Thursday, August 1, 2019

A few thoughts about covers

I'm currently putting together my first book (outside of my writing for Marvel). One of the points my editor made recently was the importance of the cover in selling the book - the weight which the cover bears in attracting customers.

To that end, I want to look at a recent Marvel Comics trade paperback cover. I should note that I used to be a freelance employee of the collections office during the eight years I worked on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and other projects (2004-2012). Consequently, I know a few of the people who put this collection together, particularly the researcher/layout designer Jeph York, who was also a member of the OHOTMU team. But I really have to say something about the cover to Wolverine Epic Collection V.13: Blood Debt.

Blood Debt is a real hodgepodge of material. It reprints Wolverine's 1999 Annual, Wolverine#150-158 and the entire mini-series Origin#1-6. The book is titled after the story 'Blood Debt' which ran through issues #150-153 and was written & drawn by Steve Skroce. Skroce, strangely, never became a big name in the comics industry, even though he was the guy who storyboarded the film The Matrix, which you'd think would have parlayed him to the top tier; it was enough to get him his own Wolverine story, but he's mostly worked in movies. When he drew the mini-series We Stand on Guard for Image a couple of years ago, it was his first monthly comics work in a decade. Skroce was always considered a talented guy and there was precious little of his work in print. So as the collection is titled 'Blood Debt' you'd think the cover would be a beautiful Steve Skroce image, right?

That's right; you're wrong.

See, after Skroce, Wolverine was very briefly taken over by Rob Liefeld, who only managed to squeeze out two issues of art (and two more on plot) before leaving. There's no shortage of Liefeld in the world - even though he has burned many bridges in his career, the industry keeps asking him to come back. Why then, with so much Liefeld already out there, would you turn to him instead of Skroce? Or, for that matter, Joe Quesada & Andy Kubert, who drew the Origin series also included in this volume?

Deadpool, obviously. Yeah, that's Deadpool on the cover, and that's the only reason I can think of that the collections department chose this reprinted cover for the front honours. But it's not even a good image of Deadpool - it isn't full-body, he's pushed off-centre, and even though Liefeld is Deadpool's creator, it doesn't look especially on-model. It was already a bad cover, but I suppose the hope was that Deadpool's presence would shift a few more copies than Skroce, Quesada or Kubert would. And perhaps the collections department is right. From a marketing standpoint, maybe this was the right call... but from a philosophical and logical standpoint, it makes no sense. It's a bad image of Deadpool and it does not reflect anything about the title of this trade. It's disappointing.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Angola in the Comics #12: It Really Happened #4

Here's a rather unusual entry in my irregular "Angola in the Comics" series. This time I'm looking at It Really Happened #4, published in 1944 by the company usually dubbed 'Pines' (also known as Better, Standard & Nestor). It Really Happened was one of many educational comics published in the 1940s which seemed to exist primarily to defend the comics genre against charges that they were strictly juvenile with no redeeming values. It Really Happened primarily recounted the biographies of famous people from history.

It Really Happened #4 features 'Dr. David Livingstone', a nine-page adaptation of the life of the famous Dr. Livingstone. Angola is mostly a footnote in his career, and so it is within the book as well; there are only two panels explicitly set in Angola, the first when he finds landolphia vine in Angola and the second when he's recuperating in Luanda (spelled 'Loanda' in the comic). The unfortunate aspect of this comic is how the Africans are portrayed - all with big thick lips and speaking pidgin English.

The most interesting aspect of this comic is the identity of its author: believe it or not, Patricia Highsmith! Highsmith is best known for her novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but in the years before she became known for protagonists who self-destruct because of their pent-up secrets, she wrote a number of comic books. I wish she had taken more care with the African dialogue, but the actual storytelling in the comic is pretty good, as you'd hope from one of the 20th century's greatest novelists.

Images from The Digital Comic Museum

Monday, July 15, 2019

Spider-Man: Far from Home creator credits

As usual, I have compiled a list of elements in the most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe film which owe a debt to the original comics; this time out it's Spider-Man: Far from Home! Check out my list below and tell me if you have any corrections. My full list of Marvel Creator Credits can be found here!

Stan Lee: co-creator of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, a teenage super hero garbed in red and blue with a red webbing design, spider emblem on chest, lenses in his mask and webbing in his armpits; Spider-Man swinging around on webbing fired from his web-shooters and climbing up walls; Peter designing his own web-shooters and web fluid; Spider-Man motivated to use his powers to help others; Peter's aunt May Parker; of Flash Thompson, a student who bullies Peter (Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962); of Peter Parker's interest in photography; of J. Jonah Jameson, a blustering newsman from the Daily Bugle who hates Spider-Man; of Spider-Man's spider-sense power which warns him of danger (Amazing Spider-Man #1, 1962); of Betty Brant, a reporter in New York, friend of Peter Parker; of Flash Thompson as Spider-Man's #1 fan; of Spider-Man battling a sand-based super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #4, 1963); of the Parkers living in Queens (Amazing Spider-Man #7, 1963); of Mysterio, a figure glad in green with a purple cape and glass dome helmet; Mysterio posing as a super hero; Mysterio using various tricks to make it appear as though he has super powers; of J. Jonah Jameson being a pawn of Mysterio (Amazing Spider-Man #13, 1964); of Spider-Man calling himself a 'friendly neighborhood' Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #17, 1964); of Ned Leeds, an associate of Peter Parker; Ned in a relationship with Betty Brant (Amazing Spider-Man #18, 1964); of Mysterio using sophisticated illusions to confuse Spider-Man's perception of reality (Amazing Spider-Man #24, 1965); of Peter Parker linked to a love interest whose initials are 'MJ' (Amazing Spider-Man #25, 1965); of Spider-Man battling a metallic heat-based super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #28, 1965); of the Skrulls, a race of green extraterrestrials with ridged chins who have the ability to shapeshift into anyone (Fantastic Four #2, 1962); of Skrulls wearing the colour purple in their uniforms (Fantastic Four #18, 1963); of Black Panther, a black costumed super hero from Wakanda (Fantastic Four #52, 1966); of Bruce Banner, a famous scientist and the monstrous Hulk (Incredible Hulk #1, 1962); of Thor, Norse god of thunder (Journey into Mystery #83, 1962); of a super hero named Captain Marvel (Marvel Super-Heroes #12, 1967); of Nick Fury, a soldier in the US Army (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1, 1963); of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency; of Nick Fury having lost his left eye; Nick Fury as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with rank of colonel (Strange Tales #135, 1965); of Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist whose Iron Man armor grants him superhuman strength, flight and special weapons (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963); of Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's secretary and romantic interest; Happy Hogan, a former boxer turned chauffeur and bodyguard to Tony Stark; Stark Industries, Tony's technology company (Tales of Suspense #45, 1963); of Iron Man wearing red & gold armor (Tales of Suspense #48, 1963); of the Black Widow, a black-clad spy (Tales of Suspense #52, 1964)

Steve Ditko: co-creator of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, a teenage super hero garbed in red and blue with a red webbing design, spider emblem on chest, lenses in his mask and webbing in his armpits; Spider-Man swinging around on webbing fired from his web-shooters and climbing up walls; Peter designing his own web-shooters and web fluid; Spider-Man motivated by a sense of responsbility to use his powers to help others; Peter's aunt May Parker; of Flash Thompson, a student who bullies Peter (Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962); of Peter Parker's interest in photography; of J. Jonah Jameson, a blustering newsman from the Daily Bugle who hates Spider-Man; of Spider-Man's spider-sense power which warns him of danger (Amazing Spider-Man #1, 1962); of Betty Brant, a reporter in New York and friend of Peter Parker; of Flash Thompson as Spider-Man's #1 fan; of Spider-Man battling a sand-based super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #4, 1963); of the Parkers living in Queens (Amazing Spider-Man #7, 1963); of Mysterio, a figure glad in green with a purple cape and glass dome helmet; Mysterio posing as a super hero; Mysterio using various tricks to make it appear as though he has super powers; of J. Jonah Jameson being a pawn of Mysterio (Amazing Spider-Man #13, 1964); of Spider-Man calling himself a 'friendly neighborhood' Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #17, 1964); of Ned Leeds, an associate of Peter Parker; Ned in a relationship with Betty Brant (Amazing Spider-Man #18, 1964); of Mysterio using sophisticated illusions to confuse Spider-Man's perception of reality (Amazing Spider-Man #24, 1965); of Peter Parker linked to a love interest whose initials are 'MJ' (Amazing Spider-Man #25, 1965); of Spider-Man battling a metallic heat-based super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #28, 1965); of Iron Man wearing red & gold armor (Tales of Suspense #48, 1963)

Jack Kirby: co-creator of the Avengers, a team of super heroes (Avengers #1, 1963; of Captain America, Steve Rogers, a patriotic super hero garbed in a red, white and blue costume with 'A' on forehead and stars & stripes on his chest (Captain America Comics #1, 1941); of Captain America's mask being fastened to his costume; of Captain America's round, red and white shield with star in its center (Captain America Comics #2, 1941); of the Skrulls, a race of green extraterrestrials with ridged chins who have the ability to shapeshift into anyone (Fantastic Four #2, 1962); of Skrulls wearing the colour purple in their uniforms (Fantastic Four #18, 1963); of Black Panther, a black costumed super hero from Wakanda (Fantastic Four #52, 1966); of Bruce Banner, a famous scientist and the monstrous Hulk (Incredible Hulk #1, 1962); of Thor, Norse god of thunder (Journey into Mystery #83, 1962); of Nick Fury, a soldier in the US Army (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1, 1963); of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency; of Nick Fury having lost his left eye; Nick Fury as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with rank of colonel (Strange Tales #135, 1965); of Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist whose Iron Man armor grants him superhuman strength, flight and special weapons (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963)

Don Heck: co-creator of Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist whose Iron Man armor grants him superhuman strength, flight and special weapons (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963); of Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's secretary and romantic interest; Happy Hogan, a former boxer turned chauffeur and bodyguard to Tony Stark; Stark Industries, Tony's technology company (Tales of Suspense #45, 1963); of the Black Widow, a black-clad spy (Tales of Suspense #52, 1964)

Brian Michael Bendis: co-creator of Stark Tower, the downtown Manhattan headquarters of the Avengers (New Avengers #3, 2005); of the Skrulls arriving on Earth as refugees (Secret Invasion #1, 2008); of Maria Hill, next in line to command S.H.I.E.L.D. (Secret War #5, 2005); of Nick Fury as an African-American man (Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #5, 2001); of Nick Fury becoming a mentor to teenaged Peter Parker (Ultimate Spider-Man #100, 2006)

J. Michael Straczynski: co-creator of Mr. Harrington, a staff member at Midtown High School (Amazing Spider-Man #32, 2001); of May Parker finding out her nephew Peter is Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #35, 2001); of Tony Stark mentoring Peter Parker (Amazing Spider-Man #519, 2005); of Tony Stark building a new costume for Spider-Man with widget arms (Amazing Spider-Man #529, 2006)

Joe Simon: co-creator of Captain America, Steve Rogers, a patriotic super hero garbed in a red, white and blue costume with 'A' on forehead and stars & stripes on his chest (Captain America Comics #1, 1941); of Captain America's mask being fastened to his costume; of Captain America's round, red and white shield with star in its center (Captain America Comics #2, 1941)

John Romita Jr.: co-creator of a water-based enemy of Spider-Man supposedly empowered by a hydroelectric generator accident (Amazing Spider-Man #212, 1981); of Mr. Harrington, a staff member at Midtown High School (Amazing Spider-Man #32, 2001); of May Parker finding out her nephew Peter is Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #35, 2001)

Len Kaminski: co-creator of the War Machine armor, a suit of Iron Man armor colored silver and grey and outfitted with heavy weaponry, including a shoulder-mounted canon (Iron Man #281, 1992); of the War Machine armor being worn by James Rhodes with a unibeam designed for its chest (Iron Man #284, 1992)

Kevin Hopgood: co-creator of the War Machine armor, a suit of Iron Man armor colored silver and grey and outfitted with heavy weaponry, including a shoulder-mounted canon (Iron Man #281, 1992); of the War Machine armor being worn by James Rhodes with a unibeam designed for its chest (Iron Man #284, 1992)

Dennis O'Neil: co-creator of a water-based enemy of Spider-Man supposedly empowered by a hydroelectric generator accident (Amazing Spider-Man #212, 1981); of Obadiah Stane, a criminal businessman determined to seize control of Tony Stark's company (Iron Man #166, 1983)

Robert Bernstein: co-creator of Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's secretary and romantic interest; Happy Hogan, a former boxer turned chauffeur and bodyguard to Tony Stark; Stark Industries, Tony's technology company (Tales of Suspense #45, 1963)

Larry Lieber: co-creator of Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist whose Iron Man armor grants him superhuman strength, flight and special weapons (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963)

Jim Starlin: co-creator of half of all people blinking out of existence (Infinity Gauntlet #1, 1991); of the disappeared people being brought back (Infinity Gauntlet #6, 1991)

Christopher Priest: co-creator of Peter and Ned going on a trip to Europe; of Peter needing another Spider-Man costume while in Europe (Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, 1987)

Mark Bright: co-creator of Peter and Ned going on a trip to Europe; of Peter needing another Spider-Man costume while in Europe (Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, 1987)

John Byrne: co-creator of Spider-Man as an Avenger (Avengers #316, 1990); of James "Rhodey" Rhodes, pilot and friend of Tony Stark (Iron Man #118, 1979)

Luke McDonnell: co-creator of Obadiah Stane, a criminal businessman determined to seize control of Tony Stark's company (Iron Man #166, 1983)

Ron Garney: co-creator of Tony Stark building a new costume for Spider-Man which includes retractable widget arms (Amazing Spider-Man #529, 2006)

Mark Millar: co-creator of the Avengers as a team organized and run by S.H.I.E.L.D. under Fury's guidance (Ultimates #2, 2002)

Bryan Hitch: co-creator of the Avengers as a team organized and run by S.H.I.E.L.D. under Fury's guidance (Ultimates #2, 2002)

John Buscema: co-creator of Vision, an android Avenger with phasing powers (Avengers #57, 1968)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of Vision, an android Avenger with phasing powers (Avengers #57, 1968)

Mark Gruenwald: creator of Mysterio's real name Quentin Beck (Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #7, 1983)

David Finch: co-creator of Stark Tower, the downtown Manhattan headquarters of the Avengers (New Avengers #3, 2005)

Kurt Busiek: co-creator of Jason Ionello, a student at Midtown High School (Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1, 1995)

Pat Olliffe: co-creator of Jason Ionello, a student at Midtown High School (Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1, 1995)

Salvador Larroca: co-creator of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts as a couple (Invincible Iron Man #15, 2009)

Matt Fraction: co-creator of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts as a couple (Invincible Iron Man #15, 2009)

Mike Deodato Jr.: co-creator of Tony Stark mentoring Peter Parker (Amazing Spider-Man #519, 2005)

Adi Granov: creator of Iron Man armor design (Iron Man #75, 2004)

Bob Layton: co-creator of James "Rhodey" Rhodes, pilot and friend of Tony Stark (Iron Man #118, 1979)

David Michelinie: co-creator of James "Rhodey" Rhodes, pilot and friend of Tony Stark (Iron Man #118, 1979)

Don Rico: co-creator of the Black Widow, a black-clad spy (Tales of Suspense #52, 1964)

George Perez: co-creator of half of all people blinking out of existence (Infinity Gauntlet #1, 1991)

Ron Lim: co-creator of the disappeared people being brought back (Infinity Gauntlet #6, 1991)

Gabriele Dell'Otto: co-creator of Maria Hill, next in line to command S.H.I.E.L.D. (Secret War #5, 2005)

Alan Moore: co-creator of Earth referred to by the number "616" (Daredevils #7, 1983)

Alan Davis: co-creator of Earth referred to by the number "616" (Daredevils #7, 1983)

Peter David: co-creator of Talos, a Skrull warrior (Incredible Hulk #418, 1994)

Gary Frank: co-creator of Talos, a Skrull warrior (Incredible Hulk #418, 1994)

Kelly Sue DeConnick: co-creator of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel #1, 2012)

Dexter Soy: co-creator of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel #1, 2012)

Leinil Francis Yu: co-creator of the Skrulls arriving on Earth as refugees (Secret Invasion #1, 2008)

Mike Allred: co-creator of Nick Fury as an African-American man (Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #5, 2001)

Paul Ryan: co-creator of Spider-Man as an Avenger (Avengers #316, 1990)

Gene Colan: co-creator of a super hero named Captain Marvel (Marvel Super-Heroes #12, 1967)

Ross Andru: co-creator of Spider-Man battling a cyclone-generating super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #143, 1975)

Gerry Conway: co-creator of Spider-Man battling a cyclone-generating super-villain (Amazing Spider-Man #143, 1975)

Mark Bagley: co-creator of Nick Fury becoming a mentor to teenaged Peter Parker (Ultimate Spider-Man #100, 2006)

Tom DeFalco: co-creator of Spider-Man wearing a black costume (Amazing Spider-Man #252, 1984)

Ron Frenz: co-creator of Spider-Man wearing a black costume (Amazing Spider-Man #252, 1984)

Chris Claremont: co-creator of Spider-Man teaming up with Nick Fury (Marvel Team-Up #83, 1979)

Sal Buscema: co-creator of Spider-Man teaming up with Nick Fury (Marvel Team-Up #83, 1979)

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I dug up the Mummy (2017)

The Mummy is a movie from 2017 which was intended to be the first entry in Universal's Dark Universe franchise. It turned out to be a catastrophic failure and the franchise died on the vine. I know many people online have already mocked this film, but I have an interest in it; I rented it from my library so I could see it for myself.

I have a lot of love for the classic 'Universal Monsters' films. They were hard to come by when I was growing up, other than the occasional broadcast on AMC (back in the days when AMC was a classic film channel). I learned most of what I knew about the Universal Monsters from the various horror movie books I delved into at the library. I was fascinated to learn how the various movies were linked not only by studio, directors and stars, but that characters and plots would be revisited in different titles. The Universal Monsters have a real claim at being the 'first' of what we now call 'Cinematic Universes'.

But today's Cinematic Universes are constantly trying to be like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is an action-adventure film franchise, not a horror-based one at all. For that reason, it was extremely wrong-headed to ever think an action film franchise could be made out of the Universal Monsters. In fact, The Mummy was the third attempt at this, following Van Helsing (2004) and Dracula Untold (2014), neither of which I've seen. What's truly surprising is that Universal had barely any interest in making their successful action-adventure Mummy films starring Brendan Fraser into a franchise (outside of the Scorpion King spin-off).

Anyway, I'm going to sit down and watch The Mummy now and pause it as I go so that I can write down commentary here. I think it might be interesting to write my reactions as I delve into it. I'm not expecting much from the film, being as it was an enormous failure, but perhaps it will be unintentionally hilarious. I'll see...

0:00:30 - So far, so good! Since Universal introduced their present logo about 15 years ago, I've considered it the best one in the film biz.

0:00:45 - ...And then the 'Dark Universe' logo appears, spinning around the Earth from the opposite direction of the Universal logo. I guess that's conceptually a natural fit.

0:07:35 - So a tunnel being dug under London discovers an old burial chamber. Russell Crowe shows up and feels compelled to start narrating the story of Ahmanet, daughter of the pharaoh (in a version of Egypt where the landscape is nothing but sand. did you know they have nothing but sand in Egypt? It's true! movies told me so), who makes a pact with Set to murder her family so she can be pharoah. Some guards defeat her with blowgun darts then, according to Crowe, "Ahmanet was mummified alive." But, like, not really... I mean, they wrap her up in mummy bandages but they don't take out her internal organs or anything like that... it would be more accurate to say "Ahmanet was buried alive."

0:08:16 - 'The Mummy' title finally appears on screen!

0:09:05 - Tom Cruise enters. In the past I wouldn't have called myself a fan of Cruise, but the one-two punch of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) made me a fan of his recent pictures. He's become someone whose films I make a point of watching on airline flights and getting him to be in The Mummy feels like a big deal for Universal - like, in terms of actors not already tied up in a Cinematic Universe franchise, he is probably the biggest name alive.

0:09:35 - So I guess Cruise and his friend are soldiers in Iraq trying to steal precious materials during their downtime? So someone else watched Three Kings (1999), I guess.

0:11:46 - Okay, Cruise's character is named Nick and his friend is called Vail. After several minutes now of Vail yelling non-stop, I am compelled to remember this movie was made by the same minds behind those obnoxious Transformers (2007) films.

0:12:11 - The movie seems to assume we already like these characters and care about whether they live or die, but we've known them only 4 minutes! It is staggering to see that what George Stevens could accomplish in 1939's Gunga Din - broadly sketched characters whose rivalries and banter is quickly established and made endearing - is so leaden when attempted today. I don't like these characters yet, movie. I am not at a point where someone yelling "We're gonna die!" for 30 seconds straight produces a chuckle.

0:13:13 - An explosion caused by an airstrike which Vail called upon the town unearths the same tomb which these two dunderheads were looking for. Buy a lottery ticket now, Nick.

0:14:34 - Nick and Vail's superior officer shows up and demonstrates that he knows exactly what the two of them are up to, but reveals what he knows in the form of exposition for us in the audience. Again, leaden.

0:15:49 - So a woman named Jennifer shows up and quickly exposits how she and Nick had a one-night stand, then he stole a map from her. They seem to be trying to play Nick as a rougish Indiana Jones-type, but even though Cruise is a very charismatic actor, none of his dialogue projects 'rogue'. More like 'snake'.

0:16:15 - So it seems this Egyptian tomb in Iraq is what Jennifer was looking for all along and she demands the US military provide cover while she performs an archaeological dig. How... how did she ever imagine she'd get at this buried tomb when the town was occupied by insurgents? I mean, she wouldn't have even imagined she'd get into the town, right? She doesn't have the staff or equipment to operate a dig which would take months or years to complete? Like, wouldn't this be a 'bucket list' goal maybe some century down the road when Iraq is less volatile? I don't think the US military provides security for archaeological digs.

0:16:49 - Having demonstrated he's aware that Nick goes around stealing priceless artifacts, Nick's superior officer punishes Nick by sending him into the tomb with Jennifer where all the priceless artifacts are. I can't even conceive how this might go sideways.

0:20:15 - Jennifer provides all kinds of running commentary as she explores the tomb, not even pausing to look things up and compare them. Like, she knows her Egyptian lore so well she can stare at a dead body, note what he's wearing, and determine what kind of priest he is and where in Egypt he's from. Uncanny.

0:22:23 - Nick uses his gun to blast the rope which keeps the sarcophagus held within a pool of mercury, using some kind of chain-pulley system. No idea how ropes could endure for thousands of years of rot or interference from local wildlife. Or the chains, for that matter, which would also degrade (or at least rust up) over time.

0:25:43 - So they use a military helicopter to get the sarcophagus out of the tomb, then just fly it alongside their convoy. I don't get it... why not load it into a truck?

0:27:31 - They load the sarcophagus into a military plane and take off for... not sure where. Meanwhile, Nick gazes at Jennifer's bare midriff in a manner meant to remind us of Transformers, I guess.

0:33:37 - The effects for the airplane in freefall were pretty good.

0:42:00 - Jennifer goes on a long bout of exposition to Nick, explaining who Ahmanet is and what the Dagger of Set is, even though we in the audience already know. I mean, now Nick knows, I guess. Maybe those revelations should have waited until this point in the picture?

0:43:25 - Oh, man. The undead image of Vail keeps appearing to Nick and telling him he's cursed and yes, apparently the Universal Monsters library wasn't deep enough, 'cause they're riffing on John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981). Worse, I think the filmmakers thought these scenes would be funny, the way the similar scenes in Landis' film were.

0:51:00 - So the place where the plane crashed is remarkably close to where the Dagger of Set was hidden. I guess I'm okay with that, since the occult forces which downed the plane could've chosen that place on purpose.

0:51:49 - I am surprisingly down for these action scenes of Nick beating up walking corpses, with his fists and feet constantly going right through his opponents. A better film could have mined this for Army of Darkness (1992)-style humour.

0:52:10 - Ahmanet strikes Jennifer with sufficient force to smash her into a pew several feet away and shatter the wood, yet Jennifer has no problem jogging out of the church and cemetery in the next scene. Are we sure she isn't supernatural too?

0:52:42 - "You saw that, right?" "I can't unsee it!" With different delivery/editing, could have been a laugh line. Instead it just hangs there.

0:53:00 - Oh, for the love of cheeseburgers, they actually exposit how the dagger got into the reliquary. I am paying attention! I am not an imbecile! Please be more smart, movie! At least it confirms the plane crashed there on purpose, as I suggested.

0:54:29 - Having just realized that Nick is under the sway of Ahmanet and has been driving in a circle without knowing it, why doesn't Jennifer take the wheel of the getaway ambulance? Does she do anything besides recap the plot?

0:55:13 - More great stunt work with Nick falling out of the ambulance as it rolls down a hill. It belongs in a museum! -- I mean, a better film.

0:57:33 - Oh, a gill-man hand... Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) reference, I guess. Hey, did you know Universal passed up a Creature remake by Guillermo del Toro, so instead he made the Academy Award-winning movie The Shape of Water (2017)? ...Just thought I'd mention it.

0:57:39 - Nick sees a skull with fangs. Vampire skull? S'funny, I've been a Buffy fan for so long, I'd all but forgotten that in Universal Monsters films the vampires always leave skeletons.

0:59:08 - Crowe finally identifies himself as Dr. Heny Jekyll, which he pronounces as "Jeck-ull" the way I do, but apparently Robert Louis Stevenson meant it to be "Jeek-ull", as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).

0:59:30 - "I would like to tell you a story." Oh, for the love of... show, don't tell, please? Movie?

1:01:07 - Jekyll identifies his organization as 'Prodigium'. One of the failings of Cinematic Universes is their need to have a SHIELD-type organization as a means by which the team of heroes are assembled and outfitted with their equipment. The DC and Godzilla films likewise felt the need to invent their own SHIELD-type groups, but it only highlights how badly they're trying to imitate what Marvel has done rather than chart their own path.

1:03:27 - Ahmanet starts going over her motivation and although it's all things we already know, the film feels the need to show us the scenes again. Sigh. I guess a better question is... what does she want now? I mean, originally she wanted to be queen of Egypt. Her kingdom's gone, so... present motivation?

1:09:10 - "Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters" says Jekyll, quoting Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the most highly-regarded of all the Universal Monsters films. Maybe don't remind people of a great movie in the middle of your lousy flick?

1:14:00 - So Prodigium is coming off as just the worst, what with half their agents becoming pawns of Ahmanet while Jekyll loses control of his Hyde persona at the same time. Do none of these people have blowgun darts?

1:32:35 - I don't know why I'm astonished that at the height of the drama when Nick has seemingly gone over to the side of evil and stabbed himself with the dagger, then sees Jennifer's dead form, the film thinks it needs to flash back again to Jennifer saying she thinks Nick is a good man. Hey, dumb audience member, we don't trust you to know how Nick feels about Jennifer, so permit us to bludgeon you! All of this exposition and flashbacks underly a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers.

1:32:45 - Oh, flibbertigibbet, they throw in a flashback of Jeykll telling Nick he could save the world. Why not let the actors emote and inhabit their characters instead of this blunt tomfoolery?

1:33:17 - Y'know, it's one thing for Ahmanet to take out her victims by kissing them to death, it plays really, really badly when Nick uses that same power to hold a woman down and smother the life out of her through intimate contact.

1:39:00 - Okay, the movie is over, but there's still 11 minutes of runtime left? How?

Oh, my goodness. That was it. 11 minutes of closing credits. At least a lot of people got paid!

In the end, what was this film? It doesn't try to be atmospheric, to evoke terror, to be a horror film... but it also fails at being an action-adventure film because the fantastic stunts and effects are surrounded by dull dialogue and flat characters. This thing needed whimsy... it needed likeable characters. It amazes me that Christopher McQuarrie wrote this screenplay as he's normally very good at writing for Cruise--then again, there are six credited writers, so maybe he didn't get to do much.

It's not hard to see why this film failed. I mean, who, upon leaving the cinema, would have run out and told a friend, "hey, you've gotta see The Mummy!" The film lacks even one single standout scene which would get people talking. None of the dialogue is quotable. Overall, I feel embarrassed for the people who put effort into fabricating such a lifeless, empty husk.

Friday, July 5, 2019

There's nothing to get MAD about

Word has come out that Mad Magazine is about to be cancelled. I have never been a regular reader of Mad, but the news brought a few things to mind.

There are three good reasons I can see why it has happened:

  1. The magazine format is (unfortunately) a dying medium and Mad relied heavily on newsstands and subscriptions.
  2. Their parent company, Warner, folded them under DC Comics' umbrella to save money and they've never been comfortable as a cog in a corporate machine.
  3. They're not relevant.

To that last point, do you realize it's been 25 years since The Simpsons mocked Mad's toothless humour in the episode "Bart of Darkness"? ("'The Lighter Side of Hippies.' They don't care whose toes they step on!"). I mean, 25 years! The Simpsons themselves have been toothless and irrelevant for the last 20 years!

People of a certain age (ie, older than me) wax nostalgically about how subversive Mad was in its heyday, that it was a real "truth to power" publication (Mike Sterling has a nice reminiscence here). And even in my junior high years, kids who brought Mad to school were rebels.

Yet, for all that, I can't recall a time among my friends or online where someone asked, "Hey, did you read that new issue of Mad?" Like, there was never a standout story which got people talking. Instead, Mad had a sense of sameness; you might ask, "Have you ever read a Spy vs. Spy?" but never ask, "Have you ever read this Spy vs. Spy?" I feel like after reading a certain number of Mads one reached their limit and didn't need to read more. The names of the celebrities and movies being parodied might change, but little else did.

It was just two months ago that I read the four volume set The Mad Archives, which cover the first 24 issues of Mad, comprising all of the full-colour comic book-format issues plus the first issue of the magazine format. Those issues were the product of Harvey Kurtzman, a brilliant humourist, but at times the archives were a struggle to get through. For the first two years of publication, Mad was a bi-monthly comic, but in its third year it went monthly and that seems to have been more than Kurtzman could manage. The book got a bit tedious in its third year because Kurtzman was so clearly trying to fill up pages to make deadlines instead of assembling quality material. There were far too many pages with recycled art, photo captions or even next-to-no-content (the 'joke' being that the page would be practically blank or illegible) again and again.

And yet, Mad really was something special. In those issues there were running features by Wally Wood & Bill Elder which mocked popular comic strips or comic book characters and the first few movie parodies showed up. Among those parodies was, of course, 'Superduperman' in Mad #4, a parody of Superman which turned out to be immensely influential on the comic book medium, as a young Alan Moore absorbed a lot of lessons on how to deconstruct super heroes from Kurtzman & Wood's jokes.

It's funny, though, that the magazine format Mad wasn't something I thought of as a comic book. Through my teenage years, I thought of 'comic books' as a publishing format, not a type of storytelling. I saw comic strips and Mad magazines as something separate--which, I later learned, was one reason why Bill Gaines was happy to transition Mad from the comic book format to magazines--comics books were seen as an exclusively children's medium, but magazines were not. It was a shrewd move for Gaines (and also something Kurtzman demanded, but Kurtzman walked off Mad only a year later; he went on to create Trump, Humbug, and Help!, but none of them really stuck).

I have a lot of admiration for many of Mad's usual gang of idiots: Kurtzman, Wood, Elder, John Severin, Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg... and I was impressed that at times they attracted some of my favourite non-comics humourists like Stan Freberg and Bob & Ray. I'm glad that for more than 60 years, there was a place for Mad in this weird little world of ours. I read very few issues of Mad, but I was happy there was a continually successful comics publication that wasn't a super hero book. RIP Mad. And, by extension, this is the true death of EC Comics.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"I enjoy more uplifting stories." Usagi Yojimbo #1 review

Stan Sakai has been telling Usagi Yojimbo stories since 1984, shifting from publisher to publisher: Fantagraphics, Mirage Studios, Dark Horse and now IDW. I'm not sure why Sakai moved the series to IDW - they had previously published a Usagi Yojimbo/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one-shot. Perhaps the fact that Sakai's old friend Kevin Eastman has been telling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories there helped entice him.

The big change in moving the series to IDW is that it's now in full-colour, whereas previously colour Usagi Yojimbo stories were a rare treat, published as 'color specials' or as original graphic novels. The colour artist on the new IDW series is Tom Luth, who has coloured most of the previous colour Usagi Yojimbo comics, so it's very consistent to the series' standards. It does, however, mean the artistry of black & white storytelling has been lost and the price tag on the comics has been raised. Altogether, I find it a mixed blessing.

Anyway, this new series is opening with a three-part story called 'Bunraku' which sees the return of Sasuke the Demon-Queller, one of my favourite Usagi Yojimbo supporting characters! I had never heard of Japanese bunraku puppet theater, so once again Sakai's story is quite informative about the details. With Sasuke's presence, there are certain to be supernatural problems to bedevil Usagi as the tale progresses. I'm not a fan of the higher cover price, but I'm happy to have more Usagi Yojimbo to enjoy.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The fatal case of Vertigo

It has recently been announced that DC Comics is closing their Vertigo imprint. Vertigo was, in its heyday, an influential brand within the comics industry. It developed rather organically - although it formally began in 1993, the brand grew in response to readers' interest in 'mature' comics about DC characters such as Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Sandman. For most of its first two decades, Vertigo was home to 'mature' takes on unusual DC characters (not the big name characters like Superman, principally those who had supernatural overtones) and creator-owned comics.

I came relatively late to Vertigo, around the time of what turned out to be their last great renaissance - 2002, when Fables and Y: The Last Man were big hits. Although those two titles went on to enjoy long runs, I started to notice that barely anything else Vertigo launched as an ogoing series had any real staying power. After Y & Fables wrapped, the imprint seemed less and less relevant.

Even before Vertigo runner Karen Berger was shown the door in 2012, DC had already begun moving characters like Swamp Thing and John Constantine back into the DC Universe. They shut down Wildstorm just ahead of their 'New 52' linewide reboot and more and more it seemed as though DC wanted to consolidate their brands and decrease the amount of creator ownership (indeed, apparently post-Berger the Vertigo contracts were much less generous to creators). This is pretty much borne out by the manner in which DC's publisher Dan Didio described how DC would function post-Vertigo:

“We’re returning to a singular presentation of the DC brand that was present throughout most of our history until 1993 when we launched Vertigo to provide an outlet for edgier material,” Didio said. “That kind of material is now mainstream across all genres, so we thought it was the right time to bring greater clarity to the DC brand and reinforce our commitment to storytelling for all of our fans in every age group. This new system will replace the age ratings we currently use on our material.”

Aren't comics magical, kids?

Anyway, Berger left in 2012 and her assistant Shelly Bond departed in 2016, so the slow march to dissolving Vertigo has been an open topic of discussion in the comics community for some time. Even laying aside that Berger and Bond are both still working in the industry (Berger at Dark Horse, Bond at IDW) with their impressive rolodexes of talent, for some time now the sort of creators who used to publish their creator-owned material at Vertigo had been headed elsewhere - mostly to Image.

There were a number of great things about Vertigo - for DC as a publisher, it encouraged diversity among the kind of material they published, allowing them to reach audiences with different tastes than their usual super hero fare. It was also a carrot they could offer their big name talent - to keep their creator-owned work with DC and thereby keep those big names from floating to a rival publisher. For the creators, there were advantages to being marketed by DC because the publisher had built up so much goodwill toward retailers over the decades (ie, a DC comic can be expected to keep a reliable schedule; Image comics cannot). And for the industry as a whole, Vertigo encouraged DC to experiment - not simply with 'edgier material' as Didio claimed above, but headier ideas than the super hero genre.

Vertigo has been on its deathbed for many years. It's been so long since there was a real 'water cooler' title that I'm sure a great deal of fandom doesn't see Vertigo's absence as any great loss. It leaves DC a smaller, more creatively inbred publisher, confined to publish almost exclusively in super hero genre books. There may never be another Vertigo; it's hard to imagine today's leading publishers, who look at their holdings as 'IP farms', to allow a place not only to experiment, but to invest time and money into developing a brand with its own niche. Today, Marvel & DC use branding principally as a means to tell readers 'what counts' (their primary super hero universes) and 'what's everthing else' (all-ages, mature readers, non-super hero genre).

Thank goodness Image has largely taken over the audience Vertigo used to reach; RIP Vertigo.