Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Steampunk Conventions

I'm not an expert, I've only been to two but I can make some observations on steampunk conventions.

First as an aside I will define steampunk. My definition is science fiction as it might have been conceived by Victorians. Steampunk appears independently in different media. In literature it started as dystopian views of a parallel world with steam-powered mechanical computers. More recently examples are considerably lighter and are set in a parallel world where scientific advances and/or magic exist. There are also people who make steampunk devices - computers with lots of brass and typewriter keys. Steampunk fashion is sort of an offshoot from goth with lots more color plus goggles. Steampunk music still defies definition.

So, what does a steampunk convention consist of? A normal science fiction convention has guest writers and media stars and panels who talk about trends in the field. People dress up as characters from comic books and movies. None of that happens at steampunk conventions.

The biggest thing is giving people a chance to dress up and show off. There are no steampunk movies to emulate (there are movies with steampunk elements but no one copies them). Everyone creates their own styles. Most of it is based on Victorian or military styles but you also have belly dancers and Utilikilts mixed in. There are lots of top hats and nearly everyone has goggles, most of them non-functional).

The most creative people have made accessories - brass jet packs with folding wings or powered gauntlets. Nerf guns are easily converted into formidable-looking weapons.

Panels tend to be on how to do things: how to make costumes, where to find raw materials, etc. Other topics usually cover background knowledge like Victorian industrial design or the history of airships.

Vendors mainly sell clothing. There are no reproduction light sabers or clever T-shirts. Instead you find corsets, hats, jewelry, and gears. Plus goggles.

So far, steampunk music is undefined. I have seen maybe a dozen acts an none of them are remotely similar. The biggest name, Abney Park, came from a goth-industrial background. Others play world music or traditional 19th century music with some sort of a twist. One band played outright headbanger music but sang about Tesla coils. The only similarity was how the bands were dressed. To hats, corsets, and kilts are common.

I suspect that over time more tv shows and movies will include steampunk elements and people will begin copying them instead of inventing their own characters and the genre will become less creative but in the meantime it is nice to see hundreds of people come together to celebrate creativity instead of fandom.

Goggles are the defining trait of steampunk. Engineers need them so everyone wears them, presumably to protect the eyes when running the steam machinery that powers the convention. Some people have attached extra lenses to their goggles.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Renewals and Cancellations

The Human Target was canceled for next year. This is no surprise. Its ratings kept dropping.

This show shows the signs of network tampering. The first season featured fast-paced action with a lot of humor. Stories were told in non-linear fashion. An episode would open on Chance in a tight fix then alternate scenes between advancing the plot and showing how he got there in the first place. The comedy Grounded For Life did the same thing its first season then switched to normal linear plots.

I'm betting that someone at Fox decided that Human Target was too hard to watch and needed to switch to linear stories and add some women to the cast. The second season lost a lot of its light humor in favor of more character interaction. It slowed the episodes down and they just weren't as much fun to watch.

On the other hand, Chuck was picked up for a final 13 episodes. I'm a little surprised at this. The writing for the 4th season seemed a little off. The premise of the show - Chuck gaining knowledge or martial arts skills from flashes was largely forgotten and he has become too capable in his role as a spy. The whole season centered on Chuck's mother who spent years in deep cover working for a criminal named Volkoff. It was not a strong enough storyline to sustain itself across an entire season. They should have had more non-Volkoff/non-mother episodes.

Chuck's ratings were not very good, either. It says a lot about the state of NBC that it carries shows that have fewer viewers than some of Syfy's offerings.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More on Superman's Citizenship

Action 900, the issue where Superman tells the President's national security adviser that he plans on renouncing his citizenship, was a sell-out. The moral ramifications remain.

Superman's reason for doing this was that he is too big to be confined to one nation's politics. He put it in terms about how small and interconnected the world is but the meaning is the same - he is bigger and more important than the US.

Before I go any further I should point out that Superman is not actually a citizen. He is a alias. Clark Kent is the one with the citizenship (courtesy of a forged birth certificate). The Silver Age Superman was known to have a secret identity but the world accommodated the caped version by treating him as a separate entity. It also solved the current problem rather neatly. Instead of renouncing his citizenship, Superman was given citizenship in every member nation of the UN. He was also deputized by all of these nations.

That is where the Silver Age Superman was different from today's model. The Silver Age one was a policeman. He stayed out of politics. He might show some favoritism about where he enforced the law, centering on Metropolis, but he was neutral otherwise.

If we are going to have a near-omnipotent protector, this is what I would prefer.

Think about how much trouble Superman could cause if he started exceeding this mandate. In Action #900, he supported a freedom protest in Iran. What if the government of Iran fell and the country collapsed into sectarian violence? It happens all the time when a government falls. Look at Yugoslavia or Somalia. Egypt is in some danger on this happening. 500 years ago, Machiavelli wrote about how revolutions always make things worse.

What if Superman took a more direct hand? It took the US army three weeks to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Superman could have done it in a fraction of that time. But what then? It took hundreds of thousands of troops and years to stabilize the country after Saddam's government fell. What would be his responsibility after overthrowing a dictator? Superman cannot be everywhere. Would he be up to this challenge?

As a newly-minted citizen of the world, how much does Superman share that world's values? Most of the third world practices some form of slavery. Homosexuality is banned in large parts of the world. Uganda is considering legislation that mandates the death penalty for HIV-positive gays under certain circumstances. Is Superman planning on enforcing Western values? What if he sees a woman driving a car in Saudi Arabia? Western values say that this is good. Saudi law says that it is wrong. What would Superman do?

A few years ago a Spanish judge claimed jurisdiction over the world on human rights violations and ordered the arrest of President Bush and other members of the US government. Would Superman enforce this judge's orders? Or will he give himself similar standing to judge and enforce human rights?

The Silver Age Superman never had to struggle with any of these questions because of the limits he put on his activities. Once you start inserting yourself into international events everything becomes a moral issue.

I admit that I am not in the target audience for these books, anyway. I haven't been a regular Superman reader since the 1960s. I followed the John Byrne reboot for a while but eventually got tired of it. This was a Superman but not my Superman. I feel the same way about this event. My Superman would never judge himself too big for US citizenship.

Monday, May 09, 2011


I was worried about this movie. Director Kenneth Branagh has made some overblown movies. Publicity photos were not encouraging. Asgard looked too sci-fi. Still, I sent on opening weekend.

Surprise! The movie is really good.

Minor spoiler alert.

At its heart, the movie has the same plot as Iron Man. We start with some people in a car. There is an accident followed by a flashback showing us that our hero is an arrogant jerk. We are brought back to the present where the hero has a life-changing experience. Eventually he recovers and fights the real enemy who was someone he trusted.

With both movies, the action scenes are great but the main character is vital. He has to be likable enough to carry the movie. Iron Man was so much fun because you just liked watching Tony Stark. It didn't matter if he was testing a new suit of armor or crashing a party. If the central character isn't interesting then the movie becomes an exercise in marking time until the climax.

Fortunately, Chris Hemsworth's Thor is interesting enough to carry the movie. He isn't as captivating as Tony Stark but his relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her crew makes up for it.

The movie's interpretation of Loki is interesting. For decades the comic book version has simply been evil. In the movie he is a lot more complicated, especially after he learns that he is adopted.

There are some rough spots. The movie has a much larger cast than Iron Man. It includes Thor, Odin, Loki, Jane Foster and her two assistants, the Warriors Three, Sif, Heimdall, Frigga, Laufey the King of the Frost Giants, and Agent Coulson. That's a lot of people to introduce. The Warriors Three, Sif, and Heimdal all get introductions that are too short. Also, why the Warriors Three and Sif? Why not the Warriors Four? In the comic Book Sif was Thor's on-again/off-again love interest. In the movie she is just another warrior (she did have this role in some limited-series "young Thor" books).

High points - the sweeping vistas of Asgard are directly inspired by Jack Kirby's art.

Disappointments - the Rainbow Bridge is not a rainbow, it is a bunch of colored pieces of quartz. Volstagg should be a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. He looks too much like a (very tall) dwarf from LotR.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Looking Back at Thor

One of the first Marvel comics I looked at was Journey Into Mystery #93 staring the Mighty Thor. I remember seeing a group of comics by some off-brand company (not DC). A guy with long hair and a red cape attacked some tanks. I remember thinking, 'He talks about his hammer too much,' and stopped looking before the feature villain, the Radioactive Man, even appeared. A few months later I read X-Men #3 (featuring the Blob) and was hooked on Marvel comics. Being an instant X-Men fan, I just had to buy Journey Into Mystery (Thor) #109 which featured Magneto with sort of a cameo by the X-Men. I missed the next issue but started buying it regularly with #111. When Thor met the Destroyer the following year I thought that it was one of the most exciting cliff-hangers ever. I also picked up enough back issues and reprints to fill in my knowledge of the character.

Looking back, I started reading Thor just as the character really came into his own. The first several issues were clumsy. The story often revolved around Thor turning into Don Blake without his hammer and having to retrieve it before wrapping things up fast. The supporting cast consisted of Blake's nurse, Jane Foster and the strip was only given 13 pages so stories had to be streamlined.

The big change came when Jack Kirby became the regular artist and co-plotter. A whole new element was added - Asgard. Don Blake's life never got any more interesting but Thor's relatives, friends, and enemies were slowly introduced giving the strip a fairly large cast. This is also when the character moved from being about a regular guy who could become a superhero to being about a god who could disguise himself as a human. Jane Foster was written out of the comic in #136. Finally in issue #159 Thor finds out that Blake was nothing more than a construct to teach Thor humility. After that revelation, Don Blake pretty much ceased appearing unless needed for his medical knowledge.

The team of Lee and Kirby continued until Kirby left in 1970. The great Neil Adams took over for two issues followed by John Buscema., The quality of the comic continued until Stan Lee left around 1971. He still wrote a couple of issues after that but Gerry Conway became the regular writer. As time passed, the stories seemed to be going through the motions rather than capturing new glory. This was a general problem in comics at the time as a new generation of creators struggled to find their voice.

Marvel went through a set of revolving editors in the 1970s with the result that few comics had a regular creative team. Thor saw stories written by Conway, Roy Thomas and Len Wein and art by John and Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, and Walt Simonson. Somewhere in there Jane Foster returned and merged with the goddess Sif. For a while Jane and Sif could switch places like Thor and Don Blake. One memorable plotline involved a false Ragnarok.

Jack Kirby returned to Marvel briefly in the late 1970s, creating some ultra-powerful characters called the Eternals. The book lasted less than a year but many of the plot threads moved on to Thor. Most of the stories over a two year period combined the Eternals and ancient Norse myths into a single plotline.

Quality continued to decline in the early 1980s. The comic was on the verge of cancellation when it was turned over to Walt Simonson as writer/artist. Overnight Simonson revived the character, making Thor cool for the first time in a decade. I reread some of his stories last week and they hold up very well.

Simonson began his run by introducing Beta Ray Bill, an alien demon-horse thing who was judged worthy of Thor's powers. Eventually he was given his own hammer. The spell that let Thor change into Don Blake is transferred to Bill allowing him to transform back to the humanoid he was before being re-engineered into the protector for his people.

Thor returned to Earth and took up the identity of Sigurd Jarlson, a construction worker so that he could be closer to humanity. Simonson did the art for two years between issues #337 and #353. After that Sal Buscema took over the art with Simonson continuing to write and doing around half the art. Along the way Thor's face is scarred and he grows a beard. The death goddess Hel curses him with fragile bones and he has to wear armor to support his broken limbs. The whole thing came to a climax in Thor #382 which marked Simonson's departure from the comic.

Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz took over and the quality of the book began another decline. An architect named Eric Masterson was introduced and merged with Thor replacing Don Blake as Thor's mortal identity.

In the late 1990s the big thing was reviving sales by replacing a hero. This was done at one point or another with Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. Thor's turn came after he "killed" Loki (he got better). Thor's identity was submerged and Eric Masterson became the new Thor in 1991 in issue #433. In issue #440 they introduced the Thor Corps - Eric Masterson's Thor, a Thor from the future, and Beta Ray Bill (Beta Ray Thor). The real Thor finally returned in issue #457 and Masterson was spun off as Thunderstrike with an enchanted mace.

After his return Thor went crazy and fought most of the other cosmic heroes in a mammoth cross-over.

At the end of this Thor got a new costume and Roy Thomas took over writing. I remember hating this period.

Warren Ellis wrote memorable four issue run reviving the character once again and starting a long affair with the Enchantress. Bill Messner-Leob took over as the regular writer. Thor lost his powers, shirt, and helmet. He worked as a free-lance hero with the also-powerless Enchantress handling the billing. He got his powers back just in time for the Onslaught plotline. This was a cross-continuity event where all of the major non-mutant heroes vanished to another world and were presumed dead. Thor's last regular issues was #502, printed in 1996. It was a nice send-off as Thor and a second Thor (leftover from a Roy Thomas plotline from 1979) prepared for one final fight to the death. It was only marred by a brand-new costume which just looked strange.

Thor was replaced with the Lost Asgardians for a year. Somehow various Asgardians had been transported to Earth and given human identities. It was really nothing more than a way of marking time.

The whole thing led to a massive reboot of the Marvel universe. Old plotlines and dangling plot threads were ignored and the various characters started with fresh creative teams and #1 issues. Thor was joined (again) with an emergency medical technician named Jake Olsen.

Dan Jurgens was the writer and the quality stayed fairly high. After around fifty regular issues the book got into really interesting territory - what if the gods took a more active role in humanity's affairs? Odin died and people started praying directly to Thor. Starting in issue #68, the comic jumped 17 years then 200 years into the future. Thor and the Asgardians have conquered the world and turned it into a paradise ruled over by Thor (who lost an eye, an arm and his hammer along the way), the Enchantress, and Loki. It eventually turns out that to be a hollow paradise and Thor uses his power to turn back time and undo most of the events. This is followed by a six-part version of Ragnarok and the cancellation of the comic.

Thor was revived again, three years later in 2007. The series has been separated into different story arcs which are easy to package as graphic novels. The first was is about the revival of the gods and their new home, floating above a small town in Oklahoma. The second arc was about the machinations of Loki and Doctor Doom, leading up to the Siege event. The Siege of Asgard itself was a major cross-continuity event involving nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe. That was followed with Thor's attempts to save the Asgardian dead.

All of these have been strong stories, especially the first set written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. They are best read as graphic novels instead of individual issues.

So there we are - nearly 40 years of Thor. Long stretches of creativity punctuated by longer stretches of mediocrity.