Thursday, December 8, 2016

What If I Ran 1966

Screen capture from Mike's Amazing World of Comics.
I’ve done several “what if” posts like this in the past for this blog (like “If I ran Marvel Comics”), considering what I would do if I was given control of Marvel Comics. But this time, I’m thinking about something new…what would I do if I’d been given control of Marvel back in 1966.

This was a pivotal time in Marvel Comics. Steve Ditko was gone. Wally Wood went to go work somewhere else. Stan Lee -- I don’t like to say anything bad about Stan, but he was stretched thin trying to write too much. The idea that the Marvel universe was proceeding in real time was disappearing. But at the same time, Jack Kirby was hitting new heights of storytelling greatness and creating new characters at a fever pitch. This was still a great time for Marvel, but it could have been even better.   

Let’s assume that I was brought into the company by an aging Martin Goodman. The old man would sort of betray his nephew, Stan, who was the rightful heir to the Marvel Comics Group. The first thing I would do would be to talk to Stan about how valuable he was to the company, thank him for all he’d done, but ask him to cut back to four titles and really concentrate on turning out good stories and watch his continuity.

The next step would be to declare what titles the company would be publishing from then on. Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, and Tales of Suspense were going to get split out into individual titles early. I would dump Fantasy Masterpieces and just have one reprint book, Marvel Tales. Millie the Model was getting cut back to one title. Two-Gun Kid and Rawhide Kid were going bye, but Kid Colt Outlaw would stay (the other two cowboys could always guest-star in his title). Patsy and Heady would stick around. That would be 17 titles, about what Marvel was already producing anyway.

Next up would be bringing Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back together. I would make them talk about what slights or imagined slights Ditko perceived and offer Ditko a deal -- he wouldn’t have to come back and draw, and he wouldn’t have to work with Stan anymore, but I wanted him inking Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

Then I’d have a heart-to-heart with Jack Kirby. Jack would open up to me and tell me about his issues with Stan. I would reassure Jack that I would take Stan off all his titles and, in return, Jack would stay loyal to Marvel and never leave for DC. His Fourth World characters would later become part of the Marvel line.

Next I’d find Wally Wood. I wouldn’t want to take him away from THUNDER Agents because that was some amazing stuff, but I'd give him the incentive he needed to find time to keep working for Marvel on the side by doubling his pay. In fact, let's just assume that I came to Marvel along with the financial backing to double the pay of all the artists and inkers.    

Other than that, I would keep all the same creative players Marvel was already using, or had used at least once in the past year, but maybe mix them around a little.

Then I would meet with everyone and explain that Marvel Comics would continue to be about change and not the illusion of change. Time would continue to pass in the comic books, though we would begin slowing it down to 6 months of comic book time in 1 year of real time. Further, every issue would resolve at least one plot element. No plot strings would go untied after six issues. And no cliffhangers picking up at the same time the following issue; at least a minute of time would have to pass, without cheating the reader. 

On specific titles:

Amazing Spider-Man
I would take over writing Spider-Man, with John Romita doing the art, but Steve Ditko inking over him to keep a consistent look with the first three years of the title. I would get Peter Parker out of the rut of taking photos for J. Jonah Jameson all the time and move his life forward more. He would be busy with college, interning with the police forensics dept., and deepening his relationship with Gwen Stacey. Gwen would intern alongside him and they would become true partners, solving mysteries related to super criminals, and Peter soon telling Gwen his secret identity. 

Stan Lee would stay in charge of The Avengers, with working with Don Heck on art, inked by Wally Wood. Since Heck wasn't that great at costume design, I'd insist on Wally working with him and getting co-creator credit for new characters. I'd suggest to Stan that he bump up Goliath's strength a bit more, not let Quicksilver's speed get overshadowed, and let Wasp take the Living Laser's wrist weapons and replace her useless stingers with them. Following that, Roy Thomas might suggest some story ideas to Stan, particularly for Avengers #40, an old favorite of mine Roy did. 

I feel Daredevil was floundering for a lack of direction in '66. I would take it out of Stan's hands and pass it off to a newcomer with a few Marvel writing credits to his name at that time -- Denny O'Neil. For art, I would keep Romita on pencils, but pull back in Bill Everett for inks. I would give Denny pretty much free rein to do with Daredevil what he wanted, but I would definitely advise him to lose the old Thor foes and deal more with street-level crime.

Fantastic Four
I love Lee and Kirby's run on the FF, but to make Jack happy I'd remove Stan from this and take over writing the series myself. Kirby and Joe Sinnott would handle the art chores. I would have sit-down discussions with Jack about what he wanted to do with the FF. I'd let him come up with the big ideas and new characters, while I focused on tightening up continuity and keeping supporting cast relevant. I would ask him to consider phasing Reed and Sue off the team by issue #100, though, subbing in the Sub-Mariner and Crystal, with Alicia Masters having a big role (and eventually marrying Ben). 

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos
I would leave this in the hands of Stan Lee on writing, Dick Ayers on art, and Frank Giacoia on inks. In keeping with Marvel time passing, I would give Stan two real years to wrap up WWII for Nick and the boys and then have them do post-war secret missions anywhere in the world.

Doctor Strange
Strange Tales would end and its two features would get their own titles. To make Ditko happy, I would take Stan off of this book too and give it to Roy Thomas to write. I'd put Don Heck on art chores, with Ditko inking him. I would ask him to make Dr. Strange more episodic, with Dr. Strange relying more on smarts than spells to solve cases so as not to attract more super-demons like Dormmammu to Earth (though there could still be demons!).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I would leave Stan Lee in charge of writing this, with John Severin providing pencils, inked by his sister Marie. Severin would bring a degree of realism to the spy stories. I wouldn't take an active hand in guiding them.

Invincible Iron Man
Tales of Suspense would end and its two features would get their own titles. Iron Man was doing great until Stan left, so I'd keep Stan on this title, with Gene Colan pencils, and Wally Wood inks (like with the Avengers, Wally would be a creative consultant for costume design). So long as they kept going in the direction they were during Tales of Suspense, I wouldn't need to take a guiding hand.

Captain America
I would want Jack Kirby staying on Cap, so Lee would have to leave and I'd take his place as writer. Jack could use as many of his big ideas from the Fourth World in Cap's title as he wanted and I'd mainly just hang around for tightening up dialogue and making sure everything made sense. I would keep Sharon Carter around, but also bring back Betsy Ross from the Golden Age for a love triangle. 

Incredible Hulk
Tales to Astonish would end and its two features would get their own titles. I would for sure give the Hulk to Roy Thomas to write, with Gil Kane on art and Marie Severin on inks, tightening Gil up. Thomas was the perfect Hulk writer, so I would give the boys free rein.

Prince Namor, Sub-Mariner
I would have to write this title, with Gene Colan on pencils, inked by Vince Colletta. I would want Namor to be a political figure on the world stage, balancing international diplomacy with rash decisions to take unilateral action to end the world's problems. His supporting cast would include members of the UN, SHIELD (always trying to keep an eye on Namor), and citizens of both Atlantis and Aquaria (Namor's actual Golden Age kingdom). Namor would be urbane, wear suits as often as swim trunks, and rely on high-tech as much as his strength.

Mighty Thor
Again, Jack Kirby is not allowed to leave this title, so Stan will go and I'll take over, basically, co-author chores with Jack. I'm keeping Colletta on inking, though, even if Jack grumbles a bit about that. Jack can build up to a Ragnarok story, kill off most of the gods, and then have the remainder (at least Thor and the Warriors Three) enter the war between the New Gods.

I'm not a big X-Man fan and would need someone to do something dramatically different for it to work for me (and Marvel fans back then too, to avoid how it went into reprints). I would give this book to Denny O'Neil, ask Alex Toth to come on board as full-time artist, and have Joe Sinnott ink Toth. I would strongly encourage Denny to kill off Professor X and leave him dead, retire Angel, and have the Blob join the team to shake things up.

Tales to Astonish
Well...maybe I would keep this after all, but as a rotating anthology. Each month it could be the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, the Inhumans, Ka-Zar, The Black Widow, or switch things up and feature one of the cowboys who lost their regular title, or maybe even an untold tale of a Golden Age Timely hero!   

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Dirk Gentle's Holistic Detective Agency Review (through Episode 4)

Halfway through Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (I'm an episode behind) and ready to share what I think I know so far. POTENTIAL SPOILERS (if I'm right):

In the 1960s, a rich inventor is working on a time machine. He needs a power source, so he builds the power grid under the neighborhood where Todd lives. But he's old and afraid he's going to die before he finishes, so he invents a mind transferal machine; that way, he can put his consciousness in a younger body and continue. In the new body, he falls in love (with who? The mother hasn't been revealed yet. Is this the only thing that doesn't tie in?) and fathers a daughter. He knows his daughter is in danger because people are after his machines, so he hires the bodyguard, Farah. He also hires Dirk Gently to investigate his own death before it happens.

In the end, before he dies, he finished the time machine. He used it to find out how he dies and that his daughter has been kidnapped. He needs to make sure Dirk knows how to find her and save her, but he can't just leave him a note because then the ones who want the machine will find it. So he lays out a bunch of clues that lead to the "death maze" (perfect for H&H!) and the map to where they'll find his daughter at the right time to save her.

I was way off on the First Souls. I thought they would be the first sentient beings who had the ability to transfer into other bodies naturally. That they hired the inventor to build the time machine for them because they wanted to go back to their original bodies. But now I'm disappointed; it seems the First Souls were just a group of thieves who found and stole the mind transferal machine back in the '60s. Now they have a much more nebulous reason to want the time machine. They may not even know what the time machine does, but just want it because the inventor made it and figure it's something useful.

Who summoned the shark that killed the father? I suspect it was the father himself. He knew when the First Souls were coming for him, knew the shark would kill them, and in the chaos his daughter would be able to escape. Why they brought his daughter's consciousness to him in the body of a corgi, I'm not sure. Perhaps it was an extra precaution -- trade the corgi first, then machine, then the daughter's body last?

How do Todd and his sister Amanda figure into this? Their "disease" (gift?) makes (or made, in Todd's case) them sensitive to cosmic phenomena. It makes them able to be in the right place at the right time. I suspect Dirk Gently has the disease/gift too, no one has said so yet, but the CIA mistook his disease for ESP.

Why is Dirk Gently so different from the novels? He seems much less sure of himself than he should be, and increasingly reliant on Todd to do things for him. I think that's what the Rowdy 3 are draining from Dirk every time they encounter him, his disease. I'm not sure if there's an agenda there; I suspect they are something like incubi or vampires who drain the disease from him. They haven't tried it from Todd because his disease is in remission and Amanda's medication blocks them from fully perceiving she has the gift.

The real loose end is, who sent the assassin Bart? I suspect it's the CIA. They may know some of what's going on thanks to their ESP branch and want the machines for themselves. They have a two-pronged approach for stopping Dirk -- one is Bart, sent to kill him, and two is Col. Riggins, who Dirk sees as a father figure. They would prefer Riggins to be able to bring Dirk in as their plan A, which is why they put the assassin on Dirk's trail from so far away (it is taking her forever to drive to where he is!).

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Best of Out-of-Context Theater - pt. 1

You may have seen websites like this before -- panels of comic book art, taken out of context, where it can be shown to have a (probably unintentional) funny double meaning. The name "out-of-context theater" came from fellow RPG author Steve Miller, who started posting these on Facebook in 2014. The following year, I started posting more, exclusively from 1930s-era comic books. These are the best of those posts.

Warning: this is the most risque humor you're likely to ever see from me on this blog.

Ben Webster's Page (The Funnies #2).

From "Marty McCann, Champion of the Navy" (More Fun Comics #23).

From Funny Picture Stories v. 2 #2 (1937).

From Funny Picture Stories v. 2 #3 (1937).

From Detective Comics #10.

"Car jerkin" may mean something different than I think it does. From Famous Funnies #43 (Feb. 1938).

From Action Comics #3.

Zatara doesn't understand why this always makes the female escorts nervous.

Cheaper this way...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Seeing Paul McCartney

I don’t actually have a bucket list, but if I did, seeing Paul McCartney in concert would have been up near the top. Only now I can cross that off my non-existent bucket list – because two nights ago I saw him in Cleveland, Ohio. I did not buy a ticket for Megan, partly to cut costs on the trip, but also because I knew she would not be as excited to see him as me. But she still wanted to come on the trip, having never seen Cleveland.

Megan and I expected the drive across Indiana and Ohio to be rough; the air conditioner broke in the car awhile back. It was 84 degrees in the car in the afternoon, but not the whole afternoon because we drive through a rainstorm in Indiana that came with its old cold front. For a while, it was 67 degrees in the car. And the drive took a really long time; Megan and I left at 8 in the morning and we reached Cleveland’s west suburbs at 6 (and that’s including the hour we lost driving east).

Until the night before, Megan had been planning on driving us back home that same night after the concert, but she chickened out (fortunately – she would have been driving until 7 am!) and we made a reservation for an America’s Best Value Inn. The building itself was pretty dumpy, in a pretty slummy neighborhood, but the room itself was fine.

I had foolishly imagined us reaching Cleveland as soon as 3, having time to explore downtown Cleveland and eat dinner downtown before dropping Megan off back at the motel. I even had the downtown restaurant picked out I wanted to try (the Winking Lizard Tavern – sounded so D&D-y!). But as pressed for time as we now were (the concert started at 8!), we had to settle for a Big Boy restaurant. I had not been to a Big Boy in decades and had waxed nostalgically about them since seeing our first sign for one in Ohio, so Megan was now looking forward to it as well. Megan was fine with her meal, but I was disappointed, having remembered it being better. It reminded me a lot of Denny’s.

Having dropped off Megan back at the motel, I made my way downtown. I was used to the squalor around downtown, having driven into Chicago plenty of times off the expressway. Downtown itself was pretty spectacular, looking like a floating island. The bridges to downtown even reminded me of Fellowship of the Ring. That was a pleasant surprise. My next surprise wasn’t so pleasant. I had read that parking could be had just a few blocks from the Quicken Loans Arena for $5-6 – which might be true most of the year when there was nothing special going on at the arena or the neighboring stadium. But because Paul was there that night, every parking lot downtown had a “special event” rate of $20-40. I drove further to the $20 lots (still feeling gouged – way to make a good impression on new visitors, Cleveland!). Then I ran half the way back to the arena. I was now down to 15 minutes to 8!

There were four lines to get in, and then just a mass of people inside. I had been asked by a coworker to pick up a program book, but I saw no merchandise for sale anywhere. I did see plenty of beer and food being sold down every corridor. My seat was two levels up. I had to take an escalator and thought that was going to be my only problem with heights for the night. I was so wrong.

I stepped into the auditorium – to find it the most vertical auditorium I had ever seen! To reach my seat, I would have to step out onto a narrow ledge with just a short glass wall in front of it, with a 40’ drop underneath it, and then climb stairs that were more like ladders than stairs. I couldn’t do it – I started breathing fast and my legs got weak. I told an usher I couldn’t go out there. I was told I could go to the customer service window in the corridor and request a better seat for me. To their credit, they did switch me to a seat that was slightly less scary to get to. I still had to crawl across the aisle, and even when I was sitting down I had to keep a hand gripping the arm rest, because I was having vertigo so bad I thought I would fall forward out of my seat if I let go.

Luckily, I had brought binoculars, for seeing the stage. With my one free hand, I freed the binoculars from their bag and kept them focused on the stage. Blocking out the rest of the arena helped. And I had plenty of time to focus on the stage, because the concert actually started at 8:30 and not 8 like the ticket said.

Now, I knew Paul was going to be amazing, but I was also prepared for a short concert. The man is 74 years old. I figured if he did eight songs for us, that would be thrilling enough. Instead, he treated us to 34 songs, over an amazing two and a half hour concert. If his voice was weak and wavered, we couldn't tell because he often had two back-up singers in harmony with him to cover any such gaffs. But, my, he was spry up there on the stage, kicking his leg out and dancing. 

Luckily, I had also brought a pad of paper and pen, and could jot down song titles in the dark. I was still terrified during the first song and couldn't free up my right hand to write it down yet. By the second song, I was so into the concert I was able to let go of the arm rest for the rest of it. 

I'm pretty sure the first song was "Hard Day's Night". The rest of the songs were-
"Save Us", from the album New.
"Can't Buy Me Love", originally released as a Beatles single.
The obscure, but not unknown to me, "Temporary Secretary", from the McCartney II album.
"Let Me Roll It" -- one of my favorites from Band on the Run.
He followed that up with an extended instrumental portion of Jimi Hendrix's "Sexy Lady", before telling an anecdote about seeing Jimi in concert.
"I've Got a Feeling", from the Let It Be album.
"My Valentine", from the Kisses on the Bottom album. He dedicated this to his third wife, who he said was in the audience with us.
Back to Band on the Run (and not for the last time) for "Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Five".
Then back to the Beatles with "Here, There, and Everywhere" from Revolver.
Dedicated to his first wife, who he wrote it for -- "Maybe I'm Amazed", from the McCartney album (I clocked this in at 9:14). One of his granddaughters by Mary was apparently also in the audience, and he reminded us that Linda's parents were from Cleveland.
"We Can Work It Out", the Beatles single. I'm not sure if this is when he took the break in the concert to read signs, but it seems to be what he does before this song. This is the most improvisational part of the show, as he reads people's signs out loud and responds to them. One said "sign my butt", and he responded, "Right, let's see it then." 
At the end of that last clip I linked to there, he starts explaining the history of the next song, the very first song the Quarrymen recorded before becoming the Beatles. He did those songs in the same order this time, so that would make the next song "In Spite of All the Danger" (never released until Beatles Anthology vol. 1).
At the beginning of this next clip is the sing-along he does before a reprieve of "In Spite of All the Danger". This clip keeps the same order, of doing "You Won't See Me", from Rubber Soul, next. 
"Love Me Do", the first Beatles single.
"And I Love Her", one of his best ballads ever, from the Hard Day's Night album.
Continuing the theme of powerful, moving ballads -- "Blackbird", from The Beatles (white) album.
I'm not familiar with the Tug of War album much, but I've heard heard some of the songs from it before, and probably have heard "Here Today" before too. 
Then it was back to the near-present with "Queenie Eye" from New.
And its titular song -- "New". 
Then back to the Beatles days with "Fool on the Hill" from Magical Mystery Tour.
"Lady Madonna" from The Beatles (white) album.
And "Eleanor Rigby" from Revolver.
Before something so new that I'd never heard of it before. Apparently, Paul wrote it and it was released by other artists, but Paul performed "FourFiveSeconds". 
And then back to "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Doing his ukulele bit at the beginning, he performed "Something", from Let It Be.
Followed by "Let It Be".
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", from The Beatles (white) album.
And then the explosions and pyrotechnics of "Live and Let Die".
"Back in the USSR", from The Beatles (white) album.
And, of course, the Beatles single "Hey Jude".
After a lot of applause, Paul came back for a remarkably long encore, starting with
"Yesterday", from the Help! album.
"Hi Hi Hi", from  the Wings single.
The entire medley from the end of Abbey Road, starting with "Golden Slumbers".
And then, finally, after "The End" -- like a more upbeat version of "Her Majesty", rounding out the Abbey Road album -- "Birthday".

Now, while piecing together that concert from clips on Youtube, I discovered a couple of things. One is that there's a frightening amount of ethically questionable, if not downright illegal, material from concerts on Youtube. Before I was done compiling this, clips for every song on the playlist had turned up from the very same concert I was at. While I could have put all those clips together and recreated the exact concert, I chose not to -- partly to avoid being so ethically questionable, but also just to show off the breadth of Paul's world-spanning concert tours over just the last eight years. 

But what I also learned was how much of the concert was scripted and identical to other concerts on the tour. I mean, I knew -- intellectually -- that there was nothing improvised about that four-song encore; the stagecraft was just too perfect for that. But, emotionally, I wanted that to be just for us, because we were such a good audience.

We all filed out of the arena and spread out back towards our parking garages. Everyone seemed pretty happy. I did see two girls wearing concert T-shirts that they must have bought inside, though it was late and I didn't feel like stopping them and asking where (assuming I could even get back inside). 

I got a little lost on the way back to the hotel, and had to stop at a store to pick up bottled water for Megan (I don't blame her for not trusting the sink water in a new city). It was 12:30 when I finally got back to the motel, and was so glad that we had decided not to drive back that night!

The next morning, we both overslept until almost 11 o'clock. Megan woke me up with 10 minutes to spare to vacate our room before we'd have to pay for another day! Thankfully we had not packed much. 

The original plan had been to drive back last night. The new plan had been to drive back first thing in the morning. But Megan wanted to see downtown Cleveland still. And on the way there, she spotted the zoo. And that is how we wound up spending the next six hours at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. It added a lot of expense to the trip, which was already way over budget, but it was a really good zoo. The gift shops were reasonable. The restaurant was great (the salad bar wasn't pay-per-ounce; you could just take a big bowl and fill it with as much as you wanted!). It was exhausting how spread out everything was in the zoo (we must have walked about five miles!), but I supposed it was good for the animals to have their exhibits spread out. It was also nice how much was hidden around the zoo, rewarding the all-day explorer. There was an island with a gibbon on it, and we might not have noticed had the gibbon not swung past just then. It had no cage; just a tree house on a forested island. 

Had the zoo not closed at 5 o'clock, I suspect Megan would have stayed there longer. The weather was warm, but not horrible, thanks to a storm that passed nearby. We got a summer shower that lasted a little while, and there were also fans set up behind running hoses to create cooling water sprays for us zoo-goers. Somehow we managed to get through the whole day without sunburns. 

Since we stuck around in Cleveland until 5, that meant we had to drive between Cleveland and Toledo during rush hour. I let Megan use her GPS to help us navigate back, and it told us to go north into Michigan. We did -- so this two day trip crossed through four states. We had dinner at a Bob Evans restaurant, which I thought was delicious, and then took turns driving home. It was a long way back and it was 1:30 in the morning when Megan got us back home.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Watching the 20th Century, 1912

(Continuing from here)

Plodding, boring experiment with filming a 97-minute stage play, without sound. Twenty years later, a director like Cecil B. Demille will make material like this work, but in 1912 cinema wasn’t ready to tackle this yet. There is perhaps 10 minutes of good cinematography throughout the movie, and at least half of that in the meeting of Cleopatra and Marc Antony for the first time, at about 30 minutes into the movie. If you’re going to watch any part of this train wreck, just fast forward to that.

Three bad films in a row put me off this project for awhile, but D. W. Griffith delivers with this short action film. Sure, the hero is a jerk you wish would get his comeuppance instead of the girl, and the telegraph girl’s plea is laughably specific (“Help...tramps!”), but it has exciting jump cuts and close-ups to build tension, very advanced camera work (first scene filmed from the back of a speeding car?), pretty good performances by Dorothy Bernard and one of the unnamed actors playing a menacing hobo, and possibly the first exciting locomotive chase in film.

This is a dark little film from Griffith about a cute little girl who brings a couple together. From a modern perspective, it is a bit disturbing how affectionate two strangers get with a little girl, and how quickly they decide to adopt her without even considering checking to see if there’s a next of kin. Still, the girl is adorable and it’s fun seeing the rotten kids get their comeuppance by being run off by the cops.

Was this the first film I’ve watched intended as a horror film? It’s very cheesy; I find it hard to believe that even an audience in 1912 would have found this remotely scary. The film is ambiguous about whether Hyde killed the parson, or what he planned to do to the little girl he knocks down. The trick of having Jekyll drop items off his lap to show his distracted state of mind is used twice.

With this title and this plot, this would have made a good screwball comedy in the 1930s, with a surprisingly strong message about gender equality. There is the outline for such a movie here, but it isn’t well-realized in silence, and the humor is understated for so long that when it turns absurd it is quite jarring. There is one good sight gag, when one of the husbands tries to serve a meal to the other abandoned husbands.

1912 is really hurting my enthusiasm for my “Watching the 20th Century” project. The movies have not been very compelling from this year. I’d rather be watching the Mack Sennet comedies that began this year, but they’re too short by my own rules.

This movie didn’t help much. A D.W. Griffith gangster flick, “Musketeers” follows hot young Lillian Gish, who becomes the object of wonderfully menacing Elmer Booth’s infatuation. He beats her boyfriend and robs her so she’ll have no one to turn to but him, but when a rival gangster also takes an interest in her, Elmer and the other guy’s gangs have a shootout that leaves only Elmer alive. The middle of the film is padded with a lot of non-suspenseful gangsters stalking each other, and I don’t buy that the milktoast-y boyfriend spots his billfold on Elmer during the shootout and steals it back while bullets are flying around them.

Also, if you look closely, there’s a walk-on during the alley stalking scenes who seems to be the first non-stereotyped Asian American on film.

I have never read, nor seen another adaptation of this particular Dickens’ work before, so I can’t say if this 30-minute film did it justice or not. I found it largely boring, except for Mr. Squeers, a delightfully detestable villain who is an awful schoolmaster, but seems a caring family man. Too bad he’s only in about a third of the film. In Nicholas’ world, jobs are plentiful and he gets every job he applies for, even with no prior experience in that field. He works for a time in an acting company that seems to perform an abbreviated version of Romeo and Juliet that ends right after Romeo kills Tybalt (or this particular company does curtain calls in mid-play). I did appreciate that the movie treats the sexual harassment of Kate Nickelby as a serious problem.  

Melies was still at it by 1912, but refining what had been a winning formula now. There are subtle innovations here. Melies, anticipating the need for sound, comes up with clever ways to have characters carry signs that read what the characters need to say. There is more impressive use of models than ever before.

The first 13 minutes is all set-up, with badly stereotyped representatives of various countries planning their race to the North Pole, but the sets look so familiar I feel like I’ve seen them all before in “A Trip to the Moon” and “The Impossible Voyage”. The 4-minute trip to the Arctic feels longer than it is because I’m supposed to be marveling at the special effects,, seen those before too.

Things start to get trippy when the hero’s plane passes the constellation of Pisces close enough to see they’re really fish. Shooting stars and a demonic planetoid menace the ship and, when the crew panics, its captain has to tame them at gunpoint. When they land, they find the North Pole is surrounded by towering ice crystals surrounding small lakes.

The giant mechanical frost giant must have been terrifying to be on the same set with, though the effect is lost on the small screen -- at least until the giant eats one of the explorers. Defeating this fearsome foe, the explorers find the pole, but -- uh, oh! -- the physical pole is so magnetic that all the explorers get stuck to it and their combined weight breaks it! Will the explorers drown? Will they get home safely? (Yes and yes.)

Though I’d already seen her in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, this was supposedly the film debut of Lillian Gish.

It’s clear that the Gish sisters are sisters, but figuring out who everyone else is in this D. W. Griffith drama is difficult without relying on the caption cards. The young man who shows up at the grieving sisters’ door who I thought was a slick hustler turned out to be their brother. The dingy woman who I assumed was their mother was really their maid. The sisters and brother are on their own now with both their parents dead (causes unknown).

After we see how chaste and innocent the sisters are (one of them denies her boyfriend a kiss before he leaves), the girls go back inside -- and are locked into a room by their evil maid. The maid sees this as a chance to rob their father’s safe and has called in help from a hoodlum in town. But this is 1912 -- chaste and innocent girls don’t go around saving themselves, so the suspense is seeing which will come back and save them -- the brother or the boyfriend? (It’s the boyfriend, but the brother makes a valiant effort.)

Extreme close-ups were still very rare in movies, so the extreme close-up of the maid’s menacing gun is a particularly potent scene. The brother’s look of horror when he hears his sisters being shot at over the phone is very well-acted. And, of course, there’s Lillian Gish to look at.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ape-Man #5

It seemed like there was nothing those Commies wouldn’t try, except for tackling Ape-Man!  And even that was only true until the --

“Attack of the Red Chimp!”

by Scott Casper, thanks to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Tales to Astonish #39

The delivery truck came to a screeching halt at the dock, the driver pulling up perpendicular to the gangplank. Some tough-looking men waited on the barge, expecting the delivery.  A strange, accented voice came over a crackling loudspeaker:

“Hurry and load the cages aboard the ship!”

Other men were already swinging open the back doors of the truck, pulled down a ramp, and tugged on wheeled cages to roll them down onto the street.  The cages were large, and needed to be, since they contained every ape from the ape exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, including Mattie the gibbon, Bobo and Faben the chimpanzees, Plato and Ginger the orangutans, and Johnson the gorilla.

A man working a crane on the dock hoisted the cages, one by one, into the air and onto the deck of the barge. The last crate, holding Johnson, was in the air when a Volkswagen microbus screeched around a corner, some blocks away, but made a beeline straight for the docks at dangerous speeds for city streets.

“Stop that van from reaching the ship!” commanded the voice on the crackly loudspeaker.

Three men answered by producing sub-machine guns. They lined up and opened fire on the approaching microbus, aiming for the windshield and the front tires. The windshield shattered right away, but the driver was hunched down out of sight. The left tire blew out first, and then the right, sending the microbus swerving out of control. The vehicle tipped over and rolled, clattering down the street straight towards the gunmen, who had to scatter out of its way.

When Ape-Man appeared, he was leaping over the top of the still-rolling microbus, over the heads of the gunmen, tucked and rolled right past them, and then jumped up into a sprint for the gangplank. In the minute it had taken to get this far, Johnson’s cage was on deck and the barge was starting to move. Ape-Man easily vaulted the distance to the deck, landing within reach of one of the tough guys guarding the cages and took him down with a ferocious right hook.  Three others held what appeared to be cattle prods, no doubt meant to harm the apes. Ape-Man laid into them and, a minute later, was standing over the last of them still conscious.

“Where’s the Red Chimp?” Ape-Man angrily asked in his face.  The anger was more for show, for inside, Ape-Man was secretly nervous.

Unlike W., The Price, goons from the H.E. corporation, and the smaller crooks Ape-Man had fought so far, the Red Chimp had a history stretching back 10 years. Ape-Man had done some digging at the library and found out that the Red Chimp was once an ordinary chimpanzee, its intelligence enhanced by Russian scientists, and then trained by the KGB to be a spy. The Red Chimp was suspected in assassinations and government coups all over the world, but no one would likely have known anything about him had True Blue not stopped him once in ‘57, when a lot of the details of the Chimp’s past came out.
The loudspeaker crackled again. “If you are looking for me, come to the fore end of the barge, Ape-Man.”

The barge was about 100 feet long, with a wheelhouse cannibalized from a tugboat at the fore end.

Ape-Man looked into each of the cages and saw the ape prisoners looked nervous. “Just stay calm; I’ll get you back home,” Ape-Man said into his headpiece communicator. The apes understood.

Ape-Man moved cautiously from the cages towards the fore of the barge, and not just because he suspected a trap. The barge had been used for transporting garbage in the recent past and a thin layer of it still covered the deck. It also concealed the trap, until metal bars rose up six feet high out of the deck, folded over, and began to spin.

There was an obstacle course of spinning bars, at varying heights, between Ape-Man and his destination. They were spinning fast and it would have been near impossible for anyone else to time jumps just right to land safely between them, but for Ape-Man’s agility and reaction time, it was only mildly challenging. He was even beginning to see a pattern to the rotations -- until he couldn’t. When some of the bars started swinging in the opposite direction, it caught him off-guard and he fell after having his legs painfully swept out from underneath him.    

The bars stopped spinning. Ape-Man recovered and rose to his feet. Now standing on the other side of the now-motionless obstacle course was the Red Chimp. The chimpanzee stood there, legs apart and arms loose at his sides, clad only in a red, sleeveless, button-up military jacket and short pants. He could have easily attacked, but seemed to have been patiently waiting for Ape-Man’s recovery.

“What do you want?” Ape-Man asked.

“‘Vhat any man ‘vants, so will intelligent chimpanzee,” the Red Chimp said. “More specifically, I ‘vanted to lure you out and take the measure of you. See if you are as I am.”

“Wait…” Ape-Man said. He took a cautious step forward as he mulled this over. “Are you saying you kidnapped all the apes from the zoo, lured me here, to see if we could be friends?”

“Nothing so sentimental. I have not made myself into greatest living spy over the last 10 years by being so ‘veak as to need friends. I came to see if you needed ally.”

“I don’t work with Commies.”

The Red Chimp chuckled. “Heh, heh -- treatments that keep my intelligence so high are costly; you think spying for politicians pays bills? Is industrial espionage ‘vhere real money is. I ‘vas ‘ much you know about H.E. and ‘vhat they are really after.”

This took Ape-Man aback. He knew that the H.E. corporation was after his inventions and was not above sending thieves after them, or even an assassin to kill him. Was there more, though, that he should know about…?

After a pregnant pause, Ape-Man said, “My answer’s the same.”

“Is pity. Let me know if you change your mind,” the Red Chimp said, and he pressed a button o a remote control device in his hand.

The spinning bars trap started up again, forcing Ape-Man to concentrate on dodging. It took him over a minute to extricate himself and, by then, the Red Chimp had fled to a small speedboat tied to the far side of the wheelhouse. The Ape-Man could only watch as the master spy got clean away.

Don’t worry, the Red Chimp will be back, and Ape-Man will be waiting for him! But, next time, Ape-Man faces the challenge of the fairer sex. Don’t miss it!