Saturday, November 09, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 1

Here's something that I need our culture to do: STOP. ROMANTICIZING. AWKWARDNESS.

Remember how in Twilight, Bella Swan kept telling us that she was so awkward and clumsy and dull and stupid and ugly, but then everyone at her new school found her utterly fascinating and beautiful and captivating to the point where they were nearly fighting over her, and then supernatural creatures were literally fighting over her, because she was just too damn special to ever have anything approaching an ordinary, normal life. No, this girl--this girl whose name is only Bella Swan because Ugly Duckling sounds less natural--just didn't realize how amazingly magical and better than everyone else she was, and the only reason she was frustrated was that she hadn't yet met the creature who loved her so much that he had to force himself to be around her even though he wanted to kill her every second because she was his "personal heroin."

Now, Twilight didn't invent... well, anything, really, because it isn't like Stephenie Meyer was creative or anything. But what I was going to say was: Twilight didn't invent teen awkwardness. Teens are always awkward. Teens have doubts about themselves and self-esteem issues of varying degrees. But I feel like, since Twilight happened, what I'm seeing a lot in fiction and on television and social media is the romanticizing of Awkward Girl, the girl who probably has serious medical disorders but is also apparently irresistibly cute and compelling. I should also blame romantic comedies and teen romantic comedies from about the late nineties on, when a girl being a little clumsy was apparently so endearing that those flicks somehow figured that we'd really love the girls who fell off second story balconies or drove their bicycles headlong into trees or knocked over every row of racks in the library, domino-style. Because if a girl is book smart, it's very important that she be clumsy or have bad coordination or terrible balance or something to balance it out because, I guess, men don't want to be threatened.

It's a trope I'm sick of in fiction/TV/movies, where the girl has a crippling lack of self-esteem but is so damn adorkable and doesn't realize how great she is because the right man hasn't explained it to her yet. But I'm even more sick of it in real life, where a lot of young women have internalized this whole thing and talk about their insecurities and awkwardness in such over the top ways that I can't figure out how I'm supposed to react. Am I supposed to think their stories are sardonically funny, or am I supposed to think these girls are really cute because they're afraid to answer telephones, or am I supposed to be worried that they're not getting professional help?

I'm really trying to stop before I start getting sexist with this rant, but I feel like it's too late.

I'm awkward. I've always been awkward. But it's never really manifested itself, in my opinion, as cute or fascinating. Self-deprecating humor at best--AT. BEST.; at worst, monstrous selfishness and terrifying anger. Once or twice, almost violence. That's real awkwardness. It's not endearing, it's tragic. It's not Silver Linings Playbook, where love conquers incurable-but-manageable mental illness. It's real life, where I inconvenience and hurt the people I love because I don't always know how to stop myself.

This is why pop culture can really be dangerous: it normalizes something, even romanticizes something, that needs to be re-understood as a serious problem. Being awkward isn't cute. Bella Swan can ramble all she wants about how strange and disliked she is, but she's really a narcissist with an anxiety disorder. And it fostered a lot of readers who could relate because they were also narcissists with anxiety disorders.

This is why I got so annoyed when people used to compare Twilight and Harry Potter. The media only did it because they were similar successes--series of young adult novels that were very popular and very thick. But JK Rowling told you that past tragedies didn't make you a victim if you chose not to be one. The difference between Harry and Voldemort is that Voldemort's shitty childhood made him resentful and cruel, and he decided to make the world suffer for not recognizing how much better he was; Harry's shitty childhood made him compassionate and his friends' faith in him (and his growing faith in his own abilities) gave him confidence and bravery. I hate it when people dismiss Harry Potter's story as just another tale of a Chosen One, when JK Rowling goes out of her way time and again to make it plain that Harry could have failed at any time by trying to go it alone or becoming too full of himself or making the wrong choices. JK Rowling told you that even if you felt awkward you could have friends and, more importantly, be a friend.

Stephenie Meyer told you that the reason you feel out of place is that your magical boyfriend simply hasn't pulled you into the sweep of his life yet.

That's the long way around the barn of saying that I already despise the lead character in 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele.

Oh, she's awkward. Crap, she's awkward. You know how I know? Because she keeps telling me she's awkward in pretty much that way. "Crap," she's always saying to herself. Crap, holy crap, and double crap. I see "crap" is the word I'm going to get really, really sick of reading here.

The very first paragraph--in a novel irritatingly written in present tense first person--is just all about how Ana can't do anything with her hair because she's so stupid that she sleeps with it wet and how she's so ugly that even if she could do anything with her hair it wouldn't matter because she's just so damn awkward and unattractive. Oh, and she dresses badly, too. No nice clothes.

But here she is, trying to dress up to look nice as she goes to conduct an interview for her college newspaper, and jeez, you guys, she's only doing it as a favor to her friend Kate (who, we're informed right away, looks amazingly beautiful even though she's sick in bed, because Ana is just that much of a disgusting uggo with no self-esteem at all because worthlessness and awkward blah blah blah just get a therapist already, I am already fucking sick of you). It's just that it took Kate months to get this interview, and she can't reschedule it, but since she's too sick to go, she's begged her roommate Ana to go in her place, rather than, say, someone who actually works at the paper. Apparently it's okay for Kate to send a proxy to conduct an interview on her behalf, because college newspapers just don't bother with things like ethics or journalistic integrity.

(Honestly, I have to believe that if this interview was that hard to get and that important, Kate would have gone even if she were sick. It seems like such a big coup for her; if she's that worried about keeping it, why doesn't she just go and show a little determination? I'm guessing she's not planning on being a war correspondent. Oh, wait, she could file the stories from home like Jayson Blair.)

This is more of that weird dichotomy of awkward girl narrator: she's doing this favor for her friend, but complaining the whole time about how she "has" to do it and how much she's stepping out of her comfort zone to do it, and how big a deal it is and how uncomfortable she feels, to the point where it sounds like what she really wants is... I almost said "validation," but it's much more than that. It's praise. She wants praise for deigning to go out of her way to help a friend with something that runs counter to her awkwardness. So, it's not really a favor, it's an example of how much she's willing to suffer to help. See? Narcissist. Yes, a narcissist with panic disorder is still a narcissist. Someone get her a wooden cross for Christmas.

EL James seems to subscribe to the hack writer idea that using a lot of descriptive words is the same thing as describing something. It's all in the extraneous superficial details for some writers. We don't need to know if Kate prefers NyQuil or Tylenol; I don't care if Kate's "sporty Mercedes CLK" (a sporty Mercedes, imagine) is a better ride than "Wanda, my old VW Beetle"; and I'm not interested that you're driving on Interstate 5. You're not painting a picture, you're just throwing in a lot of detail that adds nothing.

Especially since it's very clear in other instances that James has no clue how to describe places that seem unfamiliar to her.

See, Ana's on her way to interview Christian Grey, an "enigmatic CEO," "exceptional entrepreneur," and "major benefactor of our university." But when she gets to his office building--clumsily described as "all curved glass and steel, an architect's utilitarian fantasy"--it's very clear that EL James doesn't know anything about the business world. And I don't, either, but none of her details ring remotely true. We're just told over and over again how the offices are large, full of glass and steel and white sandstone, stern, elegant, impeccable, spacious, dark, with floor-to-ceiling windows. James describes details of a building that could be Anybuilding, USA. Her descriptions are so vague that she could just be describing the Death Star as easily as her idea of what a ruthless business environment must be like. It's like she's picking images out of a catalog but not really imagining what it's like to be in one and feel out of place.

Oh, we know Anastasia's out of place, because she reminds us in almost every paragraph how she feels all awkward and nervous and fidgety around all of these impeccably groomed, smartly dressed blonde people rather than "reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library," which, come on. What annoys me here is that she goes out of her way to dehumanize the people that work there simply because they're efficient, not personable or warm, and all dressed better than she is. And blonde; she brings up their blondeness all the time, finally having an African American man enter the room literally only because it makes her look small-minded for assuming that everyone who works there is a Nazi in a bad science fiction movie. But she only refers to people as "Blonde Number One" in her inner monologue, even though the characters call each other by name in the dialogue. It just comes across as really bitchy; I can't be bothered to learn your names because I'm so out of place, and yet I will sit here and think condescendingly about HOW MUCH BETTER THAN YOU I AM because I'm a normal girl who drives an old VW Beetle and does things for her friends and just wants to go back to my dorm to read Unnamed British Novel because I AM SO MUCH BETTER AND MORE NORMAL THAN YOU because that's what people with no ambition or drive tell themselves when confronted by signifiers of success.

James' grasp on the business world becomes even more tenuous when we meet Christian Grey himself, who is so young and so very attractive with "unruly dark copper-colored hair" and "intense, bright gray eyes" and who, of course, has a really big, cold, clinical office that she actually describes as dark even though she goes on to add that he has floor to ceiling windows and everything but the desk is white. She's really done her research on modern office decor, I guess. Ooh, paintings.

Ugh, those paintings. He has on his wall 36 paintings, arranged in a square, of "mundane, forgotten objects in such precise detail they look like photographs," which is the exact opposite of James' writing skill. She assures us they're "breathtaking," and her appreciation for them as "raising the ordinary to extraordinary" (CHARACTER SYMBOLISM, THE PAGE SCREAMED!!!) earns her Christian's approval. She couldn't even give us a bit more description about this wonderful series of paintings? It's such a bare-bones description that it's almost dismissive, and yet her appreciation of the paintings and what they mean is apparently going to be the catalyst for Christian attempting a relationship with Ana, isn't it? It's like a charged, symbolic moment, except that EL James has forgotten to add a charge or imbue the symbolism with any power or personality. It barely exists because she's so uninterested in what they're talking about, only in how they're talking about it.

Grey, by the way, is younger than she expected, but it's mostly because--and she even says so--she's incapable of imagining someone being successful who isn't that much older than her. She actually shivers when she shakes his hand (she really needs to see a doctor, y'all), and then follows what is definitely my favorite Sentence of Stupidity so far in the book: "If this guy is over thirty, then I'm a monkey's uncle."

Crap, I'm a monkey's uncle!

This... this, is just a person I don't want to know on a personal level. Has EL James ever heard people speak before?

Oh, and the inevitable awkward cherry on top of this meeting: the second she walks into his office, she literally trips and falls headlong into his office. Meet cute! People actually have to help her up. Is this sort of thing supposed to make her seem vulnerable? Because it doesn't. It makes her seem like a moron.

Anyway, the business world. Yes, she begins interviewing Christian, and it's one of those scenes I hate where the man is basically more amused by the woman than anything else. Insight into his paintings or not, she's kind of an asshole (constantly thinking smugly to herself that Christian is a control freak and arrogant), and she's overplaying the whole "I'm awkward but I'm better than everyone" trait, and he's just kind of a dick. I understand what we're going for here--being charitable--is that she's vulnerable but smart and he's arrogant but enjoys being punctured a little. But that's not how it's coming across. It's coming across as a woman who doesn't want to be where she is and doesn't want to be doing what she's doing, and a guy who thinks she's ridiculous enjoying how much of a threat to his intelligence she isn't. This is not the basis of a relationship, people. This is a guy sizing up a future victim.

But the business. Oh, the business! EL James seems to have no idea what a CEO does, nor what Christian's company actually does. He's an investor but also kind of a philanthropist but he also manufactures... something? I think? Also something with telecommunications, I guess. Look, it's all about jobs and the right team and directing their energies and other buzzwords and clumsily quoting successful businessmen of the past. And CONTROL. EXERCISING CONTROL. CONTROL, amirite ladies? He keeps emphasizing that word over and over again, like the ham-handed set-up that it is.

Everything he says about his business is so fucking stupid, guys. I guess as the CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. (a name only slightly less generic and silly than Really Important Business Structures Group Trading Heritage Partnership, Ltd.), Christian is so busy that he can't be bothered to actually explain what he does and why. Seriously, the passages where he's talking about how he does business... imagine Tracy Morgan reading them out loud. "My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people. The bottom line is it's always down to good people, Liz Lemon."

I may have added that last bit.

But, seriously, that's a long way of saying nothing. It's like having Sarah Palin back in the national spotlight.

I would say the whole "mastering" ramadoola is subtext, but there's barely enough text for it to have a sub.

It goes on like that, a conversation between a self-absorbed asshole judging Business 100 Robot for also being a self-absorbed asshole. He keeps saying things like "Well, to 'chill out,' as you put it [...]" because apparently he's an alien and the only person under 30 in America who doesn't use the phrase "chill out." He keeps reacting like that every time she uses colloquial slang, like he's unfamiliar with your human language and trying to acclimate himself. When she just blurts out the question "Are you gay?" and he just stops, totally offended by the notion, I couldn't tell at first if he was annoyed or if the servos that power his speech processes were catching and Dorothy Gale needed to come out from a closet and wind up his mechanisms. Disneyland's Lincoln is more lifelike than Christian Grey. He also speaks in vagaries with qualifiers like "I believe that" or "I think it was," using a lot of extraneous words when I feel like the commanding, confident man we're supposed to believe Christian Grey is would be much more decisive in his language. I keep imagining Jim Henson taking notes about what mistakes to correct in the next model of the Grey animatronic.

Anyway, their talk leads to him "figuring her out," I guess--correctly assuming she doesn't normally do these interviews, that these aren't her questions, and then treating her like shit because she doesn't have a plan about what to do after college. Then he tells her they have internship programs and offers to show her around, though she declines. Yeah, the girl who trips over things and judges you (the way you're judging her) is definitely worth keeping around. She's glowering inside and then leaves, reminding us again that he's so attractive that it's unnerving. (Not really special; the prospect of driving, having to speak, and doing her hair in the morning were also unnerving for her, so it's not like Christian Grey stands out among her various triggers.)

The chapter ends with the words "And mercifully, the doors close."

Mercifully, indeed. As in, this chapter is mercifully over.

I don't know why it was such a big deal who they were going to cast in the movie version of this novel. So far, it could only be lively if the leads were played by Tracy Morgan and a Japanese body pillow with an anime character painted on it.

I would rather see that version, actually. They wouldn't even have to change the dialogue in order for it to be a parody.


Friday, November 08, 2013

Marvels: Journey Into Mystery #90

"Trapped by the Carbon-Copy Man" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Al Hartley
(March 1963)

Al Hartley himself said he wasn't really suited for superhero comics, so I don't feel too bad saying that I don't care for the art in his lone Silver Age Marvel Superhero story (as artist). This is the first time Thor's been drawn by anyone other than Jack Kirby, and while Thor would go on to have a number of great, distinctive artists, this one just kind of threw me and left me cold. Before this, though he had certainly been working in a number of different genres, Al Hartley was mainly known as an artist on teenage and romance comics. He had about a decade-long run on one of the Marvel books I'm not reading for this series, Patsy Walker (written by Stan Lee and actually kind of enjoyable--though it's no Millie the Model, which had Dan DeCarlo as artist).

This panel, I think, shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of Hartley's art in this issue:

Jane looks amazing (better than Kirby's, even), but the framing is uninteresting and the way he draws Donald Blake kind of creeps me out a little bit. I mean, I know he's crippled and even a little sickly, but here he looks emaciated.

The big moment in this issue is that Dr. Blake resolves to tell Jane that he's actually Thor, but--without even explaining why--Odin forbids Blake from ever telling Jane the truth. At this point, though, I'm not entirely sure why he loves Jane so much, because she's kind of a bitch. When she's not daydreaming about Thor, she's constantly (and negatively) comparing him to Thor. (And we know she once had feelings for him, too, but since he's so cold and remote in order to keep his secret--and because of his real handicap, his lack of self-esteem--I'm not sure what she saw in him, either. I'm not rooting for these kids to make it, frankly.)

After that, things settle into the usual routine. This issue's villains are the Xartans, and they're basically just less-interesting Skrulls: they can shape shift, but their spies basically just try to screw up the way the city functions in the most ridiculous, purposeless ways--for example, one of them tries to drive his car on the sidewalk with the feeble excuse that he just felt like doing it. I don't know if it's somehow supposed to throw things into chaos, or just generally be annoying. Then Blake gets captured, then tricks the Xartans into letting him become Thor, and then Thor saves everyone.

Cue Jane Foster's negative comparison of Blake to Thor, and Blake's knowing wink at the audience, and that's another filler story done.

Other notes:

:: Al Hartley became a born again Christian in 1967 and did a lot of Christian comics, including the Christian Archie comics and the much-laughed-at (but actually pretty good) Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika. I may not have thought he was the right artist for Thor, but he did a really great job with teenagers.

Next up: acrobatics!

Brief TV Report

Not much to say this time, but I did want to mention that I saw the Sesame Street episode last week that had the Count Von Count tribute sketch that also served as a tribute to the late Jerry Nelson. The Noble Prize for Counting even featured Jerry's likeness on it! Even though I don't know a lot of the newer faces on the Street, the sketch made me very happy. We miss you, Jerry.

:: I dropped The Michael J. Fox Show about four weeks ago. Just couldn't get into it. Looks like a lot of America feels the same way. Look, NBC, you can take off your remaining good sitcom (Parks and Recreation) and try to shore up this show and that Sean Hayes piece of shit with as many episodes of The Voice and Saturday Night Live as you want, it's not gonna help. Just give me my Parks and Rec back.

:: Speaking of shows I can't get into, Orphan Black. I'm three episodes in now, and wow, is it ever overrated. It's the kind of show that would stop dead if anyone acted in any way other than just because the plot required it, or had a conversation for a second. I don't know if I even want to see the rest at this point.

:: Oh, like Alexander's not going to win MasterChef Junior tonight. That's been obvious since day one. I have nothing against the kid, and he seems quite talented, affable and clever, but they've been lavishing him with praise from the first minute. It really cuts out any of the surprise. That said, I like the kid contests way better than the adults: the kids aren't self-interested assholes playing up their worst traits for camera time.

:: The wife's got me watching Supernatural now. There's room to improve, but wow, Tumblr kind of makes me want to hate it out of hand sometimes.

:: I've been watching Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition on Lifetime, and I have to say, it's really hard when they focus so much on the contestant's mothers, because they are generally the worst. I'm actively rooting against kids I really like because their mothers are so awful that I just need them gone. This is a really good show to watch if you want to see the exact wrong way to encourage and support a child.

:: I've dropped a surprising amount of shows this season. If Melissa Rauch weren't on The Big Bang Theory, that show would be one of them.

:: So, regarding Saturday Night Live's issues about not having a black woman in the cast... On the one hand, I'm glad they addressed it. And it was the first mostly-good episode this season. But on the other hand, well... did they just create the impression that if they hire a black woman in the future it'll just be because they "don't have one"? I don't think SNL should run out and hire a black woman just to have one. What bothers me more is that SNL seems to exclusively pick cast members out of the pools of white upper middle class comedy schools. I'd like to see more viewpoints represented on the show. I find it refreshing and challenging. The older I get, the more ridiculous I think it is that America considers white upper middle class (particularly male) stories and points of view "universal" and "mainstream." I just get so bored with seeing the same thing over and over.

It's why I've dropped so many shows this season.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Marvels: Incredible Hulk #6

"The Incredible Hulk vs. The Metal Master!" by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko & Dick Ayers
(March 1963)

I don't know how popular this opinion will be, but here goes: Incredible Hulk had the wrong artist.

Jack Kirby draws much more kinetic action, but after reading this final issue of Incredible Hulk, I feel like Steve Ditko would've been better for the title all along. Not to knock Kirby, though Kirby's never drawn my favorite Hulk (probably Ernie Chan's is my favorite). But Steve Ditko's art in this issue better conveys--with the same inker Kirby was using--much more pathos and emotional range. This is, in some ways, the beginning of the tortured, hunted, haunted Hulk that is one of my favorite fictional characters.

It could be argued, really, that Stan Lee is using this issue as an attempt to re-tool the book. It is, after all, the final issue and Stan's got nothing to lose. There's nothing in the story that seems like a final story--it doesn't end with the Hulk dying, or anything--but I wonder if Stan intended to simply abandon the character. The Hulk won't appear again for six months, until Avengers #1. I have no idea if that was the plan, or if Stan simply didn't put a final note on it in order to leave the possibility of a return open.

But what he does in this issue, assisted by Ditko, is finally strengthen the character of the Hulk so that he's something more than a two-dimensional wrecking machine who alternately hates humans and saves Himalayan villages from communists. I think they've been realizing the last few issues that Hulk is a much more interesting, potentially rich character than his host, Bruce Banner. The original idea seemed to be basically a science fiction spin on the werewolf story--at night, Banner was cursed to become this hulking thing that destroyed. The catalyst for the change is now a pad that Banner uses to bathe himself in gamma radiation, but one that is getting harder and harder to control, giving the Hulk more and more power.

In this issue, the Hulk saves the Earth from an alien menace calling himself the Metal Master. For the most part, Ditko handles it like it's another science fiction short story from any of the other anthology books, with sparse, even nonexistent backgrounds.

Hulk and the Metal Master tangle a couple of times, and Stan takes the threat to the planet seriously, but he's fairly easy to defeat. (The Hulk creates a gun that the Metal Master somehow can't manipulate, so the Metal Master agrees to put everything right and leave Earth rather than get beaten to a pulp by the emerald giant; it turns out the gun was just cardboard, plastic and paint all along.)

Most of the space in this issue is instead devoted to exploring the character dynamics in the comic. We're shown repeatedly that the gamma machine that changes Bruce into the Hulk is becoming less and less reliable. It's leaving Bruce weaker for longer periods of time; it's taking longer for the transformations (in either direction) to be truly complete; the lines between the two personalities are becoming blurrier and blurrier. In one instance, the Hulk has to wear a mask of his own face because he's still got Banner's mug. It's kind of silly, but I get the point Stan's trying to make: soon enough, there could be no distinction between the two.

A lot of moments throw the future of the two characters as separate entities into doubt. The Hulk is weakened enough for the Army to (briefly) capture him; Hulk blames Rick Jones for it, leading to a rift between the two. But when Banner takes over again, we see that he relies on Rick to help him. Later, after the Hulk actually receives a presidential pardon for having saved Earth from the Metal Master, there's finally the moment I've been waiting for: when the transformation is too prolonged, Hulk finally wonders if exposing himself to gamma radiation repeatedly actually isn't very good for the body. It's the only time we've ever seen the Hulk truly scared. Sure, he hates Banner and hates humans, but even the Hulk is cowed by the prospect of never being able to change back into Bruce Banner again.

It's a surprisingly human moment that adds a dimension the character has been sorely lacking for the year this comic's been published. It's a shame, but right here, at the end of the character's initial run, Stan finally finds the missing ingredient in a troubled book that he's never had a handle on: we need to care about what happens to the Hulk. He can't just be a force; he has to be a character with wants, needs, and even fears. And even though the Hulk does turn back into Banner, this moment leaves the door open for what will eventually be the premise we know: the struggle for control.

The other big development in this issue is the formation of the Teen Brigade. After being screamed at by the Hulk and rejected by the Army (he's just 16, after all), Rick and his ham radio loving friends decide to get together and form a countrywide network that will aid the police and the military. There's been a subplot at work about Rick feeling powerless and wanting to help, so he's able to put his talents to good use. The Teen Brigade becomes a factor in the Hulk's victory over the Metal Master. It's a nice message to the teenage reader, too: you have the power to help even when adults think you should stay out of the way.

The issue ends with a recapitulation of the status quo, but attitudes have changed. General Ross still thinks Bruce is a milksop, but now we know for sure that Betty and Bruce have mutual feelings for one another. And though Bruce tells Betty he hopes the Hulk is gone forever, Rick wonders aloud just how much longer Bruce will be able to keep bathing himself in radiation and surviving it. The door is open. The Hulk will walk through it again.

Stray observations:

:: These are my favorite two panels in this issue. I just wanted to share them.

The Hulk is that short-tempered friend you have whose anger is totally unpredictable. This is why I relate to the Hulk... I've been that friend, that son, and that husband too many times.

:: When the Metal Master first fights the Hulk to a standstill, he tells the Hulk they should be allies instead and conquer the Earth together. The Hulk concludes that he could probably do it on his own, and seems like he's about to before being knocked unconscious.

:: Stan Lee's so tired of answering letters about how the Hulk is leaping, not flying, that he actually has the Hulk basically explain how it works to settle the matter once and for all. ("I can't fly like the Human Torch, but...")

Well, that's all from the Hulk for another six months, but other heroes will step into the space left by him soon enough. I wonder what Stan and Steve could have done together on this title for a while. Ditko just seems to have much more of an affinity for the Hulk than Kirby--he knows how to show us the heart of a monster--and I would've loved to see more of this. Like Star Trek: Enterprise, this book is canceled just as it's getting good.

Next time: Thor against the Carbon Copy Man.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Film Week

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

Paul Greengrass docudrama about the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shootings is a fairly damning picture. It focuses mainly on Ivan Cooper (played by James Nesbitt) and his fellow leaders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. They attempt to hold a peaceful demonstration march, but as the film makes clear, the peacekeeping British paratroopers went in with the intention to take out some of the demonstrators, particularly the leaders of the civil rights movement. What proceeds after their intentions are made known to the audience is horrifyingly inevitable and ends in a display of violence that, as Cooper tells the press at the end of the film, would be a massive catalyst for NRA membership and the crippling of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. ***1/2

I'm going to mainly refer you to Roger Ebert on this one. I was never bored by a film that could easily have been sprawling and confusing; it's a large film, featuring several different storylines in several different time periods all jumbled together, but I found it moving and was never less than rapt with attention. It's non-linear, but also manages to fit its stories into a three-act structure and unite them with the common thread of a yearning for freedom and the repeated philosophy that we birth our future through our bad and good acts. I liked it very much; I was surprised, because I was prepared for a total disaster. But what I saw was a powerful film about how acts of kindness and bravery can reverberate through time, a film alive in the moment and kind of impenetrable but also emotionally genuine and touching. ****

Nope. I'm as surprised as anyone that I like Shirley Temple, but this film... just no. I don't know if it was the jolliest, singingest, dancingest slave folk that broke me, or if it was the sight of Shirley Temple in blackface that did it, but just... just no. It's a Holiday Inn level of racism on this one. *1/2

Taken, but with a mom and made for Lifetime and surprisingly boring considering its subject matter usually grips me right off because it feeds right into my panic disorder. **1/2

Not quite what its subtitles promises, but it's a great personal journey by its director (Pip Chodorov) who, through his family, has made a number of friendships with leading creative lights in experimental, avant garde cinema. It's a wonderful introduction to the concept of experimental film. ***1/2

I'll Take Four!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #12

"The Incredible Hulk" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(March 1963)

This is the first big "Because You Demanded It!" issue, produced in response to fan letters. I don't think it was really a last ditch effort to boost the Hulk's popularity--after all, this same month, the final issue of Incredible Hulk was released, so it was too late to save the title--but Stan knew it would be a blockbuster issue of the flagship title and couldn't resist.

It's become a Marvel tradition now: the Thing vs. the Hulk. It's like how over at DC, the Flash and Superman have a race every few years. (Let's see that happen in the New 52, assuming someone ever surgically removes the stick of "edge" from up its ass.)

The story gets us in the mood right away when Ben Grimm--after coming out of a symphony concert with Alicia--gets into a fight on the street with a parading infantry division. Since Fantastic Four has lots of room for character development, Stan and Jack can throw in this scene just to show off and remind us how powerful Ben is. He even gets shot with a bazooka that fires a shell that wraps him up in steel cables; naturally, he breaks it easily. Gas ends up being the only thing that can bring him down. And after all of that, as he's understandably pissed off, we get to watch him rip out the elevator doors at the Baxter Building and climb 35 floors up the elevator shaft to get to FF HQ.

So, reminder: the Thing is powerful, resourceful, and easily angered.

Oh, and he does NOT like being mistaken for the Hulk.

Look at Ben's expression! That is absolutely wonderful work, Mr. Kirby, Mr. Ayers.

This first chapter has almost nothing to do with the story, which is one of the things I love about Fantastic Four. I know I'm going to get great character scenes in addition to the big science mystery and the colorful villains.

It's not until the end of this first chapter that we get to the plot: General "Thunderbolt" Ross has come to ask the Fantastic Four to help him stop the Hulk. Chapter two is mainly the FF showing off their powers and imagining how they're going to fight the Hulk.

I like that, when they get to the southwest, Reed Richards is both honored to meet Bruce Banner and excited to work with him. It's a nice new perspective, especially after a year of General Ross screaming about what a coward Bruce is; he's actually quite a respected scientist. Bruce has a theory that it's not the Hulk who's sabotaging the city defense ray he's building, but he can't say why. And then we also meet an assistant of his, Karl Kort, whom Ben and Johnny shove around for laughs. Johnny also meets Rick Jones, who immediately thinks Johnny's a hotshot asshole and doesn't like him. And since Johnny is trying way too hard to impress Rick, he's got a point. Teenagers.

Bruce and a lot of the men are referring to this unknown saboteur as "the Wrecker," which seems to imply that there are a number of people who don't think it's the Hulk. And, as we readers discover almost immediately after, it's not: it's this Karl Kort guy, who ends chapter three by taking Rick prisoner. Kort's not only a commie spy, but he's figured out (through the keen power of "listening while Rick is talking to himself") that Rick is in league with the Hulk.

It's 14 pages of story in, and Stan must be able to sense that the reader is getting impatient for some smashing, because chapter 4 is titled "The Hulk at Last!" And after some business with a rocket sled, we do get to the Hulk. The Wrecker has left a note for the Hulk ordering him to drive the Fantastic Four away in order to save Rick's life. Bruce finds the note, but can't bring himself to show the FF, and decides that only the Hulk can rescue Rick. Stepping on his gamma ray pad, Bruce changes into the Hulk and meets the FF head-on in an underground tunnel.

The battle between Hulk and the FF is epic, especially taking into consideration 1963 comics panels. No big "I'm Rob Liefeld and I don't feel like drawing a whole page of tiny panels" splash pages here. This fight is five pages of excellent Jack Kirby art as the FF try their damnedest to take the Hulk down. They destroy an Old West ghost town in their excitement! It's arguably the first real fight the Hulk's had with an enemy that could conceivably defeat him. Hitting the Thing actually hurts his hand!

In the end, it's only outside interference that stops the Hulk: he's hit by the Wrecker's atomic ray gun and knocked unconscious. It leads the FF to his location, though, and after the Thing handily dispatches the Wrecker's giant robot (love it), Invisible Girl knocks the gun out of his hand and everyone knows Karl Kort is the Wrecker. Rick is saved, the truth is revealed, and the Hulk leaps off to change back into Bruce Banner.

The adventure over, we end on this note:

It's the prototype for the best Marvel crossover stories: two heroes meet, beat the living hell out of each other, then work together and part as friends. We'll see more of that in the future.

I can't wait.

Other notes:

:: I like that this issue has taken giant leaps into world-building. Though we've had hints here and there of a larger co-existence--and, of course, there's Prince Namor, one of Marvel's Golden Age characters who was brought back (and so is Loki, kinda sorta possibly but later officially)--it isn't until this month, both here and in Amazing Spider-Man #1, that we know for certain that these characters all exist together in one fictional universe.

What I like about it here is that this issue sort of answers the question: If they all exist in the same universe, why wouldn't General Ross have asked the Fantastic Four to capture the Hulk? This is sort of my problem with the Marvel Universe in general. It was the question I asked earlier this year in the first issue of Matt Fraction and Mike Allred's FF #1: why is it so important for the Fantastic Four to put together a replacement Fantastic Four for the relative few minutes they'll be traveling through time? I mean, if Galactus shows up while you're gone, maybe one of the literally thousands of other superpowered characters crowded into the MU could take care of it? Sometimes it seems like there are 12,000 superheroes in the Marvel Universe, and 98% are based in New York City, and of those, 97% are in the Avengers. So, assuming Galactus shows up in New York (as if there were anywhere else), I think maybe a couple of those guys will be on it, you know?

(If you haven't been reading FF, though, it's really wonderful.)

:: Is it any surprise when Karl Kort, the only extraneous new character with significant lines, turns out to be the Wrecker? Sorry, but the Ant-Man stories have sort of led me to expect it. (You mean the one new character connected to the plot was the villain the whole time! Gasp!)

:: While watching a film of the Hulk before heading out to Ross' base, the three men imagine how easy it will be for them to fight the Hulk with their powers. Sue, though, is so scared by the footage of the Hulk that she turns invisible without thinking about it, and then basically admits that her powers are useless against him. And then this is the cherry on top of that:

Ugh. Men. This is seriously presented as though it should be a boost to Sue's self-esteem: "Well, at least you can always stand around and look pretty." Ew. And did you have to agree with him, Reed? "Yes, she's useless, but we like her pretty little face." Not doing such a great job of proving her use to the team and justifying her to the fans, Stan. (Granted, she does stop the Wrecker in the end, but setting it up like this does a little damage to Sue as a character.)

:: The re-designed Fantasticar:

I loved the old flying bathtub. This thing... meh. Whatever, guys.

:: I love that the thing that Ben does when he's being impatient and loud that really, truly pisses off General Ross and makes him blow his top is... ripping his bound set of phone books in half! I shouldn't laugh; it's not like people just had contacts stored on their smartphones back then. Things change, kids.

:: We get another of those scenes of invisible Sue being met with "This place is haunted!" Everyone in the early sixties is apparently quite superstitious.

:: In this month's letters page: fans are not happy with Paul Gambaccini's hate letter in FF #9, Tommy Jones of Maryland thinks Jack Kirby can't draw feet (wait 'til he gets a load of Liefeld), Fred Bronson thinks the FF should kick out the Thing, and Stan confirms that Namor kept his word and allowed the Fantastic Four movie to be produced, with the profits funding the Fantastic Four. Good guy, that Namor.

One fan letter is from Landon Chesney, an artist active in early comics fandom whom you can read about here. Another letter--one which argues for the teaming up of Miracle Man and those hypnotized Skrulls, as well as asking for the return of Mole Man--is from Steve Perrin. Is that Steve Perrin the creator of RuneQuest? Because that's pretty cool.

Also, Steve Utley of Trenton, NJ, thinks that when the Fantastic Four movie is made, the following actors should play the villains: Peter Lorre as Mole Man, Boris Karloff as Dr. Doom, Johnny Weismuller as Namor, and Yul Brynner as the Puppet Master. I have to disagree with Steve; Puppet Master is clearly a Peter Lorre caricature. I think Brynner would make a better Doom. Weismuller's good, but in 1963? Too old, I think. If we're going in that direction, why not Gordon Scott?


All in all, a landmark issue for both Fantastic Four and for the larger Marvel Universe. Lots of fun, lots of action, lots of character, and honestly it has a better grasp on the Hulk than Incredible Hulk does. Speaking of which...

Next time: the Hulk deals with the Metal Master, his feelings for Betty, and the art of Steve Ditko in the final issue of his comic!

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Story of Princess Kaguya

This is a minute-long teaser for the new film from Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata. It looks gorgeous. At first, I thought this was animatics or a work in progress (remember when Disney used to do those work in progress trailers?), but from what I'm reading, this is what the film is going to look like. I hope that's true; I'd love to see something with this look. It's like the next step from Takahata's last film, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Song of the Week: "Perfect Day"

Lou Reed died a week ago. I didn't have much to say about it at the time; I've never been a big fan of his, despite the role he's played in influencing the trajectory of some of my favorite musical genres (art rock, glam rock, punk rock). But I knew I was going to put this up as Song of the Week because this is my favorite track from Transformer, one of my favorite albums of all time. This is one of a handful of albums I really consider perfect. And this track... I float away on this track (which is why I consider its use in Trainspotting darkly fitting). And the bridge in this song, when the piano plays, and strings are added in a sort of urgency... gah, I can't describe it, but I could live in that moment. I could die in that moment.

Perfect song. Perfect album. "Perfect Day."

Smartass Summaries Are Returning to This Blog

The other day when I was just sitting here, minding my own beeswax, a package came to the door. I noticed it was from a book vendor and just assumed that it was something for Becca for work. But no: the package was addressed to me. Intrigueresting.

Opening it up, I found inside a copy of EL James' 50 Shades of Grey. And nothing else. It was a cryptic, bizarre moment. Just me and this book, staring at each other.

I remember how, in the lead-up to the rehearsal dinner, Carl had mentioned that he wanted me to return to my old Summarized by a Smartass ways. For those of you who weren't here, back in 2009 (!) and 2007 (!!) I did two series on this blog: The Bible Summarized by a Smartass and Twilight Summarized by a Smartass. The first one came about simply because I wanted to read the bible all the way through and really talk about the problems I had with it. But reading it is also incredibly numbing, so I wanted to be funny and sarcastic, too. The resulting series was popular enough that some readers wanted me to do another book. I thought about other religious texts, but I was wiped out enough by the bible and felt more comfortable criticizing it because I had been raised as a Lutheran. But I wanted to do something else because the bible series had been fun.

I thought about it for a couple of years, with the caveat that I wanted something "as popular as the bible, but with as disproportionately large an amount of overly-vocal nutjobs." Someone suggested Twilight. I found it was impossible to get my hands on a copy that I didn't have to pay for, so Kelly stepped in and mailed me his copy. And thus began the numbing six months of Twilight Summarized by a Smartass.

Today, even though I don't think I have half the amount of readers I had then, people still sometimes bring up the series and ask me if I'm going to do another one. At the time, I resisted people in the comment section asking me to keep going and do New Moon, the next book in the Twilight series.

And then Carl said to me this summer: 50 Shades of Grey.

It seemed like a great idea. But I don't have any money and I couldn't just check out a copy from the library for three weeks and finish it off. And Carl offered to find me a cheap copy and send it to me. I thought he had abandoned this idea.

But then, on Facebook, he left me a picture of Mr. Burns rubbing his hands together and the cryptic message "My plan is coming to fruition." And now, he had made good on his threat: I now own a copy of 50 Shades of Grey.

You bastard.

You magnificent bastard.

So now it's my turn to make good. I said if he'd find me a copy, I'd do it, so I'm in this now.

Starting next Saturday, straight through for 26 Saturdays, I'll be posting 50 Shades of Smartass.

The adventure continues.