22 December 2007

Merry Solstice 2007

Today is the official day of Winter Solstice, the astronomical event around which all the various holidays of this season revolve. So whatever name you choose for your holiday event, I wish you the best of times and a good next orbit 'round the sun!

21 December 2007

Movie review: Atragon

Atragon (1963)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Tadao Takashima, Yoko Fujiyama, Yu Fujuki, Kenji Sahara, Ken Uehara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, Akihiko Hirata, Setsuko Kobayashi, Eisei Amamoto

Quick . . . when you think of live-action Japanese science-fiction movies (tokusatsu), what first comes to mind? Giant monsters (daikaiju), of course. I can’t fault you for that; I love daikaiju films, and unlike the usual condescending Western critic, I also know that many daikaiju films are superlative cinematic works. But the classic era of Japanese science-fiction and fantasy cinema, the mid ‘50s through the ‘60s, featured some non-kaiju-centered SF epics that deserve more attention. In particular, four films directed by Ishiro Honda (and all of which I have on DVD): The Mysterians (1957), Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962), and today’s topic, Atragon (1963). Honda was Toho Studio’s top SF director, and responsible for most of the legendary daikaiju films, including the original Godzilla, which launched Japan’s science-fiction revolution.

Three of the four films listed above actually do feature a giant monster, but only as a supporting element. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka insisted on wedging monsters into the films to beef up the market value. Atragon got a giant serpent/dragon named “Manda,” who looks astonishing but moves clumsily. Apparently, Toho’s official English title for the film was meant to be a contraction of “Atlantis” and “Dragon,” but AIP’s American dub changed it the name of the super-submarine under the control of Captain Jinguji (which is called “Gotenko” in Japanese) and kept “Manda” as the monster’s name.

18 December 2007

Never mind. The Last Man on Earth really is the best

Now that I've had time to let my opinions settle, I am rescinding my previous statement that I Am Legend 2007 is the best adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel. Given some thinking about the new movie and a few discussions with others, I have gotten more disenchanted with the Will Smith vehicle. (The general U.S. population apparently diagrees with me, since they propelled the movie to a $75 million opening weekend. But as Alvin and the Chipmunks managed to make $45 million, I think economics cannot be held as a ringing endorsement.) I still admire the film for taking a less agressive action-oriented stance and for its excellent effects work, and Smith does give a fine performance, but the movie makes more poor choices than good ones:
  • Where did the snare trap come from that catches Robert Neville? This is never adequately explained.
  • The manner in which Neville's wife and daughter die robs the movie of a dynamite and horrific conflict from the book.
  • The "vampires" (the movie never calls them that) are ultimately much less interesting than Matheson's sinister, howling creatures. (Where is the chilling cry of "Come out, Neville, come out!"?)
  • The vampires don't besiege Neville's home nightly. Apparently they just don't know where he lives. Another chance for suspense—gone.
  • Neville fills up his day with meaningless tasks and bland research in his basement; he doesn't go out and try to systematically slay the sleeping vampires. Why on earth would you cut this?
  • The ending. Come on, you've got one of the most awesome horror movie conclusions handed to you on a silver platter... but no, you've got to swipe the finale from a Chuck Heston movie.
  • The Bob Marley speech. What is that about?

This upshot of all this? I never thought I would say it, but The Last Man on Earth, for all its clumsy budgetary limitations and "Italy pretending to be Los Angeles" weirdness, is still the best adaptation of I Am Legend. Chances of filmmakers getting a fourth shot at the book are pretty slim, unfortunately.

16 December 2007

Review at Black Gate: City of the Beast

There's a new book review from yours truly over at Black Gate: City of the Beast by Michael Moorcock. This is the first of a trio of novels about Kane of Old Mars which the author wrote in a week in the 1960s. This new edition from the book comes from us courtesy of Paizo Publishing.

The Last Omega Legend

With this weekend’s premiere of I Am Legend, I can now compare all three versions of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 vampire/science-fiction novel.

Most viewers aren’t aware that there are two other screen adaptations of this story, neither of which is called I Am Legend. The first, The Last Man on Earth, is an independently financed 1964 movie shot in Italy (although ostensibly taking place in Los Angeles) and starring Vincent Price as the vampire slayer. The second movie, The Omega Man, is a major studio picture from 1971 starring Charleton Heston and directed by Boris Sagal.

Here’s a quick-n-dirty breakdown of the three versions.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

What’s good about it: Stark quality, dry and lonely atmosphere. Fine performance from Vincent Price. Stays closest to book of any version, including the “anti-horror” ending.

What’s bad about it: Very low-budget and shoddy quality. Dubbing of the Italian actors is awful. Matheson wanted his name taken off the screenplay credit—not a good sign.

The Omega Man (1971)

What’s good about it: ‘A’ movie production values. Plenty of ‘70s kitsch entertainment.

What’s bad about it: Too much ‘70s kitsch entertainment. Silly performance from Charleton Heston. Most of the apocalyptic atmosphere is lost. The hood-wearing albinos are a lame replacement for Matheson’s vampires.

I Am Legend (2007)

What’s good about it: Top-notch, epic production values. Great sense of an empty world with immense attention to details. Superb performance from Will Smith.

What’s bad about it: Inexplicably adopts the weak ending from Omega Man. Flashback sequences are ordinary. The “vampires” are not-very-scary CGI. Akiva Goldsman’s influence evident in a few dumb speeches.

As a snap judgment, I’ll pick I Am Legend as the best of the three. (Update: Changed my mind about this in a hurry.) It certainly nails the apocalypse tone right, and it is surprisingly subdued and character-based for a big-budget holiday release. The tremendous footage of New York turning into an urban prairie are superlative examples of visual effects used in service to a story. The detail put into the design is also convincing and makes many scenes compulsively watchable, even when nothing dramatic is happening. Will Smith also delivers a nuanced performance, and this makes up for me having to sit through the maudlin Pursuit of Happyness. Will, steer clear of the feel-good stuff, okay? This is what you need to do.

But... after three film versions, why haven’t we had a genuine adaptation of I Am Legend? Bizarrely, the cheap Last Man on Earth comes the closest to the book, and it is the only one that attempts to retain the weird and wonderful finale that so bowled me over when I first read the book. (Although no one will listen to me, I urge everyone to read the book before seeing any of the film versions.) Both Omega Man and I Am Legend jettison the last third of Matheson’s plot, and come up with a more “comfortable” self-sacrifice conclusion. This happier ending negates the meaning of the title, so the new movie has to come up with another way to justify “I Am Legend”… and it’s really annoying.

Although it keeps a semblance of Matheson’s conclusion, The Last Man on Earth doesn’t stack up to the original in many ways. Mostly, the low budget deflates the ‘end times’ feeling, and Price’s excellent work has to flail against the terrible dubbing of the Italian actors. As for The Omega Man… well, it’s a camp classic. That’s all that needs be said of it. Oh, and the groovy albinos and the blaxploitation clichés. What were they thinking?

In final analysis, read the book.

UPDATE: I changed my mind.

07 December 2007

New Petitions Against Tax! Building Code under Fire!

Check out those shocking headlines above. Now is the time to take action:

NEW PETITIONS AGAINST TAX
BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE

Do those headlines sound either 1) vaguely familiar or 2) just plain vague?

That’s because these are the regular newspaper headlines used as generic “filler” in movies. When a newspaper’s front page smashes onto the screen (or spins, that old-fashioned effect) to provide a transition or to fill in crucial information in an attention grabbing double-sized headline, such as SPACE MONSTERS AGREE TO PEACE NEGOTIATIONS or NORVELL LUDSTER GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS, take a quick look at the smaller headlines for the other columns, the ones you’re not supposed to be reading.

I’m annoying. I always try to read the other headlines. And if I’m watching on DVD, I always hit ‘pause’ and use the zoom feature to try to read them. Forget the big picture; with this kind of technology, it’s all about the details.

As the greatest TV show in history, Mystery Science Theater 3000, has taught us, the two most common headlines are NEW PETITIONS AGAINST TAX and BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE. You can see for yourself on this wikia page.

Newspaper insets aren’t as common in films as they used to be, and the two old standbys no longer have the same exposure. Such a shame. Perhaps people are no longer petitioning the tax and the building code is fine now.

However, here are close-ups of prop0sed articles for when these two classic headlines make their next cinematic appearances. Filmmakers, if you are in a crunch and need anything thrown down on the mock-up newspaper, feel free to use these (for a fee, of course):
NEW PETITIONS AGAINST TAX
Ryan Harvey, Staff Reporter
The new tax enacted in Springfield regarding outdoor activities has gathered the ire of unnamed citizens, an unverified report announced today. The leader of the petitioners, who declined to be named, said that his group filed their petition today due to unspecified grievances that the tax had caused to unidentified citizens. Calls made to the unidentified citizens' unlisted numbers were unanswered.
BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE
Ryan Harvey, Staff Reporter
The statutes of the Los Angeles Building Code that prohibit any structure painted fuschia in the downtown district have come under a furious attack by the Paint Manufacturers of Los Angeles. The painters are concerned that the ambigous wording will allow the blocking of any paint color that leans toward purple or light red.
“This means anything considered magenta, lavender, violet, or purple might be prohibited,” said an angry Martin Hovec, president for the Paint Manufacturers’ Union. “I don't see where you draw the line at fuschia. How is the city defining it? It's ridiculous.”
The City of Los Angeles issued the following response: “Why would they want to paint anything fuschia, purple, violent, or lavender in the first place?”
The Society of Prevention of Abuse to Ancient Phonecians (SPAAP) has also lodged a protest. “The ancient Phonencians are legendary for their export of vibrant purple dyes. This is a slap in the face to all of them,” said USC History Major and SPAAP’s sole member, Glenda Gardino.

05 December 2007

Cover Comparisons

My regular readers (is that hoping too much?) might have noticed a recent addition to the blog: the "Currently Reading" box, where I put up a picture of whatever book I am... uh... currently reading. (Update: I deep-sixed this feature; I got tired of updating it.) The name won't win any blogosphere titles for best caption, but at least it needs no other explanation.

Yet here I am giving one anyway. Although the picture correctly identifies the text of the book, the specific cover doesn't necessarily match the edition I own. I am a connoisseur of books in every way, and that includes a devotion to different covers and varied artistic interpretations. I tend to favor the original covers for older books instead of the more mundane modern designs, which often have a stale cookie-cutter feel to them.

Case in point, the book pictured as of this writing: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Dame Agatha Christie. The edition I own is the mass market paperback from Berkley. It's essentially just an azure-tinted photograph, and the car in the picture certainly wasn’t one driven in 1926, when the action occurs. The design fits the standard artwork of the current American paperbacks of Christie’s novels and demands little from the eye. So I chose to use the cover of the first British printing—one I definitely couldn't afford to own. Although the clothing of the woman on the cover shows its late-‘20s origin, the design isn’t dated a bit. It could appear, exactly reproduced, on a current paperback and not look the least strange. It’s much more eye-catching. Why commission new art when you've great material right there?

For your consideration: On the left, the Berkley edition (2004 U.S.). On the right, the William Collins & Sons edition (1926 U.K.).

Tolkien franchise novels

Novels based on media franchises account for a significant portion of shelf space in bookstores, especially in the "Science Fiction/Fantasy" section. The lords of the franchise novels are Star Wars and Star Trek, which happily chug along ten or more novels a year. Role-playing games also supply steady product, and famous characters who have lost their original author to the ultimate writer's block—death—continue on in "pastiches" and "continuation" novels. Conan and James Bond are still appearing in new works, long after Robert E. Howard and Ian Fleming kicked it. And Sherlock Holmes? The original cottage industry character.

Fandom drives the franchise novel. If a dedicated fanbase of ecstatic and hot-blooded readers exists hungry for more product, a corporate-based books series will commission writers to feed them. You only need to again look at Star Trek and Star Wars, a TV show (and later movie series) and movie series (and soon to be TV show) that have complete separate universes for the continuity of a novel series.

I've dabbled in reading franchise novels, both media tie-ins and continuations. At their best they do provide a sort of pulpy enjoyment. I have gone through a few Stars Wars opuses and read some of R. A. Salvatore's "Forgotten Realms" fantasies. I have even suffered through more than one Conan "pastiche" novel, usually in the name of writing reviews so other curious fans of Robert E. Howard know which ones to pick up and which to avoid like a black lotus cloud. Most Conan stories outside of Howard's are sad, but there are some exceptions. I have to tip my hat to my friend John C. Hocking for his work on Conan and the Emerald Lotus, and Karl Edward Wagner's Conan: Road of Kings is also a good show. Some of John Robert Maddox's Conan adventures aren't too shabby, either.

But the popularity of fantasy and science fiction franchise novels brings up an interesting "What if?" question.

"What if J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth was turned into a continuing book franchise?"

Outside of fanfic, there are no pastiche or continuation novels based on the setting Tolkien developed over his lifetime, the mythic Earth of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillon. Although Tolkien's estate has commissioned some stories as "homages" to the good professor's work, they have never permitted nor, I'll wager, ever will permit the publication of new adventures from new authors.

That is exactly how it should be. Tolkien's world is so uniquely his own, so tied in with his entire life, and so complete within the scope of his writings and extensive notes, that letting anything be "officially" added to it is unthinkable. It would ring more hollow than any pastiche work.

But... what would those hollow books be like if they were allowed? You may shudder to think of it, but I decided it would be amusing to imagine the ridiculous ideas that might result.

Placing myself in the mindset of a potential publisher who has hacked out a deal with the Tolkien estate, I've hatched brief book proposals for a never-to-be-seen (thank the Valar!) series, Middle-Earth Adventures. I've written these proposals in the form of promotional blurbs used to excite retailers, and used my own experience with franchise novels to imagine some of the weirdness that might pop up should anyone dare to do this.


The Fourth Age Trilogy
The immediate follow-up to The Lord of the Rings... the direct sequel fans have clamored to see for years! Aragorn is now King Elessar, seated on the throne of Gondor, happily wed to Arwen Evenstar. But even though the Dark Lord Sauron has fallen and passed into shadow, evil still rots at the edges of the Kingdom. The Black Númenorean sorcerers who served Sauron faithfully for hundreds of years, slowing their aging through diabolic magics, have gathered together the survivors of Mordor and carved out an alliance with the Corsairs of Umbar the South. Aragorn must lead an army against these survivals of the dark times before his fledgling kingdom is split apart. But can even he escape the trap that Black Númenoreans have set for him, which will feed him to... Shelob? The horrid demon in spider form has licked her wounds and is ready for more dark fantasy action. Also, prepare to meet the new heroes of the age, Aragorn's personally picked citadel guards who take center stage in this thrilling new trilogy.

The Young Sméagol Chronicles
Before the ring dragged him into torment as Gollum, Sméagol was curious fellow who wandered wide over the Anduin river valley, searching out treasures and secrets. This delightful series of juvenile books follows his adventures as he explores the woods and rivers of Middle Earth, makes new friends, and faces terrible dangers such as the rogue eagles of Mirkwood, and Hobbits under the spell of the the tower of Dol Guldur. Fans young and old of The Lord of the Rings will thrill to discovering the gentle soul whom the ring would eventually twist into a tragic figure of the ages.

Tales of the Last Alliance
The end of the Second Age is approaching, and this four-part series of novels shows readers different aspects of the great war between Sauron on one side and Men and Elves on the other. Action and spectacle to rival The Lord of the Rings will accompany the warriors who stand up to the hordes of Mordor. For the first time, readers will experience Sauron
himself wielding the One Ring. Isildur and Anarion take the lead roles in the last two novels, and these will certainly be on the "must-read" list of any Tolkien fan.

The Annals of the White Council
The three wizards—Gandalf, Radagast, and Sauruman—with Galadriel, Elrond, and Círdan, form a council ready to wipe out evil in Middle Earth! Against them are the devious minions of Sauron and the Lord of the Nazgûl. Learn for the first time the true identity of the "other two" wizards of the group. This on-going series mixes J. R. R. Tolkien with magical espionage, and will especially appeal to teen readers.

Epics of the Elder Days
The time of The Silmarillion as you've never seen it before. Each novel is a complete, self-contained epic about the Elves and their adventures in Middle Earth in younger days, before the dominance of Men. All-new heroes fight with classic adversaries, and the fresh setting means almost any reader can get into this series, without knowledge of The Silmarillion or even The Lord of the Rings. One book will feature an untold tale of Beren's adventures that fits within the scope of "The Tale of Beren and Luthien."



My head hurts even thinking about how dreadful these could be. These aren't exaggerations for humorous purposes, either—I could see a publisher seriously suggesting each one of these.

04 December 2007

Gigan

I need to dedicate some time to rescuing a few of the better posts from my older, more rambling blog that I no longer update. There are a number posts that I don’t mind airing over here. The recent post about Invasion of Astro-Monster got me thinking about how I once took a few paragraphs to extol the wonders of one of my favorite giant monsters.

The following post is edited somewhat from its original form.

Gigan. This is one of my favorite of all kaiju (giant monster). I’m not alone in my affection for this big baddie. Other Godzilla fans have clamored for years for a Gigan return appearance, and we finally got our wish in Godzilla: Final Wars, where Gigan showed up after a near thirty-year absence. He made a spectacular return as well; he’s easily the most impressive of the Big-G’s opponents in this movie and gets a hefty amount of screen time—especially for a movie with thirteen other monsters in competition for the limelight and many human-based action sequences.

Gigan’s first appearance was in the 1970s Godzilla films, which are the low-point of the series. Budget cuts hampered the franchise, the movie industry in Japan had fallen into a recession, and the death of special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya in 1969 further reduced the spectacle of the science-fiction epics. The films of the ‘70s aimed toward a children’s audience, the plots turned extremely far-fetched with aliens invading nonstop with mega-monsters in tow, and Godzilla acted as a superhero who arrives at humanity’s beck and call.

Gigan’s premiere movie is 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, originally released in the U.S. as Godzilla on Monster Island—a nonsensical title, since the movie doesn’t take place on Monster Island, but Cinema Shares, the stateside distributor, probably figured the kiddies wouldn’t care. The Japanese title, Chikyu Kogeki Meirei: Gojira tai Gaigan, roughly translates as Earth Attack Order: Godzilla vs. Gigan. It translates as “bad” in any language. With no major Toho actors and a shoestring budget, the film looks depressingly cheap and shoddy. The plot tries to relive the grand alien invasion epics of the 1960s like Battle in Outer Space and Invasion of Astro-Monster, but the results are laughable. These price-conscious aliens have to wear business suits and work out of office buildings and a children’s amusement park. Endless stock footage of earlier Godzilla films, often wildly mismatched, pads out the effects scenes, and the robust music consists entirely of reused cues from other Akira Ifukube scores, sometimes hilariously misused.

Gigan is one of the film’s bright spots; he’s the only new monster in the picture. The other three monsters are Godzilla, the famous three-headed dragon Ghidorah, and Godzilla’s spiky-armadillo ally Anguirus. The Godzilla suit is literally falling apart after use in three movies, and somebody should have dry-cleaned the Ghidorah costume,or at least use some S.O.S. to scrape off the tarnish. Anguirus looks good however, and there’s something about his spunky never-say-die attitude even when vastly over-matched that endears him to fans.

But Gigan gets all the attention. He’s a cyborg monster from Space Hunter Nebula-M. His biology is never explained, but it would seem he’s a fusion of a giant alien creature with robotic technology. He has wicked scythes for hands, metallic mandibles, and a buzz-saw in his chest which he uses to gorily slice open Godzilla's shoulder. He can fly through some unknown, non-visible means. The poster of the film shows Gigan blasting a laser ray from his single visor-like eye, which makes sense based on his design, but Gigan never uses it in the movies from the ‘70s, probably to save money.

Special effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano has commented that Gigan’s design arose from a reaction to Hedorah, a.k.a. the Smog Monster, the villainous kaiju from the previous film. Hedorah is a creature with a soft, amorphous body made of sludge and slime, so Nakano designed Gigan as the opposite: a hard, sharp, metallic body. Even with the limitations of the effects of the day, Gigan’s suit looks awesome. He’s sleek and edgy, with wicked hooked hands and a devilish profile. He also has an impressive screeching sound effect.

An interesting bit of trivia: the suit actor who plays Gigan in his first two movies is Kenpachiro Satsuma, who would later play Godzilla in the 1980s and ‘90s movies.

Gigan returned in the following film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, probably as another money-saving technique so the filmmakers could reuse the suit and recycle footage from Godzilla vs. Gigan. Budget-paring must have been paramount in Toho’s mind, because Godzilla vs. Megalon is the cheapest, crudest Godzilla film ever constructed and ranks as the nadir of the series. It looks like a TV show mixed with professional wrestling, and represents everything negative about the kaiju genre. When non-fans make fun of Godzilla movies, it’s really this movies that they’re mocking. I can only suffer to watch it in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version—the theatrical cut just depresses me with how far the once mighty Japanese science-fiction film industry had crumbled in the 1970s recession. Yes, Gigan’s in it. He looks cool. But that doesn’t save this stupid film.

Gigan at last got his chance to appear in a good Godzilla film (or better film, depending on who you ask) with Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. He gets one of the largest roles in the films, probably the most prevalent of the villainous monsters. His basic design remains the same, only made sleeker and spiker with an increased cyborg presence. Gigan is again the tool of outer space invaders, the principle weapon of the extraterrestrial Xillians in their Earth-takeover plans. They send Gigan to stop the human heroes from re-awakening Godzilla from his frozen sleep, but Godzilla rouses and then removes Gigan’s head. Not to be daunted, the Xillians fix Gigan and retro-fit him with new arm weapons, which for all the world look like tuning forks strapped with chainsaws! Gigan gets to slice off Mothra’s wing before Godzilla takes his head off… again! After this the Xillians decide to retire Gigan and bring on a new weapon, Monster X.

Good to see you again, Giggy. Let’s not make it another thirty years before you come back.

Death Is Forever, Even if John Gardner Is Not

Death Is Forever (1992)
By John Gardner

I mentioned in October the death of British espionage novelist John Gardner, who had an important role in the literary career of James Bond, even if fans' opinions of the quality of his contributions are not high. He wasn't Ian Fleming, but he wasn't trying to be, either. Over the scope of his fourteen 007 continuation novels he did provide some entertaining times, and I rate him higher than Raymond Benson, the author who followed him with six more novels. Benson tried to move closer to Fleming, but his writing plain and simple falls flat for me. And too often he switches into an "autopilot" mode where it seems he's rattling off a script for one of the Pierce Brosnan movies.

Last year I read a few of the John Gardner Bonds I had not picked up before. I initially read them in high school when they were still coming out regularly, but I stopped after Win, Lose or Die, which I really disliked. Its uncreative mix of Die Hard and Top Gun I couldn't stomach (although it did inspire me to write the only piece of fanfic I've ever done, and it wasn't bad for a tenth grader). In 1999 I dropped in for a moment to read Never Send Flowers just for a quick Bond fix. I still think it's one of the better Gardners, and wins points for being different without completely losing the Bondian touch like The Man from Barbarossa does. Last year, while in the Bond reading groove because of the approaching release of the movie version of Casino Royale, I started to read the Gardner 007s I had missed: Scorpius, Brokenclaw, and the aforementioned Man from Barbarossa. Gardner's recent death has now prompted me again to edge toward completing his Bond cycle. I finished Death Is Forever last night, so there only two more books remain. Appropriately, they are Gardner's last two books in the series: SeaFire and COLD (U.S. title: Cold Fall).

03 December 2007

The email forwarding-happy relative must be stopped!

When do I finally break down and tell one of my older relatives that I don't want to receive "cute" forwarded emails, "adorable" stories, or "inspirational" tales? Or anything that requires I use quotations marks to make my irony clear? Should I just dump them in my spam folder and keep mum? Or do I politely tell her that some people don't appreciate mass forwards? If she wants to send out a large mailing to a list, that's fine as long as it's an important personal message. But the majority of the planet doesn't want to hear about the touching farewell somebody overheard said at the airport that actually has the subtlety of a gold lamé Hallmark card that plays "Joy to the World" when you open it. And some of the emails I get from her are asinine and call out for a sharp remark back. I don't want to send one of those to her, but each time I get another of these sad sack forwards, the temptation to fire back only increases. She has to be stopped, for her own good! If not me, than who?

Friends don't spam friends. Relatives shouldn't spam relatives. Please gently stop your less Internet-savvy relations before they transform into accidental spammers annoying people without knowing it. Once it snowballs like this, it is difficult to stop.

Choose your Astro-Monster

Oh, which version of Invasion of Astro-Monster shall I watch? This is a question for the ages, and I cannot find an adequate answer. So I guess I will have to watch them both.

The wonderful DVD format—which has done more to rescue obscure films and make them available to the public than any innovation in film history—came late to the aid of my favorite cult genre, the kaiju eiga. Otherwise known as the “Japanese giant monster film.” Anime and J-Horror are well represented on disc. There actually seem to be more anime available on DVD than actually exists, or at least that's the impression I get when I look at the enormous, densely-stocked anime section at my local video store. But the rubber-suited FX extravaganzas of model-mayhem have only recently gotten the respect they deserve on DVDs, featuring widescreen presentations and original Japanese cuts with subtitles.

Most of the DVDs offer English-dubbed versions as well as the Japanese originals. Although I don’t like to watch dubbed prints, I understand the need for them. Children love these films, and most of them can’t enjoy subtitling. I grew up on dubbed versions, and some of them still have nostalgia value, so I’m glad that the new crop of DVDs have made an effort to present both the Japanese original and a stateside dubbed released. (However, and this is a massive confusion that could make up a post in itself, some films have more than one English dub, and a recent trend has often released the inferior “international” dub on DVD rather than the more nostalgia-heavy one that the U.S. distributor created. Both Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster currently feature only the lesser international English versions on their DVDs.)

Invasion of Astro-Monster was released in Japan in December 1965. It was the fifth film to star Godzilla, and was one of Toho’s most ambitious science-fiction projects of the time. It received co-financing from the American production company UPA and had an American star, Nick Adams, but for reasons that have never been made clear it didn't appear stateside until 1970, when it was re-titled Monster Zero. This remains the best-known title in the U.S. When it debuted on home video, it was further re-titled to Godzilla vs. Monster Zero to help alphabetize it with the other Godzilla films on the shelves. The new DVD returns the film to its official English title, the strange but appropriately kooky Invasion of Astro-Monster. (Apparently, Astro-Monster destroys definite articles!)

I can’t defend the dubbed English version of Invasion of Astro-Monster. Compared to the superb job done of both previous Godzilla films, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Astro-Monster has a goofy and overdone looping job that makes the characters sound wildly hammy and unbelievable. The villainous Controller of Planet X has an adequate bad-guy voice, but all the other Japanese actors sound a bit like Gerry Anderson puppets.

But here’s the contradiction: you can’t get the full Astro-Monster experience without watching the U.S. dub as well as the Japanese one. The Japanese version, as superior all-around as it is (wow, dig that crazy performance that Yoshio Tsuchiya gives as the Controller of Planet X), lacks one thing the U.S. version has: Nick Adams speaking his own words. Co-star Adams read all of his lines in English on the set, and was dubbed with a Japanese actor for the domestic release. The U.S. version uses Adams’s original line performance, and he’s a hoot. He’s so quintessentially an American tough-guy that he adds a fascinating kick to the otherwise very Japanese proceedings. He has great chemistry with his two co-stars, sexy Kumi Mizuno and pal Akira Takarada, and it’s unfortunate that viewers lose half of these relationships in either cut. Watching the Japanese language version, I found myself repeatedly missing Adams’s key contribution, even as I was reveling in the fine performances from the rest of the cast, especially madman Tschuyia. (Tschuyia is a professed UFO follower and believer, which adds an interesting angle to his performance.)

So I’ll have to switch between the two versions of Invasion of Astro-Monster, because at the moment there is no other comprise. Perhaps audiences wouldn’t accept a film where Adams speaks in English and everyone else in subtitled Japanese, but I certainly would. The Japanese trailer for the movie shows what this might look like, and it doesn’t bother me at all. At least I have both versions on one DVD now.

28 November 2007

Got change for a million?

The stories of "stupid criminals" consistently amuse because we, as a culture, like to think that anyone who goes into crime is a first-class idiot. Sadly, this is not universally true, since plenty of clever crooks are ripping off decent people daily, and even the not-so-bright ones can grab enough firepower and moxie to steal from much smarter people. A Ph.D. doesn't mean much when staring down the barrel of a shotgun, even if the finger on the trigger belongs to a fellow who flunked first grade—twice. Tales of idiot criminals are a rebellion against this, where the honest and sharp folks trump the bullies of the world.

Still, how stupid do you have to be to try to open an account at a bank with a one million dollar bill? (By the way, whose face is that supposed to be on the bill? I would suggest placing a no-account president like Millard Fillmore or William Henry Harrison—who was president for a whole whopping month—as the cover star.) What's more amazing is this sort of thing has happened before. My favorite case is a 2004 incident where a woman tried to pay for $1,671.55 worth of purchases at Wal·Mart with a $1 million dollar bill. (This one had the Statue of Liberty on it.) Aside from the stupidity of imaging the clerk wouldn't question this unheard of denomination—which would only makes sense in a futuristic comedy as the punch line to a joke about the devaluation of currency—did the would-be perpetrator think that the cashier would just hand over $998,328.45 in change? Imagine if she had asked for it in singles… or quarters! (For the laundry, you know.) If a million dollar bill did exist and you had a few on you, would you really be shopping at Wal·Mart? Why aren't you jet-setting it in Paris, Milan, Singapore, Beverly Hills? Even Key West, for cripes sake.

Perhaps our clever con-woman Alice Pike figured that the more outrageous an amount she had, the more likely people would believe it. After all, who would seriously carry around a million dollar bill? It's so ludicrous that no trickster could hope to succeed with it... so it must be real!

Uh… wait. That's putting too much thinking into this. It's more likely that anyone trying to pass off a million dollar bill is just really really stupid and assumed everyone else is equally really really stupid. We all know what a million dollars in cash looks it: it comes packed in paper-bound stacks inside a silver metal suitcase carried around by a man in a dark suit with mirrored glasses who uses a zodiac-based codename.

23 November 2007

Uncle Ryan

For those of you who want to get the quick gist of a blog entry and then move on, here it is: I am going to be an uncle. My family and I found out yesterday that my sister Colleen is pregnant.

Now, for the rest of you hanging around anyway, here are the details of how we found out.

My sister and her husband, Armin, live in Munich. They called my mother's home around two o'clock Pacific Time, when most of the family was at the house for that holiday that comes about a month after Halloween. (I can never remember what its called, but it has something to do with football and a dead bird.) Colleen said she had sent a picture to Mom's email and wanted her to look at it. Mom dispatched my brother Reed and I to go to her upstairs computer and get the picture. Unable to log-in to Mom's computer, Reed took out his laptop with a better wifi connection and logged into Mom's email account that way. We found the email marked "Thanksgiving Picture," expecting some photo of Colleen and Armin infront of German mountains or something similar, but both of us immediately knew that the picture we were looking at was a sonnogram of a fetus. (We were raised by a mother who teaches childbirth education; we know these things.) Reed and I then took the computer downstairs to Mom, knowing she was going to explode with joy when we showed it to her. That's exactly what happened; you'd have thought she had just won the lottery.

This is probably the best things that's happened to this late November holiday (uh, what's it called...?) since the days when the local channels ran a Twilight Zone marathon. Comedy Central ran a Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon one time, which was also pretty awesome. Maybe not "I'm going to be an uncle" awesome, but still pretty great.

22 November 2007

F.A.M.I.L.Y. or famulus?

My recent post about a spam email quiz turned my thoughts to some of the other junk in my inbox that floods in from well-meaning acquaintances, specifically relatives who can’t resist forwarding “adorable” jokes and uplifting stories. You know the type.

The uplifting tale belong to an email genre that Snopes calls “glurge.” They define this onomatopoeic word as “the sending of inspirational (often supposedly ‘true’) tales that conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and that undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering a ‘true story.’ ”

One example always pops into my head, “The F.A.M.I.L.Y. story.” It has various guises, but each version I have encountered features a loving parental figure explaining to a contentious child the importance of family with this statement: “Do you know what family means? It means Father And Mother, I Love You.”

Sweet, huh?

(You in the back, stop gagging.)

Whoever wrote this glurge in the primordial days probably knew this wasn’t true, and that the noun “family” was not any sort of acronym. But he or she couldn’t resist the cute way the letters formed into a heart-warming affirmation of love.

If the original author knew the real origin of the word “family,” he or she would have never approached the subject. Because, as Snopes’s definition of glurge predicts, there’s a darker meaning that peeks through.

“Family” comes from the Latin word familia, which means “family” in a broader sense than the way we use the word today. It doesn’t denote people related through blood or marriage, but a household. To the ancient Romans, the original speakers of Latin, a household included slaves. The Latin word for household slave is famulus, which is where familia comes from.

Not a pretty truth: “family” ultimately derives from a word for “slave.”

But truth is always much more interesting than glurge. A cute acronym can't cut the way that genuine etymology does.

21 November 2007

And you didn't include The Haunting?

Moviephone has a list of the Twenty-Five Worst Remakes of All Time. I agree with almost every choice they made, except for one egregious omission:

Where is the 1999 remake of The Haunting?

How in the world did this travesty slip their minds? How did this get past the writers? Jan de Bont’s cheap CGI take on the classic Robert Wise original (based on perhaps the finest horror novel of all time, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson) is the textbook example of how not to remake a movie: Take everything that made the original work and throw it into the dumpster, cram the movie with shock tactics, overdone CGI, simplistic motivations, lame dialogue, and assume your audience has the brain power of a mentally challenged snail.

Gus van Sant’s Psycho (the #1 worst remake on Moviephone's list) is indeed atrocious, but at least I understood what the director was trying to do. De Bont’s Haunting is as brainless and misguided a remake as anything ever committed to celluloid.

20 November 2007

Of Spam and Psychology

I've come across this “chain letter quiz” more than once, usually sent by an acquaintance in a mass email. I have analyzed it here to show how its apparent "psychic" trickery actually operates. This is a good example of confirmation bias, where a reader "counts the hits, not the misses," making the test seem accurate when it actually gets nothing right that cannot be accounted for through basic psychology.

Here is one version of this letter. I've lifted this example from an old email (I have changed none of the spelling, capitalization, or punctuation—grit your teeth and try to get through):
Your instincts has its advantages all the time . . . This is freaky as anything . . . DO NOT CHEAT (You'll will kick yourself later) BUT NO CHEATING! This has a funny/spooky outcome. Don't read ahead . . . just do it in order! It takes about three minutes . . . it's worth a try

First . . . get a pen and paper.

When you actually choose names, make sure it's people you actually know and go with your first instinct.

Scroll down one line at a time . . . and don't read ahead or you'll ruin it!

1. First, write the numbers 1 through 11 in a column.

2.Then, beside numbers 1 and 2, write down any two numbers you want.

3. Beside the 3 and 7, write down the names of members of the opposite sex.

NO LOOKING AHEAD . . . OR IT WON"T TURN OUT RIGHT!

4. Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .) in the 4th, 5th, and 6th spots.

5. Write down four song titles in 8,9,10, and 11.

GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT PEOPLE!!!!

6. Finally, make a wish. And now the key for the . . . . .

1. You must email (the number in space 2) this letter .

2. The person in space 3 is the one that you love.

3. The person in 7 is one you like but can't work out.

4. You care most about the person you put in 4.

5. The person you name in number 5 is the one who knows you very well.

6. The person you name in 6 is your lucky star.

7. The song in 8 is the song that matches with the person in number 3.

8. The title in 9 is the song for the person in 7.

9. The tenth space is the song that tells you most about YOUR mind.

10. and 11 is the song telling you how you feel about life.

this is so accurate NOW . . . email this bulletin within the hour . . . IF you do . . . your wish will come true . . . If you don't it will become the opposite u must send this email in 3 hours!!!! GOOD LUCK
Uhm, "you'll will"? Never mind . . .

Before I get into the claims, all you need to know about the true nature of this email is contained in answer key #1 ("email this to __ number of people") and the boilerplate chain-letter conclusion, warning of negative karmic consequences if you don't follow instructions. In other words, this letter only exists to trick you into spamming your friends. Don't do it.

On to the analysis:

To help explain, I wrote down my own answers (I did not skip ahead to look, as requested) and honestly tried to just have names, song titles, and numbers pop into my head. After all, didn't the quiz shout at me to GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT PEOPLE? (What are "instinct people"? Are they similar to "extinct people," like the Hittites?)

#1 and #2 are meaningless, of course. In fact, no explanation for the number provided for answer #1 is ever given. Perhaps this email had it lopped off accidentally? The answer for #2 is merely instructions on how many people to spam with this. No hits here.

Answer #3 is the "secret weapon" of this quiz. If the quiz can convince you that the person of the opposite sex written down here is actually your true love, it wins. You will fall for the rest of the answers regardless of their accuracy. Of course, if asked to list two people of the opposite sex (the quiz assumes heterosexuality) the chance is extremely high that the first person listed will be the one you are either involved with or interested in. Who else will spring to mind so fast? Confirmation bias leaps in immediately: if you are interested in someone, being told that they are the person you love will make you feel darn great; if you are already with them, you will say, "damn, the quiz is right! Spooky!" Either way, you count it as a "hit" even though the answer is a psychological safe bet.

My answer? I'm not telling you her name, but I am interested in her. However, I know this isn't a hit. Not remotely. It's a near-certainty of human nature.

The person in #7 is "the one you like but can't work out." I'm unsure exactly what this means, but since this is the second of two opposite sex names, the probability is high that he/she is 1) someone else you like, but not as much as #3; 2) a former relationship. Either way, the answer of "you like, can't work out" sounds like a hit.

The quiz flopped on my end, however, since I listed my Grandmother Ruth for #7. She died in September, and this last weekend was her birthday, so she has been on my mind a great deal. Perhaps some people might call this a hit, since I can't work anything out with someone who is dead, but honestly . . . a full out, complete "miss" from my perspective.

It should come as no surprise that the person listed in #4 is someone you care about. Note the wording of the question: "Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .)" This immediately makes the quiz taker focus on people close to him, people he likes.

I put my sister's name here. Is she the person I "care the the most about"? I love her, of course, but I love all my family, so I resent the quiz's presumption that I will single one out. Many would call this a "hit," but it's psychologically probable and not spooky or freaky, etc.

So the person in #5 knows me very well, huh? I have no proof of this, since it's not talking about what I know. Again, this is probably a relative or a close friend, so the chance seems good that this person knows the quiz taker well. But so what?

I put my brother's name here, which makes sense after my sister. But my brother knows me as well as my sister, so is this any answer at all? Any relative or friend placed here would "know me well." Useless.

Every version of this quiz has the meaningless "lucky star" designation, as we see here with #6. What does this mean? Anything at all? No, it's an ambiguous phrase where the reader is supposed to fill in the meaning for it, thus giving a "hit."

Oh dear, oh dear . . . even given the senselessness of "lucky star," my own answer makes no sense whatsoever. Right after I wrote down my brother and sister, one of my co-workers, Efrain, walked past my desk. Since his name jumped to mind I wrote it down. (Just following instructions, quiz. "Instinct" and all that.) I hardly know Efrain and rarely talk to him; he's another guy at work. "Lucky Star"? Miss, miss, miss, miss, a thousand times a miss!

Now we get to the songs. Did you list a love song for #8? I'll bet you did! (And how many love songs are there, or songs with titles you can interpret as love songs?) The quiz thinks you will, because it matches (gasp) the person in #3! Again, an obvious psychological tactic.

I plunked down "All You Need Is Love." Admittedly, by this point I had guessed exactly what the quiz was trying to pull.

The quiz hopes the #9 song hopes you plunked down is another love ditty to match up the failed romance of #7. Same tactic again.

Whooops. I put "Detroit Rock City." Which supposedly matches my Grandmother. Who never listened to rock music in her life. And never went to Detroit. Whatever.

Song #10 supposedly tells you something about your mind. Of course it does, you thought of the song title. Whadda stretch.

I put "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Which does tell me something about my mind: at this point, I was pulling out names just to make the quiz look idiotic.

Finally, the #11 song tells you about how you view life. By this time, if the list has suckered you with enough vague emotional appeals (did it have you by #3?), it doesn't matter what this answers is. You'll take it as a hit.

Unless, of course, you answered "Midnight Shift," like I did. ("If you see ol' Annie why don't you give her a lift? / Annie's been working on the midnight shift . . .") Which doesn't mean anything. I don't work the midnight shift and know nobody named Annie. Great dance song, however.

Right now, somewhere out there in cyberspace, someone is probably emailing this to his poor friends, thinking, "Wow, it's spooky how well this works!"

Yes, spooky how well spam can convince people to propagate it.

How not to look for a job

I usually don't talk about my day job, since I don't pretend to think that the average reader will want to know about it. This is mostly a writing-pop culture-liteature-travel-movie-philosophy blog, with bits of my personal life tossed in here and there where I deem it may have some relevance to the general reading population.

But today I just felt I had to share my thoughts on "How Not to Apply for a Job."

Our company right now is running an ad in a few Los Angeles newspapers looking for potential new commodities brokers. The ad gives them the main number to call, and Martha, our wonderful receptionist, gives them the information on where to send in their resume (fax or email). If Martha isn't available, such as late in the day, than either Julie or I take the call. We aren't supposed to give out any information about the job, since we aren't doing the hiring and don't know the details on what they're offering. We just tell them where to send the resume, and the boss will call them if it looks promising.

Now when I first heard that this was the system we would use to for applicants, I was a touch skeptical. Anyone out searching for a job knows the frustration of trying to contact a potential employer and not really knowing what it is the company does. However, after receiving numerous time-wasting calls, I can see why a company screens the applicants themselves before calling. Furthermore, after this one call I got today, I know exactly why we ask people to call in so we can give them the fax number/email address for them to send the resume, instead of placing it on the add: it's so the completely inappropriate people can weed themselves out.

Let us watch how one particular idiot weeded himself out:

I pick up the phone, and the man asks about the ad in the L.A. Times. He also mentions "Can Make $250,000/year" from the ad, the first time I've heard any caller bring that up. (This is no exaggeration, by the way. Some of our top brokers make $300,000 a year.) He then says, "Can you send me a check?"

Hah hah, the fellow is a real comedian. This guy must have learned from the Enron school of mark-to-market accounting: "If I work for your company, I might make $250,000 dollars a year, so can you pay me that now?"

So this is off to a roaring start. It will go down hill quickly.

I give him the usual info about sending in his resume, and he asks for more info about the job. I tell him that he will have to talk about that with the people hiring when they call him. He says something about, "Let me read you the ad so you know which one I'm talking about." Good one, act like the guy on the line doesn't know his own job. Racking up the point here, pal. I tell him that we're only running one ad, you can send in your resume and they will contact you.

Although I have done nothing but act calm and given the same response that has worked for the serious applicants, the man gets belligerent. "Well, why didn't you put the number in the ad?"

I answer, "They want people to contact us first by phone."

However, he answers the question himself: "That sounds real fu**ing stupid. I don't think I want to work for your company."

"Then goodbye sir," I say and hit the 'disconnect' button.

I really wanted to say, "Then good luck at finding any job, sir." But hey, I'm the polite one here. Nothing gets the jerks of the world more enraged than when you keep your cool.

No, the policy isn't "real fu**ing stupid." It's actually darn smart. It weeds out nasty, unhireable people from the process. Can you imagine this man trying to call up potential clients? Can you imagine how his interview might have gone?

Does he ever wonder why he is currently unemployed?

16 November 2007

My Grandmother's birthday

Today is my Grandmother Ruth's birthday. Had she not died on September 3rd of this year, she would have been ninety-two years old. It is astonishing to me how vividly I remember her 80th birthday celebration, almost as if it happened only a few years ago, when it happened over a decade in the past. Astonishing.

Now she is gone, and the family has only memories, which have flooded back to all of on this day... her first birthday that she will not be around to enjoy.

14 November 2007

The Shadow in Garden of Death

Garden of Death (1941)
By Walter B. Gibson writing a Maxwell Grant

It’s easy to pick up another adventure of The Shadow once you have finished one. They’re short (40,000 words is standard) and usually a single shot of the mysterious detective-avenger isn’t enough to satisfy my cravings. So, I followed up Chain of Death with Garden of Death. Later I may tell you about Atoms of Death and Master of Death, but let’s just say that if you write three hundred or so Shadow novels, you would start to run out of unique titles too.

Garden of Death appeared first in the 1 October 1941 issue of The Shadow twice-monthly magazine. During the 1940s, the series of novels were getting less epic, and Garden of Death is mostly a pedestrian effort with a small scope. Two chemical company owners are competing for a Somnotone, a drug invented by horticulturist Theophilus Malbary. One of the owners ends up dead, along with two members of his household, from some kind of poison gas.

The Shadow, in a moment completely out of left field, gets attacked by an orangutan while searching the house. Yes, Walter Gibson can still pull some weird ones, even in a lesser novel. Oh, a killer puma disguised as an ocelot, a giant vampire bat, and a strangling ficus plant show up as well. Which, I’m sorry to say, makes the book sound much more interesting than it actually is. The middle section slogs on too long, and only in the last three chapters does the pace pick up for the interesting, animal-filled wrap-up. The scenes in the conservatory (which is far from a “Garden of Death,” but the magazine needed a snappy title for the cover) and the discovery that Malbray uses the flowers as a sort of naturalist clock, just didn’t grab my attention.

Gibson does try something unusual for a mystery novel: he has the hero and his accomplices figure out the entire plot not long after the middle of the book—and they let the readers know it. The rest of the story is about how our heroes try to bring down the villain of the piece with this knowledge. Gibson set up an interesting challenge with this, but doesn’t fully succeed. It's another reason the book sags in the middle. That the murderer's identity is pretty transparent even before this doesn’t help, either.

Still, the animal attacks and the villain’s death-by-ficus make for amusing reads. Next time I read a Shadow novel—a few months will pass before I feel the urge to grab another—I'll switch over to one of Gibson's earlier entries, when his and the publisher’s enthusiasm was higher.

Garden of Death is currently available in a single volume with The Vampire Murders.

12 November 2007

The Shadow in Chain of Death

Chain of Death (1934)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

A couple times during the year, I find myself pulled back to my stacks of reprints from the hero pulps of yesteryear to thrill again to the adventures of Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Operator #5, and… The Shadow.

Of all these heroes, The Shadow is the one I enjoy the most. The Doc Savage adventures by Lester Dent are certainly a high adventure kick, but their comic relief grows a touch tedious. How much of that silly pig kickin’ around with Monk can you take? The Spider novels by Norvell Page are about as bonkers as anything written during the time, but their utter insanity means I can only take the loopiness in smaller doses. But I am always surprised with Walter B. Gibson’s cleverness in his Shadow espisodes: considering that he wrote two of these novels a month, he seems to have really taken his time constructing clever mystery plots.

I just finished reading another Shadow novel, Chain of Death, which appeared in The Shadow magazine in 1934. This is one of Gibson’s less action-oriented entries, and leans toward suspense and deduction. The principal conceit is two sets of codes that the Shadow must crack if he is to get to the bottom of “Crime, Inc.,” an organization of criminal planners in which each member only knows two other members, the one who recruited him and the one whom he recruited. They set up the titular chain of death that sends suggestions for crime schemes up and down the links using their coded messages. Imagine what these blokes could have achieved through email! But that would take away from the clandestine fun of hiding the messages. Eventually, the Shadow cracks the code in time to intercept Crime, Inc.’s new scheme aboard a luxury yacht and so bring the novel to an action finale.

The codes are clever ideas, and since I doubt Gibson had the time to concot them both out of nothing (this was the second novel he wrote for that month) he must have had some outside inspiration. The first code uses a simple substitution method, and the codebreakers in the police department decipher it rapidly. But that code is a purposeful blind from Crime, Inc. to distract from the importance of the second code. The second code is not based on the characters, but the spaces between the characters. An entire chapter deals with the Shadow sitting in his sanctum and deducing the meaning of this strange scrawl of symbols, and it makes fascinating reading.

Astonishing that Gibson could come up with this kind of stuff week after week… and keep it up from 1931 until 1949, with only a few breaks! The pulp era was truly a different writing world than what we have today.

Chain of Death is available in single pulp-sized volume with Death’s Premium.

10 November 2007

Re-Cap, Part 5: Captain America vs. Captain America

There’s a large gap from where we left off in Captain America to where we pick-up today, but I’ve moved ahead to a huge time in the character’s history, one of his sterling ages: The Steve Englehart Years.

With issue #153 (1972), Captain America finally got back on its feet. After Stan Lee surrendered the writing chores in #142, the magazine went through a down-phase. The letters from readers of the time indicated that they were aware of the slump in the writing. Gary Friedrichs and then Gerry Conway took over the scripting duties, and neither man is a slouch (Conway created the Punisher, fer cryin’ out loud, and killed Gwen Stacy in the most famous Spider-Man story of all time), but until #153 and writer Steve Englehart, Captain America was definitely in one of its least interesting eras. A very long Hydra plot that gave way to not one, but two secret masterminds (the Kingpin and then—for the four-hundreth freakin’ time—the Red Skull), a ridiculous child-kidnapping story that throws Cap and the Falcon against an alien mastermind called The Stranger (sorry, that’s work for the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, not a more realistically centered hero like Cap), and some other forgettable one-offs that I can’t even recall at the moment (hence the term “forgettable”) . . . well, it wasn’t a compelling series of issues.

But finally, a classic era started when I got to #153. I knew it was coming, since I’m familiar with Cap’s publishing history, but Englehart’s first arc on the title is such a fresh and exciting piece of work that I could feel the excitement of it thirty-five years later.

Englehart’s tenure on the comic is one of the major periods for Captain America. Three legendary stories arose from it: “The Secret Empire,” which puts Cap against an internal enemy of the U.S.; “The Nomad Saga,” where Steve Rogers surrenders the mantle of the Star-Spangled Avenger and takes up a new identity; and the “1950s Captain America” epic which starts in #153 and runs until #156 . . . and continues to have repercussions to this day.

This story is also an excellent example of how “retroactive continuity” (i.e. altering a character’s back history to affect current events) doesn’t have to be annoying or a cop-out. Properly used, a retcon can generate thrilling creative possibilities. Englehart must have looked over years of questions from readers who wanted to know: “Who was the Captain America who appeared in the 1950s comics?” This question popped up in many earlier letter columns, and at one point Stan Lee simply dismissed it: those comics came from another time, and they don’t necessarily carry over into our present comic history. (He also said that—unlike DC Comics—Marvel would not create any alternate Earths to explain the Gold Age versions of current heroes. Smart move.)

It’s a good answer from Stan. I wish more comic writers today would stop worrying about continuity concerns and simply go with the flow. Discrepancy from thirty years ago? Man, just ignore it. Follow the Tao. So many writers and artists, so many years . . . it no longer matters that everything fits together. Seek the way of the water.

But Steve Englehart devised an ingenious retcon that actually advances and serves the character of Captain America.

What was it that needed retconning? Answering the reader question mentioned above: “Who was the Captain America of the 1950s?”

If you aren’t a comic book reader or a Captain America fan, this will all be new to you and possibly a touch confusing. Hang out a bit and I’ll see if I can clarify this with a chronological approach.

Captain America and his partner Bucky first appeared in comic books in 1941 and stayed immensely popular during World War II. The characters continued to appear in comics after the end of the war, but Cap’s popularity declined until 1950, when his last starring magazine got the axe. (Other spandex-wearing do-gooders were vanishing around the same time as the superhero bubble of the 1940s burst.)

In 1953 Cap and Bucky returned in issue #24 of a comic book called Young Men (originally Young Men on the Battlefield). This was meant to be the same hero from the 1940s, since he still has the name Steve Rogers. But he’s a bit . . . uh, different. He now works as a college professor in his day job, and plays the part of “Commie Smasher!” in his superhero identity. No Nazis anymore, so Cap takes up the Cold Warrior job. This new version didn’t work out with the readers, and after a few issues Cap vanished from the newsstands again.

We leap ahead to 1964, and Avengers #4. The Silver Age has gotten underway, and Marvel has made a name for itself as the innovator of the new era. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decide to bring back one of the company’s older heroes (one whom Jack co-created), Captain America. In this famous issue, the Avengers find Steve Rogers frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. The story explains that Cap was in suspended animation since the closing days of World War II, when an exploding Nazi drone plane he was trying to stop apparently killed Bucky and tossed Cap into the ocean. It’s a clever retcon that got the classic Captain America back into modern action without aging him—and gave him solid conflicts (man out of time, dead partner) as well.

But this re-writing of Captain America’s history created a discrepancy. Who were those other Captain Americas? The ones who continuing appearing in comics until 1950? And what about that one who appeared briefly in the mid-1950s? They couldn’t be Steve Rogers; according to the new history, he was napping in an ice cube all that time.

The question of the Captain America of the second half of the 1940s would eventually get retconned: they were other heroes the government hired to take Cap’s place so the citizens of the U.S. wouldn’t know he died. But the Cap of the 1950s was the one that Englehart took on and explained when he debuted on the magazine.

In issue #153, while Steve Rogers takes a well-deserved holiday with sweetie Sharon Carter in the Caribbean, somebody in a Captain America costume shows up in Harlem and starts beating people up and using inappropriate racial language. The Falcon tries to stop him, and finds that although this man looks and sounds exactly like Steve Rogers, he’s inhumanly strong and vilely bigoted, shouting a bunch of McCarthyesque nonsense about “the Reds.” And he has an equal vile sidekick named Bucky. In issue #154, Falcon notices that this “Cap”’s costume isn’t correct either. The impostor Cap and Bucky, however, claim they are the real deal and that the other Cap is really the fake, probably working for the commies! He and “Bucky” race off to the Caribbean to take care of the real Captain America, and Falcon races down there to cut them off and get a warning to Steve about these maniacs.

The two impostors lay an ambush and capture Cap, the Falcon, and Sharon, and then we finally find out who these nutcases actually are (although judging from the letter columns, quite a few fans could guess): they are the Captain America and Bucky of the 1950s.

Issue #155 is a weird but cool “origins” issue, which uses actual panels from Young Men in a clever re-working of the 1950s version of Cap. This unnamed individual who took on the name “Steve Rogers” (even to this day, his real name remains unknown) idolized Captain America, and through his tireless research he discovered the formula for the super soldier serum that created the original the Living Legend of World War II. “Steve Rogers” tried to sell the U.S. government on making him the new Captain America to beef up morale during the Korean War, but darn it, just when the deal looks set, the war eneds. The project got scrapped, but “Steve” went ahead with the project on his own, and turned one of his college students (Jack Monroe, although he won’t receive that name until later) into his sidekick.

And thus, a new Captain America and Bucky are born!

But all is not well. . . .

The new Cap ‘n’ Bucky never underwent the vita-ray treatment to stabilize the super soldier serum in their bodies. This means they have super-strength greater than the real Captain America’s, but the unstable serum eventually drove them insane. They turned into paranoid whack-jobs who believe anyone who isn’t a WASP must be a commie agent! This is Englehart’s not-so-subtle but nonetheless effective comment on the HUAC witch-hunts of the 1950s, and the unthinking jingoism that had gone so out-of-date by 1970s. The U.S. government finally recognized that the new Cap was dangerous, so they captured him and Bucky and placed them in suspended animation until some cure might be found for their affliction. None was, and the years passed. . . .

Nixon’s trip to China triggered some loon to unleash the old 1950s Cap and Bucky on a world that “needs” their kind of stupid bigotry, which leads to this whole exciting affair in Captain America #153–#156.

What Englehart handles exceptionally well here is having the real Captain America confront the stereotype of what many readers of the 1970s might have held about the character. The magazine had dealt with this problem since the late 1960s; in the growing radical environment (and most of Marvel’s readers were college kids), was Cap’s old-fashioned heroism passé? Was he, in fact, a near-fascist symbol? Could Cap evolve with the times?

As the 1970s got underway, the magazine continued to wrestle with the problem of making Cap modern in a world where most people would dismiss him as an “establishment goon.” Hell, if I were a student in the period, that’s exactly how I would pin down the character.

Englehart’s opening arc confronts the problem in a superb way, by having Cap confront the possibility of what he might have turned into. And he blames himself for this maniac. Here was a boy who idolized him, but somehow turned into everything that Cap hates: a racist, a fascist! The story says, “Captain America isn’t a fascist, isn’t an outdated symbol—but look how thin the line between the two is.” We see what Captain America actually stands for, but also experience the dark side of that meaning at the same time.

Great comic book writing: taking the central core of a character, and using his history to peer deeper into it—and at the same time telling an awesome action story.

I’ve known about this story for most of my life, but now that I’ve read the actual comics . . . I’m in awe.

Previous episode: A One-Shot Captain America Glut

Next Episode: No, Not the Porcupine!

29 October 2007

The Big Sleep '78

The Big Sleep (1978)
Directed by Michael Winner. Starring Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark, Joan Collins, Edward Fox, John Mills, James Stewart, Oliver Reed.

I finally watched the 1978 film of The Big Sleep, the second adaptation of Raymond Chandler's premiere novel. The first movie version is the well-known 1946 (completed in 1944 but kept on the shelf) star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks. The 1978 re-make of the novel stars Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, who had played the character three years earlier in Farewell, My Lovely, and is directed by Michael Winner, best known for Deathwish, one of the touchstone flicks of the 1970s.

Although I am a Chandler fanatic, I have avoided the Big Sleep '78 for years, mostly because of the horrible reviews I had read of it, and because of my low opinion of most of Mr. Winner's films. But now that I've actually seen the movie, I'm surprised to say that it's not that bad. Certainly it's the best thing of Winner's I've seen. It still suffers from a tremendous conceptual flaw, one I always knew it had, but it does occasionally overcome it. More about that in a moment.

To put my viewing of Big Sleep '78 in context, you have to know that I am not fond of the 1946 version, considered a "classic" of film noir. It is too slick and clean-scrubbed, bowing to the puritanical Hayes Code, and the script waters-down Chandler's plot so that ending doesn't make much sense. (Plenty of people have griped that the whole film doesn't make much sense, but the novel has a similar confused plotting.) The changes that keep Bogart and Bacall in a constant flirtatious relationship go against the grain of the characters from the book and lightens the demented tone of the novel. Bogart also plays Marlowe as too hard and too much like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The score by Max Steiner is superb, however.

I was surprised to find that Winner's version is incredibly faithful to the novel, duplicating most of the dialogue and the scenes. It keeps the downbeat, negative ending (and consequently makes much more sense than the more positive wrap-up in Big Sleep '46 that pawns off Carmen's killings on Eddie Mars, and then makes him pay for his crimes with a few bullets from his own men) and avoids making a romance between Mitchum's Marlowe and Sara Miles's Charlotte Sternwood (changed from "Vivian" Sternwood in the book, I have no idea why). Whole chunks of Chandler's exposition appear in a voiceover by Mitchum, which he also did in Farewell, My Lovely. Some of the casting is quite ingenious. Mitchum is a much mellower Marlowe, and consequently a more faithful to the character than Bogart. Jimmy Stewart as the lonely, dying General Sternwood, and Richard Boone as the sadistic killer Lash Canino, are right on target. Candy Clark has a good time as the demented and childish girl-toy Camilla Sternwood (changed from "Carmen" Sternwood in the book, I have no idea why). And Oliver Reed and Joan Collins…

Wait a second, you're thinking…Oliver Reed and Joan Collins? What if I also told you that Harry Andrews, Edward Fox, John Mills, and Colin Blakely are also in the movie? Hey, isn't that a huge amount of English actors for a classic Los Angeles detective story?

Yes, it is. And that's the film's big problem. Somebody, and I'll wager it was English native Michael Winner, decided to move the film's backdrop from 1939 Los Angeles to 1978 London. This is like moving Sherlock Holmes from Victorian London to 1930s Los Angeles—an essential element of the character is lost. I have no problem with updating Marlowe into the modern day—Robert Altman did it superbly in 1973 with The Long Goodbye—but ripping Marlowe and Chandler from the seedy 'n' sunny world of Los Angeles robs them of their reason for existence. The old, aristocratic, proper, and overcast setting of London doesn't make any sense for Philip Marlowe. Sure, it means you can cast Oliver Reed as Eddie Mars and Joan Collins as the manipulative bookshop lady, but it still means the rest of the film just feels "off." It's Chandler's words and actions, but it's not his world. This is the reason the public has mostly forgotten the film, despite some of its qualities.

28 October 2007

Yet more Jirel of Joiry!

Tired of hearing about Jirel of Joiry, C. L. Moore's classic fantasy heroine? I've done plenty of work with her, and since she had a tremendous effect on me as a writer—my heroine Kristel from Z-Dancer owes Jirel a heavy debt of inspiration—I've find myself coming back to the topic of the fierce and beautiful noblewoman of the medieval fiefdom of Joiry. I wrote an in-depth article on the the Jirel stories which is currently available on Black Gate. And now along comes another article about Jirel: a book review of a recent release of all the stories, Black God's Kiss. This volume (which at last includes the elusive "Quest of the Starstone") comes to us from Planet Stories, a division of Paizo Publications. I have a few more of Paizo nifty reprint volumes to review, so keep watching this spot for updates on when they will appear.

At this point, what else can I say about Jirel? If you haven't read her exploits, well... you know how I feel about her.

26 October 2007

The Justice League at a Halloween Party

The big Halloween Bash at Lindy Groove last night came with a pleasant surprise: a gathering of The Justice League!

I wore my Batman costume, seen at the bottom of this entry (and in the previous entry in video), which gets a lot of compliments, principally for the full latex cowl that I purchased separately from the rest of the outfit. Upon walking into the party, I immediately ran into a guy wearing a Nightwing costume. Nightwing, for those of you who don't follow the Batman Universe, is the current hero identity of the original Robin, Dick Grayson. The guy (who's real name is Chris, and who I've seen at numerous dance events) was thrilled that somebody could identify the outfit. We then immediately noticed two people in Flash and Green Lantern. I realized that if we could only find a Superman and a Wonder Woman, we would have a full Justice League roster, and we could enter the costume contest as a group. There was already a contingent of people dressed up as the characters from "Clue," so why not?

And, indeed, a Superman and a Wonder Woman showed up later.

So, without any planning, six people who came to the party separately formed into the invincible Justice League!

Admission: Nightwing isn't commonly thought of a JL member; he's usually associated with the Teen Titans and the Outsiders. But he's a Batman character and a major DC Universe player, so nobody will raise a fuss. Certainly nobody there cared.

Yes, we got in the finalists, and formed a JL conga line! Then we danced in a circle and showed off our superpowers of weird dance moves.

Just another good example of the wonderful power of Halloween to bring people together through collectively dressing bizzarely.

(No, we didn't win the contest. The winner was a man in an Optimus Prime outfit from Transformers, and I won't begrudge him the prize. It was a stellar piece of work that he must have invested a significant amount of time on.)

25 October 2007

Re-Cap, Part 4: A One-Shot Captain America Glut

Further along in my Captain America DVD-ROM and my effort to eventually read every single issue of Cap’s comics. . . .

After issue #109 (an even longer re-telling of our hero’s origin, with Jack Kirby going for gold in the artwork, and also creating continuity issues for many later writers), a lot of creative re-shuffling took place. Kirby moved with his family to Southern California and took on fewer projects at Marvel, putting his energies mostly into The Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor—and eventually left the company entirely to work for a spell at DC. A round-robin of artists started on Captain America, most notably Jim Steranko. His trademark surreal style was a complete blast for the few issues he did, which covered Rick Jones trying to take on the mantle of Cap’s old partner Bucky and the appearance of Madame Hydra (later to rename herself Viper) as one of the principle villains.

This would lead immediately into a great arc in issues #110–#113 where Cap seems to die, but then arranges his dramatic return (in a stunning two-page spread in a graveyard fight) in such a way that people think that Steve Rogers was never Captain America. This undoes the revelation of Cap’s secret identity made earlier on, and returns to the superhero status quo of having a hidden life. Other events will further eradicate the “secret identity” problem in the pages of The Avengers, where the Space Phantom wipes away everybody’s memories of the connection between Rogers and Captain America. Not only do they not believe that Rogers is Cap, they don’t remember ever having believed it. Whoa. Weird.

After this, a Red Skull epic starts, and after single issues drawn each by John Romita Sr. (currently in the middle of his famous stint on The Amazing Spider-Man) and John Buscema (currently in the middle of his famous stint on The Avengers), the magazine finally gets a new regular artist, Gene Colan. Colan was drawing the Iron Man feature in Tales of Suspense when Captain America was sharing the magazine, and he must have seemed a natural to take on Cap. Colan’s artwork is more realistic and shaded than most of Marvel artists, which is ideal for Tomb of Dracula, his signature series. I find him a bit too gloomy for Captain America, but I can’t deny his considerable talents. The huge arc with the Skull is a kick, involving the return of the cosmic cube and the Skull forcing a body switch on poor Cap. This leads to a hilarious sequence in #116 of Cap—in the Red Skull's body—participating in a car chase with the police. Hey, it’s different.

However, Stan Lee seems to have forgotten that the Red Skull's face is only a mask in this issue. Cap runs around in a panic because he looks like the Red Skull and authorities will attack him the moment they see him, but he doesn’t think to just take off the stupid mask! In #117, he suddenly “remembers” that the face is merely a mask and rips it off. He immediately alters his features with some clay so the Skull’s true face won’t be revealed to readers. That’s a stretch; I don’t think Stan had carefully thought this part out yet and was trying to patch up a potential problem.

Issue #117, “The Coming of . . . The Falcon!” is one of the crucial points in Captain America’s history: the introduction of the Falcon, a hero who will become Cap’s closest ally and his partner in crime-fighting (and in the comic’s title) for many years. He followed in the wave of African-American heroes who were emerging in comics, but unlike the exotic Black Panther, an African ruler, the Falcon comes from the streets of Harlem, U.S.A.

The character immediately grabbed readers’ attention (as the praise in the letter columns shows), and breathed new life into Cap’s personal story, which was growing a bit stale with the “I-love-Sharon-but-we-can't-share-our-life” business. Not that those issues will stop either. At least Rick Jones leaves the equation, since he got a major supporting role over in the Captain Marvel title, and had no time to worry about if he’ll succeed as Bucky or not. It will be a long time before Rick Jones shows up in Captain America again.

However, with the end of the Red Skull epic—AIM conveniently de-powers the Cosmic Cube in time for Cap and Falcon to beat the obdurate Nazi nutcase—the magazine enters into a dull holding pattern of one-shots. From evidence in later letter columns, it seems that readers were complaining about too many multi-issue tales, so Stan responded with the order of doing one-issue stories. This didn’t last long, since the fickle readers soon started complaining the other direction, and the writers and artists increasingly found themselves pushing into longer stories anyway. But for the time being Captain America tried to fit the “one issue/one story” pattern.

And the first one-shot in #120 isn’t too bad. “Crack-Up on Campus” is one of the most realistic stories to yet appear in the magazine, and it brings Captain America into contact with the protest counterculture of 1970, something that hadn’t come up much before. How do Cap’s old-fashioned attitudes and credentials as of a member of “The Establishment” contrast with the progressive attitudes of the youth of the day? Specifically, the youth who were reading the comic book? Stan Lee’s scripting is purposely trying to make Cap look less stuffy here, while also making him more dramatic and conflicted. Here our hero stops a student protest that gets out of hand when AIM tries to manipulate it for its own ends. The student radical painted at first as the villain ends up aiding Cap. We’re going to see more of this kind of story in the near future.

In the next three four issues, Cap faces Man-Brute, Scorpion, Suprema, and a cyborg in forgettable one-offs. Both Man-Brute and Suprema are utterly disposable menaces; Scorpion is a major foe from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, but nothing too interesting happens here and he and Cap only get in a lesser scuffle.

In #125 our hero flies out to Vietnam! Another political turning point has come in the Captain America comic books, where Cap sees the conflict as deeper and more ambiguous than the silly “Red Menace” tone that Marvel took toward the country in the mid-‘60s; just compare it to Tales of Suspense #61 to see the enormous difference in attitude. Stan Lee mentions in one of the letter columns that the company decided no longer to use foreign nationals as convenient villainous scapegoats, and here Cap intervenes in the Vietnam conflict not to overtly aid one side or another. It should have been an epic; this one-issue tale can't do the idea justice, and the villain the Mandarin shows up only long enough to blast a few things and end the story. A shame.

The Falcon returns in issue #126, and it’s another excellent idea chopped off at the knees by the need to wrap everything up in twenty pages. Captain America and the Falcon battle a hate group called the Diamond Heads in Harlem, and eventually discover that the leader of the group is actually a white member of the Maggia (Marvel's equivalent of the Mafia) who has manipulated racial tension in order for the Maggia to take over crime in the neighborhood. Seen today, some of the racial attitudes sound a touch paternalistic (constant talk of “your people”), but nevertheless comics were moving into serious social issues in a way they never had before. And again, the Falcon really breathes life into the comic. The mask the leader of the Diamond Heads wears is also groovy—too bad nobody ever found a running use for the concept.

In #127, Nick Fury and SHIELD purposely frame Cap in order to draw him into a battle with a cyborg so they can ferret out an actual traitor. This outlandish plot gets Cap pretty steamed at SHIELD and further puts a barrier between him and Sharon; it’s also just a bit contrived. Cap gets out of town in #128, buying a motorcycle (and having yet another flashback to Bucky’s death, because he was riding a motocycle the day Bucky bought it) and heading for parts unknown. True to evolving form, he saves some kids at a peace-lovin’ rock concert from some nasty bikers! Stan Lee’s hilarious admission that they had mis-drawn an entire scene, but had to let it slide, is a nice view of how chaotic things could get at Marvel.

Okay, the Skull returns in the next issue, and we’ll soon climb out of this one-plot-per month rut. And, off on the horizon, the amazing tenure of Steve Englehart as Cap’s author.

Last episode: Captain America #1(00)

Next episode: Captain America vs. Captain America