Monthly ArchiveJuly 2011



Commentary 28 Jul 2011 01:33 pm

Borders wars

This week’s column, dated July 28, 2011:

I come to bury Borders, not to praise it.

The beleaguered bookseller — try saying that ten times fast — confirmed last week that it was going out of business. The standard rhetoric accompanied its email announcement: thanks for your loyalty and support, it’s been a privilege to work to serve you, we hope to remain in your hearts for years to come, yadda yadda yadda.

For years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Borders. When the shift from bricks-and-mortar to online book buying began in earnest, I still tried to give the company my business, but was often frustrated by its policy of competing against itself. On more than one occasion, I tried to redeem Borders coupons to lower books or movies to the same price that the company sold them for on its own website, only to be told it wasn’t permissible.

A Borders manager once told me the company discounted its products deeper online because in the cyber world, it competed with Amazon, but in the “quote-unquote real world,” it had no competitors. (This, at a time when Borders’ online presence was through a partnership with Amazon, which is a lot like a hen bedding down with a fox for security reasons.)

That attitude infuriated me. Just because the big-box model drove most independent booksellers out of business didn’t mean they had no competition. In this day and age, everybody is somebody’s competitor. Bookstores don’t just compete with other bookstores for my money; they compete with movie theaters, grocery stores, utility companies, restaurants and quick-change oil shops. Most of us have a finite budget, which we spend carefully or compulsively. If you can wrangle out of my wallet the money that I should have saved for the plumber and instead get me to buy the latest Michael Connelly thriller, then guess what? You’ve just beaten the competition.

Despite my contentious relationship with the company’s management, I still racked up a pretty good bill at Borders. I am guilty on more than one occasion of using the bookseller as a showroom for Amazon — finding and sampling books in the store and then going home to order them online — but I often still walked out with a purchase under my arm.

Borders was at least five years behind the online revolution, and it could never catch up. Similarly, it got caught with its pants down (or dust jacket off, to use a publishing analogy) when it came to the eBook revolution. By the time the company woke to the realization that digital books were becoming not just a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon but a real reading force to reckon with, Amazon had already gobbled a large share of the market.

So the company is now going, going and soon to be gone, and for bibliophiles in this area, its demise leaves a definite black hole. Barnes and Noble doesn’t have a presence hereabouts — at least not yet — and independent booksellers are mostly confined to selling used product. That leaves Walmart for mass-market stuff and a skimpy selection of paperbacks at various grocery stores and chain pharmacies.

As an analyst in an Associated Press story on the issue predicted, Borders’ closing might drive folks like me to make more eBook purchases. I enjoy my Kindle, I really do, but I’m a child of the tangible age, and often have to discipline myself not to buy a physical copy of a book I’ve enjoyed digitally.

I still prefer real, honest-to-goodness books, with spines and ink and paper and that indefinable smell, the tactile sensation of turning a page, and the convenience — still not replicated by any digital reading device — of using a napkin or a scrap of paper as a bookmark.

But finding real books is going to be increasingly more difficult without a Borders nearby. Maybe as proof that all things are cyclical, independent bookstores may enjoy a renaissance, carving out a niche for themselves in this brave, new digital world.

Or maybe not, and I’ll be forced to rely on Amazon’s recommendations for future reading, which are in turn based on my current reading, an ever-constricting example of forced egocentrism and narcissism: Since you liked this book by X, we thought you might like this other book by X, and one by Y.

Talk about too big to fail. Maybe the government should step in and force Borders to keep its doors open. Where’s the book lovers’ lobby in Washington, anyway?

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.

Books & Commentary & Movies 21 Jul 2011 08:40 am

They’re just wild about Harry

Here is this week’s column, as published in The Alliance Review on July 21, 2011.

Records for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ are falling faster than a quidditch player without a broom.

The eighth and final movie adaptation of the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling raked in $168 million in the United States last weekend, enough to dethrone previous record-holder “The Dark Knight.” Worldwide, the boy wizard’s last bow has made $475 million so far, as pent-up demand for one final visit to his imaginary world brought out fans in droves.

It’s no wonder Harry Potter has been a license for Warner Bros. to print money. Scratch semi-literate people of a certain age (say, between 16 and 26) and just below the surface you’ll likely find that Rowling’s creation was a big part of their formative years, either through active participation, bemused sideline spectating or open scoffing. One way or another, they’ve dealt with Pottermania.

Yes, the books have older fans, but like the “Twilight” series, Harry’s adventures are the special province of youth. Adults don’t have the same affinity for the material as somebody who has aged along with the characters — and, in the case of the movies, with the actors who play them.

I don’t think it’s an accident that my Advanced Placement classes of the last few years have been filled with disproportionately large numbers of Potter fans. The books are a rite of passage: Every year or so, a new brick (those things are heavy — kids should receive gym credit just for lugging them around) was released into the world, and bleary-eyed kids would wait in line to get their copy and then spend half the night reading. Their goal was to finish the book the way most of us finish ice cream cones — in two or three compulsive gulps.

One mother I know even paid to ship the last novel to her son at a remote scouting camp so that he could read it at the same time as his peers. I find that level of devotion heartening, a sign that reading isn’t a casualty of our quick-fix, instant-gratification society, after all.

I can recognize the impact of the Potter phenomenon, even if I can’t share it. My own attempts at reading the books have been unsuccessful. I can’t get past the first one, and when people tell me to be patient, that it gets better in the third installment, I am baffled: This is pleasure reading, people. What’s the percentage in slogging through hundreds of pages in the hope that the situation will improve? When there’s no test at the end, readers should bail on books they don’t like, period.

Yet I recognize in Harry Potter similarities to my own communal reading experiences as a boy — the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, the early novels of Stephen King, the comic-book adventures of Daredevil and Wolverine, and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” My friends and I devoured them openly during evenings, weekends and study halls, and surreptitiously during classes, passing along dog-eared copies and cogent, sometimes biting assessments — “Just like the last one,” “great action sequences, man,” “too long,” “too short” or “too (fill in your own adolescent critique here).”

What was different, with everything except the comics, was the sense of the adventures being written and published just slightly ahead of our reading. Burroughs and Tolkien, after all, were long dead when I started reading them. What was also missing was a way to instantaneously connect with fans around the world, to be part of a family of readers who worshipped at the altar of Middle Earth or Barsoom (Burroughs’ name for Mars). As teens, we knew such fans existed, but in those pre-Internet days, they were impossible to find.

Not so for Harry Potter. The books have straddled the analog-to-digital hijacking of our social lives, coming at the perfect time to benefit from chat rooms, websites and online fan-fiction treasure troves. Finding fellow Potter fans wasn’t — and isn’t — difficult.

Then there are the movies. I remember agitating over whether to see Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” not wanting to surrender my private Middle Earth to Hollywood. Eventually, I did, and as much as I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure it was the right decision: I find it hard to erase the silver screen versions of hobbits, elves and ringwraiths when re-reading the books.

This hasn’t been a problem for most Potter fans, who take the films in stride as inevitable extensions of the reading experience.

Everything about Harry was the perfect storm of synchronous marketing — the books were a few volumes ahead of the movies, the movies fueled interest in the books, and each new installment (print or celluloid) fueled the fire, brought new fans into the fold, and reinforced Pottermania. The genius of Rowling was writing fast enough to keep up with the kids, aging her characters as her readers aged, and knowing when and how to pull the plug.

I wonder how many fans who cut their literary teeth on the novels will go back later and reread. What will they find?

Undoubtedly, their experiences will be tinged with nostalgia, so they will always view the series through rose-colored glasses. Today, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is still my favorite book, hands down. Would it be if I were reading it for the first time at age 43? Probably not.

The real magic of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling may be that they made reading hip and relevant again, at least to those lucky enough to experience it as it was happening. But will they have a lasting impact?

To those who absorbed the Potter culture through their skin, they already have.

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.

Commentary 14 Jul 2011 11:45 pm

Playing ‘hide the toothbrush’

Here is this week’s column, with a super-graphic line that didn’t make it into print.

I always know when company is coming because my toothbrush disappears.

My wife, Holly, has a hang-up about leaving toothbrushes out while friends or relatives are in town. When visitors call, the brushes — along with the Crest Whitening Expressions Cinnamon Rush toothpaste and the jaunty ceramic caddy that holds all our dental accouterments — are retired unceremoniously to a bathroom cupboard.

The first time this happened, I thought they had been misfiled, like Dubya Bush’s memoirs being shelved under nonfiction. When I found them tucked away in the cupboard (the toothbrushes, not the memoirs), I put them back on the counter next to the sink, much to my wife’s horror.

Luckily, our company didn’t see them. According to her reaction, it would be just as atrocious as having them find a stash of girlie magazines under the sink, or a rat turd in the potato salad.

At first, my assumption was that my wife found toothbrushing somehow scandalous, a habit that one conducts in private but not in front of others, something I relearn each time she upbraids me for showing up to dinner with dental floss hanging from my mouth.

(To be fair, my toothbrushing habits are grotesque in the extreme. Often, paste runs down my hand and wrist, looking like the blood on guitarist Pete Townsend’s hand after a shredding solo.)

Then I started thinking that she had heard the urban legend about burglars and toothbrushes. You know the one, where a couple returns home to find it broken into and nothing taken. Weeks later, they receive photos in the mail showing the burglars inserting the toothbrushes — the same ones the couple has continued to use — into various unsavory parts of their anatomies.

I don’t think we’ve ever had guests who would take such liberties, but I did once listen in horror as a friend who appeared otherwise sane gleefully described sticking her soon-to-be ex-husband’s toothbrush in a dirty toilet, and then watching with satisfaction when he used it, so I suppose anything is possible.

Our guests, however, are very well-behaved. I doubt that any has even participated in the time-honored habit of peeking in medicine cabinets in their host’s home. As a boy, I sometimes did this in relatives’ bathrooms, until one jury-rigged cabinet exploded like Fibber McGee’s closet — ask your grandma or great-grandma, kids — and cured me for good.

To test my theory that medicine cabinet snooping is pervasive, I surveyed a room of women at a bridal shower — such are the extremes to which I will go to uncover the truth. Two of the 13 admitted to at least one incidence of peeking; the other 11 lied.

Anyway, after all these years of assumptions, I finally asked Holly why she hides our toothbrushes before company calls. Her answer had nothing to do with embarrassment or concerns over photos of Colgate brushes rising in a guest’s back end like the American flag over Iwo Jima, but rather with a basic health concern.

Turns out, she’s read somewhere that whenever a toilet is flushed, the dirty water in the bowl is expelled from the john and distributed around other surfaces in the bathroom, including toothbrushes.

“I know we all close the lid before flushing,” she said, “but I don’t known about our guests.”

Less poetic than my explanations, certainly, but more practical. That’s my wife all the way.

In some ways, a guest leaving the lid up is the same as exposing a toothbrush to degradations from bare buttocks, but without malice aforethought or Polaroid proof after the fact.

As a result, I may start stashing my toothbrush somewhere even safer than the bathroom cupboard before guests arrive. Maybe the refrigerator?

Commentary 07 Jul 2011 03:08 pm

Heterosexuals destroyed ’sanctity of marriage’

This week’s column from The Review:

Do you think any married New Yorkers woke up on the morning of June 25 and found that their wedding rings disappeared during the night?

After all, the sun rose that Saturday morning for the first time on a state where same-sex marriage had been approved by the Legislature, a move that opponents long feared would destroy the sanctity of the union between man and woman.

But it didn’t. Instead, the planet kept spinning and people in New York, like people everywhere else, kept marrying, loving, drinking, smoking, belching, traveling, divorcing, and watching lame reality shows like “The Voice” in the same numbers as they always had. (Well, maybe more people watched “The Voice,” but only because it was the big finale episode, not because it received any ratings shot in the arm from the legalization of same-sex marriage.)

In other words, New York survived. Ohio will, too, as will the rest of the United States when people finally warm up to the idea that when two consenting adults love one another enough to put up with piles of clipped fingernails on the bedroom dresser, shoe fetishes, Emmett Kelley clown collections, the music of Grand Funk Railroad or toilet seats left permanently up, they ought to be allowed to legitimize the relationship regardless of gender.

It’s not an issue of morality, it’s an issue of humanity.

Some of the nicest couples I know are same-sex. Their relationships could teach many of us heterosexuals a thing or two about mutual respect, monogamy and communication.

Instead, they are vilified as the harbingers of End Times, as if the same God (if you believe in that sort of thing) who hardwired them to be attracted to people of the same gender (if you believe in that sort of thing) would then punish them — and us — for having the temerity to demand that their relationships be validated in the same way as “everybody else” (if you believe in that sort of thing).

I don’t know about you, but it’s easier not to believe in a higher power at all than to believe in one who subscribes to the same sort of knee-jerk, reward/punishment school of philosophy as conservative talk show hosts.

As for destroying the sanctity of marriage, we heterosexual couples have done a fine job of that on our own. In Ohio, for example, 11 percent of men and 13 percent of women are divorced, according to the Pew Research Center. This is higher than the national divorce averages of 9 and 12 percent, respectively, with no help from the gay community.

But will those rates climb higher if gay marriage is allowed in Ohio? I don’t know, but my guess is no. Same-sex couples will likely divorce at the same rates as other married couples because they are exactly like other married couples, with the exception of their sexual orientation. Data on same-sex divorce rates is hard to come by because same-sex marriages, until relatively recently, have been hard to come by.

I, for one, would like to see President Obama stop pussyfooting around the issue and endorse same-sex marriage from his bully pulpit in the White House. He doesn’t because it would cost him more conservative votes than he would gain in liberal followers, who really don’t have another horse in the presidential race, anyway. Elections are a numbers game, after all.

Obama’s verbal gymnastics (he says his views are “evolving”) are especially unfortunate because a firm declaration would go a long way toward legitimizing the struggle for millions of gays who supported him in the last election and who continue to hope his empathy for oppression might be greater than other candidates’ because of his background.

Politics aside, the battle continues. Someday, we may live in a nation where same-sex marriages have not disappeared, but where the expression has. In its place will be the only word really necessary to convey love and commitment between two consenting adults — “marriage.”

Comic books & Movies 01 Jul 2011 01:25 pm

King Kong comix

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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.

Commentary & Movies 01 Jul 2011 09:34 am

Halitosis on the silver screen

This week’s column from The Alliance Review:

Ever wonder what Cameron Diaz’s breath smells like? How about Brad Pitt’s pits?

You may soon find out if a gimmick called Aroma-Scope catches on. The process will be used in “Spy Kids 4″ in August, when each theatergoer will be handed a scratch-n-sniff card along with a ticket. At various times during the movie, a number will flash on the screen that corresponds with a number on the card. When the viewer gives the card the ol’ lottery ticket scratch, it releases one of eight distinct aromas.

Dimension Studios is alternately calling the process “4-D,” and to be honest, it’s not exactly new. Various “Oriental” smells wafted about the theater during the release of the 1959 documentary “Behind the Great Wall,” according to Tim Dirks’ “1950s Film History” on filmsite.org. One year later, “Smell-o-Vision” (or Scentovision) pumped 30 different odors through patrons’ seats during “Scent of Mystery.”

Both were rather desperate attempts by movie studios to combat the Great Satan, television, and followed the bust of the 3-D fad, introduced in 1952’s jungle cheapie “Bawana Devil” and later used with great fanfare in big-budget releases like “It Came from Outer Space” and “House of Wax” (with Vincent Price).

Coincidentally, the resurrection of cinematic smells in our modern day comes after Hollywood’s bandwagon jump onto modern 3-D (used to great effect in “Avatar,” and to lesser effect in almost everything that came after) was first embraced, and eventually scorned, by today’s audiences. Like the battle against TV for viewers’ minds and souls 50 years ago, contemporary studios are attempting to wean us away from the entertainment competition. Today, that includes movies-on-demand, video games, illegal downloading of movies and noodling around on cell phones.

If history continues to repeat itself, we can look forward to the return of other ’50s and ’60s innovations designed to lure audiences back to theaters. In “A History of Narrative Films,” David A. Cook noted these gimmicks included Emergo, where a fake skeleton on a wire shot through the audience during a similar moment on screen, and Percepto, where audiences’ seats vibrated when a fear-seeking monster in “The Tingler” supposedly migrated from the screen to the interior of the theater. (Vincent Price, apparently the impresario of gimmicky flicks, starred in “The Tingler,” too.)

Both Emergo and Percepto were brainchildren of William Castle, who also insured audiences against death from fright and offered refunds to theatergoers, but only after they humiliated themselves in a “Coward’s Corner,” according to Cook. Castle’s stunts were often the best parts of otherwise tepid movies.

Having seen a few of this summer’s most highly touted releases, I can safely say that what Hollywood needs to get its fair share of our entertainment dollar today is the same thing it needed in the ’60s: better movies.

For every great summer popcorn movie like “Super 8,” with characters we actually care about and root for, there are half a dozen like “Green Lantern,” an achingly average snooze-fest with cardboard-cutout characters, cliché plots and over-the-top special effects.

Analysts say that audiences are bypassing higher ticket prices for 3-D movies because of poor conversion techniques (many of these films are shot traditionally, and then switched to 3-D in post-production) and murky pictures (director Michael Bay sent expensive replacement projector bulbs to theaters before opening day of the latest Transformers movie to help brighten the screens). But it’s not bad 3-D or muddy pictures that drive audiences away — it’s boring stories.

Frankly, most modern movies are so stinky, you can smell them from the parking lot. No Aroma-Scope needed.