Friday, December 17, 2010

On the last role of a great man, that of the last plot of an evil man

Peter Sellers' talents as a comedian and an amasser of automobiles are inarguable.  But in many eyes, his last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is a letdown.  IMHO, the people who are disappointed by it don't know a great deal about the character, or Sellers' earlier work.

Very few people have seen a Fu Manchu film that they weren't snickering at; fewer still have read one of the books.  Fu Manchu is the archetypal Asian mastermind, spawning endless imitators; from the comics' Yellow Claw to Buckaroo Banzai's nemesis Hanoi Xan, leader of the World Crime League.  He’s fallen madly out of favor in recent decades, thanks to encroaching political correctness, but if you can track down the original novels, they’re classic pulp entertainment, very much “of their time” but no less entertaining. 

Sellers plays a double role in the film, that of the titular Oriental master of crime and the English detective Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu’s arch-nemesis.  As the film opens, both Fu and Smith are worse for the wear. At the ceremony where the Devil Doctor was to drink his Elixir Vitae, the potion which grants him eternal youth, it's used by a clumsy minion (Burt Kwouk, Kato to Sellers' Clouseau, in a cameo) to put out a fire.  Near death, he is forced to hatch a scheme to obtain the ingredients for a new batch.  Once it's clear the insidious Si Fan is active again, the British police are forced to contact Smith, long since retired.  A series of torture sessions by Dr. Manchu have left him a broken man; he spends his time dazedly puttering around his country cottage in the company of Delight, a manual lawnmower (you heard me) he found and befriended after his escape.  The news that Fu and his hordes were on the march rouses him from his torpor and he agrees to help. 

Fu Manchu needs diamonds for his elixir; not a large number of small diamonds, but a small number of very large diamonds.  The 75-karat Star of Leningrad is stolen shortly after the film begins, and the plot to steal its twin, the King George V diamond is the meat of the story.  Smith realizes that Fu would not allow himself to simply steal the diamond; he predicts the yellow devil will attempt to kidnap the King and Queen, and ransom the gem. 

Still early in her career, Helen Mirren shines as  policewoman Alice Rage, selected (after a stellar audition where she tap dances and plays the saxophone, together and at the same time) to impersonate Her Majesty as a decoy.  She is captured by the evil Doctor, only to fall in love with him when he reveals his softer side. ("Call me 'Fred'!  That's what they called me when I was at Eton!") Her subtle lisp never fails to bring a giggle ("Oh, Fwed...") and her rendition of the music hall standard "Daddy Wouldn't Buy me a Bow-Wow", just a hair off-key is hilarious. 

American TV legend Sid Ceasar plays American FBI agent Giuseppe “Joe” Capone who spends most of the film acting the boorish American, spouting embarrassing racism ("You're one great Limey bastard!") or talking on the phone to a relative in Chicago, barely able to hear him over the sound of machine-gun fire.  David Tomlinson (best known to Americans from Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) plays the British chief of police, his last role before retiring.

Many reviews complain of Sellers’ laconic performances in the film.  I must assume they didn’t make it through the film.  Smith slowly awakens over the course of the film as the chase reinvigorates him. Fu Manchu find love in Constable Rage, and that carries him through much of the film, until his quest to formulate his elixir.  So the soft  line readings many mention work perfectly for the character, and even if he was a bit weak during the filming (he was advised not to take the role due to his heart condition) it didn’t stop him from being funny. 

I have a rule of thumb for a spoof.  Read the script and take out the jokes.  If you still have a good script, you have a good spoof.  Following that rule, this is a fine spoof, as the plot is a solid (if formulaic) Fu Manchu story. 

As for the jokes…a majority of the humor in the film follow the madcap form of Sellers’ earliest success, the Goon Show.  The character “Fred FuManchu”, noted bamboo saxophonist, appeared in his own adventure as well as several cameo appearances over the run of the show.  The odd last names of many characters like “Minge”, not to mention Nayland’s wacky mode of travel at the climax of the film are also reminiscent of the wild mindset of the series.  This is even different from Sellers’ Pink Panther films, where most of the comedy was from slapstick and Sellers’ clever mime-style reactions to things.  Here the comedy is in the plot and the dialogue. There’s a fair amount in stereotypical humor as well, but again, seen in the context of the time, before people got skin the thickness of rice paper, it’s a lot of fun.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is now available from Warner Archive, as is another of Sellers’ films, The Bobo.  No mechanical spiders are necessary for purchase.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the many faces of Aquaman, and the importance of keeping Batman clean-shaven

On the DC blog-site The Source, Dan Didio writes about the recent Kevin Smith miniseries "Batman: The Widening Gyre". 

Which I REALLY enjoyed.  When he's stayed responsible and gets the scripts written on time, Kevin does really good comics work.  This and the previous mini Cacophony (the pair making the first two thirds of a trilogy) are really fine "possibly in continuity" stories, with the kind of just shy of filthy humor that kevin does expertly.  The story he's building is very interesting, and the third chapter will be interesting indeed. I'll go so far as to say that his "Batman and the Joker" scene at the end of cacophony can stand toe-to-toe with the end of Killing Joke in the fight best "masks off, hearts on sleeves" scene between those characters.  And Walt Flanagan, a man best known to fans of the Askewniverse for having a fast dog, and who we met while he was working in Kevin's comic shop (he always remembers his friends; gotta give him that...) has a very different style, one that might not work for a regular monthly but worked perfectly for this very uniquely themed story. (END TANGENT ALERT)

In said piece, he discusses a sequence from the book which, as originally written, was hilarious, and could never be published.  The scene involves Aquaman misunderstanding Bruce Wayne's cries of private interpersonal communication (AKA Making The Beast With Two Backs) with cries for assistance.  The scene was still damn funny as published, but allegedly they were SCREAMINGLY funny as first handed in. And Dan knew they could never see print.

(TANGENT ALERT PART DEUX) Which right there is an argument for a Mature label for DC titles.  Like any character, there are stories that can be written for DC characters that might not be suitable for every reader.  Very good stories, stories that might attract new readers (I know, the semi-mythical "new reader" argument again) but since DC makes books for kids, they're loath to do "mature" stories with those mainstream characters for fear of Mommy or Grandma buying one for junior by mistake and starting a shitstorm.  The Vertigo line, originally intended to be the place for those kind of stories, has become its own successful and separate fiefdom, where characters go and (until recently,at least) don't return from.  If I may make a comparison to the films, DC has a "G" line (The exemplary Johnny DC books) a "PG" line (The mainstream DCU) a per se "R" line (Vertigo) but no "PG-13" line where slightly more mature (In the complexity and dramatic sense, not necessarily the salacious "boobies and poo-poo words" sense) stories can be told with an opportunity to give fair warning that the title "might not be for everyone".  The first of Kevin's minis danced controversially close to that line, to the point that some claimed it "went too far" for a DC book.  People were REALLY put off by the idea that the Joker even MENTIONED Batman's junk, let alone saw it.  The editors were cool with everything that got into the book, but (according to Kevin) had problems with the idea of Batman having stubble, something I find a great example of counting the pennies and letting the nickels fall where they may.  Anyway, If DC had a sub-imprint for the more adult-y stuff, such complaints could be addressed before they start.  MOST mini-series and one-shots are of questionable continuity already.  Implicitly suggesting that these "DC-13" books are slightly more questionable in their timeline placement is not going to make too many heads explode.  And the more mature reader is likely not going to want to worry (or care) about which two issues this story shoehorns into anyway, so BFD. (END TANGENT ALERT)

At first read, it seems Kevin wrote Aquaman in that slightly naive, "new to the surface world" mindset that Mark Waid experimented with in "JLA Year One", where Hal Jordan gets him to scour the Secret Sanctuary for a bulb wrench.  But in some Q&A sessions, he revealed he was basically writing Aquaman as a surfer/stoner, one who's not quite in phase with the world of the dry-legs.  (The result being that when I re-read the scene, I hear Jason Mewes in my head reading Arthur's lines)  This of course upset hard-core Aqua-fans, claiming that that's "not what the character's about".

(And this is not a Tangent alert, because it's what I actually planned to write about)

Interestingly enough, there have been SO many different interpretations of Aquaman in recent history, in many different media.  In addition to this "Hang loose" one, there's the "OUTRAGEOUS" version on B: B&tB, a version that, before he re-appeared in Blackest Night and Brightest Day, I'd have happily read comic books of.  Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner's included him in their Supergirl strip in Wednesday Comics, where Jimmy described him as "The Denis Leary of the Sea". His take was that Aquaman's zone of patrol is the ENTIRE OCEAN, so naturally he was gonna get a little testy.  Again, great idea; how well you could use it in a continuing story, who knows, but perfect for that moment at that time.  Even the Young Justice preview played him more in the regal sense, more than we've ever seen him played in the comics.  And I'm not even COUNTING the older animated versions, voiced by (variously) Marvin Miller and Norman Alden.

Now each of those interpretations, especially the ones for the cartoons, are all perfectly valid.  But as a rule, when you see that many interpretations of a character, it's because they don't have a personality to speak of, or at least not one that everyone identifies.  Aquaman is one of those characters that has gone though so many iterations, both subtle enroute changes and radical revamps, that he's one of the biggest messes DC has.  Dan would regularly ask at conventions "What's 'the Right' Aquaman?  Is it the green and orange suit, the more tied to Atlantean myth version Peter David wrote, the water-hand guy, which?" It was only after the vast majority of answers he got was "The orange-and-green-suit guy" did he start to have a course to pilot for a return.

Right now, the best solution DC has for sorting out a character is Let Geoff Do It.  That's not a dig - his work is spectacular, he hits all the points, and come up with a version of the character(s) that respects  the previous iterations, explains (or explains away) the less successful ones and results in a strong "first position" character that he or any other writer can then move forward with. Nobody's going to please everyone (especially comics fans) but his versions provide the greatest good-enough for the greatest number.  And now he's addressing Aquaman in Brightest Day.  He's bringing the character back to a recognizable state, while simultaneously making wholesale changes.  Mera is now a kickass warrior, though not from the extra-dimensional race she once was.  There's a new Aqualad, and his story is still unfolding.  And the Aquacave is back.  If Storm and Imp show up, I may lose the ability to digest food for a brief period.  The reaction to Tusky the Walrus is too horrifying to imagine.

But again, we're not getting the return of a past version of Aquaman, we're getting yet ANOTHER iteration, but one with enough similarities to the past ones it seems familiar enough not to inspire (much) controversy.  And that's the right way to go; namely, forward.  Flash, Green Lantern, Toyman (I've talked about that one before) nothing was un-done, just addressed, and moved past.  When we see  the much rumored and prayed for Captain Marvel fix (I'm invoking personal opinion and choosing the term "fix" over "revamp" on purpose), I imagine we'll see something the same.  Much of the previous versions (hopefully the best bits) will remain, with re-told version of other bits, forming a new paradigm intended to appease, appeal, and attract the various audiences.

Let Geoff Do It.

Aquaman currently appears in Brightest Day.  The TPB of Widening Gyre is out now.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On the presumption of error

My appreciation of James Robinson's recent work at DC is well known.  He's recently come off a run of Superman Minus Superman that gave more character to Mon-El than he's had in the decades since he was created.  He's been writing Justice League for about a year now, more if you count Justice League:Cry For Justice (!) which you pretty much have to since it serves as a prologue to his run perfectly.

James has a very different style than we've seen on JLA for a while.  He's more interested in character building that just having people fight each other.  So there's a lot more thought-captions and internal narratives that you'd see in other books.  And if you read those captions, you'll see that the characters he's writing about are growing exponentially.  He's made Congorilla and Mikaal Tomas into more three-dimensional characters than they've likely ever been.  He's done a good job of showing that the former Teen Titans deserve a place on the JLA, as opposed to merely being interim title holders.

His first arc brought a good close to the characters he used in CFJ, with an obligatory Blackest Night crossover folded in.  His JLA JSA crossover, "Dark Things" gave a proper return to Jade, as opposed to her one-panel return in BN. And all throughout he's been building up the foundation to his current arc, Omega Man.  He's given us a look at bunches of classic DC characters, in a series of flashbacks designed to set up the existence of a powerful device.  He's come up with a solid use and explanation for Doctor Impossible, a character introduced in Meltzer's run on the book, one who almost every writer since has used and tried to explain, and failed.  He's been given permission to use the Multiverse, something that had been allegedly locked down until Morrison gets his Multiversity mini-series done.  In the  most recent issues, we've discovered that these "dark gods" have been trying to resurrect Darkseid, only to end up bringing into existence the mysterious Omega Man.   In short, he's been writing a series of pretty cosmic-level threats, exactly the kind of things the JLA should be fighting.  And doing it well. Add in a few done-in-one semi-solo stories that further build up the character of the characters and you've got a pretty solid run to date.

So why is he still catching crap from the readers?

I think Cry for Justice is where the honeymoon ended. That CFJ was a divisive storyline is a grand understatement.  And perhaps of that, his run on JLA has been met with many brickbats.  "He doesn't have any of the big guns on the team" (like that's the first time that's ever happened) "the roster is changing too much" (Again, lots of precedence, and he's got it to a stable point now, and considering the rasher of shit the DCU has gone through in the last year, it's no surprise things have been in a tizzy) and lots more.

Sometimes I get the impression that fans are angry at him that he won't just suck under and give them what they want (i.e. more Jack Knight) and view everything else he does as lacking. They come off sounding like a spoiled child at Christmas saying " I don't CARE that you got me a little battery-powered car that I can ride around in, I WANTED a pony".

Also, ever since the rumors (persistent but so far very without merit) of a Johns/Lee helmed JLA, some readers have been viewing everything else as a long lame-duck session that they must suffer through.  It's bad enough when that happens to a book when a team change is actually announced; current events JLA are being looked past for something that doesn't even exist.

So readers are in a funk, and are reading the book with a chip on their shoulder. And so every plot-point that they don't like or understand are painted as colossal failures.  Case in point; in the cliffhanger in the latest issue, The Omega Man transforms Supergirl into the black-costumed "Dark Supergirl" that we saw in the early issues of her solo title, the ones that had a lot of readers scratching their heads.  Readers quickly clamored that Dark Supergirl had been expunged from continuity by Sterling Gates, and for James to bring it back means that either A) he didn't know it had been removed, B) He knew, and didn't care, or C) some other explanation that can end with "and so he sucks".

Depressingly few people seem to be considering D) He knows what he's doing and has a story in mind.

When asked, Sterling Gates has said that James does indeed have a plan in mind for this story ("and it's pretty cool"), from which I infer that he didn't "forget" anything.  Considering the pair worked together for a year on Superman, I'm willing to bet that's true.  But since the readers have already made their choice, any data that comes along MUST go into the negative pile, or they run the risk of being proven wrong.

It's a mindset that I've come to call "The Presumption of Error".  If the reader has already decided (for whatever reason) that they don't like the writer of a story, they assume that any change they make to continuity is due to gross incompetence or disrespect, and not that they may have a good story planned.

In some cases, it's hard to tell if a change is an error or not, but if the end result is a good story, it's usually not too big an issue.  The very creation of Wonder Girl was the result of a mistake; Bob Haney mistakenly read a series of "impossible tales" (AKA "Imaginary stories") featuring Wonder Girl as if they were a separate character, and added her to the Teen Titans.  Nobody's demanding to go back and write off all those stories because he got the continuity wrong. (They've gone to great lengths to try to explain her past, but that, to say the least, is another story.)

In Justice league, Generation Lost, Judd Winick has been delivering a solid story, one far better than a lot of people thought him capable of; myself included.  So when little "oopsies" started appearing in the narrative, the staunch anti-Winick crowd declared the story an abject failure; if he can't get little details like this right, how could he possibly write a good story?

One of Captain Atom's "powers" is that if he absorbs too much energy, he jumps forward in time.  It's the basis of his DC Post-Crisis origin.  But in JL:GL, Atom has now been able to travel BACK in time to the point of his departure, once his body had processed the energy.  Now I've yet to find precedent for this new ability, unless it's an extrapolation of the dimension-hop from the Wildstorm "Armageddon" mini, which was pretty damn good.  So it appears to be new.  But again, in the eyes of those who presume error, he's either just unaware of how Atom's powers work, or he doesn't care. He's been quoted in interviews saying that he doesn't worry all that much about the details when telling a story.  I understand what he means, and he's right - one should never let continuity get in the way of a good story.  Making Atom now be able to only temporarily jump in time isn't too big a change, unless he tries to claim he could do it all along, in which case it would rather invalidate his whole origin. So yes, it's a change.  At the moment it's made, it may sting a little, but in the fullness of time, it will either become canon (hey, Superman only used to leap an eighth of a mile once) or it will be ignored or re-written by someone else.  Often, both.

Also in the latest issue, Power Girl was able to be taken down by Kryptonite, possibly artificial Kryptonite.  Small problem; PeeGee is from Earth-Two, the pre-Crisis Earth-Two to boot;  Earth-zero/New Earth Green-K doesn't affect her, or at least not to the degree it would (our) Superman.  So while I recognized that and assumed that it was somehow successfully synthesized E-Two Green-K ( a challenging prospect but hey, they had 120 years to perfect it, so who knows), the haters just used it as another log for the Winickaust.

View continuity as a foundation garment and not a strait-jacket.  It's supposed to support you without restricting your movements.  Don't let the length of Batman's cape keep you from reading a great story.

David's Law says "If the reader or viewer wants a particular ending or event to happen, they will accept any damn fool thing you have to do to give it to them"  Bartilucci's Inverse to David's Law states "If a reader does NOT like the ending you have written, they will latch onto any "error" you made in narrative or continuity to prove it's invalid".  Alas, far too many readers nowadays live by the latter and not the former.

It is entirely possible for a writer you've never liked to knock it out of the park.  But if you insist on spinning the stats so it didn't count, or finding ways to find fault with every story based solely on your dislike of the writer and their past performance, you run the risk of cheating yourself out of some great stories.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the forty-seventh anniversary of a 900-year-old man

It was supposed to be an educational program.

This time-traveling Doctor would visit assorted parts of history, have some adventure laced with enough fact to qualify it as educational, and off to another land the next week.

Then came the Daleks.

As of today, Doctor Who has been running on TV and other media for an astounding 47 years.  Eleven actors in the part (not counting film, stage and radio format productions), dozens of companions, hundreds of enemies, and millions upon millions of fans.

There's no analogue to Doctor Who in the United States.  No science Fiction show has become as ingrained in American culture as it; Star Trek comes close, but The Doctor is almost as a part of the British mindset as Sherlock Holmes.  Sci-Fi had a higher level of respect in the UK-The Quatermass experiment was one of the first major dramatic presentations new television owners got to see after they bought their sets to see the new Queen get crowned in 1953.  By the time Doctor Who came along ten years later, Sci-Fi was as respected a form of fiction as any.

Something to bear in mind that while Doctor Who is as good as many American Sci-Fi shows aimed at adult audiences (and better than most), it's still considered a Children's show in Britain.  That's amazing compared to the insipid crap that passes for children's entertainment here.  Part of the thing is that they don't think children are brainless clods in other countries.  A children's show doesn't mean less intelligent, just a bit less violent and scatological than the adult programs.  They were often written by the same people as the adult shows.  Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat got their start in children's television and moved on to impressive careers in adult drama before returning to their roots as Who-fen.

Doctor Who is also amazing in that it survived being off the air for almost two decades.  Save for the US-produced TV movie, new episodes of Doctor Who did not appear from 1989 - 2005.  Of course, that only meant new episodes on television.  Fandom kept the character alive via new novels from Virgin and a number of other publishers, fan-produced tribute shows like PROBE and eventually authorized audioplay productions by companies like Big Finish.  Almost an entire generation of writers like Moffat, Davies, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts became established and successful writers for British television, all assuming that they'd never get a chance to write for the one show they got into writing for in the first place.  "People try to impress you" says one of the Doctor's companions in a recent episode.  The same seems to be true of writers. Once given a chance to write for the character, people seem to up their game, sometimes pulling out plots and stories they've been polishing like jewels just in case the call ever came.  Neil Gaiman will be writing an episode for this coming season, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) wrote one for the last one; quite the pedigree.

Similarly, the actors who have appeared on the show is equally impressive.  Not even counting the ones to play the Doctor, the people playing cameos reads like a Who's Who of acting.  Comedians like John Cleese, Elanor Bron, Peter Kay, and Rowan Atkinson, dramatic actors like Derek Jacobi, TV legends like Bernard Cribbins, all lined up to have a part on a show that has as much respect in the eyes of the British public as anything you'd see on Masterpiece Theater.

Craig Ferguson dedicated an entire episode of the Late Late Show the Doctor Who recently when the current Doctor Matt Smith appeared.  He summed up his love for the show and the character perfectly - he's a man who fights horrors of the universe with only his mind and intellect. 

It's an amazing show, one built by love and creativity over nearly fifty years.  Nothing can hold a candle to it.

Special surprise - I've used that So Hot Right Now text-to-movie program to have this entry presented by a fitting host.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On how the day Superman graced your village was the most important day of your life...

If you put aside all the vitriol about the choices JMS made for his (abortive) run on the series, Superman #705 is a nice little story.  Pretend it takes place in Metropolis or something.  The fact that he's walking the Earth like Kaine is ancillary to the idea that he wants to get down to Earth and interact with people on a more personal level.  But that's another conversation we've been having endlessly, and as I say, we'll just table it for now.

The core of the story is how Superman saves a mother and child from an abusive father.  The boy puts his faith in Superman utterly to save them, making a banner to hang from their home to let him know they need help.  The father is about to attack the mom, and the boy steps in between, warning his dad to stop.  Now in endless stories (and often in real life) that's the turning point in such a relationship - the father backs down, the child finds the strength to fight him, or some other heartwarming result.  But that's not how it goes.  The dad backhands the kid, who drops like a sack of batteries, and the dad throws him down the stars to the basement.  Played slightly differently, and if it weren't about a little kid, that could be a moment of evil black comedy, on par with the first issue of Kick-Ass.  But alas, it's just how it really happens too often.

The kid screams loud enough for Superman to hear him, and he comes to their rescue.  Again, heartwarming, makes you feel good, and Superman even makes a little comment about this is something anybody could have stopped this by keeping their eyes open.

But consider this.  The kid has learned what he pretty much knew at the beginning of the story; he's not able to solve his own problems, Superman has to do it.  It's exactly the argument Luthor was making all along.  Not exactly the best way to grow up, is it? 

Compare this story with G. Willow Wilson's fill-in from last issue.  That was a story about humans, and missed opportunities and roads not taken.  Again, taken with a cynical eye, the summary of that story was "Thank GOD I got out of this burg!" But it was a set of characters who could understand each other's lives and problems.  Nothing got magically fixed at the end.  If Superman had been in that story, he'd have called Bruce Wayne and amazingly, a fat architectural and graphic design contract would have landed at their door. 

Because that's how Superman is being treated in JMS' stories, like a primary-colored Santa Claus, touching down in selected lives, changing them forever by direct action, or sometimes just by showing up.  It's very difficult to write a story that deals with both gods and commoners.  Eagles and ants, to allude to a controversial Peter David comment.  It begs the question of how Superman can choose to help this one individual over another; who can guess how many other abusive homes he's passing on his constitutional, or other crack houses?  The only thing you can go with is the idea that Terry Pratchett put forth in Hogfather: he doesn't have to actually visit every house, just certain selected ones, and the help for the other people just sort of...happens. 

There was a real good JSA story from a while back where Jakeem Thunder decides he's going to start using his Thunderbolt magic to help people individually.  He has the T-bolt build a whole row of houses for people.  The next day, more people come for serious help, and he helps them. Eventually, people are coming asking for large-screen TVs. He also learns that for everything he creates out of nothing with magic, a similar item crumbles and collapses elsewhere in the world, in accordance with the law of conservation of personal possessions, or something.  Alan Scott sums the lesson up in two parts:

1) You can't use magic to solve people's real-world problems, they have to fix them on their own.
2) People are greedy dicks.

OK, he didn't actually say that part, but it was pretty damn obvious.

These "one on one" stories work better when done rarely.  "The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man" is an awesome story, but if they did one every month, you'd be wishing the kids dead.  The Superman books used to do the annual "Metropolis Mailbag" story every Christmas, and they were delightful, and hilarious and heartwarming all at the same time. And most importantly, they were a year apart.

That's been my problem all along here.  Once in a while, these kind of stories are fun.  All in a row, they get tedious, and both in the DCU and in the real world, people start asking, "Don't you have something better to be doing?"  For all the talk JMS made about what an inspiring character Superman is, he's not been doing a whole lot of inspiring here.  Personally, I think the idea of Superman as inspirational figure was better done by Mark Verheiden in his "What Would Superman Do?" story in Superman #225.

JMS's stories have been good, but so far, I'd have to describe them with a very ironic adjective. 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the freedom to be a belligerent asshole, a right which is not guaranteed in the Constitution

Amy Alkon, The Advice Goddess, has a wonderful syndicated column that we never miss.  Her website collects those columns and the comments are often as entertaining and engaging as the columns.  She also collects various clips and articles on topics close to her heart.  She believes (like I do) that the hysteria over vaccines causing autism is placing kids at risk as diseases that have been all but dead are making a resurgence because parents are choosing not to get their kids vaccinated.  She's staunchly anti-carb, and has gone on record as calling sugar poison.  She thinks that the Islam religion is inextricably connected to politics, their only desire is to destroy all other religions and cultures, and the Muslims you know who AREN'T like that simply don't know enough about their own religion.

In short, she's a human being.  She has beliefs that I agree with, some I disagree with, and when I disagree, she responds intelligently and engages in reasoned debate.  I hasten to add, I have never changed her mind on any such topics, nor has anyone else. Her work is worth your time.

Right, that's out of the way...

Recently she posted  a series of videos featuring people being "mistreated" by TSA employees; clips that were supposed to display how close to a police state we are, filled with faceless officers that will demand our ID at a whim and come into our houses and take away our butter and rap records.

Here's the problem.  All I saw were two guys deliberately "acting up" to see what would happen.  And in both cases, nothing did, save for some tension and some harsh, even poorly-chosen words.

The first fellow STARTED with "if you touch my junk I'm gonna sue you" and he was surprised that he kept getting passed up the supervisory chain? 

The second guy was recording/broadcasting for his blog was surely hoping and praying that he'd get a response. And after a few minutes of checking over...he didn't get one.  He showed them his ID and his boarding pass, and they let him go.  They kept an eye on him, yes, but he didn't get the rubber truncheon up the jacksie that he was hoping for.  Both started the situation with a confrontational attitude.  Both went in all but assuming that there would be trouble, and feigned surprised when there was.

Penn Jillette once told a story (can't find the original; this is a report on same) about going through security, but his leans toward the security person doing something wrong, and Penn calling them on it.  He got his junk brushed in a pat-down and asked to file a complaint, as he was just assaulted.  They brought any number of people over to address his issues, and it eventually ended with him being offered a VIP service that would allow him to bypass security entirely.  in short, he waited UNTIL something went wrong (however small or inadvertent), and THEN complained. Penn, BTW, is also awesome.

Now, let's spin it around - did the police/TSA/what-have-you overreact?  In the first case, all they did was pass the guy off to the next person because they didn't want to deal with it, or knew they were out of their depth.  All the claims and accusation of 10K in fines were not on the tape - is there a part two as there was with the second fellow?  So in the first case, we have no recordings of anything but the TSA folks explaining that he does have to be searched before he's allowed to board his plane, and interpreting his heigtened reaction as all the more reason of making sure that he is.

I didn't see (well to be fair I didn't see a lot as his video showed almost everything but the cops, but I certainly didn't hear him report) any hands being laid on the second fellow, or any other actionable things that he could legally complain about.  Any ramping up of language was in reaction to his actions.  It's what cops do.  It's a cop's job to keep a situation under control.  So if the cop thinks you're moving away, or moving towards his partner (dog), they're going to do what they feel is necessary to maintain control. And to do ao, they...spoke harshly to him. 

Now yes, absolutely, they could have started with Guy Two by sending over a person better trained in dealing politely with the public, someone who could have started a courteous conversation more to his liking.  But here's what it looked like from the security folks' point of view - a person was videotaping them.  This is permitted, but when a person was asked if they were press, his answer was mumbled and noncommital, and after being asked, he packed up and walked away.  Tell me that isn't gonna set bells off in their heads. 

For all the claims that the guy made that they were so anxious to catch a terrorist over and above the simple desire to keep passengers safe, they let him go without a scratch, or even a terribly good story to tell. When you want to perform an experiment, it's important not to affect the experiment with your own notions or any contamination.  Accusing the TSA people who are talking to you of "liking" the power they wield is pretty much gonna affect their response.  But ultimately, they were able to identify this guy as a blogger who was hoping he'd get a story to get famous with, and let him go. 

It is highly important that we keep changes in our daily lives like these from turning into the nightmare end that people like this constantly insist they will. Keeping an eye on the government is vital.  The methods chosen by these two fellows are of questionable efficacy. 

I lead my life by two quotes:
"If you look for the evil in men, you will always find it."
--Karl Malden (allegedly quoting Abraham Lincoln), Pollyanna

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
--many, including Robert J. Hanlon

Ultimately they both mean the same thing.  I try to go through my life believing that things are done for good reason (or at least good intention), and their failure or going pear-shaped is the cause of poor planning, not Machavellian-level good planning.  If we work under the assumption that the police are out to get us, and every arrest is an attempt to keep us down, we insult the policemen who really are trying to help, and increase the risk that the ones who are on the side of the angels will walk away, unwilling to deal with the daily enshitting. 

We are in an unpleasant period.  The perfect security system is the one that only goes after the guilty, or at least only checks everyone else, because I'M innocent and should just be let through.  Until they invent a device that allows the TSA to see the guilt in a man's soul (an assuming the ACLU would allow them to use it) we are stuck with the various methods we are stuck with.  Similarly, since they involve humans, they will proceed at varying degrees of smoothness. 

So far, the massive two-handed grabs of our liberties that have been predicted have consisted of the occasional two-year-old being mistaken for someone on the no-fly list, and the odd person carrying things in their luggage being mis-identified by security and resulting in some measure of inconvenience to the passengers and occasionally others.  Both fall under the second of the quotes above.  I've heard FAR more stories like these, of people deliberately testing and challenging the system in place, and achieving no more than making life difficult for themselves, and again, the people around them.

Something that I find interesting is that quite often, when people making claims like this hear the arguments that the government is out to, say, take our guns away, those theories are laughed off as ravings of a lunatic paramoid.  Interesting how some accusations of government takeover are seen as gospel and others are seen as manic, depending on which side you're on.

The proper response is not "keep your head down and shut up", nor is it "Never give them a moment to try anything".  Keep your eyes open, maintain oversight, be prepared to call them on errors and infractions, but remember that ultimately, we are dealing with humans, and the mistakes you see may be the fault of bad or incompetent people, and not the system itself.  Scrolling back on Google Society, there is a lot wrong with the entire government; corruption, people out for themselves, and The Peter Principle proving itself over and over.  But the problem is with the people, and not the system that was set up two centuries and change ago.  But as I mentioned before, the act of contaminating, of even measuring, an experiment runs the risk of changing the outcome of the experiment.  Even the grandest of them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On the law of diminished attempt

As you may have noticed, I've got more than a bit of my heart and hope dedicated to the upcoming DC Comic T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. I've spent no small time spreading the word about the book, the original series, any angle I can come up with.

Trying to get a comic reader to try a new book is like trying to convince a kid to eat a new food, and the arguments made are often just as illogical. Every time a new comic comes along, especially one based on an old title, you're going to get a number of pat reasons that a reader will not be trying it:

I don't like that writer/artist/character Perfectly reasonable; no reason you should have to try a book by a person you don't care for.  Of course, there's always the chance this is the book that works for you, but if you've sampled a person's work and don't like it, at least there's some personal experience behind the argument. They have to convince themselves it's worth the look.  But often, even more frustrating is the inverse:

I like the character as he was One of the eternal complaints of the comic fan.  changes get made to a character, sometimes rather small, often quite sweeping, but all too large for some dedicated fans.  The new Blue Beetle had a lo9t going for it, but a lot against it in many fans' eyes.  The argument was that they "deliberately" killed off Ted Kord so they could create a new version of the character, a PC one that exists solely to pander to minorities and special interest groups.  This argument often had an air of "We're not talking about Ted anymore, are we?" but there was no shifting some of the Tedfen.  And it's a damn shame, because the latest Blue Beetle was some of the most lighthearted and entertaining work to come from DC in a long while.  The comics fans may not have taken to him, but the animation fans sure have - the new Blue Beetle has regularly been the most popular character on Brave and the Bold, and the recent live-action CGI test footage DC leaked suggests we'll be seeing more.

Now, an argument based on personal opinion (wrong or right) is damn hard to shift.  I can only get too frustrated over them, even if it's a book I really think a person would like if they gave it a shot.  But the saddest reason I've heard against a new book is...

"What's the point, they're only going to cancel it anyway"

How defeatist does that sound?  That's the argument of a guy who's had one too many (too few, perhaps?) failed relationships and has soured on personal contact in general.  They've gotten into one book too many, only to have it canceled out from under them, leaving them with a small number of issues that almost don't warrant it's own title card in the Longbox. 

And so when the next book comes along, there's one less pair of eyes willing to give it a bash, and the road to cancellation goes just a bit faster.  And they click their tongues and say "you see?" and ask for their three copies of X-Whatevers. 

I hope I never get that jaded.  I'm as dedicated a Ted Kord fan as they come, But when the new book came out, I gave it a fair try, and was delighted at what I found. 

The Kid gave Scratch 9 a look, and it's now her other Wednesday Night Thing, next to her future husband Sonic the Hedgehog. 

The Wife is reading all the Muppet titles, long having forgotten the sting of every comic she put her love into getting pulled away like a teacher grabbing your baseball cards after the bell rang.  She's STILL getting over the cancellation of Lloyd Llewellyn.

But here's the deal - you never know what book is going to be good.  Keep your eyes open, at least give the various previews a look, and don't just give up and buy a new cushion for your rut.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the hardest-working lycanthrope in show business

Just about every city had a horror host at some time in its history. New York had the legendary John Zacherle, the Bay Area had the decidedly not horrific Bob Wilkins, and before he became the voice of ABC television and Parkay margarine (not to mention the father of director Paul Thomas), Ernie Anderson was world famous in Cleveland as Ghoulardi. Even Boston comedian Lenny Clarke had a movie show on WSBK called (creatively) the Lenny Clarke Late Show, featuring Denis Leary and Martin Olson. Back in the day, the horror host was often a second job for someone at the station, like how the weatherman also used to host the kiddie show. This was remembered fondly on SCTV, where Horror/kiddie show host Count Floyd was "actually" the news anchorman Floyd Robertson (both of course played by Joe Flaherty). Kids' shows and horror shows were often the most creative places in television; neither were paid much attention to by the brass, they often shared cast and crew (usually heard laughing from behind the camera), and there was a feeling that they could do anything they wanted. And slowly but surely that creativity was rewarded. More teens and adults started watching, and the shows took on a pop-charm. In most cases, kids show hosts are a beloved as the horror hosts. Sandy Becker, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, Bob McAlister...and that's just New York City.

That freewheeling atmosphere is largely gone now. Shows, especially kids' shows, are carefully pored over for anything offensive, valuable lessons are shoehorned in, and gone, gone are the days where violence and slapstick could be seen in its unedited form. So when I hear of a show that throws back to the good old days, all or nothing days, the Kukla Fran and Ollie days, I'm happy to hear about it.

Which is why for the last couple of days, I've been getting emails from a wolfman, apologizing for not catching up with me.

Wolfman Mac and his enhancement talent,
Boney Bob
Mac Kelly is the creator, star and damn near everything else of Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In. He produces the show in Pontiac, Michigan and syndicates it on a number of regional TV channels, and nationally via the Retro TV cable channel network. Of the dozens of local horror show hosts across America, his show has the biggest distribution, in a head-to-head race with Elvira's recently-revived program. But at its core it's an old school low budget local horror show - volunteers running the lights, people bringing extension cords from home, the lot. Everyone pitching in for their love of the medium, like a Hammer horror film made by the Little Rascals. And that is the sum of its charm.

He was happy to agree to an interview, but has been so busy with appointments, appearances, and business meetings that went late into the night we only got to meet up today. The show started as Nightmare Sinema on cable access, got a spot on a local station in Detroit, and just got a national syndication through Retro TV last November, a deal that came just in time.

"It was last October that we got our national syndication," recalls Mac. "I had been contacting RetroTV and a couple other networks for months and months. And I was at one of my advertisers, and it was one of those days where there was NO money coming in. Halloween was coming up, we had no merchandise, we had nothing. And I remember saying, 'I think I've brought this about as far as I can bring it.' And no lie, twenty minutes later I get the call from Retro TV saying 'All right, I'm gonna put your show into 80 million homes, get me some programming immediately. Bye!' Alright, well I guess we're gonna keep this going!'

Getting that national deal wasn't exactly the road to fame and fortune, however. His income comes solely through the ad dollars he can sell for the show. So while he was hustling the show himself when it was local, now he's doing the same thing on a larger scale.

"It's definitely been a labor of love. There was a point over last winter where I was wrapping my tennis shoes in duct tape to keep the snow out. I had to sleep in my studio, because it's carpeted, and it's the only area that's closed in. The building doesn't have any heat, and I had a couple of space heaters, and I slept on couch cushions for months until we had some advertising sold, get back out and get my own place. There was a time, not too long ago that I was homeless, doing this, past the point where a lot of people would say "Give up". I went days, days not eating. And my people would show up at the studio and there would be no sign that I was living there. They'd get there and I'd throw open the doors, "Hey c'mon in, NOTHING's going on!" This has definitely been a struggle, by all means, but we're so close. We're about five, six months away before we're at a position where I can finally compensate myself properly, my cast and crew... But right now, I manage, two times a week, for about sixty episodes, round up thirty to forty volunteers to come in and do a TV show."

He's been offered work on radio, which is where his career started, but he's dedicated to making the show a hit. "First, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and once I proved to myself that I could, I wanted to become a household name, because I loved the horror movies. And now, now that at times this production has brought me literally and physically to my knees, it's a mission. I want to show we've done something new, no one's done this kind of format before, we created it out of thin air. I want to prove we can make a success of this."

He's made a few enemies in the mean time...people he's never even met. "There are people who hate what I'm doing, who want to keep the show off the air, JUST because I keep the show family-friendly. Those people speak out against me, do YouTube videos about me, say that I've got a kiddie show. They don't like that I'm this kind of horror host.

"One of the very few successful horror hosts out there is Elvira. I talked to Cassie (Cassandra Petersen back in April, and she told me there were some plans to be bringing her back. And that's fine. We have a very different show, we have a situation comedy; Seinfeld meets the Munsters. I just went to a convention a few months ago. There's 150 horror hosts in this country. And the only ones doing what we're doing are Elvira and me. The only difference is she has the million-dollar sponsors. When the camera goes off, she gets to be Cassie Peterson again; I gotta get on the phone and sell advertising."

If you watch the show, you'll see the grinning visage of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, High epopt of the Church of the Sub-Genius. But while Mac loves the organization, he defines himself as "spiritual but not religious". He is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, however, and is legally able to officiate at weddings, something he's done for a couple of years now. He'll be performing a mass ceremony this Halloween, his second annual. But it's a more personal philosophy that's kept him going in this quest to make his dream a reality.

"Before The Secret and laws of Attraction became the chic thing to do, the hot book to read, these were principles I knew as a kid and a teenager, bringing things into my life that I'd work on and focus towards. It's very much how the television came to be. And while there's not any money on the table right now, and I drive a $200 cargo van, I believe with all my heart that this show is about to become successful.

"A lot of people talk about 'When I lose the weight...when the kids get to that age...when the house is paid off' Those times never come, and there's never a good time to do it. And that's been my whole thing this whole time. Even lying in the dark, shivering, knowing that I'm doing something good. And I get cards from kids, drawing pictures of me, and we just keep going. And I know it's gonna pay off, I know it's gonna happen. All the hard work is there."

It is indeed.

Wolfman Mac's Chiller Drive-In runs Saturday nights at 10PM on the Retro TV digital television network. Check their website to see if there's a local station in your area, and check with your local cable channel to get them to pick it up.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On the challenges of writing a comic book about scary Forn Parts

I'm begging you, PLEASE forget that The 99 has Muslims in it. 

Forget that it was created by a Muslim professor specifically to give Muslim children some positive role models so they don't grow up thinking that the guys with exploding jackets are cool.  Forget that the concept, origin and themes of the book are based on the 99 aspects of Allah, and that similar concepts pervade the book.  Forget that it's staggeringly popular in other countries (Muslim and non), not only because it's entertaining, but because they have heroes that a Muslim child can look at and identify with.

Because let's face it, you don't know bugger-all about the Muslim religion, and if you didn't read in the paper that this was all so, you'd never know.

You know the story of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the other 999 nights?  Muslims.  Has anyone asked Disney to pull copies of their film off the shelves or stop showing off the characters in the theme parks?

The origin issue of The 99 starts at the fall of Baghdad; the Mongols overran the city, razed it utterly, and destroyed the most expansive library of the time, throwing the books in the Tigris river, the ink turning the river black. All that really happened.  The comic starts with the knowledge from the books being absorbed into 99 gems with the help of a magic potion.  The gems give the bearers superpowers.

Now that's a HELL of a White Event, and if you didn't get told that it had deliberate Muslim overtones you'd just think it was as cool as any version of the Thief of Baghdad with its flying carpets and giant genies.

This book has gotten almost no distribution in America.  I got ahold of the first few issues, and never saw another one.  I asked my local comic shop how many had come out; they thought they'd gotten the first mini-series done and that was it.  A check of the website shows that they've done twenty-five issues to date.  Two years of monthly issues, and I'll lay odds you won't be able to find a single copy of a single issue in a store near you, save MAYBE for the origin issue, because everybody picks up first issues.

Some people are starting to notice the limited distribution of the .  There's a guy on eBay trying to get upwards of 25 dollars for the first few issues of the book.  Bear in mind, they're all available digitally from the 99 website for $1.99 each. 

A full year ago, DC announced they'd be doing a crossover with The 99 and the JLA.  Y'all had a full year to learn about the characters.  How many did?  The talk show circuit glommed onto the idea that a Muslim Comic Book existed, and that Superman was to appear with them, and had to put on new shirts cause the drool stains looked horrible.  I really don't want to turn this into a tirade about the short-sighted way most people are seeing anything connected to Muslim culture but...well, if it walks like a camel, and spits like a camel...

I know I've rather buried the lead on this piece, but the lack of fair looks this book has been getting has infuriated me, and I really thought it needed venting.

The first issue of JLA / The 99 came out this week, and to be terribly honest, if you don't know dicky-bird about The 99 (and most of you don't), it won't make a lick of sense. Which is why at the very least you should download the origin issue FOR FREE from the 99 website. It takes place on Earth-Crossover; Superman is not on walkabout, Wonder Woman appears in her new costume but not in a dystopian landscape, and there's only one Batman.  The mini (and the regular series) is written by Fabian Nicieza and Stuart Moore, who as far as I know are not on any government watch lists.  It starts with a promising moment of cooperation that gangs quickly aglay, and ends with the tease of a new Noor Stone and new member of The 99.  The concept of intolerance being used as a weapon by the bad guys is an obvious direction to take the book, but Fabe & Stu keep it from becoming hammer-handed. The art by Tom Derenick and Drew Geraci is clean and impressive.  It is worth your time, as is the regular series.  They are doing a great job of showing that there are swarthy people in the world who do nopt want to blow us up.  We could do worse than to meet them half-way.

Similarly but less controversially, Paul Cornell is writing a book that is steeped in the mysticism and culture of a foreign country, is filled with references to its ancient practices, and is drop-dead awesome.  In his case, the country is England, and the book is Knight and Squire.  Grant Morrison brought back the Batmen Of Other Lands club in his R.I.P. arc, and K&S were the breakout stars.  Paul Cornell, who writes for Doctor Who, and was nominated for numerous awards after his Captain Britain title was canceled at Marvel, was handed the job of expanding the brief glimpse of Superhero Britain that Grant gave us, and he has run with it.  He plays England the way most Americans think of it - a strange land steeped in magic, strange accents, and tea.  The entire first issue takes place in a magical pub where the heroes and villains meet to drink and schmooze, protected from attacking each other by a magical spell.  The spell, of course, wears off.  In three pages he introduces more new characters than the average title does in a year of Wednesdays.  This is a book so full of creativity that it must be read standing up, for fear of spilling any.  Cornell is also doing a bang-up job on Action Comics, about which I have already kvelled.  He's about to take on Batman proper as well, and I expect that story to have a much darker bent, once again keeping the reader surprised as to how much he can do.

Both books do a great job of entertaining and letting you see other peoples and cultures without being pedantic about it.  Pick up on them.

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the relative legal safety of saying "no"

"Think twice, and then say nothing"  --Ancient Sinanju proverb

I'm a big fan of Opie and Anthony, as now heard on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio channel 202.  I mentioned some months back that they had gotten permission to run their Homeless Shopping Spree, in which forgoten men are given cash, are escorted to a local upper-class mall and allowed to purchase whatever they like, all while being chronicled on-air.  The whole crux of the bit is to watch the reactions of the stores as these guys toddle in, cash in hand.  I hasten to add, in the four or five times they've done it, there has not been ONE incident; nothing has been stolen or destroyed, no violence has occurred; indeed, since the customers have cash and are usually accompanied by dozens, even hundreds of O&A fans, it's the best day of sales the stores have in a while.

The Lawyers (Or as Opie refers to them, "The babysitters"), however, wanting to make sure that nothing would happen (both litigiously and comedically) and suggested they CALL the malls ahead of time and ASK if they could bring a busload of homeless people to their establishment.  This would rather ruin the spontaneity of the bit, and it was, alas, cancelled. 

This is an example of the new standard in entertainment today, and in "shock jock" radio in specific, and in the case of O&A even more specifically.  The legal departments of stations, networks, etc work through endless Worst Case Scenarios, mentally running progressively unlikely simulations to see how many might end in "...and then we get sued and lose the house".  It's the kind of things your parents would warn you about when you were a teenager; if you do X, Y will happen and they'll come after US! (*). So the lawyers, in an attempt to nip such situations in the proverbial bud, either say said stunt, bit or parody cannot be done, or attempt to buffer it with so many disclaimers or codicils as to remove any possible comedy from the thing. 

Example: radio shows cannot do prank calls anymore.  It's one of the things that made Don Imus' name back in the day - he'd call businesses and ask for outrageous things. His first album, "1,200 Hamburgers to Go" features a number of them, featuring an attempt to rent a car to be used in the Indy 500.  It's a standard bit, been done for ages.  But nowadays, in the litigious world we live in, you can't DO that anymore;  you either have to call the company ahead of time and WARN them that they will be pranked (again, removing the potential humor entirely) or just fake the whole thing.  I'm rather surprised they haven't decided that faking a prank call is in some way misleading to the listener, who could then sue for mental cruelty or some such.  (Perhaps I should keep my damn mouth shut...)

This morning, O&A were talking about the potential return of a classic bit they've been doing since they were on terrestrial radio, without complaint, repercussion or incident; a bit called "What the hell is THAT!?!"  In it, a number of listeners would come to the studio, all having assorted growths or other Things They Should really Get Looked At, and get examined by actual doctors, live on the show.  Now the true purpose of the bit is not to help people, but to give the gang the opportunity to look at assorted growths and react/mock accordingly.  But considering at least one guy was warned that a thing in his mouth might be cancerous, there is some potential good to come of it (the event was enough to get comedian and Third Mike on the show Jim Norton to give up smoking on the spot.  And FTR, the guy got it checked and it was benign, but hey, better safe, right?) 

Again, I must stress, NEVER has an O&A bit resulted in any legal action.  Indeed, they've never resulted in anything other than outstanding ratings and a few letters from peiople who likely didn't ever hear said bit, just heard ABOUT it.  That last one, The Bit Of Which We Do Not Speak, resulted in getting them fired, but again, more as a result of the publicity than any actionable damage.

So anyway, this on-air diagnostic bit, the kind of thing they've been doing for years, and the kind of things the people like Dr. Oz and Dr. Dean Edell make a CAREER at, is being "looked at" by the lawyers from XM.  And why?  Not because it's gone wrong before, but because it might concievably go wrong in some unlikely way in the future.

Similarly, frequent guest of the program Dr. Steve (star of his own show, "Weird medicine" also on channel 202) is now being checked and double-checked for his next appearance.  The desired bit - Dr. Steve would attempt to break the world record for the most prostate exams in a four-hour period.  Again, Dr. Steve is an actual doctor.  And  bear further in mind, he ALREADY gives medical advice over the radio on that very station, without incident or issue, by adding a simple disclaimer that any advice given should be double-checked by your own doctor, yadda-yadda-blither-blather.  But when presented with this bit now, the lawyers asked, "Is Dr. Steve licensed in New York State?"  Because they feared that his sticking fingers up people hinders might be misconstrued as practicing medicine in the state without a license.  Never been an issue before, but all it takes is one guy in a suit saying "Yeah, but what if...?" and the brakes are hit hard.

Comedian Rich Vos got it exactly right when he said, referring to the people who make these decisions, "No one will ever get fired for saying 'no' to something."  We live in a CYA world now where it's safer to say no to something risky.  Regardless of the upside of saying yes, it's easier to play safe and go with what's been done before.  It's why we rarely see something new on television, and as soon as we do, it's immediately copied to death, as it is now a safe and proven idea.

In today's world, Mr. Carlson would never have been allowed to bring those turkeys anywhere NEAR that helicopter.

Lawyers have successfully created a new market for themselves, that of coming up with scenarios where a company MIGHT get sued, and then warning them about it.  And because there have been so many outlandish suits in the recent past (Your honor, the floor wax label did not actually SAY it could not be used to wash dishes...), the companies do not just laugh the nightmare scenarios out of the room.  Because, of course, once they've been warned such a scenario MIGHT happen and then move forward anyway, they are even MORE liable should it occur.  Back to the earlier comparison, it's like when your mother (or god help you, spouse) says "Make sure you don't XYZ" which all but puts the curse on it, making SURE it will happen if you choose to go ahead anyway.

But here's the really annoying bit.  Who put us in the situation where lawyers can point to the crazy lawsuits that have cost companies millions of dollars?  OTHER LAWYERS.  Whenever a person has an accident that was clearly his fault and could have been avoided with a modicum of common sense, there will be a lawyer who can spin a situation that makes it the fault of the place and company at which it happened.  And it's been proven that juries tend to side with the plaintiff in such cases, not because they think the company was actually liable, but because they think the person "deserves" the money, and because they hope that one day THEY will be lucky enough to get to sue a company and don't want to mess up their karma by saying this guy shouldn't get his bit'a sumthin-sumthin'.

Now here's the happy ending.  No, none of the bits have gotten approved (yet), but O&A took the incident to the air, went on about it, and turned it into about an hour of RIVETING radio.  They've had years of practice, but O&A can make some tasty lemonade.

(*)This bit copyright Kevin "That's Not Right" Meany, who is likely still using it in his act.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On the challenges of bringing home the bacon when your nemesis is a giant radioactive porcine alien

In a column on Newsarama, Jill Pantozzi, AKA The Nerdy Bird posited the summer of the Teen Titans.  In it, she posits the kind of jobs that the team might take over the summer, and how they gang aglay.

But in such frippery, she sheds light on an equally fripperous and intriguing DOES the average superhero support hirself?

The Big Three sort of don't count - Batman is calamitously wealthy, and Superman doesn't need to eat; he has a job largely just to keep in touch with Humanity.  Wonder Woman, at least before the recent (presumed temporary, but what do I know) revamp was royalty of an independent nation, and as such fairly set should something arise which requires a sudden application of funds.  Even Aquaman's financial needs are largely moot - if he sees something on QVC he wants, he just needs to go for a swim and pull up a chest of booty or two.  He probably gets them appraised by Carter Hall to save time.

But that leaves a fairly large number of heroes at varied alphabetical plateaus who have lairs to support, jobs to hold down, and in the case of the younger adventurers, research papers to finish.  Rather a burden to bear.

We already know that Bruce Wayne is not new to helping out a friend - He owns several apartment houses in the fashionable end of Metropolis, and has arranged it so that a newspaper reporter and his wife got to the top of the waiting list forone of the better locations on Clinton Street.  We also know that Ollie Queen was secretly funding The Outsiders, which was of course started by Batman several incarnations ago.  With these two facts in place, it's fairly easy to extrapolate a fairly diverse support network for the crimefighters of the DCU.

Once a hero establishes themselves (and has their first crossover), it can be assumed that certain doors open to them.  Jobs with subsidiaries of Waynetech or Queen Industries are likely available in most metropolitan areas, positions with hours in varied shifts, with managers who are very understanding of the need for unexplained absences.  For the younger vigilante, scholarship materials to local colleges will start to arrive in their mailbox, possibly with applications already filled out. 

Paul Gambi doesn't take too many new clients, but once in a while he'll get a name left on his counter and calls are made offering his services.  Equipment manufacturers are a secretive, circumspect lot, but when you get a note with a drawing of a bat at the bottom, you get a new catalog printed up and mailed out toot sweet.

The JSA has been offering training to new heroes for some time now, which again, is likely financed by the heroes themselves.  Alan Scott was quite the media magnate in his day - odds are he sold off his holdings for a tidy sum, if indeed he sold them at all.  He likely owns a nice piece of Galaxy Communications.  Ted Knight may live like a pug, but he owns that gym outright, and likely most of the surrounding block.  Tyler chemicals was quite the powerhouse in its day as well.  It's safe to say the JSA are solvent enough to handle some Extreme Makeover: Headquarters Editions on their own. 

Then there's the question of licensing.  While there will ever be people who claim that it's perfectly legal to slap a hero's face or logo on a shirt as a public figure, there are always lawyers who show up and quietly explain that there's a holding company that can be worked with to create approved products, and in doing so help various charitable endeavors. 

Nobody's gonna get rich as a superhero (not without getting a stern talking to a la Booster Gold) but it's fair to assume that with sufficient proof of dedication, the job can be made at least a little bit easier.

And by the way, the aforementioned Mam'zelle Pantozzi has been appearing on the annual MDA telethon for years, first as one of "Jerry's Kids" living with muscular dystrophy; she's now old and successful (and pretty) enough to help host the New York City local event.  Making a donation to fight this spectrum of disorders, even after the end of the Lewisian baccanal, is a good thing to do with your money.  Donate at, or text "MDA" TO 20222 and a donation of $10 will be placed on your next phone bill.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On the ability to believe a man can perambulate

There's a recurring question that pops up among comics readers to the effect of "With all the alien tech that falls to Earth in one form or another, how is the Earth of DC or Marvel not decades or centuries ahead of us technologically?" And believe me, we can go on for HOURS coming up with explanations - the government grabs it all, there are advances but they're minor and in the background, etc.

But in simple fact, the reason is far more logical. If the world of the DC Universe were as advanced as it should logically be based on the number of alien devices and superintelligent inventors, it would become a world of the science-fictiony future. And that’s a world a lot of readers wouldn’t be able to identify with, and it’d turn them off. A superhero comic and a science-fiction comic aren’t the same thing, so the general standing is to keep the street-level world as similar to ours as possible. Unless they’re collateral damage, people on the street only see the superheroes when they look up.

In Superman, JMS has brought Superman down to street-level in his “Grounded” arc. Superman is taking a Forrest Gump-like (I am SO sure he’s sick of that comparison) walk across America, partly to help restore their faith in him after the New Krypton mishegas, partly for him to re-connect to the “normal” people of the country, and partly to get a cheap pop in sales and publicity as he walks through each city. This month in Superman #702, he walks through Detroit, a city with no small number of real-life problems. He talks to a number of city-dwellers, but spends more time talking to a group of alien scientists who are hiding from their oppressive home planet in human garb. They make it clear that they mean Earth no harm, just want to live their lives in paranoid solitude, etc. Superman believes them, but feels they shouldn’t just hide out; like all immigrants, it’s almost their responsibility to contribute to the country, either culturally, or in their case technologically.

The aliens do a good job of calling him out on this, pointing out that he’s an alien as well, resulting in a nice “That’s different” moment. And considering that Superman and his family isn’t exactly peppering the planet with Kryptonian technology, or forcing the Amazons to send plans for the Purple Ray to the countries of the world, etc, his request isn’t exactly fair.

Long story short, he convinces them that sharing their technology could result in an astounding amount of benefit to the world, as well as to the city of Detroit. In the span of two panels (and what HAD to have been a period of weeks if not more), the aliens have cut a back-room deal with the government to allow them to buy up a bunch of disused auto factories and start manufacturing products extrapolated from their alien tech. So in the proverbial swell foop he both makes the aliens more safe on Earth and helps provide jobs for many thousands of Detroit workers, very possibly bringing about a total revitalization of the city.

I’m curious how the people are Detroit are gonna feel about that ending when they read the book. I fully expect some profiteering headline-whore to chastise it, saying it in some way diminishes the plight of the city or some such crap.

But it’s an example of what I’m talking about – with all the aliens and such in the DCU, this kind of thing should be happening left and right. I know Luthor wasn’t able to grow wheat in Africa back in Heroes for Hunger, but that was DECADES ago – I’ll lay odds that with sufficient impetus, he could grow turkeys in Astroturf.

But by doing so, it potentially minimizes the severity of the issue in question. It’s why Babs Gordon remains wheelchair bound. It’s why there’s no World Trade Center in comics anymore. In the Marvel U, Damage control could and should have rebuilt the Twin Towers almost immediately. Yet they remain down.

YES, Superman and his new alien friends could cure cancer. Superman brings them a ex-autoworker obviously dying of some massive lung complaint and says to them, “fix him or I’ll blow the whistle on you”. But by doing so, it changes the rules in which that world plays.

Watchmen is one of the only comics that really looked at the effect of a godlike being would have on the world. The Cold War ended instantly. He was able to generate the materials to build low-size high-capacity batteries, so electric cars became plentiful and cheap. But interestingly, the street-level world didn’t change all that much. There were poor people, there were newsstands; it wasn’t THAT different. So maybe all that technology wouldn’t make that much a difference after all.

Will these aliens ever be mentioned again? Or the sudden renaissance of Detroit they will likely cause? I’ll bet no. Unless it’s a seed for a plot he’s working on later, they’ll likely fall into the disused plot pile, along with all the other things that you’d think would change the world, but never seemed to get used for anything more complicated than robbing banks.

I’m liking JMS’ Superman issues, don’t get me wrong. The stories are working. But placing this godlike creature among mortal men just drives home the point of how hard it is to have them both in the same story. You need a hell of a big lens to keep them both in focus. It’s easier to write a story where he’s towing Saturn back into orbit than one where he helps build a house. Because some smart-ass is gonna ask “Why don’t YOU just build it?”

He’s doing it well, but I’m not sure how long it’ll stay interesting. Eventually I’m going to want to see Superman face Superman-level threats. Till then, I’ll be happy to read this 21st century superpowered remake of Route 66.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On the reward for a year of patient silence

I'm quivering. I'm giggling like a schoolgirl, and don't know what to do with my hands.

There's not a facet of the news about the rebirth of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents that doesn't make me happy.

First off, they're sidestepping the whole origin retcon problem perfectly - it all happened. The entire Tower run is now solidly part of DC Continuity, in its entirety, unchanged. This also means they took place as much as 50 years ago, if they choose to place them in the 60's. This is AMAZINGLY cool. It puts the Agents in the same area as the Challs - the sole defense the world had against outlandish threats, from the era between the JSA and the modern heroes.

Yes, that means that aside from Dr. Dunn, we'll get all new agents. But that really works for me. As I've said before, it's entirely possible to give a new guy the suit and retain the feel of the original. And I'll be very curious to see what folks they choose.

They kept the "core", to revisit the concept I've touched on recently - their powers are slowly killing them. The Thunderbelt puts strain on Dynamo's nervous system, Lightning's suit ages him every time he gives it the gas, and Menthor...well, I'm quite keen to see what the side effects of the helmet are now. Now yes, the idea has been used in comics before, one favorite was in Strikeforce: Morituri. But it's a concept that's got LOTS of possibilities.

I'm assuming the fellow in the business suit is the new Menthor. It's a neat idea, and considering the original Menthor suit bore a passing resemblance to The Atom's togs, they'd only have had to think up new ones anyway.

Only NoMan will remain as an active member from the original team. Which means that Dr. Dunn has been living in a series of android bodies for a couple DECADES. There is a LOT of potential there. People start hallucinating after a couple of hours in those sensory deprivation tanks. He's functionally been in one for years. And the idea of being able to swap out of your body right before you die. You ever have a dream where you're dying and you wake up at the last second? Odds are that's what it feels like. What's the effect on a mind after that happens a couple hundred times, but you're not dreaming?

So SO many questions. Exactly how long ago did the original series happen? Will we see a new version of the THUNDER Squad? Or the Undersea Agent? What of the 80's revival will be considered canon? How will the team interact with the rest of the DCU, and organizations like Checkmate?

It is going to be a VERY long time till November. Luckily there will be several conventions between now and then at which to wheedle information from them.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On yet another costume intended to attract attention and generate debate

If you haven't seen it yet, Entertainment Weekly has Ryan Reynolds in his Green Lantern outfit on the cover of their special Comic-Con preview issue.  And predictably, it's generated some comment.

I do have some problems with the outfit, but likely not the ones most have.  The mask looks a bit odd.  It's too low in the middle, which makes the sides look almost pointy.  The lines of (I presume) energy look like they're supposed to mimic the sinews of muscle.  It's interesting, but makes the suit look too busy.  I'm hoping that's more of a "climactic" effect, to give the look of his body bursting with energy, perhaps after drawing a charge directly from the central battery. 

But here's the thing.  The pic is billed as a "first look", and that's exactly what it is.  With almost a full year until the premiere, I'll lay odds this design will change.  It's one of the mixed blessings of CGI effects - you can tweak it until quite close to the release date. 

In fact, I'm betting this isn't even actual CGI output.  It looks much more like Photoshop.  Take a look at the hi-res copy of the pic at Newsarama.  The mask looks rather flat, much more like it's just painted on his face, as opposed to the more solid look that you'd assume a mask would have, even one generated by the ring, as this one allegedly is.  The colors of the suit are flat, with not too much texture.  I'm betting this is only a pale shadow of what the final product will be.

My copy will likely be waiting for me at home today or tomorrow, and if there are more pictures inside, I'll be able to make a more educated decision.  But right now, my decision is that I can't MAKE a decision.  You can't make a decision on the film based on one picture.

At least, not any more.  I remember when that picture of Michael Keaton in his Bat-gear showed up in, of all things, TIME magazine.  The photo was intended to calm the fans down, to make sure we understood that this was to be a serious take on the character, not a comedy, regardless of the choice of star.  And it worked - there wasn't a comic shop in the country that didn't have a copy of that pic posted.  You could hear the sigh of relief, followed by the first of many held breaths over the next decades as our anticipation built.

But that suit was a physical thing. They were almost finished filming by the time that photo hit.  If fandom cried foul, they had no way to change it.  With the GL costume being CGI, if there's a hue and cry about it, they can change it with relative ease.

If there's any fully-rendered effects yet, they exist solely to show at Comic-Con next week.  And even they may change in 12 months.

There will be PLENTY of leaked footage, in-progress effects shots and photographs taken from 3 miles away using  L.B. Jeffries' telephoto lens from Rear Window for you to make your mind up about the film before it opens.  Don't hang all your outrage on a last-minute slapped together piece to get a shot on the EW cover.  Save it, parcel it out over time.  If you declare the film crap now, you run the risk of being ignored for the next year.  And if there's one thing the children of the internet fear, it's being ignored.

Friday, July 9, 2010

On a successful destruction of another part of my childhood

I've told these stories before, but I told them long enough ago I think I can get away with telling them again. I've always had a sort of emotional attachment to The Atom, DC's Silver-age version of the Mighty Mite. One of my few memories of my father is of him reading me the origin of the Atom. And from way back then, I remembered Ray Palmer's little mnemonic for the difference between stalactites and stalagmites -

Stalactite has a 'C' in it! Let that stand for Ceiling! Stalagmite has a 'G' in it! Let that stand for ground!
Over a decade and change later, in high school Earth Science class, our teacher had just finished this really horrible story that was supposed to help us remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. As soon as he finished, I raised my hand, and quoted Professor Palmer's mnemonic perfectly. My teacher looked at me, and to paraphrase Robin Harris, he hung up cause he knew I was right.

So suffice to say, I know the origin of the Atom pretty well. Ray Palmer finds a piece of dwarf star matter and uses it to perfect his shrink ray. By passing sunlight through a lens he created (now with a dwarf star coating) he can shrink things, but they promptly explode due to instability. During a spelunking expedition (from which came the aforementioned mnemonic) there's a cave-in, trapping the class. He happens to have the lens with him, so he decides to sacrifice himself by using it on himself. He sets the lens between two outcroppings and aims a beam of sunlight through it. He succeeds and makes a small hole large enough to let everyone escape. With seconds to go before he expects to explode, he passes through the beam again, and is surprised and relieved to find out he is restored to normal. Apparently some water dripped onto the lens, water that passed through the walls of the cave and picked up trace minerals that somehow stabilized the shrinking process. He retrieves the lens and helps everyone escape through the opening he created. And by his next appearance he perfected the process, made himself a costume and joined the DC pantheon of heroes.

Now that's pretty much a textbook silver-age origin. A series of wild coincidences, some pseudo science and heaping helping of OH, COME ON. But it works. It's a jumping off point, it's a story that doesn't need to be addressed all that often and serves to get the hero into the costume. It's not changed one iota (which would have been a great name for the character as well) since it was written. Through Crisis and revamp, Ray's simple tale has remained unassailed. The only nod to reality it got was the space rock was now merely infused with Dwarf Star Matter, as opposed to being a solid chunk. I believe that tweak came some time back, as some clever arse noticed that a solid piece of dwarf star matter A) wouldn't exist since stars are made of incendescent gas, and B) would weigh something like 14 godzillion pounds (or 6.350293178 godzillion kilograms). But other than that, nothing.

Until yesterday, when Jeff (Sweet Tooth) Lemire all but entirely rewrote it in the Brightest Day Atom Special.

Now here's where you expect the old fart comics fan to rail and moan about change for the sake of change, and how it was perfectly acceptable before and why did it have to ruin it, yakkity schmakkity blither blather.

But here's the thing. He NAILED it. He makes several major changes, but none are negative, and none make Ray any less Ray.

Let me explain. There's a sort of paradoxical concept from literature know as the Ship of Theseus. They all center around the idea that a beloved object, over time, gets fixed, parts replaced, and eventually, there's not a bit of the original object left, but it's still that object. Terry Pratchett used the "my Grandfather's Axe" version of the story twice, once in Strata and more recently in The Fifth Elephant. The point is, you can swap out all the bits of something, but if you're careful, never lose the intrinsic…thingness of the thing.

Sometimes some comic revamps are so radical they DO lose "the thing and the whole of the thing". The threatened Fantastic Four moving to the suburbs, for example. And in most cases, the really embarrassing missteps go away, either via another revamp or just a sort of embarrassed shuffling of the feet and everyone kind of agreeing to never mention that again. But here, the changes are not outlandish, and even when they contradict previous stories, they do so in ways that interest me, and not outrage me.

Case in point - In the new origin, he perfects the shrinking process himself, as opposed to a freak accident involving dripping water. It's not as exciting and dramatic, but it actually makes Ray a BETTER scientist. He solved his own problem, as opposed to a lucky accident.

In the new origin, he already had the costume ready. Well, so what? Come on, he says it himself, you don't build a shrink ray without at least thinking of using it on yourself. And he explains that the suit is to house the shrinking apparatus and not just to save people and get babes. It's similar to the idea they tried in the Flash TV series, that the suit was originally designed to monitor his vitals and keep from overheating (tho how wearing foam rubber from head to toe keeps you from overheating is beyond me). Having his first appearance still be connected to a cave-in is a nice tip of the hat to the original story.

Jeff's also added a whole family for Ray to have sad memories about. Now to be fair, that's becoming somewhat de rigueur nowadays, as in Geoff Johns' revamps of both Green Lantern and Flash. And it seems pretty obvious to me that Ray's mysterious uncle is either...

A) His real father
B) Himself, or possibly one of his enemies (most likely Chronos or someone with access to the Time Pool) trying to make sure his eventual adulthood and shrink-ray creation goes smoothly.
C) Some mad combination of the two.

Don't get me wrong, these are pretty major changes. But like so many DC characters, The Atom went through more than a few radical changes in vector. He became a teeny-weeny John Carter Of The Front Lawn, got de-aged to a teenager, and had more shit piled onto his fragile psyche by his ex-wife than any one man deserves. Roger Stern gave him a family background in the Power of the Atom series - supposedly he's an only child. But AFAIC, since that was added DECADES after the character first appeared, it's not quite the same level of cement-solid canon as other details.

Now I won't lie to you, I REALLY liked Ryan Choi. Or perhaps more correctly, I liked Gail Simone's writing on All New Atom, and the absolutely wacky concepts she introduced. Of them all, the idea that Ivy Town, as a result of all the quantum compression, time travel and dimensional experimentation it's hosted over the years, is now parked halfway into the Outer Limits. I LOVED that. It was an easy setup for a ridiculous amount of story ideas. It's something I'd sorely love to see again.

But by re-telling Ray's origin, Jeff gives a whole new audience a chance to jump on with the character, and pretty much takes him back closer to his original concept than he's been at for quite a long time. He's more sure of himself, no more of that "size=self-esteem" crap. He's back at Ivy U, with Professor Hyatt. And he's a hero again.  These are good things.

In short, Jeff ends up with a story that is still the story my father told me.

Tell you what, Jeff...have him use the Stalactite/Stalagmite story in a future episode, and it'll be perfect.