Thursday, December 31, 2009

Either I Post It Here, Or I Start Hitting People With Baseball Bats

OK, listen up, people, because I'm only going to say this once.

If you think that entertainment has gotten too violent, remember that the most popular public spectacle was once watching a dog and a bear try to kill each other.

If you think that civility has vanished from American culture, remember that insults used to be settled with an exchange of gunfire from twenty paces.

If you think that politics has gotten more polarized, remember that there was a point in American history where one Senator beat another into unconsciousness. On the Senate floor.

If you think that the Fifties were an era of shiny optimism, remember that one of its most prominent poets described the time with the phrase, "I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," and that lynching wasn't prosecuted.

If you think that everything got better in the Sixties, remember that Kennedy started Vietnam.

If you seriously think that the Great Depression was some kind of noble, decent era in American history...why do you think they called it "The Great Depression"?

If you think that athletes are no longer the great role models they once were for our nation's youth, remember that Mickey Mantle drank like a fish, Ty Cobb was a racist, and the White Sox took money to throw a World Series in 1919.

If you think that people are getting dumber, remember that people used to think you could cure infirmity by cutting someone open and pouring out their blood by the cupful.

If you think that people have become sinful and immoral, remember that prostitution was legal in America until around the start of World War I, and that the President's mistress published a memoir of their extramarital affair in 1928.

If you think that people used to be more patriotic, remember the CIVIL WAR.

If you think that somehow the world used to be a better, happier, cheerier, more joyful place than it once was, and that it's getting worse, and the decline of civilization is just around the corner...you just don't know enough history. Until you do, learn more and talk less.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Modest Comics Proposal

Let's all eat comics!

No. Wait. Wrong kind of modest proposal. Let me start over.

Everyone talks about how comics are insular, and how they've become insular and self-referential and can't find a new audience. (OK, I've been talking about it. But I've been talking a lot about it, and that has to count for something, right?) We have a few things to rectify this, like "Free Comics Day" (although I think Marvel would do better by giving those free comics away at the movies the weekend "Iron Man 2" opens, but that's just me) or the "Ten Cent Adventures" comics aimed at "new readers" (although again, "new readers" in this case translates to "existing comics fans who don't read this particular book, because we don't promote this nearly enough outside of comics stores.")

Which is, ultimately, the problem. Comics don't get promoted enough outside of comics stores. They have a huge, devoted fanbase who is absolutely passionate about the hobby, they have the kind of brand recognition that just about any other company in the world would kill for (well, the Big Two do, but due to the crazy economics of the comics industry, the Big Two subsidizes the hobby by keeping comics stores solvent, so they're the most relevant economically.) And yet, their promotions never really click.

So here's what we do. We go viral. Once a year, DC and/or Marvel has a "Share the Love" month. Every comic that month a) tells an entirely self-contained story that explains the premise of the book for someone who's never read a comic before, b) contains information on how to find a comic book store, how to subscribe to a comic, and how to find comics (and specifically that company) online, and c) is half-price. And then they ask retailers to stock twice as many copies, and ask fans to buy two copies of that comic and give one to a friend who they think would like it.

Now obviously, it's not actually going to double sales every year. Not everyone will go along with the idea, either at the retail or the fan level, and not everyone who gets a free comic will actually become a regular reader of that title. But it's a promotion that works at the word-of-mouth level, the only place that comics still have any kind of hope in hell of getting through to people; it's a promotion that harnesses the passion and energy of the fans, which is better than any marketing tactic; and it's a promotion that's pretty cheap to do. One half-price book a year isn't a major dent in the company's bottom line, and it's really no cost to the retailer or the consumer at all if they go along. They've already budgeted that money for a comic, and now they get two. One to keep, one to share.

It's pretty modest in scope, but it might have some pretty big results.

(And if you don't like the free comic, you can always eat it. No, wait...)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Heretical Thought of the Day

Lance Parkin, in his retrospective on Doctor Who that appeared in "Time, Unincorporated" from Mad Norwegian Press, said that the Fifth Doctor was "subtle, restrained [and] sweet" as opposed to the "brash, exuberant, nasty" Sixth Doctor. With all due respect to Lance, and to the millions of other Doctor Who fans who share this view...you're all wrong. Peter Davison is subtle, restrained and sweet. The Fifth Doctor is rude, condescending, and temperamental. You just don't notice because he's being played by Peter Davison, who could murder puppies in the street and still have passers-by saying, "Awwwwww..."

Seriously, go back and actually watch any Davison story. Pay attention to what he says and does. He shouts, he blusters, he snaps, he's constantly berating his companions; he's doing to Tegan the exact same thing that the Sixth Doctor does to Peri, only Peri always looks like she's about to cry whenever he does it. (By the same token, the silly throwaway short "A Fix With Sontarans" shows that the Sixth Doctor, paired with Tegan, becomes half of a great comedy double act. There is a parallel universe where Janet Fielding decided to stick it out for one more season, and it's awesome.)

This isn't meant to be a slight on Davison; he consciously modeled his character on Hartnell, and did a magnificent job of using his natural charisma (see point A, above, about puppy-killing) to make the Doctor sympathetic even while he was spiky and temperamental. But please, Doctor Who fandom, stop saying that he was the "nice" one. He was just as big of a jerk as Colin Baker, but Baker wasn't as good at hiding it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Things That Will Make You Go "Huh"

James Cameron's "Avatar": Humans come to a distant alien planet after years of hypersleep in order to mine the planet for its natural resources. The native inhabitants violently resist the incursion of their home, and despite their confidence and superior technology, the humans are ultimately beaten back and must flee.

James Cameron's "Aliens": Humans come to a distant alien planet after years of hypersleep in order to mine the planet for its natural resources. The native inhabitants violently resist the incursion of their home, and despite their confidence and superior technology, the humans are ultimately beaten back and must flee.

For extreme amusement, imagine Sigourney Weaver switching roles between the two movies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lesser-Known Movie Adaptations

Many of the younger science-fiction and fantasy fans out there really don't understand just how good they've had it. They've seen so many top-notch, high-budget, meticulously faithful adaptations of the great works of sci-fi and fantasy that they don't even realize that there was an era where something like "I Am Legend" or "I, Robot" was an exception, not the rule. Back in the bad old days, the source material was just grist for the Hollywood mill, and the finished adaptation was barely even recognizable as the classic book it started out as. So in order to remind you younger fans of this shameful era, here are a few of the lesser-known adaptations of popular sci-fi and fantasy classics.

Brewster's Silmarillions: Montgomery Brewster is left one million dollars by his eccentric uncle, Melkor, but he must spend it all in one year in order to be granted his true legacy, the three legendary Silmaril jewels of the Elven Kingdom. Can he spend the money fast enough? Will the elven host of the Noldor kill him and take back the Silmarils which they see as theirs by right? Will he find true love, or will the First Age of Middle-Earth end before he gets the girl? This wacky 80s comedy attempted to answer those questions, but despite a solid performance by Richard Pryor, it failed.

The Forever War of the Roses: This Danny DeVito-helmed adaptation of Joe Haldeman's classic science-fiction novel jettisoned most of the book to focus on the angle of the relationship between William Mandella and Marygay Potter. The result, a black comedy about a couple that no longer love each other but have difficulty obtaining a divorce due to frequent changes in the divorce laws (frequent, that is, to them--they experience a year in subjective time for every century that passes, due to their frequent use of near-lightspeed travel) turned out to be confusing and alienating to average audiences. It did, however, get good reviews from many critics.

The Sexy Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World: By now, even if you haven't seen this film, most of you have probably heard of Harlan Ellison's infamous response at learning that his short story about alien beings poisoning the Earth with madness had somehow been turned into a crime caper starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. The negative publicity did nothing to harm the film, though, which took in $8 million at the box office and gave Kingsley an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Brian's Song Of Ice And Fire: It was, perhaps, insanely ambitious to attempt to realize George R.R. Martin's entire saga about the war of succession to the Iron Throne of Westeros as a two-hour long made-for-television movie, but to make the eventual winner a terminally-ill football player was definitely one step too far. Despite the sentimentality of the story, fans of the original were enraged, and the story's signature line, "I love Brian Piccolo...and I will see him on the Iron Throne," became a by-word for B-movie schmaltz.

The Colour of Money: Without the budget or the special-effects technology to depict Terry Pratchett's sprawling Discworld novel, this film adaptation centered the action entirely in Ankh-Morpork, with Paul Newman portraying Rincewind as a retired pool hustler who goes back into action when Twoflower, a skilled but naive player from the Agatean Empire (played by Tom Cruise) comes to town hoping to score some quick cash. Rincewind takes Twoflower under his wing, but the personality clashes between them form the bulk of the film's story.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Insane Comics Moments, Part Seven

Sometimes, you can find some real surprises when you go back and read the classic comics of the Silver Age. For example, I'd been familiar with the X-Men villain Sauron for ages, but I'd always assumed that his name had something to do with the fact that he was a sort of weird not-quite-mutant dinosaur vampire type thing. (He was scratched by pterodactyls in the Savage Land, and that woke his latent mutant abilities...I guess...and so he became an energy-draining hypnotizing pterodactyl-man.)

(The above was not the insane bit, I promise.)

But as I say, I'd always assumed that he was named "Sauron" because he was some sort of dinosaur...or possibly, in a bit of a stretch, because his wings allowed him to soar through the air and he was a lousy speller or something. But no, when I got into "Essential Classic X-Men, Volume Three", and finally read his origin for the first time, I found the true reason for his name.

He was a huge "Lord of the Rings" fan before he was scratched, you see, and when he started to mutate, he felt himself growing more evil. "In fact," he shouts, "I am now so evil that I shall name my new self after the most evil character in all of fantasy literature...Sauron!"

No, I'm not kidding. That really happened.

The really sad part is I actually see guys like this all the time, running around in MMOs. You sign into "City of Heroes" the day after they introduce dual blades as a fighting style, and suddenly you're surrounded by guys named things like "Drizzzt" with three "Z"s. Presumably like them, Sauron's true arch-nemesis is Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Man, with his dreaded ultimate weapon, the Cease and Desist!

(And of course, TSR circa 1981 is saying, "Wait, they went after us but they missed this?")

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Missed Opportunity of "Infinite Crisis"

This is, of course, a very different thing from "The Mistakes Of 'Infinite Crisis'", because I don't know if Blogger has a posting-size limit, and I don't want to find out the hard way.

But for those of you who don't follow comics overmuch, "Infinite Crisis" was a sequel to "Crisis On Infinite Earths", which was designed to do a bunch of harsh, necessary things to DC continuity and then never be mentioned again, ever. Basically, a bunch of the characters from "Crisis On Infinite Earths" who were never supposed to be seen or heard from again because their backstories were too complicated and unwieldy for any but the most hardened DC fanboys to follow turned back up because DC realized, "Hey, that's pretty much all we've got left of our audience!"

And they then proceeded to make a big, universe-altering machine that recreated reality like it was before the original Crisis, because there was so much cool stuff back then, and it was a shame that it was chucked out, and wouldn't it be cool if we brought back the Multiverse, and it's so lame that Batman's parents' killer was never found, and Power Girl really should be the Earth-2 Supergirl, and...and basically, it was the most spectacularly meta-textual story since Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" run. But to make a long story short ("too late!") it ended with the DC history being revised again (third time in twenty years.)

The key thing they did was bring back the Multiverse, which I've likened in the past to having an operation to put someone's appendix back in. Because ultimately, the Multiverse was there as a mechanism to get characters from different DC continuities to team up. When the writer wanted Captain Marvel and Superman to meet, but it was established that there was no Superman in Captain Marvel's world and vice versa, well...Multiverse! All is good. But the original Crisis made the difficult, painful, but ultimately necessary adjustments to DC's history to establish that no, all of these people are in one history, and it had two great waves of super-heroes. There was a Golden Age Flash, and he inspired the Silver Age Flash, and he inspired the Modern Age Flash. No Multiverses needed anymore. (In other words, the new Earth-2 has...all the same heroes as on Earth-1. Only, you know, they're...um, the same age, and...um, there's a new generation of heroes and Robin is now the new Batman, which is totally different from DC now because, um...look, just shut up! Earth-2 was cool when Geoff Johns was twelve, and it's still cool now!)

Which leads us to the great missed opportunity in DC's "Infinite Crisis". Because they're revamping DC's history yet again, right? And meanwhile, over in the Wildstorm universe (which started out as part of Image but was bought by DC, lock stock and every single marketable character), they're rebooting that whole universe from square one (Captain Atom and Void accidentally blew it up. Oops!) So what do they do?

They make the Wildstorm universe Earth-50. So now, if the Teen Titans want to team up with Gen-13, all they need to do is find a convenient dimensional portal to a parallel Earth, see, and then they can meet up and have a several-panel long explanation of the physics of alternate timestreams before they get their adventure started, which will have to involve dimension-crossing villains as well, of course, and...

Why, oh sweet suffering baby Jesus why didn't they just take the opportunity to make the Wildstorm universe part of the DC universe? They own the characters, they're revising both continuities at the exact same freaking time, and if fifty years of pre-Crisis continuity should have taught them anything, it's that having your marketable characters stuck in different fictional universes is a royal pain in the ass that you should correct sooner rather than later, because the longer you let it go on the more irritating it is to fix!

**pants like Animal after a rampage***

But they didn't, and the defining ramification of "Infinite Crisis" remains that it gave us "Countdown: Arena". Which is alone enough to make comics fans everywhere wish it hadn't happened.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Weighing In On The Great Blofeld Controversy!

(Please, James Bond fans, tell me that there is a Great Blofeld Controversy! I'd hate to think that you were the only sub-group of fandom that didn't have a hotly debated, never-settled question to bicker over during the long winter nights.)

For those of you who aren't James Bond fans (or just in case there is no Great Blofeld Controversy and I need to start it) please, let me explain. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is widely considered to be James Bond's arch-nemesis, despite the fact that in all of the movies where the two met each other face to face, the same pair of actors never played Bond and Blofeld. (In fact, the only actor to play Blofeld twice was the uncredited voice actor who played the part in his first two appearances, "From Russia With Love" and "Thunderball".)

Bizarrely, although Bond's changes in actor are never given an in-story explanation (apart from George Lazenby's aside to the camera, "This never happened to the other fellow," at the start of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") Blofeld's constant transformations are explained away as the result of plastic surgery for one reason or another. Not only does he change his face to avoid the law, he also uses doubles that have been surgically altered to resemble him as surrogates and decoys.

Which leads to the question, "How can we be sure that Blofeld is really Blofeld every time?" Sure, it'd be nice to assume that anyone saying he's Blofeld is actually Blofeld unless proven otherwise (like the two doubles killed in "Diamonds Are Forever") but this isn't actually the theory that fits the facts best. Let's go through his appearances and see.

In the twenty-two "canonical" Bond films, Blofeld appears six times. The first two, "From Russia With Love" and "Thunderball", never show his face. Instead, his only signifying feature is his pet cat, which he strokes while ordering his sub-ordinates around in an emotionless tone. Here, he appears humorless, ruthless, and precisely calculating in every detail of his complex plans.

In his third appearance, "You Only Live Twice", he is played by Donald Pleasance, and finally meets Bond face to face. He's bald, short, and has a dueling scar down his right eye and cheek. This Blofeld is consistent with his previous two appearances, and there's really no reason to assume it isn't the genuine article.

The next film, "On His Majesty's Secret Service", has Blofeld played by Telly Savalas. He's lost the scar and made a few other minor changes (actually, Savalas is the best physical fit for Blofeld in the books, although Fleming's original character wasn't bald.) The changes are explained away as plastic surgery necessary to fit in with the physical appearance of the Bleauchamp family line; Blofeld plans to claim the title and estates, and needs to make sure he looks like a Bleauchamp. (Also, it's worth mentioning that this movie provides the clearest--though still very weak--evidence that Bond's appearance is supposed to be changing with the change in actors. Bond plans to infiltrate Blofeld's lair disguised as a genealogist, but he doesn't change his appearance at all, despite having met Blofeld face to face. Clearly, we're meant to assume that Blofeld will be looking for Sean Connery.) This Blofeld is a little more wry and sardonic, but not inconsistent with his previous appearances. But most notably, he suffers a serious neck injury escaping from Bond via bobsled...when we last see him, he's being driven away from a crime while wearing a neck brace.

Then we get "Diamonds Are Forever". In this movie, Blofeld is played by Charles Gray, and he's got his hair back, he's taller, and his mannerisms, speech patterns, and modus operandi have all changed. In fact, he's almost a camp version of his former self; whereas the Blofeld of the earlier movies was almost like a living computer of crime, this Blofeld admits that he "doesn't understand all the science" of his current scheme, and is quite garrulously chatty with Bond. (Which is actually one of the best moments of the film. "What's your plan this time, Blofeld?" "Oh, you know that as soon as I'm ready to explain it, James, you'll be the first to know. But it's late, I'm tired, and I've got lots to do. Can I show you out?" "What's this?" "It's a lift, James. It goes down.") This Blofeld is also the first to openly use doubles on screen. He seemingly perishes in an explosion at the film's conclusion.

Finally, in the opening to "For Your Eyes Only", we see a mysterious bald man in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace, stroking a pet white cat and planning an elaborate death for Bond. His face is never seen, but he bears a vicious and personal grudge against Bond, and strikes at him at a place and time that holds great personal significance between the two men. It's pretty clear that this is once again Bond's arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond dispatches him by dropping him into an open smokestack.

So what's the controversy? Simply that I don't think the Blofeld in "Diamonds Are Forever" was really Blofeld. He doesn't act like Blofeld, he doesn't look like Blofeld, he doesn't talk like Blofeld, he admits to having plastic surgery-altered doubles wandering around, and most importantly, when we next see Blofeld, he looks the same as he did at the end of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Occam's Razor tells us that the simplest solution is most often correct. So either Blofeld recovered from his broken neck with miraculous speed, altered his whole appearance with plastic surgery, dreamed up an elaborate scheme involving lasers from space, executed it in a way that was nothing like his usual M.O., then got injured in a way that removed his hair and left him with another broken neck...or he hid out while recuperating, and had a trusted lieutenant act in his stead to throw Bond off the scent. Which makes more sense?

Either way, it seems pretty likely he didn't survive the fall into the smokestack. So for now, it's kind of a moot point, unless they decide to revive the character for the "rebooted" Bond 23. (Which isn't likely, because there are niggling rights issues related to the curious status of "Thunderball" as a co-owned production. It's the same weirdness that led to Sean Connery returning as Bond in "Never Say Never Again".) But I at least hope to find out whether anyone but me actually cares.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Time To Give Tolkien Fans Aneurysms

You know what I've always wanted to write? A version of "Lord of the Rings", as told from the perspective of the orcs.

Because that's got to be fascinating stuff. You figure the orcs are all hanging out in Mordor, disaffected and unhappy with their lot (let's face it, they live in the arse-end of the most hideous part of the world, while the elves and humans get to live in freaking tourism ads made real)...and then all of a sudden, Sauron comes back. Not as a physical being, just as this sort of vague, whispering corruption that says to the orcs, "I can give you more..."

And that sounds awesome. Sauron's talking about crushing the hoity-toity elves, giving them real lands where they can raise their children tall and proud, letting them run free in the beauteous lands of Middle-Earth...all of the orcish leaders are telling everyone it's a great idea. They're making big speeches about the destiny of the orcish race finally having arrived, promising great things...

But it doesn't escape everyone's notice that in practice, this amounts to vast numbers of orcs being funneled directly into the path of a freaking human wood-chipper named Aragorn and his two buddies, who make jokes about their orc-slaying competition. And so some of the orcs start to say, "Hey, whoa, wait a second. Mordor sucks, but at least it doesn't involve me being spitted on a lance by the Riders of Rohan."

Needless to say, that's when things get nasty. You get orcish secret police, mutiny, dissent, coups, counter-coups, and behind it all, the voice of Sauron, always whispering, always searching, always plotting...I think it could be a lot of fun as a story.

I mentioned it to an actual Tolkien fan once. Turns out there are, um...issues with the idea, canonically speaking.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Storytelling Engines: DC Comics Presents

(or "Too Good?")

At first glance...and, to be honest, at last glance, "DC Comics Presents" seems to be one of those truly excellent storytelling engines. It's another team-up book, one of a long line of "Popular Hero X Teams Up With A Different Hero Every Month" books; this time, it's Superman who gets the regular spot in the line-up, teaming up with a rotating list of DC heroes from the famous to the obscure.

And Superman really is the best possible hero for that slot in some ways; after all, we've seen anti-social heroes like Batman and Spider-Man in team-up books, and gruff-but-loveable curmudgeons like the Thing take the spotlight as well. Always, any storytelling engine built around the team-up as its central concept has to find answers to the question, "Why is this hero teaming up with someone else?" And really, nobody has an easier answer to that than Superman. He's the quintessential hero's hero, the guy who everyone can count on and who's always happy to help. When he sees the Metal Men duking it out with Chemo, you can bet he'll swoop in to lend a hand. When the Flash investigates a mysterious spacecraft outside of a small Midwestern town, you can figure that Superman's already on the case too. There are a fairly limited number of plot hooks to get two super-heroes to team up, and Superman is an easy fit on almost all of them.

That's right, almost. Because there's one classic way of getting two heroes to cross paths in a team-up book that doesn't fit Superman, and that's at cross-purposes. (See how clever that was? Oh, I amaze myself sometimes.) When you have a hero like Spider-Man, who's fundamentally decent but misunderstood, or a hero like Batman, who's fundamentally decent but spiky and intense, you can legitimately solve the story problem of "how does he meet this week's guest star?" by having this week's guest star blame him for the acts of this week's villain, and watching the sparks fly. (Super-hero fights are a little like catfights. They're tacky and cliche, but a lot more people love watching them than are willing to admit it.)

But Superman? He's way too nice for that sort of thing. They try it in the opening story-arc, pitting him against the Flash in a race through time (not against time, through it--this is the Bronze Age, where casual time travel was a monthly thing at DC) to catch up to an alien time traveler who was trying to change history. Supposedly, the two heroes were on opposing sides...but all Superman needed to do was explain his point of view, and the Flash said, "How can I help?" It's not exactly the source of tension and plot complications that a writer needs to find on a monthly basis.

Of course, there is always the old standby, mind control, and sure enough, Superman does wind up mixing it up with a few heroes while under the influence of villains like Killer Frost. But for the most part, while having a goody-goody like Superman opens up a lot of options for a team-up book like "DC Comics Presents", his very niceness closes one off.