Monday, June 30, 2008

Powers Boothe narrates a McCain ad

Surely I am not the first to notice this, but I thought it worth pointing out that Powers Boothe is now narrating political ads for McCain. I only picked up on this because I am currently finishing the sixth season of 24 -- the pro-torture show featuring a McCain cameo.

On the sixth season of 24 , Powers Boothe plays Noah Daniels, the super-hawk Vice President. Black president Wayne Palmer proves unwilling to simply go to war with the home country of a terrorist who struck a major American city, arguing that the terrorist is not state-supported. When Palmer is incapacitated Daniels, the acting president, launches a nuclear attack against Palmer's last wishes on the unnamed mid-east country immediately on a slim pretext; Daniels also supports detention facilities for middle-easterners.


Scott on Improving Songs Through Misheard Lyrics

[Guest Blogger Scott discusseds misheard lyrics, which he rightly notes persists in songs while is instantly erased in reading. I give a few of mine and Sara's at the end.]

The misheard lyric is a somewhat unique pheonomenon; while it is certainly possible to misread (literally misread as opposed to misinterpret) a line of poetry or mishear a line of dialogue from a movie, when we read the poem or view the movie a second time, we correct ourselves. With song lyrics, however, once we hear a lyric one way we tend to hear it that way every time until we are corrected (sometimes even after). For example, with Coldplay's new single, "Viva La Vida", everytime I heard the chorus I thought Chris Martin was singing "Roman Catholic choirs are Singing" when the actual lyric turns out to be "Roman Cavalry choirs are singing." This sort of thing is always going to occur most frequently with popular music since a singer's inflection and the added distraction of the music will make this kind of mistake much more common with this form than any other.

Now, we all know the silly misheard lyrics and have heard the most popular ones countless times and probably have a few of our own, my personal favorite being the fact that I thought "She's gonna turn on the juice, Boy" in Motley Crue's "Looks That Kill" was "She's gonna turn you all Jewish, boys." This of course makes no sense and, when it comes to these lyrics, we always know that they're wrong so when we are informed of the correct lyric we are usually more than happy to admit that it makes more sense. However, for the purposes of this post, I don't want to talk about the silly lyrics but I want to focus on something that happens to me on occasion: when we like our misheard lyric better than the actual lyric; when we're actually disappointed to do discover what the actual lyric is because it's somewhat disapointing or takes some meaning away from the song that we had placed in it.

Here are a few of mine:

Bruce Springsteen- "For You"
Actual Lyric: "And they're waiting for you down at Bellevue with their oxygen mask"
My version: "And they're waiting for you down at Bellevue with their Rock surgeon mask"

I like my version better because I like the idea of "Rock Surgeons"... ie Rock N' Roll Surgeons... I thought it was a nice way of saying Rock and Roll saved the girl... or that she was waiting for Rock to save her.

Cheap Trick- "The Flame"
Actual Lyric: "You Were the First, You'll Be The Last"
My version: "You were the First TO be the last"

I like mine better because it's much more toungue in cheek, since he's saying she was "first to be the last" he's implying that there will be others to be last as well or, at the very least, she wasn't the first just 'the first to be the last'. At the very least, it is implying that there were others before her... but she was 'the last.' Which is kind of sweet... in a much less maudlin way than the actual lyric.

REM- "Let Me In"
Actual Lyric: "I've got tar on my feet and I can't see"
My Version: "A guitar on my feet and I can't see"

Knowing this song was about Kurt Cobain, I always assumed he had a 'guitar' on his feet... like the weight of his success or the burden of his rock stardom, both represented by the guitar, were pulling him down... or the weight of his art. I thought it was a much stronger image than "got tar on my feet" which sort of says the same thing but much less artfully.

And, lastly:

Smashing Pumpkins- "Disarm"
Actual Lyric: "Inside of Me is such a part of you."
My Version: "Sodomy is such a part of you"

Now, sodomy definitely makes this a much darker song about a much more messed up relationship, perhaps even one with an anti-child abuse message a la Suzanne Vega's "Luka" (you can imagine my shock when I heard this was inspired by Billy Corgan's relationship with his father... and my subsequent relief when I found out my mishearing was incorrect) Anyway, In this case... I'm not sure my version was really all that much better so much as it was much scarier.

Some of yours?

[Sara has a good one from her childhood:

Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World"
Actual Lyric: "The dark sacred night"
Sara heard "the dogs say good-night"

That is adorable.

This is not a song lyric but there is a famous story about a little girl who thought God's name was Howard, because she misheard "Hallowed be thy name" in the Lord's Prayer.

There is actually a whole book of misheard lyrics called "'Scuse Me While I Kiss this Guy" -- a famous mishear of Hendrix saying "Kiss the Sky." Other examples from the book include

"The ants are my friends/They're blowin' in the wind" ("The answer my friend/Is blowing' in the wind"-Bob Dylan)

"Sweet dreams are made of cheese" ("Sweet dreams are made of this"-Eurythmics)

"The girl with colitis goes by" ("The girl with kaleidoscope eyes"-The Beatles)


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Links Fixed

Eamonn Clarke let me know the Comic Geek Speak links on the toolbar went bad after they updated their site. Those links have now been fixed.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #139

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Something Wicked This Way Comes”

When it was announced in 1991 that Claremont would be departing the X-Men series after serving as its writer for over 16 years, it prompted Peter David to do a brief retrospective of Claremont’s work on the series. Though he makes clear his affection and respect for all that Claremont accomplished right up until the end, David (who himself would go on to do an impressive 12-year run on Incredible Hulk) also opines that when Claremont was forced by editorial edict to kill off Jean, X-Men suffered a permanent “loss of focus.”

In this issue and the next one – which tell a two-part story about Wolverine teaming up with Alpha Flight to fight the Wendigo – it’s easy to see what David was talking about. It begins well, boldly opening with a substantially changed status quo. Here we suddenly have Wolverine in a new, Byrne-designed costume; Kitty in her first costume (a slightly modified version of the “school uniform” from the Silver Age); Angel officially back on the team; and Storm having replaced Scott as field leader. It’s an interesting choice to keep all of those changes off-panel, and it works well, giving the feeling that – with Uncanny #138 having provided a capstone to the first 137 issues of the series, and simultaneously brought it full circle with Kitty arriving at the school a la Jean Grey in X-Men #1 – the comic has now entered a powerful and exciting new phase of existence.

But when it lurches sluggishly into a plot involving the Wendigo – a fairly weak Hulk villain – the comic botches the momentum created by the abrupt status-quo change. Granted, the Wendigo/Alpha Flight two-parter may have been the story that Claremont and Byrne were going to do even before they were forced to kill off Phoenix, but you can’t shake the sense as you read issues 139 and 140 that the authors are flailing around just a bit in reaction to their suddenly derailed long-term plans (which included a climactic Phoenix/Magneto confrontation in Uncanny X-Men #150). The fact that issue 139 is the first in the series to contain 22 pages instead of 17 – thanks to a company-wide increase in page count for Marvel Comics on that particular month – only compounds the problem, as Claremont and Byrne seem to strain to stretch their bare-bones plot beyond its natural length. (Hence nearly two entire pages devoted simply to recapping Wolverine’s first appearance in Incredible Hulk #181 – a job that could’ve been done in two panels.)

Claremont will ultimately prove more rattled than Byrne at having had to kill Phoenix. (He was similarly frustrated back when Len Wein made him kill off Thunderbird; Claremont was clearly not a fan of killing off his characters.) While Byrne and Austin still manage here to craft their usual quota of dynamic images – including a well choreographed Danger Room scene at the beginning and a striking cliffhanger on the final page – Claremont’s accompanying text feels awkward and arrhythmic, as if he’s forcing it a bit.

The contrast is also evident in how the two collaborators manage their attempts at humor: Byrne’s visual gag in the issue is very funny – a Nightcrawler whose hair stands on end upon seeing a bear and who leaps onto Wolverine’s head to escape (see the note about Byrne’s “Daffy Duck” interpretation of Nightcrawler, in the analysis of Classic X-Men #27). Claremont’s attempts at humor, by contrast, fall rather flat. He has to have other characters point out the joke lines, lest the readers not even realize they’re there. He really seems to be having some trouble with dialogue this time out.

There is one beautiful exception, however: The scene in which Kurt hears Heather Hudson speak Wolverine’s real name contains some of the most memorable lines Claremont ever produced.

Nightcrawler: Wolverine, she called you ... “Logan?”

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: Is that your name?

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: You never told us.

Wolverine: You never asked.

Note that this is the third such scene involving Wolverine: Uncanny #98 had Sean reacting in shock that Wolverine’s claws were a part of him, with Wolverine replying it was none of Banshee’s business. Then in Uncanny #118, 20 issues later, Cyclops’ surprise that Wolverine can read Japanese is met with “You never asked,” a retort repeated verbatim here, again 20 issues later. This version of Wolverine – the one whose mystery is the result not of amnesia and/or brainwashing, but simply of taciturnity – is the classic edition of the character. His erosion post-Claremont (at the hands of writers who decided to turn Logan’s origin into a gimmick-filled parlor game) is one of the X-franchise’s most lamentably tragic losses.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Comics Out June 25, 2008

Young Avengers Presents Hawkeye. A very nice little Matt Fraction yarn. Absurdly, I never noticed until I saw him drawing Avengers how much Brian Hitch owes to Alan Davis. (Is that right? How old is Hitch?). Anyway, Fraction's plan to surpass Morrison continues in his ability to get great artists to team up with him consistently.

Thor: Reign of Blood. Have not actually gotten around to this yet. But it looks pretty good.

Iron Fist 16. Does anyone in the comics industry have more heart than Fraction? The guy has a big heart, and does heartwarming really well. Nice to see Aja back for a whole issue two even if it is light on the ass-kickery. A nice end. The final page image from the next issue by the new team, however, does not look that promising.

Runaways 30. It was the lackluster art, with its dowdy figures, rather than the publishing schedule that made this series unpersuasive -- in spite of the fact that I am always really open to the tragic view of fate that made of the moral of this little story .

Final Crisis 2. The first page is a genius direct address to the reader, and "Spirit into Toy" is one of my favorite exclamations ever. But the various plot threads here still seem really fractured to me -- and not in a good way, and in my copy the reproduction of the art seemed wonky. Blurry maybe? Libra continues to bore, and the Alpha Lantern twist may have meant more to me if I knew who she was. The preacher bad guy New God continues to seem like a weak irony to me, and the imagery on the last page seemed odd, though I know someone is going to tell me the spacial relationships and perspective is SUPPOSED to be weird since they are bending space and time. I don't care; I don't buy it. I did really like when one character referred to the "boom tube" in quotes however -- that really captures the scene, as the New God condescendingly calls it what they pathetic Earthlings would call it. That was a nice detail.

In comics news, I hope to have a friend review Wanted as soon as possible, cause it will probably be Monday at the earliest that I get a chance to see it. And it is coming after Wall-E.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I, of course, am a geeky fanboy. I read superhero comics and watch science fiction television. And I read a lot of poetry. But when I like something I want to defend it from charges of geekery in situations where friends are perfectly happy embracing the term. And I find myself dismissing things as geeky, in the very same way people dismiss the things I care about. For me the dividing line is quality, but I think I am really off base doing this, and I wanted to get some feedback.

For example, while I am willing to admit its importance to the genre, I think Star Trek: The Next Generation is geeky -- so geeky it makes me embarrassed to watch it, and embarrassed for the people who made it and who enjoy it. I was once on a Popular Culture Association panel with a guy -- a good guy, but still -- who played a clip from the Star Trek movie in which the Borg queen blows on Data's new flesh arm (which unlike his old robot arm is as sensitive as a human arm is) and Data reacts like he is receiving oral sex. It was an effort not to crawl under the table. (I meet people all the time who do not understand this reaction at all, and, admittedly, I am hard pressed to properly explain it).

But I cannot imagine Battlestar Galactica as geeky, even though I know perfectly well it must be: Dwight wears a Battlestar Galactica sweatshirt on The Office, so obviously most people are happy to lump it in with Star Trek. But for me the term geeky just cannot apply to something so appallingly well written, so dramatically intense and successful, so often properly horrifying and disturbing, and something where the performances are so top notch. I watched the second episode of season three today and actually got choked up. And for me -- and I guess this is just personal -- the show avoids the big shibboleth of geekery by not fetishizing hard science: the show does not care how the robots work, or the fine points of the engine room, and thank god for that. I want to tell people that this show is not geeky at all, but friends of mine are perfectly happy to embrace it in that way.

I know that to an extent the geeks are in power now, running the world and to an extent deciding that it cool (i just converted to Mac today), and that the dividing like between geek and cool was never that clear to begin with except on bad sitcoms. I have a hunch the geek-cool divide is a one of those suspect binaries French people are always going on about. But I still find myself clinging to it, or remnants of it. Ambivalence is my feeling about the term "geek" I guess.

How do you guys feel about it?

Jason Powell on X-Men Annual #4

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Nightcrawler’s Inferno”

John Romita Jr. has drawn hundreds upon hundreds of gorgeous images in dozens and dozens of Marvel Comics, including an underrated run on Uncanny (which I’ll cover eventually, of course). So it’s hard to imagine that he ever produced something that wasn’t beautiful. But, back in 1980, he penciled X-Men Annual #4, one of the least exciting X-Men stories in the Claremont canon.

The issue is an extended riff on Dante’s “Inferno,” right down to the baroque chapter notations: Part the Second, Part the Third, etc. (Claremont will notate his chapters of the 1988 “Inferno” crossover in the same fashion, but the only thing the latter “Inferno” shares with Dante is the title.)

The story is notable for the partial origin of Nightcrawler, revealed at long last in the comic’s final few pages. But before that is a monotonous team-up between the X-Men and Dr. Strange -- whose series Claremont also wrote at the time -- as they slog through a dreary recreation of Dante’s conception of Hell (actually an illusion by a sorceress out for misconceived revenge on Kurt).

Though Romita Jr.’s storytelling is ambitious in places, his figures are awkward throughout, and the choreography of his action sequences is far below the standard set by John Byrne. Bob McLeod’s inking is much softer than Terry Austin’s, and while this leads to some very expressive faces in various close-up shots, it more often contributes to the visuals’ overall mushy feel.

Claremont hardly seems more inspired. With the exception of one of Hell’s demons quoting the emcee from “Cabaret” at one point, the dialogue demonstrates little imagination or flair, the characters simply stomping through the requisite action sequences in tedious, by-the-numbers fashion.

Still, the story has a place in X-Men history. It is the first comic to reveal that Kurt is a Christian (and, of more incidental interest, that Colossus is an atheist). The contradiction is rather fascinating – a Christian who looks like a demon – and will be explored shrewdly (if at little depth) several times over the course of Claremont’s run.

As for “Nightcrawler’s Inferno,” the more absorbing material occurs at the end, when Claremont reveals that Nightcrawler was raised by an adoptive mother, a gypsy witch called Margali Szardos, alongside her two maternal children, Jemaine and Stefan. Kurt eventually became romantically involved with Jemaine, and later still was forced to kill Stefan – who’d somehow become a murderer of children – in Winzeldorf. This is what led to Nightcrawler’s first appearance in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 (the villagers were chasing him not simply for his appearance, but because they thought he was guilty of Stefan’s crimes).

As backstory for Kurt, this all is more convoluted than it probably needs to be, though the strangeness of it all would be mitigated if there were a sense that Claremont wanted to take all this somewhere. There are hints that he does (Dr. Strange is intrigued by the existence of Margali and her family, and asserts that he must investigate them further) but, at least in the pages of X-Men, Claremont never goes on to explore any of this.

The only lasting effect of X-Men Annual #4 is the revelation on the penultimate page – that Jemaine (or Jimaine; both spellings are used in the story) has been dating Kurt for months, in the guise of Amanda Sefton. That comes completely out of left field (although it was retroactively foreshadowed in an interpolated page in Classic X-Men #6).

Since she is a witch like her mother, we eventually see Amanda using her powers in the occasional X-Men comic over the next few years (the first instance occurring after the departure of John Byrne, who disliked the whole idea). Amanda’s new status as a witch is the only change wrought by “Nightcrawler’s Inferno.” If not for that, the entire comic would be entirely inconsequential to the canon. It almost is anyway.

The issue also features the most cringe-inducing final panel of any Claremont X-Men comic. It’s too painful to quote at length; suffice to say it ends with Dr. Strange and Professor X looking with admiration upon the assembled heroes. Dr. Strange intones, “They are heroes.” “They, my dear Stephen,” comes the professor’s tautological riposte, “are the X-Men.”


Let’s move on.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If a week goes by and I have failed to add you to the blog roll TELL ME TO DO IT AGAIN, and KEEP TELLING ME UNTIL IT GETS DONE. I can be lazy about updating the non-post parts of this site. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy (but now might not be). That is often the reason I fail to get back to people, and on a blog, after a few days, the comments thread dies and I just kind of forget about it. Let's use this space to fix that, because it does need to be fixed; I look like a jackass sometimes, leaving people hanging. I will TRY to respond to any questions here.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore. For example, if you thought of a great quote for the great quote commonplace book, but now no one is reading that, you could put it here.You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

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If you think what you have to say -- new topic or comment on an existing topic -- would be better to hear than to read, use the CALL ME button on the toolbar on the right.

Scott on the JLI: The Conclusion

[Guest blogger Scott concludes his look at the JLI.]

There's a lot happening in the final issue of this volume; after the Grey Man is defeated, the League returns home to discover that Maxwell Lord is petitioning the UN to grant the group an international charter. It is also revealed that, while Lord may have been manipulating the League, he is being manipulated by someone else. All of this, and the change in Guy Gardner. After Batman's punch to the head and a second bump attained when looking for his ring upon regaining conciousness, Guy is transformed into the exact opposite of what he was before: he is now sensitive, polite, kind and caring. This gag would run for a full 11 issues (I know this because issue 18 was my first issue of this series back in the day and that issue ended with him being returned to 'normal'). Giffen and Co. would have great fun with this over the years, having him recieve one whack to the head and revert to one personality or another only to recieve another and immediately revert back. In any case, Guy Gardner would never become a Wolverine style anti-hero after this so much as a comical hothead with mental health issues.

Lord's petiton generates a great deal of buzz among the UN and the press and, in a scene that echoes one from The Dark Knight Returns, we get a special conference between Ronald Reagan and The Man of Steel himself. Miller's version of this scene portrayed a plain-spoken but ruthless version of Ronald Reagan and a Superman who was an obedient soldier; Giffen and Dematteis, by contrast, paint a very different picture. Their Reagan is also a comical caricature but an innocuous one; rather than giving Superman orders, he asks him for advice but, with a decision this big, he's going to "have to talk to Nancy." There's even a nice start on the repair of the fractured Superman/Batman relationship (left in the wake of Miller) when Superman says: "I have some problems with the way Batman works on his own but-- I have to admit--- it seems he's taken the League well in hand."

Still, having Superman and The Gipper on their side isn't enough to win over the UN, at least not according to Lord's unseen allies, who estimate the League's chances of getting their charter as 'nil.' This 'silent partner' decides a demonstration might be in order which leads us to the main action of the issue. A mysterious device orbiting the earth begins firing a classic "death ray" across the globe. The League, of course, rushes in to 'save the world.' When the device ruptures Batman's space suit, only to immediately erect a force field around him to save his life, Mister Miracle recognizes it as training device used on New Genesis, one that, no matter how badly you screw up, will protect you. As a result, Mister Miracle dives right into the beam on the hunch that it won't hurt him; a hunch that, luckily, proves to be correct. This is a scenario that echoes the very first issue of the series on a much larger scale; the League are forced into action by a situation that presents them with no real danger. With the device deactivated, they are a shoe-in for their charter.

The turnover in this version of the League is ridiculous (in the first 6 issues we've already lost one member and added a new one). This issue would further that trend as Captain Marvel (who was only leased to the creative team for a few issues) steps down, much to the sorrow of a tearful Guy Gardner. Dr. Fate would also leave active membership which, from a storytelling standpoint, makes a lot of sense. In Jason's X-men series, he's commented on how X-men writers always had to find ways to sideline Professor X since his powers would easily shift any battle in his team's favor. As the Grey Man Story proved, Fate could similarly put an end to almost any conflict with a wave of his hand and a few magic words. So, he is removed only to be replaced by a much less omnipotent couple of characters: Captain Atom and a member of the Rocket Reds. This addition not only gives the team a powerhouse Captain to replace the recently departed Marvel but it also placates the big two in the UN and ensures their approval of the charter. Batman steps down as team leader, handing that over to Martian Manhunter, and the international era of the Justice League can now properly begin.


There's a great scene in this issue of Mister Miracle calling home to inform Barda that he won't be home because he has to stay on Monitor Duty.

Barda: Scott Free, We haven't had more than five minutes alone together in weeks!
Mister Miracle: But Batman said...
Barda: Batman?!? From what you've told me that jerk makes Granny Goodness look like a saint! I don't understand why you had to join the Justice League in the first place! Were you that bored with...
MM: We discussed it thoroughly before...
Barda: 'We' Didn't discuss anything! You and Oberon discussed it.... then announced it over dinner!

First of all, this supports my observation of Mister Miracle being seen as a hard-working superhero who has finally gotten his big 'promotion' so, of course, he would have trouble with the wife when he has to stay at work late. This is a nice look at the ligther side of what life might really be like for superheroes.

This brings me to one of my main points about what I think this series was trying to do; with Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen the superhero narrative had just undergone a major revision. When any narrative form undergoes a revision, other practitioners of that narrative are forced to react to that revision. Most other writer's of superhero comics during this period chose to react by doing more 'serious' stories in order to address the more serious questions that were being raised at this time. Giffen Co. did something very different. Geoff argues that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, "are the birth of self-concsiousness in the superhero narrative, what I call [...] the revisionary superhero narrative." I, however, tend to side more with David Mazzucchelli who, in a pictoral essay in the reissued Batman: Year One, takes things a back a bit further when he says "while an interesting experiment, it's probably not a good idea to shoehorn too much reality into the fantasy realm of the superhero. Ever since Stan Lee introduced anxiety to superheroes [...] the question "What would superheroes be like in the real world?" has bedeviled generations of comics creators." (in my deletion Mazzucchelli actually goes back as far as Kurtzman's Stuporman, which I don't count since it is a parody and it is the very nature of a parody to be self-conscious of the subject being parodied).

However, in addition to angst, Stan Lee also introduced something else to the way superheroes might function in the real world: practicality. The early Spider-Man issues in particular had a lot of great fun with this. In this series, I think I've already mentioned an early issue where, upon recieving an award check, Spidey is unable to cash it because he can't conclusively prove that he's the real Spider-man at the bank. This was the first time where we saw those 'little things' examined under a microscope in the superhero narrative; stuff like: Spider-man mending his costume after a fight... because he can only afford the one; or him running out of web fluid because he was low on money for supplies that week. There's even a famous Spidey/FF crossover where, having his costume destroyed, he must make due with a surplus FF uniform and a paper bag for a mask. In any case, I don't know if I would go so far as to say that Geoff's 'Revisionary Superhero Narrative' begins here... but, at the very least, we can say that this was a sort of Proto-Revisionary Superhero Narrative. And, it was this very narrative, that Giffen and Co. were drawing upon for their series; while everyone else was attempting to answer the heavier questions of what Superheroes would be like in the real world, this series set out to address the lighter ones. I don't think this was necessarily meant as a critique of the 'grim and gritty' era, as much of Morrison's work in this era was, as it was simply Giffen and Dematteis looking at stuff like Watchmen and saying "Geez, we're never going to be able to do something this good... why don't we do something different instead?"

This series is surprisingly fresh and, despite some dated cultural references, reads very much like a modern comic (thanks in no small part to Dematteis's dialogue). It managed to not only create likeable, believable superheroes and be a reflection of the times in which it was created but, most importantly, it managed to be fun. Sometimes, superhero comics take themselves too seriously and there is an inherent problem with this; superhero comics are, themselves, ridiculous entities. Even in Morrison’s JLA run, a series that prided itself on good-old-fashioned-silver-age styled fun, the characters themselves tended to take their own situations too seriously. After all, they’re already fantastical characters dressed in ludicrously tight brightly colored uniforms; once you have them talking with deathly seriousness about "Zeta Beams", the situation becomes laughable. In the JLI, someone like Guy Gardner or Blue Beetle would have said, "What-a beams?" or some thing like that with a brilliantly drawn MaGuire expression of puzzlement. This gives us permission to laugh at what is, really, a ridiculous situation and, believe it or not, is much less distracting than a straight reading of the same situation. By not taking themselves too seriously, what Giffen, Dematteis and MaGuire have allowed us is to laugh with them, rather than laughing at them.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #138

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]


It’s appropriate that the title of Uncanny X-Men #137 evokes “Fate,” since factors beyond the control of the creators were so integral to the creation of its utterly perfect ending. That Claremont and Byrne originally had a different ending planned would be inconceivable were it not so well documented. But it’s true: Originally, the X-Men were to lose the Duel of Honor, and Jean was to be given a psychic lobotomy, her mutant powers excised. Editor in chief Jim Shooter said this wasn’t apt punishment for a character who had caused the death of millions, so a different ending was brainstormed by all parties. No one could think of anything that didn’t seem contrived or forced, so – with the deadline looming – Jean Grey was killed. But as Occam tells us, simplicity is often best. So it was in this case: Jean, the love of Scott Summers’ life, dies because of the Shi’ar Empire, just as his mother – his father’s love – did years earlier. How brilliant, and how amazing that it almost didn’t happen.

Fate continued to be on Claremont and Byrne’s side when it came time to work on Uncanny #138. They had already planned for the issue to be a retrospective, almost the entire story made up of flashback panels that recreated images from the series’ first 137 issues. None of that had to change – only the framing sequence. Conceived originally as a dual reminiscence between Scott and the now-powerless Jean, it instead became Scott’s own private reflections during Jean’s funeral. And of course, that worked out perfectly.

The opening page is wonderfully done: The X-Men and Jean’s family, swathed in a massive and almost unbroken swath of black, while Claremont quotes from Scott’s words to Jean in Uncanny #129: “Jean, you’re everything to me – as necessary as the air I breathe ...” Claremont didn’t know, when he wrote those words originally, that Jean would be dead nine months later, and that’s what makes the new context so moving. We never know in real life, either.

The comic then launches into a 17-page summary of 17 years of X-Men continuity, framing it all as the story of Scott and Jean’s love. On the way, Claremont and Byrne take the time to smooth over awkward storytelling gaffes from the Silver Age run.

For example, the actual moment at which Scott and Jean became a couple was, weirdly, never shown in the original run. So Claremont and Byrne insert a scene among the events of X-Men #32, with Scott and Jean passionately sharing their first kiss during a walk through Central Park. The same scene also adds a new wrinkle to Scott: His optic blasts are uncontrollable because of the head trauma he experienced after falling from his father’s plane. It’s amazing to see such a clever idea inserted so off-handedly amidst pages and pages of flashback.

Claremont also makes a point of smoothing over the weird introduction of Havok during the original series’ run, explaining that Scott and Alex were separated in the orphanage when the latter was adopted, and Charles had tracked Alex down at Scott’s behest at some point before the character’s first appearance in X-Men #54. I suspect that all this housekeeping is occurring here because at this point, Claremont had recently gone back and read the entire 1960s run.

The final page of the issue has a wonderfully subtle bit, with Nightcrawler emerging from a tree as the funeral ends. We suddenly realize that he was the only X-Man not on the opening splash, and was obviously hiding in that tree the entire time, so as not to blow the X-Men’s cover.

Finally, Kitty Pryde is nicely used in “Elegy,” serving twice over as a symbol of redemption. At first, during Scott’s summary of the recent past, he suggests that Kitty was life’s way of balancing things out after the Mutant X debacle: “We’d found a truly evil mutant in Proteus. But soon after that we found a truly good one ... in Kitty Pryde.”

Then, at the very end of the issue, a deliberate contrast is set: the somber burial of Jean’s casket vs. Kitty’s arrival, by taxi, at the mansion. In Lee and Kirby’s X-Men #1, Jean Grey first appeared when she arrived at the mansion in a taxi (that moment is deliberately recreated by Byrne in this issue, page 2, panel three). So Kitty has balanced things out again, recreating the first appearance of Jean at the exact moment of the character’s burial, and thus bringing the series full circle.

[And the cover -- just like Planetary 12.]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy at the Met

The conference held last Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an unmitigated success -- to the point that I think I am ruined for any more academic conferences where you go to some hotel, don't get paid, have your paper shortened by the guy who went before you and ran over, talk to people who are too tense to be friendly and too busy checking your badge to see if you are someone important, and deliver your paper in front of eight people (seven of whom do not really care) and the hotel cleaning staff.

I cannot stress enough how amazing it is to go to a place like the Met, which you expect to be a little snooty, and specifically the costume institute, who you really expect to be a little snooty -- and find nothing but the kindest people you have ever met -- people just interested in you as a person, and people equally interested in the executive producer of the Dark Knight as some fan who just came out to the bar afterward. And I am not just talking about the people lower down in the chain of command -- I am talking about serious people in charge of serious things simply being shockingly kind. I do not know how much you will care but I feel I have to mention some of these people by name (knowing that I am forgetting some): Andrew Bolton (the curator of the costume institute and one of New York Magazine's picks for one of the 50 sexiest New Yorkers), Shannon Bell Price (a senior research associate at the costume institute), Joseph Loh (associate museum educator), and two wonderful women who helped with the details, Nicole Leist and Alaine Arnott.

Oxford was a wonderful place to learn, but too often I found myself dealing with people who simply ignored Sara because she was just a civilian. The people at the Met are just NICE.

Peter Coogan brought himself to the point of insanity wrangling the conference at the Met with the shortest lead time of anyone.

Danny Fingeroth was fun and eager to help (and did not mind random phone calls from me).

Richard Reynolds was hilarious, with an infections energy -- and put up with me ribbing him about how incredibly Oxford he was (he is a Lincoln college man).

I did not get much time with Paul Levitz but he was good on stage. I enjoyed talking to his son, who just graduated from Princeton. I told him what a class act Princeton is: they always send me nice rejection letters when I apply for jobs there, in an industry when most people never get back to you at all.

Scott Bukatman had the best line of the night -- from his book Matters of Gravity (which I always want to call Masters of Gravity) when he quipped, in his talk about the superhero as dandy, that "the superhero does not put on a costume in order to fight crime. He fights crime in order to put on the costume."

Alex Ross was great on stage and his wife and I bonded over a love of Chucks, which she was wearing: I went all Doctor Who and wore off-white chucks with my dark suit and tie (the chucks matched the shirt). The Doctor Who connection did not go unnoticed (Mitch: were you the one that caught my source?)

John Cassaday was great -- and did some hilarious verbal fencing on stage with Alex -- though I got a little tense when I gave him my business card, since he may come here, look himself up, and see me taking him to task for frequently repeating images in Astonishing X-Men. I do love his work, and did note when he resumed firing on all cylinders. But it will do no one any favors if I am not honest about how I feel about my comics.

Stanford Carpenter, who interviewed John and Alex, and whose background is in anthropology rather than English, gave me some great tips on interviewing. And has eaten piranha, which is not a feat most academics can boast of.

Michael Uslan did a fun talk in which he talked about the Superman-Moses comparison (the baby sent away to keep it safe and raised by another to save his people). My mother-in-law will go see Dark Knight just on the strength of that connection, which really tickled her.

Finally my panel: Adi Granov's flight was delayed, and so our panel was was moved three times at the last minute to allow him to get from JFK to the museum -- no small feat in itself (sorry to everyone who came to see me at 2, but hey, you got to see Alex Ross and John Cassaday and Michael Uslan so get over it). Adi got there five minutes after we started, which was perfect, though because of that I did not get to talk to him much off stage. It was entirely by coincidence that I was assigned to interview Phil Saunders, on his first trip away from his new baby, who happens to be friends with my best man Brad Winderbaum. Phil is a wonderful guy and we had a great dinner -- he really became more of a friend. Finally, Gordon Smith was a hoot, and had a lot of bawdy stories he told off stage that obviously did not make it into the stage talk. The images these guys provided were mesmerizing, and the audience was incredibly pleased. (Sara wants it noted that Phil is a Car Talk fan, and earns even more awesome points for that)

I also want to thank people came to see the whole thing, especially our own Mitch, and HC Duvall, Arie Kaplan, Jose Alaniz, and Jonathan Gray, whose classroom I will be visiting soon. And of course Sara (who is the best and who, for the first time, had fun attending a conference with me), Erin, Amelia, Jen, Jill and her sister (a sophomore at Fordham who asked a very good question) Jason and Ximena, my parents, Sara's mom and grandparents.

You will note I am not talking about content much. That is because I heard a rumor that the MET plans to release a free video of the day's event on iTunes university -- so I hope soon you will all be able to see for yourselves how well it went, no matter where you are. And the exhibit itself is wonderful, and I encourage you to buy the metal bound museum catalogue of the exhibit if you were not able to make it. Andrew Bolton, who wrote the text for the book, is practically my favorite person right now.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #43b

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Flights of Angels”

The previous b-side ended with a 12-year-old Scott Summers making mental contact with Jean Grey. This was a sentimental, redemptive ending reminding readers that — in spite of the systematic psychological torture and emotional deprivation he endured during his years in the orphanage – Scott would eventually find salvation and love as a member of the X-Men. The idea that it was Jean, not Xavier, who first discovered Scott mentally also added a touch of melodramatic romance; these two were always meant to be together, even since they were kids. The b-side of Classic X-Men #43 discusses the same idea regarding Jean and Scott’s intertwined fates, but from a different angle.

The a-side of the issue is a reprint of Uncanny X-Men #137, which ends with Phoenix’s suicide. At the time that Classic #43 was published, that death had already been ret-conned, Jean Grey brought back into circulation. So here we get a story that shows where Phoenix went after her seeming death in Uncanny #137.

Claremont’s script contains some of his most oblique writing for the X-Men, made duller by sloppy, generic-looking art from Mike Collins and Joe Rubinstein. Death is cast as a construction worker, eternally building a structure that acts as a “frame” for life. It’s a somewhat uninspired metaphor.

Phoenix comes to the structure after dying on the Moon, her costume now white (as Cockrum had originally intended it) rather than green or red. She wanders Death’s structure understanding nothing of what she sees, until Claremont finally tires of vagueness for its own sake and begins to give some answers. This is where the story brings in some intriguing possibilities, particularly when Death comments on the abundance of coincidences that hold together Claremont’s first 45 issues of X-Men.

“D’you think it was an accident that, as a child, your thoughts touched Scott Summers’?” he asks her. “Or that he was orphaned by the Shi’ar Emperor? That feeling contact eventually drew Scott to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where he grew into Cyclops, leader of the X-Men. He fell in love with you, and you with him. So that, at the proper time and place, when that mad emperor attempted the obliteration of all ... you’d be there to stop him.”

Death goes on to explain that the Phoenix is a “force,” and the “embodiment of life.” The M’krann crystal threatened to destroy the force’s “handiwork,” so it used an avatar – Jean Grey – to stop it. Claremont is essentially using the Phoenix force to craft a narrative unified field theory to explain the chain of storytelling coincidences that connect aspects of these earliest X-Men stories together. From the hints dropped here, a thoughtful reader can extrapolate other coincidences that could be ascribed to Phoenix, such as how it is that Professor X’s mind managed to connect with Lilandra’s when he repelled the Z’Nox invasion. Claremont’s idea for Phoenix here as a catch-all for his use of coincidence is pretty clever, even if the execution here is lacking in dramatic tension; this story is pretty much all exposition.

Claremont goes on to set up other stories that have already been published but, chronologically, have not yet occurred. In a single panel, Death tells Jean: “Your unique gift is to be the one capable of wielding ... [the Phoenix] ... force. It came to you, Jean – as it will in time to your children – because, like the sword Excalibur was to King Arthur ... it is yours by right.” (Besides being an evocative analogy, the line also retroactively foreshadows. Eventually, the Phoenix force will come to Jean’s daughter, Rachel, who will then go on to become a founding member of a team called Excalibur.)

While the story is low on incident, there is a character arc to give it some semblance of shape: When Jean first awakens on Death’s structure, she laments the fact that her attempted suicide seems to have failed. After Death’s pep talk – which, in between the swaths of exposition, reminded her to weigh the lives she saved against the lives she took as Dark Phoenix – Jean is motivated to return the land of the living, believing that this time she will be able to handle her power. There is a small sense of redemption as she flies away, which Claremont then immediately twists with an ironic final image of Death, as he views images of the things he was not allowed to tell her about: Mr. Sinister; the Madeline Pryor clone; the eventual emergence of the cocooned Jean in Jamaica Bay.

The story thus emerges as an attempt to transition between the Dark Phoenix Saga and “Inferno.” That job is accomplished reasonably well. The evocations of fate and predestination are applied cleverly, albeit only after several pages of wheel-spinning and pointless imagery.

“Flights of Angels” is far from Claremont’s best work, but one can see why he felt it was necessary.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Comics Out June 18, 2008

Angel -- I am switching to trades on Buffy and Angel from now on.

Nothing jumping out at me in Comics News.

I did see The Incredible Hulk, and it was terrible -- just borring. No chemistry or charisma from the cast at all -- how much more charming is Liv Tyler in her nintendo DS commercial than in the whole of Hulk?

And then CGI monsters punching each other over and over till one of them punched enough he won. I had flashes of Alien Versus Predator: Requiem.

Ang Lee's Hulk was on TV last night, and I watched it again. I did not fully appreciate the way this film worked the first time around -- say what you want about it, and it is not flawless, but there is something really stunning about the attempt to fuse an art house meditation on the nature of anger with a summer superhero blockbuster. The new Hulk could not even keep the anger theme straight. They decided excitement of any kind -- including sex -- would turn him into the Hulk, which really means you have no theme at all.

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #41, part b and #42, part b

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Little Boy, Lost” / “When Dreams Are Dust”

The b-sides of Classic X-Men issues 41 and 42 are two halves of a story set entirely in the past, when Cyclops was 12 years old and still living in the orphanage in Nebraska. Published in late 1989, it functions as both prequel and epilogue to the previous year’s “Inferno,” a much-maligned X-Men story that deserves re-evaluation (and will eventually receive it, in this very blog series, eventually).

“Inferno” was a massively ambitious housecleaning event that attempted to close off a variety of long-dangling X-Men subplots, as well as redress certain cracks that had developed in the franchise’s facade over the preceding decade. One of those cracks was in Cyclops, who – while in John Byrne’s custody – quite clearly and convincingly became one of the coolest superheroes of all time, but when in the hands of less loving and protective writers (among whom Claremont was not the most egregious offender, but wasn’t entirely blameless either), slowly began to erode into a flawed, pathetic, unpleasant man. (I’ll never forget when I was 13 years old, coming to school with my shirt that featured the Wolverine/Cyclops/Iceman segment of Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 cover, sitting down across from a guy twice my size, and being a little frightened for a moment when he looked at my shirt, pointed at Cyclops and scowled, “I HATE that guy!”)

In what is perhaps a bit of meta-commentary on the way Cyclops’ creative parents failed to protect him from the harsh ravages of editorial whim, “Inferno”’s solution was to suggest that Cyclops’ flaws were not his own fault, but instead the result of an almost systematic psychological torture inflicted upon him by a super-villain in the orphanage when he was parentless, in the days before Xavier “adopted” him.

Unfortunately, “Inferno” was so confusing as a story that the attempted fix of Cyclops got lost in the shuffle. Claremont’s work in the “Little Boy, Lost” two-parter is actually much stronger in terms of making Cyclops a great character again, but its publication in the low-selling Classic X-Men title meant that few fans actually got to see it. (More recently, Joss Whedon and John Cassaday have done a fix on Cyclops that is both very high-profile and clearly, crisply executed. Whether that will make it more effective remains to be seen.)

“Little Boy, Lost” is a rare attempt by Claremont to dip into the horror genre, and as such it’s fairly convincing. It depicts Mr. Sinister, a villain deliberately designed (both the outre visual and the sing-songy name) by Claremont and artist Marc Silvestri to resemble a boogeyman out of a child’s imagination. Here, Sinister stalks the halls of a boys’ orphanage, terrorizing both kids and staff, in pursuit of some oblique agenda. Illustrated by Mike Collins, the tale is effectively creepy and bizarre. Claremont’s intent was that Sinister was a superhuman psychic projection of Scott’s roommate, a boy named Nate, who was obsessively fixated on Scott. There is the vaguest of vague hints in “Little Boy, Lost” that Nate’s fixation might be sexual, but Claremont is very cagey about it.

As it happened, Claremont would leave X-Men before he could ever develop this idea, and later writers decided that Sinister was the character’s reality, and Nate was the disguise, which is far less interesting (though to be fair, a line in “When Dreams Are Dust” about “demons masquerading as children” supports this idea as well).

I would love to have seen Claremont develop the idea that all of Sinister’s dealings in “Inferno” -- including his creation of Madeline as a brood mare with the mission of marrying Scott and giving birth to his offspring – were the result of a sexual fixation on him, but it probably wouldn’t have happened even if he’d stayed on the title. Instead it remains a tantalizing could-have-been.

Among the other interesting retcons in this story (among them an intriguing notion that Scott’s ruby quartz glasses not only hold back his optic blasts but also alleviate headaches caused by his “far wider [than normal] field of perception”) is a bit at the end revealing that it was Jean – not Charles – who first found Scott years ago while she was exercising her mental powers with the Professor. The point is clear in context: Scott and Jean were always fated to find each other, even years before they met in X-Men #1. Here, that idea is played in a sentimentally sweet way, but the b-side of Classic X-Men #43 will, cleverly, examining that same “fate” idea from a different angle.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Favorite Television Shows

Television, more than any other medium, has become my go to thing for the last few years. I much prefer short form serial storytelling like comics and television to long-form stuff like novels, especially since working, and working out. Television also feels more social: Sara and I CAN read a comic book together, but watching TV together is much easier. I used to have hours to read alone -- now I prefer having something 40 minutes long lined up to coincide with blocks of time as they appear. And like comics, once you find something you like, you are set for a while -- seven seasons of Buffy and five of Angel is a lot of television. Television, more than movies, is a writer's medium, which I think makes for more consistent quality and the idea of a show-runner means I get quite a bit more of Whedon than say, Soderbergh.

On of my criteria of television is the ability to watch it over and over and not get bored. But part of this is that certain television shows have become comfort programming (when I am working or getting ready for bed), at least one guilty pleasures that I would not necessarily recommend to others, but that I have to admit I love.

As always, the list is personal, and subject to revision (help me remember anything I have forgotten). And as always, your own lists in the comments will be appreciated.

The Cartoons

Golden Age Looney Tunes, especially Duck Amuck and Duck Season/Rabbit Season

Samurai Jack


Batman: The Animated Series

Invader Zim

Venture Bros.

Frisky Dingo

Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Home Movies

The Simpsons (Seasons 3-8)


Lost and Battlestar Galactica: I have very mixed feelings about these two. I loved them as they went by, but the endings were very bad, and unlike, say, Buffy, a lot hung on how the shows wrapped up, because so much of the interest in the show was -- how will all this be pulled together in the end? Basically it is very weird to feel like a show should be on my favorites list, while also leaving me with the feeling that I never want to see an episode of wither again, and I would not recommend either to others.

Buffy (admitting the weakness of season 1, 7, and the end of 6), Angel (heretically, I prefer Angel to Buffy overall), and Firefly. And Dollhouse: the end turned me around.

Quantum Leap

Twin Peaks

The Sitcoms


Arrested Development

30 Rock (Season One)

Sports Night



Dr Katz


Third Rock from The Sun

Andy Richter Controls the Universe


The Shield



The Wire

West Wing (The Sorkin Years)


Breaking Bad

Pushing Daises and Wonderfalls




Murder One (based on a distant memory)

The British Stuff

Quite Interesting

Green Wing

The Mighty Boosh


The IT Crowd

No Angels


The Guilty Pleasure

24: Season 5 -- every season of 24 just repeats. Season 5 was the one where it worked the best.


The Unit

Scott on Art and Revision

[Scott uses musician Daniel Johnston as a jumping off point for some questions about art and revision.]

For those of you unfamiliar with the film or Daniel Johnston, he was an aspiring musician in the mid-late 80's famous for his homemade recordings. He made dozens of albums on his own over the years, only making one professionally recorded album. He gained fans among a lot of indie-punk artist around this time including the members of Sonic Youth and, most notably, Kurt Cobain (who has famously been photographed wearing one of Johnston's "Hi, How Are You" T-shirts). He also did his own doodlish artwork for his album covers and, currently, continues to make art which incorporates Superheroes (a lot of Captain America) and other pop-culture icons. There are times throughout his life when he was on the cusp of some sort of success but it becomes painfully apparent that he is a classic paranoid schizophrenic (a condition exacerbated by experiments with acid) and he always ends up melting down instead.

Ok, so if this story weren't a documentary it could have made for an interesting little indie film. starring Jason Schwartzman or Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnston. Johnston obsessively recorded most of the significant moments of his life on both audio and video tapes. I heard that it was a sad tale but it actually has a, relatively, happy ending. It would seem that his art and music do well enough to afford him a decent income and, while he could never be a self-reliant member of society and his elderly parents won't be around for much longer, it does seem as though he has enough close friends and relatives who have his best interest in mind so that he will always have someone to look after him.

But here is the greater question: Is his work all that brilliant? The main praise it seems to get is for its 'rawness'. However, as far as I can tell, 'raw' here means 'the work of a precocious twelve year old'. His art, which meshes pop-culture and comic book cartoon iconography with, sometimes, disturbing images, looks like the kind of stuff that the quiet kid in middle school would have scrolled on his notebook. The same goes for his music (which I can't completely judge without hearing it professionally recorded or interpreted by more able musicians).

Now, oftentimes, that quiet kid grows up and becomes a great artist but their work evolves from scribblings (which could also be used to described Johnston's music as well as his art); Johnston never does. I suppose there is a freshness to that. The guy has no filter. I am actually quite envious of the fact that this is a guy who obviously never revises anything. (Especially when one takes into consideration the fact that I have already stopped about five times while writing this blog to revise myself and am currently painstakingly-well maybe not painstakingly- researching events for a short story I'm working on). Does that make his art more true? The fact that he makes it for no one but himself? Or, is part of what makes a work of art great the fact that others can find enjoyment in it as well? Part of me wants to agree with the latter statement since I have always felt that part of the greatness of artists like The Beatles was the fact that they had mass appeal while still managing to push certain boundaries... on the other hand Nickelback are very popular, too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Planetary 27 and J. J. Abrams' FRINGE

(minor possible FRINGE spoilers follow)

Marc Caputo Alerted Me to Warren Ellis's Bad Signal, in which Ellis wrote

First off: late last night, Wildstorm informed me that John Cassaday has commenced drawing PLANETARY 27. Please don't respond to this -- I don't need the listserv breaking. Just know and be happy. I have no word on what else is on John's plate right now, so I don't know how long it'll take or when it'll see print. It's not the easiest script in the world to draw, as I recall.

Watched the pilot episode of the new JJ Abrams-produced sf series FRINGE last night. It actually wasn't bad. The cinematography was especially good in places, and I loved the gimmick of the location chyrons, big floating 3-D blocks of superimposed text with travelling perspective. The direction and production values were as good as you'd expect from an Abrams-produced series -- though clearly shot in Toronto, it wasn't done on the cheap, and the performances were rarely
less than par. If I had a criticism, it's that everyone was working so hard to ''ground'' the show that the occasional exuberance or goofiness jarred more than it really should have done. Which meant that stunts that otherwise should have worked, like Blair Brown's introductory scene as Sinister Corporate Woman or the frankly mental post-ALTERED STATES scene where the mad scientist shoots the FBI agent full of LSD and Ketamine, sticks a computer probe in the back of her neck and floats her in a sensory deprivation tank in order to make contact with the dreams of a fellow FBI agent in a chemical coma...well, they didn't quite land, for me.

So, no, it doesn't take itself as seriously as it wants you to think. It even opens on an airplane, striking sparks off LOST. It might get quite watchable, once it gets comfortable with The Mad Science. Can't help but like a show where the resident Mad Scientist starts muttering ''yes, let's make some LSD..."

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Game Design Challenge: Hamlet

 My dear friend Jill Duffy -- a bona fide girl reporter -- is the editor at GameCareerGuide, which recently hosted a Game Design Challenge for its readers: design a game based on Hamlet. "The primary limitation was that if in-game characters spoke, then the words that came out of their mouths had to be directly from the original text."

CLICK HERE for the results.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #137

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“The Fate of the Phoenix”

John Byrne professes to have been a fan of the X-Men “from Day One.” That being the case, he was always keen – once he was assigned as artist on the “new” incarnation of the series – to eventually get all five of the original X-Men back into the comic. In the end, he managed to import all but Iceman (off-limits for use in a different Marvel series, which was shelved anyway), and the result is a perfect symmetry notable on the double-page spread in Pages 2 and 3 of Uncanny #137: On the left, four original team members, on the right, four of the “Giant-Sized” crew, plus Xavier. Byrne’s reuniting four of the original X-Men is one of the Dark Phoenix Saga’s less commented-on narrative coups. It contributes to a sense that the story is not only the culmination of Claremont’s run, but also the finale of the entire X-Men series.

Claremont’s first caption of the issue reads, “A moment ago, they had been on Earth,” which is a verbatim recreation of the opening caption from Uncanny #107, another lovely bit of parallelism. In the story told in #107 (and 108), Phoenix saved the world. Now, that same story has led her inevitably to this one. And, just as they fought the Imperial Guard then, the X-Men will fight the same enemies now, to save the woman who – ironically – saved them last time.

That parallelism, and the shrewd use throughout the issue of dramatic irony (up to and including title’s evocation of “Fate”) all conspire to give this issue a genuinely classical feel. To complete the effect, Claremont and Byrne open with the toga-clad Watcher acting as a Greek Chorus. The character -- a recurring one from Fantastic Four -- bookends the story, appearing on the first and last page. (For aesthetic unity, he also shows up once in the middle, allowing Byrne to do a recreation of the next-to-last page of Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four #13.)

One of my favorite X-Men panels of all time is the last one on Page 5: With the Shi’ar guards about to seize Jean for execution, Professor X holds up a hand and shouts, “Lilandra – wait! Jean Grey Arin’nn Haelar! For Jean Grey’s life – I challenge you to a duel of honor!” One more piece of recent X-Men history falls into place with expert precision in that panel. This is why Charles had to leave Earth to spend a year on the Shi’ar homeworld. During that stay, he absorbed everything he could about their culture so that, now, just when he needs it to save his student, his expertise comes crashing into play. It’s a brilliant, perfectly executed moment.

The location of the duel – the Blue Area, a labyrinthine city on the Moon with an “Earth-normal atmosphere” – is a macguffin that, like the Watcher (who himself lives in the Blue Area), first appeared in Fantastic Four #13. The location has never appeared in an issue of X-Men before, but Claremont cleverly weaves in allusions to recent stories to subtly reinforce the notion that all of the X-Men’s previous adventures were, somehow, preparing them for their fight in this location. Hence, Nightcrawler notes that the city has “more twists and turns than Arcade’s Murderworld,” and Wolverine comments that his experience in the Watcher’s domicile was more disconcerting than his encounter with Proteus. You truly get the sense that everything was prepping them for this event, for this fight. And that leads to another layer of dramatic irony: It is the moment they’ve been prepared for by fate (the Watcher even calls it their “ultimate test”) ... and they lose. Pathetically. The weight of their horrible defeat is punctuated perfectly by a cut to Xavier and Lilandra, standing mere feet from each other and both monitoring the fight. Xavier is devastated (“No. No. No. No. No.”), and so is Lilandra, who wants to comfort him but can’t. Every dramatic relationship in this story, even Xavier’s with Lilandra, takes brutal punishment here. This is how the final act of a drama is done.

And Claremont and Byrne keep topping themselves. The few panels just before Scott and Jean make their last stand feature the most unadornedly romantic dialogue Claremont has ever wrote. When they emerge from their hiding place to take on the entire Imperial Guard by themselves, it is a defining moment of their relationship. As Byrne executes a zoom away from them, shifting to an image of the sun, while Claremont’s narration describes their thoughts moving backwards to their earliest days, the effect is heartbreaking. That page, those words – “Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers” – are, emotionally, the climax of the X-Men story. No other moment in the series – hardly any other moment in superhero comics – will ever match that sequence for sheer purity of emotional expression.

Then, the dramatic coup de grace: Jean, having regained the Phoenix power, uses it to commit suicide rather than become Dark Phoenix again. Though not the original ending planned by Byrne and Claremont, it is by far the best ending possible, the most appropriate dramatic choice for something that so meticulously emulates a classical Greek tragedy. Indeed, it is the Watcher, in his role as the Chorus, who delivers the final piece of irony, in a story that absolutely rings with it. It’s a verbal irony this time, as – only pages after the X-Men’s thorough defeat at the hands of the Imperials – the Watcher opines, “The X-Men do not realize it – they may never realize or accept it – but this day they have won perhaps the greatest victory of their young lives.” From an artistic standpoint, the same could be said of Claremont and Byrne.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Streebo is looking for a few good Fraction questions

(and please do not write in the comments "What is three-fourths divided by one-eighth?")

Our own Streebo is interviewing Fraction at next weekend's Heroes Convention.

Let's see if we can't come up with some good questions for him.

I often find that interviews with comics guys don't get much beyond "where do you get your ideas?" "what was the first comic book you ever read" and is working on X very different from working on Y" where X=the old book and Y=the new book. (What is with me and the math today?)

I always feel like I would be a very bad interviewer because I find coming up with questions -- new questions that the interviewee will not have pocket answers for -- difficult.

One thing I would ask is how the birth of his son has effected his comics work -- both in terms of finished products and also working habits.

Also, I would love to hear his opinion on recent comics like Final Crisis and the end of Astonishing X-Men -- and at least there you may have the virtue of a kind of new question, just because it could not have been asked before a few weeks ago.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Third Rock from the Sun: Shatner and Lithgow (Commonplace Book)

Scott reminded me of on one of my favorite shows, Third Rock from the Sun, and I found one of my favorite moments on it on the YouTube.

The key to the joke (forgive me if you already know this, but not everyone does) is that a young Shatner starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone in which he saw a creature on the wing of a plane he was one (and, of course, no one believed him). Then, many years later, when the Twilight Zone was remade as a movie, this episode was incorporated, with Lithgow in the Shatner role.

I think I watch too much TV, and so I find it very satisfying when my useless TV knowledge comes in handy.

Scott on the missing Gimmick Sit-Com

[Guest blogger Scott asks some questions, and I make a brief comment below.]

Back in the fall, ABC had a short-lived sit-com featuring the GEICO cavemen. When I first heard that they were doing this my initial reaction was, "How could they possibly think that this could work?" Then I remembered that TV has a long history of gimmicky sit-coms; the sixties was absolutely lousy with them: My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Giligan's Island, Green Acres, Mr. Ed etc. In the 80's we had Mork and Mindy and Alf and there's the most recent success I can think of, Third Rock From the Sun.

Geoff likes to argue about quality but, with pop-culture studies, it is sometimes equally interesting to argue about why something was popular despite it's quality or lack thereof. For example, when we discuss pop-culture studies in my classes, we read a Chuck Klosterman essay entitled "Being Zack Morris" where, from the start, he amidts that it was a terrible show but then proceeds to examine why it was popular. So, that being said, what's going on with Gimmick Sit-Coms?

It seems as though there were a LOT of successful examples in the sixties, the most simple explanation for this is, "It was a more innocent time." Most of the shows are either pre-Vietnam or, at least, pre-height-of-vietnam. I don't really have a clue why they weren't popular in the seventies since it was such an all around silly decade (well, the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate in the first half of the decade probably put a damper on things). The eighties, however, while it was not 'innocent' it was perhaps a very superficial time where, while some pretty heinous shit was going down, we tended to turn a blind eye to it (this was a time, after all, when Saddam Hussein was our ally) so maybe we can chalk the success of ALF up to rose colored glasses. As for the lone successful example (I seem to remember several unsuccessful examples) from the nineties, Third Rock, it might be the only example here where quality comes into play; it at least had a really brilliant cast and some pretty smart... ok, clever... writing.

So, why the decline? Have animated shows like Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons, with their more flexible realms of reality, allowed us fill our fix of zaniness that used to be filled by these kinds of shows? Thoughts on this?

[At least one thing worth considering is the recent success of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm (though I may not have seen enough of Curb to make this comment) -- two shows in which the pendulum of the gimmick has completely swung the other way, and it is the total lack of a gimmick. The shows go out of their way to avoid artificiality as much as possible. It is not just that I can think of very few gimmick sit-com, it is that I can see these shows as reactions against such gimmicks. As far as the animated stuff goes, let's not forget that Adult Swim gave us a hilarious show about a milkshake, a hunk of meat and a floating box of fries.]

Friday, June 13, 2008

Boom Blox (Wii game review)

Boom Blox

I played Nintendo as a kid, then the first Sega. After that I forgot about video games. In 2001 I got an X-Box, and shortly after that a hand me down GameCube, then a hand me down Playstation 2 (long after the systems were cutting edge), but only played a handful of games on each one: House of the Dead, some kind of car race game where you get a boost if you don't hit anything (Afterburner?), a really fun game where you skate around and graffiti stuff (I always called the game "Radio Free Europe" because that vaguely sounded like the title, which I can now no longer remember), Sniper Cell (far too serious and difficult and time consuming) Simpsons (one of my favorites because Sara could search, as she is wont to do, and I could race), MarioKart (always fun, especially with other people, because the power-ups you get in 12th place still mean you can have fun and disrupt the front-runners), one of the new Metroids (too serious), Dance Dance Revolution (instant fun), one of the Spiderman games (pretty good). That is nearly all the games I have played since 2002 with any focus, not counting short spurts with stuff like the Hulk (fun, but I had to return it), Lego Star Wars (interminable) and Marvel Ultimate Alliance (boring). I am not a "gamer" but I do like the occasional game. And I recently bought a Wii, under the influence of commenter HC Duvall -- in part hoping to make my apartment more fun to visit. And also because, you know, I do not have a dissertation hanging over my head anymore.

I have only played a few games for the system. Raving Rabbids (fun, and a great sense of humor -- I will review the sequel when I get it), the New MarioKart, and Boom Blox, which should surely be called "Bloom Blocks," but is not.

Bloom Blox is basically reverse Jenga. You are faced with a tower and what you want to do is knock it over in a few moves as possible. There are levels where you want to carefully grab a piece and pull it out -- difficult using the Wii remote, and not unlike playing that electric surgery board-game from the early 80s. But mostly, at least at the beginning, you chuck balls at the structure using a satisfying throw motion that makes the Wii fun. Aim, mostly, is not the issue -- you say where you want the ball to go and it goes there. There are a host of different kinds of blocks: blocks that vanish if you hit them, blocks that explode if you hit them, blocks that explode if you get matching blocks to touch them. There are also various balls to throw: baseballs are the default, but there are also bowling balls for more damage, bomb balls that explode when they reach their target (or before if you want), rubber balls that bounce around. Other levels give you the chance to stop invading creatures from stealing your blocks by throwing stuff at them and destroying their constructions. On each level you can move the camera all around the structure, searching for weak-points, or the right angle to throw at.

It is pretty fun. Each tower takes only a minutes to play -- which makes it easy for lots of people to take a shot, and most of the levels I have been looking at are not time sensitive. There is something weirdly engrossing about sitting around with people all shouting about the structural integrity of this cartoon world, and the physics of a tower collapsing ("If you hit the bottom vanishing block, then the tower will tip THIS way, causing the two chemical blocks to touch -- that explosion will cause this bomb block to blow up too bringing the second tower to the ground"). Watching the towers go down from various angles is also very satisfying -- there really is something to the feeling that a correctly thrown baseball can topple something that large. It really channels your destructive tendencies well. (You would be surprised how many people I know that claimed that my enjoyment of the Hulk game suggested I was a bully, or that -- get ready for this one -- shooting cartoon bunnies with a plunger-gun in Raving Rabbids was vaguely unethical; meanwhile everyone else is raping hookers in Grand Theft Auto). There are two player options, but I have not spent enough time with that one.

You can also design your own levels, which is probably too advanced for me, but seems like a cool option -- although the AVClub complained that sharing them is hard: you can only share with friends to protect the kiddies from penis shaped towers -- Sara commented "Aren't all towers penis shaped?" -- so there is no easy access to a host of what must be amazing fan created levels.

I am not the best authority, but I recommend it.

Comics Out June 11, 2008

Angel. This was all I got this week.

In Comics News, Lou Noble directed me to a great interview with Grant Morrison on Newsarama about Final Crisis in which he dismisses all the continuity DC has been building for a year:

"To reiterate, hopefully for the last time, when we started work on Final Crisis, J.G. and I had no idea what was going to happen in Countdown or Death Of The New Gods because neither of those books existed at that point. The Countdown writers were later asked to ‘seed’ material from Final Crisis and in some cases, probably due to the pressure of filling the pages of a weekly book, that seeding amounted to entire plotlines veering off in directions I had never envisaged, anticipated or planned for in Final Crisis. 

The way I see it readers can choose to spend the rest of the year fixating on the plot quirks of a series which has ended, or they can breathe a sight of relief, settle back and enjoy the shiny new DC universe status quo we’re setting up in the pages of Final Crisis and its satellite books. I’m sure both of these paths to enlightenment will find adherents of different temperaments."

It surprises me to no end that Morrison can work for DC and say things like this. You would think DC would rather not have one of their major writers call like 60 issues a scam based on the idea that this was all leading up to Final Crisis. Surely some people bought Countdown -- at a hefty pricetag -- only because of Final Crisis.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Scott on M. Night Shyamalan as Family Film Maker

[Scott discusses Shyamalan, and raised a questions about his new movie -- which in spite of myself, I am interested in. I respond below. ]

M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, The Happening, is being marketed as "his first 'R' rated" movie. I suppose this is supposed to imply that this will be "Shyamalan Unleashed" and it is interesting because a lot of people have seen his films as very adult and may be surprised at the fact that this is the first to cary an 'R' rating.

I was flipping through channels when I noticed that The Sixth Sense was playing on, of all things, ABC family. At first, I was surprised because I thought, "is this really appropriate for a 'family' network?" However, once I had considered it for a moment, it kind of made sense. While some of the scenes may be a bit intense for younger children, it's just the right amount of scary for older children (maybe 10 or 12 and up). Also, once I thought about it a bit more, it occurred to me that most of Shyamalan's films are oddly appropriate as family films. They're relatively free of scenes of explicit sex, violence and bad language, they're also usually centered around a small child, a family or, in the case of Lady In the Water, a surrogate family. In fact, his first major film, Wide Awake (That's right, The Sixth Sense was actually his second film) is pretty much a straight up family film. Additionally, look at the subject matter of his films: Ghosts (Sixth Sense), Superheroes (Unbreakable), Aliens (Signs), Monsters (The Village) and Fairy Tales (Lady In The Water). These are all topics that appeal to the child within (I'm reminded of being in elementary school and repeatedly checking out the same three books from a series out of the school library: UFOs, Ghost, and Monsters). Shyamalan's films approach these topics with a certain innocence and perhaps that is why a child or a childlike figure is always somewhere at the center of the story. As adults, we go to see movies with this kind of subject matter for a bit of fun but as children we see them as being truly magical and, in a way, this is what he has always tried to capture in his films. He has often been accused of being overly serious but I think that's just because he approaches these topics with the wide-eyed reverence of a child.

So, will this 'R' rated Shyamalan be a change for the better or the worse?

[Shyamalan is very much in the shadow of Spielberg -- that "classic" storytelling in which family genre stories are so well told, and so imbued with real world concerns -- see again Abrams on Jaws, or thing about how dreary suburbia is portrayed in ET. ET was on television not long ago, and I was surprised to the degree to which, even now, I could not turn away or fail to get choked up at the final scene. Also, Unbreakable seems to be particularly telling, as the superhero genre, more than anything else, is the genre designed for kids, but marketed to adults -- that seems to be very much what he is up to in all of his movies (at least the ones I've seen).

As for the R rating, one analogy comes to mind. When the restrictions on violence were lifted on Hitchcock, as the decades passed, he made some really bad films -- Frenzy especially, and I think the removal of the constraints was in part to blame.

I have not seen The Village or Lady in the Water, but I don't think Shyamalan is really on the level with even a young Spielberg or Hitchcock. But you can see that he really really wants to be. The Sixth Sense is deservedly praised; but Unbreakable is only praised by comics fans, who cut it some slack because they are so excited to see the material on screen in a serious form; Signs was better than I thought it would be, but it is not a movie that really stays with me, but this might be due to the insane-i-fication of Mel Gibson. ]

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #136

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Child of Light and Darkness”

It’s the penultimate chapter of the Dark Phoenix Saga, so again the narrative tension slackens. The fight between the X-Men and Phoenix is essentially a reprise of their battle from the previous chapter, and ends the same way. Mostly we’re being geared up here for the finale next issue.

However, this issue is noteworthy for its final sequence, brilliantly executed by Claremont and Byrne. It begins on page 13, with Cyclops making a verbose plea for Phoenix to rediscover the Jean Grey part of herself. The word “love” is hammered home repeatedly: “You can’t kill us because you love us. And we love you. ... For love of the X-Men, you sacrificed your life. For love of me, you resurrected yourself. For love of the whole universe, you almost died a second time to save it. Know nothing of love?! Jean, you are love!” Claremont is deploying his by-now familiar verbosity and sentimentality, lulling the reader into believing Scott will have to succeed in talking Jean down.

Meanwhile, Claremont leaves the sneaky stuff to Byrne, who in panels 3 and 5 of the same page is ever-so-subtly telling his own story: the arrival of Professor X and Angel on the scene. The surprise sucker-punch comes on the next page, when Jean, absorbed in Scott’s saccharine appeal to her good side, is struck down psychically by Charles. The fantastic aspect of the sequence, besides its shock value, is that neither the readers nor the characters will now ever know if Cyclops’ approach would have succeeded.

The psi-war on page 15, again recalling the “Psi War” between Xavier and Farouk in issue 117, is an excellent use of continuity for readers who’ve been there that long. Once again, as in the White Queen vs. Phoenix duel in issue 131, Phoenix is made analogous to Farouk, the megalomaniac villain. This is why Byrne and Claremont’s “Psi War” story was necessary in the first place. That story’s seemingly arbitrary insertion in between parts of the extended Neal Adams homage was a stealthy bit of foreshadowing, setting us up for the outcome of the present chapter. Just as Xavier won that fight, he also wins this one.

Thus, Jean is healed, Scott proposes marriage, she accepts (in dialogue that cleverly recalls their post-coital conversation in issue 133), while all around the couple, X-Men both old and new gather in a dramatic tableau alongside Jean’s family. Xavier asks John Grey for some tea, and there’s where there could’ve been a happy ending.

Instead, we get one last cliffhanger, launching us into the finest single issue of X-Men that Claremont and Byrne – and, arguably, anyone else – ever produced.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Comic Geek Speak, episode 457

Peter Coogan and I were on Comic Geek Speak pimping the Met conference, and generally talking superhero outfits. CLICK HERE.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #135

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Dark Phoenix”

The Dark Phoenix Saga is perpetually in print, thanks to Marvel’s regular periodic reprinting of a trade paperback containing Uncanny X-Men issues 129-137. But because the seduction of Phoenix by Jason Wyngarde – a key thread of the plot – began in issue 125 and climaxed with 134, a poster to John Byrne’s message board once, understandably, asked whether Byrne agreed with the congregational assessment that 129 and 137 are the appropriate start and endpoints to the storyline. Byrne answered in the unequivocal positive.

Still, the final line of issue 134 is a clear signal that the comics collected between the covers of the Dark Phoenix paperback are only the final phase of a saga that really began back in X-Men 101, the birth of Phoenix. This was the slowest of slow burns, and almost everything to occur in the series between then and now feeds into the closing chapters of the saga somehow.

With that broader context, the present issue’s sudden shift in tone and setting – from the classically superheroic trappings of the Hellfire Club battles to cosmic vistas that incorporate the surprising return to the series of Lilandra and the Shi’ar – seems less violent and arbitrary. More than anything, Claremont wants this final act of the Dark Phoenix saga – the true transformation of Phoenix from creator to destroyer – to be seen as a reflection of the “M’krann Crystal” material from Uncanny #108 (hence two separate references to #108 in editor Jim Salicrup’s footnotes, only eight pages apart, with a third reference to it in the next issue as well, only three pages in).

The key line occurs in Claremont’s narration, after Phoenix destroys a star (thus causing the death of an entire planetary population): “... She knows that this is only the beginning – that what she feels now is nothing compared to what she experienced within the great M’krann Crystal.” It’s a fine dramatic irony at play here: When Phoenix repaired the crystal – thereby saving the Universe – the thrill of using her power also made her addicted to it, and now that addiction has made her destructively power-mad.

Byrne has a lot of fun going cosmic with this issue – his and Austin’s rendition of a Shi’ar starship is a fantastic visual – but as is often the case, it is the artist’s subtler, quieter touches that make all the difference. For all the cosmic craziness of this particular issue, the most eye-catching visual occurs on the final page, with the Beast and Nightcrawler – both blue and furry X-Men – are depicted in identical poses.

Claremont’s finest narrative contribution is also subtle. Again displaying a desire – used to thrilling effect in the previous issue – to augment Byrne’s visuals with imagistic prose, he adds a surprising bit of narration to the end of Phoenix’s decisively one-sided battle with the X-Men:

“For a moment, the goddess-masque slips – and Jean Grey’s face shatters with a grief that transcends thought. But the moment passes, the humanity fades – perhaps forever – and only Dark Phoenix remains.”

It’s a small touch, but ultimately crucial. The exotic spelling of “mask” is a neatly subtle touch of alien-ness that sets up the character’s launch into her newly cosmic-scaled milieu, while the allusion to Jean Grey’s humanity sets up her return to earth in the next issue. These captions are a fine example of the incredible attention to detail in Chris Claremont’s best work, and which sets his writing apart from the more perfunctory work of his peers in the mainstream.

Also characteristic of Claremont and Byrne’s incredible drive to overachieve is the brief conversation in this issue between Shaw and a new character, Senator Robert Kelly, about re-activating the Sentinels. Still two issues away from completing their masterpiece, Claremont and Byrne were already planting seeds for another: Days of Future Past, which would see print in Uncanny X-Men #’s 141 and 142.

["Masque" could just be an exotic spelling of mask. Or Claremont may know that the OED defines "masque" as "A form of courtly dramatic entertainment, often richly symbolic, in which music and dancing played a substantial part, costumes and stage machinery tended to be elaborate, and the audience might be invited to contribute to the action or the dancing." Sounds like a Claremont comic book to me (especially as he loves to use music as a Phoenix metaphor).]