through an insect bite, or a radioactive bombardment), nor was born with them like Superman.  Instead, as an adult, he made the decision to change himself by devoting his life to scholarship -- and earned his abilities by learning them.  That's an essential part of his personality.  The movie makers should resist giving him sorcerous abilities in a flash of light (a' la the 1970s Dr. Strange TV movie) and show him learning them over the course of several years -- even if that's done with a handy montage, as indeed it was in the comics.

3.  For visuals, look to the best artists.

Although several distinguished artists have drawn Doc's adventures, the two most distinctive illustrators -- and the ones most associated with him -- are his creator, Steve Ditko, and 1970s Strange artist Frank Brunner.  Each created visuals for the strip that had never been seen before in comics, and that have never quite been duplicated.  Just as Sam Raimi modeled his Spider-Man movies after panels from Ditko's and John Romita Sr.'s stints on that character, and the creators of the CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER and THOR used Jack Kirby's art as the starting points for their visual takes on those characters, the Doctor Strange movie designers should use Ditko's and Brunner's art as their touchstone for designing the look of the movie.

4.  Don't be afraid of eloquence.

When writing the dialogue for the Doctor Strange strip in the Sixties, Stan Lee indulged his love for the English language at its most eloquent.  Strange was an educated man who spoke in an educated manner.  Further, he spoke spells that were bits of doggerel poetry in which he invoked impressive-sounding Lovecraftian deities and beings, spells that were one of the most fun aspects of the strip.  (Alas, they've been pretty much dropped from the version of the character currently appearing in comics.)  The THOR and AVENGERS movies showed that characters who spoke formal, almost Elizabethan English could be depicted without losing the audience, especially if surrounded by ordinary folks who speak ordinary (albeit the Hollywood stylized version of ordinary) American English.

5.  Handle the humor carefully.

The Marvel movies have shown that the right kind of humor (i.e., humor that does not derive from making fun of the characters) goes a long way.  The Doctor Strange strip has not necessarily lacked for humor; but it's always been a more subtle variety than might be found in, say, Spider-Man.  Doc may indulge in the occasional wry remark, but he's never been a laugh-a-minute guy.

6.  Make it magical.

The THOR and AVENGERS movies showed that Marvel films could indulge in the more mystical, cosmic aspects of the Marvel universe and not forfeit the audience's suspension of disbelief.  The filmmakers should avoid the temptation of watering down the subject matter that every maker of a comics-based film faces.  If it's handled right, a movie can show us all of the dimension-hopping, Dali-esque visuals inherent to Doc's adventures while still entertaining the folks who have never picked up  a comic in their lives.

All film is a kind of magic.  It is born of the illusion of movement created by persistence of vision.  Movies like the LORD OF THE RINGS series have shown that movie magic can indeed consist of showing magic.  It's time to use that magic to bring Doctor Strange to life.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beginning the Finishing

Ever since I discovered SOULLESS, the first volume of the Parasol Protectorate series written by the pseudonymous Gail Carriger, that series has been my favorite expression of the subgenre of science fiction (or, here, fantasy) known as steampunk. Ms. Carriger's witty extrapolation of werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and soulless cursebreakers as European (and, particularly, British) nobility filled five volumes of PP novels with humor, adventure, giant octopus robots, and the sort of characters that make readers fans. Ms. Carriger even accomplished the amazing feat of putting the second and third books of the series on the New York Times bestseller list in the same year -- something few writers who aren't named Patterson or James do.

This past summer, I was lucky enough to obtain an Advanced Reader Copy of ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE, the first book in Ms. Carriger's follow-up series to the Parasol Protectorate. I can confidently say that folks who enjoyed the Parasol Protectorate novels will find much to love here. The series, set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate series but a few decades earlier, focuses on 14-year-old Sophronia, whose irrepressible curiosity, resourcefulness, and troublemaking bring her to the attention of Madame Geraldine's Finishing School. This girls' school, located on a fascinatingly baroque airship, teaches young women not only the arts of curtsies and cotillions but also the arts of assassination, infiltration, distracting flirtation, and other skills essential to "finishing" a foe.

Aimed squarely at a young-adult audience, ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE keeps the steamy technology but eschews the steamy romantic clinches of the PP series. In exchange, it amps up the humor and occasional absurdity. In particular, the occasional glimpses of the school's counterpart for boys (training them to be evil geniuses) are strongly reminiscent of Phil and Kaja Foglio's GIRL GENIUS graphic novel series.

ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE is being released February 5, 2013, and is highly recommended.

The Life and Death of The Comics Buyer's Guide

On January 9, 2013, I received word -- over the Internet, naturally -- that the Comics Buyer’s Guide would be ceasing publication this month, at the nerve-wrackingly-uneven issue number of 1,6999.  On January 12, 2013, I received that issue in the mail.  Word of the cancellation came after the issue went to press, so the issue itself said nothing about the publication’s end.  It merely set forth the usual contents of CBG at the time of its demise: A broad “news” article about comicst that would be coming out in 2013; columns about comics of the past; and reviews of comics and books that came out months ago.

All of which gives a clue as to why CBG finally ended, after nearly 45 years of publication: The Internet rendered it practically obsolete; and the decline of print put the final nail in its coffin.

To understand the impact of CBG’s demise upon me, you would have to flash back to 1978, when 13-year-old me succumbed to the temptation of the ads CBG’s predecessor publication, The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom,  put in comic books of the era, and sent in an absurdly small amount of money to subscribe to what was then called TBG.  I say absurdly small because at that time, TBG consisted of a huge, multiple-section newspaper that came out weekly.  Each week brought a new piece of cover art (often by a comics professional; sometimes in full color); multiple pages of columns; news features; spot illustrations; comic strips about the comics world; and ads.  The ads, of course, were the reason that TBG subs were so cheap; they paid for the paper.  At that time, TBG was edited and published by Alan Light, who pasted up camera-ready ads (often handwritten) and columns for the paper.  The size of each issue varied with the number of ads sold for it; but usually there were plenty of ads.  Ads from comics shops.  Ads from budding independent comics publishers.  Ads from individual sellers of original art and comics.  Ads from Marvel and DC, promoting their comics.

I learned of independently- published comics, such as CEREBUS and ELFQUEST.  I learned of the then-hot comics creators, John Byrne and Chris Claremont and Marshall Rogers.  I learned more about the creators of the past who were still working in comics then -- folks like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Wally Wood -- and their places in comics history.  Since the subjects columnists such as cat yronwode, Terry Beatty, and Don and Maggie Thompson ranged afield of comics, I learned about such pop culture subjects as Buddy Holly’s music, John Wayne movies, punk rock, and classic science fiction.

When I went to my first convention -- the 1980 San Diego Comic-Con -- I learned about its details from an ad in TBG.  I even occasionally sent away for the exotic collectibles sold in its pages.  For instance, in 1981 comics writer Doug Moench placed a half-page ad selling original art from comics he’d written, at ridiculously low prices.  I bought a Steve Ditko Hulk page and a George Perez Fantastic Four page from him for practically lunch money.

As I maintained my subscription over the years, and then over the decades, changes set in.  In 1983, Alan Light sold the newspaper to Krause Publications.  It hired columnists Don and Maggie Thompson as the editors, renamed the paper the Comic Buyers Guide, and standardized the paper.  Now all features and ads were typeset, there were news items with headlines, and there was even -- gasp -- a table of contents and an index of advertisers, signs that the contents of each issue were more planned than thrown together.  It was around this time that my first professional publication credit appeared in CBG -- a trivia quiz, for which I received around $13.  (On the other hand, after that publication, whenever I met Don and Maggie Thompson, Don remembered my name.)

 This was when comic shops and independent comics were burgeoning, and CBG appeared to thrive as a weekly source for late-breaking comics news.  It also featured “O’So,” a huge letter column in which rivalries and disputes between comics professionals played out.

In the early ‘80s, CBG was apparently selling well enough to generate a spinoff: A regular-sized magazine, to be sold on newsstands alongside other hobby magazines.  It was pretty good, but I doubt it was a commercial success: It lasted only a few issues.

CBG’s core concept (and its editorial strategizing) was durable enough to bob and weave through several decades of changing comics and publishing landscape.  Although it kept its newspaper format and weekly publication schedule for some time, it shrank to half its previous height and increased its use of color.  Finally, in 2003, with the Internet supplying everyone with news faster than even a weekly publication could, CBG transformed into a comics-sized monthly magazine.  And incredibly, it survived like that for almost another ten years.  Not without sacrifices: When it ended, CBG was a thin publication, optimistic but with little to recommend it to young readers.

CBG’s ending was perhaps inevitable.  For more than 15 years, isolated comics fans have connected with fandom through the Internet, not the mailbox.  They don’t need a weekly print newspaper to learn the history of the medium; websites (along with a few select highly-focused magazines, such as ALTER EGO and BACK ISSUE) provide data at the click of a mouse.  Today’s fans would likely look at a messy 1970’s issue of THE BUYER’S GUIDE the way modern shoppers look at vintage Sears Catalogs: curiosities filled with hard-to-read prose and foreign products.

TBG/CBG served a purpose, and served it well.  The purpose fulfilled, it has moved on into history.  Farewell.