Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Notes from A Fourth World Re-read

Back during the pandemic, I realized I had not read the entirety of Jack Kirby's run on his so-called "Fourth World" titles at DC in the 1970s (Forever People, Mister Miracle,  and New Gods, and ok, it starts in Jimmy Olsen, but I'm not reading that) since the black and white collections of 1999, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the series. I did that in a haphazard fashion, and these are the notes I made at the time...

These titles were supposedly an attempt to write a new mythology for the modern age, an idea Kirby had had at Marvel, but never got to execute. The titles are interrelated but not strongly interlinked (not unlike Morrison's Seven Soldiers over 30 years later). Last night I read Mister Miracle #3 and 4 both published in 1971.

Mister Miracle tells the story of Scott Free, a man from another world, who befriends, and then assumes the stage persona of an aging escape artist known as Mister Miracle. While Free's athletic and escape abilities are impressive, he accomplishes most of his escapes by using advanced alien technology. Scott Free is being hunted by agents of the planet Apokolips. So far, we've seen their human, organized crime agents, Intergang, and the monstrous orphanage matron, Granny Goodness.

Issue #3 introduces us to Doctor Bedlam. Bedlam is a being of pure thought, and very malign thought at that. His psychic assault upon Mister Miracle and his assistant, Oberon, is almost Satanic (or maybe Outer God-like) in intensity--only Free's "Mother Box" device protects them.

Bedlam draws Free into a trap in an office building. After a confrontation with what is essentially an android body possessed by Bedlam, Free must make his way through 50 floors of people turned into violent suffers of psychosis by Bedlam's "paranoia pills."

Bedlam is a great concept, particularly within the Apokolipsian pantheon, who all are some sort of aspect of oppression. His name comes from the nickname of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, which at one time represented the most frightening and dehumanizing aspects of mental asylums. Bedlam seems a personification of the snake pit asylum. He is almost literal madness in human form, or rather in the form of a number of faceless automata--suggesting the evil of systems, not individual actors.

Free's escape through 50 stories is likewise a great story conceit that would work well today. The choice of a single office building and an urban setting as opposed to some sort of small town or even city street, seems to suggest the deleterious mental effects of corporate employment, or maybe the paranoia induced by office politics. It's not hard to see Kirby's experiences at Marvel as informing these choices.

As good as it all is, Kirby seems to have a dilemma as to how to deal with the amazing feats of his super-escape artist. The "trick" of the last three of Mister Miracle's daring escapes are related to Oberon as he and Scott make dinner, and all involve the use of one really versatile device. Oberon's response seems to sort of lampshade the shakiness of it all:

The other weak spot is a couple of panels of Big Barda (who is introduced this issue). Perhaps is was the inker (Vince Colletta) that let him down, but I suspect being a one-man band essentially on some many titles just sometimes led to him being rushed.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Despite the attention lavished on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and even Star Trek or the Alien universe, I feel like the science fiction franchise most consistent in quality is the Planet of the Apes. Sure, it's not without its duds (Burton's film) and lesser lights (the last original film, the cartoon, perhaps), but the Wyatt/Reeves reboot?/prequel? series of the 2010s defied sequel gravity and only got better as it went along. (To me, anyway. Some would say Dawn was the high point. Either way, War was still good.)

When Reeves left and Disney acquired Fox, I had some trepidation about where the series would go. Happily, it seems like Wes Ball has things well enough in hand, at least with this first installment. While it's not as good as the best of the 2010s series, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes was more enjoyable and more substantial than any other existing-franchise entry I've seen in the theater since the end of the pandemic--though perhaps that's damning with faint praise.

Anyway, it's "many generations" after the time of Caesar. He has become a mythic/religious figure. His name is borrowed. and his legacy evoked by an up-and-coming bonobo tyrant who (like King Louie in the Jungle Book) wants the technology of humankind. He needs (ape) slave labor to get it at it and a mysterious, young human woman, so when he captures Noa's village and kills his father, the young chimpanzee makes common cause with the human. 

There are hints of Beneath of the Planet of the Apes in here, and (perhaps unintentional, perhaps not) Biblical echoes with a hero named "Noa," but those are as they should be with an ape installment. The special effects are amazing, and it makes me mad the Marvel Cinematic Universe films often seem sloppy. I guess when your whole premise requires motion capture, you have to get that thing right.

I miss Andy Serkis here like everybody else, but he trained the new cast of apes well. It probably could have been a bit shorter, particularly for a film that is a lot about establishing a new conflict, but I'm not immediately sure what I would have cut.

All that to say, if you liked the previous ape films you should see this one. If you haven't seen any of the new apes films (which lately I've discovered a large group of folks that haven't) then you should see those and see this one.

You can also check out the watch and commentary Jason "Operation Unfathomable" Sholtis and I did of the much less good but still entertaining 70s Planet of the Apes TV show.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: The Brave and the Bold vol 1 #200

Brave & the Bold vol 1 #200

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 21, 1983
Editor Len Wein
Cover Artists Jim Aparo, Anthony Tollin

Story Title:  "Smell of Brimstone, Stench of Death!"
Penciller: Dave Gibbons
Writer: Mike W. Barr
Inker: Gary Martin
Letterer: Dave Gibbons, Gaspar Saladino
Colorist: Adrienne Roy

Trey: This comic was the end of the road for The Brave and the Bold, a series that started in 1955. It was initially an anthology book of adventure strips featuring the likes of the Silent Knight, the Viking Prince, the Golden Gladiator, and Robin Hood, but with issue 25 it got a makeover as a "try out" book for new concepts/characters. The original Suicide Squad got their start here, as did the Silver Age Hawkman, and then in #28 a little group you may have heard debuted: The Justice League of America.

With issue #50, it became a team-up title, and with issue #74, exclusively a Batman team-up book. The title was the first to feature Neal Adams on Batman and the place where Adams' redesign of Green Arrow debuted.

I didn't know any of that stuff when I read this issue as a kid, though. What captivated me about this issue was this was the first place I was exposed to the idea of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Here was a Batman and Robin that acted like the ones I was used to in the cartoon, and then this darker, serious (and somehow sadder to 10 year-old me due to his Robin-lessness) other Batman.

Jason: The contrast between the golden age pastiche and the state-of-the-art early 80s Batman (and the Earths portrayed here is stark, both in style and substance. I felt a pang that the kinder, gentler, zanier Batman of old depicted here was by this time no longer available in the comics. The Earth-Two stories I remember from the Adventure Comics a handful of years before this were as modern and "adult" as anything else on the stands at the time. Earth-Two Batman was already officially, canonically "dead", at least as much as can be managed in the comics!

Trey: In the main story, Earth-Two Nicholas Lucien is a B-grade villain with a devil gimmick who is defeated by Batman and Robin and put into a long coma by a head injury. He revives 28 years later in Arkham to find himself an old man, and Batman dead and thus beyond his vengeance.  Unwilling to accept this, he mentally reaches out to that other him he always sensed existed, a respectable businessman on Earth-One. He essentially possesses that version of himself to execute a terroristic plan to lure Earth-One Batman into a trap and kill him.

And then, there was a preview for a brand new comic! Batman and the Outsiders. New comics with a whole slate of new (some just to me, some completely new) characters. That was not the sort of thing that happened every day, in my experience.

Jason: Indeed! With no generic filler or reprints, this special double-size issue delivers bang for the buck admirably, especially for its era.

Trey: The main story isn't as mindblowing as I found it to be as a child, but I still think it's a good one, in no small part to Gibbons shifting art styles for Earth-One and Earth-Two. I also think Brimstone as a good central motif for a Batman villain and could have been used more, though I do like the implication that Golden Age Gotham might have been awash in theatrical criminal wannabes and almost-wases. I also think it's a nice twist that the so-called World's Greatest Detective never knows what exactly was going on here.

Jason: The opening pastiche sets the tone for the level of realism one is to expect from this incarnation of the Caped Crusader. By the time we're asked to swallow the whole possession from another, more cartoony reality angle, the premise seems perfectly reasonable in the context of this tale and we need not ask questions. The Golden Age sequence was delightful, and the incrementally more sober Late Bronze Age sequence delivered as well.

Gibbons turns in a hell of a job here. His trademark precision and beautifully rendered backgrounds, his eye for meaningful details (one of the hoods' cartoony cauliflower ear, etc.), and his ability to present multiple styles that transition seamlessly elevate this work and render harmless any flaws in the story. It's an early career tour de force, I tell you!

Trey: It's also billed as a Batman and Batman team-up, but the two Batmen never meet.

Jason: The cover is nebulous enough to fit within the ethical standards of comics of the day. It doesn't actually guarantee anything. Never trust a cover, as the savvy spinner-rack devotee of 1983 already knew!

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: Saga of the Swamp Thing #14-15

Saga of the Swamp Thing #14-15

Cover Date: June-July 1983
On Sale Date: March 10 and April 14 1983
Editor Len Wein
Cover Artists Thomas Yeates

Story Title:  "Crystal Visions, Shattered Dreams"; "Empires Made of Sand"
Plotter/Penciller: Bo Hampton
Scripter: Dan Mishkin
Inker: Scott Hampton
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorist: Tatjana Wood

Trey: Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets, but somewhat retooled, starred in his own series from 1972-1976. In 1982, with a movie by Wes Craven on the way, the series was revived. This series, and perhaps the character in general, is best known for the run by Alan Moore, mostly with Steve Bissette, but there were 20 issues of the title before that creative team came together. Most of them were scripted by Martin Pasko, but there was this two-parter where another writer stepped in, Dan Mishkin, joined by the Hampton Brothers, Bo and Scott, on art. These issues happen to be my first exposure to Swamp Thing comics as a kid.

One interesting thing about this issue is the origin of the villain here parallels the Swamp Thing’s origin—and this being the Bronze Age, they don’t fail to clue you into that fact even if you have no prior knowledge of the character!

Jason: As a kid growing up in a one-spinner rack town, the editorial practice of endlessly recapping prior issues and origins in ongoing stories actually served its purpose, as I often didn't have the opportunity to get consecutive issues of comics. Early 80s pocket money being what it was, I sometimes had to settle for a single issue of the Micronauts after squandering my quarters on the most fleeting of video game thrills (damn you Centipede!).  

As in this issue, the origin recap also gives the current art team a crack at presenting the story in their style. The Hampton brothers, both of whom were in their early 20s at the time of publication, provide as seamless a transition from Thomas Yeates as readers were likely to get, as they both embody a classic comic strip and illustration style. The EC Comics influence, especially Al Williamson (and Frazetta), is strong and appreciated by me!  

Trey: One thing I appreciate now but I didn't appreciate at the time was how much this is a Phantom Stranger story. He's obviously a guess star, sure, but the structure of the story is very much like the Phantom Stranger backups by Barr and others that had been running in earlier issues of Swamp Thing: the Stranger introduces the situation as narrator. He then intervenes at points, trying to get characters to do the right thing. This playing with the conventions of DC horror anthology titles in a more different sort of narrative is something that Alan Moore would do in his run. In many ways this story is in line with his approach.

Jason: While it will still be a sea-change when Moore takes over, the book is already moving in a more adult oriented direction as evidenced here. Not quite there, but still better than I expected. 

Trey: What I also didn't recall is how poorly fleshed out the bad guy's plan is! I mean, sure he's made of living crystal, but other than them both containing the element silicon, how exactly will that enable him to control computers and rule the world?

Jason: Well, we see it all happen right there! I mean, silicon. Computers. You know! Seriously, that's the trouble with comics struggling through these growing pains. Swamp Thing is still a weirdo-of-the-month Frankenstein vs. Dracula book and you're asking it to make sense?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: DC Comics Presents #59

DC Comics Presents #59

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 7 1983
Editor Julius Schwartz
Cover Artists Giffen/DeCarlo

Story Title:  "Ambush Bug II"
Plotter/Penciller: Keith Giffen
Scripter: Paul Levitz
Inker: Kurt Schaffenberger
Letterer: Ben Oda
Colorist: Carl Gafford

Trey: This post debuts a new feature here on the Flashback Universe blog. Jason and I thought we'd take a break of watching old TV shows and get into...reading old comics! Which, I have been doing a lot of anyway. In it, we're going to discuss some comic, probably from the Bronze Age.  First up, the second appearance of Ambush Bug.

Jason: Trey, as the only person I know who has undertaken a systematic reading of DC Comics' output in the years leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, you are uniquely positioned to speak to this issue in relation the slow transition from the late Bronze Age to whatever comes next.

While merely an okay, readable, perhaps entirely forgettable comic of its day, I think there are at least tonal elements that mark it as (slightly) ahead of its time. Am I all wet?

Trey: Having read every other comic DC put out that week (and the week after for that matter) I can say these Ambush Bug appearances are atypical. I think that's down to Giffen (Ambush Bug's creator) taking his first forays into writing.

Jason: It feels like Giffen stands on the precipice of nailing down a humorous approach to superhero comics that will see fruition several years later in his highly successful Justice League run (written in collaboration with J. M. Dematteis). The arch tone is in place, but this is an early attempt.

Trey: I think you are right, though first he's going to go to his more overtly comedic collaborations with Robert Loren Flemming in the Ambush Bug limited series.

Jason: Do you think Giffen's use of humor is, in part, a tribute to or revival of the light, sometimes wacky sensibilities of DCs Silver Age?

Trey: That's an interesting question. I'm tempted to say no to revival, but I do think there's is a bit of celebration in its goofiness at a time when comics were becoming more serious. Unlike later works which will try to rehabilitate it, though, I think here in the 80s the approach of doing that seems to be to (lovingly perhaps) make fun of it.

Jason: I thought the running gag involving the never resolved fate of Stoneboy was the most successful and most "modern" use of humor in the story. 

Trey: Well, you should read the Legion of Substitute Heroes oneshot from Giffen/Levitz in 1985, because there's more of that!

Jason: Giffen's art is in a transitional phase as well, somewhere between his Kirby-derivative Marvel period and his incorporation (some would say "appropriation") of the influence of Jose Munoz a few years later. I always enjoy an homage to Joe Shuster's slit-eyed style, and Giffen brings out this retro-Superman's old school charm.

Trey: Yeah, it's good stuff, I think, though he has quite perfected the look of Ambush Bug, I don't think. It gets better.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Have Gun – Will Travel (1957)

Have Gun – Will Travel
Debut: September 14, 1957
Created by Sam Rolfe, Herb Meadow
Starring: Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Emerson, Byron Kane
Synopsis: The man known as "Paladin," a gentleman gunfighter, makes his living as a troubleshooter-for-hire in the Old West. 

Trey: The television version of Have Gun – Will Travel aired on CBS from 1957 to 1953. Interestingly, there was a radio version starring John Dehner as Paladin which debuted on November 23, 1958, making Have Gun – Will Travel of the few shows in television history to spawn a successful radio version, instead of the other way around.

We watched Season 3 episode 1 "First, Catch a Tiger" on YouTube. In this episode, two of the three men responsible for hanging Jacob Mordain's son have been gunned down, shot in the back, by the assassin, Fred Horn. The third, Paladin, is invited to Wyoming to face him, and finds himself staying in a hotel with three other men, unsure which is the killer.

I have heard a few episodes of the radio show on radio classics. I must admit having Richard Boone in the lead had kept me away from the TV version a bit. The urbane air of John Dehner seems to fit the character for me. Boone is familiar to me as the heavy in Westerns like Big Jake and The Shootist or more rough-hewn characters like in Rio Conchos. I guess there's always his role in The Last Dinosaur, but anyway nothing makes me think "gentleman gunfighter."

Jason: Bonus points awarded for Boone's ability to pull off that mustache. 

I'm also a fan of his rugged not-so-good looks as a breather from today's relentless beauty.

The well-established relationship between the Western and Chanbara genres really jumped out at me in this episode.  Paladin, Mordain, and the three possible assassins are all bound by rigid (if idiosyncratic) codes of honor without which, we would have no plot. Paladin voluntarily checks into a hotel full of hostile parties, not least among them the proprietor, and hangs out awaiting an inevitable attempt on his life with all the grim dispassion of Mifune's Sanjuro munching on rice balls in a town full of cutthroats. 

Trey: All of the additional cast here are classic TV stalwarts. No particularly other roles jump out at me, but I know I've seen them all before.

Jason: Hollywood legend Ida Lupino directed this episode, and it feels richly cinematic despite the economies of tv production. It looks damn good (and I was grateful for the image quality of the scan we watched) and Lupino's visual storytelling choices shine.  When violence breaks out, while kept relatively bloodless for television, it hits hard. The fistfight sequence was pretty epic! 

Trey: Indeed! Despite my prejudices against Boone, I liked him in this, and I enjoyed the episode overall. In fact, I wish there was more of it! It's really too short to build much tension, and tension is what it's plot needs.

Jason: We agree on Boone and the episode, though in regard to your previous criticism, I may have felt the tension more keenly. Or maybe after reviewing shows like M Squad and Peter GunnI've become some kind of 30-minute drama format knee-jerk partisan! 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Movin' On (1974)

Movin' On
Debut: May 8, 1974
Created by: Philip D'Antoni and Barry J. Weitz
Starring: Claude Akins, Frank Converse
Synopsis: A crusty, veteran trucker teams up with a younger, college-educated co-driver to haul cargo across the country and get into adventures.

Trey: This concept debuted as a made for TV movie In Tandem that aired on NBC in 1974. It was in the style of shows like Route 66 that featured the main characters traveling around and getting involved in the drama of the lives of people they met, and road the growing wave of trucker interest and mystique. Despite a theme long by Merle Haggard and reportedly being President Ford's favorite TV series, Movin' On last only two seasons.

We watched the first episode of the regular series, "The Time of His Life," in which Will and Sonny stop to help a young truck driver (played by Michael Pollard) after he almost runs them off of the road. When they find that he is terminally ill, they determine to show him a good time before he dies on a trip to Portland.

While this could easily have been a setup for an action show, based on this episode, this show seems to be more drama. In this case, lightly humorous drama.

Jason: There was a bit of rough and tumble trucker fisticuffs here and there, but it was not the focus, rather a natural consequence of the mores on display here. The 1970's trucker mystique phenomena puzzled me as a child, but its appeal makes sense in retrospect. America needed an iconic stand-in for the increasingly problematic cowboy and the rambling trucker fit the bill, with a touch of the outlaw thrown in especially due to the cop-thwarting capabilities of citizen's band radio. Speaking of outlaws, Merle Haggard's theme song only helps here, with explicatory lyrics and some tasty finger-picking guitar. 

Trey: Akins and Converse are a good pair in the lead roles, but Pollard's Joe Shannon is the character this episode spends the most time on. Due to his baby face, Pollard played a lot of "kid" rolls in the 60s, including in the Star Trek episode "Miri." He's also good in Bonnie & Clyde.

Jason: Pollard is a talented actor especially suited to misanthropic/outsider roles.  His career reminds me a bit of Jackie Earle Haley (previously noted in our survey of the Planet of the Apes tv show here), often projecting a more than a bit creepy vibe in his portrayals. 

Trey: One thing I found interesting here was the story leaving Shannon's presumed death completely off stage. The way these stories typically go is to make the light-hearted moments bittersweet, by showing their end. Not only does Shannon not die before the credits roll, he isn't even notably sick by the time the episode ends. It's an unusual choice for this sort of plot.

Jason: I too was surprised when the episode came down to its final minutes at the lack of a hospital room sequence (and I may never know if Claude would have conjured up a single, manly tear for the occasion). My biggest surprise was the overall watchability of the gentle, slice of life drama.

Trey: Yeah, it feels very 70s in that way. The stridency of the 60s was past, so no one is getting hassled by the man, and the brashness of the 80s has yet to arrive, so there are no goons working for trucking syndicates to contend with. It's people just living life and getting by.

Jason: Moving on, if you will!

Past as a Foreign Country Dept., exhibit A: While demonstrating dating techniques to Pollard, middle-aged Akins approaches a young woman at the arcade shooting range and wraps her in an unsolicited embrace to ostensibly provide shooting tips. This actually goes quite well. 

Trey: Don't try this at home, guys! For those of you wishing to learn more about this series, here's an interview with one of the creators about it.


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