Saturday, August 03, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #6

"Captives of the Deadly Duo!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers & Joe Sinnott
(September 1962)

Stan & Jack must have really known they had a good thing in Doctor Doom, because they wasted no time at all bringing him back. And why not? He's the best villain in the Marvel Universe! I mean, in all of it, throughout history.

You can also tell that the book's popularity has been building, too, as the first chapter of this story isn't devoted to the epic team-up of Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner, but rather to answering questions from fans and establishing just how popular the Fantastic Four are. I like the way Stan & Jack treat the FF like celebrities, both in our own reality and in the Marvel Universe. The first chapter is about 75% ordinary people ooh-ing and ahh-ing over glimpses of the Four in the streets, and then the FF talking about how much fan mail they receive (reflecting the influx of fanmail to the editorial offices).

But the big story here is that Doctor Doom enlists Prince Namor in his revenge against the Fantastic Four. He seems to have given up the black magic already (good decision; he's a science villain), and instead seeks out the Sub-Mariner, who has given up revenge on the surface world in favor of trying to find his people. Doom, however, rekindles the fires of hatred, and though Namor says he cannot hurt Sue Storm, he will fight the rest and help Doom with his plan.

The Sub-Mariner is incredible in this issue. It's revealed here that Sue still has feelings for him, and when the men discover that, they are pissed. They're all arguing about it, and just at that moment, Namor simply walks right in and takes charge, humiliating an angry Human Torch and being very flip to Reed about how he's going to take Sue out on a date. Sue would probably go, too; she demands that the men hear Namor out, and even stands in front of him when her brother first tries to attack.

Doom's plan is pretty magnificent. A great supervillain finds a useful ally. A genius supervillain makes someone believe they're an ally, makes use of them, and then double-crosses them. Namor, it turns out, was only meant as a distraction, keeping the Four occupied with their personal issues (and planting a magnetic device) while Doctor Doom uses magnets to pull the entire Baxter Building up into space.

What follows is some nail-biting stuff, as Reed's powers are somehow weakened in the vacuum of space (and he takes an exhaust blast to the face), Ben's more interested in fighting Sub-Mariner, and Johnny... well...

*sigh*... idiot.

In the end, though, it's Prince Namor himself who takes out Doctor Doom with his superior strength, superior determination, and superior awesomeness. It's an epic battle, with one very angry Sub-Mariner literally crawling and smashing his way towards Doom, even using Doom's electric shocks against him by collecting the energy and sending it back. (Remember, Namor has all the powers of the sea at his command, including the electric eel! Seriously, this guy is probably the third most powerful character in Marvel Comics at this point, after Thor and the Hulk.) Doom's only escape is to leap from his spacecraft and grab onto a passing meteor, whipping off into the void.

You know what's going to be fun? Finding out how Doom escapes his fate and returns. It is one of the best things about this character. He's never truly defeated; his victory is only delayed. In fact, he'd easily have won if it weren't for the Sub-Mariner saving the day.

The two most interesting characters in this issue aren't even stars of this book!

Other observations:

:: Here's where the Baxter Building is actually named for the first time. The Fantastic Four occupy the top four floors (it was five in the earlier diagram, so it's been redone here). We also find out that only the FF can access the express elevator with a special electronic signal in their belts.

:: We also learn about the Fantastic Four's uniforms for the first time here, as Reed explains to a hospitalized young fan (and to us) that they're made of unstable molecules that shift in structure as needed, but which--as we see in the story--can also withstand the pressures of outer space. This is the kind of science fiction I can accept; it basically does what the plot requires it to without getting in the way and without being too implausible.

:: Ben gets a letter razzing him from the Yancy Street Gang, the first time we ever hear of them. They get him so bugged that he folds up a 6-inch thick block of titanium to mail back to them--a nice, character-motivated demonstration of the Thing's strength.

:: I love that Namor keeps a framed 8x10 of Sue Storm in his undersea lair. Also, check out his swingin' pad:

Anyone else suddenly have "Music to Watch Space Girls Go By" going through their head?

Oh, and for her part, Sue also has a glossy 8x10 of Namor hidden in her bookcase. I would love to know where she got that from. I'm starting to wonder if they've been secretly making contact with one another. I mean, did they drop by Macy's or something and have the photographer take a keepsake photo for her? You'd think that might have made the news, especially judging by the stunned reaction of New Yorkers just seeing him walk down the street in this issue.

:: Who else lives/works in that Baxter Building? Who would even want to? Last issue it was netted, this issue it was literally dragged into outer space! What do you suppose the insurance rates are on that place?

:: No sad Ben in this issue, thank god; instead, we get into the pathos of Sue Storm, who clearly loves Namor and laments that his bitterness and anger have blinded him to his better instincts. You get the sense that she'd really marry him if he weren't so caught up in his pain. Let that be a lesson to you, kids.

Another epic issue of Fantastic Four, especially now that the team has been facing genuine threats like Doctor Doom and Sub-Mariner. As I said above, they were nearly done for this time, and only the intervention of another enemy saved them from certain death. Nicely done!

Next: the Hulk goes to the circus!

Lana Wood

Friday, August 02, 2013

Michael Ansara 1922-2013

Marvels: Amazing Fantasy #15

"Spider-Man!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(August 1962)

In the burgeoning Marvel Universe, there have been two teenage characters so far. Johnny Storm is a cool kid who works on hot rods and fights villains alongside a team of superpowered characters. Rick Jones was a rebel, and now accepts a heavy responsibility as the young man who makes sure that the man who saved his life isn't forever consumed by the uncontrollable Hulk.

This story, which lasts all of 10 pages as the main feature in the final issue of a series of Twilight Zone-style science fiction horror anthologies, introduces Marvel's signature character: Peter Parker. Another teenager (just like you, dear readers!), but this one an outcast. He's a nerd, studying hard in hopes of being a scientist; not only is he cut off from the life of a "normal" teenager by his brains and his non-athletic build (Steve Ditko draws him as your stereotypical scrawny milquetoast), but also by his status as an orphan being raised by his kindly, doting Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

It's a brilliant conception: every teenager has, at some point, felt alone in what they go through. They've felt overwhelmed, felt powerless, felt what it is to be crushed by the weight of personal responsibility. Spider-Man will embody all of these things, but Stan Lee brilliantly pushes the screws in further on his teenage hero.

When Peter gains his spider-powers via a radioactive spider bite, he excitedly sees it as his way out of the problems he has. He begins appearing on television, demonstrating his powers: here is popularity, money, fame. His powers have given him literal power, strength, control. He doesn't have to be fearful and he doesn't have to endure being pushed around anymore.

And then it all goes away.

Because, of course, Peter lets his ego get to him. As soon as he doesn't have to worry about being bullied by the likes of school sports star Flash Thompson, he becomes a bully himself, an arrogant jerk who doesn't stop a thief when he has the chance... a thief who, of course, goes on to murder his beloved Uncle Ben. I always thought this was brilliant plotting: Peter hasn't gained a way out of his problems at all; he's been given great power but not acted responsibly, and it's not only taken the life of someone he loved, it's made his problems much worse. He'll always feel alone; he'll always feel powerless, overwhelmed, crushed by the weight of personal responsibility. And now he'll always feel guilty.

This type of story was fairly typical in Amazing Adult Fantasy: someone has an opportunity, they misuse it, and they learn an important lesson (sometimes just before getting killed). The lesson here, as Stan tells us (not Uncle Ben), is that with great power comes great responsibility, as every comic book fan knows. This story, however, is twice the length of most Lee & Ditko Amazing Adult Fantasy stories, and the two get to build the character, give him more dimensions. So when the tragedy comes, it's not just a clever plot twist: it stings. I feel sorry for this kid because, hey, I remember being a teenager and making stupid decisions that came back to haunt me.

What makes Spider-Man so interesting is that, even in costume, he's an overwhelmed kid trying to take control of his life and make the right choices. As we'll see in issues to come, a lot of the arrogance he'll display in the future is just bluster born of terror.


:: The styling of Spider-Man's name changes a bit. The title of the story is "Spider-Man!" In the issue's narration and dialogue, the name is styled "Spiderman." And in a special announcement, he is referred to as "The Spiderman." Pick one, gentlemen. (And I always thought they picked the right one.)

:: The special announcement references the issue's dropping the word "adult" from the series' regular title, and promises that from now on, Amazing Fantasy will feature one story (or perhaps even two) with Spider-Man as its main feature. But, of course, when Spidey does return, it'll be nearly a year from now in his own new series, Amazing Spider-Man.

:: I love the Spider-Man costume. I wonder how it looked when readers first saw it in 1962.

:: I've mentioned this before, but I have to say again: I think Peter Parker inventing his web-shooters and his webbing fluid is stupid. I'm willing to buy that he could make them because we keep establishing what a genius he is and that he conducts these science experiments. But on the other hand, much of Peter's motivation in the future will be that he desperately needs money to pay the rent or other bills so that he can take care of Aunt May. I think it's stupid to force me to accept this motivation without acknowledging that Peter's created--in his bedroom--a marvelous advance in adhesives that he could patent and license the hell out of. Aunt May would never have to worry about money ever again! But no, he uses his invention to swing around and fight crime to make freelance photo money that also contributes to his continued character assassination by J. Jonah Jameson. What a genius.

I know people weren't a fan of the organic webs in the Sam Raimi movie because fanboys hate it when anything's different from anything, but it made so much more sense. It's how spiders do it, and it doesn't create story-altering implications only to ignore them.

Other than that one irritation I have, this story's a classic. The Hulk may be--eventually--my favorite Marvel character, but The Amazing Spider-Man will be the Marvel comic I enjoy the most.

Next time: the first team-up of villains in Marvel history!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Kind of Thing That Makes Me Inexplicably Happy

Seen on Tumblr.

The Rules for Reading

Jaquandor had this up, via here, and I thought I'd add some commentary on my own because I found this interesting.

1. Always stop at the end of a chapter. Always.

Depends on how long the chapters are. If they're on the shorter side, then yes. If they're longish, then I either go to the next line break or I don't. When I was a kid, an adult once told me that they found it easier to stop at a point that wasn't a natural break, because when they started reading again, all the action they were in the middle of came flooding right back and instantly pulled them back in. I've found that to be more or less true.

I do try not to stop in the middle of conversations, though.

2. Use specific bookmarks.

I really don't have many and I barely use them. Usually I just use a receipt or a smaller piece of paper.

2a. No dog-earing, bending, or folding of pages.

Dog-earing doesn't remotely bother me.

2b. Weirdly enough, spine-breaking is fine, just don’t get too crazy with it.

I disagree with this, too. I can't stand it when a book has a broken spine and just wants to open to that one spot. That's a real peeve of mine. Then I feel like I'm just trying to hold two halves of a book together before it just breaks.

3. Always read two books at once.

I usually read a few books at once. Like Kelly, I read different genres, etc. at once. I'm always reading a graphic novel or comics collection, anyway.

4. No (or minimal) writing in books. 

Doesn't bother me. I've made notes in a lot of books, particularly at college. I actually kind of like getting a book out of the library and seeing what someone else has written in it.

5. Rereads must be earned because there are too many great books out there to read an okay one twice.

I disagree. In fact, I think that's a bit of a snobbish attitude. Sometimes books have as much to offer on a second read (The Lord of the Rings, for example). Some books are just comforting. Some are so good that you want to go back and re-read them simply because of the author's phrasing. I think I've read The Demon-Haunted World six times, and I've read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters an even dozen. Read whatever you want to at any given moment. It's your life.

Jaquandor also adds:

6. Not finishing a book is OK.

Yes, seriously. There are a lot of things to enjoy in life, and if anything isn't working for you--book, film, television series--there's nothing wrong with dropping it and moving on to something more fulfilling. I know people who just can't do that, and I don't understand it. If I get part way through a book and it's an awful slog, I'm done. "But you can't say it was bad if you didn't finish it!" people tell me. To which my answer is "The impetus was on the author to write a better story."

7. It is always better to take more books on a trip than you think you'll possibly have time to read.

I'll take his word for it; I never take trips!

8. Having a favorite genre is fine. Getting stuck in that genre is bad.

Science fiction is my preferred genre, but I think the definition of science fiction is more expansive than other people I've had this conversation with. When it comes to fiction, I'll generally drift towards science fiction more than anything else. But hell, I'll read anything, especially when it comes to non-fiction.

I would add one more thing here, and I know this isn't something everyone agrees with, but I'm going to phrase it this way (and then rant a little):

9. Reading on a tablet is still reading.

Because I'm just beyond sick of seeing people getting in this debate about whether it's "okay" to read on a tablet. Yes, it is. It is fine. It is not an illegitimate choice to carry around something that holds many books. Your fingers do not have to touch paper for you to still be able to enjoy a book. I think a lot of the weird hostility towards the idea of e-books and the like is a lot of snobbery about the romanticism of a physical book, which I think is especially exacerbated by social networks and this idea of how being seen to hang out with a lot of books makes you hip and enlightened by osmosis or something.

Nothing against the guys who love their books. I'm glad that you don't have to consider moving very often and have all of that space in your home. Read however you want, but stop telling people that having a device to read off of "doesn't count" or "isn't cool" just because it's not how you choose to experience reading. You're being ridiculous and a little hypocritical. Because the message should be "reading is good" not "reading is good as long as you do it a certain way that I approve of."

Sorry to get rant-y there, it's just something I see a lot on Tumblr and Facebook that increasingly irritates me: the atheists who love Neil deGrasse Tyson and write smart-alecky posts about how science is rational and religion is irrational and accuse people who are religious of ignoring scientific facts simply because they find comfort in their beliefs... and then get sad when they're told Pluto isn't a planet, trash e-books for not being real books, and get angry when they see dinosaurs with feathers because "I liked the way they looked when I was a kid better." (Like dinosaurs have been rebooted with a modern edge and we're not just learning more.) And for what it's worth, I've seen the same about audio books, too.

Anyway, rant over. Don't let anyone tell you there's a right way to experience a story.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Film Week

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

Films like this one, which are all about repression and not being able to get what you want out of life because of religious guilt and existential suffering and societal judgment, tend to leave me cold. I find society hypocritical and ridiculous, and while I'm certain it's realistic to a time period that these people have to be unhappy, that doesn't always make it engrossing to watch. Show me a single moment where these people are ever really, truly happy and not concerned with waiting for everything to fall apart. Here Jean-Pierre Leaud (miscast, I think; he's very contemporary in a film that takes place mainly in 1902) plays a convalescing young Frenchman who falls in love with first one English girl, and then, when he is rejected, her sister. No one ever gets to be happy because of secrets and religion and guilt and a Truffaut lead who is typically restlessly searching for that one mythical woman who is all things. The major reveal that I had a problem with: the first sister is suffering from guilt over the sins of her past, which apparently revolve around two separate times as a child that she masturbated--she literally goes blind, but very slowly, so as to maximize the pleasure of a ridiculous sadist-God suffering of a movie preoccupied with suffering. Slow and joyless; Truffaut punishing the audience with offhanded navel-gazing. Pretty to look at, though, with the Norman countryside doubling for Dover. ***

Truffaut once again returns to his major theme. Here, Charles Denner plays a man who cannot love one woman as a person because he loves all women as an idea, and begins to write a book about it. The book starts as a mere collection, a cataloging of sexual exploits, but becomes a vehicle for searching for the origins of his obsessions. It's mainly rooted in his relationship with a mother who made him feel unimportant and unloved; now, as an adult, he searches for that feeling of importance and love, but is so guarded about it that he can't give himself over to truly love anyone else. He's sincere, honest, and even kind; this isn't a movie about forgiving a bastard. He's upfront about his feelings. He just expects that in the end he'll be left, that no woman can truly love him, so he leaves first. I think Truffaut sees his protagonist as someone with an incurable emotional disease, even pities him as someone so screwed up in some way that he can't truly connect with a woman on an emotional level; it stops just short of forgiving him, even if it might not be completely honest about the kind of emotional wreckage he is capable of leaving behind. But then, he would probably avoid acknowledging that, and so Truffaut avoids it, too. At this point in my life, I really relate to some of the emotional issues present and was glad the movie didn't play with them in a trivial way. ****

Wonderfully unsettling Jim Henson short film about the mind. It's on YouTube, go check it out, it's disturbing. ****

Very cute Tex Avery cartoon with a literal depiction of 1957 hipster talk. Feels like the kind of thing you'd show to an English class. Love my language jokes. ****

One of Truffaut's masterpieces, and the final film of his that I had never seen before. Here, Truffaut plays a director working on a film, and the movie flows as a sort of collection of anecdotes about making films. There's not really a plot so much; Truffaut is showing us the world of filmmaking, any kind of filmmaking, and the way a sort of family develops and the emotions and experiences that occur. The film observes and it's engrossing to be inside as a lifelong film fan. It's an affectionate vignette of filmmaking itself, and it's wonderful. ****

Cute big-screen version of The Munsters, with Herman inheriting a title and an estate in England. Your mileage will vary depending on your regard for The Munsters, a show I happen to love. I quite enjoyed the movie, though it took me a while to get used to not hearing a laugh track (though the actors pause for one). Lots of great guest actors here, including Hermione Gingold and Terry-Thomas as the British relatives trying to bump Herman off, Bernard Fox as the Munster family's car-racing rival, John Carradine as a creepy butler, Richard Dawson and Arthur Malet as some gravediggers, Jack Dodson as a shipmate, and Robert Pine (the sergeant from CHiPS and Chris Pine's father) as Marilyn's British love interest. Different Marilyn from the TV show for whatever reason. (Also, great literal shout-out to Car 54, Where Are You? from Fred Gwynne that I just needed to mention.) ***

Wonderful film from Rene Clair--half farce, half fairy tale--about two starving artists who desperately search for a missing jacket with a winning lottery ticket inside. It's a whimsical, masterful film with great music and singing; great setpieces, particularly an interlude at an opera house. ****

Brigitte Bardot as an ambassador's daughter married to a womanizer, who decides to get him back by having an affair with a visiting prince (Charles Boyer). Great-looking, wonderful color palette. It's a fun movie, but the real point of it is presenting Bardot as a sex symbol, which it does an admirable job of. Genuinely sexy, though some of the "traditional" sexism doesn't play the "cute" way it once may have. ***1/2

Monday, July 29, 2013

Dancing Mud

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Song of the Week: "Love, Reign o'er Me"

Because I haven't actually had The Who show up on this feature in five years. I love a good, dramatic song full of passion. From Quadrophenia.

Marvels: Journey Into Mystery #83

"The Power of Thor" by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott
(August 1962)

I'm not sure if Thor makes the third superhero book or the fourth, officially. I still take "The Man in the Ant Hill" to be a science fiction thriller one-off that Stan Lee decided to go back to, but it could have been a concept test, too. So, officially, there's no Ant-Man yet, so I take this to be the third superhero book.

Anyway, we pick up here with Dr. Donald Blake, a frail, lame-legged doctor on vacation in Norway. (Not that anyone asked, but I've thought since fifth grade that I'd like to go to Norway. I had to do a report on Norway then--it was the country I was assigned--and those fjords and my love of Viking culture really have always made me want to just see that country.)

So Dr. Blake is just walking around when suddenly a spaceship lands and the Stone Men from Saturn walk out. So there's another alien race in the Marvel Universe already. I'm really curious--probably more so than Stan Lee and Larry Leiber are--about the biology of the Stone Men from Saturn. I mean, they look heavy. Cool Kirby design, by the way:

That the oxygen-rich atmosphere enhances their natural strength, I can accept. What I keep wondering about, though, is how these Stone Men live on Saturn. I mean, it's a gas giant, so... wouldn't these heavy guys just slowly sink until they were stuck? Granted, I'm no planetary scientist or anything, so I can't really say with authority that stone creatures can't survive on Saturn, but it's just kind of nagging at me... anyone know the answer here? And if not, can you ask Neil deGrasse Tyson for me? We already know he's a Thor fan!

Don Blake is another one of those guys in the Marvel Universe who is apparently supposed to be something of a coward (especially the way we see him regarded in future issues), yet the first thing he does is something that takes courage. It's a bit of a foolhardy courage, perhaps, but it comes from a kind of brave curiosity. See, Don is staying in a fishing village where someone has seen the Stone Men from Saturn land, and he decides to go check it out himself. Of course, the Stone Men nearly kill him. He can't flee because of his crippled leg, but he ducks into a cave where he finds an ancient wooden walking stick. Using it to try and dig away the rocks, he taps it and turns into Thor, the Norse God of Thunder!

This is Superheroes 101: you take a frail man and give him an opportunity to be powerful and then see how he wields it. There's a nice couple of pages that follow where we see what the hammer can really do: it's incredibly powerful, it always returns to Thor's hand after he throws it, and if he taps the handle on the ground twice, he can manipulate the weather. We also discover that if he goes more than sixty seconds without holding the hammer (which is not named here), he reverts back to Don Blake. And, of course, he can fly by throwing his hammer into the air and holding on to it. (Well, he doesn't really "fly," the hammer just pulls him along "like a rocket.")

When the Saturn fleet attacks, they use a projection of a monster to scare off the defending army. The soldiers give up pretty fast, too. I notice that soldiers in the Marvel Universe give up pretty easily every time something is a little too irrational or supernatural for them. It's... it's kind of embarrassing.

Anyway, Thor easily defeats them, of course. (He's super-strong, too.) And he fights a robot that the Stone Men of Saturn refer to as a "Mechano-Monster." I love it.

Other observations:

:: I've been remiss in this series by not mentioning the inker in the authorial credits. From now on, I'll be sure to do that. I'll fix the old ones, too.

:: Larry Lieber isn't quite the talented writer his brother Stan is. I assume the way the Marvel method works is that Stan does the plot, in this case Jack Kirby does the art, and then Larry Lieber writes the captions and dialogue. Stan is a master of hyperbole and knows how to draw you in and keep the story moving along; Larry Lieber can spin a yarn, sure, but his writing isn't quite as fun as Stan's and in some cases (and I'm sure I'll talk about it then), it can even be tedious. And nothing against Lieber personally, because I love the silliness of his run on the Human Torch stories in Strange Tales, but I don't love his Ant-Man stories in Tales to Astonish and I think his Thor stories are kind of on the lame side. Not as lame as Ant-Man. Nothing's as lame as Ant-Man.

But we'll definitely see less talented writers. I urge everyone who downplays Stan Lee's contributions to Marvel Comics (which is apparently a hip thing to do now) to read a few issues of Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man and then check out something written by HE Huntley or R. Berns and try to have fun with that.

:: This is the first time aliens actually respond to a superpowered threat and run off. The Fantastic Four bluffed the Skrulls with pictures clipped from Marvel Comics, and it was Banner, not the Hulk, who defeated the Toad-Men. This time, Thor just shows up and fights them off until they retreat. It's more straightforward, but it's kind of fun to just see one of these heroes tear everything apart because it's not the norm at Marvel.

:: I once read an interview with Stan Lee where he said the editors had a list detailing the hierarchy of power among the characters. Thor, he said, was the most powerful, because he was a god. I want to say the Hulk was second, but Silver Surfer is pretty dang powerful...

:: Interestingly, in this issue, Thor is pretty much the alter ego of Don Blake; they both share the same mind, and Blake is the true identity. This will change in the future, where it's established that Thor is the actual Asgardian Thor. I actually find the whole thing a little bit awkward; it doesn't always work for me. And it's not like the Hulk, where it's another personality that alters Bruce Banner's body. It's a totally different person. Where does Blake go? Is that ever established?

:: The end-of-story announcement that Thor will be a regular feature in Journey Into Mystery proudly misspells his name in big bold letters as "Thorr."

This is pretty much a straightforward superhero origin, but it's fun and establishes the basics in a short amount of time--keep in mind that the Thor story is generally one-third of an issue of Journey Into Mystery. It's starting to get a little de rigueur to fight aliens, I think; all three of Marvel's heroes/super teams have done it now. It does come to seem like a little bit of a waste having a god hero like Thor and then having him fight aliens and (still to come) Communist armies, gangsters and thieves. Think bigger here!

Still, I like Thor. The dorkiness is part of the charm.

Next time: Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!