Friday, December 30, 2011

The state of smartphones

Apple didn't invent the smart phone. Phones capable of running applications and accessing the Internet were around well before the iPhone. Apple's big contribution was to replace the dedicated keys with a touch screen. That was enough to revolutionize the cell phone industry. For years Apple has produced the biggest-selling phone.

Apple did leave some openings. The biggest one was their deal with AT&T. The deal was good for both companies but it left the other phone companies hungry for a competing device.

The big winner here was Google's Android. It succeeded because it was the anti-Apple. Where Apple makes and sells one phone at a time, Android is freely available to anyone for any device. If you want to make a smart phone or a tablet or an ebook reader, you can customize a version of Android to run it. This also allows for customization. You can get android phones with screens bigger and smaller than the iPhone. Some have forward-facing cameras, some don't. Some have slide-out keyboards. You can even run it on a tablet and hide the interface like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.

This diversity creates some problems. Apple ties the hardware and software together tightly and limits variations. In contrast, Google releases an operating system and allows the vendors to modify it any way they want. Developers for the iPhone only have to test on a couple of models. Android developers have to worry about dozens of possibilities so the apps are less reliable and less polished.

For many people, that polish is the deciding factor. They go with Apple. Others prefer the freedom of having a phone that accepts an SD card and can use Windows Explorer to copy files instead of iTunes.

For some time, industry pundits have been complaining about updates to the Android operating system. When Google releases a new update it can take months before your phone receives it, if ever. Many phones are not updated. these pundits see this as a huge problem.

I don't. In the year and a half I have had my Android phone it has gone from version 2.1 to 2.3. I am highly technical and I read the release notes for each update. Despite this, I can hardly tell the difference between the updates. The biggest difference I noticed between 2.2 and 2.3 was that the Gmail icon in the notification bar changed slightly. Knowing this, it would not have mattered a bit if my phone had not received the upgrade.

I think that what concerns most people is if the phone does what they bought it for.

I do not expect my phone to receive Android 4.0 aka Ice Cream Sandwich. It would be expecting a lot for a phone to get a major upgrade two years after it was released. Even Apple drops support for their older phones.

That brings us to Microsoft which is trying to get traction in the phone market. They invented their own interface which looks nothing like the iPhone. Microsoft is trying to split the difference. They let others make the phones like Android but they have strict hardware requirements and allow little customization. That means that there is little to distinguish one Windows phone from another. That gives manufacturers little incentive to push a Windows phone. On top of this, Microsoft was at least a year late in entering this market. They would have a much bigger market share if they had entered while the iPhone was limited to AT&T and before the Droid line of phones.

My prediction for the phone market is that it will continue as it is with Android being the dominant operating system, the iPhone the biggest individual seller, and the Windows Phone a niche player. The biggest change will be that manufacturers will do less customization to the Android interface.

Tablets are still an open market. The iPad has been out less than two years. The first crop of competing Android tablets were based on the 2.2 or 2.3 release. Most of them were buggy and overpriced. The tablets based on 3.0 were not much better. Google was never satisfied with 3.0 and never released it as open source. The only way a tablet could compete was on price but many of these cost more than an iPad. The Kindle and Nook tablets changed this, offering a 7" tablet at or below cost with the expectation of future profits by selling content. Ice Cream Sandwich promises to support both phones and tablets and may finally let Android tablets compete with the iPad.

Microsoft has an opening here but they need to get a product out the door soon and it needs to be either competitively priced or superior to the iPad (and I mean really better in every way). Changing the Windows 8 interface to look like a touch phone will not be enough to sell tablets. Otherwise the subsidized Kindle and Nook will continue to dominate the tablet market for the next year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Birthday Stan

Stan Lee turns 89 today. While Stan is best known for the characters he created his biggest influence was on how the stories were told. Prior to the 1960s, comic books seldom had continuity and super heroes had interchangeable personalities. Stan, who always wanted to write the great American novel (under his birth name Stanley Martin Leiber) felt stuck as a comic book writer/editor. At his wife's suggestion he started writing comic books that he would like to read. This happened just as Stan was asked to create a new superhero team to compete with the Justice League. Stan and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four and Stan changed the name of the company from Timely to Marvel. It took around three years before things really coalesced but by the end of the decade Marvel was the dominant comic book company.

Stan had three other contributions. One was a different style of writing. Instead of having interchangeable artists drawing in the house style from a finished script, Stan started collaborating with the artist and the two of them would agree on the plot. The artist would draw it and Stan would add the dialog. That let the artist decide the pacing of the story and allowed him to add touches of his own. The original plot for Fantastic Four 48-50 did not include the Silver Surfer. Kirby thought that Galactus needed a herald and added him on his own.

Stan's next contribution was credits. Prior to Marvel, the creators of a comic book were seldom named. Stan changed this, putting a large credit box on the title page. This started out as just the writer and artist but was expanded to include the inker, letterer, and colorist. Many in the industry complained that Stan was stealing credit since his name was always on top, even if he was only the editor, but no other company at the time credited the creators.

Stan's final contribution was the letters page. This was multipurpose. It allowed Stan to hype future stories and other titles but it also acted as a primitive message board. There were long-running technical discussions about such things as how Iron Man's armor works and if Tony stark was a pig (someone who made money during war by manufacturing weapons). Many letter writers went on to get jobs in the industry. I think that the letters pages were a big contributor to the rise of comic fandom.

Stan made many other contributions but these revolutionized the industry and are often overlooked.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Christmas Movies and Specials

Just a quick run-down off the top of my head of what is currently showing:

All-time best Christmas special: Charlie Brown Christmas. This is nearly fifty years old but it is still amazingly relevant. For the last few years, reproductions of Charlie Brown's tree have topped the ornament lists. In a bit of tragic irony, the copies are plastic and made in China. Runner-up: How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Best current specials: Disney's Prep and Landing series. The first of these was Disney's first project after merging with Pixar and it has all of the hallmarks that have made Pixar so successful. They have made two and a half (two half-hour ones and a fifteen minute short) and all are worth multiple viewings. In fact, they are so tightly plotted that they improve after a viewing or two.

Best version of A Christmas Carol: The 1984 version with George C. Scott. Even though it was made for TV, the production values are comparable with a theatrical release. Runners-up: Scrooged, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (Trivia: Magoo's Christmas Carol was the first animated Christmas special).

Best Christmas movie: Christmas Story. Set in 1939, this movie shows how little childhood has changed over the decades. Lots of movies feature children but this one is written from a child's perspective. Runner-up: Miracle on 34th Street, the Bishop's Wife, Christmas in Connecticut.

Best current Christmas movie: Arthur Christmas. This takes the army of high-tech elves from Prep and Landing and raises the anti. An aging Santa delivers presents with the help of an army of elves. His older son can't wait to take over the job (complete with an Armani Santa suit). His father wants to prove that the old way with a sled and reindeer still works. His youngest son, Arthur, just wants to be sure that no child is missed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Makes a Christmas Special?

What makes a TV special or movie a Christmas special? If you think about it, many Christmas shows and movies are set in December but have little or nothing to do with Christmas. By the way, everything listed here is worth watching, even if it has little to do with Christmas.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens felt that Christmas had declined and decided to revive it. He wrote a series of novels set during Christmas starting with A Christmas Carol. Christmas is central to the book and the numerous movie adaptations.

I finally saw the Gum Drop Kid last night. The song Silver Bells is from this movie. Most of it is set in New York in late December. A small-time hustler, played by Bob Hope, has to raise money fast in order to pay off a gangster. He sets up a fake charity and sends out hoods dressed as Santa Clause to solicit contributions. Other than a couple of scenes with snow and the guys dressed as Santa, it has little to do with Christmas.

Likewise, White Christmas. Some veterans hold a fund-raiser for their former commander. It takes place at Christmas and they sing White Christmas. In fact, the movie was written to cash in on the popularity of the song which actually came from the movie Holiday Inn. This movie had production numbers for all the holidays but is remembered for White Christmas.

Christmas in Connecticut is set during Christmas. The plot revolves around a woman who writes a column about cooking for her husband and baby but who is actually single and cannot cook. It could be moved to another holiday with a few script changes.

Its a Wonderful Life is set at Christmas but could easily be moved to New Year's Eve.

In The Bishop's Wife, an angel comes to Earth to help a bishop. He ends up spending most of his time with the bishop's neglected wife and convincing a major donor that it would be better to give her money to charity than pay for a new cathedral. Christmas is a backdrop.

While Christmas Story takes place during December, most of it could have taken place at any time. Winning a lamp shaped like a leg has nothing to do with Christmas although it has become a symbol of the movie. The quest for a Red Ryder BB gun is one of many plots.

How the Grynch Stole Christmas, both the tv show and the movie, are outright Christmas movies. The celebration of Christmas is the catalyst and the spirit of Christmas brings about the resolution.

All of these movies were set around Christmas. Movies and programs featuring Santa Claus up the ante.

Christmas, or at least Santa Claus, is central to A Miracle on 34th Street. We never do find out for certain if Chris is a delusional old man or Santa Clause.

Most of Santa Claus the Movie takes place at Christmas but, surprisingly, the climax takes place in January. Note - although I included it on my list, this is not a very good movie. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is more watchable.

The original song Frosty the Snowman did not have anything to do with Christmas. That was added in the TV special.

The current movie, Arthur Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve. The plot revolves around Arthur's struggle to deliver a toy that his father (Santa) overlooked.

Only a few Christmas specials make any reference to Christ. A Charlie Brown Christmas is unique by including a nativity play (which never gets off the ground) and a reading from the Bible. The message is that there is more to Christmas than commercialism. The made-in-China plastic Charlie Brown trees are a horrible mockery of the special's message.

NBC made two stop-motion specials set during the nativity. The first was based on the hit song The Little Drummer Boy. The second was a sequel.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Not many. A few Christmas movies feature a life-changing event. Many more are simply set at Christmas. Christianity is seldom part of a Christmas movie although some sort of spiritual event might be. Romance is more common than spiritual awakening.

Outside of Santa Claus, what sets good Christmas movies apart is some sense that this is the time to care about friends and family.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nook Color 1.4

Barnes and Noble released the 1.4 version of the Nook Color operating system yesterday. Rather than waiting up up to a week for an over the air update, I loaded it by hand. This is easy enough. You download a .zip file to your PC, plug in the USB connection to the Nook, copy the file to the root directory and disconnect it. As soon as the Nook goes to sleep it recognizes the file and loads it.

I could tell that this was a major update. I still had the .zip file from the 1.3 release and the 1.4 file was much larger - nearly 1/4 gig.

After doing the update I gave it a spin.

The biggest change is how you access the menu bar and home screen. Previously the physical Nook button did very little. Most functions were performed with a soft button at the bottom of the screen. The soft button is gone. Its functionality has been replaced by the Nook button. You press this once to get the menu bar, twice to go to the home screen.

When the Nook Color first came out it was a dedicated ebook reader that had a few tablet functions. By this release it is a tablet with a built-in ebook reader. The web browser worked well on several sites and it handles YouTube quite well. Pinch to zoom does not seem to work but you can set the default font size which helped with the 7" screen. Email worked better than on my phone, nearly as well as on a full PC.

One improvement was the auto rotate. This now works with ebooks.

There are a few annoyances. There is no hardware "back" button. Some applications have a soft one. Others do not. I looked at a PDF attached to an email but could not go directly back to the email. Instead I had to bring up the menu and use it to get to the email program.

The sound is poor, even with the sound turned up all the way. Earphones would help a lot. At least it has hardware volume buttons.

The tablet itself has a nice solid feel and is very light. When we bought it my wife got an anti-glare filter which we have not used. It does not seem to need it.

For some reason, Nook does not include a Gmail app. You have to access this through the web browser. There is no Facebook app but there is a free replacement which works as well or better than Facebook's own app. B&Ns app store is only a fraction of the Android Market and nearly everything costs something (usually $0.99) but it is fairly well stocked and you don't have to worry about Trojans.

For those who want a $199 tablet but don't want to buy into the Amazon ecosystem, this is a good choice. I'm not sure that the extra speed of the Nook Tablet is worth the additional $50.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Santa's Workshop on TV

Starting in 1960 and lasting for 12 years, WBNS TV in Columbus ran a program called Luci's Toyshop. This was during the golden age of local programming. Most people had TVs but the networks daily coverage left many holes for local stations to fill. Mornings were for kids.

Luci's Toyshop was sort of a local version of Captain Kangaroo with a human Luci interacting with different puppets. It was also the first show in the country to carry Gumby cartoons.

But in early December, things got interesting (if you were a kid). Luci always had a special visitor, Santa Claus. He always needed help making all of the toys that he would be distributing on Christmas Eve so Luci and company would help him set up a toy-making machine.  Santa would also read the letters kids wrote to him (care of the station).

Officially Santa had a half hour show called Santa's Workshop following Luci. Characters and plots (such as they were) carried over between the two so it was really an hour-long show.

The show was sponsored by Columbus's big downtown department story, Lazarus. Lazarus itself was a kid's wonderland at Christmas with an animated window and other special areas. As toys came out of the toy machine, Luci would tell us what a great toy it was and that it could be found at Lazarus.

Kids didn't care about that. The big attraction that we got to see Santa. To a young child in December, there was no one cooler than Santa.

Even at the age of five, I knew that Santa employed an army of decoys known as "helpers" but it was obvious that this was the real Santa and that he could be found at Lazarus when he wasn't on TV.

A few things that I didn't realize when I was five - the Santa who appeared with Luci was never a Lazarus Santa. In fact, Lazarus had multiple Santas so that the lines were short. The man who played Santa was Tom Gleba, a long-time WBNS employee and the person who had the distinction of being the first person televised in central Ohio.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Incredibly Stupid Plots

I was reading a list of failed government energy programs and the entry for breeder reactors reminded me of one of the dumbest plots to appear in Spider-Man. This got me to thinking about bad 1970s plots in general.

DC and marvel were a mess in the 1970s, especially Marvel. Stan Lee and the other driving forces behind the Silver Age were gone. The new generation was enthusiastic but undisciplined. Marvel was having trouble keeping an editor-in-chief. Pretty much every writer who hung around long enough got the job at some point. Most quit after less than a year. This showed up in the quality. Features were launched with A-list talent then turned over to the B-team after a month or two. Sometimes assignments were dumped on the new team with no indication of where plots were headed.

With all of this churning in assignments, deadlines were regularly missed. Most strips had at least one fill-in per year where the creative team had missed a deadline so an inventory story was run instead. These were usually poor and some were downright awful. Which brings me to one of the worst.

The Defenders was a team of marvel super-heroes. In one fill-in story, the team was captured by a frustrated chorus boy (dancer) and his tap dancing robots. Really.

After Star Wars came out and its licensed toys were a hit, Marvel began licensing its characters. Writers were encouraged to include licensed products in the comic book. So, Spider-Man got a Spider-Car. It was actually a dune buggy with tires that could stick to walls and web shooters. Even in the comic it was treated lightly. Someone offered Spider-Man some licensing money if he would build and drive a spider-car so he and the Human Torch whipped something together. Spider-Man had never driven anything besides a motor cycle before. after a few issues he lost control of the car and drive it into the East River.

But someone recovered it, outfitted it with remote control, and sent it to kill Spider-Man.

I actually saw the original art for the entire issue for sale once. It was fairly cheap, probably because it was such a bad issue.

DC had its bad stories, also. In one, Superman was traveling through time and found that the Time Trapper had arraigned it so that he could only go forward in time and so that he would age. At one point, in the far future, Superman found a burnt-out Earth being collected for recycling by two giant robots. He saved the planet from them then split it in two and welded the two halves together, side by side, with his heat vision. Then he used his super lungs to bring an atmosphere. Finally, he imported a new eco-system. Needless to say, none of this is remotely possible. Finally, Superman traveled to the end of time only to discover that time is circular so he ended back where he started.

Back to Spider-Man. This next one needs a little background. In Spider-Man Annual #1, six of Spider-Man's enemies made a coordinated attack. Their first step was to kidnap Betty Brant who Spider-Man had rescued before. It just happened that Spidey's Aunt May was talking with Betty when she was kidnapped so both women were taken. Their captor, Doctor Octopus, was very polite to them and May, who must have stopped reading the paper, had no idea that he was a super-villain. Later she commented on how much nicer he was than that awful Spider-man.

That is as far as this went until Stan left the strip. His replacement, Gerry Conway, wanted to take everything to the next level, even if it meant jumping the occasional shark.

When Aunt May decided to make a little extra money by letting out a room, Doctor Octopus rented it. Then he proposed.

But, it was all a trick. Unknown to Aunt May, she had inherited a breeder reactor in Canada and Doc Ock was after that (he was a nuclear scientist, after all). He went to collect the plant, a fight ensued, the plant went critical and exploded.

Where to start? Nuclear power plants just are not privately owned, especially experimental once capable of producing plutonium. Even if they were, May would have known and had to sign a bunch of paperwork before taking possession. And where did the rich relative come from who left her the plant? Why didn't anyone ever speak of it again? As owner, May would have been involved in legal affairs for decades after a power plant exploded (which can't happen). There just isn't a single part of this story that makes sense. It was all conceived to explain why Doc Ock would want to marry a poor widow and to tie in with the newest scientific news (the breeder reactor).

While the dancing robots were really bad, that was a fill-in. This was part of a story arc that stretched over months and, presumably, had editorial approval. That's why it gets my nomination for worst story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bil Keane

Bil Keane, the creator of the comic strip the Family Circus, died on November 8. He was still producing strips until his death although his son Jeff had taken over a lot of the work.

When it started in 1960, the strip was called the Family Circle. The daily strip had a few characters in a circle with a dialog caption at the bottom. There was some confusion about the strip's relationship with Family Circle magazine (none) so the same was changed to the Family Circus.

While the daily strip usually only contained a few characters, the Sunday strip often featured the entire family with a barrage of word balloons. The idea was that all of the kids were talking at once.

The art in the strip had a very 60s look which continues to today. The main concession to time was the mother getting a new hairstyle in the 1980s. Only a few other things changed - the baby PJ was added, a second dog was adopted, they traded the family car in on a minivan, and the father got glasses.

While the barrage of word balloons continued, other jokes took over the Sunday strips. One frequent one showed the circuitous path that one of the sons took going from one place to another, usually punctuated with a line about "I came straight here." Other strips featured ghosts named "Idda Know" and "Not Me" who were responsible for any mayhem in the house ("Who broke the vase?" "Not Me!").

A few times a year the oldest child Billy would supposedly take over the Sunday strip so his father could have a day off. These featured outrageous puns.

Keane was gracious about allowing parodies of his strip. In an interview he said that it flattered him. Family Circus characters often appear in Pearls Before Swine (seldom in a good light) with Keane's permission.

Keane never tried to be the funniest cartoonist but was usually good for a mild chuckle. The Family Circus is one of the world's most widely syndicated strips.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Tablet Wars

Predictions that the IPad was unstoppable were premature. It has not been available for a year and a half. Granted the first responses were insufficient but the same thing happened with the first generation of touch phones after the original IPhone was released. Now, four years later, Android is the dominant operating system.

The same thing will happen in the tablet market. No one can build the perfect product. Every design is a trade-off. In order to have a large screen, the IPad had to be bigger, heavier, and more expensive.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble see an opening. Both companies have introduced 7" tablets that are significantly lighter and cheaper than an IPad.

The Amazon Kindle Fire is a low-end tablet that tries to lock the owner into the Amazon ecosystem the way that the IPad locks into Apple. It uses cloud computing to make up for some of its shortcomings. It has little storage and is not expandable. It also has a last-generation CPU. Amazon gets around these drawbacks by allowing cloud-based storage and by off-loading some browser tasks to Amazon servers. The main drawback is that the user is tethered to WiFi. That doesn't make much difference for web browsing but it cuts you off from some of your content when traveling. The $199 price is enough to make people overlook a lot of deficiencies.

B&N has offered the Color Nook for some time. It is a color ebook reader with some tablet capabilities. The price on this has been reduced to $199 and a new software update is coming which may put it on par with the Kindle Fire. B&N also introduced a new tablet, the Nook Tablet. This is an upgrade from the Color Nook and the Kindle Fire. For and extra $50 ($250 total) you get more storage, a faster CPU, a more visible display, and a slot for an SD card. B&N has less of an infrastructure so buyers are not as locked-in. This is another trade-off since Amazon's app store is larger than B&N's and B&N's music and video streaming services are through 3rd parties.

Many analysts dismissed the Nook Tablet because it didn't make the magic $199 price point. Others point out that, at $250, the Nook Color is still half the price of the IPad. They also dismiss the Nook Color which is at the $199 price point.

Apple dismisses Amazon's and B&N's offerings as examples of Android fragmentation. This is short-sighted. While there are drawbacks to Android code forks, it also allows manufacturers to tailor devices to their market. Amazon's and B&N's strengths are book-sellers first and foremost. Both have established lines of ereaders. These new tablets build on their established markets and undercut the IPad on price and portability. They cannot be used for everything that an IPad is used for but that misses the point. The IPad cannot do many things that a full PC does but it found a huge market, anyway.

Some analysts are trying to predict a winner between Amazon and B&N. This also misses the point. The question is not which product will win, it is if the market is big enough to support both products as well as the IPad. I expect to see all three succeed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Shakespeare Plays

The new movie Anonymous presents the view that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. This seems like a good time to go over the controversy.

First, it must be noted that every contemporary reference to the plays has Shakespeare as the author. Since the plays were written for the strengths of the company and the stage they were performing on, this makes an additional argument that the author of the plays was a member of the company.

The world seemed satisfied that the man whose name was on the plays was the author until the mid-19th century. At that time, an intellectual named Delia Bacon. At that time, Francis Bacon was regarded as the smartest man who had ever lived and Shakespeare the greatest writer. Delia thought that it was a paradox that out of all history, two so talented men were contemporaries. Her solution was that they were one and the same. For the next half-century, many educated people came to believe this theory.

Two things happened around the turn of the 20th century. The first was that Bacon was no longer held in such high regard. That opened the door to someone else being the author. The second was the idea that all great literature is semi-autobiographical. According to this, the plays were about kings and nobles so the author could not be the son of a back-woods glove-maker. He must be someone of high rank.

By the middle of the 20th century, opinion had centered on Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He was associated with the theater and wrote some poetry. Most important, some events in his life mirrored the plots of some of the plays.

A weak case can be built from there that de Vere wrote the plays. But that wasn't enough. Assuming that the plays and sonnets were all thinly-disguised biographies, the Oxfordians "discovered" that their man was both Queen Elizabeth's son and lover. And that was the basis for Anonymous.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Women Superheroes

DC's reboot has caused an uproar over their treatment of women. Characters are portrayed as strippers and sexually promiscuous. Starfire has been singled out in particular. The character was always ready to have sex with friends and showed some skin. She was also strong-willed. The new version is vacuous and treats sex like a handshake ("Hi, I'm Starfire. Want to have sex?"). He costume must be glued on.

Marvel has come in for some criticism, also for the amount of skin showing and for putting women in stripper poses.

It wasn't always like that.

In the Silver Age, under Stan Lee, Marvel's women tended to dress conservatively. Marvel Girl and the Invisible Woman wore the same uniforms as the rest of the team. The Wasp wore something similar to Giant-Man's uniform. The Scarlet Witch and the Black Widow had an opaque body suits as the base of their costumes. Medusa and Crystal of the Inhumans wore full-body outfits.

DC wasn't quite so demure. Wonder Woman's outfit was always skimpy. The Black Canary and Zatana's outfits were a little embarrassing. Hawkwoman wore the same outfit as Hawkman except with a bodice. Supergirl had a minidress version of Superman's costume. The new Batgirl was a little sexier than the Golden Age Batwoman and Batgirl in her form-fitting body suit.

Things started to change when Dave Cockrum began redesigning costumes for the Legion of Superheroes. Previously most of the women wore full body outfits. The few exceptions, like Shrinking Violet, wore short dresses. Their new outfits were based on swimming suits and halter tops. When Cockrum created the New X-Men, he gave Storm the same treatment.

Other costumes got a little skimpier. The Scarlet Witch started showing some cleavage. So did Moondragon who also sported a swim-suit style outfit. Starfire was introduced with a two-piece outfit. She-Hulk's arms and legs were bare. Mz Marvel started out with a skimpy version of Captain Marvel's costume complete with cut-outs showing her stomach. The cut-outs were too hard to draw and dropped. Later she got a Dave Cockrum swimsuit which she continues to wear.

Solo women's comics have never been a big seller so most women were in teams. As their numbers increased, they became more important. It was not unusual for a woman to be the strongest member of a team - She-Hulk in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, Valkyrie in the Defenders, Wonder Girl in the New Titans, Rogue in the X-Men. Women also led most of the groups at some point.
That included the Avengers (Wasp), X-Men (Storm), Champions (Black Widow), Legion of Superheroes (Saturn Girl and Dream Girl), and the Fantastic Four in the 1990s (Invisible Woman).

Women didn't do as well in non-superhero comics. The women in Conan never wore much and Red Sonja started out with a full mail shirt but switched to a scale mail bikini. Women in the horror comics wore very little. Few wore as little as Vampirella but most had cleavage to the waist. These comics were mainly limited to the 1970s.

Yet a newer generation of artists has taken over and new styles are common. A lot of the art is very good but it exaggerates physiques. The men are all buff. The women have tiny waists and big breasts which are straining at their costumes. Many women's costumes now sport thong-backs.

Some of this reflects a loosening of the Comic Codes. Some of it reflects changes in society in general. But the idea of a superheroine as pin-up is pretty pervasive.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Three Musketeers - Review

It looks goofy but we just had to go see the new Three Musketeers movie.

I've read the book several times and watched the Richard Lester Three and Four Musketeers innumerable times.

So, how does the new version compare? I really enjoyed it. It is not as good as the Lester version but it is much better than the other ones, especially the Disney version.

I was expecting it to completely abandon the book. After all, with airships and Milady as a martial artist, was there room left for the original plot? Yes. Quite a bit of the plot made it into the movie. Even more was cut out, relationships were changed, new elements were introduced. Regardless, it was still vaguely recognizable.

And it was fun. Not all of the fun was intentional. The Duke of Buckingham's hair is laugh out loud funny all by itself.

There are also plot holes big enough to fly an airship through. Most of them involve airships and other advanced technology. When someone says that a lock is "state of the art", what does that mean for the 1620s?

And this has to be an alternate world. You can't fit airships, diving suits, and various other devices into our history. (Note - the Lester version has a few things like a submarine rowboat which re based on 17th century accounts.)

But, as long as you don't question the technology or Milady's abilities, it is a lot of fun. The plot moves along quickly. The costumes, sets, and weapons look good. A friend called the movie "costume porn".

It helps that the movie never takes itself too seriously.

There is room for a sequel.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Evolution of the Musketeers

The Three Musketeers has been adapted for film 20+ times. While the novel is considered a timeless classic, the movies seems to have quit adapting it and started adapting each other.

One big problem is that it is a long novel. The plot follows the young D'Artagnan as he travels to Paris to follow in his father's footsteps and become a Musketeer (this was an elite force). Along the way he manages to offend the title characters (Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) and is challenged to a duel by each of them. The first duel is interrupted by the Cardinal's Guard (they are rivals to the Musketeers) and D'Artagnan joins in the fracas, earning the respect of the Musketeers. Later he acquires a mistress - the Queen's dressmaker and through her becomes involved in palace plots. The first of these involves a romance between the Queen and the English Duke of Buckingham. The Queen gave a set of 10 diamonds to the Duke as a memento and one of the Cardinal's agents (Milady) manages to steal two of these.

The Cardinal talks the King into holding a ball so that the Queen can wear her diamonds. D'Artagnan and the Musketeers rush to London to retrieve them.

Later D'Artagnan becomes involved with Milady and discovers that she is Athos's wife who had been sentenced to death. This puts all four Musketeers on Milady's hit list along with the Duke of Buckingham. After the Duke is assassinated, and D'Artagnan's mistress is killed, Milady is caught and executed.

Many adaptations stop with the Queen's jewels. Others try to squeeze the entire plot into a movie. The best of these efforts was directed by Richard Lester. While it was filmed as a single, long movie, it ended up being split in two. This continues to be the best version for fans of the book.

The Lester version cast Christopher Lee as the Cardinal's henchman, Rochefort. Lee wore an eyepatch which was not in the novel.

The next big-budget adaptation was by Disney. They gave the 17th century a thorough going-over in the early 1990s. In addition to the Three Musketeers, they did Pocahontas, Squanto and The Scarlet Letter (through Disney's Touchstone subsidiary). Disney pretty much threw the Dumas's plot away and started from scratch. In this version D'Artagnan arrived in London only to find the Musketeers had been dissolved. He had to rally them in order to save a young King Louis XIII from the villainous Cardinal. The cardinal's henchman wore an eyepatch and did a Christopher Lee impression but wore Black. Milady was an ambiguous character - forced to evil by Athos's hatred.

More recently, a version simply called "The Musketeer" followed D'Artagnan as he saved the young King from the man in black who wore an eyepatch and spoke like Christopher Lee. It featured a lot of wire-work (sometimes called wire-fu) inspired by martial arts movies and was released on the heels of Crouching Tiger. It was more a remake of the Disney version than an adaptation of Dumas's classic.

Now, the newest version looks like it has wire-work, a young king, and a man in black with an eyepatch. Milady seems to be ambiguous. So this looks like a remake of The Musketeer which was a remake of Disney's version which was influenced by Lester's version which was based on the novel.

I don't expect much from it. At least the costumes look better than the Disney version.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Digital Wars

Would you buy a digital edition of a comic for a 7" tablet? What if that was the only format open, would that change your mind?

When Amazon introduced its Kindle Fire color eBook reader, they also announced an exclusive deal with DC comics to distribute some of their content. Barnes and Noble threw a fit and pulled all DC products from their shelves. Books A Million did the same.

So where does that leave the comic book reader?

First, competition is good. I want to see digital content carried by as many sources as possible. That keeps the vendors honest (at least relatively). Digital books are already overpriced. I want to see digital books sold for paperback prices or lower. Instead we have a two-tiered system where the digital book is priced a little below the hardcover price until the paperback comes out then the price is dropped. For the same product. The consumer is being charged a premium for not waiting. At least with hardcover/paperback you felt that you were getting a more durable product with larger fonts when you bought hardcover.

The second issue is the reader itself. We have a 7" color Nook at home. It is pretty small for reading a comic book. I have used a 10" tablet to read comics before and that is still smaller than I would like. Even with the smart interface that Marvel's digital web site uses, everything is too small on anything less than a full-size laptop. So, DC is not doing the reader any favors by locking them into the Kindle Fire. To be fair, after some confusion, Amazon clarified that the exclusive DC content can also be viewed on its Kindle app on tablets.

This is a multiple-front issue. On one hand we have the book stores fighting it out with Amazon over the ability to distribute content. B&N and Books a Million are worried about the death of Borders and are willing to give Amazon exclusive distribution of DC's print medium in order to make a point. I'm sure that Amazon offered DC a good deal but was it still as good after two major chains cut them off? Yes, you can still order the books from Amazon or even from B&N as long as it is delivered directly to your home but not everyone goes to Amazon to buy graphic novels.

At the same time, you have DC and Marvel. In the 1960s they were everywhere. Every corner drugstore and supermarket had a comic stand. Now they are pretty much limited to specialty stores. In fact, a good bit of their marketing now comes from publishing stories in arcs that can be repackaged as graphic novels and sold in bookstores.

Also, for a long time comic books were the only place you could go for your super hero fix. Now we have super hero movies and TV shows coming out constantly. To say nothing of video games which let you be a super hero.

So comic books are being squeezed. It probably sounded like a good deal to DC to have Amazon pushing some of their inventory. I doubt if it even occurred to them that there would be issues with other book sellers.

Probably over the next decade we will see a major shift in comic books away from the printed format and onto the digital one. First we have to see a clear winner emerge. The IPad has a huge lead but Android and Microsoft could still catch up. Remember, three years ago Android phones were just being introduced. Now they dominate the market. But, Microsoft is at its best when it enters a mature market instead of trying to create one. It will take a few more years before things settle down.

Once they do settle down to a predictable standard, I expect comics to be formatted for that first, traditional comic books second, and graphic novels third.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Joss Whedon - Director

Joss Whedon, the director of the upcoming Avengers movie is a respected writer and TV director but he has only directed one theatrical release, Serenity, which was a movie adaptation of the TV series Firefly. I saw it in the theater (I got to attend a preview for media bloggers) and it has been showing up on cable regularly, probably to build excitement for the Avengers. After multiple viewings, there are a few things that stand out, especially the opening.

The movie establishes the general framework, that there are multiple worlds surrounding a sun, that they have been teraformed, that that there was a rebellion between the outlying planets and the inner ones. But this scene turns out to be a memory of River who is being held in a medical facility. Her brother breaks in and frees her. Except this is really a security recording being reviewed after the fact.

So, as we move close to reality, we also go from the general to the specific background for the movie. It's a quick way of bringing new viewers up to date.

Then we cut away to Serenity and follow the captain, Mal, as he talks to each crew member. This takes us through the entire spaceship in one continuous shot. There is a subtle message here - they didn't just build individual sets for the different parts of the ship, they built the entire interior of the spaceship.

The crew lives up to its reputation as anti-heroes by robbing a bank. This is interrupted by an attack by the real bad guys, the Reavers. We met the Reavers a couple of times in the series but never learned where they came from. We just know that they are crazy killers.

You know that they are evil. Their spaceship not only looks evil, it puts out more dirty smoke than a steam engine.

Eventually the crew figures out that there is an answer on an unknown world. They land and their world changes. When it does, the camera does a nice 360.

There are other nice touches, mainly involving the almost unflappable Operative losing his calm.

So, what does that tell us about Whedon as a director? He throws flashy bits in but he keeps them low-key enough that they don't distract from the action.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Bye Steve

I never owned a product made by Apple so Steve Jobs never touched me personally. I was tempted several times starting back in 1977 when I bought my first home computer (IBM invented the term "personal computer" in the early 1980s). Most home computers were kits that had to be soldered together. The Apple II was part of the second wave of home computers - ones that were pre-assembled. The problem with the Apple, from my point of view, was that it was something like $1,600 and a Radio Shack TRS-80 without monitor was $400. I didn't have $1,600 so there was no real choice.

That happened several times over the years. Apple might tempt me but I ended up buying something equivalent for a fraction of the price. This eventually became know as the Apple Premium.

Then there was the cult of the Mac. People went into raptures over the thing. I've never cared for cults of personality.

The "I'm an Apple" ads never affected me much. I always liked the PC guy better. Plus, the ads lied. In one they had the PC using a spreadsheet to show how much he enjoyed his vacation while the Mac guy was able to create a slideshow of pictures. This is trivial on a PC but they implied that you had to have a Mac to do it.

Then there is the walled garden. By the time I could afford an Apple phone or MP3 player, they had established tight control over every aspect of the devices. This was the culmination of Steve Jobs's career. The Apple I was a kit. The Apple II was totally open. When it first came out they documented every part of it making it east for 3rd parties to make add-ons. The Mac was locked down. When it was announced you violated your warranty by plugging in a non-Apple printer.

But the iPhone, iPod, and iPad go beyond that. They are media consumption devices and Apple gets a cut of the media. That's why they don't allow SD cards or Flash - both are ways of delivering content without going through Apple's gatekeepers.

Microsoft made a few attempts at this sort of control in the 1990s but backed off later. Apple went far beyond anything Microsoft ever dreamed of. But because its users are convinced that everything Steve Jobs ever touched is "insanely great", no one complains.

When you get down to it, Bill Gates has touched my life much more than Steve Jobs ever did. Jobs's main contribution has been to give Microsoft some competition. They have always been at their best when facing a competitor.

The same thing happened with the touch phone industry. Smart phones that can run apps have been around for a decade. Apple improved them by eliminating the keyboard in favor of a large touch screen. But by the time the iPhone 4 arrived it was playing catch-up with Android. And there are some features, like Flash and an external SD card, that the iPhone will never have. Steve decreed it.

So, bye Steve. Sorry to see you go but I won't really miss you.

Monday, October 03, 2011


Morgan Spurlock's new documentary on trying to live like cavemen aired last night. I'm not impressed.

As far as I can tell, the concept was to thrust a group of modern people into a caveman-style existence with little preparation. The trouble is that they had too little preparation and retained too much of the 21st century.

Their first problem was to find good drinking water. They found a clear, fast-running stream fed by snow melt. But they didn't drink it. Instead they assumed that it was impure and set about purifying it. They boiled it then filtered it. Not only was this something that no caveman would ever consider, even people from the first part of the 20th century would not think twice before drinking from that stream.

The hunting grounds was two miles away. The hunting party kept walking there and back. Real hunter/gatherers would have sent a hunting party out with orders not to return until they had food. It made little sense for them to keep returning. It burned extra calories at a time when they were already feeling week from days without a proper meal and it cost them time and opertunity. Big prey is often at its most vulnerable at dusk and dawn. But the hunting party was busy commuting at those times.

The way that they hunted seemed poor to me. They just tried to get close enough to a herd of elk to throw a spear at them (to be fair, they had atlatls which increased their range). I suspect that they used techniques meant for hunting with a rifle. Given modern weaponry, as soon as you can see your prey you can kill it. With the atlatl, you have to be much closer. Given that, they should have taken their time and surrounded the herd.

Once they finally did manage to kill an elk, one of the cave women announced that she did not eat red meat. That is a luxury that hunter/gatherers would never have.

All told, this did not shed much light on how early humans lived. It was more about how whiny modern humans can get.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ebook Readers

Amazon just launched a new tablet computer to compete with the Barnes and Noble Nook Color and refreshed their line of e-ink Kindles, again competing with B&N's Nooks. The highlights are a new, lower price point for the readers and heavy integration with the Amazon cloud for the Fire - the new tablet.

B&N will be announcing a new Nook Color in time to compete for Christmas and there are rumors that Amazon will launch a better tablet early next year.

I've been doing most of my reading on electronic devices this year, using a Viewsonic G-Tablet and a Nook touch. The Nook is great for what it is. It is light. The battery lasts a long time. I can carry dozens of books with me at once which was very useful while vacationing on a schooner with very limited space. It also works well in the sunlight.

But I've recently gone back to using the G-Tablet for my reading. At night it is easier to read a lit screen than a reflective one. I also like having to do fewer page turns. I tend to hold my book or tablet in my left hand. I can turn the page on the Nook by pushing a button on the left side (there is also a button for going back) but I have to press harder. On the tablet I can swipe right-to-left and turn the page. On either device I can also touch the right side of the page to advance.

There are drawbacks to the tablet. It weighs a lot more so I have to rest it on my leg. The battery life is measured in hours instead of days (or weeks) so I have to plan ahead so I don't end up wanting to read when it needs charged. Fortunately I can simply switch devices and keep reading.

The Nook app for Android has matured a lot in the last six months. Most of my complaints have been resolved. There are still a few issues. If I go from portrait to landscape and back it almost always goes back a page. If I leave the app and come back I have to reopen the book that I was reading.

The Nook Touch could use a few software improvements. Syncing between the devices does not always work. It knows what the current book I am reading is but it makes it difficult to switch between multiple books. The main screen is too busy trying to sell me new books and does not have a history. I have resolved this by having a shelf in my library for current books but that substitutes a manual process for something that should be automatic. The Kindle app does this.

But these are quibbles. With the cost of entry for ebooks dropping, this will keep growing as the preferred medium for reading.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I recently wrote about superheroes' varying power levels. At some point, many heroes have gotten so powerful that the writers introduced a weakness. The most famous one is kryptonite but there have been a wide variety of weaknesses.

Kryptonite itself was introduced in the Superman radio show in 1943 and didn't make its way into the comics until 1949. By the 1960s it was almost a supporting character on its own. Everyone hand his brother had a piece of it. It also multiplied. The original green variety was joined by red kryptonite which caused temporary physical changes in Superman, gold kryptonite which removed a kryptonian's powers permanently and other varieties.

In addition to kryptonite, Superman was vulnerable to magic, This should have meant that he had no resistance to magic so he could be turned into a frog as easily as the next person. Some writers took it to the extreme that anything with magic origins could hurt Superman.

And there were red suns which caused frequent mistakes. Superman got his powers from radiation emanating from a yellow star. Red stars do not radiate on this frequency so Superman gained his powers from going to a planet with a yellow sun. Many writers reversed this and had the radiation from red stars weakening Superman.

Superman's chief rival, Captain Marvel, didn't need these weaknesses. He had one built-in. Normally he was an ordinary boy. If you knew who he was then all you had to do was kidnap Billy Batson and gaghis to keep him from saying "Shazam". The same was true for the rest of the Marvel family.

Wonder Woman had her own weaknesses. Her magic lariat let her command anyone it encircled. When her bracelets were chained together by a man she lost her powers. Naturally, people constantly used her own lariat on her or chained her bracelets.

Other heroes had more common weaknesses. John Jones, the Martian Manhunter lost his powers when near fire. Green Lantern's power ring was useless against anything colored yellow.

Metamorpho's version of kryptonite was the Orb or Ra.

Many Marvel heroes had their own weaknesses. Iron Man's batteries kept running down, threatening to stop his heart. Don Blake needed his cane in order to turn into Thor and had to keep hold of his hammer or turn back into Blake. Daredevil kept fighting in places that disrupted his radar sense. The Hulk turned back into Bruce Banner, sometimes in the middle of a fight. The Sub-Mariner lost his strength if he was out of water.

The Human Torch could only use his flame for a short time. The more he used it the faster it burned out. Also, it seemed like any amount of water could dowse his flame. Once a vase of water put it out.

Cyclopes and Marvel Girl were good for about one major feat. The strain of this weakened them, possibly causing them to black out.

In the early days of the Silver Age, heroes spent most of the time fighting their weakness more than villains. As time went on, the villains got stronger and there was less need for the weaknesses. Sometimes the weakness was written out. Kryptonite was destroyed for a while around 1970. Iron Man got better batteries and a heart transplant. Other times the weakness simply stopped being used as a plot device.

By the 1970s, new heroes stopped having built-in weaknesses. The exception was Superman. Kryptonite made a comeback. You just can't get rid of a supporting character like that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Monsters - Myth and Fiction

I saw an interesting comment by John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London. Some people complained when ordinary bullets killed his vampire.

When I made this film I remember some guy came up to me and said that at the end of the movie the werewolf is killed with bullets and you can't kill a werewolf with bullets. He went on and on about the fact that you can only kill a werewolf with silver bullets, which struck me as so funny. Because, it's like, 'Really? How many werewolves do you know?'

"Silver bullets specifically come from Curt Siodmak, who was the original screenwriter of The Wolf Man. In one of the sequels he talks about silver bullets being the way of killing werewolves. He talked about where that came from once with me and he said he happened to be listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio and he thought, 'Silver bullets, that's great!' So he made that up. So much of what we accept as folklore and mythology is invented by screenwriters.

In fact, most of what we know about monsters was made up for movies and fiction. Werewolves in myths were never unfortunate creatures who were victims of a curse. They were witches who changed shape with the help of a skin made from wolf or human skin. They changed into an actual wolf in order to inflict evil on their neighbors - things like killing livestock. When caught, their skin was seized and they were burned at the stake.

Bram Stoker made a serious effort at staying true to folklore but there are dozens of vampire myths and they are not consistent. Sometimes the only reason for driving a stake through a Vampire's heart was to pin him in his grave. A vampire had to be back in his grave by dawn and there were ways of keeping him out too late. If you spilled seeds or left a tangled string, he would be distracted tidying things up until dawn. One variety would strip his shroud off when he rose and put it back on when he went back to his grave. If you could find the shroud and hide it he would keep looking for it until it was too late.

Most vampires couldn't turn into other creatures but sometimes their heads were on backwards or they would have books for feet.

Stoker's version of the vampire and the stripped down Hollywood version was the accepted version for decades. It didn't really change until Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire showed that a writer could change the rules. Since then, every writer decides how vampires work. The only constants are their aversion to sunlight and thirst for blood. Now some vampires just sparkle in sunlight instead of dissolving.

Werewolves' makeover came later and the Hollywood idea of werewolves being cursed was never lost. Starting in the 1980s, writers started taking advantage of research on real wolves and making their werewolves act more like the real thing. Before the 1980s werewolves were always solitary. Since the 1990s they are almost always in a pack.

While it is generally accepted that silver bullets hurt werewolves, vampires were not always susceptible. In Love at First Bite, Dracula is shot in the heart with three silver bullets by Dr. Rosenburg. Dracula's response, "No, Rosenberg, that is a werewolf ." As he is being hauled away (for shooting someone in public), Rosenburg says, "No harm done! The man's all right! This was for a werewolf! No problem! Calm down! Take it easy! I'm a doctor! I know where I'm going!" Since then most fiction has vampires affected by silver. It makes a convenient substitute for religious objects in these multicultural times.

Monday, September 19, 2011


There are only a few episodes left of the first season of Alphas. It has already been renewed for a second season. The first season has been pretty good. It has avoided the pitfalls of Heroes and No Ordinary Family.

Most episodes have focused on the Alphas' personalities rather than on their powers although this is tricky since their powers can affect their personalities. Gary, the dyslexic who can interact with electromagnetic communications, went from being annoying to lovable. Most of the others have mellowed a bit also.

I am a fan of continuity but this can be overdone or turn into a curse. The last two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had too much continuity and episodes blurred into chapters of a miniseries. This hurt it a lot since the episodes in the first five seasons had a strong format that mixed humor and adventure. Without the format, the humor got lost and the show turned dreary.

Heroes and No Ordinary Family were shows that were difficult to come in on. If you missed an episode you were lost. The show Lost avoided this because no one ever knew what was going on, anyway.

Heroes also only had one good story arc, the heroes discovering their powers and coming together to stop the destruction of New York. They used that up the first season and were never able to recreate it. The arc was more important than the episode.

Alphas has three arcs going on but they are background and easily picked up. The first is their transformation from evaluating alphas to being the front line against rogue alphas. The second is what happens to the rogues. The third is the resistance movement known as Red Flag. Our group of alphas stands between the government and the resistance. This is a position the X-Men held for years.

But the focus in each episode is on the individuals. Last week featured a member of Red Flag with sonic powers and an assassin who could not be seen. The Red Flag member insisted that he respected the Alphas and tried to get them to join him. He seemed quite reasonable. Then we met the assassin who also seemed reasonable. The plot was mainly about who to believe? That sort of show can have staying power.

Alphas comes after Eureka and Warehouse 13. Theoretically it takes place in the same world. A supporting character from Warehouse 13 has appeared in Alphas (and there have been Eureka/Warehouse 13 crossovers). Despite this, Alphas has a different tone. It is much more serious and comes as a relief after two hours of comedy/adventure.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

3D Movies

Slate has an article on Who Killed 3-D? When they say "killed" they are talking about receipts per screen. A couple of years ago a screen showing 3D saw a significant box office increase over screens showing the same movie in 2D. That has vanished and, in some cased, reversed. This Summer's Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean releases earned less on their 3D showings setting new lows for 3D releases.

So what's going on? Slate offers four suspects: an increase in the 3D premium, a flooded market, pickier customers, and the lowering quality of 3D movies. I think that all of these are factors but there is more to it.

Personally, I am sick of 3D releases. When they first started there was a modest premium and only suitable movies were shown in 3D. As the craze took off, the 3D premium was raised. I have been at some movies where 3D added 40%-50% to the ticket price. Very few movies are worth that extra. We have gotten to the point where we see if we can go to a 2D showing instead of a 3D one. The theaters have anticipated this and adjusted their schedules. The 7:00-8:00 showings which are the most popular are devoid of 2D offerings. So you have a choice - go to a 2D movie at an inconvenient time or pay the 3D surcharge. This means that 3D movies are doing even worse than the statistics would indicate. It might also be keeping people home since the third option is to skip it and wait for the DVD.

Too often 3D adds little or nothing to the movie. We saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4 in 3D. This movie was actually shot in 3D instead of being shot in 2D and converted like Harry Potter. This gives the 3D a more natural look which actually hurts it. Why pay more for 3D if you don't notice it? The movie managed to work in a few swords coming out of the screen. Otherwise the 3D it didn't add much.

I was impressed with the 3D in Captain America. This raises a different question - is it a good thing for the 3D to distract you from the plot? Color movies went through this phase. Through the 1950s, color was considered a distraction. Serious movies were filmed in black and white. You can see echoes of that today. 3D movies are mainly CGI or adventure movies. Part of this is that the process itself is costly so only potential blockbusters are given the treatment. It is cheaper to make a CGI movie in 3D than a live action one so they tend to be 3D.

Horror movies are also being given the 3D treatment. Fright Night was only available in 3D. In fact the full title is "Fright Night 3D". It might as well be called Fight Night Splattervision. Most of the movie takes place in fairly small rooms so the 3D is wasted. The only time it is noticeable is when a vampire dies. That is accompanied with splashed of goop and sparks flying into the audience.

Had the studios and theaters restrained themselves, 3D would have been a small but viable market. Instead, by overpricing and oversupplying, they threaten to eliminate it.

It would be nice if that happened by next Summer's blockbuster season.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Villains and Power Levels

Last week I wrote about power levels and superheros. Now I will take a quick look at villains.

Often the power level of a villain doesn't matter. Golden Age heroes were almost always the strongest character. The villain was a mastermind of some sort. There was never any question of Lex Luthor winning a fight with Superman or the Joker beating Batman. The few exceptions were with an evil version of the hero like Black Adam who was an evil version of Captain Marvel.

Things got more interesting in the Silver Age, especially at Marvel where heroes often fought stronger villains. This led to some great stories. In his first appearance, the Scorpion beat Spider-Man decisively twice before Spider-Man rallied and won by out-fighting the Scorpion. In the Abomination's  first appearance he literally beat the Hulk to death (the Hulk's heart was restarted with some friendly gamma rays). But this raises the problem, where do you go from there? After being beaten by Spider-Man twice, the Scorpion moved down, taking on Captain America and the Falcon. The Abomination appeared multiple times but the only time he had a chance against the Hulk was when the Hulk had reverted to his earlier, weaker gray version.

Once a villain has been defeated, the follow-up is usually anti-climactic. One way around this is to send the villain against weaker heroes. This was done with the Scorpion so often that he had to start getting power upgrades to keep him menacing. An different tactic is to have villains team up. Mr. Hyde and the Cobra were defeated individually by Thor so they teamed up to fight him. Later Hyde menaced Spider-Man.

Some villains manage to have a power upgrade and graduate to the next class up. The Rhino started as a Spider-Man villain but was given a gamma ray upgrade and has taken on the Hulk. He lost but he is clearly out of Spider-Man's class - which would make for a good Spider-Man story if the two ever ran into each other.

After too many defeats, a villain can become a joke. The Ringmaster's Circus of Evil started with the Hulk and took on nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe including Howard the Duck.

Some villains manage to stay menacing for long periods by combining traits. Dr. Doom is a mastermind but has enough weaponry in his armor to take on nearly anyone. Dr. Octopus usually has some sort of master plan but his tentacles are stronger than Spider-Man. The Mandarin has ten rings of great power but seldom engages in direct combat. Even though all of these characters have been defeated multiple times, their personal power is a fall-back rather than their main thrust.

Sometimes it is enough to foil the mastermind's plot. Doom seldom engages in personal combat after a scheme has failed.

The ultimate examples of this are the top-tier villains, ones like Thanos and Darkseid (although Thanos probably started as a copy of Darkseid). Both had shown themselves capable of taking on the top heroes. Thanos in particular has taken on Thor and the Thing simultaneously and won (although he lost to an alternate version of Adam Warlock). These are top-tier masterminds. Their plots threaten all of existence. When they lose they either retire to plot again or are swept up in a backlash and vanish.

Not matter how threatening a villain is, each defeat diminishes him. The writers for Dr. Who have retired the Daleks for a while because they suffered from over-exposure. Appearing more times than any other villain means being defeated more times. Dr. Doom suffered from this. He fought the Fantastic Four multiple times in a row in their early days. At the time he was just another mastermind in a suit of armor. It wasn't until Stan Lee limited his appearances and made him a foreign monarch that he became a really memorable villain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hero Power Levels

Marvel recently put up a batch of early Golden Age comics on the digital site. Reading these got me to thinking about relative power levels.

Superman quickly comes to mind. Ever wonder why someone who flies would ever need to "leap tall buildings in a single bound"? It's because he couldn't fly when that line was written. He could run very fast (faster than a speeding bullet) and leap great distances but he could not fly. That came a few months later. Captain Marvel made the same transition. Early on he needed a space ship to travel to Mars (or Venus - I'm doing this from memory). Later he could make the trip under his own power.

Superman gained some powers along the way. He didn't have heat vision at first but it occurred to someone that strong x-rays heat things. Later writers explained that he actually projected heat from his eyes. Somewhere along the lines he also developed telescopic vision and super hearing. He could even throw his voice to a location hundreds of miles away (through solid objects) using super ventriloquism.

Given the world's strongest lungs, it made sense that he could blow harder than others. This turned into super breath. Superman was able to store huge quantities of air in his lungs and expel it at hurricane force. He could even provide an atmosphere for an earth-like planet with a few trips from a gas giant.

Until I read the Human Torch's early appearances I hadn't realized that he had made the same power gain. In his first few appearances his flames made him lighter than normal which allowed him to ran fast. He could outrun a fast car or a train. But he could not fly. His second appearance was fighting someone with an airplane who kept leaving the Torch behind.

Power levels can go both ways. The Sub-Mariner started out as Timely's strongest (anti-)hero but he got weaker. Eventually there wa a story where he was summoned by Atlantis's Emperor who pointed out that Namor was barely stronger than an ordinary Atlantean. Atlantis's scientists had devised a treatment that returned him to his original strength level.

By the Silver Age, Superman had unlimited power. You name it and he could do it. The same was true for Supergirl and Mon-el. They could move planets or re-light suns. In Superman's world, super-strength was a binary value. You either had it or you didn't. If you had it then it was a waste of time trying to overpower someone else who was super. It would cause too much collateral damage.

Marvel was much more restrained. Originally the Thing could only lift a few tons and falling from a great height would hurt him. He kept getting stronger until the Marvel Universe Handbook topped him out at 80 tons. At the same time he got a lot tougher. You could knock him through several buildings followed by a fall and he would get up again.

The Hulk was always the strongest there was but that didn't mean that much at first. He could be imprisoned in a cave. When they were first created both the original Abomination and the Red Hulk were stronger than the Hulk but both were eventually beaten.

Spider-Man started out pretty strong but seemed to get weaker in the 1970s. It got to the point where a thug with a fancy name (such as Man-Mountain Marco) could give him a fight. A change in writers and artists fixed that and by the 1980s he could hold his own against Mr. Hyde or Firelord. His webbing also got weaker and this was fixed by mixing a stronger batch.

When DC rebooted the DC Universe they weakened Superman. He could be hurt if you hit him hard enough. He needed oxygen. He could no longer fly faster than the speed of light or travel through time. Super ventriloquism was never spoken of again. This lasted for some time but writers kept stretching his powers a bit at a time until he was close to his original power levels.

Some heroes had their power levels changed as plot points. At first Ghost Rider could create solid objects out of flame including his motorcycle. He lost most of those powers and could only project flame. This started increasing again. Apparently it was tied to the strength that his inner demon had. The more control it had the stronger his powers were.

Then there are the heroes whose power levels constantly change. Originally the Dazzler could turn sound into light. She could use this as a light show while performing or she could distract an opponent with it. If she had enough sound she could turn it into a laser. At first she could not store energy so she had to find sources of sound. One time she made Spider-Woman sing (badly) in order to cut them out of a trap. A few issues later she absorbed Klaw who was made of solid sound and gained enough power to be recognized as a peer by Galactus. That changed her and she was able to store sound but she used up the energy she got from Klaw.

With Daredevil, it wasn't enough that he was blind. He kept running into situations that interfered with his radar sense. He got over that around the time he changed from his yellow and black outfit to his red one.

Similarly, Iron Man's transistors kept running down in the middle of a fight. This is one place where a hero gaining power over time makes sense. As technology improved, Iron Man got stronger.

There is an art to keeping heroes weak enough to build suspense. Often a hero got too strong and an artificial weakness had to be introduced. Superman had kryptonite, Thor had to keep hold of his hammer. Green Lantern had to avoid yellow. While these can make an interesting story, they are easy to overuse.

The same is true for villains. A villain may start out as powerful but each time he is defeated he becomes less menacing. The writers in Dr. Who decided to retire the Daleks. They started out as the ultimate killing machines but they have appeared more often than any other Dr. Who villain which means they have been defeated more often. I'll talk about villains later.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Curse of Continuity

Up until the 1960s, comic books seldom had any sort of continuity. Some major events were remembered like the time Lex Luthor saved a planet and the grateful residents renamed it in his honor and made him ruler. For years after that he would occasionally visit. More often, the events of a story were forgotten as with the last panel.

This was partly because of the way that comics worked at the time. Comic book publishers kept an inventory of stories. Since any story could be published at any time, it could not refer to any other story unless it had already been published and was memorable. TV was the same way. The characters in the Superman TV show in the 1950s wore the same clothes in every episode so that they could film multiple episodes at once. Most episodes had a scenes in Clark Kent's office so they could do those scenes for multiple episodes while the set was in place.

Marvel and Stan Lee changed that. Stan and his brother, Larry Lieber, did all of the writing and Marvel didn't have enough money for much inventory so stories were published as soon as they were finished. That meant that events could spill from one issue to the next. At the end of the second issue of the Fantastic Four, the Human Torch quit, feeling that he was not given enough respect. The third issue began with the rest of the team looking for the Torch who returned to the team after accidentally discovering the Sub Mariner. Similarly, the Hulk quit the Avengers at the end of the second issue. In the third issue he joined forced with the Sub Mariner. The fourth issue began with a cameo of the Sub Mariner and the Avengers searching for him.

Continuity in Spider-Man was more subtle but more important because it introduced real time. People remembered events from the previous issue and referred to them as "last month". This included little things like arguments.

Things got more complicated when Stan started accounting for villains and how they returned from their last appearance. Fans started noticing discrepancies. Stan grew tired of complaints and started offering "no prizes" to the fan who came up with the best explanation for a seeming goof (after Stan called the Hulk "Bob Banner" a fan suggested that his full name was "Robert Bruce Banner").

All of this was great for the reader. It gave the impression of a single, seamless "Marvel Universe".

But time passes and things happen. The Marvel Universe stopped running in real time. Otherwise Spider-Man, the Torch, and the X-Men would be in their 60s, Reed, the Thing, and Professor X would be in their 80s, and WWI veteran Dum Dum Dugan would be well voer 100. But slowing the character's aging causes problems with continuity. If Tony Stark is only in his 30s then how could he have been injured in Viet Nam? The Black Widow started as a spy for the Soviet Union which disintegrated more than 20 years ago.

So some events have to be ignored or the continuity has to be retroactively changed (retconned).

A bigger problem is that changes that seemed like a good idea at the time can become a burden later on. Spider-Man's marriage is an example. It seemed like the natural progression of his relationship with Mary Jane but later editors felt that he worked better as a loner. So Mary Jane left and was presumed dead. Then she came back. Then Mephisto changed time so that they never wed in the first place. Except later they remembered their relationship. But no one else remembers that he revealed his identity.

Things were worse at DC. Instead of simply referring to the Golden Age versions of different heroes as being from the past, they invented a parallel universe for them (Earth 2). This would have been a simple curiosity except they started setting stories in Earth 2. This became confusing to new readers (If the Huntress was Batman's daughter why was she a similar age and why did she think her father was dead?). They "solved" this with the Crisis on Multiple Earths limited series. By the end of that, there was only one reality. They spent the next few years trying to tidy up the new continuity. Then they gave up and had another reboot to fix the first one. Rinse and repeat.

Enter The New 52. DC is doing yet another reboot. Decades of continuity is being thrown out the window. Superman is back to being single. Batgirl was never crippled. Other characters will get ethnic make-overs.

I don't really care. I stopped reading DC comics precisely because they do so many reboots. It's too much trouble keeping up with them.

One good thing to come out of this - digital comics will now be available at the same time as print editions. I still subscribe to Marvel's digital comics but their policy is that digital comics lag the print editions by months and series are hit-and-miss on being digitized.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dr. Who - What's been going on

The second part of Matt Smith's second season premiers tomorrow. This is a good chance to point out some of the background plot threads.

There are two major threads that have spanned multiple seasons. The first was River Song. When we first met her we learned that she would marry a future version of the Doctor. In her next appearance we found out that she was in prison for killing "a very good man." This was never explained but the implication was that she would kill the Doctor himself.

The second thread is the Doctor as a dangerous being. There were a few hints of this earlier but Smith's Doctor spent a lot of time saying it. In his first episode he saved the Earth with just a borrowed cell phone. Afterwords he warned some powerful aliens that they should avoid the Earth because he protected it along with the implication that he was someone to be feared.

Later he told a group that the Weeping Angels made a mistake by trapping the one person in the universe that they should not want trapped. Statements like this were peppered through the season. There have also been reminders that he killed his entire race.

In the season's two-part finale, the Doctor traveled to Roman Briton to see the Pandorica, the ultimate prison, opened. He didn't know who was inside but he wanted to protect the universe against that person. Multiple races encircled the Earth for unknown reasons.

Surprise - the Pandorica was meant for him. All of these races considered him the most dangerous being in the universe. Things got confused when an unknown entity also tried to destroy the universe by exploding the TARDIS. The Doctor rebooted the universe and reappeared in time for Amy's wedding party.

In the season opener we saw a much-older Doctor gather a few friends including Amy, Rory, and River. He and River compared diaries and he had already experienced all of their shared time. Then he was killed by a figure in a spacesuit. And killed a second time to prevent regeneration.

But this was a future Doctor. His younger version was still running around. Amy and River put him on the trail of the figure in the spacesuit. This turned out to be an unusual girl who could regenerate. The girl looked a bit like a young River but her effects and the attention of some aliens hinted that this would be Amy's daughter.

At one point Amy told the Doctor that she was pregnant which she later denied. The Doctor took some readings which he kept secret but kept referring to.

Eventually we found out that the Amy on the TARDIS was a reproduction linked with the real one. The real Amy was pregnant and being kept prisoner somewhere.

It all came together in the Demon's Run episode when we found out that Amy's daughter Melody Pool was also River Song.

So, here's what happened. Some aliens took the Doctor seriously when he said that he is the most dangerous being in the universe and decided that they needed a weapon to kill him. Only a fellow Time Lord could do this but he already killed all of them so they had to create a new one. Because she was conceived in the TARDIS while it was traveling through time, River shared many of the mutations that make up a Time Lord. So the aliens kidnapped Amy between seasons and left a decoy to keep the Doctor from suspecting. They raised the child and eventually she fulfilled her destiny and killed the Doctor.

But, since River was a partial Time Lord, things were not that simple. She and the Doctor met at multiple points of their lives, often in opposite directions. The first time he met her was just before she died. The first time he kissed her was the last time she kissed him, etc.

It is unclear if Amy will ever see River again as a child. It looks doubtful since River didn't recognize Amy or Rory as her parents when they first met. She had to be introduced.

BTW, the space station is misnamed. It isn't "Demon's Run". It should be "Demons run" from the 'old' saying "Demons run when a good man goes to war."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Windows 95

The PC turned 30 a couple of weeks ago but it really took its current form 16 years ago when Microsoft released Windows 95.

Prior to Windows 95, Microsoft sold MS-DOS and Windows separately. Both had some serious competition. DRDOS was as good or better then MS-DOS and IBM's OS/2 was better at Windows. Windows 3.1 was clunky and suffered from some serious limitations. The biggest one was memory. The original IBM PC used a chip that could only address a megabyte and the designers reserved memory above 640k for system calls and hardware mapped interfaces.

By 1995, most games and business software needed more that 640k. There were several ways of getting around this but the were mutually incompatible. It was common to have to use a different boot disk for each game in order to get the memory drivers correct. MS-DOS also suffered from a file system that only allowed short file names - eight characters followed by a dot and a three character suffix.

OS/2 got around these problems and supported superior multi-tasking. And it could run Windows programs.

Windows 95 was years late. There were jokes about Microsoft merging with the Catholic Church in order to gain control of the Gregorian calendar. That would allow them to extend 1995 until Win95 was ready for release.

Microsoft solved the problem of DRDOS by bundling MS-DOS and Windows and claiming that they were inseparable. Actually, the PC still loaded DOS then loaded Windows but the process was seamless. Other features were much more important. Win95 had a new interface, the basis of the one still used in Windows 7. It allowed long file names. It had a built-in memory manager which would emulate the main alternatives so nearly anything would run on it.

It also had basic networking built in which was something that OS/2 did not have. Overnight OS/2 became irrelevant. If you wanted to connect to other computers you had needed Win95.

This also became the high-water mark for Microsoft's market dominance. Prior to Win95, most people used 3rd party programs like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. There was some question about these running on Win95 and most analysts recommended switching to Microsoft Office. Within a couple of years the previous market leaders were gone.

At the same time that Win95 came out the public suddenly became aware of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Win95 could handle these out of the box although Win98 did a much better job.

While a big improvement over previous versions, Win95 had some serious limitations. It did not have real multitasking and its security was a joke. Microsoft solved some of these problems with Windows NT but that platform did not have the performance for games and CDs. Windows XP married the two platforms in their most successful product to date.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Deadliest Warrior vs the Shark

Spike TV's series Deadliest Warrior is in its third season. The premise of the show is figuring out what would happen if two prime examples of different warriors fought. This is done by testing an equal selection of weapons, running the results through a computer simulation, then staging a fight. At first the staged fights were between individual warriors but half-way through the first season they started mixing in teams. They also included a few famous individuals.

Most of the winners were justifiable.

There have bees some warriors who were questionable. They had a 2nd season episode with Somali pirates. While these guys certainly exist, they are mainly untrained fishermen with guns. The presentation of them as trained warriors was a stretch.

Which brings us to the August 17, 2011 episode: Saddam Hussein vs. Pol Pot. The idea was to match two mass murderers. My complaint is that neither side had warriors. Most of Pol Pot's victims were unarmed civilians who were starved or otherwise killed as part of a forced relocation program. Saddam Hussein's troops did fight a long and bloody war against a technologically inferior Iran and overran Kuwait but their performance against US troops was almost comical. During the Gulf War they surrendered in droves, sometimes surrendering to unarmed reporters. Much of the unrest following our invasion of Iraq happened because the army melted away the day after US troops made a "thunder run" through Baghdad. To represent either side as warriors is an insult to the real thing.

Then there is the season finale - vampire vs zombies (one vampire, 63 zombies).

Clearly this show has jumped the shark.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


A new Conan movie comes out this week. I don't have high expectations for it. August releases are often second-rate movies that are dumped at the end of the Summer. More important, the character as created by Robert E. Howard is difficult to translate to other media.

I read all of Howard's Conan stories as well as most of his other works in my teens and 20s. This summer I reread Red Nails and some of Howard's Solomon Kane stories so I am up on the material.

Howard is credited with inventing the Sword and Sorcery genre. He saw it as a precursor to the modern world filled with archetypes. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it was still an old world. Atlantis had risen and fallen well before Conan's time. Other horrors had populated the world before the rise of humanity and some of them were still lurking in the shadows. Howard often corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft and incorporated some of the same otherworldly monsters in his fiction.

Conan himself is a complex character. Howard saw him as the embodiment of vitality, untamed by civilization. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than civilized men. His senses were sharper and his mind keener. He was a master of languages although he spoke most with an accent. He was a born leader. He was amoral but trustworthy (for the most part). If you hired him he would put his life on the line for you but he would kill you in an instant if you betrayed him.

Conan was not always the central character of the story. Red Nails, the last story written, features Valeria, a female pirate, more than Conan. This is a classic Howard story with a lost city peopled with a dying race who stole the city from its builders but do not know all of its secrets. Everyone betrays everyone and Conan and Valeria are the only survivors.

The character was briefly popular during the days of the pulp. In the 1960s, Howard's stories were resurrected and collected into a series of paperbacks. In addition to this, story fragments were finished and non-Conan stories were altered to fill out around a dozen books. They were very popular.

Because of the popularity of the books, Marvel Comics bought the rights and began a long, successful series of Conan comics. It started slow. British artist, Barry Smith, was selected on the basis of a sword and sorcery horror story he had drawn. At first his art was uninspiring. He quickly grew as an artist. Smith left the book after a few issues but came back almost immediately. His return marked the full flowering of his talent. He had been inspired by the pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century. Their focus on Arthurian themes worked perfectly with Conan and Smith became a fan favorite.

He eventually left for the more lucrative field of limited edition art and was replaced by John Buscema. Buscema's first issue began with an adaptation of a King Kull story so Conan didn't appear until ten pages into the book. While Buscema's version of the character looked quite different from Smith's, he was instantly recognizable. The first time I read that comic I was two pages past Conan's first panel before I notices how different he looked.

Coupled with various inkers from the Philippines, Buscema became a fan favorite on his own.

Marvel was trying to expand into the more adult-oriented black and white tabloid comics and Conan began appearing in both formats (plus some over-size reprints of the Smith comics).

Roy Thomas wrote all of Conan's appearances. He was a huge fan of Howard and some of his adaptations were excellent. Thomas's original works were less successful. In the stories, Conan never had a sidekick. At most, he got the girl at the end but there was never any long-term commitment.

Thomas felt more comfortable introducing various supporting characters. Some of them came from Howard's stories. Most were either implied or original. This made story-telling easier but the stories lost Howard's feel. Also, as time went on, Thomas began over-writing his stories. He often felt the need to add a dialog box where none was needed or to have a character explain a plot twist. There was also the problem of creating new challenges for Conan. After you have killed a dozen wizards in a year, what do you do next year?

By the mid-1970s the Conan craze had faded. Marvel shut down its black and white line. Thomas and Buscema left the strip and it declined.

The most lasting contribution from the Roy Thomas Barry Smith days was Red Sonia. This was adapted from a non-Conan story set during the early 16th century. This featured a Conan-style character and Red Sonja (with a "j"), a military commander. Sonia originally wore a full mail shirt over average breasts but the character was later given a scale mail bikini and more generous cleavage.

The big screen version of Conan tried to be memorable by lifting the most memorable scenes from Howard's stories. These included Conan killing a vulture with his teeth while being crucified and a slain lover appearing long enough to save him. Since The Empire Strikes Back had just come out, they also threw in James Earl Jones telling Conan, "You are my son." The action was slow and the movie is not very good. The sequel is faster moving with a plot by Roy Thomas but is generally inferior to the first movie or the stories.

The character has been revived in comics a few times but was never the hit that it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. A syndicated Conan series was produced for a while. I only saw a few episodes. They were not memorable.

Which brings us to the new movie. The first review I saw panned it and the trailers do not resemble anything Howard wrote. Interested parties would probably be better off watching The Scorpion King again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bert and Ernie

There is a proposal that Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street declare their love and marry. Before you express an opinion on that, answer one question: Do you think that preschool boys should be allowed to marry?

Bert and Ernie are puppets on a TV show targeted at preschoolers. They act like their target age group. Anyone who worries about what these Muppets are doing off camera should go back to fantasizing about Batman and Robin.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beauty and the Beast

The Disney Channel is showing Beauty and the Beast in preparation for its release on Blu-ray. The movie will be 20 years old this November.

It holds up well as befits its status as one of Disney's most important movies. Who Framed Roger Rabbit renewed interest in classic animation and roved that Disney could still do it. The Little Mermaid proved that they could produce a hand-animated movie as good as the classics done under Walt himself but its audience was still limited to kids and their parents. Beauty and the Beast changed that. It made many critics' best list for 1991 and it was the first animated movie to get a best picture nomination. It won several other best picture awards. Eventually it was made into a Broadway play with the 8th longest run on record.

It made a lot of money. It was followed by Aladdin and the Lion King. These made even more money. In-between, Disney rereleased some of their classics like Snow White. Suddenly it was ok for adults to see an inimated movie, even without kids in tow.

Of course it didn't last. Disney ran out of fairy tales and the Disney spin didn't work as well with other properties. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas took liberties with classic literature and history. Hercules and The Emperor's New Grove went with a more cartoonish look. Their reinterpretation of Tarzan as a confused adolescent marked the end of Disney's revival. The movies went from sure-fire blockbusters to risks. The animators unionized, raising the cost of production.

At the same time, the adult market for animated movies migrated to CGI.

Ironically, one of Beauty's most memorable scene, the ballroom dance, was CGI as were some of the dancing silverware.

In some ways CGI has left me jaded. I know that Beauty was a marvel of animation but it no longer looks like it. Hand-drawn background just can't compare to CGI ones. The recent Disney release, Tangled, was a nice throw-back to the hand-animated look but it was CGI and far more detailed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Shakespeare Controversy

Next month a new movie, Anonymous, will show the Earl of Oxford actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. I just finished Contested Will by James Shapiro which covers the subject rather well. Shapiro admits that it is impossible to cover every claim. There are too many and new ones pop up several times a year. Instead he covers the history of the controversy.

The book begins with Shakespearean scholarship in the late 18th through the mid-19th century. This is when Shakespeare went from being a talented writer to a literal deity (complete with shrines). People wanted to know more about the man who wrote the plays. Unfortunately, most surviving records were business records from Stratford. Not only did they reveal nothing about the plays but they showed that Shakespeare was interested in (shudder) making money. This led some people to create forged records. Others simply recommended that interested parties look to the plays and sonnets for clues to Shakespeare's personality. This advice was later taken literally.

In the mid-19th century a woman named Delia Bacon was pondering Shakespeare and Francis Bacon (no relation). At the time, Bacon had his own pedestal that rivaled Shakespeare's. How was it possible, Delia wondered, for England's greatest thinker to have lived at exactly the same time as her greatest playwright? To Delia, the obvious answer was that there was a single genius, Francis Bacon, who wrote the plays in secret. Delia was a respected lecturer and teacher and her theory was noticed. Others added their own refinements. One author noticed that Shakespeare seemed to know so much about law that he must have been a lawyer. This convinced others including Mark Twain and Helen Keller. Twain's last book was about how Shakespeare could not have written the plays. He included the law argument (plagiarizing entire chapters to buttress his argument).

Most of Twain's output was based on his own life experience and he reasoned that the same must have been true about the plays.

Twain was the last major supporter of Bacon. Around the same time that Twain's book came out a new theory was advanced. A man named J. T. Looney felt, as Twain did, that the plays must have been based on personal experience so he looked through ancient biographies until he discovered a nobleman who wrote some poetry and sponsored some players - Edward D'Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

This has been the major theory for the last hundred years although it lost popularity for several decades. It was revived in the 1980s and has remained popular since then, even inspiring the movie Anonymous.

Contested Will follows these theories as well as giving us a glimpse into the lives of the proponents of the theories. It ends by making the case for the man from Stratford. He shows how small the circle of theater people was and how impossible it would be to keep the authorship a secret. He quotes contemporaries, and he finds evidence in the plays themselves that only someone who was a member of the company could have written them.

The biggest question when disputing the authorship of the plays is why the real author would not openly proclaim himself? The Oxfordians have an elaborate explanation. Oxford was Queen Elizabeth's half-brother and lover. The plays and sonnets were written to express his feelings at different points in his life. If people knew who wrote the plays then they would figure out their real meaning. This convinced Sigmund Freud who used Hamlet to analyze Shakespeare (this only worked if the author of the plays had a traumatic event in his life). When the Oxford theory made a resurgence in the 1980s, talk of D'Vere's real heritage and his son, the secret Tudor prince, was suppressed in order to make the theory sound less far-fetched. 

One question that Shapiro never addresses is why the authorship matters? The answer to this does show up in his book. There is only a controversy because the historic Shakespeare does not meet expectations. Oxford and Bacon are preferred because they match preconceptions. This is rewriting history and once you start where do you stop? The Oxfordians a new heir to Elizabeth. In order to explain the decade between Oxford's last published poem and Shakespeare's first, they decided that Oxford wrote under other names, also. Some Oxfordians believe that nearly the entire output of the English Renaissance came from Oxford's pen.

The old maxim is that extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof but the anti-Stratfordians have turned that on its head. There is no proof strong enough to convince then that Shakespeare wrote the plays. If someone found a letter in Oxford's own hand congratulating Shakespeare on his latest play, they would see it as proof of the conspiracy.

While Shapiro's book will not convince the skeptics, it is a good read. It not only gives insight into Shakespeare and the process of producing Elizabethan plays, it also gives details on the lives of Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud that are seldom heard.