Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RIP: Carrie Fisher

I did not know Carrie Fisher, but for most of my life I have known Leia Organa; she was one of my heroes.

Over the past few days as word of Carrie Fisher's heart attack circulated on social media, culminating in her death yesterday, I saw many people articulating what she meant to them. Mention was made of her personal struggles, her family, her wider career and accomplishments. But, to quote Max von Sydow in The Force Awakens: "She'll always be royalty to me."

Once again, I find myself feeling well-disposed towards Star Wars; I liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One. That being the case, I'm better able to connect emotionally with my long-held affection towards the cast of characters. The protagonists of the original three Star Wars films loomed large in my childhood and Princess Leia Organa was both pivotal and unique - not only the most significant female character in the films but the only one with an arc or more than one scene of dialogue.

I was surprised to find out in the 1990s that many Star Wars fans of my age considered Leia a sex symbol and salivated over the slave outfit she wore in Return of the Jedi. To me, she was one of the guys. Similarly, my favourite character wasn't Han Solo (unlike many), who was, to me, the hero's best friend. I liked Luke Skywalker more than any of the characters and Leia being Luke's sister was a development I wholeheartedly approved of - everyone got to be happy! Rather than a body to be glared at, I took Leia as one of the heroes - feisty, sharp-tongued, heroic. She could fight, plot, snark and in every other means match wits with any of the other characters. She even seemed to spark the 1980s fascination with male-centered action heroes taking on one member who would be "the female one." With few exceptions (G.I. Joe's Scarlett) such heroines were not the equals of their male comrades, unlike Leia.

Part of my affection for Leia stems from the relationship I have with my own sister; to some extent I thought of the Princess Leia action figures as "girl's toys" and was happy to let my sister collect them. Still, eventually I obtained a figure of Leia in her Hoth outfit and it received a lot of play from me. Frankly, the adventures I had with my Star Wars toys were incomplete 'til I began adding Leia to them.

I felt a little uncertain of Carrie Fisher's return to the role in The Force Awakens - not because of her appearance (she sure looked like Leia to me) but because her voice seemed to have aged so much, sounding older than her actual age. Regardless, it was emotional to see her again; it will no doubt be all the more emotional when I see her again next winter - for the final time.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Your humble blogger wishes you and yours a very merry, very happy Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Really dumb, maybe, but here goes..." Angel Catbird Volume 1 review

Although Margaret Atwood is one of the best-known authors of my homeland I haven't made an effort to read her books; I've always had a perception that she wrote for a female audience - hence, not me. However, recently Atwood has entered that male-dominated field of fiction we call super hero comic books. No, seriously, she has. I cannot make this up. First Michael Chabon came slumming into comics after winning the Pulitzer, now here's Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood making an old-fashioned super hero comic!

Based on the introduction, Atwood has a fondness for comics and an understanding of how they've changed over the years. And yet, she didn't set out to craft a super hero book in the mold of what all the writers in the field are currently doing (which is a mixture of sarcasm, stories about "destiny" and stories about "daddy issues") but instead looks back to that most fertile period we call the Silver Age. Drawn by Johnnie Christmas, Atwood's super hero Angel Catbird is cut of the same cloth as 60s heroes such as the Flash or Spider-Man. An accident with a super-splicer serum merges scientist Strig Feeledus with the DNA of his pet cat and a passing owl, transforming him into a human/cat/owl hybrid super hero! Angel Catbird quickly learns there are many other creatures like him called "half-cats," some people cats who turn into cat-people and the others people who become person-cats.

I found the most remarkable thing about this comic to be its earnestness. There have been many other comics which have tried to tap into the spirit of the Silver Age, but they tend to see it through the eyes of contemporary comics, such as Dean Haspiel's The Fox which added gore to a straightforward Silver Age comics premise, or the many times the Silver Age has been equated with "silly origins and talking gorillas." Although Angel Catbird is frequently very funny (there are many cat puns to be found) and the conflict (cat people vs. rat people) is, on the face of it, ridiculous, the cast of characters treat these situations with the utmost gravity.

While Angel Catbird owes a great debt to Spider-Man, he's far from being a parody of that character. Like Spider-Man, Angel Catbird is given space to angst, to ponder, to gush over a pretty female. The difference is that Angel Catbird's angst comes from his hybrid nature. Is he a man, a cat or an owl? When faced with a baby bird in danger will he save it, or eat it? Will the cool cats ever accept him into their ranks? How does Cate Leone really feel about him?

They don't make 'em like Angel Catbird anymore. It's a fun book with a lot of heart, as Atwood uses the material to make various pleas for cat owners to treat their pets safely and humanely. It's a (dare I say it) purr-fect book for teens. Unfortunately, Dark Horse is retailing this 72 page story as a $20 hardcover which is a very inconvenient price point. This material longs to be a $10 paperback and, if Dark Horse has any sense, should be sent to book fairs and into school catalogs across North America. Atwood has additional Angel Catbird volumes planned, with the 2nd arriving in February. I dig that cat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Unearthed: Tigerman #2!

Welcome back! In case you missed it, I unearthed Atlas Comics' Tigerman #1 here. Much has changed between issues and the big changes start with the cover:

The Grand Comics Database credits this cover to artist Frank Thorne. As covers are typically produced before the issue's interior art, the absence of issue #1's artist Ernie Colon is quite notable - he didn't so much as contribute the subsequent cover, much less the interior. This cover feels like an attempted do-over of the character to reintroduce him after the debut issue's underwhelming image. Here, we have a series of dynamic action shots and the words "He stalks the night!" Tiger-Man's face is also much more fearsome - no longer a long-faced sad sack. Also visible is a costumed criminal for Tiger-Man to fight, a caucasian man wearing a blue outfit with leopard spots (not quite, as the interior will demonstrate).

Perhaps the first big change in the series is the hero's name - no longer is he "Tigerman" but rather "Tiger-Man" - thus, his cover logo is no longer an aberration. Likewise, this issue has a title and credits! We have here "Stalker in a Concrete Jungle!" by Gerry Conway and Steve Ditko (the GCD says Frank Giacoia inked Ditko here). The lettering is likewise improved, no longer the stiff machine font from before. These are minor victories, but we shall savour them.

We open on a robbery as three men in yellow & red uniforms have blasted their way out of a bank with sacks of money in their hands. Tiger-Man follows the crooks but a pair of security guards catch up to the robbers first. The crooks eagerly show the powers their special suits grant them, which include bulletproof armor and an electrifying punch. Now that he knows their powers, Tiger-Man pounces! "The name is Tiger-Man! Remember it well, friend! Take it with you to Hell!" Tiger-Man seems to kill two of the thieves with his claws and tears at the third one, demanding to know who gave them their technology; the terrified criminal finally blurts out the name Professor Anderson Kobart; Tiger-Man lets the last criminal live.

As Tiger-Man departs via the rooftops he is suddenly himself tracked by another figure - man garbed in an orange costume with leopard spots. This is the correctly-coloured Blue Leopard who is not white, but black - and Zambian! Tiger-Man is shocked to hear Blue Leopard call him "Dr. Hill," and Blue Leopard refers to Na'Bantu, the evil witch doctor from Tiger-Man's origin. But what exactly is the connection between the two of them? This is not the time for Tiger-Man to find out as Blue Leopard knocks him out with his poison-tipped claws.

Tiger-Man recalls his origin as he slumbers (handy, for those who came in late) and awakens in the early dawn to find Blue Leopard left him alone after drugging him. Racing to his job at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Hill quickly goes to work assisting his patients. It should be noted that Hill's long floppy hair is a visual which Ditko's style is not accustomed to - Ditko's heroes tend to have short haircuts. Finally, when his duties are complete, Hill sets out to investigate the Professor Kobart mentioned before. En route to Kobart's office, Tiger-Man ponders how easily he's taken to killing enemies and wonders about the need for vengeance he's felt since his sister's death. He feels that when he finds Kobart, he will probably kill again. It's a textbook monologue, straight out of Stan Lee's playbook.

Tiger-Man bursts into Kobart's office, only to find the scientist dead. Waiting for Tiger-Man is the Blue Leopard, who had overheard Kobart's name when Tiger-Man interrogated the criminal. Blue Leopard finally explains his origins, revealing how after Dr. Hill left Zambia their village suffered a terrible famine and 200 people died. Na'Bantu placed the blame on Dr. Hill and gave "the skin of the sacred leopard" to one of his followers, the man who is now the Blue Leopard. This skin is enchanted and grants him powers similar to Tiger-Man (even though Tiger-Man's powers come from science). Blue Leopard explains his plan is to repeatedly humiliate Tiger-Man before killing him.

Another fight breaks out between the two of them, with Tiger-Man deftly avoiding Blue Leopard's claws until they hear police sirens approaching. Blue Leopard chooses to depart and let Tiger-Man explain Kobart's body. As a final taunt he tells the hero "Tonight was just a dry run, Dr. Hill. There are still things you have to learn about me... and learn them, you will... before you die!" Recalling his own intent to kill Kobart, Tiger-Man is left wondering if he and Blue Leopard truly are alike - if Tiger-Man could be turning into a madman.

The series still has no editorials but there is a house ad for other Atlas Comics, which gives this book some sense of identity.

Comments: How strange is it to find a comic book character from Zambia - a costumed character no less! Reading the comic I kept hoping Blue Leopard would prove to be a misguided character with a noble heart, but that doesn't appear to be where Conway intended to take the character. We'll see where this plot goes in issue #3, I'm interested in finding out how it ends!

And what a change, eh, to have a sense of continuity already? The previous issue's events are recalled and from Tiger-Man's origin a new character is forged. The lackluster Tigerman #1 is somewhat shored up by the work Conway performed here. Conway and Ditko are two men who can deliver an acceptable super hero comic book in their sleep and they were certainly awake while crafting this one. Ditko brings the dynamic action which a character like Tiger-Man desperately requires. Ditko's visuals of the hero leaping and climbing are impressive and the fight choreography is top-notch (unlike Colon). This is not a remarkable find, but comparing to Colon's work, it shows how effortlessly Ditko could make drawing super hero comics seem. Ditko is often quite minimalist in his designs and that's true of Tiger-Man - he strips everything down to only what's needed to get the story told. Conway, for his part, wrote a straight forward plot with a hint of mystery. Good on them.

The next installment of Unearthed will bring you Tigerman #3! Look for it in January!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"I am one with the force." Rogue One remarks

Here we are, doomed to spend the rest of our lives seeing the Star Wars brand diminished year after year as film after film is rushed to the multiplex in order to shore up this bloated, putrescent franchise.

Yet I liked Rogue One. Spoilers to follow.

I didn't read any articles about Rogue One going into the film, relying mostly on the trailer to give me a sense of what the picture would be like. It appeared to be a bit grimmer than what Star Wars normally is and was dealing with a bit of continuity minutiae which really didn't need to be followed up on at all. I've already seen people online claiming this film solved "plot holes" from the original Star Wars as people today have not really bothered to educate themselves on what a "plot hole" is.

It's needless, but then, what film is needed? It tells the story of how the Death Star plans were originally captured, largely because that's a piece of Star Wars mythology which people already know about and is thus fertile fodder for a stand-alone motion picture with a cast of unfamiliar protagonists. In a way, much like the similarities The Force Awakens had to the first Star Wars, Rogue One plays it safe.

But now that I am clicking on articles and reading reactions from my friends I'm seeing many criticisms of the picture such as the "Uncanny Valley" effects used to recreate 1977 vintage Tarkin & Leia (I wasn't bothered by the effects at all - then again, I saw it at a 3D showing, perhaps it looks less-convincing on flat film?).

I've also seen complaints about the tone of the movie. My friend (and former colleague) Peter Sanderson complained on Facebook:

"It was unremittingly grim and dark, literally so. with little light or color, with no sense of joy or hope, no human warmth, no characters who inspired empathy, no sense of wonder. The movie just dragged on and onwithout ever feeling inspired to me."

On the flip side, Todd Alcott has a reaction which I feel elucidates why I'm more pleased with the film than Peter: "If one goes into a movie with a set of expectations and those expectations are unfulfilled, sometimes one’s response is to spend the running time looking for the movie expected instead of watching the one being screened."

But to Peter's point: yes, Rogue One is a grim story. It's set in the days before "A New Hope," after all. By the end of the film, all six of the protagonists are dead, giving their lives to retrieve the Death Star plans, which are then transferred to Leia.

This bleak-yet-hopeful climax didn't bother me in the way it bothered Peter; after all, I'm a Halo fan.

Halo: Reach was the first Halo game I played on the day of its original release; I had been watching videos to prepare myself for all the combat changes and new strategies. And while I had not read the novel The Fall of Reach which originally established the battle of Reach, I had gleaned details online - primarily, that the reason why the Master Chief seemed to be the last Spartan left for the war with the Covenant in the original Halo trilogy is that all the other Spartans died on Reach.

From the start, I knew the character I was playing (Noble 6) and his teammates (Noble Team) were destined to die, and they did. And yet, it ends on an emotional, hopeful note. As in Rogue One, the team are trying to relay important data - that is, the character of Cortana - to an escaping ship. Noble Team die so that Cortana can live and thus enable the Halo trilogy to occur. Notably, the game was promoted with a trailer entitled: "Deliver Hope."

A grim sci-fi tale where everyone dies for a just cause is A-O-K by me. I suppose where the comparison between Rogue One and Halo: Reach breaks down (and Peter would agree) is in terms of character - that Noble Team's personalities and relationships were demonstrated very cleanly and efficiently so that as the team died the player would (hopefully) have an emotional reaction. However, I had difficulty connecting to the crew of Rogue One; perhaps it's because of reshoots but I feel the film needed more time for the characters to sit down and interact with other rather than advancing the plot (or do both at once). The characters spend a considerable amount of time simply getting into the same room as each other and then keep going on journeys to other places; perhaps if they'd all met in the first 15 minutes then spent the rest of the film working on the main problem (getting the Death Star plans) they'd gel better. There's a moment near the end of the film where Jiang Wen's character Baze calls Felicity Jones' Jyn "little sister." It was cute, but I didn't have a sense of the two sharing any form of rapport prior to that bit.

However, to some extent what I'm asking for is more; I'm not unhappy with what the film offered, I simply want more of it. I truly enjoyed Donnie Yen's character Chirrut and wished he'd had more dialogue and exploration of his philosophy. There was something instinctively likeable about Riz Ahmed's Bodhi and I wanted some more character beats from him. I would have appreciated getting into the head of Diego Luna's character Cassian for more than one conversation.

If I had any trepidation about this film it was because the director of the underwhelming Godzilla was back. Given his previous love of refusing to give fans what they wanted to see I was pleased to see he's now adapted himself to his current audience, loading in the expected fan service (to the point where I laughed when Gold Leader & Red Leader appeared) and framing action scenes so that you can - get this - understand what's happening! Good on you, Gareth Edwards.

You've probably already seen or are going to see Rogue One. But, on the off-chance that you aren't sure and you do love Halo: Reach then you and I meet on the same Venn diagram. In that spirit, enjoy the picture.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Can you really talk to animals?" The Legend of Tarzan review

I certainly don't pretend to be a Tarzan expert; although I have enjoyed some Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, the Tarzan books haven't interested me; I've watched a few Tarzan movies and found them basically unremarkable (or disastrously awful); and while comic books are one of my favourite mediums and the Tarzan comic strip is considered legendary, I find it overwritten and uninteresting.

And yet, I became fascinated by this year's film The Legend of Tarzan. Certainly fans of the novels were excited as this film drew in references to the tribes, apes and locales which had heretofore been ignored in film adaptations and I was happy to see these fans pleased. However, my interest in this film didn't come from the Burroughs novels but a different book entirely: Adam Hochchild's King Leopold's Ghost.

During my first visit to Africa in 2011 I found the book King Leopold's Ghost in my uncle's study (where my bed was) and began reading it in the evenings. This book made an indelible impression on me and how I came to interpret the history of Africa. Perhaps it sounds strange to you that while I was living day-to-day in contemporary Africa I spent my nights delving into historical Africa, but King Leopold's Ghost gave me an education which I sorely needed, as nothing in my formal education had delved into the African continent. I had wondered why colonialism was considered an evil practice and this book explained why: because, at it's heart, it makes entire nations into slave states.

Thus, when I learned two of the real people I learned of in that book - George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) - were characters in this new Tarzan picture. Fictionalized versions of both men, to be sure, but I was fascinated to see elements from King Leopold's Ghost working their way into mainstream popular culture.

The Legend of Tarzan was a fairly decent picture, as it happens. Alexander Skarsgard played him as yet another hero-who-resists-the-call-thank-you-for-ruining-pop-culture-Joseph-Campbell character but his initial reasons for denying his identity as a jungle lord were interesting and it meant the film gradually worked its way up to the familiar image of shirtless, vine-swining Tarzan.

It's kind of disappointing to see the once-great Djimon Hounsou reduced to playing bad guys (as in here and Guardians of the Galaxy) but his character was at least given some dignity. It also helped that while Hounsou character is basically the stock evil African chief character, he's not the primary antagonist - Leon Rom and his fellow white colonialists are the true villains. Tarzan is likewise less of a great white saviour in this film as he shares the heroic spotlight with Williams and many of the fantastic feats Tarzan performs are shown to be things other Africans. It staves off the many assumptions and implications of earlier Tarzan tales.

The film is mostly a reasonably believable historical picture but for the film's Jane, played by Margot Robbie. Robbie's Jane has a cynical edge which feels a little too 21st century in perspective. In one notable instance, Rom talks to Jane about the rosary his Catholic priest gave him. "Sounds like you were very close," Jane remarks acidly. We of the 21st century understand that Robbie's Jane is alluding to Rom's priest having a pedophiliac interest in him when he was a child, but does that make sense in a story set well over 100+ years ago? To whatever extent that practice was going on in Rom's day and time it was definitely much less-publicized than today. Indeed, Rom makes no visible reaction to Jane's remark as Waltz plays him as a man of his own time, not an anachronism like Robbie's performance.

It's a perfectly decent film, a lot more sober than the typical Tarzan tale.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

100 Years of Kirk Douglas

Isn't it amazing that Kirk Douglas is still alive? He celebrated his 100th birthday two days ago. Douglas starred in one of my all-time favourite films, Paths of Glory.

I often comment when a star of old-time radio has passed away; how about we celebrate Douglas while he's still with us? When his career broke out post-World War II, old-time radio was beginning a decline as television ascended, but Douglas received a lot of attention for his early film roles (one of his best was The Bad and the Beautiful) and - with Burt Lancaster - was seen as quite the promising young turk. That being the case, Douglas made a few OTR appearances, including three visits to the greatest show of them all, Suspense!

Douglas made his first Suspense appearance in 1947 in the drama "Community Property." Douglas portrayed a husband who planned to inherit his wealthy uncle's fortune and wanted to cut his wife out of the deal, lest she claim part of the fortune via community property laws. After the uncle's sudden death, the nephew schemed to cut his wife out immediately!

That same year, Douglas appeared again on Suspense in "The Story of Markham's Death," a drama in which he played a hack mystery author who discovered a lost Edgar Allan Poe story which featured a new type of mystery tale (I love Edgar Allan Poe, but is it credible that after 100+ years of writers exploiting every possible angle there would be something Poe thought of first?). This being Suspense, Douglas must resort to murder to claim the lost Poe story for himself.

Three years later, Douglas struck again with "The Butcher's Wife," possibly the greatest of his appearances. In this episode, Douglas was a supermarket clerk who became involved in a triangle involving a butcher. A butcher who was immensely jealous and willing to bring his cleaver down on any piece of meat that got in his way. I featured this one on my blog two years ago as part of my '31 Days of Suspense' October feature.

Please do enjoy the programs!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance creator credits

I kept away from 2011's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance film for a few reasons: I was on my out at Marvel Comics and so didn't feel compelled to keep up with what was going on in their films; the film wasn't from Marvel Studios which was increasingly feeling like the only "true" creator of Marvel films; finally, I had not entirely enjoyed the directors' previous works, finding Crank a bit too crude for me and I wanted to walk out on Gamer (a film I saw on a free pass) but was sitting in the middle of the row and felt too polite to disturb the other patrons.

I selected the film on Netflix simply because it wasn't very long and I felt a sense of obligation as one who studies comics. To my surprise, it wasn't bad. I mean, not great, but not as bad as the reviews suggested. It is extremely over the top (it concludes with Ghost Rider striking a man with so much force that it drives him into the Earth's core) but was just the kind of mindless action I'd been yearning for.

Thusly, let's get on with examining which creators developed ideas in the comics which appeared in the film. As always, my master list of creator credits is maintained here.

Gary Friedrich: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972); Ghost Rider creating a motorcycle out of hellfire (Ghost Rider #3, 1973)

Javier Saltares: co-creator of Danny, a young man connected to the Ghost Rider; Ghost Rider clad in black leather and wielding a mystical chain (Ghost Rider #1, 1990); of Blackout, an albino-skinned supernatural foe of Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #2, 1990); of Ghost Rider's penance stare (Ghost Rider #3, 1990); of Ghost Rider being posssessed by a fallen angel (Ghost Rider #18, 2008)

Jim Shooter: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977); of Ghost Rider's body being a full skeletong beneath his outfit (Ghost Rider #24, 1977); of Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze being two separate entities (Ghost Rider #25, 1977); of Ghost Rider being called the Spirit of Vengeance (Ghost Rider #26, 1977)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972)

Mike Ploog: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972)

Howard Mackie: co-creator of Danny, a young man connected to the Ghost Rider; Ghost Rider clad in black leather and wielding a mystical chain (Ghost Rider #1, 1990); of Blackout, an albino-skinned supernatural foe of Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #2, 1990); of Ghost Rider's penance stare (Ghost Rider #3, 1990)

Don Heck: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977); of Ghost Rider's body being a full skeletong beneath his outfit (Ghost Rider #24, 1977); of Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze being two separate entities (Ghost Rider #25, 1977)

J. M. DeMatteis: co-creator of Zarathos, the demon who possesses Johnny Blaze to transform him into the Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #76, 1983)

Bob Budiansky: co-creator of Zarathos, the demon who possesses Johnny Blaze to transform him into the Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #76, 1983)

Tony Isabella: co-creator of Johnny Blaze becoming the Ghost Rider when in the presence of evil (Ghost Rider #13, 1975)

George Tuska: co-creator of Johnny Blaze becoming the Ghost Rider when in the presence of evil (Ghost Rider #13, 1975)

Gerry Conway: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977)

Tan Eng Huat: co-creator of Ghost Rider with blue flame around his skeleton (Ghost Rider #26, 2008)

Jim Mooney: co-creator of Ghost Rider creating a motorcycle out of hellfire (Ghost Rider #3, 1973)

Don Perlin: co-creator of Ghost Rider being called the Spirit of Vengeance (Ghost Rider #26, 1977)

Jason Aaron: co-creator of Ghost Rider with blue flame around his skeleton (Ghost Rider #26, 2008)

Daniel Way: co-creator of Ghost Rider being posssessed by a fallen angel (Ghost Rider #18, 2008)

Unearthed: Tigerman #1!

Welcome again to my occasional series of columns entitled "Unearthed," wherein I examine comic books which have not been considered eminent within the canon of comic books. Recently, I finished looking at the four-issue run of The Destructor, a 1970s Atlas Comics title created primarily by Archie Goodwin & Steve Ditko, and the one-issue run of The Hands of the Dragon. You can visit the reviews here:

The Hands of the Dragon #1

The Destructor #1

The Destructor #2

The Destructor #3

The Destructor #4

The Destructor proved to be a perfectly fine super hero comic. If it were representative of the quality found in the Atlas Comics line, I don't think the publisher would have gone down in history quite so maligned. Thus, I decided to give another Atlas series a try - another series which Steve Ditko contributed to: Tigerman! Ditko did not originate the character but Tigerman lasted for three issues in 1975.

As before, I am not reading these comics together and then blogging about them, rather blogging after I read a single issue - thus, sitting down to this, I have no idea what issue #2 holds beyond what appears on its cover. Speaking of covers, let's begin!

The cover of Tigerman#1 (called "Tiger-Man" here but not inside) depicts our hero poised over the corpse of what is identified as his sister, while two men boast of having done the deed. That they feel no fear in the presence of Tigerman can be evinced by their lackadasical stances. Tigerman himself is dressed in a blue leotard with an orange tigerskin top. Now, there's nothing wrong with this colour combination; on the right person it works just fine.

However, the mask Tigerman wears is rather unfortunate. It is meant to grant him a visage similar to that of a tiger but the elongated facial fears are off-putting, making him look less like a vicious jungle animal and more like a dope. The cover is signed by Ernie Colon; although the interior has no credits (or story title), the Grand Comics Database likewise attributes the interior art to him, and writing to Gabriel Levy (who?). I think it's very unfortunate that as Atlas was seeking to become a major player on the marketplace to compete with Marvel Comics, yet they did not standardize credits within their titles as Marvel had done. The best element of the cover is the logo, which is a very nice standard super hero logo.

Above: A super hero

We begin with a nurse entering an elevator, where two men accost her with a knife, demanding she give them her car. It is instantly noticeable that this comic is lettered using a machine; the GCD believes it to be Leroy lettering, though it looks nowhere near as good as the Leroy lettering Jim Wroten utilized at EC Comics (learn more about Leroy lettering here). The lettering in this comic is flat and bland; even with Leroy lettering, there are still opportunities to bold or italicize text but this comic did not bother. It's as unappealing as the similar machine-lettering seen in most Charlton comics of the time. At any rate, the woman is rescued by Tigerman on page 2 when he pounces upon the two attackers and tells the nurse to "Better take care working nights in this city." In this sequence it becomes clear there are some problems with this comic - most notably, there is no sense of space or environment. The nurse seems to enter an elevator on page 1, panel 1 but from there the action seem to occur within a void. Tigerman seems to leap into the elevator to fight, but man, it must be one of those heavy industrial elevators to accomodate the amount of space used in the action scene. There are ways this sequence could have been cleared up and been more interesting to look at, but one has the sense Colon was speeding towards the quickest means to complete the art. We also note here that Tigerman isn't wearing the blue bodystocking seen on the cover, leaving his arms and legs bare and making him appear like a transplanted jungle hero rather than a super hero.

Above: A tiger, in Africa.

On page 3 we begin a flashback narrated by an omniscient narrator. In Zambia, we see Dr. Hill employed as a physician in a "ramshackle clinic." Dr. Hill takes note of the many animals in Zambia to learn from them, noticing how gazelles seem to sense danger. Hill's superior suggests he study a captured tiger which the dialogue carefully notes was caught in India. Thus, we have a tiger in Africa but it seems to be justified (unlike the recent Phantom story I reviewed). Still, why not simply set this flashback in India? At any rate, Dr. Hill studies the tiger's blood and isolates "the chromosome that makes the creature so powerful!!"

Above: Tiger uppercut

But - uh, oh! - it's time for a stock African comic book plot! It seems the local witch doctor resents Dr. Hill because his patients prefer Hill. The witch doctor breaks the tiger out of its cage just as Hill is exposing himself to the chromosome. When the tiger pounces on Dr. Hill, Hill beats it to death with his bare hands. After two years of this internship, Hill returns to the USA, bringing with him the tiger skin, which the Zambians made into an outfit. Back in New York, Dr. Hill is reunited with his sister Anna (at which point we learn his full name is Lan Hill). Anna is an actress on Broadway and gives her brother a letter informing him he's been accepted at Harlem Hospital. Anna leaves Lan at a hotel then returns to her apartment, but two men break into her apartment to rob her, noting they had "seen your matinee performance."

Above: Death of the supporting cast

At the hotel, Lan is phoned by a police detective who summons him back to the apartment. Detective Raye reveals Anna has been murdered; her dying words were "bald... bald..." I think she wished this comic were drawn by Ken Bald, but never mind. A piece of clothing from one of the attackers was left behind and Lan can smell horses on the fabric. Lan takes a moment to shed a tear for Anna, then sets out to find Anna's killers on his own. Donning the tiger skin he becomes Tigerman, garbed in the blue nylons but... hold on... he was bare armed and bare legged in the opening, which is set after he'd become Tigerman. Were the tights simply in the wash that night?

Above: Detective work

No matter, Tigerman is on the prowl! His only clue is a horse scent and it leads him to places such as Central Park, a riding academy and the police stables, but finally a poster for an indoor rodeo leads him to spy upon a rodeo rider named Jake Milner who has a bald head. That's some pretty compelling circumstancial evidence! Tigerman waits outside the rodeo but notices Jake's scent doesn't match the scrap of cloth so he decides to follow Jake until he catches the scent of Jake's presumed accomplice. Sure enough, Jake heads to a bar with a friend whose scent is the right one; Tigerman is ready to strike now!

Above: Tension

Jake and his pal remark, "Let's git us ossified 'n then go find us a couple a heifers!" But before the beastiality can proceed, Tigerman enters the bar. "Is the circus in town, too?" Jake's friend wonders. At the sight of him, Jake smashes a bottle and gets ready to fight because... a fight has to break out. It's at this point that the comic develops some serious trouble. The fight between Tigerman and the bar patrons is very poorly told and largely because of how Colon laid out the page, placing a diagonal panel down the center of the page, with the top and lower portions held roughly in a triangular shape. See below for the gory details:

Above: Diagram

The upper triangle has two panels which read left-right (1, 2). The lower triangle has three panels which read left (4), up (5) and right (6). It does not work at all; the letterer tried vainly to guide the reader by placing the speech balloons of these three panels in the order which they should be read so that the panel 4's balloon is above that of panel 5, but I still read these panels 5, 3, 6 the first time because it wasn't intuitive. It was also poorly done because of the lack of continuity between panels. In panel 5, a man called Big Louie grabs Tigerman from behind. If panel 4 had suggested someone was creeping up behind Tigerman then the correct order would have been visually clear. Further, panel 6 shows Big Louie falling backwards onto what I assumed was a table. If Tigerman had been framed in the panel in some manner the image would have been less non sequitur. But non sequitur is what we have.

Above: Action scene

Turning the next page, the previous page's fight unfortunately continues as Big Louie falls to the ground. Wait, again? It seems the previous page's panel 6 was actually depicting Big Louie being thrown against the wall. What I took to be debris from a broken table was evidently intended to be cracked plaster. Motion lines could have cleared up the activity; again, depicting Tigerman in relation to Big Louie could also have cleared that up. Tigerman rants as he confronts the two killers: "Everything's gone too far! Someone must say enough! Someone must stop the mugging, the murdering, stealing! The pig behavior of swine like you! Someone must stop it all -- and I am that someone!"

Above: Death scene

So saying, Tigerman strikes both men in some manner. The two men's bodies are depicted being hurled through an empty void. Tigerman then leaves the bar. "Minutes later," the police arrive. Upon a rooftop, Tigerman wonders if he had done right. "The police would never have caught them - never!! But I feel so empty... so damned miserable!" He goes on to muse about killing Jake and his friend. Yes, that's right - he killed both men. None of this was clear from the art. Tigerman also muses about the two men in the hospital elevator from the opening sequence - no idea where that fit within the story of him killing his sister's killers. Anyway, Tigerman states "Let the criminal beware - Tigerman is here!!"

Thoughts: There is nothing in this comic to suggest why it exists, no mission statement. No credited writer, artist, colourist, letterer, editor. No editorial from the creators explaining how this comic came to be and how they envision its future will unfold. The entire comic gives off an air of a book which was not so much "created" as "manufactured."

I do not sense that scripter Gabriel Levy is to blame for the failure of Tigerman. He came up with a very generic super hero origin story but it was inoffensive. Much like the Destructor, it seems Atlas super heroes owed a bit of their inspiration to Charles Bronson in Death Wish as Tigerman's rants would fit Bronson's character perfectly well. The failings of this comic lie primarily in the hands of Ernie Colon, which is surprising to me.

Ernie Colon was hardly a novice at the time this comic was made, having spent more than a decade in comics. However, he had never been a super hero artist until he came to Atlas Comics. His other work was on the very family-friendly Harvey Comics and not-at-all-family-friendly Warren horror magazines. He knew his way around a comics page, which makes his layouts in this issue all the more baffling. Colon's best work in the super hero genre would come much later: Marvel's Damage Control, which took full advantage of his skills as a humourous cartoonist. If you'd like to see me write more complimentary words about Colon, check out my review of his Inner Sanctum graphic novel.

Casting an artist who couldn't compose action scenes into an action comic was a very poor idea; fortunately, I know things improved the following issue; they would have to: Steve Ditko became the artist in issue #2!

Next time: My next entry of Unearthed will be Tigerman #2, Steve Ditko Boogaloo!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock (and Suspense) Presents

Good evening.

At the same time I began to discover the works of Alfred Hitchcock - first through Nick at Nite reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, then his films - I was becoming interested in old-time radio; perhaps my favourite program was Suspense.

There is an interesting connection between Hitchcock and Suspense. You see, the original 1940 pilot for the series was produced by Hitchcock, starred repeated Hitchcock performer Herbert Marshall and adapted The Lodger, which had been earlier adapted by Hitchcock to film.

When the radio series materialized in 1942, Hitchcock was no longer attached. The series aired until 1962 and did frequently utilize actors who appeared in Hitchcock films - most notably Herbert Marshall, who appeared more often than any other lead performer, as well as film/TV Hitchcock performers Joseph Cotten, Peter Lorre and Claude Rains plus film stars Anne Baxter, William Bendix, Raymond Burr, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Cummings, Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Edmund Gwenn, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland, Robert Montgomery, Gregory Peck and James Stewart.

Hitchcock prepared a second radio pilot in 1948, this time titled Once Upon a Midnight and adapting the tale "Malice Aforethought." Notably, both this and his earlier "The Lodger" failed to completely adapt their source material within a half hour, leaving the stories incomplete; Hitchcock and his staff had yet to learn how to tell a satisfying tale in a half-hour.

Hitchcock was not exactly absent from radio - virtually all of his 1940s Hollywood films had radio adaptations (notably not on Suspense - when Suspense adapted The Thirty-Nine Steps they used the original John Buchan novel, not Hitchcock's film version). But finally, from 1955-1965 (mostly running concurrently with Suspense and its television counterpart) Hitchcock found the right format for his type of mystery anthology series: television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents had arrived and wrote the rulebook on what a half-hour dramatic anthology would be like.

But, as evidence that even without Hitchcock, Suspense ran on very similar lines, there are many instances of Hitchcock adapting stories to his program which had earlier been heard on Suspense! Initially, many of these stories appeared under different titles for television, perhaps to disguise them from overly-familiar viewers. Let's take a look at all those stories, shall we?

Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted with the story "Revenge" which had appeared as "Nightmare" on Suspense in 1949. However, I think we can all agree on the television version's superiority. Both tales concern a man seeking revenge on the person who assaulted his wife, but the radio version inserts an "it was all a dream" cop-out ending, the sort of trifle Hitchcock would avoid (and mock) on his program.

The Hitchcock episode "The Older Sister" is actually reworked from a Suspense episode which aired the previous year: "Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden." Both concern the legend of Lizzie Borden and a suggested solution for the murders of Lizzie's parents.

Another early Hitchcock episode "Our Cook's a Treasure" comes from Dorothy L. Sayers' "Suspicion," which appeared twice on Suspense, featuring the tale of a man who thinks his new cook might be a notorious poisoner.

Alexander Woollcott's legend of "The Vanishing Lady" appeared on Hitchcock as "Into Thin Air." It had earlier appeared under its original title on the sibling programs Escape and Suspense, telling the tale of a young woman whose mother disappears and everyone involved claiming to have never seen her mother before.

"Alibi Me" is a rather restrained crime tale about a murderer who's desperate to find an alibi after he murders his worst enemy. Suspense performed the play twice.

Ray Bradbury's "And So Died Riabouchinska" debuted as an episode of Suspense before it ever saw print on its own. Claude Rains did a masterful job in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation. You may recall I blogged about this story last October.

Alfred Hitchcock loved John Collier's twisted little tales, such as "Back for Christmas," which told of a professor who murdered his wife and buried her in his cellar. Suspense performed the story twice (Peter Lorre in the 1943 version) with their sibling Escape producing it once.

Ambrose Bierce's weird tale of the Civil War notably appeared on both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, but earlier than that was likewise heard on Suspense and Escape. The Escape version is the best, to my thinking.

"The Black Curtain" was a crime novel by Cornell Woolrich dealing with a man suffering from memory lapses (a, shall we say, common situation in Woolrich stories). Suspense made a great adaptation with Cary Grant in 1943 & 1944, but each adaptation has taken significant liberties with the source material, mostly keeping nothing but the gimmick of a man discovering he's lost a year of his life.

Hitchcock and Suspense both clearly liked Woolrich because they likewise each adapted another of Woolrich's tales, "Momentum."

John Collier's "Wet Saturday" is just the kind of cold-blooded and frightfully British tale Hitchcock swooned for. Suspense adapted it themselves several times, once in an hour-long program with "August Heat."

Another of Collier's tales, "De Mortuis" was heard on Suspense but you'll find this drama (starring Charles Laughton) is considerably more complicated than the Hitchcock version; both tell of a man discovering his wife is unfaithful after his friends wrongly assume him to be a murderer.

Hitchcock rather loved Thomas Burke's "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" (he directed the television adaptation) and it was heard on Suspense with Claude Rains as the detective investigating a series of murders and a journalist who always seems to be about.

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem" is all right but I truly do not care for the Suspense version, which has a strangely light-hearted tone and a grating performance by Agnes Moorehead.

A.M. Burrage's "The Waxwork" is a masterpiece among the genre of "horror in a wax museum" fiction and I think both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Suspense did right by the tale, though the 1956 radio version is perhaps a bit more unnerving than Hitchcock's.

"Banquo's Chair" was frequently adapted on Suspense and tells a simple-enough tale of a detective trying to frighten a man into confessing a murder. Hitchcock's television version was fine as well.

And while that's all for Suspense, why don't we keep going? There's only a few other Alfred Hitchcock Presents tales which have radio counterparts. First up: Escape and "Poison." Hitchcock loved Roald Dahl's fiction but he didn't quite do right by the tale on television, tacking on a climax which changed the purpose of Dahl's tale in a very unfortunate way; stick with Escape version, it's quite faithful and William Conrad gives the performance of a lifetime.

On the other hand, Hitchcock adapted Ray Bradbury's "Marionettes, Inc." rather faithfully into "Design for Loving," while the X Minus One radio adaptation added a very different conclusion. I also blogged about this Bradbury tale back in October.

Finally, "The Creeper" is a classic tale of a maniac on the loose while a woman is at home alone, not certain whom to trust. In addition to television, you can hear it adapted on the Molle Mystery Theater

Thank you for indulging this digression into one man's fascination with Alfred Hitchcock and old-time radio. I'll be back to blog with you another evening; good night.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Why do I have to choose?" Out of This World #20 and #25 review

Yet another Steve Ditko comic book has been produced via a Kickstarter project run by his long-time editor Robin Snyder. You may recall last time (as I posted here) Snyder printed one reprint comic and one of Ditko's newer Snyder books. This time there is again one reprint book, Out of This World #20 and the all-new #25.

Out of This World #20 reprints various Ditko comics which are either in public domain or are Ditko's own property. From Ditko's Charlton days are reprinted "A World Where I Was King" and "From All Our Darkrooms." Also featured are "In Due Time" from Strange Avenging Tales #1 (which I covered on my blog here), a tale from Mort Todd's Monsters Attack called "Face It" and a pair of rare 1970s stories published in Questar magazine featuring the Destruction Agent and Star.

Taken together, Out of This World #20 is a splendid look at Ditko across the years - Ditko of the 50s, 70s & 90s. Strangely, it's the stories from the 50s & 90s in which I find him most disciplined, telling stories with identifiable plots and characters. The 70s tales from Questar are full of weird energy but aren't paced quite right. In both tales it feels like compilations of an adventure comic strip where you only have the Sunday pages and none of the weekday pages which were building up to that Sunday's events. Throughout the tales I found myself wondering - "wait, what are they after?" and "hold on, who's this guy? is this the first I'm seeing of him?"

It's a shame that comic book culture doesn't often speak about Ditko's contemporary work, for here we have #25, containing six brand-new comic stories by Ditko. At this point, it feels as though fandom has rendered its judgment upon Ditko's self-published works and are no longer interested in talking about it - only Ditko fans in the echo chamber are still examining his work. To some extent, I am likewise guilty of this for I struggle to have anything new to say about his present-days works. Very often, his stories are screeds about objectivism which I find unpersuasive and while I frequently admire his penciling, I'm repeatedly irritated by the rough scripting and half-formed characterizations.

...And so I feel much the same about #25. Many of the pages look unfinished and unprofessional. One begins to feel as though they are not so much supporting new Steve Ditko comics as new Steve Ditko sketchbooks. The new tales include recent creations of his such as the Madman, the Cape and the Hero. The tales include "Either or" and "Choices" which are both objectivist tracts, while "Action-Reaction" is another instance of Ditko musing upon his relationship with his fanbase.

I'm not old enough to have witnessed how the Ditko/fandom dynamic has played out over the decades but at this point, Ditko seems quite frustrated by people like... well, me - people who presume to criticize objectivism without having read Ayn Rand (per his editorial "Philosophy vs. No- or Anti-Philosophy." In "Action-Reaction" Ditko depicts the arrival of a new Steve Ditko comic and the consumer's choice to either accept or reject it; when the exchange of money and product occurs, the purchaser then flies into an angry rage, tearing the comic apart. At this stage, rage is not what I've seen from today's Ditko followers - very few people talk about Ditko at all and most of the reactions I see in the fanzine Ditkomania are very forgiving (and tend to be objectivists like him). I'm afraid the days of people becoming enraged by Ditko's comics are long past - that may very well be how fans reacted in the late 60s when he first began telling his Mr. A stories, but today... Ditko's known for his Spider-Man & Doctor Strange work which predates Mr. A; the rest is being steadily ignored.

Taken as a whole, I am glad Mr. Ditko is still telling stories and has a modest audience who are interested in his work. He's a living legend and regardless of how much I enjoy his recent stories, I am happy to continue supporting his publications.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"...And here are the people forced to argue about 90s alternative rock for the rest of eternity!" Cerebus in Hell #0 review

It has been 12 years since Dave Sim's Cerebus ran to its long-awaited conclusion. Sim has not exactly been idle since then, what with his book glamourpuss and his plan to publish The Strange Death of Alex Raymond. His recent alliance with IDW has even led to Sim drawing the occasional cover or short story for them. Unfortunately, a hand injury in 2015 has seemingly left Sim unable to draw, his future as an artist very much in jeopardy. Cerebus to the rescue!

Cerebus in Hell #0 is the introduction of Sim's new Cerebus product, picking up where the 300 issue series left off. If you read all the way to the end, you may recall it concluded with the abominable aardvark dying of old age and going to Hell. Ergo, Cerebus in Hell is set in Hell. Makes sense, don't it?

As Sim is unable to draw, the solution to creating a new Dave Sim comic book has been to run everything through Photoshop; Cerebus is represented by a rather limited number of stock poses which Sim drew years earlier. The other characters and backgrounds are derived from Gustave Dore's woodcut-illustrated edition of Inferno by Dante Alighieri (the cover is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch) with Sim's computer-generated lettering providing the script.

It's appropriate to be revisiting Cerebus at this time as the character's 40th anniversary is upon us, so this could be construed as a happy accident (for we readers, not so much Sim's right hand). The form of punishment Cerebus endures in Hell is also quite delicious: having previously been the protagonist of the longest graphic novel in the English language, Cerebus is now the protagonist of a 4-panel gag strip not unlike other funny animals such as Garfield or Heathcliff. In way, Sim has gone back to his roots what with his 1970s strip The Beavers.

The jokes found within are a mixed bag, but as there's a new gang on each page there are enough laughs to justify buying the rest of Cerebus in Hell as it appears. Beyond that, the skill with which this book was created is fun in and of itself. Seeing how Sim can repurpose a character from Inferno into DC Comics' Spectre is quite neat. This comic is pretty much destined to appeal only to a small niche audience but as one within that niche, I am quite pleased.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"He talks to animals? Isn't that a bit much?" The Phantom: Danger in the Forbidden City review

Honest question: who is the greatest Phantom artist? Is there one? Could it be the original artist, Ray Moore? To my largely-uneducated eyes I can't say there is a Phantom artist who gets my blood pumping... or least, I formerly didn't.

Enter Sal Velluto.

In 2014 writer Peter David and artist Sal Velluto produced a wonderful six-issue mini-series about the Phantom, now collected by Hermes Press as The Phantom: Danger in the Forbidden City. Velluto seemed to be a rising star in the 1990s and by 2000 caught my eye during his tenure with Christopher Priest on the Black Panther. Velluto has never attained the level of super-stardom I feel his work merits; he comes from a storytelling style super hero comics championed in the heyday of John Buscema and Neal Adams which is, I suppose, no longer in fashion. But to anyone who enjoyed his previous work this is perhaps the best Sal Velluto ever - in the sense he didn't only pencil this art but ink it as well.

Writer Peter David can usually be counted on for a light touch and a burlap sack full of puns. This time, David has written a period adventure (not certain when - 1940ish?) so his usual pop culture humour is nixed. His breezy dialogue works well in this high adventure style. David has some history with the Ghost Who walks, having first written him back in 1988; on assumes he has some fondness for the character to have visited him on both sides of his lengthy career.

The story is full of the most popular Phantom lore; the Phantom's top enemies the Singh Brotherhood are at hand, as is the Sky Band's leader the Baroness (whom I spoke of yesterday). The Phantom's wife Diana is present and treated as an important part of his fighting force. The deepest cut, however, is the presence of Jimmy Wells, Diana's old flame. As explained in accompanying text pieces, creator Lee Falk originally introduced Jimmy to the comic strip as a potential secret identity of the Phantom's but ultimately decided against it. Building on that, David reveals Jimmy is, in his own way, a jungle hero much like the Phantom. Jimmy was raised by wild elephants and can speak to animals - something which the Phantom balks at and is obviously a commentary on Tarzan and his many imitators (though David resists the urge to explain the joke).

At one point the Phantom is attacked in the jungle by a tiger; if David were free to indulge in his pop culture references no doubt the hero would have uttered, "A tiger? In Africa?" It feels like a strange lapse on the creative side but perhaps it was intentionally anachronistic - that David & Velluto weren't trying to depict the real Africa but the Africa of boys' adventure novels, comic strips and film serials of the past. When the Phantom finally does journey to a hidden African kingdom the reader is treated to the same kind of fashions & tools Velluto drew in Black Panther so many years ago. Perhaps the best sequence is when the Phantom leaps out of an airplane for a mid-air fight with an attacking biplane. It's pure pulp and wonderful. If you're curious about the Phantom, snap this book up - it's quite good fun.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"If you were a man, I'd be at your throat, regardless of that gun." The Phantom vs. the Sky Maidens review

It seems as though the Phantom has never quite received his dues; sure, he's been appearing in comic strips since 1936; he's been in-and-out of comic books during those years, had a number of prose novels, a couple of animated programs, a live action film serial and movie starring Billy Zane! The Phantom has so permeated our culture that some warriors in Papua New Guinea use the Phantom's face to decorate their shields.

And yet, much of the Phantom's fans live below the equator - Australia, South Africa, South America - and we in North America don't quite care for him. That's a pity as he's a historically important figure in popular culture, being perhaps the first example of a super hero. He doesn't quite obtain that honor despite being a character from comics who wears a mask and full body skintight costume, a double identity including a secret identity, and even belongs to a line of succeeding costumed heroes (something which was not initially a big part of comics but certainly is today). He's usually omitted from the title of first super hero because he appeared first in comic strips (comic books are considered the native domain of super heroes) and he didn't have super powers (even though he's as much a super hero as Batman). Basically, Superman casts a deeper shadow than the Phantom.

I've never been too well-versed in the Phantom's world (though I had many great times in my childhood playing with my Defenders of the Earth Phantom figure). Perhaps I'm least knowledgeable about his very comic strip origins - I've never a newspaper which carried the Phantom. To that end, I recently obtained a copy of The Phantom vs. the Sky Maidens, a collection of Phantom newspaper strips from a very popular 1936-37 Phantom storyline by author Lee Falk and artist Ray Moore (said story is also called "The Sky Band" by some).

In this early tale, a rogue squadron of aircrafts are robbing airmail planes (similar to the "Air Pirates" story from Mickey Mouse's comic strip, but not as inventive). The authorities still don't know what to make of the Phantom and believe him be to the leader of the Sky Band. To clear his name, the Ghost Who Walks must thwart the Sky Band single-handed (okay, his pet Devil helps). To the Phantom's surprise, the Sky Band are made up of women and led by the beautiful Baroness. In the midst of this, the growing attraction between the Phantom and Diana Palmer is furthered (later in the strip series they are wed).

If you've seen the Billy Zane Phantom movie then you'll no doubt realize as I did that the film's band of lady air pirates led by Catherine Zeta-Jones were adapted from this storyarc. It's a great fast-paced adventure - not as clever or lushly rendered as Crane's Captain Easy or Caniff's Terry, but Moore's panels are filled with deep shadows and a sense of weird menace.

Let's resume talking about the Phantom tomorrow!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"'Post-war' extends forever." Shin Godzilla review

Shin Godzilla, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, is the latest Godzilla motion picture from Japan; it's been appearing in North America in a limited release with subtitles; to my surprise, my home city in dusty ol' Calgary hosted the film in a pair of theatres. I'm not a tremendous fan of Godzilla, but I like the concept when it's executed well - that is, when the film either has a philosophy worth hearing or is tremendous fun to watch. My most learned friend on Godzilla, Craig, told me this was a Godzilla film worth seeing. And so it was.

Like the US versions of Godzilla, this is a complete reboot - nothing, not even the 1954 original, is left in-continuity for the purposes of this film. Thus, we have Godzilla making his first-ever appearance in modern-day Japan with absolutely no one prepared to deal with the likes of he; but this is not only a throwback in the sense of people seeing Godzilla for the first time, it also hearkens back to the spirit of the 1954 film. In 1954, Godzilla, King of the Monsters examined how post-atomic bomb Japan was dealing with its own anxieties about war and atomic destruction. Shin Godzilla does likewise (there are many references to the atomic bombs and "scrap and build") but is chiefly concerned with Japan's 2011 earthquake/nuclear disaster.

I had my doubts about this film due to Hideaki Anno's past as creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yes, it is considered one of the greatest anime programs of all time, but the ending of that series truly soured me on Evangelion (and frankly, much of anime). There are touches in this film which seem much like his vision: the international rivalry over monster killing, Godzilla "evolving" and firing a grid of laser beams from his back, discussions about Godzilla as a "god" ...also: Shinji = Shin Godzilla!!! Wake up, sheeple! Atomic breath can't melt steel beams!

My doubts quickly vanished; this film drew me in immediately with its method of storytelling - lots of dialogue, lots of sets, scene upon scene. The dialogue is at times delivered so quickly (the director was inspired by The Social Network) that the subtitles would nearly cover the screen! This is one non-English film where I think a good dub would be welcome for the sake of those who don't read & absorb too quickly. At any rate, you need to pay attention during this film and the dark environs of a film theater are well suited to it; it's less likely you'll check your e-mail at the cinema (though the person next to me checked a message).

The film is very skeptical of leaders, be they interlopers from the U.S.A. who are convinced they can solve Japan's problems, to the bureaucracy in Japan's own government. At the times the film is much like a political farce. In one instance, the word is given to engage Godzilla; word travels through all the appropriate ranks until the helicopters mobilize and surround Godzilla; now the pilots ask for authorization to fire; word travels back up through the ranks until it reaches the Prime Minister, who authorizes firing; when bullets prove ineffective, the pilots ask for authorization to use missiles; one more, the message is relayed through channels until the Prime Minister agrees! It's very unlike a typical Godzilla picture.

Outside from leaders, the film also has it in for unimaginative thinkers; the ultimate solution to defeating Godzilla is very creative (and involves hitting Godzilla in, appropriately, the shin), but all other avenues are proven to be ignorant, thoughtless or ill-considered. There is a particular anxiety about using nuclear weapons against Godzilla which all of us who have seen Godzilla films know won't work, and are thus better able to see the use of nuclear weaons as a mistake - something which the franchise has always been on-point about.

Shin Godzilla has probably wrapped up its North American trip by now, but I encourage you to seek it out on video when it arrives.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Unearthed: The Destructor #4

Welcome back! Once again I have exhumed my infrequent feature "Unearthed," in which I delve into some long-retired piece of comic book history. I am very pleased to once more feature the short-lived Atlas comics hero The Destructor, drawn by Steve Ditko! You may recall I have already featured the first three issues on this blog:

Destructor #1

Destructor #2

Destructor #3

At last, I finally hold a copy of Destructor #4 in my hands, thus completing the series! Let's jump right in!

"Doomsday -- Minus One!" blares the cover once again rendered by Larry Lieber in his best faux-Kirby manner. You will observe the Destructor is still wearing the refined costume from issue #3; you shall also note he apparently now has the ability to fire blasts of energy from his hands. Generic powers for a generic hero!

The story inside was brought to us by new author Gerry Conway (replacing Archie Goodwin), returning artist Steve Ditko and new inker Al Milgrom (replacing Frank Giacoia). We open within a cavern in New Mexico as two men hired by the Combine are hunting for the Destructor. Having hidden above the cavern, the Destructor simply drops upon his two enemies and with his superhuman strength handily defeats them. Just as one of the two men draws his gun, a blast of energy strikes from out of the darkness of the cave, hitting the gunman in the back (fatally?).

And who fired this beam of energy? Before the Destructor stand three superhuman beings whom we'll soon learn are Kronus, the Eye and Sister Siren. The Eye's cyclopean "de-moeleculorize" ray was responsible for hitting the Combine agent and the Outcasts now demand the Destructor remain where he is; our hero refuses and the Eye fires a beam at him which misses. "You may have a wacko eye-blast -- but I've got the powers of a beast -- and that makes me the winner!"

Kronus quickly orders Sister Siren to sing her "dream song -- before we have to commit violence!" Evidently firing a destructive ray of energy does not constitute violence in Kronus' mind, but it seems to suggest a pacifist streak amongst these Outcasts. Sister Siren emits a "melodius, luring strain" which causes the Destructor to black out.

The Destructor awakens in an advanced facility with the Outcasts facing him, his mask removed. They all begin calling him Jay Hunter, although he doesn't stop to wonder how they learned his secret identity. Sister Siren begins talking about their world and how their parents "abandoned the culture from which you sprang," but Jay has no interest in gabbing: "as far as I'm concerned, you can take your junior 'Star Trek' set and shove it!" Jay seems unusually high-strung this issue as he socks the Eye one in the face and threatens to do likewise to Sister Siren. Kronus appears and suggests the Destructor is one of them - an Outcast - but Jay takes exception to this.

You may possibly have noticed Kronus' powers haven't been established up until now; we now see he has the power to send people into other dimensions and briefly deposits Jay in one to teach him a lesson. This alien dimension is fully of frightening beasts and has no clear directional axis - yes, it is clearly a Steve Ditko creation. When Jay is brought back to the Outcasts' base he decides to be rational and listen to what Kronus has to say.

While taking Jay on a tour of their underground city in a flying vehicle, Kronus explains the Outcasts' parents were people who feared the atomic bomb and built their city to avoid fallout. Because this is a Steve Ditko comic it is tempting to suppose they were Galtian "off the grid" folks, but that would suggest Ditko plotted this comic which I don't believe was the case (then again, maybe Conway was hired strictly for scripting duties; these Outcasts certainly seem very similar to the Misfits created by Ditko's friend and ex-inker-of-Destructor Wally Wood).

Unfortunately for the founders of this city, they were financed by one Abraham E. Caldwell III "and he was evil incarnate." Caldwell insisted on testing an experimental nuclear power plant in the city, which - as the residents' entire motivation was to escape nuclear weapons - did not go over well. Unable to prevent Caldwell, the citizens watched as their children were born as mutants with superhuman powers. When Caldwell returned in 1956 he was beaten to death by an angry mob. Kronus concludes his explanation by revealing all of the Outcasts are telepaths, which is how they learned Jay's name. Hearing all of this, Jay begins to feel they truly are alike, which prompts a sinister reaction from the Outcasts. There is nothing in the script to suggest the Outcasts are anything other than forthright with Jay, but Dikto's art certainly says otherwise. I don't know how Destructor was created but I assume it would have been "Marvel style," so Ditko likely created the pages with very little input from Conway.

Suddenly, an atom bomb is set off ten miles away (this is the unluckiest anti-atomic radiation plot ever). The radiation from the blast bathes Jay and reacts with the serum in his bloodstream, causing his powers to alter even further so that now he can emit destructive blasts of energy. "We may have gained a new soldier for our... army." Kronus remarks with another fiendish Ditko grin. The Outcasts convince the Destructor he should use his powers to destroy the nearby army base where the bomb was tested and Jay sets off with the Eye to do just that. To be continued... never!

The next issue blurb announced "The Man with the Golden Bomb" which sounds like a magnificent Bond mash-up. But this is where the Destructor ends - the plot of him destroying the Combine unresolved and with Jay joining forces with the Outcasts (though it's the sort of plot where one assumes he would eventually discover they had evil intentions).

Conway didn't have time to get into the Destructor's character, what with this issue basically setting up a completely different series and taking its time to introduce the Outcasts. Archie Goodwin had a firm grip on the plotting & characterization in the first three issues, but for whatever reason (editorial? Ditko?) this last issue jettisons much of what made the prior issues work. Ditko remains game, of course and can never be boring. The Outcasts are a bit generic as characters but are fine Ditko designs.

Unfortunately, the Destructor suffered from being too generic; even if the comic book marketplace of the time had been more forgiving to the line of Atlas Comics it would not have made up for Destructor's generic origin, generic powers, generic motivation and generic costume. What the strip most needed was something unusual; Ditko drew unusual characters, true; Goodwin could script unusual villains; but a hero avenging his father's death by wearing a costume and using the powers he received from a fluke experiment is played out on every level. As Jay began as a criminal and would sometimes use his connections to combat the Combine, perhaps it would have been more interesting if Jay were like Serpico, an undercover super hero trying to bring down the gangsters he worked alongside; that would have been different and appropriate to the 70s zeitgeist.

This then is the end of the Destructor. Look for his return when the rights around the Atlas heroes are sorted out and he's (inevitably) snapped up for a quickly-forgottten revival series. My money's on Dynamite, but IDW has fair odds. And then there's Marvel, but... hm... what was I talking about?