Friday, May 29, 2015

Casablanca: the comic book

Casablanca is one of the most-frequently referenced films in all of popular culture and comic books are certainly no exception.

Is it possible, then, to reconstruct Casablanca from its various comic book references? Could such an effort prove even the least bit coherent?

It has no hope of being coherent, but I had fun assembling this anyway.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Shadow of the Hand of the Daughter of the Mask of the Bride of the President of the Insidious of the Return of Fu Manchu (Reentered)

I first became fascinated with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu in the 1990s when I began listening to old-time radio through my family's satellite dish, which is where I first discovered Yesterday USA. At one time, one of the network's regular shows was airing episodes of the radio serial Shadow of Fu Manchu in sequential order every two weeks and I became fascinated by the program. Despite the racist reputation Fu Manchu holds, I found the serial to be an outstanding thriller with great cliffhangers.
Image from The Page of Fu Manchu

My father would sometimes pause at the desk of his home office and listen to some of the program. I was surprised to learn he had a fair bit of knowledge about Fu Manchu and eventually he gifted me with his collection of Fu Manchu paperback novels: nine of the original thirteen books (plus two other Rohmer novels he owned). It means a lot to receive something personal of my father's, even if they were a bunch of paperbacks most would consider "trashy" literature. I read most of them during my first year of college and eventually obtained the four novels my father hadn't owned.

The Shadow of Fu Manchu exists in the public domain like most radio programs and at one point I bought a CD containing the entire series. Or should that be "entire" series? When I first heard the show on Yesterday USA it was a series of 40 episodes and that 40th program was the first chapter of a new adventure. Yet, that seemed to be all that still existed. Those 40 shows were the same ones I found on my disc. For that reason, I didn't look any further.

Imagine my surprise in recent weeks when I discovered there were actually dozens of other Shadow of Fu Manchu episodes still in existence! Rather than 40 episodes, the series lasted 156 and there seem to be 85 still around. The first 40 had received a lot of circulation because their sequence was intact, but I'm quite happy to have these shows!

The odd thing about The Shadow of Fu Manchu is that while it adapted many of Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels, it didn't follow the order exactly. After adapting the first novel (The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu) it moved to the third (The Hand of Fu Manchu), then the second (The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu), followed by the fourth (The Daughter of Fu Manchu) and fifth (The Mask of Fu Manchu), then skipping into an amalgam of the eighth and ninth novels (President Fu Manchu & The Drums of Fu Manchu) then concluding with the sixth novel (The Bride of Fu Manchu).

Although the adaptations are reasonably faithful, they do attempt to keep the cast of characters a little more solid than Rohmer. In the books, Rohmer phased out Dr. Petrie gradually, beginning with Daughter, then retiring him completely in Trail as the principal hero, Nayland Smith, would be paired with other sidekicks starting with Daughter. Although the radio version includes the new sidekicks, they keep Petrie around and in a larger role than the original stories; his presence is particularly notable in the Drums/President mash-up, two novels he didn't appear in. Inspector Weymouth, one of the earliest allies of Smith, is also continually brought back in, whereas Rohmer let him drift out early on.

Smith's sidekicks were also squeezed together. The Drums/President mash-up includes President's sidekick Mark Hepburn eliminated, with only Drums' sidekick Bart Kerrigan retained. Smith's sidekicks don't seem to be well-known, given that I see several radio logs for Shadow of Fu Manchu refer to Smith's Daughter & Mask sidekick Shan Greville as "Grebble." I have to say, The Mask of Fu Manchu adaptation is mostly intact and done very well - the actor playing Shan was a familiar voice (one I can't seem to find a credit for on any of the shows I've heard him in) and Shan was always my favourite sidekick after Petrie.

Because of the way in which the serials follow on the heels of one another, rather than being separated by years as when Rohmer wrote them (the books span many decades, in fact), this led the series to adopt a very unimpressive ad-hoc solution to who Fu Manchu's "Bride" Fleurette in the final story is. In the novels, she's the daughter of Petrie & Kâramanèh, but because of the condensed timeline, on the radio she's Kâramanèh's long-lost sister, which, given that earlier in the series they told the saga of Kâramanèh's hard-luck brother Aziz, it seems like giving Kâramanèh yet another sibling in Fu Manchu's power is drawing from the same well.

No matter how many times I think I've heard everything worth hearing in old-time radio, I'm still pleasantly surprised to unearth other wonderful old shows. Discovering I'd been missing out on more than 40 episodes of a favourite series of mine is especially heartening! What else is still waiting for me to encounter it?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"The Yellow Curse": there are not enough facepalms in the world

When I'm delving through comic books of the 1930s and 40s I see a lot of casual racism in the tales of the time. I've learned to accept that they exist, shake my head and move along. I'd much rather uncover a forgotten character like Torgon who defies the tropes of the times. Every so often, however, a story so racist comes along that I can't get past it.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, comic books happily indulged in characterizing the hated Japanese as yellow-skinned, buck-toothed, murderous fanatics. Who could blame the creators, considering their nation's leaders had consigned the Japanese populations of the States and Canada into internment camps - and at a time when both the USA and Canada had fairly liberal governments, mind you! Racist Japanese caricatures are surely the most common racial stereotypes in comics of the 40s - certainly much moreso than the "big-lipped Negro" character.

I've been cleaning up a few entries at the Grand Comics Database, using the Digital Comics Museum as my guide. After happily tidying up a number of issues of Captain Marvel Adventures (Captain Marvel being one of my favourite 40s heroes), I turned to the series Captain Marvel, Jr.

I should explain that in the 40s, Captain Marvel, Jr. was (ostensibly) the more grounded of the two heroes. Beyond their shared fantastic powers and frequently out-of-this-world adversaries, Captain Marvel was rendered by the cartoonish (and wonderful) C.C. Beck, while Captain Marvel, Jr. was drawn by the more photorealistic Mac Raboy (Raboy would often draw CM Jr. when he guest-starred in Beck's stories, maintaining that visual divide between the two). Captain Marvel, Jr.'s adventures often pit him against social problems of the day; after all, in his identity as Freddy Freeman, he was an impoverished crippled newsboy.

With that out of the way, I give you "The Yellow Curse" from Captain Marvel, Jr.#10 (August 1, 1943). The title alone suggested some racist tomfoolery to me, but I decided to examine the story because it might (might) have proved to be racist in a kitschy, head-shaking way. Oh, my head did indeed shake. We open with Freddy Freeman ("a patriotic American through and through") visiting a blood donor clinic. However, the doctor in charge of the clinic, one "Dr. Ching" is in reality "Dr. Kursyu of Nippon!" Evidently he used the name "Ching" to pass himself off as a Chinese doctor. If you grade on a curve, that is the least-racist moment of the tale.

Kursyu places a dose of "the Yellow Curse serum" into the blood. When one General Otis is rushed to the clinic in need of a life-saving transfusion, Kursyu administers one of the tainted supplies to him. Almost immediately, Otis' skin turns yellow, his eyes become slanted and he begins talking like a typical Japanese comic book character: "Banzai! Hurrah for the Mikado! Down with America!" Kursyu is pleased to note his serum "makes the victim think like honorable Jap too!" Freddy says his magic word and transforms into Captain Marvel, Jr. to stop the rampaging general, but being patriotic, CM Jr. first tries to reason with him rather than strike an American officer. However, the transformed Otis cannot be reasoned with and he punches Captain Marvel, Jr. into a cannister of ether, which slows the hero down long enough for Kursyu and Otis to escape (so, um, I guess all the tainted blood samples will be destroyed now; Kursyu's really not going to undermine the USA that badly if he can only manage one transformation before being discovered).

For some reason, Captain Marvel, Jr. decides to change back into Freddy Freeman in order to help one of the doctors whom Otis attacked. Stranger still, the doctor's face is mistakenly coloured yellow as the colourist apparently lost track of which character he was working on (however, the doctor's ears are still pink). With this done, Freddy goes to warn "the other generals" about the plot because... uh... I guess they're more likely to believe the story of a crippled newsboy than a popular super hero? Anyway, it's good that Freddy thinks of this because Kursyu has already ordered Otis to phone up his fellow generals for a conference so that he can infect all of them with the Yellow Curse. Freddy tries to stop the generals' car but they hit him (Freddy gets no respect). The generals decide to bring Freddy along to the supposed conference (sure, let's go with that). Of course, with Freddy ko'd they have no idea what awaits as they're met by Kursyu and Otis.

Kursyu agrees to tend to Freddy's injury before going any further and also takes the opportunity to infect Freddy. Sure enough, Freddy becomes yellow-skinned and slant-eyed. His first words are "Banzai! What can I do for the Mikado? Banzai! Banzai!" However, Freddy struggles against his transformation, thinking "I know it isn't right to hate America," and is finally able to speak his magic words, turning into Captain Marvel, Jr. However, CM Jr. is likewise infected by the Yellow Curse (rendering him into Japanese Elvis, I suppose) and Kursyu sends him to destroy a munitions plant. Captain Marvel, Jr. flies away as Kursyu prepares to infect the captured generals, taunting them with his antidote labeled "White Serum." At once, Captain Marvel, Jr. bursts back into the room, revealing he wasn't under Kursyu's control and only wanted to learn about the antidote. Gulping down the formula, he becomes Caucasian again and similarly restores General Otis ("I had a horrible dream that I was a Jap!"). With the plot ruined, Captain Marvel, Jr. takes Kursyu prisoner and delivers the White Serum so it can be used to treat any other victims of the Yellow Curse.

Let's tally up this wartime racist paranoia:

  1. Japanese men could be passing themselves off as Chinese! Remain vigilant around Asians!
  2. Which points again to the need of internment camps - if you give a Jap a chance, he'll try to destroy America single-handedly!
  3. When we are rendered vulnerable by illness and placed under the power of people from other races they will attempt to bring us to their level! Maintain segregated hospitals!
  4. Hatred of America is literally found in the blood of all Japanese!
  5. Further, good patriotic Americans - even military officers - will turn against all their principles if found to be Japanese!
  6. Also the usual business of banana-yellow skin, "Banzai!" and a strange fascination with the Mikado.

That's a big heaping bowl of racist crap right there.

The next time you're inclined to comment on how racist a contemporary comic book is, do bear in mind it wasn't that long that things were much, much worse.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Retaliate first." Mad Max: Fury Road review

WARNING: SPOILERS AND OPINIONS BELOW

When I first saw a trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I wasn't certain I would want to see the film. The trailer emphasized the breathtaking stunts, but I felt certain they would be the usual poorly-shot CGI mayhem I expect to see in an action film (I was wrong). I also recognized that Mad Max had been recast and so expected this would be an interminable reboot of the concept with no new ideas (wrong, wrong, wrong). I didn't even notice Mad Max creator George Miller was still the director.

My anticipation for the film actually grew with each thing I learned. Not a reboot? Same director? Mostly practical effects? Shot in Namibia? I was taken aback at news that I would have to see a trailer for Batman v. Superman before the film, but thankfully that bit of bad news didn't bear out. In the final week there was a backlash against the picture by the so-called Men's Rights Activists which served only to turn the film into a topic of conversation at my workplace, with more us excited to see the picture. After all, hearing that the MRA think a film is sexist is like hearing Dick Cheney call something unethical - the odds are very good that the reverse is true.

But the subject of Mad Max: Fury Road as a piece of feminist propaganda is actually worth commenting on because I think many people have it all wrong. Some call it too feminist, others not feminist enough. I'm inclined to agree with this piece at the Mary Sue which describes the film as "co-ed." Although we have many action films with a male lead and many action films with a female lead (such as Theron's own Aeon Flux), we seldom have action films with equally-depicted male and female leads. This situation is so rare that the film appears be revolutionary when it's actually pretty casual.

Some have (disdainfully or otherwise) claimed that in Fury Road Max is Furiosa's "sidekick." I can't quite agree. Yes, Furiosa is the character whose actions drive the plot of the film, but the picture holds her at a distance from the audience. Max, despite his (literal) madness is familiar to the audience and serves as a perspective into Furiosa's story. To borrow from Joss Whedon's description of his film Serenity, Fury Road is the story of Furiosa as told by Mad Max.

While Furiosa's background and motivations are withheld for most of the picture, it's interesting to see how Max himself transforms over the course of the story. Hardy portrays him as twitchy, paranoid (properly so, given the environment) and mumbling. He and Furiosa seem to use each other primarily because in their world, you don't throw anything away if it might serve you well later on, be it the surprisingly-important bolt cutters or Nux the War Boy, the materials they salvage have functions. And as Max works along Furiosa and her wards ("the wives") he becomes a little more sane. As expected, he finally steps up to be heroic just in time for the third act. His "thumb's up" to Splendid after she helps him demonstrates that he sees them as being useful (like the bolt-cutters), rather than simply a burden which must be endured (and certainly, most of the "wives" come through as the film progresses). When Max finally divulges his name to the others it certainly feels like an earned moment - that they earned the right to know his name and he earned the right to be a little more human.

Can I talk about the stunts? Because my goodness! I certainly prefer practical effects to CGI at the best of times and now Fury Road will be exhibit #1 in my case. Miller pulls off tremendously heart-stopping moments and they're all the more effective because they tend to involve real world people, vehicles, landscapes and physics. And, as the film is mostly a two hour chase scene, Miller keeps finding great new stunts to unleash - it's not the same thing over and over, nor is it simply the Road Warrior with a fresh coat of paint. Also, he saves the best for last. For a 70 year old director, Miller makes the 20/30-something directors look about as anemic as the War Boys. The imagination and tense action on display is truly special when stacked up against most of today's action pictures. Even though the film's stunts are a complex Rube Goldberg machine, I was never at a loss to understanding what was happening or to whom - Miller pulled back just enough to make his complex machine intelligible. Intelligible chaos. It must harder than I think it is to pull that off.

However, what I most enjoyed about Fury Road was how the story unfolded in an organic fashion, not through exposition and narration. The characters are defined primarily through their actions. The characters have no time to explain what's going on to each other, nor is there any real attempt made by Furiosa to win Max over to her side through a passionate speech. There is action, action, action in the best tradition of film's maxim "show, don't tell." Fury Road expects you to be savvy enough to follow the action and pick up the story as you go (and to be fair, the story's not that complicated). This is pure cinema in the tradition of silent film where expressions, body language and actions reveal who characters are. Like the characters, the film can't afford wastage.

It's been at least six years since I had this much fun at a cinema. Thank you, George Miller, for Mad Max: Fury Road. Even if this turns out to be your last Mad Max picture, I will be quite satisfied. That said, I sure wouldn't mind seeing those sequels you've mentioned...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Windsor is a remarkable man in almost every way, but when it comes to that sort of thing he's about the dumbest man I have ever known!" Brok Windsor review

Through supporting the Kickstarter which produced Hope Nicholson & Rachel Richey's collected edition of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, I came to learn quite a lot about the era of 1940s Canadian comics which produced the so-called "Canadian Whites" (much of what I learned arose because I found myself promoting the book on behalf of my employers, the University of Calgary). With both women turning to new Kickstarter projects along the same lines, I happily endorsed Nicholson's new book Brok Windsor, collecting the adventures of the obscure Canadian hero featured in the obscure series Better Comics (sometimes a black & white series, sometimes color) by the obscure publisher Maple Leaf Publishing. Obscurely.

Created by Jon Stables, Brok Windsor is rather nice Canadian fellow who goes canoeing one day and finds himself in Chaqua, a lost land featuring enormous monsters, sorcery, advanced technology and heads without bodies. He soon befriends Torgon, a First Nations chap who is son of the local chief; eventually they join forces with Starra while saving her from a depraved sorceress and the trio endure many adventures together (with Starra developing feelings for Brok). Brok also obtains superhuman strength and grows taller due to the Chaqua environment. He also acquires clothing which might best be described as a halter top (possibly also the reason why Torgon refuses to wear a shirt).

The content of Brok Windsor includes a heaping tablespoon of Flash Gordon, a dash of John Carter and a liberal pound of Pellucidar. Like Gordon, Windsor is thrust into a land of both science and sorcery, of rebel armies and sinister witches, of flying machines and terrifying beasts. Like Carter, he obtains special powers from his environment and clashes with despicable creatures who plant their heads on other people's bodies. And as in the Pellucidar tales, the backdrop is a hidden land somewhere on Earth where anything is possible.

Indeed, anything -- even a First Nations sidekick hero who defies most of the "Indian sidekick" tropes! Torgon speaks English perfectly, is actually taller and stronger than Windsor and has his own love interest. Although he enters the tale in a loincloth and with feathers in his hair, he quickly puts on pants and boots. Although he's the son of a great chief, his father's kingdom is a super-scientific city with advanced aircraft ("Zipcars") which Torgon can fly. In general, Torgon is smarter than Windsor, not only in the ways of Chaqua, but in craftiness. At one point he even demonstrates real agency - when Brok has temporarily lost his memory, Torgon decides to abandon him in the prison they've landed in, deciding it's more important to escape and complete their mission than to drag Brok along. Yes, the book's nominal hero is left behind by the sidekick!

Part of why the series reminds me of Flash Gordon is that, as in Alex Raymond's strip, the goals of the protagonists are constantly interrupted as they wander into the clutches of menaces which are entirely unrelated to their present predicament and this tends to set off a domino effect; Brok and Torgon's attempt to rescue Starra from giant rats leads to Brok's amnesia, to their capture by an evil sorceress, to their journey through an underground world filled with monsters and so on - all of this interfering with the larger mission of saving Torgon's father from a rebellion. However, unlike Raymond's strip, the characters occasionally find time to rest, eat and (gasp!) converse with one another. As I noted in my review of Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, it seems unbelievable that Gordon could fight on day after wearying day - I appreciate that not everything in Chaqua is life-or-death - sometimes Brok and Torgon can drop everything to hunt their next meal.

Also unlike Raymond is the pacing of the series. Fights in Brok Windsor can carry on for pages, whereas Raymond would short-cut his characters' actions, leaving his text boxes to exposit on what occurred. Brok Windsor fits more comfortably into the realm of comics than Flash Gordon because it escapes the confines of "illustrated text story" which far too many comics of the 30s & 40s fell into. The only real misstep is that the adventure in Chaqua comes to an abrupt finish when the heroes meet a figure who grants them each one wish, which they use to end the story. It enabled Stables to take Brok into new territory by returning him to Canada proper, but sadly the series didn't last long enough for him to finish the next tale (the Kickstarter raised enough money to publish Stables' last-known unpublished script, but the story is still left on a cliffhanger).

In parting, I have to say Jon Stables' artwork is a treat. I certainly ragged on one Canadian Whites creator - Ross Saakel - for his poor art and traced tales. Brok Windsor demonstrates that Stables had real talents as an illustrator, moreso than many comic book artists of that decade (be they US or Canadian). He understood anatomy, perspective and fight choreography, plus he had weird and wonderful ideas about what to draw. Brok Windsor is great fun, but I think the real take away is that in Stables, Canada had one fine artist.