Saturday, December 07, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 5

Well, as predicted, she doesn't wake up in her own bed. She wakes up in a suite at the Heathman Hotel. Christian Grey's suite. Holy crap and all that!

As is typical of EL James, she can't really describe the room to give us an idea of what it's like, other than the basic idea of browns, golds, and beiges, and that it's surprisingly big. Which, seriously, am I the only one picturing a motel room from 1974? It doesn't sound dazzling, it sounds chintzy. But hey, when did the ability to write ever stop someone from being a bestselling author?

(Seriously, one of you, you know who you are--and I'm only not saying your name because I don't know if I'm supposed to or not--has written one of the best contemporary novels I've read in the last decade, a decade that includes the bulk of the Harry Potter books, and it kills me that it's not in print yet and that society is apparently placing a value on this absolute twaddle!)

Anyway, she wakes up, and she's in Christian Grey's suite, and she sees he's put some Advil out for her, so she defaults to "control freak" again rather than "being a polite and considerate host." I mean, seriously, that's what sets you off? Knowing that you'll probably need some pain reliever because you were going to wake up with a hangover? (Which she should, but which the novel is almost totally unaware of, because why bother?) Given the way he lords over her in this chapter, leaving out Advil for her is downright sweet.

What bugs me more, though, is that after she gets pissy and dismissive about him being a control freak (how I am coming to absolutely despise this overused phrase), she then says that she feels "much better than I deserve." And can I just say here that I hate being around drunk people, I hate being around hungover people, and I don't understand what the reward is in drinking to get drunk, but we need to stop thinking of getting drunk as a moral failing.

I've participated in this kind of thinking before. I've made people feel bad for choosing to do something that not only would I never choose to do, but which I actively find somewhat disgusting. But you shouldn't make people feel bad for making a choice you wouldn't make. I kind of hate that I've done that to people, because I think of how people have talked down to me as though I've made an active choice to be fat. (Hell, I've seen people outright get offended at the idea that it's rude to make fun of fat people for being fat.) I don't know what their life is. It's not up to me to judge their choices and then make them feel bad about it. No one "deserves" to feel bad because they got drunk, accidentally or no. How they feel is how they feel. If she had gotten behind the wheel and hurt someone, that would be a different story. But, in the grand scheme of things, getting drunk and puking in the street and drunk dialing a guy may be repellent behavior to me personally--behavior that I wouldn't make the choice to be around--but it's also not that big a deal. So, you know, I still don't like you, Ana, but take it a little easy on yourself. You undoubtedly have much worse choices ahead of you.

So, in walks Christian Grey, all sweaty from his morning workout, and I'm sure that's totally unplanned. "Christian Grey's sweat: the notion does odd things to me" she thinks disgustingly.

A thought occurred to my wife: this isn't Twilight fanfiction, this is Twilight movie fanfiction, and it's about a girl who didn't like Robert Pattinson but had to interview him and then fell in lust with him and he immediately fell in love with her. I think that must be accurate. Unfortunately, it reads like fanfiction, where motivations just happen and relationships and emotions don't need to grow organically, because who has time for that?

Anyway, she's all nuts over how sweaty he is and how he's sitting on the bed: "sweat and body wash and Christian. It's a heady cocktail--so much better than a margarita, and now I can speak from experience." Ew. Ew, lady.

He's being "phlegmatic," which means EL James finally went over to Thesaurus.com. (She also uses the word "profligate" later, because she's trying too hard to sound smart.) We're told, for the nth time, "He hides his thoughts and feelings so well." Look, the word you're trying desperately to find is enigmatic, for chrissakes.

She is, of course, contrite and embarrassed and constantly blushing. She worries that they slept together, to which he replies "I like my women sentient and receptive." And easily manipulated, apparently. She then gets defensive and they have this truly idiotic back and forth about his "James Bond gadgetry" where he basically reminds her that he saved her from getting raped, and she responds "Which medieval chronicle did you escape from? You sound like a courtly knight." He says "Dark knight, maybe." The flirty banter of idiots. It's like The Thin Man, but without nuance, subtlety, or wit. So, not like The Thin Man at all, actually.

And then we're back to manipulation. He's using tone control to make her feel awkward and chided--like she's not only a victim (which she's not) and that it's her fault (which it isn't). He suddenly gets angry because she hasn't eaten and she should know enough to not get drunk on an empty stomach, which, dude, how is she supposed to just know something she's had zero experience with? You can offer advice, but don't get so angry and personal about it. The words James chooses to use reveal it all: he's described as "accusatory," "impassive," "exasperated." He's angry at her for "putting yourself at risk," and even saying that makes him close his eyes, "dread etched briefly on his face," and shudder. Did you picture him in clothes from the Regency period of England when he did that? I did. Putting his hand to his face, gasping, shivering... he should just be played by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third. Seriously, hon, Christian's not a courtly knight, he's a princely ass.



Everyone in this thing is overreacting all the time.

He also warns her: "You're lucky I'm just scolding you [. . .] if you were mine, you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday." How do you not see this is a gigantic red flag, Ana? Let's unpack this. Here's a list of what you did last night: you got drunk on an empty stomach, you drunk dialed Christian, you almost got assaulted by your friend, and then you puked in the street. And he's scolding you for it like you purposely did something wrong. He's taking your lack of experience with alcohol and one unfortunate night and Jose's actions and turning it into something morally wrong with you. Honey, that's not a stunt, you were just careless. He's "just scolding" you? Who the fuck does he think he is? You haven't entered into any kind of agreement, you're not a couple. You barely know each other. He's an overly-concerned, controlling stranger that you've now met a total of four times, and who has inserted himself into your life, stalked you, begun telling you that your judgment is poor and that you're basically incapable of making your own decisions, and you're telling us that it excites you? Do they even have a name for what's wrong with you?

Oh, yeah; co-dependent narcissist.

She calls him a disciplinarian, he responds "Oh, Anastasia, you have no idea," and she's confused and excited this whole time.

He's always touching her, directing her, telling her what to do, tearing her down out of faux-concern, and she's always irritated but always, always, always contrite and obedient. It makes me feel gross.

Again, look at the words accompanying how he treats her and how she responds. He's antagonizing, she's safe. He's confusing, she's protected. He glares, she's quiet. He's commanding, she's contrite. He's castigating, she's tentative. He's persuasive, she's squirming. He's angry, she's cowardly.

I wonder if EL James is doing this on purpose or not. I think that's the thing I find most frustrating about this whole novel. Is James making Christian a manipulative bastard on purpose, or does she even know that this is the kind of thing a guy does when he's manipulating someone?

The power dynamic has been firmly established, and I just find it sad. This isn't erotic in the slightest; it's someone more than willing to subsume her personality to someone completely manipulative because she's aroused. And holy shit, is she aroused. She's horny as hell.

After smelling his sweat and seeing him shirtless, she spends some time squirming and taking way too long to understand that what's she feeling is desire. "This is desire. This is what it feels like." I don't like that she's this virginal girl who's just blossoming now under the command of this giant fucking prick. Sure, lots of people are virgins when they graduate college, and I'm not judging them. But it just adds another layer of ick to this book. Yes, I get it, Christian Grey is so amazingly hot that he makes your panties melt even though you've apparently never been aroused ever once in your whole boring life. You don't need to sell it so hard. She feels so safe around him and then thinks to herself "He's not a dark knight at all but a white knight in shining, dazzling armor--a classic romantic hero--Sir Gawain or Sir Lancelot."

I... JESUS CHRIST WHAT THE HOLY HELL AM I READING?

"For the first time in my life, I want to go to bed with a man."

God, shut up. You're pathetic, Ana. I can't stand you. You are pathetic.

"Michelangelo's David has nothing on him."

Puke.

"But he's not made a pass at me."

WHAT? ARE YOU SERIOUSLY THIS MUCH OF AN IDIOT? Ana is such a stereotype of the sheltered girl who only reads [classic British literature], although apparently now she only reads [medieval British romances]. I know she's supposed to be this sheltered, virginal, ignorant, inexperienced girl--you know, the kind of girl people who've never read any of those novels assume that's how women act in them--but give me a break. That she's a virgin, I don't have a problem with. That she's never once felt aroused in her entire life, I find unbelievable. And that she can be caught in the middle of this overly elaborate seduction--one that includes a hotel suite, tea in the city, being saved from a rape attempt, fourteen thousand dollar Thomas Hardy novels, and at least two separate instances of him stroking your face and running his finger across your lip--and think that he's never made a pass at you, I find inexcusably stupid.

How am I supposed to like, respect, root for, and care about someone this ridiculously thick? Because remember, all we know about Anastasia Steele are her neurosis, her self-obsession, and now her desires, but we know absolutely nothing about who she is as a person apart from feeling sorry for herself and being amazed by every feeling she ever has. What does she even want out of life? How am I supposed to believe there's conflict going on inside a woman who, every time she feels awkward, confused, or irritated by this man, nonetheless always does exactly what he tells her to do and admits that inside she's always doing cartwheels, a hula dance, or a "triumphant samba" at the thought of even being with him?

Did I mention I'm only four pages into this chapter right now?

She goes into the shower and almost has her first orgasm, I guess, because she's erotically thrilled at the way the body wash smells like him. I think she means soap, because if the bottle of body wash smells like him, that means he's been rubbing it on his body or shoving it up his ass. She rubs it all over herself, imagining that it's him, and it really seems like she's about to climax when, of course, he calls her to breakfast and she has to get out, tingling all over, daintily drying herself because she's a little sensitive right now, okay, guys?

Then she finds the clothes he's bought for her, including "exquisitely designed fancy European lingerie" that's "All pale blue lace and finery," which I guess sounds to James like a description, but is actually more of an impression. If I were being nice, I guess I could call her terrible hack writing "active," since the reader pretty much has to participate in it to even know what the hell she's talking about. But that seems ennobling. Then she walks out into yet another vaguely-described room. Let's just say it: the details don't matter because EL James' imagination doesn't go very deep.

Ana does think "It's the size of a tennis court or something, not that I play tennis, though I have watched Kate a few times." Which... who cares? That whole self-deprecation thing again, which, honestly, now that I'm seeing it in action, is quite annoying. If there's one good fallout from reading this book, it's that I realize how genuinely annoying it must be when I do that whole self-obsession disguised as self-deprecation bit, so I really want to be conscious of that and not do it anymore. You know what I mean. When someone denigrates themselves all the time, does it make you feel more sympathetic towards them? Not me. It makes me want to not talk to them anymore. Why? Because subconsciously we can tell the difference.

Anyway, it's only there so she'll remember Kate's out there and Kate's with Christian's brother. It's kind of stupidly sweet how Ana thinks about how Kate was dancing in an effort to seduce Elliot, as though Elliot wasn't deployed for the entire purpose of taking her home. I wonder if we'll ever even see him again. It's not like he matters as a character, because it's not like this is a book about people. Elliot's usefulness has been served, I imagine.

Christian commands--and she uses that word in the text--Ana to sit and eat and then scolds her for still having wet hair, because, remember, Ana can't do anything with her hair because she's oh so endearingly quirky and shit. It's like EL James thinks of her as a cross between Merida from Brave and the 9000 other frizzy-haired quirky proactive redheaded heroines we've had to endure almost constantly in pop culture for the last 15 years, which was fine the first thousand times but has become a grating case of copy & paste ever since. I'm getting much more of a Carrie White vibe from this person.

The dialogue between the two of them at breakfast is utterly hilarious. She tries to repay him for the new clothes and he's offended (which I kind of get; I mean, I don't like to have my compliments and kind gestures thrown back in my face, either, but it's not worth it getting offended, because the other person may just not be used to compliments and presents and making it an even bigger deal just makes them feel more awkward, so calm it down and just turn her down politely). Then he tells her the books were an apology for not kissing her that time, and also a warning to stay away. "I'm not a hearts and flowers kind of man...I don't do romance." Which would have more meaning if it weren't for this elaborate seduction he's been orchestrating, but of course, Ana being Ana, she takes him at his word.

And then, the manipulative standby that I've been waiting for: "There's something about you, though, and I'm finding it impossible to stay away."

Ugh. Of course he goes to that, and of course she eats it up, because to a bad writer, that's the sort of thing that genuinely happens. It can't be that he's grooming his handpicked psychological and physical abuse victim, it's that Anastasia's so goddamn special that only something so unlikely could ever happen to fulfill her.

What is it about her, Christian? Is it the vomiting? The awkwardness? The way she looks so cute tripping headlong into your office? Or is it the way that she's pliant, obedient, believes every one of your lies willingly, and doesn't know any better because she has no experience in this kind of thing? I'm guessing it's the last one. I'm guessing that the "something" about her is that you haven't found so perfect a victim in a long time.

He also appends that with "But I think you've figured that out already." Heh, not if her inner monologue has been anything to go by. This lady couldn't fart without pondering how it made her feel, what it represented in her life, and whether or not the fart desired her as a woman or was simply mocking her.

She responds "Then don't." And now it's time for him to have another uncharacteristically cartoonish reaction.

His eyes go wide and he gasps, which I guess is always supposed to look like this:

But always comes across to me as this:

Just say he looked at you longingly, okay?

And he responds "You don't know what you're saying."

Which is supposed to seem genuine, but doesn't, because he's such a shit and this is the next move in the abuse game. He's just making her think this is all her idea and, when it goes bad, her fault.

Then he just starts asking her questions about when she's available, where she's moving (to Seattle, near him), what she's doing for work, and whether she applied for an internship at his company. "The Christian Grey Inquisition is almost as irritating as the Katherine Kavanagh Inquisition." Keep bristling when anyone asks you any personal questions, Ana, and pretty soon you'll be wondering why no one ever asks them anymore.

He says "I'd like to bite that lip," and it's "the sexiest thing anyone has ever said to me." And then he follows up by telling her that he won't do anything to her without her written consent, and that he has to tell her something about him, later, at dinner some time, after which she "probably won't want to see me again." She wonders at all the things it could be, all of which are pretty stupid, and even admits to herself "it'll have to be pretty damned bad to have you running for the hills." He could tell her that he lives in a common law marriage with a Japanese body pillow and he wants her to watch him have sex with it in the middle of a traditional tea ceremony and she'd just smolder over how mysterious and commanding he is. She's already in for anything you have in mind.

She agrees to have dinner tonight. "Like Eve, you're so quick to eat from the tree of knowledge." Is that supposed to be sexy or something? Because... just, wow. Yikes. Has EL James ever met an actual person before?

Christian sets up a helicopter, then orders her (again, the word in the text) to finish eating, and has some very vague and laughable business-sounding talk on the phone that I don't know why James even bothers throwing in since it adds nothing and sounds so unrealistic. For her part, she goes in his bathroom and uses his toothbrush, because "it would be like having him in my mouth." It makes her feel "naughty." She's thinking of all of this even though she's also so shy that she can't even say the word "sex" in front of Christian without blushing, flustered, and getting super embarrassed. When she tells him later, it turns him on. She can't wait to find out what his secret is, and she seems to be approaching it like she's some intrepid reporter in a bad noir picture, but really it seems to be the weird flush of that first time when you actually take a genuine interest in someone who isn't you. Makes sense if you're a narcissist. Which she is. Big time.

I love how when the two of them get in the elevator, she says that because of the close space the atmosphere between them changes and becomes more charged. No it doesn't. He's told you he wants you, you've told him you want him, you're both dripping hormones all over the carpet. The atmosphere is steady. And then they kiss and they're kissing and she's all moans and tongues and strange new sensations and he's all grinding and erections and hair-pulling and he's pinned her against the wall and it's supposed to be this erotic release but it's not Anais Nin. Hell, it's not even Anne Rice.

Okay, I also have to be fair and say, you know, this book isn't aimed at me. Obviously, there are people out there for whom this really works. But not me. Not even a little. But it's hard to get lost in the characters when there really aren't any. It's just about being naughty and horny and taking the long way around the barn to get off, because apparently that makes masturbating classier. There's nothing else to this, at all. It's like porn for people too afraid to buy real porn. In other words, not for adults.

I imagine the next chapter will be the dinner. I'm sure this is where things will get serious and more intense, right?

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Bear and the Hare

This ad for British retailer John Lewis was features some beautiful animation by Disney veteran Aaron Blaise and is just beautifully done.

Xmas: Tumblr Finds

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #14

"The Merciless Puppet Master" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(May 1963)

One of the great ongoing entanglements of the early (and best) years of Fantastic Four is the simmering passion between Sue Storm and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. I don't want to call the whole Reed/Sue/Namor development a love triangle, because I'm burned out on love triangles. Love triangles feel manufactured for drama; when Sue is torn between the heroic man she's known all her life and the troubled undersea ruler who stirs her sympathy, it feels born out of the character rather than the need for pointless drama.

In this issue, we finally get Reed's take on the whole situation, and it's surprisingly touching. Again, I know I gave Mr. Fantastic a lot of flack at first, but I've really come to like this character. Sure, he can be clueless and tactless, like a lot of scientists (concerned with greater things and all that), but when he walks in on Sue using his "roving-eye" television receiver to scan the bottom of the sea in an attempt to locate Namor, he's clearly hurt. Up until now, he's been quietly angry (notice how every time they fight the Sub-Mariner, Reed never holds back even a little), but he hasn't pushed Sue to choose because he wants her to make the decision for herself. Forcing her into a decision would be to never really know her heart. But here we follow Reed as he thinks about all of the great things he can do, all the things he's accomplished, yet "I am unable to win my most cherished goal! I am unable to completely conquer the heart of the girl I love!"

I once again admire how much time Stan and Jack take to really present these characters as human beings with dimensions, pulling us into them so we accept them as people. It's not until page 6 that this issue's villain enters the picture: the Puppet Master. Having survived his seemingly fatal fall to the ground in Fantastic Four #8, he's apparently been convalescing in a sanatorium ever since. (Even he says the FF thinks he died in the fall.) Immediately upon release, the Puppet Master sits down on a bench and starts carving a puppet, intending to take revenge on his would-be killers through one of their old enemies. And, of course, he settles on the Sub-Mariner.

Namor is still searching for his people, perhaps getting closer, when the Puppet Master takes mental control of him. Namor reaches out to Sue, calling her to the docks where he immediately takes her prisoner. Projecting a challenge to the FF, the three remaining team members head under the sea to face Namor at his always-cool mid-century modern style palace.

Where this book really has it over the others is in its book-length style of storytelling. Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man and the solo Human Torch stories are just lead-in shorts to anthology books, maybe a third of the total issue space. Spider-Man's had two issues featuring multiple stories. But here, with an entire issue's space, Stan and Jack not only have room to explore the characters, but also to set a mood and a tone. I love the eerie trip down into the depths of the ocean, where they have to run a gauntlet of undersea traps just so they can be captured by Namor, just so they can fight him one by one, "as is the custom of my people." And all the while, Sue is being held inside an air bubble inside a giant water tank guarded by a giant octopus.

This... this is beautiful.

Each member of the team gets their own page of fighting Namor--another round for the Torch/Sub-Mariner rivalry--but in the end, Namor is defeated in large part by Namor himself. The Puppet Master, clearly underestimating the power of the Fantastic Four, orders Namor to use a deadly poison gas on the Fantastic Four. But Namor--who is troubled and driven and processing a trauma but never truly evil--feels conflicted and can't bring himself to murder them. Eventually, he does release the gas, but Reed has had enough time to put Flex-O-Gen packets--basically small, flexible gas masks--over everyone's faces, saving them.

I love that it's Alicia who figures out, just by hearing Namor's voice, that he's not responsible for what's happening, but is most likely under the control of her stepfather, the Puppet Master. And when the Puppet Master loses that control, even Namor has no idea what's going on or how the FF even got into his palace.

And then there's this painful emotional moment where Namor asks Sue if she's finally come at last to be with him, and she says no: "Much as you fascinate me, my loyalties are still with Reed! As for my heart--perhaps one day it will be able to make a final choice--but not yet!" Namor reacts with anger and bluster, vowing to find his people and then battle the surface world for control of the planet... but he still lets the Fantastic Four go, a man of honor and nobility, and seeing them off. When Sue says she hopes that one day they'll all be friends, Namor promises "Friend? That is too mild a word for the Sub-Mariner!"

I love this character. He's a good man in a lot of pain, and I hope to see that pain taken away one day.

If I have one real complaint about this story, it's that the Sub-Mariner appearances--as much as I love and treasure them--are becoming a little formulaic. Stan and Jack manage to imbue this one with a sense of drama, of course, but for the most part these stories have become a sort of showcase where Namor defeats each of the three men in turn, kidnaps Sue, and then Sue stops the others from ganging up on Namor for a big battle. I know it's Sue who makes the others see reason in these stories, but it's always after she's been captured and needs to be rescued. Sue has a mind, but I don't like it when she's reduced to damsel. How about Reed getting captured for a change?

Still... I love this issue. I love the Sub-Mariner. And when they next cross paths, it's going to be a different story...

Stray observations:

:: I love how this issue keeps going from the last issue. If you recall, last issue, the FF landed on the moon. Rather than just being a sort of one-off spectacular feat, this issue opens with the FF landing in New York (at Idlewild Airport!) to a crowd of onlookers and news cameras. This is 1963, and these four--as the dialogue reminds us--are the first Earthlings to return from a round trip to the moon. This is a real triumph for America, and it only grows the celebrity and the reputation of the Fantastic Four. This is a momentous event in the real world, and not just a comic book feat. That bit of realism is what sets the early Marvels apart from the Silver Age DC books, where anything and everything happened with no consequences and no drama. It's a big achievement--in the real world, we wouldn't land on the moon for another six years--and I'm glad Stan and Jack take time to acknowledge it.

:: Speaking of FF celebrity, the four are immediately mobbed by the crowd. Fan clubs, businessmen wanting endorsements, Hollywood agents offering contracts--everyone wants a piece of these four. Guys, they just got back from space, rein it in! It does lead to two great moments, though:

Previous panel featured a soldier complaining "I can't hold these nutty females back!" Also:

Ha! I love Ben. Happy Hanukkah, Ben!

I've said it before, I'll say it again: this book works because of moments like these. It's about recognizable, relatable people.

The mob scene is so bad that the Human Torch quickly creates a vacuum funnel out of warm air and pulls his teammates up to the top of the Baxter Building, just so that they can get a little peace, quiet and rest.

:: Sue's first thought upon returning home from the moon? "I think I'd better do a little housecleaning." Reed doesn't come across as very sympathetic with his admonition: "Just so long as you do it silently!" No wonder the first thing she does is look for Namor! You done messed up, tiny man.

:: My favorite Human Torch insult hurled at the Thing this issue: "Why don't you go get a job as a food tester in a poison factory?"

:: Continuity error I noticed: when the Puppet Master is musing over which of the FF's old foes to send to fight them, he briefly thinks of the Skrulls, even though their existence was never made public, so he can't actually know about them. (He also considers the Mole Man, who I'm surprised has yet to make a return appearance.)

:: Reed attempts to use a ten ton iron bar to test, once and for all, the real limits of Ben's strength. Ben gets annoyed and easily bends it in half.

:: The Puppet Master watches the undersea proceedings from his one man sub. Reed has built an experimental bathyscaph, which my spell check doesn't recognize, but which is very much of the time period. This was just a few years after the bathyscaph Trieste went down into the Marianas Trench, something my Mom was always fascinated by.

:: The tone of the lead-in to battle is very interesting. These aren't three hotheads rushing to enjoy a fight. There's a fatalistic feel in the air. Reed leaves the key to his secret files with the police commissioner in case he doesn't come back alive. Ben spends a couple of pages saying farewell to Alicia. He feels so bad that she's crying over the possibility of his not returning that he actually takes her along for the ride!

:: Sadly, we never see the mento-fish or the hypno-fish again. I kind of love them, but I'll admit a large part of their appeal is that they're named mento-fish and hypno-fish.

:: Meta!

:: My favorite bit of Stan's in this month's letter column is when a reader calls him out on the flare gun which used to spell out the words "Fantastic Four" and now only shows an image of the number 4. Before copping to it just being a goof, Stan jokingly says "The FF saves a lot of smoke with each shot by only using one numeral--and with the high price of smoke today, every little bit counts!" Dad joke.

He also responds to a reader who wonders how the Impossible Man could turn into the Old Man of the Sea--how would an alien know that legend?--by responding that the Old Man of the Sea was the Impossible Man's second cousin from the same planet. Another dad joke.

And he laughs off someone who points to a continuity error--Sue remembering facing the Skrulls in her uniform, even though the FF didn't wear uniforms then--by saying "As far as all our mistakes are concerned, we make 'em while we're being real careful! Can you imagine if we ever got CARELESS??!"

Ah, the days before every continuity error and mistake was a lingering story thread that needed to be addressed in-universe...

:: Judging by the letters, no one really liked the Impossible Man. I don't know... I thought the Impossible Man was funny. And what Matt Fraction is doing in the current run of FF with his son Adolf Impossible is wonderful.

Stan also draws attention to the corner boxes that have started appearing as Marvel's trademark, and says to keep your eyes open for a possible Fantastic Four Annual. He also teases a new title, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, which I will be reviewing here, since it takes place in the Marvel Universe (and is awesome).

But now... why not make an already-long post even longer?

Since this is my fiftieth Marvels post, I'm going to to take some time out here to rank my 20 favorite Marvel stories so far, just for the silly hell of it all:

1. "The End of the Fantastic Four!" (Fantastic Four #9)
2. "The Master of Flame vs. the Monarch of the Sea!" (Strange Tales #107)
3. "Prisoners of Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #5)
4. "The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes!" (Fantastic Four #13)
5. "The Merciless Puppet Master" (Fantastic Four #14)
6. "Captives of the Deadly Duo!" (Fantastic Four #6)
7. "The Coming of... Sub-Mariner!" (Fantastic Four #4)
8. "The Return of Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #10)
9. "The Incredible Hulk" (Fantastic Four #12)
10. "It Came from the Skies!" (Fantastic Four #7)
11. "The Vengeance of Loki!" (Journey Into Mystery #88)
12. "Duel to the Death with the Vulture!" (Amazing Spider-Man #2)
13. "The Fantastic Four!" (Fantastic Four #1)
14. "Spider-Man!" (Amazing Fantasy #15)
15. "The Impossible Man!" (Fantastic Four #11)
16. "Trapped by Loki, the God of Mischief" (Journey Into Mystery #85)
17. "The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space!" (Fantastic Four #2)
18. "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" (Fantastic Four #11)
19. "On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man" (Journey Into Mystery #86)
20. "Prisoners of the Puppet Master!" (Fantastic Four #8)

No surprise that the list is so FF-heavy; it's still the flagship, even as the Marvel Universe is only starting to get stronger. There's a lot of great stuff coming in the next 50 issues, and I sure as hell don't feel like stopping just yet! Stay tuned, true believer!

Next Marvels: Thor and Loki once more!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Xmas: "Santa Baby"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #17. I love this song and pretty much only this version of this song. (Well, Miss Piggy's done a decent version, but her voice isn't as liquid and enticing as Eartha Kitt's. Hey, whose is?)

Danny Wells 1941-2013

I'm sad to hear that Danny Wells has passed away. I've seen him on a ton of TV shows and heard his voice in many cartoons, but to me he's always going to be Luigi. During some of the worst years of my childhood--the years my parents got divorced and we had to move out of the only home I ever knew--I could come home after school and enjoy the silliness that was The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, with Wells and Captain Lou Albano as the video game brothers. That show--and particularly its live action segments, which were the best part--always made me laugh and gave me a reason to smile after another hellish day of being bullied and ridiculed in school.

Thanks for those afternoons, Danny.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #2

Two stories in this issue, but Stan drops the format in the next issue and just goes straight to book-length features.

"Duel to the Death with the Vulture!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(May 1963)

I've always considered desperation to be one of Spider-Man's best motivators. It's why I don't mind it in movies when he has more than one villain; because when he's overwhelmed and it leads to desperation and anger, I guess I've always related to that. The frustration he must feel, the way he screws up sometimes and has lapses in moral judgment as a result... these are things I find it very easy to relate to. Spider-Man's never perfect, and he never should be. He's always pushed past his limits, and oftentimes he only survives because his powers make it possible to keep fighting blindly. This all plays a large part in what I love about the character, because I see myself in it. As a teenager, Spidey was my favorite superhero. This is a big part of why.

This story really results from desperation: the desperate need Peter Parker feels to make money so he can help take care of Aunt May. The villainous Vulture is terrorizing New York City, swooping out of the sky on big wings to steal gems, jewels, and bonds. J. Jonah Jameson wants pictures for NOW Magazine, and Peter thinks this will be a big payday: pictures of the Vulture that only Spider-Man, with his special abilities, can get. The look on Peter's face when he figures this out, anticipating the money, is almost one of crazed excitement. He's not motivated by stopping a thief that only he and his unique powers can take down; he's in it for the cash.

The Vulture is the first menace Spider-Man has faced with powers. They're still science powers--Vulture's ability to fly turns out to be magnet technology--but so far Spider-Man's only fought robbers, an out of control space capsule, and a master of disguise. The Vulture is a genuine superhero, and one of Spidey's best villains.

In typical superhero story style, the first round goes to the Vulture. He hears the snap of Spider-Man's camera, flies at him (he's quite fast), picks him up by the ankle and drops him in a rooftop water tower. It's one of those desperate scenes; it takes Spider-Man an entire page to figure out how to get out--the walls are too wet and slimy for him to stick to, he's run out of web fluid and has no more, and he's growing tired. He finally manages to climb out by swimming all the way to the bottom and using his super strength to leap out. As defeats go, it's a little embarrassing. (Peter even cops to it: "Well, I've only myself to blame for being so careless!") Peter immediately modifies a utility belt so it not only holds a small camera, but also extra cartridges of web fluid.

The second round, however, goes to Spider-Man, who catches up with the Vulture after his latest heist. The Vulture tries to finish Spidey off with the same move, but this time Spider-Man's ready. Having suspected that the Vulture had figured out how to use magnets to fly (the clue was the lack of any sound in the wing mechanisms, allowing the Vulture to fly silently and swiftly), Peter had gone home and created an anti-magnetic inverter and put it on his belt; simply pressing it caused the Vulture's magnets to cease working, and the Vulture spins to the ground and is arrested.

Very Doctor Who.

I dig the creativity that comes out of Spider-Man when he's desperate, but I also love how he's always got to go and re-think his approach. A break, some real thinking, and the rational answer usually comes. Fantastic stuff.

Stray observations:

:: J. Jonah Jameson loves the pictures, and tells Peter there's a big payoff if he gets him some pictures of "that menace Spider-Man." Interestingly, Peter tells Jonah that he doesn't want to be credited; he asks specifically that the pictures be attributed to a NOW staff photographer. Why give it away? Why not take the credit? Do you know how many other news outlets are probably going to want to reprint that picture? I thought you wanted money, son!

It reminds me of Stanley Lieber shortening his name to Stan Lee because he didn't want his name on comic books and was saving it for when he wrote the Great American Novel. (And he did; it was just the first 50 issues of Fantastic Four and it was written by a couple of guys called Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.)

:: Jonah's best line this issue: "Take a bonus and go out and buy yourself some twist records!"

:: The Vulture publicizes the big diamond heist he's planning, so the city brings in helicopters and extra police to move the briefcase full of diamonds. The Vulture is a thief who just has this need for everyone to be impressed with how clever he is, and his plan is a good one. While everyone's scanning the skies and waiting for the big fight, Vulture simply pops up from a manhole cover, grabs the briefcase right out of a banker's hands, and flies off through the open sewers, and into the subway system!

This is a great Spider-Man story. Spidey demonstrates his powers as well as his intelligence, he has his first great villain, and it really sets the tone for stories to come. Better than anything in the first issue, for sure.

"The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

This one's a bit of a letdown, especially after that great first story. In this one, Peter Parker is excited to assist Professor Cobwell, a prominent electronics expert, by picking up a radio from the Tinkerer, who turns out to be part of a group of alien spies. They're putting electronic spy devices in radios to assess Earth's strengths and weaknesses, just like all the aliens in the Marvel Universe are always doing at all times. Not only have we seen this plot time and again (hasn't every Marvel hero dealt with this one already?), but you could pick almost any random earlier issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy, Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense or Journey Into Mystery and see pretty much the same story without a superhero in it. (And 8 times out of 10, it'll even be drawn by Steve Ditko!)

The only nod to this being about a superhero is that Peter susses out the spy device because it keeps setting off his spider-sense, and when the aliens put him in a glass enclosure, he uses his webs to free himself. And the specific Spider-Man bit of the Tinkerer's shop catching on fire, and the cops seeing Spidey emerge from the flames and assuming he set the fire for some reason. Guy can't catch a break. (Maybe that's another thing that was so nice about "Duel to the Death with the Vulture"--in that one, Peter at least got to make some money. It's nice seeing him win every so often.)

Really, it could have anyone in it. It's not a uniquely Spider-Man story, and it's not that good on its own.

Stray observations:

:: Flash Thompson can talk all he wants, he's always gonna look 40 years old to me.

Why haven't you graduated yet? Does Liz Allen's mother know what a man of your age is trying to do to her little girl?

:: I will always love this effect.

I want a big poster of just that image.

:: Nice touch here.

It's been a while since we've had need of a Marvel diagram.

Overall, the second issue of Amazing Spider-Man is a mixed bag. The first great Spidey story in the regular series, and a forgettable tale that seems uncharacteristic of Spider-Man. I don't think we'll see aliens again for a long time; Spidey's milieu is science villains, not aliens. And his next issue is going to introduce his true arch-enemy.

But for our next Marvels: the Sub-Mariner returns for the 50th Marvels post on this blog!

Monday, December 02, 2013

Xmas: Peanuts, 1966

That last one is definitely one of my favorite Peanuts strips.

Kristen Bell (and Muppets) Mondays

Sunday, December 01, 2013

A Brief Thought on the Death of Paul Walker

Isn't it sad that when I first heard the news last night--that Fast and Furious star Paul Walker was killed in a tragic, fiery car crash--I wrote it off as a hoax? Paul Walker, the guy from the movie series about fast cars, dies in a fast car? Sure, pull the other one. I reacted cynically and assumed it was yet another of the internet's celebrity death hoaxes.

This is one of those times when I feel like the internet's true achievement is just turning human beings into more concentrated assholes than at any other time in history.

I think it's shameful that I went right there. Right to "Oh, yeah, right, whatever" instead of "His poor family." And his poor family! Thanksgiving weekend, a young guy like that, it can be hard to make sense of, and I feel so sympathetic to them.

But for a little while, I simply shrugged it off. A man's death, and I shrugged it off because I'm so used to people on the internet being jags about things as serious as people dying.

Maybe people were always this bad, but what an outlet the internet has provided for their casual cruelty directed at people they don't even know.

Song of the Week: "Good King Wenceslas"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #16. Yes, I'm bringing that back this year, every Sunday and Wednesday. (I'm going to do Peanuts on Mondays, I think, and hopefully other stuff over the next three and a half weeks.)

This is my favorite version of this song, probably because of the dramatic pacing. We used to have this on one of those True Value compilations when I was a kid; took me forever to find it again as an adult.