Saturday, September 27, 2014

Katurday

And, this is an important distinction: it's Muppet Katurday.

Marvels: Strange Tales #118

"The Man Who Became the Torch!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(March 1964)

"Recycling" is the theme of this issue of Strange Tales. In our first story, the Wizard returns. I like the Wizard; he's probably my favorite solo Human Torch villain. But his grand plan in this story is to impersonate the Human Torch. He's already done that once. Come on, Wiz, you're a genius. Don't just repeat yourself.

There are other recycled elements, too. I don't know if Stan just doesn't realize he's doing it (he's scripting so many damn comics) or if Dick Ayers doesn't realize or if no one really thinks it matters. It's just a little bit of a drag because I feel like I've seen most of this already. The Wizard escapes prison by building an anti-gravity disc in the prison workshop; we've seen the Vulture do it, and a one-off villain called Doctor Strange even upped the stakes on that by building a transmitter to hypnotize Iron Man into flying him out of a prison.

The Wizard's idea is to disguise himself as a TV producer, have the Torch put on a show demonstrating his powers, tire the Torch out, capture him, take his place, and try to conquer the Fantastic Four. He knocks out Sue pretty easily (sigh, of course), but Reed and Ben prove too wily, and Johnny is able to signal the group from his prison: inside a billboard for cigarettes. Credit here, that's something we haven't seen yet.

But, alas, even the Wizard's finish feels familiar. His plan foiled--his plan to use more flying discs to rob banks and then eventually, like, battleships--he grabs his one flying disc and floats away... and floats and floats, off into the sky. The disc has malfunctioned and the Wizard can't shut it off. And the Human Torch just kind of lets him go, off beyond breathable air. He plays it like it's too late to save him, but it comes off more like a bit of "Eh, bad guy gone, whatever."

Will we see the Wizard again? I imagine so.

Stray observation:

Dick Ayers' Reed Richards looks like Michael Landon. It totally makes up for how his Wizard doesn't look like the creepy, stooped, arrogant John Carradine caricature that Jack Kirby drew.

"The Possessed!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Read that panel and you'll see why I also didn't care much for this issue's Doctor Strange story. This is the first time I haven't really cared for a Doctor Strange story, probably because having Strange deal with an interdimensional alien vanguard seems like a sudden tone shift. And, like many elements of this issue's Human Torch story, we've seen it already.

Everyone has fought alien vanguards already. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Human Torch solo, and even Spider-Man (where it seemed even more out of place). Aliens are always testing somewhere, studying humanity, etc. And almost everyone has tangled with aliens from other dimensions. The Marvel Universe is so crowded with alien races and dimensions already that it's just getting routine. There are so many common elements that have become tropes. Is Doctor Strange going to start facing commie spies, too? Gangsters? An underground kingdom? Travel through time? How many more cliches can we ram another character into?

I get it. Everything can't be facing off against Baron Mordo over the soul of the Ancient One (although I'd love to see more and more of the Nightmare World), but this just isn't the kind of supernatural weirdness I want to see get built up in this title. I understand that the common coin of the Marvel Universe is science fiction; even Thor comes off much more as a science fiction title than a fantasy one. And I know there are Comics Code restrictions on supernatural elements. But this just doesn't work.

To Stan and Steve's credit, they try to tie it in. Doctor Strange is called to a mountain village in Bavaria because there appears to be a mass case of supernatural possession going on. And the art is at times wonderfully moody and spooky, of course, because this is Steve Ditko.

And even if it's just aliens, Strange battles them as he would Mordo: with spiritual forces at his command, astral projection, and intense mental strength.

But in the end, it's just another alien story that hits all the same notes, drops the aliens out of nowhere, and sends them right back out. It's a sturdy trope at this point, but not really what I want out of Doctor Strange. I hope next issue we're back to the truly weird.

Stray observation:

I do love the design of the aliens. Too bad we'll probably never see them again somewhere else. I love Ditko's aliens as much as I love Kirby's monsters.

Next time: Iron Man vs. the Scarecrow.

Friday, September 26, 2014

My Sister Gives Me Hope

My therapist has correctly identified one of the many barriers I have to functionality: my operating belief that society is shit and people are inherently awful. It's hard to want to do better when you're constantly looking at the world and thinking, jeez, why bother. The world is terrible. (This is also key in my agoraphobia, obviously.)

She thinks I should blog more about little things in life, things I see online, that give me actual hope about the world. Those things are hard to identify, but it's supposed to be a way to combat the negativity that holds me back.

The truth is, I haven't been very functional this year. I was doing much better last year, and this year I just haven't been able to get back to that level of functionality. It's been much harder for me to motivate myself to keep up with cleaning, with cooking, with my exercise. I don't have a routine and I've been going through a very long depression that has been hitting me to various degrees, but which hasn't really gone away since July.

So, as part of this positive reminders thing, I thought I'd mention my baby sister, Audrie.

She's 19 and she's just started her second year at college--where she's joined a sorority now--and to my surprise she spent two hours talking to me on the phone last night. She just wanted to catch up, visit, whatever. That's the kind of thing that challenges my self-perception--if you remember, I don't reach out to anybody because I feel like my presence is bothersome--and it was nice that she challenged me that way.

It's a little strained between me and my siblings. Ever since Ellen passed away in 2006, I've carried some sort of guilt with me which I'm just beginning to process. Jayne and I don't really talk much; we've never been close and frankly I just don't think she likes me that much. Audrie was born in 1995, when I was 19, and I wasn't around very often; eventually, my disorders just made me pull away from everyone, and, as I said, I don't reach out.

I feel like Audrie and I have been sort of getting to know each other just now, over the past year, as we occasionally talk. We've had serious discussions about my disorders, and I feel like she understands me and appreciates the insight. Partly, I appreciate being able to speak frankly about them with her, because it makes it easier for her to understand why I've never been around much.

But she's also a psychology major, and she wants to be some kind of clinical therapist or social worker. So when I talk to her about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or clinical depression, she understands what I'm talking about and what I'm dealing with, and that makes it so much easier to talk to her and not feel judged. With my Dad and my Mom, I'm very tentative, because I'm... well, I'm afraid that they won't understand, but I also realize I'm not necessarily giving them the benefit of the doubt, either. But with as many problems as I've had with them that ended up becoming bad habits and negative behaviors in my adulthood, there's a bit of a barrier there. With Audrie being younger and knowing some of the science, I feel like there's no stigma to overcome.

I admire that my sister's chosen to do something that helps people. That means a lot to me. I wish I could help people myself. When I'm more able to interact, I'd like to find a way to.

She made me feel like a worthy person last night, which is a hurdle for me, and I'm grateful for her. I look at my cousins on Facebook and see how close they are and sometimes I wonder what it's like to have a sibling who really wants to just hang out and connect with you. Last night, I didn't have to. I felt better.

Hell, I even baked a cake today for the first time since my birthday. That must mean something.

Better than doing nothing, anyway.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Marvels: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #6

"The Fangs of the Desert Fox!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(March 1964)

Technically, the villain of this issue is Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, commander of Hitler's North African campaign. But it's more accurate to say that the real villain this issue is hate. And that's mainly what I'm going to be discussing in this entry.

The trouble starts when the Howling Commandos start some intense training as a prelude to a secret mission in North Africa, where they're going to attempt to take down Rommel's forces. During training, Dino Manelli is injured. Dino's the only one who can speak German, so a replacement is assigned for him: George Stonewell.

It becomes obvious immediately that Stonewell is a bigot. He doesn't want to shake hands with Dino, an Italian, or with Izzy Cohen, who is Jewish. He's thrilled to meet Reb Ralston and Dum-Dum, apparently relieved, but when he meets Gabe Jones, the lone black commando in the group, he's so thrown off that he refuses to sleep in the same barracks.

Fury immediately reacts with anger: "Stonewell, at first I thought you were just tryin' to throw your weight around--tryin' to act like you thought a commando should! But you ain't just actin', mister!! You're a genuine, 14-carat, dyed-in-the-wool, low-down bigot!"

He goes on here:

(Aside: the line about trading Stonewell in "for a real human being" is my favorite thing anybody says this issue.)

I love that all of this is accomplished with a mix of subtlety and explicit statement. Stonewell's racism is obvious through his shock at seeing Gabe, his refusal to shake Gabe's hand, and his desire to sleep somewhere else. He doesn't use any racial slurs or make any threats. It's clear from his reactions to being in the same room with Gabe and on equal footing. It's Fury who snaps and brings the issue forth.

This is a way of attacking the issue head-on, and I really respect that. Think about comic books in 1964. Hell, just think about the Marvel Universe so far; we've barely seen any black people in any roles, except for Gabe Jones. And there have been subtle moments with Gabe that pushed back at racism--here's my personal favorite--but here we're finally addressing the issue. Between this story and the issue of Fantastic Four with the Hate-Monger, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have decided to confront the specter of hate head-on. They may not be doing it perfectly, but these are important steps. Jeez, when did DC even notice black people existed? The seventies?

What's so great about this issue is that no one ever acts out of character, either. I wouldn't necessarily consider Stonewell a Straw Bigot because there's more to his character than just being hateful. Stan & Jack don't sugarcoat his racism or try to explain it; they incorporate it into his character. For the most part, he's a good soldier and a loyal American. It's a complex picture of just how ingrained in otherwise decent people that way of thinking--and the actions it gives way to--can be.

For example, as the Howlers make their way into Axis territory, Stonewell's bigotry nearly gets both Gabe and Izzy killed at different points. Not because Stonewell is trying to get them killed, but just because he doesn't trust them to do their jobs well, because he's WASP-y and therefore (in his mind) better at everything.

But when Stonewell questions a Nazi officer about the location of Rommel's command center, the Nazi tries to appeal to Stonewell's assumed racial superiority and offer him a deal. Stonewell, no traitor, refuses and dresses the man down. I think that's an important moment in the story. Stonewell's a racist, yes, but that doesn't mean he's a Nazi. That would be too simplistic. Bigotry isn't confined to cartoon Nazis in a comic book, and it didn't end with World War II.

In the end, Stonewell's bigotry blows the mission. As he and Izzy are attempting to infiltrate, and against the biggest odds we've ever seen--Rommel's entire desert command, a seemingly endless amount of troops stretching further than the eye can see--Stonewell decides his plan is better than Fury's, which would see him sharing victory with "an inferior." Their cover blown, Izzy and Stonewell have to fight their way out, which nearly gets Stonewell killed. Not only does Izzy save the man's life, but he gets an emergency blood transfusion from Gabe.

An interesting side note on this: the transfusion is performed by a Nazi doctor that Fury impresses into work. The doctor's response is basically that, enemy or no, "I am a doctor first." That's a nice little moment that the story doesn't linger on. Some things transcend hate.

The mission failed, but that's okay: British Intelligence have discovered that Rommel is one of the men involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and the Commandos' mission is scrubbed. Returning to their base, Stonewell stows his gear and heads off for reassignment without saying a word. He does, however, leave behind his new APO number for Izzy and Gabe, possibly out of gratitude for saving his life.

Sgt. Fury leaves us with the following thought: "The seeds of prejudice, which takes a lifetime to grow, can't be stamped out overnight--but if we keep trying--keep fighting--perhaps a day will come when 'love thy brother' will be more than just an expression we hear in church!"

It would ring false for Stonewell to have had an immediate change of heart, especially in 1964. But the seed of hope is there, and that's a lot more than we've seen in a lot of comics.

Stray observations:

:: This issue gets the action started right off with Nick Fury, riding a bicycle to a date with Pamela Hawley, single-handedly taking on and capturing three Nazi saboteurs.

:: Guys, straighten up, Churchill's watching.

Look busy or something.

:: This issue is sort of like a single-issue Lawrence of Arabia, with Fury and his men crossing the desert, even meeting Arabs and being sheltered by them and given horses. There's also a fantastic action sequence with the Howlers being chased by Stuka dive bombers. In addition to having a message and dealing with it in a way that doesn't grind the story to a halt, it's also a great action issue.

Now, my major problem with this issue is the usual problem I have with Sgt. Fury: coloring. Gabe Jones is still being colored inconsistently. Generally, he's this ashen gray color, but often he looks like a white dude with a sunburn, and sometimes he's just outright colored like the rest of the Caucasians. The message might have even more impact if Gabe were consistently African-American.

On the other hand... it does make an unintended point about the "white default setting" in American entertainment, doesn't it?

Next time: the return of the Wizard, and it's Doctor Strange's turn to fight aliens.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

K Is for the Kenner Gooney Bird

You know I'm always interested in the fate of Jim Henson's commercial characters. This week: the Kenner Gooney Bird.

The Gooney Bird was the logo of the Kenner toy company from 1962 to 1974. Mainly he appeared in trade ads and on packaging, but there was also a bendy doll and he appeared in Give-a-Show slides.

In 1968, Jim Henson was contracted to produce some commercials for the Easy-Bake Oven, so naturally he created a Muppet version of the character which I find very charming.


For whatever reason, Jim's work doing commercials for Kenner didn't proceed very far, and since he was working on puppets for Sesame Street, he basically recycled the puppet and moved him over to the new show, just as he had Arnold from the Munchos ads (who became Cookie Monster) or the walkaround concept of the La Choy Dragon (which led to Big Bird). On Sesame Street, the Kenner Gooney Bird became Little Bird.

Here, on a very early episode (Episode 0028), Little Bird (performed by Jim) meets Big Bird. The episode originally aired on December 17, 1969.


I just think that bit is so nice. Little Bird seems like a class act. Jim only performed Little Bird once more before the character got bounced around a bit to other performers. I know that Jerry Nelson once performed him.

But Little Bird's performer since 1970 has been Fran Brill.

Here she is with Little Bird (and with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch performer Caroll Spinney behind her). She was the first female puppeteer hired by Jim Henson, and primarily her work has been on Sesame Street. Currently, I believe her main character is Zoe, a character I don't know much about, but her main character throughout the 70s and early 80s was Prairie Dawn, one of my favorite Sesame Street characters who doesn't seem to get much regard anymore.

(You might also recognize her as Richard Dreyfuss' sister in Frank Oz's classic What About Bob? She was also in Being There and Midnight Run.)

On episode 0148 (December 2, 1970), Little Bird taught us (and an early Herry Monster) to play the Imagination Game.


Little Bird never appeared very much on the show, though he has made a lot of appearances in Sesame Street books. Interestingly, though, test audiences of children seemed to respond very well to the character, The Imagination Game in particular was noted as something children in one test audience really enjoyed and participated in.

In another signature Little Bird segment, from episode 0683 (November 27, 1974), Little Bird (and Cookie Monster) demonstrate the concept of "next to."


Incidentally, 1974 was the year Kenner, who had become much more interested in "action toys," stopped using the Kenner Gooney Bird as its logo. Little Bird is still flying around on Sesame Street. It's just always interesting to me how some of these long-running characters--even the somewhat underused ones--start off in places like commercials.

Keep flapping, Little Bird.

ABC Wednesday

Monday, September 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, Joan Jett

My queen is 56 years old today.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Song of the Week: "The Gypsy's Wife"

Songs for Becca #23. Leonard Cohen is 80 years old today. His music has been very special to me over the years, particularly as an adult, and I thought I'd post this song, which is Becca's favorite Cohen song. This is her favorite version, too (I think), from the live album Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, featuring a haunting violin solo by Raffi Hakopian.

It's a beautiful, sad song about losing love, written by Cohen as his long-term relationship with the mother of his children was dissolving. It's cloudy and windy here today, adding something to the dark tinge of this song.

Becca's TV Shout-Out

This piece was one of Becca's big sellers at the C2E2 and WizardWorld Chicago conventions this year. Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, was at WizardWorld last month, and apparently people were buying this from Becca and asking Ms. Peterson to sign it! Elvira is basically Becca's hero, and the reason she got so into glam and horror and pin-ups when she was a kid. Elvira's show basically shaped Becca's sense of humor and her sense of what was sexy; without Elvira, there might never have been Becca's Bombshells.

One of the things Becca does for each convention is draw someone who is going to be there, and asks them to sign it. For example, Jaime Murray very sweetly signed a drawing Becca did of Stauma Tarr, the character she plays on Defiance. (Ms. Murray even put the picture up on her Twitter!) She has a picture of Ahsoka Tano that Ashley Eckstein signed for her. This is a cool thing she does when she goes to cons. She was intimidated to try and meet her hero, but she did it. Apparently, Ms. Peterson had been seeing the picture all weekend and asked if she could have one!

But that wasn't the end of the story for this piece. See the guy in the top hat? That's Svengoolie, our local horror host out of Chicago, played ably for many years by Rich Koz. You can see him nationwide now on Saturday nights if you get MeTV.

Becca and I both have memories of watching his show when we were kids. He's a Chicago institution, right up there with Bozo the Clown and Harry Caray. And apparently someone alerted him to this piece of art, and something like the day after WizardWorld, Mr. Koz sent an email to Becca and asked for a copy of the picture to show on an episode of Son of Svengoolie!

And that happened last night; during the fan mail segment of his showing of the 1941 flick The Black Cat, he showed the picture. She even got a quip out of his sidekick, Kerwyn (a puppet chicken). It was a surreal moment, watching Svengoolie, who I've watched since I was a kid, say my wife's name and show her artwork and say nice things about it. I can't stress enough how cool it was, or how proud I am of her.

And he said her name right! I don't know, I was anxious about that. Whitaker seems easy to me, but I did listen to Roger Whittaker as a kid. It's Whitaker, like Forest Whitaker, but you'd be surprised how many people I've heard say it like it's pronounced "white acre." (I guess they see "taker" and go with that.)

Becca's art on Son of Svengoolie. Too cool.

Now, every time my wife starts to get down on her artwork, I can tell her, damn it, Svengoolie likes it, and so do Elvira, Jaime Murray, Ashley Eckstein, Pandora Boxx and Bruce Campbell, to name only a few.