Monday, April 30, 2012

Avengers Assemble

In the early 1960s, the publishers from National Comics and Timely Comics used to get together regularly to play golf. At one of these games, the guy from National told the guy from Timely that one of his top-selling comic books was a superhero team-up called the Justice League. After that, the guy from Timely, Martin Goodman, called his editor and told him to create a new superhero team.

It had been years since Timely had tried to publish a superhero book, They had several hits in the Golden Age but efforts to revive them in the 50s flopped. So the editor couldn't have established heroes team up. He had to create some new ones. He called the newest staff artist and they came up with some characters - mainly recycled from previous characters. Since this was so different from anything that Timely was publishing at the time, the editor came up with a new name for the line - Marvel Comics.

Obviously I am talking about Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Fantastic Four. As it turned out, there was a huge, untapped market for superheros. Stan followed the Fantastic Four up with The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man (who was Giant Man by the second issue) and the Wasp. Then he gathered them into a second team called the Avengers.

The Avengers was a different kind of team. The Fantastic Four was an extended family. The Avengers was a collection of solo heroes who didn't necessarily get along. In fact, the team was formed to fight the Hulk. When it turned out that Thor's brother, Loki, was the real villain, they decided to keep meeting - even the Hulk. But by the end of the second issue the Hulk quit and spent the third issue fighting the Avengers alongside the Sub-Mariner. Captain America joined in the 4th issue and became a mainstay.

Stan thought of the Avengers as being like a baseball team with members changing. In issue 16, the original members all quit and were replaced by three misunderstood villains - Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Hawkeye has started out wanting to be a superhero but got off to an inauspicious start. After stopping a bank robbery, he was the one holding the money when the police arrived. Not long after that he met the Black Widow, a Russian spy, who wanted his aid in fighting Iron Man. After the Black Widow vanished, Hawkeye reformed.

Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were members of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. They joined because they felt they owed a debt to Magneto for saving the Scarlet Witch's life. After Magneto was abducted by an alien, they declared their debt satisfied and reformed.

The "New Avengers" were one of the weakest teams ever. Their most powerful weapon was an explosive-tipped arrow. That put them on par with the Dukes of Hazard.

After a few months Giant Man came back as Goliath. Hercules came and went a few times. The Black Panther added more manpower if not more muscle. Thor and Iron Man were came and went. The Vision was the first original character in the Avengers. He was an android who could control his density.

Other characters started out as villains and later became members. The Swordsman and Power Man started as one-shot inside agents and later reformed and joined as trusted members.

Somewhere in there the Avengers became Marvel's top-selling team, rivaling Spider-Man and burying the Justice League (whose publisher was now known as DC).

By the late 1970s, the Avengers was amde up of two camps. There were the heroes with their own books (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America) who were mainly in the team to boost sales. Then there was the core group (Scarlet Witch, Vision, Swordsman, Mantis) who had all of the character development.

In the 1980s, the team picked up several new characters and most of the characters with their own books dropped out.

There was even a spin-off book, the West Coast Avengers. A third, Great Lakes Avengers made a couple of appearances but never got off the ground.

The team has been rebooted several times in order to boost sales. Fan favorites such as Spider-Man and Wolverine were added.

More recently there were multiple groups of Avengers. The "official" group was composed of super villains under Norman Osborn. A resistance version was also formed. Currently the team also includes an academy where new superheros are trained.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Logan's Run to Star Wars

Over the weekend TCM showed some 1970s science fiction movies including Logan's Run. I think that the theme was actually science fiction dystopias because they also showed Westworld (robots go crazy) and Soylent Green (the land and oceans are dead so humanity is reduced to eating people). Logan's Run is interesting because it came out a year before Star Wars and because it won an Oscar for special effects.

In Logan's Run, the world's population is confined to a single city (or appears to be at the beginning of the movie). To prevent overpopulation, people are expected to go to an arena and try for renewal (actually all of them die). Some people try to avoid this. They are known as runners. A group of special police, called Sandmen, hunts down the runners.

Logan is one of the best of the Sandmen so he is given a special assignment. It seems that some runners are unaccounted for so he is to go undercover and try to find their sanctuary. Everyone has a "life crystal" implanted in their left hand that shows their age group. Logan's is sped up so that he appears to be 30.

Along the way Logan picks up a girlfriend named Jessica who is part of the underground. After surviving a mad surgeon and some feral teenagers, they find what appears to be Sanctuary. It turns out to be a food storage facility run by a robot named Box who freezes everyone who passes by.

They escape from Box and explore a ruined Washington DC. Eventually they meet an old man who lives in Congress and quotes T. S. Elliot. They return to the city and bring it down.

The movie made money and inspired a TV series in which Logan and Jessica keep going from settlement to settlement looking for Sanctuary. It is never explained why they didn't settle with the first people they encountered. Maybe that's why is only lasted 14 episodes.

So, how do the special effects hold up? To be honest, they weren't that good when the movie came out. The grand special effect is the city. It is a miniature filmed to look like an actual city except it didn't fool anyone. It looks empty and antiseptic.

There are some shuttle cars that look like remade golf carts (which they were). The guns were kind of neat. They had some flame come out around the muzzle. They were not convincing, though. A Sandman would point his gun and fire it and something in the general direction of his muzzle would explode. There was no sense of a projectile or energy beam.

Box is an interesting comparison with C3P0. Box is a multifaceted, mirrored box with arms and a head. You can see the actor inside moving his mouth when he talks and he looks like he could never get up if he fell over (which was true of the actor inside the costume).

The movie saved money by using some existing buildings as sets - mainly malls. It shows. It also has a failing of science fiction movies at the time - everything is too clean.

One reason that Star Wars was so big when it came out the following year was that it was so different from science fiction to date. The production values looked expensive. The sets looked real. No one would mistake Luke's speeder for a golf cart and no one looked at a the Death Star and said, "That looks like a miniature."

But only a year separated them.

One thing that Logan's Run did have was casual nudity. At best, Logan's girlfriend, Jessica, wore an outfit that looked like a short nightgown. It was short enough that you can see her underwear (which changed colors at unlikely times). Occasionally she shucks off her nighty completely. In addition, Box stripped his victims before freezing them in chambers that were transparent from the waist up. This gives a nice view of a couple of actresses painted white.

Prior to Star Wars, science fiction movies were a niche production and made on the cheap. This was one of the last of these movies.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid

Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins, has died of natural causes at the age of 87.

Frid was a classically-trained actor who spent most of his early career on the stage. At one point he moved to England and started spelling his name "Fridd". His father found out and he changed the spelling back.

In the 1966 he was dissatisfied with his career and had accepted a job teaching. He was packing when his agent called and sent him to ABC to read for a soap opera. While waiting he noticed that all of the other people auditioning "looked dead" and wondered what that said about him.

The soap opera was Dark Shadows. At the time it was on the verge of cancellation and the producers hoped that a new character would boost ratings.

During the 1960s, the most popular genre of novel for women was the gothic romance. The plot was always a variation of Wuthering Heights - a young woman, possibly a governess, entered into a family with dark secrets. There was a hint of the supernatural but it always turned out to have a natural explanation. All of the mysteries would be wrapped up in the last few pages and the woman would find happiness with the handsome but melancholy head of the family.

Dark Shadows was the TV version of this and, at first, everything supernatural turned out to have a reasonable explanation. Slowly the writers started adding real supernatural elements to the show. The ghost, Josette, appeared on her own instead of as a hallucination. A missing, presumed dead, character showed up as a phoenix whose purpose was to kill her son in flames.

After these starts, the producers decided to go all the way and introduce a vampire, Barnabas, the long-lost lover of Josette. They worked up to it over several days and tied the character into existing elements of the show. At first, Barnabas's nature was only hinted at but eventually he started biting the female leads.

The new character worked. Ratings soared. At first the writers kept making Barnabas more and more evil but during a flashback to the 1790s, they changed his character. He was an innocent victim of a curse who was horrified at what he had become. When the flashback ended, this characterization continued. Barnabas was a tragic hero, trying to do good but lapsing into evil. Prior to this vampires had always been portrayed as Dracula - willingly evil. Frid's tormented vampire was new and led to today's versions.

As Barnabas became more popular, Frid's screentime increased. Dark Shadow's format was to use seven actors a week with five per episode. This gave the cast some time off but Frid was included every week for over a year. Eventually Frid convinced the producers to add a second charismatic lead, Quentin Collins the cursed werewolf. That gave Frid a little breathing room but he remained the most popular character.

One thing that Frid attributed to his success was a personal failing. Frid had trouble learning lines quickly. With multiple scenes every week he was constantly afraid of forgetting lines. This added some nervous energy to Barnabas which was perfectly in character for someone who was always keeping secrets.

After Dark Shadows ended, Frid made a couple of movies but mainly returned to the stage. In the 1980s he started touring with a one-man show that demonstrated how good he was when he had time to memorize his material. I saw this twice. The second time was a special show that he gave after officially retiring.

Frid's last performance was a cameo filmed for the upcoming Dark Shadows movie. Reportedly he was delighted to discover that the cast and crew of the movie were huge fans, especially Johnny Depp.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Comics on tablets

If the future of books is tablets then what is the future of comic books?

I just explored a couple of options. I am using a Nook Color which is a 7" tablet. I have tried comic books on a 10" tablet before, also and the results are about the same.

My Nook Color runs a dual boot so I was actually using it as a generic Android Tablet running the Nook Android App. The results are the same as running it natively since the Nook Color is Android-based.

Barnes and Noble is offering some graphic novels in digital form. I bought Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 volume one.

So, what's the experience like? Not that good. A tablet is a fraction of the size of a graphic novel. I had to zoom and pan in order to read it. Also, Nook only supports this format in portrait mode. That lets you see the entire page but you can't read it. It would be a big improvement if you could rotate the page and have it auto-size.

So - reading comic books on a Nook Color or the Nook Tablet leaves a lot to be desired.

But... Marvel and DC offer free Android apps. Since I am running generic Android, I was able to install these. They make a huge difference. You can read the comic book normally (with the same problems as the Nook app) but they also support a pan and zoom mode. This does all of the work for you. It will show you the splash page then zoom on the word balloons or, where appropriate, start with the close-up and zoom out. It is almost cinematic. Even better, Marvel is upgrading their books. When I loaded the app I was notified that some books that I had already downloaded had been enhanced and offered to refresh them.

Also, this app does support rotating. In some cases a panel was tall and thin. In other cases it was short and wide. I could rotate the tablet and the panel would resize.

This is probably the future of comics. Especially as artists get used to creating content for electronic media.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Bad Cars

I've watched a couple of episodes of the US version of Top Gear. One was on dangerous cars and the other was on "uncool" cars. I didn't actually care much for the show. The hosts are trash-talking jerks. Still the cars deserve a second look.

Their choices for most dangerous cars were the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Corvair, and the Suzuki Samurai. I have some experience with two of these. My parents owned a Corvair and I owned a Samurai.

Since I never even drove a Pinto there isn't much I can say except that the show exaggerated the danger. In a famous lawsuit it was alleged that a design flaw made it more likely that in a rear-end collision the fuel tank filler would break off, spilling fuel and making the car more likely to catch fire. A document was produced showing that Ford had calculated it would cost $11/car to fix and decided to save the money.

Much later a study found that only a couple of dozen people were killed in fires involving Pintos out of 2 million sold. This was typical for cars from that period. The memo on cost was a regulatory requirement and senior management had never seen it.

Ralph Nader built his reputation on the Corvair. His first book, Unsafe at Any Speed, devited a chapter to the car and soon after GM stopped selling it. Nader claimed that the car was difficult to control, especially at high speed.

In the 1960s when the Corvair was being made, most small cars had manual steering and an engine sitting on top of the front wheels. The Corvair had a rear-mounted motor. This made it easy to oversteer the car. This happened to all cars with rear motors. I remember my father commenting on it to my mother. He had previously owned a Karmann Ghia which was a sporty body on top of a VW Beetle frame. Both cars behaved the same.

The government tested the Corvair and found that it was one of the more stable cars with a rear motor. GM had always planned on dropping the car when it did because the profit margin was too low.

The Samurai got it's reputation from a Consumer Report review which claimed that it turned over during testing. My experience with it was that it was a poor car on the highway but great for off-road (which is what I used it for). I never had any problems with stability, even on gravel roads with sharp turns.

Suzuki sued Consumer Reports claiming that they anti-rollover equipment that they attached to the car changed the balance and that they were trying to help an employee win a battle with an insurance company. Eventually Consumer Reports apologized for their rating.

So, none of these cars were particularly dangerous. Regardless, Top Gear managed to spin the Corvair, roll the Suzuki, and even got a smoldering fire to start in the Pinto for no reason. All I can say is that stunt drivers can get cars to do a lot of things and the camera never showed what caused the spin or rollover.

On to the uncool cars - the Yugo, the Mustang II, and the Pontiac Aztek.

The big question is how they missed AMC's Gremlin and Pacer? Those were uncool when they were new and the Pacer tops most lists on worst car ever made.

Of the ones they did pick, the Yugo stands out as particularly bad. It's only selling point was that it was the cheapest car on the market. A product of Yugoslavia, the car was poorly engineered, poorly built, underpowered, and a generally bad car. The reviews said that the few hundred that you saved by buying one were not worth the money. If you were really strapped for cash you were better off buying a used car. It would be more reliable.

The Pontiac Aztek was supposed to be a crossover SUV. It ended up looking like someone had cut the top third off of a car and the bottom third from a second car then stacked them. This impression was helped by the body styling and double rows of headlights. It wasn't a bad car but no one liked the look.

The Mustang II was a product of its time and really should be judged as such. The Mustang started out as a small car with a big motor - one of the first muscle cars. Over the next few years it grew into a big car with a big motor.

Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted to return the car to its roots as a small car and the Mustang II was introduced. The car has a bad reputation now because the Mustang II could be ordered with a 4 cylinder motor which was pretty underpowered. Even the 8 cylinder motor was slower than the earlier models because of new air quality and safety standards.

I can't argue with the other two choices for uncool car but a Mustang II with a good motor was cool when it came out - something that could never be said for the Yugo or Aztek.