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.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reboots - Spider-Man and Superman

We are seeing the first views of the new Spider-Man and Superman movies. So far I'm not impressed. I was half-way through the Spider-Man trailer before I realized that it wasn't for some new Twilight take-off (or possibly it was). In the comics and the original movie, Peter Parker was always a likable nerd with bad luck. The new movie seems to be remaking him into a misunderstood heart-throb.

Over at Marvel, they have killed Peter Parker and replaced him with someone else. Again!!! This plot device was over-used by the time they brought back the Spider-Clone. I can't believe that they are doing it again. Not that it matters to me. I stopped caring about the character after they erased 30+ years of continuity. The Peter Parker they killed isn't "my" Peter Parker. He is a creation of Mephisto.

It doesn't matter what the ethnicity is of Peter's replacement. They will bring Peter back by the time the movie comes out.

Wired has a first look at the new Superman. I notice that he is in another textured rubber costume. I assume that they do this because it is easier to reproduce digitally.

The last Superman reboot left such a bad taste that I don't have much interest in this one. When I think of a Superman movie I now think of the bullet-in-the-eye, torturing dogs, Superman-as-Christ, Superman-as-stalker/rapist, and "Truth, Justice, and all that."