Saturday, September 06, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #50

"The Hands of the Mandarin!" by Stan Lee & Don Heck
(February 1964)

I've said before that I was never the world's biggest fan of Iron Man. I've never read very much of it, and I'm not necessarily enjoying it now. I see a lot of unrealized potential in it, but as things go, he's probably tied with Ant-Man/Giant-Man for my least favorite main character in the Marvel Universe. So I'm not really sure of the character's history.

I think of the Mandarin as sort of the great Iron Man villain. I don't know if that's the consensus or not, but it does help that most of the Iron Man stories I've read feature the Mandarin. So it's very interesting to go back and see his introduction in the comics. Other than the Crimson Dynamo, I don't really think there's been a truly good Iron Man villain, but in a race between the two, this issue puts Mandarin in a firm lead.

I was a little worried, given the time period and the tenor of earlier issues (particularly Iron Man's origin), about what the stereotyping would be like. With the Mandarin being more or less a Fu Manchu expy, I was prepared for any number of "Yellow Peril" tropes, but this story mostly avoids them. Mandarin isn't offensively colored yellow or drawn with buck teeth and slanty eyes (for the most part; there are some instances), and he doesn't speak in that broken pidgin English that offends my eyes. (Not every Chinese character here is so lucky, sadly. All of their dialogue is written out properly, but sometimes their faces are so crude it's like watching Clutch Cargo.)

The Mandarin is a character there are only rumors about, but he exists, living in a fortress that appears to be a masterpiece of technology. He's referred to as a scientific genius, and he wears a ring on each finger (and both thumbs) that each seem to have different uses. This issue doesn't delve into the rings as much as it does into Mandarin's scientific knowledge, and the combination of the supernatural and the scientific is really, really interesting. Modern for the time. Mandarin also has no political ties, refusing to share his knowledge of nuclear technology with Red China because he cares little for the causes of nations, preparing instead to conquer the entire world for himself. The Chinese government appears to fear him, and he's cultivated the mystique of a dangerous sorcerer.

The US government finally begins hearing whispers of the Mandarin and sends in Iron Man to investigate. But Iron Man is captured quickly and a recon mission becomes a confrontation. Iron Man makes a summary judgment, as he's wont to do:

Though his power is draining quickly because of a short circuit in the suit, Iron Man fights the Mandarin. But they're pretty evenly matched, and both have a quick command of technology. The Mandarin's rings are kind of tantalizing; Tony guesses that each ring is a different weapon, but are they technological or magical? Everything the Mandarin does that implies a command of sorcery is dismissed and explained away by Tony, who refuses to believe there are supernatural explanations in the world, despite the fact that he knows an actual god of mythology and he once traveled back in time by magic.

Iron Man falls prey to the rings, felled by a paralysis ray. When he comes to, the Mandarin challenges him to a karate match, but as he proves, his mastery of karate is so powerful that he can snap iron. His transistors weakening, Iron Man is no match for the Mandarin, who comes close to defeating him. Iron Man only wins by doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math--or in this case, back-of-the-glove, since he uses the calculator in his wrist--to calculate the precise angle to block the Mandarin's blow. When he does, not only does Iron Man's armor not break, but the pain of the missed blow knocks the Mandarin unconscious. Not wanting to hang around for a rematch, Iron Man escapes and returns to the United States.

Stray observations:

:: Nothing against Steve Ditko, of course, but it is nice to see Don Heck back on the art after a few issues away. This is his first time drawing the cool new Mark III armor. I love a lot of the art, but I don't love those Chinese stereotypes. Can we just drop those? I promise people will get that they're Chinese if you say they are.

:: The Mandarin, to a Chinese military general introducing himself: "Spare me such petty trivia! Your identities do not interest me!"

:: There's a whole subplot in here involving Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan going out on the town together. Pepper's angry that Tony didn't notice her new hair, which is admittedly pretty nice. (I just love Heck's fashionable ladies.)

Though it still does bother me that Stan thinks this is all women do... You could easily take Pepper Potts, the Wasp, Jane Foster, or even Sue Storm and swap them out for Millie the Model and the characters would be pretty much the same.

Anyway, she goes out with Happy because she's bored and frustrated that no one's paying any attention to her. But then she gets upset because she realizes Tony will never make the move on her she's so desperate for if he thinks she and Happy are a couple.

Well, the supporting characters have to do something, I guess.

:: There's also a bit where, because he's heading into China as Iron Man, Tony has to cancel a dinner arrangement with one of his factory foremen, Bill. Bill is offended that Tony doesn't want to hang out with the common people and tells him so, at which point Happy punches Bill right in the face. Tony then dresses down Happy and tells him that anyone who works for him can speak freely.

This was a very enjoyable issue, easily the best Iron Man story so far. I feel like this is truly the first time Iron Man has had a foe who matches him in every way. I've said before that the reason I love Spider-Man's villains is that they've all come close to killing him; they're capable of defeating him, and that adds suspense to his stories. Even with some of the things he's been menaced with (the Melter, Mister Doll, Crimson Dynamo), this is the first time that Iron Man's victory didn't seem inevitable. With the Mandarin, they've given Iron Man a nemesis on par with Doctor Doom or Doctor Octopus, and I can't wait to see him return and really challenge Iron Man again.

Next Marvels: The Black Knight!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #117

"The Return of the Eel!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(February 1964)

I've expressed concerns before about the prison system in the Marvel Universe, but here's one I just can't get over. This issue starts off with the Eel getting out of prison. Johnny Storm assumes he must have broken out--particularly when he sees the Eel walking around in his old costume--but according to the prison warden, Eel has paid his debt to society, serving his sentence with time off for good behavior. But if you remember the Eel's introduction back in Strange Tales #112, this is a guy who stole a radioactive atomic pile and played a role in its detonation. During the Cold War, no less. This is the time when Marvel Comics still occur in real time, so we're talking five months in prison for the theft and detonation of nuclear material? That's... that doesn't seem right to me.

And then the Eel just walks around in his costume "for a lark," basically rubbing it in society's face that he's out and free. They even give the guy his old job back as caretaker at the aquarium in Glenville. He's out, he's free, it's like nothing happened.

Of course, then he returns to crime.

Stan & Dick try to set it up so that there's a tension where Johnny just knows the Eel is going to return to his thieving ways and everyone thinks he's being paranoid, but that lasts all of a page before the Eel just starts stealing jewels again. Johnny sets him up and nearly catches him, then spends a lot of time grumbling before Sue walks him through some of the clues. The final showdown takes place between the Eel and the Human Torch at the aquarium, which gives us some neat perspective shots and animal backgrounds.

Yeah, Johnny gets his ass handed to him. The Eel coats himself with--are you ready?--asbestos grease, then gives Johnny a big bear hug. Johnny can't flame on, and it turns out he's pretty bad at defending himself without his flame. (Too bad Stan forgot--forever, apparently--that Johnny was once able to defeat the Sandman with his superior strength due to the heat he stores in his muscles or something.)

Things get a little hardcore when the Eel tries to feed an unconscious Johnny to those sharks there, but Johnny wakes up at the right moment and spills the drum of asbestos grease that any aquarium would have laying around and trips up the Eel, saving the day and, I guess, his reputation for just knowing who's evil.

Mixed bag as a story, but Dick Ayers' art is fab and the fight scenes are kind of fun. A bit of a groaner on the script.

Stray observations:

:: This being a Stan Lee comic, Sue Storm's biggest concern this issue is that Johnny not flame on in the house, because he might singe the curtains. Are they not made of asbestos? Literally everything else in the world seems to be! Asbestos is probably just laying around in the streets. Just grab it and give everyone you know cancer! As a prank! Free unattended radiation and asbestos for everyone!

:: In the Eel's first appearance--which you may remember was written by Jerry Siegel--Stan must have wanted Jerry to make more of the Eel's name and eel-like powers. So there's a whole page where the Eel essentially tells the audience that he can run a current through his costume to use electric powers like the electric eel does.

"The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Baron Mordo's quest is to force the Ancient One to reveal all of his secrets and then kill him, and as we've seen, the thing standing in his way is that Doctor Strange will always be there to protect the Ancient One. So it's always interesting to see what Mordo comes up with to try and take Strange out of the picture.

This time, he creates a replica of Doctor Strange's house, then uses that to cast a spell over the actual house. When Doctor Strange next enters his home, the home disappears to some unknown dimension where there's no gravity. Slipping into his astral form, Mordo is able to use another spell to trap Strange's astral form in an escape-proof ethereal dome.

Strange now taken care of, Mordo confronts the Ancient One, pretending to be repentant and begging forgiveness. But as soon as he gets close enough to conquer the Ancient One, Strange's astral form appears! How did he get out of the dome? Easy: through the bottom.

Doctor Strange literally traveled through the core of the planet itself to escape Mordo's trap and warn the Ancient One.

This. Comic. Is. Amazing.

The Ancient One has given Strange a ring so he can face Mordo in his astral form, and in the subsequent battle, Strange defeats Mordo and throws his evil spells back at him, then returns to his home to brood and await the next battle.

I love these moody Doctor Strange stories so much. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to the inevitable jump in page count, just because these short stories with Ditko's art and his command of small panels are such treasures. It'll be a different era, that's for sure. For now, I'm enjoying the hell out of these.

Next Marvels: The Mandarin!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

It Feels Like Autumn Today

It's been a few weeks bouncing between anxiety and depression, but yesterday was a good day, and today I'm back with my regular therapist. I got to see her early, and it's a cold, cloudy, dark, extremely rainy day today. I'm unusually comfortable with myself right now (confidence is confusing), so I just threw on a light tee shirt and a pair of track pants and we had a nice session. I sort of feel like things are back to what passes for normal for me.

Anyway, after therapy, we went to eat at my favorite diner in DeKalb. I like to occasionally break out of my bacon-eggs-toast-coffee usual, and they've just put pumpkin french toast on the menu. I thought I'd give it a try, and boy, I'm sure glad I did. It's made with pumpkin bread that has cream cheese inside it. Battered up, fried, and topped with cinnamon and whipped cream. It was so sweet and delicious that I didn't even bother with maple syrup. I ate it very slowly because I didn't want it to end. Had a side of their smoky, savory, thick bacon with it, drank my coffee, did the crossword. But most importantly, I just was. You know how they tell you to just be? I just was. Everything was copacetic, and it was perfect.

The thing I always get caught up in is worry that nice moments aren't going to last. But... well, they just aren't, are they? That doesn't diminish them. Getting caught up in worry does. And today, I haven't worried. This is unusual for me, and I'm sure it can't last, but that's okay. Like my previous therapist used to say, everyone's happy until they're not. That's just life. You can't stop bad things from happening, but you can try to control your outlook. (I had to qualify that with "try." That's just me.)

So, yeah, even though it's technically not fall yet, this is the kind of early fall day I love. The storms, the quiet between them, drinking coffee and eating bacon and pumpkin french toast, thinking about how it'll be Halloween soon enough and just existing and appreciating and enjoying my day.

On that note, I've had this song going through my head this morning. I haven't heard it in a long time, but I managed to find it on YouTube, and it's making me even happier. It makes me cry, but it makes me happy.

I grew up listening to Roger Whittaker's Folk Songs of Our Time. It always makes me feel good. It makes me feel home. I have it on vinyl and I ganked my Mom's cassette copy years ago (Ma, if you're reading this, you're not getting it back), but it's never been available in any digital form, damn it. But just to hear this again now... I still remember every word. And it's so perfect for today. This is the mood I'm in. Wistful, but comfortable and happy.

It's hard to admit I'm happy, but I really am.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

H Is for Harry the Hipster

Harry the Hipster is one of Jim Henson's first Muppets, created as a simple sock puppet for Jim's first TV show, Sam and Friends, which ran on the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, five minutes at a time, twice a day, from May 1955 to December 1961. Not much of the Sam and Friends output survives, but a lot of the stuff that does is pure Muppet magic.

Harry the Hipster is Jim's beatnik side given full room to play with reality in surreal, illogical ways. It's probably best exemplified in this, one of my favorite Muppet sketches ever, called "Visual Thinking."

This sketch is from 1959; you can tell it's later in the run, because Kermit looks more like a frog and less like a sock puppet. (Initially he was just a shape and not a frog.) Very few episodes of the show survive.

Much like the "Coffee Break Machine" sketch I mentioned back in the first entry in this series, this was just too good a sketch to do only once. In 1966, Jim performed the sketch twice, first on The Mike Douglas Show (with Harry the Hipster) and then on The Ed Sullivan Show (with a character called Grump, performed by Frank Oz). Kermit and Grump did it again on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, and as you probably remember, there were a lot of sketches on Sesame Street that were inspired by it.

Harry may have gotten his name from Harry Gibson, a jazz musician billed as Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, who did records of hip versions of fairy tales for kids in the early fifties. That fits in with the novelty records and old songs that Jim would use for his short episodes, usually uncredited and without permission. (TV was a bit of a Wild West back then; Jim used so many Stan Freberg records that Freberg briefly considered pursuing legal action, but just couldn't bring himself to when he saw the Muppets and chalked it up to free publicity.)

It was only Kermit who went on from Sam and Friends, so Harry the Hipster got left behind, replaced in spirit by Rowlf the Dog and in every other way by Dr. Teeth. He now resides in the Smithsonian, alongside all of the other original Muppets, like Chicken Liver, Yorick, Mushmellon, Sam himself, and the original Kermit puppet. He was one of Jim's first Muppets, designed in 1954, and was the template for so many of Jim's mystical hippie characters.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

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

Profoundly unsettling French animated movie about a world where humans are pests or pets to a race of giant aliens called Draags. It's very disturbing to see humans treated like rats, which is of course the point. Very imaginative and fascinating; it's truly surreal. There's a lot of mixing of superstition and science, particularly in the way the Draags want to explore the mind and meditation in a quest for a higher self, but fear even the notion of accepting humans as conscious, intelligent beings rather than mere animals. Interesting, too, the Cold War overtones. But the disturbing imagery remains... ***1/2

Fun Russian animated film about a girl on a scientific trip with her father to procure exotic animal species for an intergalactic zoo. They accidentally uncover a pirate conspiracy and get tangled up in a search for missing space captains. Apparently it's something of a cult classic in Russia; I would never have known about it if I hadn't seen stills on Tumblr recently and decided to look on YouTube. Great creature and alien design; I love it when outer space is as biodiverse as possible. ***1/2

This Soviet animated feature is one of the best animated features I've ever seen. This is from Soyuzmultfilm, and it's impeccably made. I don't know what animated features were available to the Soviet Union, but it reminds me most of Fleischer cartoons and Disney films of the 1930s; it's a full animation spectacle, much more in the vein of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio than the Disney films of the time. The Snow Queen herself is a marvel of character animation; the impossibly straight lines of her crown are amazing. Apparently there's an American dubbed version of this out there from the nineties; the one I saw on YouTube was in Russian and subtitled, and it's beautiful. ****

I know I say it all the time, but I'm so, so glad to see Donald Duck getting some spotlight time in the new series of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Fast-paced and full of gags, this one had me laughing hard on a night I really needed it. ****

Lars Von Trier's final entry in his "Depression Trilogy." Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as the titular nymphomaniac, and tells the story of her life. There's a lot of misogyny on display, but I don't think it's a misogynist movie, though it's often uncomfortable to watch. What's so interesting to me about this movie is that it tries to honestly address the way patriarchal oppression of femininity prizes white women as objects, and how that can be dehumanizing, and then attempts to unravel it humanizing female sexuality, and then completely rejects its own attempts to be sex-positive because, in its way, sex-positivity can itself be oppressive by offering women only a chance to be complicit in their own domination. It's a radical, challenging idea, and Von Trier seems to be unable to grasp it completely. But the key here is that he's totally honest about that; he doesn't answer the questions he raises because he has no answers. It's the exploration of those ideas that we watch. When Gainsbourg finally does rise above it and take things into her own hands, we don't even get to see it; we only hear it and draw our own assumptions, perhaps because Von Trier doesn't yet know what it looks like for a woman to take her power into her own hands. Perhaps, as a man, he feels it would presumptuous to try. It's an endlessly fascinating exploration, along the way touching on other aspects he explores in his other "Depression Trilogy" films, Melancholia and Antichrist--grief, loss, regret, humanity, resignation, and what lies we tell ourselves to make the best of an existence that may ultimately have no greater meaning. I know four hours of sex-negative feminism is not for everyone--I see people all over the internet who are more than a little pissed off about this being a sexually graphic movie you'd not really want to masturbate to--but there is a lot here to think about it. ****

(I should mention: I saw the unrated two-part version, released here as two separate films, but I'm counting it as one. Apparently Von Trier's original version, as yet unreleased, runs for five and a half hours.)

Artful, engrossing film with Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form. She drives around Scotland, talks to men, seduces some, and in the process explores aspects of humanity. What's so interesting about this film is how quiet it is. I think this is the kind of film that people watch, lured in by the promise of Scarlett Johansson taking off all of her clothes--and yes, she looks stunning, come on--and are then angry about it because it's not a fun sex romp. It's a contemplative, slow-paced, but utterly fascinating movie held together by Johansson's performance. She can do more with a curious look than some actors do with a page of dialogue. Can we please stop acting like she's a hot girl who accidentally fell into a career yet? (And boy, the rise of deep, interesting films that are heavily criticized by viewers who can't jack off to them is really getting annoying. Let's just call it the Spring Breakers Effect. God forbid we explore the way people relate--or can't relate--to one another. You'll get another hard-on, I promise. Stop panicking that each one is your last.) Sorry about the digression. Anyway, I can't stop thinking about this movie. It's kind of formless, but watching it go where it went was hard to look away from. ****

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

John Oliver, Cookie Monster, Words, and News

This is the most fun thing I've seen all day. Do yourself a favor and watch the outtakes, too!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Song of the Week: "Seize the Day"

Melodysheep has done a lot of great musical tributes to important figures in my life--Carl Sagan, Steve Irwin, Mister Rogers, Bob Ross, Yoda... Now here's one for Robin Williams. Made me feel nice, as Melodysheep always does.