Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On the countdown to the Alpocalypse

So "Weird Al" Yankovic made the papers lately.  You might have heard about it.

Allegedly, Lady Gaga, a popular vocalist, refused Al permission to include a parody of her song "Born This Way" on his album.  Specifically, her manager asked Al to actually write, record and submit the parody, a series of hoops that no artist had ever requested.  After doing so, Gaga's manager, Troy Carter, told Al that she had decided against the song being included.

After a moment of frustration, Al did what he did when Atlantic Records vetoed the James Blunt parody "You're Pitiful" (even after Blunt himself gave permission, but feared he didn't have the clout to overrule the label): he posted it on the Internet for free.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On the passing of royalty

She was the queen of the Companions.  She was a reporter that could have, on her worst day, gone toe-to-toe with Lois Lane.  Of all the passengers of the TARDIS who had come before, she was the first that you got the feeling that Something could be Going On between her and The Doctor.  We will not see her equal, and she is gone from us too soon. 907 years would have been too soon.

Elisabeth Sladen passed away today, reportedly of complications from cancer. Doctor Who website Gallifrey One confirmed the news with a report from Nicola Bryant, who played Peri Brown on the show. 
Sladen's early acting career started with an uncredited role in 1965, and included a brief run on British perennial Coronation Street and police procedural Z Cars.  It was her work on Z Cars that got her suggested to the production staff at Doctor Who when they were looking for a new actress to work against Jon Pertwee.  Her performance as intrepid reporter Sarah Jane Smith on the show was the one that would make her a household name.  When she left the series five years hence, her departure made the news, one of the first times events on the program were covered by the media.

She continued to appear in other shows and productions, but her career would always lead her back to Who in one fashion or another.  After a pilot for a series, teaming her up with "Tin dog" K-9. she returned for the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors and some years later for the Children in Need charity performance Dimensions in Time.  She appeared in a series of radio format plays from Big Finish, a fan-run company that produced authorized Doctor Who adventures for many years, including the period that the show was off-air.

When the series returned, hopes rose high that we'd see Ms. Sladen reprise her classic role; when she did in the adventure School Reunion, to say it was a success would be an understatement.  Almost immediately afterwards, a new spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, was launched.  Aimed at a younger audience than Who, it featured Sarah Jane protecting the Earth from alien threats with the assistance of some young people from her home at 13 Bannerman Road.  The series ran for four seasons, with a fifth already in production. There are reports that much of Sladen's footage is already shot, so we'll be blessed with a little more of her work.

She is survived by her husband Brian Miller, and their daughter Sadie, who appeared with Elisabeth in her Sarah Jane Smith plays for Big Finish.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On a classic telling of a classic joke about a classic character.

John Boardman is what we used to call a Big Name Fan back in the days of Science Fiction fandom when fanzines were typed, and printed on mimeographs, or if you were really lucky, on the Xerox at your office if no one was looking.  He hosted First Saturday at his home in Brooklyn, and was almost required attendance if you were a fan in NYC.  I believe every fannish community had such a recurring party, and First Saturday was ours.

For those who played the complex boardgames from companies like Avalon-Hill, John is best known for inventing Play-by-mail Diplomacy, a game which is like Risk in the same way the Titanic is like the Minnow.  He ran numerous fanzines and APAe over the decades, including APA-Filk, the first one to which I ever contributed with my first zine, "Beyond the Last Visible Dog". 

When asked (which was often) and if plied with liquor (which was required), he would regale all and sundry with the following epic poem, a rhythmic and lyrical rendering of an old chestnut of a joke, making it so much better.

In honor of the upcoming film, it is presented for your pleasure, in tribute to Professor Boardman, and the many fine times spent at his domicile.

The Thong of Thor
by John Boardman

In days of yore the great god Thor would ramp around creation.
He'd drink a pint and slay a giant and save the Nordic nation,
Or kill a Wyrm and watch it squirm and vainly try to fang him,
Or lock up Loki in the pokey and on the noggin bang him.

Once he did bawl through Thrudvang hall that on a trip he'd wander
In a disguise from prying eyes in Midgard way out yonder.
So all his slaves and carles and knaves packed up his goods and gear-o,
And off he strode on Bifrost road, a perfect Aryan hero.

In Midgard land he joined a band of hardy Viking ruffians.
And off they sailed and rowed and bailed among the auks and puffians.
Whene'er they'd reach a foreign beach they stopped to raid and plunder.
Each Nordic brute got so much loot their longship near went under.

But though they rolled in coins of gold they had one joy forsaken.
For on each raid Thor's party made, no women could be taken.
Each drab and queen fled from the scene when Viking sails were sighted.
And Thor felt needs for certain deeds that had gone unrequited.

Thor's brows were black as they rowed back to Oslo's rocky haven,
Unto his crew he said, "Beshrew me for a Frankish craven,
"If I don't wrench some tavern wench, or else may Frigga damn her!"
Replied one voice, "You've got first choice. You have the biggest hammer."

Into an inn this crew of sin disbarked upon their landing.
Each tavern made was sore afraid of pirates of such standing.
But golden coins warmed up their loins, and soon the ale ran free.
Thor's motley crew poured down the brew and made an all-night spree,

Thor's glances strayed unto a maid with hair as gold as grain,
A lisp so shy, a downcast eye, and not a trace of brain.
He swept her chams into his arms and to an upstairs bower,
And did not cease or give her ease for three days and an hour.

When he arose and donned his clothes she looked like one near death.
Her limbs were weak, she could not speak, and scarcely gasped for breath.
"You ought to know, before I go, I'm Thor," he bade adieu.
"You 're thore!" said she. "Conthider me! I'm thorer; thir; than you!"

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On the importance of having a Two

Freakazoid: One: Norm Abram is missing. Two:...

Cosgrove: We don't have a two.

Both Marvel and DC had returns of major characters today; one fairly well guaranteed ahead of time since it was the plot of the book, the other a pretty universally guessed (but denied till the last moment) secret.

Marvel has brought back The Scarlet Witch in the miniseries Avengers - The Children's Crusade.  Now, Wanda Maximoff's history is a complicated one, due to a number of decisions and changes of mind made about her origins and adventures. 

To summarize (and get a lot wrong) greatly, she first thought she and her brother Quicksilver were orphans, and first appeared working with/for Magneto in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  She later found out she was the child of golden-age heroes Miss America and The Whizzer.  She later LATER found out she was misled about that, and they were in fact the children of the selfsame Magneto who ordered them around like day-laborers.  The both turned face, Wanda fell in love with and married The Vision, a synthetic human.  He figured out a way to create artificial sperm so they could have children.  She discovered later that she had in fact dreamed all that, and the children that she carried, bore and raised were creations of her own reality-warping powers.  This started her decline into madness, one that first caused her to reshape the entire world into one where mutants were in power, with her father in charge.  Realizing what she had done, she changed everything back, with a major change - 90% of the world's mutants lost their powers, and it seemed as if there would be No More Mutants.  She vanished, and was presumed dead.

She popped up a couple times, seemingly depowered and with no memories of her actions, but that appears to no longer be the case.  There are several issues to go, and there's every possibility that she'll be gone again (one way or the other) by the end, but a couple events in the latest issue, including seemingly undoing one of the deaths she caused (TANGENT ALERT in the EXACT FUCKING WAY I've been saying they could STILL bring back Ted Kord, by simply popping him away right after the presumed death, let every THINK he's dead, don't affect any of the events said deaths caused, and bring him forward to the present, where there would be much rejoicing. END TANGENT ALERT), I'm thinking they may try to rehabilitate her much like Geoff Johns did Hal Jordan by claiming much of her actions were out of her control, and in fact few if any people died from it after all. 

Allan FallbeHeinberg has been telling some wonderful stories with the Young Avengers since their first appearance, tying two of the members to Wanda in a very nice way, making the events of the new mini a logical extension of their character arc.  The part about Doctor Doom wanting to marry Wanda, not so much, but hey, bitter with the sweet.

Over at DC, the Brightest Day mini-series is one issue away from completion, and the new champions of both the White (life) and Black (death) energy have been revealed, and in a weird way...it's the same person.  The Black Champion is Swamp Thing, who hasn't been seen in the DCU proper since the mid 80s.  The champion of the White entity is revealed to be Alec Holland, the scientist from whose remains Swamp Thing would be created (again, to summarize greatly). 

Swamp Thing was a...some term other than "game-changer"...for the comics industry.  The first major US work by Alan Moore, it became the first comic from the Big Two to drop the Comics Code altogether and market to an adult/mature audience.  It would become the tentpole title for Vertigo, DC's new all-mature titles line, which has been a success ever since. 

The downside to that is that we never again saw Swampy in a regular DC title.  The idea was that if he appeared in a DC book, kids might seek out the mature title, see something Mommy and daddy wasn't expecting, and here comes the media.  That, combined with the alleged iron grip group editor Karen Berger held on the vertigo characters, rendered the character unusable by DC.

Vertigo hadn't used the character since 2005 after another short-lived attempt at a revamp.  So the chance that he could return to DC became more and more possible, and considering the forest motifs that came up in Brightest Day, more and more folks posited the same Clever Theory that this would be his Rebirth. 

In both cases, the return of these characters at both companies has been met with vocal reactions, mostly to the positive.  But in both cases, I have to be the guy who asks "NOW what?"

Yes, we're all happy to see Swamp Thing back.  But after a three-issue "aftermath" mini where the new guardian of Earth gets the hang of his new position, we've no idea what plans there are for the character.  They tried, repeatedly, to spark new interest in the character at Vertigo, each sputtering to an end.  Which of those versions will we see DC use?  Are they all to be wiped off the map and go back the Moore version, possibly even ignoring Rick Vietch's contributions?  Where's Abby and Tefe?  Will see a new Swamp Thing title, and if so, will be similar to the horror theme it's had for decades, or a more Superhero-y bent?  Or will it end like oh so many spectacular returns, going up like a firework, and ending just as fast?  Will Swamp Thing sink to the mid-card of DC characters again, or have they got something specific in plan?

Similarly at marvel, while the story they're telling with Scarlet Witch right now is very good indeed, if she stays around, do they have a plan in mind?  or will she simply go on a big apology tour, take a spot in the Avengers again, and drop back in place?

As a TV producer famously said when asked why he doesn't take advantage of all those internet videos for a show, "What happens in episode two of 'Cat runs into kitchen door'?" 

DC has guessed right on a couple of returns: Green Lantern was a success beyond all hope, Flash has spawned the new event Flashpoint, and Legion of Super-Heroes is back to having two monthlies dedicated to it.  Aquaman is getting a new series after Brightest Day, as is Hawkman is the rumors and tongue-slips are to be believed.  So it's to be assumed that DC has step two firmly in mind.  I'll just be curious to see how well fans react to it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On a classic example of the audience not wanting what it's been offered

It's Wrestlemania weekend. 

To a wrestling fan, that's as big a deal as the Super Bowl, the World Series or any other championship for any other sport.  It is traditionally the season finale, the event at which angles and plotlines running for much of the year come to a head and climax.  It's the big one, the one event that you still get, even if you're a lapsed fan. Back in the day when there were only four pay-per-views a year, the three months between the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania were an emotional rollercoaster.  Now that they have to set up big matches every month for a PPV, that's reduced a bit, but they still do a good job of upping the ante for what is known as "The Showcase of the Immortals".

The list of the classic matches that have appeared at this event is long indeed, but there's one in particular I'd like to discuss today.  The Rock vs. "Hollywood" Hogan as WM 18, or as it was billed, "Wrestlemania X-8"

First, a bit of history.  By this point in time, "Hulk" Hogan had long since left the WWE for its chief (and honestly, only) rival, WCW.  Its boss, Eric Bischoff, had a radical idea; he wanted to turn Hogan into a bad guy, or "heel".  To say it was a success was an understatement.  With Hogan's help, WCW would beat the WWE in the ratings for almost two years.  Hogan stopped using the "Hulk" moniker, and started being known as "Hollywood" Hogan.  (This is not only because of the new persona, but because Marvel Comics got a check every time they used the name "Hulk".)  The same charisma that made Hogan such a superstar was now being used to make him the most hated man in WCW, turning on old friends, teaming with people whose guts he once hated, everything a heel does.  Seeing it done by Hogan was almost unfathomable. 

Time passed, WWE took the upper hand once again, and eventually they ended up buying WCW.  This meant they got ownership of WCW's sizeable film library, as well as all of the current wrestler's contracts.  Many started working for WWE straight away, but many of the big names, including Hogan and the other members of his "stable", the NWO, took a bit more coaxing.  They eventually showed up shortly before Wrestlemania, and The Rock (at the time the biggest good guy, or "babyface" they had) quickly challenged him to a match.

Wrestlemania was held in Toronto that year, at the SkyDome.  Now Canadian fans love wrestling, and take it seriously to a degree that can't be fathomed by Americans.  Not that they "don't know the truth" or anything, but that they suspend disbelief, appreciate the mechanics of the sport and can recognize a well-performed match when they see it.  They don't watch it with the smug irony Americans do, but with the determined to have fun eye of a person who knows he's surrounded by like-minded people who aren't going to judge him, and is determined to have as much fun as he can.  In that, I envy them.

Hogan had left the (at the time) WWF in 1994.  In 2002, wrestling fans never thought they'd see him in a WWE ring again, so his return was a time of nostalgic joy indeed.  The way the story was being played, Hogan was clearly the bad guy, and The Rock was the good guy.  But after an absence of eight years, these old-school, hide-bound wrestling fans were simply not going to boo Hulk Hogan.

NOTE - I've posted three or four YouTubed versions of the match here over the years, with them eventually pulled down for copyright issues.  But now that the WWE Network has started, you can finally see the match again, so go there and watch it as you read on.

After a nice recap/prologue, Hogan makes his entrance at 3:30 into the segment. He's not coming out to his classic song, "Real American", he's not in his traditional red and yellow, he's got a beard and is clearly playing an arrogant bad guy.  Listen to that crowd.  They Do Not Care.  This is their chance, possibly their only and last chance to cheer for him, and damn the plotline, they choose to cheer.  The announcers, Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler, hastily amend their commentary from what was surely supposed to be clearly negative to the "You have to appreciate his past, regardless of what he's like now" variety.

He stands in the ring alone for a solid three minutes before they send in The Rock. They wouldn't stop cheering long enough to cue the entrance music.  He gets a mere minute and a half to enter and do his moves for the crowd before the music stops and the match ostensibly starts at 7:45.  Again, the crowd would not let the show continue.  The pair can not start the match for almost another two minutes.  They spend a good chunk of time looking out into the audience, clearly overwhelmed at the reaction.

The sound never lets up.  When Hogan lands a blow or sends Rock to the mat, they pop like their son just scored a touchdown after triumphing over both cancer and a serious stammer.  When Rock was winning, they acted as if he had called each of them, face to face, and in front of close friends, fat.  Ross and Lawler swore blind there were people cheering for The Rock. At that moment, there were probably more people in the SkyDome cheering for Dick Butkus.

As the match went on, it was clear what the audience wanted, and the pair knew how to deliver it.  Hogan started to flag, falling under Rock's blows, which gave Rock a chance to take on the heel role, prancing and preening, almost taunting the crowd as Hogan lay on the mat.  This gave Hogan the chance to return to his traditional babyface role, if only in disposition, as he kept on using traditional "heelish" moves like biting, choking, and a glorious nut-shot that had the crowd wincing and cheering.  If there was any question that the roles had reversed, Rock gets Hogan down and puts him in the Sharpshooter, signature move of Bret "Hitman" Hart, member of the Hart clan, the closest thing to the Canadian Royal Family of wrestling there is, and whose history with Vince McMahon is Quite Another Story Indeed. 

When Hogan starts his "Hulk out" revival sequence, the crowd goes to eleven.  Once that starts, you can call the match with your eyes shut: three blows by the opponent, Hogan stands straight up, stares him down, does the "YOU" point, Irish Whip, big boot, Atomic Leg Drop, 1 - 2 - 3.  And by the time the ref got to three there wasn't a person in that arena over the emotional age of ten.  A Hogan match is the wrestling equivalent of comfort food - you know exactly what you're gonna get, it's always warm, yummy and filling, and that crowd had not eaten in a loooong time.

Except the ref DIDN'T make three.  Rock gets up, and after TWO Rock Bottoms, he wins the match.  And it is not until the very end, when he goes for his big finisher The People's Elbow, do the fans start cheering for him.  Because what tops off a nice meal of comfort food like a great dessert.

By this point, the lines of face and heel were lost - Hands were shaken, and the proverbial torch is passed. They'd obviously planned a long run with the NWO angle after this match, but after that reaction, it was clear it would not stand.  In what felt like a hasty move, Hogan's NWO compatriots Scott Hall and Kevin Nash come out and start beating up on him for losing, giving Rock the chance to come to his aid and set up a quick face turn for Hogan.  The traditional six minutes of posing for the audience followed, and it's clear that the crowd would have sat through another twenty.

Hogan stayed with the WWE for another year and change, but to draw a parallel to a previous era, Andre the Giant stayed around for a while after Hogan beat him in WM3 so many years before.  In both cases, most consider those matches to be each wrestler's last great moment.  But the real star of that match was the audience.  There's hasn't been a crowd that hot and excited for a match since the fifties, and there hasn't been one since.  They told the WWE what they wanted, and they were smart and deft enough to change plans and deliver.