Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo

From the Shadow and the Green Hornet, I turn again this week to a star of 1930s entertainments: Flash Gordon! I've done a pretty decent job of sampling Gordon's adventures in various media, yet I hadn't delved into the original comic strips by Alex Raymond before, despite the many glowing references I'd heard. It finally took Colin Smith's review of Titan Books' Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo collection to break the last of my resistance.

This collection follows the Flash Gordon comic strip from it's beginning in 1934 and into 1937, with each page reprinted in full colour. It details the story of how Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov journey to the planet Mongo, battle Ming the Merciless, befriend Prince Thun, are repeatedly betrayed by Princess Aura, then befriend Prince Barin, then are captured by King Vultan and his Hawkmen, then Flash and Barin each becomes kings on Mongo, then Flash has to conquer the area of Mongo set aside as his kingdom, then Flash is attacked by Azura the Witch Queen, then a war with Ming erupts, then Queen Undina tries to make Flash her consort, then Flash battles Tusk Men and somewhere along the way flying squirrels attacked.

No, I'm not kidding. Flying squirrels. On Mongo, every animal is vicious.

(I'm not as familiar with comic strip history as I am with comic books, so you'll have to forgive me for the forthcoming comparisons to Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. Having just finished IDW's collection of Caniff's Terry the previous week, Terry is my best point of comparison to Flash Gordon, as both were photorealistic adventure strips which began in 1934.)

As I neared the end of reading Caniff's Terry and the Pirates the style of pacing Caniff employed had become very familiar. As such, when the characters would discover a problem, then spend about a week's worth of strips not doing anything to solve it, I would get a little irritated, wishing the plot would advance (especially because I was reading the final volume and wanted as many stories as I could from what remained). Flash Gordon's pacing runs in the opposite direction: too much happens in each strip! While Terry had the advantage of running as a daily strip, allowing Caniff space to draw out every little conflict, Raymond's Flash ran just once a week. Perhaps he felt he had to deliver as much plot and action in one installment as he could manage, since his readers would be without Flash for another week.

Thus, Flash Gordon runs at a breakneck pace as problems compound upon other problems, characters weave in and out of the narrative and danger lurks around every corner of Mongo. Flash's life is such that he never seems allowed to relax; I believe the nearest Flash comes to getting sleep during these first four years is when he's knocked unconscious by various enemies. Boy, Flash must need a lot of coffee to keep going.

One great example of the breakneck pace is the character of Dr. Zarkov. In the very-rushed first strip, he forces Flash & Dale into his rocketship, directing them toward Mongo. The ship crashes on Mongo in the 2nd strip and although Flash carries Dale from the wreckage, no mention is made of Zarkov's fate; the strip seems to forget about him, so you'd imagine Zarkov was dead, but four months into the strip he turns up, alive. Not much time is allowed for the cast to get to know each other, not only requiring Flash & Dale to be suddenly in love, or for Prince Thun to be Flash's most loyal friend within minutes of knowing him, but for Zarkov to declare "I love him like I'd love my own son," after two years of virtually nothing but combat at each other's side. This is super-compressed comics storytelling.

I expected to see Raymond's art change and improve over time (just as Caniff's did across Terry), but I wasn't prepared for how sudden those differences would appear. On July 22, 1934, during his first story with the Hawkmen, Raymond suddenly began dividing his pages into thirds instead of fourths and vastly increased the amount of detailed shading in his art, as well as the volume of speech represented in balloons. Many of the earlier strips read like illustrated novels because of the heavy captions (although this persists throughout Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo). The art shifted again by the end of the year as the characters became even more realistic in appearance and his backgrounds began using a sort of blurry shading effect, which I now realize must have inspired Gene Colan.

There's a lot of imagination within the 200+ pages of Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo and Raymond seemed to be still warming up. It's a small wonder the strip become so popular so quickly!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Green Hornet#1

Although I'm very keen on old-time radio programs, the Green Hornet isn't one I'm particularly interested in, even though it was one of the longest-running super hero programs on radio. I suppose my lack of interest is because I found the series to be much the same from episode to episode, nothing in particular which stood out. Although Dynamite have been publishing a ridiculous amount of Green Hornet comic books over the last few years, I didn't pay attention... until they added two magic syllables: "Mark Waid."

Thus, here we have Green Hornet#1 by writer Mark Waid and artist Daniel Indro (with a swell cover above by Paolo Rivera). This series is set in 1941 and features all the vintage cast members found in the original radio program. Mention is made of the Green Hornet's ties to his grand-uncle, the Lone Ranger (who has somehow wound in the hands of a separate copyright office) and all the basics are in place: we have Britt Reid serving as publisher of the Daily Sentinel by day, dressing up as the Green Hornet to fight crime by night. Kato is Reid's butler and the Hornet's chauffeur. Lenore Case is Reid's secretary, while Mike Axford is the hapless Irish reporter who runs a one-man crusade to capture the Hornet, unaware he's after his own boss. If I didn't find this set-up interesting as a radio program, why should I find the comic book any different?

That's where you have to reckon with Mark Waid, who's never content to simply rehash an old formula, but instead is always seeking new angles for worn-out premises. The key to Waid's take comes out during Reid's introductory narration as he takes pains to describe how he set himself up as the Green Hornet, only to subvert our expectations by describing himself as "the world's first super-criminal." On the radio, the Hornet would frequently exploit his status as an outlaw to trick criminals, but here his self-described "sting" operation is the apparent focus of the series.

There's an extremely effective two-page sequence where we see glimpses of how the Hornet's "sting" functions: he meets with his "fellow" criminals, unleashes his (non-lethal) gas gun on police officers and shoots criminals who are enemies of his "allies." Lest we think he's gone too far with act like an amnesiac Sonny Crockett, we also see the Hornet burn down a building (then learn it was owned by Britt Reid) and sink a man in the river (whom Kato secretly rescues). There's no attempt made in this issue to place our sympathies with the criminals, that is see the seduction of crime from Reid's perspective where we might wonder if he'd become a true villain - instead we get our vicarious thrills by witnessing how the Hornet outsmarts his supposed allies while secretly dismantling their operations.

Some space is given over to explaining why Kato doesn't use a codename while wearing a mask; "I don't need a name." is some sort of response, although it's unwieldy to think Kato could get by without needing to be called something. Because it's part of Green Hornet lore that Kato doesn't use an alias, Waid seems trapped into supporting the notion. I would say it's fine to leave Kato without a codename as long as you don't draw attention to it; now that Waid's has drawn attention to it... well, we'll see if it remains a problem.

It's been a while since I seriously sat down with a super hero comic (this is my one-year anniversary of having quit Marvel) and it's pleasing to see how much plot and how many characters factor into this tale compared to what I'd been seeing before; when I gave up working for Marvel, one of my few regrets was being deprived of Waid's Daredevil, which was easily the most entertaining book in the line. As with Daredevil, Waid seems to have fresh perspectives on familiar tropes. After sampling various #1 issues of Dynamite titles which weren't to my liking, I'm pleased to say I intend to be back for Green Hornet#2!

Green Hornet#1 had 11 variant covers. Such is the world we live in.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Shadow: Year One#1

So far I've examined the Shadow's career in comic books through the legendarily bad Archie Comics, a surprisingly decent team-up with the Ghost and the recent Dynamite relaunch. Although the rewards have been minimal, here I find myself plunging again into the world of Lamont Cranston via Dynamite's the Shadow: Year One by writer Matt Wagner and artist Wilfredo Torres.

Although the term "Year One" carries a faint reminder of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, it's only by accident; "Year One" has been cashed in often enough by comic book culture to the point where such stories as "Black Lightning: Year One" and "Metamorpho: Year One" actually exist. "Year One" has become a different way of saying "origin story," rather than necessarily indicating an effort to emulate the Miller/Mazzucchelli opus.

While the true-blue Shadow aficionados insist the pulp novels are the truest version of the character, his radio, film and comic book adventures are almost definitely better-known (speaking as one who has never read a Shadow pulp novel). I believe the Shadow's origin story was told in the pulps and would therefore have inspired the comic book at hand.

However, the Shadow: Year One#1 doesn't begin with the Shadow's origin. Instead, we open in 1929 on a figure called "the Shadow of Judgment" who burns down a village in Cambodia while searching for a white man called "the White Tiger." The rampaging figure is probably intended as the Shadow, given his black garb, red scarf, handgun and ring along with various quotes from the Shadow's radio dialogue, but the issue never makes this clear who he or "the White Tiger" is. Since the next scene features Lamont Cranston arriving in New York City, one might wonder if Lamont is the White Tiger and is fleeing from "the Shadow of Judgment." Regardless, we soon realize Lamont is returning from his time in the east and thus has already experienced his origin. Assuming he is "the Shadow of Judgment," this then would be the "prototype costume" which turns up in many reimagined versions of super hero origins, as in the movie Batman Begins. However, with Lamont's origin out of the way, what sets this Shadow comic book apart from the other series, aside from the creative team? This Lamont Cranston has yet to don a black coat & hat and develop a network of operatives, but I'm not clear why it would be interesting to see the storytelling engine tuned-up when I might simply pick up Dynamite's other Shadow comic book and read a tale where the storytelling engine is already running? The only possible reason would be to sample the particular style of this comic.

Lamont returns to New York City just as the Great Depression has begun and Prohibition is still a concern. In short order, we meet the series' version of Margo Lane, who is, we're told "A real class number, dat one!" In this version, Margo is sleeping with mobster Giuseppe Massaretti, who slaps her in the face for making a disparaging reference to the size of his "gun." Seeing Margo in this role is akin to hearing a sweet 90-year old lady curse like a sailor.

Later, at an unidentified locale (helpfully identified as long-time Shadow setting the Cobalt Club in the next issue blurb, but nowhere else in these pages) where Commissioner Ralph Weston and Lamont Cranston hobknob, Margo arrives and briefly interacts with Lamont, then confronts Massaretti, claiming to be pregnant with his child. It's possible she's lying in an attempt to regain his good graces.

Massaretti reacts badly to the news and decides he'd rather throw Margo from the roof of the building than make nice with her. This leads to Margo receiving another slap in the face and some cruel profanity (translated into Italian for our delicate sensibilities). However, Lamont has tied a red tablecloth around his face (a second prototype costume?) and comes to Margo's rescue as the issue closes.

After the failure to properly identify the Cobalt Club setting, this comic's greatest failing has to be the transition from the opening sequence to Lamont's arrival in New York City. I feel certain the character in the former scene is supposed to be Lamont and I have to assume the creators didn't intend it to be a mystery. The creators have not given enough thought to translating their clever plot to us, the audience.

No one would mistake this story for one of the Shadow's 1930s adventures; then again, when it comes to gender roles it's not exactly welcome in the 21st century either. In the radio program, Margo Lane was often little more than a "damsel in distress;" here, she's a "damsel in distress" plus a "whore with a heart of gold?" Margo as an unlikeable tramp who gets beaten twice per issue? Who thought this was a good idea in 2013?

I just finished reading Message in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, a collection of Bernie Krigstein's work from the 1940s to 50s. In one instance, Krigstein drew a story with 75 panels in just four pages! By way of comparison, Shadow: Year One#1 runs 91 panels across 22 pages. It's unfair to compare the two, but it's like going from a steak dinner to a bologna sandwich.

The Shadow: Year One#1 came with 14 variant covers. Welcome to 21st century economics.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Seven thoughts about Popeye#12

At the launch of Roger Langridge's Popeye comic book for IDW last year, I composed a list of seven thoughts about Popeye#1. With the cancellation of the series as of this month's Popeye#12, I felt it was appropriate to revisit the list format and mark the passing of one truly fun comic book series.
Thought#1: Publishing a Popeye comic book series in the 21st century was always Quixotic. If people of my generation just barely remember Popeye as a not-that-great live action film and very-forgettable Saturday morning cartoons, how must generations younger than I feel? Meanwhile, the generation older than me has barely any money left for a $3.99 comic book after purchasing the month's allotment of Muslix. Lasting twelve issues is no small feat, especially considering it was first conceived of as a four-issue limited series.
Thought#2: Speaking of the Muslix-munching crowd, this issue guest stars Barney Google; according to the indica, he and Popeye are both owned by King Features Syndicate. I only know of Barney Google through the song written about him (it was in a family songbook - my mother played it a few times). I can't speak as to whether Langridge portrayed Google accurately or respectfully, but it was a little fun to imagine the Popeye cast of characters brushing up against some other comic strip's continuity.
Thought#3: Langridge was joined by several artists during his Popeye tenure, beginning with Bruce Ozella in issue #1, who, in my opinion, was the best. It would have been fine to see Ozella on duty for this final story, but instead it's drawn by Langridge himself, who seems to have grown more comfortable with the characters as time has gone on. It's interesting to reflect on the fact Langridge's written-drawn series Snarked also completed on issue#12.
Thought#4: The plot concerns Castor Oyl winning Spark Plug the racehorse off Google in a poker game. Determined to win his horse back, Google hires Wimpy to find him a horse to race against Spark Plug; Wimpy being Wimpy, Google winds up with a racing-cow instead. There's also a back-up tale where Swee'pea roughs up a wrestler.
Thought#5: It's interesting to note how well Langridge can combine gags and plots; usually, each page starts setting up a gag to be resolved by the end of the page, but at the same time the plot of Google & Castor's rivalry continues. One really feels the economy of entertainment in a Roger Langridge comic book - you get value from every penny of the $3.99 price tag! It's similar to the sort of timing you would expect from a comic strip; perhaps more of today's comic book writers should take a cue from the pace of comic strips.
Thought#6: Of all the cast of Popeye characters, Wimpy seemed to be Langridge's favourite and I'll certainly miss the monthly dose of Wimpy jokes I've been favoured with for the past year. Wimpy's characterization - a single-minded individual who can place a square meal over his best friends, yet possesses a peculiar sense of honour despite it all - would be very easy to get wrong, I think. That Wimpy can perform despicable deeds while remaining sympathetic, funny and loveable speaks to Langridge's talent as a writer.
Thought#7: Roger Langridge can draw a happy cow like no one's business.

R.I.P., IDW's Popeye.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Film versus critic

"Of course, a critic resembles a poet to a hair, except he has no anguish in his heart, no music on his lips."

-Søren Kierkegaard

"Hey, I'll have you know Roger Ebert liked this film."

"I'll have you know the only thing Roger Ebert likes is big pans of lasagna."

"Lots of them."

-Joel, Crow & Tom Servo, Mystery Science Theater 3000

My family will vouch for my extremely snobbish attitude towards motion pictures. I've been strongly opinionated about film ever since I was thirteen and read the reviews for the movie the Rocketeer. Critics of the time considered it a middling film, so I was convinced I'd hate it. Even though I did wind up liking the film a lot, I didn't stop being a snob - my snobbishness only grew with time. I became the lone holdout when my family would go to see a movie - it had to be something I was willing to watch or I wouldn't condone it. And, of course, my opinion on what constituted a good film had a lot to do with what the critics were saying.

We had a few books about movies in our family library, including some editions of Leonard Maltin's books. As I became more interested in film, I started spending more and more time with our 1990 edition of Roger Ebert's guide. It hadn't interested me initially because he covered only a certain number of films spread across about 20 years. However, his long-form film essays were definitely to my liking - he didn't simply judge whether a film was worth watching, he spent some time defending his position. Although to my family it seemed as though I was becoming harder to please with films, I was actually becoming more and more in love with the movies (you may recall I watched 900 movies in 2012).

During my paper route each morning, I would carefully check the entertainment sections of the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald to see what news there might be about the film business - and, better still, if there was a film review to read. Oh, how I wished our papers had been running Roger Ebert's column! Still, before long I discovered the television version of Siskel & Ebert was available on our modest satellite service, so I began watching the series every week.

Seeing Ebert defend his positions in person on a host of films I'd probably never see was interesting; sometimes I would revisit his reviews after seeing a film for myself and decide I didn't agree with him at all; sometimes on the show, I found myself in Siskel's camp; other times, I thought both men were way off-base. Regardless, because I trusted Ebert's opinions in some respects, I was more willing to trust his recommendations than any other person. An essay in the back of his book about the Third Man convinced me to give that movie a chance; it's been my favourite film ever since (later, a favourite book). I watched the movies Hoop Dreams and Dark City largely because of Siskel & Ebert's reviews - even though it took me a decade to see those films, the glowing reviews were lodged in my brain. Heck, even now I'm chasing down stray Akira Kurosawa films, having first heard of Kurosawa in Ebert's book.

As I've mentioned before, perhaps the most startling moment for me while watching Siskel & Ebert was when Siskel dourly gave a film thumb's down and suggested an alternative, older movie in its stead. Fiery with anger, Ebert demanded to know why they even bothered with their program if they were just going to recommend old films. Why not stay home and watch Citizen Kane all year round? It made an impact on me, the consideration that watching movies was not a quest to find "the perfect film," that movies could contain something of value to the viewer even if it was, on the whole, forgettable.

I was watching the television program as Siskel's health worsened and was impressed as he continued to deliver reviews from his hospital bed. The week of his passing, I was amazed by the episode Ebert produced to mark the occasion; they had an odd friendship - "best enemies," as Ebert put it. None of the succeeding co-hosts ever impressed me by their chemistry with Ebert, but I still followed the series semi-regularly.

Eventually I parted ways with Ebert; for people who dislike Ebert (or any critic), it might take just one review the fan strongly disagrees with. For myself, it was more a sense that Ebert didn't understand much outside of film, having spent so many decades studying it to the expense of all else. Specifically, when Ebert would write reviews about films based on comic books, video games, television programs or other popular entertainment, he would expose his ignorance and disdain for the material, which steadily soured my interest in his work.

Ebert's blog ultimately brought me back into the fold as I found his personal thoughts even more interesting to me than his film reviews (although I'd begun checking his reviews about once a month). I didn't think much when Ebert announced on the blog he'd be decreasing his presence as a reviewer; two days later, he was dead.

The tools Ebert gave me to evaluate and appreciate movies are what I'll always retain; my interests in film are constantly shifting and changing, which I'm glad of. I've learned to understand why critics love Citizen Kane, yet decide for myself that I don't think Lincoln was all that hot. As I continue to dig through Ebert's invaluable archive of film reviews I know I'll find some where I disagree with him on every syllable. But, through it all, I enjoy how bad films would fire up his creativity, leading to some of his most memorable missives. I leave you with a collection of some funny and/or insightful quotes:

"I bent over backwards to be fair to the first movie about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was, I wrote, "probably the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie." Now we have the sequel, subtitled "The Secret of the Ooze." I may not get what I want, but I get what I deserve."

- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

"Keanu Reeves is often low-key in his roles, but in this movie, his piano has no keys at all."

- The Day the Earth Stood Still

"To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material."

- The Spirit

"Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in."

- Kick-Ass

"Whether he is a competent swashbuckler is hard to say, because the fight sequences here are composed in the editing and do not seem to exist in an actual space-time continuum."

- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

"The irritating thing about special effects is that anything can happen, and often you can't tell what the hell it is."

- Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time

"“The killing of the women and children must stop!” they agree. Having arrived at this conclusion after 12 years of rape and pillage, they do not qualify as quick studies."

- Season of the Witch

"Cain's sidekicks include a violent, foul-mouthed young boy (Gabriel Damon), who looks to be about 12 years old but kills people without remorse, swears like Eddie Murphy, and eventually takes over the drug business. I hesitate to suggest the vicious little tyke has been shoehorned into this R-rated movie so that the kiddies will have someone to identify with when they see it on video, but stranger things have happened."

- Robocop 2

"Children holding a Transformer toy in their hand can invest it with wonder and magic, imagining it doing brave deeds and remaining always their friend. I knew a little girl once who lost her blue toy truck at the movies, and cried as if her heart would break. Such a child might regard "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" with fear and dismay."

- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

"The movie's dialogue knows it's funny--a fatal error."

- The Other Sister

""Kirsty!" we hear. And "Tiffany!" And "Kirsty!!!" and "Tiffany!!!" And "Kirstiyyyyyyy!!!!!" And "Tiffanyyyyyyy!!!!!" I'm afraid this is another one of those movies that violates the First Rule of Repetition of Names, which states that when the same names are repeated in a movie more than four times a minute for more than three minutes in a row, the audience breaks out into sarcastic laughter, and some of the ruder members are likely to start shouting "Kirsty!" and "Tiffany!" at the screen."

- Hellbound: Hellraiser II

"I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine."

- The Human Centipede

"Is it worth my money?"

"It sure is, Little Jimmy. Says here -- worth your money, IF you get it two for one."

- The Howling