Monday, March 30, 2009

On the interest payments of Fame, and the rise of a young man from North Carolina

I used to watch a lot of the game shows as a kid. I can still scat the theme song from The Better Sex, and could probably remember at least several of the villains' names from the Gauntlet on Whew! I spent a great majority of my young life thinking that the stars of Match Game and other game shows were famous solely for being on game shows. I was new to the ways of fame, and had not been alerted to the concept of "coasting", where you do something great early in your career and are able to eat out on it for the rest of your life. Steve Wozniak does not have to do anything else ever for the rest of his life - the man was one of two Steves who created the personal computer business. I'll go so far as to say he was the more important Steve. Bill Gates should call him at regular intervals, just say "Thank you" and hang up. Legacy achieved, mission accomplished.

So why, I ask you why, is he on Dancing With the Stars?

Because people like to be on television. Maybe he got sick of the fact that the other Steve was getting all the face time, and got mentioned as "founder of Apple" and not "CO-Founder of Apple" one too many times.
"You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." 
-Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman), To Die For
It wasn't until years later that I started to catch reruns of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and saw Charles Nelson Reilly, and I thought, "Oh, OK, HERE'S what he was famous for". He showed up on Lidsville, and Uncle Croc's Block and a raft of other shows, and I realized, OK, you can be famous for more than one thing.

So I learned about a lot of people careers backwards. I'd see them now, and then see them then, and find the Now performance even more impressive. The aforequoted Nicole Kidman film changed my opinion of her as an actress as well.

And then there was A Face In The Crowd.

I knew Andy Griffith (as did the rest of planet Earth and at least two districts of the Moon) as the star of his eponymous TV show, more recently as the underappreciated Salvage 1, and a fine performer in his own right. As I started to hear more of his stand-up act on Dr. Demento, I realized he had a bit more of an edge to him. Public television got a copy of the original live performance of No Time for Sargeants, the play that really launched his career. It was more in line with the character in Andy Griffith (thought ironically, far more in common with the spinoff show and Jim Nabors vehicle Gomer Pyle, USMC) but still had some cynicism in the writing. I saw the film they made years later, but found it lacking in comparison to the kinescope performance I saw before.

But the manipulative power-mad media darling he played in FitC just blew me away.

Griffith plays Larry Rhodes, who is dubbed "Lonesome" Rhodes by radio programmer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who finds him in a local jail and asks him to sing for her radio show. He has natural charm and charisma, and after a witty monologue and performance, gets a job doing their morning show. His popularity with housewives skyrockets, and he jumps from local radio to television in a twinkling. He makes fun of his sponsor, a mattress manufacturer; quite the common ploy now, but anathema in those days. Only when does the sponsor realize his sales have risen with Lonesome's fame does he allow it to continue.

At this point things begin to accelerate for Rhodes. An office boy in the sponsoring mattress company, Joey DePalma (Finder of Lost Loves himself, Anthony Franciosa) makes a few calls to New York, alerting the major advertising agencies of the events, and informs them that Rhodes is accepting offers. He is whisked to New York and given a national program.

As this occurs, Rhodes starts to realize the power he now wields. His camera-side personality is as affable as ever, but behind the camera he becomes rude and demanding to his friends (for lack of a better term) and staff, including the ever-hopeful-she'll-be-noticed Marcia.
His downfall comes with the simple turn of a knob, and his reaction to it is truly astounding to behold. He gives a Nuremberg-like speech to his empty apartment, with his eager hanger-on running the canned appluase machine.

Walter Matthau plays a writer for Lonesome, and his self-loathing for his job and his career is a cynical counterpoint to the joy and excitement everyone else feels about being in such a fun industry.

The film is a savage attack on the "personality machine" of the entertainment industry, creating stars and dropping them as soon as they get a little taint on them. It has never stopped being contemporary and identifiable.

Citizen Kane wasn't supposed to be any one publishing mogul, but you couldn't help but assume it was Hearst. So too here, while the film wasn't intended to portray any one media star, the one he drew the most parallels to is Radio and TV star Arthur Godfrey, who made a name for himself with his ukelele, his pleasant accent and his gentle skewering of his sponsors. But the amazing thing is, no matter what era of television or radio you grew up on, there's a personality you would SWEAR they based old Lonesome on.

This film is well over 50 years old. It is still as telling about the entertainment industry now as it was then. The only difference is we know more about what total cocknecks the stars are now, and we don't care.

If Lonesome Rhodes were around today, he would certainly appear on Dancing With The Stars.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On the return of an old friend who was sorely missed.

As much as I ADORE Pushing Daisies, I am soooo happy to see Bryan Fuller back on Heroes.

He made his return to the series during the production of last week's episode, and wrote this week's installment, "Cold Snap". In one week, the show is back on track.

I haven't gotten actively excited about the show in months. This is is the first time in longer yet that I was actively talking back to the screen. This woman at work and I used to get together Tuesday morning and go over the episode, chatting about what happened, who did what, real watercooler stuff. She got laid off a couple months back, and this is the first day i actively missed her because it's the first time in I don't know how long that I actively wanted to talk about the episode.

Bryan Fuller is the diseased maniac behind the aforementioned delight Pushing Daisies, the great missed opportunity Wonderfalls and basic cable darling Dead Like Me. He was responsible for possibly the best episode of Heroes to date ("Company Man") and was widely considered the show's heart. Now that ABC lost faith in Daisies, his dance card was open again and he was welcomed back to Heroes with open arms.

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

He hit the ground running. "Cold Snap" got all the problems the show had been having out of the way like a fast gun of the gas pedal will blow all the buildup out of your engine with a frightening "KA-BLOWWWW!"

First off, no more Poor Powerless Hiro trying to live vicariously through Ando, who had a power that didn't quite make sense to the average user. Thanks to Matt Parkman Jr's new ability to "activate" things, Hiro's got the ability to stop time back. Alas, like Peter Petrelli, he's been nerfed, as he can't (yet) teleport through time and space, but at least he's back on the board. Yes, we get that you can be a hero without powers, but now that he knows that, leaving him without powers was just annoying.

Similarly, Ando, whose power was to be able to buff other Abilities, himself got buffed, as he can now hurl bolts of power. How did it happen? Who knows, who cares? He touched himself, maybe. (Oh, grow up...)

Secondly, after weeks of Matt Parkman (Senior) pining after Daphne like a little puppy, Fuller finally made the relationship worth something, just in time to take it away. Brilliant scene. Damn close to tearing up.

Similarly, Nikki (Ali Larter) finally got out of the hotbox and DID something. Once again, a great scene, followed by a quick removal. Don't fret, Ali Larter fans; people who suffered through season two will recall there were THREE sisters, so we ought to be meeting the third any time now. Hmm...they've been saying the Big bad of Season Four would be a female villain...

Angela Petrelli got another chance to shine in the episode, primarily in a short scene with Daisies alumna Swoosie Kurtz, playing a woman friend of Angela's (and, I'm betting, her sister.)

Over and above everything else, the one thing that made this episode work was the emotion. You really felt for the characters again, something that simply wasn't there in a long while.

Advice to the executives of NBC - do not let Bryan Fuller leave. Bind him to you with promises. Offer him anything. Keep him on this show. I can't think of such a precipitous drop of the quality of a series after a writer left than Michael O'Donoghue leaving SNL.

HOW in the hell did I not figure out who Rebel was? There's really only one answer - I Just Didn't Care. Were I more invested in the story, I'd have probably spent more time figuring it out. But on the whole, my last few months of watching Heroes has been on the level of "Well, it's been good so far, maybe it'll get better. Like Larry Miller's comparison to a stagnant relationship, I was taking the milk out of the fridge, noting it was sour, and putting it back, thinking "Maybe it'll be fresh tomorrow".

Well this week, I opened the carton, and found it was filled with ice cream.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Heroes is back. Get on board.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the popular pastime of reinvention and its inherent pitfalls

As a rule, if one is embarrassed or upset by the group one is a member of, it is inherently easier to change the name of the group than it is to change the group. Trekkies made enough of a hue and cry about the term that the more acceptable (to them) "trekkers" of "trekfen" were coined. (Fanzine writer and Big Name Fan Arthur Hlavaty commonly "corrects" the spelling to "terkkies".) The common rule of thumb is, if you care enough about the term "trekkie" to be offended by it, you're a trekkie.

Comic book and other sci-fi fen are regularly called "geeks" by the general populace, as in the popular phrase "Geek Chic". And the rule still applies - if you care enough to be offended by the term "geek" to attempt to correct it, please get in line for your too-short-for-your-ample-tummy stiped shirt and propeller beanie.

Nine times out of fourteen, you can tell from a person's tone whether they're actively trying to offend you, as oppsed to just being witty (successful or not) or accidentally using a word they "thought it was okay to use now". That applies for just about all slurs, save for the one unspeakable word, the Queen Mary of offensive slurs, which no one who is not one is ever allowed to use. That word of course is "Liberal-Democrat".

Usually when one chooses to reinvent oneself, either by simple semantics or radical surgery, it suggests a dissatisfaction with oneself, or at least of how things are going for you. America is the land of reinvention - I believe we invented it, or were at least the first to file paperwork. Before we patented the process and trademarked the term, it was known as "giving up and trying again".

If one reinvents oneself slowly, over the course of years, you can get away with no one noticing. But if you get the dyejob, the liposuction and demand that your friends and family henceforth refer to you as "Meredith", it's going to get Talk started. Usually along the vein of "what brought THIS on?" It's impossible to just forget what a person was and go with what they now want to be. Just ask wrestling fans when a guy shows up one week as a blonde goodguy and reappears the very next week with black hair and a goatee, a new heel name and the announcers look at him as if he's this total stranger (e.g. the Oz --> Vinnie Vegas transformation of Kevin Nash)

The Science Fiction Channel, colloquially known as "The Sci-Fi Channel", or more summarily "Sci-Fi" has announced that it will be changing its name to "SyFy". Talking heads have theorized a multitude of "real" reasons the change is happening, not the least of which being that "Sci-Fi" cannot be trademarked, and "SyFy" can. There's that whole "can does not equal should" thing going there, but whatever. I see it as a logical progression in the channel's slow move to become more than just a channel that shows science fiction. The problem is, is there a real benefit to showing more than "just" science fiction?

One of the big promising things about cable when it first came out was the idea that channels dedicated just to one genre or type of show could arise. There's the Game Show channel. the Soap network, the Food Network, and a plethora of others. As they started to appear, the programmers began to notice something they hadn't considered - channels that only show one kind of show only appeal to people that like that one kind of show. For a lot of people, this goes against the American desire to eat one's cake and have not only it, but all other cakes in the vicinity as well.

So using the same marketing strategy that gave us new Coke, these mavens said, "Let's dilute what we do well by doing some things we don't do well". MTV started doing it first - putting more actual programming on its channel, as opposed to videos. It's now at the point where they had to start whole other channels to do what the main channel used to do -play music videos.

So we started seeing reality shows on Sci-Fi, and live-action movies on Cartoon Network. And on the whole, they did not succeed because...Well, I've said it for a long time - you don't go to IHOP for a steak.

Sci-Fi bucked that tradition by carrying shows that already had a core following, like Crossing Over With John Edward (the irony of that show running on the Science-Fiction Channel will bring a smile to my face to my dying day) and its currently most-watched show, ECW Wrestling. It was hilarious when that first started running - they thought it might cushion the blow by putting more "Science fictiony" wrestlers on the show, so we got jobbers like "The Zombie" and other sources of shame and derision. Sci-Fi got a taste of of what real ratings are like, and wanted more. But they felt hobbled by the obviously pigeonholing name.

Their solution? A name that's pronounced exactly the same, but is SPELLED differently. Also, they (claim they) do not plan to change their basic dedication to science fiction. So we're back to "why change the name then?" again.

Let me ask you this - if BET changed its name to "Bold Entertainment Television", or the WWE to "World Wide Entertainment", do you think its followers would sit back and think, "Oh, well, it's goo to know they're not planning to change what they're currently doing"?

Sci-Fi, like so many others, are trying to find a way of extending its grasp, only realize that in order to do so, one must lose one's grip on what one now has. And that's then you start dropping things.

I've long said that one of the best things Sci-Fi can do is to go backwards. I watched a whole lot more of the channel when all it ran was reruns of classic sci-fi shows. But where ar those shows now? Stuff like Lost in Space, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants are now on that hidden treasure of a channel The American Life Network. They've had exactly one hit in all the attempts at original programming - the new Battlestar Galactica. I find it hard to believe that any of their "Sci-fi originals" drew better ratings than any episode of The Immortal. They spent truckloads of cash trying to be more than they needed to be.

Like the trekkie, they care too muh about what they are called. odds are if they just resigned themselves to their image and embraed it, they'd probably be allowed to do more than if they try harder and harder to disguise and deny what they are.

Look at William Shatner.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Castles and Kings

I don't think it's any secret that comics and Sci-Fi (Or is that SyFy now?) fans love Nathan Fillion. He bought us flowers and candy in Buffy and Firefly, made dinner for us in Slither, and closed the deal in Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog. Mainstream America has tasted his wares as well, on Desperate Housewives and a truly wonderful little film called Waitress. Indeed, they had him first on Two Guys, a Girl and a Progressively Shorter Title To Keep the Idiots who Watch TV from Getting Confused. But they decided he wasn't their type, and he walked into genre fandom's bedroom and set up housekeeping.

In short, there's a general sense that Nathan should be a much bigger star than he is, and only the Right Vehicle is needed. ABC's new show Castle is the latest attempt to bring Nathan to a larger audience.

Far from the humble and self-effacing characters he usually plays, Fillion plays richard Castle, the hottest crime/suspense writer in the industry, and man with a boatload of talent and an ego to match. Siezed with writers block after killing off his tentpole character, he's contacted by the Police because someone is using his books' murders as fodder for a series of copycat crimes. He offers to help the police in their investigation, using his connections ("the mayor's a big fan") to get "assigned" to the case, much to the chagrin of Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). The case gets solved in the requisite 44 minutes plus commercials, and Castle finds his writers block broken, inspired by tough, plucky Detective Beckett. He arranges to continue working with her (after signing a sheaf of waivers and disclaimers so he can't sue if he gets hurt or killed) and they proceed their tenuous partnership. He's ever amazed at the things real policemen can and can't do (like they don't actually crack jokes and eat ham sandwiches during autopsies), and he applies the rules of fiction to their investigations (he suggests that a murder was done by someone in the apartment house because it "makes a better story").

Fillion plays it perfectly - a rakish charmer with a 2.2-gigawatt smirk and a heart of gold. He's not the insufferable prick Captain Hammer was, he's a guy who's used to having things go his way, and treats the investigations as a new adventure. Though it's clear he has realizes it's all "for real", it doesn't stop him from having a ball, try as the police might to rein him in. The supporting cast all do a journeyman job; Fillion and Katic have good screen chemistry, and Castle's "old soul" teen daughter and "young at heart" live-in Mother provide nice family color and show he's actually a nice guy. But the show rises and sets around Nathan, and will win or lose based solely on his ability to make America fall in love with him as gener fen have. To steal a term from Big Tobacco, the show is a Nathan delivery device, the only question is will America watch to get their Fillion?

Over on NBC, the much publicised Kings began to lackluster numbers, and I think that's a shame, as I found it quite impressive. Loosely based on the Biblical story of King David, it was created by Michael Green, former writer for Heroes, current occasional writer for DC Comics and the current helmer of the green lantern film script. Set in the nonexistent but real-sounding country of Gilboa, the film starts with King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane, in an emotional and non curse-laden performance) dedicating the new Capital, Shiloh. David Shepherd (Michael Patrick Crane) lives in what appears to be the country's farm belt/dust bowl, and fixes cars for a living. Fate and a well-crafted script will bring these two together faster than a professional wrestler and a turnbuckle.

The scene jumps a year ahead, and David and his brother Eli are enlisted in the military, on an offensive (also known as "war") against Gilboa's northern neighbor, Gath. Pinned down by the massive "Goliath" tanks of Gath (get it?), David sneaks across enemy lines to save two of his countrymen, only finding out afterwards that one of the is Prince Jack, scion of the King. Army photographers snap pictures of him standing up against the Goliath, and in half a twinkling he's ushered off to Shiloh as a national hero. He's uncomfotable in these surroundings, and longs to return to the front (and his brother), but the King sees him as an important propaganda tool, and gives him the position of military liason to the Press, and the rank of Captain.

The cameras love him, and by the end of the second episode he has single-handedly brought the war with Gath to an end, twice. As a result of his actions, it's made clear that Silas has lost the favor of the Lord, and that He has chosen another, one who fate and a well-written script has placed right at Silas' side.

At its core, it's a drama in the style of Dallas and Falcon Crest, with an intrigue-filled family fighting for control of the family business. It's just that here the business in question is ruling a country. The style of the acting is a bit grander as well. Not quite Shakepere-level pompous or anything, but there's some nice little scenes, including one where David faces down a tank column holding a bloody (from his brother) sheet, and gives a great speech about if they want blood, they should take this "And have it be enough".

McShane is tremendous as a character who has gone through a lot to bring this country together, and has had to make many deals and promises, some that come due too soon. The politics and government country is played very subtly - there's a free press, but it's clear that they still present questionable items to the royal family first. A gentleman following the King around chronicling his moves is occasionally guided by Silas as to how they "actually" happened. A massive tirade by Willaim Cross (Dylan Baker in a wonderfully bastardish role), CEO of the company that funded most of the construction of Shiloh (and brother to the queen, a marriage of convenience) is corrected to "and the King's Brother-in-Law came by and congratulated him on his actions".

Location scenes of Shiloh and its skyline are clearly New York City, with seamless new skyscrapers added in to give it a sense of difference. It's not "supposed to be" New York, but basing it on the city makes the show easier to identify with. So far no real countries have been mentioned, nor has a time frame. It could be modern day, and it could be anywhere on the globe, and that helps keep the show safe from finger pointing that it's preaching.

As good as the reviews have been, the ratings for its premiere were inversely poor. I fear it may be as a result of the connection to the Bible - some might fear it's some sort of religious propaganda. I saw none of that here - God plays a role in the narrative, but the show is much more about the frailties of Man than anything else. It's got the opportunity to discuss the politics of war, the way media can be controlled, and how dangerous it is to let business too close to running the country. But in simplicity it's a well-done piece of drama that can easily be enjoyed for its surface level alone. WELL worth a look.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On how sometimes the best things happen when the boss ain't around.

One of the single most important additions to the Super-Mythos happened when "Superman" wasn't around.

Bud Collyer, voice of Superman on radio and Filmation cartoon series (and first host of classic game Show Beat the Clock), was taking time off from the show. Rather than recast the role temporarily, the writers came up with Kryptonite, a metal from his home planet that weakened him. They locked Superman in a closet with a box of the stuff, and all the replacement actor had to do was moan a little. When Bud got back, they solved the deathtrap and went on with the show. Super-fans are happy to relate that a great deal of the most important parts of Superman today came from the radio show, including the aforementioned debilatory mineral, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, and his ability to fly itself (not to mention the catchphrase "Up Up and Away")

The last time Superman died (there's a statement you don't get to use too often, outside of comics and Church) they spent several months without him in the books. To fill the void, they created four brand new characters to attempt to fill the void left by the big man: John Henry Irons, AKA Steel, the humanoid form of The Eradicator, the character known as the Cyborg Superman, and the new Superboy, eventually known as Conner Kent.

People commented that it was insane to take the character out of the books that bore his name, that it was pointless to do since it was only a temporary sales gimmick, etc etc etc...

Can you see where I'm going here?

Out of those four characters, two are still in active use, one is rumored (OK, I guess when they show you the character in a "Coming Soon" tease, it's not a rumor anymore) for a return BUT quick, and there's a general feeling the fourth may re-appear during the World of Krypton arc. In short, they ended up with four very strong characters that got used for over fifteen years now. Not bad for a gimmick.

They're not killing Superman this time, but as I've gone on about before, he's moving to New Krypton for about a year of "Real World" time (no idea how long DCU time, but I'm betting the whole story will be about six-twelve weeks all told). And once again, people will be trying to span the gap.

Some of the best moments in television history happened when the main character of the show was away and the supporting characters stepped up and became more three-dimensional characters.

Of course, you also can end up with the last seasons of Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter. But there's a very important difference. Ted McGinley does not work for DC Comics.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On Fathers, and friends, and the death of fathers, and the death of fathers of friends

As I've discussed before, I lost my father (ok, no, I know where he is, in a veteran's cemetary on Long Island) at a young age, and have few memories of him that are not comic-related. Here are a few.

While trying to teach my adopted sister (I'm adopted as well - I at weeks old, she at the age of five) to pray, my father attempted to show her the Sign of the Cross. She, in an attempt to please him, made as big a cross upon her person as she could, "In the Name of the father" from the top of her head, "and the Son" to the base of her pubic bone, and the "Holy Spirit" positioned at ends of both shoulders. He was trying to get her to dial it down a little, and chose to express this by jamming his hand into his crotch and exclaiming "DOWN HERE is the Son?" Oh, how we laughed.

He didn't care for hair curlers, or at least pretended not to. My mom and aforementioned sister decided to do their hair one evening, and both were done up in curlers when he came home. He looked at my mom, and gave a cartoon scream at the sight of her. Turned to my sister, and gave a cartoon scream at the sight of her. Looked at me, sans curlers, sighed in relief, and hugged me.

I remember my mom trying smoking to have something to do with him while he smoked. I recall that exactly once.

I can't tell you what I had done, but he was chasing me out of the backyard for some grievance, down the short sidewalk beside the garage. (My grievance may well have been leaving the backyard - my father was very protective of me) I don't recall climbing over the shoddy picket fence gate, but I must have, because HE had to. Back in the kitchen, he was getting iodine or some other antisceptic and sting-y material dabbed on a series of deep scrapes and scratches the gate had given him. I don't recall them healing.

I recall him peeing onto a little blue strip of paper, and comparing the resulting color to a small chart he had.

I recall the gurney that took him out of the house.

At the funeral, the comics memories start up again. I discovered that the cover logo of the Richie Rich comic I got to keep me busy was printed in an odd shade of bright red that if I jiggled the cover just a bit under a bright light, it's like the logo left contrails behind it, much like (decades later) the screen of a PSP draws black. Nobody seemed to care.

My dad had diabetes. He was 44 when I died.

I have diabetes. I'm 42. (The name of the blog will get progressively more incorrect, but as anyone who's ever tried to re-name a blog knows, it's better to just leave it go.)

I'm not fatalistic, but it's sobering. It inspires thought.

When I got diabetes, lots of people offered advice and support. Or tried.

"Oh, wow, my brother had diabetes."

"Yeah, what happened?"

"He died. But I'm sure you'll be fine though."

The same happens when people you know die. Things get said that probably sound very consoling in their heads. When my Mom died a few years back, The Wife's favorite teacher, Sister Francesca Thompson, called to offer comfort.

"Oh dear I know what it's like to lose both your parents. You wake up one morning and look in the mirror and think, 'I'm nobody's child.' I know what that feels like."

I was doing pretty well with it until then.

You never know what to do. You try to empathise. You too often end up with statements like "Yeah, I remember when my dog died...", or you compare your leg cramp last summer to their hysterectomy. Their story wins, but you can't resist trying to beat it.

It's harder when you didn't know the person who died, just your friend. You fire off an inoffensive "Well, I'm sure he's in a better place now," only to be told the family are rooting for brimstone enemas and a bodysuit made of male velcro worn inside out, as the deceased's behavior regularly reached Jerry Springeresque proportions.

It's an uncomfortable situation. And that's just YOU having to think about it, imagine what THEY'RE going through having to LISTEN to all of it.

You never know how you're gonna act when it happens to you. After one night of Dad's wake, Mom said good bye to everyone, and stood in front of the funeral home. Five minutes later, she realized she was waiting for Dad to bring the car around.

So anyway, this guy I know, one of his relations died recently, and I thought rather than privately offer my sympathies, I would externalize my feelings, turn it into a story about myself, and let him extract whatever comfort he could from that. Hey, we all deal with grief in different ways.

Nowadays, the eighth stage is usually "capitalization".

In comics, they often announce death three months in advance. This annoys people, and makes them angry at how death is trivialized. Of course, when the publishers keep the deaths a secret, this annoys people because it means they didn't have enough advance notice, so they could buy enough copies to keep up with demand.

Some people rail and rant that their favorite character is gone. Some sit quietly and await their eventual return. Some point fingers at others, saying if it weren't for this thing or that guy, or the other situation, they'd be alive today. And some just move on.

And some take their emotions and post them on the electric-type internet.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the conspicuous and mysterious vanishment of a Commander-in-Chief, an extradimensional imp, and a grown man who plays with toys

In pro-wrestling, especially in the WWE, when a wrestler leaves a federation (or a "territory" as they used to be known), he was entirely forgotten. Mentions of him ceased, any feuds he was in are dropped off the narrative precipice and in short, would become what George Orwell referred to as an "unperson"

Having said that...where in the world is George W. Bush? He's just friggin' gone.

Usually they'll at least have a post-game wrap interview with the exiting President somewhere, to give him a chance to put a cap on the last term or two, a little coda to his work.

I just did a Google-type search in the news. Not one goddamn story featuring the man who ran the nation (as everyone chants "into the ground", I know, I know...) for the last eight years. There's stories about his parents, and mentions of Will Ferrell's one-man show (which I was quite keen on seeing but of course I forgot to set the Tivo and then I forgot my password so I couldn't even log onto the website to tell it to record it while we were in the city so now I have to watch it tonight instead, but hey, whaddayagonnado?) but not a thing about the ex-president himself. The guy who threw shoes at him got more ink than he did.

Actually I tell a lie - as I was writing this, exactly ONE article popped up, saying that he and Condi Rice will be giving some speeches in Southwest Michigan "in the coming months".

When Nixon left, after resigning in disgrace, they took that iconic photo of him giving that double-rabbit ears to the nation, and they still followed him around, taking pictures of him on the beach at San Clemente (with his big ol' shorts on...and a metal detector...), and then they did the whole Frost tapes, and in short, as bad a job as he did, they never game him a minute to stew in his own embarrassment and sadness.

When Clinton left office, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a mention of him. They took pictures of him as he went to get a hamburger, he was making speeches left and right, setting up his office in Harlem to be closer to his people (cause he was the first black president, back when they thought there would never BE one, so they settled for him; I wonder if he's officially given back the title...) making more money for personal appearances than Uncle Majic the Hip-Hop Magician.

Bush? Bupkis. Nichts. Nada. A paucity of somethingness.

It's like that scene from Dumbo where the elephants are so embarassed about old big-ears' shenanagans that they gather in a circle and make a promise that "from this moment on he is no longer an elephant". I can imagine the press corps meeting in a musty cattlecar, and Katie Couric raising her hand and leading them all in a silent vow.

Of course, Bush isn't exactly pounding the pavement either. I get the impression he's holed up in a fallout shelter in Dallas, waiting for the political half-life to lower the radiation of his presidency to an appreciable level. Hopefully he brought something to read.

There's hope. Jimmy Carter was able to salvage his legacy by building houses for the homeless, and eventually they let him start talking to other countries again. Bush will get a presidential dollar coin when his turn comes around (in 2017 I believe) and by then people may have cooled (or is that warmed? Depends on the starting temperature I guess) to him enough that they'll go ahead and collect the coin to keep from having an incomplete set. Perhaps to make people happy, the coin will come pre-tarnished.

This is pretty much how we used to deal with continuity in comics when I was a kid.

When someone wrote a story that was just crazy, something so WTF-y that everybody just kind of turned their heads and walked away. Mopee the Elf, for example. When saner heads came to power, they all looked at the story, and they all sort of said "Hey, we understand, we've all handed in some some outrageous crap as the deadline loomed. No harm no foul, but let us never talk of this again. And that was enough.

Then YEARS later, somebody would dust the idea off, and like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, realize it wasn't such a bad little idea, it just needed a little love. So the Batman from Planet X would become a backup personality for Bruce Wayne, or Aquaman's extradimensional little pal would become a massively dangerous energy being, or the three skrulls who got left on a farm in upstate New York would eventually infect the whole town by drinking their milk.

Crisis on Infinite Earths (I'll finish that CoIE post to tie into that blog-crossover soon, I swear) was a good carpet to sweep those stories under. For years, any story that didn't quite fit "happened on an earth that was destroyed in Crisis"

Nowadays, there's this mindset that things can't just be ignored anymore, they have to be un-explained. Infiinte Crisis was another chance to give everybody they wanted to a do-over, but too often there's this self-imposed moral imperative to give a logical explanation as to WHY this guy changed. Geoff Johns is the current master of this, coming up with amazing tales weaving together many different versions of characters into one cohesive one. His explanation of Hawkman was sublime, his Brainiac was logical, but might have needed a bit of headtilting and a short sigh before you said "Okayyyyy...", but I thought his Toyman tried to do a little too much, while still getting so, so much right.

Allow me to explain. In an attempt to grim-n-gritty up the Superman comics (which is right up there with trying to make vanilla ice cream taste more like butter brickle, but hey, who am I), they reimagined the Toyman into...well...a kidnapper. They kept away from making him a pedophile or molester, but when Cat Grant's son Adam tries to escape, Toyman finds him down and stabs him to death. This was for a lot of fans, including myself, the single worst move made in comics in decades, maybe ever. It was the four-color version of Dylan going electric. It functionally RUINED Toyman as a character.

Apparently Geoff Johns thought so as well. In a recent story, he retroactively explains that every Toyman that we've seen since we last saw the "classic' Winslow Schott was actually one of Schott's robots. The skinhead child-killer was one that malfunctioned, went rogue and started with the kidnapping and Grant-stabbing thing. Schott, in his grief for even obliquely responsible for the injury (not to mention the death) of a child causes him to snap not unlike a twig. He kidnaps Jimmy Olsen and pleads his case, exaplaining that he would never harm a child (bear in mind, at this point he thinks Jimmy is 16 (insert Lance Kerwin joke here) and has him tied up and lying on a floor, so maybe his definition of "harm" is rather elastic). Batman and Superman find him and capture him.

It's a STELLAR story. In one swell foop it takes the curse and stink off the character, while adding a magnificent layer of pathos to him. He accepts the guilt of Adam's death, while at the same time trying to absolve himself of it. He becomes a three-dimensional character, as opposed to the simple gimmick-monkey he was before. Combining that with Kurt Busiek's absolutely joyous revamp of the Prankster, what were once the most simplistic villain Superman had are now two of my most favorite, for two very different reasons.

But the main quibble I have with the story is it reached too far, and tried to clean up too much, including at least one thing that didn't need cleaning. One of the replacement Toymen (Toymans?) Hiro Okamura, a Japanese youth with an intellect that would make Lex Luthor want to hit the books again. After a brief foray into villainy based mainly on boredom, the World's Finest convince him to use his incredible intellect for niceness instead of evil. In Jeph Loeb's run of Superman/Batman, it's revealed he ends up building most of Batman's new crimefighting gimmicks, creates the rocket that helps destroy a kryptonite satellite approaching Earth (and sends Captain Atom into his own miniseries) and is a main character in Sam Loeb's issue of Superman/Batman. But Johns claims that he too is but one of Schott's creations, thus invalidating a bunch of very good stories, including Sam's which Geoff himself helped complete.

Personally, I just mentally added in my own fix - In his grief and guilt, Schott attempted to assume the guilt of anyone and everyone who had ever used the Toyman name, even ones like Hiro whom he had no connection to. So Hiro is still merrily tinkering with his next giant robot in Japan, and Winslow is seething in his cell, trying to figure how he will stop "one of his creations" from ever harming anyone ever again. (Free story idea, Geoff - just make Norbert a Lantern and we'll call it even.)

And that's the problem with trying to clean up the past. Sometimes the chaff is inefficiently de-wheated, and the progeny is erroneously disposed of with the detergential medium.

Not everything that was written by the silver-age writers on deadline was bad.

Not everything that George Bush did was bad, either.

It just may take decades for anyone to realize it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On the ratio of the diameter of a circle and its circumference

Back around the time that Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, they did what I always considered a spectacular book called Spaceflight Chronology, which was supposedly a historical look at the evolution of Earth's manned spaceflight program, starting with the (actually factually) Sputnik, Gemini, Apollo missions, and on through fictional advances like the first manned Mars lander, up through First Contact and on to the Enterprise-A.

In it, they feature what was supposedly the first meeting between Earthlings and people from Alpha-Centauri. One of them was Zefrem Cochrane, the scientist who was partially responsible for the math that would result in the Warp Drive.

(Yeah, I know it's wildly out of continuity now, as TNG's first season and the flm First Contact set Cochrane's story in stone - shut up, that's not why I'm telling the story. Even thought I think the timeline they set down in the book to be pretty damn good, but hey, who am I, right?)

The earth scientist and Cochrane are sitting in a room, having no idea how to communicate. Cochrane takes a piece of paper, draws a circle, then a diameter line through the center. He points to the circle, then the diameter, and then draws a symbol from his language. The Earth scientist immediately understood that this was their symbol for pi. The language barrier was broken, and they started chatting in mathematics. Eventually they got the actual languages working and the work actually started getting started. But the idea of using math as a mode of first contact always impressed me as a neat concept.

Even in TOS, the magical number makes an appearance. In Wolf in the Fold, the entity known as (among other things) Red Jack (played on screen by John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet) transfers itself into the Enterprise's computers. In an attempt to keep him helpless and occupied, Spock commands the computer to try to solve for pi, causing the computer to divert massive amounts of its CPUage to the problem, and trapping Red Jack.

The idea of getting a computer or a robot to solve for pi is such a classic cliche that I'm sure that when they finally get sentient computers and robots built, they'll put in a unofficial Fourth Rule Of Robotics: "None of that 'Solve for pi' crap".

Daren Aronofsky, years before he did The Wrestler, did a magnificent nightmare of a film called Pi which featured a young mathematic savant who suffered from cluster headaches and spent most of his time popping painkillers and building a Rube Goldbergian computer out of hand-built boards and custom programs in an attempt to calculate pi to the last digit. He believes there's a mathematical version of the Unified Field Theory that could be applied to any model, like the Stock Market, and used to prodict its changes. As he works on it, he is found and courted by both powerful brokerage houses and a band of Hassidic Jews who are engaged in massive studies of the Kabbalah and believe his research may unveil the true name of God. It's an amazing piece of work, about as impressive a fictional movie about math as has come down the pike as I can recall.

Now you've got David Krumholz in Numb3rs (Or as recovering luddite and fellow blogger Elayne Riggs and I both call it, "Numthreers") giving a better public face to the sexiness of math than we've had since daVinci. He's come so far since Addams Family Values and the TV pilot of the Justice League.

Considering all the zero issues, .5 issues and all the other numbers they've tried, has no one done a pi issue of a comic? Seems like it'd be cool.

Nah, that'd just be irrational.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On the return of the Double Bill, and the sort of return of Blue and Gold

This week, DC announced that they were going to start running back-up stories in some of their monthly titles. Booster Gold will get a Blue Beetle backup story, Teen Titans will get a Ravager backup. This is in addition to the recently announced Doom Patrol titles by Keith Giffen and Matthew Clark, which will have a Metal-Men backup by the old JLI team up of Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis writing, and Kevin McGuire on art.

Further details are a little sketchy - no announcements of creative teams, and it hasn't been made 100% clear if the backups will shave any pages off the main title, or if will be entirely additional pages. The story states "The co-features will be presented in pages added in addition to the regular series’ stories", but that's not completely clear - it could still grab a few pages while still offering three or four pages of extra material.

DC has been toying with this format for a couple years now. The "Countdown to" books (Mystery and Adventure) featured two stories, and the Tales of the Unexpected mini from 2006-07 had the Spectre as the main feature and the delightful Doctor Thirteen story as the backup. For many, it was the first example of "B-side syndrome" in quite a few years, where the backup was more praised and talked about than the main feature. We got a series of "Tales of the Yellow Lantern Corps" stories in the GL titles, to serve as a way to introduce the concept of the new Corps that would play such an important role in the Green Lantern books for a few years to come. Plus, they've been doing their latest (and most under-appreciated, AFAIC) weekly series Trinity the same way, with the front story by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, and the backup feature plotted by Kurt, dialogue by Fabian Nicieza and art by a rotating team of folks. As opposed to the other titles, the two stories in Trinity have been connected, both serving to further the single narrative of the book. In some cases the "backup" feature has moved to the front of the book as elements of its stories become more important to the main tale. It's been quite the success using this newish storytelling format.

At recent conventions, Bob Wayne has said that they think the format has a lot of plusses. for one thing, it gives a hot talent who might not be able to handle a full-sized monthly title a way to get their work out there on a more regular basis. Secondly, it gives the reader more value for their dollar. "Their dollar" indeed - alas, everything's a trade-off in this world, and so too here. The books that will get these backups will be rising in price to 3.99 an issue. But with just about a third more story pages per issue, it's a damn fair trade.

I grew up on books with multiple stories in each issue. Flash use to have Firestorm as a backup, and Superman had a few backups - the "Action-Plus" stories that featured a rotating set of heroes (Including Air Wave and Green Arrow), and the stellar "Private Life of Clark Kent" and "World of Krypton" stories. It was a great way to give a character who couldn't support their own book a place in the sun, like the aforementioned Firestorm. It also let newcomers to the US industry get some exposure. Like those Tales of the Green Lantern Corps stories drawn by Kevin O'Neill that got him banned by the Comics Code for his entire style of art.

(In a weird way, Kevin's style bears similarities to Will Elder's, in the way that he packs each panel full of signs, labels and other widgets and nernies that have you going through the page with a fine-tooth comb for jokes. Will called This "Chicken Fat", as in "the part of the soup that is bad for you yet gives the soup its delicious flavor")

The two books they've chosen to add the backups to are eminently logical. Ravager, already a member (or at least an ally) of the Teen Titans, has enjoyed a wave of popularity that got her her own miniseries, the just-ended Terror Titans. This gives Ravager fans another reason to pick up Teen Titans, and avoids the risk that a solo book might not fly. Blue Beetle (Both current Beetle Jaime Reyes and previous one Ted Kord) has been a recurring character in Booster Gold already, so adding him to the book makes very good sense. Both characters have a more lighthearted tone, and considering Beetle is a recurring (and very popular, if my personal observations on action figure sales are any evidence) character on the new Batman: the Brave and the Bold series, so getting back in a book one way or another (o'course, he's also in Teen titans) is a GREAT idea, and might even bring new readers to Booster. Since both sets of characters are logically linked, it gives them the chance to do crossovers within the book, if you will , and have the two features team up for one big story, like Trinity's been doing.

When asked if we might see Renee Montoya (the new Question) in her own adventures, Greg Rucka has limited his answers to a cryptic "wait till June". Considering this announcement, it's given some the hope we may see a backup or two appear in the Bat-books. Considering Kate Spencer (aka Manhunter, who, like Blue Beetle, has a loyal and vocal following that wasn't quite large enough to keep their books afloat) is the new District Attorney of Gotham city, a Manhunter backup would also make a hellalot of sense. So too in the Superman books - they've going to be writing about a great deal of characters, all trying to take Superman's place while he's on Krypton (scroll down to see my pieces about that story) - breaking the books into smaller stories might give each a chance to shine.

From a math point of view, I'm curious how DC will actually make more money on the book by adding a commensurate additional number of pages. 8 more pages of story to a 22 page book (not counting ads) is more than a third again as much, and the books are also going up a third again as much, from 2.99 to 3.99 each. Since I assume they're not going to pay the creators any less per page for doing the backups, I can only assume that there's a lower per-page printing increase that makes adding pages cost-efficient, or they hope the larger books will sell more, making them more profitable. No matter what, the attempt to cushion the blow of the high price by offering a commensurate amount of new material (as opposed to Marvel's weak inclusion of extra pencils and other "additional material" to their increased books) can be nothing but commendable.

As I mentioned earlier, Booster Gold has featured several Beetles in the title since its inception. The latest story featured the Scarab almost being destroyed back in Egyptian times, potentially removing all the Blue Beetles from history. In the last issue of Blue Beetle (just released a couple weeks ago) we are presented with what seems to be the origin of the Black Beetle who "first" (time travel = problems with tenses and chronology) appeared in Booster's "Blue and Gold" storyline which featured the return of Ted Kord. Ever since Justice League International, Booster and Beetle have gone together like Ra-ma la-ma la-ma ka ding-a da ding-de dong. There's a LOT of potential story there, and it's infuriating that DC Editorial has (supposedly) said that they will not bring Ted back in any permanent way. Yeah, they bandy his name about regarding Blackest night, but that's just to match us squirm.

Since its return, Booster Gold has mixed humor and adventure expertly, delivering time-travel adventure that you don't need a map to understand, and a look at some characters who haven't gotten a fair look in years. Any chance to attract more readers is a good move, and I look forward to see what Dan and co. have for us next.

In short, I'd buy that for a(nother) dollar.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves recently reported the passing of John Carbonaro, long time comics fan and Last Man Standing in the nightmare that was the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents copyright mess.

Now, just as I believe that there are a series of speedboats (belonging to Microsoft, Disney, the Mob, etc) idling off the shore of Florida, ready to race to Cuba the moment Castro dies, I think right now there are offers being drafted for the rights to the Agents by several comics publishers. DC came the closest to using them in recent history, kiboshing their planned series after Carbonaro allegedly nixed changes they planned to make to the characters. They put out the Archives series of the books, so they've likely got the most ideas to use them. If I had my choice, I'd want DC to get ahold of them. Given a choice between the Red Circle characters and the Agents to get folded into the DCU, it's no contest.

The THUNDER Agents' basic origin concept isn't as vital to the characters as, say, the Legion is. "A group of people given powers to fight The Warlord" could easily become "A group of people given powers to fight (insert threat here)"

Dynamo is about the only one who'd need an ever-so-slight tweaking. Len Brown was almost played as a complete clown in the books, almost as badly as The Web was treated in his Red Circle books (A henpecked Superhero - that's got gold written all over it, don't it?) He's a guy that desperately WANTS to get it right, he knows the pressure he's under; the thunderbelt can't be reset for anyone else until he's DEAD (slight tweak there). If anything, it's a reversal of the Spider-Man concept. As a regular person he's pretty okay and happy, it's as a Superhero that the guilt and the pressure weighs in on him.

For NoMan, let's try this - make him a younger man. Professor Dunn was an old man - he'd lived his life, sampled its wonders, he was pretty okay with giving up the lion's share of his humanity for the chance to stay alive and active. But make him a younger man, maybe mid-30, early 40's. He's glad to be alive, but like Cliff Steele, at what cost? If I may get a bit of the complaints some men use for not "I can't feel anything". Take that to the extreme, and you know what NoMan feels (or doesn't) like. I can easily see him becoming a sort of Mr. Spock / Dr. Manhattan like character - out of touch with the world. Starting to treat the other agents are expendable and replaceable, like his bodies; only the equipment they carry is valuable.

Lightning already has a great plot device built in - every time he uses the suit, he ages. So say he runs 100 miles in a second. How long would it take a regular person to run 100 miles - that's how much his body has just aged. So it could mount up but fast. I could see Lightning striking (heh heh) up a friendship with Jay Garrick, as opposed to Wally or Barry. Likely because he'll be the one he'll have more in common with sooner than later.

Menthor was rather ham-handed attempt at creating a conflicted hero, but damn if it didn't work. The wearer of the helmet was in fact a mole for the Warlord, and gettig assigned the Menthor helmet was the best-case scenario for his assignment. But the helmet was so powerful, when he wore, he was compelled to do good, disobeying his masters' commands to undermine THUNDER with his new power. John Janus (Janus - two-faced - get it?) died while trying to protect his THUNDER compatriots, and in the John C revival series, a new person wore the helmet, only to learn that the consciousness of Janus had been absorbed by the helmet, and could offer her advice. There's a lot there that could make for good character work.

When I first explained the concept of Menthor to my wife, she immediately compared it to the Happy Helmet from Ren & Stimpy. I had no answer - she had touched it with a pin.

And let's be honest, put the Iron Maiden on a cover, and it's gonna sell books.

Jim Shooter wanted them for Marvel back in the day. The Tower reps showed them what they had, and he realized they didn't have a single piece of signed paperwork from Wally Wood saying he transferred copyright. They didn't have the standard verbiage on the back of the paycheck. NOTHING. He realized he could take these facts to Wally's estate, but they wouldn't have the money to make a case. He recognized a minefield when he saw it, and he retraced his steps back out.

Wally Wood was an amazing creator - his art was dynamic and bold, his women buxom and brazen (you know the Power Girl story, right? True or not, remind me to work it into a piece sometime) and his stories imaginative and innovative. This was his chance to set up his own universe, and he jumped in with both feet. This is a bunch of characters who haven't had a serious viewing in over 20 years, and yet they're still well-known by fans.

The THUNDER Agents are just about the last set of classic heroes that hasn't been grabbed up by one company or another, or floated into the public domain. They have a vocal and loyal following, and the characters are even strong enough to survive a radical rethinking and modernization.

I'm betting we'll hear something in under a year.

On the unnecessary and excessive application of drama to Baked Goods

We're avid Food Network fans in our house. Alton Brown is one of the coolest foodies to come down the pike, Nigella Lawson one of the hottest, and Guy Fieri one of the most affable and charming.

Like every station, they have been tainted with the stink of the Reality show. The Next Food Network Star has been on four times so far, and has given us two actual "Stars" - the aforementioned Guy, and Aaron McCargo, Jr. (not to be confused with the pokemon Magcargo), star of Big Daddy's House, who just got a second season. The real purpose of these shows is of course to get you to watch THEIR show. If they get a person who actually turns out to be a hit (like Guy, who now has FOUR shows on the channel), that's gravy.

Watching The Next Food Network Star is a delight, in the same way that the Tilt-a-Whirl is a delight. It's best done in short bursts, and it's usually more fun to watch others as they do it. First off, everyone is constantly talking about how this is their dream, and they've worked all their life to get to this point, yakkity schmakkitty. I don't think they could get more emotionally invovled if they were competing for a new kidney for their daughter. The level of emotion on the show is just over the top, especially considering the prize is basically the chance to be on TV some more. There's a lot less "competition" (as in backbiting and bitchiness) on the shows, and that's a plus, but that just opens the door to them all getting to know one another and getting all weepy-peepy as each one leaves. Most of the true drama about the show is accidental, like in season three where one of the finalists revealed that he'd puffed up his resume (like the part where he'd fought in Afghanistan), and they booted him off before the final episode. So they had to bring back the last-booted competitor, the terminally panicky Amy Finley, who went on to win the competition, get her six episodes dumped on Sunday Afternoons, then reveal she turned down the chance to come back for a second season because it was all too stressful. Good friggin' riddance. Just once I wished the judges had complained about how salty her damn food was from her crying all the time. GOD I hated her. Alton Brown had the most telling comment of the season- "Couldn't we just start over with eleven new people?" If only, dear boy. If...Only.

But NFNS is peanuts compared to Food Network Challenge. Peppered in amongst the national pie competitions, the Pillsbury bake-off and BBQ-fests are the tentpoles of the series, the cake contests. The best pastry and candy chefs in the world compete to create the most outlandish comestibles in a theme, whether it be Disney cakes, Las Vegas inspired sugar sculptures, or something equally outlandish.

And just like NASCAR, a tiny, evil part of your brain tunes in to watch one of these massive works of confectionary take a not-quite-graceful pa-twa-dee out of their hands and shatter on the ground in a cloud of flour and sadness. And the station knows that's what you want, because they'll edit in the one or two calamitous surrenders to gravity they HAVE had into every commercial. And as you're watching, they'll show you a reaction shot of someone in the audience that makes you think one of of them is not just gonna go down, but catch on fire and take out half the judges.

I get that they're competing for money, and I get that these competitions can be very stressful. But sweet merciful pancakes, Shirley Jackson put less stress in The Lottery. It's food. It should be a source of fun and calories, an analogy for sex, and occasionally a meal. The only stress and drama it should hold is its unconscious connection to the joy and/or guilt of one's childhood, and nine times out of ten, that's not worth a TV show.

Of all their reality shows, the two best at the moment are Iron Chef America, the American version of the show that gave the food Network its start, hosted by the increasingly ubiquitous Alton Brown, and Chopped, hosted by Ted Allen, the one Queer Eye alumnus who had both charm before the camera and the gentle, non-threatening kind of homosexuality that Americans prefer. The concept behind both is the same - mystery ingredients that must be mixed into a meal. While ICA has ONE ingredient that must be incorporated into at least five dishes, all cooked at once, Chopped spins the idea around, and the competitors get a number of ingedients that all must be used in a single course, with three course for the whole competition. In both cases, there's no TIME for ridiculous drama. Iron Chef is much more about the expertise of the Chefs, and watching them balance multiple dishes at once. Chopped is more personal but no less frenetic, and their mid-show interviews are much more on the level of "How the hell am I supposed to use peanut butter, seaweed and curry powder together?"

For all the ways they try to make the food exciting, it's the straightforward cooking shows that are the winner for me. I'll watch Good Eats over Lost any day.

When I get my cooking show, it will be called "To Serve Man", and my first cookbook will be called "It's A Cookbook! It's a COOKBOOK!!!" I addition to regular cooking that the average male can understand (Episode one -"I am Jack's Kitchen") I will make liquid nitrogen ice cream, cook things with lasers, and in one episode there will be a little picture in the corner of a toaster containing blueberry pop-tarts, counting down the time that they take to burst into flame. Kinda like "Good Eats" meets "Brainiac: Science Abuse". I always said Alton Brown was similar to Jearl Walker - I'm gonna take the next step.

Ya know, I think they're casting Season five of NFNS now...

Monday, March 9, 2009

On the infinite gradiations between "We" and "They"

I've gone on about the new World of New Krypton series already, but I'm pleased to see that some of the things Robinson and Rucka have introduced in their first issue are already sparking talk.

In that first issue, Superman sees flaws in the guild system that Kandor/New Krypton employs in its society. He says right out that it's more of a caste system. He looks at the way Alura speaks to Labor Guild member Lor-Van, and immediately brands it thinly veiled slavery. But he's been there like a day. Are we absolutely sure he's right?

Bear in mind the following. They've already said that Jor-El married "outside his guild" and suffered no penalties from it. This implies (or more correctly, I infer) that they are not as hopelessly locked in to their guild as one would expect in a strict caste society.

At first glance Superman views the Labor guild as "glorified slaves". But do THEY consider themselves that? And if one is "glorified", is one still a slave? And as I've said many times, don't look down on the folks that fix things and deliver the food. Want to see what happens to society if they all stay home? To quote spencer Tracy "The world needs ditch-diggers too". Yes, in our society these people are often paid like chimps and treated like animals. But there's no evidence of that yet on Krypton.

The subtle thing that makes guilds "wrong" in most eyes is if they force people into those guilds. If the child of two Labor Guildsmen shows an amazing aptitude for scientific thinking, or if the child of two Science Guildmembers is built like a tank and has a voice that makes the other kids follow his orders, it would be against the good of the society to force those two to be street sweepers or beaker jockies respectively.

Guilds have made their way into science fiction lots of times. The Guilds in Dune and the Splinter Cultures from the Dorsai books (more correctly the Childe Cycle) are but two examples. Ironically, many people say that the only way you could get a guild system to work smoothly is IN science-fiction. I've often said that a truly perfect model of Communism exists in only one place - the Marvelous Land of Oz.

While it could concievably be played out as if it's a bad system, consider a few thoughts...

Superman sees these things through the eyes of an American, one used to democracy. So he's going to apply his worldview to the societies he meets up with. England still has a monarchy; a democratic Monarchy, but there's still a lineage-based leader in the middle of everything. That seems woefully out of place in a modern world, but it seems to be working fine for them. So in New Krypton (I can't bring myself to use the acronym "WoNK"), perhaps R&R are planning to simply present the idea that other cultures have come up with government structures that work for them, and are not "Good" or "Evil" in any sense.

A lot of people on this world claim that countries in the Middle-East "don't want" or even more insultingly, "Aren't ready" for democracy. I doubt we'll see that heavy-handed a point made here. I've yet to see either of these writers Sockpuppet any characters, even when dealing with touchy and controversial subjects. So I don't expect them to start.

As I mentioned before, with a year to work with and a whole planet to play on, There's every possibility that Robinson and Rucka will play with our expectations and offer the idea that maybe, just maybe, an alien planet with who knows how many more millenia of advancement as us might be able to get a workable system that isn't a direct copy of ours. There is every possible chance that the story will NOT end with earth at war with Krypton.

Jim Shooter tried to play with the same ideas in his run of Magnus Robot Fighter. He said it would have been far too easy to portray North-Am as this momolithic fascist state which Magnus would fight against. But he chose to suggest that maybe these changes ended up being beneficial after all. He once said in an interview with yours truly,
"A lot of the citizens of North-Am are relatively nice people. In this
country today, if you had a psycho-probe and offered it, there'd be a lot of
basically decent respectable nice people, people you wouldn't mind having lunch
with who would think that was a good idea. So basically, it's not an all evil
thing, it's a society that's decided to make use of technology."

Now of course, after a couple of years, Shooter got ousted from his own company and Magnus got turned into a knock-down drag out book where Magnus fought not just evil robots, but evil ALIEN robots. The thin political-philosophy pieces of the puzzle were replaced with more hitting. To this day you've got camps of people each maintaining that this version was better than that one.

The challenge in fiction (or indeed in the real world) is that when you suggest that That Group Over There might have a couple good ideas, or that "They" might be doing some things right, it's too easy to get accused of being anti-"we".

Politics is not a black and white discussion, no matter what the folks on television would like the viewer to believe. Comics have never been very good at portraying gray, literally and figuratively. let's see if it gets any better here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the importance of teaching our next generation, and the ease of Spreading the Word

This child is being well cared for.

For the rest of my days, the practice droid that Luke tested his mettle against on the Millenium Falcon shall be known as "The Pokeball".

It's just over a year old now, first posted on Fist of Blog. But the awe and mystery of the electric-type internet is that there will always be people out of the range of infection who will wander into the hot zone accidentally, think they are the first to discover the thing they found, and spark off a whole new explosion of emails titled "You have GOT to see this!"

There's a reason they call these things viral videos. Because it's exactly how they spread, with mad infection vectors (and other such words I learned by watching Outbreak) and one email sent to an obscure enough friend will spark off a whole new infection pattern.

It happened before the Internet as well. You know how everybody in the country would hear the new off-color joke about the latest news item, but nobody could remember where they heard it? More than morning radio shows and late-night talk shows, I always heard one of the biggest distribution networks was Wall Street. Apparently in between Telex transmissions, the operators would trade jokes they'd heard or made up, and that would get the joke spread nationwide in an instant.

Another fun thing to watch is how the joke mutates from telling to telling, like a massively multiplayer online version of Telephone, or its far cooler (and more threatening to the easily offended) British name, Chinese Whispers. For example, after Michael Jackson got set on fire on the Pepsi commercial, the following joke was told on the Imus in the Morning (back when Imus was young, popular, and funny) show by a caller:

"Did you hear that Michael Jackson is starting a new charity?"

"No, what?"

"The Ignited Negro College Fund"

Now, some weeks later, I heard two yentas tell the following version of the joke as they waited on line at the B. Dalton I was working at:

"Oh, you gotta hear this...Did you hear that Michael Jackson is starting a new charity?"
"No, what"
"The Ignited Negroes"

And even though the joke had lost its pun, its relevance to modern culture, and its inherent funny, they still laughed.

Same thing with urban legends. If can't tell you how many of those stories my mother would tell me as if they were the absolute emis. Even at the young age I was at when she told me the cautionary tales about the guy who would dress up as an old lady and sit in the back of people's cars in the mall parking lot, I knew they were, to be polite, apocryphal.

But I was always at a loss as to where she heard the stories, as I never actually saw her talking to anyone, ever. I don't think Dad let her, lest she get Ideas. I assumed she received a newsletter every so often, filled with cautionary tales to be used on children that wanted to go to the mall or eat pop rocks. Because in my Mom's version of the story, these horrific events didn't happen in some far off land like the rectangular midwestern states that nobody can actually keep straight (Utah is the one with the notch cut out of it, I know that one), no no, they happened at out local mall (Green Acres, the one that (actually) had the trampling death at the Wal-Mart last Black Friday), and it only happened last week, and it was just in the paper.

To this day, I cannot honestly say if she told these stories because she honestly believed them and wished to protect me from the dangers of the evil shopping mall, or if, like the Giant Hairy Killer Bats which lived in our basement (which were wide awake if I wanted to go and play, but coincedentally sleeping when she wanted me to go down and get a can of beans) they were just used as a bugaboo to warn me away from sources of potential harm. Like, apparently, people who would hide under cars, reach out and slice your achilles tendons as you came up to unlock your door. Seems like a long way to go to lift a purse.

In second grade at Saint Boniface, I was the kid in class everyone foisted their Bubble Yum on. In retrospect, this meant I was the kid in class that people used to get rid of their spider-egg infested candy, in the disguise of a charitable act, but at the time, all I knew was that a bunch of gullible children were giving me free gum.

I tried to explain to them...

1) How in the name of all that's holy would the Spider eggs get INTO the gum machinery? Surely there were security measures, and screens, and they had to wash it occasionally.

2) Even if they DID get in the gum, the mixing and cooking process would reduce them to their component molecules, and thus harmless.

3) Even if THAT didn't happen, the chewing process, and saliva in your mouth (and the hydrochloric acid in your stomach if you preferred swallowing to spitting) would also reduce them to harmlessness.

They did not listen. Probably because my mouth was filled with gum.

Friday, March 6, 2009

On the most important thing in the world at this white-hot moment

I have a huge article about Crisis I'm going to let sit.

I just saw Watchmen, and like everyone else on the planet, I have an opinion about it. but this will wait.

Why? Because in one sweeping gesture, Marvel Comics has just made up for One More Day, House of M, and for not bitch-slapping George Lucas when he released Howard the Duck.

The Marvel Comics website has translated and his hosting the Japanese Spider-Man show.
This show is legendary. It's part of a four-year licensing deal Marvel did with the Japanese TV powerhouse Toei Productions, a partnership that only spawned two shows - this and Battle Fever J, the show that created the Super Sentai Series, the shows that America then takes and turns into Power Rangers.
America could do it for another 50 years, but it will never get as WTF-y as the Japanese Spider-Man show did.
I often used to imagine what the meeting between Toei and Marvel was like...
(In the interests of political correctness, no embarassing sterotypical accents will be added to the dialogue. Please imagine your own and insert where required.)
Toei Executive - We are very excited about working with you on Spider-Man program. You have our gratitude.

Marvel Executive - We are pleased as well. We hope you will have much success.

TE - We have read about character from comics you sent. We do have some questions.

ME - Of course, we'll be happy to help.

TE - Ah, good, thank you. We could not find any pictures of Spider-Man's flying car.

ME - Um...he doesn't have one, as such.

TE - Really? (muffled conversation in Japanese) Ah, We will fix this, it is not a problem. OK, next question...exactly how tall is his Giant Robot?

ME - The say whonow?

Japanese Spider-Man was given his powers by a space alien from the Planet Spider who lived in a cave for 400 years, hiding and plotting his revenge against Professor Monster and the Iron Cross Army.

No. Really.

And he has a spaceship named "Marveller" that spits out his car, the Spider-Machine 7, and transforms into the giant robot Leopardon, and they...what, why are you laughing?

This makes Italian Spiderman look like friggin' Shakespere.

Just push play, and soak it in.

There's forty more where that came from.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Two Bizarros and a 186,000,000 mile commute

OK, so this week in comics, Bizarro shows up in both Solomon Grundy #1 and Strange Adventures #1. And somehow, people can't handle it.

"How can he be in two places at once?" they cry. Obvious Firesign Theatre joke aside, this is not that hard a concept to explain.

All comic books do not happen at once.

Even books released the same week do not all take place at the same time.

One book happened at this time, and the other book happened at that time.

That's it. You don't need more.

If two adventures feature events that would directly affect the second one (new costume, new powers, death), OK, maybe it needs a moment or two of shuffling to make sure it's clear which came first. But honestly, if Superman flies off to New Krypton in the first issue of World of New Krypton (which was wonderful - more on that later), and he shows up in Example-Man two weeks later, do you really need an editorial box making it clear this happened before he left?

This is just people looking for things to complain about. How about noticing that for the last couple of years, Jim Starlin has been single handedly rehabilitating the spacefaring characters of the DC Universe, to the point that the Omega Men are suddenly happening and the L.E.G.I.O.N. have their own book again (under the title R.E.B.E.L.S., but who's counting)? How about noticing that like Greg Rucka in his series of books with Batwoman and the Question, Starlin has been telling one long story in those books, one that if they needed to, could be promoted to Event status in a fortnight? The man has made CAPTAIN COMET a viable and interesting character again. And not just by giving him a talking dog. Though that helped.

Don't just complain about the fact that two guys chose to use the same character. I mean, Wolverine shows up in more comic books in a month than Jude Law showed up in movies in a year, and nobody makes a peep. Bizarro shows up in TWO, and people's heads explode. C'moooonnnnn...

Now, as for New Krypton...

When they presented the idea of bringing back Kandor (the real one, thank you very much, not the assorted Kandor-manias we've had in the last couple of decades) and enlarging it upon earth, the first thought I had was "This is way too good an idea to be crammed into an eight-week event". I thought that from a political point of view, this was an idea that could be mined for a year, easy. but I figured since they had to get it out of the way before Final Crisis "started", it was going to be a quick in and out story, short and exciting but few leftover damage.

You see, THIS is an example of a case where knowing which story happened when is rather important. The conceit while FC was running was that ALL stories we were reading in the regular monthlies were happening in the proveribial "week before" Final Crisis. But if that was so, then where did the 100,000 Kryptonians go? Surely if they were around they could have been talked into helping out against Darkseid, no? Surely, the story was going to end with them sent Far Away, or placed in the Phantom Zone, or some other place that would render them no longer available for plot complication or resolution in the near future.

Imagine my surprise.

Now that it's all over, it seems clear (to me at least) that this story was happening AFTER Final Crisis, but they simply couldn't tell us that for fear of "spoiling" the end of final Crisis (the good guys won and Superman saved us all - I'm shocked, shocked!). So they had the freedom to not load the high-potential storyline into a low-result package.

For those of you not following the Super-titles, SHAME on you... Superman recently fought Brainiac and liberated the bottle citiy of Kandor. Yes, this is a story we've heard before, but this is the definitive (until the next one comes along) post Crisis version of the classic Superman story. In a big change from the Silver-Age version, Kandor gets enlarged right away. On Earth. Near the North pole, a crystal's throw from the Fortress.

Sounds great, right? No, listen again.

100,000 people with the potential to be as strong as Superman are released from a prison they've been trapped in for an unspecified number of decades.

100,000 people from a formerly militaristic planet are released from a prison they've been trapped in for an unspecified number of decades, and given the powers of Superman.

And shortly after they are released, they rip the city from its moorings, fly to the far side of the sun and set up their own planet made out of Kryptonian magic sun crystals, free Zod from the Phantom Zone, and put him in charge of their military.

Can you see why I thought there might be more that eight weeks of story here?

Phase 2 all starts here in World of new Krypton #1. After the events of the New Krypton story in the Super-books (super-summarized above), Superman is invited to go to New Krypton to live. After a Mag-god-damnned-Nificent Superman #685 where he makes his decision, he takes off for his "new home".

The issue is mainly set up to show the culture of Kandor, and the differences the harsh dichotomy between it and Earth, or at least of Superman's Middle-American upbringing. We learn that Krypton (both new and old) is a strict caste society, complete with labor class, who are functionally well-cared-for slaves. Told to choose a caste (politely called "guilds") by Alura, Superman demurs, saying he's against the whole idea. Ain't here a day, and he's already trying to fix things.

Alura calmly states that if he won't choose, it will be chosen for him, and faster than you can say "Captains Courageous", he's made a Commander in the Military Guild, working directly under General Zod.

Now here's the thing. It's too easy to assume that Zod is the bad guy here. After all, as Kal calmly points out, he did try to take over the Earth. But here, and in a recent issue of Action, Zod makes the point that he simply doesn't NEED the Earth now, he has his people back, a people who remember him as a hero, and a people that desperately want him back.

MAYBE he's serious.

James Robinson is quite good at turning comic cliches on their ear. He's got a year to work this story out. There's every chance we'll start to see Zod played as a positive character, and it'll be Kal-El who can't let go of the past. It'd be an interesting move.

The Super-books are just slopping over with potential right now. We'll see the chance for intriugue as the recently revealed as alive General Sam Lane moves forward with his plans to get rid of the Kryptonian Threat.

We'll see the identities of Nightwing and Flamebird revealed next week in Action Comics. Which will take an important piece of drmatic tension off the table, and require Greg Rucka to wow us right out of the box, or run the risk of people getting Laura Palmer syndrome, and saying "Oh, that's who it is, I can stop reading now". I ain't terribly worried.

Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle are taking the exact opposite tack in Supergirl, turning the "Who is Superwoman" question into a multi-issue story. He's got the same risk of people walking away after the reveal, but he's playing the angle of making people CARE enough about the character (not to mention the rest of the characters in the book, including Supergirl herself) that when the reveal happens, it'll almost be ancillary. So far, he's doing a great job.

Superman (the title) will be suffering from false advertising for a few months, as Superman will be featured in World of New Krypton. The title will be featuring Mon-El, Guardian, the Science Police, and generally, the city of Metropolis. And if you think the book's going to be lacking without its titular character, I'm betting you haven't read a lot of James Robinson's work.

Ironically, of all the characters in the Super-books, the one I'm most keen on seeing what happens to is Lex Luthor. Consider - he's suddenly got what he says he's always wanted - a world without Superman, and a world deathly afraid of Kryptonians. What is he going to do now?

And will Zod be drawn to look like Ian McShane again?