Monday, January 30, 2012

Educational channels?

I've been watching Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet. Like History Channel's Monster Quest, this starts with the proposition that unknown animals exist in or near populated areas. One big difference is that Monster Quest often admits that the monster they are investigating is a false report.

Find Bigfoot features a group of experts on Bigfoot who follow up on some sort of Bigfoot sighting. Often they admit that the sighting was probably false but investigate the area, anyway after proclaiming the area 'Squatchy.

The most recent episode was filmed at Salt Fork State Park in Ohio. I grew up in that general area which gives me some insight into their findings.

The sighting that drew the hunters was of a Bigfoot (or 'Squatch as they call them) shaking a tree. After duplicating the shot, they discovered that the 'Squatch in question was not very big - certainly less than six feet. Since it was filmed in the winter, it was probably the silhouette of someone in a snowsuit trying to knock down a dead tree for firewood. They admitted this in passing but continued on with their investigation announcing that Ohio is the 4th 'Squatchiest state.

They did gather a large group of locals together, many of whom claimed to have seen Bigfoot themselves. Then they lead their volunteers on a sweep of a forested part of the park looking for traces. The best they came up with was a pile of brush and a heel print that probably came from a boot. They also wandered around in the dark for a while with night vision cameras.

Monster Quest checked out the same area and also found a pile of brush. Both shows concluded that these were shelters built by a Sasquatch.

The one thing that the show did not find was any direct evidence of a Sasquatch - no hair, no droppings, no clear photographs, and no bodies. On several shows the hunters have claimed that 'Quatch live on deer but they have not found any signs of a kill.

On other shows, while wondering at night they have tried making howls or clacking boards together. If they get an answer then they claim that this is proof of a Sasquatch.

A few problems here - how do they know what a Sasquatch sounds like or that one will return a call? Even assuming that humans and 'quatches are the only creatures able to clack two boards together, where does their Bigfoot get his lumber? You can't just tear off a couple of tree limbs and strike them to get that sound. At minimum you have to have fairly short pieces of dry but not rotten wood with no bark or branches. Where does Bigfoot get this in the woods at night on short notice?

I grew up in this general area and I still go out in the woods a few times a year. I have seen coyote, footprints from a cougar and scat from a bear. Cougar and bear are very rare in Ohio. Most of them have wandered in from other states.

So, how is it that I can see traces of rare creatures but no traces at all of Bigfoot in the 4th 'Squatchiest state?

Could it be that Bigfoot doesn't actually exist? These shows will never say so. They prefer to feed the myth.

The problem is that these shows along with Discovery, try to have some scientific credibility. They do shows on real science. That makes it difficult to tell what is real and what is not when they mix real knowledge with ancient aliens.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Oscars - best animated film

What can I say? The Adventures of Tintin was robbed. It won the Golden Globe for best animated movie and wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. Except for Rango, the other choices are also odd. Puss in Boots is the 4th in a franchise. Kung Fu Panda 2 is only the second but it didn't make that big of a splash. And in what world does a movie staring Jack Black win an Oscar of any kind?

In addition to Tintin and Arthur Christmas, the Academy overlooked Rio which scored better on IMDB than Puss in Boots.

I admit I never heard of the other two. Both Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita are hand-animated. IMDB lists their release year as 2010 so they must have been in limited release in the US in 2011.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Best Animated Movie

The Golden Globe nominations for best animated movie were The Adventures of Tintin, Arthur Christmas, Cars 2, Puss in Boots, and Rango. Tintin won the award.

So, what can we expect from the Oscars? And which movie was actually best?

The Oscars only nominate three pictures. We can assume that Cars 2 and Puss in Boots will not make the cut. Cars 2 wasn't bad but it might be the worst (least best?) movie that Pixar ever made (one of them has to be the worst). Puss in Boots was the fifth in a franchise that lost its steam after the second installment. I suspect that both were nominated because of past successes by their respective studios.

That leaves us three very good movies.

Arthur Christmas has the best characterization. You have three generations of Santa Clauses, all with their own agendas plus Arthur, the accident-prone second son. Over the course of the movie you realize that Arthur is the only one who still gets Santa Claus - that it's about the kids. Its animation is really good but not jaw-dropping. The two strikes against it are that it is a Christmas movie and it is very British.

The animation in Rango is amazing. It was ILM's first feature-length animated movie and they put all of their photo-realistic skill into it. The plot is good - kind of a Don Knots movie if Don Knots was a lizard who sounded like Johnny Depp. The only strike against it is that the main characters are kind of repulsive.

Tintin was made by ILM's competitor, Weta. There is less character development in this than in the other two and it is not as photo-realistic as Rango. What it does have is the best adventure plot by director Stephen Spielberg since Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also has a long take - a continuous shot going on for several minutes as multiple characters try to grab the clues to a treasure and avoid a flood.

So, why did Tintin win? It was either the long take or it could be that the Golden Globe voters have a soft spot for the character of Tintin.

Personally I would have given the award to Rango but all three of these movies deserve the prize.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Politics and Comic Books

Darin Wagner of Bleeding Cool wonders if liberalism is hurting comic books. Albert Arthur has more thoughts on this.

Personally I think that overt references to current politics should be avoided in comic books. It seems dumb to alienate half of your customer base. But it is nothing new.

One big irony about superheroes is that they are inherently conservative. Simply owning a handgun in New York City can get you a minimum two-year sentence but most superheroes heroes operate outside the law and have powers and weapons far more dangerous than any gun. Some heroes operate within the law. These are usually groups like the Avengers or the JLA. Many of the most popular heroes are outside the law.

In his first couple of appearances, Superman was very much a vigilante. Among other things, he drove a corrupt Congressman out of town.

The Human Torch started out as a menace but quickly joined the NYPD and fought the Sub-Mariner who was an early terrorist.

Most other heroes were fighting crime out of a moral responsibility.

After World War II broke out, there were no more heroes with questionable motivations. They were pro-America. Many comic books became little more than propaganda with Nazis and Japanese looking less than human.

Most superhero comics were cancelled at the end of the war, replaced with crime and horror comics. I don't remember much bias in any of those or in the early DC Silver Age comics.

Stan Lee insists that he is apolitical but most of the early Marvel heroes spent a lot of time fighting communists. All of the original Avengers, individually and as a team fought communists at least a few times. The Hulk and Iron Man were accidentally created by communists. Henry Pym's first wife was killed by communists. The Black Widow was threatened with the death of her parents (who were later retconned out of existence) if she defected. Moreover, communists were represented as treacherous, always planning on eliminating each other.

These stories were printed during the height of the Cold War and communists were an easy target. After the first few years, Stan stopped using communists as catch-all villains. By the late 1960s, the main messages that Stan promoted were wholesome - anti-drug and anti-racism.

During the 1960s, Stan Lee and Roy Thomas wrote most of the Marvel comics. In the early 1970s, Stan eased out of writing and a new crop of writers appeared. Many of these did have strong ideologies. Message stories began appearing. She-Hulk did an anti-power line story. Iron Man did an anti-evolution story. Howard the Duck had an anti-nuclear story that was so strident that the writer (Bill Mantlo) was taken off of the comic.

In addition to message stories, certain themes crept into Marvel. Steve Gerber used Howard the Duck and the Guardians of the Galaxy to criticize modern civilization. In one episode, the Guardians of the Galaxy happened on a planet just like 20th century Earth except populated with a variety of alien species. It turned out that this was an insane asylum and the patients had been allowed to create any civilization they wanted.

When Iron Man was created, Tony Stark made weapons for the US government. This was handy since it made him a target for communists. By the late 60s, he was out of munitions and trying to atone for his past by dating an anti-war activist ten years his junior.

Big business took over from communism as the generic enemy, especially Roxxon Oil. All of Tony Stark's competitors were corrupt and most rich men turned out to either be supervillains or to be financing them. An organized crime group known as The Corporation also appeared regularly. By the early 1980s, Marvel was sending the message that rich people and corporations could not be trusted. Not surprisingly, fandom began to turn against Marvel for being a large corporation.

DC was late to do message stories but came out swinging. Green Lantern teamed up with Green Arrow for a series of message stories that beat the reader over the head with a green bat. Batman and other characters also had occasional message stories. Still, DC never jumped on the big-business-is-bad bandwagon like Marvel did. Since the DC Universe does not mirror the real world as closely as the Marvel Universe, it has not engaged in as much political commentary until recently.

The treatment of presidents deserves special mention. President Kennedy met with Superman and gave him some special missions - things like promoting physical fitness. Kennedy was the only real president I can remember appearing in a regular DC comic book. Reagan made an appearance in The Dark Knight Returns limited series, ordering Superman to arrest Batman after Batman was accused of murdering the Joker. This is a special case since it took place outside of normal DC continuity.

Marvel was not so shy. When Bruce Banner was arrested as a communist spy, Rich Jones explained to LBJ (who was off-panel) that banner was really the Hulk and LBJ cleared Banner. In Captain America, Nixon (also off-panel) revealed that he had tried to take over the world and shot himself. Ford was kidnapped in the Defenders by the Headmen. It was undignified.

During the 1980s, a small group working from the basement of the White House ckaimed trademark on the costume and name "Captain America". Steve Rogers became the Captain while a different hero became Captain America. This was put to right when Reagan wondered into the basement office and ordered the staffers to give the Captain America identity back to Steve Rogers.

I don't remember the first Bush or the Clintons appearing but the Hulk was offered a pardon after saving Chelsea Clinton (actually it was a private fight but the Secret Service assumed that it involved Chelsea).

For the last decade or more, Marvel has been making political statements, usually anti-government. The Super Powers Registration Act which caused the Civil War event was meant as a proxy for the Patriot Act. At the same time, it was handled more evenly than you might expect.

Three years ago President Obama received an unheard of tribute in a special issue of Spider-Man. Obama appeared on the cover and Spider-man stopped a plot to disrupt the inauguration. This was the most flattering appearance of  a president since JFK.

Bottom line - comic books have been pushing political messages for 40+ years, usually pushing a liberal cause. This used to blend into the background. I think that overt political messages are few enough that they are few enough to stand out.

This is not the cause of declining readership.