Thursday, May 31, 2012

Attack of the Fill-ins

The 1970s were a bad time for comic books. Demand was down and many traditional outlets like supermarkets stopped carrying comics. There were paper shortages which caused prices to outpace inflation. DC ended half their books because of paper shortages. A new generation of writers and artists had entered the field and they were enthusiastic but had not properly learned their craft.

Things were even worse at Marvel. Stan Lee had ended his long run as editor-in-chief and Marvel couldn't find a competent replacement. The office had a revolving door with each new editor only staying until it became obvious that he sucked. Regular assignments were similarly haphazard. New comics were created with a top-tier team who left within a couple of issues to go launch the next new comic. In some cases, a book might be cancelled by the time the first issue came out.

With all of this going on, production schedules slipped and people began missing deadlines. Since Marvel had a contractual obligation to get something out the door, they started resorting to fill-in issues. At first these were reprints or partial reprints framed with some new pages. Other times they would round up anyone available and have them do an issue. This may or may not work into the ongoing continuity.

I heard Tony Isabella tell about one Fantastic Four story he did under those circumstances, It had been plotted Marvel-style meaning that the artist was given a rough plot and the writer would add the dialogue to the finished art. Things were so tight that as soon as a page was drawn it was sent to Tony for word balloons then sent to be inked and lettered. Tony had the villain command "Release the Three Who Wait!". The next day he got the next page which had a fourth opponent. He solved this by having the Thing exclaim, "I thought you said there were only three!" and the villain replied "I lied!"  (note - in the 1970s, word balloons always ended in exclamation points).

Eventually Marvel started commissioning inventory stories just for missed deadlines. This was a good short-term solution but in the long-term it made things worse since it relieved some of the pressure. Nearly every comic was hit by a fill-in at some point. It got so bad that the staff began to joke about the DDD - Dreaded Deadline Doom.

A few fill-ins were actually good stories. Tony Isabella did one for the Avengers involving a professional assassin that I remember liking. That was an exception. Most fill-ins were, at best, annoying,

There were a lot of things going against the fill-ins, They interrupted the continuity, sometimes in the middle of an intense continued story. They were seldom done by the regular team for the comic, More often, the stories were written by assistants or new guys looking for work. There was little incentive for these people to do their best work since it might never be used, anyway.

Even with these excuses, it is hard to believe that Marvel once ran a comic pitting the Defenders against Tapping Tommy and his Killer Dancing Robots. Really. A frustrated chorus boy captured an Avengers-like team and tried to kill them with dancing robots.

This unfortunate period came to an end when Jim Shooter took over as editor-in-chief. He was controversial but he got production under control.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Men In Black 3

The big question about this movie is why? It's been 14 years since the original one and a decade since the disappointing sequel. Will Smith is getting a little old for the smart-mouth bit.

Fortunately this movie avoids the problems of Men in Black 2. The first sequel rehashed scenes from the original movie and expanded throw-away characters rather than come up with anything new. MiB3 manage a lot more originality. It also features James Brolin doing a dead-on imitation of Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K.

The villain, Boris the Beast, is menacing enough. His goal is to go back in time, kill Agent K, and destroy the Earth. J has to follow.

One goal of the movie is to give some depth to K's character by showing him when he was more open. In contrast, J's character barely grows.

The movie does not manage to recreate the wonder of the original but it is entertaining and throws in many new twists.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dark Shadows - the Movie

Fans of the Dark Shadows TV show started worrying about the Tim Burton version as soon as the first trailer came out. Fortunately, the trailers are not very representative of the movie. Yes, it is Tim Burton's funniest movie since Pee Wee Herman but a lot of the TV show is there, also.

All of the major characters are there, even Maggie Evans who changes her name to Victoria Winter a few minutes into the movie.

The family members are all there - Elizabeth the family matron, Roger the officious ass, Caroline the rebellious teenager, and David who talks to ghosts. Also living at Colinwood are the servants, Willie Loomis and Mrs. Johnson and Dr. Hoffman, a psychiatrist who was suppose to spend a month treating David and never left.

There are some changes. The biggest is Dr. Hoffman who drinks heavily as well as using drugs.

Then there is Barnabas. In the movie he is deathly pale, speaks with a British accent, and constantly suffers culture shock. He is much more bombastic than in the TV show and most of the movie's humor comes from his transition into 1972.

In the 1970s House of Dark Shadows, Barnabas is released after nearly 200 years and introduces himself as a long-lost cousin. The family governess, Maggie Evans looks just like Barnabas's long-lost love, Josette and he courts her. Along the way he drains Caroline Collins of blood and she returns as a vampire. Dr. Hoffman guesses that Barnabas is the main vampire and offers to cure him. At first the treatment works but Dr. Hoffman falls for Barnabas herself and, in a fit of jealousy, gives him an overdose which causes him to age to over 200-years old. He reverts to being a vampire and plans to convert Maggie but is destroyed.

A lot of these elements are in the new movie but a new element is added - the witch Angelique who cursed Barnabas and spent the last 200 years tormenting his family. This takes over as the main plot and the rest is pushed to the background. This is good for the rest of the cast since most of them died in the original version.

The new treatment is fairly successful although it has a few flaws. The biggest is that the romance between Barnabas and Victoria is barely shown.

Then there is Depp. He is a great actor, assuming characters wildly distinct from each other, but he does not bring as much emotional depth to the role as Frid did. He just isn't as tortured.

One interesting thing about the movie - it is much more firmly part of the 1970s than the TV show was. The show could not afford the rights to popular music so it made do with a few pieces written for the show. The movie's soundtrack is largely made up of period music. That and real, outdoor sets make the movie much more of a period piece than House of Dark Shadows.

There are several Tim Burton touches in the movie starting with a scarecrow near the beginning.

Overall, fans of the show and of Tim Burton should be pleased with the movie.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows the series

With the Tim Burton Dark Shadows out today, I thought I would take another look back at the series.

It started as a dream - literally. Producer Dan Curtis had a dream about a woman named Victoria Winters and decided to make it into a soap opera. I believe that it was writer Sam Hall who actually translated this into a tv show.

At the time, gothic novels were hugely popular. These were all take-offs of Jane Eyre in which a young woman (often a governess) enters into a relationship with a rich, eccentric family. The plot revolves around a mystery which appears to involve the supernatural but at the last minute all is revealed. The least likely character turns out to be the perpetrator and the heroine runs off with the previously unavailable hero.

When it started, Dark Shadows had all of these elements. Victoria Winter was the governess, come to care for David Collins in the mansion of Collinwood in the town of Collinsport. The other family members were David's father, Roger, the younger son who had run through his inheritance and was reduced to working for his sister, Elizabeth Stottard. Elizabeth had a rebellious daughter, Caroline, who was in her late teens.

The other main characters were Sam, a drunken painter, and Maggie, his daughter the waitress. There was also Burk Devlin who had just returned to Collinsport and who had a history with the Collins family.

There were also hints of the supernatural, mainly ghosts. The ghosts of three widows were supposed to reside in the Old House, an abandoned mansion on the property. The principle ghost was Josette Collins.

For the first year or so, something would happen then different combinations of the characters would talk about it with each other. For example, Roger's breaks failed and he blamed Burk but it turned out that Roger's son David had sabotaged the brakes. The factory manager was killed and Roger and Burk accused each other. In this case it turned out that the Collins caretaker had killed the manager to keep him from nosing into family business.

This plotline eventually pushed the show into the supernatural. Victoria found an important clue about the murder and the caretaker kidnapped her and took her to the Old House where the ghosts drove him insane.

After that, plots involving the supernatural became more common. Roger's ex-wife returned. She was a phoenix who periodically died in fire along with her children then returned decades later to marry again, often choosing Collins men (she married at least three in three centuries).

Ratings climbed and Dan Curtis decided to drop the traditional soap opera plots and switch entirely over to the supernatural. The original plots were wrapped up or dropped. Years before, Burk, Roger, and Roger's wife had been out drinking. Their car killed someone. Burk was too drunk to remember who was at the wheel. It was Roger but he bribed Sam, the painter, to say that Burk was the driver. Once the truth came out, Burk made his peace with the Collins family and became engaged to Victoria.

The other original plot involved Elizabeth. She was a recluse who never left the mansion. This was because she had killed her husband and buried him in the cellar and was afraid that someone would find the body if she left. Later it turned out that she only stunned her husband and he left before she could try again. His best friend, Jason, told Elizabeth that he had buried the body so that he could blackmail her later.

Two other plots were dropped completely. Originally the show had dropped broad hints that David Collins was actually Burk's son and that Victoria was Roger's daughter. The plot about David was forgotten and, decades later, it was revealed that Victoria was Elizabeth's daughter.

Jason, the blackmailer, had brought a friend named Willie Loomis to Collinsport. Willie heard hints that one of the Collins family in the 18th century had been buried with her jewels and went looking for her. Instead he found her son, Barnabas who was a vampire.

Barnabas fit neatly into the established family background. He was from the time when the family lived in the Old House and Josette's death was linked with his vampirism. He introduced himself as a long-lost relative and moved back into the Old House with Willie as his servant. He also wrapped up the plot involving Jason the blackmailer - Barnabas killed Jason and hid the body.

Barnabas felt that he had been unfairly separated from his true love, Josette, and set about making Maggie the waitress into a new Josette. She eventually escaped but the shock gave her amnesia. After that, Barnabas pursued Victoria.

From there the characters took a new direction. Barnabas was the new star. Elizabeth and Roger never knew what was really going on. Caroline had a talent for attracting the wrong person. First Barnabas sunk his teeth into her, then a Frankenstein's Monster fell in love with her, and eventually she married a Lovecraftian horror. Her cousin David made friends with whatever ghosts came by including Barnabas's little sister.

A new character was introduced - Julia Hoffman, a doctor and owner of the asylum that Maggie had been taken to. She realized that Barnabas was a vampire and tried to cure him. When that failed he tried to kill her.

The family knew that something strange was going on and held a seance. They contacted Barnabas's sister who transported Victoria back to when Barnabas was human and engaged to Josette.

Barnabas had previously had a fling with Josette's maid, Angelique, who was a witch. She forced Barnabas to marry her and when she found that he was still seeing Josette, she engineered Josette's death and cursed Barnabas.

While this was going on, Victoria was accused of witchcraft and hung. She returned to the present just in time to escape hanging.

Barnabas bit Victoria and suggested that they run away together but they had a car accident and ended up in the hospital. While he was unconscious, a doctor cured his vampirism.

Then things got complicated.

The show worked through variations of numerous horror stories. The doctor who cured Barnabas was creating his own Frankenstein's Monster and after his death, Julia Hoffman had to finish. Angelique returned and tried to turn Barnabas back into a vampire.

The show took other trips into the past - twice to the 19th century then into an alternate word and finally into an alternate 19th century. A second cursed Collins was introduced - Quentin. Originally he was a ghost from the past. In the past he was a werewolf and was finally cured through a portrait (Dorian Gray). Barnabas fell in love multiple times, only to have his love snatched away. At the end he was finally reconciled with Angelique (who was shot a few minutes later). He was always accompanied by Julia Hoffman who obviously loved Barnabas deeply.

Dark Shadow's appeal was not in any individual episode. The acting was poor - the actors only had a few hours to learn their lines and block out their movements each day. The effects were limited to blue screen and bats on wires. Still, the earnestness of the show was infectious.

Also, the character of Barnabas was irresistible. He was a complex character. He hated what he was but he couldn't resist biting someone in the neck every now and then. He would risk his life to help the innocent or a family member but he would also kill anyone who threatened his existence, even family members.

During the height of the show, a movie was made based on the original Barnabas plotline - House of Dark Shadows. A followup, Night of Dark Shadows, was made around Quentin but it was a flop.

Over 20 years ago a new version of Dark Shadows was made for prime time. The pilot followed the plot of the movie (without Barnabas's death at the end) and the rest of the season took the plot through the end of the seance. It was not renewed.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thanos and Warlock

Yesterday I started a capsule summary of Thanos, the guy who appeared at the end of the Avengers movie. Before I go on I have to backtrack and talk about Adam Warlock because the two appear in most of Jim Starlin's works (within the Marvel Universe).

It started when some scientists kidnapped the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia. She is blind and does sculptures by touch. The scientists had created a new lifeform which got away from them and started glowing. They needed Alicia to sculpt a model of it so that they knew what they were up against.

It turned out that the life form, known as "Him", was still in a cocoon. The FF rescued Alicia and the cocoon hatched revealing a perfect, gold-skinned man. Him, as he was still known, had no interest in helping the scientists and left the Earth.

Later Him decided that he needed a mate and grabbed the first pretty woman he saw. This was Thor's girlfriend, Sif. The two fought and Him retreated back into a cocoon.

He was still in his cocoon when he encountered the High Evolutionary, a highly evolved human with god-like powers. The High Evolutionary was creating a world without sin occupying Earth's orbit but opposite us. Unfortunately, one of the High Evolutionary's failures interfered. This was the Man-Beast, a human/wolf hybrid. He introduced original sin to Counter-Earth.

The High Evolutionary was going to scrap his project but Him offered to go to Counter Earth and clean up the mess. He emerged from his cocoon and was named Adam Warlock by the High Evolutionary and given a soul gem to replace the powers Adam lost by emerging early from the cocoon.

The story arc played out as a Jesus parable with Adam eventually being killed, forming a cocoon, and emerging again. After his resurrection, Adam reverted the Man-Beast and his minions to the animals they were created from. Adam then left the solar system. This is where Jim Starlin took over the character.

Starlin's run featured two story arcs. The first concerned the soul gem. The name was not poetic. It was semi-self-aware and could steal the soul from anyone at Warlock's command. The story arc concerned Warlock's battle to keep control over the gem.

The second arc concerned the Church of Universal Light and its god, the Magus. The church was brutal and the Magus turned out to be a mirror version of Adam Warlock. Warlock devoted himself to opposing Magus. Along the way he picked up a sidekick, Pip the Troll, and an ally, a mysterious green-skinned female assassin named Gamorra.

The Magus had his own goal. He was a future version of Warlock who had been transported to the past and he wanted to assure his continued existence. The two confronted each other and Magus started the chain of events that would turn Warlock evil.

Enter Thanos. The personification of death had deserted him after his defeat at Captain Marvel's hands but he was still Death champion and the Magus was Life's champion. Thanos's short-term goal was to prevent the Magus's creation. His first attempt had been the assassin, Gamorra. After she failed, he took matters into his own hands and engaged Magus in personal combat.

While this was going on, Warlock traveled into his own-near future and used his soul gem to take the life of his battered and beaten future self. The Magus vanished on the verge of defeating Thanos.

But this was only Thanos's short-term plan. His ultimate plan was to give such a gift to Death that she would take him back again. In addition to Warlock's gem, there were five other Infinity Gems of great power. Thanos siphoned off elements from them and built a cannon capable of destroying stars. He planned on starting with his home system, our sun.

Gamorra found out his plans and tried to stop him. Warlock found her dying and had his soul gem take her soul. As a joke, Thanos destroyed Pip's mind and Warlock took his soul, also.

The Avengers along with Captain Marvel and Warlock gathered to stop Thanos. They were able to destroy his cannon but Warlock was fatally injured and his soul taken. The rest of the Avengers were captured. Thanos decided that he could still use Warlock's gem to destroy one star, our sun, in the hope that it would be enough to satisfy Death.

Spider-Man and the Thing joined the fight and freed the Avengers. Thor and the Thing took on Thanos and lost but that gave Spider-Man enough time to free the soul gen from a crystal globe Thanos had put it in. An energy version of Warlock appeared from the gem and turned Thanos to stone.

Back inside the gem, it turned out to be a sort of paradise where Warlock was reunited with Gamorra, Pip, and others.

A few years later Captain Marvel died of cancer. At his last moment, Thanos appeared to him as Death's emissary so that he would have a warrior's death.

In the late-1990s, Starlin took over the Silver Surfer comic book. Soon after the Surfer had a vision of Death's minions releasing a soul who had been punished long enough. This was Thanos and he was sent back to change the balance between life and death (in Death's favor).

Thanos discovered that the Infinity Gems were far more powerful than he originally thought. When assembled they gave the holder total control over everything. Thanos succeeded in gathering the gems and mounted them on a glove which he named the Infinity Gauntlet. Unfortunately, this made Thanos more powerful than Death and, while she would have accepted him as an equal, she was miffed that he was her superior. They were never again on speaking terms.

Earth's assembled heroes opposed Thanos but were easily defeated. So were the universe's cosmic beings. But all of this was a distraction so that Thanos would not notice Warlock striking from within the Soul Gem. Warlock seized the Gauntlet and became the new ultimate power and Thanos fled.

The cosmic powers forced Warlock to break up the Gauntlet and to give the gems to guardians to prevent them being used again. He gave them to various Starlin creations including Gamorra, Pip, Moondragon, the Destroyer, and Thanos.

After the Infinity Gauntlet was reassembled to fight a new manifestation of the Magus, the cosmic powers decreed that it could never be used again.

Warlock and Thanos appeared in a few limited issue specials. In one of them, Thanos actually became God (not just the power of God through an external source). He saw that the universe was flawed because too many people had come back from the dead so he fixed it, expecting to be destroyed in the process. He survived but was returned to his original state.

So, that is what the Avengers will be facing in their next movie - a villain who is already powerful and plans big.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


Since nearly everyone in the world seems to have seen the Avengers, I'm not giving away much but talking about the scene at the end of the movie. A defeated alien tells his boss, "To attack the Earth is to court death." The boss turns and smiles.

This guy is Thanos, one of Marvel's top villains.

He has an interesting pedigree. In the early 1970s, Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to DC and created a trio of comics (he called it a trilogy) loosely inspired by The Lord of the Rings. The comics were The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mr. Miracle and they involved the struggle between a race of super beings and a powerful being named Darkseid (pronounced Dark Side).

Darkseid was a stone-faced humanoid with a massive build and enormous personal power, especially beams that came from his eyes. He ruled a ruined planet full of "dog soldiers" and his ultimate goal was to possess something called the Anti-Life Equation. This would allow him to control everyone, anywhere.

A few years later an artist named Jim Starlin started at Marvel and began introducing characters he had dreamed up. Central to this was Thanos (Greek for death), a stone-faced humanoid with enormous personal power (including eye beams) who literally loved death (in the Marvel Universe, abstract concepts like death can take on human form).

Thanos was from a race called the Titans because they lived on Saturn's moon, Titan. His father was Mentor and his brother was Eros. His father was Cronus who was sort of a disembodied god.

From an early age, Thanos was fascinated by death and was eventually joined by an avatar of Death appearing as a icy-cold woman in dark robes.

Along the way Thanos bombed his own people, killing most of them. While scouting the Earth, his spaceship was seen by some humans in a car so he destroyed it. One of the car's occupants, Heather Douglas, survived and was rescued by Mentor and raised on Titan where she developed great mental powers and took the name Moondragon.

Mentor asked Cronus for help against Thanos so Cronus used the spirit of Moondragon's father to animate an artificial being named the Destroyer. His only mission was to destroy Thanos. Eventually the two met and fought. The fight destroyed the planet they were on and the Destroyer was captured.

This was all backstory. These characters entered the Marvel universe when the Destroyer managed to contact Iron Man and ask for aid. Iron Man tried to free the Destroyer with his repulser rays but was knocked on his rear. Then a giant foot stomped on Iron Man's hand, denting the armor.

This was our introduction to Thanos. The Destroyer was freed using Iron Man's armor as a relay for energy sent from Titan by Mentor and Thanos disappeared.

He next surfaced in Captain Marvel where his plan was revealed. Thanos was after Captain Marvel's alter ego, Rick Jones whose mind held the location of the Cosmic Cube (called the Tessaract in the movie). Once Thanos got his hand on the Cube he had a single wish - to be an all-powerful god.

While this was going on, Captain Marvel gained "cosmic awareness" which allowed him to realize that Thanos the god was still powered by the Cosmic Cube. Marvel destroyed the Cube and Thanos vanished.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Star Wars to Avengers

Today is Star Wars Day and the premier of the Avengers. Assuming that the Avengers meets expectations as a summer blockbuster, it will owe everything to Star Wars.

A couple of weeks ago TCM played Logan's Run. It was slow and a bit of boring. Even though it won a special effects Oscar, the effects were poor. They never worked well enough to reach suspension of disbelief. You knew that someone was triggering squibs when the guns fired, that there was someone inside Box, and that the big explosions were just superimposed fireballs.

Star Wars changed our expectations. Its effects were good. You accepted the droids. You never questioned the blasters or light sabers or the Death Star blowing up. You saw a hovercar and wondered how they did it.

When he started Star Wars, George Lukas expected that he could just call up a special effects company for what he needed. It turned out that such things didn't exist. Movies would establish their own effects unit then dissolve it when production ended.

So, he created one - Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). At first it was mainly Disney employees who were moonlighting. The saying was that working for Lukas was fun but you will never make a career out of it.

But Lukas didn't dissolve ILM. He kept it together and it became an industry force. Star Wars made so much money that every studio wanted to make an effect-laden money-maker. It didn't take long before there was more demand than ILM could handle so alternate effects companies sprung up.

And that led to superhero movies that didn't suck. Hopefully the Avengers will be one of those.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Review - the Questionable Tails

I was searching Barnes and Noble for steampunk books and found The Questionable Tails: A Steampunk Trio by Michael Seeley. It was free so I figured, why not?

The answer is that it is not a very good book. It is a collection of three stories linked by the airship "Questionable". In fact, the airship is the only claim that the stories have to being steampunk. Give me five minutes with a word processor and I could remove all of the steampunk elements.

So what it left? Three short stories in order from shortest to longest. None of them are very good.

The first is a very short build-up to a twist ending. A man is challenged to a duel by his beloved's long-lost brother. It reminded me of the type of story I wrote in the 8th grade.

The second story also has a twist. A poor man obsesses over a painting. It eventually turns out that he does not want to buy it. He wants to steal it to sell.

The third story is an abomination to my sensibilities. The main character is Karl Marx (yes, that Marx). In the story he goes to India (on an airship) and pours his heart out to the first man he meets. This man takes him to some elders who are easily sold on Marxism. The next thing we know, factory workers are rising to arrest foremen and execute the factory owners. In our world, Marxism lead to the deaths of 80 million to 100 million but in this world we are told that the revolution leads to a century and a half of peaceful communism in India.

Seriously, I thought that people gave up on Marxist fantasies after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So, even for free the book is not worth the effort to read.