Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy Birthday Stan

I'm late in posting this but Stan turned 85 on Dec. 28th. I've said it before but it's worth repeating - Stan was the most important influence in comics in my lifetime. He took a medium that had been relegated to children and redefined it as something that would appeal to adults. Along the way he (along with Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby) created properties currently worth billions.

Not many people in the world have had such an effect on their profession.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Defending Star Wars

I've been reading Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics by Tom Rogers. Much if it is pretty good but I think that he is pretty hard on Star Wars. When ranking Wars vs Trek, he gives Trek the better grade, saving his worst grades for Star Wars. The thing is that there are major flaws in his figuring.

Rogers devotes a section to why it will not work for a large space ship (such as a star destroyer) to shoot a smaller ship (such as an X-Wing fighter). He points out that in WWII, a battleship could shoot a kamikaze or dive bomber and, if they hit it far enough out,  the plane would fall into the ocean. On the other hand, if you shoot apart a fighter in space then the parts will continue on and hit your spaceship.

I have a lot of problems with this entire section. The first one is that shooting down a plane seldom causes it to break apart. More likely you will damage control surfaces or cause a wing to lose so much lift that the plane goes out of control. Or you might kill the pilot. I mention this because Rogers makes similar complaints about movies.

My second problem is the mechanics of space warfare. You are dealing with three dimensions and vastly different relative speeds. A battleship cannot take evasive action because of a combination of its mass and the physics of moving through water. Ships can really only move in one direction because of water resistance. Spaceships have no such constraints and could conceivably change course much faster. Not that you see this happen in Star Wars. You do see it in Star Trek but they do it wrong, swooping like an airplane.

Anyway, chances are that the ship being attacked is under power and therefore accelerating. That means that the fighter must aim for where the spaceship will be. There are two ways of doing this. The fighter can do one short, strong burn (acceleration) or a longer, slower one. If you shoot a fighter while it is accelerating then it will fall short.

Rogers ignores this and seems to be going from the assumption that the fighter is not under power and will strike the larger craft through inertia. I will confine myself to that assumption. So you shoot a fighter and it bursts apart. Will the pieces continue straight on? This is not likely if it exploded. In space, every action  has an equal reaction. If a ship is hit with a projectile or it blows up for some reason then its trajectory will be altered.  At long distances it doesn't take much deflection to make a projectile miss its target (the book has a section on this).

Let's assume that you didn't use a projectile to shoot the fighter, you used a laser or other energy weapon that carved the fighter up into pieces without any impact. What happens next?

Rogers' assumption is that the pieces of the fighter will do as much damage as the fighter as a whole. This is an unfounded assumption. By slicing up the fighter you have converted it from a slug into a load of shot. While the two have the same mass, they do not have equal penetrating power.

Mythbusters proved this once with a frozen chicken. The myth involved testing the impact resistance of windshields of high-speed trains. The French borrowed an air cannon that can launch a chicken at high speeds but none of their windshields could withstand the impact. They asked what they were doing wrong. The answer was "first thaw the bird". The Mythbusters were testing to see if a frozen bird had more penetrating power than an unfrozen one.

This took several tests. At one point they used a high-speed camera and determined that both birds expended all of their kinetic energy int he same amount of time so they must have the same penetrating power. Fans objected and they ended up gluing multiple panes of glass together and shooting the bird at that. The unfrozen bird penetrated several sheets but the frozen one went through all of the sheets of glass. The conclusion - a frozen bird penetrates better.

The same will be true for a fighter that is structurally intact versus one that is in pieces.

But none of this really has much to do with Star Wars. Rogers singles out Star Wars as a bad example without specifying which scene offends him. I can think of four extended space battles (two in the original Star Wars, one in Return of the Jedi, and one in Revenge of the Sith). In three of them the target is too large to be seriously affected by the impact of a fighter. The object is to keep the fighters from delivering their payload.

The very first space battle is the only one where a collision would be disastrous. This is fought between the escaping Millennium Falcon and some tie fighters. The tie fighters are making strafing runs and the Falcon is dodging which invalidates the entire argument.

So why pick on Star Wars anyway? It has more to do with reputation than what you actually see on the screen. Trek had advisers who were supposed to keep things honest and sometimes wrote entire episodes around some obscure theory of physics. You can do that when you have hundreds of hours of programming. Star Wars is limited to a half dozen movies (I'm not going to count the games, books and other spin-offs for either).

In fact, one of the most accurate accounts of how physics actually work in a space battle is in a Star Wars novel - The New Jedi Order: Destiny's Way by Walter Jon Williams. Williams also wrote the Dread Empire's Fall trilogy which has the physics of large-scale space battles as a main plot point. I recommend this to anyone who wants to know how it will really be done (assuming that space battles ever happen).

Monday, December 24, 2007


There are only two memorable Christmas plots - It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Both have been adapted endlessly (so endlessly that the Muppets have done both). I though I would run through some of my favorite versions of Christmas Carol.

For a straight-out telling of the book, the 1984 version with George C. Scott is the best. I've never been a big fan of Scott but he hit just the right mix in this version. The costumes and sets look just right for the 1840s, also. After this version, the newer one with Patrick Stewart seems a bit flat.

The first version I ever saw was the Mr. McGoo version and it is still an effective version.

The Muppet version loses some of the depth while adding comic relief in the form of Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat as himself. Still, it is a fun version.

Bill Murray's Scrooged is a fun updating of the story.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Jar Jar

Someone left a comment on my entry about George Lucas's influences asking about where Jar Jar Binks came from. I can make some observations and guesses about this.

First, Jar Jar's function was comic relief. This function was handled by C3P0 and R2D2 in the other movies but their roles were closer to cameo appearances in Phantom Menace. The movie followed the same basic formula as the previous three movies. Since they had comic relief characters, Phantom Menace had to, also. It is generally conceded that the droids were inspired by a pair of characters from The Hidden Fortress. Lucas himself has cited this film as a major influence on Star Wars.

Note - this contradicts Lucas's insistence that Star Wars was based on classical story-telling traditions. For the life of me, I cannot think of any comic relief characters in any of the classics.

So, Lucas needed someone who would lighten things up. What other influences can we find?

It might be heresy to say this, but Jar Jar was not the first local character with a funny speech pattern and a habit for getting into things in the series. That honor goes to Yoda. When we first met him, Yoda was playing at being a simple local. This also goes back to Japanese tradition where the teacher first appears to be a simple old man. But there is a depth to Yoda that Jar Jar does not have.

There is a long tradition in American fiction of the hero having a native side-kick. This character often speaks in stilted English. The Lone Ranger's side-kick Tonto is a perfect example. While Tono was not played for laughs, he did get into more than his share of trouble.

The comic strip hero the Spirit had Ebony as his side-kick. Ebony started as a short adult but morphed into a youth. He was drawn as an exaggerated black man with thick lips and he talked in what other characters described as a "minstrel show" accent.

Adventure movies often had characters typifying a stereotype. For example, King Kong has Charlie the Chinese cook. The title character Gunga Din played this part for much of the movie. The actor Sabu spent much of his career playing this sort of character.

Lucas would have been familiar with all of this. Remember, his original stated purpose with Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) was to recreate the adventure movies and serials from the 1930s when the comic native side-kick was stock-in-trade.

When Phantom Menace came out, many people noticed the similarity between Jar Jar and the racist characterizations of the past. It didn't help that Jar Jar talked like a cross between stereotype Chinese and African characters.

Lucas got the message. In Attack of the Clones, Jar Jar's role was reduced to the dupe of the future Emperor. By Revenge of the Sith he was down to a cameo role.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Is LoTR Trivial

Golden Compass writer Phillip Pullman says that the Lord of the Rings is trivial. Is there anything to this?

Granting that Pullman's books are about the death of god or the end of religion or something like that, this is a non-trivial subject. In contrast, LotR appears to be about melting a piece of jewelry in order to maintain the status quo.

I use the word "appears" because there is a lot more to it. The major theme is self-sacrifice. Frodo sacrifices himself in order to save the Shire. In an early draft, Tolkien had Bingo (the original name for Frodo) say that while he was leaving the Shire because of the ring, he would have had to go anyway since he was out of money and hoped to pick some up on the way like Bilbo did. Tolkien marked this out with a note that Bingo still had plenty of money. He didn't have to leave because of money, he chose to leave because of the ring.

Along the way Frodo is surprised by Sam's optimism. Sam has been saving food for the trip back. Frodo never thought that far ahead. He probably thought that he would die while accomplishing his quest (Gollum died in his place by accident).

But Frodo didn't return whole. His only visible injury was the loss of a finger but he had deeper injuries. The wounds he got from the Witchking and Sheelob never completely healed and he was sick twice a year on the anniversary of being wounded.

Worse, he had a piece of Sauron's soul tempting him for years. He was no longer wholly mortal and had to leave for the Undying Lands, normally reserved for the elves.

The elf lords faced the same choice. In helping Frodo they knew that they were bringing about the end of their time in Middle Earth. The alternatives were no better - submit to Sauron or take the ring and become an equally dark lord.

There is a subtext of temptation. Boromir succumbed to temptation but so did Frodo. The quest only succeeded because of Gollum.

Plus we see the passing of the physical embodiment of a demon-figure in the defeat of Sauron.

Is that substantive enough?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass and Religion

There has been a lot of talk about the Golden Compass's anti-religion message. After seeing the movie, I think that the controversy was over nothing. The anti-religion message just isn't there.

Yes, the villains are all in a group called the Magersterium but you have to be told that this is an analog for the Catholic Church. It isn't presented like a church. We don't see any services. There might be priests but they aren't identifiable as such. There are no churches pointed out, just a headquarters.

The word "heresy" is tossed around a few times but that's about it.

For a universe created by an atheist, it is a strange sort of atheism. Everyone has a visible soul. There are witches, prophecies, talking bears and other magic.

I will not deny that the author, Phillip Pullman, is a outspoken atheist. The anti-religious angle might be a lot stronger in the books but this is not the book, it is the movie and it has to be judged on its own.

A few years ago the complaint was that groups were trying to suppress The Passion of the Christ without knowing what it contained. Now the same people who complained are doing the same thing to a different movie.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Mighty Thor

It's been a while since I've written about comic books. With Thor back in publication, I thought I would take a look at his history.

Thor started as one of Marvel's second wave of heroes. By this point Stan was using a cookie-cutter approach to new heroes. Look at Thor, Iron Man, and Daredevil. All three had a supporting cast that was limited to their co-workers. Each was secretly in love with his secretary (or nurse). Each had a personal defect that kept him from declaring his love (bad heart, blindness, or, in Thor's case, a bad leg). As a hero, each one also had a built-in weakness that allowed any run-of-the-mill villain to be a challenge. Iron Man constantly ran out of power. Daredevil kept having things affect his radar sense. Thor had to keep hold of his hammer.

It is also interesting to note that the classic Avengers - Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, the Wasp, and Captain America) were all regular people who gained powers through technology or magic (except Cap who didn't have any powers). Contrast this with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, or Spider-Man who always had their powers.

According to Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan wanted to create a Superman-style character but wanted him to be original. He solved this with a hammer. It also gave an easy substitute for kryptonite. Stan was overloaded at the time so he assigned the writing duties to his brother Larry Lieber. Larry was a competent but uninspired writer. Thor fought a wide variety of creatures including lava men, stone men, the Radioactive Man, and a guy from the future. Stories almost always included Thor losing his hammer and turning back to Don Blake.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast was limited to one person - Jane Foster, Blake's nurse.

Then something unusual happened. Up in Asgard, Loki escaped from centuries of imprisonment and went to Earth to confront his old enemy Thor. Loki never seemed to question why a human doctor was also Thor.

Not long after Stan took over writing. This is just a guess but I assume that Larry turned in a complete script. Stan was too busy for that so he usually had a story conference with the artist. They would come up with a basic plot but it was up to the artist to decide on the pacing and other aspects of the story. The artist for Thor was Jack Kirby whose imagination was infinite.

Between them, Stan and Jack overhauled the book. The whole Asgardian pantheon was added as the supporting cast. A Tales of Asgard backup feature was added featuring a young Thor. The class of villain that Thor was fighting became much better and he almost never lost his hammer. A number of Marvel mainstays were introduced including the High Evolutionary, Ego the Living Planet, and the Recorder.

Fans started wondering about Don Blake and Thor. What happened to the real Thor? By this point Blake couldn't confess his love for Jane because he was Thor and Odin objected. Why? If Blake was just a mortal and any worthy person who had the cane could become Thor then was was the problem.

Eventually it was explained - Blake was Thor and had always been Thor. Odin wanted to teach Thor humility and had made him think he was a mortal. Not long after Thor broke up with Jane and Sif was introduced as a replacement.

From that point on Blake became a minor character, mainly appearing when someone needed surgery.

All good things come to an end. Kirby left Marvel for DC. The strip continued on with Stan and John Buscema. The stories were still good but no memorable characters were introduced. A couple of years later Stan moved and Gerry Conway took over.

The strip quickly stagnated. Roy Thomas brought a little life into in in the late 1970s, first with Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods which turned out to be a false start. Later he adapted the Ring cycle. This was brought to a conclusion in a story arc that included the Odin Sword, the Destroyer, and the Celestials.

Jane Foster appeared again and merged with Sif for a while before separating again.

The strip really took off again in 1982 when Walt Simonson took over. He was a fan of the original sagas and brought Thor back to his Norse roots. Most of the supporting characters were revamped. Some villains like the Executioner and the Enchantress were rehabilitated. He also created Beta Ray Bill who became an alien version of Thor. Ragnarok came again.

When Simonson left the strip quickly stagnated again. The Powers that Be decided that Thor had to have a mortal identity (Under Simonson, Thor disguised himself as a mortal construction worker). Thor was merged with Eric Masterson, an architect and single father. Naturally, being a part-time god messed up Masterson's life.

There was a spate of replacement heroes. Thor's version of this had the real Thor's identity submerged so that only Eric Masterson existed. Eventually Thor was restored and Masterson given his own strip as Thunderstrike.

There was a short-lived group called the Thor Corps consisting of Thunderstrike, Beta Ray Bill, and a different Thor from the future. The real Thor was not included.

The restored Thor got off to a bad start. He wet crazy and almost destroyed the universe.

The strip faltered again. This time it was given a new direction - Thor became mortal. In a three-issue story arc, he lost most of his powers but was able to triumph with the help of the Enchantress. His powers were only restored for a short time before he lost them again. He went into the hero business literally with the Enchantress charging for his services. While this plotline was promising, many other Marvel titles had wondered. Tony Stark was a teenager, the Torch had married a Skrull, etc. Marvel "killed" them all - actually sending them to an alternate world in Franklin Richards' mind.

The heroes returned with new creative crews. Thor found that the Asgardians had vanished and he was merged with yet another mortal - this time a paramedic named Jake Olsen.

The strip slowly reestablished itself. Jake was given a supporting cast including Jane Foster who was now a doctor. He acquired a side-kick named Tarene who assumed the form of a female Thor-in-training. She even had her own supporting cast.

Then the strip embarked on a long-term story arc. First Odin died leaving the Odin Force to Thor. Thor decided that humanity would benefit by closer contact with the gods and brought Asgard into our dimension. After solving humanity's ills, Thor took over the Earth. The plot skipped forward a few decades to Earth under the Asgardians' rule. It should be no surprise that it had a dark side.

Eventually Thor came to his senses and changed time so that Asgard never conquered the world.

This was followed by the Asgard Disassembled arc in which Ragnarok came - again. With the Asgardians dead, Thor killed off a set of super gods known as Those Who Sit in Shadows. Finally he entered the sleep of the gods and wort of died.

Now he's back. Surprisingly, so is his Don Blake identity. The last couple of issues have been a bit formulaic with Thor visiting a disaster area to find a missing Asgardian. Still, the stories are intense. Issue 3 featured the fight we've been been waiting for - Thor vs Iron Man. Tony Stark cloned Thor during the Civil Wars and Thor was upset so he broke Stark's armor.

Where will this lead? Only time will tell.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Heroes - Chapter 2

Prior to the airing of the chapter 2 wrap-up, the producer of Heroes apologized to the fans for a lack-luster season. I wish that the Lost producers had that much honesty.

They took their time tying things together and it resulted in a rushed wrap-up. Too much time was spent on romance - Claire, Hiro, Sylar and Peter all got a love interest, and none of them turned out well. Two of them are in other times (what does happen when someone leaves you in an alternate future that no longer exists?).

It would have been more interesting if they had left Adam's intentions up in the air more. After all, the Company has been playing around with the viruses and could easily have been responsible for releasing it. All doubts about who wanted what were settled last week when we saw the COmpany stop Adam from releasing the virus 30 years ago.

I was never that fond of Niki so I won't miss her much. It would have been nice to have learned about her sister. They dropped some hints that she had actually merged with her twin instead of just becoming a split personality.

A bit of realism - Monica discovered that muscle memory doesn't help a tiny girl over come big guys with guns. It was an ignominious end to her story arc.

I know that the episode was rewritten at the last minute in order to wrap things up before the writer's strike shut down production. The fact that they had to do this shows how disjointed the wrap-up was going to be.

Here's hoping that the writers settle soon.