Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Marvel/DC Crossover

Everyone remembers these things, right? Back in the 90s, when somehow the editorial staffs of both companies were just so mellow towards each other that they were like, "Sure, let's do two Batman/Punisher crossovers! And a Green Lantern/Silver Surfer, and a Superman/FF, and a couple of 'everyone gets together and pounds the snot out of everyone else' crossovers...why the heck not, these things are a license to print money!"

That Golden Era is pretty much over now (which is a shame just for the lack of new Amalgam titles--'Lobo the Duck' alone was worth the entire existence of that concept.) Marvel and DC are pretty much at loggerheads, scrapping for the title of "#1 Comics Company", and the last inter-company crossover was about five years ago now (and arguably, that only got made because George Perez made it a personal crusade to get it done.) So sad to say, my idea for a new Marvel/DC crossover will have to remain here, in this blog. Which doesn't mean you don't want to hear it, right? (er, right?)

It's a typical day in the Marvel and DC universes (a typical pre-Civil War, pre-Final Crisis Day), and Spidey's swinging through mid-town Manhattan and Superman's flying through Metropolis and everything's right in the world...or at least as right as things usually get in a comic-book world, because as usual, super-villains pop up and scheme their usual schemes. The Joker has a plan to plant laughing gas bombs in City Hall, the Rhino is robbing a bank, Doctor Octopus is stealing some scientific equipment from STAR Labs...

"Hang on a second," our reader says. "STAR Labs?" Because that's the trick of it. The readers realize it just before the characters do, but all the villains are in the wrong universe. The Joker's wondering who this newcomer is that's got the funky goo coming out of his wrists, the Rhino's wondering why his strongest punches don't hurt the guy in the blue long-johns, and in short, the heroes are right where they should be, but the villains aren't.

There'd be a bunch of one-shots set around the main story of issue #1, telling self-contained stories about heroes confronting these out-of-place villains. So you'd get a "Superman Vs. Juggernaut" one-shot, a "Hulk Vs. Doomsday" one-shot, a "Spider-Man Vs. the Joker" one-shot, a "Batman Vs. the Green Goblin" one-shot, et cetera et cetera et cetera. (Well, as many "et ceteras" as the market would bear, but come on, everyone has to have their own dream fight for this. Captain America vs. Kobra? Wonder Woman battles the Red Skull? The possibilities are endless...)

While the heroes are all off dealing with the various crises and catastrophes caused by panicky villains wreaking havoc, it falls to Doom to investigate the reason for it all. He finds that Darkseid has captured Access on Apokalips (Access is a character who can travel back and forth between the Marvel and DC universes freely, as established all the way back in the original "DC Vs. Marvel" crossover), and has hooked him up to a machine that exists in both the Marvel and DC universes, one that forces Access to use his powers. The machine is being looked after by Thanos, who has teamed up with Darkseid (they've been communicating through Access, natch.) It turns out that after Darkseid tried to use the Infinity Gems in the DC Universe and failed (because they're a Marvel artifact, with no power in the DC Universe--this comes from "JLA/Avengers"), he got to thinking...if the Infinity Gems are the most powerful relic in the Marvel Universe, but they have no power in DC's universe, what if there were counterparts that acted the opposite way? And what if those counterparts were disposed of at some point in the history of the DC Universe by some do-gooder like Access who could travel back and forth? And how powerful might those artifacts be if someone were to bring them back?

Darkseid and Thanos decided to test that theory. In order to keep the heroes out of the way, they swapped over a bunch of other villains at the same time as their own switch (Darkseid is now running around in the Marvel Universe, Thanos in DC.) Now they're hunting down the artifacts--Thanos is searching for the Infinity Gems, something he has a lot of experience with, while Darkseid is searching out the Eternity Spheres. Some of the cosmic heroes (the Green Lanterns, the Silver Surfer, et cetera) tweak to the plan and go after them, but it is, after all, Darkseid and Thanos we're talking about here, two master schemers with unbelievable power. They don't manage to get the complete sets of their respective artifacts, but they get enough to make them more powerful than ever before.

And then Doom steals them. Because he is, after all, Doom.

Doom uses his newfound power to siphon off the Omega Sanction, taking it for his own. He grabs the Power Cosmic, snatches the energies of the Central Power Battery--in short, he starts going on a rampage, draining away all the power sources of both universes and using them to bolster his own. The collective heroes of both universes now know about the threat and have united to defeat it, but can they?

Hell yes. A strike force of heroes breaks Access out of the machine, while a team of the greatest scientists of both universes builds a device that will super-charge the efficiency of Superman's solar-collecting physique. Once they've perfected it, Access merges Superman and Captain America to recreate Super-Soldier, the Amalgam character who combines the tactical and strategic combat skills of Cap with Superman's powers, and they hook him up to the device. He turns jet black as his body absorbs every erg of light that strikes it, giving him more power than ever and letting him go toe to toe with even a cosmically super-charged and insane Doom. They fight, the good guys win, and Access returns everyone to their own reality and goes off to have a long think about how dangerous he can be to the universe if he falls into the wrong hands.

And meanwhile, the Gems and the Spheres drift off, scattered by the fight...but scattered to which universe?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Mystery Science Theater 3000

(or "No, I Won't Compare It To 'Savage Sword Of Conan'")

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' (and 'The Film Crew' and 'Cinematic Titanic', its spiritual heirs) has a luxury that a lot of series don't possess; it doesn't really need a storytelling engine at all. The core of the concept is "comedians delivering a humorous commentary track to an existing movie", and Rifftrax shows that deep down, that alone is enough to deliver entertainment value. The extraneous elements--the sketches, the characters, the rationale for making fun of cheesy (and not-so-cheesy) movies--all that is just icing on the cake. This means that, since it doesn't necessarily have to carry the series every time, the writers of the series can and have tinkered with their storytelling engine quite a bit over the years--sometimes out of necessity, sometimes just to improve the comedy.

When it started, MST3K had a fairly involved backstory (much of which never made it to the screen.) Joel Robinson and Clayton Forrester both worked at Gizmonics Institute, a sort of "not quite mad science" university where people greeted each other by showing off their latest inventions. (Yes, that's what the Invention Exchange is supposed to be every week.) Doctor Forrester and his fellow scientist Dr. Laurence "Larry" Erhardt went renegade, hiding in a self-made secret lair called "Deep 13" and deciding to conquer the world by inflicting bad movies on people until they begged for mercy. Forrester chose Joel as his test subject, based primarily on an irrational dislike of him, and shot him into space to begin the experiment. Joel, in turn, built a series of robots out of non-essential bits of the ship to keep him company.

So that's the dynamic at the start of the series. Two mad scientist buddies on Earth, and Joel as the slightly-bemused father figure to a trio of wise-cracking robots (plus Cambot, who never talks, and Magic Voice, who doesn't have a body.) Fairly simple, but you can already see room for improvement. Doctor Erhardt doesn't really have much to distinguish him from Doctor Forrester, and there's a certain "comedy villain" dynamic that they're struggling to establish; the villain has to be evil enough to be credible as a villain, but can't actually succeed because failure is funny.

Luckily, necessity became the mother of invention as J. Elvis Weinstein, the actor playing Erhardt, left after the first season. Frank Conniff replaced him as "TV's Frank", and in so doing provided Doctor Forrester with exactly what every comedy mad scientist needs--a bumbling assistant. This freed Doctor Forrester up to become the cartoonishly evil mad scientist he needed to be for the success of the series, because Frank could foil his schemes through his sheer incompetence in carrying them out. (Why doesn't Doctor Forrester find a better lackey? Just repeat to yourself it's just a show...)

This dynamic continues through Seasons Two, Three, Four, and part of Five, and proves to be an extraordinarily stable generator of comedy sketch ideas. The robots settle into their personalities fairly quickly (Tom as pompous blowhard, Crow as exuberant man-child, Gypsy as the seemingly dim-witted one who actually has all the common sense), and the whole thing runs quite smoothly...

Until Joel Hodgson, series co-creator and the actor playing Joel Robinson, decides to leave the series. Suddenly, they're without a human host, and without a key part of the dynamic--Joel is the principal foil for the Mads, he's essential to the rationale for the series, and he acts as an authority figure to the bots (which paradoxically allows them to act out more, not less--having Joel there to put the brakes on their antics means that they can constantly push those boundaries themselves.) The series obviously needs another host, but the exact mix of elements Joel provides is irreplaceable. So how do you solve this?

Enter Mike Nelson,, Mike Nelson. Mike trades in Joel's slightly-bemused father figure role for a completely bewildered bachelor uncle, or perhaps older brother...he didn't build the bots, he's not an authority figure--or at least not one they're willing to consistently recognize. His efforts to assert some form of control over the rebellious bots, and his frequent failure (because failure is funny) becomes the new dynamic and source of comedy for the rest of the series. This gives the Mike episodes a slightly "edgier" tone, because Joel isn't there to act as a brake on the darker comedy and Mike can't fill that role, but it's nothing you can't see shades of when you look back at the older material.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Frank Conniff leaves the series, to be replaced by Mary Jo Pehl as Doctor Forrester's mother, Pearl. Pearl doesn't work very well as a second banana, for the same reasons that made her so entertaining as an occasional guest star; she's the next place up on the food chain, the figure that makes Doctor Forrester feel just as helpless and incompetent as he makes Frank feel. With her in place, suddenly he looks like the bumbling sidekick, and if there's one thing a series can't have, it's confusion as to who's the lead villain and who's the lackey.

But after six episodes (Season Seven was quite short), Trace Beaulieu bows out and Pearl becomes the lead villain. They introduce not one, but two sidekicks for her--Professor Bobo, who begins as an intelligent ape scientist but who loses about fifty IQ points an episode (because bumbling sidekicks are funnier, see above) and Observer, who actually fulfills the role of "smart, competent villain" but clearly takes his orders from Pearl (this is known, in some circles, as the "Jeeves and Wooster" comedy dynamic.) It's this final model that runs through the last three seasons of the series.

All these are mainly just variations on a theme, but it's interesting to note which variations find their rhythm and which get tinkered with over the course of the series. As the subsequent direct-to-DVD series (again, 'The Film Crew' and 'Cinematic Titanic', both very worthy successors to the original) show, vast chunks of the concept can be changed, added, or jettisoned while still retaining a good comedy dynamic ('The Film Crew' takes a mix of bored office-workers in a sinecure job and friends doing some male-bonding over a bad movie, while 'Cinematic Titanic' has vaguely conspiratorial overtones as Joel and friends reunite to save bad movies for posterity.) The core of the series, when done well, is always so vital and entertaining that the fans can enjoy a little experimentation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The "Hidden" Theme of 'The Empty Child'

I actually hesitate to write this little analysis of the Doctor Who Series One two-parter, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances", because it's something that seems so obvious to me that I feel kind of condescending pointing it out. But everyone has their own little blind spots, and it's entirely possible that you could be a brilliant person with great critical analysis skills and insightful recognition of themes and still manage to miss the subtext of the story--which can be summed up with the sentence, "Doctor Who is the best show on television."

The two-parter is probably now best known for introducing Captain Jack Harkness, frequent Doctor Who companion and guest star and central cast member of the spin-off, "Torchwood". Captain Jack is a ladies' man (and a man's man as well), a swift-thinking con artist, a crack shot and a debonair man about town. In general, he's exactly the kind of character you'd expect to see go from a one-off guest star to a recurring character to a series lead. But the fact that this actually happened misses a key point--Moffat was taking the piss when he came up with him.

Essentially, Captain Jack is a "Hollywoodized" version of the Doctor himself, Moffat's vision of what the character would be like if all of the quirky, eccentric edges of the character were smoothed away by slick studio executives trying to make him more "marketable". Instead of being a "Doctor", he's a "Captain". Instead of being an almost-asexual alien, he's a sexy, suave human. Instead of having a time machine that looks like an antiquated British phone booth, he's got a sleek futuristic timeship (with a "cloaking device" instead of a "chameleon circuit".) He's even got a "sonic cannon"! He's everything you'd expect a sci-fi hero to be.

He's certainly everything Rose expects a sci-fi hero to be. in the first half of the story, he "scans for alien tech", he strides around boldly zapping things with his sonic cannon, and he charms her with his debonair, Captain Kirk-esque sexuality. Next to him, Christopher Eccleston's big-eared, big-nosed Doctor, who apparently looked at his screwdriver one night and decided it needed to be a little more "sonic", looks frumpy and goofy and generally not the kind of guy who gets his own series.

But in the second half, we see what the Doctor does that Jack doesn't (and what "Doctor Who" does that other sci-fi series only make a half-hearted pretense at.) He thinks. Underneath the scares (and this one has plenty), Moffat's been carefully concealing a fact about the Monster of the Week; it has a reason for everything it does. It's not just wandering around converting people into gas-mask zombies, it's following Nancy. "Are you my Mummy?" isn't just the catch-phrase of the week, it's the desperate question of a frightened child. The Doctor doesn't save the day with a well-timed punch or a zap from a ray gun, he saves it by figuring out what's going on and fixing it with kindness, compassion, and a heroic regard for human life. ("Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!") While Jack, for all his swift-thinking con artistry, remains about six steps behind the Doctor the entire time. ("Like I said, I was there. Once. There's a banana grove there now. I like bananas.")

And in the end, when Jack makes his noble and heroic self-sacrifice, right out of the classic sci-fi mold, there's the Doctor, materializing on his sleek timeship with his clunky old TARDIS and saving the ostensible hero--and deflating his slightly-pompous death speech to boot. The Doctor, for all his "unsexiness", is the one who knows how to dance.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Mummy"

(or "Works In Theory")

The five movies that form Universal's original "Mummy" series--hang on. Let's break this down properly. There are actually three "Mummy" series from Universal, with similar but not contiguous continuity. First, there's the original film starring Boris Karloff, in which the reanimated Imhotep uses Egyptian magic to seek out his reincarnated lover, Ankh-es-en-amon, and to punish those who stand in his way. Then, there's a collection of four films ("The Mummy's Hand", "Tomb", "Ghost", and "Curse", respectively) which follow Kharis, who shares an identical backstory to Imhotep but was reanimated not by magic, but by a drug brewed by the priests of Karnak (or Arkam in the later films.) Kharis guards the tomb of Ankara, who is essentially Ankh-es-en-amon but who doesn't get reincarnated until about halfway through the series. He uses no Egyptian magic, simply physical strength and invulnerability to kill those who would defile the tombs of Egypt. Finally, there's the 1999-2008 version, which uses Imhotep and his love for Anck-su-namun, but gives him terrifying supernatural powers and turns the secret order of priests from the second franchise into his jailers, rather than his masters.

Got all that?

So, now we can talk about this properly. The first "Mummy" series that actually has a storytelling engine is the second franchise. (The Karloff film, while excellent, is entirely self-contained.) In the tradition established by Universal's other franchises, unfortunately, the studio spent less time and effort on them as the series went on. Monster movie fans, it was felt, would attend solely on the strength of the title and Lon Chaney's presence as Kharis--why work hard on a script, pay high-end actors, and establish good production values? With the exception of "Hand", these films are exercises in plodding boredom, barely even livened up by the frequent murders the slow-moving mummy commits, and the stories are lazy and disinterested.

But the storytelling engine is quite different. Egypt already has numerous tropes and a certain mystique that makes it a natural setting for a series. Then the idea of a secret order of priests that has infiltrated every level of Egyptian society, consumed with the idea of getting vengeance on a Western society that defiled their tombs and made off with their treasures--and an order that can re-animate the dead, no less? That's a rock-solid basis for at least one movie all on its own. The idea that their champion is kept alive as much by love for his long-dead Ankara as by the sacred tana leaves, and that he longs to drink enough of the heady brew to cast off the shackles of the priests' control and decide his own destiny? That's a tension that can build off of the priests of Arkam and come to a head in later stories. Then, adding to that all, we have Ankara herself, who's in a new body with a new life and who may or may not be willing to go back to the half-decomposed Kharis, and as the heroes--a two-fisted archaeologist, his street-wise Brooklyn buddy, their stage-magician business partner "The Great Solvini", and Solvini's daughter, a spunky trick-shot expert with a short fuse and a crush on the archaeologist. (The biggest mistake the series made was in getting rid of these characters in the last three movies.)

This is the engine behind the franchise, and it's a potentially great one. Arguably, Kharis would be a more compelling enemy if he could talk, and he might want to be a bit less, um...shambly...if he wants to be menacing, but those are minor changes. The point is, just because bad stories were told using this storytelling engine doesn't mean it's a bad engine.

The 1999 remake borrows liberally from all five previous films (with expert skill--the remake is almost a distillation of every good idea in the preceding movies)...but what's odd about it is that its sequels ("The Mummy Returns", "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor", two Scorpion King flicks, and a short-lived animated series) confuse the series' mythos with its storytelling engine. All of the later installments focused on Imhotep, Anck-su-namun, their ancient adversaries, the order of priests, other mummies that might happen to be in the vicinity...while the actual storytelling engine is simply, "two-fisted treasure hunter and spunky researcher seek out supernatural evils alongside her ne'er-do-well brother, all done in an 'action-comedy' tone." In the final iteration of the "Mummy" storytelling engine, the actual mummy, while brilliantly done, isn't necessary to the storytelling engine at all. Sometimes what you get on the screen isn't actually a representation of the potential of the series.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Terrible Pun of the Day

If Gollum hadn't accidentally bitten the ring off of Frodo's finger and fallen into Mount Doom with it, isn't it entirely possible that Frodo could have conquered the whole world, simply through force of hobbit?

(I'm not sure it's entirely fair to put the humor tag on this one...)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Creature From the Black Lagoon

(or "The Perils Of A Really Good Costume")

Realistically speaking, Universal's "classic" horror/sci-fi movie "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" isn't any better or worse than the dozens of cheap B-movies churned out in the 1950s. In fact, it's awfully difficult to tell it apart from its many competitors--a bunch of scientists go exploring a distant part of the world looking to find the truth behind a mysterious legend, and have interminably long debates over the ethics of their profession while a monster lurks in the background, jumping out whenever a good scare is needed. Eventually, the monster is defeated, and the survivors return to civilization. Back in the days when big movie studios had standing sets and actors under contract, you could whip out two or three of these a week and slap 'em together as drive-in double features. (With a much better "A-movie" as the draw, which is where the term "B-movie" came from, for those of you who didn't know.)

But "Creature" has come to be regarded as a high point of the genre, whereas films like "The Deadly Mantis", "Beginning of the End", and "The Mole People" have not. More germane to this column, it's gotten two sequels ("Revenge of the Creature" and "The Creature Walks Among Us"), while "Them" and "The Thing" did not. Why?

Well, the less-important (but immediately obvious) reason is that Universal is very good at marketing. Instead of showing the films once at the drive-in and then letting them die a quiet death, they re-packaged them dozens of times over the years for revival in theaters and on TV sets. For well over thirty years, right up until the age of home video began, young monster fans thought of the Creature as part of an extended horror family that included Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. (In fact, Remco produced a line of exactly that in the early 1980s, adding in the Phantom of the Opera for good measure.) Nostalgia and the collective appeal of the complete Universal package helped the Creature stick in people's minds long after many of its contemporaries have faded away into the mists of time, remembered only by dedicated horror fans and watchers of "Mystery Science Theater 3000".

But the more important reason was that costume. Bud Westmore's stunning creation still holds up today as one of the best monster costumes ever, a somehow natural-looking mix of fish, lizard and amphibian that looks just as good in the close-ups as it does in the long shots. Ricou Browning's swimming skills make it look fantastic and graceful underwater (to the point where you assume that the Creature's misshapen back must hide a scuba tank under the costume, but in fact Browning was just excellent at holding his breath for the long periods necessary to get the extended takes.) And on land, Ben Chapman (aided by ten-pound weights in his boots) gives the Creature a graceless lumber that makes it really feel like a fish out of water. The mix of stellar acting, swimming, and costuming makes the Creature a spectacular monster, genuinely memorable to the point where a sequel was inevitable.

Which is a huge problem, because there's no storytelling engine there. (See? I do actually remember what these columns are about.) As I said, plot-wise, "Creature From the Black Lagoon" is just your bog-standard 50s monster movie. It's almost a cookie-cutter formula. You could do a sequel that repeats the formula ("Hey, let's go down there and see what those other scientists were talking about!") but that's not a storytelling engine. A storytelling engine is designed to give writers help in coming up with stories that aren't mere repetitions of the previous film (or book, TV episode, comic, or what have you.) A formula reduces every installment to interchangeability.

The series does try, though. "Revenge of the Creature" takes the next logical step, by having the next group of scientists succeed in bringing the Creature (which they call "the Gill Man", but I think that name is too stupid to use more than once) back to civilization. I somehow doubt that the Creature would actually be put on display at Sea World if that were to happen, and I think that John Agar's "Hey, let's see if we can teach the Creature to obey simple commands by giving it powerful electric shocks!" plan would be rejected in favor of actual science, but it is one of the few directions you can go with the story.

The third movie, "The Creature Walks Among Us", shows just how hard it is to come up with any more places to go beyond that, as this one is about scientists who capture the Creature and experiment on him to allow him to breathe air. (In order to prove some point about, you know, evolution and stuff.) Unfortunately, on land and with a radically-altered costume, the Creature loses most of his appeal and the movie peters out, focusing more on a pseudo-love triangle between a jealous scientist and a "dashing" sea captain who's after the scientist's wife.

And then nothing. It's not that the series closes off all opportunities for a sequel in the third movie; it ends with the Creature heading back to the ocean, either to drown with its air-breathing lungs, or to survive with gills that may be healed enough to be useful. The problem is, either way, there are no more stories to be told. The Creature is, fundamentally, an animal. It's not supernatural, it doesn't prey on mankind unless humans intrude on its territory, it just wants to swim and be left alone. There's really only so much you can do with a central figure like that, and the "Creature trilogy" has done it all. And arguably, it only did the last two movies because people really wanted to see more of Ricou Browning swimming around in that costume.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Insane Comics Moments, Part Five

Wonder Woman in the 60s. Really, I could probably just stop there, since the entire series was one long non-stop cavalcade of sheer wall-to-wall insanity, but let's just go ahead and narrow it down to a single issue that could probably sum up the madness that was Bob Kanigher's take on the character. Trust me, though, when I say that they were all like this.

Issue #135 (January 1963) featured Wonder Woman, her own teenaged self ("Wonder Girl") and herself as a small child of three or four ("Wonder Tot") all together with their mom on Paradise Island like siblings. No time travel necessary, here--Kanigher just labeled it an "impossible tale" and left it at that. She's hanging out with her own past selves pretty much because the readers wanted to see it. Suck it, continuity!

She picks out a letter from one of her many fans (Wonder Woman Words of Wisdom #1: "Nothing could be fairer than to select the first letter that fly alights on as the winner!") and takes that teenage girl, Carol, and her dog to visit Paradise Island as a gift. But first, she makes her a new dress out of her drapes! No, really. This actually happens in the issue. Carol's dress gets wrecked by the dog, so Wonder Woman just rips the drapes right off the window and sews them into a new dress at super-speed. Carol is thrilled to head off to Paradise Island after that, presumably because she wants to get Wonder Woman the hell out of her house before she decides to turn other parts of the furnishings into little craft projects. ("Look--I made paper dolls out of your carpet!")

Then, while passing a volcano, Carol comments that Wonder Woman's invisible plane obeys her every command "like magic!" To which WW responds, "The magic of science, Carol!" This is bitterly ironic, given that less than ten issues earlier Kanigher had explained that Wonder Woman's plane was made when a magical cloud turned a flying horse into an invisible airplane. But she goes on to explain that little computers in the plane make it obey Wonder Woman and only Wonder Woman, just like even smaller computers in the lasso do the same thing! (Those of you going, "Huh?!?!?!?" should probably take a little break from reading this. It doesn't get any better.)

Unfortunately, Carol's daytrip to Paradise is spoiled by Multiple Man--no, not that Multiple Man, the DC one. He can turn into anything, and today he's decided to become a huge ice giant and freeze Paradise Island. Luckily, Wonder Woman, Girl, Tot, and their collective mom break free of the ice, and Wonder Woman figures out that she can stop him by throwing the volcano at him.

Yes, she picks up a volcano with her lasso and throws it at him.

Let me just repeat that: She throws a volcano. (At one point, this was really just going to be the only sentence of the whole recap.)

This melts Multiple Man, but he reforms by turning himself into a giant metal ball that rolls along the ocean floor and rams the base of Paradise Island, causing earthquakes. Luckily, having numerous Wonder Females around proves handy in a crisis, and Wonder Tot saves Carol and her dog before finding the metal ball and hurling it into space. I'd point out the terrifying physical strength needed for a three-year-old to chuck a ball of solid metal some two hundred times her size all the way out of Earth's gravitational pull, but after the whole volcano throwing incident it just doesn't seem like there's much point.

Naturally, at that point Multiple Man turns into a swarm of flaming meteors and rains back down on Paradise Island (if you're expecting some explanation of Multiple Man's motives for dicking with the Amazons, brother, are you reading the wrong comic.) Wonder Girl cools the meteors down with a handy iceberg that happens to be nearby (I'd go into questions about what part of the world has volcanic islands and lone icebergs floating around in otherwise open sea, but again, "throws a volcano") while Carol flirts with Wonder Girl's boyfriend, Mer-Boy. Wonder Girl should probably remember this for the time in her life when she becomes Wonder Woman. Then again, maybe she did. Maybe that was why she decided to dress Carol up in an outfit that could blend into the wallpaper.

After defeating Multiple Man once and for all, they dress Carol up in scuba gear and take her to visit Mer-Boy as she requests (the hussy!) But they all fall afoul of Multiple Man's latest form, a giant clam with a giant pearl inside it! And by "fall afoul", I mean "all spot the pearl and decide to climb inside, all together, to get a closer look at it." Really, did this even need to be Multiple Man's latest form for it to be a bad idea? Is it ever a good idea to all try "clam-stuffing" as your next college prank? (The clear answer is "no", as going up to any college girl and explaining that you want to try "clam-stuffing" with her is bound to get you slapped.)

Luckily, Wonder Woman's lasso was dangling outside the clam, and so she commands it to wrap around the clam tight enough to crush its shell (remember how she said that her lasso obeyed her voice, an ability it has never displayed before or since? Yes, it's all coming together now...) After being freed,, pretty much they only have two panels left, so there's one panel of the clam bits washing away in the current, and one panel of bringing Carol home. Why this particular tactic proved to be devastating to Multiple Man, or whether Carol ever got more chances to two-time with Wonder Girl's boyfriend, is left up to the reader. Carol tells her friends that the tale of how she wound up hanging up with Wonder Woman is, quote, "some story!"

It sure is, Bob Kanigher. It sure is.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Wolf Man"

(or "The Score Stands At 4-1")

If you were to look at a single common thread that ties together the storytelling engines of the Universal horror movies, it would probably be that none of them were ever intended to be continuing series. Watching the end of 'The Wolf Man', you could be forgiven for thinking that a sequel would be utterly impossible--the movie ends with Larry Talbot being bludgeoned to death with a silver-handled cane, the exact same fate he deals out to the werewolf that bit him to begin with. (It's hard to feel a whole lot for Larry, who's a bit too slimy to really be sympathetic, but the stricken look on the face of Claude Rains when he realizes that the beast he killed is his son speaks volumes.)

And yet, legendary writer Curt Siodmak was pressed into the unenviable task of turning this one-off film into a series. Oh, and would it be too much trouble to work the Frankenstein Monster (and later, Dracula) in as well? (Thankfully, he wasn't also given the task of figuring out a way to fit Abbott and Costello in there too.)

There's really only one direction you can go from the end of 'The Wolf Man', and it's to Siodmak's immeasurable credit that he doesn't shy away from it in order to placate delicate sensibilities. If your lead character died at the end of the last movie, and yet is alive at the start of this movie, well, then he has to be immortal. (The opening sequence of 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man', where grave robbers crack open Talbot's tomb to find his perfectly-preserved body, is a classic.) And if you're immortal, and you also happen to turn into a vicious killing machine three nights a month,'re going to wish you could die. For those of you who think that entertainment in the 40s was more genteel and wholesome, picture watching five movies about a guy whose fondest wish is suicide. Because the alternative is mass murder.

The problem with this as a storytelling engine is that it's a classic "false status quo". No matter whether he's wishing for death (as in 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man') or a cure (as in 'House of Frankenstein' or 'House of Dracula'), he's doomed to never get what he wants, because if he did there'd be no more Wolf Man to make movies about. He gets his longed-for death four times (by silver, flood, silver, and a plunge into icy waters) and a cure once (via an exotic fungus that makes his skull soft and squishy like Play-Doh so that scientists can mold it into a shape that won't squish his brain, because pressure on the brain is what turns people into werewolves...look, the later Universal movies don't make a whole lot of sense, all right?) But none of it ever takes.

This is actually pretty common in "werewolf" series, but most of them give themselves a little leeway by finding ways to make the bestial side just sympathetic enough that the transformation isn't an unalloyed curse. But again, Siodmak's uncompromising take on the werewolf mythos (while working excellently for a single story) is a little hard on a series. His Wolf Man is pure sadistic killer. All you can do with such a beast is...well, all right, you can lock him up during the full moon to keep him away from random innocent people, but Talbot's kind of a "big picture" guy, OK? He's a bit busy trying to die to worry about the little details.

Later writers (such as Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman and Roger Zelazny) have used the Talbot character in one way or another in their stories. Usually, they've adapted the character slightly to the needs of a workable storytelling engine, as well as to their own personal tastes; the post-movie Talbot seems to have grown past his need for death, and accepted his curse of occasionally-hirsute immortality as an opportunity to battle other supernatural monsters. This tiny change turns a difficult-but-workable storytelling engine into a compelling one, and it'd be very interesting to see what could be done with such an idea on the big screen once again.

Oh, come on. A high-budget open-ended series of new "Wolf Man" movies, masterminded by Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison--I can dream, can't I?