Category ArchiveComic books



Comic books & Movies 11 Apr 2014 08:38 pm

Shake it like a Paramount picture

I saw the new Captain America movie last weekend.

It’s big and loud and everything you’d want in a summer popcorn movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” that comes out after winter and more than two months before summer. It’s subtle and thoughtful in places, but you’re always just a few minutes away from an explosion, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Twenty years ago, “Captain America” would have been the kind of movie that Marvel Comics fans could only dream of. Back then, DC had successful Superman and Batman franchises to crow about, but the best that Marvel fans could do was remember the ’70s “Incredible Hulk” TV show where Lou Ferrigno’s green body paint dripped whenever it came into contact with water and some old Spider-Man cartoons that used the same animation over and over.

So I feel like a curmudgeon for mentioning even one little flaw in the new Captain America film, especially because it’s a shortcoming in many other films as well: shaky-camera syndrome.

If you’ve been to the movies at any time since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, you’ve likely come into contact with shaky-cam. Cinephiles know the technique as “subjective camera,” meant to replicate queasy, stomach-churning motion, all the better to invest a movie or sequence with a sense of reality.

“Blair Witch” uses it to good effect, although the media was filled with stories about people who claimed to become violently ill from watching jiggling footage of kids running around in the woods. Other memorable shaky-cam productions include “Cloverfield” (about a giant monster) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (a modern-day spy flick with Matt Damon).

The latter is what made me question shaky-cam. When a filmmaker uses the technique in something like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” where one or more characters carry handheld cameras and the audience is supposed to be watching “found” footage, it works, albeit nauseatingly. It’s similar to the epistolary technique in literature, where an entire book is made up of one character’s letters or journal entries; or to the stream-of-consciousness technique in some modernist novels that purport to get deep inside a character’s head, usually at the expense of plot.

But when shaky-cam started to invade big-budget movies, I cried foul. Why wouldn’t audiences want to see clearly the meticulous action sequences and stunts in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the expensive sets and costuming in the first “Hunger Games” film?

Instead of pulling me deeper into movies, shaky-cam now takes me right out. And the more that follow-the-bouncing-frame is overused — in sci-fi and horror and westerns and all over TV, especially in action and adventure shows — the more egregious it becomes.

Used (very) sparingly, shaky-cam still can be effective, but it’s seldom used sparingly. Instead, fans are subjected to entire sequences and sometimes whole films that look as though the camera operator had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees when the director yelled “Action!” and was intent on killing each and every one by swatting them with his lens.

In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” I had hoped to spot some Cleveland backgrounds here and there. Forget that. I was too busy figuring out who was hitting whom in one-second microclips and avoiding motion sickness.

Maybe movie tickets these days should come with complimentary Dramamine. Either that or directions on how to empty your popcorn on the floor and use the empty tub as a barf bag.

And with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Godzilla and many others waiting in the wings, we might need fewer reminders to silence our cellphones and more signs that say, “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s going to be a long, turbulent summer.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun

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If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop

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Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for Smithsonian.com, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, http://blogs.dixcdn.com/leftofcybercenter/ for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to

chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.


Comic books & Commentary & Media 03 Jan 2013 10:49 pm

Spidey, we hardly knew ye

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I forgot.

Dan Slott, the writer of Spider-Man’s adventures, warned readers earlier in December to avoid the Internet on Dec. 26 until they’d read “Amazing Spider-Man No. 700,” which went on sale that day.

Something big was happening in the Marvel superhero’s world, and Slott didn’t want it spoiled by a careless headline or an overzealous fan. In November, fans learned that Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis — OK, one of his arch-nemeses — Doctor Octopus, had switched minds with Peter Parker, Spidey’s alter-ego. This left Parker’s consciousness trapped inside Doc Ock’s failing body while Ock went off and played Spider-Man, even kissing Parker’s former wife, who didn’t remember she had married Spider-Man because a demon erased her memories.

(I can hear you snickering. It’s no sillier than anything on “Glee” or an afternoon soap opera, so cut me some slack.)

Marvel Comics had been crowing about a further game-changer coming in issue 700, so I told myself to take Slott’s advice and not peek on any comic book websites until after I’d read the story.

But I forgot about Twitter. There I was in the middle of the Pittsburgh airport, waiting for my daughter’s flight to depart, carelessly scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the headline from the Hollywood Reporter (spoiler alert for anybody who has not yet read the comic book): “Peter Parker Dies in ‘Amazing Spider-Man No. 700′ Comic.”

I lifted my head and, to quote Walt Whitman, sounded my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I wasn’t angry that Parker had died, although plenty of fans were (Slott even received death threats). This is, after all, comics, where heroes pass all the time, only to return a month, a year, or even 10 years later, restored by some deus ex machina to full health. Superman and Captain America are two relatively recent examples of superheroes who have gone on to an everlasting reward — and received lots of media coverage along the way — only to find that it wasn’t as everlasting as they thought.

Peter Parker — the nebbish science major without friends, raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, whose life became only more complicated after a radioactive arachnid gave him all the powers of a spider — will be back, if for no other reason than Marvel needs the status quo restored in time for the next Spider-Man movie.

I can’t even say that news of Parker’s death was a complete surprise — although the mind-swapping with Doc Ock was a shocker — because by warning fans to go incommunicado on the day after Christmas, Slott was foreshadowing that something big was brewing, and death is the biggest brew (or brouhaha) of all.

No, I guess my barbaric yawp was because, in this interconnected world of ours, it’s difficult to be caught totally off-guard by a pop culture event, any pop-culture event. Once upon a time, the world was shocked to learn who killed J.R., but these days, the guilty party’s name would be all over Entertainment Tonight weeks ahead of the episode.

Darth Vader is really Luke Skywalker’s father? That blew my mind in 1980, but if it happened now, somebody would leak the script to TMZ, and we’d sit in theaters and wait for the exact moment when the paternal relationship is announced (1:51:18 in “The Empire Strikes Back,” if you care).

We live in the Golden Age of Pop Culture — or Geek Culture, if you prefer. Not only is an awesome array of contemporary entertainment (and a considerable amount of junk — Sturgeon’s Law still applies) available, but also a vast storehouse of past entertainment, more accessible than ever before.

Want to watch all six seasons of “I Love Lucy,” all nine seasons of “The X-Files” and every extant piece of concert footage from Led Zeppelin? Readily available. How about read the classic science-fiction novels of H.G. Wells or watch one of “The Thin Man” films from the 1940s? Hard copies or digital downloads exist for them all, some as close as your local library. Want to talk about any of the above plus tens of thousands more? Go online and start typing.

But this embarrassment of riches comes with a price: Rare is the book or movie or TV show that we watch “cold,” without spoiled plot points or preexisting opinions sullying the experience.

Just last week, in the middle of the comedy “This Is 40,” I sat horrified as a character gave away the ending to the television show “Lost.” I’ve watched only three of the six seasons. Now I’m not so sure I’ll finish.

Maybe I should be thankful. After all, the revelation saved me a lot of time. And maybe I should take a cue from eastern culture, where endings are less important than the paths characters take to get there.

Regardless, I sometimes wish I had Spider-Man’s powers, if only so I could web up my eyes and ears and avoid the next comic book spoiler — the one that explains how Peter Parker cheated death yet again.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Jan. 3, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Comic books 05 Aug 2011 11:14 am

The Life and Times of Savior 28

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Superhero stories have become a genre all their own, with a set of standard ingredients that are easily recognized. Strong-jawed hero. Heightened mental or physical prowess. Colorful costume. Secret identity. Youthful sidekick. Villains bent on world domination.

It’s how these elements are mixed and the approach taken by the creators that determine if the final product is just one more standard morality play or something unique. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro have opted for the latter with “The Life and Times of Savior 28.”

In the introduction to the trade paperback, Dean Haspiel notes that a version of this story has been floating around for 25 years, originally pitched by DeMatteis for Marvel’s Captain America. In the intervening years, it morphed into the present tale. While the story’s Captain America roots are still evident, it’s clear that the writer incorporated chunks of Superman’s mythology here, as well.

Boiled down to its essence, this is the story of what would happen if a hero — in this case, Savior 28 (so named because 27 earlier attempts to give man super powers failed) — decided to stop thinking with his fists and embraced peace. The answer, of course, is that the government would have to kill him.

DeMatteis gives narration duties to Savior 28’s former sidekick, the Daring Disciple, so we see Savior 28’s mission from the Disciple’s cynical, jaded perspective. It’s a story told in flashback, beginning with Savior 28’s assassination and then taking us through various phases of his 100-plus years of life. (Immortality is one of the side effects of Savior’s super powers.)

It’s not exactly a fun story, but it is a good one. Savior 28 is greeted with approbation when he’s whaling on bad guys and promoting a culture of thoughtless violence, and with scorn and derision when he opts to stop fighting and start talking. The Savior doesn’t understand how his well-intentioned meetings with world leaders — including heads of countries that the U.S. does not agree with ideologically — could be perceived as a threat, and he is genuinely baffled when other costumed heroes (including Blackrat, a wicked send-up of Batman) bring him down.

When DeMatteis focuses on Savior 28 and Daring Disciple, he’s on sure ground. The book meanders a bit when other costumed heroes come to the forefront. The concept works better, I think, in a world where the only super-powered wild card is Savior 28; the introduction of a whole group of send-ups for the Avengers or the Justice League lessens his impact slightly.

At first, I thought Cavallaro was an unusual choice of artist. He draws with a highly stylized line that is intentionally informed by the seminal work of Jack “King” Kirby. My initial thought was that this book needed a more realistic style to complement its serious nature. But I soon changed my mind when I saw how cleanly Cavallaro told the story and how expressively he illustrated it. The Kirby homage is wholly warranted for a character inspired by Jack’s work on Captain America, and as the story begins to veer in directions that Kirby never traveled, the presence of his style feels intentionally incongruous, and I mean that as a compliment.

DeMatteis covers a lot of ground here — our celebrity-obsessed culture, the 24/7 news cycle, the addictive nature of violence and its pervasiveness in modern society — but he never once succumbs to the temptation to sermonize. “The Life and Times of Savior 28″ is an entertaining deconstruction of the superhero genre. Captain America and Marvel’s loss is independent publisher IDW’s gain with this winner of a book. Grade: A.

Comic books & Movies 25 Jul 2011 07:50 am

Captain America: The First Avenger

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Spoiler alert: I spill a few details about the movie below.

Director Joe Johnston has made two of my favorite period-piece movies, separated by 20 years. In 1991, it was The Rocketeer. In 2011, it is Captain America: The First Avenger.

Almost everything about Captain America is pitch-perfect. It nails the character, it nails the time period. It makes the audience cheer about things like patriotism and sacrifice, two ideals that don’t get nearly enough play these days.

Chris Evans is excellent as Steve Rogers, the skinny 4F who desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve in the military. His performance is augmented by CGI effects to make him look especially scrawny, and it works, but it’s Evans who sells it through old-fashioned acting chops.

Stanley Tucci plays Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German expatriate in charge of a top-secret American government program to create super soldiers. He is the film’s humane heart, the perfect paternal stand-in, reminding Rogers that no matter how he may change physically, he must never forget what it feels like to be the underdog.

The great Tommy Lee Jones is on hand as gruff Colonel Chester Phillips, initially dismissive of Rogers in both his skinny-guy persona and, later, as a military PR tool to boost enlistment numbers. His scene near the end, with captured scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is pure Tommy Lee; it feels as though he is channeling his past performance as Phillip Gerard, the federal agent obsessed with finding Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

Of course, what’s a super-hero movie without a villain? Captain America has a doozy in the Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving. The Skull is an uber-Nazi who has transcended even the gonzo politics of Adolph Hitler to become the head of Hydra, a name familiar to comics fans as the catch-all Evil Empire organization of the Marvel Universe. His goal is, of course, to take over the world and remake it in his own twisted image. As such, he’s the perfect foil for freedom-loving Cap.

The movie offers a number of Easter eggs for comics fans. At an World’s Fair/exhibition scene in the early going, the android Human Torch is prominently on display. Later, once Captain America becomes a sensation with schoolkids nationwide, the first issue of his comic book is actually Captain America Comics #1, the book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby that started it all. Cap’s promo costume is an exact replica from that comic, filtered through the 1940s chapter serial that was Cap’s first big-screen exposure. Johnston manages to work in the triangular shield, the circular shield, the motorcycle, a terrific song-and-dance number, and even the obligatory Stan Lee cameo without anything feeling rushed.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely change some of the particulars. Bucky Barnes, Cap’s costumed kid partner from the comics, is now Roger’s own age and a fellow enlistee, which makes sense. The details surrounding Barnes’ death are different, but it still involves a fall from great heights. What counts is that they get the spirit of the story just right, including a bittersweet romance with Peggy Carter  (Hayley Atwell) that is the emotional pulse of the entire film.

Johnston even gives us a nod to The Rocketeer in the last 1940s scene: a little kids playing with a garbage can lid painted like Captain America’s shield. In the finale of The Rocketeer, a kid runs around with a homemade helmet shaped like the one worn by the title character. Just like that earlier scene, the one in Captain America gives me a lump in my throat.

Of course, as good as the movie is, it’s really just a warm-up to next May’s Avengers movie, which brings together Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America, along with a few others. The last scene of Captain America sets up the man-out-of-time shtick that is essential to the character working in the modern age. I’m still pessimistic about this; it reminds me of nothing so much as the monster-rally films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, made when Universal Studios had run out of ideas for the monsters and lost faith that they could headline their own features. I’d like to be proven wrong.

But no matter how The Avengers turns out, Captain America: The First Avenger is still a winner, one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that was so good, I immediately wanted to see again.

Comic books & Commentary & Movies 21 Jul 2011 07:55 am

Captain America represents country’s spirit, ideals

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Here is a retrospective piece I wrote for The Alliance Review on July 21, the eve of the new “Captain America: The First Avenger” film debut. Thanks to Tony Isabella and Steve Englehart, who agreed to email interviews for the story.

Captain America’s story is, not surprisingly, quintessentially American.

Born of equal parts patriotic fervor and shrewd marketing, the character — who jumps into action in a big-budget movie from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment beginning Friday — originated in the pages of Timely Publications’ “Captain America Comics” in late 1940. There he was on the front cover, one year before the U.S. officially entered World War II, socking Adolph Hitler square in the mouth.

“Cap,” as he is affectionately known to his fellow superheroes, is the brainchild of creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who built the character squarely on the Horatio Alger “Luck and Pluck” template. Scrawny Steve Rogers desperately wants to serve his country, yet is labeled 4F, unfit for duty. Thanks to a “strange seething liquid” serum administered through a secret government program, he is imbued with extra-normal strength and intellect, the first of a proposed new breed of super-soldiers. Alas, a spy destroys the serum before more soldiers can be created, leaving Rogers, newly christened Captain America, as the program’s only graduate.

Simon and Kirby had hoped for a patriotic character to compete with The Shield, the brainchild of another publishing company. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

“Captain America represents the American Dream and our finest ideals,” says Tony Isabella, a Medina-based comic-book writer and novelist (”Captain America: Liberty’s Torch,” with Bob Ingersoll). “His politics are often determined by whoever is writing his adventures at the moment, but, looking at the historical record, he’s most likely a liberal. He was an FDR guy in the 1940s, a supporter of civil rights in the 1960s … supported gay rights in the 1980s, and opposed government intrusion on the civil liberties of super-heroes in the new Millennium.”

A hero is only as good as his villain, and Captain America has a doozy. The Red Skull appeared in that same first issue, a homicidal American businessman in a crimson mask who killed for the Führer and dies at the end of the story. But like most villains, and many heroes, death was only a minor setback, and in subsequent appearances his American roots were forgotten and his demonic Nazi persona emphasized.

The new film focuses on Captain America’s World War II adventures versus the Red Skull, but in the comic-book world, he fights evil in contemporary America. Even with the wonky relationship between time and comics, that’s quite a stretch. How did it happen?

When writer Stan Lee worked with Cap co-creator Kirby at Marvel Comics (the successor to Timely) in the 1960s, they froze the WWII-era Cap in a block of ice and had him discovered by the Avengers, a group of costumed super-heroes (a movie version of which is now filming in Cleveland). Now, he’s a man out of time, fighting to reconcile his Mom-and-apple-pie values in a more complex age.

One of the most memorable clashes between Cap’s values and contemporary America came in the 1970s, when writer Steve Englehart had Steve Rogers forgo his red, white and blue alter-ego and become Nomad, the Man Without a Country.

“When Watergate unfolded, it seemed impossible to me that Captain America could not react to that,” said Englehart, today a novelist (”The Plain Man” and “The Long Man”) in California. “I did a thinly-veiled story about Watergate and then had Cap, who believed in America’s ideals — the ones they taught us in school — decide he could no longer be a poster boy for those ideals when the president was ordering burglaries. So he gave up the Cap identity for Nomad. But in time, he came to realize that the ideals transcended any one man or era, and took up the Cap identity again.”

In the 21st century, creators continue to put the character through his paces. When the press caught wind of Cap’s impending death (he was shot by a sniper) in 2007, it became a bona fide media event. Cap’s job was filled for a time by the adult version of sidekick Bucky, who was also introduced in that first 1941 issue. But now the original Steve Rogers/Captain America is back, just in time for his latest silver screen iteration, still fighting the good fight and holding tight to the timeless values of his country.

“At his core, Captain America is the citizen next door,” says Isabella. “Despite his amazing skills and strength, he’s one of us. He believes in America and always strives to do what’s right and not what’s politically expedient.”

“Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans as Captain America and Hugo Weaving as The Red Skull, opens at 12:15 a.m. Friday at Cinemark Carnation Cinema 5. It is rated PG-13.

Books & Comic books 18 Jul 2011 11:11 am

Captain America: Man Out of Time

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In the rash of comics material released in the wake of Friday’s Captain America movie, Man Out of Time by Mark Waid and Jorge Molina seems to have been overlooked. That’s a shame, as it is easily as good as Waid’s best work on the character, providing a story with real emotional punch.

Waid wisely chooses to avoid yet another retelling of Cap’s origin story (the super-soldier serum thing that’s been done to death) and begins instead with the emotional crux  – Cap’s failed attempt to save his partner, Bucky Barnes, an event that echoes through the decades with Cap awakening in the modern world, still screaming Bucky’s name.

The unique thing about Cap’s Rip Van Winkle phase as it relates to the tropes of super-hero comics is that the sliding seven-year scale (an informal rule that no matter how many years the Marvel heroes have been published, all of their adventures started seven years ago) makes his story consistently more poignant. If Steve Rogers was a fish out of water in the 1960s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby returned him to the modern world 20 years after his disappearance, imagine how much more confused and out of step he is waking up today, to a world of cell phones, 24/7 news cycles, and massive social and political upheavals.

Waid uses this disorientation to the story’s advantage, having Tony Stark (Iron Man) give Cap a capsule view of history via a personal, after-hours tour of the Smithsonian. Cap realizes his place in the American scheme of things, how his fight for freedom set the stage for the equal rights movement and the winning of the space race. An unintended side effect, unfortunately, is cementing Rogers’ belief that he is no longer necessary, that he must hop Reed Richards’ time machine and return to his past, where he can hopefully save Bucky and live out the rest of his life normally and anonymously.

How Waid integrates time travel, the presidency and Cap’s honoring of the American dream seamlessly into this five-issue series (collected here as a handsome hardcover) is a large part of the charm of the series. The other part comes from Jorge Molina’s impeccable draftsmanship, abetted by Karl Kessel on inks and finishes (with an assist by Scott Hanna on the third issue). Molina draws an incredibly expressive Cap, with or without the mask, and those facial expressions go a long way toward making the story as successful as it is.

The thrust in Man Out of Time is definitely on Cap’s emotional journey. Super heroics take a backseat, but that doesn’t mean the series is devoid of action. The 1945 bomb sequence that opens the book is kinetic, and the Avengers’ (and Cap’s) battle with Kang at the climax of the tale provides the necessary physical thrills.

But it is the mental gymnastics that Waid and Molina put Cap through that is the real draw here. A few scenes are powerful enough to bring a tear to the eye. This is a Cap book for everybody who loves the character and has ever thoughtfully examined the American dream. Wonderfully done, and with  a bonus reprint of Avengers #4 in the back — the story that brought Cap into our “modern” age — it’s a no-brainer for your bookshelf. My grade: A.

Comic books & Movies 01 Jul 2011 01:25 pm

King Kong comix

kong-dark-horse

My mania for all things Kong led me to this Dark Horse adaptation of the Peter Jackson film. Has it really been five years already?

Writer Christian Gossett and artist Dustin Weaver do a competent job condensing the sprawling film into 93 pages. All the major story beats are covered, with a noticeable (and necessary) shortening of the New York scenes in favor of the Skull Island set pieces. The ending appears rushed, as evidenced by the addition of finisher Dan Parsons on the last 29 pages. The characters don’t look like the actors that portray them in the movie, but that may have more to do with issues of rights (did Dark Horse secure permission to use the actors’ likenesses?) than the skill of the artists.

Before the advent of VHS and now DVD, comic-book movie adaptations filled a niche for the fan who wanted a memento of an enjoyable movie experience. (It’s the same role that novelizations once filled.) Nowadays, most films are released on DVD and Blu Ray within months of their theatrical run, and the patient fan can eventually add them to a home library for five dollars each from a mass-retailer bargain bin.

As a result, many comic-book tie-ins focus on prequels, providing readers with additional material that they won’t find in the theater. Super 8 used this approach last month; the supplement appearing in many (all?) of DC’s May comics told a related story that took place years before the events in the movie. I didn’t care for that particular tie-in, but the concept itself makes sense.

In the case of King Kong, the prequel approach could work, but it would likely have to be Kong in the jungle, before the arrival of the film crew, beating on his chest and killing dinosaurs. Not much dramatic potential there. Drop in a parachutist or someone from the outer world and you risk ruining what makes the movie work — the fact that this is the first time Kong has seen outsiders in his kingdom.

I don’t buy or read many comic-book movie adaptations anymore, although at one time they were a large part of my collection — Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others from the Marvel Super Special line. King Kong I bought recently because I found it at much less than the cover price. It was a fun read, probably about the same caliber, entertainment wise, as the giant-sized Whitman treasury adaptation of the movie from the 1960s.

Reading it did make me want to revisit the Peter Jackson film in all its three-plus hours glory, so that’s something, I guess.

Books & Comic books 01 Jul 2011 10:21 am

1985

1985-cover

Ever notice how the best ideas seem remarkably simple in retrospect? Take 1985 by Mark Millar and Tommy Lee Edwards: A boy witnesses the super-villains from his favorite Marvel Comics unleashed upon his (our) “real” world. He needs to find a way out of his reality and into the comics world to get the super-heroes there to help.

It’s as easy — and spellbinding — as that. The first few issues read like horror comics, as young Toby Goodman realizes that even some of the more lame baddies from the comics would be plenty destructive and terrifying in real life. Take the Mole Man (and I’m giving him all due props as the first villain of the Marvel Age of Comics), who is often seen as less than worthy of respect. Here he is a frightening figure, snatching parents and children from playgrounds into his subterranean lair. Or consider Stilt-Man, lurking on the horizon line, silently staring down on the city. Creepy. By the time the real hardcore baddies like Ultron and Galactus show up, and all hell breaks loose in earnest — look out!

Later in the story, when Toby breeches the barrier between the real world and the Marvel Universe, artist Edwards changes his color palette and his art style to match, providing brighter hues and more delineated figures to match the crazy, optimistic world of comics circa 1985. It’s subtle and it works, as do the thought balloons that suddenly float above Toby’s head for the first time, a reminder of a means of exposition that is today fallen from favor.

Ultimately, this is a wish-fulfillment story. Toby’s parents are separated, his mom has remarried a successful business man who wants to relocate the family to England, and his dad is a lovable loser who’s never gotten his head out of the adolescent world of comics and music. (Hey, sounds familiar.) Into this scenario drop the characters from Marvel 1985, and suddenly the lovable loser is far better equipped to deal with things than practical Mom and dutiful step-dad.

Millar fills the book with many wonderful character bits, including interactions between Toby and his father; Toby’s fear that he is the one who has caused the villains to come to life (such a perfect “kid” moment — certain that it’s all about him!) ; and Toby’s dangerous ploy to contact Peter Parker and, hence, Spider-Man.

Edwards’ art is outstanding throughout. He evokes the real world wonderfully and visualizes just how big and scary various denizens of the Marvel U would be stomping through it. The Hulk, Fin Fang Foom, the aforementioned Galactus, and dozens of others are perfectly rendered here. More importantly, he makes Toby look like a real kid, and that’s a key to selling us on the whole thing.

It’ll never happen, but to me 1985 would make the perfect Avengers movie for audiences that may be burning out on super-hero films. The first half could play like a horror/giant-monster movie, and the second half could bring in the more familiar trappings of the super-hero world. It has a human window into the proceedings via Toby (much like this summer’s best film so far, Super 8), and real-world issues that provide grounding without being trite or boring (father/son dynamics, the step-family, adolescent angst, etc.). Hey, I’d go see it in a heartbeat!

If not, then at least we have the collected edition, which comes with a spiffy behind-the-scenes look at the art provided by Edwards that is probably worth the price of admission all on its own.  Meaningful story, incredible art, excellent extras — this is a solid A.

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