Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on Harry Potter

So, the Harry Potter series is half-way through the finale. I'm not going to write a review, just some thoughts on the movie. I don't think I'm including any spoilers that aren't in most reviews.

First, this isn't exactly a Harry Potter movie. True, it features Harry and most of the characters from the other movies but it abandoned the formula. All of the other movies followed a year at Hogwarts. Not this one. Harry never gets near it. The closest the movie comes is when some Death Eaters search the Hogwart Express. So, there are no classes, no moving stairways, No talking paintings, no Quidditch, not even Harry on a broom. We only see a few of the teachers and not for long. On the other hand, this movie refers to the other movies more than most - things like "the wand chooses you" and the composition of the wand.

This is not a kid's movie, either. Parts of it are scary. The rest would be boring to small kids.

Harry and company spend more time in the modern (muggle) world in this movie than in all of the others put together. It is a bit jarring having Harry and company order cappuccinos. An opening scene in Hermione's house underscores how different muggles live than wizards. Wizards tend to live in ancient houses in remote areas. The one exception is an ancient townhouse.

Wizards are also decades behind on technology. They use candles and other flames for light. Newspapers are printed on 19th century presses or by magic. The Hogwart Express is a steam engine. The most modern technology we see them use is at least 50 years out of date - the Weasley's flying car, Hagrid's flying motorcycle, and Hermione's transistor radio. Even the elevators at the Ministry of Magic and the toilets they use are pre-WWII. Harry's uncle's family is more modern but even they seem a couple of decades off.

For something really scary, think of what the movie would have been like if Chris Columbus directed it instead of just the first two.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


During the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, the process for creating a comic book page remained pretty much the same. First the artist would draw the pages in pencil, possibly using a blue pencil for guidelines. Then the pencils would be inked over, usually by a separate inker. Room would be left for word balloons. A letterer would fill in the word balloons in ink. Copies would be made of the pages and sent to a colorist. The printing process was in four colors with different shades of each color. This allowed 32 colors. From there, the colors were separated back into their individual four colors and sent to the presses.

Today I'm going to talk about the inker's role in the process. On the surface, his job is simple - just follow the pencil lines. In practice, the inker had a much stronger impact. Just deciding how thick to make the lines can have a major effect on the art. The inker also added the shading, cross-hatching, and zip-a-tone. An artist with a strong style might overpower the pencils.

For an example of how an inker can affect the finished work, look at issues #6 and #7 of the Silver Surfer. Both had the same artist, John Buscema, but issue #6 was inked by Joe Sinnott and #7 was inked by John's brother, Sal. The Surfer seemed to lose 100 pounds of muscle, going from the Silver Surfer to the White Wipeout.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the inker also enforced the house style. Most of the time during this period, any artist was expected to be able to draw any comic book and the readers were not supposed to know the difference. Neil Adams, who is best known for his ultra-realistic work on Batman, did some issues of Archie. At Marvel (which was still Timely), the artist would come in for a monthly meeting with Stan Lee. Lee had a pile of scripts and would hand the artist the one on the top. There was no permanent assignment. Kid Colt might be drawn by Dick Ayers one month and Don Heck the next. Inkers who knew the house style could cover over any differences in the artists.

When Timely switched to Marvel, artists were assigned to individual books but, even then, there were exceptions. Most of the early issues of the Avengers were drawn by Jack Kirby but a few were not.

Things changed over the next few years. Artists were allowed to develop their own style and were assigned to books for long stretches. At the same time, inkers began to develop their own style. This was especially true of inkers who entered the field after the mid-1960s.

Joe Sinnott was one of the first celebrity inkers, but with a twist. The fans still hadn't noticed inkers but the artists were always concerned with how the finished product looked. Sinnott was in demand by artists because he made them look good. Stan reserved him for flagship books, especially the Fantastic Four which he inked for 16 years.

On the other hand, Vincent Colletta had the reputation of simplifying backgrounds and even eliminating characters in order to make tight deadlines. In his defense - many people consider his work on Jack Kirby's pencils to be the definitive look for Thor. I have a page of original art from a Frankenstein black and white that he inked over Val Mayerik's pencils and it is a really nice piece of art. Marerik had a light, sketchy style that was complimented by Colletta's inks.

One of the first fan favorite inkers was Tom Palmer. He was knows for imaginative shading and cross-hatching. He also colored his own work, combining colors and zip-a-tone to give the impression of more than the standard 32 colors. Palmer was involved in fan favorites such as the Roy Thomas/Gene Colon Doctor Strange and the Tomb of Dracula and contributed a lot to their atmosphere.

Tony DeZuniga was an artist with a strong style that carried over to his inking. He was from the Philippines. While he was working for Marvel in the 1970s, he hooked them up with several other Filipino artists who became mainstays at Marvel. One of these, Alfredo Alcala, became an inking star for his work on John Buscema's pencils on the black and white Conan books. Rather than rely on short-cuts like Zip-a-Tone, Alcala did all of his own shading by hand with intricate crosshatching and whirls. His inking over Buscema's pencils was so popular that their art overshadowed the stories. Robert E. Howard had only written a limited number of Conan stories and Marvel had been parceling these out carefully. Most of the Howard adaptations from the 1970s were done by this pair.

Another popular inker was Klaus Jonson. He is best known for his inking over Frank Miller's Daredevil during the 1980s when it was the top-selling comic book in the country.

I'm not sure why but inkers seem to have declined in importance since the early 1980s. Most inkers also pencil and it might be that the rise in comic books stores and independent comics allowed new artists with strong styles to launch their own works.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Despicable Me vs Megamind

Like the year that Ants and A Bug's Life came out, we have two CGI movies with sort of the same premise - a villain reforms through outside influence. Beyond that, the two movies are very different.

Warning, from here on I'm dealing in spoilers.

Despicable Me features the type of villain that James Bond usually fights. He thinks big and he has someone else actually build his gadgets. He dresses distinctively but is outfit is based on regular street clothing.

Megamind is a super-villain. He is centered on fighting a super hero. He builds (most of) his on gadgets. He wears an over-the-top costume. Even his pajamas are over-the-top.

Both have a main minion and a horde of lesser minions. Gru, the villain in Despicable Me, it is a scientist and a crowd of beings that look like walking Twinkies. Megamind has a minion named Minion (an alien fish in an exoskeleton) and a horde of flying disk-like robots.

Gru is fighting a competitor who is younger and better-financed. Megaman fights a pair of supermen with nearly unlimited powers.

Gru reforms after adopting three orphaned girls in order to infiltrate his rival's lair. Eventually he discovers that he has feelings for the girls and risk his life to save them. Megamind falls in love with a plucky woman reporter (think Lois Lane). He also discovers that his life was entered on fighting Megaman. After Megeman's apparent death, he spends a while looting and vandalizing Metro City but quickly tires of it.

Megamind starts with a flashback to his childhood. He was not naturally evil. He turned to evil after being rejected. We never get any backstory on Gru, just an opening sequence where he consoles a child who lost his ice cream cone. Gru make an elaborate balloon animal which quiets the child - until Gru pops it. He really was evil.

Despicable Me is the better of the two movies. The plot flows better. In the other hand, Megamind is visually better. Both are in 3D but Megamind make better use of it. This is the first movie with a flying superhero to really capture the flight. Regardless, both are very good and well worth seeing.

Both are successes, also. Despicable Me was a first movie from a new studio so expectations were moderate. So far the domestic box office is around a quarter billion. World wide box office doubled that for a total take of around a half billion. Megamind took in $60 million on its opening week and took first place in the box office two weekends in a row. It should make money but nothing like Despicable Me or The Incredibles.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dino De Laurentis

The movie producer Dino De Laurentis died at the age of 91. IMDB lists him as having produced 166 movies, some of them in Italian. Some of his movies have become cult classics. Others, like The Battle of the Bulge, regularly show up on TV decades after they were filmed.

Only a few of his movies are relevant to this blog - King Kong, Conan, and Flash Gordon.

De Laurentis movies emphasized spectacle over everything else. Sometimes the spectacle got in the way of the action. King Kong, for example, is a very ponderous movie compared with the original. It has not aged well. The movie was heavily updated for the 1970s and the emphasis of the love story. The original featured multiple fights between the prehistoric animals of Skull Island and the humans and/or Kong. The remake eliminated all but a fight with a snake. The original ended with a fight between Kong and airplanes. In the remake this turned into an execution. The original set the standard for stop-motion animation. The remake used a man in a monkey suit (plus a very poor robot that is only seen for a couple of seconds). Regardless, the remake was popular when it came up and launched a year-long King Kong craze. The Peter Jackson remake was better (although it had its own problems) but failed to generate the same level of buzz. There was a sequel but the critics hated it and I never bothered seeing it.

De Laurentis's two Conan movies were better but they were also ponderous. Fights tended to be over in seconds in Conan the barbarian, the first movie. The second movie, Conan the Destroyer, is only slightly better. This is ironic since Conan was one of Arnold
Schwarzenegger's first movies. The first Conan movie threw every memorable scene from the stories together. Most of them lost their impact and the plot didn't resemble anything that Robert E. Howard ever wrote. The movie also stole a bit from The Empire Strikes Back with a villain, voiced by James Earl Jones, told the hero "I am your father." It didn't make much sense in Conan. The Conan movies were better than the King Kong ones and were gorgeous to look at, as well.

I don't have a high opinion of these other movies but I think that Flash Gordon is underrated. While it has a lot of the spectacle of the other movies, it also mixes in a stylized, tongue-in-cheek humor. It never bogs down the way the others do and it has aged well. Flash Gordon was made in the wake of Star Wars and was a box office disappointment but since then it has become a cult classic. Of all of De Laurentis's movies, this one shows up on cable most often.