Sunday, August 03, 2014


As you'll know if you're receiving current media in any way, shape or form this weekend, Marvel Studios (formerly an independent filmmaker, currently an arm of The Mouse) has once again hit it out of the ballpark with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, taking a comic title no one in the general populace ever heard of, populated with obscure characters, and raking in multiple millions of bucks as well as some excellent reviews.  And all this without a single familiar superhero.  How did they do this?  Well, here are some of the things the film did right:

1.  THE RIGHT KIND OF HUMOR:  In the vein of STAR WARS, FIREFLY, and the first J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie, this movie is funny without being campy, not taking itself seriously but not making fun of itself.  It does not laugh at its audience; it invites the audience to be in on the joke.  In a way, like the previous Marvel Studios movies, it is the cinematic equivalent of that jokey, pseudo-hip narrative tone that Stan Lee pioneered in those caption boxes in the Sixties.

2.  COLOR:  Far too many science fiction films adopt a monotone, particularly in space, where we've come to expect grey spaceships against a black background.  GOTG is an explosion of color, with multicolored space ships like great soaring plumage birds silhouetted against nebulae.  Credit the property's comic-book origins, but also the amazing art of Chris Foss, who painted luminescently colorful spaceships on SF paperbacks in the Seventies and who worked on this film as a conceptual artist.

3.  UNABASHED SPACE OPERA:  While so many space-oriented SF films these days are cautionary tales about destroyed earths or the perils of space walks, this is space opera of the most pulpish sort.  We see an intergalactic system of planetary relations, without much of a description of how things work or what sort of government the planets have or what the system of trade is; the assumption is that everything works the way it does in America, only on a larger scale.  We have spaceships with faster-than-light drives and space stations with artificial gravity, but no one ever talks about the technology behind them, because it simply isn't important to the plot.  In a milieu of readily-available energy weapons, folks still grapple and fight with knives.  Why not?

4.  IT TAKES PLACE NOW:  Again, the characters don't dwell on this, but the action does not take place in the future.  Point-of-view character Peter Quill was spirited up by aliens in 1988, and he's grown up now (resilient Walkman still in hand), side-by-side with characters who appeared in the AVENGERS movie in contemporary times, using Seventies pop to work his way into the beds of sexy humanoid females.  This is therefore not the United Federation of Planets from STAR TREK, or the events of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, as in STAR WARS.  This is a thriving intergalactic civilization that's taking place out there, right now, just beyond the reach of our telescopes.   That it all looks pretty much like earth, only more so, doesn't take away the magic of multiple worlds that we could reach if our spaceships were only mighty enough.

5.  STRAIGHT-FACED BARDIC APPELLATIONS:  Finally, a measure of how thoroughly GOTG sucks viewers into its world is that it freely uses the bardic-appellation-like titles that Marvel has often bestowed upon its characters, and the audience accepts them without snickering.  Thus, we don't just have Drax, Ronan, and Thanos; we have Drax the Destroyer, Ronan the Accuser, and Thanos the Mad Titan.  The titles aren't just window dressing, they're essential in explaining in a few words exactly why the denizens of this universe might tremble a bit at hearing the name, or that the bearer is in his, her, or its general vicinity.

Of course, none of these elements would be worth anything if they weren't laid on a foundation of solid moviemaking.  GOTG probably won't be listed among the great works of cinematic art, but it should certainly hold a place of honor in the list of great summer popcorn flicks.

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.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tarantino Unchanged

Twenty years and seven-and-a-half films into Quentin Tarantino's directing career, it's fairly safe to say that he's unlikely to change his style. Anyone who thought that his adherence to genre fiction, his reliance on homage, his obsession with incorporating disparate pieces of other movies and TV series into his movies, was merely a chrysalis stage while he found his voice has probably abandoned that conceit. Tarantino is as Tarantino has always been. And that's not a bad thing.

DJANGO UNCHAINED, Tarantino's new western (true, most of it takes place in the antebellum south, but as a character in ARGO says, if it has horses it's a western) is unmistakably a Tarantino film. Once again, Tarantino takes scraps of other movies and pastes them into his movie scrapbook, adding connecting bits to create his own story. He combines actors who have worked with him before (Cristoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson) with big-name actors known for other works (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx.) Tarantino focuses yet again on creating vivid characters, primary through dialogue; Waltz's German bounty hunter dentist, who savors the English language like a fine meal, provides most of the verbal entertainment until Foxx (as title character Django, the slave Waltz frees who becomes first Waltz's protege, then his partner) and DiCaprio take over. He again defies conventions of pacing -- lingering when other directors would be hurrying to the next action scene, catapulting the viewer forward when least expected, drawing the viewer's anticipation and tension to the breaking point. He again indulges the tall tale, with the bizarre coincidences and amazing feats one would expect of a legend. He again seeks the elements of the heroic among the depths of crime and inhumanity. He focuses on the consequences of violence, simultaneously repelling and fascinating the viewer with his geysers of blood. (In terms of acts of violence or body count, the film is probably no more violent than the average western of the past; but Tarantino emphasizes the bloody effects of gunshots on bodies.)

And somehow, he makes it all work. The film may be long, and may occasionally drive the viewer crazy with the director's seeming self-indulgence; but this viewer's attention never waivered from the screen. Tarantino may tell a long story, but it's never a boring one, and if he were to pause the listener would urge him on until he reached his conclusion.

We are unlikely to ever get a Tarantino film that is free of homage, that gives us his vision of the world without the filter of his fascination with what has gone before. But as long as he gives us films like DJANGO UNCHAINED, we won't mind.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SKYFALL: On Not Breaking One's Toys (a Nearly Spoiler-Free Review)

Anyone who follows pop culture with more than a passing-consumer interest knows the problems inherent in dealing with a fictional character whose persistence in culture outlasts the era in which he or she was created. Whether it's Tarzan, born when the British Empire was in full imperial flower, or Batman and Superman, children of the Prohibition and Depression fueled upheaval between the world wars, or the Marvel heroes and their origin in Sputnik-era bad science, creators tasked with producing a new work featuring an old hero must take care with their creative choices. Handled with skill, deconstruction of pop-culture heroes -- taking them apart, finding the source of their appeal, and finding the elements that can be expanded or explored for a deeper resonance with modern audiences -- is a delicate procedure. Characters created for entertainment may be more fragile than they appear. If you press and probe your toys too much, looking for hidden recesses that don't exist, you can break them.

Which brings us to James Bond. The Bond film series is unprecedented and unparalleled. Consider a 50-year film series (born from a book series of even earlier vintage), produced almost entirely by a single studio, that features a secret agent who is equal parts professional assassin, and, as Dr. No put it, "a policeman." A character who has real-life counterparts (there have been intelligence agents for most of the history of civilization) but who is so multitalented, so indefatigable, so unkillable that he is ultimately a fantasy character. One whose popularity has waxed and waned, but has spanned the many twists and turns in society over the last five decades. A series that ranges in tone from grim horror to slapstick comedy.

How do you handle James Bond in 2012? Do you make it a period piece, set in the late fifties, with a Bond who was born in the early 20th century and who battled fifth columnists in World War II era New York? Do you divorce it entirely from reality, so that it inhabits its own little universe of absurdity untouched by the modern world? Or do you make Bond entirely a creature of our time -- the era of spy satellites and Internet espionage?

SKYFALL succeeds because it walks a middle path between those choices. The Bond of SKYFALL is recognizable as the Bond of the earlier movies and the Fleming novels -- perhaps a little less dashing, not quite as smirking or cheeky, but definitely Bond. It explores the emotional landscape of Bond without sinking into the depths of darkness and muddle of, say, the previous Bond movie, QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It takes on the questions posed above, and does so within the context of its own narrative: Bond and his organization must answer the question of what place human field agents have in an era of electronic intelligence that even the genius villains of the early movies could hardly have foreseen. And rather than allowing that question to sink the narrative, it deftly mixes it with that indispensable ingredient of the best Bond movies: Fun. As in insane villains who pose a genuine threat not only to Bond but to the general populace; incredible chases; great vehicles (including a wonderfully familiar one); eye-popping action sequences; and scenes that celebrate the variety of vistas the world offers, from the glass-and-neon highrises of Shanghai to the misty subdued colors of the Scottish Highlands.

In other words, SKYFALL has tremendous fun bending, posing, and stretching its toy -- without ever breaking it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Riding on the Expo

Last Saturday, Amy and I spent a day at Comikaze Expo, the two-year-old convention that Stan Lee bought (along with Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson) as one of the many entrepreneurial ventures the 90-year-old comics icon has on his plate. Since the event was held at Los Angeles's Convention Center, and the MTA's Expo line runs from Culver City to a station a block away from the Center, we decided as an experiment to take the train. Or rather, the light rail.

I'm not a stranger to trains. I've taken the Amtrak Surfliner between L.A. and San Diego or Santa Barbara several times over the last 23 years. When I lived in San Francisco in the late '80s, I relied on the Metro trollies and BART to get around. I've ridden San Diego's trollies, Seattle's light rail, and the JR Rail system in Japan (including the Shinkansen bullet train and the terrific railway within Tokyo). I've found urban trains far superior to busses in regard to smooth rides, reliability, frequency, and speed.

And we found all of those positive aspects to be true of the Expo line. We had some delay starting out (because we didn't look at a schedule before we came, the train left just before we got up to the platform and we had to wait 15 minutes for the next one to leave), and we had to wait for a while going back before our train showed up; but the time on the train was pleasant. Likely we benefited from using the train on a Saturday: A recent article stated that there were 18,000 boardings of the line a day during weekdays, a testament to its popularity. In any event, we were able to get seats both ways. And although the trip did not take any less time than a normal Saturday trip from the westside to the Convention Center, we had the advantage of avoiding the stress of traffic and (perhaps more important) the hassle of negotiating the streets around the Center during a popular event, and of getting parking.

Will we take the train to future events? Probably, at least some of the time. We can foresee occasions that the convenience of using our own vehicle, and setting our own arrival and leaving times, will outweigh the benefits of the train. But at least we have the option.

Now, someday, we should try the L.A. subway.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Disappearing Childhood

One of the inevitable side-effects of growing older is that the creators of works that defined or shaped your childhood disappear. Recently, two artists who were instrumental in my childhood left us.

In mid-August, Joe Kubert passed away. Although his career in comics spanned nearly 70 years, one of the highlights of his time in comics was his two decades of work on DC's war comics. At the time I was reading them, the early '70's, Kubert was editing them, along with drawing covers for several titles (particularly "Our Army at War," featuring Sgt. Rock) and frequently drawing stories. Since I read and enjoyed war comics long before I started reading superhero comics, Kubert's approach to the genra -- one that focused on the individuals fighting the war, and those caught up in the battles, with frequent closeups of faces with haunted eyes -- helped shaped my appreciation for comics.

I previously blogged about Kubert's work here and here

Hal David, who passed away this past weekend at the age of 95, was a lyricist whose name I didn't know as a kid, but whose songs were everpresent. It's easy to put down his collaborations with Burt Bacharach as elevator music or easy-listening fodder. But the truth is that songs such as "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," "This Guy," "Walk on By," "What the World Needs Now," etc. became hits, and remain in the mind decades after they were first recorded, because they seem to bypass the intellect and grab the emotions. Like a cartoonist's drawing that conveys so much because the lines are so clear and simple, the seeming artlessness of the lyrics amounted to art.

The creators of your childhood pass away. But the effects of their work upon you remain.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Images of Comic-Cons -- and Creators -- Past

In the weeks before this year's Comic-Con, I posted some photos I took at previous Comic-Cons in the '80s and '90s.

These are from the era before digital cameras became common, when amateur photographers (well, me, at least) were sparing with their photos because they had to pay to have each one developed before they could even look at them. When photos went into albums (or sat in envelopes, waiting to go into albums) rather than online. Hence, the cons I've attended in the last eight years are far better documented than those previous to that time. Nevertheless, I do have some images from that time. This post will focus on creators who are no longer with us.

From 1989: Bob Kane, flush with the success of the just-released Tim Burton Batman movie. He passed away in 1998.

From 1990: Don Thompson, journalist and one of the founders of comics fandom. He passed away in 1994. His wife, Maggie Thompson, still edits the Comic Buyer's Guide magazine.

Also from 1990: Dave Stevens, meticulous comics writer/artist, whose character The Rocketeer was turned into a Disney movie in 1990. He passed away in 2008.

Finally, Julius Schwartz, legendary comic book editor, and agent for such authors as Ray Bradbury. Schwartz passed away in 2004.

When you see a creator at a convention whose work you admire, remember, there's no guarantee that you'll ever see him or her again. If you get the chance, tell that creator how much his or her work meant to you.

Comic-Con International: San Diego 2012: Historical Perspective

To a certain extent, every San Diego Comic-Con is about history.  An underlying theme of comic book collecting is preservation of the past -- both in collecting and viewing the comics of the last 80+ years, and in welcoming the creators who have worked in the field for decades.  History is everywhere -- from the aging pencil-and-ink on original art in the dealer’s room, to panels celebrating fifty years of Marvel super-heroes, to the display outside the convention center this year showcasing 47 years of TV and movie Batmobiles.

But for us, in particular the theme of this 2012 Comic-Con International: San Diego was historical perspective.

Amy attended her first Comic-Con in 1992.  She has attended every con since.  So she embroidered and proudly wore a “20 Years of Comic-Con” shirt -- a terrific conversation starter.

 For me, it was my 26th Comic-Con (my first was in 1980, and in addition to the 1987 con I’ve attended every one from 1989 on), so I approached the con from the viewpoint of someone who had watched the con’s evolution from the 5,000 attendee extravaganza in 1980 to the last few years, in which around 130,000 attendees compete for con memberships and for a scarce spot in the audience for the movie and TV presentations that make headlines around the world.

The importance of Comic-Con to our history was brought home to us Saturday evening at the convention.  We attended a banquet held in remembrance of Richard Alf, one of the founders of the convention.  The banquet was held in a ballroom in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel -- the site of the very first Comic-Con.  (And, coincidentally, I stayed in the Grant with my father and older brother when we attended the 1980 Comic-Con.)  The attendees, folks who had been involved in the convention since its earliest days at the beginning of the 1970s, included folks who had been part of my life for decades -- not just my comics life, but my real life.

Similarly, we attended the Friday panel for the Kickstarter-funded science fiction movie project SPACE COMMAND -- which included David Raiklen, the composer for the project and a friend of mine for nearly 30 years.

Comic-Con truly has been integral to my life ever since I was a teenager.  It was my wonderful experience there when I was 15 that led me to attend UCLA as an undergraduate, eventually leading me permanently settling in Los Angeles after law school.  Collecting was how I met my college roommate.  Collecting started a few relationships for me.  In particular, I met Amy at a comics shop, and we attended the 1994 Comic-Con (and every one after that) together.

History also provided us with some of our most enjoyable experiences at this year’s convention.  Events related to steampunk -- the celebration of the future as envisioned by the past -- proliferated this year.  At previous Comic-Cons, the programmers would schedule a single steampunk panel, usually held in the smallest meeting room (and usually filled beyond capacity).  This year, however, we were treated to several -- from The Witty Women of Steampunk (held on the first day of the con),

to the reception Friday night at the Steampunk Exhibit at the San Diego Automotive Museum, complete with food, drink, and live music,

to the annual mass steampunk gathering on the mezzanine outside the con center (this year marked by folks dressed as steampunk versions of Marvel and DC Characters,

to the spotlight panel and book signing (held immediately after the gathering) devoted to one of our favorite steampunk authors, Gail Carriger.

But we also dealt with some of the negative aspects of Comic-Con’s evolution.  On Friday morning, we were shut out of the panel that featured a reunion of the cast of TV’s “Firefly.”  Although we lined up before 8:00 a.m. for the noon panel, the program turned out to be one of the most popular at the convention.  Attendees therefore went to the first program in Room 20 that morning, and stayed.  (At least the weather was nice out by the marina, around which the line snaked.)

And the explosive growth of Comic-Con really hit home yesterday.  One of our traditions at the con was to pick up memberships for the next year’s convention.  Full advance memberships were readily available.  Last year, we had to wait in line for several hours, and still did not obtain full memberships -- we did not get to attend preview night.  This year, no memberships for next year were sold onsite.  They were sold online yesterday.  And even though we signed in the second the passes went on sale, we did not get full memberships, or even four-day memberships.  For the first time, we did not get passes for Friday and Saturday, the most popular days.

To some extent, evolution is the gradual discarding of history.  But careful evolution keeps the elements of history that work.  Evolution that prevents folks who have attended the con for decades from getting full memberships is not (in my admittedly biased opinion) adaptive evolution.

I hope Comic-Con remains a part of my life -- even when Comic-Con itself seems to discourage me from participating in it.