Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dracula Month Day 17: Death Ship #1-4

My favourite portion of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel is the log of the captain of the Demeter, the doomed man who unwittingly transports Dracula's coffin (and boxes of Transylvanian soil) into England, during which Dracula picks off the Demeter's crew one by one, leaving the captain for last. The story is strong enough that it could stand on its own; ergo, we have the 2010 IDW mini-series Bram Stoker's Death Ship.

Death Ship was a four-issue limited series by writer Gary Gerani and artist Stuart Sayger. As in the account found in Stoker's novel, the crew are shown being killed one by one. However, throughout the series Dracula is obscured, usually half-glimpsed. Most of Dracula's attacks involve him tricking the crew with hallucinatory visions, something he wasn't capable of in the novel.

Four issues is more than enough room to tell the story of the Demeter from the crew's perspective but the crew are barely fleshed out, with only two receiving particular focus as characters. I found the idea of Dracula dispatching his enemies through hallucinations less interesting than scenes of him simply stalking and cornering the crew would have been. I think I was unclear about what Dracula's powers were, which made the suspense of the story hard to pin down. This concept remains a popular one as for years now there's been a film in-development called The Last Voyage of the Demeter. Perhaps a film account would be more to my liking,

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dracula Month Day 16: The Complete Dracula #1-5

How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact.

So reads the preface of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. This too is how the 2009 Dynamite Entertainment comic book series The Complete Dracula opens. This five-issue limited series was an attempt at adapting the full text of the original Dracula novel plus Dracula's Guest, the adaptation was performed by writers Leah Moore & John Reppion with artist Colton Worley and covers by John Cassaday.

The irony of Moore & Reppion including the preface is that when they type "All needless matters have been eliminated" they do err - including the short story Dracula's Guest for the sake of being complete is to include an entirely irrelevant piece of data which is an interesting supplement to the novel but which doesn't truly belong in the body of the novel. Seeing Dracula's Guest adapted within Dracula does serve to make this adaptation a little different than most comic book versions of Stoker's text, but it remains a curious sidebar to the actual story of Dracula.

Beyond that, Moore, Reppion & Worley's dedication to delivering a faithful adaptation of the original text is one I heartily approve of and this may well be the definitive comic book adaptation of the original text. I don't find Worley to be entirely satisfactory as an artist as his facial expressions feel unconvincing, but the story is laid out immensely well. I'll be looking at yet more comic book adaptations of the novel before the month is out; this is the one which would best serve the reader who prefers comic books to prose.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dracula Month Day 15: Mercury Theatre on the Air - Dracula

In the 1930s, Orson Welles & John Houseman's Mercury Theatre became a New York sensation and that led CBS to bring them to radio in 1938 for The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles had lofty ambitions for the kind of stories which the program would tell, a mix of plays and adaptations of popular novels. Welles intended the premiere broadcast to be an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island but ultimately shifted it ahead one week and instead wrote a very quick adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula for the July 11th premiere.

Although the most famous broadcast of The Mercury Theatre on the Air would be their version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, the series didn't tread very often into the realm of science fiction/supernatural; in that sense, Dracula doesn't entirely make sense as a premiere broadcast. It's also remarkable that, considering his stage background, Welles wanted to adapt the novel, not the play. But as I've said before, the novel is so very much superior to the play and although every account of the adaptation process states it was a grueling one because of the sheer volume of prose Stoker wrote, Welles seemed to know the book was the correct source material.

The radio episode condenses the entire novel to an hour very faithful. Poor old Quincey Morris is omitted (as he often is) but the rest of the major characters are present. Welles performed Dracula and Dr. Seward with various sections narrated by the particular point-of-view characters, as in the novel. My favourite performance belongs to Martin Gabel as Van Helsing, who belts out his lines with tremendous fury (particularly at the climax as he screams "Strike, Harker!"). In all of old-time radio, this is just about the only time Dracula was adapted to the medium. Go check it out at archive.org, it's one of old-time radio's best horror broadcasts.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dracula Month Day 14: Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned

Having spent the past five days of Dracula Month looking at Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula series it seems fitting to move on to the Tomb of Dracula movie. "Tomb of Dracula had a movie?" you might be asking. And no, I'm not referring to Blade. One year after the comic book series wrapped Japan unleashed the animated film Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned for television. It's a mess.

I often complain about films being too liberal with their original source material, deviating in unnecessary ways from the established text. In the case of Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned, the problem is fidelity. Namely, that the picture has to tell the origin of Dracula, introduce the vampire hunters who pursue him and condense a complete storyarc from 25 issues of the comic book series into a 90 minute film. The result is trash; occasionally amusing trash, but nothing more. The Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan comic books which were adapted into this film told an engaging and dark story of Dracula claiming leadership of a Satanic cult, taking one of the worshipers as his bride, fathering a child with her, the child dying during a raid on Dracula's church, Dracula then waging war against both Heaven and Hell as Satan strips Dracula of his powers and God sends an angel to inhabit the body of Dracula's dead son to oppose him as Janus. That great "Batwings Over Transylvania" story I blogged about on Thursday? It's in here too and it has no room to breathe.

The animation in this film is better than most US cartoons circa 1980 but it's too bright for such sombre material. The story of Dracula, the cult, Satan and Janus could be told as a moody anime program, but as a series, not a feature film. Even the appearance of Dracula's daughter Lilith was retained in this adaptation so that every few minutes the story has to stop and introduce someone everyone in the story already knows about; the film never gains traction.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Dracula Month Day 13: Tomb of Dracula (magazine) #2

To close the lid on my look at Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula I'm moving to the black & white Tomb of Dracula magazine which succeeded the comic book series. Specifically, I'm interested in looking at Tomb of Dracula #2 (1979): "The Dimensional Man" by the usual Tomb of Dracula scribe Marv Wolfman but joined there by the legendary Steve Ditko!

Dracula is virtually a guest star in this story as instead the point-of-view character who carries most of the action is the Dimensional Man, a member of a cult who worship the demon Asmodeus. The Dimensional Man was exposed to demonic energies during a ceremony and became a succubus, feeding on other people's life energies - in that sense, not unlike Dracula. Now against the cult who raised him, the Dimensional Man tries to save his sister from being sacrificed to Asmodeus. Fortunately, the Dimensional Man has help - in the form of Dracula, who had befriended the sister.

Steve Ditko is not Gene Colan; while Colan was a master of the shadows with moody artwork well suited to black & white, Ditko was and is a very bright artist, one whose weird imagery is accentuated by colour. Despite this, Ditko did a fine job adapting himself to the style of a Dracula comic. The Dimensional Man feels like the kind of character Ditko was more comfortable writing about, right down to the hat & coat visual found on other Ditko heroes (The Question, Mr. A). This story stands on its own, not tying into the rest of Marvel's Dracula comics even with Wolfman as the scripter. However, I think it's the best story from the brief 6-issue magazine run simply because Ditko committed himself so readily to this format; if you enjoyed Ditko's other black & white horror magazine work (Creepy, Eerie) you'll want to check this out. As to the Dimensional Man, he's actually turned up a little outside of this story; check out his profile at the Marvel Appendix.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Dracula Month Day 12: Tomb of Dracula #69

Today I'm looking at another issue of Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula series. This time it's Tomb of Dracula #69 (1979): "Batwings Over Transylvania" by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer. The ongoing plot in the later issues of Tomb of Dracula concerned Dracula losing his vampiric powers; by #69 he had regained his abilities but learned another vampire had claimed his role as vampire lord, making Dracula an enemy of his fellow vampires.

In this issue, Dracula returns to his homeland, Transylvania, with a heavy mob of vampires chasing him. Dracula finally flees into a farmhouse for shelter from his enemies, only to find the home is occupied by children whose devout mother has taught to defend themselves against vampires by outfitting them with garlic and crosses. For all that, however, the children don't realize their guest is a vampire.

It becomes an interesting situation as Dracula goes from looking to eat the children, to barricading their home against the attacking vampires and finally, to combat his foes, picking up a cross to ward the other vampires away, even as the cross burns his own flesh. The children are left thinking Dracula was heroic, little guessing his true nature. It's a clever situation and one of the best latter-day Tomb of Dracula tales.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Dracula Month Day 11: Tomb of Dracula #30

Today I'm looking at another issue of Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula series. This time it's Tomb of Dracula #30 (1975): "Memories on a Mourning's Night" by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer. Similar to issue #15, this story features Dracula reminiscing about his past as a series of short vignettes bring to light his past misdeeds.

This time out, Dracula's memories are linked by a common theme of romance and loss; Dracula had just lost Sheila Whittier, a woman he'd been romancing (she ultimately jumped out a window to avoid him). First, Dracula recalls a noblewoman who claimed to love him and directed Dracula to murder her husband, but then had an army of men kill Dracula in return; when Dracula revived, he turned her into a vampire to serve him. Second, Dracula encounters a blind girl whose father has just murdered the girl's mother; Dracula kills the father and tells the blind girl he obtained revenge for her, but is shocked when the child isn't pleased. Finally, Dracula recalls his days in China when a certain fellow named Blade tricked Dracula into an ambush where Blade and his allies destroyed him.

"Memories on a Mourning's Night" is particularly significant within the series because it's the first look into Blade's past, but much like issue #15 it enhances Dracula's legend by demonstrating some of the battles he'd had in the past were as exceptional as anything he'd been involved in during contemporary times. Although Marvel's black & white magazine Dracula Lives ran alongside the colour comic and regularly told stories of Dracula's past, they never approached the grandeur of Wolfman & Colan's Dracula.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dracula Month Day 10: Tomb of Dracula #25

Once again I'm looking at one of my favourite issues of Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula series. This time it's Tomb of Dracula #25 (1974) and the story "Night of the Blood Stalker!" by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer.

This tale is told from the perspective of a heretofore unfamiliar character: Hannibal King. King is a private detective who is hired to investigate a man's death and it leads him straight into the realm of vampires, ultimately to Dracula himself. King is barely fazed by this as he's had experience with vampires before; indeed, as is revealed in the final panel, he's a vampire himself! This was an explosive conclusion to the story and one which was well-prepared (King's reflection doesn't appear in mirrors while others do). It also raised all sorts of questions - no vampire in the series had been able to pose so successfully as a human: how had King managed to remain so humanlike? How was he able to resist Dracula when so many other vampires are subserviant to him? Answers were coming and although Wolfman used King sparingly, he was always a welcome figure.

This was before the trope of 'vampire detective' had led to shows like Forever Knight or Angel; indeed, the story's title suggests Wolfman's own influence was the TV series Night Stalker. Hannibal King is one of my favourite Marvel Comics characters, particularly when written by Wolfman. If you can find copies of Journey into Mystery #520 & 521 (1998), you'll fin an excellent two-part Hannibal King tale by Wolfman therein.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Dracula Month Day 9: Tomb of Dracula #15

Over these next few days I'm going to examine Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula comic book series, which ran from 1972-1979. It was easily the most successful of Marvel's brief horror comic book boom and all of the success belongs to the creators, especially the moody shadowy artwork of Gene Colan and that all but six issues were written by Marv Wolfman. The series also succeeded because of the strong emphasis on its supporting cast, allowing Dracula himself to be a wicked, villainous characters while the heroics were usually left to the vampire hunters. In that sense, it was akin to Stoker's novel.

Tomb of Dracula #15 (1973) featured the story "Fear Is the Name of the Game!" by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and regular inker Tom Palmer. This story presented something a little offbeat from Wolfman's usual pace as instead of continuing the ongoing plotlines the issue takes a breather while Dracula composes a few entries in his diary. Very quickly a number of Dracula tales are told, each about 3 pages long and ranging across the breadth of his life. Some of the tales existed to patch up continuity, but others could have easily comprised the contents of a full issue themselves: a hunter shoots a bat from the sky, then sees the fallen animal turn into Dracula; Dracula sees a woman fatally wounded by her husband and converts her into a vampire so she can have revenge on her killer; Dracula meets an immortal man who has lived 1700 years and wants to die; a Scotsman battles Dracula in his castle and drives a stake into his heart.

I recommend this lone issue to anyone who wonders what Wolfman & Colan's Tomb of Dracula was about; these four short stories are indicative of the storytelling quality throughout the series. If you want to sample just one issue to see if you like it, this is probably your best bet. It's only $1.99 at Comixology.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Dracula Month Day 8: Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Confession time: I'm not that into Young Frankenstein (1974). Perhaps I saw it too late in life, too long after I'd heard it repeatedly referenced in other works, too long after I read review after glowing review. Comedy is, of course, subjective, but I simply did not laugh too often while watching that film. Regardless, there are other Mel Brooks pictures which I found very funny (at least, I did when I was a teenager) and my teenage self enjoyed Leslie Nielsen films; getting those two together to satirize Dracula should have been a slam-dunk for me, right?

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) parodied the 1931 film much as Brooks' Young Frankenstein parodied the 1931 Universal Frankenstein (with a lot of Bride of Frankenstein & Son of Frankenstein thrown in). While I think the earlier Brooks film is okay, Dracula: Dead and Loving It is, in my opinion, a misfire and the critical response & box office seem to agree with me. No doubt part of this is down to the source material; Karloff's Frankenstein films are not only remembered for their performances but for specific set-pieces which Brooks was able to parody; Lugosi's Dracula is only truly memorable for Lugosi's performance, not for any particular set-pieces. And yet, Brooks went to considerable trouble to recreate the 1931 Dracula, down to the tiresome drawing room scenes, Renfield journeying to Transylvania, etc. Although one assumes this film was made in part because of the success of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula film in 1992 Brooks only referenced that picture in two gags, one where Nielsen sported a similar hairstyle as Gary Oldman's Dracula, then removed the hair, revealing it to be a wig (that's a joke! you're supposed to laugh!) and a parody of Lucy's death scene where the joke is that her body unleashes a torrent of blood when staked.

I was the target audience for this film as in 1995 I was very much into Universal monster films, Mel Brooks & Leslie Nielsen, but the reviews kept even me away. Watching it is a dismal affair; there was a lot of talent in this picture but it was in the service of an unfunny script. It seems to be the end of Brooks' career as a director, which is an awful way to go out.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Dracula Month Day 7: Son of Dracula

Lon Chaney Jr. built his career at Universal Pictures more-or-less on his father's reputation. Sure, he had talent, but because Chaney Sr. had been well-remembered for his own Universal horror pictures it made sense for Universal to bank on the younger Chaney's name. I haven't done the math, but I believe Chaney Jr. was ultimately the lead in more Universal horror pictures than any other star. He played virtually every Universal monster, including Dracula in 1943's Son of Dracula, directorial debut of Robert Siodmak.

Son of Dracula is the third of Universal's Dracula pictures; after this he would appear only in Universal's "team-up" pictures (House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Although the title refers to a "son," that's just a lame sequel title - Chaney Jr. is supposed to be Dracula here, although he spends much of the film going by "Alucard" (a deception which throws people off for about 2 seconds). The film sees Dracula visiting the USA and wooing a morbid young woman; the woman's lover, Frank, tries to kill Dracula for taking her from him but when he fires his gun at Dracula the bullets pass through the vampire's body and kill Frank's ex-lover instead; she soon rises from the grave as a vampire. As you can see, Frank is not your typical Universal horror protagonist - he's got more in common with the flawed Hammer film protagonists.

Son of Dracula shows the limits of the Universal horror tropes; although Universal cast Chaney Jr. all over the place he had a pretty narrow range - he was wonderful at playing frightened, worried men, but I find him an ill-fit for the role of a supremely confident figure such as Dracula. Dracula ought to be played by someone with a bit of swagger and Shakespearean extravagance. Although Siodmak's direction hints towards his future as a film noir auteur, Son of Dracula was a little behind the times; over at RKO, Val Lewton was showing new ways to capture horror on-screen. For Universal, there wasn't much left to do with their venerable cast of creatures but run the team-up films.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Dracula Month Day 6: Dracula's Daughter

During my teenage years I read a number of books about horror films and I always took note of what they stated about the Universal pictures of the 30s & 40s. I don't recall any of them referencing Dracula's Daughter (1936); when I did learn of the film through various film guides those books gave no indication it was in any way memorable, nor did they mention it was a direct sequel to Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931) - indeed, the film opens immediately after the conclusion of Dracula with Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as Van Helsing.

Dracula's Daughter is becoming better known thanks to the internet age and it's now easily available on DVD. The picture stars Gloria Holden as the titular daughter of Dracula, Marya Zaleska. She yearns to be rid of the curse of vampirism and with the death of her father believes she might have a chance, turning to a psychologist played by Otto Kruger in the hopes she could be hypnotically cured of her thirst for blood; complicating matters is Sandor, Zaleska's loyal henchman who keeps nudging his mistress into her bloodlust, hoping she'll turn him into a vampire.

One reason this film has obtained reexamination is a segment where Zaleska goes hunting for dinner and picks up a woman from the street, behaves nicely to her, then lunges in (off-camera) to feed on her. Some point to this as being an early entry in the surprisingly vast lesbian vampire subgenre, a cousin of sorts to Sheridan Le Fanu's story "Carmilla" (1871). Of course, Zaleska's affections are towards the doctor played by Kruger; her feeding upon a woman is no different than her father preferring to feed on women in the 1931 film (note that Dracula isn't seen biting Renfield). Whether they're male or female, there's something about vampires in these stories which draws their thirst to women. It's not necessarily a lesbian thing, but the subtext is there for anyone to dig up; it makes Dracula's Daughter a little more interesting than your typical mid-30s horror picture (horror was a struggling genre at the time). In fact, I'll gladly call Dracula's Daughter the best Dracula film Universal made and - aside from his corpse - Dracula ain't even present.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dracula Month Day 5: Dracula (the 1931 Spanish film)

How's this for a complicated film: a Spanish adaptation of a Tod Browning film adapted from a John L. Balderston play revised from an earlier Hamilton Deane play adapted from a novel by Bram Stoker! The Spanish-language version of Dracula was filmed on the same sets as the English-language version with an entirely different cast following the same treatment. Contemporary DVD releases of the Tod Browning English film tend to include the Spanish-language variant directed by George Melford.

As you would expect the Spanish Dracula is virtually identical to the English version in terms of plot and staging. And yet, beyond the performances themselves, there are some noticeable differences: the fake spider at Castle Dracula is a completely different (and more believable) prop in the Spanish version; the bats in the Spanish version flap about instead of hovering in place. But it's the performances which truly alter the material; although they are still restricted by the script's devotion to the play, there is something about the Latin languages which inspires more energy and excitement in conversation. Note too how violently Van Helsing's mirror is shattered in the Spanish version versus the English copy!

I would also say the Spanish version of Lucy & Mina (Lucia & Eva) are far lovelier than the women in the English film. The film's Renfield is no Dwight Frye, but is fine. Where the Spanish film is lacking is in the count himself, portrayed there by Carlos Villarias. Carlos' was so moon-faced that while his performance showed a ruthlessness which I found lacking in Lugosi, physically he was not as intimidating as Lugosi (of course, he also lacked Lugosi's wonderful accent). If you don't mind watching films with subtitles than you might enjoy the Spanish version more than the English one - I certainly do. However, you'll likely want to see the English version first to prepare for the inevitable comparisons.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dracula Month Day 4: Dracula (the 1931 English film)

1931 was a banner year for Universal, the one major Hollywood studio to take a strong interest in developing horror pictures; Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff both premiered in 1931 and became classics of the genre, archetypal pictures both.

Directed by Tod Browning, veteran Lon Chaney Sr. director, Dracula was not so much an adaptation of Stoker's novel as it was of the play by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston, with Lugosi reprising his stage role as Dracula and likewise Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Although much of the film is derived from the stage play, it's worth acknowledging how much of the novel was put back in for the film account. Renfield was given Jonathan Harker's role of traveling into Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, but the stage play hadn't even been set there. Dracula's brides were added to the opening sequences, Lucy & Mina were both present on-screen and back in their roles in the novel and the UK setting was shifted back to Whitby; Dracula kills Renfield.

Both I begin to criticize this film there are a few points worth applauding: Lugosi's line delivery was excellent; Edward Van Sloan was a properly indefatigable Van Helsing; the set designs of Dracula's castle and the Carfax crypt were some of Universal's best.

The unfortunate side of Dracula is just about everything else. Compared to the stage play, Dracula put in some effort to open up the story with the scenes of Renfield traveling by carriage, the doings around Dracula's castle and Dracula's visit to Dr. Seward at the theater. However, Dracula is all-too unfortunately an early talkie picture and a stage adaptation, which are so often detriments in 1930s pictures. For all that Browning did to open up the story there are still significant events occurring off-screen as they did in the play (most obviously when Harker describes a wolf running across the lawn and the film fails to cut away and depict said wolf). Early talkies were all-too enamored of relaying information to audiences through verbiage instead of action and Browning fell into that same trap; once the film moves into Dr. Seward's library - the same place most of the stage play was set - it becomes rather uninteresting visually.

The other unfortunate business about Dracula is that contemporary audiences find it laughable rather than scary. I watched this film at Cineplex a few years ago and many of the attempted frights brought a chorus of laughter from the crowd. The hovering bats were always greeted with laughter, so too the immense and clearly fake spider in Transylvania; Dwight Frye's Renfield was often greeted with laughter as his histrionics were viewed as merely campy rather than frightening; Lugosi's overly-stagy performance was likewise seen as campy. I think the film is also hindered by the sparse soundtrack; dramatic stings of music might have helped maintain tension during the picture and kept a little bit of dignity for Frye & Lugosi's performances. Instead, the lack of music intertwined with the melodramatic acting seems to convince audiences they're watching a series of blackout comedy sketches. But then, the audience I was with laughed at James Whale's Frankenstein for many of the same reasons.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Dracula Month Day 3: Dracula (the play)

Perhaps one of the most influential adaptations of Dracula is barely viewed by today's audiences. Dracula was a 1924 play by Hamilton Deane which was revised by John L. Balderston in 1927; Balderston's play starred Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in its original cast and those men would feature in the 1931 motion picture adaptation, which was itself drawn from the play.

Similar to how William Gillette's play of Sherlock Holmes has had an overwhelming effect on how Sherlock Holmes is perceived in popular culture (deerstalker cap, 'elementary, my dear Watson'), so Deane's Dracula is where the count became known for wrapping himself up in a dark cape and many of the scenes which the motion picture version would immortalize.

I haven't read the original version of the play, just the Balderston revision and it's fairly off-model from the novel. The characters of Mina Murray & Lucy Westenra are reversed and Mina's entire story happens off-stage, referenced only in dialogue. There's no Arthur Holmwood or Quincey Morris (indeed, subsequent adaptations would seldom ever employ those two) and Dr. Seward is Lucy's father instead of her suitor. However, moreso than any of that, the play is very small, as you would expect from a 1920s stage play. It's a drawing room story where folks sit around and talk about the strange happenings in Purley (not Whitby) ever since Dracula moved next door to the sanatorium. The events in the story occur over about two days.

It's not a terribly good play. The limitations of what could be done on stage restrict Dracula's abilities; even his one supposed on stage transformation into a bat relies heavily on the actors to carry it ("Up the chimney as a bat!" one exclaims). It's also very light on menace - since in this version Mina has already died at Dracula's hand and her return as a vampire and death at Van Helsing's hands all happen off-stage that threat is somewhat existential. In fact, it's such a tame tale that Renfield survives! The only character dead by the end is Dracula himself.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the film version of this play.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dracula Month Day 2: Nosferatu

Welcome back to Dracula Month! Today I'm looking at director F.W. Murnau's 1922 motion picture Nosferatu!

The story of Nosferatu's creation and near-destruction is almost as legendary as the film itself; although the picture did not use the character names from Stoker's Dracula it was quite blatantly built from the novel's plot and Stoker's family tried to have every copy destroyed. They failed, thankfully, and the picture survives as one of the few motion pictures of the silent age to enjoy a healthy audience in the 21st century as new generations repeatedly seek out this film. There was a time when knowledge of Nosferatu placed you in the upper echelon of horror film geeks; now, it's pretty much expected that if you are a horror film fan (and especially a Dracula fan) that you know all about this film. The late 1990s in particular saw a surge in references to the film as repeatedly the visual of the film's Count Orlok was used as an inspiration for new movie monsters. I myself can testify that this is a film which plays well with today's audiences, having introduced it to some of my friends. I doubt I could have made them watch Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise but they were entertained by Nosferatu!

The film is not entirely effective, I should add - the sped-up footage of Orlok's coach near the beginning induces laughter. Still, Orlok himself is an impressive film monster with his stoic, rat-like features. Compared to the many film Draculas who followed him, he is undeniably scary-looking, possessing none of the urbane good looks people usually associate with Dracula. The "Nosferatu-type" of vampire has become a minor subsection of popular culture's vampires and Max Schreck's makeup and performance as Orlok remains striking.

This film is in the public domain; watch it at archive.org.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Dracula Month Day 1: Dracula's Guest

Each October I like to spend 31 days looking at something from popular culture which has to do with horror. For 2017: Dracula Month!

Each day of this month I will take a few moments to regard a work from popular culture which adapts, continues or satirizes Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Today I give you: Dracula's Guest.

This short story is the only other work Bram Stoker wrote which references his most famous creation, Dracula. However, it didn't see print until 1914, after Stoker's death. It was originally part of the novel but Stoker excised it from an early draft. The story is narrated by Jonathan Harker during his initial journey to Dracula's castle. When Harker's coachman loses his horses Harker is briefly stranded in the wild. He ventures into nearby cemetery (because Harker is not hip to horror tropes) and finds a still-living woman entombed in a crypt - then lightning strikes the crypt and destroys it. A wolf menaces Harker, but officials sent by Dracula rescue him. And there it ends.

It's not a very good fit with Dracula, the novel. There, everything dark and supernatural is rooted in Dracula himself; in "Dracula's Guest," the lady in the tomb and the wolf are both seemingly extraneous to Dracula. The wolf is particularly unusual as in the novel, wolves are either Dracula himself or his servants; the wolf in "Dracula's Guest" has to be chased off by the men Dracula sends. The men coming to rescue Harker also sits uneasily within the opening of the text, where every person Harker meets is suitably terrified of Dracula, unlike the obliging fellows seen in the excised copy.

As it stands, "Dracula's Guest" would have added more atmosphere to the opening of the novel but it is largely a cul-de-sac unrelated to Harker's journey to Dracula's home. Stoker was correct to remove it from his next draft. If you already enjoy Dracula and want more of Stoker's text obviously this is your only refuge - but it isn't by any means an essential read.

You can read this story at archive.org.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"That dream is over." Star Trek: Discovery thoughts

Star Trek is back on television kind-of... CBS is releasing it via 'CBS All Access,' so that viewers have the convenience of streaming an online video which still has the network watermark defacing the bottom corner. Keep working on that prestige television!

I stumbled into the Star Trek franchise during the first season of Star Trek: Voyager. I had seen episodes and films here and there and thought it was all 'okay' but in 1995 I began making an effort to follow Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine regularly; over time I caught up on all I had missed. I lost interest during the 2nd season of Enterprise but eventually I did go back and see it all; heck, I've seen every episode of the animated program and the three J.J. Abrams films - I have seen everything Star Trek.

The new series is titled Star Trek: Discovery and is set about a decade before the original series. No real effort has been made to keep the visuals consistent with the original program, but that's acceptable. Maybe Kirk's Enterprise was last decade's model. CBS debuted the program with two episodes ("The Vulcan Hello" & "Battle at the Binary Stars") which together form a sort-of pilot. Actually, they don't do much to establish the series itself as the titular USS Discovery is not in either episode and most of the lead cast are not present either - the program's lead character, Michael Burnham, is featured and the episodes seem to exist in order to grant the character's backstory so as to inform her actions in the series itself. In a way, I guess this 'pilot' is really a prequel to the series?

Star Trek: Discovery has been a troubled production behind-the-scenes as its release has been repeatedly delayed. It has ultimately panned out well as the debut brought in the best ratings the franchise has seen in more than 20 years. However, the developer of the show and author of the debut, Bryan Fuller (himself a veteran writer of Deep Space Nine and Voyager) was ousted as showrunner early in production and Alex Kurtzman (writer of the first two J.J. Abrams films) assumed control. The program is certainly reminiscent of Abrams' Trek, what with having a lead character who has never been to Starfleet Academy yet is considered a natural leader and figure of destiny who is nurtured by their paternal superior officer; said lead character commandeers the starship; and the villains are vicious brutes.

I don't know how I feel about Discovery's take on Klingons. Perhaps there will be more nuance to come, but the first episode plays them as religious fanatics, which is not an interesting place to take them (thank you Trek, we've already got the Xindi). However, the second episode leans a little more into the idea of Klingons being xenophobic and authoritarian which would be in keeping with the tradition Enterprise began of using Klingons as a mirror to contemporary US culture (rather than as stand-ins for the Russians). I'd like it even more if the Klingons were using an appeal to Kahless as a means to stifle dissent among the ranks and so advance a populist agenda, but if you've read my recent political-themed posts on this blog that won't surprise you.

What did I actually like? Doug Jones is good as Saru, it's always neat to see Trek aliens who are physically unlike humans (note his hooves) and who bring a different cultural perspective in the grand tradition as Spock. I liked the ship designs, interior designs, costumes, props, special effects...

My problem with Discovery is Michael Burnham. I prefer Trek to be an ensemble program with episode-to-episode continuity but overall the ability to produce episodes which can stand on their own. I'm less-interested in a series where one character has central focus and the series tells a single story across the season (the 'prestige television' model). This is all complicated by the fact that I can't bring myself to care about Burnham. She's far too arrogant and removed in the debut episodes for me to appreciate her fall from grace; I was not absorbed in the tragedy of Michael Burnham because the show hadn't convinced me she was a person I wanted to see succeed. Her determination to launch a preemptive strike against the Klingons in the hopes of averting a larger conflict is such an odd note for her character to strike, because the mutiny fails within 45 seconds; we never learn whether her decision to mutiny was defensible and because that action is so controversial it further distanced me from her. If she had mutinied, attacked the Klingons, then learned it was the wrong decision that would be something meaty - she'd have definitely done something wrong which she needed to atone for. As it is, she violated the trust of her commanding officer but we barely knew her c.o. and the c.o. is dead an hour later anyway. (I'm also a bit unclear why the Klingons seem to hover around for an hour before engaging in combat; no matter the time or place, don't Klingons who are spoiling for a fight tend to simply launch into one? Why do they wait so long for Starfleet to get their heads together? What was preventing them from leaving, dropping a "catch you later" buoy as they depart?)

Too much of Discovery leans on informed statements. We're told about the deaths of Burnham's family; we're told she's emotionally compromised where Klingons are concerned; but we don't see her family's death and we don't get to know her well enough to form a basis for her typical emotional level. Compare to Deep Space Nine's pilot "Emissary" which opens with the death of Jennifer Sisko so that Benjamin Sisko's uncertainty about his future in Starfleet and his anger at Jean-Luc Picard are established for the audience.

But then again, I can't say much about what Discovery is like because these two episodes are just a preamble to the series proper. We'll see how it fares.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Merry Michaelmas!

Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael the archangel. Being named Michael I have had many opportunities to think about my namesake and what exactly he means to me.
Above: stained glass window or Christian hair metal album cover?

Most of the descriptions of the name Michael place it as meaning "Who is like God." The first place I saw that used had modified it slightly: "He who is like God." Yikes! That's a very difficult name to bear, being compared to the creator Himself! I am, to be sure, made in God's image (Genesis 1:27) but it's healthier to model oneself after Christ (who had a mortal form) than God himself (who is not mortal).

But what does it mean to state that this archangel is "like God?" That's an extremely high position to place an angel upon, considering they are God's servants & messengers and not at all his equals. Christ alone can claim to being "like God" for he was God. So what's up with this statement?

Recently I've come to hear the definition of Michael is actually a question: "Who is like God?" Which is a rhetorical question as the answer is, "none." The phrase appears in the Bible here and there: "Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?" (Psalm 113:5-6). That, to me, seems to be the true definition of my name - something contemplative, philosophical and revealing of God's nature - rather than the mere flattery with which the name is usually accorded.

Enjoy a Michaelmas carol!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"So then, no more boasting about human leaders!" (1 Corinthians 3:21)

"It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it." - Billy Graham, 1981

Following up on my earlier disappointment at the state of partisan behaviour in the church, I'm going to blog about one particular Christian leader who has been displaying an archly partisan perspective: Franklin Graham. Although I am not of his nation nor his denomination it is not easy for me to criticize him - his father, Billy Graham, is a person I have great respect for; Franklin's organization Samaritan's Purse has done good work; I have myself assisted Samaritan's Purse and seen first-hand some of the results of their work; further, he has been a friend, missional aid and/or source of inspiration to family members and fellow parishioners.

However, I hadn't spent much time actually reading Franklin Graham's messages. When I began to see some of his Facebook posts and the reactions to them I made a point to dig back into his Facebook posts to see more of what he had been posting. Over the course of 2017 I've noticed he uses Facebook to promote Samaritan's Purse's work, to react to various terrorist acts or natural disasters, post anti-LGBTQ & anti-abortion messages and occasionally to spread the word about other people's Christian testimonies. However, most of his posts are political in nature and he comes down very firmly as a conservative - again, firmly. He's certainly able to criticize the Republican party (such as admonishing them over their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act) but he never criticizes Donald Trump. On the other side of the aisle he frequently targets liberals: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, even Canada's Justin Trudeau.

Some of the Christian leaders who meet with Trump have recently resigned because of his rhetoric; one of those who remained justified their position stating: “Why would I abandon someone now? I wouldn’t do that to someone in my congregation." But in Franklin Graham's posts about Trump time and again there is no sense that he sees himself as being in a position to help soften Trump's rhetoric or bring healing to a man who is quite clearly in need of it; Franklin's Trump posts are 100% supportive of the President regardless of what he has been saying or doing.

Repeatedly he has rejected the idea of Russian efforts behind Trump's election: "This whole debate about Russia influencing our elections is a giant smokescreen. The progressive socialists had plans for our country and Donald J. Trump disrupted those plans. ... They also want to keep the American people distracted. They would rather see the country spiral downward than for problems to be fixed."

On the matter of Trump's tax returns Franklin has been staunchly on Trump's side: "The President hasn't asked for my advice, but I would say-No way! Even if these were published, the average American ... wouldn't be able to understand them. ... It would just be another distraction, and a media frenzy, which is exactly what his enemies want."

After students at the University of Notre Dame walked out of Mike Pence's commencement address, Franklin angrily suggested the students should have had their diplomas torn up. "They knew well in advance who was going to be speaking at their commencement; and if they didn't like it, they shouldn't have come."

Franklin applauded Trump for blocking transgendered people from serving in the US Military: "As Americans, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, we should celebrate when our leaders do the right thing for our country. President Obama's policy on this was a mistake."

While Franklin did express compassion for the woman killed in Charlottesville on August 12, he furiously rejected the idea that Trump bore any responsibility for this: "Really, this boils down to evil in people's hearts. Satan is behind it all."

After Donald Trump told the United Nations: "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime." Franklin reacted: "President Donald J. Trump's address today to the United Nations General Assembly may have been one of the best speeches ever given to that body. It made you proud to be an American."

Here's three which were particularly frustrating to read:

The double question marks which open his statement seem to indicate sarcasm (perhaps incredulity?) which is not a promising way to open his response - here is a Democrat bringing God into politics yet Franklin seems to treat her as an interloper. Then he performs a weird act of cognitive dissonance: "God gave us the earth to use, and we are called to be good stewards of it and use it wisely. I hope Nancy Pelosi will be concerned about what really dishonors God-and that is sin." These two statements are not in agreement with each other, or at least not in the sense he intended; the entire debate about climate change is whether we are being good stewards of the Earth. If we are not, then we have sinned. "I have the right to do anything," you say — but not everything is beneficial. "I have the right to do anything" — but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others." (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Next up, Franklin Graham on the "Muslim ban":

Franklin opens well by pointing to the cooperative work Samaritan's Purse does throughout the world and points to the model of the Good Samaritan as Jesus taught it. Then, he leaps away from Jesus and assumes a position which Christ evidently cannot support: "Just because we give medical care to ISIS fighters doesn't mean I would want to allow any one of them to immigrate to the United States. That would be crazy." How is it compatible for the Good Samaritan lesson to end with a call to close our doors to people in need? In this statement he turns from Christ's words to repeat the usual Conservative talking points (these talking points tend to ignore that there is already a multi-year vetting process in place). Here are some words of Christ's which I can apply: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns." (Matthew 16:23)

Finally, his remark on Neil Gorsuch:

Surely the prayer should be "God's will be done?" (Matthew 26:42) Speaking of Liberals ("socialists and progressives" as he typically dubs them) in such an adversarial manner - to pray against them by name - does nothing to heal his nation's divisions.

In reacting against Jemele Hill's tweets about Trump, Franklin Graham bemoaned "This liberal progressive socialist is trying to feed the divisive fire of racial hatred and undermine President Trump as he works to bring positive change for America." Indeed, he frequently calls out Liberals for being "intolerant" and "divisive." I can imagine that's a difficult matter for those in Samaritan's Purse who identify as Liberals. Myself, as a centrist, am sympathetic to some of Franklin's political concerns - but I am uncomfortable seeing a religious leader speaking in such a brazenly partisan matter. Much of what is said at the pulpit in churches can be considered political, but if my pastor began openly advocating for one political party at the expense of the others I would begin looking for another church - even if my pastor were speaking on behalf of a political party I identified with. My congregation contains Conservatives, Greens, Liberals, New Democrats and more - I like that. I like that our unity in Christ is stronger than any political beliefs.

There definitely are people promoting division and intolerance in the USA; unfortunately, one of them is also one of his nation's most influential Christian leaders.

"So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Matthew 22:21)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Happy National Comic Book Day!

As today is National Comic Book Day it seems appropriate to pause and consider one's thoughts towards that medium. Comic books have been frequently disparaged in our society but the recent huge appeal super hero films have obtained in Hollywood motion pictures have granted the super hero genre - and thereby, comic books - a familiarity and prestige they have often lacked, to the point that the super hero film's 'cinematic universe' style is what every Hollywood studio now seeks to exploit.

Comic books have used every possible genre type in their pages, but super heroes are the one genre which comic books themselves gave birth to; for virtually every other genre represented in comic books there is a clear source of adaptation from another medium, be it prose, film or dance. When Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 he was essentially the first super hero - or at least the first character whose attributes fit those we came to associate with super heroes: he was powerful, wore brightly-coloured tights and used his power to help the defenseless. As the super hero genre came from comic books it makes sense that they dominate the medium...

...To the extent that the medium persists, that is. Super hero comic books hit a peak thanks to World War II as many of them (such as Captain America) were created specifically to combat Hitler. With the war's conclusion, the heroes struggled to define their goals and audiences lost interest. The genre picked up some steam in the 1960s and finally broke out in a big way due to the hit 1989 film Batman, but within a decade of that picture the industry nearly slit its own throat as a speculator-based comic book economy crashed; comics retreated to their familiar niches.

Today, sales of super hero comic books are in a state of constant decline as the corporate owners try desperately to reignite interest in the characters by changing their powers/origins/genders/ethnicities, only to eventually succumb to the inherent entropy of the audience. The arrival of a Captain Marvel motion picture has a large number of fans stoked; meanwhile, the character's comic book has been on life support for years.

Perhaps the super hero comic book business has become too insular, too repetitive, the same ideas played out over and over by increasingly jaded creative teams to an increasingly jaded audience. Perhaps it could be instructive to look back to where the genre began, to the creators who originated the super hero tropes which are now being subverted, deconstructed or taken for granted. The early super hero comic books were crudely made and would happily cannibalize each other's ideas even as today's arguably do. But for Captain America's creators Joe Simon & Jack Kirby you see a hero designed to face a real threat - not a metaphorical/allegorical stand-in for that threat either - Captain America was created as a response to Adolf Hitler.

This is true as well of Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel when they originated Superman. Look to the first appearance of Superman and you find a hero very concerned in the issues of the time for the prewar US. In Action Comics #1, Superman has four separate unconnected adventures in a mere 12 pages! First, he prevents an innocent person from being executed; second, he rescues a woman from her abusive husband; third, he battles organized crime; finally, he combats war profiteers.

The concerns of the USA in the late stages of the Great Depression are not the same as those which we have today. In some ways, super hero comic books of today are still grappling with issues of late 1930s USA, such as their conception of organized crime or foreign wars. But even there in Action Comics #1, Superman was concerned with upholding legal justice (preventing an innocent woman from being executed) and social justice (turning the tables on an abusive husband).

At times I wonder if super hero comic book creators can see the trees from the forest. In the past, there was certain content which super hero comics could not (nor should have) addressed directly, but today there is no particular subject matter which ought to be avoided, particularly as the super hero genre is read overwhelmingly by adults, not children. At one time, it made sense to discuss racial troubles through the metaphor of mutants, as the X-Men did; but today's issues surrounding race would be better served by telling stories about those races and their difficulties.

If you want to write a super hero comic book but don't want your voice to be lost in the throng of a hundred other voices, this is my advice to you: Write about the time and culture which you live in. Do not think that the problems of today cannot be overcome because, after all, Simon & Kirby witnessed the fall of Hitler. In spite of it all super heroes have a capacity to inspire audiences, even the jaded Wednesday warriors at your local comic book shop.

My sincere thanks to Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster for granting comic books a character, a genre and a whole system of tropes which have kept this lovely medium afloat over the last 80 years.

Monday, September 11, 2017

About partisanship in the church

I'm not a terribly political person. I identify myself as a moderate or centrist - that is, I do not identify myself as a supporter of any particular political party. Since I came of age as a voter I have voted for four different parties in federal elections (which is easily done here in Canada). To those telephone pollsters I am one of those 'undecideds' who make up their figures.

I'm actually more opinionated about politics in the USA than I am in Canada; I try not to be, being very conscious that I am not a citizen of that country and I should be guarded when I speak about their political situation. Still, here I am today, about to write about US politics. I'm doing so not for the sake of the USA but because of encounters I have had with fellow Canadians on these issues.

Being a fairly unpolitical person I don't often share political messages on my Facebook page but a friend shared an amusing link entitled A Christian Defense of Donald Trump and I thought it funny enough to share with my own friends. This brought condemnation from one of my personal friends who took exception to my making fun of Trump and, rather than rebuke me in person or via email or personal message, spoke his mind there on my timeline. Said friend was a fellow Christian and told me I should be praying for Trump instead.

My friend was correct that mockery was not the most Christian way of responding to that situation. But it was a difficult message to receive because of the source - because this friend of mine was himself one whose Facebook timeline was full of political messages reposted from elsewhere, collectively espousing a pro-right wing/anti-left wing message, along with many climate change denial posts. The sense I had was not so much that my behaviour was being called out on Christian grounds but on partisan grounds. Upon reflection I was further troubled that in the week we had this confrontation I had celebrated my birthday but received no birthday greeting from him; I was serving in the mission field in Angola yet had received no encouragement from him; is this what Christian fellowship looks like?

There is no particular case for Christians being majority right-wing. Truly, we ought to be divided 50/50 - half of us on the right, half of us on the left. Yet we unmistakably tend towards the right. Why? According to James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." The message of looking after "orphans and widows in their distress" is an attitude which those on the left are in favour of, whereas the right-wing tends to advocate for self-sufficiency. There are also the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 25:34-36: "‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’"

Still, Christians tend towards the right; the right, of course, includes those parties which are against abortion, against gay marriage and other such issues which - for so many Christians - are a political deal-breaker. I understand why so many of my fellow Christians vote on the right-wing; heck, as a centrist I'm empathetic to their reasons (the four parties I've voted for have included the Conservative Party).

But Donald Trump is not a particularly right-wing candidate (except in that xenophobia and white nationalism seems to be a hallmark of the right-wing). He does not hold to any particular Christian ideals about charity or forgiveness towards others and has only paid a bit of lip service to the anti-abortion lobby. And yet so many Christians in the USA voted for him and many Christians here in Canada seem to feel they ought to support him as well because he represents right-wing interests. This is the partisanship which upsets me.

When Barack Obama was US President I saw many of my Christian Canadian friends criticizing him. I also heard a rant from one who accused him of being a secret Muslim (yes, such people exist even here). This too, seems to have been mere partisanship; I repeatedly saw in Obama a Christian man who was attempting to live up to Godly ideals in the midst of a compromising, pragmatic position. He was still vilified by Christians, simply because he came from the left-wing.

This, then, is why I originally shared the link to "A Christian Defense of Donald Trump." For a joke where the punchline is literally nothing it reveals a truth about we Christians and our willingness to adhere to dogma rather than the Holy Spirit. So many Christians clicked on that link anticipating an essay which would draw from scripture in order to explain why so many of their fellow believers supported that man. The joke is that there is no defense, but many - such as my friend - do not find that funny and are all-too eager to leap to his defense. I would be astonished - but also very pleased - if I saw this friend come to the defense of Rachel Notley or Justin Trudeau on the same basis he did Donald Trump, instead of making a false idol out of 'Team Right Wing.'

My friend once told me one of his favourite things about Jesus is that he was boldly confrontational, that he did not bow to the conventions of his time and would sharply criticize those in positions of power. And yet, when it comes to a right-wing politician, my friend suddenly became very upset at the idea of criticizing our world leaders. He's right, we are called to pray for them. But more than that, I agree with those leaders in the church that the rise of Trump amongst right-wing Christians speaks to the need for revival - and this revival is needed not only in the USA but here in Canada as well.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" - Matthew 5:43-47

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rest in Peace Len Wein

In 2015 Herb Trimpe - artist of the first appearance of Wolverine - passed away. Sadly, the author of that comic book has likewise joined him.

In March of this year Bernie Wrightson - artist of the first appearance of Swamp Thing - passed away. Sadly, the author of that comic book has likewise joined him.

His name was Len Wein. I met him once at a comic book convention. As I grew up primarily a fan of Marvel Comics and Wein had stopped working for them by the mid-70s I wasn't exposed to much of his comic book work. Still, during his time at Marvel in the 1970s he made some tremendous additions to the Marvel Universe: Wolverine, the 'all-new, all-different' X-Men team members Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus & Thunderbird, and that fondly-remembered hero of the hoodoo Brother Voodoo.

While I haven't experienced much of his writing for DC beyond a handful of Swamp Thing comic books he did, of course, cast a large shadow over DC, such as serving as editor on Watchmen, the most influential comic book of the 1980s. He also became a television writer as his creations Swamp Thing & The Human Target were adapted into TV series. He wrote a fun episode of that great Canadian animated program Reboot ("Between a Raccoon and a Hard Place") and a few episodes of the 1990s X-Men and Batman animated programs.

In many ways Wein hasn't been given his due by comics; I understand DC treated him fairly well over the decades, but when you consider he co-created Wolverine and the all-new all-different X-Men, even though he ultimately didn't have much to do with their eventual success (Chris Claremont being the one who turned those characters into Marvel's top stars), as the originator of them it feels like the name Len Wein should be spoken of in reverance. Wow! There goes Len Wein! Instead, my personal memory of Wein will be the time I met him at a convention: he was napping at his table because no one was interested in meeting him.

Rest in peace Mr. Wein.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Death of the Author Struggle

"I caution people against meeting writers whose work they admire. Once you find out the guy's a slob in real life, how can you not let that color your impression of his work?" - Mark Gruenwald

Recently, Joss Whedon's ex-wife has spoken out about how he treated her during their marriage, particularly about his conducting affairs with younger women in his employ and emotionally manipulative behaviour towards her. This has caused some hand-wringing amongst Whedon's fanbase as they try to come to terms with the legend of Joss Whedon they themselves eagerly fed versus the reality of Joss Whedon.

The Death of the Author theory is just that, a theory. As much as we claim we can separate the work from its artist, we truly can't. If we could, we wouldn't spend quite so much time delving into documentaries and biographies of famous artists, would we? But I suppose this is a lesson every generation has to learn about its heroes and in the age of the internet it is a lesson which is disseminated much more speedily. There was a time (say, 20 years ago) where you could be a huge fan of Roman Polanski's films yet be entirely unaware of the controversy surrounding him; now, simply printing his name online is guaranteed to provoke a discussion of his statutory rape charges. Once you learn that about him it's up to you to figure out how you feel about his art; does it make a difference to you, or doesn't it?

It was about 20 years that one generation of fandom was disillusioned in its adulation towards George Lucas. As Star Wars fans struggled to come to terms with the prequels and how they felt about Lucas, many migrated their devotion to the then-rising star Joss Whedon. Although for about a decade he was just a cult TV series writer, he seemed to hit upon everything fandom valued: sharp dialogue which was lathered in sarcasm and deep cuts from popular culture; a genuine affection for many pop culture works; a particularly strong emphasis on female empowerment.

Time will tell how he will be remembered; it ought to be enough that he put his name on some works which people have a fondness for. In Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry is widely-beloved not so much for any of his personal beliefs or even particular scripts he authored but because he was the first to conceive of Star Trek. So Whedon is assured to be well-thought of in the future as people will continue to enjoy Firefly et al. He also directed one of the most successful film of all time (The Avengers, in case you forgot) so he's guaranteed to be remembered in histories of popular culture of the 21st century.

What I am observing is a fanbase which feels personally betrayed by these allegations; George Lucas was simply a man who helped tell some good stories until - uh-oh - he didn't. With Whedon, there was an ethical component: people looked to him as a moral teacher -- which means you've got problems if you're looking to popular culture to orient your moral compass.

Personally, I like it when my values are reflected in the media I consume. On the other hand, I like media which challenges my values as well, to a certain degree; I can handle a bit of Steve Ditko's Objectivism, Robert A. Heinlein's freaky free freedom or Mad Men's narcissism, although each of those three have inevitably tested my tolerance. I think what I've most responded to in Whedon's work has been his existentialist philosophy, which doesn't perfectly mirror my own but strikes along similar lines.

It is fallacious to think that any human could be a great moral teacher - people will let you down sooner or later; that's the cynical response to the fall of Whedon. However, I'm not comfortable leaving it there. Occasionally there are creative people who have been exposed from behind the curtain and not found wanting. Above I quoted Mark Gruenwald, about whom there seems to be not a single negative anecdote; his work certainly isn't above reproach but his personal life appears to have been a honourable one; my favourite comedian Jack Benny is another whose personal life holds up under scrutiny. Yes, we each have our failings, but some skeletons loom larger than others; not every creative person has a Polanski-esque skeleton in their closet, but if you're placing your hope in a creative person it might be best for you to imagine that they do.

"It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another." - Mal Reynolds, Jaynestown