Friday, January 29, 2010

The Last Time Michael Talked About Star Wars

I recently read how comics blogger Tim O'Neil felt slighted at how over the last decade comic books have gained wider reception. Because he had stayed with comics through the lean, dismal years, he found it hard to reconcile the current marketplace where comics are prosperous, hip and respected. I lived through those lean years too. His feelings reminded me of my own thoughts on the Star Wars franchise. It's something I've had on my heart for a while and his post has spurred me to finally get it out.

Before I delve into this, I have to say up front that while I might sound like an entitled fanboy at times, this is my therapy and blogging is cheaper than psychiatry. I'm not interested in accusations or persuasions, just to tell my story and the emotions I felt at the time.

To begin with, Star Wars was the single most important thing to me as a child (and for many of my teenage years). I was born a year after the first film debuted and saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre on at least two occasions. My family didn't purchase many films for our home library (videos were a luxury) but we taped a lot of movies off TV and the Star Wars films were my favorites (I didn't see Empire Strikes Back until years after Jedi, not until it turned up on TV).

Now, there's a lengthy period there between the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and the next theatrical Star Wars event (the Special Edition re-releases, 1997). It was during that in-between period that I was growing up...growing up on Star Wars. Even though the franchise was largely dormant, it never died for me. There were still the Star Wars comics that Marvel published (until 1986) and I began collecting a complete set of them. You had the occasional foray into television like the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, marketed to my demographic (little kids who liked Star Wars). And what about those great Kenner action figures that I collected for years after the line had ended. Playing with those toys regularly kept the series ever-new to me.

In junior high I had decent disposable income for the first time and comic books became my number one interest. Still, Star Wars was very important to me; it was something that I shared with my siblings and other relatives but I was really unaware of what a large following it had enjoyed in the past and how much of that following remained. Remember, this is before the internet allowed you 24/7 access to people who shared your interests.

A watershed moment for me came when the Sci-Fi Channel ran a Star Wars film marathon, hosted by Carrie Fisher. I saw to it that all of the films and bumper segments were recorded for the family collection, meaning that the films were finally together on one tape and in better quality than our earlier attempts. Seeing the marathon fired me up about Star Wars again, so much so that I brought up the subject to my friends at high school.

I suppose I must have been naive. I approached the subject with an innocent, "So...have you ever seen Star Wars?" I really didn't take the films' popularity for granted. Since Jedi had exited theatres it had been "underground" and it was something from my childhood...I didn't expect my friends to have more fondness for Star Wars than any other "fad" of the 80s, be it Transformers, He-Man or Thundercats.

So I was surprised and pleased to learn that yes, my friends did know what Star Wars was and yes, they liked it. How about that? Maybe if I had seen the films' box office numbers I would have been a little less naive.

But it wasn't long after that film marathon that the Star Wars phenomena started to rise again. The first sign I observed were the novels by Timothy Zhan. Now, I've never read them; I was devoted to the Marvel Comics interpretation of what happened post-Jedi and, much as I would reject alternate continuities in comics, I wouldn't stand for a different Star Wars continuity.

The thing was...other people at school were reading those novels. I'd see them in classrooms, in hallways...and I'd think, "Who are these people? Why do they suddenly like Star Wars?" It never occurred to me that maybe Star Wars was something they enjoyed in their childhood, just as I had. To my mind these were a bunch of fair-weather friends who had turned out just because the novels were new and shiny. I had never stopped keeping the faith.

Near the end of high school I had begun to drift out of comics, but something new appeared on my fan-obsession menu: Star Trek. If I was perhaps a little naive when it came to Star Wars' popularity, I was flat-out ludicrous when it came to Star Trek. Here, I had the reverse problem - I was wholly unaware that admitting to liking Star Trek was something that subjected you to ridicule from all corners, even among friends who enjoyed Magic: the Gathering or...well, Star Wars. The image of the Star Trek geek is burned into my mind pretty well now (I've certainly met enough of them), but at the time, Star Trek was just another cool science fiction program. That was my blind spot.

And then...I had my first brush with real Star Wars fandom. Not simply friends from school, but the larger, organized sectors. The renewed interest in Star Wars by the mid-90s led to the publication of a few Star Wars fan magazines and from the letters page of more than one publication I began to notice a pattern: self-proclaimed Star Wars fans did not like Star Trek. I mean, they went out of their way to ridicule it on the letters page. Even the magazine editors would take cheap shots at Trek. And yet, in Trek publications it seemed as though every self-proclaimed Star Trek fan liked Star Wars too. Why were the Star Wars fans trying to split fandom into two separate camps that, to my mind, had more in common than anything?*

There was also some kind of multimedia event around then called Shadows of the Empire, which purported to reveal the gaps between Empire and Jedi. But wait, what about the Marvel Comics that filled those gaps? I sought out an interview with the architects of the story and was mortified when the creators bad-mouthed the Marvel Comics, dredging up only the most ridiculous elements of the stories (like the notorious Jaxxon) to paint the entire series as some sort of inferior Star Wars knock-off. "Star Wars: Made in Taiwan" perhaps. Well, their project had the benefit of hindsight, I guess. I never read Shadows, whatever it was.

So, I had these problems with Star Wars. It had nothing to do with the films, but I was troubled to see the thing I liked and considered my personal, secret pleasure adopted by one and all, and to see that some of the most outspoken fans didn't like the same things I did.

Then the Special Edition films came out and I was there, eager to see them on the big screen (in the case of Empire, for the first time). I had convinced myself then that the newly-added scenes made the films better, although even then I had reservations about some of the changes. Whatever, it was nice just to see new Star Wars footage. There was talk in the fan magazines about new movies coming but I took it about as seriously as talk of a new Indiana Jones film (shyeah, like that'll ever happen). At the time, I though the Special Edition was the last grand hurrah of the franchise, the gold watch, the last day before retirement.

Of course, I was wrong. But my life went through a lot of upheaval by the time the Phantom Menace arrived. I don't recall even viewing the trailer for the film, despite being on the internet by then (did the internet have trailers in 1999? it seemed like an awesome new technology when I discovered it around 2001). By the time the Phantom Menace arrived I was in college and working full-time to support myself. I was back into comics but had rationed myself down to four books a month to make ends meet (even that was a luxury). And there was the internet, my new place to waste time and obtain validation from others. I was alone in a new city with no real friends and hardly any spare time so seeing the film felt like a low priority.

I don't know how my 12-year old self would have reconciled the ambivalence my 21-year old self felt toward the Phantom Menace. I wasn't expecting it to be terrible, I wasn't against watching it, it just didn't seem important to me. Realization hit me: I wasn't a Star Wars fan any more. And that was okay.

Before I went to college I had made a conscious decision to avoid watching the Star Wars films. I have an annoying tendency to memorize the things I enjoy the most and I felt that having watched the films so often I had begun to cheapen the viewing experience for myself. I knew all of the beats before they happened so what was the point in going through the motions of watching the films again? I thought that Star Wars - and all of my most favorite films - should be packed away for at least a year so that I could begin to forget them, then dig them up and enjoy them with slightly refreshed eyes.

But that didn't happen...well, I did dig up the other movies. I still unearth my Hitchcock collection a few times per year. But it's 12 years now and I haven't pulled the Star Wars trilogy out. In 12 years I found more opportunities to watch the Chronicles of Riddick** than I did Star Wars.

So, the Phantom Menace came and went from theatres and I didn't pay it much heed. Reaction on the internet was divided, but from the sheer volume of horrified viewers I surmised that I had dodged a bullet.*** I moved on. I'm not saying any of this to gain sympathy or understanding because I don't think falling out of love with a movie is worthy of consolation. If I woke up tomorrow and realized I wasn't in love with the Third Man anymore, well, heck, I've still got Our Man in Havana.

There is enough of my childhood love of Star Wars left in me that I have occasion to wince when I see something glaringly bad associated with the franchise. My feelings are also sore enough that I can chuckle good-naturedly with Tag & Bink and ill-naturedly with Red Letter Media. When I was in high school I thought that I had to force myself to outgrow comics because it was a juvenile medium. I was in denial then, and my adoration of the medium has only prospered since. The real mark of outgrowing something you love is that you simply leave it in the past. It doesn't have to be tragic, turgid or filled with shame and regret. It's simply left behind.

(*It, uh, didn't occur to me then that my own "Marvel first, last and always" perspective against DC, Image or any other publisher in the 1990s was not dissimilar)

(**Which, to its credit, is a hilariously awful movie that demands repeat viewings)

(***But only for so long. The story of how I finally saw the Phantom Menace is a blog post unto itself and this is too long as is; suffice to say, my pride was my own undoing)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hardcover Handbook v.12 & Index#13: tomorrow

Tomorrow is release day for volume 12 of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A to Z hardcover series (more here) and issue #13 of the Official Index to the Marvel Universe (more here). Buy them both to demonstrate your support for handbooks & indexes so that we can keep bringing them to you!

Monday, January 18, 2010

This April: more Iron Manual!


Activate the latest edition of the IRON MANUAL, purposed for experts and novices alike! Built around reliable parts including Iron Man and War Machine; engineered with new designs such as Rescue, Ezekiel Stane and Whiplash (Vanko); kit-bashed from the future with the Stark and Iron Man 2020; and refurbished to accommodate an infusion of Firebrand, Mandroids, LMDs, Masters of Silence, Anthem, Gremlin and more! It's all in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe format, featuring plenty of all-new art by Mario Gully (Ant, KIDNAPPED)! 64 PGS./One-Shot/Rated T+ ...$3.99

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pirates are...capitalists?

Here's some fascinating material on book piracy I saw reported on icv2:
An average of nearly 10,000 copies of every book published is downloaded from filesharing sites, according to a new study by Attributor. ... Fiction titles were actually among the least affected titles, with an average of around 6,000 copies downloaded per title; business and investing titles were the category most likely to be illegally downloaded, with over 13,000 per title.

I have to say, there's something amusing in this. Piracy, the great threat to the economy and livelihood of those who labour in arts & entertainment is strongly endorsed by those who labour in profit and development! If Gordon Gekko were online today, I guess he'd be pirating the Wall Street Journal? Perhaps Madoff invested in the Pirate Bay?

It's also interesting that non-fiction is what's being pirated most commonly. I would have thought that people seeking non-fiction would just go to a library, but I suppose the majority of people seeking to pirate fiction prefer the video medium over print.

Capitalism, you've made our world just a little goofier.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Movies in 2010

Having looked back at 2009, now I'm looking ahead to 2010. Using Wikipedia's 2010 in film article as my guide, I've looked over what's supposedly coming out this year to see what I'm interested in. It's a short list, but since I went into 2009 only intending to watch two films in the theatre, this is an increase for me:
  • Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • The Expendables
  • Iron Man 2
  • The Losers
  • Red
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  • Toy Story 3
  • Tron Legacy

So, almost everything I want to see is either a sequel or an adaptation. I really don't know what to expect from the Expendables but it's interesting to me because of its unusual cast.

Still, I expect that most of my film viewing will be of older films. There's a host of Kurosawa flicks I want to see, a number of film noirs that are supposed to be good and I'm thinking of sampling Martin Scorcese's catalogue. However, what I'd most like would be to get a copy of der Verlorene with English subtitles. Youtube's copy is non-subtitled German. sigh

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I watched in 2009

I put a lot of hours into film watching last year. Although I only went to the theatre four times (and regretted it twice), I bought a number of films for my personal library, caught a few with groups of friends and watched a surprising amount on streaming internet video.

Although I'm mostly interested in classic film, I did watch a bit of schlock in 2009; heck, some of the older films I watched weren't that hot either. It just goes to show that "classic" was invented by ad agencies, not critics.

Below I've listed every film I watched for the first time in 2009:

Some of these films I now count among my personal favorites; Dark City completely blew me away and I watched it about four times in 2009. I also strongly recommend Being There, Full Metal Jacket, Gunga Din, Hoop Dreams, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Judgment at Nuremberg, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Letters From Iwo Jima, the Lives of Others, the Lost Weekend, My Cousin Vinny, Our Man in Havana, the Ox-Bow Incident, the Prisoner of Zenda, Ratatouille, Rocky, the Spiral Staircase, Targets, Unforgiven and WALL-E to anyone who hasn't seen them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tomorrow: X-Men Forever#15

As I mentioned earlier in the blog, X-Men Forever#15 contains a special feature written by me to enhance your X-Men Forever reading experience; and it doesn't cost you one cent more than a normal-sized issue! X-Men Forever#15 is in stores this Wednesday!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Suicide Squad#67: what's the point?

As part of their long-running (and top-selling) Blackest Night crossover, DC is issuing a "theme month" around the idea of "resurrected" comic books. Just as the crossover involves people rising from the dead as "Black Lanterns," these theme books are all once-beloved titles which were cancelled years (even decades) ago and are now "risen" for a single month of resumed publication.

This week, Suicide Squad#67 came out among the first wave of one-shots. The original Suicide Squad ended with #66 back in 1992 but they've continued to be a part of various DC titles ever since. Suicide Squad#67 is co-written by John Ostrander (who wrote all 66 issues of the previous run), but he's joined by Secret Six author Gail Simone on the writing side. Art is by Jim Calafiore.

Laying aside whether this comic is any good or not, I have a lot of misgivings about the way the story is told and marketed.

First, this is part of a crossover; Blackest Night is topping the charts currently, giving DC a chance to compete neck-and-neck with Marvel for the first time in quite a while. However, the event itself isn't explained for the benefit of people not reading Blackest Night (like me).

Second, this comic is Suicide Squad in name only. True, the Squad appear, but in a minor role as one of the groups of antagonists. The real protagonists are the Secret Six. If you bought this comic wanting to see the Squad, you might be a little miffed to see yourself suckered into stealth-buying an issue of Secret Six.

Third, this isn't a one-shot, if that's what you thought you getting into. From the solicitations, it seems like most of these "resurrected" titles are one-shots, but this is a lead-in to a Blackest Night storyarc (also by Ostrander, Simone & Calafiore) that lasts for at least the next two issues of Secret Six.

Fourth, given that the titular Suicide Squad aren't the real stars, more effort should have been devoted to introducing the Secret Six for the benefit of those not reading their comic (like me). The only people who would know who Scandal or Ragdoll are would be the people already reading Secret Six. Ongoing character developments and subplots are used without framing them for a new reader's benefit. Can't an effort be made to grow the audience base, given the potential new readers who will be coming aboard for this special? Most of the Six are familiar to me with the exception of someone called Jeannette. I don't think I've ever seen her in a comic before and the story makes no effort to explain her powers, assuming she has any. Does she even have a codename?

Fifth, this story has three dueling narrators, not counting the omniscient narrator.

I will be coming back for the concluding chapters in Secret Six. Expect more grumbling.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What I read in 2009

In 2009 I continued to restrict the number of books I bought while increasing the amount I read from the University library. Of course, I still made plenty of exceptions for comic book-related material. Beyond comics, my tastes haven't really changed: when it comes to fiction, I like the classics; when it comes to non-fiction, I like learning about film.

Regular fiction:

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque
  • The Best of John Collier
  • The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Brood of the Witch Queen by Sax Rohmer
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Glass Key by Daishell Hammett
  • Guys and Dolls and Other Writings by Damon Runyon
  • Hangover House by Sax Rohmer
  • The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • The King of Terrors by Robert Bloch
  • Lady of the Barge by W.W. Jacobs
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague DeCamp
  • Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  • A Medicine for Melancholy by Ray Bradbury
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  • The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories
  • The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Stories by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Spook House by Ambrose Bierce
  • Strange Stories by Algernon Blackwood
  • This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene
  • When the World Screamed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Yu'an Hee See Laughs by Sax Rohmer

Regular non-fiction:

  • Adventures of Amos 'N' Andy: a Social History of an American Phenomenon by Melvin Ely
  • Boris Karloff: a Critical Account of his Screen, Stage, Radio, Television and Recording Work by Scott Nollen
  • The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon
  • Escape or Die by Paul Brickhill
  • Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel: the Marx Brothers' Lost Radio Show by Michael Barson
  • The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945 by Richard Jewell
  • Grand Guignol: the French Theatre of Horror by Richard J. Hand
  • The Great Radio Sitcoms by Jim Cox
  • The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes
  • Halliwell's Hundred by Leslie Halliwell
  • The Jack Benny Show by Milt Josefsberg
  • John Buchan by Andrew Lownie
  • Karloff & Lugosi: the Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory Mank
  • Marvel Comics in the 1960s by Pierre Comtois
  • Never Met a Man I Didn't Like by Will Rogers
  • Of Gods and Monsters by John T. Soister
  • The Original Amos 'N' Andy by Elizabeth McLeod
  • Stan Lee: Conversations
  • Strange and Stranger: the World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell
  • Sunday Nights at Seven by Jack Benny
  • Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu
  • The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment by Walter Kendrick
  • The Warner Brothers by Michael Freedland
  • Wheelchair Warrior by Melvin Juette

Comic book trades & graphic novels:

  • Al Williamson's Flash Gordon
  • Blazing Combat
  • A Contract With God by Will Eisner
  • Dan Dare Omnibus by Garth Ennis
  • Eerie Archives
  • Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction
  • Golgo 13 V.1-4,9-11 by Takao Saito
  • Immortal Iron Fist Vol.5: Escape From the Eighth City
  • It Rhymes With Lust by Drake Waller
  • Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao
  • Marvel Adventures: Triple Threat
  • Marvel Illustrated: Kidnapped
  • Marvel Masterworks: Black Knight & Yellow Claw
  • Masterpiece Comics by R. Sikoryak
  • The Midnight People by Ray Bradbury
  • Noble Causes Archives Vol.2 by Jay Faerber
  • North World: Other Sagas by Lars Brown
  • North World Vol.2: the Epic of Conrad by Lars Brown
  • Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn
  • Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
  • The Rocketeer: the Complete Collection
  • Scott Pilgrim Vol.5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  • Seven Sons by Alex Grecian
  • Showcase Presents Bat Lash
  • Stephen King's Dark Tower Vol.1
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
  • A Wizard's Tale by Kurt Busiek
  • Zot! Vol.1 by Scott McCloud
  • Zot! the Complete Black & White Collection by Scott McCloud

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sometimes you have to toss a kitten

I keep a close eye on the comic book market. Every week I check the Diamond shipping list to verify which comics are coming out so that I plan in advance for unusual items. And yet, somehow I missed that Oni's North World: Other Sagas had come out.

The beauty of North World is that it takes familiar tropes from the fantasy genre and merges them with the mundane world. People in North World carry swords and encounter magic on a daily basis, but otherwise they wear mostly-contemporary fashions, speak contemporary jargon and dwell in contemporary homes. One of the tales in Other Sagas is titled "In the Mall of the Mountain King," which probably sums up the North World experience.

This is essentially the third North World volume although it isn't numbered as such; the first two comprised "the Epic of Conrad," but with that story completed it's time to move on. Creator Lars Brown has stressed that although Conrad was the lead of the first two volumes but the real star is North World itself. Other Sagas is an anthology, featuring a variety of characters.

Conrad returns in Other Sagas for two tales, one set prior to his Epic, the other post-Epic. A few supporting characters from the Epic appear in stories of their own and there are various vignettes (some of them work of Lars' which predate North World but are being published by Oni for the first time). Highlights include Conrad hiring a bard to promote his adventures, a quest for a diamond that forces two adventurers to hurl kittens to save their lives (see above), and a cursed forest with rolling snakes, among other dangers.

Conrad was an excellent protagonist for the first two volumes as an everyman character who grounded the transpirings (which were something like Grosse Point Break meets Final Fantasy). It's a treat to see North World opening up to the rest of its environment and the thousand and one stories which can be told in this setting. If chance prevails, I may yet to live to see each of those tales. I only hope that next time I don't miss the week of release.