Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What Happened to the Boxoffice?

Every week we see another story about how box office attendance is down from last year. No one seems to have a clue why.

I do and it's rather obvious. People are playing more computer games so they don't have the time or money left for as many movies.

This happened a few years ago with music. CD sales dropped. The recording executives insisted that it was the Napster Effect, even though the first few years that Napster was in business, CD sales went up.

If they thought about it, they would have expected the rise in sales. Every year the recording companies spend millions of dollars promoting new music. This includes paying stations to play new songs (this is legal as long as the station gets the payoff instead of the DJ). If you hear a song often enough it becomes familiar and you want to buy it. Napster did the same thing for the recording companies and it did it for free. Yes, you could get a hold of new music for free, but it was likely to have been ripped at a low bit-rate. People who really liked the music bought the CD for the better quality audio.

despite a lot of whining, the recording companies were doing great. Then they got hit by a broadside. DVDs suddenly caught on and three new gaming systems were introduced. On top of that, CD singles were discontinued and the price of new CDs went up.

It is an iron law of economics that there are only so many entertainment dollars available. Recording executives don't think of themselves as competing with movies and games but they do. Once your money is gone, it's gone so you have to prioritize your purchases.

It's been happening again. Shared universe games like World of Warcraft are very popular. New game platforms are out. Plus new games are being released for all game platforms and many of these are movie tie-ins. This directly affects the boxoffice because teenagers get to choose between going to see a movie again or playing a game based on the movie. If you are playing Kong you are not sitting in the theater and you spent enough money to go see Kong again (or to see another movie) 5-6 times.

On top of that, DVDs are cutting into theatrical revenues. In order to save on advertising, they have pushed the time between theatrical and DVD closer together. The hops is that you will remember the publicity campaign from the theaters when the DVD comes out. Some movies are now out on DVD before they are out of second run - around three months for a B-movie.

This has happened before. When radio started playing records they thought that it would be the end of recording. They thought the same thing when it became easy to record music off of the radio. TV and the VCR would doom studios.

With all of these there have been adjustments. Radio turned out to be a medium for selling records. Studios produce TV shows. VCR and DVD sales can make the difference between profit and loss. Licensing fees from games are now big business.

Theaters have been hurt. 70 and 80 years ago it was an even to go to a theater and they were big opulent places. They got smaller and plainer until the 1990s when larger screens and more comfortable seating became a selling point.

There's no turning back, though. Things change. Movie audiences continue to move on to other forms of entertainment.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Kong (the original)

Wednesday night they showed both the Original King Kong and the 1970s re-make. I watched the original (surprise). This was the full-uncut version with natives being eaten and Fay Wray's dress torn off. That was the first version I saw of the movie in an art-house showing around 1974. It's only a few seconds of film but it does change the feel of the big ape.

What is interesting to me are the special effects they used.

The primary one is stop-motion animation. Kong and the dinosaurs are models that were moved slightly and photographed frame by frame.

Then they had to mix the animation and live-action. The process of masking a figure and adding it to a different shot was known then. I spotted it in a couple of shots in Kong. It is fairly easy to recognize since the added figure often has a white border (in early TV blue-screen they had blue borders).

This is an expensive and time consuming way to combine shots. Most of the movie took the easy way and used rear-projection. When Denham and company are attacked by a Stegosaurus, they were standing in front of a screen with animated footage projected on it from the rear. Unlike today's green-screen acting, they could see what was going on, at least some of the time.

Other shots were done the opposite way. They filmed Fay Wray being held by a mechanical arm and pulled pieces of her dress off (probably with wires), then projected this onto a small screen with the model of Kong in front of it.

For extra texture, they also used a lot of matte paintings. I think that I heard that Kong was the first movie to make extensive use of mattes.

They did have a full-sized head that could change expression. They also had an arm and a foot. They used tricks like having Kong look through one window using rear projection while the full-sized arm came through a different window.

When Kong picked someone up it would be an animated character just like Kong himself.

While this technique was effective it had some drawbacks. One was that the rear projection adds a flat, washed out look. Also, it meant that the actors and models always stayed on different sides of an invisible wall. One review of the current movie mentioned this without seeming to understand why it was so.

One other technical problem - every time they moved Kong his fur got out-of-place. They tried to comb it back like it had been but they were not always successful. In a couple of places Kong's fur ripples.

A couple of things really stand out about Kong. One is the amount of screen-time the effects got. Later stop-motion movies were shot on a tighter budget and schedule and had to limit the effects.

The other thing is the attention that went into giving Kong a personality. Sometimes he is angry. Sometimes he is curious. After killing the t-rex he picks it up and works the jaw. He seems to be surprised that the snapping jaws are now slack. The same thing happens with the long-necked thing that Kong fights in the cave.

This personality is so effective that, even after he rampages through the city, you still feel bad when they shoot him.

One thing that will be missing from the new version - in 1933 the Empire State Building was only a few years old and biplanes were still new - as new as the smart-bombs used in the first Gulf War are to us today.

The 1970s version tried keeping Kong in the present. It was a mistake. A 25-50 foot tall ape (he changed scale between Skull Island and New York) was a challenge to 1930s police and even to biplanes. There was no question in the 1970s that helicopter gunships could kill him.

By putting Kong back in the 1930s, the world is primitive enough that Kong is a menace but the story becomes a period piece.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Winter Alligators

My wife was looking up the lyrics for Winter Wonderland and noticed this verse:
In the meadow we can build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until the alligators knock him down
Snowman attacking alligators in the fronzen winter? This is interesting. The song is only 70 years old. You would think that there would be a standard version. I Googled it and found surprising variation but mainly in the one line. For example, there is this version:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kids knock him down.

Ok, that makes a lot more sense than alligators but it doesn't scan right. You need four sylables and this only has three. The singer is left having to stretch "kids".

This one works better:
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kiddies knock him down.

This one is probably worse

In the meadow we can build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until the all the kids knock him down

This works:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown.
We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman.
Until the other kids come knock him down.

And this is the worst grammar yet:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kid is knocking him down

This is the only version to change the second line. Plus we are back to alligators:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a Charlie Brown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
Until the alligators knock him down.

You're a good snowman Charlie Brown. Here is one that replaces Parson Brown with Charlie Brown and has Lucy knock him down:
In the meadow we could build a snowman
and pretend that he is charlie brown
he'll say: are snoopy?
we'll say: no man
but we'll let ya know if he's in town

later on
we'll conspire
as we dream by the fire
and face unafraid
the plans we have made
walking in a winters wonderland

In the meadow we could build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
and we'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until mean old Lucy knocks him down

This one uses "children" instead of "kids" to get the right number of sylables. That fits fine but it changes an earlier line:

Later on, we'll conspire
As we dream by the fire
Your face won't have reigns
The place that we made
Walking in a winter wonderland

In the meadow we can build a snowman
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman
Until the other children knock him down

Every other version has this line as "To face unafraid, The plans that we've made"
This one avoids the problem by repeating the Parson Brown verse a second time. This one does the same thing but it also substitutes "Possum Brown" for "Parson Brown".

And finally, this one must have been transcribed from the recording. It is outright garbled with an entire line missing:

In the meadow we can build a snowman
We'll pretend that he's parts and brown
We'll say no man but you can do the job
When you're in town later one we'll conspire
As we dream by the fire
Were facin' no frame
The plans that we made
Walkin' in a winter wonderland

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Charlie Brown Christmas

USAToday has a frontpage story on a Charlie Brown Christmas and how it almost didn't air.

Looking back 40 years it is difficult to remember the position Peanuts had in contemporary culture. The idea of kids having problems and acting like adults was new and fresh. No one else was doing anything like it.

Peanuts is partly a victim of its own success. It had so much influence on other comic strips and media that we forget how groundbreaking it was. Even so, it was still the best of its breed right up through the final strip.

40 years later this is still one of only four original, lasting Christmas stories. Two of them are endlessly remade - A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. The other two, Charlie Brown and Christmas Story, are lightning-in-a-bottle stories that would fail if they were remade.

It's ironic that both Charlie Brown and Christmas story are children's stories but they are about opposite ends of Christmas. Charlie Brown is looking for meaning in Christmas and finds religion. Ralphie is just after presents. What makes these two stories so memorable is their unforced earnestness.

Charlie Brown could have come across as preaching but it does not. Christmas Story could have been boring or silly. There have been dozens of Peanuts specials and movies and other adaptations of Jean Sheperd's works but, outside of the Peanuts Halloween show, none of them worked as well.

note 1: That 70s Show did a subtle takeoff of a Charlie Brown Christmas with Eric directing the church Christmas pageant. The same episode also inserted Kelso into a claymation Christmas special.

note 2: Darren McGavin who played Ralphie's father also stared in Nightstalker. Not many actors can boast that they were in two so dissimilar cult favorites.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Too Old?

During his talk last weekend, Steve Englehart antioned several times how difficult it is for him to get work as a comic writer. I have heard Marv Wolfman and Len Wein say the same thing. To modern editors, these guys are over the hill - too old to work.

Englehart's response is that his Batman comic exceeded expectations by 250%.

It's not a pleasant thing for me to hear that these guys are too old. They were the new guys who started at Marvel around 1970. They are just a couple of years older than I am. My own profession of computer programming has been laying off workers over 50 so this attitude is widespread, but I'm writing about comics here.

Let's go back a few decades to when Marvel was born. By current reasoning, it must have been young turks who created the classic characters.

Stan Lee was born in December, 1922 so he was nearly 40 when he created the Fantastic Four. His co-creator, Jack Kirby, was born in 1917 so he would have been close to 45. Spider-Man co-creator, Steve Ditko, was a youthful 35.

Jump forward a decade and you find these men at the top of their game. Lee was writing the Silver Surfer, his favorite creation. Kirby had just gone over to DC and created his 4th world series. Ditko never managed to match Spider-Man's impact but he still was writing as well as drawing his own books.

How sad if these men had been forced out of the industry when they were at their creative peak.

In the 1980s Ditko complained that "everyone wants Ditko but no one wants Ditko." He meant that everyone wanted a "Ditko-like" artist but they considered Ditko himself over the hill.

Englehart, Woldman, and Wein all sold a lot of comics in the 1970s and 1980s. Wein especially created several popular characters such as Wolverene, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Swamp Thing. There is no reason to think that they lost that talent.

Monday, November 28, 2005

How to Run a Comic Book Company

I was at a question and answer session with Steve Englehart over the weekend. He was one of the new generation of writers who entered the field in the early 1970s. He is best remembered for his run on Batman but he started at Marvel and wrote a lot of their titles at one time or another. A quick list includes, Captain America, the Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, the Hulk, Master of Kung Fu, Captain Marvel, Hero for Hire, the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four.

I remember him as a good writer who was at his best writing individuals and his worst writing teams. He also pushed the envelope in story telling. I think that he was the first to write an issue where the characters did nothing but talk (his last Avengers) and one where the title character never appeared in costume (one of his Batman issues).

He had a few clinkers, too. Rumor is that he overused Kang the Conqueror so much that Stan Lee himself ordered Englehart to kill the character. He took Captain America's partner the Falcon and changed him from nice-guy Sam Wilson into petty crook "Snap" Wilson.

In the Q&A session, Englehart stressed how much things have changed since he entered the field. He was given Captain America with no other instructions than to keep it creative and to sell at least 300,000 copies a month.

Now a writer has to come up with a proposal which works its way up and back down the editorial ladder before he can write anything and an issue that sells 20,000 copies is considered a success.

So, were things better back then? The fact that they could sell so many more comics implies that they were but it gets more complicated.

The distribution channels have changed completely. Up through the 1960s comics were sold at news stands, drug stores, and grocery stores. News stands don't exist any longer. Drug stores no longer carry comic books and few grocery stores do. Most comics are sold through specialty stores that grew up since the early 1970s. The target audience is now much older with a large percentage being adult.

There is also a lot more competition than there used to be. Video games are a big factor. No one in the mid-1970s thought of Pong as a replacement for a comic book but many current games feature really great animated versions of superheroes. Why read static comics when you can actually control characters?

So the comics have consolidated and editors have been put in charge of protecting the franchise. Has this improved comics? Probably not.

Englehart gave the example of Batman. For the last five years or so he has been over the edge crazy. When Englehart did his Dark Knight limited series, DC made some projection on how it would sell. The actual numbers were 2.5 times projections. What was different? Bruce Wayne was back and got a girl friend. Batman was no longer crazy, just driven. DC pulled the entire Batman line and gave it to a different editor to establish a new direction based on Englehart.

Ok, so an editor's direction can hurt a title, but surely he can save it from some of the cliffs that writers went off in the 1970s. One of the best (worst) examples of a writer going off on a dumb plotline was Gerry Conway's Spider-Man clone. It started when Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, came back from the grave. She turned out to be a clone grown by his biology professor who had also grown a Peter Parker clone. It was dumb.

So what did Marvel do in the late 1990s? They brought back the clone along with a clone army grown by the biology professor's clone. They even told us that the clone was the "real" Spider-Man and the two switched rolls for a year. Of course, it was all part of a formula. You set it up so that the hero was dead or powerless and ran stories about how difficult it was for his replacement to take over. Then the hero would return. It already happened in Iron Man, Green Lantern, Thor, Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

So, keeping tight editorial control doesn't keep bad plotlines from happening.

I'll have more to say about Englehart's talk in future posts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My Brain Hurts

Last night Bravo was showing a repeat of Happy Days Reunion. Think about this for a moment. In 2005, I was watching a show produced in the 1980s about a show in the 1970s which was supposed to be taking place in the 1950s.

Now if they could just work That 70s Show in somehow the universe would implode.

Speaking of Happy Days, by coincidence earlier yesterday I came across the Wikipedia's definition of Jumping the Shark which is probably Happy Day's lasting contribution to modern culture.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to an episode where the Fonz was water skiing (in his leather jacket) and jumped over a shark. This is considered the moment when the show officially changed from being about the Cunningham family to it being about the Fonz's stunts. The term is now used to denote the point when a show abandons its original premise and suffers a loss of quality. In many cases this also leads to the show's cancellation. In other cases the show was headed for cancellation and producers tried to breath some life into it by introducing a major change. There are also cases where a show continues after one or more major character left by adding new characters and making others more prominent.

This brings me back to That 70s Show. The show centered around high school-aged Eric Foreman, his family, and his friends, particularly his relationship with the hot girl next door.

Supporting cast members have floated in and out over the years but the show always had a core of eight actors. Now two of them left and a new lead character was added. The show still has some laughs but the premise is really strained. The show has been stuck in 1979 for years. The actors are now 5-10 years older than their characters. Everyone graduated but most of them still spend their time hanging out and getting stoned in the Foremans' basement, even though Eric is long gone.

This is a prime example of a show that has jumped the shark but was not allowed to die a graceful death.
The official Jump the Shark website lets you vote on when (if ever) a show jumped the shark.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Last Lost

"What, is Shannon going to get hit by lightning?"

I asked my wife this about 57 minutes into last week's Lost. About a minute later Shannon was shot. Big surprise.

After three weeks of telling us that the next episode would be the most talked about of the year, it was kind of a dud. What would have been a big twist - killing a major character - was given away in the ad.

It's not like it was a surprise. Before the season started the producers announced that a major female character would die. Right there it narrowed it down to Shannon and Claire. Neither has a major story line going. I suspect that both were originally included as unlikely survivors on a deserted island. We had the spoiled rich brat who did nothing and the pregnant woman who could not do anything.

Now that we are in season two, it is no longer a deserted island so the original reason for including them has passed.

A case could have been made for keeping Shannon. Fans of her brother could still see him in flashbacks and it would complicate things even more if the survivors had to raise a baby on top of everything else.

Ultimately though, Shannon was an unlikeable and unliked character. Even a flashback showing her not inheriting her father's money didn't help much. I suspect that her step-mother was right. The ballet internship wouldn't have amounted to anything in the end.

Still it would have been a much more powerful episode if the ABC publicity people had kept quiet about it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Best Picture (Animated)

Ok, the year isn't even over yet but I'm going to go out on a limb and make some predictions for best animated picture. As far as I know, all the likely candidates have already been released so I can make a year-end prediction in November.

Then I can worry about starting Christmas shopping.

There are five obvious candidates for the nomination, the CGI films, Robots, Madagascar and Chicken Little and the stop-motion films, Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromet: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Only three can be nominated. Wallace & Gromet seems like a shoe-in. Shorts featuring the same characters have already won two Oscars. I think that Corpse Bride will also be nominated on the basis of its stunning visuals.

That leaves one slot for the three CGI pictures. I haven't seen Chicken Little yet but all of the reviews complain that much of it is unconnected gags. That seems consistent with the previews. I don't think that it will get a nomination.

Madagascar and Robots are both fun movies with rather thin plotlines. Of these, I think that Robots has the stronger plot. Also, it is a much greater technical achievement. One of their goals seems to have been to out-do Pixar in complexity of animation. Madagascar, on the other hand, looks like it was done on the cheap. My daughter, the computer animator, says that they took some shortcuts in the animation.

So, our nominees are Robots, Corpse Bride, and Wallace & Gromet.

I don't think that Robots will win. There just isn't enough plot.

Wallace & Gromet has a really good chance given their previous wins but it is really a kids movie. There are asides for adults but the movie is aimed at kids.

Corpse Bride is harder-edged. While the lesson in Wallace and Gromet is that hunting is bad, the lesson in Corpse Bride deals with women being independent rather than depending on a husband. Also, the visuals in Corpse Bride are much better.

Corpse Bride gets my vote but I will not be surprised if Wallace and Gromet wins.

note: I'm getting a lot of spam comments so I now require registration. I may have to turn off comments completely.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Beyond Death

The current issue of Action Comics (staring Superman) features a guest appearance by the Spectre. It is a combination Halloween issue and tribute to Jim Aparo. It is also full of plot holes.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how death is represented in the comics. DC has two main dead heroes - the Spectre and the aptly named Deadman. Both died and were sent back by a greater power. The power that sent the Spectre back is, I believe, a voice.

Deadman stayed on earth due to Rama Kushna. Rama was originally inspired by eastern religions but was later rewritten.

In the 1960s, there was a character called Nemesis who was also a ghost. He came from ACG which is better remembered for Herbie.

Nemesis had a view of the afterlife in keeping with watered-down Christianity. Saint Peter's current stand-in manages the gate to heaven and has say over who can return. Nemesis's powers were a cross between Superman and Casper the Friendly Ghost - flight, strength, invisibility. He was weakened underwater. Like many heroes introduced in the mid-1960s, he didn't last long.

Spectre is more complicated. At first he was just a superhero, first in the 1940s and 1960s. Then he became the spirit of vengeance in the 1970s. By the 1980s he had become the ultimate force for good and the universe's last defense against the Anti-Monitor in Crisis. In the 1990s it was explained that he was an aspect of God. Then he retired and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, got the job. Recently Jordan was brought back to life so who knows where the Spectre in Superman came from.

Deadman is a much more ordinary ghost. He is invisible and intangible. At first he seemed to walk everywhere but later he began flying. Since he cannot touch the ground (or anything else) anyway, he must have always been flying.

What Deadman could do was posses people. A trained acrobat and a good fighter, he often possessed people in order to save them. While there have been several attempts to revive the character, none have been satisfying. His best appearances were in his original series in the 1960s.

Interestingly, both Deadman and the Spectre were drawn by Neil Addams during their runs in the 1960s.

Marvel's view of death has always been more complicated. They've never shown the line of people waiting to be judged at the gates of heaven. In fact, Stan avoided the subject. When he did address death, it was because the death goddess, Hela, was near. The Silver Surfer's enemy Mephisto (a Satan stand-in) wanted the Surfer's soul and ruled an underworld full of mis-shapen creatures. Were these the tortured dead? Demons? Creations of Mephisto himself? We never found out.

We did get a hint. At one point, Mephisto sent the Flying Dutchman to fight the Surfer. It was made clear that the Dutchman was a special case. At the end he moved on to an unspecified afterlife.

In the early 1970s, the Comic Code changed and Marvel launched a line of supernatural heroes and villains. Many, like Dracula, were dead but nothing was said about the afterlife.

Around the same time, death became a supporting character in Captain Marvel. Embodied as a silent woman, she was the companion of Thanos. Because of his special relationship with death, Thanos has returned from the dead a few times.

Adam Warlock died and went to heaven, sort of. His soul was taken into a powerful gem along with his girlfriend and others. This is atypical.

I believe that in the 1980s Marvel's writers decided that when you die, any of several death gods can claim your soul which, in turn, gives them greater power. They can only hold souls for a limited time then they go on to a final reward (or are reincarnated).

While several marvel characters have returned to life from the dead or come back as a supernatural creature, none of their heroes are ghosts.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


The Legend of Zorro is fairly good as an action film and as a sequel, but it has some problems. Some are in the plot, some are with major anachronisms.

Some of the plot holes - a major sub-plot revolves around stealing some peasants' land so that a railroad spur can be finished. This is really more of an excuse than anything else since there are obviously alternatives for short-range transport.

Then there is the split between Zorro and his wife. She tells him that, if he answers a call for Zorro she should sleep elsewhere. The next thing we know they are divorced. Keeping in mind that they are Catholics and the year is 1850. Divorce just didn't happen then. Even today it doesn't happen overnight.

Then there is the Confederacy. The movie is taking place in 1850. They are very specific about that but the politics are 1860. They even have Abraham Lincoln presiding over California's acceptance into the Union. As a sop, he hasn't grown the beard yet but the real Lincoln was still practicing law in Illinois at the time.

I won't go into the southern soldiers in grey uniforms.

Now, if you are historically challenged then none of this matters.

There is a bigger problem - I don't think that there is a place for Zorro in 1850. A guy armed with a sword and whip works when fighting soldiers firing flintlocks and armed with sabers. Pit the same guy against cowboys armed with repeating rifles and it is a stretch. In some of the fights the cowboys pulled out swords. Fortunately for Zorro, they only used single-shot pistols. Colt revolvers had been invented by that time.

At one point the bad guy even says that Zorro is a relic who belongs in a museum. Since this is a second-generation Zorro who has already been active for a decade, he may well be right.

Still, the actions scenes work and they manage to gloss over most of the other problems.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Sad Life of a Trek Character

George Takei admitted that he is gay. While this does not mean that Sulu is gay (after all, Spock is Vulcan, not Jewish) it did make me think about the characters from the original Trek.

What sad lonely lives they led.

They spent decades assigned to a secession of ships named Enterprise. None of them were married. None of them moved on. They didn't even seem to have friends. Sulu was the only one to move on and get his own command.

TNG was a little better. There was some personal growth, especially Warf, Geordi and Data. Still Riker started as an ambitious young officer who thought that a tour of duty on the Enterprise would help his career. Years later he was still doing the same thing.

At least the TNG characters relaxed together and played cards.

Compare this with Babylon 5. By the end of the series everyone had been through some personal fire and no one was doing the same job as when the series started. Even bit-player Lt. Corwin moved up a bit.

UPDATE: When you look a how empty their lives are, the characters in the original Trek match the stereotype of the trekkie.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Vampires and God

I was thinking of writing something about vampires for Halloween then I came upon this article. It seems that Anne Rice has found God and will only be writing for and about God in the future. Her next book will be a first-person account of Jesus's time in Egypt as a boy.

Rice has been the most influential writer of vampire fiction in 100 years. The previous writer, of course, was Bram Stoker whose Count Dracula defined the vampire in movies and literature until the 1970s. That's when Rice's Interview with the Vampire came out.

It is very rare for a writer to take a stock character like the vampire and turn it into a genre but Rice did it. She redefined the vampire. Stoker's version was noble, foreign, and evil. He drank blood, he slept in his "native soil", he could change form and he was burnt by crosses and the sun. Rice's vampires still drank blood and avoided the sun but they could not change form and religious symbols did not affect them. More importantly, they went from being a supporting character to being the star.

Dracula hardly appears in his namesake novel. Even when Harker is living in Castle Dracula he spends little time with the Count. In contrast, Rice's novels center on her vampires. Yes, they still drink blood and kill people but that is a subtext, lost in accounts of the life of an immortal in 18th century Paris or 19th century New Orleans. You no longer fear them, instead you want to be one.

There have been hoards of imitators since then. Many are best-sellers in their own right. I am currently reading P. N. Elrod's 14th vampire novel. Most of these are about a Depression-era vampire in gang-controlled Chicago. He's the good guy, saving people and only drinking from cattle.

Most of Anne Rice's 25 books have been about vampires. She probably peaked with Queen of the Damned (or maybe with The Vampire Lestat). Both of those books re-wrote her previous cosmology. In Interview we were told that no vampire could remember where they came from. In Lestat we find out that this was a lie and Lestat himself had met the original vampires. In Queen, we find out a lot more about them. Along the way she introduced the idea of spirits.

Although Rice never quite comes out and says it, it is obvious that all of the gods, spirits, and other non-living creatures are human (or near-human) ghosts who have forgotten their own history. She also took Lestat on a tour of Heaven and Hell that nearly ruined the character. The next several novels featured other vampires with Lestat having, at most, a walk-on roll. Finally in the last novel she returned to Lestat to wrap up all the lingering plot threads from the vampire and the Mayfair Witch books.

In a way, it is a good thing that she moved on. New Orleans was central to many of her books and it will not be in any condition to inspire such literature for a long time.

Will Rice's new series be any good? She seems to think that she pulled it off. I don't know. I hope that she doesn't start a new wave of first person books about Jesus.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Babylon 5 Governments

Unlike most Science Fiction shows, Babylon 5 concentrated on several alien races in detail. Although details are sketchy, we have some idea of how these governments were run - a better idea than we have of Star Trek's Federation, even after five series. Also, during the run of the series all of the governments suffered a major upset.

(note - I'm doing this all from memory. I may get details wrong and I probably will mess up spelling.)

First, there was Earth. The central government was Earthdome in Geneva. We know it had a president and a Senate but I don't remember a House or an independent judiciary. This might be how Clark was able to grab so much power. They did have the Nightwatch which seemed to function separately, more as a party than an arm of government. This was probably meant to suggest the KGB officer in USSR submarines with Nazi overtones.

The Mimbari were ruled by the Council of Nine. The number 3 was basic to their civilization and the Council was three members from the three castes. Later it was replaced with a council that had five members from the Workers and two each from the Religious and Warrior castes. At times there was also an individual who was separate from the Council and advised it. He could override it when he felt he had to.

The Centari had an emperor and a secondary body, the Centarum. The Centarum chose the emperor and seemed to have some political power. There was an implication that the emperor had total power but often chose to delegate most of it to the Centarum. Presumably membership in the Centarum was either directly hereditary or indirectly with the major houses putting forth a representative.

The Narns were overthrown before we learned much about their government or their world. They had a ruling body known as the K'aree and G'kar was the youngest member. How did you get to be a member? In the first season the Narn played up their role as the recent winners of a nationalist struggle against a colonial government. I'm going to take a guess here and say that they were set up something like Cuba in the 1960s with people who fought for the revolution getting government posts. After they Centari conquered them and left, G'kar refused to lead them and we have no idea what happened after that.

We know very little about the Vorlons and only slightly more about the Shadows. Kosh II said "We are all Kosh." On the other hand, Kosh II had a different personality than Kosh I and the two even fought. At the climax of the Great War, both races agreed to leave the galaxy. All of this implies that both races are individuals who can communicate through some form of telepathy to resolve all issues. No government would be needed in this case.

Babylon 5 itself started as sort of a UN, a place where the races could meet and air differences short of war. Like the UN, it was not very successful at preventing war and its ambassadors did not have much real power. This was replaced by an alliance which seemed to follow the Earth model of a president and a senate (council). The exact powers and roles of each were still evolving during the first year. Sheridan seemed to surprise people when he exercised actual authority through the White Star fleet. He also had to bargain with the council and they were free to use their own military resources as they saw fit.

So what do we learn from all of this? Probably the biggest lesson is that science fiction writers don't waste much effort on designing new types of government. Or, given the limited time available in a movie or TV series, the writers choose to save time by using types of government that are familiar to the viewers.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Government and Science Fiction

I got to wondering about this after watching Serenity. The movie was at least partly publicists through conservative websites. Why? Where is the conservative message? I can see it there a few different ways.

First, the biggest Republican stronghold these days is the south. Serenity should appeal there. The rebellion is the confederacy without the stain of slavery. We are told in the first two minutes that the outer worlds rebelled because of states' rights. They didn't want a strong central government telling them what to do.

Then there is the Libertarian ideal that the crew of the Serenity tries to live. They don't think of it that way but it is there.

We don't know much about the Federation. It has a Senate but no House is mentioned so we can assume that it is a single-house legislature. We have no idea if there is an administrative wing or if the Senate runs everything. We do know that they have a strong military.

This matches the Empire in Star Wars. There is a Senate and a military (and eventually an Emperor) which was originally inspired by Rome.

Then there is Star Trek and their Federation. In the original series the Federation seemed like a natural extension of the United States. The cold war between the Federation and the Klingons with the Romulans on the side matched the politics at the time with the USSR and China as our rivals. The relationship between the Federation and Star Fleet was never quite explained. Maybe it matches NATO with individual worlds contributing to a unified force. We do know that there was one star ship crewed by Vulcans.

By the Next Generation the Federation was closer to the European Union than the USA. Members got to keep their local customs and traditions but had to adapt laws and economic policy. Star Fleet was a generalized force with aliens freely mixing in the crews.

Why is Star Trek's Federation god and the others bad? I guess it is because of respect for individual rights but that is never made clear. Or, it could be that the Federation was good because our protagonists were part of the military while in Star Wars and Serenity they were opposed to the military.

I will examine Babylon 5's many governments later. It will take an entire post by itself.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Better than Star Trek

Ok, that's an easy target since there hasn't been a good Trek movie since First Contact. Never the less, I really liked Serenity.

It compares pretty well with Revenge of the Sith, also.

Even though the movie is a continuation of the TV show, it works quite well as a stand-alone feature. My wife never watched the TV show and enjoyed the movie.

The plot revolves around River, a 17-year-old girl who was the subject of some experiments. We saw some of this in the TV show but a couple of new things are revealed - River is a living weapon and she might have picked up some vital secrets through telepathy. This is why she and her brother are on the run.

The movie starts with a quick re-cap of River's background. This is followed by a typical Serenity "mission" (heist) which has some major complications (also typical). Things get more complicated when River goes apeshit.

Unlike most TV-show-to-movie translations, this one has no problem killing off cast members.

The special effects are spectacular. The big space fight near the end is shot much more realistically than the Star Wars opening sequence. The whole movie has the sort of natural-looking shots featured in Battlestar Galactica. In a just world, this movie would get a nomination for best effects but it will probably be overshadowed.

Many TV shows have a problem trying to find a plot big enough for a movie. Babylon 5 had several made-for-TV movies and most of these were disappointments. The first Star Trek movie was held up for years because the studio executives kept rejecting plots as "not big enough". That is not a problem here. River's plot is big enough and ties into other character's backstories well enough to justify the bog-screen treatment.

Update: I got a link from Instapundit! It is the 14th link to Serenity reviews so I don't expect much of an Instalanch but it's still cool.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Serenity and Battlestar Galactica

I have a tenuous personal connection with the upcoming movie Serenity. The man who did the special effects is a guest instructor at the Dave School which my daughter just graduated from. Also, some graduates from the Dave School worked on the movie.

This is the official synopsis:

Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family –squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.
The TV show was treated poorly. It was given a bad time slot and the pilot was the last episode shown. It was probaby not what the TV executives expected. After Buffy and Angel, they were probably expecting another hip, stylish, action-packed show. Instead they got cowboys in space. The pacing was much slower than Buffy and the resolution did not revolve around winning a big fight. It was also an ensemble cast and each member had a backstory - some of them secret.

It made an unusual science fiction show, arguably the best since Babylon 5 and better than Battlestar Galactica.

While this may not have been what TV executives were looking for, it did inspire a dedicated fan following. Joss Whedon was able to get his hands on the movie rights - not surprising for a show that was cancelled quickly, but the DVD sales were big enough to justify a movie.

The movie is using a unique marketing campaign. They are inviting bloggers to an advance screening. Because of this blog, I get to see the movie Tuesday. I will be writing about it after that.

Battlestar Galactica spoiler.....

The 2nd season finale featured the Pegasus - a second battlestar. The original series had a two-hour special featuring the Pegasus which appeared long enough to attack the Cylons then vanished again, possibly destroyed.

That is the basis of this episode but there are lots of differences (of course). The Pegasus is more advanced and its commanding officer, Admiral Helena Cain, is Adama's superior. Cain quickly assumes command and decides to blend the crews. The people from the Pegasus are openly contemptuous of Galactica and its facilities (probably with reason).

We quickly find out that Cain is a bit over the top. The Pegasus also has a captive Cylon. The crew has been allowed to beat and rape her at will. When some of the Pegasus crew is transferred to the Galactica they decide to rape Galactica's captive Cylon. The Chief who had an affair with one of her copies pulls a crewman off of her, knocking his head against a bulkhead and killing him. Cain skips court-marshal and gives him a death sentence. As the episode ends, Adama orders an attack on the Pegasus to recover his crew members.

All of this captures the series as a whole. On the one hand, its characters act like real people. On the other hand, they are not very nice people. I'm not sure that there is an admirable character in the whole show. Adama comes close but he has made it plain that the whole civilian government exists at his pleasure. Plus he lied to the fleet from the beginning about Earth. The President is a mystic which is always bad in a science fiction movie. Adama's second n command is an incompetant drunk who should be relieved of command. It goes downhill from there.

Also, the show is slow-moving. If the writers have a destination they are slow about getting there. I'm not sure that the quest for Earth has started in earnest yet.

The crisics love it but I prefer a show where the characters are better than their faults.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Corpse Bride

The bad news - it probably will not be a classic like Nightmare Before Christmas. It doesn't have the holiday tie-in, the music is not as memorable, and the plot is rather light.

On the good-side - the animation is amazing, even better than Nightmare. The movie is amusing and visually spectacular.

as far as the plot, this movie is closer to Beetlejuice than Nightmare. When you die you go to an afterlife as a corpse in various stages of decomposition. Some characters like the bride are fairly well-preserved (except for her left arm and right leg). Others are nothing but a skeleton.

The everyday world is nearly colorless while the underworld is full of color.

The plot revolves around Victor, the son of a social-climbing fishmonger. His parents arranged for him to marry Victoria, the daughter of a distinguished but penniless noble family. Victor is nervous about the whole thing and bungles the rehearsal. He goes into the woods to practice but the twig that he puts the ring on turns out to be the skeletal hand of a dead woman. Emily, the corpse, insists that this constitutes a valid marriage and takes Victor to the underworld with her.

After getting over his shock at being surrounded by the dead, Victor finds himself torn between the two women. Both have a passion for music that attracts him.

Of course, it all works out. The resolution even makes sense.

Few people go to Tim Burton movies for the plot. Burton's appeal is the whole Burton package of themes, characters, visuals, music, etc. This movie is pure Burton. It is also probably the best example of feature-length stop-motion animation ever produced.

Trivia - Christopher Lee voices one of the characters. This is the third time that he has worked with Burton. The first time was Sleepy Hollow. Lee credits this with reviving his career. After years of minor TV rolls, Lee got prominent rolls in both Star Wars and Lord of the Ring.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Lost - Season opener

Just a few observations:

When Jack was poking around the dome there was a painting with the number "128". That is the sum of Hurley's numbers.

Too bad Hurley told Jack about the numbers. Locke might have believed him.

And the island is the source of the numbers. The broadcast that brought Danielle was the numbers. Hurley heard them from someone who had been at a south Pacific listening post. He undoubtedly heard the same broadcast that Danielle did.

In the first season closer Kate mentioned that she had a connection to "23". Do other passengers have connections to the other numbers? UPDATE - the numbers appear all over the series.

Locke and Jack are approaching the island from very different directions. Jack's first experiences were fairly normal - death, injuries, helping people. Locke's first experience was being healed after being in a wheelchair for years.

Locke is the second person who has been miraculously healed around Jack. The first was Sara.

When Jack was agonizing about marrying Sara, did he feel guilty because she thought he had "fixed her" when he had not?

At the end of the first season Jack asked Kate if he could trust her to watch his back. He was worried about a "Locke problem". Since Kate went with Locke, he cannot trust her as much as he hoped. This goes along with the Kate/Jack/Sawyer love triangle - a Jack/Locke/Kate trust triangle.

The music, art, and technology in the dome are all from the late 1960s. Just how old is Desmond? He appears to have been born later than the dome was created but he is taking injections of some sort. Did he come to the dome later? Does he shuttle back and forth between it and the mainland?

Walt obviously used some form of astral projection. Did he need the dog for that? Is that why the dog left the camp? Can he project to more than one person at a time? Put it all together - did he make the dog leave camp so that Shannon would be alone and he could project to her?

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best LoTR Movie

The Two Towers was on cable last night. Watching it reminded me why this was the best of the three Lord of the Rings movies.

Of course, Return of the King is the one that won the Oscar but it was understood that it was for the entire work.

Tolkien did not write a trilogy. He wrote one very long novel. The publisher assumed that it would lose money but wanted to publish it anyway as a prestige piece. In order to reduce the projected loses, they cut the book into three sections. The first division was natural. The first third of the book is one continuous narrative. With the breaking of the fellowship, the narrative is also broken, following the hobbits and Gimli (Aragorn, Legolas, and Gandolf are always seen through other's eyes) as they go their separate ways. This continues until the unmaking of the ring when the narrative settles back on Frodo and Sam. The second book ends on a cliffhanger, but this is a literary device to keep you reading.

The movies were always meant as three movies even though they follow one continuous plot. They were released a year apart and had to make enough money to support the enormous costs New Line undertook. When one of the movies ended, the viewer had to be satisfied until the next year. That required some tinkering with Tolkien.

The Fellowship of the Ring follows the book pretty closely. Some parts are cut for time but it is what you would expect.

The Return of the King had to wrap everything up. The theatrical release was very long, possibly too long. Even at that, it was missing a couple of key scenes.

The Two Towers gave Jackson the most leeway. In Tolkien's version it is simply the middle of the book but Jackson had to make it a movie that could stand on its own. He did this is several ways.

First, he shifted some parts to the RoTK. This let him set up Helm's Deep as the big battle. Rather than continue on to the cliffhanger of Frodo being prisoner and Sam disparing how to rescue him, Jackson had Gollum relieve his plans to betray Frodo.

Jackson also introduced a new element into Frodo's relationship with Gollum - redemption. Frodo was clearly disturbed by this vision of what the ring might turn him into given enough time. He wanted to believe that Gollum could be saved because it meant that he could be saved himself. Sam never realizes this causing the first rift between them.

Another element that is moved is Aragorn's relationship with Arwen. This is the third and final joining of elves and men, the first since the long war with Morgoth. Aragorn spent his adult life earning this honor yet Tolkien treats Arwen as a cameo. Most of their romance happens in the appendix. With no appendix, Jackson moves events and creates new ones.

Aragorn's personal growth is handled differently than in Tolkien. In the book, he keeps reminding the Fellowship that he is insufficient to replace Gandolf. He is relieved when Frodo separates. He no longer has to shoulder Gandolf's burden. After that, he seems perfectly at ease with everything that happens.

Jackson has Aragorn a lot less decisive at the beginning but he comes to his own at Helm's Deep.

All of this made the Two Towers a better movie but Jackson paid for it with the Return of the King. He felt that after Helm's Deep, the audience would want a quick resolution so he put off confronting Saruman until the next movie. This was a mistake. The scene had to be cut for time so the confrontation only happens in the extended edition of RoTK.

The confrontation between Frodo and Shelob could as easily been in TT and again, it was moved in order to wrap up TT quickly.

The effects of different cuts are cumulative. The extended edition of FoTR adds very little. The entire narrative is there. In TT, scenes are cut that are setting up for RoTK. TT does not suffer for the cuts but RoTK does. The scene that sets up the relationship between Denethor and his sons is a major example.

By putting off key scenes, we end up with an extended edition for RoTK that is almost as long as the theatrical versions of FoTR and TT put together. Even at that length, the characters of Gondor are nowhere near as well developed as the Riders of Rohan.

Not that RoTK is anything less than a great movie. It just means that TT was better.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Good Movies with Small Audiences

In the last couple of weeks I finally made it to Sky High and The Brothers Grimm. Both are last-Summer releases. Sky High did ok at the box office but should have done better. Brothers Grimm did really bad and should have done well. Here's a few thoughts on them (with spoilers).

In many ways, Sky High was what Mystery Men and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen should have been (good). All three feature a mix of people with second-rate super powers who have to band together to save the world/city/school.

Sky High is sort of a cross between the X-Men and Harry Potter, with the Incredibles thrown in.Will, tThe son of the world's two greatest superheroes is being sent to a school for young heroes. Everyone has high expectations for him.

The trouble is that he has no powers. He is quickly relegated to "sidekick" status (also known as "superhero support) along with a couple of his friends. He hides his status from his parents for a while - how can you tell your dad that you have no powers when he just gave you the key to his sanctum?

But, not long after, Will is in a fight and suddenly discovers his powers. Like his dad, he is strong. Will is reassigned to hero classes and starts hanging out with a pretty senior, turning his back on his sidekick friends.

Things come to a head at the homecoming when one of Will's parents' old foes attacks the school.

The heroes are turned into babies. Only Will and the sidekicks remain. Each sidekick gets to contribute. This part is a bit contrived. Some of the sidekicks have limited but useful powers such as the kid who can melt. Others were shoe-horned into the script (one guy glows weakly so he lights their escape through the ductwork). Plus, we already knew that Will's buddy Gwen was powerful and that she was with the sidekicks as a conscientious objector.

While some of the movie is predictable, there are some genuine plot twists. It is also tightly constructed. I don't remember any plot holes.

My wife thinks that was better than the Fantastic Four.

On to the Brothers Grimm. This is the latest movie by Terry Gilliam. The brothers are con artists taking villagers' money in exchange for ridding them of a supernatural horror. They are apprehended by Napoleon army and given a choice - someone is stealing children from a nearby town, possibly using trickery similar the Grimm's. The Grimms can end this or be executed out of hand.

Of course they agree. They are escorted by a sadistic Italian named Cavaldi and a local woman named Angelika. It quickly turns out that there are real supernatural events taking place. Jacob Grimm tries to solve them but his brother Willhelm is an unbeliever. Plus Cavaldi keeps threatening them and Angelika with imaginative deaths.

I haven't been to a Gilliam movie since the Fisher King. I found that one to be mainstream and depressing. This movie is a return to Gilliam's earlier works like Time Bandits. The plot mixes the light and dark. The heroes are less than heroic and evil turns out to be all-powerful. (Also, both movies have Napoleonic soldiers.)

I suspect that this movie will have a long shelf life on DVD.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Why No New Heroes?

A few days ago I pointed out most of the Marvel comics being published today date back to the early 1960s. This was not the case in the 1970s through the 1990s. What happened?

I think that there are three main factors. The first is that comics have been in a slump for years. They are now aimed at an 18+ year old audience. This group is more comfortable with established titles.

Second, there is a lot more editorial control than there used to be. The impulse is to mitigate risk. Instead of launching a new title, they prefer to bring back old titles or to rework existing titles. The big things at Marvel right now are the Ultimates and the House of M. Both feature familiar heroes in different situations and both are retreads of earlier works.

Finally, the writers and artists are reluctant to give away their new characters. Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, creators of Blade, Swamp Thing, and the New X-Men (including Wolverine and Storm) had to sue to get any royalties from the movies based on their works. In contrast, the creators of Spawn and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are rich. The creator of the Tick managed to get work producing TV shows (he was co-producer on Angel).

Given the number of movies based on comic books, even obscure ones, the odds of hitting the jackpot from an independent production are pretty good compared with the odds of getting anything for creating a new character for Marvel.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The More Things Change

I started buying Marvel comics in late Spring/early Summer of 1964 (I remember the comic and I looked up the cover date). At that time, Marvel's line of superhero comics consisted of:

  • The Fantastic Four
  • The Avengers
  • Spider-Man
  • Thor (and Tales of Asgard)
  • Iron Man (Tales of Suspense 1st feature)
  • Captain America (Tales of Suspense 2nd feature)
  • Giant Man (Tales to Astonish 1st feature)
  • The Hulk (Tales to Astonish 2nd feature)
  • Human Torch and the Thing (Strange Tales 1st feature)
  • Dr. Strange (Strange Tales 2nd feature)
  • The X-Men (bi-monthy)
  • Daredevil (bi-monthly)

plus Sgt. Fury & the Howling Commandos, three Western comics, and Millie the Model.

Here's how Marvel's web site describes their current line-up:

  • Avengers
  • Black Panther
  • Captain America
  • Daredevil
  • Doctor Strange
  • Fantastic Four
  • Ghost Rider
  • Hulk
  • Iron Man
  • Punisher
  • Spider-man
  • Squadron Supreme
  • Thor
  • Wolverine
  • X-force
  • X-men
Not a lot of change there. Even less when you realize that the Squadron Supreme are an Avengers spin-off first created in the 1960s (as the Squadron Sinister). The Punisher is a 1970s Spider-Man character. Wolverine started as a 1970s Hulk opponent and was developed in the late 1970s in the X-Men, volume 2. X-Force is the newest thing on the list but the link does not show any current titles.

Things get a little better when you look at individual titles. There is a Cable/Gambit limited series. Both of these characters are from the 1990s. The current Thor title stars Beta Ray Bill who was introduced in 1983.

The current X-Men are almost all from the 1960s-1980s. The newest character in the "New Avengers" is Spider-Woman and she is from the late 1970s as is Wolverine. Cage is from around 1970. Daredevil was also in for a short time.

The one new character is the Sentry who was originally created as a retro-Stan Lee character.

So, where are the new characters? In the 1970s Marvel was taken over by martial arts and supernatural characters (Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, Dracula, Werewolf By Night, Morbius the living vampire, Ghost Rider, Man Thing, the Living Mummy, and the Zombie) plus Conan and Red Sonya. In the 1980s they added a few new heroes like Power Pack. In the late 1980s and early 1990s they added a half dozen mutant titles.

So, where is the current creativity going? Where are the new characters?

I'll tell you what I think has happened in my next post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Batman and Robin

I recently watched a Batman and Robin serial from 1949. I had heard of it years ago but this was the first time I have seen it. I had heard that the serial was very popular and had influenced the comic book. What I didn't realize was that it also influenced the TV show. The cliff-hangers that the Wednesday night segment ended with must have been inspired by the serial. The comic book didn't go in for escapes very often.

A lot of the elements that we think of for the character are in the serial. These include:
  • Alfred the butler.
  • Commissioner Gordon.
  • The Batsignal
  • The Batcave (complete with shadows of bats in the background)
  • Using a grandfather clock to get to the Batcave
  • Vicky Vale (a clone of Lois Lane)
  • Batman's utility belt

I know that at least some elements like Vicky Vale were added to the comic book after originating in the serial.

Now, understand that the production values of the serial were low. Very few sets were built for it. Most, maybe all, were reused from other locations. The same is true for the location shots. Western were common and many of the locations look it.

The serial revolves around a masked villain called the Wizard. He steals a remote control machine that lets him control any vehicles within miles. It can also cause fires in cars. Typical for serials, the plot takes a number of twists. The machine burns out diamond bearings and needs replacements. The Wizard also tries to gain control of a new explosive which can also be used as a power source. The builder of the machine also built a machine to jam it but using the two machines together along with an ugly pendant will turn someone invisible.

A few observations:

Batman/Bruce Wayne drives a new Mercury convertible. When he is Wayne the top is down. When he is Batman the top is up. He and Robin hide their costumes in the roof when it is down.

Shock absorbers might not be known yet. Batman's car bounces a lot when he brakes.

Batman has the only modern car in the serial. Everyone else drives an older model.

Gothan City must be pretty small. Chases always lead to the country. There are only a few tall buildings.

Bruce Wayne is supposed to be rich but he lives in a large house, not a mansion. The inventor gets the mansion.

Batman doesn't try very hard to hide his identity. In addition to driving the same car as Bruce Wayne (Vicky notices) he and Robin pull into Wayne's driveway and runs into the house while in full costume.

The Batcave doesn't have much furniture. Batman and Robin keep their costumes in a filing cabinet in the middle drawer (under "C" for costume?).

The Wizard is able to control vehicles using his remote control machine but there is no sign of a steering wheel or other directional control. He seems to do everything with switches.

The Wizard and his men use some sort of viewer that can see through doors. No indication how this works.

Batman's utility belt has whatever he needs. If he needs a cutting torch then sure enough, he has a big one tucked into his belt. There is no indication where the tanks to feed the torch are. Under his cape?

Batman and Robin use some sort of long glass tube as a gas mask. This only appears on their utility belts when they are about to get gassed.

Batman and Robin are lousy fighters. They are regularly overpowered.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Crisis in cross-title stories

I don't read a lot of comic these days. I mainly select a few based on the writer. One I do read is The Hulk because I like Peter David's writing. I got a new issue a couple of days ago and found that the title has been taken over by the House of M plotline. The Scarlet Witch went crazy and reformed the world with mutants in charge and humans being hunted.

I don't care for these cross-title plotlines for several reasons. One is that this is a blatantly commercial attempt to get me to buy other titles. Plotlines dictated by commercial concerns are rarely readable.

Another reason is that variations of this plotline have been used before. Don't keep regurgitating the same stories.

Finally, I know that everything will be put back the way that it was in a month or so. That's how these alternate reality plotlines work. This is a commercial reality. You cannot suddenly redo all of your successful titles without losing most of your audience.

This is why I liked Babylon 5 and lost interest in the Star Trek clones. In Babylon 5, if something happened, it really happened. No one waved a magic wand and reset reality. In Deep Space 9 and the others, you knew that the really big changes were in an alternate reality/dream/etc. By the closing credits, everything would be set right again (moderate changes happened but only during sweeps month).

All of this was started by Jim Shooter, editor in chief of Marvel in the 1980s. Shooter came up with the "Secret Wars". Most of the "big" heroes and villains were transported to a distant world to fight for the education of an extra-dimensional being called the Beyonder. The Secret Wars had its own 12 issue limited series. It also worked into the continuity of the other titles. Each one had a page with the hero investigating an object in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park and vanishing. Each title had an issue without the hero, and each one had a major change when the heroes returned.

In some cases, the change was something that was already in the works that came to a head around the Secret Wars. Tony Stark who had been a homeless alcoholic went on the wagon. The Hulk who had Bruce Banner's intellect went sub-human.

In other titles, a change was introduced. Storm lost her powers. The Thing stayed behind on Battleworld and She-Hulk joined the FF. Spider-Man got a new costume which turned out to be alive and eventually became Venom.

In all, it was an interesting and fairly successful experiment.

DC got wind of it and launched their own cross-title book, Super Powers. It was written and drawn by Jack Kirby who was way past his prime and showing it. It was about as engaging as an episode of Super-Friends.

Marvel followed up the Secret Wars with a sequel. This time the Beyonder came to earth. This time they only had a few issues of Secret Wars II. The rest of the action took place in individual titles. This was the model for the current cross-title plots.

One or more writers plots out the main action. Either certain actions are to happen during the cross-over or something big will be happening that the heroes have to react to. The results are usually rough and uneven as multiple creative teams put their own stamp on the storyline.

The biggest of these was Crisis on Multiple Earths. DC decided to clear away nearly a half century of spotty continuity. An evil alien called the Anti-Monitor was destroying alternate universes (called "earths" in a fit of anthrocentrism). Eventually he was planning to become god, ruling over the remaining universe. By the end, the Anti-Monitor was defeated but only the simple "earth" remained. Through some mysterious process, the people who should continue to exist did and those who should not did not.

While they were at it, DC recreated Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Robin, making them more Marvel-style.

It took years to smooth things over after the mess this caused. Since then, no cross-title plotline has tried to affect things on this scale.

Which is why I know that by the next issue of the Hulk everything will be back to normal.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Jim Aparo 1932-2005

Neal Adams is given credit for creating the modern Batman, the dark creature of the night who replaced the camp figure of the 1960s but when I think of Batman I usually think of Jim Aparo's version. Like Adams, Aparo started doing Batman in Brave and Bold which featured Batman and a guest star. It was a demanding comic since it had a different cast every issue. Moreover, Aparo had a strong, realistic style that worked wonderfully for Batman but was usually at odds with how the guests were drawn (think photo realistic Metal Men). But he made it work.

Aparo turned in a completed page. He not only drew the pages, he inked, lettered, and colored them. He used a lot of shading and dark colors, reminding you that Batman was a creature of the night.

The Brave and Bold plots were imaginative. During this period, many of the Batman stories started with a cover then a plot was created in an editorial meeting to explain the cover. Finally the story was written. This process produced many forgettable stories. Brave and Bold was under less editorial control and Bob Haney, the writer, had a lot of freedom. One issue featured Aparo himself.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Aparo was always drawing one Batman book or another. When DC decided to kill Robin (one of them) Aparo was the artist they trusted to do it.

Aparo was known for other characters, Aquaman, The Specter, and the Phantom Stranger. I seldom read Aquaman so I will not say much about his run on that strip. The Spectre had a short run in the late in 1960s best remembered for the artwork by Neal Adams. At that point the Spectre was a separate entity from his human host, Jim Corrigan. Together they solved crimes involving the supernatural.

When the strip was revived in the mid-1970s, Corrigan was a homicide detective. When he found the culprit he became the Spectre, the spirit of vengeance and enacted horrible revenge on the murderer. This was the version Aparo drew.

The Phantom Strange was a problem comic. The original formula called for three related stories. Something would happen and professional debunker Dr. Thirteen would show up and relate a previous case that appeared to involve the supernatural but did not. The Phantom Stranger would show up and tell his story which did involve the supernatural. Then the original event would be resolved.

Artists and writers hated it and it had a differed team every issue. It was given an overhaul after only three issues. Neil Adams was brought in to illustrate a story that introduced an opponent for the Stranger - a temptress named Tala and a supporting cast of hip teenagers. In addition, the Stranger traded in his long overcoat and tie for a turtleneck and cape. Adams departed after one issue but Aparo joined it a few issues later.

In Issue #9 the multiple story formula was abandoned totally. In this issue a dying man killed the Stranger through magic and had the Stranger's heart transplanted into his own body. The Stranger haunted him until his heart vanished and he died.

Later stories often revolved around a character facing a difficult choice with the Stranger offering warnings and a resolution. The extent of his powers was never shown. He appeared and vanished. Sometimes he transformed things. A lot was left implied.

Like Batman, the Stranger was the perfect showcase for Aparo's ultra-realistic art and his use of color and shadows. He was the definitive Phantom Stranger artist.

During the 1970s many comics were published bi-monthly. During the 1980s comics that could not justify monthly sales were cancelled.

Aparo was not a fast artist. He was most comfortable doing around nine comics a year. DC got Aparo to speed up by assigning inking and other jobs elsewhere but as time passed, faster artists got more work.

A collection of Aparo's work will be out this Fall.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Jim Aparo.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Logan's Run

I'm watcing the opening shots of Logan's Run on TCM. This movie won a special effects Oscar? When it came out it looked like they filmed it in a shopping mall and spliced in footage of a model train set. It doesn't look any better now.

But in 1976 this was as good as science fiction got. Cheap effects, poor plot, poor acting, a quick flash of near-nudity. The book was better. A year later Star Wars showed us how it should be done.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No More Kid-Stuff

I have been writing about the influences of Stan Lee and Marvel. One big influence was to raise the age of the reader. I saw Stan in the mid-1970s and he was thrilled that 20% of the readership was college age or older.

As the traditional outlets for comics changed from drug stores to specialty shops, this trend accelerated. Comic books used to be aimed at pre-teens. Now they are aimed at older teens and adults. This is a mixed blessing. Wired has an article about this trend.

Personally, I think that they have gone too far. I remember a Deadman aimed at the adult audience in the 1990s. Deadman is a ghost who possesses people. This issue began with Deadman as an emaciated corpse, entering a woman's body. He made her strip and spread her legs, demanding sex. Deadman's original run was one of my favorites in the 1960s but this turned me off of his comics for years.

Similarly, the Hulk spent years in a pointless plotline involving spies, twists, and people being shot in the head. Most of it centered on Bruce Banner with the Hulk himself appearing in, at most two pages. They went for several months completely without the Hulk. I have no idea how it came out. I lost interest and stopped reading it. I started again when they brought back Peter David as writer.

Stan used to insist that comics have at least a few pages of fighting to keep them interesting. This became fixed in stone in the 1970s and 1980s and some editors had a mandatory page count for the fight.

Chris Claremont used to cheat on this. He would open with a fight that wasn't really happening then move on to the read story. The fight was often in the danger room (the X-Men's training facility). Sometimes it was between villains training to fight the X-Men. A few times it turned out to be a dream or vision or alternate future, etc.

Those days are long gone. Now, it is possible to have an interesting superhero story without having a fight. Even Stan did it a few times. A recent Spider-Man had Peter and family moving into the Avengers mansion.

Still, the purpose of a superhero is to help people. At some point he has to get his hands dirty and fight someone.

Also, superheroes are archetypes. They might have problems paying the light bill but they need to have some moral clarity. These are lines that are blurred too often in the X-Men. A few characters switched sides in the old days. The Avengers second line-up was mainly reformed villains but Stan had been writing them as un-happy with their status since their introduction. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch both complained a lot about working for Magneto and how they only did it out of a sense of obligation. Hawkeye planned to fight crime, was mistaken as a criminal, and then hooked up with the Black Widow for a while.

Compare this with Emma Frost who was bent on world domination when we first met here. I'm not sure that they ever explained what happened to the dominatrix in white or why you would trust your mutant kids to her.

Then there is Daredevil who took over the gangs in order to clean them up. The Punisher tried that earlier. Neither one makes and sense.

All of this happens because they are felt to be adult themes.

Personally, I want my comics a little simpler.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

DC Strikes Back

DC invented the superhero. Their flagship character, Superman, was the original hero with powers. The following year they introduced Batman, the first comic book costumed detective (comic strip characters like the Phantom are older). Wonder Woman was the original super powered woman.

These characters started the Golden Age of comic books and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only characters to survive it. Everyone else was cancelled. During the 1950s they expanded the franchise. The Superman family added Superboy, Supergirl, and a pack of super pets. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen each got their own comics. Even Superboy's teammates in the Legion of Superheroes got their own book. Batman didn't expand as much but he acquired his own supporting cast with Batwoman, Batgirl, Rex the Batdog, and Bat Mite.

When the Silver Age of comics started, it was built around these characters.

As the 1960s progressed, Marvel started eating away at DC's market share. Comic sales peaked and DC started looking for ways of winning back the customers they had lost to Marvel.

At first they were sure that there was some gimmick that they could tack onto their comics.

According to one rumor, DC felt that Marvel's artists were sub-par but they thought that this style was the magic formula. They went to far as to tell their artists to draw poorly in order to attract sales.

Spider-Man was Marvel's biggest seller. He was known for having problems and for his shaky relationship with the law. DC fixed on that. When the Metal Men's sales declined, they remade them into the "New Hunted Metal Men". They were also given human identities and oversized heads. It was a total flop.

They tried heroes with problems and created Metamorpho. He talked like a beatnik and was ugly. He could also turn himself into anything made from basic elements - sort of Plastic Man meets the Metal Men. And it had a distinctive (crude) art style.

It didn't sell.

There was the Geek - a lifeless dummy somehow brought to life to face discrimination. Failure.

In desperation, DC hired Marvel's two superstar artists - Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else). Both would write and draw new characters.

Ditko created two books the first was Hawk and Dove about two brothers who turned into superheroes but spent most of their time arguing. It was the 1960s during the peace movement so the pacifist Dove got the book's sympathies although Hawk did all of the fighting.

The second book, the Creeper, was about a reporter who turned into a bizarre-looking hero. Creeper was not supernatural but played that he was to scare criminals.

Like Spider-Man, Ditko new heroes were wanted by the police and had personal problems. In addition, Hawk and Dove were in high school. Neither lasted a year.

Kirby hit the ground with four different books - Kirby's 4th World. He started by taking over Jimmy Olsen. To this he added, the Forever People, The New Gods, and Orion, the Worlds Greatest Escape artist. Kirby had been reading the Lord of the Rings and this influenced his new creations. All of his characters were part of the fight against Darkseid and his planet Apokolips. It had a huge fan following but none of the titles lasted two years.

Back in the DC mainstream, the big three got make-overs. Batman had already been given one make-over in the early 1960s when he added the yellow circle to his chest, traded in the Batmobile for a compact, and started fighting criminals instead of aliens. The rest of the Batman family - Batwoman, etc. - vanished. We later found out that they were from Earth 2 and the current Batman was on Earth 1. For good measure, a new Batgirl was introduced and added to the TV show.

During the heyday of the TV show, the comic book took on a campy tone. By the time the tv show ended, fans were sick of camp.

Batman became The Batman. Robin was packed off to college and Batman started fighting regular criminals instead of guys in costume. He was given a new arch-enemy - a guy who saw through his fingertips. He was not memorable. A better effort was Ra's Al Ghul - an international crime lord and the basic for the villain in Batman Begins.

A scientist gave himself bat

Superman got his own re-vamping. Most of this was editorial policy. There would be no more imaginary stories. Clark was re-assigned to TV and eventually became a news anchor.

Too many stories revolved around Kryptonite so they got rid of it. They also introduced some new enemies. The main one, Terra Man, was a high tech cowboy. He turned out to be as uninteresting as the guy with eyes in his fingers.

Both Superman and Batman quickly settled into formula stories and tight editorial control. Often the cover was decided on and a story written to go with it.

Wonder Woman got the biggest make-over. The character lost her powers and her costume. She took up martial arts and started wearing outfits inspired by Mrs. Peel from the Avengers (the TV show, not the Marvel comic).

Despite all of this flailing around, DC never got it. Marvel had a different approach to comics, one that the old guard at DC just didn't understand. It was not until a new generation of writers appeared at DC that they finally got it. These were people who read Marvel, not to see what the competition was doing, but because they liked it. They also crossed company lines and socialized together.

There was one Halloween that Batman, Thor, and the Beast were all in Rutland, Vermont in overlapping storylines.

Even with an influx of new blood, DC's editorial control tended to stifle innovation. It was not until the 1980s Crisis on Multiple Earths that they really shook things up. The post-Crisis heroes finally became Marvel-style.

I have to admit that to me, Superman is the pre-Crisis hero with unlimited powers. The guy in the cape now isn't really Superman.

But his stories are more interesting.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tying it All Together

Stan Lee did more than create new characters with problems and continuity. He created a new universe. In other comics in the 1960s everything happened in a vacuum. Nothing that happened in a comic ever seemed to affect what went on in other comics, even ones featuring the same character. You sometimes wondered if these guys lived in the same universe as each other.

No so at Marvel. They not only lived in the same universe, they ran into each other constantly. Early issues of the Fantastic Four guest starred the Hulk and Ant Man. In his first official issue, Spider-Man showed up at the FF's headquarters and asked for a job. When the FF fought the Hulk in New York, the Avengers showed up. Daredevil helped a powerless FF retake the Baxter Building from Dr. Doom. For a short time Iron Man was under criminal investigation and the Avengers called to ask what was going on. When the Avengers introduced a new lineup, half of it were reformed X-Men villains.

Thor fought Magneto (by special arrangement with the publishers of the X-Men magazine). Everyone fought the Circus of Crime. The Sandman went from a Spider-Man villain to fighting the Torch and eventually joining the Frightful Four.

Both Captain America and a young Reed Richards helped Sergeant Fury fight the Nazis and Fury helped the FF fight the Hate Monger.

Then there were the fights. Half the time two heroes introduced themselves by fighting. The Avengers fought the Sub Mariner and the Hulk. Spider-Man fought Daredevil, the Torch, and the Hulk.

And if anyone needed legal assistance, they went to Matt Murdock (Daredevil).

This was a slick marketing move. Once readers were exposed to a character through a guest appearance they might follow him back to his own book. It worked for me. I started reading Marvel with a copy of the X-Men that my mother's hairdresser's son had. I wanted more copies but he didn't have any (it was only up to issue 8 at that time) but he did find a copy of the FF guest starring the X-Men. Since the FF were monthly and the X-Men were bi-monthly, I found a copy of the FF the next time I went to the comics store and I was hooked.

Stan pushed this backstage, also.

Not long after he started the FF he started getting fan letter so he printed them. In between he would write replies. Interspersed with these, he plugged other books. Eventually he added a whole page for telling what was going on in the other Marvel comics.

Stan also invented the Marvel Bullpen. He said in a recent interview, "I'm the biggest liar in the world." There was no bullpen. The were actually freelancers who only showed up at Marvel's tiny office a couple of times a month.

That's not how Stan portrayed it. He gave the impression of a huge room full of artists and inkers, all having a great time. If you read Marvel comics you felt like you knew the creators, at least a little.

It all worked. Stan combined a new approach to comics with clever promotion. He also retuned characters as needed. Stan never threw out a perfectly good character. He just gave him an overhaul.

The Hulk seemed to get one every other issue of the sort-lived run of his comic. After it was cancelled, the Hulk became the back-up feature for Giant Man who was a revamped version of Ant Man. Daredevil changed from an ugly yellow and black costume to his red and black one. Iron Man went from grey to gold to red and gold and lost a lot of bulk along the way (as well as a skirt and the antenna coming out of his shoulder). The Fantastic Four started in street clothes and quickly adopted uniforms.

Even the Hulk's buddy, Rick Jones showed up for a while as Captain America's sidekick before going back to the Hulk.

Sometimes making over a character worked (the Hulk). Sometimes it didn't (Giant Man). Stan had confidence in the characters that often paid off. At other companies, if a character was cancelled that was it. He was gone. At Marvel it meant that the character would be back somehow. Sometimes they joined a team. Other times they came back in a different form. Two of Marvel's biggest successes, the X-Men and the Hulk, were cancelled and brought back.

The 1960s were good to superheroes. Batman was on primetime. Other superheroes were on Saturday morning. In fact, along with spies, they totally dominated Saturday morning for a couple of years.

Issues of Superman and Batman regularly sold a million copies. Supermarkets and drug stores had large displays of comics.

And surprisingly, Marvel, the little cut-rate upstart on the block, was the top seller.

DC finally noticed and decided to do something to win back readers. But what?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Fantastic Four

It should have been better than it was. It had lots of classic elements from the comic. These include (spoiler alert):

  • The Torch playing tricks on the Thing.
  • The Thing wandering around in a coat and hat, wrecking a car, having trouble picking things up or pressing buttons, and eating a huge stack of pancakes.
  • A fight between Reed and the Thing with Reed wrapping himself around Ben.
  • The Thing being cured but reverting in order to save his teammates.
  • The Baxter Building with Willie Lumpkin the mailman (Stan Lee in a cameo).
  • The Torch making the "4" symbol.

But these are small things. It's the big things they got wrong.

Reed was miscast. I never accepted Ioan Gruffudd. Reed may had been an absent-minded-professor but he was never indecisive.

The rest of the team was ok. I cannot accept Jessica Alba as a geneticist but this was mainly an excuse to have her on the space station.

Doctor Doom just didn't work as a corporate leader gone crazy. In the comics he was ruler of his own (small) country with robot armies at his command. He was an ambiguous character - protecting his people while oppressing them.

In the comics, the FF's origin was mainly background. Spider-Man and Batman were motivated by their origins. The FF didn't need a reason to fight crime. They got their powers and decided that they should use them to help people.

In the movie, they got their powers and did nothing. They hid in Reed's lab. They tested their powers. The only time they used them in public was, first to clean up after a traffic accident Ben caused, then to defend themselves against Dr. Doom.

How should the movie have been made? I would have started it with a quick origin, possibly an attempt to win the X-prize. The FF would have their powers within the first 10-15 minutes.

Cut to credits showing newspaper articles about the FF.

Pick up with the scene in the bar with the Thing meeting Alicia. End it with Reed summoning the FF. Latvertia is threatening its neighbors or something similar. The State Department is asking the FF to take care of it unofficially. In the briefing it is mentioned that Reed has a history with Latvertia's ruler.

We take it from there - frightened villagers, robot army, a fight with Doom and the weapons built into his armor.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Characters and Problems

Take any (male) member of the Justice League as of the early 1960s and switch his costume and powers (if any) with and other member. Could you tel the difference? Was there anything different in the way that any of the DC characters talked or acted?

Now do the same with any two Marvel heroes. Can you imagine Daredevil talking like the Thing? Mr. Fantastic talking like Spider-Man? Or anyone talking like Thor? Or the Hulk?

Stan managed to give each of his characters at least a couple of dimensions. They had different manerisms and speech patterns. They fought crime for different reasons - for the Torch it was an adventure, for Spider-Man it was a duty. Iron Man was mainly defending his munitions plant. The Hulk just wanted to be left alone.

They also had problems. No one at DC had problems (minor exceptions - the Flash was always late for dates and Lois Lane was always trying to prove that Clark Kent was really Superman).

That's something else - who was the hero really? At DC, Superman pretended that he was Clark Kent. Even in Batman Begins, it is clear that Batman plays Bruce Wayne. If you asked who they *really* were they would answer the hero.

At Marvel the heroes were regular people who put on costumes. Sometimes they even tried to give up being a hero.

This was not universal. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Giant-Man had no real outside lives. Hulk and Thor took over their human counterparts. The Sub-Mariner just was.

All of this added variety to the comics.

But back to problems. Marvel heroes had them. The Thing was ugly. Iron Man had heart problems and a hostile congressman trying to shut him down. Spider-Man was constantly broke and had a newspaper trying to get him arrested.

It wasn't long before Stan started building problems into the character. These often revolved around their lovelife. Don't think that being a superhero gets you women. It always seemed to keep the women away. Consider:

I love my secretary but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who isn't blind.
I love my secretary but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who doesn't have a bad heart.
I love my boss's secretary but I can't tell her because she's afraid of my other identity,
I love my fellow student but I can't tell her because I have power beams coming out of my eyes.
I love my boss's daughter but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who doesn't turn into a giant green monster.

and my favorite:
I love my nurse but I can't tell her because she's not part of the faith (she doesn't worship my father).

Good villains, great fights, continuity and character development, problems. Put it all together and DC never had a chance.

Friday, July 01, 2005

We Now Return to the Continuing Story...

In examining how Stan Lee transformed comics I've gone over changes in the creative process and the introduction of good villains which led to good fights.

Next up - continuity.

Prior to Marvel, most comics were made from inventory stories. An editor assigned a writer and artist to do a story to fit a general space. It might sit for a while or it might run immediately. Since comics usually had more than one story per issue, you could have one story where Superman was fighting Luthor on the planet Lexor (named in honor of Luthor) and a second story where he was being chased by a fire-breathing dragon who had swallowed some kryptonite.

The inventory system was easy on editors. If two stories were too similar they could hold one back until later. They always had enough material on hand in case someone missed a deadline.

Marvel was too small an operation to maintain a large inventory. For the most part, Stan and the artist worked out the plot, the artist drew it, Stan added dialog, and it went to the printer.

Also, the books usually contained a single story. If there was a back-up story it featured a different character.

Since the books were published in order there was no reason not to refer to things that already happened, so Stan did.

In the third issue of the Fantastic Four, the Torch got mad and quit. The next issue opened with the rest of the team trying to find him (instead the Torch found the Sub-Mariner and had to summon the team himself).

Things were more subtle in Spider-Man. Betty Brant might refer to a fight that she and Peter had in the last issue. Stan even added a footnote telling what issue this happened in.

Just a minor change in editorial policy but it affected everything. It gave Marvel comics the feel of a continuous narrative. You didn't dare miss an issue because something important in Peter's civilian life might happen.

Also, once you have continuity you can have character growth. In the space of a few years Peter Parker fell in love with Betty Brant, broke up with her, started dating Mary Jane Watson, then fell for Gwen Stacy. Along the way he picked up a large supporting cast of friends, fellow students, and co-workers.

Other strips had their own progressions. Things changed over time.

Marvel began to attract attention. Comparisons were made to newspaper strips like Mary Worth and to soap operas.

Meanwhile, over at DC, you could pick up a comic for the first time in three years and find that nothing had changed.

All of this was the subtle side of continuity. There was also the blatant side - the continuing story.

Continued stories were nothing new. Superman had one or two per year. Of course, they never affected continuity.

Stan began with the smaller strips, ones like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Doctor Strange. These characters shared a comic with a different character. Iron Man and Captain America shared Tales of Suspense. Giant Man (later the Sub Mariner) and the Hulk shared Tales to Astonish.

With only a half comic to tell a story in, the stories were often cramped. Stan solved this by extending the stories over multiple issues.

At first the full-length comics had self-contained stories but the stories outgrew a single comic.

This also led to an interesting three-issue plot that appeared in both the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. In the first issue a villain would defeat the hero somehow. The next two issues had the hero(es) dealing with this against a different villain.

The Frightful Four beat the FF by luring them to an island and detonating a "Q bomb". This removed their powers. The FF spent the next two issues trying to duplicate their powers with mechanical aids while trying to take back their headquarters from Dr. Doom with the help of Daredevil.

In the middle of a fight with the Green Goblin, Spider-Man heard that Aunt May had some sort of attack. After re-evaluating his priorities, Spider-Man hurried to his aunt, giving the impression that he had run from a fight. In the next issue, while fetching some medicine in costume, Spider-Man ran into the Sandman. Peter was afraid that having his identity revealed to Aunt May would kill her so he hid from the fight. Later May gave him a talking to about courage and determination. In the third issue, Spider-Man and the Human Torch stopped Sandman from taking over the New York gangs.

Story lines like these were memorable and sold comics so Stan came up with a new policy - constant continued plots. For example, the same issue of the Fantastic Four wrapped up the Inhumans introduced Galactis. Thor became so busy that I think one story arc lasted over a year.

Eventually the extended plotlines got too long and too convoluted. Even with a scorecard, it was impossible to come into a storyline if you missed the beginning. This didn't happen until the 1970s, though with Marvel's second generation of writers.


Sidenote - there were a few DC comics that had continuity. The Legion of Superheroes is one. Even though it was officially part of the Superman family, it broke a lot of rules. Continuity was one - they constantly added new characters and occasionally killed or injured some. Another was that Superman (actually Superboy and Supergirl) were not the strongest. Several characters were outright stronger that Superboy, Mon-el , and Ultra Boy (both had similar powers to Superboy) combined.