Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Race

Tony Curtis's obituaries include the first time he worked with Jack Lemon in Some Like it Hot but overlook their second movie, The Great Race. That is a shame. The Great Race is a marvelous piece of slapstick.

The movie centers on the rivalry between The Great Leslie and Professor Fate. Curtis played Leslie who was always perfect. He wore white outfits which never got dirty. His (white) car was always clean. His teeth sparkled. He was a noted escape artist (a nod Tony Curtis's role as Houdini) and held various speed records.

On the other hand, Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemon, always failed, often crashing into a barn and landing in a pig wallow.

The race itself was from New York to Paris, the long way. A race like this was actually held in 1908. The organizers expected that the cars could drive across the frozen Bering Strait. This didn't work out and the racers had to ship their cars across. In the movie the cars rode an iceberg.

While most of the movie was a straight-out comedy, it did have an adventurous side-plot near the end. This involved a Prisoner of Zenda plot around Professor Fate. The Professor's assistant, Max, and Leslie had to rescue the others climaxing in a duel between Leslie and an evil baron played by Ross Martin. This gave Curtis a chance to show off his fencing skills and his buff physique.

Jack Lemon and Peter Falk as Max got to chew the scenery. Curtis as the straight man managed to keep from being overshadowed.

The Great race also starred Natalie Wood at the peak of her career.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Onslaught Crossover and Thor

Marvel recently digitized Thor #502. This was the last continuous issue of Thor dating back his first appearance in Journey into Mystery #83 (prior to that Journey into Mystery was a horror comic. It continued to be "Journey into Mystery Featuring the Mighty Thor" for years and kept the numbering when the name was finally changed).

The early 90s were not kind to the original set of Marvel heroes. Tony Stark was replaced by a teen-age version of himself. The Human Torch had married the Thing's girl friend who later turned out to be a skrull impersonating Alicia. The Thing had gone through various mutations and scars.

Thor was replaced with an architect for a while then went crazy. In the last few months leading to issue 502 he lost his powers and started speaking like a regular person. He regained his powers and got a new, rather silly, costume. He and Odin had one of their many arguments and Odin created a "new" Thor from a mortal named Red Norvell. The rest of the Asgardians, including Odin, had been transformed into humans to hide them from the god Seth.

As far as sales were concerned, Spider-Man and the mutant titles were doing great but the other comics sales were doing poorly.

The Solution was a total reboot. This came about through Onslaught - a company-wide event. Onslaught was a psionic being in almost indestructable armor. Once his armor was breached, he could be destroyed if enough humans entered his psionic body. The Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk did this, apparently dying.

As part of the continuity-wide event, the comics for the various heroes would would "die" had a final issue taking place the night before the final battle. This is where Thor #502 comes in.

Thor and Red Norvell are camped across the river from Manhattan, preparing for the battle ahead. At one point Thor tries to induce a berserk rage and fails. He reminisces about his early life and how be came to be transformed into the mortal doctor Don Blake. His old girl friend, Jane Foster, appears and asks for his help as a doctor. Near the end of the issue the death goddess Hella appears and offers Thor a spot at her side. He considered the offer but opted to fight beside his companions even if it meant certain death.

It was a quiet recap of Thor's run and a nice finale to his original run.

The follow month the comic book Thor again became Journey into Mystery with a rotating series of stars.

In the meantime, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were transported to a different world with a similar history to ours. In this world, Thor was trapped in ice instead of Captain America and the newly-formed Avengers freed him. That Thor turned out to be unstable and was killed and replaced with our Thor.

Eventually the heroes returned to the Marvell Universe.

Journey into Mystery continued until #521 when the heroes returned. It was replaced with a new Thor title and the numbering was started over at #1. With the "Heroes reborn", Marvel put new creative teams on all of the relaunched books. Most of the continuity from the last few years was conveniently forgotten and the new creative teams were given a blank slate to work from.

In Thor's case, he was merged with another mortal, this time an EMT named Jake Olsen, and sent to free the missing Asgardians.

The Thor comic book started using a dual numbering until it was canceled with issue #85/#587. It was brought back as volume three with a new #1 but picked up the original count at issue #600.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Black Hole

Rumor is that Disney is going to remake 1979's The Black Hole.


The original was rushed into production after Star Wars became a cultural (and box office) phenomenon and came out months before The Empire Strikes Back. The Black Hole promised great special effects, cute robots, and a Star Wars style plot.

What it delivered was ok special effects (the effects got an Oscar nomination), most done through puppets on wires, annoying Disney-style robots, and a confusing plot with a mystifying ending. The black hole itself changed from an astronomical and physical oddity into a metaphor for hell.

The movie featured an all-star cast, all of whom were slumming. The critics hated it. At the time it was the most expensive movie Disney had ever produced with a $20 million budget. It did manage to turn a profit but Disney swore off big-budget productions like this for a time.

This was also Disney's first PG-rated movie.

Word is that the remake might feature a little science.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cross-comic Events

For decades the events in one comic book pretty much stayed in that comic. No matter how momentous, only one hero or team would be involved. Marvel changed this a bit. When city blocks in New York started sinking, the FF had to convince the Avengers to let them handle the situation. Regardless, this was confined to a few panels in a single comic book.

Heroes did meet each other but not often. Marvel had a lot more cameos and team-ups than DC but, again, these were limited. One of the most memorable was an Iron Man/Sub Mariner fight that was continued across both characters' strips.

During the 1970s, there was a little cross-over between comics. Newly-hired writer, Gerry Conway, introduced a common villain to all three comics he was writing - a mysterious and forgettable figure called Mr. Klein. Artist Jim Starlin came with a stable of characters that followed him from his first assignments on Iron Man to Captain Marvel and eventually Warlock.

Steve Englehart was a huge fan of Starlin's and wanted to be part of Starlin's plot. Accordingly, in Captain Marvel, the mad titan Thanos sent a fleet to attack the Earth. It was stopped by the Avengers, in their own comic book. The Avengers battled the Defenders in a multi-issue cross-over.

For Halloween one year, Conway, Englehart, and Len Wein did a crossover between Thor, Batman, and the Beast (this was the first Marvel/DC cross-over and was unauthorized). The cross-over was limited to the supporting cast and some events (i.e. a car being stolen).

In the early 1980s, Jim Shooter changed everything with the Secret Wars. This was a 12 issue limited series staring nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe. It was also the first company-wide cross-over. All of the affected heroes were called to Central Park where they vanished. When they returned things had changed. Some changes took place during the Secret Wars. Others took place in the heroes' absence. A few happened right after the heroes' return. Spider-Man returned with a new costume. Tony Stark, who had been drunk and living in a cardboard box finally sobered up. Storm lost her powers.

A follow-up changed the formula. Secret Wars 2 was a nine-issue limited series but each month additional chapters took place in different comic books.

That set the stage for DC's original Crisis event. Crisis took place in a limited series but spill-over events happened in nearly every comic.

For the next couple of decades, Marvel would have cross-comic events but they only had a lasting affect on a small core of comics featuring Warlock and Thanos. Marvel also had some cross-mutant events that mainly affected the various "X" teams. DC did some fine-tuning on their original Crisis reboot.

Things changed again in the last few years. Marvel launched their Civil War story arc which covered a total of something like 80 comics. It seems like they have had one major event after another since then. DC has done the same thing. In both cases the goal seems to be packaging a major story arc so that it can be sold as graphic novels.

I think that these big events have been overdone. They lose their impact after a while and they become self-limiting. It becomes too difficult for the casual reader to follow a few comics.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Predicting the Future

It's a tricky business showing the future. Novels and movies usually get it wrong.

The Back to the Future trilogy was on last weekend and the middle movie begins with a trip to 2015. The movie was made in 1989 so they were predicting how things would be around 25 years in the future. We are not quite to 2015 yet but we can make a pretty good guess at how accurate Back to the Future was. Lousy.

Things they got wrong:

Hovercars, hoverboards, portable fusion reactors, self-fitting/self-drying jackets, dust-free book covers, holographic movie ads, weather control, electronic sleep inducers, and artificial intelligence waiters. The legal system streamlined by the elimination of lawyers.

Things they got right:
Self-tightening shoe laces (just announced last month and inspired by the movie). Teleconferencing. Wide-screen/flat screen TV.

In addition, there are a few things that are close enough to get partial credit. It looks like USA Today will still be around. The teens in the movie walk around with their pockets pulled out or their pants worn inside-out. That's close enough to the continuing trend of guys wearing their pants pulled down to the crotch and showing their underwear.

This is one in a long line of failed predictions. 1984 was not like 1984. 2001 and 2010 have passed without manned flights to Jupiter or talking computers.

It is tough predicting the future. Often writers take current trends and project them. In the 1960s, everyone expected the space program to continue so lunar colonies and trips to other planets seemed likely.

It is also tempting to throw in major technological advances like flying cars. The physics breakthroughs needed to do this may never happen but nothing says future like some form of personal flight.

Some things are totally skipped. Hardly anyone predicted today's interconnected computers. The best example that I can think of was Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. This was written in 1975 and had a "data-net" that corresponds to the Internet. It even had computer worms (this is where the term came from, nerly a decade before the first actual worm was written). Even that version of the future was passed years ago. I am not aware of anyone who predicted that all of the world's knowledge would be available through my phone.

While writers missed the interconnected computers, artificial intelligence seemed so easy, usually with negative results. For every Robby the Robot, there is a HAL 9000.

In the end, the future is never as interesting as predictions make it out to be but it is safer and more comfortable.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Blogging from a Droid

Ok, it can be done. The touch screen isn't too bad. It will probably get ea sier with practice. The autocomplete could be a lot better. I'm not going to do any long posts this way.
Published with Blogger-droid v1.5.8

Friday, September 03, 2010

Substitutes and Inferiors

One of the funniest superhero comic books ever published featured a team-up between Superman and the Legion of Substitute Heroes. A close second is on sale now, featuring the Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Inferior Five.

Some background. The Substitutes were people with superhuman powers who failed the try-outs for the Legion of Superheroes. Considering that the Legion accepted members who could bounce or eat anything or make things lighter, you had to be pretty lame to be in the Substitutes. Members included Night Girl who had super strength unless she was in sunlight and Stone Boy who could turn into immobile stone (a sub-plot in the Legion/Ambush Bug story involved figuring out how to dig Stone Boy out after he got embedded head first in pavement).

Both groups lived in the 30th century and started out as a backup feature to Superboy. The Legion eventually got its own book and the Substitutes made occasional appearances along with the Legion of Super-Pets.

The comic in question also featured Ambush Bug in his second appearance. At the time Ambush Bug was a slightly crazed guy in a head-to-toe green suit with gold trim and antennas. He could teleport almost instantly. In his first appearance, Superman realized that Ambush Bug had a swarm of bug-like drones that acted as receptors for his teleports. Eliminate the bugs and Ambush Bug was powerless.

In the Legion team-up, Ambush Bug hitched a ride on Superman's cape just as he started traveling to the future. They ended up in the 30th century. Ambush bug released a new swarm of bugs from his antenna tips and started having (destructive) fun. The Legion proper was away so the Substitutes tried to reign him in. None of them were up to the challenge and they finally had to resort to a Looney Tunes bit - putting a "do not touch" sign on a Phantom Zone projector. Ambush Bug just had to touch and ended up capturing himself.

The new comic builds on the Substitutes long-standing inferiority complex. After reading about the Legion saving the world with the help of the Doom Patrol and a time bubble, they decided to steal a bubble and save the world before the Legion did. After a few mistakes and alternate worlds, they ended up with the Inferior Five instead of the Doom Patrol.

The Inferior Five was created during the Silver Age as a parody comic. The team was a group of second-generation heroes who (sort of) inherited their powers. Their leader was Merry Man, a 98 pound weakling. Other members included Awkward Man who had super strength but tripped a lot, the Blimp who could float, White Arrow who was a skilled archer and afraid of nearly everything. The final member was a curvy blond with super strength named Dumb Bunny. There is a telling line in the Legion/Five team-up where she says, "You have to be pretty smart to act as dumb as I do."

I'm giving all of this background because the comic skips over it. The book is entirely plot-driven. The heroes are rather interchangeable and have little time to use their powers. Which doesn't keep it from being hilarious.