Saturday, August 10, 2013

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #35

"Return of the Ant-Man" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(September 1962)

Dr. Henry Pym, the scientist who reduced himself to ant size in Tales to Astonish #27 ("The Man in the Ant Hill"), is now back as a superhero. Again, I'm still not sure if that story was simply a test of the concept, or if Stan Lee went back to it and decided to turn Pym into Marvel's latest superhero, the Ant-Man. (Everyone says it like that, too: "the Ant-Man.") It took almost a year between Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1, so obviously there can be some lag time in the bullpen. Maybe it's just been in the works for some time and Stan had other stuff to take care of first.

After a brief recap of that story and an explanation of Dr. Pym's reducing and enlarging gases, we're shown that Pym continued to study ants. Lately, he's been able to crack the way they communicate and built a helmet that translates their electronic vibration signals into English words.

But before his work can continue, he and a team of scientists are tasked with creating a gas that makes people immune to the effects of radiation, because that sounds like a plausible thing. Dr. Pym and his team are set upon by Soviet spies trying to steal the formula, and it's then that Henry Pym must become the Ant-Man and head to the police for help head back to the ant hill and gather an army of ants.

In short order, Henry learns to communicate with the ants, befriends them, saves them from an attacking beetle, and then uses them to fight off and capture the spies.

That's all there is to it, really. Along the way, in the Stan and Jack style, we learn about Ant-Man's powers and abilities, and just what the ants can do when they're fighting bad guys. (Answer: not much so far. They jam up gun barrels with honey, bite and sting a guy's ankles, and untie Henry's friends. This issue doesn't really make an army of ants look like a valuable ally in the Cold War.)

So, Ant-Man saves the day, but has yet to reveal himself to the public. Will he have to become the Ant-Man again? You know the answer to that one, dear reader.

Other observations:

:: You can tell Stan Lee wrote this issue, because there are a lot of asides about Ant-Man's equipment and how they work.

It's interesting to keep in mind that Henry Pym doesn't really have superpowers, he's just a brilliant scientist who has created something possibly useful that he uses to hang out with ants and punch bad guys.

It doesn't quite piss me off as much as Peter Parker creating miracle adhesive fluid and never thinking to patent it, but seriously, Doc--the reducing gas alone could revolutionize mechanics. Hell, he created the stuff in the first place for military applications, but there's so much more that could be done with it. He also has created this cybernetic helmet that lets him communicate with an animal species! Why stop with ants? This could be the first step to true animal-human communication.

But really, the only thing Henry has that could be considered a superpower is that when he's ant-sized, he retains all of his human strength. Which, honestly, makes it seem like he could have just walked up to any one of those communists and knocked him over instead of setting ants on him, but what do I know? I'm not a professional comics writer and there are ants to be used!

Also, Henry still knows judo, which as we see for a second time is an important skill when fighting an insect with a hard exoskeleton.

Henry's suit, we're told, is made of unstable molecules and also lined with steel mesh, which is why the mandibles of the ant he fights don't rip his arm off.

:: I have to admit, I do love the Ant-Man costume. It's one of my favorites in all of Marvel Comics, for some reason. It just really captured my imagination as a kid. It looks very much of its time to me, which is probably why I like it: it's like how an artist in 1962 might imagine some kind of space suit. Retro-futuristic.

:: Unfortunately, in application Ant-Man is pretty lame. These are going to be some of my least favorite comics going forward, honestly. Great concept, but the writing won't always be very inventive and Henry Pym as a character will be fairly shallow and dull. To be fair, his stories are about a third of the space in an anthology book, so there's not a lot of room to really deepen the guy like there is in Fantastic Four or The Incredible Hulk. But much like Thor, I think they waste Ant-Man for a while on more mundane threats.

Coming next: Kurrgo, Master of Planet X!

Tom, Cookie; Cookie, Tom

Proven fact: hanging out with Muppets can make you up to 87% cooler in my eyes.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Marvels: Journey Into Mystery #84

"The Mighty Thor vs. The Executioner" by Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(September 1962)

This issue sets the general tone for the next year or so of stories and introduces us to Dr. Donald Blake's nurse, Jane Foster. (Though here she's called Jane Nelson, so either someone forgot or they just didn't like it.)

I'll just admit up front: I don't like Jane Foster. Honestly, I don't like Dr. Blake, either. Thor has great potential right off the bat, but what Lieber and Kirby set up here is a love triangle that is going to be constantly... well, silly.

Blake's in love with Jane, but he doesn't think she could ever love someone who's lame (which isn't giving her very much credit). For her part, Jane has real feelings for Blake and admires his selflessness, but feels he's not interested in her at all because he's cold towards her. And then, of course, Jane falls instantly for Thor and wishes Blake could be more like the Norse god he embodies. And it goes around and around, like a less sophisticated Archie Comics, a collection of stereotypes aimed at teenage boys.

For some time, this will be one of my least favorite things in Marvel Comics: female characters who are primarily motivated by their conflicted romantic interests in a man and, unknowingly, his heroic alter ego. Think of the real attempts Stan and Jack are already making to try and turn Sue Storm into a character with dimension on Fantastic Four. Jane Foster is going to have none of that any time soon. It's frustrating.

Especially with Thor, the powerful god of thunder, being wasted in a plot that feels routine and by-the-numbers. Here, Dr. Blake, Nurse Jane and other medical professionals journey to the fictional country of San Diablo to offer medical relief. It's basically Cuba, and the communist dictator who has taken power--your standard Castro analogue--is so ruthless and has sent so many to the firing squad that he's been given the name "The Executioner." (Sadly, he's not fighting the Asgardian Executioner yet.)

Most of the story is Thor fighting the Executioner's Soviet-supplied jets and tanks, and then rescuing Jane when she's captured. The Executioner is a real pig, always eating a turkey leg or something, and tries to force Jane to marry him, because American women are always automatically fascinating and coveted because they're American. It's that kind of story in that kind of time period. Blake has his cane taken away, but goads the Executioner with that hoary old "fight me like a man" jazz.

So, Thor saves the day, Jane wishes Blake could be more like Thor, Blake laughs it off and practically winks at the reader, and then it's over.

Not much of a story, but some decent Kirby art. Feels like filler.

Up next: Ant-Man, for real this time.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

Marvels: Incredible Hulk #3

There are three stories in this issue, so I'll tackle them individually.

"Banished to Outer Space" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(September 1962)

Rick Jones turns out to be quite the patriot in this issue. At last someone's noticed the connection between Rick and the Hulk, and General "Thunderbolt" Ross wants Rick to lead the Hulk into a rocket so the Army can launch him into outer space. (They call it, quite naturally, "Project H.") Ross tells Rick that it's a matter of national security--that only the Hulk can withstand the massive g-forces of this experimental rocket--but of course he's really just shooting the Hulk into space and washing his hands of the whole thing. So, through Rick Jones, General Ross saves the Earth from the menace of the Hulk!


Because, come on.

As soon as the rays of the sun hit the Hulk in that rocket, he turns back into Bruce Banner just in time to get hit with a dose of radiation. The rocket is unshielded and, I assume, this is the same radiation belt that gave the Fantastic Four their powers (and will bestow powers on still others). So, for the second time, Dr. Banner is flooded with a massive dose of radiation.

Rick realizes he's been duped and, his loyalty to Bruce ever at the fore, he uses a control panel to bring the rocket back down to rescue his friend. But instead he finds the Hulk, raging and angry and in broad daylight! It seems the second radiation blast has given the Hulk the power to come forward in the daytime, though how this transformation was triggered isn't really gone into.

Instead, the rest of the story focuses on something else that's happened: when Rick shocks himself on the control panel, he is somehow linked with the Hulk, giving him the power to command the Hulk. Anything he tells the Hulk to do, the Hulk does. The Hulk is now mindless, but under the control of Rick Jones. But! If Rick falls asleep, the mental link is broken.

The Hulk also first shows his ability to leap great distances, which a soldier mistakes on the cover for flying, and which a great many fan letter will also complain looks like flying, often declaring a flying Hulk as just one step too much.

The story itself is actually pretty tense. The pages with the Hulk chasing Rick and Rick trapping him in the rocket are exciting, and when the Hulk comes back for revenge, you catch your breath for a second. Great art in this issue.

But the story is also indicative of just how hard it was for Stan and Jack to get a handle on what the Hulk was and how he worked. They've decided to stop making him only the Hulk at night, and now he's just apparently going to be the Hulk until... well, who knows?

"The Origin of the Hulk!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers

This is just a few pages to retell the origin and what the connection is between Rick and the Hulk. It's all new art, though, and Kirby makes good use of the panels. Again, you can tell Marvel Comics are becoming popular now, because we're revisiting the origins.

"The Ringmaster!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers

The Hulk has been hunted by the Army and tangled with aliens, but this story is really the first time the Hulk has faced what you'd call a super villain. (Again, that term is really only useful if you consider hypnotism a super power.) The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime are going from town to town pulling the same scam: get everyone in the circus tent, hypnotize them, rob them, and then apparently leave them there, catatonic.

The Hulk comes into it when Rick, trying to take a night off and blow off some steam (on the advice of his kindly Aunt Polly), becomes one of the hypnotized. His mental link with the Hulk is broken, but instead of going wild, Hulk actually decides he must rescue the boy.

The Ringmaster, however, brings the rampaging Hulk down with... a fire hose? Huh. That seems anticlimactic. Then one of the Ringmaster's goons almost shoots the Hulk, until the Ringmaster stops him and makes the fateful decision to turn the Hulk into one of his exhibitions, which makes me wonder: at this point, do Stan and Jack think that the Hulk could be killed with a simple headshot? I mean, they do think he can be subdued with a fire hose, so who knows? There just isn't a lot of Hulk consistency at this point.

Of course, it doesn't last long, and when Rick comes to and finds the Hulk again, the Hulk goes bonkers and takes on the whole circus and nearly kills everyone. And then there's this classic panel of Hulk punching an elephant in the gut:

So that's pretty nifty.

And in the end, Rick and the Hulk escape with another one of those mighty leaps.

And... well, that's it.

Some fun stuff, actually. This has probably been the best issue so far, even though it plays a little wildly unfocused. Stan and Jack are so unsure of how to make this character work that at this point they aren't even committing to issue-length stories. They're just trying to tinker with him to get something going!

Not a Marvel Masterpiece, but not a bad issue. They just need to get the balance right.

Next time: Thor battles Commies!

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Well, it certainly delivers as a movie about men stripping. And it also delivers as another of Soderbergh's fascinations with both how industries work and how they represent the larger picture of the American economy. It's both a beefcake-filled stripper pic that feels remarkably not exploitative (though hot... very hot) and a commentary on How We Live Now. Naturalistic acting, beautifully shot, and Matthew McConaughey--who has been on fire the last couple of years--is mesmerizing. The only complaint I really have is that I feel like it follows the expected beats of a rise-and-fall picture in a way that's not quite organic and a little too structure-dictated. On the other hand, the running time doesn't beat you to death. ***1/2

Hilariously earnest teen picture about a bunch of kids who stage a protest in order to keep their favorite teacher (a hilariously earnest William Shatner) from being fired after agreeing to a frank discussion on sex. The issue here is free speech and whether kids are allowed to have it in schools, but mainly it's just a lot of weird bongo music and tap dancing around the ideas at play. For all the talk about the importance of frank discussion, people use a lot of code words and vagaries. Kind of fun to see Captain Kirk arguing about his job with the school's principal, Edward Platt (the Chief from Get Smart) about discussing sex with students such as Patty McCormack and a quite young Beau Bridges. Even Stafford Repp, Chief O'Hara from Batman, appears as... a policeman! Ha! Seriously, though, it's quite tedious. **

GASP! (2013)
Three more wonderful Mickey Mouse shorts. **** each.

I was surprised by this one. As you know, I'll watch anything animated simply because I love the medium, and the animation here (particularly in regards to lighting and background) was beautiful. But I was surprised at how much I got wrapped up in the story and the characters. Yes, it's another young-white-guy-doesn't-believe-in-himself-but-then-does story, but I liked the fantasy worlds it creates and the rules it sets for itself and actually manages to follow. Well-paced, too, and the characterizations, particularly of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, were clever. This is the kind of fantasy I like, and despite the overall obviousness of the story, I was wrapped up in it. It didn't take long to win me, and it didn't let me go. ****

I think it's very interesting how we're finally seeing more movies now (Spring Breakers, Little Birds) that are about the ennui of everyday life from a female perspective. For a long time, it's seemed like an almost-celebrated thing in modern American films for a young man to drop out of society and go back home until he's ready to take on the world again (or completely drop out in the most selfish and irresponsible of ways and die by his own stupidity, like that weirdly-admired fuckwit in Into the Wild). It's more challenging, for me, to see it from the female perspective, since we seem to expect women in movies to either have it all together or to only be struggling with the "needs" of her gender (you know, being really good at your job but having it mean nothing because you don't have a man to serve or children to subsume your personality for). Women aren't always allowed to be weak or authentic or often well-rounded in American movies, and this one pulled me in because it just seemed so honest. I can relate on certain levels, because of my current emotional/mental situation. I get it: there's a huge gulf between life as it is and life as we expect it to be, and you can lose years of your life focusing on the unhappiness of it. Here, Kristen Bell plays a journalist who leaves her job and moves back home and takes up her old job of being a lifeguard at a local pool. She starts hanging out with her old friends, listlessly smoking weed, and having sex with a teenager, and generally getting herself more and more lost. The film sees the character with both sympathy and criticism, observing as she finds her way back to her adult self without damning or celebrating her. ****

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Me Want It (But Me Wait)

For the second summer in a row, the Sesame Workshop have taken Cookie Monster and the year's most insufferably awful song and turned it into something cute. (Previously.)


So, the announcement came out that Peter Capaldi will play the Twelfth Doctor.

I have to say, I'm looking forward to his run as the character. He's the same age now that William Hartnell was when he started in the role back in '63, and this makes me happy. I'm tired of the young guys. I was hoping against hope that we wouldn't have another Doctor in his twenties. I wanted a little more gravitas.

Though, again--and here's the beginning of a long aside--I have to stress that my seething annoyance with the current run of Doctor Who really isn't Matt Smith's fault. He's not the problem; he's mostly done a fine job with what they've given him. It's Steven Moffat's approach to the show I don't like.

Under Steven Moffat, the show has become a sort of fairybook fantasy with a running theme of people as the embodiment of stories and the Doctor himself as somehow the linchpin of the whole of existence. He's also played up the Doctor's worst character elements and turned him into someone so emotionally immature that he comes across like a giant 6 year-old. (I know, I've taught them.) He's become dumb about people and seems to not just like them very much.

So, if he doesn't much like people, why have companions? Because Moffat keeps throwing women at him who are sexually fascinated by him. They are also less companions than they are puzzles for him to solve. Amy is a mystery and--like River Song turned out to be--someone the Doctor took as a child and basically turned into a future obsessive helpmate. Clara is more or less the same; hell, she has to die twice onscreen, sacrificing herself for the Doctor, to get his attention. And they're both just mysteries; they don't even play an active role in what's mysterious about them, they just have the added benefit of being so in love with the Doctor and fascinated by his hapless first-grader demeanor that they have to be around him, eventually willing to give up their lives in order to serve this man, who once had compassion and now just murders Dalek mental patients without blinking.

I had an otherwise intelligent person try to explain that part of the Doctor's awkwardness is that he doesn't understand sexuality, which I found to be a ridiculous argument. 9 and 10 were hung up on Rose. 10 boffed Queen Elizabeth I. Hell, 11 dates River Song; apparently nearly the whole of their relationship occurs with 11, as Moffat couldn't resist taking an interesting character and making sure her whole existence revolved around the Doctor, too. She's just as boring as Amy and Clara for the exact same reasons. Sorry, the Doctor clearly knows all about sex. He has a granddaughter, for crying out loud, remember?

So, back to Peter Capaldi.

I've only seen him in a few things, but I'm excited they cast someone his age to play the character. I'm hoping for a different enough type of character that we can get out of Twilight mode for a while. I still don't know what to expect from Moffat, obviously. My faith in him is low. I think he's a rather defensive misogynist and something of a self-fascinated twit, and I really hate the way he and the BBC have handled this fiftieth anniversary celebration of Doctor Who. But, as a Doctor Who fan, I've no choice but to keep watching, overly romanticize the pieces I do like, and ignore the ones I don't.

That's what's so great about a show with such a long history: there's too much that's enjoyable to get hung up on the things that annoy me.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Song of the Week: "They Can't Take That Away from Me"

This kind of music... I can't explain it. It just makes me feel like the world's a little simpler and less scary. This is the makings of a pleasant Sunday morning. After my weekly vacuuming, I did the crossword, ate a frosted strawberry donut, had some lovely coffee, and listened to Ella and Louis, one of the greatest albums ever. In the mid-fifties, Ella and Louis recorded three albums together for Verve, and they are all essential. At least to my way of living. (And they're wonderfully pleasant.)

Enjoy your Sunday.