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.