Saturday, October 05, 2013
Loki's first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #85 was successful enough to warrant a return. With 50 years of history behind us, it's easy to say now that Loki is a top tier Marvel villain, at least in the top 5 of Marvel menaces. He's not quite there yet, but I do like that, like Doctor Doom, he has a clear and strong motivation that he doesn't waver from. Loki's mission in life is to humiliate Thor and make him impotent.
In his first appearance, Loki doesn't so much endanger people as he does inconvenience them, turning things topsy-turvy with ridiculousness. If Thor protects the order of civilization, Loki seeks to confuse it and throw things into... I was going to say chaos, but it comes across more like disarray. So far, even with the powers he has, Loki seems more like a nuisance than a real danger.
What makes Loki think he'll be successful this time is that he's watching Thor's adventure in the previous issue, and discovers that Thor is also Donald Blake. Remove his enchanted hammer from his hand for more than one minute, and Thor becomes powerless and reverts to an ordinary mortal. Loki gets really excited at the thought of exploiting this weakness, which makes sense, because it's really an inconvenient weakness. (This is one of my least favorite elements of the Thor stories; though sometimes it's used for genuine suspense, that suspense can also feel cheap and contrived. Also, Thor can never just put down the hammer for a couple of minutes if he needs to. On the grand scale of lame superhero weaknesses, it's about halfway up.)
Loki's plan is pretty decent, too. He hypnotizes Jane Foster, turns a tree into a tiger to attack her, and when Thor drops his hammer to save her, Loki puts a magic force field around the hammer. That's all there is to it. Then, after Thor becomes Donald Blake again, he just turns into a pigeon and flies away, leaving a very sad Blake behind.
What's funny, though, is that Loki's really not much of a threat; he's still just making mischief. Nothing really dangerous happens, he just sort of inconveniences people or scares them. He has total free reign now to mess with the civilized world, and the first thing he does is go up to people and completely blank out their appearances so he can enjoy the panic. But he's like a child who enjoys being bad but accepts he's going to get in trouble, saying to himself "I'll wait another few minutes before I return them to normal." So, all along he plans to put everything back the way he found it? He's like a little kid, he's just playing. His next big act is to take a city block and turn all of the inanimate objects into candy, and almost pisses himself with laughter when a bunch of dogs start licking a kid's bicycle. Powers of a god; imagination of a four year-old.
In fact, he even has a chance to do something really evil when he heads north and sees a Russian MiG dropping an atomic bomb for a test; you expect he's going to do something really dangerous with that bomb, but instead he just turns the bomb into a dud and kind of giggles about it, while (hilariously) the Russian pilot worries aloud "How can we face Nikita now?"
It's just pranks. You're not really selling me on this threat to mankind. The guy's only real goal is to freak out the normals for a little while just because he knows Thor can't do anything about it and he likes rubbing it in the universe's face. Maybe he just needs Ritalin or something. Odin should make sure he doesn't have sugar.
In the end, Loki's foiled in the stupidest way; he goes to check on Thor's hammer and finds Thor standing there, already holding it. Is the hammer gone? Did Thor get it somehow? Loki lifts his force field only to find that Thor is actually a plastic dummy with a fake hammer, and then Blake jumps out and regains the hammer, still where he dropped it. Not exactly Kasparov and Deep Blue, is it?
Thor returns Loki to Asgard, humiliating him in the process, but, really: when it comes right down to it, Loki outsmarted Thor, depowered him, humbled him, messed with a bunch of people with his silly pranks, and then went home. He even saw some dogs! All he needs now is a balloon and a nap and maybe a juice box and that would probably be the best day he's had in a long time, what with Loki being a rambunctious child and all.
:: Loki escapes from Asgard in this issue by transforming himself into a snake and slithering past Heimdall. Remember how he had been trapped in a tree for centuries and managed to trick his way out? Well, after being returned to Asgard by Thor in Journey #85, Odin just decides to firmly forbid him from returning to Earth. That's it. No chains, no prison cell... he's just at large. And on the honor system. All-Father, you really only have yourself to blame this time.
:: Behold: Loki, God of Fake Beards!
Loki's not really evil yet; like I've said before, he's really there just to puncture some of Thor's dignity. It's hard for Thor to fight an enemy who doesn't just face him in open battle, but instead resorts to tricks and mischief. He's not the great villain he will be one day, but for all of my comments about him being a baby, I actually find Loki really fun. He's written with a strong, clear character; heck, even at this point he's more fully-realized than the Hulk. And he's more fun than Thor, because he doesn't have to be so noble.
Good story! I always like it when Loki shows up.
Next time: a strong contender for the lamest villain in the history of Marvel Comics.
Friday, October 04, 2013
It's only five issues in, but because Incredible Hulk has been coming out every two months, the Hulk's been in the Marvel Universe for nearly a year. Unfortunately, Stan and Jack still seem to have no idea what to do with the character. In fact, it often seems like they can't remember what happened to him in previous issues, because they keep trying desperately to retool the book, trying to get the formula right, and it just keeps not happening. At this point, you can almost see the weariness in the pages; I think Stan loves the potential of the Hulk, but he and Jack are both starting to put these out begrudgingly, frustrated with it.
Do you even remember where we are with the character at this point? Bruce Banner can now change into the Hulk whenever he wants to because of the gamma ray pad he stands on, and when he's the Hulk, he's still got Banner's mind--but, the Hulk's natural aggression and rage cloud Bruce's mind and turn him into kind of a jerk. A dangerous jerk.
The beginning of this story is just General Ross, Betty, Bruce and Rick Jones watching film of the Hulk to remind us, the ever-less-interested readers, what the Hulk's powers are and how dangerous he is. Then Stan rather artlessly shoehorns in what the character dynamic is, in case we forgot--Ross wants to destroy the Hulk and thinks Bruce is a coward and Rick is useless; Betty loves Bruce but is afraid to admit it; Bruce loves Betty but can't tell her because he's really the Hulk and that complicates things; and Rick is around because he owes Bruce his life and doesn't want to let him down.
With that out of the way, the real story suddenly begins. Watching them all from a secret kingdom underground is Tyrannus, who dresses like a poorly-researched version of Alexander the Great if he were from Ptolemaic Egypt. He was apparently banished underground "centuries ago" by Merlin, where he found a race of obedient slave-creatures (who look like a rough draft version of the Moloids, by the way), conquered them, and has been drinking a magic elixir to stay young, waiting for the right opportunity to invade the surface and conquer the world. And, apparently, spying on Betty Ross is the key to all of this. (He wants to use her to gain access to America's "atomic might.")
Tyrannus the Conqueror goes to the surface world wearing flannel and denim under the hilarious pseudonym of Mr. Tyrannus, posing as an archaeologist in order to get Betty to show him the caves. Betty agrees because Tyrannus is so perfect that she knows playing up to him will make Bruce jealous, which it does; soon, Bruce is turning into the Hulk and following the kidnapped Betty underground. Hulk is almost hilariously a jerk now, just calling Rick names and acting really arrogant. "What does it look like I'm doin', stupid?"
Tyrannus gasses the Hulk, captures him, makes him play gladiator in what's almost a proto-version of "Planet Hulk," then forces Hulk to work as a slave because he holds Betty prisoner. Tyrannus eventually tires of the Hulk and orders his execution, so Rick and Betty urge the Hulk to escape, which he does, and then he rescues the two of them while literally caving in Tyrannus' underground kingdom and escaping to the surface, where Betty now fears the Hulk more than ever.
Sorry, it was getting so boring I had to blast through that.
Stray observation: Merlin exists in the Marvel Universe according to this dialogue. In fact, in the future, I think we see a few different versions of him.
This story's really just filler. It starts with General Ross finally shooting that iceberg rocket from last issue at the Hulk (he catches Hulk when he's out exercising), but it doesn't work because the ice that covers the Hulk melts too quickly; he has body heat "like an atomic pile."
The rest of the issue is devoted to defeating General Fang, "the most brutal warlord since Genghis Khan," whose communist horde is making its way through the mountains to conquer Lhasa, apparently unaware that the Chinese government already did so in 1950.
Banner decides Fang only understands force and travels to Tibet to stop him as the Hulk. At first, he does so while wearing what I can only describe as the world's largest fuzzy bunny suit, because apparently all Chinese people are terrified of the Abominable Snowman. Then the Hulk just destroys a lot of stuff and Fang runs off alone, defeated and pursued by American troops, and the people of Lhasa are safe, despite having already been taken over by China 13 years earlier.
In the end, the Hulk warns Rick that no one is safe as long as the Hulk's around, and the Hulk plans on staying around for a very long time. Ironically, the series will be canceled with the next issue.
:: The people of Lhasa are drawn like Buddhist monks, but every Asian character in this story is colored in this offensive pale yellow skin tone. Not cool, Marvel. But at least the dialogue is all in English. There are other stories coming up in which Chinese communists speak in broken English. And are also colored pale yellow. All the stereotypes.
:: Stan and Jack seem to think that the Hulk could leap off of a commercial airliner in mid-flight without anything happening to the plane itself. Guys, I know it's 1963, but you can't just open the door on an airplane, alright?
:: This issue's letters page features a letter from Lee Cohen of Skokie, Illinois. I saw a letter from him in the last Fantastic Four, also. Mr. Cohen points out that the art in Incredible Hulk #2 looked more like Ditko than Kirby; Stan Lee points out that Ditko inked the issue instead of Jack's usual inker Dick Ayers, and promises that from now on, each book will have credits. So thank you, Mr. Cohen! We'll finally get to see who worked on each issue.
Another lame issue of Incredible Hulk, the most frustrating of the current Marvel series. Sure, Ant-Man is lame and Thor often used poorly, but the Hulk has so much potential that's just being completely mismanaged. Of course, I can say that, having lived with fifty years of great Hulk stories. Back here in 1963, the character still has yet to gel into something great. Incredible Hulk is about to get canceled, and that's probably the right move; putting the character on the back-burner for a while, until his appearance in Avengers #1 in September, might take some of the pressure off.
And we're getting Amazing Spider-Man in its place, so that's great.
Next Marvels: Loki returns!
Thursday, October 03, 2013
I saw my psychiatrist earlier today, and he agrees with me and my therapist that it's time to stop looking for a medical treatment for my disorders. Three times I've tried medications. One made me numb and totally without motivation for years; the other two raised my blood pressure dangerously and made me suicidal. Not "I'm going to kill myself because I'm depressed and feel sorry for myself" suicidal, but "Maybe this is the only avenue I have left to make all of this pain stop" suicidal. That's not something I ever want to feel again. It's something I've felt a couple of times in the past few months, and both when I was taking a prescribed drug.
So we're going to stick with the as-needed Xanax, which I usually take only once or twice every three weeks, and the rest is going to be what got me through August just fine: meditation, rationalizing with myself, regular exercise, breathing techniques, relaxation techniques, and otherwise trying to stay clear-headed. I feel like I've lost a lot of progress this month because of this.
The buspirone is almost completely out of my system. I still get tense and angry at night, but not as bad as before. My heart rate is back to mostly normal; last week, at the height of this intensity, my blood pressure was a high-even-for-me 160/104. Today, it was 150/88. So trying to relax and exercise is working. I'm still very tired, but I can relax now. And I sleep through the night without Xanax again.
So at least that's something. I'm not doing the medication thing again.
Faz was responsible for some of the greatest and most enduring illusions of life ever created by the Jim Henson Company. He had the kind of job I desperately wanted when I was a kid.
Thanks for everything, Faz. I've enjoyed your work my entire life.
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
A review of the films I've seen this past week.
SUMMER WITH MONIKA (1952)
Ingmar Bergman film about two young people trapped in dead end jobs who fall in love and try to drop out of society, spending a summer sailing around Stockholm. I guess this was cut down in America and sold as a softcore flick, due to its nudity and frankness, but seeing the uncut version is a lot different than its reputation. This is no summer of love and fantasy; it's a summer of closeness but also a summer in which Monika and her lover Harry begin to deteriorate, compromising their morals and watching civilization ebb away in the face of hardship and necessity. It's a fascinating film, surprisingly sensitive, naturalistic and sad. Harriet Andersson is compelling in the title role. ***1/2
SALAAM BOMBAY! (1988)
Mira Nair's directorial debut, a look at merely one of a thousand stories about the children living in poverty on the streets of Bombay. It's an engrossing, alive film, one of the best of its time. It centers on a young boy named Chaipau who delivers tea outside of a tenement that is also a whorehouse; his best friend is a drug dealer; the girl he loves is a 16 year-old whose virginity will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Nair's film doesn't manufacture big dramatic moments, but simply observes as Chaipau pushes himself to save enough money to return to a home whose location he can't even remember. There's a point being made here that people can't exist without forming a community, even in a place as hopeless as the streets of Bombay; there's also, interestingly, a point being made here that perhaps children are actually better off there than processed into a system that can do nothing for them. Nair doesn't try to answer that; an easy answer would probably be false. ****
JEAN DE FLORETTE/MANON OF THE SPRING (1986)
Two films by Claude Berri, based on a book by Marcel Pagnol (that was originally two films by Pagnol), released a few months apart and that really belong together as one four-hour film. It's a story that spans three generations and sees the slow patience of greed and poetic justice. The story begins with a farmer in Provence in the 1920s (Yves Montand, who is excellent) and his nephew (Daniel Auteuil) who want to buy an adjacent farm. But that farm has been inherited by Jean (Gerard Depardieu), a hunchback from the city, a nice man with big plans to breed rabbits and raise vegetables. Water is problematic, but there is a spring on his land, and Montand and Auteuil stop up the spring in the hopes of driving him from the land, patiently waiting for him to be driven out by his failure, acting perfectly neighborly but all the while waiting years for the land to fail so they can snap it up cheaply. That's the first film; the second involves the grown daughter of Jean, Manon (Emmanuelle Beart, luminous as she always is), who has become a shepherdess and who learns the truth of the scheme and takes a slow revenge. Watching these two films together is an excellent experience, a well-paced epic of patience. Human greed will wait for its reward, but justice also comes eventually. It has a historical sweep, and we see these mortals in the scope of the history of the land itself, in the continuity of family lines and fortunes, and the mundanity of cruelty. **** for both films (as one film).
Tuesday, October 01, 2013
It's October 1, and it's appropriately gloomy and cloudy out today. If it weren't for the fact that Becca has a cold, I'm recovering from the medication I had to go off, and the crybabies in Congress shut the government down because they didn't get their way, it would be a perfect kick off to the spooky month. The sky is gray, the leaves are hitting the ground, the temperature's dropping, and I'm in the mood for some scary movies.
We've been putting up our Halloween stuff. Here's a couple of pictures that tell you pretty much everything about my wife:
First, we did manage to find the five General Mills monster cereals (Franken Berry, Count Chocula, Boo Berry, Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy) in their vintage packaging at Target, so after they've been emptied they're going into my cereal box collection. I'd never had Fruit Brute or Yummy Mummy before, and was surprised by the way they tasted. I expected Fruit Brute to be more like fruit punch, and I had no idea that Yummy Mummy tasted orange! It's kind of like an orange cream, Dreamsicle kind of flavor. I like that none of those cereals tastes overly sweetened, too. It doesn't hurt my teeth.
I also made a pumpkin pie for the first time ever. It's my favorite autumn staple, but I'd never tried to make one on my own before, but a few weeks ago I did just that and it turned out great. I had also never made a cheesecake before, so last week I made a pumpkin cheesecake.
But I've changed the banner (Kristen Bell in a horror movie, to the surprise of no one) and I'm getting in the mood, so we'll see what this year's Halloween brings. Hopefully the buspirone will be out of my system in the next day or two (it sure as hell wasn't last night) and I can go back to relaxing and enjoying my limited time on this planet and my favorite holiday of the year.
At last, the Marvel Universe's greatest villain returns! When we last saw Doom, he had managed to drag the Baxter Building into outer space but, to escape the Sub-Mariner, he jumped into open space and grabbed onto a passing meteor.
So how did he manage to return to Earth?
Well, first let's just mention my single favorite thing in this issue of Fantastic Four. Remember how I said that one of my favorite things about this early version of the Marvel Universe is that Marvel Comics actually exist in that universe? Well, a few pages in, we're in the office with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (faces always obscured), and they're trying to come up with a new villain. They lament that they can't use Doctor Doom because he was lost in space, when suddenly: in walks Doctor Doom! Yes, Doom just walks right in to menace Lee and Kirby, even taking off his mask, much to their horror. We don't see what's under it, but we do get this wonderful monster movie moment.
Anyway, Doom's big plan is for Stan and Jack to call Mr. Fantastic and ask him over to the office to discuss story ideas, because apparently, within the Marvel Universe, the very comic you're reading is the result of the Fantastic Four themselves relating their adventures to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby! That. Is. Brilliant. Superheroes in charge of an aspect of their own marketing. These guys are really celebrities.
So Reed comes in, Doctor Doom immediately hits him with a knockout gas, and the next thing you know we're in Doom's lab and he's telling us how he survived his meteor ride, and it's another one of those brilliant Doom survival stories.
As the meteor took Doom out into open space, he was found by a ship peopled with beings from another galaxy, the Ovoids. They took Doom in, and he learned some of their science secrets, including the mental ability to switch bodies, before being deposited back on Earth. And at the end of his story, Doom has successfully switched bodies with Reed Richards!
There's quite a fight scene between Reed and Doom; Doom is actually quite pleased to not only have his mind in Mr. Fantastic's superpowered body, he also feels freed because he no longer needs to be a prisoner inside his own mask. I'm kind of touched by that little note of humanity.
Once the Fantastic Four have Reed captured and imprisoned, Doom--in Reed's body--begins building a new device, the Reducing Ray, which he promises will increase their control over their powers, to the point where even Ben will be able to only become the Thing when he wants to, rather than being trapped in his rocky form. Everyone thinks this idea is wonderful, but of course, Doom is actually just going to zap them with the ray until they are physically shrunk down into nothingness, destroying his enemies.
Reed, however--still in Doom's body--is able to escape and, interestingly, goes to Alicia Masters for help. She feels an aura of goodness around him, convincing Sue that something's off. When the Thing busts in, he's so incensed to find Doctor Doom threatening Alicia that he really seems about to tear Doom's head off, but after hearing Doom talk to him, he suddenly becomes convinced that something's amiss, unable to hit Doom but not thoroughly convinced.
The way the whole confusion gets resolved is that Johnny just conjures up a heat mirage of a stick of lit dynamite. "Reed" tries to escape the room by stretching up a vent, while "Doom" jumps on the dynamite to pull the fuse out, and it's obvious to everyone that this selfless action could only be committed by Reed Richards. Confronted by the Fantastic Four again, Doom loses the mental control he was exerting and his mind goes back into his own body, and Reed back into his.
In the end, of course, Doom is defeated by his own evil plan: he's hit by the Reducing Ray and, in a science moment that may or may not violate the law of conservation of mass, he shrinks and shrinks and shrinks into nothingness.
Or does he?
I mean, come on, it's Doctor Doom. You know a few issues from now he'll be back, explaining how he's turned even this to his advantage. It's why he's the greatest comic book villain ever.
:: I like how we tend to ease into issues of Fantastic Four now, always getting to establish the family dynamic and show off some more uses for their powers. In this issue's first four pages, we see Reed conducting another experiment, then responding to a signal flare. Reed, Sue and Johnny are trapped in Reed's lab because of a door lock jam, really only so that we can see the limits of Reed's stretching capability as well as Johnny's latest ability (he's apparently able to concentrate his flame so that there's no heat). Then, as they make their way to answer the flare, they have to fight the crowds of New York City; the FF are big celebrities, and they all want autographs or locks of hair or to mash on Sue. It's like the Beatles a year too early.
Turns out the flare was just Ben's idea to get the three over to Alicia Masters' studio, which seems like the sort of thing you could have maybe just used a telephone for. He wants everyone to see that Alicia has turned away from puppets and started making sculptures. She has the uncanny ability to make lifelike sculptures of their villains just from descriptions.
Even this is used as key character stuff, as Sue protests that Alicia's included Sub-Mariner among their gallery of enemies, prompting Reed to try to speak to her about her feelings for Prince Namor. She doesn't, of course--she's just too torn--but it's a good reminder of this one thing that's still gnawing at their feelings.
:: Speaking of celebrity stuff, I love the little detail in a later scene that when the FF come out of Alicia's building, there are kids down on the street playing with the Fantasticar.
:: It's kind of funny how, when Doom is in Reed's body, he's a bit out of character, using phrases Doom would never use but that would come naturally to Reed, like "You're whistling in the dark, mister!" or "All right, sister! You're asking for it!" It's one of those things that seems a bit like a mistake but which you could also argue is some kind of transference or something.
:: And tonight, the role of Benjamin J. Grimm will be played by Ed Helms.
:: In the letters page, Stan promises that, giving in to fan demand, the Thing will face the Hulk in an upcoming issue. Marvel's greatest rivalry begins soon! Stan also acknowledges that a lot of readers have written in asking why the Human Torch is trying to keep his identity a secret when, in Fantastic Four, he's part of a quartet of international celebrities whose identities are known to everyone. Stan promises that will be addressed in Strange Tales #106.
Also in the letters page: Stan asks that people drop the salutation "Dear Editor" and instead write "Dear Stan and Jack," a great move towards strengthening relations with fans. Stan also reveals that they no longer have any copies of the first nine issues to sell to readers, that only 8 readers think Sue Storm should be dropped from the team (and 639 demanded she stay), and that so far votes favor adding no new members to the team. Stan also promises that the Spider-Man comic is coming soon. (It is, in just another couple of months!)
There's also a letter asking interested parties to inquire about a comics fanzine coming out of Miami. The letter is from fandom pioneer GB Love, whom you can read about here and here. It's kind of exciting checking out the letters page and seeing the early Marvel fandom gelling together.
Another great, fun issue of FF, the best of the Marvel books.
In the next Marvels: the Hulk faces an underground conqueror! And commies. Of course.
Monday, September 30, 2013
I know people who just despise Jimmy Fallon to their core. I've always been pretty irritated by him, but I can't bring myself to really hate a guy who loves Muppets this much. As I've enthused repeatedly, the past six or seven years have really seen a group of comics and entertainers who have obviously been influenced by the Muppets helping to restore the Muppets to their place as comedy, not children's entertainment. And Fallon's definitely played a role in that, and I have to give that to him. Every time Muppets show up on his show, it's a delight.
So here's Jimmy, the Roots, and a whole bunch of Muppets singing the theme song from Sesame Street. Any day that starts this way has to be a good one.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
When I was 10, I listened to the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack until the tape literally wore out. It was one of the first cassettes I ever bought with my own money. This song is pretty cheesy, but god damn if I don't love it without a trace of irony. It always makes me feel good. And I need to feel good these days, so here's this, from Stan Bush and 1986 and my childhood.