Sunday, April 30, 2006

Civil War

Marvel's summer cross-over event is Civil War. The premise is that the government decided to force superheros to reveal their identities to the government and become supervised government agents. Those who do not will be hunted down and imprisoned. The idea is interesting. In real life this would probably happen. After all, you cannot just buy a gun and start hunting down evil-doers. If you do and you keep your identity concealed, you will probably be hunted down yourself. If you give your identity, you will most likely end up in court at some point.
Bounty hunters are probably the closest thing to super-heroes and even they are operating under some restrictions.
Of course, things are more complicated in the Marvel Universe. Many heroes have special status - they are a foreign head of state, they are from a different world, etc.
But regardless of the issues involved, I have no intention of trying to follow every part. I cannot afford it. According to Wikipedia, there are 74 official Civil War comics including four miniseries and two one-shot comics. In addition, there are seven issues in the "Road to Civil War" series including a one-shot. That's 81 comics at $3 each or $243 for the entire series, assuming that none of the specials cost more than the standard price.
This is why the comic companies love cross-over events. They are trying to get people to buy more comics. That's also why I don't like them. They interrupt normal continuity in favor of marketing.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Graphic Novels

TCS Daily has an article about graphic novels. Among other things, it points out how much comic book readership has fallen. In 1945, half the country read comic books. Now, the top seller moved 140,000 copies. According to a talk by Steve Englehart, when he was writing in the 1970s, he was told that 200,000 sales was the magic number. If a comic sold fewer issues than that it was cancelled. That means that no comic book today is as successful as any 1970s title that wasn't cancelled.

Go back a decade to the height of the Silver Age and Superman and Batman could sell as many as a million copies.

This is one reason that comic cost so much. But then, the cost hurt sales.

According to the article, the solution to all of this is the graphic novel. These have a lower cover price and you get a complete story, something that most comics no longer do. In fact, many plot arcs are obviously produced as a serialized graphic novel.

Book stores are much more open to graphic novels. They don't expire like comics do so they get wider distribution.

Also, "graphic novel" doesn't carry the stigma that "comic book" does.

Is this the salvation of the industry? I don't know. Book stores themselves are being squeezed. Between Walmart and Amazon, traditional book stores have lost a lot of market share.

I will admit that I have re-read a few of my favorite story lines as graphic novels. Just trying to assemble the individual issues can be a pain otherwise.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dr Who

Britain started seeing new episodes of Dr. Who last year but, typically, it took until last month before they showed up in the US on the SciFi channel.

For those who don't know what I am talking about, Dr. Who was a long-running science fiction show on British television. It started in the 1960s and finally wrapped up in the 1990s. The main character is called the Doctor. He is a Time Lord, traveling in time and space with a tardis which looks like a 1960s police call box. The tardis is larger on the inside than the outside and contains living areas, stores of clothing, and all sorts of useful stuff. Unfortunately, it is not very reliable. It often turns up in the wrong year or place.

The original show was able to run so long because the Doctor, who is not human, can regenerate. If you kill him he comes back as a different actor. I think the show went through seven or eight different Doctors during its original run.

The most popular Doctor was Tom Baker. While some Doctors were grouchy, Baker's version was nearly always up-beat. Originally, only the Baker version was broadcast in the US and it was a revelation when fans discovered that there had been three previous Doctors. This turned into a bit of disappointment when fan actually saw the early episodes. While the special effects in the Baker version were cheap, the effects in the 1960s consisted of special lighting. In fact, it took some time before the tardis was even introduced.

After an absence of more than a decade, the Doctor is finally back. Surprisingly in a show that was out of production for so long, it feels just like the old show. The new Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, has the same energy that Baker had. The effects are cutting-edge (for television) but still manage a bit of cheesiness.

Then there is the Doctor's new assistant. Like Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor always has to have an assistant to explain things to. This is usually someone from modern-day England and most often a woman. Note - there has never been a hint of sexual tension between the Doctor and his assistants. Even the current one, Rose, is indignant when someone suggests that she and the Doctor have a relationship.

A few things have been updated. The Doctor accidentally brought Rose back a year after they left instead of a few minutes later. She found her mother had been posting "missing" signs and her boyfriend was under suspicion. That never happened in the original.

A recurring set of villains in the original series were the Daleks - a sort of high-tech fire hydrant, These were a bit of a joke. they were supposed to have conquered Earth in the future but they couldn't climb stairs. In the new series, the Doctor found the last Dalek in a collection of alien artifacts. After the Dalek was revived (of course), he showed why his kind was dangerous. He had a force field and could levitate up stairs.

It was always understood that there was some sort of life-form inside the fire hydrant. We finally got to see one after Rose convinced it that it felt good to stand in the sunlight.

Fearing type-casting, Eccleston has already left the series. His replacement and the actress who plays Rose have both been signed through the third season.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Healing and the Hatch - more Lost blogging

We just finished a low-key but important character arc for John Locke. During the first season and half the second season, Locke was normally calm and collected. He had good reason to be. From the flashbacks we found that he had been confined to a wheelchair and led a rather pitiful life. His past was full of abandonment issues. His father betrayed him and the love of his life left him because of his father issues. His had a boring job, supervised by someone half his age. His pleasures came from fantasy - war games and phone sex. He had tried to go on "walkabout" to test himself and been turned down because of his legs.

Then he crashed on the island and found that he could walk. The island became his walkabout. He tested himself and found that he was everything that he had hoped. With noting but a hunting knife, he could kill a wild boar or make a cradle.

He found the hatch which hinted at new mysteries.

Then things got frustrating. Locke and Jack started having problems. Locke found that he couldn't trust Jack and both were taken in by Sawyer.

Then they inherited a prisoner calling himself "Henry Gale". Gale very subtly sewed a few seeds of dissent, asking if it was alright for Locke to make decisions without Jack's approval. Locke got frustrated.

Then came the lock-down. While Locke was trapped, Gale went through the air vents. The alarm went off then everything went back to normal. At first Gale said that he entered the code and pressed the button. Later he said that the hatch was a joke and that the system reset on its own.

This bothered Locke. In addition, he totally lost control of Gale. Rather than being Gale's jailer he now has to ask permission (which can be denied) to see Gale.

There was always the possibility that the hatch is a fake - nothing more than a test to see how long the creators can get someone to press a button. If Gale is to believed (a bad assumption) then the hatch is a fake.

On top of everything else, Locke was hurt and has to use crutches. He almost ended back in the wheelchair.

His walkabout seemed to be nothing more than a trick and he was back where he started. He left the hatch, intending to let the alarm go off and do nothing.

Then he talked with Rose. We learned from her flashback that she had been dying from cancer and was healed by the island. She reminded Locke that they both knew that the island heals. That part is no hoax.

The next time we see Locke his calm is back and he is reconstructing the diagram he saw during the lock-down. He believes again.

Rose and Locke don't know it but the island healed Jin, also. Prior to coming to the island he couldn't father children but now Sun is pregnant and swears that he is the only possibility.

Jack continues to shoot down Kate whenever she gets romantic. She thanked him for taking her along to meet with the Others. He replied that she was there because they didn't want her - they had her and gave her back. She still stole a kiss when they were both trapped in a net.

One of the show's running gags - whenever it looks like these two might start getting physical, something happens. This time Michael reappeared.

As leaders go, Jack is pretty poor. Kate withheld information from him because he kept her out of the loop. Hurley made the same complaint earlier. Add in the friction between Locke and Jack, Sayid working Gale over against Jack's wishes and Jack's failure at organizing an army and Jack's leadership looks pretty poor.

Several people on the island have had visions of one kind or another. Jack's dead father led him to the caves. Boone had a vision of his sister being taken by the monster. Hurley saw an imaginary friend from his time in a mental hospital. Shannon saw Walt talking backwards. The island may heal the body but it is tough on the mind.

Finally, the diagram that Locke saw showed six labeled hatches with a seventh labeled with a question mark. So far we have seen three hatches - Locke's hatch, a long-abandoned one, and a recently abandoned medical hatch. Do the Others know about Locke's hatch? Do they know about all of the other hatches? How are they related? There's enough there to keep the show running for at least another couple of years.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Writing in Slate, Stephen Metcalf offers some reasons why the new King Kong bombed.
Cooper's original isn't simply racist. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Where Ingagi played upon white America's deep fear of racial mixing, King Kong took that race fear and converted it into an allegory for civilization in all its discontents. For Cooper, Kong wasn't a surrogate for black people, with "black" as a virtual synonym for savagery and uncontrollable sexual urges. No, Kong was a symbol—a clunky one, but a symbol nonetheless—for the anti-social alpha male, with all his animal desires and animal jealousies, residing in each of us. Thus Cooper made the death of Kong a tragedy and converted a degrading fear into an ennobling pathos. Now, to the degree this conversion worked, it worked because in 1933 memories of the Victorian world of gentlemen adventurers were still living memories, gorillas had been exhibited only scarcely in the West, and because white people still primally feared black people. Racial and sexual fears may still be depressingly persistent, but they no longer lie so near the surface of American life. Without those fears to play off, Jackson appears lost.
Ignoring the question of how a movie that grossed a half billion dollars world-wide could be called a bomb is Metcalf's analysis of the original accurate? No, not even close. Accodring to Metcalf, the movie only worked because of the period it was released. By that reasoning, the original should bomb today and the remake would be a hit in 1933. We will never know about the latter but the original still resonates today.

I first saw the original around 1974. at that time, I did not fear black people nor did I remember Victorian adventurers but the movie still worked for me. It also worked for Peter jackson who grew up in New Zeland and first saw it in 1969. The parts up to Kong's first appearance are dated and a bit silly but once Kong takes over, the movie is timeless.

Metcalf does have one good point. In the original, the Carl Denham role was directly inspired by the director, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was an adventurer who made animal pictures. when Denham talks about needing a girl in his pictures or being his own cameraman, he is releating incidents from Cooper's own career. In the original, Denham is larger than life, willing to take chances that often turn out badly. In the remake, Denham is more con-man than director, bringing down anything he touches.

But that's only one problem with the remake. Another problem is the fight with the bugs. It goes on far too long and it doesn't move the plot. A similar scene was cut from the original. Jackson should have taken that advice.

The biggest problem is that the original is not a love story. Ann Darrow feels nothing but fear of Kong. She's still suffering Post Tamatic Shock when Kong is revealed to Broadway. As Kong tears his way through New York we feel shock as his victims pile up. We don't feel much sympathy for Kong himself until he is pitted the against the airplanes - a foe he cannot touch. Instead of trying to save him, Ann escapes to the arms of her human lover.

Note - this was a recurring theme in the classic monster movies. The monster pursued an unwilling heroine, often to him doom. Looked at this way you can see why Kong was so popular. Where Dracula flits arounds as a bat, Frankenstein's Monster lurches, and the mummy shuffles, Kong goes out in public. Not only is Kong unafraid, he kills anything that gets in his way, even an elevated train.

Jackson transformed Kong from a monster in the city to an endangered species trying to get back home. That's why one showing was enough for me.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ice Age 2

Ice Gae 2: The Meltdown was the #1 movie for the weekend taking in over $70 million. It was the best March opening ever and nearly double what the original movie brought in. In the meantime, what did the critics recomend? Slither which came in at #8 with $3.7 million.

That puts Ice Age as the third biggest animated film opening weekend (it's tied with the Incredibles but ticket prices have gone up since then).

What happened? Probably two factors. The first is that the original movie and Robots were both well-made, entertaining movies. The other factor is that nearly everything else released this year stank. Ice Age was the first movie released this year aimed at the entire family where the movie-goer had an expectation of seeing a good movie.

And it is good. While both Ice Age movies are road films featuring three mismatches animals puncuated with mini-shorts featurig Scrat, the squirrel/rat, the two movies have different plots. They also have diferent supporting casts. This is important. Too often a sequel either puts the stars in a completely different situation or puts them in the same situation along with all the extras.

The original had three animals who didn't really like each other forming a friendship while racing to return a human baby to its tribe before witer set in.

In the new movie, the three are friends who have to excape a valley before it is flooded. Each of the anomals has his own personal growth but the movie doesn't hit you over the head with it. Manny the mamoth has to get over the death of his family. Diego the saber-tooth tiger has to get over his fear of water. Sid the sloth has to earn some respect.

Along the way they are joined by a family of possums, one of whom looks a lot like a momoth. The possums are almost as much fun as Scrat. Almost but not quite. Scrat's quest for the acorn would make Chuck Jones jelous.

The creators, Blue Sky, have shown that they have a vision of their own. Pixar goes for more serious, character-driven plots. Dreamworks does lighter ones with lots of topical references. Blue Sky aims somewhere in between. Their movies are lighter than Pixar's but without the constant topical references. It makes for a nice change of pace.