Fates Worse Than Death: Red Barry

20180610_214643.jpg

China is at war! In the headquarters of General Fang, the elderly Wing Fu, known in the United States as a humble importer of Chinese goods, prepares to undertake a covert mission: he carries with him two million dollars in bonds, with which he is to secretly buy airplanes for the Chinese war effort (illegal under American neutrality laws). He takes with him the dedicated young Captain Moy, but it is clear that the mission will be dangerous: the Chinatown crimelord Quong Lee has already murdered three of Wing Fu’s associates, and all that stands between Quong Lee’s gang and the bonds is police detective Red Barry, “possibly the cleverest detective on the force,” already on the case of the Pell Street murders.

Meanwhile, Detective Barry has his own problems: although his immediate superior, Inspector Scott, considers Barry a great detective, the covert nature of many of his assignments make others suspicious: the police commissioner wants to take Barry off the Chinatown case and replace him with Valentine Vane, a foppish, glory-hungry “scientific detective” on loan from Scotland Yard. Barry tries to follow orders and stay away, but he keeps getting pulled back into the action, which first takes him to a theater in which a Chinese secret service man (disguised as an acrobat) is murdered, leading Barry to the ship on which Wing Fu and his bonds are to arrive in America. Also at the theater is someone else after the bonds: Natacha, a Russian dancer, swears that the bonds once belonged to her father and were stolen from him. She and her Russian cohort are determined to get back what is rightfully hers. Before the ship even pulls into port, the bonds are stolen from Wing Fu, leading to a fight on the docks with Quong Lee’s henchmen! That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s an indicator of just how much plot is stuffed into the thirteen chapters of Universal’s 1938 serial Red Barry!

 RedBarry4

I’ll confess I wasn’t familiar with Red Barry before I started watching and researching this serial: like many of the serials, it was first a comic strip, which were a frequent source of film adaptations, just as comic books have proven to be in the last few decades. The comic strip Red Barry first appeared in March 1934, the first of many imitators to follow the success of Dick Tracy. (The artist/writer Will Gould is no relation to Tracy‘s creator Chester Gould. He is also not William Gould, who plays the Commissioner in this serial. While we’re at it, Western actor Don “Red” Barry has nothing to do with the comic strip or serial: he took his nickname through association with popular character Red Ryder, whom he had played on screen.)

The comic strip was popular enough to receive the Big Little Book treatment in addition to a serial adaptation; had it not ended in 1939 after only five years, it is likely it would be better remembered. Apparently, it wasn’t a decline in popularity or the strip’s high level of violence that led to its end: disputes with the syndicate and the heavy workload caused Gould to leave cartooning and begin a new–and easier–career in Hollywood. For many years it was considered a difficult strip to collect (the aforementioned violence meant it didn’t run in some newspapers), but a recent edition from IDW has reproduced the complete run in two volumes, and it is that which I have consulted.

 RedBarry1

Like Dick Tracy, Red Barry was a gritty police procedural that didn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of law enforcement; Barry faces off against criminals with his fists and his gun, frequently outmaneuvering them through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. During the Depression, when lawlessness seemed to be everywhere, this new mode of “hard-boiled” crime fiction was very popular in both the comics and the pulps. The twist was that Barry was an “undercover man,” infiltrating criminal gangs and bringing them down from the inside, with only Inspector Scott knowing his real loyalty. Gould leavened the frequent fisticuffs and bloodshed with wry humor and colorful characters (as well as some unfortunate ethnic caricatures) drawn from his extensive experience as a newspaperman.

 RedBarry2

Modern viewers of the serial will instantly recognize the formula that has been used in so many police stories: Barry is hounded by a clueless Commissioner and defended by his boss (Wade Boteler) because “he gets results;” Barry maintains contacts in the underworld and throughout the city, including would-be Chinatown detective “Hong Kong Cholly” (Philip Ahn, brother of Buck Rogers‘s Philson Ahn, and who is the only major player of Asian descent in this serial).

 20180611_141255.jpg

His other source of support is Mississippi (Frances Robinson), the Southern-accented girl reporter for the Daily Press, who spends so much time in the offices of the police station (and even behind the wheel of a police car!) that she might as well be an honorary deputy. Although the serial doesn’t have Barry (played by serial icon Buster Crabbe, who had already played Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and would go on to play Buck Rogers) going undercover, it’s still reasonably faithful to the setup of the strip. Many of the supporting characters–Scott, Mississippi, Cholly, and Vane–are drawn from the comics.

20180611_141141.jpg

Mostly set in and around Chinatown, it would be easy for Red Barry to fall prey to the clichés of exoticism and Chinoiserie I discussed in the context of Shadow of Chinatown. Indeed, Asian actors and settings are used as a colorful backdrop for much of the story, but there is very little of the “Yellow Peril” in it. With its theme of Chinese self-defense opposed to official American neutrality, Red Barry is also more explicitly political than most serials (this has limits, however; presumably the war referred to is the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, but it is primarily a spark to get the story in America going). It is still a work of its time, however: Wing Fu and Quong Lee, the major Chinese characters, are played by white men, Syril Delevanti and Frank Lackteen respectively (see the Spoilers for more on this, however).

 20180611_155020.jpg

As Hong Kong Cholly, Ahn plays the most stereotyped role, thickly-accented and obsequious to Red Barry (this is true to the original comics). As soon as the white people are gone, however, it is revealed that “Cholly” speaks perfect English: he is, in fact, Wing Fu’s son! (The shift in his dialogue may represent that the two are speaking Chinese in private, but it’s not entirely clear: either way, the clownish simpleton he appears to be around Red Barry is revealed to be an act.) As such, like Wing Fu he plays a dangerous game, respecting and relying on Red Barry and even helping him when it is in his own interest, but knowing that the mission to buy airplanes breaks American law.

 20180611_141402.jpg

Natacha (Edna Sedgwick) is a similarly nuanced character, taking the initiative to correct the injustice done to her family. While she practically lives at the theater where she performs her act (a ballet number set to Tchaikovsky, of course), she maintains connections with some Russian toughs who hang out at Mama Sonia’s, a Russian restaurant. The lead Russian is Petrov, played by intense character actor Stanley Price, and he and the other Russians play the typical henchman roles, tailing people, breaking into their offices, and threatening them in their search for the missing bonds.

 20180611_154913.jpg

Quong Lee also has his headquarters, behind the “Eurasian Café” in Chinatown, and his own gang of thugs, headed up by serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as Weaver. In typical serial fashion, all three of the people trying to get the bonds delegate to people working for them or helping them, partly to keep the mystery drawn out–we can’t have Red Barry copping to the truth too quickly–and to keep the danger at arm’s length until the last few chapters, when they all have to get their hands dirty.

20180610_214822.jpg

The Chinatown and theater settings provide colorful backdrops for action and intrigue; many of the locations are returned to again and again, and almost all are riddled with secret entrances and exits, allowing Barry’s quarry to stay one step ahead and leading to some surprise confrontations. The fights, traps, and cliffhangers are generally well-executed and the pacing keeps things exciting and varied.

 20180611_154727.jpg

The real strong point of this serial, however, is in the characterization: the antagonists have clear, contrasting motives that drive the plot forward and allow the characters to bounce off one another in various combinations. The mystery, while not deep, is tangled enough to justify the length it takes Barry to unravel it, and there are some twists (discussed below) that take the plot in new directions just when it seems that things may resolve according to formula. My one complaint is the sameness of the henchmen that I have in the past referred to as the “white guys in fedoras” problem: without context, it is not always clear whether the Russians or Quong Lee’s men are on screen, and when more than two sides of the conflict collide, the result is often as confusing for the audience as for the men involved. (At least Wing Fu’s men are Chinese, but even this is not always clear in wide shots.) This is not a huge problem, however, as dialogue usually clarifies the situation sooner or later, and when they get the spotlight it is always a pleasure to watch Stanley Price and Wheeler Oakman in action.

Finally, there is Red Barry himself. Once again, Buster Crabbe (here billed as “Larry,” as he often was in his earlier roles) proves why he was so effective anchoring the serials, whether fantastic or more down-to-earth. Crabbe’s Barry is not as rough-edged as the character in the comics, but he is cool-headed, competent, and diplomatic, even when assailed by doubts or in over his head. Putting him at the center makes it easy to see why his friends are so loyal to him. Red Barry is recommended viewing.

 20180611_154955.jpg

Spoilers: As mentioned, Wing Fu and Quong Lee are both played by white men; in the case of Quong Lee, however, it turns out that he isn’t really Chinese within the story either! In Chapter Eight (“The Devil’s Disguise”), the audience learns that the Chinatown crimelord “Quong Lee” and Mannix, the mild-mannered theater manager, are one in the same! His real identity is Frederick Lee, a renegade white man run out of China. He is a master of disguise, using his theatrical skills to lead a double life and occasionally slip under the police’s noses when things get too hot. It turns out Red Barry isn’t the only “undercover man!” (William Ruhl plays the undisguised Mannix; it wasn’t that unusual for two different actors to play the same character in disguise in serials, either to throw the audience off or to make the “disguise” conceit more convincing.)

20180611_141324.jpg

In fact, there is another character who isn’t what he seems: in the Red Barry strip, Valentine Vane was a self-taught amateur detective who attempted to upstage the professionals, spoofing popular series character Philo Vance. In the serial, Vane (played by Hugh Huntley) is an annoying but apparently legitimate source of competition, a Scotland Yard detective brought in by the Commissioner because he lacks faith in Red Barry. In addition to his “scientific” airs, Vane is wealthy, and his mansion, complete with butler, archery range, and collection of automobiles, is a scene to which we return several times. At one point, when Red Barry, in possession of the bonds, is knocked unconscious, Vane takes them, supposedly so he can take credit for their recovery. This makes him underhanded, but not criminal. However, in Chapter Twelve (“The Enemy Within”), Vane makes his move, knocking Natacha unconscious and pulling a gun on the seemingly triumphant Mannix, demanding to split the proceeds from the bonds. “Valentine Vane” has been playing a long con all along, and beneath his “jolly good” cover he is actually an American grifter named Harry Dicer. He’s strung the Commissioner along until he was in a position to make a big score, and now he has his opportunity! Mannix and Vane team up for a while, at least until they inevitably betray each other and receive the punishment that is the just reward for all serial villains.

20180611_141215.jpg

Finally, while Wing Fu’s covert mission to buy airplanes for China runs afoul of American laws, changing circumstances mean that the bonds will be directed towards food and medicine for refugees. This humanitarian purpose is not against American law, and so Wing Fu and Red Barry are able to work together from Chapter Ten on. Ultimately, Natacha relinquishes her claim to the bonds when she learns they will be used for refugee aid, as she had been a refugee herself. Thus is the conflict resolved. 

What I Watched: Red Barry (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: TCM aired this serial, one chapter a week, on Saturday mornings for the last three months. I mostly watched it week to week but recorded the chapters to my DVR so I could review them. Unfortunately, I can’t take direct screenshots from my television like I can from my computer, hence the lower quality. Red Barry is also available on DVD.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Between Two Fires” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Ten (“The False Trail”) ends with a car chase, the villain having lain in wait in a taxi and taken Red prisoner, and Mississippi following in a police car. When the shooting starts, Red (in the back seat) takes the opportunity to fight against his captor: the two struggle until the door opens, spilling Red out onto the roadway, where he appears to be run over by Mississipi’s close-following car (the key word being “appears,” of course).

20180611_155111.jpg

Sample Dialogue: “You can always find people you’re not looking for.” –a policeman on the lookout for Quong Lee, watching Mannix go by (Chapter Eight, “The Devil’s Disguise)

What Others Have Said: “I have long admired and raved about Red Barry as the one successful detective comic strip and the only one worthy of consideration, from my scholarly viewpoint. Vigorously in the Hammett tradition, with first-rate characters and clean-cut plots.” –letter from author Anthony Boucher to Forrest J. Ackerman, quoted in Red Barry: Undercover Man, Volume 1, IDW Publishing

RedBarry3

What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at The Adventures of Captain Marvel!

 

Advertisements

Fates Worse Than Death: Mandrake, the Magician

MM.title

Aboard the S.S. Mohawk, Mandrake, the famous stage magician, is preparing to perform when he receives a telegram from his friend Betty, daughter of the accomplished scientist Professor Houston. Houston’s latest invention, a “radium energy machine” with which he hopes to benefit mankind (and the development of which Mandrake has also had a hand in), has attracted unwanted attention from criminals who hope to use its great power for destructive purposes. Even aboard the cruise ship, Mandrake is spied upon and an attempt is made on his life by henchmen of the mastermind who calls himself “the Wasp.” Upon returning to land and meeting with the Professor and his daughter, Mandrake offers to help protect Houston and his invention, but before the first chapter is over the Wasp manages to kidnap the Professor and steal the radium energy machine, turning it against Mandrake. To make matters worse, Mandrake begins to suspect that the Wasp is actually one of his close compatriots: could the Wasp actually be James Webster, an engineer; Dr. Andre Bennett, a physician; or Frank Raymond, booking agent and magic store proprietor? The truth is revealed by the end of the 1939 Columbia serial Mandrake, the Magician!

MM.stagemagic

After the Wasp succeeds in stealing Houston’s machine in the first chapter, he isn’t shy about using it (Houston eventually escapes the Wasp, but without recovering his invention): the power of the machine allows the Wasp to strike at buildings and people at a distance, so there are scenes of power lines, a radio tower, and even a dam being destroyed (in miniature, of course). However, the machine the Wasp stole wasn’t the final model, and Houston tells Mandrake that it will wear out through repeated use. A rare element, “platonite,” must be bonded with steel to fashion new, indestructible parts for an upgraded machine. This gives us several directions for the story to unfold: not only is Mandrake trying to track down the Wasp and the stolen machine, the Wasp is still trying to get his hands on the platonite and the formula for combining it with steel, and while he has Houston in his clutches he puts him to work improving the machine.

MM.WaspShadow

Much of the serial is given over to cat-and-mouse games: the Wasp has a listening device planted in the Houston home, so the bad guys can anticipate Mandrake’s moves until he figures it out and uses the bug to set a trap of his own, and there are various other deceptions and subterfuges. When the action briefly turns to Mandrake’s country estate and the Wasp’s men attempt to corner him there, they get more than they bargained for as the magician’s collection of trick items (a gun that shocks anyone who tries to pull its trigger, a vanishing cabinet through which Mandrake escapes, etc.) confound them at every turn. There are a few switcheroos that take advantage of Mandrake’s skills as an escape artist as well, in which the bound and hooded victim of a trap–supposedly Mandrake, caught at last!–turns out to be the hapless henchman who failed yet again to apprehend his man.

MM.trickgun

Although Mandrake still has fans today, it would surprise young readers to learn how big he once was: created and written by Lee Falk (who also created the Phantom), the comic strip hero first appeared in 1934 and ran in newspapers well into the current century. Mandrake is even considered one of the first costumed superheroes, although in many ways he is a transitional figure between pulp and literary heroes such as Zorro and the “long underwear” lineage that begins with Superman. Falk, who began the strip when he was only nineteen, single-handedly wrote all of Mandrake’s daily adventures until his death in 1999. Very few comics creators could match either the length of Falk’s active career or the creative control he wielded during that time! Not surprisingly, serial adaptations followed the success of both strips; bearing in mind that the Mandrake strip was only five years old rather than a character with a decades-long legacy when Hollywood knocked, Falk was still (understandably) unhappy with the changes made in the process of bringing the famous magician to the screen.

Mandrake.daily0

In the comic strip, Mandrake wields genuine magic: although partially based on Houdini, and wearing the classic stage magician’s costume of top hat and tails, Mandrake creates illusions by “gesturing hypnotically,” transforms people and things, and turns weapons against their owners, among other astounding feats. Like later imitators Zatara (father of the now better-known Zatanna) and Doctor Strange, the original Mandrake the Magician adapted the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales to the needs of serial adventure, using his amazing powers (and the muscle of his loyal manservant Lothar) to aid those who needed it, including his beloved Princess Narda. Naturally, such a larger-than-life hero had to face off against equally potent enemies, so Mandrake’s cases frequently involved battling evil wizards, mad scientists, and power-hungry dictators; visiting hidden kingdoms; and unriddling seemingly insoluble mysteries. (Although the daily strip ended in 2013 with the retirement of Falk’s successor Fred Fredericks, Mandrake has continued to appear alongside fellow King Features characters the Phantom and Flash Gordon in licensed cartoons and comic books; as always, a feature film is said to be in the works.)

DefendersoftheEarth

By now, of course, I am used to the serial versions of licensed characters being a bit . . . different from the originals. Changing the background, abilities, supporting cast, and even the name of the hero is the rule rather than the exception for serials, so it was no surprise that in the Mandrake, the Magician serial (the comma is part of the serial’s title if not the comic strip’s) the title character is a Houdini-like stage magician and escape artist rather than a wizard with the ability to reshape reality or even hypnotize people. One could imagine Mandrake lending itself to fantastic visual effects or mysterious atmosphere as a feature made by Universal or Val Lewton’s RKO production unit, but it was not to be. It was obviously truer to formula (not to mention more economical) for Columbia to have Mandrake demonstrate his bona fides by performing onstage in a few chapters and then throwing a smoke bomb to get out of a jam or two; the rest of the time he solves problems with his wits and his fists like any other serial protagonist.

MM.WarrenHull

Mandrake is played by Warren Hull, who would go on to play the title role in The Green Hornet Strikes Again, and while he makes for a capable serial lead, he doesn’t look much like the comic strip magician. It has been pointed out that Lee Falk could have been a matinee idol himself, and in fact the comic strip Mandrake looks quite a bit like Falk, lean and debonair and possessed of a sleek mustache. Hull, by contrast, is clean-shaven: in the serials facial hair is often code for villainy, or at least a suspicious character. (Consider Mandrake’s engineer friend Webster, played by Kenneth MacDonald, who has not only a pencil-thin mustache but a permanent wave that makes him look like Norman Osborn as drawn by Steve Ditko: Webster comes in for suspicion from his very first scene, and takes the unusual step of protesting his innocence whenever someone looks too closely at his alibis. But having such a prickly character be the Wasp would be too obvious . . . wouldn’t it?)

MM.Betty.Webster

In the early comic strips, Mandrake’s hulking manservant Lothar is depicted as a black African wearing animal skins and given to pidgin phrases like “Me coming, Master,” when he speaks at all. The exotic, uncivilized, and deathlessly loyal servant/bodyguard is a problematic character type (but one hardly limited to Falk’s creations) born of colonialism and racial hierarchies considered so obvious as to be unspoken. Yet Lothar is brave and true, especially compared to contemporaneous depictions of Africans and African-Americans (and was eventually revealed to be a king himself in his own native land); is Lothar, as Rick Norwood claims, “the first heroic black man in comics”? Possibly. As with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, one can argue that the important point is the friendship and mutual loyalty of two men across barriers of race and color, and some pulp and comics stories live up to that ideal, but it is hard to deny that in the stories of the ’30s Mandrake and Lothar are clearly master and servant, and Lothar was not given a more realistic (non-caricatured) appearance until the 1960s.

Mandrake.daily

Like the comic strips and any other popular entertainment of their day, the serials were not free of racial and ethnic stereotypes that now appear offensive, including depictions of “savage” black characters. (I have discussed this issue before, on one side trying to avoid the easy self-congratulation that comes from pointing out politically incorrect depictions from the past as a sign of how much more enlightened we are today–a self-satisfaction that is rarely justified, especially now– but at the same time making sure that as modern audience members we don’t fall into the seductive fantasy of believing that things were simpler then, or that race wasn’t an issue, or whatever illusion we care to project onto stories which themselves were far simpler than reality ever was: in short, let us engage in a little self-reflection to make sure that we aren’t enjoying these old films and comics for the wrong reasons.)

MM.Mandrake.Lothar

However, the Mandrake serial goes in a different direction, casting the Hawaiian-descended actor and stuntman Al Kikume as Lothar. The serials’ Lothar (pronounced lo-THAR most of the time) is likewise a man of few words and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” but he is neither primitive nor brutish. While Kikume is imposing enough to play the strongman character, his casting suggests the possibility that non-white ethnicities were considered interchangeable, or that a Pacific islander would be less threatening as Mandrake’s bodyguard–or perhaps Kikume was simply available. Is this a form of erasure? As we have seen, serial producers had no qualms about changing details to suit their budgets, shooting schedules, or simply their whims. Mandrake, the Magician isn’t as disgustingly racist as Batman–in fact, few of the serials I’ve watched are–but as a data point it is part of a larger pattern, and one that is still the norm, even if things have improved over the years.

MM.machine

Also essential to the plot are Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) and his daughter Betty (Doris Weston), who play the classic pulp roles of the scientist whose invention attracts dangerous attention and the dutiful daughter who enlists the hero’s aid. (There are suggestions that Mandrake and Betty are into each other throughout, but only at the very end is there confirmation of an actual romance—as frequently occurs, Betty is the only prominent female character in this serial.)

MM.juniormagicians

Professor Houston’s young son, Tommy (Rex Downing), is also along for the ride, but aside from a scene introducing the “Junior Magicians Club” (which adds exactly zero to the plot) and asking some questions that introduce helpful exposition, Tommy doesn’t have that much to do and could be edited out completely with little loss: his character is a serial standby, the youthful, enthusiastic kid hero or sidekick, but in almost vestigial form. Junior leads can be annoying when written or acted poorly, of course, but over the course of a 215-minute run time I would happily trade some of this serial’s repetitive fist fights for more scenes of Tommy or his friends helping out.

MM.Wasp3

Mandrake’s opponent, the Wasp, is also standard fare for serials: the Wasp is a ruthless criminal of unknown identity and above-average technical ability, and the narrative conceit by which he is secretly one of Mandrake’s confidants, to be unmasked only in the final chapter, is also something we’ve seen before. (The Wasp’s get-up, which includes a shiny half-mask, an embroidered cape, and a PUA-style fedora, is so gaudy even a professional wrestler might find himself asking “Is this too much?”) As in other serials, the Wasp is primarily shown in isolation at his headquarters, behind a control panel through which he operates the ray and communicates with his underlings, so as not to confront the hero directly until the end. At first the gang only hears from the Wasp through a two-way television screen while they hole up in a fake sanitarium, and later they report to him in his actual lair, hidden in an ordinary city block behind a maze of empty rooms.

MM.WaspTV

Dirk (John Tyrrell), the Wasp’s second-in-command, is less like the typical “spearhead villain” and acts almost like a dispatcher, relaying the Wasps’ orders and encouraging his guys to hustle because the boss is really breathing down his neck. (Unsurprisingly, Dirk doesn’t make it to the end of the serial.) Most of the Wasp’s other henchmen are interchangeable in role and personality, moreso than usual, although Columbia rounded up a colorful-looking range of mugs from their stable of regulars to fill out their ranks.

MM.Dirk

Quite a few serials don’t really start coming together until a few chapters in, after some scene-setting and moving the pieces into position. Mandrake takes longer than most to “get good,” and while the last few chapters feature some exciting set pieces and drama, far too many chapters are given over to the perfunctory story-telling and sloppy action (especially the fist fights, which are mostly artless brawls) that are all-too typical of Columbia’s serials. I’m thankful that at least Mandrake has only 12 chapters rather than (shudder) 16. Maybe I’m being too hard on Mandrake simply because I’ve seen enough serials by now that it’s harder to surprise me. But I also think Columbia’s house style just isn’t to my taste (although Mandrake precedes the descent into self-parody that marks the Columbia serials of the 1940s).

MM.fight

However, I’m willing to point out scenes and ideas that do work, most of which are in the last few chapters. A highlight is Chapter Ten, “The Unseen Monster.” Mandrake, rendered unconscious by a train wreck at the end of the previous chapter, is picked up by the Wasp’s henchmen, disguised as ambulance drivers. They take him to “Green Valley Rest Home,” a sanitarium that is actually a false front for the Wasp’s gang. It’s a great setting, and the ruse has great potential for drama. Once Mandrake is free and reunited with his friends (who have traced him to the Rest Home), there is a fantastic sequence in which the Wasp observes their progress through a “photo-electric table,” a sort of primitive view screen that resembles the top-down view of a video game (or the tracking device used to such suspenseful effect in Aliens), closing automatic doors and detonating explosives at key points to block routes of escape. This is the kind of thing one hopes for when watching serials, even if it takes ten chapters to build toward it.

MM.photoelectricboard

What I Watched: Mandrake, the Magician (Columbia, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment (The first few scenes of Chapter One include some dialogue that is obviously dubbed by modern actors, apparently replacing damaged or missing sound; it’s a little distracting, but since I have complained in the past about garbled or muffled dialogue that is hard to follow, I guess I should at least be grateful for this attempt to enhance my viewing experience.)

MM.Wasp.machine

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Title Chapter: “Terror Rides the Rails” (Chapter Nine) All of the chapter titles are pretty good in Mandrake; as it suggests, this one involves an attack by the Wasp on the train in which Mandrake and Lothar are riding.

MM.attack1

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“At the Stroke of Eight”), Professor Houston has gathered Mandrake and his colleagues to see a demonstration of his latest invention, a “nullifier” that can counter the radium energy machine the Wasp stole. Mandrake suspects that one among the group is secretly the Wasp, and his suspicions are confirmed when one of the guests sabotages the nullifier at the last moment. Suddenly, Betty and Thomas run into the room: the lights have gone off upstairs! Mandrake confirms that the Wasp is (remotely) turning his ray on the very house in which they stand! Sparks begin flying out of every corner, and we are treated to several quick shots of the assembled guests panicking, surrounded by gouts of flame, and the whole thing culminates with the complete collapse of the house on top of our heroes.

MM.attack3

Cheats: The end of Chapter Six (“The Fatal Crash”) sees Mandrake in an airplane, shot down by an enemy pilot in the employ of the Wasp; the plane goes into a steep dive and crashes. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Gamble for Life”), Mandrake puts on a parachute and jumps out of the plummeting aircraft just in time.

MM.parachute

MM.cablecar1

The end of that same chapter finds Mandrake and one of the Wasp’s men struggling in a cable car suspended over a deep chasm; as they rock the car with their fighting, the hook suspending the car aloft weakens, until Mandrake succeeds in pushing his opponent overboard and the hook finally gives way, sending the car plummeting to the bottom. The next chapter repeats the action, but this time Mandrake leaps from the falling cable car and hangs onto the cable, pulling himself hand over hand back to safety. Look, I don’t even get upset about these things any more, but if you want further evidence of the way cliffhangers play fast and loose with consistency in order to gin up suspense, these are typical examples.

MM.cablecar2

MM.cablecar3

Sample Dialogue: “I guess that’s the last we’ll see of Mandrake. Let’s go.”

“Look! Mandrake!”

(exchange between two henchmen in Chapter Six, “The Fatal Crash”)

MM.henchmen

What Others Have Said: “I remember him [Falk] saying that as he was delighted with the [1996] production of The Phantom, he was a bit disappointed that Mandrake, the Magician (who could easily be viewed as a Lee Falk look-alike) had not made it to the screen first. He mentioned that Federico Fellini had shown interest in such a movie, but it never materialized. There had been a 1939 serial, Mandrake, the Magician, starring Warren Hull, but he discounted that version just as he did the 1943 Phantom serial starring Tom Tyler. He felt that neither portrayed his characters as he had conceived them.” –Bob Griffin, “From Fan to Friend: My Memories of Lee Falk,” included in Mandrake the Magician, The Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra

LeeFalk

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks for cops-and-robbers action in Chinatown as Buster Crabbe plays detective Red Barry!

Retro Review: The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Scan0007

Preface: In the Spring of 2002, I was completing doctoral studies in composition at Florida State University. I had finished my coursework and all I had left to do was compose my dissertation. Naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put it off in favor of researching and writing an in-depth article on the comic book character Howard the Duck. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious procrastination strategy, but it was also a natural outgrowth of reading and research on comics that I had been pursuing as a hobby when taking a break from my studies. FSU’s library was well-stocked with books and magazine collections covering the history of comics and related subjects, and as I became more serious I found additional resources online and used eBay to track down copies of hard-to-find comics and magazines, drawing on interviews and histories in my own work.

At the time, I thought I might eventually have enough material for a book, not only on Howard but on the full range of duck characters–from Donald and Daffy to Duckman and Mallard Fillmore–in comics and cartoons, and perhaps answer the question, “Why are ducks so over-represented among funny animal characters?” Was there something about ducks that made them funnier (the archetypal “duck character,” of which Howard is a prime example, is a sputtering, irascible hothead), or was it a matter of artists building on each others’ work, creating a self-perpetuating tradition? I had been a fan of Howard the Duck since much earlier, when I was collecting comics as a kid, but I now applied the rigor of my ongoing graduate studies in examining him.

The book never materialized, but I did complete an essay about Howard before my enthusiasm ran out and I turned to other responsibilities. After pitching the article in a few places without any luck, I put the essay and a big box of research materials away and got on with my dissertation (the composition that eventually became Carnival of Souls). I have alluded to this project occasionally before, but I recently found the disc (marked 5/13/02) on which I had saved the file and have decided to share it. Reading my work now, it is an obvious precursor to articles I have written for this blog (and its length seems now like only a medium-length blog post), and if I had maintained a website back then I probably would have just shared it that way. I seem to recall a more academic, and possibly longer, version of this article that included footnotes, but as yet it hasn’t turned up, and possibly never will.

Being now sixteen years old, there is much here that is either out of date or irrelevant: Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, died in 2008, critical of the comics industry and American society to the last; and Disney bought Marvel in 2009, making the corporate dispute detailed herein moot. The 2002 Marvel MAX series that was the timeliest element in the article is now a blip in Howard’s history; Howard himself has continued to appear in Marvel comics written by other writers, most notably Chip Zdarsky. Time and distance have softened the blow of the 1986 film fiasco, and the movie has a small but devoted cult of fans; Howard has even made cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, something that seemed utterly unlikely back in the early 2000s.

In presenting this essay, however, I am making no effort to update it beyond some minor editing of spelling and punctuation. It is a time capsule of one aspect of culture from 2002 and my thoughts on it, and clearly at least some of these subjects have been on my mind for a long time: regular readers of Medleyana will find arguments here that I have made in other forms in articles on Kamandi and Captain Carrot. Please enjoy this “blast from the past.”

Scan0005

The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Creating a beloved fictional character is a double-edged sword: it is only a matter of time before readers and fellow writers want to get in on the act. “Genre” characters from mystery, fantasy and adventure stories are especially subject to embroidery: literary pastiches featuring such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Zorro are common. Comic books and movies invite even more participation, in that both are collaborative arts with notoriously possessive fans. As a contemporary example, witness George Lucas’ love-hate relationship with Star Wars fans, alternately encouraging total identification with his created universe and legalistically quashing any unauthorized embroidering of it.

Until the last decade or so, mainstream comic book publishers (mainly Marvel and DC) kept sole ownership of their artists’ and writers’ creations as a matter of course. Since characters could stay around for (literally) decades and often “crossed over” between titles, company ownership was considered essential in maintaining continuity. A popular character was like a well-established brand, under the umbrella of the company itself, whose label also served as a brand. Even if a character were identified with a particular creator, there was an implicit understanding that heroes and villains lived or died at the company’s discretion, and artists and writers could be shuffled between titles by editorial fiat. The comic book artist or writer was an employee of the company. This has largely changed as big-name comic creators have gained enough clout to negotiate creative control, while others have developed publishing companies, such as Image, where characters automatically remain the property of the creators. An unlikely forerunner to this change in the industry was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (HTD).

Howard the Duck is mainly remembered (outside of comic readers) as the disastrous 1986 Hollywood movie, a film that was at first eagerly anticipated but whose name became synonymous with “bomb” in the 1980s. With Marvel publishing a new trade paperback, The Essential Howard the Duck, and a new Howard series with Gerber back in charge, it is worth examining why a movie version seemed like a good idea in the first place, and why the new series has been selling out since its first appearance in comic shops.

is

As retold in the new collection, Howard came from a parallel universe, a world much like ours but inhabited by (depending on which version of the story you look at) either talking man-sized ducks or a mixture of different kinds of talking “funny” animals. Through a shift in the “Cosmic Axis” he was transported to the world of humans (“hairless apes”) and stuck there. As an unlikely visitor from another world, he played the classic “outsider” role, commenting on contemporary society’s flaws and absurdities from a perspective free of prejudices or preconceptions. During his run in the ‘70s, Howard crossed paths with cult leaders, sold-out politicians, pompous art critics, and similar pretenders, puncturing their pretensions with his common-sense observations and “don’t tread on me” attitude. In the post-Watergate, post-Woodstock years, when mistrust of the Establishment and doing your own thing weren’t just for hippies anymore, Howard captured a mood and spoke for it in a way that conventional superheroes just weren’t doing.

The “funny animal” tradition has deep roots in comics and animation. Talking animals that walk upright, wear clothes, and live in houses are so commonly linked to the stylized drawings of cartoons that they are hardly questioned as a narrative convention. The best known, of course, are the characters associated with Disney and Warner Bros., but in the early days of animation every studio featured some version of a funny animal character. For decades, animal characters were synonymous with children’s comics, even when executed with great artistry, as in the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks.

During the “underground comix” boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, a number of artists began to appropriate funny animal characters to tell very different, more adult and intense stories. Their “not-so-funny” animals (to use Richard Gehr’s phrase) had sexual relationships, used four-letter words, and sometimes took drugs or became violent. The most famous of these underground funny animals is probably Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat; an early, short version of Art Spiegelman’s cats vs. mice Holocaust comic Maus was also published during this boom.

The motivation for reinterpreting animal characters in this manner was probably as varied as the artists drawing them. Undoubtedly there was a great deal of snarky irony to be had in showing beloved icons brought low, illustrating that the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse and his pals “really” had feet of clay. Maus similarly jolts us by presenting a horrifying historical narrative in a visual context usually far removed from the realities of war; the distancing device of presenting humans as animals actually brings the reader closer to the horror of the war by poetically linking the childhood associations of talking mice and cats with the lost innocence of the war generation (particularly in Spiegelman’s earlier story, which was drawn in a more “cartoony” style than the full-length version). On the other hand, many underground cartoonists appeared to have a deep knowledge of and love for the cartoons of their childhoods; notwithstanding their often charged subject matter, the comix of Crumb, Kim Deitch, and others helped introduce the classic cartoon style of the ’20s and ’30s to a younger generation, emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of the Fleischer (Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop) and early Disney cartoons.

Given the resurgence of interest in classic funny animals and the popularity of their underground counterparts, it is not surprising that publishers in the 1970s would promote a mainstream funny animal aimed at an adult (or at least adolescent) audience. What is surprising is that Howard the Duck was created almost by accident and was nearly killed off after his first appearance; fan pressure encouraged his return and fueled his early success.

Howard_the_Duck_Vol_1_1

Relaxation of the Comics Code (a voluntary set of content restrictions that guaranteed mass distribution, originally adopted in the 1950s to placate parents and would-be censors) in the early 1970s allowed mainstream publishers to sell not-too graphic horror-themed comics. One of Marvel’s titles, Fear (a.k.a. Adventure into Fear), featured a swamp-dwelling misfit named Man-Thing, the lesser-known counterpart to DC’s competing Swamp Thing. Fear’s writer, Steve Gerber, produced thoughtful stories on such issues as environmental destruction and cruelty among teenagers, but also gave free reign to a strong sense of whimsy and the absurd. Searching for a surprising, ridiculous image for a sword-and-sorcery tale in 1973, Gerber instructed artist Val Mayerik to come up with a talking duck to include alongside the standard muscular barbarian and robed wizard. The then-unnamed duck, with his first lines “Aw, clam up, bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word [absurdity]!” suggested to Mayerik a cigar-smoking crank in a rumpled jacket and tie. This early version of the duck affected an Edward G. Robinson sneer (“Okay, creeps–here’s where you get yours, see?”).

Gerber got the effect he was aiming for, but a talking duck didn’t set the right tone for a horror-fantasy comic, so Howard was removed. That was when the fans began demanding more of the Duck; one Canadian went so far as to mail a duck carcass to Marvel’s editorial office. “Murderers, how dare you kill off this duck?” the included note read. Responding to a grass-roots letter campaign, and following Gerber’s instinct that there was something to the character, Howard the Duck began appearing as a backup feature in Man-Thing’s title, and eventually assumed the leading role in his own book.

Howard found himself in Cleveland, a more mundane and down-to-earth setting than in Marvel’s usual stories, and quickly gathered a group of eccentric characters around him: primarily Beverly Switzler, the beautiful hairless ape who would become his companion and (later) lover; struggling artist Paul Same; and the gentle Winda Wester, whose distinguishing feature was her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment. Together they encountered antagonists who were frequently odder than Howard himself, such as Dr. Bong, who parodied both Marvel’s own Dr. Doom and the rock critic Lester Bangs. Sometimes their adventures parodied conventional superheroics, or the tropes of gothic horror, space opera, or kung-fu movies; often the situations they found themselves in were just nutty, but the best stories were grounded in day-to-day reality. Unlike most mainstream comics, Howard and his friends were often unemployed, underemployed, or swept up in events beyond their control. One of Howard’s most memorable foes was the Kidney Lady, a deranged bus passenger who frequently accused Howard of being a member of the “international kidney-poisoning conspiracy.” Without super-powers, the Kidney Lady was as fearsome in her own way as any of the would-be world-conquerors populating other comics.

FOOM_Vol_1_15

Also unlike many comic books, the heroes of HTD were deeper and more interesting than villains they faced. Indeed, hero vs. villain fisticuffs were beside the point: Howard’s “real” opponent was the spreading corporate influence on American culture and consumer fetishism in its insidious forms. Villains were frequently consumer products or sales pitches brought to life: for example Sudd, “the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man.” There was also a “master of mundane magic” whose spells took the form of radial tires, tennis balls and other consumer items: at one point he trapped the heroes inside a giant cereal box, reversing the “prize inside” promise of marketers. In other stories the accusation is made directly against big-money interests, often as an aside in an ostensibly comic story. Howard even ran for president in 1976 on a platform of fighting corporate monopoly. Fitting with the skeptical tone of the times, HTD was suspicious of overt moralizing, but characters learn lessons nonetheless: you can’t fight city hall, no good deed goes unpunished, everybody has an angle. The three-issue story arc that closes The Essential HTD is particularly notable for its blunt lesson. An irresponsible heiress knowingly invites a “circus of crime” to one of her society gatherings so that she can play hero after they rob her guests. As the events spiral out of her control, one of Howard’s friends is struck by a car and another is shot. Howard’s usual reluctance to get involved makes his blunt delivery of the moral all the more striking: “Actions have consequences. You’ll get yours, Iris.”

Reading the entire Essential HTD in one sitting is an uneven experience (the volume collects the first twenty-seven issues of HTD, plus a handful of other “canonical” stories, including his first appearance). At its best HTD was a witty, refreshingly different commentary on popular and political culture and avoided easy answers to tough questions. The tone of the book varied widely, however, as it was influenced by the sudden notoriety of its creator and the pressure of deadlines. In one well-known story (reprinted in the Essential HTD), Gerber submitted a rambling self-analysis in text form, describing a cross-country move as a road trip with Howard. As life became harder for Gerber (and Howard), Howard’s character drifted from cynicism and disillusionment to depression and paranoia. He even spent some time in a mental institution. Some of these dark stories elaborated Howard’s character in interesting ways, but the low point of the volume is a trip to Canada featuring such cardboard clichés as a noble Mountie and a French-speaking villain called “Le Beaver.” What distresses about the story is not the stereotype, but the shallowness with which the setting is imagined; it is a far cry from the detailed and true-to-life storytelling that marks the Cleveland stories. If another exotic story, an Arabian Nights fantasy, is more successful it is thanks to a fast-moving plot and lighter tone throughout.

The tension in many of the stories is between character and plot: Howard is often passive-aggressive and thus reluctant to get involved in the kind of dramatic situations that make for active plots. The exciting stories subordinate Howard’s skeptical character, and the meditations on Howard’s alienation are quite static; the best stories are able to strike a balance. The troubled relationship between Howard and Beverly could make for a different kind of comic story, with the sort of novelistic depth that became more common in the 1980s, but the late HTD stories were too episodic and inconsistent to quite accomplish that. This tension between passive characters and active plots, along with the absurdity of the premise, is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books.

Perhaps the increasing pessimism of HTD was a sign of things to come: in the late ‘70s, as Howard’s popularity continued to grow, he inevitably came to the attention of the Disney company, who felt that Howard was too reminiscent of Donald Duck and threatened suit. Rather than argue that Howard was a parody (protected by the First Amendment) or an independent creation who sprang from the same pre-Disney cartoon roots as Donald, Marvel capitulated and agreed to change Howard’s appearance. Incredibly, the new design was created by Disney, not Marvel, and the wording of the agreement locked in this awkward new look indefinitely: Marvel couldn’t even come up with another design that didn’t look like Donald. As part of this agreement, Howard had to wear pants in all his future appearances. (It is partly because of this agreement that Gerber had Howard temporarily transformed into a seedy-looking mouse in the new series.)

Faced with this level of editorial apathy and interference, Gerber broke with Marvel and filed suit to wrest ownership of his character from the company. He was one of the first comics creators to do so, and his case, following on the heels of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s campaign to receive credit from DC for their creation of Superman, split ranks within the comics community and brought renewed attention to the issue of ownership. Gerber eventually settled out of court and worked for Marvel again for brief spells in the 1980s, but he says he remains wary of Marvel’s corporate culture, even as he has relished the opportunity to write again for the character with which he is most closely identified.

Gerber was not the first to use funny animals as a vehicle for social commentary or put non-juvenile language in their mouths. Rather his contribution was to rationalize the funny animal in pseudoscientific terms: Howard wasn’t simply a cartoon, he was a visitor from a parallel universe where ducks, instead of apes, had evolved to become the dominant lifeform. It is clear from some of Gerber’s statements in the ‘70s that he had worked out his premise with a science-fictional rigor: for example, there must be lower animals on Howard’s world, since he isn’t a vegetarian (although a running gag in the series emphasized Howard’s disgusted reaction when confronted with a meal of poultry or eggs).

The parallel-world premise could have easily lent itself to Swiftian allegory or heavy-handed moralizing, and there is more than a whiff of Planet of the Apes to it: as the cover blurb had it, Howard was “trapped in a world he never made!” Wisely, Gerber and his collaborators (Mayerik, as well as artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan) avoided easy comparisons and always implied that Howard’s home was no more perfect than ours. After Gerber’s break with Marvel in 1980 over issues of creative control, Marvel continued to publish HTD stories by other writers, most of whom showed less restraint.

Howard_the_Duck_Vol_2_6

As a rule, if a fictional setting becomes popular, anything that is referred to by the original creator, however obliquely, will eventually be fleshed out in sometimes overwhelming detail by those who follow. In Gerber’s original concept, Howard’s home was alluded to but never shown, presumably because readers would already be familiar with funny animal settings like the one in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. It was writer Bill Mantlo who, after Gerber’s departure, filled stories with references to Flintstones-style parody-counterparts like “Truman Capoultry,” “Richard Millnest Duxon,” and even “Duckschwitz.” At least Mantlo attempted to keep Howard’s edge, although his stories frequently crossed the line from absurd to ridiculous. After the original comic book and Mantlo’s black-and-white magazine were canceled, other Marvel writers treated Howard as a walk-on character, trying to make him “funny” in a way that he rarely was in Gerber’s hands. Unfortunately, the later interpretation seems to have influenced the ill-fated film version.

In his Comics as History, Joseph Witek draws a useful distinction between “beast fables,” such as the tales of Aesop, and “funny animal” stories such as the ones described here. In the beast fable, animals speak, but their character is largely defined by the imagined qualities of their type: foxes are always sly, dogs are loyal, mules are stubborn. The funny animal, however, is an individual. The trappings of clothing, house, and social structures signal to the reader that the character is more man than animal. They may even keep non-speaking pets of their own: in Disney cartoons, Goofy is effectively a man, but Pluto is still a dog.

If in general the funny animal is not conscious of himself as an animal at all, then we may assume that this was how Howard felt about himself before being trapped in the world of “hairless apes.” It is only among humans, where he is the only one of his kind, that he can never escape being reminded that he is a duck. Of course being a duck is a literal marker of Howard’s “outsiderness,” but the Howard stories frequently play with its implications. One can identify “good people” in HTD because they either don’t recognize or don’t care that Howard is different. He and Beverly have a relationship like any other couple, even sleeping in the same bed (although again it was Mantlo in the non-Code-approved magazine who made their status as lovers explicit).

Scan0002

There was even a short-lived daily comic strip in 1977.

Beginning in HTD #3, the blurb on the first page tells the reader that Howard was always conscious of being different, an outsider, even in his early life. Intriguingly, before Howard’s character became completely settled, he made a few attempts to blend in and make a normal life for himself among the humans. This early version of Howard had a Walter Mitty-like quality as he attempted to imagine himself into the role of good citizen, helping the police rid Cleveland of such menaces as Garko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. Of course, when Howard was unable to prove that he had saved the city and was further rebuffed by the police with the reminder that he is, after all, a duck, he naturally reacted with the disillusionment and cynicism that became the hallmark of his character.

In this sense Howard’s experience is the dark side of any immigrant’s journey to America. In his homeland he was an individual, and as one of many of his kind, he could take his personhood for granted: the group kinship to which everyone belonged was effectively invisible. In hairless ape America, however, it is his status as a representative of his type that singles him out, and his individuality is reduced to a single image: duck. In fact, although people regularly sputter, “Y–you’re a duck!” upon meeting him, no one in these stories mistakes Howard for a real duck: they assume he is a midget in a duck suit, marking him as either a madman or a publicity-seeker. Oddly, while the updated backstory makes Howard’s prospects grimmer–if he has always been an outsider wherever he lived, what kind of acceptance can there be to hope for?–it seems to offer hope for the immigrant or minority member: maybe the individual personality does make the difference, and Howard’s experience need not be a universal commentary on America.

If Howard fit perfectly the mood of the 1970s, can he still be relevant today? Steve Gerber thinks so. In a July 2001 interview, Gerber summarized the state of the nation: “The situation in the U. S. now–a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on–almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard’s return.”

Howard_the_Duck_Vol_3_1

Of course, those words were spoken before September 11, and one may wonder whether post-attack readers would be in the mood for Howard’s pointed critiques of America’s political and cultural environment. Fortunately, Gerber’s up-to-the-last-minute scripting habits have prevented a jarring lead time between the new book’s writing and publication. So far (as of this writing, four issues of a planned six-issue series have been published), Gerber hasn’t softened Howard’s edge (indeed, the “mature readers” label allows him a far greater freedom of theme and content than he had in the ‘70s), but he lands his hardest punches on America’s self-absorbed, pop-therapeutic culture and religious zealotry rather than specific political viewpoints. In this sense, the new Howard isn’t too different from the old: Gerber (and by extension Howard) has always expressed skepticism for one-size-fits-all solutions, political or otherwise. Although at one time Howard was labeled “The Nemesis of Middle America” by Marvel editors, it was really conformity rather than conservatism that Howard attacked, and Gerber’s new series doesn’t play favorites.

References to September 11 have been kept in the background, but the events have hardly been ignored. In issue #2, a tip to the police reports that “Osama el-Braka” (“Braka” meaning “duck”) has been spotted in Howard’s locale, leading to a two-page splash of SWAT teams, National Guard, and even Girl Scouts bursting into Beverly’s apartment for the kill. In the fourth issue, a committee of heavenly beings called the “Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition” conspire to live up to their title. One member announces, “we’ve rooted out the moderate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu elements that have tried to infiltrate and corrupt this coalition.” Another, speaking of the Islamic Madrassas, states, “their success at purging their pupils of any faculty for critical thought borders on the miraculous. We now have a small army of morons willing to fly airplanes into tall buildings, on the promise of seventy-two virgins in the afterlife.”

Much of the satire, however, remains focused closer to home. The third issue was a rather puerile parody of the TV show and comic book Witchblade (“Doucheblade”), which, while admittedly tasteless, rightly pointed out the degree to which large-breasted women with weapons have come to dominate comic book covers since the lifting of the Code and the proliferation of independent comics-specialty shops have allowed publishers to drop the pretense that comics were wholesome reading for kids. On the other hand, the fourth issue takes aim at the self-help guru “Iprah,” who has “convinced half of America she’s the voice of God–when, in fact, she’s nothing more than a franchise.” In one priceless panel, Iprah is shown on the cover of her magazine (“I”), finger-wagging and lecturing God under the headline “Iprah explains it all.”

Howard the Duck’s character seems to have changed little in the nearly thirty years since his creation. Opinionated, vulgar, and refreshingly uncharismatic, his adventures remain a sometimes frustrating but always surprising trip. Although Gerber doesn’t always hit his targets dead on, he fires so many shots that many are bound to connect, and there is plenty in our contemporary culture to take aim at. Perhaps Howard isn’t really so different from the masked heroes with whom he shares shelf-space: he emerges from obscurity to provoke laughter, anger, and thought at the times when he is most needed.

Review: Ready Player One

loderunner

When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

RPOCover

When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

katamari

A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

Screenshot_20180330-162010.jpg

In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

My 2017 in Film

Macario

2017 was a strange, rough year for everybody. Like a lot of people, I’m looking back at my output in the last twelve months and finding that the impulse to blog was either weak or nonexistent. I was, at the very least, distracted by a heavier workload and by events in the world at large (I managed to put in some writing on some larger projects as well, but those remain unpublished). If it weren’t for serials and the Kamandi Challenge I wouldn’t have posted very much at all. The same lack of motivation also hit my movie-watching: I don’t think I watched any less than last year, but the quality of what I watched was much lower, with a lot of cheap thrills and junk food in the mix. I just wasn’t in the mood for movies that promised to be too heavy or challenging–I was getting enough of that from real life.

JusticeLeagueCanada

So while last year I watched enough new releases to compile a respectable Top 10 list, I don’t think I’m going to take that approach this year. (I won’t be writing a year in television column at all, but for the record I watched and recommend GLOW and American Vandal on Netflix.) Instead of highlighting and ranking individual films, I’m going to examine some common themes that emerged in my viewing. This includes both 2017 releases (of which I watched 21) and older films that I caught up with for the first time this year.

Friendly monsters
latest.png
My love of monster movies has been no secret in this blog, so you might consider this an extension of my heavy kaiju viewing from 2016: I continued to watch entries in the Godzilla series, and of course I went through the (much shorter) Gamera series for my discussion with Zack Clopton. But filmmakers were, for once, on the same wavelength as me this year, and it was possible to draw out this theme even from new releases. Okay, King Kong is not exactly “friendly” in Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), but as in most classic kaiju movies he does eventually get the audience’s sympathies on his side in this interesting mash-up of monster and Vietnam War movies. I happened to watch this a second time at home (whenever my wife and sister get together, Tom Hiddleston is sure to be on the viewing schedule) and I felt that it was even tighter on a repeat viewing; it left me eagerly awaiting a continuation of the “Monsterverse” that began with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla in 2014.

Colossal

In another shake-up of the typical formula, Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalando) put a magical-realist spin on the kaiju genre, with Anne Hathaway as a woman with a mysterious psychic connection to a giant monster appearing in South Korea. Again, it might be a stretch to call the Colossal beast a “friendly” monster, but as in the best fairy tales, what starts out as a source of fear helps lead the heroine to understand her own strength. To reveal any more about this one would be unfair–it works better unspooling at its own pace–but suffice it to say that there are worse monsters in this film than the big critter on the poster.

The really cuddly monsters could be found in releases like Monster Trucks and Okja, and even (thematically) in the otherwise imperfect Ferdinand: kids are the true fans and friends of monsters, and as with Gamera they sometimes end up protecting these fantastic companions just as much as the monsters protect them. With Okja, Bong Joon Ho continues his genre-bending critique of capitalism and imperialism, introducing a genetically-engineered “superpig” designed as an ideal, environmentally-friendly source of meat, if it weren’t for the creature’s friendship with the little girl (Seo-hyun Ahn) who raised him on her isolated family farm. Tilda Swinton is also memorable in a dual role, and I don’t care what anyone says: Jake Gyllenhaal is good in this.

MonsterTrucks

In 2016, when I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, the preview for Monster Trucks (dir. Chris Wedge) preceded it, and the little boy sitting behind me said after every other preview, “I want to see Monster Trucks!” This led me to overestimate its box office potential by a wide margin, but I still found it a charming (if familiar) movie. Reportedly inspired by a Paramount executive’s three-year-old son (it shows), Monster Trucks asks the question, “what if monster trucks were literally trucks powered by monsters?” The adorable “Creech” (an oil-eating, amphibious blob halfway between a manatee and a squid) has become something of a mascot for the Dissolve Facebook group, but I’m equally charmed by the chemistry between leads Lucas Till and Jane Levy as the human teenagers who first befriend Creech and then help him return to his home deep underground. With its nefarious oil company baddies and truck-themed shenanigans, Monster Trucks could be described as “Splash + Pete’s Dragon + License to Drive.” Worth noting is its troubled production history: initial designs for Creech and his relatives were much too scary, leading to disastrous test screenings that sent terrified children running for the exits; if it weren’t for the expense of redesigning them, Monster Trucks might have had a shot at turning a profit.

The Day of the Dead
coco
Somehow I ended up seeing three films centered on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration this year: Pixar’s latest, Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina), of course, was one of them, and one of my favorites of the year. (It was refreshing to see Pixar’s world-building applied to themes and characters that weren’t white office park dwellers, although plot-wise I might have liked it even better if I hadn’t seen any previous Pixar films: one might say this perfects the formula they’ve been working on for some time.) I also happened to see the other animated Day of the Dead feature, The Book of Life from 2014, which I enjoyed for its flights of fantasy: instead of the supernatural bureaucracy depicted in Coco, which (like all Pixar settings) is set up with rules to make the action that follows clear, The Book of Life has the logic of a dream or a fairy tale (although there are still rules, they are on the scale of balancing universal principles of light and darkness rather than the regulations of a post-mortem customs agency). This makes it sound like I’m putting down Coco in favor of The Book of Life, but I liked both: they just take different approaches (however, The Book of Life has banditos whose sombreros are spinning saw-blades: advantage Book). At the beginning of the year, following my interest in Mexican horror, I watched the 1960 classic Macario. Macario turned out to be less of a horror story than I expected, and more of a supernatural fable in the vein of Ingmar Bergman, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Troubled visionaries
brigsbybear
Brigsby Bear (dir. Dave McCary) was a film I almost didn’t get to see this year: I don’t believe it screened in Wichita, but I heard so many raves about it I felt compelled to pick it up when a used Blu-ray turned up at my local CD Tradepost. I was fortunate to go into it without much foreknowledge of its plot, so I won’t say more than what I knew: in the words of the Blu-ray package copy, “James has grown up with the goofy kids’ show Brigsby Bear and the program has grown with him as well. One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended. Upon learning the series has been cancelled, he adopts the old adage that the show must go on. By becoming Brigsby Bear‘s new creator, James finally builds meaningful connections his life has lacked.” The theme of an amateur filmmaker using his movie to work out his issues is similar to The Disaster Artist (a movie I enjoyed but didn’t love quite as much as some did), but it most reminded me of a movie I watched for the first time at the beginning of the year, Gentleman Broncos, and the two might make an interesting double feature. Like Brigsby Bear, Gentleman Broncos includes an amateur production of a science fiction epic, but in Broncos the film is a travesty that humiliates its creator, and in addition the quirkiness of the film feels contrived; Brigsby Bear‘s oddity flows directly out of the circumstances of its central character, James (Kyle Mooney, who came up with the story), and achieves a striking level of empathy. In it, creation becomes cathartic in itself, regardless of how others perceive the final product. Also, both films take place in Utah, so make of that what you will.

Space opera
thelastjedi
2017 was a great year for space adventures. Sequels to the Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn) and Thor (dir. Taika Waititi) series felt more like science fiction adventures than superhero slugfests. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, for its part, actually increased my appreciation for the first GotG, as it completes several arcs set up in the first movie; it’s the rare sequel that really feels like a resolution of unfinished business from the first film.) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson) had some fantastic visuals and wild ideas (and an optimistic prelude set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that justified the price of admission, even if the rest of the film couldn’t live up to it). More pessimistic and existential, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve) takes place in a space opera universe, but on ground level, among the detritus left behind after humanity makes its push into the stars. From that angle, it makes sense that the most cosmic-minded character, the replicant-production mogul Wallace (Jared Leto), is presented as a terrifying monster with delusions of godhood (and while the Blade Runner universe has become quite distant from its roots in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the author’s skepticism of typical heroic narratives still comes through). Speaking of subverted expectations, the lastest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson), capped off the year with a visually striking and heartfelt journey that managed to call into question many long-held assumptions about the Jedi, the Force, and the narrative rhythms of the series. I loved the twists and turns the story in The Last Jedi took and found the moral complexity exhilarating; the sequence in a high-class casino, among the arms dealers and black marketeers who profit from the conflict no matter who wins, was a highlight. Writer-director Rian Johnson took risks and created something challenging and affecting, especially surprising for a franchise that has mostly played it safe since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

Musical fantasy
Musicals continued to be a source of escapism as well, although some ended up being better than others. As I mentioned in my round-up of this year’s reading, Star! turned out to be a dud, although the musical numbers are the only parts that redeem it. At the beginning of the year, last year’s La La Land made it to Wichita. I’ve been a fan of director Damien Chazelle’s earlier work, and I liked La La Land, but it would have benefited from a little more of the perfectionism Chazelle explored in Whiplash. As far as older musicals, I revisited The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I ended up liking much more than the first time I saw it, years ago) and explored its 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment (maligned and misunderstood at the time, but increasingly the object of its own cult; it’s the product of a different, more anxious moment in time, and its obsessions with celebrity and television were ahead of its time).

madame-satan.jpg

I ended up enjoying Madam Satan, the bizarre musical comedy from director Cecil B. DeMille (not noted for his intimate chamber pieces, although he handles the slamming-door farce very well); the musical elements are pretty dated and bound to the conventions of Broadway circa 1930, but the dazzling art deco visuals of its third act, a masquerade ball aboard a zeppelin (!), are still striking, and Kay Johnson is wonderful in the film as a jilted wife who adopts a femme fatale persona to win back her husband (no, it isn’t exactly woke).

Boyfriend

Best of all was The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s 1971 adapation of Sandy Wilson’s hit stage musical, a spoof of 1920s Noël Coward and Cole Porter shows. True to form, Russell adapts his sources by first turning them inside-out, with the film a stylized backstage musical that amplifies the cheapness of a threadbare production and contrasting it with the outsized dreams of the cast and crew. Among my favorite sequences of any film I’ve seen this year is an extended dream of a Greek pastoral filtered through a Jazz Age bacchanale, a frenzy of jitterbugging nymphs and satyrs poised halfway between Jean Cocteau and Max Fleischer. Every once in a while you encounter a film that feels like it was made just for you: for me, this is one of them.

Pure crap
StoneHand
As I indicated above, I watched a lot of stuff this year that’s hard to justify as anything more than comfort food, and some of it failed to even live up to that low ambition. In some cases, I found myself disappointed by choices I hoped would be more rewarding: this is the state almost all fans of genre fiction or films end up in at some point, the “victory of hope over experience” in the pursuit of thrills. Such was the case with A Werewolf in the Amazon, the fourth film in the collection of movies by Ivan Cardoso that I began in October; the first three films were varying levels of engaging, but Werewolf was just bad. Seeing something you don’t like is sometimes the price of expanding your horizons: they can’t all be winners.

Batwoman

I have a harder time explaining how I spent so much time delving into the filmography of Jerry Warren, the 1960s shlock auteur whose motto was “Never, ever try in any way to make anything worthwhile.” I’m not a big believer in “hate-watching” or even the concept of “so bad it’s good”–if something entertains or interests me, I’ll say so, whatever its flaws. The film that sent me down the Warren rabbit hole was 1966’s Wild World of Batwoman, a spoof on the TV superhero craze that attracted the unwelcome attention of DC Comics itself: beyond that loopy film (the only Warren joint I’ve seen that comes close to justifying comparisons to Edward D. Wood, Jr.), only one or two even rise to the level of being almost good. So why did I subject myself to them? Ironically, it’s Warren’s antagonistic attitude (according to those who worked with him, Warren claimed that audiences couldn’t recognize anything good anyway, so there was no point in trying, although that sounds at best like a preemptive excuse) that attracted my interest. Sitting down with a Jerry Warren film felt like pitting myself against an opponent, with extracting the entertainment value that Warren was determined to withhold from me as my goal; or like a wrestling heel, whose whole performance depended on my negative reaction, I suspected that Warren’s negativity was an act that I was determined to see through. Well, folks, it wasn’t an act, and for the most part he succeeded in creating products that had me scratching my head afterwards: the worst of them weren’t merely boring or incompetent–they weren’t anything, just footage edited together (in many cases “patch-ups” from Mexican or South American films to which he added his own connecting scenes) until it hit feature length. No point other than sucking dollars out of the pockets of teenagers at the drive-in who weren’t going to pay attention to the screen anyway.

The best of the year
getout
It wasn’t all bad, however: one side effect of only seeing a few new releases this year is that I didn’t see very many that I really disliked. Most of the new films I saw this year were at least passable, and a few were downright great. Aside from films already mentioned, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) deserves every bit of acclaim that has come its way. Get Out has already inspired thousands of words as a sharply-observed horror-satire, a “socially conscious thriller” that takes its charge from the real-life horrors daily visited upon Black America in ways large and small, from overt racism to the insidious microaggressions that add up over time. I have little to add other than to say it is one of the most vital films of the year (as well as another one that benefits from knowing little about the plot going in), but also one of the most entertaining.

My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

Kamandi Challenge no. 12: the Conclusion

KC12cover

Cover by Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair

“The Boundless Realm”
Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Jill Thompson and Ryan Sook
Colorists: Trish Mulvihill, Laura Martin and Andrew Crossley
Letterer: Clem Robins

“Epilogue the First: The Answers”
Storytellers: Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López
Inker: Joe Prado
Colorist: Trish Mulvihill
Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Dan DiDio and Brittany Holzherr

KC12Kamanda

Kamandi Challenge‘s double-sized twelfth issue (“The Boundless Realm,” written by Gail Simone, and “The Answers” by Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López) performs the difficult task of reconciling and bringing closure to all that came before. That it does so with the help of a little Deus ex machina is understandable, but the appearance of Jack Kirby himself as an angel of (re)creation makes the yearlong tribute to the King of Comics explicit (Kirby’s name, and those of his chief collaborators, has been dropped here and there throughout the series, but only here is he presented as the man himself, rather than in winking references). As Kirby himself says in the course of the story, “D’jinn–genie–genius–what’s the difference?”

But before the fourth wall breaks completely, Gail Simone provides a labyrinth of nested and interlocking narratives: “The Boundless Realm” begins with a genderswapped retelling of the first pages of Kamandi‘s very first issue (stylishly illustrated by Jill Thompson), as “Kamanda, the Last Girl on Earth” is shown rafting through the flooded ruins of New York City. She finds Kamandi, face down in the water, and brings him aboard, praying that he will recover. When he regains consciousness, unsure of how he got there, the two exchange notes: she explains her upbringing in the bunker “Command A,” mirroring the origin of “classic” Kamandi, and he struggles to recall the small town he grew up in, protected by robots. She warns him of the threat of rats, run by a warlord named Gnawbit.

Just as it seems that these two were made for each other (“I feel like I’m falling,” Kamandi says) and the plot turns toward romance, Kamandi is awakened from this pleasant dream and we find that he is still falling through the upper atmosphere with Silverbeck and Royer, the apes with whom Kamandi assaulted the Misfit’s Tek-Moon before being ejected into space at the end of the last issue. Kamanda was only a dream, a hallucination preceding death.

Ryan Sook takes over the artwork for the remainder of “The Boundless Realm,” providing a visual contrast and grounding this part of the story as the “real” events with his classically rendered, near-photorealistic style. (Sook has prior experience with this world, having illustrated the Kamandi story in Wednesday Comics in the style of a Hal Foster Sunday page; here he takes full advantage of the dynamic possibilities inherent in the comic book page, using interesting panel layouts and shapes, as opposed to the old-fashioned illustrations-with-text approach he borrowed from Tarzan and Prince Valiant for Wednesday Comics.)

KC12gauntlet

As the trio falls to Earth, Silverbeck honors Kamandi by adopting him into the gorilla tribe and encourages him to prepare for death. Not quite ready to give up, Kamandi finds the gauntlet that controls the jet pack he got from the shark in the last episode and summons the (slightly malfunctioning) pack to him. With the jet pack, he is able to grab Silverbeck and Royer but can only slow their descent. Silverbeck directs Kamandi to fall in the jungle (“I’ve always wanted to die in the jungle”) and takes the brunt of the impact, saving Kamandi and Royer at the cost of his own life. Royer recognizes Kamandi as the new chief, claiming to be too old for leadership himself.

Almost instantly, Kamandi and Royer are confronted by rats; hearing the name of their boss, “Gnawbit,” Kamandi realizes that the dream of Kamanda was somehow a warning, and he fights back, shocking the rats with his ability to speak. When the rats subdue Royer, however, Kamandi knows that he must surrender. The rats, having heard Kamandi speak, are now reverent and promise to take him straight to Gnawbit, who has predicted his arrival.

Gnawbit is a rodent Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader commanding his forces from the ruins of an old bank in the city. Although blinded, he sees with the help of an amulet in the shape of OMAC’s Brother Eye; he describes to Kamandi the “Farm” at which humans are bred in a manner similar to contemporary factory farms. Although he admits his disgust at the practice, he defends himself against Kamandi’s horror by pointing out the cruelties practiced against rats by humans in the past; all of his atrocities were born of the best of intentions. His goal was the same as Kamandi’s: to save the Earth.

Inside the bank, the letters of the sign (“Continental Annuity”) are teasingly rearranged into “Continuity” over the vault containg Gnawbit’s treasures, long boxes full of old comic books (including–somehow–Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth). It was in the pages of these comics that Gnawbit read of Kamandi’s impending arrival, and he shows Kamandi the possible futures that the comics portray in their narratives of heroism and self-sacrifice (note that all of the characters shown are, like the Legion of Superheroes, heroes of the future, and leave it to Gail Simone to make sure that one of those heroes is Space Cabbie instead of the usual suspects).

KC12cyclo

Cross-cut with Kamandi’s encounter with Gnawbit, the Misfit, dying alone in his disabled Tek-Moon, dispatches one last superweapon to destroy all life on earth: the giant robotic Terror-Naut. Gnawbit has seen this, too, and calls upon his rat forces to form a “rat king,” a giant-sized collective figure that can meet the Terror-Naut head-on (the rats need Kamandi to “drive,” directing them by pulling their tails in a sort of reverse-Ratatouille); armed with Renzi’s “cyclo-heart” from issue no. 6, the rats defeat the Terror-Naut. Although this is the requisite comic book action for the episode, it feels almost incidental, a loose end that needs to be tied up before we can get on with the real thrust of this episode: Kamandi’s discovery of who he is and where he came from. The eye amulet that Gnawbit wears reveals the spirit of Kamandi’s “father”–Jack Kirby!

In “The Answers,” Kirby-as-godhead pulls Kamandi completely into his orbit, giving him the opportunity to remake his reality in the classic “three wishes” formulation. Kamandi still doesn’t quite understand who Kirby is, and verbally spars with him in the same way he argues with almost every other authority figure he comes across. His first wish is to be reunited with his parents; when this turns out to be a video farewell message, he rebels. For his second wish, he asks for the leaders of the world to be brought together, as he has a few words for them: the gallery is filled with King Caesar, Prince Tuftan, and Doctor Canus; the leader of the jaguar sun cult; and other characters from Kamandi’s previous adventures. Vila, the plant girl, is among them, and she encourages Kamandi to say what he came to say. Kamandi urges the leaders to work together to make peace and to make the world a better place for everyone. As Kirby observes, Kamandi has become more powerful through his experiences, and he is at this moment taking possession of the birthright implicit in his name: to command.

KC12Kirby

This leads into Kamandi’s final wish, and the final hidden meaning in his name: Kamandi took his name from the bunker Command D in which he was raised, but Kirby guides him into speaking his name as “Command-D,” the computer command for redrawing or resetting a file (a retcon, to be sure, but a clever reimagining of Kamandi’s identity and purpose). After a giant “Whooosh,” Kamandi–or Cameron–is back in his small town, with short hair and dressed in regular clothes, walking past a zoo containing normal, nonspeaking animals. Putting his bizarre experiences in Earth A.D. down to a dream, he meditates, “Humanity’s too smart to ever have that kind of Great Disaster, aren’t we? . . . Aren’t we?” The spirit of Kirby hovers nearby, reminding the readers that while Kamandi may think everything’s back to normal, something has grown and changed inside him.

Interestingly, the last word goes not to Kamandi or Jack Kirby, but to Detective Chimp (from within the walls of the zoo), who addresses the reader directly to thank us for reading and bid us farewell. “This is comics at its best, breaking rules and having fun,” he says, and after this final issue it’s hard not to agree. (He also commiserates over that “Command-D” pun to make sure we know that they know it’s a groaner.) (The choice of having Detective Chimp deliver this epilogue makes for an interesting link between the futuristic talking animals of Earth A.D. and the mainstream of DC continuity; his appearance is also a nod to writer Paul Levitz’s contribution to the DC Challenge of 30 years ago: see below.)

Now that this series has reached its conclusion, it’s interesting to look back and see how it did (or didn’t) coalesce into a single narrative. The first and last few chapters have the most direct involvement with the “save the world” narrative, while the middle chapters have the luxury of being more episodic. Interestingly, Tom King’s “Ain’t It a Drag?”, which ran in issue no. 9, is (in serial terms) an “economy chapter” or (in TV terms) a “bottle episode,” taking place entirely in one location. It even contains a recap of the story so far, not in flashback but in a short monologue that catches up readers who may have missed the beginning. In film and television, such episodes really do serve a purpose of saving money on production costs which can be applied to the rest of the series; comics have no such budgetary restrictions, and original artwork still has to be drawn, but it is telling that this sprawling, episodic story still had room for a more meditative chapter in a single location. Aside from the recap, such chapters are about the essences of the characters, the kinds of insights that can be gleaned best when the action slows down.

ScanKC93

Indeed, the range of types of stories seen in this series–always containing action, but within the varied context of adventure, horror, comedy, and fable, to name a few examples–is a good example of the breadth of storytelling styles still alive within this industry, and a strong defense of the monthly single issue in the face of trade paperbacks and other competing formats. (I plan to read this series straight through again, so perhaps the seams will show more in that context, but as I’ve stated before I consider seamlessness an overrated virtue in art.)

KC5.doctor

So did Kamandi “find his parents and save the world?” Er, kind of. Turning it into a metaphor is probably better in the long run, even it doesn’t follow a completely straight line from the first chapter. Was such a project ever going to be completely satisfying from a narrative perspective? That’s the risk of round-robin stories, of course, but that possibility that the story will refuse to come together is what gives it its edge, its sense of danger. By making the continuous cliffhangers part of the explanation, by making Kamandi’s fall from one peril to another seem like a narrative as well as a formal necessity, the last chapter retroactively imposes a sense of orderly progression on his adventures (this conveniently overlooks that not all of the cliffhangers involved Kamandi falling–most did, but not quite all).

More importantly, the idea that danger and its attendant adrenaline rush was necessary for Kamandi to realize his own power keeps it from being a pointless return to the status quo: yes, the rewriting of his reality is essentially a Wizard of Oz move, but as in that story, the lessons learned along the way–about loyalty to friends, about standing up for yourself, about what you’re capable of–are apt to stick even as the adventure itself recedes into a dream. “Sometimes being scared or going way out of our comfort zones is good for us,” Kirby tells Kamandi, and we recognize that as a truth that applies to both fictional characters and their creators.

The truth is that an ongoing narrative by a single creator takes the same risk as a round-robin: the plot might not add up, events may not be resolved in a satisfactory way, the story may not even reach its conclusion. (And in comics, creative teams are frequently changed from issue to issue for logistical or editorial reasons anyway.) The competitive aspect of the Kamandi Challenge, in which each writer lays a trap for the next, is only an extreme form of the way in which writers try to top themselves, writing their characters into corners without exactly knowing how they’ll find a way out, but having confidence that they’ll figure out something. It’s not that different from the way in which Kirby himself and other prolific comics creators approached their plots. Even at its worst, that approach can get by on energy alone, the Edgar Rice Burroughs rush of incident piled on incident; at its best, there is room for considerable depth and thematic development alongside the thrills and spectacle. Kamandi Challenge‘s most rewarding decision, one seemingly made independently by many of the contributors over its run, has been to turn the formal requirements of the round-robin story into reflections on Kirby: his methods, his themes, his legacy.

“The Answers” is also something of a double tribute: to Kirby, of course, but also to prolific writer and editor Len Wein, who was originally scheduled to conclude the series, but who passed away this year. Wein was a contributor to the original DC Challenge, as is Paul Levitz, who stepped in to replace him. I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the DC Challenge when I started reading Kamandi Challenge. Although I was reading and collecting comics in 1985, the DC Challenge was a direct market-only publication, and I didn’t have regular access to a comics store in those years. I’ve since picked up some copies of back issues, and it is . . . well, interesting, to say the least. Like Kamandi Challenge, it invited writers and artists to write stories and set up impossible cliffhangers for the next writers to get the characters out of. The DC Challenge used the backdrop of the entire DC universe as its playground: any and all characters were at the writers’ disposal (including oddballs like Detective Chimp!), and the whole thing appears to be considerably more tongue-in-cheek (in one issue, Albert Einstein appears, using his mastery of space-time to set things right, much like Kirby does in “The Answers”). In some ways it appears to be a dry run for Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which worlds would collide with much higher stakes than the amusement of continuity nerds.

DCC6cover

Kamandi Challenge benefits from a narrower focus–Earth A.D. is a large place to explore, but unified by a common theme and by a single central character–but it also takes itself more seriously than the DC Challenge did. There is humor, but it is mostly in the form of banter rather than silly situations (I will admit, however, that I measure silliness on a bit of a sliding scale when we’re talking about communist bears and machine-gun-wielding sharks).

Ultimately, exercises like this are useful antidotes to the pervasive notion that narratives are airtight constructions, that creators don’t change their minds in midstream when they come up with better ideas, or that having one’s preconceptions confirmed is the highest pleasure in absorbing a story. Surprise is a crucial element, and while some twists can take things too far (always a matter of taste as to what constitutes “too far”), sometimes the best surprises come from collaborators surprising one another (the “yes and” of improvisation) or of artists surprising themselves (the happy accident, or simply a case of getting into the zone and coming up with better ideas than one thought possible when in the planning stages).

As a fan, it has been gratifying to see so many talented comics creators try their hand at writing and drawing Kamandi. The different perspectives on what makes him tick, or how his past adventures do or don’t deliver for modern readers, have been fascinating to observe. And even the weaker chapters in this series have included the gut-level pleasures of sci-fi action in a unique atmosphere. At its best it’s a jolting reminder of just how much influence Jack Kirby still has on individual artists when they’re invited to dwell on it. Continuity is perhaps the big theme of this series, in the small sense of connecting all the diverse strands of narrative and reconciling them, but also in the big sense of handing down traditions and influence, of telling the story of how we tell the story, and why. Kamandi himself is a character who, since passing out of his creator’s hands for good, is often used as a symbol for alternative paths of history, for how individuals might become different people were they born into different circumstances. Back in his idyllic home at the end of Kamandi Challenge, our young hero knows that things could still change: there are many paths forward that life could take. Likewise, there are many paths forward, for both the characters of Kamandi and the medium of comics, represented by the approaches in Kamandi Challenge. It’s not a question of which one will lead to the future: they all do, one way or another.

KC12Chimp