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I, not quite the jury

December 5, 2018 2 comments

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I got a summons for jury duty while I was busy writing Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath, so I managed to get it postponed for a couple of months — meaning until last Monday.

I went in hoping it would go like my first jury service nearly a decade ago, which I actually kind of enjoyed. That time, I was only called in for Monday to Wednesday the first week and just Wednesday the second week, and the one time I got called up for a trial, it was right before lunch and the parties settled during the break, so I never actually got inside a courtroom. (This is apparently very common — often, just the threat of a jury trial is enough to get someone to settle or plead out, so just being on call in the jury pool is all we need to do.) The rest of the time, I just sat around in the jurors’ lounge waiting to be called if needed. I was literally paid just to show up. And I was working on a rewrite of Only Superhuman at the time, so getting to spend a few hours a day in a quiet study lounge with a workspace for my laptop was perfect for my needs. That time, I found the experience so positive that I occasionally wondered if I could volunteer for another tour rather than having to wait to be summoned.

But this time was different. Given all the stress and anxiety I’ve been dealing with this past year thanks to my financial woes, I didn’t know how well I’d cope emotionally if I got assigned to be a juror on any kind of a serious or challenging case. Also, in recent years I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the racial injustice, police violence, and political corruption in America’s institutions, so I have less faith in the justice system than I used to. So this time around, I was very nervous about the whole thing. I spent the whole time on edge, afraid of having my name called.

It didn’t help that the daily stipend for being a juror is still exactly the same amount that it was nearly 10 years ago. I’d expected it to have increased by now. And I made the mistake of driving there on my first day, and I didn’t realize that my preferred downtown garage had raised its rates, so that parking alone ate up nearly 1/3 of my first day’s stipend. (The validated parking lots near the courthouse would’ve cost just as much, as it turned out.) I took the bus down after that, which meant walking several blocks in frigid weather.

Anyway, my first week did turn out to be uncannily similar to my first week 9 1/2 years ago. I showed up Monday morning and got the whole orientation speech, but I wasn’t called for a jury until Wednesday just before lunch (I got a hot dog from the courthouse convenience store, and it was pretty bad), and when I got back, we were kept waiting for more than an additional hour; then it finally turned out that the defendant had taken a plea, and since we’d been kept so late, we were released for the rest of the week. I was quite relieved that things had played out so much like they did the first time. (Oh, and we got free donuts Wednesday morning.)

The main difference is that I didn’t have a work in progress to rewrite this time. I’m between projects and was trying to come up with a plot idea for my next story, something I was able to do on Tuesday and Wednesday while riding the bus and walking the courthouse halls for exercise. (If you sign out for your 15-minute break and write “Walking” on the form, they cut you some slack if it takes longer than that to complete a mile, which is 7 laps around the corridors on the jurors’ floor.) Otherwise, I used the time to read the latest Analog issue, the one containing my story “Hubstitute Creatures.” I got it a couple of weeks ago, but I saved it for jury duty. There are some impressive stories in this one; I particularly liked “Pandora’s Pantry” by Stephen L. Burns, a robot-chef story that went in an unexpected and very satisfying direction, and “Learning the Ropes” by Tom Jolly, a story of interplanetary intrigue and tether propulsion in a setting that could almost be part of the historical backstory of Only Superhuman. I finished the magazine in my first week, and on Wednesday after I was released, I went over to the downtown library and picked up some books so I’d have something to read over the weekend and on week 2. One was a collection of Will Elder-illustrated comics stories from EC Comics’s 1950s SF, horror, and humor anthologies; most of them weren’t great, but there were a couple of Ray Bradbury adaptations and a couple of impressive tales that were almost Twilight Zone-worthy. And some of the parody stories were nostalgic for me, since I remembered reading them in my father’s pile of old humor comics back in the day.

So anyway, I was hopeful that week 2 would recapitulate my first time as closely as week 1 did. And I did get Monday and Tuesday off, which was good, because over the weekend, I came down with a bug of some kind — the inevitable result of having spent three days surrounded by dozens of people in public places in winter. If the pattern had continued to match the first time, I’d be called in on Wednesday and that would be it. But of course, there was still the chance that I’d be called to another jury and all bets would be off.

So imagine my surprise and relief when I checked the website Tuesday afternoon and it said that, for jurors of my group number who’d started on November 26, “your service is now complete.” I wasn’t needed back again at all! I guess it must be a slow week for crime and lawsuits. Maybe it’s the weather. But I’m glad I didn’t have to lug myself to the bus stop while I was sick. And now I’ve done jury service twice in my life and have yet to see the inside of a courtroom.

Of course, I wouldn’t have minded making more than three days’ worth of money from this (especially since parking and bus fare ate up so much of it already), but another day or two wouldn’t have made much difference. Fortunately, my manuscript for The Captain’s Oath has now been approved, so I should be getting my final advance from that pretty soon. And now I have about a week and a half until the copyedits for that are due in, which I hope will be enough time to write that new short story I plotted last week. It’s for an open-call anthology whose submission deadline is the end of the month, so I’m cutting it pretty close. But at least I’m free to focus on it now.

So that’s my jury-duty story. Maybe you were hoping for something more exciting, but I’m quite glad it turned out to be so uneventful.

GraphicAudio sale this weekend!

Heads up: GraphicAudio is running a sale this weekend on its comics/superhero-related audiobooks, with 20% off when you buy 2 or more. This sale includes their adaptations of two of my novels, Only Superhuman and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, so that works out nicely. The ordering links are here:

Only Superhuman audiobook  Only Superhuman

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook  Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder

It looks like OS is only available in digital audio formats, but DiT is still available in a 5-CD box set as well as digitally.

Admittedly, Only Superhuman has never been done in comics (not yet, anyway), but it’s a superhero story and is largely an homage to superhero comics, so GraphicAudio lists it along with their comics titles. Anyway, this is a good time to call new attention to OS, considering that my story collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman, featuring the brand-new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels,” is due out later this year.

And finally, Erlanger LibraryCon followup

November 12, 2017 1 comment

Yep, the Kenton County Public Library’s Erlanger branch held its LibraryCon yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well-attended, at least not by people interested in my books. Maybe I should’ve remembered to remind people of the event a couple of days ago. But the cold weather was probably the reason not many people came out. Or maybe this is just a lean year — the current economic uncertainties may make people more reluctant to engage in recreational spending. This is my second signing in a row to have a disappointing turnout.

Still, I got some things out of it. I got to meet a few local creators and publishers, and I got to meet the “other” David Mack — the comics artist/writer known for his work on Kabuki, Daredevil, and the comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, as opposed to my friend David (Alan) Mack who writes Star Trek novels for Pocket and the upcoming Dark Arts: The Midnight Front for Tor. I hadn’t known that the comics’ David Mack was originally from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. He’s a lot more down-to-earth than I would’ve expected from his rather ethereal art. Anyway, it was nice to meet him at last.

I also got a free meal out of it, at least. I actually brought my own lunch, since I didn’t know they’d be providing one, and since my metabolism’s still on Daylight Time, I ate it early, just before the convention formally started at 11. Not long thereafter, they passed around the catering order sheet from Chipotle — d’oh! Although lunch didn’t arrive until after 2, so I would’ve been starving by that point if I hadn’t eaten something earlier. And the burrito I ordered was so big and filling that I didn’t even need to have dinner later on, just an evening snack.

Anyway, the Erlanger branch was a pretty nice library, and it’s too bad I didn’t get a chance to take more of a look around. It’s a bit too far from home to drop into casually. But even with the underwhelming turnout, I’m grateful to the Erlanger staff for having me, and maybe they’ll have me back next year. The library’s apparently having an extension built, so it should be an even bigger space by then and hopefully able to host a larger convention, or so they told me. Maybe I’ll be able to sell more books next year. I should have at least one new thing to offer by then, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce pretty soon.

Thoughts on WONDER WOMAN (2017) (Spoilers)

I finally saw Wonder Woman today, and I pretty much agree with the critical consensus — it’s a terrific movie, and the first DC Extended Universe movie that not only isn’t fatally flawed, but is genuinely excellent and has a coherent, well-defined heroic journey at its heart. Gal Gadot is fantastic in the role, not only a sublimely beautiful, poised, and powerful physical presence but a strong lead actress who handles all the emotional range the film requires of her, which is a lot more than any of the previous three DCEU films have demanded of their leads. Chris Pine is also remarkably good as Steve Trevor, bringing enormous wit and charm to the proceedings (in fact, there were moments when he reminded me more of William Shatner here than he does in the Star Trek movies). The rest of the supporting cast was good too, with Lucy Davis a standout as Etta Candy.

Oh, and first off, let me respond to the inane “Gal Gadot isn’t buff enough” meme that I’m still seeing floating around online, even from the occasional female reviewer. It’s a myth that people have to be bulky to be strong — a myth that comic books have helped to promote by embracing bodybuilders as their standard character design reference over the past few decades. But bodybuilders bulk up for display. Muscles meant for practical use can be strong yet still quite lean; after all, muscle cells are basically long, thin fibers. And people with naturally tall, slender builds can be very strong while still being slender — look at Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that Diana of Themyscira is a demigoddess with superhuman strength anyway, so even if she were scrawny (which she isn’t by any realistic standard), she could probably still kick any mere mortal’s ass.

I do have some quibbles with the origin presented in the film. I don’t like the retcon that the Amazons were created by Zeus, and that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. In the original comics, it was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who created the Amazons and breathed life into Diana. Making it Zeus makes the backstory too male-dominated, and makes the Amazons feel like an extension of a male agenda. I also wish Kid Diana hadn’t been quite so enthralled with fighting and weapons; I would’ve liked to see more of her well-rounded education in the more positive things that drive her as an adult. (The actress playing Kid Diana was adorably badass, though. Give her a Wonder Tot prequel, stat!) Still, I guess that preoccupation is part of the naivete she has to outgrow over the film. She has a romanticized, simplified notion of what war is, resulting from the fact that she’s never seen it except as a bunch of awesome athletic feats her elder sisters perform.

And I like the acrobatic horseback combat, by the way. The Amazons of Greek myth were probably based on some of the horse-nomad peoples of Asia Minor, peoples that had a fair amount of gender equality (out of necessity — nomads can’t afford to have anyone not pulling their weight) and thus could’ve been seen as female-dominated by the intensely misogynistic Athenians. And horse nomads were historically known for their impressive mounted-fighting abilities, which seemed to be the basis for the Amazon combat methods shown in the film. So that’s a nice bit of historical context in a film with a generally fanciful portrait of antiquity.

In thinking back on the film, considering how it succeeds where the previous DCEU films failed, I realize that on the surface, it doesn’t seem that different from the previous films. It has a very dark and grim subject matter — it’s set in the quagmire of World War I and has characters lecturing Diana on humanity’s fundamental capacity for evil and self-destruction. It has a hero who kills. And, like Man of Steel, it has a hero whose journey to adopt the role is in defiance of a parental figure trying to hold them back. So why does it work so much better when it has many of the same elements?

As for the parental-defiance issue, part of it is that it fits the character better. Wonder Woman’s origin story has always involved her defying Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island/Themyscira — and has always had Hippolyta grudgingly accept her daughter’s decision and allow her to make her own path in the world. But Superman’s backstory has usually portrayed Pa Kent as Clark’s inspiration and role model, the one who taught him his value system and implored him to use his gifts to help others. Making Jonathan Kent someone whose advice Clark had to reject in order to become a force for good was too great a change, and too cynical for the Superman narrative. Then again, as much as I hated Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan, I felt one of the more successful aspects of the film was the way Clark refused to be guided by his father’s fear and pettiness, and instead innately tried to do the right thing. So the thing that worked best about MoS’s Clark Kent is also something that worked about Diana of Themyscira. The difference is, in the case of Wonder Woman, it worked for the parental figure too.

As for the dark and grim subject matter, I think part of the difference is that the grimness was necessary in the context of the WWI setting, rather than just being there for its own sake. More importantly, the difference is that the Snyder Superman films tried to impose the darkness on Superman himself, to make him succumb to it and thus diminish him as a figure of nobility and inspiration. MoS and BvS paid lip service to some people seeing Superman as a savior and inspiration, but they didn’t really earn those reactions because they were more interested in showing Superman failing and struggling than in showing him actually helping anyone. BvS also defaulted to grim version of Batman based on a graphic novel (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that was meant to be an exaggerated, worst-case extreme and that’s too often been misinterpreted as a template for how Batman should normally be portrayed.  But in Wonder Woman, the grimness is around Diana. It doesn’t become a part of her. On the contrary, her basic goodness and compassion stand against the darkness of her surroundings and give hope and inspiration to others. She does what a superhero should do — she makes things better. The darkness is her incentive to shine, rather than something that infuses and darkens her. And though she sees the darkness in humanity, she also sees the goodness and love, and stands up for it and instills it in others. This is what Superman should do. It’s even what Batman should do — by using his own darkness to counter the crime and corruption of Gotham, he brings hope to its people and to its forces of law and order, and by taking Robin under his wing, he gives him a better life and allows him to be purer and happier than Batman was in the same circumstances. But Wonder Woman is the first DCEU protagonist who’s actually done that as a central element of her film.

As for the violence… yeah, I’m not a fan of heroes who kill, so that is an issue for me. But it helps somewhat that it’s in the context of a war story, rather than a crimefighting story where that level of force seems excessive. And it helps more that it’s balanced by the more positive things Diana does. The problem with Superman’s actions in Snyder’s films is that they’re too detached, too impersonal. In MoS, he’s literally on the opposite side of the planet while the people of Metropolis are fleeing in terror and dying in droves, and then he (or rather, Snyder) doesn’t even seem aware of the civilians while he and Zod are smashing up the city. In BvS, his acts of heroism are impersonal vignettes about Superman manipulating big heavy objects, and whatever people he’s helping in the process are barely noticed — whereas the film focuses more on his failures to save people when it bothers to pay attention to him at all. But Wonder Woman’s battles are clearly, centrally about saving people. We see the people she’s helping, and we see her connect to them. So there’s a better sense of who and what she’s fighting for, and a greater emphasis on that human element rather than just nonstop CGI destruction. The climax does get a bit heavy on the CGI for a few minutes, but unlike MoS, it doesn’t grind the story to a halt and lose focus on the human stakes of the battle.

A key difference: In both MoS and WW, the climax has the villain urging the hero to accept his nihilistic view and kill an enemy. MoS has Kal-El succumb to the argument and choose to kill, which means that the villain basically wins the philosophical battle and the hero is thus weakened. But here, Diana makes the opposite choice, sparing Dr. Maru. (At least, I think she does. The editing is a bit unclear, since she seems to throw the tank in the same direction Maru ran, and we don’t see Maru after that. But I presume the intention is that she defied Ares and spared Maru.) Okay, yeah, she also kills Ares, but the difference is, it’s not because he told her to. Both sparing Maru and killing Ares are her own choice, driven by her own judgment. Throughout the film, she had a strong point of view and wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do. She did listen and learn, did modulate her actions in response to what she learned, but her choices were always her own. Even though I might wish she’d made a different choice in the case of Ares, she still ends up a stronger protagonist than Clark did, because she didn’t just let the villain talk her into abandoning everything she believed in. And her choice not to show mercy to a predator is balanced by the fact that she did show mercy to someone she recognized as a victim.

Of course, part of the reason the film worked so much better than its predecessors is simply that it had a more coherent story with a better narrative flow and pacing. It felt like a normal movie with a good balance of character, action, ideas, emotion, and humor. It wasn’t trying too hard to affect a certain style or attitude as an end in itself, but was telling a story in the way that worked best for that story. And most importantly for a superhero franchise, it was actually about heroism and inspiration.

There was also a lot of respect for the source material, with some nice homages to the comics. There are two points in the film where Diana recreates the pose Wonder Woman struck on the cover of her debut issue — when she smashes through the window to rescue the hostages (I think it is), and in the final shot of the film (though I think she’s in the mirror-image pose there). The montage of her childhood seems to homage the three life stages that were frequently featured in ’50s and ’60s WW stories by Robert Kanigher — Wonder Tot, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. (Kanigher started out telling stories about Wondy’s youth, then got into the habit of doing “imaginary stories” where the child, teen, and adult versions of Diana impossibly hung out together. Then another writer failed to realize that Wonder Girl was a younger Wonder Woman in the past and added her to the Teen Titans comic that was set in the present, so they had to retcon her into being a separate character, and it got immensely more complicated from there.) The climactic battle with Ares even nods at William Moulton Marston’s heavy use of bondage in the early WW comics, when she’s wrapped up and squeezed in the armor plates.

One thing we didn’t get was the name “Wonder Woman” actually being spoken at any point in the film. I think they missed an opportunity to use it in the Veld scenes. It seems that it would’ve been fairly natural for the rescued villagers to call her Das Wunder-Fraulein, and for Steve to translate it into English as “the Wonder Woman.” It was German that gave us wunderkind, after all, so it seems like it would’ve been a plausible origin for the name.

By the way, I’ve seen a number of people say that the Wonder Woman theme used in BvS and here reminds them of a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — but I can’t help but notice that it has the same 7/8 time signature and 3-note ostinato as Joseph Lo Duca’s Xena: Warrior Princess theme. Fitting, no?

A pretty good day

Well, at least it was better than it has been for a while. About a week ago, I came down with a dreadful cold and fever. For days, I wasn’t up to doing anything but lying down and watching TV or just napping, and I just felt miserable. I spent more time sitting and lying down than is probably good for me, judging from the twinges I was starting to get in my leg.  Yesterday, I finally felt well enough to go get some much-needed groceries, but it was hard to get up the energy to do it, and my joints were sore afterward. But I also felt more energy that evening. I think what happens to me when I have a bad bout with sickness is that the days of inactivity make my metabolism slow down, and eventually it’s hard to tell whether I’m still sick or just stuck in low-energy mode. I think going grocery-shopping helped get the blood flowing again. So I felt more like myself today, well enough to go for a brief walk in the park and enjoy the sunny day. I felt pretty energetic at first, though it didn’t last long.

But when I got home and checked the mailbox, I was surprised to see my last advance check for Patterns of Interference! I only got notification of the approval 9 days ago, so I hadn’t expected to see this check for another week or two. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. It lets me recharge my bank account just in time to pay my rent and some other bills.  Luckily I still had my shoes and jacket on from my walk, since it let me go right back out and drive to the bank right away.

After that, I went to the library near the bank, and I happened upon some nice finds there — the fourth collection of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, the DVD of Star Trek Beyond (which I’ve been wanting to see again but haven’t found at the library until now), and all four Hunger Games movies, which I’ve been meaning to check out and watch back-to-back at some point (to date, I’ve only read the books and seen the first two films). Although I realized I haven’t gotten vol. 3 of Squirrel Girl yet, so I requested it, but I’ll have to wait to read that. And a couple of the Hunger Games discs look a little scratched, so I just hope they play back well enough for my binge to work.

So overall, a reasonably good day. Still, one thing I didn’t manage to do was to refocus on the story I’m writing, which I need to do now that I’m feeling functional again. I did get an idea for how to handle the next scene, but actually getting it done is another matter. Anyway, I need to get a move on with this and other projects. It’s cool that I got my check, but it’s a reminder that I need to get more paying work lined up soon.

What if STAR TREK had been a ’40s radio show?

In the interests of having something to post so this blog doesn’t go dead again (it’s already been 10 days since my last post — sorry), I’m going to repost something fun I contributed to a TrekBBS thread last year musing about what TOS might’ve been like as a radio adventure show from the ’30s or ’40s. Based on the binge-listen I’d done of old The Adventures of Superman radio shows online a couple of years earlier, I ended up putting together a hypothetical scene from an episode, a riff on how radio characters had to narrate the action for the audience’s benefit. I’m reposting it here, with a bit of narration added in response to other posters’ comments:

“Yes! Punching the Gorn’s ears seems to have disoriented him. I’ve got to get away… get some distance! Yes! That rise over there.”
(Panting sounds.)
“Yes… this rock should do nicely.”
(Grunt of exertion.)
“He’s recovering. Now — heave!”
(Sound of object whooshing through the air and striking a leathery surface. Growl of pain from the Gorn.)
“Yes! A hit! But — no, it’s barely staggered him! What incredible strength! Now he’s — no — he’s heading for that large boulder! There’s no way he could — but he is! He’s… lifting it above his head! It must weigh over a ton! Could he possibly throw it hard enough –”
(A loud grunt of exertion from the Gorn, and a heavier whooshing sound.)
“He did! Have to dodge, dodge for all I’m worth!”
(Heavy thud of the boulder striking rock, rolling downhill.)
“Whew! That was close! I could feel the breeze as it blew past! Better not take any chances — up the mountain, quickly! My speed is my only advantage!”
(The sound of swift footsteps on stone, and Kirk panting. Fade out these sounds and asteroid ambience; fade in bridge background audio.)

“Meanwhile, far out in space, the star cruiser Enterprise is trapped, held motionless in a powerful force ray by the mysterious Metrons! Under the cool, logical leadership of the half-Vulcanian Mister Spock, the crew now strives to break free of the Metrons’ relentless grip!”
“Have you tried overload, Mr. Scott?”
“Aye, Mr. Spock. It does no good…”

Just something I tossed together on a lark, but I was happy with how it turned out. Credit where it’s due: This is, of course, an adaptation of a scene from “Arena,” written by Gene L. Coon, from the story by Fredric Brown. Acknowledgment is also due to The Adventures of Superman‘s star Bud Collyer and narrator Jackson Beck for inspiration.

One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)

I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.

Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.

Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.

As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.

I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.

Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.

Going through it all character by character:

Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”

Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.

Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.

Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.

Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.

Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.

Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.

Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.

Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.

War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.

Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings,  the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.

Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.

Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.

Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.

Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.

Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)

Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.

I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.

So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.

Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.

But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.

Batman advisory: There is no alley in Crime Alley!

September 27, 2014 1 comment

This is a repost/edit of comments I made on Tor.com, in response to a YouTube supercut which purports to depict every screen depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, although it omits the recent flashback version from Beware the Batman‘s episode “Monsters” and the dream-sequence alternate version from Justice League Unlimited‘s “For the Man Who Has Everything” (which is not a depiction of the actual murder, but is the closest the DC Animated Universe ever got to showing it, since Batman: The Animated Series was made under severe censorship and could never do more than symbolically allude to the event).

One thing that virtually all these screen adaptations have in common (albeit something that was pointed out to me on another site recently but that I think is worth passing along): They make the mistake of interpreting “Crime Alley” as an actual alley, of the sort that a rich couple would have no conceivable reason to take their child into at night. In fact, when Crime Alley was introduced in 1976 in Detective Comics #457 by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano, it was introduced thusly:

Twenty-one years ago, this neighborhood was the dwelling place of the rich and soon-to-be rich… a place of gourmet restaurants and fashionable theaters… of elegant women and suave men…

But the dry rot of time set in, and the laughter stopped and the lights dimmed, and those elegant women and suave men sought their pleasures elsewhere… and now, only the forlorn and the desperate walk these streets…

For one night, two brutal slayings occurred signaling the beginning of the end… The area known as Park Row acquired a new name — Crime Alley… and —

“THERE IS NO HOPE IN CRIME ALLEY!”

(That last being the story title. All ellipses are from the original text — I’ve deleted nothing.)

So “Crime Alley” is just a nickname for the street/neighborhood — it’s not a literal alley. The artwork shows that the spot where the killings occurred — or the spot where Batman stops a mugging and gets inordinately angry at the mugger for daring to draw a gun on him there, on the exact spot and anniversary of his parents’ murder — as the sidewalk in front of a row of brownstones, just a couple of doors down from the movie theater (which has become a porno theater in the story’s present day).

Before that, in the original 1939 depiction of Batman’s origin and later in 1948’s “The Origin of Batman,” the murder occurred on a street corner right under a streetlight. So in the comics, it was consistently portrayed for decades as a crime that happened right out in the open, making it all the more shocking and brazen. In O’Neil’s version, the fact that such a brutal crime happens in an upscale neighborhood just adds to the shock, to the extent that it scars the reputation of Park Row forever and triggers its decline into a slum as the well-to-do residents flee. The tendency of TV and movies to put it in a literal back alley, the kind of place where you expect a crime to happen, detracts from that impact, and creates the impression that the Waynes were killed as much through their own carelessness as Joe Chill’s brazenness (of course you should never blame the victim, but the impression exists nonetheless).

The only accurate screen portrayal is in Batman: The Animated Series. “Appointment in Crime Alley” (by comics scribe Gerry Conway) portrays it just as O’Neil did, as the former Park Row, now become a slum neighborhood. The actual site of the murder is shown as a sidewalk under an elevated train track. A couple of dozen episodes later (and presumably a year later in story time, since they’re both on the anniversary), “I Am the Night” shows the same, but now the tracks are wider, the sidewalk under them looking darker and more enclosed, thus drifting farther from O’Neil’s intent.

But then there’s the hallucination sequence in “Dreams in Darkness” where Batman sees his parents in a surreal, twisted alley and they then walk into a tunnel that becomes the barrel of a giant revolver. And JLU’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” supposedly set in the same universe, shows it in Bruce’s memory/dream as an alley directly across the street from the movie theater showing The Mark of Zorro. So that’s another one that gets it wrong. B:TAS is really the only screen adaptation that followed O’Neil’s intention behind the name “Crime Alley,” and yet it was inconsistent about it, and never actually got to show the murder.

Oh, and while we’re at it, how about that movie the Waynes were coming home from? In the 1939 version, it was just “a movie,” no title given. In 1948, it says merely that Bruce was “walking with his parents,” no movie mentioned. The movie was back again by “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” and by Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s 1980 storyline “The Untold Legend of the Batman,” which consolidated all the backstory established about the character up to that point; but still no title was given. The first time an actual movie was proposed, to the best of my knowledge, was in the very first screen portrayal of the murder, in the 1985 Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode “The Fear” by Alan Burnett, which I’ve discussed before. In Burnett’s version, the movie was Robin Hood, perhaps meant to inspire Batman’s future choice of nickname for his sidekick. (Note that Burnett’s version also debuted the practice of portraying the murder site as a dark, scary alley, which suited the episode’s theme of Batman overcoming fear, but set an unfortunate precedent.) However, just a year later in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established the film as The Mark of Zorro, which is what most versions have used since then — the main exception being Batman Begins, which changed the movie to an opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (though it’s often mistakenly assumed to be Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus — “The Bat” — because of the bat-costumed performers in the movie scene).

Since “The Fear” was the first version I saw, I assumed for a long time that the movie was supposed to be Robin Hood and that the Zorro version was a later retcon. Turns out the Robin Hood version was just a blip. It was no specific movie at all from 1939 to 1985, Robin Hood in 1985, and The Mark of Zorro from 1986 to the present, except once. Still, I’m partial to it,  not only because it was the first version I saw, but because it’s really hard to explain Robin’s nickname and costume any other way. Well, maybe Dick Grayson was the one who liked that movie while Batman was influenced more by Zorro. That would really make more sense, wouldn’t it?

So the moral of the story for film and TV producers is, when adapting a story, make sure to double-check the details. And the moral for comics and prose writers is, when naming a pivotal location in your story, avoid metaphorical names that film and TV producers might end up taking literally. We’re lucky we didn’t end up with a supercut of scenes where the Waynes are murdered while going bowling.

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Movie thoughts: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Spoilers)

I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past today. It’s a very good movie, and while its time travel isn’t entirely plausible (when is it ever?), it’s at least self-consistent and straightforward in its internal logic. The character work is good, although Wolverine doesn’t really seem like Wolverine. The premise requires him to get out of his comfort zone and adopt a role very different from what he’s used to, which is a good place to take a character, but it would’ve helped if we’d gotten to see it balanced with more of who he normally is, either in his 1973 or 2023 mental state. The one moment where he lost control was one that could only really be understood in the context of what came before.

But really, this whole movie only works as an installment in a series, a continuation of things the audience has seen before — indeed, as a culmination of the series to date, bringing the whole thing together more coherently than it’s often been in some of the middle installments. What’s impressive — spoiler alert — is that even though the ending resets the timeline and undoes the events of the not-well-liked The Last Stand (and possibly every other movie except First Class), the film nonetheless acknowledges and uses all of what came before and thus gives the series a greater sense of unity. Which is a good place from which to move forward for future installments.

The recreation of the ’70s was pretty good, seeming reasonably authentic without coming off as a caricature. Although some of the technology seemed anachronistic, like some of the plastics being used in the anti-Magneto guns and the Sentinels. Trask’s mutant-detecting remote control looked more like a product of the 2000s than the 1970s; it should’ve been big, boxy, and black or brown, or maybe that sickly green that was oddly popular in the ’70s. I was also concerned that some of the vocabulary was anachronistic, like when Charles said Trask would “weaponize” Mystique’s powers, but Merriam-Webster said that usage has been around since the ’50s. There was one other usage that seemed too modern, but I can’t recall it now (I think it was something Charles said to Wolverine after his failed attempt with Cerebro). And how did Magneto know “I don’t know karate but I know crazy,” from an early-’70s song, if he’s been locked in a cell with no access to electronic devices since 1963? Maybe he overheard a guard singing it?

Speaking of which, the Quicksilver breakout sequence was just as awesome as the reviews have been saying. Quicksilver’s a great character, despite the goofy silver hair — isn’t it supposed to be white? I hope he’s back for the next movie.

My one big disappointment is that we never really got to see the ’70s Sentinels being what they were meant to be, a threat against mutants.  They just went right to being Magneto’s weapon against humans. Sure, we saw the future Sentinels, but they were more like scaly T-1000s than the classic Sentinels of the comics and cartoons — or the Sentinels I wrote about in X-Men: Watchers on the Walls (shameless plug). So it wasn’t quite the same. It also leaves me wondering about the original timeline. If Trask had the Sentinels designed in 1973, and if his assassination led the government to go ahead with the program, then that implies that the X-Men must have faced them sometime before the movies we saw. The use of a Sentinel simulation in the Danger Room in The Last Stand certainly supports this. So what happened to them? Why wasn’t the government using them against mutants during the original two films?

I also wonder how Xavier got his act together in the original history where Logan didn’t come back. We’ve seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that within six years after this movie, he’s assembling the X-Men (and is bald and is walking, though with his telepathy intact). And of course he eventually becomes the wise mentor we see in the first three films and the future scenes here. So he must’ve found his way on his own somehow — Logan just helped him do it sooner. I’m curious how it originally happened.

The big thing that bugged me was giving Kitty Pryde this time-travel power out of nowhere. It doesn’t really make sense. I understand why they couldn’t be faithful to the original story and have Rachel Summers send Kitty’s mind back, because in the movie universe, Kitty wouldn’t have been born yet in the ’70s. Given the 50-year gap, sending Wolverine makes sense. But giving Kitty an arbitrary power just to keep her involved in the story doesn’t really work for me. What’s the connection between phasing through objects and telepathic time transference? Unless… hmm… unless she phases by putting herself out of temporal sync with matter. Or something. I would’ve liked some kind of explanation. It’s all very contrived.

Also, the timing puzzles me. From the assassination attempt in Paris to the unveiling of the first Sentinels probably took a few days, even if Trask already had the prototypes built. So Wolverine’s mind was back in the past for quite some time. If time in the future was moving at the same rate, does that mean Kitty was sitting there with her hands against Logan’s temples for days on end? Without sleep or food?

And while we’re at it, why can’t Mystique use her shapeshifting to heal her bullet wound? Just shift the tissues back into an intact configuration? If we assume it required an effort of concentration to hold a form, it wouldn’t be a permanent fix, but couldn’t she at least have used it as a temporary patch to aid her getaway? This is a common trope, shapeshifters retaining injuries when they change forms, and it always seems inconsistent to me. (Although come to think of it, this was established about Mystique way back in the original film, where Wolverine’s claws left wounds that remained when she shifted forms.)

Okay, every movie has plot holes, but for the most part this one held up very well and there was a lot to like. In the future portions, I was particularly fond of Blink’s power, which was rendered very nicely. I loved the way her “doors” let you see an action from two angles at once. And in the past, I guess what struck me the most was how much it was the story of Mystique’s redemption — and Charles’s through her, in a way. She’s ended up playing a role in these past two movies that I never would’ve expected from her prior screen and comics appearances. I’m still a little underwhelmed by Jennifer Lawrence, though. She’s reasonably good, but I don’t find her as impressive as a lot of people seem to.

Oh, and I liked the in-joke of the clip from “The Naked Time” showing on Hank’s TV. Although they kind of looped back through the scene a couple of times — Kirk said “A time warp?” at least twice. (So he was doing the time warp again?)

About those final scenes… I’m glad the altered history brought Scott and Jean back, and it was neat to see Kelsey Grammer’s cameo as older Beast (although I convinced myself that wasn’t really him, and it’s only in looking online afterward that I found it was). And since Rogue is back at the school (I didn’t blink, so I didn’t miss it), I assume that means she never got the “cure” and still has her powers. So it’s nice to see the band back together. The problem is that I don’t think we’re likely to see that timeframe again, with the focus shifting to the younger cast in historical settings. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the events of the better films — the first two X-Men movies and The Wolverine — being implicitly removed from continuity. I would’ve liked some reassurance that they still happened pretty much as we saw. Although I guess The Wolverine can’t happen the way we saw, because that whole movie is about Logan dealing with the impact of Jean’s death, and its post-credits scene is a setup for the dark future of this movie.

Well, I guess I can still believe those movies “count,” because it was that sequence of events that led to the circumstances that sent Logan back in time with the consequences we saw here. So there’s still a causal progression that makes them relevant. Still, I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of debate about this continuity reboot in the years ahead. Though less so than there was for something like Star Trek, since it was widely considered that the X-Men franchise had lost its way and the reboot was an opportunity to fix that. Which it certainly did. Bryan Singer himself may not have the ability to go back in time and undo the mistake of doing Superman Returns instead of the third X-Men film, but he’s done the next best thing, at least where this franchise is concerned.

Cincy Library Comic Con report

Here I am at the Cincinnati Library Comic Con 2014 this afternoon:

Me at Cinti Library Comic Con

(Thanks to library volunteer Lori for taking the photo for me.)

As you can see, I brought a variety of my books with me, but I still had most of them by the end of the event. Still, I sold a bit over a quarter of my stock and earned a decent chunk of change, with 20% donated to the library. Not shown in the photo: the one copy I had left of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. Since this was mainly a comics event, my Spidey novel and Only Superhuman sold significantly better than the Trek titles, a change of pace from what I’m used to. It makes me think I should’ve tried harder to market OS at comics events back when it first came out.

The library had snacks available for the guests, including mini-quiches from Panera. I’m not usually a quiche eater, but I was hungry and I saw that they had a spinach-artichoke variety, so I decided to give it a try, and it was quite good, as one would expect from Panera.

Another thing that really impressed me was the material covering the table, that gold sheeting you see there. The texture had a good firm grip to it and it nicely held my books in that upright position. I usually have trouble keeping them from falling over when they’re like that, but they were all very well-behaved today, so I can only conclude it’s because of the tablecloth material. If I knew what it were called, I’d recommend it to all my conventions.

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER makes AudioFile Magazine’s Best of 2013 list!

December 4, 2013 1 comment

The folks at GraphicAudio just sent me some excellent news: AudioFile Magazine listed their audiobook adaptation of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder as one of their Best Audiobooks of 2013 in the “Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Audio Theater” category.

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

The list is here:

http://digital.audiofilemagazine.com/i/215700

It may take a few moments to load, but the entry is on page 11. And here it is at GraphicAudio’s Facebook page.

I’m really pleased by this. I’ve always been proud of Drowned in Thunder, but the paperback didn’t get as much attention as I’d hoped. I’m glad to see the story getting a new lease on life thanks to GraphicAudio, and I hope this attention may eventually lead to Marvel reissuing the book (since Pocket’s license has lapsed by now).

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER annotations updated

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

I’ve just recently finished listening to my copy of GraphicAudio’s adaptation of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, which was really well-done. Tim Getman did an excellent job as Peter/Spidey, with a voice reminiscent of ’90s animated Spidey Christopher Daniel Barnes and The Spectacular Spider-Man‘s Josh Keaton, and with a good grasp of both Spidey’s wisecracking side and his more angsty, bitter side. Terence Aselford’s Stan Lee-esque J. Jonah Jameson is very different from what I imagined when I wrote the book, but I quickly got used to it and it worked very well. Alyssa Wilmoth, who starred as Emerald Blair in Only Superhuman‘s audio adaptation, played Mary Jane Watson-Parker (the book is set before their marriage was erased from Marvel continuity), and it was interesting to hear how her characterization differed, painting MJ in lighter, subtler strokes than Emry. Lily Beacon was a fantastic Aunt May, reminding me at times of Nichelle Nichols’s voice. The rest of the cast, which has only a few overlaps with the Only Superhuman cast, was effective as well. Here’s the full cast list I was given:

Tim Getman as Spider-Man
Terence Aselford as J. Jonah Jameson
Alyssa Wilmoth as Mary Jane Watson
Lily Beacon as Aunt May
David Jourdan as Electro
KenYatta Rogers as Robbie Robertson
Regen Wilson as Ben Urich and Phineas Mason
Steven Carpenter as Alistaire Smythe
Jeff Allin as Reed Richards
Kimberly Gilbert as Dawn Lukens
Nora Achrati as Marla Jameson and Jill Stacy
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Betty Brant
Mark Halpern as Blush Barrass and Bobby Ribeiro
Ren Kasey as Liz Allan

with Bradley Smith, Joe Brack, Casie Platt, Joel David Santner,
David Harris, Patrick Bussink, Thomas Penny, Christopher Scheeren,
Scott McCormick, Thomas Keegan, and Tim Pabon

Further credits are at the link above.

Anyway, I took notes while I listened so I could update my novel annotations to include the audio edition as well, as I recently did with Only Superhuman. I’ll have to listen again sometime so I can experience it with fewer interruptions. The annotations can be accessed from my Marvel Fiction page here:

http://home.fuse.net/ChristopherLBennett/Marvelfiction.html#DiT

I’m going to be doing a signing at GraphicAudio’s booth at New York Comic-Con next month, probably on Friday Oct. 11, although we’re still sorting out the schedule. I’ll post the info when I can.

 

By the way, while listening to the DiT audiobook so soon after my most recent listen to the OS audiobook, I realized something. Both Only Superhuman and Drowned in Thunder have scenes where an elderly female relative of the protagonist gives a speech that explains the thematic significance behind the novel’s title and contains a paraphrase thereof. I didn’t realize I was repeating that trope. Well, it’s surely not the only trope I’ve repeated in my career.

My visit to GraphicAudio

Here I am visiting GraphicAudio’s studio in Bethesda, Maryland on Monday, August 5th:

My visit to GraphicAudio

Me with director/narrator Nanette Savard, sound designer Patrick Stratton, and producer/actor Richard Rohan. (Link)

As I’ve mentioned, I was able to arrange this visit because I was staying with cousins half an hour’s drive from the GA studio. Based on their recommendations, I decided to take the Beltway route out there and the more direct East-West Highway back — but cousin Barb loaned me their GPS, and it kept trying to direct me to East-West on the way out and the Beltway on the way back! So I relied more on Google Maps printouts.

When I arrived, I also got a bit lost, since I went in by the stairs and the signs there only directed me to the upper floor where the processing and packaging is done. I needed to find someone to escort me down to the studios the floor below. There I was met by producer Richard Rohan, who turned out to have played Hanuman Kwan in Only Superhuman. He was aware I’d imagined Roddy MacDowall when writing the character, but said he didn’t have that voice in his repertoire. When I mentioned his performance reminded me of Tony Randall (which worked almost as well), he said he’d have to think about developing a Randall impression. I also met Nanette Savard, the audiobook’s director and narrator, and when I mentioned that I’d felt Greg Tai and Sally Knox had been perfectly cast, Nanette revealed that she had played Sally! I also briefly met Colleen Delany, who played Psyche Thorne, and who turns out to have a rather Psyche-like smile, very wide and bright. But I just missed a chance to meet Zephyr’s portrayer Thomas Keegan, with whom Nanette had just been finishing up a session when I arrived.

I was shown into the editing room where the above photo was taken, and I got to hear the opening scene of the Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook, plus a couple of other scenes later on. It was pretty well-done. The actor they’ve got playing Spider-Man (I don’t know his name yet) sounds not unlike Christopher Daniel Barnes, who played the role in the ’90s series that made me a Spidey fan, and whose voice I imagined when writing the book. Their version of J. Jonah Jameson isn’t anything like what I imagined (which was Ed Asner from the ’90s show), since they based their version on the fact that Stan Lee always wanted to play the role himself. No, they didn’t hire Stan, but their actor gives JJJ a very Stan-like quality. I also learned that Mary Jane Watson-Parker will be played by Alyssa Wilmoth, the same actress who played Emerald Blair — appropriate, since they’re both redheads.

I learned a lot of this from the trailer they played during the podcast interview, which made the story sound really exciting. I was listening in awe and thinking, “I wrote that?!” Anyway, Richard and Nanette interviewed me inside a cozy recording booth and we had a nice talk about both books. The podcast should be out within the week, and I’ll link to it when it’s available. They even let me go back in and do a retake when I belatedly remembered I’d forgotten to plug the upcoming Only Superhuman paperback. After the interview, they showed me the rest of their facility — mostly one big room where the directors and engineers work at a bunch of computers around the walls, but with some private offices for the producers and a couple of secondary recording booths. They had me sign a couple of copies of the audiobook as well as the OS poster in their lobby, and they gave me a green coffee mug with the company logo on it (though more lime green than emerald green).

Unfortunately they didn’t have any copies of DiT ready to give me, since Marvel hasn’t given final approval yet and they haven’t even printed any CDs. The box I’m holding in the above photo is a mockup they finished just moments before. But it sounds like it’ll be really cool, and I hope it’s a big seller. As I’ve mentioned before, I won’t get any more money from this, but I’m proud of the story and I want it to get more exposure. Plus it could attract more interest for Only Superhuman, and that could benefit me financially.

Speaking of which, I asked if I could have a fuller cast list than the one given on the audiobook, crediting who played what for more than just the lead roles. Nanette provided a list for me, so now I can give a fuller cast list for Only Superhuman, the audio:

  • Nanette Savard: Narrator, Sally Knox
  • Alyssa Wilmoth: Emerald Blair/Green Blaze
  • Colleen Delany: Psyche Thorne
  • Thomas Keegan: Zephyr, Taurean
  • Elliot Dash: Eliot Thorne
  • Ken Jackson: Javon Moremba
  • Evan Casey: Gregor Tai
  • Yasmin Tuazon: Koyama Hikari/Tenshi
  • Tracy Lynn Olivera: Bast, Lydia Muchangi/Lodestar, Detective Barbour
  • Barbara Pinolini: Rachel Kincaid-Shannon
  • Richard Rohan: Jahnu Kwan/Hanuman, Erich Krieger/Wulf
  • Christopher Scheeren: Yukio Villareal/Sensei
  • Michael Glenn: Richard Shannon
  • Kimberly Gilbert: Bimala Sarkar, Elise Pasteris/Tin Lizzy, Ruki Shimoda/Hikkaku
  • David Coyne: Sanjay Bhattacharyya/Cowboy
  • Eric Messner: Vijay Pandalai/Arjun
  • James Konicek: Arkady Nazarbayev/Medvyed
  • Elizabeth Jernigan: Lyra Blair, “Banshee” Starlet
  • Nora Achrati: Maryam Khalid/Hijab, Dr. Monica Railey
  • Joe Brack: Juan Lopez/Jackknife, Aaron Donner/Blitz, Daniel Weiss/Overload
  • Nick Depinto: Marut Pandalai/Bhima
  • Terence Aselford: Ken Auster/Paladin, Jorge Santiago
  • Additional voices by Thomas Penny, Michael John Casey, James Lewis, Joel David Santner, and Steven Carpenter

Hopefully I’ll have a cast list for Drowned in Thunder as well once that comes out.

By the way, here’s the list of GA’s DC Comics cast members. Turns out Richard Rohan plays Batman — and the Joker! (That must make for some interesting recording sessions.) Nanette Savard is Lois Lane, Colleen Delany is Wonder Woman, and James Konicek, who played Arkady, is their Superman.

Before I left, they let me know that they had plans to attend the New York Comic-Con in October. I plan to be there to promote the OS paperback, so I’ll be sure to visit their booth and maybe do some promotion of their adaptations. I’ll be sure to post information about my appearance schedule once it’s arranged.

Wonder Woman goes mod: The “Diana Prince” era (spoiler review)

February 13, 2013 2 comments

For a while now, I’ve noticed that my local library branch had all four volumes of the Diana Prince: Wonder Woman trade paperbacks. These are a comprehensive collection of the 25-issue (bimonthly) run from 1968 to 1972 when Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and star-spangled costume and became a civilian crimefighter modeled on The Avengers‘s Emma Peel, a fashionable martial artist who was easily the equal of any man. (This was initially billed as The New Wonder Woman, then Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman, and finally Diana Prince as Wonder Woman.) The change was masterminded by writer Dennis O’Neil, who did a lot in the early ’70s to bring new maturity and relevance to DC Comics. O’Neil is known for bringing Batman back to his serious, gritty roots (at least compared to the former goofiness of ’50s/’60s Batman comics which the Adam West sitcom quite accurately captured, contrary to popular belief) and for bringing Green Lantern down to Earth and sending him on an extended road trip with liberal activist Green Arrow to find America and explore the conflict between the letter of the law and true justice. The New Wonder Woman reboot was an earlier attempt to make one of DC’s iconic figures more grounded and relatable — and more to the point, an attempt to revive flagging sales of a series which had been under creative decline under former writer/editor Robert Kanigher and was verging on cancellation. The reboot succeeded in that respect, creating new interest and saving the title from the axe, but critical reactions to it in retrospect have been mixed, making me hesitant to read the issues. But recently I read this column on Comic Book Resources which examined the beginning and end of the era, and the excerpts made me curious enough to want to read the whole thing. And yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, but an interesting one.

Also quite a good-looking one. The pencil art for most of the run was by Mike Sekowsky (who also wrote most of it) with inks by Dick Giordano, and their version of “Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince,” as she was referred to in captions, was rather striking and glamorous. The character was not generally sexualized in the way modern comic-book heroines tend to be (although there are a couple of covers of Diana in bondage), but she was definitely nice to look at. Rather than wearing a costume, she went through a variety of “mod” fashions, initially in a range of colors, but by about a quarter of the way through the run, the colorists had settled on dressing her in pure white all the time — perhaps a sort of compromise between the original fashion-plate idea and the comic-book convention of having the main hero in a recognizable “costume.”

The story begins by dismantling the series’s old tropes. First, in issue 178, WW’s love interest Steve Trevor is framed for murder, and WW’s honesty forces her to give damning testimony that Steve had hated the victim, leading to his conviction. Feeling she’s failed him as Wonder Woman, she decides to investigate as Diana Prince — and to blend in with the “hippie crowd” she needs to investigate, she gets a “mod” makeover, ditching Prince’s former frumpy-Army-secretary look for a much more glamorous and contemporary one. She frees Steve, who gains a new appreciation for Diana (unaware that Diana is WW), leading WW to think she has to change to hold Steve’s interest. But clearly the ideas were in flux, because this isn’t followed up on at all. The big changes that happen next issue arise from entirely unrelated factors.

And they happen quite quickly, within a few pages. Steve is convinced by a superior to go undercover as a traitor to infiltrate the organization of the evil Doctor Cyber. WW intends to help prove his innocence, but she’s summoned home to Paradise Island. In just two pages, she learns that the Amazons are leaving for another dimension to recharge their fading magic, chooses to stay behind to help Steve, renounces her costume and powers, and sees her home vanish forever. Now she’s just an ordinary, broke mortal looking for a job and a home. Within another page, she encounters an elderly, blind Chinese man who turns out to be a martial-arts whiz and has unexplained mystical knowledge of her identity and past. He’s named I Ching, improbably enough, and he initially speaks in a stereotyped broken English that fortunately gets toned down later. He’s also an enemy of Dr. Cyber, and spends weeks (but only two montage panels) training Diana into a martial-arts expert. Steve shows up injured and beaten by Cyber’s agents and is hospitalized. But in the next issue, Diana, Ching, and a hardboiled detective named Trench pursue Cyber, and as they enter her lair, Steve randomly shows up with no explanation and gets randomly shot dead. Which is far from the most cursory and ill-justified major change we’ll see in these pages. For one thing, we’re subsequently shown that Diana has opened a clothing boutique sometime during all this training and tragedy. She was thinking about opening a shop of some sort just before she met I Ching, but the details were skipped over and the shop is later presented as a fait accompli.

Dr. Cyber turns out to be a beautiful woman in a high-collared cloak, a Bond-style evil scientist out to conquer the world with various convoluted schemes involving high technology and sexy henchwomen. Diana, having added to her repertoire with spy gadgets disguised as jewelry, works with Ching and Trench to pursue Cyber over the next few issues, though Trench bails on them at the same time that O’Neil turns over the writing reins to Sekowsky with issue 182. From here on, there will be a different romantic interest for Diana turning up every few issues, and she’ll kind of chastely fall for all of them within a few pages even though many of them are kind of jerks. As Sekowsky writes her, Diana is less in control of her emotions now that she’s mortal, and has to learn to cope with this thing we humans call love.

Sekowsky wastes no time reversing one of the key ideas of O’Neil’s reboot. He uses his first issue to wrap up the Dr. Cyber arc, then right after that, Diana is summoned back to Paradise Island to help them fend off an invasion by Ares — just four issues after Diana supposedly cut ties with the Amazons forever. The island is still in an alternate dimension, but now easily accessible — though Sekowsky doesn’t bother to explain why Diana still has to go without her superpowers and equipment if this is the case. Here we also get our first demonstration of the fact that, as written by Sekowsky, Diana is a warrior with no qualms about using deadly force — something that’s often part of how she’s written in modern times, but apparently made its debut here. (Also, weirdly, Diana summons help for the Amazons from other dimensional planes where mythic heroes like Arthur and Siegfried dwell, but it never occurs to her to ask her old Justice League teammates for help.)

The weirdness continues when Diana returns home. She liberates a young girl named Cathy from a trio of weirdly dressed women called “THEM” who keep her as a slave, then gives Cathy a job in her boutique — whereupon in subsequent issues the ex-slave repeatedly jokes quite cheerfully about Diana being a slave-driver of a boss. Either it’s a serious failure of character consistency, or it’s implying that Cathy actually liked being a sub and had something kinky going on with Diana.

The trades include Diana’s crossover appearances in other comics during the era, starting with a completely insane Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane issue by Robert Kanigher, WW’s former writer. The way Lois was portrayed at this time is hard to reconcile with the strong, independent Lois we know today — in her own book, she’s completely, pathologically obsessed with getting Superman to marry her and seeking to destroy any real or imagined rivals for his affections, in this case a Diana who suddenly seems to have her powers back and then some, though all is not as it appears. The cover sums up the whole mentality behind this issue, with Superman cheerfully watching the catfight as Wonder Woman tosses Lois, his own official, titular girlfriend, over her head. Superman really was a jerk back then. This issue is followed by a somewhat less insane crossover, a Sekowsky-Giordano issue of The Brave and the Bold teaming Diana with Batman as they take on an evil race-car driver who kills all his opponents and is somehow still allowed to drive race cars professionally. In this story, Bruce Wayne recognizes Diana as the former Wonder Woman, but she doesn’t know he’s Batman (even after Bruce is injured and “calls in a favor” to arrange for Batman to race in his stead).

Next comes a multiparter set mostly in Hong Kong and bringing back Dr. Cyber, as well as I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan, who turns out to be working for Cyber and accuses Ching of murdering her mother. It’s never explained why she thinks this or whether it’s true. Cyber has her face scarred by hot coals in one issue, and in the next is rather definitively killed off. We next get another rather violent issue where Diana follows I Ching across the Chinese border to help some villagers escape the Communist government.

But the book continues to veer from topical to fanciful, since the next storyline has Diana swept into a parallel dimension where she helps some noble “barbarians” defeat an evil queen who rules from Castle Greyskull (okay, just Castle Skull) by violating the Prime Directive big time and inventing gunpowder and cannons for them. Sekowsky sure didn’t stint on the violence. This story was published across three issues, but the middle issue is actually a reprint of issue 179 with a few framing pages setting up the flashback. The TPB collection doesn’t include the reprint part.

After another more down-to-earth issue where Diana helps catch a murderer, we get an ill-conceived retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda (the credits actually read “Adapted from a story by Anthony Hope Hawkins.”). Diana’s traveling in Europe and turns out to be an exact double for the local princess, and ends up impersonating her to protect her from an abduction plot. Sekowsky seems to forget that our mod mortal heroine spent most of her life as an Amazon princess, since Diana seems clueless about the whole royal lifestyle. I could buy it if she were putting on an act to conceal her past secret identity, but it extends to her private thoughts as well. And this is just two issues after a storyline that depended on her Amazon ties. The inconsistencies in this run are very weird.

After a ghost-story one-shot, we get World’s Finest 204, crossing Superman with Diana in an O’Neil-scripted story touching on the student riots that were topical at the time, though mainly dealing with time travel to a desolate future resulting from the death of a key person in the riots. The story has an interestingly, though awkwardly, ambiguous ending.

Issue 196 combined three stories: a new Sekowsky-Giordano story about Diana protecting an ambassador from assassination, and a couple of Golden Age reprints, one previously unpublished. The trade includes only the original story. This is Sekowsky’s final issue, and I wonder if his departure was abrupt, because the next two issues are double-length reprints of issues 181-184, with only the covers included in the trade.

O’Neil returns as writer for the next few issues, with Don Heck pencils and Giordano inks in #199 and Giordano solo art for the rest of the run. The first 2-parter brings back Lu Shan and the supposedly dead Dr. Cyber, who wants to put her brain in Diana’s body to restore the beauty she lost (an all too typical motivation for female villains in the era). Oddly, in these later issues, O’Neil assumes that Diana Prince is publicly known as “the Wonder Woman,” even though there was no prior indication that the secret of Diana’s former identity had ever been exposed. It’s just another bit of sloppy continuity. However, there’s no specific reference to Wonder Woman ever having been a costumed Amazon superhero; it’s treated as just a nickname that Diana’s picked up through her exploits.

After this is a 2-parter in which Diana gets dragged into the pursuit of a sacred jewel that Catwoman (in one of her less flattering costumes) is also hunting — and in part 2, with SF writer Samuel R. Delany taking over as scripter, the cast gets dragged by the magic jewel into the world of Newhon, home of Fritz Lieber’s prose characters Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser! Apparently this was a backdoor pilot for a short-lived, O’Neil-scripted comic series starring the duo. There’s another random continuity change here, since O’Neil has Diana sell off her boutique to fund her trip in pursuit of the jewel. I don’t know why this is, since it was O’Neil who gave her the boutique in the first place. Lu Shan is also in this storyline, but is rather cavalierly written out, and her accusation that I Ching murdered her mother is never resolved or explained.

Next comes another Brave and the Bold Batman team-up by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, and in this story, Diana knows that Bruce is Batman, though she didn’t discover that in their previous meeting. It’s also the first story in quite a while where we’ve seen Diana wearing anything that wasn’t pure white, presumably due to a different colorist at work (though it’s still mostly white). Diana is randomly assisted by an “Amazon guardian angel” who shows up in all of three panels and is never explained.

The final mod-era issue, scripted by Delany, is something of an embarrassment. It’s billed as a “special women’s lib issue,” and involves Cathy (remember her?) trying to persuade Diana to support a women’s-lib group fighting for equal pay at what turns out to be a crooked department store. Bizarrely, Diana resists supporting women’s liberation and says she doesn’t even like women much.

Um.

Yeah. The former Amazon princess… who spent her formative years and perhaps centuries of immortal adulthood on an island completely devoid of men… and who was sent to the outside world to teach patriarchal society the superior ways of her Amazon sisters… and who’s spent much of the past two dozen issues giving her enemies backtalk about how they shouldn’t assume women are helpless… and she doesn’t like women and needs to be talked into standing up for women’s equality. Excuse me?!

Apparently this was meant to be the first in a 6-issue arc by Delany in which Diana confronted women’s issues, culminating with Diana protecting an abortion clinic. But if this was how it began, maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t see the rest of it play out. And perhaps this rather screwed-up take on women’s lib was a somewhat fitting wrap-up for this era, because it was around this time that Gloria Steinem complained about feminist icon Wonder Woman having her superpowers and costume stripped away. Because of the public protest she raised, DC hastily abandoned the mod era and brought back Kanigher as writer/editor to restore the former status quo.

This happened in a painfully cursory way in issue 204, the final issue in the trade collection, written by Kanigher and illustrated by Heck and Giordano. I Ching is unceremoniously killed by a random sniper, and the police inexplicably allow Diana, a civilian, to ride on their helicopter as they go after him. She’s injured defeating the sniper and wakes up with total amnesia, but feels a salmon-like compulsion to go home, so she steals a jet. She’s conveniently shot down just off the coast of Paradise Island, which is back in our dimension without explanation. The Amazons restore her memory and her old costume; there’s no mention of restoring her superpowers, but she’s implicitly back to her old self, apparently with no memory of the entire mod era. She’s hired as a UN translator by some old guy who thinks she’s a “plain Jane” just because she’s in glasses and a sweater but otherwise looks exactly like she did before. Thus she is somehow “reborn” and the comic is restored to status quo in the most slapdash and creatively bankrupt way possible.

Was Steinem right? I don’t think so. It’s not as if Wonder Woman had been portrayed in a remotely feminist way over the decade that Kanigher had been writing the comic prior to the “mod” reboot. And for all the inconsistency and wackiness of the mod era, I think that removing Diana’s powers made her more effective as a feminist symbol rather than less. It showed that even a typical mortal woman could be a hero on the same level as Batman, achieving great things just with training, intelligence, courage, and compassion. And her wardrobe in this era was rather more practical and less objectifying than the star-spangled bathing suit. For its time, I think it did a good job at portraying Diana in a feminist way, and more understatedly than Delany attempted to do — just matter-of-factly treating her as ultracapable and independent. True, I Ching was an unfortunate stereotype, but less so than he could’ve been, given the era. I think there were definite merits to this version of Wonder Woman, and it didn’t deserve to be retconned and abandoned as completely as it was. At the very least it deserved a better wrapup than that dreadful Kanigher story.

(Some may remember the 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a non-superpowered Diana who wore a star-spangled track suit rather than the classic costume. That came about because the project began development during the time when the comics’ Wonder Woman was powerless and costumeless. Since the book returned to its original format during development or production of the movie, it ended up being sort of a hybrid of the two different versions of the character.)

Here’s an interesting essay I found covering Wonder Woman’s history in the comics from the beginning through 1986. It reveals (on p. 7) that as soon as issue 212, new editor Julius Schwartz and writer Len Wein did acknowledge that the mod era had happened, and that Diana had lost all her memory of it. Kanigher’s return as writer and editor of the series didn’t work out and lasted only seven issues. Which is no surprise, considering that he’d presided over its decline to the verge of cancellation. The mod era saved the comic and was the first attempt to make Wonder Woman a strong, serious hero since her creator William Moulton Marston had stopped writing her. I’m definitely glad I read it, and I wish it had lasted longer, or at least been allowed to have more of a lasting influence on later storylines. Although in its way, I think it did pioneer some important aspects of the modern version of the character.

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I’m quoted in a Flavorwire piece on comic-book heroes

The folks at the Flavorwire website recently solicited opinions from various comics- and superhero-related authors about which comic-book characters they felt deserved their own TV series (other than their own), and thanks to the efforts of my publicist at Tor, I’m one of the people they asked. To see my answer (which is tenth on the list), read the article:

Flavorwire: Comic Book Characters Who Should Have Their Own TV Show

 

Monitor adjustments (in two senses)

It’s been a process of adjustment getting used to my new monitor — both literally adjusting its settings and adjusting to it psychologically.  I’m not crazy about the widescreen design.  I understand that’s become the default these days, but the screen has less height than my old one along with more width, so there are things I can’t do anymore, like fit a whole page of a word-processor document or nearly a whole page from my Star Trek: The Complete Comics Collection DVD.  Why not make it both taller and wider?  Where’s the harm in having blank space above and below a widescreen image?  Well, maybe it’s my own fault for getting the smallest monitor they had, but I’m not sure a bigger one would’ve fit either my workspace or my budget.  (I kinda wish I had one of those monitors that could rotate 90 degrees, so you could have it widescreen for watching videos or tall and narrow for reading documents.)

Once I discovered the controls, I tried turning down the brightness, to save power and to make it easier on my eyes, or so I thought.  A few days later, I realized the monitor was giving me migraines (not too bad, but frequent) — and I didn’t figure this out until the day after my 2-week return window at the store expired.  So I was worried about what I was going to do.  But I researched monitor-induced headaches online, and I learned that the problem is that LEDs, the source of this type of monitor’s backlighting, can’t be dimmed; they’re either on at full brightness or off completely.  So the only way to dim them is to make them flicker between on and off — the more they flicker, the dimmer the average light level gets.  And though I couldn’t consciously perceive the flicker, I must’ve been sensitive enough to it that it triggered the headaches.  Turning the brightness all the way up again has effectively resolved the headache problem, though it’s probably not great for my eyes to have it so bright.  Well, all the more reason to step away from the computer more often, I guess.

BATMAN: YEAR ONE — DVD adaptation review

I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix.  This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently.  There’s plenty about that on the Internet already.  This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.

In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these.  Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed.  But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two.  And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned.  Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration.  The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told.  Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally.  Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable.  But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.

The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase).  Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original.  But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence.  She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted.  My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing.  It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.

There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling.  For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open.  It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.

And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized.  The casting plays into this.  At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman.  It was a very different approach than what I was used to.  But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well.  McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s  characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career.  And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance).  Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt.  Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  She works very well in the role.

The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely.  The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.  All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways.  If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.

I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies.  This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie.  Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper.  And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date.  That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy?  Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute.  At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short.  But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.

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GREEN LANTERN and Cartoon Network’s Friday block

Last night was the premiere of Cartoon Network’s Green Lantern: The Animated Series, the first 3D computer-animated series produced by animation legend Bruce Timm.  I was wary about the 3D animation approach, and it was a bit off-putting at first, but I pretty quickly got used to it. For one thing, even though it looks a little too slick and plasticky, the character animation and storyboarding have a lot of vitality and artistry to them, feeling more fluid and in the vein of WB’s 2D animation, rather than the stiffer animation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. (Although Bruce Timm’s excessively wasp-waisted female character designs look even more ridiculous in 3D — however, that’s only briefly a problem since, unfortunately, the show is rather lacking in recurring female characters, except for one of the Guardians and a ship’s computer.)

For another thing, the writing was fantastic, with lots of rich character work. It’s easy to look past the plasticky look of the characters if you can really connect with them as people. It was cool how even the guest characters — the local Green Lantern and his family — were given a lot of substance and contributed meaningfully to the story. And Hal Jordan was nicely drawn (figuratively drawn, I mean, in the writing sense). He’s impulsive and a bit of a renegade, but he’s deeply, sincerely dedicated to helping people and seeing the best in them. The most awesome part was when he got the ship’s navcomputer Aya to override her safeguards, not by hacking her or playing some logic game, but by appealing to her on a moral level, convincing her to help them do the right thing and take the chance to save lives. The fact that he defaulted to that as his first response says a lot about what kind of person he is.

Good voice work too. Josh Keaton did a great job as Peter Parker on The Spectacular Spider-Man for two seasons, and he’s just as good as Hal Jordan. The always-impressive Kevin Michael Richardson is in rare form as Kilowog. But then, they’ve got great material to work with.

I also have good things to say about the shows they aired earlier in the evening.  Generator Rex has always been a mixed bag for me, sometimes overdoing the irreverent teen-oriented attitude, but with a lot of interesting concepts, worldbuilding, and characterization.  And the past two episodes have introduced a major change in the series’ status quo that’s apparently permanent, as well as introducing a new antagonist, Black Knight, who’s a really neat character — initially seeming quite kind and reasonable, a much nicer boss than the stern, judgmental White Knight, but turning out to have an oppressive agenda beneath all the seeming good intentions (and it seems like the kind of oppression that comes from genuine good intentions getting out of hand, particularly given that Rex’s more-or-less nice-guy brother is a full and willing participant in it).  And this is right after introducing another permanent change of status quo in Rex’s partner Agent Six, who lost several years of memory and went from ultracool veteran to the novice of the group (though it remains to be seen how much that’s been retained in the six-month jump Rex just experienced).  It’s nice that the show is willing to make real changes in its storyline, though maybe it’s piling them on a bit too quickly for their consequences to be explored.

And Young Justice was excellent last night.  I’m not a big fan of Jack Kirby’s stuff, and the Forever People have got to be one of his most obscure and offbeat ideas — the sort of characters who’d fit better in Batman: The Brave and the Bold (and I’m surprised they haven’t shown up there already) — but scripter Andrew Robinson did a fairly good job of making them feel not entirely out of place in the serious, relatively realistic YJ universe.  Still, the real strength of this episode was in its scenes following up on last week’s episode, whose events inflicted serious emotional trauma on the team.  Now they’re having therapy sessions with Black Canary (who isn’t a psychological professional in the comics as far as I know), and those scenes were just superb, particularly due to Vanessa Marshall’s magnificent performance as Black Canary.   I never knew she could be that good.  She totally knocked it out of the park.  At this point I’d be happy to see a whole series of Black Canary, Superhero Therapist.

I wasn’t at all fond of the brief comedy shorts that were shown during breaks in Green Lantern.  Apparently these will be a regular part of the “DC Nation” programming block that’s about to premiere, minute-long segments using caricatures of DC heroes.  One of them was a clay-animated short produced by Aardman Animations (makers of Wallace and Gromit), which I was really looking forward to when I read that, but it turned out to be awful.  It was in the vein of their Creature Comforts short, with animation set to soundtracks of ordinary people talking, except in this case it was apparently small children rambling in character (theoretically) as Superman, Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker.  It was rather ghastly.  The other was something of a Teen Titans revival, except exclusively using the chibi-styled versions of their character designs and being only a “comedy” vignette about competitive belching.  Not great.

I’m not enjoying the current Star Wars: The Clone Wars story arc much either.  Too much combat focus for me, and the antagonist in the story arc, the Jedi general who’s consistently reckless and unreasonable in his decisions for no reason other than to place him in conflict with the clone soldier characters, is unbelievable and caricatured.  At least there’s only one week left in the 4-parter.

On sincerity and the Great Pumpkin

October 28, 2011 5 comments

I’ve just read the following Peanuts strip and it sparked a thought:

http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts/2011/10/28

The strip is part of a series involving Linus’s obsession with the Great Pumpkin.  I’m sure everyone knows about this, but to sum up, in Linus’s heterodox belief, the Great Pumpkin is the Halloween equivalent of Santa Claus, giving presents to children at Halloween.  In this strip, we see Linus carefully preparing his pumpkin patch and explaining to Charlie Brown that “[e]ach year the ‘Great Pumpkin’ rises out of the pumpkin patch which he regards as the most sincere.”  Linus asks Charlie Brown whether his pumpkin patch is sincere enough, and Chuck gives an encouraging but not particularly sincere reply.  Of course, we longtime readers know that, like Charlie Brown’s quest to kick the football or win a baseball game, or just about any other personal quest in Peanuts, Linus’s desire is doomed to remain unfulfilled.  Of course, most would say this is because the Great Pumpkin is merely a figment of Linus’s imagination.

But it occurs to me that even by the rules of his own delusion, Linus is condemning himself to failure.  Consider: what defines a “sincere” pumpkin patch?  Presumably it means a pumpkin patch that’s cultivated for no other reason than the cultivation of pumpkins — one whose nominal function is its only function.  But if Linus is cultivating his pumpkin patch not merely for the pumpkins themselves, but as a means to the end of luring the Great Pumpkin, then he has an ulterior motive and his patch can never be truly sincere.  So by the very act of trying to attract the Great Pumpkin, Linus is ensuring that he never will.  But he’s so obsessed with his quest that he can’t see the self-defeating contradiction in his own premise.

As with a lot of things about Peanuts, I think maybe that says something philosophically significant.  Something about the difference between trying to look righteous and pious in pursuit of personal favor and genuinely practicing a moral, spiritual life without any thought of personal gain.  Of course it could have secular applications as well, but Linus is a pretty spiritual character so it’s easy to look at it in those terms.  Although Linus usually seems to be one of the savvier, wiser characters in the strip, so it’s a bit odd to see him on the self-deluded side of a spiritual allegory here.  Unless I’m reading too much into it.

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