Monday, December 31, 2012

Books and EBooks

Kathleen Parker has become the latest to bemoan the rise of electronic media over print. Like many, she has a sentimental attachment to ink on paper.

Paper, because it is real, provides an organic connection to our natural world: The tree from whence the paper came; the sun, water and soil that nourished the tree. By contrast, a digital device is alien, man-made, hard and cold to human flesh.

Yes, paper is organic although books are printed on paper that is mostly cotton, not wood fiber. Raising cotton stresses the environment. So does ink. I keep my ebook in a nice cover that feels like real leather and is much nicer than a glossy paperback cover and has much less impact on the environment.

Parker believes that real paper adds to the reading experience.
One can read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" on a Kindle or an iPad, but one cannot see, hear, feel and smell the story in the same way. I'm unlikely to race to the sofa, there to nuzzle an electronic gizmo, with the same anticipation as with a book. Or to the hammock with the same relish I would with a new magazine. Somehow, napping with a gadget blinking notice of its dwindling power doesn't hold the same appeal as falling asleep in the hammock with your paperback opened to where you dozed off.
I read One Hundred Years of Solitude from a paperback. I don't remember much about the texture or smell of that particular book but around that time many science fiction books were printed using a very low-cost method. The pages smelled bad and often came loose from the binding as I read. Sometimes it was a single page that came out. Sometimes it was a whole section. Yes, it did add to the sensory experience but not in a good way.

My wife still mainly reads printed books. When she falls asleep with one she loses her place. That doesn't happen with my ebooks.

As I have said before, the important thing to me is the content. I don't read because I love fondling pieces of paper. I want the easiest access to the actual words. Right now I am alternating between a novel and a non-fiction history of Marvel Comics. I have both on a 7" tablet (a Nook Color) and I can switch between them painlessly. If I was reading the printed editions I would be carrying two books around, one of them a heavy hardback or trade. And I can read them in a larger font on a brighter surface than a printed book. If I find myself waiting at the doctor's I can use my phone to pick up reading either one without losing my place.

Another important factor is availability. Parker mentions One Hundred Years of Solitude which was written around 40 years ago. How many other books from that period are still in print? And how hard is it to find them? There are several writers from early 20th century whose works I like but are not in print. Sometimes they are available through the library. Many of these are available for free through Project Gutenberg. I've read several novels that way and availability will only become easier as more books are converted to electronic format.

It doesn't matter how nice the feel of a book is if you can't get a hold of it. Conversely, if I hear of a book I can start reading it in minutes electronically.

There is nothing special about paper. It was the only technology available for centuries. Now other options exist.

Get used to it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The End of Spider-Man

In Amazing Spider-Man #700, the hero dies and the comic book is cancelled.

Of course that's not the end of it. It's actually Doctor Octopus who dies but manages to transfer his mind into Peter Parker's body, essentially killing and replacing him. Instead of an issue #701, they will have a new comic - the Superior Spider-Man.

We all know that eventually things will go back to the status quo. Nothing has changed in Spider-Man since the 1970s. We thought that it had but the demon Mephisto wiped out 30 years of continuity.

Besides, killing or crippling a hero and replacing him is so 1980s. It's already been done with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern (multiple times) and (ahem) Spider-Man.

Reportedly there have been death threats over this plot line. Why bother? As soon as they have enough material to fill a graphic novel or two they will put things back like they were.

Personally, Spider-Man has been dead to me since they rolled back the continuity five years ago.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit

Fans of the novel The Hobbit may be disappointed to know that the movie of that name is not exactly an adaptation of the book. Yes, the movie features Bilbo Baggins and 13 dwarves (which Tolkien later admitted should have been spelled "dwarfs") but the movie goes beyond this and expands on every reference made to contemporary events in the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings.

These changes were inevitable. There was a lot of pressure to expand the project from one movie with a cut-down plot to two. Add in the desire to link this more closely with the LotR movies and you get the final product.

The result works pretty well. The movie did drag in a few places, mainly because I was wondering exactly where it would break off. The LotR has several natural breaks but the Hobbit is one continuous narrative. That means that the producers had to arbitrarily divide it up. I'm sure that it will flow better on future viewings.

There is a lot of foreshadowing that was not in the Hobbit but implied by the appendixes. That is fair since we know more than Tolkien about the results of this quest.

The tone is lighter than the LotR which matches the book. The scenes with the three trolls and with Gollum have laugh out loud moments. The movie is also lusher. Hobbiton and Rivendale look bigger and more detailed. Gollum is even more realistic.

Martin Freeman eases into the character of Bilbo so easily that you forget that he shares the character with Ian Holm.

About the only change I didn't care for was the addition of a one-armed orc as a sworn enemy of Thorin.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lincoln and 1776

The movies Lincoln and 1776 are very different in tone but they make interesting bookends to a chapter of American history.

1776 is a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It follows the months from the original motion to declare independence to the signing of the document. It was adapted from a stage play so the action takes place on a few sets and location shots.

Lincoln is a drama about the passage of the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery. It runs from early January, 1865 through Lincoln's assassination. It was adapted from a non-fiction book. The movie goes to lengths to appear to have been shot completely on location with natural lighting.

Both movies take a few liberties with history but strive to accurately show the behind-the-schemes maneuvering that went into these events. Some of the best lines in 1776 are actual quotes and care was taken with the script for Lincoln.

In both movies the tone is fairly light considering the subject matter. Both have a good deal of humor. Both of them also have a message about the horrors of war. 1776 has a soldier singing a mournful song about the dead on a battlefield. Lincoln begins with a gory (and slightly over-the-top) battle followed by some soldiers relating their experiences to Lincoln himself. There is also a scene at a hospital for soldiers with mangled legs.

In both a vote that seems impossible finally comes together at the last minute.

1776 shows the beginning of America and makes it clear that we would not have existed as a nation if the free states had not accepted slavery. Lincoln shows the struggle to bring that chapter of history to an end.

They would make an interesting 4 of July marathon.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Windows 8 - XP or Vista?

The initial press on Windows 8 has been negative. Some of it very negative.

More recently there has been some push back, reminding people that Windows XP also got some initial bad press. Obviously, XP overcame the initial problems but after twelve years, three service packs and innumerable hardware upgrades, XP seems rock solid.

Compare that with Windows Vista. Vista also got a lot of bad press when it came out. After a service pack and a new set of drivers it became stable but it already had a bad reputation. It was also a memory and CPU hog at a time when the big thing was low-end net books that could not run XP.

So, where does that leave Windows 8?

It has a lot of problems and most of them relate to the user interface. They can probably be fixed with a service pack but in the meantime it has the reputation of being hard to use and of removing functionality.

It doesn't help Microsoft that businesses are still running out Windows 7. It will be a couple of years before most businesses seriously consider Windows 8. Microsoft might have Windows 9 out by then. At minimum, they will have a service pack or two out.

It is possible that Microsoft will continue to push Windows 8 long enough to iron out its many problems. By most accounts, the underlying operating system itself is very fast and stable but Windows 7 is also fast and stable. The issue is in the user interface and Microsoft's goal of having one interface for PCs and tablets. If they abandon that goal then there are no other issues with Windows 8. If they continue to make a workstation act like a touch-screen then the complaints will continue. Dredging up old articles will not affect this.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

According to Wikipedia, the term "Black Friday" originally came from Philadelphia and referred to the crowded streets and stores. This was before 1961 which means before shopping malls. Back then most people shopped at downtown department stores and they got really crowded the day after Thanksgiving. Parking garages filled up and there were long lines to check out. Back then, many big stores did not have individual cash registers. Instead the clerk put the payment into a cylinder and stuck it into a pneumatic tube that took it to a central accounting department. They processed the payment and sent it back in a different tube (this inspired the tubes in Futurama).

Other dates may have more shoppers, but the effect would not have been as bad since the Black Friday shoppers were sharing roads and parking with office workers.

The term "Black Friday" became common by the mid-1970s. Stores, especially chains, started having day-after-Thanksgiving promotions in the 1980s. The current fad for being open all night or on Thanksgiving started then. I think that is when stores started having door-buster sales where they would have an item at a very low price in very low quantities in order to get people through the door (and sell them an upgraded model).

The current usage of "Black Friday" is an example of folk entomology. Someone assumed that the term was a good thing because of all of the business the date brings in. So that person guessed that this was date represents the profit margin for the year - the date that a store goes from losing money (in the red) to making money (in the black).

Many stores make their profits from Christmas sales. Most men receive electric shavers as gifts instead of buying one so Christmas accounts for most of the profits for companies like Norelco. For other companies, Christmas provides a boost in off-season sales. But, there are not many companies that can point to a specific day that they went from the red to the black.

Also, that concept only works when you take the year as a whole. The same thing happens on "tax freedom day" in April. That day represents how much of the year you worked for the government. After that you are working for yourself. Except, of course, you get your pay with taxes withheld on a regular basis.

What is new this year is the frenzy to expand Black Friday. Some stores declared that every Friday in November was Black Friday. Others began leaking their Black Friday specials early or made the entire month Black Friday.

Personally, I'm not going near a retail establishment today.

Monday, November 12, 2012


People who want to see a movie about real espionage should give a pass on the new James Bond movie and go to see Argo instead.

In November, 1979, a mob of Iranian "students" broke into the US Embassy and took the staff hostage. Minorities and women were released fairly quickly in the hopes of starting an American civil war (this part is ignored in the movie). The rest of the staff was held hostage for 444 days, finally released just as Ronald Reagan took his oath of office.

But a half-dozen members of the embassy staff got out before they could be taken hostage. Eventually they got out using Canadian passports. What was not generally known until until now is that the CIA was heavily involved in creating a cover story for the embassy staff. How this was done is the plot of Argo.

This is a movie where none of the Americans are even shown with a gun. No one is shot (at least not by an American). But, it still has more suspense than a half dozen Bond movies. It also shows the CIA in a good light, something very rare for a Hollywood movie.

The movie is also a great period piece. Most of the actors were chosen to look like their real counterparts including the big glasses and heavy mustaches that many men wore.

The Iranian revolution came before cell phones and the internet were ubiquitous so, even though I can remember hearing reports about the violence at the time, it is still a shock to see it brought to life.

I have one quibble with the movie and it comes in the first minute. A prologue states that the elected government of Iran was overthrown and the Shaw put in power because the elected government had nationalized oil production and was giving the profits back to the people. This is ridiculous. It was the Cold War and we supported a pro-American government over a Pro-Soviet one.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Anno Dracula

Yesterday was Bram Stoker's 165 birthday (or would have been if he was still around). This seems like a good time to talk about the novel I am re-reading - Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. This is a revised re-issue of a book that came out 20 reads ago.

The novel takes place in 1888 in an alternate timeline from Dracula. In this version, Dracula survived Van Helsing and company and went on to marry Queen Victoria. By the time the novel takes place, vampires are not only accepted, they are fashionable. They also run the country. England is not exactly a paradise. People who object to the new regime are rounded up and taken to a concentration camp called the Devil's Dyke. To advance in society, you really need to be a vampire. So many people are becoming vampires that bloodlines have become polluted and most new vampires are twisted and unlikely to live very long.

On top of that, Jack Seward (from the novel) has gone crazy and is killing vampire prostitutes under the name Jack the Ripper. This threatens the already-fraying social fabric of London.

Charles Beauregard, agent of the Diogenese Club is sent to investigate. He is aided by Geneviève Dieudonné, an elder vampire who eternally looks sixteen. Along the way we find that multiple characters have their own conflicting agendas. Even the Diogenese Club is playing a deeper game than just sending an agent to solve a crime.

The depth of the novel is amazing. Wikipedia has a list of all of the fictional and historic characters who appear. Some of them are less than a cameo. Early on Lord Ruthven (from The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English) gives a list of other elder vampires and why only he is suitable to being Prime Minister. Other characters are given major supporting status. Even Geneviève is taken from some of Newman's other works.

Dracula himself is more of a presence than an active character. He only appears in two scenes - a flashback to the night that Mina Haker became a vampire and a scene near the end of the novel.

The novel led to two sequels with a third planned for next year.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Disney and Lucas

The headlines say that Disney bought Star Wars and go on to talk about the new Star Wars movies. There is a lot more to the announcement than that.

While Star Wars is the best know part of the Lucas empire, ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) is more important. This is the world's premier special effects facility. They have been involved in nearly every groundbreaking special effects achievement in the last 25 years has come from ILM. They did the first morphing (Willow) and the first computer-generated character (an animated stained glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes).

ILM was created as part of Star Wars. Lucas originally planned to send the movie out to a special effects facility and was amazed to find out that no such entity existed. So he founded one. At first he was paying people who were moonlighting from Disney. The word in the industry was, "Working for George Lucas is a lot of fun but you'll never get rich doing it."

At first they were just Lucas's in-house facility but they broke out in 1981 with Dragonslayer. They have been part of nearly every major franchise including Star Trek, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, the Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Avengers (and Iron Man). Some of the most memorable Best Picture Oscars depended on ILM, movies such as Forrest Gump and Titanic. Disney has a long relationship with ILM going back to Dragonslayer.

ILM also beat out Disney's Pixar for Best Animated Movie with Rango.

The purchase also includes Skywalked Sound which is a major recording facility for movies.

What about the Star Wars franchise? Consider this - the two best out of the series (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) were written and directed by someone else.

Pixar, the Avengers, and the Muppets all continued without being "Disneyfied" so there is no reason to think that Disney will pressure Star Wars to change.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Mockingbird Lane

Previously I expressed skepticism about the reboot of the Munsters. After viewing the pilot, NBC apparently decided to pass on the series but showed the pilot as a Halloween special.

Mockingbird Lane, as the series was renamed, turns the original premise on its head. In the original show the characters looked like classic Universal monsters but acted like regular people and seemed unaware that they were unusual. They thought of themselves as being a normal working-class family and many of the plots could have been rewritten for normal shows.

In the new show, the Munsters know that they are unusual. One of the plots involves Herman getting up the nerve to tell Eddy that he is a werewolf.

Herman looks fairly normal except for all of the scars. Unlike the original, he is smart. He goes through hearts so often that his chest has a zipper. Another of the plots involves getting a new heart for Herman.

Lilly is a sex symbol (rather ironically since the actress who plays her is gay). She still worries that when Eddy was born she wanted to eat him instead of nursing him.

In the original series, Grandpa looked like a vampire but acted like a mad scientist. In the new series he is a vampire who has been obtaining in order to set a good example for Eddy. He has decided to start drinking again and decided that Eddy's scoutmaster would be a good place to start as well as a potential heart donor for Herman. He also bakes cookies infused with his blood so that he can enslave the neighbors.

Eddy wants to be normal and is very upset when Herman finally tells him that he is a werewolf.

At one point Grandpa and Marylin are explaining the cycle of life to Eddy. They are in a hunting blind, watching a deer and explaining about the deer dying and fertilizing the ground for the next generation of deer. Then a cougar kills the deer.

"Does anything kill cougars?" Eddy asks.

A giant, winged creature swoops down on the cougar and Marylin answers, "Sometimes Grandpa does."

The show is expensive and stylish but it is also violent with a dark side that was never in the original. Given the production values, I doubt that NBC could have made money on it. They probably spent more on the special effects for the pilot than on the entire original series.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Comic Book Ghosts

It's Halloween, a date associated with ghosts. Here's a quick survey of ghosts in comic books.

The most prominent comic book ghost is Casper the Friendly Ghost. He started out in film shorts but I know him best from Harvey Comics, the same people who published Richie Rich.

Casper was portrayed as an oddity among ghosts. Most ghosts want to scare people but Casper wants to be friends. Of course, people are inevitably scared when they realize that he is a ghost. While the movie explained that he was, indeed, a dead boy, the comics skirted this issue. Ghosts seemed to be just another class of supernatural creature.

Casper had a large supporting cast who often stared in solo stories. These included the Ghostly Trio - three older, larger ghosts who loved to scare people, Spooky the Tough Little Ghost who wore a derby and had a Jersey accent, Nightmare the Ghost Horse and Wendy the Good Little Witch who had her own version of the Ghostly Trio.

There have been a few ghosts in super hero comics. The most important of these is DC's Specter. There have been numerous versions of the Specter. In the Golden age he was a powerful super hero. He returned in the Silver Age and seemed to be able to pull powers out of the proverbial hat. In these versions he was the ghost of detective Jim Corrigan but he had used his powers to revive Corrigan so the two were separate beings. The Specter needed to rest in Corrigan's body but otherwise they went their separate ways.

In the 1970s the Specter was recreated. In this version he and Corrigan were the same being. Corrigan would investigate murders. When the murderer was found, he would become the Specter and take horrific vengeance in the name of the murdered.

In the 1980s the Specter became the embodiment of good (or something like that), and nearly all-powerful. After Green Lantern Hall Jordan went crazy and tried to destroy the universe, he spent a while doing penance as the new Specter.

DC's other ghost couldn't be more different from the Specter. This was Dead Man, an assassinated trapeze artist who came back as a ghost to find his killer. Dead Man was invisible and immaterial. He could only interact with the physical world by possessing people. Dead Man stories were hard-edged and realistic. Ironically, Neal Adams drew both the Specter and Dead Man at the same time.

DC also had a villain called the Gentleman Ghost who was a real ghost.

As far as I can remember Marvel has had very few ghosts. Many characters have returned from the dead but most return to life instead of becoming ghosts. Marvel is full of supernatural characters like the Ghost Rider who is not a ghost.

I can think of a couple of exceptions, both one-shots. Mephisto, the embodiment of evil, wanted a surrogate against the Silver Surfer and used the Flying Dutchman.

The World War I aviator, the Phantom Eagle, was killed and came back as a ghost complete with a ghost biplane.

Other comic book companies have used ghosts as heroes. Independent publisher Black Horse had a character named "Ghost" who was a detective who returned from the dead. She wore tight, white pants and a top that was cut low to show lots of cleavage. She had a long headpiece like a veil that suggested a ghost's sheet. She carried a pair of black pistols in a white holster. Her stories tended to be very adult.

A more traditional ghost superhero was Nemesis who appeared in the Silver Age. He was a detective who was killed by a gangster. The person currently serving as the Grim Reaper (the guy who sends you onto Heaven) had been killed by the same gangster and sent the detective back as a superhero. Nemesis wore a red top with an hour glass on it, striped trunks, gloves and boots, a short hood and a domino mask. He only lasted a few issues.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Movies

Here are a few great movies for Halloween:

Hocus Pocus - After 300 years, three notorious witches return to Salem, Mass. to suck the life out of children so that they can live forever. Over the top performances by the witches. Plus a zombie and a talking cat.

ParaNorman - This one just came out a few months ago. The plot has similarities to Hocus Pocus with a completely different resolution. Filmed in stop-motion.

Sleepy Hollow - Just about any movie by Tim Burton counts as a Halloween movie but this one revolves around a super natural murder mystery. The Horseman is Burton's scariest creation. He is an unstoppable killing machine. This movie is also notable for restarting Christopher Lee's career. His cameo in this movie reminded directors that he was still alive and working and led to his roles in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (and in the upcoming Hobbit).

Any Christopher Lee vampire movie - The Horror of Dracula, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, The Scars of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula. They all feature Christopher Lee as the remorseless Count driven on revenge. Plus an extra helping of blood and cleavage.

Son of Dracula - This underrated movie is the best of Universal's Dracula movies. Lon Cheney jr. plays the count's son who is also a vampire. The plot is off-beat. The female lead becomes a vampire and the hero goes crazy.

Fright Night (the original) - A teenager who watches too many horror movies realizes that his next door neighbor is a vampire. After the vampire notices him he goes to an aging horror actor for help.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Face-Off - Season 3

Face-Off is the one reality show that my wife and I really like. It is a contest to choose the best make-up artist.

There are several attractions. The principle one is the level of talent involved. These people create fantastic makeup-jobs.

One thing that my wife likes is the interaction between the contestants. They help each other. They offer each other advice. This happens every season. My wife watches some cooking contests and she says that in those shows they would probably disqualify a cook for helping someone else, even if it ever occurred to them.

Most of the show is about the creative process instead of the interaction between contestants. Previous seasons had a bit of friction between contestants but that was never the point of the show. Instead we get artists going confident to anxiety. They second guess themselves. There is obviously a lot of stress. Doing well on this show not only means a big cash prize, it can also open industry doors. This is their chance to move up from doing make-up for haunted houses to movies (the first season winner worked on Hunger Games).

The level of the guests has changed. In the first couple of seasons they had actors. Now they get producers and directors.

The judges seem to be spending more time mentoring the contestants.

The caliber of the contestants has improved, also. The first two seasons had several people whose makeup was bad. That happened very seldom in the third season (with the exception of the first episode).

The show is down to its finale. I had expected Roy and Laura to be finalists. I was close. Roy was the last to be eliminated before the final challenge.

Of the finalists, we have Laura who has the strongest track record of any of the artists, Derek who has won some competitions but has also come close to being eliminated, and Nichole who actually was eliminated and allowed to come back (I'd love to know how and why the producers decided to bring back someone). This is the first time a woman has made the finals and I will be surprised if one of the women does not win. Personally, I'm rooting for Laura since I picked her as the likely winner in the second episode.

The show will have a two-part finale starting on October 30 and ending with a live vote on Halloween.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lord of Light

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny has been one of my favorite novels since high school. I reread it a few months ago and found that I had forgotten several parts and had new insight on others. I also just discovered that the film adaptation of this novel was the basis for the events in the movie Argo which is about the rescue of several Americans by the CIA during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Zelazny wrote several novels putting mythological creatures in a science fiction setting. This one concerned the Hindu pantheon and the Buddha.

The back story is that a planet was colonized centuries before. When they arrived, the crew discovered that the planet was inhabited by creatures who had once had bodies. These are referred to as demons. The demons are powerful, bored, and amoral. They quickly discovered the delights of possessing the new human colonists.

The crew fought them and, in the process developed mutant abilities to aid them. These abilities made them god-like and eventually they began styling themselves after Hindu gods. When using their abilities, the gods can take on an aspect, sort of an aura that makes you know that this is a god, and attribute, the ability itself. Many of them also have technology which boosts their abilities. For example, the lord of fire can set things on fire with his glance but uses a wand that harnesses the Universal Fire. Using it he can burn anything within sight and he also has powerful telescopic goggles so he can see a very long way.

Reincarnation happens through body banks - bodies grown for this purpose. When you get old you submit to the Lords of Karma who use a probe to examine your life. If you have not been properly reverent to the gods you might be refused reincarnation or reincarnated as a lesser beast such as a monkey.

The gods' abilities follow them from body to body.

The gods live in a high-tech heaven and everyone else lives in low-tech. The gods actively suppress innovations such as the printing press.

The novel begins after most of the action has taken place and much of the action is an extended flashback.

Matasamatman (Sam), one of the original crew and a powerful force in the demon wars declares war on the gods. The novel follows his various attempts at opposing them. Among other things he recreates Buddhism, makes a pact with a group of demons he imprisoned centuries before, and fights the gods on the battlefield.

It is hard to see this as a movie. It is episodic. Each of Sam's attempts is different from the others. Many of the characters change bodies and one even changes genders. There are a couple of big battles that would have been prohibitively expensive to film in the 1970s.

Jack Kirby did some work on visuals for the proposed movie. There is a sample of his artwork in the story I linked to. The look is very "Kirby" and reminiscent of his New Gods comics. I am not sure how well it would mesh with Hindu gods in a movie. Also I hate to think of what 1970s producers would have done to the plot. The one book of his that was adopted, Damnation Alley, was unrecognizable.

If someone were to adapt one of Zelazny's works today I would suggest the HBO do his ten-volume Amber series although I would love to see the Stainless Steel Leech done as an animated short.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vanished Genres

Several days ago I saw a list of reasons that writers seem to disappear. One of them is that their genre vanishes. I've seen some genres and sub-genres disappear in my lifetime. Here are some examples off of the top of my head.

The big one is gothic romance. In the 1960s and 1970s this was the biggest genre. Book displays in supermarkets and drug stores were usually evenly divided between gothic romance and everything else. Romance novels are still around but gothic romances are gone (I assume since I don't read romance novels). The gothic romance was basically retelling the classic novel Jane Eyre. The novels involved a young woman being introduced into a new environment. Often she was a governess or tutor (just like Jane Erye). the setting could be modern day or historic (especially the 19th century). Not long after her arrival mysterious and possibly supernatural things began happening. Along the way she met a handsome young bachelor who was unobtainable for some reason and often was the chief suspect for the mysterious occurrences. At the last minute everything would be explained and the heroine and the tragic hero would express undying love for each other.

Science fiction used to be divided into two camps. There is the hard science fiction and the space opera. In hard science fiction the plot was often inspired by the science itself. Larry Niven was a master at this and has survived the collapse of his genre. His short stories almost always revolve around a single idea like the tides caused by a neutron star. His novels have bigger ideas like exploring a world the size of the Earth's orbit.

In the 1950s through the 1980s, the space opera was a staple of science fiction. It always involved a young man leaving his home and discovering that because of luck, special knowledge, training, or genetics, he was the only person who could save his civilization or who could bring down a corrupt government. Where gothic romance was aimed at young women, space operas were aimed at young men. For all of George Lucas's talk about classic myth making, the original Star Wars was nothing but a space opera with good special effects.

A sub-genre of science fiction from the 1980s and 1990s was the shared universe. These were collections of short stories. the idea was that the editor would create the backstory then allow different writers to continue it from there. Each writer could use characters from previous stories. The main stipulation was that a character's creator was the only one who could kill off a character. The original shred universe was "Thieves World". One of the best implementations was George R. R. Martin's Wilds Cards. While most of the Wild Card collections were consecutive short stories, a few were novels where multiple writers followed different characters in overlapping events.

Horror novels were fairly popular in the 1980s and 1990s but have morphed. In a real horror novel, the vampire/werewolf/etc. is a monster who must be hunted down and killed to stop further deaths. Stephen King's Salem's Lot is a great example. His vampires are actually scary. Since then the monsters became domesticated. They can coexist with humanity.

One genre I really miss is the historic novel. This is not to be confused with the historic romance. Historic novels used to be fairly common and were a great way of absorbing history. I am including the historic adventure novel in this category. Think of Treasure Island or anything by Rafael Sabatini. Alexandre Dumas also counts although he changed history around to make his plots easier. There are a few of these still around but not many and you have to search for them.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Disney's Mermaids

As a follow-up to last week's post about a mermaid tv show, I thought I would say something about the two main mermaid movies. Both were Disney productions and both were important milestones.

The first one is Splash. This was director Ron Howard's third theatrical release and his biggest hit to date. It was the first staring role for Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. Both Howard and Hanks went on to win Oscars.

This was a very important movie for Disney. at the time they were still known for producing family and kids movies. They wanted to expand but not under the Disney name. So, they created a new studio called Touchstone. This would produce movies aimed at adults. At the time, movies rated "G" were still being made for general audiences and PG could include brief nudity as long as it was above the waist or the butt. Splash was Touchstone's first release.

During the 1980s and early 90s, Touchstone made a fortune producing low-budget movies, mainly staring actors whose careers needed a boost.. It also produced some movies that were too scary for Disney. Nightmare Before Christmas was originally a Touchstone release.

Eventually the Touchstone formula began to fail. By that time Disney had bought other studios and no longe3r needed the Touchstone name.

Disney's other important mermaid was The Little Mermaid. This came out at an important time for Disney and hand-drawn animation in general. With Walt's death, Disney animation began a downward spiral. Each movie seemed less technically proficient than the last. Pallets were reduced to save costs which meant that the movies were less colorful.

Things began to change when a former Disney animator named Don Bluth released the Secret of NIMH. Bluth's goal was to recreate the days of classic animation. This started an arms race with Disney. Prior to this no studio had ever been able to touch Disney's quality. Here was a movie that was on par with anything Disney had ever done.

So Disney rebuilt its animation department and went about recreating the days of classic animation. The first movie they produced that got any real notice was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which came out in 1988 and was a huge hit. But it was a mixture of live action and animation.

The following year The Little Mermaid came out and proved that Disney could still make a classic. It also updated the Disney princess. This was the first Disney movie that had an actual courtship instead of a prince entering from stage left. It was also balanced - Ariel saved Eric the same number of times that Eric saved Ariel. Finally, it had a plot that adults could enjoy as well as kids.

For the next several years Disney's animated movies dominated the box office. The Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast, the only animated movie to get a best picture nomination, Aladdin, and the Lion King, each setting box office records.

As with Touchstone, the formula finally wore thin and Disney had some outright flops. Regardless, their two mermaid movies each began a successful run.

Friday, October 05, 2012

H2O Just Add Water

A few months ago I was looking for something pirate-related to write about and decided to research the mermaid fad (women and girls are paying $100+ for mermaid tails to swim in). Along the way I discovered that there was an Australian TV show about three part-time mermaids. It ran for three years starting in 2006 and is still being shown on Nickelodeon's teen channel. It is also available on Hulu so I watched a couple of episodes. Usually shows aimed at teenagers with teenage casts are painful to watch (even the ads for most Disney teen shows are bad). This show turned out to be intelligently written. The principles are all a couple of years older than their characters which helps their acting. Anyway, a few episodes were enough to convince me to watch the rest of the season over a few weeks.

The show has a large cast. There are four regulars plus supporting characters who are in most episodes. There is low-level continuity. Main plot points are seldom mentioned from one episode to the next but several story arcs act as B-plots. There is also an amazing amount of back-story that figures into the series - much more than for most adult series. This is especially true with the supporting character Zane and his relationship with the principles.

I'm mainly going to talk about characterization, back-story, and story arcs because I suspect that most viewers do not notice this.

The premise is that three high-school girls happen to be in a pool of water in an extinct volcano on Mako Island when the moon strikes it. The next day they discover that they become mermaids whenever they get wet (hence the series title). They also gain water-related powers. One can freeze water, one can boil it, and the third can move it telekinetically. They can swim extremely fast and hold their breath for 15+ minutes (they do not breath underwater). They are also affected by the full moon in different ways.

The transformation happens around ten seconds after they get wet allowing enough time to dry off small splatters. Otherwise it is uncontrollable. When the girls transform, their clothes vanish but they get tops that match their tails. Also their hair is always loose when they are mermaids. This happens the other way, also. At one point Emma tries dying her hair but the process involves water so she is only a redhead when a Mermaid.

The mermaids are:

Cleo. She is the one who can shape water. She is the least mature. She fights with her younger sister constantly. Her father is a bit over-protective (although she is only 15 at the beginning of the series). Cleo finds school work difficult but works hard and is tutored by her long-time friend and would-be scientist, Lewis. She is deeply interested in sea life, possibly because her father is a commercial fisherman. Her room has a wall-sized mural of sea life and she has some fish. Eventually she gets a job at the local marine park (Sea World but the name is never mentioned). Ironically, Cleo does not swim. At first she sees transforming into a mermaid as a curse and refuses to even try swimming as a mermaid. Eventually she comes to love being a mermaid.

Emma. She can freeze things. She attempts to be the perfect daughter and student. She gets along with her brother much better than Cleo and her sister. Emma often tells the others how hell her family gets along because they are perfectly honest with each other. Of course, keeping a secret like being a mermaid from her family causes rifts. Before becoming a mermaid, Cleo was a champion swimmer and had to drop out of the swim team. This was difficult for her but she was quick to embrace her mermaid abilities. At times she is obsessive/compulsive about planning (seriously, if she was my daughter we would be seeing a councilor about this).

Rikki. She heats things. She is the least "girly". She has a sharp tongue and often lacks tact. She is a slacker who doesn't bother to study but can is very capable when she applies herself. She is also good in a crisis. Rikki is a blank slate in the first season. With the other girls we see their parents and siblings. It takes until the second season before we learn much about Rikki. We never hear her talk about herself to the other girls but she tells Emma's brother that she has never had any close friends and that friendship scares her. Later she tells Zane that her parents divorced over money. She is the most enthusiastic about their transformation. After her first swim as a mermaid, she tells Emma that it was the greatest experience of her life. Before her powers manifested she berated the other two for complaining while they were using their powers.

The final principal is Lewis, Cleo's long-time friend and eventual boyfriend. The girls confide in him early on and he spends a lot of time and effort trying to help them understand their transformation. He is absolutely under-appreciated.

There are four story arcs. The first is pretty subtle and involves Rikki's relationship with the other girls (and intersects with Zane's story arc). The first time we see Rikki, she doesn't know the other girls. Zane had offended her somehow and she got back at him by stealing the spark plug from his boat's motor. For some reason he blames Cleo and sets her adrift (remember, she can't swim). Rikki jumps on board, replaces the spark plug and takes Cleo for a joy ride. It is briefly mentioned that the two have never talked before. Rikki is the new girl and is surprised that Cleo even knows her name. They pick up Emma and end up on Mako Island. Had they not become mermaids Rikki would probably never have become friends with the others. Instead she bonds with Emma after the two of them take their first swim as mermaids. In an early episode Emma is having a party and has to add Rikki to the guest list. even by the end of the season, Rikki is still more private than the others and more likely to keep secrets from them. This includes dating Zane and the fact that she lives in a trailer park (which does not come out until the second season).

The next involves the back-story of the 1950s mermaids. While swimming in the Moon Pool on Mako Island, Emma discovers a silver locket. She keeps it for a while then gives it to Cleo who wears it constantly. An old lady recognizes it and immediately knows where it came from. She begins dropping hints that she knows about mermaids and later warns the girls about the full moon. It eventually turns out that her name is Louise Chatham and she was a mermaid in the 1950s along with two friends. The other two have died and Mrs. Chatham is a widow living on an old houseboat and a bit of a hippy. Each of the 1950s mermaids had a locket. They had them made to remind them of their friendship after a failed romance broke them apart. There is some concern that Rikki is going to repeat the mistakes of the 1950s mermaid. Instead she ends up with the final locket. Mrs. Chatham gives her locket to Emma so that they will be a set again. After that, the girls wear the lockets constantly.

The main story arc involves Zane. His family has been friends with Emma's for years and they knew each other since they were two. Recently Emma and Zane had a falling out. Zane is tall, handsome, and rich. He comes across as a spoiled rich boy and is often rude and derogatory. At first he is mainly comic relief with the point of some plots seeing him humiliated.

Things begin to change when we meet his father, a plastic surgeon and land developer. He regards Zane as a disappointment and borders on verbal abuse. Zane tries to win his father's approval by wind-surfing around Mako Island and breaking his father's speed record. He arranges for Lewis to record it for a video contest but Lewis has boat trouble and falls behind. A shark knocks Zane off of his board and he is surrounded. Rikki happens to be in the area taping sharks for the same contest and drives the sharks away. Lewis ends up with footage of Zane calling for help from sharks in an empty ocean. Zane becomes a laughing stock but Rikki tells him that she believes him.

Later, Mrs. Chatham's houseboat is confiscated as unsafe after it breaks loose and sinks Zane's jet ski. She sneaks off with the boat, damaging Zane's jet ski further. He confronts her, demanding that she pay for the damages. She collapses (she has heart problems if she doesn't take her medicine). Emma and Lewis take her to get medical. Zane heard her say something about her "treasure" and looks for it. The boat's fuel line springs a leak and catches fire and Zane is caught in the sinking boat. Before he loses consciousness he glimpses Emma's tail as she smashes the cabin door open and rescues him. She also recovers the "treasure" which is Mrs. Chatham's locket.

After that Zane is convinced that there is some sort of sea monster in the area and begins searching for it. He finds an old news footage showing a very young Mrs. Chatham being interviewed after saving someone from drowning. There is also a drawing of a fin that matches one Zane made. Zane plans on searching Mrs. Chatham's sunken boat for clues. Emma removes a picture of the three mermaids but Zane catches sight of her and narrows his search to a mermaid instead of a sea monster.

The full moon always affects one or more of the girls. This time it affected Rikki, causing her powers to go out of control. She flees to Mako Island where her presence sets trees on fire. Zane, out looking for a sea monster, sees the flames and finds Rikki distraught. He kisses her and her powers knock them both unconscious and gives Zane what appears to be a sunburn.

Later Rikki attends an investment seminar that Zane's father is conducting. He offers her lunch in the hospitality suite but they end up locked out on the balcony. They discover that they have a lot in common (both live with a divorced father and both use a sharp tongue to keep people at a distance). After that they begin dating and Zane acquires the third locket for her.

Zane's father has plans to develop Mako Island and, in a surprisingly adult response, Rikki files a protest because of the endangered species that the island houses.

The final story arc is a quick one. Lewis takes a job with a marine biologist, Dr. Denman, in order to use advanced equipment to study the girls. The marine biologist turns out to be young, pretty, and amoral. She examines a slide that Lewis left behind and discovers total cellular metamorphosis in the presence of water. This could make her career and she tries to use Lewis to find out more but he refuses.

Later Dr. Denman returns. She been hired by Zane's father to do an environmental impact study of the island - he still plans to develop it. First she discovers a mermaid scale that transforms into skin when dry. Then she gets a picture of the mermaids.

In the season finale, Denman and Zane's father capture the mermaids in the moon pool. The mermaids threaten to use their powers but Denman is holding Lewis hostage elsewhere. Zane discovers what is going on and sides with the mermaids over his father. He frees Lewis and the two of them release the mermaids. He then walks out on his father. Zane's father decides that his son is more important than the mermaids and the two begin a healthier relationship.

Mrs. Chatham reveals that the next full moon will include an eclipse that will remove their powers. They decide that this is the only way they can be safe and, in front of Denman, they transform back into normal girls.

Except that the effect was only temporary and the season ends as it began with the girls transforming unexpectedly as they come into contact with water.

About the only other thing I can add is that, while Zane's story arc continues through most of the season, the first few and the last few are the ones that feature the most special effects and use of mermaids. There are several episodes in the middle that could have come from any teen-comedy, things like Cleo's family thinking that she was dating when she was only working with a sick dolphin at work. The special effects budget was handled similarly. Most of the CGI went into episodes early or late in the season and in several episodes the girls did not spend any time in their tails.

There are several situations that could have gone over the top. Lewis tries waterproofing the girls but they have an allergic reaction. From the title (Love Potion #9) and the premise I was expecting something major. Instead Lewis's spray only made them look like a bad sunburn. They flee the school dance until the effect wears off and are afraid that their dates will not wait.

One final note, this is a kids show and the A-plots are usually light-weight. While Rikki and Zane are bonding on a balcony, the A-plot involves the other two helping Lewis in a fishing contest and having things go wrong when they put a deep-water fish on his hook.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Jack Kirby

During a q&A session with Niel Adams, someone started to compare him to Jack Kirby. Adams stopped him, saying that no one is like Jack Kirby. He made some other points about Kirby being a "learning artist" which got me to thinking.

Adams entered the field with a polished style which has has kept his entire career. In contrast, Jack Kirby's style developed over many years. If you look at his work during the 1940s you would never guess that he would go on to be a major influence.

Part of this was the phenomena of the house style. Each comic company had its own style. They encouraged their artists to match this style. This requirement was stronger for some companies than others. When Adams got his first job it was drawing Archie comics so he had to match their house style. While it has been modernized a bit, Archie comics are still drawn with the same house style.

Marvel had a house style into the 1960s. Some people claimed that it had one in the 1970s and 1980s but, if so it was not enforced.

During Marvel's monster comics days (when it was still called Timely Comics), an artist would come to Stan's office for a monthly story conference. He would he given a plot and talk it over with Stan for a few minutes. An artist never knew what he would be working on from one month to the next and the house style made them interchangeable. This continued into the early days of Marvel. If you look over early issues of Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man, and the Avengers, they all look like they were done by the same artist. Jack Kirby did several of these but sometimes he only did breakdowns and another artist finished the art. Other times a different artist would do an entire issue.

Around three or four years into the Marvel age, this changed. Artists were given long-term assignments and allowed to show some individual style. Look at the Avengers. When the original team (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Ant Man and the Wasp) was switched for a new team (Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch), Don Heck took over as the regular artist and changed his style. Suddenly pages were no longer broken down into six panels.

Looking at the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby made his big leap in style during the issues between #40 and #50. He finally established a distinctive style. This is when he went cosmic with the introduction of the Inhumans, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer. He had already experimented with combining characters and photographs but he expanded on this. When people talk about Jack Kirby's style, this is what they mean. This is also when Kirby was at his creative peak.

Neil Adams made a point of saying that no one has matched Kirby's creative output. He casually created major characters. For FF #50, Stan suggested that they have a really powerful villain, someone who eats planets. When he got the first pages back he called Kirby and asked, "Who's the guy on the surfboard?" Kirby replied, "I figured someone that powerful needed a herald."

Over in Thor, Asgard got grander every time Kirby drew it.

Kirby had a falling out with Stan and jumped over to DC where he wrote and drew. His big creation was his "Fourth World", the New Gods. This was an ambitious set of three titles with overlapping plots (plus some overlap with Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal which Kirby also took over). He followed this with the Demon and Kamandi, a post-apocalypses world with intelligent animals.

Returning to Marvel, he created the Celestials and the Eternals.

Unfortunately, none of his creations sold very well. Kamandi was the longest-running, lasting four years and outlasting Kirby's run at DC. At least one of his attempts (The Sandman) died after a single issue. It didn't help that this was a bad time for comic books in general. Inflation and paper shortages made them more expensive and the traditional outlets, supermarkets and newsstands, stopped carrying comics. Specialty comic book stores were just beginning. This meant that any title that was not a runaway hit was cancelled.

Kirby seemed to be running out of ideas. It didn't help that his style seemed tired and dated. This was partly because he was so associated with the late 1960s and early 1970s and partly because so many other artists were imitating Neil Adams. He did two Super Powers mini-series for DC staring multiple heroes. These were overshadowed by Marvel's Secret Wars. After that he mainly did work for independent labels.

Kirby's legacy is immense. He had a hand in creating most of the early Marvel characters. He created all four of the primary heroes in the Avengers plus Nick Fury and Loki. Of course, at the time no one ever thought that the characters would be worth any real money so his estate did not profit from the multi-billion-dollar franchise he created.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Neil Adams and DC

Over the weekend I heard a talk by Neil Adams. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was the face of DC comics meaning that he did a lot of covers.

DC was gong through a rough patch at the time. At the beginning of the 1960s, they owned the superhero franchise. Superman alone accounted for a half dozen titles. What is now Marvel was still called "Timely" and was mainly doing monster comics. by the end of the 1960s, Marvel was the dominant comic book publisher and DC was reworking its titles to make them relevant.

Neil Adams started with DC in the mid-60s with Deadman and The Specter. While both were about ghosts, the tone of the two couldn't have been more different. Deadman was done realistically. It followed the ghost of a circus performer as he tried to find his killer. He had no powers except for being able to posses people. The Specter was the exact opposite. He had vast, undefined powers. Sometimes it seemed like he could do nearly anything. Despite this, Adams handled both characters easily.

While the Batman TV show was running, the comic added a lot of camp and over-the-top elements. After the TV show ended, the character needed a redefinition. Most of this happened under Neil Adams and writer Denny O'Neil. The flamboyant villains and gadgets were dropped in favor of real detective work. The pair also made major changes to Superman, moving him from newspaper reporter to broadcaster and doing away with kryptonite. Their magnum opus was Green Lantern who they teamed with Green Arrow and sent off to find America.

All of that was well and good. It had a huge fan following but not all of it found a market. Deadman, the Specter, and Green Lanter/Green Arrow were all cancelled.

While I remember a number of very good Batman stories from that period I also remember a lot of bad Batman and Superman stories. One problem was that a Neil Adams cover did not mean that he was the artist on the inside. More often it was Dick Giordano whose work looked similar (partly because he inked Adams) but was not as good a story-teller. The biggest problem was that the books often read like Adams did an interesting cover then O'Neil wrote a story to go with it. A prime example is a cover showing Batman being thrown out of an airplane. In the story, he stopped a skyjacking then ejected his costume.

Basically Neil Adams' work stood out as a bight spot in the rest of the DC line and an Adams cover was no assurance of quality inside.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Let Me Tell You a Little Story About a Man Named Jeb

The Beverly Hillbillies premiered 50 years ago today. Critics hated it but the audience loved it.

The premise was simple - a depression-era farm family meets the modern world. While the Clampett family was an exaggeration, rural people were still living without power or running water in 1962. I once met a woman my age who remembered getting power and running water and who had never been to an indoor movie theater as of 1978 (she had been to drive-ins).

The Clampetts' cultural references were all from the 1920s and 1930. They were from a world of silent movies and kerosene lamps and folk remedies. There politics were from the Civil War.

Most of the plots revolved around misunderstandings between the Clampett family and the outside world. Often the Clampetts turned to cousin Jethro (the only member of the family to graduate the 6th grade). Jethro was pretty dumb.

The show was a huge hit. It was in the top twenty for most of its run and could expect audiences of up to 60 million. Today a show is a runaway hit if 15 million people watch it.

It spawned two similar shows. Petticoat Junction took place in a rural hotel run by a widow and her three daughters. That was followed by Green Acers in which a New York lawyer and his glamorous wife moved to a run-down farm in the same valley as Petticoat Junction.

The shows still had decent ratings when they were cancelled. CBS worried that its shows appealed to too rural an audience and wanted to attract a more urban following.

The premise of the Beverly Hillbillies could never work today. Modern life has reached everywhere. A few years ago I got gas at a remote gas station/general store and heard the clerks arguing about the relative download speed of DLS and cable. Third Rock from the Sun is about as close as we can get to a modern version.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation +25

Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 25 this week. Inconceivable (to borrow a word from something else which turned 25 this week)!

The original Star Trek had mediocre ratings and was cancelled after three seasons. It didn't become a world-wide phenomenon until it was syndicated.

There was talk of reviving the original series for years. They did make a Saturday morning cartoon version which featured some of science fiction's best writers. They went through multiple scripts for movies but these were judged "not big enough". It wasn't until Star Wars set box office records that Paramount got serious about making a movie version followed by several sequels.

Originally the studio wanted to do both movies and a TV series with the same cast. Eventually reality set in and they split Star Trek into two franchises - the original cast in feature-length films and an all-new cast on TV.

Gene Roddenberry had one condition for a new series - it had to be syndicated instead of broadcast on a network. He did not want to fight network executives again. Fortunately, the FCC had recently changed its rules on the number of stations in a market. Suddenly there was a market for prime-time, syndicated programming that could match broadcast TV for production values.

The original show had a racially diverse, multinational cast plus one alien. The new one was even more diverse and multinational plus two aliens, and an android (and a kid).

Unfortunately, the first season was a dud. Roddenberry pushed non-violent conflict resolution in every episode. There was no saving the universe from invading space-bacteria or evil clouds. Roddenberry's health forced him to leave the show part-way into the second season. This may or may not have had a direct affect but the quality of the episodes improved a great deal during the second season. The first season was mainly duds. Ideas such as the planet of barely-dressed joggers or the planet with dominant women might sound good on paper but looked dumb on the screen. The second season had a couple of the show's most memorable episodes like the one where Data got in over his head playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck.

Roddenberry's gamble on syndication paid off. The show was able to experiment in ways that the original never could. In one episode the entire crew regressed into primitive creatures. In another a library ship merged with the Enterprise and the ship began transforming into a temple. Captain Picard linked with a satellite from a long-dead civilization and experienced the adult life of one of its individuals.

Eventually the original cast grew old and the new cast took over the movies. This turned out poorly with only one good movie out of four tries.

The days of syndication ended with the establishment of new networks. The last two Star Trek-inspired shows were on Paramount's channel rather than being syndicated and could not match the excitement of the original Trek or ST:TNG.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hobbit at 75

The Hobbit came out 75 years ago today. By coincidence, tomorrow (September 22) is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo.

Tolkien wrote a lot but it was mainly for his own enjoyment. Paper was expensive (this was the Depression which affected people world-wide) so he wrote on anything that came to hand including the back of test papers (and sometimes the front).

Some of his writing was part of his life-long project to create an entirely new mythology. Like real myths, it would have different voices, some high and some detailed. As an in-joke, he threw in a few references to this mythology in the Hobbit, mainly the names and owners of the pair of swords they found in a troll-stash. The over-sized dagger that Bilbo took as a sword was not important enough for a name so Bilbo called it "Sting".

When Tolkien finished the Hobbit he realized that he had something worthy of publication so he submitted it. It turned out to be popular and the publisher asked for more. Tolkien only had a few other pieces suitable for publication. The War of the Silmarils was not what the publisher was looking for so Tolkien fleshed out a few short stories.

Later he began working on a sequel but got stuck on the opening, what became the "Long Expected Party". He knew that his main character was going to have a big party then go off on another adventure but he dithered around on who the character would be and why he was going. Would Bilbo have another adventure, possibly returning with a wife? Would they vanish and their son Bingo go off in search of them? Would Bingo run through his inheritance and go off looking for his own fortune? How did the ring the Bilbo picked up figure into things? It took Tolkien more than twenty years to figure all of this out.

Tolkien had an interesting take on heroes. They were all fine and good but they didn't necessarily accomplish anything. In the Hobbit, Bilbo goes from being extra baggage to the De facto leader of the expedition. He misses the big battles. When he finally returns home he barely tells anyone about his adventures.

Frodo and Sam have similar paths. Frodo goes because he has to. he is accompanied by three other hobbits because they will not desert him. Frodo does not perform any great feats. Most of his quest is boring, grinding, and dangerous. While Pippen and Merry get to see the Ents conquer Isengard, Frodo is wading through swamps. Merry helps kill a Nazgul, Pippen kills a troll. Frodo blends in with the orks. Even at the end, he can't bring himself to destroy the ring. It happens by accident.

By the time he returns, Frodo is ruined and will never be happy in Middle Earth. In contrast, all of his surviving companions become leaders of some kind (Strider becomes king, Sam becomes Mayor, etc.).

Even in the Silmarillion, the high elves struggle against Morgoth for ages without success. The two long stories, Beren and Luthien and Tuor end badly. Beren weds Luthien but their lives together are short. Tuor is a great hero but his choices bring ruin to everyone who befriends him. Morgoth is only defeated by divine intervention in which the elves play no part.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were not really written with an ending in mind. The journey was the important thing. They were written for the joy of reading. That is why neither book ends abruptly. It is not enough that the One Ring has been destroyed. All the loose ends need to be wrapped up.

The first movie of three will be out this December. From the cast, it looks like Peter Jackson decided to concentrate on the heroics rather than the ordinary things that Tolkien loved. We will see how well the book survives the translation.

Revolution (the series)

I watched the pilot for Revolution this week. The premise is that electricity stops working. The series starts fifteen years later. I'm not going to review the series so much as I am going to quibble about the background.

In the pilot we see the last few minutes of modern civilization. Someone runs into his house and tells his wife to start collecting water. That "it's all going to go off and it isn't going to come back on!" A minute later we see lights going out.

From a hint that is dropped at the end of the pilot, he must have been the cause. The blackout starts at his house and works its way out. We also see airplanes falling from the sky. They don't crash, they spiral down as if they had no momentum when they lost power.

Cut fifteen years and all the messy stuff. A voice-over tells us that a lot of people died and we find out from context that there are now several small pocket states run by militias.

The show was heavily influenced by the Hunger Games down to one of the leads who looks like and has a similar leather jacket to Katness. She also uses a bow (a fancy backwards crossbow).

The last fifteen years have not been all that hard on people. The ones we see all look good. Their clothes are brand new machine-knit. One of them is even overweight.

There are a lot of guns, bows, crossbows, and bladed weapons. This is realistic. Currently there are at least 100 million guns in circulation. Kill off a large portion of the population and you are going to have a lot of guns available for the survivors. Ammunition would be a bigger problem but there are plenty of rounds in existence.

Where are the steam engines? I know that physics changed but they couldn't have changed that much. Thermal expansion and electrical conduction are very different phenomena. I can accept something interfering with electricity but not electricity and thermal expansion. Diesel motors should also work. The physics are similar between guns and diesel - both are oxidation that causes an explosive expansion.

At the end of the episode we see that a hand-held device can override the effect and allow electronics to work. This raises a lot of questions on its own. The person who uses it is in communications with someone else through computers. If the effect is local then how do they communicate? Are radio waves unaffected allowing for long-range wireless communications?

Earlier someone justifies not turning the power back on. He doesn't want to give one of the militias an advantage. Whatever his reasoning, it can't be as bad as he reasoning behind turning the power off in the first place. That would have killed billions of people world-wide.

This show has some of the same people behind it that Lost did and Lost only had a nodding acquaintance with science. Revolution does not look to be any better grounded.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

iPhone 5 Surprises

Wired proclaims: The iPhone 5 Is Completely Amazing and Utterly Boring. A column at ZDNet complained about Apple's missing Reality Distortion Field. Basically, the new iPhone did not have any surprises. Most of the details had already been leaked.

What I have yet to see commented on is the importance of the new screen. It is not only larger, it changes the proportions from 4:3 to 16:9.

One of the big advantages that Apple had was that developers only had to develop for limited specifications and that apps for one platform would still work on others. Yes, the iPad is bigger and the iPhone 4 has a "retina display" but apps written for the earlier iPhone still worked on the newer ones without change.

Apple changed that with the new proportions. Now, older apps everything written to date) will be for the wrong proportions and all new apps will have to support two proportions.

Steve Jobs always insisted that they had hit the proper proportions and that everyone else got it wrong. I guess this proves otherwise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Wired has ten reasons that there will never be an Aquaman movie. I can shorten that list to one reason - he's lame.

He is so lame that I never really followed him. I know a bit about the character but not much. Most of what I know comes from covers, a few episodes of The Justice League, and the Wired article. The only time I ever bought any issues was when there was a three-issue backup staring Deadman written and drawn by Neil Adams.

The character was a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner. Both were mixed-race surface-dweller/aquatic hybrids who could breath under water. The Sub-Mariner got massive strength and tiny wings on his ankles that allowed him to fly and swim very fast. The Golden-age Aquaman had most of these abilities. The Silver-age Aquaman could talk to sea creatures.

The Silver-age Aquaman was little more than an aquatic version of Green Lantern. Where Green Lantern created objects with his power ring, Aquaman called up exotic sea creatures.

Like many DC heroes, Aquaman had a sidekick - Aqualad.

Eventually Aquaman became king of an undersea kingdom (just like the Sub-Mariner) and married a hot redhead (which was highly unusual for superheroes).

The character has been through multiple reboots and version. At one point he grew long hair and a beard. He lost a hand and has worn various attachments since then. The number of different attempts to make him interesting show how lame the character actually is.

The most recent version I have seen was in the animated Brave and Bold. In that, Aquaman is a self-absorbed king who likes to quote from his own autobiography. This was probably a parody of his actual status as a lame second-rate hero.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Musketeers

Ovation showed the Four Musketeers last night. This is the second part of a mid-1970s adaptation of the classic novel.

I read the novel sometime in my early teens. I think it was my mother's copy but I'm not sure. It was one of several old books that just sort of appeared on the book shelf of my closet. This edition was split into two books. Both had red covers and I think it took me a minute to figure out which was the first volume. Anyway, I loved it and read it quickly.

This was the first movie adaptation I had seen and it remains the most true to the novel. The writer, George MacDonald Frazier and the director, Richard Lester, were obviously fans of the original material. A few relationships are simplified. For example, in the book the headsman had a complicated relationship with Milady but in the movie he is just a tradesman for hire.

Originally it was filmed as one very long movie but the producers decided to divide it into two movies thus doubling profits (without paying the stars anything additional). The movies divide right at about the same place as the edition I first read.

The movies are amazing for the amount of historic detail. I was admiring the drinking glasses last night. Historic costuming in the 1970s hit a high point. Before then, costumers took great liberties, especially in Technicolor productions. More recent productions tend to simplify the 1620s styles. I once heard someone from the SCA complain that Milady always wore white and that white was associated with widows in the 17th century. Guess what? She inherited her title (Milady D'Winter) from her late husband. The carriages are notable. They are accurate down to the leather straps that were used before springs.

D'Artagnan is an acrobat, jumping from windows and swinging from clotheslines.

William Hobbs, one of the great fight choreographers of all time, gave each of the characters a distinctive style.
D'Artagnan is an acrobat, jumping from windows and swinging from clotheslines (although by the final duel he is tired and out of breath). Athos is a brawler. Porthos tends to lose his sword and fights with whatever is at hand. Aramis is the most technically proficient.

There are a few problems and anachronisms. Apparently they could not find any working wheellock pistols. This is an early flintlock that uses a wheel to strike sparks rather than a flint. Real ones are cocked with a spanner (wrench) which only takes 3/4 turn. The ones in the movie are cranked several times and never fired. Athos leaves the spanner on one while threatening Milady.

The pistols that are used are all 18th century flintlocks. Milady also had a 19th century caplock derringer.

Musketeers carry matchlock muskets. The movie had some built for the production. I used to have one from the movie (UPS lost it). They were based on period illustrations but had some flaws. The barrels were three pieces.

A matchlock is pretty forgiving about how fine the power is that you prime it with but the movie used extremely fine powder. When they fire you can see the priming powder start to burn before the gun goes off. That only happens with very fine powder.

One lasting influence from this movie is the eyepatch. This is not from the novel. Apparently they gave one to Christopher Lee's character to make him more menacing. Since then the three major remakes have all had a similar character with an eyepatch. Often this character also tries to match Lee's deep, menacing voice.

Since the 1970s version, there have been three new releases (plus a couple of versions of the Man in the Iron Mask and a couple of sequels staring Michael York).

In 1993, Disney decided to trash the 17th century. They released their own version of the Three Musketeers (taking place in 1627), Pocahontas (Jamestown, 1607) and the Scarlet Letter (1690s), all with major plot changes.

There was a 2001 version called The Musketeer which featured Kung Fu-style wire work fight scenes.

Last year a steampunk (lacepunk?) version sunk like a deflated airship. It was the most amusing and the closest of the three to the source material.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Goodbye Zune

On August 31 Microsoft will begin removing apps for the Zune HD from its Zune Marketplace. Some Zune services will also be shut down. There are details here.

It is a shame. The Zune HD was a nice alternative to the IPod Touch. It had some advanced features like being able to sync with a PC over WiFi. The interface was fast and fairly intuitive. And, it was very friendly to music ripped from (legally owned) CDs.

As originally shipped the Zune had some drawbacks. It could not connect to a wireless network that required an agreement. This is how most commercial hotspots work so it was limited to home wireless routers. Email, Facebook, and Twitter were a long time coming. All of these were eventually fixed and several games created for it but by then the IPod and IPhone had hundreds of thousands of apps.

Probably the biggest thing that hurt the Zune were timing. The window for marketing a non-phone, touch-screen music player came and went pretty fast and they launched at the tail end of it. Even then, the device was not totally ready for the market. It was fine when playing music or movies but, as I said before, the social aspects of the device were not ready when it launched. It also lacked the ability to do any multiprocessing except to play music while using one of the limited number of apps.

Regardless, I got one of the early ones and found it to be a good music player. It has good battery life and the touchscreen is much handier for large music collections than the touch wheel on the Sansa player I used before it.

It is not perfect. When restarting the device after pausing it, it often wants to start playing the first music track on the device instead of restarting the playlist I was on. The interface is menu-based and some choices are buried further than on Android.

My biggest complaint is the lack of external storage.

Recently I upgraded my smart phone. This left me with a perfectly good Android device that can still connect to WiFi and has external storage. I put a 32 gig memory card in it and have been using it as my music player instead. One advantage to this is that I can play music without having to use earphones or an external speaker.

I can understand why Microsoft would not keep supporting a device that they no longer produce but I am not sure why they would start killing existing services. This is just the latest in a line of music players that they introduced and later abandoned. It is actions like this that make me dubious about trusting Microsoft again.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


ABC has announced a new TV series based on Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. with episodes written by Avengers-director Joss Wheden,

Before I can talk about SHIELD (I'm going to drop the periods from now on) I need to backtrack to Goldfinger. This was possibly the most influential movie of the 1960s. It was actually the third James Bond movie but this is the one that really made an impact. For years afterwards spies, often laden with high-tech gadgets, were popular on TV and in movies. There was even a popular sub-genre of parodies of spy movies (for example, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine). TV series included the Man from UNCLE, the Woman from UNCLE, Get Smart (another parody), and British imports Secret Agent, The Avengers (Steed and Mrs. Peel), and even The Prisoner.

1965 was a big year for Marvel. Stan shook up a lot of titles. Some changes were minor - Reed and Sue got married, Daredevil switched his yellow and black costume for the red one. Other changes were larger - the Avengers replaced most of its members, the Hulk became intelligent (for a while). At the time, Marvel had two comics that featured two stories. Tales to Astonish was split between Giant-Man and the Hulk while Strange Tales was split between the Human Torch and the Thing as the lead feature and Doctor Strange as the backup. The first feature in these comics was replaced with a new one. The Sub-Mariner took over Tales to Astonish and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD took over Strange Tales.

Fury had been around for years as a World War Two sergeant leading the Howling Commandos. Stan billed this as a "war comic for people who don't like war comics." Fury was known for losing both his temper and his shirt.

Early on Stan decided that the Howling Commandos occupied the same word as his superheroes. Reed Richards made an appearance in an early issue of Sgt. Fury (and Captain America appeared in another issue). Fury appeared in an issue of the Fantastic Four as a major.

Rather than create a new character, Stan and Jack Kirby reused Fury. He lost an eye but gained a promotion to Colonel. In the first issue, Fury was recruited as the director of the new organization. It also introduced LMDs (Life Model Decoys), flying cars, and the helicarrier.

Secret governmental organizations exist to fight shadowy groups that are trying to take over the world. In Fury's case the original organization was called Hydra. After this was disrupted, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) became the new threat. Others followed and Hydra reappeared a few times.

Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, Fury and SHIELD were kept separate from it. Tony Stark appeared a few times but without armor. Captain America was the only costumed hero to appear.

Jack Kirby was the original artist but he was soon replaced by comics legend Jim Steranko who made his reputation from his run on the comic. Steranko eventually took over as writer, also, becoming the first fan-favorite writer/artist. He combined a clean, photo-realistic style with psychedelic touches and unusual layouts. He left after the 5th issue although he still did some covers. The new team could not maintain the quality of the Steranko issues.

After three years Strange Tales was split into solo comics. It only lasted 15 issues before it was cancelled (it actually went to #18 but the last three were reprints from Strange Tales).

That was not the end of SHIELD. Fury and company became regular guest starts. After Captain America began dating a SHIELD agent he spent some time as sort of a SHIELD consultant. When Godzilla was given a comic book, a branch of SHIELD was assigned to destroy him.

Over the years Fury has become a mainstay of the Marvel Universe. He is the eternal warrior, always there to do the right thing no matter what the cost.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Read Comics in Public Day

It turns out that today (August 28) is Read Comics in Public Day where people are encouraged to read a comic book where others can see you doing it. The date was chosen because it is Jack Kirby's birthday.

Wired is asking for pictures.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Paranorman and Hocus Pokus

The current release Paranorman is about a boy who can see the dead. As if this wasn't enough of a burden, he finds out that only he can stop a witch from returning and taking vengeance on the town that executed her three hundred years earlier.

While there are some major differences (one is stop-motion and the other is live-action) there are a lot of similarities between this movie and 1993's Hocus Pocus. Here are some of the similarities and differences. I'll warn before I get to the major spoilers.

Both movies feature a boy who feels like an outcast.

Paranorman - Norman talks to people who are invisible to everyone else.
Hocus Pocus - Max just moved to Salem from California

Both heroes have a sister he does not get along with but who joins him in the adventure.

Paranorman - an older sister
Hocus Pocus - a younger sister

Both towns have a witch (or witches) who were executed three hundred years ago and who have returned. The towns celebrate the witches and even teach about them in school.

In both movies the hero is bullied in school. Later the bully/bullies encounter the witch(s).

Paranorman has a school play about the witch trial.
Hocus Pocus includes the witches in history class.

In both movies the witch(s) return along with zombie(s).

Paramorman - one witch, multiple zombies.
Hocus Pucus - three witches, one zombie.

In both movies, the action takes place on the anniversary of the witch's execution but this is actually a bit of a red herring. In both movies, the witch(s) return happens because of external events.

Paranorman - incomplete instructions on how to keep the witch from rising
Hocus Pocus - a virgin lights the magic black candle.

In both movies it is up to a small group of kids to stop the witch.

In both movies, the zombies lose one or more limbs which is mainly an inconvenience.

In both movies the witch hates to be called ugly.

Paranorman - the manifestation of the witch destroys several ugly witch statues and other representations.
Hocus Pocus - Winifred goes out of her way to try to kill anyone who calls her ugly.

------------ spoilers -------------

In both movies the zombies are not as bad as you first expect.

Paranorman - the dead are brought back to punish them for convicting an innocent of witchcraft.
Hocus Pocus - Billy the Zombie always hated Winifred and turns against her as soon as he can talk.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The 50s Craze

Every now and then there is a craze for a previous decade. There was a mild 1970s craze in the 1990s which lead to the TV show That 70s Show. There was a 1940s craze in the 1980s that mainly manifested itself as shoulder pads on women's clothing and accentuated cheekbones inspired by the Joan Crawford look from Mommie Dearest. When done poorly this looked like warpaint.

None of these can hold a candle to the 1950s craze in the 1970s. A lot of this centered on Rock and Roll.

Rock came into its own in the 50s but it changed at lightening speed. A song might be a major hit one year and hopelessly dated the next. Listen to the Beatles' recordings for an example of this.

By the early 1970s some DJs (Disk Jockeys - back then the guys who announced the records actually got to choose what they would play) had rediscovered early Rock and named it "Golden Oldies".

What started as a music revival became a cultural phenomenon with the release of two movies - American Graffiti and The Lords of Flatbush. American Graffiti was made by a pre-Star Wars George Lucas about his late-teens in the "strip". The soundtrack was a "best of 1962" which was close enough to the 1950s. The movie cost less than $1 million to make and took in over $100 million.

The Lords of Flatbush was nowhere as big of a hit but it did feature two soon-to-be-important start, Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone.

Jumping on in the craze, ABC created a tv show set in the 1950's, Happy Days. It stared Ron Howard from Graffiti but Winkler as Fonzie quickly stole the show. It rocketed to number 1. At first the show stared with the 50s classic Rock Around the Clock which quickly sold more records than it had the first time around. Later the show used a 50s-style theme song which was also a hit.

Happy Days was followed with another 1950s show, Lavern and Shirley. Shirley was played by another actor from Graffiti. This show was even more popular.

While American Graffiti was a big hit, the 50s-inspired Grease was a blockbuster. It grossed nearly $400 million world-wide which would make it a huge hit today, even without allowing for inflation.

Eventually the 50s craze wound down. The bands like Sha-na-na who had reformed went back into retirement. Happy Days got so desperate for new plots that they had Fonzie water ski while wearing his trademark leather jacket. When a shark threatened him, he jumped it. It was all down-hill from there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Surface Tablet for $200?

Engadget claims that the low-end Microsoft Surface Tablet will cost $199. That would make it comparable with the Google Nexus, Amazon Fire, and Nook tablet. The Surface will have superior hardware than these. It will have a larger screen, more memory, and come with a cover that doubles as a keyboard.

The other tablets are sold at cost or just above. The purpose is to lock the user into the vendor's ecosystem where the real profits are.

Microsoft is probably playing this game, also but in their case they are almost certainly subsidizing their tablet. If true, it is a risky move but it might be their last chance to stay relevant.

Windows 8 looks like it will be a disaster similar to the original Vista roll-out. Businesses are still rolling out Windows 7 and many are planning on holding off on Windows 8 or waiting until Windows 9. The main attraction of Windows 8 is that it has a unified interface with Microsoft's phones and tablets. But this only matters to people who actually have a Microsoft phone or tablet.

When Microsoft announced the Surface and said it would be competitive, people assumed that they meant competitive with the iPad. That means $500. This is too much for an impulse purchase. $200 is low enough for people to try it without a strong commitment. Also, given the larger screen and keyboard, it could pull away a lot of the Nexus and Fire business.

Android is not firmly established on the tablet. The most successful Android tablets, the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, hide android completely. This gives Microsoft an opening that might not exist a year from now.

This would not be the first time Microsoft subsidized a device in order to gain market share. They originally lost money on their game platform. In that case, they were successful but subsidies do not guarantee success. Their attempt at creating an alternative to AOL back in the days of dial-up flopped.

At $200, I might be tempted to give the Surface a look. It depends on what software I can run. Right now I have a lot of books in Nook, Kindle, and EPub format. If the Surface can run all of those applications then I might consider it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Power Levels

During the Silver Age of Comics, DC heroes strode the earth like demigods. Their powers were limitless and existed beyond mortal physics. Superman epitomized this. He was invulnerable to everything except kryptonite and magic. Nothing was beyond his strength (except the metal "inertron" which was not invented until the 30th century). He could melt anything (except lead) with a glance or freeze it with a puff of his super breath. He could see anything anywhere (unless lead was in the way). Using super hearing and super ventriloquism, he could hold conversations with people anywhere on the planet. He could fly faster than light and, if he spun at the same time, could go into the past or future. What's more, he was a genius inventor who built advanced robots that could pass for human.

The other DC heroes were not far behind. Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter had many of Superman's abilities. Green Lantern's ring could do anything as long as yellow was not involved. The Flash had to work a little harder but could do things like vibrate through solid objects.

Even non-powered heroes like Batman never met anyone they could not beat with their bare hands. The only trick was following some obvious clues to find the villain.

Contrast this with the Marvel heroes, especially the first few years. They were much weaker. The most powerful heroes, Thor and the Hulk, could not even fly. Thor needed his hammer and the Hulk jumped. There were things that even the Hulk could not break.

The Thing could only lift a few tons. The Human Torch's flame lasted around a half hour, less if he pushed it, then he had to rest. Cyclopes, the most powerful member of the X-Men, could move a few tons with his power beam but the effort left him weak or even unconscious. The same was true for Marvel Girl who collapsed after lifting a few hundred pounds. At 12 feet tall, Giant Man wasn't all that strong and was clumsy. He could grow larger but only for short times. His partner, the Wasp, was more of an irritant than a threat.

The most powerful heroes had built-in weaknesses. Thor lost his powers if he didn't hold his hammer. The Hulk changed back to a puny human. Iron Man constantly had to recharge his batteries. The Sub-Mariner grew weaker when he was out of water.

Even Daredevil had constant problems. He was a blind, costumed athlete with radar sense but power lines and other things confused his hypersenses. A guy dressed as a matador, or someone on stilts, or someone in a frog suit was enough to give him a challenge.

Then there is Spider-Man. He had superhuman strength but he usually fought people who were even stronger. Just a group of regular people was enough to give him a work-out. The trio, The Enforcers, fought him to a standstill more than once. They consisted of a cowboy with a lasso, a guy who knew martial arts, and a big strong guy.

While most of the Marvel heroes grew stronger during the late 1960s and 70s, Spider-Man grew weaker. Regular guys with a gimmick were enough to give Spider-Man a challenge.

The funny thing is that the Marvel heroes were a lot more interesting. There was never any question that Superman or Batman would win a fight. The plots were often structured so that they had to out think their foe. While admirable, it did not induce page-turning excitement like hand-to-hand combat with someone who is stronger.

Over the years the Marvel characters have gotten stronger and the DC characters a lot weaker. When they finally fought, the Marvel heroes came out on top.

At the same time the Marvel villains have gotten stronger so that the fights are still a challenge. Still, they do not seem as grounded as they used to.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Important Superhero Movies

There have been a lot of superhero and comic book-inspired movies over the last few decades. Some have been good, many have been forgettable. This is my list of ones that were important. When I say important, I mean that they had an noticeable effect on other movies.

Superman (1978)

Billed as Superman the Motion Picture with the tag line, "You will believe that a man can fly", this was the first big-budget super hero movie. Stories about production problems had been going on for years before the movie made it to the screen. For a long time it was considered a "troubled production". When it actually came out it was a huge hit.

Part of the success was the contrast between the earnest, too-good-to-be-true Clark Kent/Superman and the post-feminist, post-Watergate Lois Lane.

The movie started on the doomed planet of Krypton, showing us Jor-el sending his son to the Earth and educating him at the same time. It followed as the child was adopted and brought up with solid mid-western values, eventually discovering his heritage and assuming the identity of Superman. We saw Clark meet Lois then rescue her as Superman. He then went on to save multiple people (and rescue a cat from a tree).

Unfortunately the movie peaked half-way through. Once Luther and his goofy assistants were introduced it was all downhill into camp.

Superman 2 never duplicated the lyrical parts of the first movie and never got quite as campy. Superman fought a trio of villains with the same powers that he had. He was also pulling powers out of a hat. After that, the movies went downhill fast.

Superman was notable for its visual effects, particularly the digital wire removal. It proved that comic book heroes could appeal to adults if taken seriously.

Batman (1989)

The comic book character was notable for going through two reboots in the 1960s. The first one trimmed the cast eliminating Batwoman, Batgirl, Batdog and Bat Mite. Also eliminated were fights involving giant props, the Batplane and whirlybats (flying chairs). The over-sized Batmobile was traded in for a convertible sports car. Plots involving aliens or wacky villains were dropped in favor of a more realistic approach. Then came the campy TV show and a lot of the camp crept back into the comic. By the late 1960s, the character was being redefined again. Robin was sent to collage and everyone started referring to him as the Batman.

This change was reflected in the approach to the character. Camp was banished. The Batman took himself seriously.

The look of the movie had a major effect on late superhero movies. The Superman movies were set in the present-day. Care was taken to reproduce the offices and street-front of the New York Times as the Daily Planet. While this added to the realism, it also meant that the Superman movies did not age well. By the mid-1980s, the first couple of movies already looked dated.

For Batman, Tim Burton designed a Gotham City that never existed. Few cars were shown and none were contemporary. As a result, this movie still looks fresh more than two decades later. The only jarring point is when we see Bruce Wayne looking at various TV screens. The TVs use picture tubes rather than flat screens.

The movie showed that a superhero movie did not need any camp or tongue-in-cheek to succeed. But, since it was a Tim Burton movie, it did have some bizarre touches. The sequel had more. The third and fourth movies were over the top and killed the franchise.

X-Men (2000)

Several marvel properties had been made into movies but there were C-list characters (Blade) or flops (Howard the Duck, Punisher). This was the first A-list Marvel title to make it to the big screen and it was a hit. This was followed by an onslaught of other Marvel heroes which continues to this day. Most of them are true to the original character which was a problem in the earlier adaptations.

The X-Men also added sub-texts to superhero movies. The mutants could be seen as stand-ins for issues such as terrorism and gay-acceptance.

Spider-Man (2002)

Superman showed that there was still a place for superheros in the cynical, post-Watergate era. Spider-Man showed that the same was true in the post-9/11 era. It was a huge hit.

Both X-Men and Spider-Man showed that superhero franchises did not have to sink into camp as they progressed. Both series stumbled on their third movie by stuffing too much into the plot but neither committed a sin equal to "bat nipples".

Batman Begins (2005)

This movie introduced the concept of rebooting a character. I still prefer the Tim Burton version but without this movie no serious Batman movies would be possible.

Iron Man (2008)

This was the first marvel Studios movie and it introduced the Marvel movie formula. This includes a long middle act where we get to know the character. The casting and scripting on Iron Man were brilliant because this middle act is the best part. The movie actually becomes less interesting when Tony Stark starts fighting.

Where the X-Men kicked off movies featuring Marvel characters, this one began a series of movies produced by Marvel in which the characters share a common universe and interact. Without the previous four movies, the Avengers would have flopped. It would have taken too long to introduce the characters.

Iron Man was also notable because the head of the Academy of Motion Pictures admitted that it (and The Dark Knight which came out later the same Summer) should have gotten best picture nominations. This was a break-through in acceptance of superhero movies.

The Dark Knight (2008)

 Another huge hit, this is the first superhero movie to win a major Oscar (best actor for Heath Ledger. No camp here.