Saturday, October 11, 2014

HALLOWEEN: Skittles Web

I don't usually love Skittles commercials, but I've been seeing this short take on TV a lot lately, and it's my favorite Halloween-themed commercial this year by far. (And hey, there was only one great new one last year, the Verizon Star Wars Family... I wish they'd brought that back this year.) This is a great little gag.

There's an extended version of this that you can see it here.

Also, by way of the Halloween food update, I've gotten a hold of some Franken Berry Fruit Roll-Ups and Count Chocula Bars. Gonna stick to one box of each this year instead of stuffing my face with them. (The Fruit Roll-Ups are a little too sugary for me.) Also, I tried those caramel apple-flavored Twizzlers and was surprised how much I dug them. I think Becca had one and I ate all the rest. Oh, well. Good stuff.

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #11

"Turning Point" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(April 1964)

The Amazing Spider-Man has really turned into an engrossing soap opera, and I think this might be the point where it overtakes Fantastic Four as my favorite Marvel comic. This issue is just as packed full of plot and story as the previous issue, but where I felt "The Enforcers!" stumbled, "Turning Point" soars by paring down the number of characters we have to check in on. No high school stuff, no J. Jonah Jameson, and a mere cameo from Aunt May: we have Doctor Octopus and Betty Brant to worry about. Peter Parker is still concerned about Betty's sudden departure, and in true Spider-Man style, the events of Peter's personal life and Spidey's career are set to collide.

Right away, Peter hears on the radio that Doctor Octopus is going to be released from prison today. As Spider-Man, he heads over to the prison to plead with the warden not to release Ock, but the warden won't hear of it. The doc has served his time. The warden's right, he can't circumvent the law, but once again, I just have to protest the bizarre idea of punishment in the Marvel Universe. It's still in real time, so, honestly, 9 months? 9 months in jail for trying to steal atomic weapons?

Look at this cool customer.

This is the single best panel of Doctor Octopus ever. Casually lighting a cigarette. He's faster and more dexterous now, and he's going to be even more dangerous--something that makes him, as I said before, Spider-Man's actual archenemy.

Peter goes home and invents the Spider-Tracer, a small, spider-shaped electronic device filled with transistorized circuits, which he can use to pick up coded messages on a receiver. This is the first time we see these, but certainly not the last. I don't know how it goes from here, but I seem to remember him throwing these all over the place in the eighties.

When he arrives back at the prison, he sees, of all people, Betty Brant pulling up and then driving away with the now-free Doctor Octopus in the car. Spidey just manages to attach the Spider-Tracer to the car's roof before she speeds off, leaving behind a map of Philadelphia which was, I guess, accidentally dropped out of the car? (A hackneyed device, but I'll let it go because the rest of this story's so good.)

And what's in Philadelphia? Well, besides the Philadelphia Museum of Art (sadly not making an appearance here), we meet gangster Blackie Gaxton and his lawyer, Bennett Brant, Betty's brother. Apparently Bennett's got some major gambling debts, and that's what Betty was trying to pay off to the Big Man last issue. Blackie and Bennett have made a deal: Betty drives Doctor Octopus to Philadelphia so that Doc can break Blackie out of prison, and the debt is canceled.

But, of course, it's never that simple, is it?

Heading to Philadelphia for what he tells Aunt May is a weekend trip to see historical sites, Peter swings into action as Spider-Man, finding the tracer signal and then reuniting with Betty as Peter. Now, last issue I complained that Peter was being young and brash and a little precious about his feelings when he decided Betty must not love him that much if she won't confide her secrets to him, even though he hadn't even thought about telling her he's Spider-Man, because to a teenager, there are different kinds of honesty. So I'm glad to see that Peter doesn't confront Betty, but instead tells her that he couldn't let her go because she means too much to him. Betty then tells him everything, and Peter resolves to tell her, after he's stopped Doctor Octopus and Blackie Gaxton, that he's really Spider-Man. How can this not be Peter's first real love?

Meanwhile, Doctor Octopus breaks Blackie out of jail before Spidey can get there. And while he's gone, Blackie's men take Bennett and Betty to a tramp steamer in the harbor at gunpoint. Blackie and Ock show up, and then Spider-Man lands on the deck--and sprains his ankle when he does! He's immediately captured by Blackie's goons, and now the stage is set: all of our main players in a tramp steamer, guns everywhere, and Spider-Man with an ankle he can't put any weight on.

Doctor Octopus is the one who makes the first move; he knows his payoff money is aboard the ship, so he turns on Blackie. Spider-Man hangs from the ceiling, keeping weight off his ankle, but starts fighting Blackie's men. Tragedy strikes; Spider-Man wrestles to get Blackie's gun away from him, the gun goes off, and Bennett Brant is killed right in front of Betty. A tearful Betty blames Spider-Man for her brother's death.

Spider-Man, angrier than we may ever have seen him, stalks after Blackie, and the progression here... Steve Ditko's art is so good that you can feel Spidey's rage:

Honestly, I'm surprised Blackie's not dead. That's a lot harder than Peter punched Flash Thompson in their boxing match.

But now Doctor Octopus wants some payback, and this is where the real struggle is. The last time they fought, Spider-Man nearly bit the dust. Ock is a formidable foe, and he's faster now, and out for revenge. He really has it in him to kill Spider-Man. This is another one of those fights where Spidey may be bantering the whole time, but it's to calm himself down and annoy his enemy; he's running on desperation and adrenaline. All Spidey can do is hold the man off while he thinks of some way, any way, to end this.

What really sets him off is when Octopus tries to escape with the money and with Betty as a hostage. Spider-Man won't have that at all, and in his anger, lets Ock lure him onto a smaller boat where Spidey will have less room to dodge Ock's arms. The only thing that saves Spider-Man is that, while they're battling, they don't notice that the boat's pilot has jumped ship; the boat crashes into the harbor, and both men are able to elude the police. Spider-Man escapes, but so does Doctor Octopus...

In the end, the police haul Blackie Gaxton back to jail, and Betty mourns her brother. She explains to Peter that she feels bad about blaming Spider-Man--she knows it wasn't his fault--but she still never wants to see him again. Now Peter can never share his secret with her...

Of course, the story doesn't end here... the next issue of Amazing Spider-Man picks up where we left off, with Doctor Octopus out for revenge on Spider-Man. The adventure continues.

Stray observations:

:: Peter's always heading out of his bedroom window in full costume. Does no one live across the way? Liz Allan once mentioned that Spider-Man had been seen a lot in the Forest Hills, Queens, area. I'm kind of amazed no one's put it together yet. Be careful, young man.

:: "Now all I've got to do is find Betty, see what her connection with Doc Ock is, make sure that he isn't causing any trouble... and be back in New York in time for class Monday morning! That's all!" Peter Parker knows there's a lot of plot in this one, true believer.

:: Doctor Octopus is collecting $100,000 for breaking Blackie out. Adjusted for inflation, that's over $760,000 today.

:: "Sufferin' spider-webs!!"

:: The letter writers printed this month seem split on whether or not Amazing Spider-Man #8 was any good, and as always, much of the criticism is about Ditko's art. Stan even throws a letter in at the end complimenting nothing but Steve's art, probably just to balance it out. Joseph Shea of Buffalo, NY, particularly hates this new trend of two-part stories (just wait, dude), and can't understand the Tales of Asgard stories in Journey Into Mystery at all (along with a number of other complaints). Readers did enjoy the return of the Vulture in Amazing #7. One reader calls for a young sidekick, which I can imagine Stan recoiling at the thought of.

Lots of stuff gets teased in the announcements, too: the FF will be fighting the Hulk, the Human Torch will meet Iceman, and the next Journey Into Mystery will introduce two of my favorite Thor villains (finally!), but first...

Next time: The Man Without Fear!

Friday, October 10, 2014

HALLOWEEN: Peanuts, 1971-1974




Thursday, October 09, 2014

Princesses in SPACE!!!

I read my favorite novel of 2014 two years ago. It's called Stardancer and it's the first novel in a cycle called The Song of Forgotten Stars. And it was written by my friend Kelly Sedinger, aka Jaquandor of Byzantium's Shores.

I was honored to be one of Kelly's test readers. I admit, I took my sweet damn time with it. It was just too good to tear through so quickly; I wanted to savor it, spending afternoons sitting on the floor, petting my bunny and snacking while he transported me to a far off planet, alongside two young princesses who find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar place and facing destinies they never imagined, and responsibilities they aren't sure if they can bear.

I don't know if anyone's ever noticed, but 90% of the science fiction I read was written in the 1960s or earlier. I don't know where to begin with a lot of modern SF; I'm a bit intimidated by book covers that seem like near-identical painted scenes of spacecraft, so I tend to stick with what I know. I find a lot of modern everything a little too grim and hopeless, and I don't need to invite more of that into my life when so much of it is done so poorly and I'm suffering with incredible bouts of depression and anxiety in my daily life. What I love so much about Stardancer is that it's... I want to say lighthearted, but really I think I mean that it's optimistic. It's much braver--and harder, I think--to tell an optimistic story rather than a cynical one. Optimism takes courage. (And didn't the success of Guardians of the Galaxy prove that (a) we're all ready for more fun in our stories of heroes, and (b) that you can have just as much depth of emotion and character in a fun story as you can in a dark one?)

The heroines of the novel, sisters Tariana and Margeth Osono, are just kids. They want to do the right thing, but don't always know what that is or how to accomplish it. The hope for one world's future is placed on their shoulders, and one of Tariana's constant worries is just how she can live up to the dreams of a people she never even knew existed. That she even tries to bear that at all is heroic. I like that the characters are flawed but try to find the path of hope. It's touching and these characters mean a lot to me. And it's all against the backdrop of outer space, fantastic creatures, and one of my favorite spaceships in all of fiction. Through it all, Kelly captures the wonder and the possibility of the stars themselves. It's emotionally real, and that's thrilling.

I love the book and I've been dying to read it again, this time with my wife, and I'm thrilled that Kelly is self-publishing in just five weeks. Right now, he's got a website for the book (Forgotten Stars) where you can see the cover art and a clever video trailer; he's going to be releasing the first three chapters, one each week, until the book is actually released.

I have to tell you, I'm a bit envious. I've had a novel kicking around inside of me for about the last 25 years that I started writing a long time ago and put aside. I've given in to despair a lot in the past decade. I applaud Kelly's courage and his faith in himself in self-publishing, and his dedication to finishing the work and telling one of the stories that was inside of him. And I thank him for sharing it! His example shows me that, despite how I feel about myself, it's not too late to tell your stories.

I can't wait for the movie.

Well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

For now, go to the website. Check it out. I can't recommend it enough.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

M Is for Mr. Johnson

Even if you don't know his name, you know Mr. Johnson. He's a recurring customer at Charlie's Restaurant, where Grover works as a waiter. He's the dour, harried straight man, aghast at how he keeps running into Grover's poor--yet overzealous--service. But if you go back to the beginning, you can see how the dynamic was initially reversed; he was overly serious and demanding while Grover was just trying to do his job.

Their first appearance together was on Episode 0276 (November 8, 1971), the third season premiere.

I like how you can see some of the mistakes in there--the confusion over the "Y" and the "Z" for example--and Grover's put-upon "This is a nice restaurant, sir!" In Episode 0332, a persnickety Mr. Johnson didn't have time to eat a sandwich.

But the dynamic was very quickly reversed and Mr. Johnson became the victim of Grover's aggressive attempts to please. In Episode 0406, Mr. Johnson tries to explain to Grover why he can't eat his chicken soup, but Grover won't listen.

Already, Mr. Johnson thinks his life would be easier if he just stopped dining at Charlie's.

My personal favorite of these sketches was this one from Episode 0705, from 1974, in which the concepts of big and little are demonstrated through hamburgers.

I see GIFs of Mr. Johnson's reaction on Tumblr all the time, so I feel like this one may be a lot of people's favorite one.

Mr. Johnson was waited on by Grover another 23 times over the years at Charlie's Restaurant; there's a list on this Muppet Wiki page, which also has a number of links for videos you can watch if you, like me, think losing an afternoon to Muppet videos sounds like the best way to spend a weekday.

Mr. Johnson is often called "Fat Blue," which is his puppet designation. He's an Anything Muppet--the kind of utility Muppet that can have features added on to it to make any type of character--and his body type is fat and blue. But I'm glad they eventually gave him a name.

So much of Mr. Johnson's personality comes from the particular mannerisms given to him by his performer, the late Jerry Nelson. I wonder if they'll retire the character now, or if someone else will take him over. There are times when David Rudman has performed the character with Jerry Nelson simply dubbing the voice. Perhaps Matt Vogel, who took over many of Nelson's characters (including Count Von Count) would give it a whirl. I'm honestly not sure if Grover does much waitering these days.

Of course, Grover also encountered Mr. Johnson as a door-to-door salesman, pizza delivery boy, flight attendant, gym instructor, and so much more in 22 other sketches listed on this Muppet Wiki page, so who knows?

Thanks, Jerry, for giving us one wonderfully short-tempered straight man!

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

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

Kevin Hart stars as an excitable security guard who wants to be a real cop. Ice Cube plays his future brother-in-law, a badass cop on the trail of an elusive arms dealer. Cube doesn't think Hart is good enough for his sister (the beautiful Tika Sumpter), so after Hart gets accepted to the police academy, Cube decides to take him on a ride along and mess with him, hoping to scare him off. I like both actors, and they play off of each other nicely, but the story never rises above its predictability. Don't get me wrong, it's amiable and amusing, but I always knew where it was going. Not a waste of time, but not something I'd go out of my way for, unless you're hellbent on seeing the entire Ice Cube canon. The final showdown between Cube and Laurence Fishburne (and I always love me some Fishburne) is funnier if you, as I did, accidentally think of it as a showdown between Doughboy and Furious Styles, their characters from Boyz N the Hood. **1/2

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

HALLOWEEN: 31 Creepy Gifs

Found this on Ranker: 31 Terrifying GIFs That Will Keep You Up All Night. It's a slideshow, and they're mostly unidentified bits from horror movies, but the repetitive action and the total lack of context really make these work for me.

And here's some bonus charts I found kinda neato: All 10 Halloween Movies in Charts and Percentages.

Marvels: X-Men #4

"The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(March 1964)

We've been hearing for some time now how there are evil mutants out there, but we haven't really seen them in any number. Magneto was evil, and a mutant. Vanisher was evil, and a mutant. The Blob was... disgruntled, really, but also a mutant. But here, in the fourth issue, we finally get a glimpse of what the evil mutants are like, with Magneto acting as the Professor X of a group of anti-X-Men, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Magneto's warriors, from left to right: Toad, an Ygor-type whose agility and acrobatic powers are similar to the Beast's; Quicksilver, named Pietro, who is capable of super speed; the Scarlet Witch, Wanda, whose powers right now are sort of a vaguely-defined telekinesis that others describe as witchcraft; and Mastermind, who looks like a homeless version of the Wizard, and who seems to be styling himself as a magician, although his "magic" is really hypnotic illusions.

Wanda choosing to call herself the Scarlet Witch is interesting; we see, in flashback, that Magneto rescued her from her Central European village, where the superstitious locals were attempting to burn her alive because they thought she was a witch. (She seems to have trouble controlling her powers.) It's like she's calling herself the Scarlet Witch as a way to both own that perception and combat it, stoking her anger against humans. I'm immediately intrigued by this character. I've not actually read many comics with the Scarlet Witch, so I'm curious to see what develops. She really only seems to be with Magneto to repay her life debt; Quicksilver, her brother, is only with Magneto to protect Wanda. (Where was he when those villagers were attacking her, though?)

As we usually see in these groups of villains, none of these four get along with each other, and therefore don't make an effective team.

Magneto steals an old Navy freighter with cannons on it and begins shelling "the tiny republic of Santo Marco," one of those island nations you'd probably see in a Marx Brothers movie. It's 1964, so assume it's a stand-in for Cuba. (I know Cuba's been explicitly mentioned, and hell, as I'm fond of reminding everyone, Thor nuked China, but hey, let's not go too far, right?) Magneto and the Brotherhood then conquer Santo Marco with an army that is one of Mastermind's illusions. The soldiers he creates are downright chilling; they're just straight-up Nazi soldiers with an encircled letter M on their armbands where the swastikas would normally be.

The X-Men show up, and I'll spare you the play-by-play, but it's pretty dynamic fighting. The X-Men are pretty evenly matched and really have to push themselves; Cyclops and Angel exert themselves so much that they're too weary to go on fighting. Mastermind's illusions are so powerful that it takes Professor X himself to break their hold on the X-Men.

Magneto and the Brotherhood retreat, but Magneto leaves behind two bombs. The first is a booby trap for the X-Men, which Professor X detects at the last minute and throws himself in front of to protect his students. The second is a nuclear explosive which will lay waste to Santo Marco. Quicksilver, in a moment of conscience, makes a snap decision to defuse the bomb. Though he has no love for humans--and says so, repeatedly--he can't bear the thought of innocent casualties. He retreats with the Brotherhood, uncertain of his future.

Also uncertain is the future of Professor X, who, having borne the brunt of an explosion, seems to have lost his mutant powers. Will he regain them, and once again be the world's most powerful telepath?

I guess five decades on the suspense has dulled, but hey, see ya next issue.

Stray observations:

:: He doesn't use it much, but this is the first time we see Iceman using his signature ice slide.


:: It's the one-year anniversary of the X-Men being a team, and there's a cake to celebrate. Down in the Danger Room, Iceman and Beast are throwing weights at each other and dodging morning stars (sensational art in that sequence, by the way), and Marvel Girl's test is... use telekinesis to gently take the top off of a box. What's inside? It's a cake. Happy anniversary, everyone. Tonight maybe Jean can see how well she can clear the table and wash dishes using only her mind powers while you boys take out laser cannons and outrun missiles.

:: I don't dig the name Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I mean, Magneto may have an anti-human agenda, but remember, the zealot always sees himself as the hero in his own story. Magneto more or less seems to think he's liberating mutantkind from the shackles of a humanity which fears it and wants it eradicated. So he obviously doesn't think of himself as evil, but as a revolutionary. The Brotherhood of the Mutant Revolution seems like a better name. I know this is comics in 1964, though, so I'm just thinking out loud. Well, on paper. Well, on... you get the idea.

:: Digging the cosmic vibe as Magneto and Professor X confront one another on the mental plane.

This is the first time these two have faced one another, and it's only briefly, but it really lays down their conflict: that Professor X thinks mutants and humans living side-by-side will lead to a golden age for all, and Magneto thinks humans should be the slaves of mutantkind and wants to strike first before humanity kills all the mutants. This is somewhat the conflict between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, but obviously exaggerated. (Say what you will about some of Malcolm's rhetoric, I don't remember him advocating for the slaughter and subjugation of white people.)

I've always felt that the comparison of Xavier and Magneto to Dr. King and Malcolm X was overblown. Frankly, I'm not fond of the comparison. On the one hand, it's a science fiction allegory for tolerance; on the other hand, it's two white characters co-opting an important real life struggle for dramatic fiction. It's hard not to notice, especially 50 years later, that there is still only one black character in the Marvel Universe, and canonically his adventures are happening in the 1940s. And to be fair, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have taken on the ideas of hate and bigotry and told thoughtful stories about them. And even to give them the benefit of the doubt, it might be more palatable to the audience to see the struggle for freedom played out in allegorical terms, among science fiction characters in a world not too dissimilar to their own. But I'm just not a hundred percent comfortable with it.

Something to think about. And so far, the series hasn't really given me this much to think about, which is one of the reasons why this has easily been the best issue of X-Men so far. It's nice to have some villains I want to see more of. And speaking of villains I want to see more of...

Next Marvels: the return of Doctor Octopus!

Monday, October 06, 2014

Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014

Geoffrey Holder has died at the age of 84. I first encountered his work as a child when he played Punjab in Annie and appeared in a series of 7 Up commercials. As I got older, I found out he was so much more accomplished: dancer, choreographer, director, painter, singer, photographer, costume designer. He directed the Broadway premiere of The Wiz and became the first black man nominated for a Tony for direction and costume design, both of which he won. He was of course in Live and Let Die, and provided the narration for Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He even has a Muppet connection, performing as the voice of Ray (the Sun) on Bear in the Big Blue House. And he choreographed the season 5 opening of The Cosby Show, which was my favorite title sequence.

Something about him always seemed like magic to me, and I'm sorry to see he's left us behind. But what he left with us was wonderful.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Song of the Week: "El Dia De Los Muertos"

Songs for Becca #24. A Siouxsie & the Banshees B-side from 1988.

HALLOWEEN: The 2014 Mood Table

Several years ago, the great Dinosaur Dracula website came up with the idea of putting up a Mood Table for Halloween, setting a little space aside in the room for your Halloween spirit to keep you going until the big day. Basically, it's like a Christmas Tree, but for Halloween, which, once again, is the better holiday.

The problem with holiday spirit is that Becca and I both come from a retail background, and working in retail is a very good way to have your enjoyment of holidays ruined for much of your life. When you're getting Christmas stock in August, it rather dulls the day itself, because it's been nothing but a gigantic headache for months.

Well, Becca has been out of retail long enough to get excited about things like Halloween and Christmas again, so she decided the other night that a Mood Table was in order. This is our first, and I think it's going to end up being a tradition to make it more Halloween-y in here.

(Note to self: go buy cheap, discounted Halloween decorations on November 1st for next year...)