Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iron Fist

Marvel's character Iron Fist has surfaced again. This seems like a good time to look at his original run.

When the superhero craze that marked the Silver Age of comics crested, Marvel was looking for something to keep it going. They came up with a combination of Sword and Sorcery, monster, and martial arts. This was fueled by a loosening of the Comic Code and Marvel's entry into the oversized black and white market. One trait during this period was that, if something sold, then they should create a copy. Marvel was full of these. The list of originals and copies includes:

Dracula/Morbius the Living Vampire
Werewolf by Night/Man-Wolf
Conan the Barbarian/King Kull
Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu/Iron Fist

Where Shang-Chi was the some of Fu Manchu who had been raised by his father in seclusion and trained in the martial arts, Iron Fist was Daniel Rand, a westerner whose father was killed by his partner/best friend over Danny's mother who then sacrificed herself to hungry wolves so that Danny could make it to the safety of an extra-dimensional city called Kun Lun. Danny learned martial arts and performed a ceremony in which he killed a dragon by smothering it with his own body, branding his chest. He then plunged his hands into the dragon's glowing heart, gaining the power of the Iron Fist. Ten years after entering Kun Lun, Danny left it to get revenge on his father's killer.

This led to a high-energy plot involving a mystic ninja. There was little time for characterization and Danny never removed his ceremonial costume or mask. He did manage to pick up a supporting cast including Professor Wing, his daughter Coleen and her bionic partner Misty Knight. At the time Marvel had special titles reserved for premiering new characters. If they sold then they were moved to their own book.

In this case, Iron Fist wrapped up the initial plot just in time to start fresh in Iron Fist #1. The character went through several writers but Chris Claremont was assigned to the the permanent writer. It also had gone through several artists (it seems like it was a different artist each issue). It finally gained a permanent artist a couple of issues in. This was a young John Byrne in his first Marvel assignment.

Claremont started as an assistant editor who wrote a few text stories as filler for the black and white line. He progressed to fill-in writer before getting Iron Fist, X-Men, and a few others. Byrne came from Charleton where he had the reputation as a good story teller who could only draw one face (and that one was oriental). The team of Claremont and Byrne is famous for their run on X-Men but this is where they perfected their craft.

Iron Fist needed a new plot arc so Coleen Wing was abducted and Iron Fist followed her trail to London (Claremont was an Anglophile). He eventually returned empty handed. The London clue was just to distract him while Coleen was brainwashed to hate him. This was all part of a plot by the Master Khan who had connections with Eventually she was Kun Lun. Coleen was unleashed against Iron Fist in a battle to the death.

This is where the strip got interesting. By this point Byrne's art was pretty good but the character was in a rut. He would use his martial arts for most of a fight but he would finish things by using the Iron Fist - a "super powered punch". In order to end this fight he did something different with the power - he used it to force his consciousness into Coleen's. A few issues later he was dying from a poison and used the Iron Fist to heal himself. This opened a lot of possibilities.

Byrne started  stretching as an artist. He worked in several moving figure panels, something that acclaimed artists Steve Ditko and Neil Adams were known for. He also got over his trouble with faces.

Claremont was at his best when focusing on characterization. They did one issue where Danny was given the keys to his parents old townhouse. He spent part of the issue following memory/ghosts from room to room.

Danny also had one of comic's first inter-racial romances with Misty Knight. She was a black ex-cop who lost an arm to a terrorist bombing and had a bionic replacement.

A lot of the characterization focused on Danny's youth and inexperience in the modern world.

One issue is notable for featuring the first appearance of Sabertooth. At the time, Claremont and Byrne meant him to be Wolverine's father but things worked out differently. Later Iron Fist took on the Wrecking Crew by himself and survived (he needed Captain America's help in the next issue to beat them).

There was also a sub-plot about someone with a similar brand.

The 1970s were hard on comics. A lot of great strips were canceled. Marvel had confidence in the character. Claremont and Byrne finished the sub-plot in Marvel Team-up with Spider-Man. Then they created a new team - Power Man and Iron Fist.

Power Man stared as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. He was basically a super-powered private eye working out of the then dilapidated Times Square. The comic changed the name to Power Man to boost sales which only worked for a while. Eventually it was merged with Iron Fist. The premise was that Danny needed the real-world experience that working with Cage would give him.

Sales were good for a while and the team took on a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope feel.

Eventually it just sort of ran down. After a return to Kun Lun, Iron Fist traded his green costume in for a red one and started talking in formal English. At the end a crazed super hero beat Iron Fist to death before vaporizing, leaving Cage wanted on suspicion.

Iron Fist was revived a couple of times. It turned out that an impostor had returned from Kun Lun. Danny was upset that no one noticed how different the impostor acted and figured it out.

With the latest revival it turns out that the current Iron Fist is one of a long line and is expected to fight champions from other mystic cities.

After Iron Fist was canceled, Byrne took over X-Men. The two made it the highest selling book of the time. Claremont continued with X-Men for years after that. Byrne went on to draw and write the Fantastic Four and then was tapped to recreate Superman.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Microsoft & Apple

Someone made a long comment to a post I made last November on Windows vs Mac. I looked over what I said and stand by my statements. I do want to make a few things clear.

I am not a big fan of Microsoft. They have plotted to take over the world (metaphorically) too many times. They have often gone out of their way to destroy competition. Back when Windows ran on DOS they put in some code to keep it from running on DRDOS. Later they bundled Windows 95 and DOS together as a single product in order to eliminate DRDOS as a competitor.

In fact, the whole launch of Windows 95 seemed designed to eliminate competition. The product was over a year late to market and companies stopped buying new software during that period. Microsoft which had deeper pockets survived but the competition did not.

More recently their Palladium proposal would have made them the gatekeepers of the world. This was a hardware/software encryption system that not only verified that you were running a trusted operating system, it could also act as DRM for nearly anything. You could even revoke access to a document after it had been distributed. Portions of that are embedded in the X-Box and Windows Vista.

I never cared much for Bill Gates or Steve Balmer, either.

I have spent used other operating systems when possible. During the days of Windows 3.1 I used IBM's OS2 Warp which was a nice multi-tasking operating system and ran Windows better than DOS. It was also a good game platform in the days when you have to have a separate boot disk for each game. It would detect the settings the game needed without user effort.

More recently I have used various versions of Linux.

But the Apple premium has always kept me from trying a Mac.

I pay attention to specs. Apple sells premium machines but they still charge a bit more than competitors for equivalent hardware. The extra charge is for the cool factor.

Apple has had some quality control issues, also. The Macbook air has cooling problems. The iconic iPod has had enough quality control problems that it got special mention in Wikipedia.

Then there is the control issue. Steve Jobs wants too much control and he refuses to license his software. Microsoft was recently fined for being too slow to release developer documentation. They are still ahead of Apple on this. Look at Fairplay, Apple's DRM. They refuse to license it to anyone. Suits are pending against Apple over this. They could well join Microsoft in being fined by the EU.

When the Apple II first came out it was as open as anything ever seen. The documentation included an assembly listing for the firmware - something now regarded as a state secret. By the time the original Macintosh was introduced Apple had become as closed as any company ever seen. Just hooking a 3rd party printer to your Mac violated the warranty. They have opened up a great deal on the Mac but closed down on the iPhone. Simple things like rearranging the icons or changing the wallpaper are not allowed.

Too often Apple's great innovations are the form factor rather than usability. If you don't agree with Steve Job's vision of how a workstation should look (or cost) then you are stuck since they control the hardware.

If you don't mind the Apple premium and you agree with Steve Jobs on everything then Apple is a great company. I know several people who are enthusiastic Apple users. In fact, my main hands-on experience with Apple has come from giving these people technical support.

But it is not for me. I would find it a constant source of irritation.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The n800 a Month Later

Last week Apple announced the SDK for the iPhone and iPod Touch. While I'm sure that a lot of cool stuff will come out of this, I still prefer my Nokia N800.

I'm going to quickly repeat the differences between this and Apple's offerings.

First, it is not a phone so don't compare it to the iPhone. If you really want to use it for phone calls then you can make using voice over IP on WiFi. If that isn't good enough then get a bluetooth enabled phone. The n800 will connect with it. If you shop around then the n800 and phone will cost less than an iPhone.

From here on I will compare the n800 to the iPod Touch although some of the comparisons are valid for both.

The biggest difference is how open the n800 is. You can store any file you want on it multiple different ways. The most obvious is through USB. If your PC can take a memory card then you can copy directly to the card. By default, Windows XP has a Shared Documents folder. The n800 will connect with this allowing you to copy and paste files through the network.

You can use an external keyboard, either through bluetooth or through a USB OTG cable. The OTG cable also lets you connect external disk and thumbdrives. I have to admit that I have not gotten this to work, yet.

Steve Jobs explained that Flash animations are too much for the iPod and iPhone so they will not support it. These work just fine on my n800. In fact, nearly every web site I have tried works including news sites with streaming video.

I have several movies, MP3s, and videos I converted from YouTube (this takes specialized but free software).

It is a pretty good platform for comic books. I have several comics as scanned images. The built-in image viewer is ok but the Quiver Image Viewer is better. I can see the entire page at once but too small to read. If I zoom one level I can see half of the page and can usually read the word balloons. If the lettering is too small then I zoom a second time and I can see a quarter page, larger and clearer than life.

Unlike the Apple SDK, programs developed for the n800 can run in the background. On the iPod Touch, you cannot switch to a new program without closing the current one. I usually let the Claws email run in the background while web browsing.

I could go on but you get the idea. The iPhone is a phone that also offers Internet. The iPod Touch is a media player that also offers Internet. The n800 is an Internet device that has been shrunken to pocket size.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Warning - spoilers ahead.

I complained a few months ago about the Hulk disappearing from his own comic book. A few years ago he vanished for months thanks to a long-lasting tranquilizer given to Banner. When that plotline finally ended, the strip went back to featuring the Hulk. It was also a Hulk I rather liked - smart but anti-social. He spent a couple of years on a different planet, first fighting in an arena then leading a rebellion.

Then came World War Hulk and the title character was reduced to being a supporting character.

Now they've started the strip over again at issue one but something is missing - the Hulk.

There's a Hulk, but not the Hulk. Bruce Banner is sitting in a prison and is not changing forms. What we have instead is a mystery Hulk. We got a mystery story arc to go with it.

In issue #1 we never really see the Hulk clearly, just the set-up for the mystery. We finally get a look at him in issue #2 but he is a different Hulk. First, the new Hulk is red instead of green. It appears that he is both smart and ruthless but we don't know for sure. When he fights Iron Man he only growls. He does talk to She-Hulk but it is off-panel. He does finally speak in the last couple of pages - I think he got two word balloons. Rick Jones got more than that. So did She-Hulk and various SHIELD agents. Tony Stark got the most. He is featured so much that I had to remind myself that I was reading the Hulk and not Iron Man.

So that's problem number one - the Hulk is a supporting character. I stopped reading the last time they did that.

Problem number two is the plot, or the lack of it. There just isn't much there. The art tries to make up for it. There are full-page panels and double-page spreads. These look good but they eat up a lot of space. If the comic went back to a traditional format they could probably have squeezed both issues into a single comic.

I know that some people buy the comics for the art. I want a good story to go with the art. And I want the character on the masthead to be the featured player in the comic instead of making a cameo appearance.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Flight part 3

I've talked about super heroes fly but so far I haven't really talked about comic book heroes. In a static medium like a comic book, characters normally just fly. There are some variations.

Back when Superman was under different editorial control than the rest of DC, characters in the Superman universe pretty much all flew. There was no explanation. If you could fly then you could fly and probably at any speed you wanted to. Supporting characters in Superman often got the power of flight and kept up with Superman. Similarly, most people who suddenly "became super" got flight along with strength and invulnerability regardless of the source of the powers.

The Legion of Superheroes was similar. The big three, Superboy, Mon-El, or Ultra Boy (plus Supergirl but they seldom counted her) had pretty much equivalent powers. Ultra Boy could only use one power at a time and could see through lead. Otherwise they all seemed to be on the same level. The rest of the Legion used flight rings (originally they used rocket packs then flight belts). They didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up. Ultra Boy often used his flight ring to stay in the air while using other powers.

The rest of DC was slightly different. Wonder Woman originally could ride air currents. Presumably this was slower and more limited than real flight since she also used a transparent airplane. Hawkman, in his various incarnations, used artificial wings. Green Lantern had his ring carry him where he needed to go.

One interesting one was Deadman who was a ghost. In his first several appearances he simply walked where ever he was going. Sometimes he was walking through thin air, hundreds of feet off of the ground. Later he started flying more like a conventional hero. Since the artist was the great Neal Addams, I'm assuming that this evolution was on purpose. When he first died, Deadman still acted like a normal man even though he was weightless and immaterial. He was flying all along but he was mimicking walking. As he grew to accept his altered state he stopped acting he was still alive.

Over at Marvel, things were different, at least most of the time. Marvel's science may have been shaky but they at least provided some explanation for a character flying. The Human Torch was supported by the updraft caused by his flames. The Sub-Mariner had winged ankles.

During the Silver Age, Stan got creative with some of his characters. The Hulk didn't fly, he jumped. Thor threw his heavy hammer then caught the unbreakable thong on the handle and was pulled after it. Presumably, once he got going, Thor used his control over weather to created an updraft to keep him going and winds to change his direction.

Iron Man had jets in his boots. Doctor Strange had a cloak of levitation. The Wasp had actual wasp wings grafted to her body (they didn't grow when she did so they vanished when she was normal-sized). Ant-Man rode flying ants.

Stan put limits on his characters. The Sub-Mariner's wings were slower than other characters and only good for short-term flight. Iron Man had to stop and recharge his batteries and could freeze up if he flew too high. On the other hand, the Angel who had real wings, was the most maneuverable. This makes perfect sense when you remember that everyone else except the Wasp was rocketing through the air somehow. Angel was the only one with aerodynamic surfaces. He also trained more than the other heroes thanks to Professor X.

Marvel's Captain Marvel is an interesting variation. He started out with a rocket belt which was part of his Kree uniform. Later he gained some "negabands" which gave him strength and flight and became cosmically aware. He was the first hero I can think of to really use his flight during a fight. In a battle with the Controller he was using his flight to duck under the Controller's swings and outmaneuver him. Writer/artist Jim Starlin was thank for this.

A later Starlin character, Adam Warlock, did things a bit differently. He was being attacked by a giant artificial shark in space. He tried slugging it without success. Next he tried standing on a tiny space rock, using it to anchor himself. This makes sense depending on how strong his powers of flight are. What with action and equal reaction, standing on something would allow you to hit with your entire body with the force of your blow going down your legs to the mass below you. If you hit something while flying then your powers of flight will have to substitute for this. Not that it helped Warlock against the shark.

When the Marvel Handbook came out in the 1980s the editors made it their purpose to give a rational explanation for every hero's powers. It turned out that many people can harness gravitons to propel themselves. This was the first time that someone pointed out some of the obvious limitations on flight. Once you pass 300 MPH you can no longer breath. Faster speeds will cause friction heating.

DC heroes never paid any attention to this. They move faster than the eye can see without causing more than a tiny breeze and they violate the laws of physics at the drop of a hat.

One other character should be mentioned while I'm talking about flight - Neo from The Matrix. His ability to fly is easily explained since he can alter reality. The interesting thing is the wash of unreality that follows him like a jet trail. This was visible in the final scene of The Matrix. In the sequel he found himself hundreds of miles from where he needed to be so he flew as fast as he could. This either created a powerful wind or wave of unreality. Either way, cars were being scooped up in his wake.