Friday, November 01, 2013
I think that was part of the reason the Halloween lead-up was so muted for me. I won't start it here until October 1, but there were a lot of people online who started it in the last week of August, and I wouldn't impose my personal preferences on others, but that's why I couldn't work up much enthusiasm. When it goes on too long it stops being special and starts being everyday.
Next year I'll do better.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Of course, a lot of this was reflected on my blog, too. Though busy as usual, I did even fewer Halloween posts than I originally expected I would. I didn't do my annual pumpkin post or any Tumblr finds. The mood just wasn't there for me this year. The fun of mental illness.
So, feel free to peruse my past Halloween posts. This is the ninth time I've wish you Happy Halloween on this blog! Nine years worth of Halloween! It's pretty hard to stay fresh after all that time, anyway. But, hopefully I'll be high on the spooky season next year!
(And if you were one of the people I saw online this year who didn't think it was pants-shittingly hilarious to say "spoopy," I thank you.)
Here's what I did this year:
:: Peanuts, 1964
:: Der Erlkönig
:: Peanuts, 1965
:: Verizon Commercial 2013
:: Peanuts, 1966
:: Peanuts, 1967
:: Peanuts, 1968
:: Scary Legs
:: The Day After Halloween
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
A review of the films I've seen this past week.
TRADER HORN (1931)
I know it's a product of its time and all that, but the racism, the misogyny... they just got to me. The movie just has such an overbearingly imperialist, the-world-is-the-playground-of-white-men attitude that I couldn't really enjoy it. (And it didn't help that the movie was also pretty damn boring.) On the positive side of this jungle adventure, Edwina Booth is very beautiful and the actual footage shot in Africa is often breathtaking. The terrain is gorgeous and seeing herds of animals roaming around freely is exciting. Those scenes are generally wonderful, although even then I had some caveats. I didn't like watching actual rhinos get actually killed onscreen. At least one man is actually trampled on camera by a rhino, too. There was beauty in places, but overall it wasn't a great experience. **
BLACK GIRL (1966)
A French-Senegalese production about a Senegalese woman named Diouana who goes to France to work for a couple taking care of their children. However, the children are away and the lady of the house has Diouana assume maid duties and generally treats her like a slave. Diouana, away from her family and treated harshly, becomes more and more aware of her alienation. She had hoped for a cosmopolitan life in France, but is never allowed to leave the apartment. Towards the end, the film takes a turn I didn't anticipate, but one that makes a harsh point about colonialism and Western exploitation of Africa. Haunting. ****
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Directed by John Landis; screenplay by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels & Randy Newman; produced by Lorne Michaels & George Folsey, Jr.
It's one of cinemagoing's saddest experiences: a comedy where all of the elements are there, but nothing works.
Everything in Three Amigos looks great. It has a solid premise. It stars three comic actors at the top of their game. It's from the director of some of the greatest comedies ever made. And yet it steadfastly does not work. It's just not funny.
I first saw this when it came out on video, so around age 11. I saw it a few times as a kid. Back then, at that age, in that time period, it was cool to like guys like Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, because they were for adults, and so liking movies with them or actually getting to stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live was, to our young minds, really sophisticated. I enjoyed this movie, but only for a little while, and then it had more to do with the Western adventure bits of it and less with the humor or the parody. As a kid, I took it seriously and only laughed at little pieces and certainly didn't get the bits where they were supposed to be spoofing the era of silent films.
Seeing it now as an adult, I get that it's supposed to be funny, but it sure isn't. I think the biggest problem with the film is the approach. The premise of the film has a lot of potential: a woman in a small Mexican town sees a film starring the Three Amigos, a comedy/Western team of justice fighters, and thinks they're the real thing, so she invites them to come and save her village from the evil warlord El Guapo. The boys, recently fired by their studio, think they're only making a fan appearance as showmen, and then complications arise when they have to really be the characters they play and save the day. I know this premise works because it worked beautifully in Galaxy Quest. This is the same plot, but without any of the humor, poignancy, or excitement.
I think comparing it to Galaxy Quest reveals the real problem with Three Amigos: the Amigos aren't characters. They're comic performances that aren't mixing well with each other, much less with the rest of the movie. We don't know who these guys are, what they want, what they're worried about. We just know they're fired movie stars pretending to be something they're not, but even then, we don't really get to know how they feel about that (except suddenly, out of nowhere, when the plot requires it in order for the film to keep going). The actors approach the material with too much confidence and not enough pathos. I'm still not even sure what Steve Martin's character is supposed to be other than another too-polished Steve Martin performance. There's not a person under there, it's just another collection of Martin's smug tics. It's like he's too clever to just be funny. Martin Short at least gets to play some sincere notes, which can be frustrating because sometimes his performance just seems like a nonsensical bit, and at other times, he's letting you in on just how good the movie could have been if the characters were allowed to act like people instead of cartoons. Chevy Chase, despite being top-billed, is barely in the movie. I've never liked him much as a comic actor, but here he's somehow even more muted than usual, just mumbling his lines and standing around while the plot goes on around him, which itself could actually have been funny if he was in a movie that tried harder.
And that's the thing: the movie doesn't try hard enough. It doesn't seem to understand fully if it's a comedy or if it's a comic adventure. There are times when John Landis seems to genuinely be making a Western, and then these three cartoons wander in and mostly just stand around and chuckle smugly at themselves and make little quips that sound like the actors and the director and everyone involved just know are going to get big laughs, but don't. They're too assured; they even pause so you won't miss anything while you're busting a gut at just how god damn funny they know they are. They're keeping the material at a distance instead of committing to it.
For a movie like this to work, we have to know the characters, not the performers. There have to be real stakes. And you have to take the premise seriously and establish the parody and comedy inside of it. There's a great scene where the Amigos gather around a campfire and gently sing a song in the tradition of Roy Rogers pictures. Then their horses join in. It's a scene that shows you how good the movie might have been. It works as both a parody/deconstruction of the genre as well as on the level of the genre. And that's the key to making something like this work. It has to work on two levels. Look at the earlier success that this movie is clearly trying to ape: Ghostbusters. That movie works both as a comedy and as a supernatural adventure. Ghostbusters takes the premise seriously, but it also has a sense of humor about it. It knows what it can get away with without wrecking the illusion entirely and becoming ridiculous.
Three Amigos is what happens when comedy actors and writers would rather make a picture showing off how clever they are rather than deigning to be funny. It's a big in-joke where the actors, director, and writers are all joking with each other and not letting the audience in on it. It's a product with no soul. And a real missed opportunity.
Note 1: Alfonso Arau as the villain El Guapo and Tony Plana as his lieutenant Jefe are so funny I wish the entire movie was about them. They get the tone exactly and are hilarious.
Note 2: After this, I watched the SNL episode that was hosted by Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short. It was a lot funnier than this movie. I am pissed off at the way Netflix presents their chopped-up versions of the show, though. I knew the musical sequences would be missing, but they also cut out the "Ed Grimley and the Devil" sketch and the classic "Masterbrain" sketch, with Phil Hartman playing Ronald Reagan as a president who is kindly and simple to the public, but an evil mastermind behind the scenes. That's one of the best SNL sketches in history, and it's a giant omission.
I've spoken at (probably tiresome) length here before about what Superman means to be, both as a character and as a pop culture phenomenon. Of all the great passages in Ricca's book, that one especially stood out to me when I read it yesterday. The truth makes things stronger, not weaker. I firmly believe that. And I think, in a lot of ways, Superman (as a character) exemplifies that.
It's also a good way to describe the book.
I first started reading comic books when I was about six or seven. I didn't get into DC Comics until I was a little older. Sure, I loved Batman reruns and Super Friends and (of course!) Richard Donner's great 1978 movie, but the comic books always seemed like they were for people who were a little older. So I first experienced Superman in graphic form through a book they used to carry at my library. It was an older book about the history of the character, and it had a number of the old Siegel & Shuster newspaper strips. I remember being attracted to the art right away, and intrigued by this version of Superman that seemed more like an old-timey football player or gymnast than Christopher Reeve's flying gentleman.
This was at a time in my life, by the way, when I really thought I was going to be a cartoonist. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the history of comic books and comic strips, and after later reading Bob Kane's Batman and Me, I was especially interested in reading more about the creators of those strips. Back in those pre-internet days, you had to be a lot more involved with fandom and fan publications for information, and even then, you couldn't always find out anything accurate. I had a vague idea that Siegel and Shuster hadn't really gotten much credit originally for Superman and didn't own what they had created, but I don't think it was until I was in high school and read something that (I think) Harlan Ellison wrote about it that I knew any details.
Ricca's new book finally provides the entire story in great detail. What I admired is that although Ricca's sympathies lie with Jerry and Joe, he does a great job of just parsing the evidence without judgment. Looking at what we know, I feel like Harry Donenfeld, MC Gaines and Jack Liebowitz colluded together to legally steal Superman from his creators. You may not think so. But these men and others got rich; they made millions of dollars off Superman while Jerry and Joe were bullied, pushed around, and then exiled from what they created when they legally tried to gain access to the vast fortune that others were making from it. Sure, they got paid for their work, but they also weren't allowed to participate in the rainfall of money that came about from their work and their inspiration. I know that "unfair" and "illegal" aren't the same thing, but still.
If anything, this book should teach you that when someone sends you a letter and tells you that they'll pay you $130 for a story provided that you give them all rights to the story and characters forever--the exact word used in the contract--maybe you should be a little suspicious about that. And remember, if you have something that someone wants you to sign over forever, you've clearly created something that has potential value.
Ricca tells the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with such emotional sincerity and such genuine sympathy that it's hard not to come out of it feeling incensed at how they were cheated and even wistful at the opportunities they lost because they knew they were being treated unfairly.
One of my favorite aspects of the book, too, is the way Ricca pieces together all of the elements in the air at the time that the two were inspired by and managed to piece together and somehow distill into the perfect mixture for one of the most enduring fictional characters in history: Joe's interest in bodybuilding and strongmen; the marvelous athletic feats of Jesse Owens; Jerry's love of the stories (and fascination with the financial success) of Edgar Rice Burroughs; the explosion of crime in Cleveland; Jerry's awkwardness with girls; the poverty the two grew up in; even the buzzing in the air that people were looking for some kind of returned Messiah. Then, after we've lived through the story of Jerry and Joe being exiled, then later championed, Ricca brings us back to the beginning and adds a new layer of poignancy, with the story of a sweet high school kid with the future in front of him, who always left clues in his writing, and how those clues add up to a boy dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of his father.
For all of Superman's iconic stature and popularity, Ricca returns to the notion of a character that existed, in some ways, to help Jerry Siegel make sense of a world that robbed him of his father, where crime and greed flourished, and where the truth made things stronger, not weaker.
If you're a comics fan, you really owe it to yourself to read this.
Monday, October 28, 2013
I'm so excited that Spider-Man (or Spiderman, as his name is still being styled here) is now an active member of the Marvel Universe that I promise not to go off any more on how stupid I think his webshooters are. (It's all back in my Amazing Fantasy #15 post, anyway; I'm on record.)
The energy that accompanied Spidey's original appearance is still apparent; Stan Lee and Steve Ditko both seem really excited about this character and his possibilities, and on his first mission in his title mag, they want to give him something big and dynamic to do.
We start with a recap of the origin, re-establishing Peter Parker's guilt over his Uncle Ben's death, and right to one of the hallmarks of the character: his constant anxiety over money. Maybe part of the reason I identified so much with these early stories in particular when I was a kid is that Peter seems to genuinely have some kind of undiagnosed anxiety disorder. He's prone to despair and desperation, to emotional outbursts born of frustration, and a heavy sense of guilt. He can also be really selfish and self-pitying. He's a teenager, alright. Here, his guilt and anxiety are pulled to the surface when he sees his Aunt May begging the landlord to let her make a late payment this month.
Peter figures there must be some way to make money out of being Spider-Man, and goes back to his original idea: performing on television. The problem is, he doesn't want to reveal his secret identity, and the producer can't pay him in cash, so Peter's left with a check made out to Spider-Man that's worthless to him. No one will cash it.
If that weren't bad enough, enter J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle, who takes to his newspaper and to television denouncing Spider-Man.
While Peter is smarting from this bruise, he sees Aunt May pawning jewelry in order to make the rent payment, which dredges up more guilt and anxiety for Peter. Now that Jonah has turned the public against him, he can't perform in public; and if he can't get money to help take care of Aunt May and the house--if he can't take responsibility now as man of the house--what can he do?
What happens next is exciting, dynamic 1963 comic book stuff: a space launch. John Jameson is the test pilot for a capsule that's supposed to enter low orbit. But soon after launch, the guidance system breaks and Jameson loses control. When the attempted rescue fails, Peter steps into action as Spider-Man, saying that he can attach another device to the capsule if the military can get him close enough. Despite Jonah's protests, the government takes a chance on Spider-Man. A plane gets him into position, he snags a ride, replaces the guidance chip, and then takes off, relieved to have done a good deed (and succeeded), and hoping that this gets him back in with the public.
But it doesn't! Jonah writes another editorial calling Spider-Man a menace, demanding his surrender to the authorities, and even accusing him of deliberate sabotage, staging the incident to steal the spotlight from his own son, John. Which... you know, you could easily accuse Jonah of attacking Spider-Man in the first place to get publicity for John. I mean, all Spidey did was perform on television doing stunts, and suddenly Jonah took to the airwaves and said, essentially, "This guy's dangerous, kids should worship my son, instead!" And now that the guy has saved his son's life, maybe JJ feels more like a fool and is doubling down on the rancor, or something. I don't know: J. Jonah Jameson represents the often inscrutable, seemingly unreasonable voice of adult authority in Peter's teenage world. It's why this title and character are going to work so well over the years: because in many ways, it's Archie with superpowers. Peter's not always going to understand why he's under fire and getting blamed, he just will be, and that's going to be enough to make him frustrated, angry, and feeling powerless.
JJ's anti-Spidey onslaught is enough to make Spider-Man a wanted man and even turn Aunt May against Peter's alter ego. He's left frazzled, confused, and anxious, and darkly wondering whether a life of crime will in fact be the only option left open to him in the future. This is the power of a teenager's potential and the danger of that time in a young man's life when he suddenly feels powerful but undirected: will he accept that with great power comes great responsibility, or will he let himself be pushed into the darkness and give in to his anger?
Time will tell.
:: I've been thinking about stuff like this panel:
:: Am I the only one who thinks Ditko's Flash Thompson tends to resemble Jack Kirby?
Ditko's art, by the way, always reminds me of Joe Shuster's Superman art. I love that style.
In this issue's second story, Spidey faces his first costumed villain and we get to what the issue's cover promises: an appearance by the Fantastic Four.
Having Spider-Man appear with the Fantastic Four is a great way to show off Spider-Man's powers and give the readers a sense of where this new character stands on the power scale. Here, he's quite the show-off, but also quite the force to be contended with. His webs can stop Mr. Fantastic; he can actually throw the Thing; his spider-sense can detect the Invisible Girl; he's agile enough to jump rings around the Human Torch. When he busts into the FF's lab, they can't stop him. And the whole thing was just so Spidey could showcase his abilities as a sort of impromptu audition to join the Fantastic Four, all because Peter thinks they must pay well. When Reed tells Spidey that the FF is strictly non-profit and no one makes a salary, he storms off, frustrated again.
Then we move to the Chameleon, who is pure 1930s pulp. He's not exactly a commie spy, even though all of the Marvel heroes fight commie spies or aliens pretty much right away. But this guy is stealing missile defense plans on behalf of the Soviets. He also doesn't have any powers; he's just really, really good at disguising himself. He figures that he can use the public distrust of Spider-Man to his advantage by framing Spidey for the theft of top secret information, which he successfully does by using a radio to send signals on the same frequency as Spider-Man's spider-sense.
The spider-sense, which warns Peter of danger but also allows him to sense people and objects he's trying to track, is a great idea making its debut in this story. Spider-Man puts it to use when tracking the Chameleon's getaway 'copter, and also when the lights go out and he has to determine which building security guard is the Chameleon in disguise. (He also has to do it without his web fluid, which has run out.) Stan and Steve are also trying to think of new uses for Spidey's webs; here, he's able to make himself a parachute out of them.
What's interesting about this story is that Spider-Man doesn't really catch the bad guy at all. He tries, and he even scares off a Soviet submarine, but because of the frame-up, security guards tackle him before he can expose the Chameleon. Overwhelmed, frustrated and angry, Spidey runs off and leaves the security guards to deal with the Chameleon themselves. They catch him and realize that he merely impersonated Spider-Man to steal military plans, but Spidey's already running home, sobbing, angry over the way nothing ever seems to turn out right. "Every time I try to help, I just make things worse."
Been there, Spidey. Been there.
:: In this story, overworked Stan keeps calling Peter Parker "Peter Palmer."
:: If no one in the FF makes a salary, how do Johnny and Sue have that house in Glenville, Long Island? How does Johnny keep buying cars? Where are their parents, even? Without money, how is anyone able to keep Johnny Storm, a teenager, rolling in carcinogens so he doesn't set the bed on fire?
:: Is this the first actual crossover in Marvel history? Other than the return of the Sub-Mariner (a Golden Age character) and Johnny Storm reading the first issue of The Incredible Hulk, I can't remember the characters of one mag interacting with another before... am I just not remembering?
(Looked it up: according to Marvel Wiki, the first official crossover is the next issue I'll tackle, Fantastic Four #12, which features a major appearance by the Hulk. However, both that issue and this one were released the same month, and my covering this one first is only because I'm going alphabetically by month. So as far as my post series goes, this is it, true believer.)
This is a great debut issue; Stan and Steve are just getting started with this character, but they've already managed to tap into what makes him special: that he's a teenager with teenage problems (just like you, reader!) who has gained incredible powers that should solve all of his problems; instead, they just make things harder. Spider-Man here is a character approached with great emotional sincerity; he wants to be the swashbuckling, devil-may-care hero, but things never work out right. It's all about growing up.
Next time: because the fans demanded it, the Fantastic Four face the incredible Hulk!
Sunday, October 27, 2013
This is one of the loveliest songs, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. I just randomly ran across this the other day when I was making that post about 50s music, and I knew it had to be Song of the Week, because probably no one sang this as well as Ella Fitzgerald. (Does anyone sing anything as well as Ella Fitzgerald?) Once again, this is my idea of a Sunday morning. Well, this and coffee and donuts and a crossword puzzle. And it's sunny. Have a beautiful Sunday, everyone.
The story here is mainly a set-up to show off Ant-Man's latest gadget, a gas mask made of unstable molecules that Henry Pym is creating for the US Army.
It's another one of those stories where Ant-Man decides to investigate a series of thefts, only to discover that the thief is the one person who has anything integral to do with the story. Looking for Comrade X? Comrade X is the woman who begged you to find Comrade X! Looking for a jewel thief? The jewel thief is the jeweler who begged you to find the jewel thief! Oh, and every time, Ant-Man knew their identity all along because of some clue that's circumstantial at best.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the guy whose trucks are getting hijacked and begs Ant-Man to find the hijacker turns out to be the hijacker, right? And it also shouldn't be a surprise that Ant-Man "knew it all along," right? It's the same story over and over. This time, the truck drivers are falling asleep and waking up without memory of the incident after their trucks have been robbed, and Ant-Man knew it was the truck owner fom the beginning because he saw a bunch of Inca masks in the guy's office, asked the guy if he'd ever been to Peru, and then just happened to know that there was a tribe in Peru that made a gas that could knock people out.
It's kind of like that episode of The Simpsons where Steve Sax gets arrested by Springfield police because he's from New York and "I heard there was a murder in New York and it was never solved."
Oh, and Ant-Man uses his gas mask when the Hijacker uses the gas, because of Chekov's gun. And there's a neat couple of panels where he hides from the Hijacker inside the engine of a truck, which is one of those neat things that only Ant-Man can do.
The story's titled "The Day That Ant-Man Failed!" because, just before Ant-Man is supposed to ride along on the truck that's going to get hijacked, he suddenly gets appendicitis and has to leave. He tells his ants to take him to the hospital, which means he'll die en route, because these are ants and not, say, an ambulance or something that actually has the speed to get you somewhere fast. Not that it matters, because Ant-Man was only faking it to embolden the Hijacker; he doubled back in his tiny model airplane (for reals) and landed on top of the truck when he saw the Hijacker release the gas.
Two cops at the end say to each other, as Ant-Man
So... Stan decided to abandon the Hulk but not the Ant-Man. That's.... not the choice I would've made, I have to admit.
Next: At last! The long-promised Amazing Spider-Man #1!