Saturday, February 28, 2015

Around the 'Net

Speaking of Leonard Nimoy, Hollywood writer Mark Evanier has a great Nimoy anecdote over at his blog News From ME. Check it out here

Speaking of Spider-Man, pop culture site Dial B for Blog has a fantastic multi-part analysis of the creation of the wall crawler. The articles are well-researched and fascinating, but I don't necessarily agree with all of blogger Robby Reed's conclusions. While Steve Ditko is a genius, I don't look at Ditko as sole creator of the character and Stan Lee as a glorified typist. Not to take a shred of credit from Ditko's design work, art and plots, but I don't believe things were that simple. Would he have been the same character without Lee's brilliant dialog and characterization? Decide for yourself, part one can be found here

R.I.P Leonard Nimoy

I suppose everyone knows by now. A sad, sad day. I loved this actor and his most famous character since I was very young. My life would not be quite as enjoyable without them. A man who created from scratch one of the most wholly realized fictional characters ever. Thanks for the wonderful memories, Mr. Nimoy. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Comics – The Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection Volume 1

Spider-Man is Marvel’s greatest character and probably my favorite comic character of all time. Like so many nerds of my generation, I grew up reading Spider-Man comics, and along with Superman and Batman, his were the first comics I remember reading. This first Spider-Man volume of Marvel’s magnificent Epic collections collects Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-17 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. I’ve read most of these stories before in various reprint editions, but it’s great to have them restored, recolored and in order. 

From Spider-Man's Debut in Amazing Fantasy #15
Spider-Man debuted, of course, in Amazing Fantasy #15. Like all tales in this edition, the stories are by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (could we pause a moment to genuflect while saying the names Lee and Ditko?). AF #15 recounts Spider-Man’s origin, the story of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben’s death, the burglar, blah, blah. I’m not avoiding the story’s spidery goodness, but chances are you are familiar with how Spider-Man came to be. It’s what comes next that blows comics out of the water. 

Spider-Man #1 briefly recaps Spidey’s origin and gets right to the Jameson hate. These early ASM issues had two shorter stories instead of single-issue tales. The first one is the beginning of Daily Bugle Editor (and Peter Parker employer) J. Jonah Jameson’s editorial tirade against what he considers the menace of Spider-Man. Just when Spidey thinks he will bask in the glory and gratitude of the folks he saved, people start throwing cans at him because of Jameson’s articles. Even when Spider-Man saves the life of Jameson’s astronaut son he can’t catch a break. Of course Jameson accuses Spidey of sabotaging the rocket launch in the first place. It takes until ASM #10 for Jameson to truly admit why he hates Spider-Man so much. It’s a powerful scene and well worth the wait. The second story introduces the Chameleon, the international master of disguise. This is also when Spider-Man tries to join the Fantastic Four, thinking their huge salaries will make him comfortable while he fights crime. When he finds out that’s not the case, and they don’t want him anyway, he’s kind of a jerk about it. Peter Parker can be a petulant teenager. 

Spider-Man vs. The Vulture
Stan and Steve were on a character-creating tear in this first year of the book. Issue #2 introduces the Vulture and the Terrible Tinkerer to Spidey’s rogues gallery. Ditko begins each issue with a full page of Spider-Man engaging the main villain, and those splash pages are spectacular. Issue three is the first issue-length story, as one of the great Spider-Man arch-villains is introduced; Doctor Octopus. Ditko goes nuts with Spidey acrobatically bouncing off walls while fighting this six-armed monstrosity. There’s also a fun Human Torch guest appearance (who appears too late to help with Doc Ock, natch) beginning the mostly friendly rivalry between the two characters. Spidey is obviously jealous of the Torch and lets it get the better of him sometimes. Lee is slowly developing the character of Peter Parker here, letting him be human and have real emotions; anger, jealousy and envy included. 

Spidey vs. Doc Ock
Issue #5 debuts the Sandman, who Spidey fights in the hallways of his own high school and cleverly defeats him. Issue #6 is a rather famous confrontation with Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom, as Doom nabs Spidey’s #1 fan (and Peter Parker’s #1 tormentor) Flash Thompson in a Spider-Man outfit. Spidey leaps into action to save him with more tremendous acrobatic artwork from Ditko. Spider-Man #6 brings the Lizard, a villain, like most of these brilliant characters, still used today. The Vulture returns for a sky battle in issue #7, with Peter’s confidence growing and people noticing, especially his classmates. Flash’s best girl Liz Allen develops a crush on him, which Peter does not reciprocate. Issue #8 is incredibly fun, as the action returns to Midtown High and Spidey has to stop an out-of-control robot, which is tougher than it sounds. This is also the issue where Peter and bully Flash Thompson have a boxing match to settle their differences. Peter has to hold back, but still clobbers a flabbergasted Flash, who struggles to find excuses as to why he lost to “puny” Parker. Lee is brilliantly in control of his characters at this point. 

J. Jonah Jameson Confesses
Spider-Man Meets the Green Goblin
After introducing characters such as Electro in issue #9 and The Enforcers in issue #10, Doc Ock returns in Amazing Spider-Man #11, and succeeds in unmasking Peter Parker in issue #12 (which of course Peter wiggles out of). Peter has been dating Betty Brant, who has more problems than a desperate housewife. Issue #14 is the first Green Goblin. It’s a good story, but I don’t think even Lee and Ditko knew how important the character would become in Spider-Man’s history. There’s also a fun guest appearance by the Hulk, who Spidey punches full in the face to no visible effect. The Marvel Universe is building piece by piece with guest stars and crossovers galore. Issue #15 is the first Kraven the Hunter, another exceptional character that will go out with an explosive bang 25 years later. Speaking of crossovers, Spidey teams with Daredevil (in his original costume) in issue #16 to fight yet more remarkable villains, the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. The Ringmaster’s hypnotism doesn’t affect the blind Daredevil, which sets up an amusing battle with the mind-controlled Spider-Man. Issue #17 features Spidey and the Human Torch battling the Green Goblin and some nice character work as Liz Allen and Betty Brant meet and battle over Peter Parker. Lee has fun putting Peter through his paces—now he’s becoming a little too popular, and has no clue how to handle two women fighting over him. 

Spider-Man Annual #1
Finally, there is one of the finest comics ever published—Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. What I would have given to buy this off the stands and devour it as it first came out (the book is before even my time). Stan and Steve pull out all the stops. This is the first appearance of the Sinister Six, as they team up to fight Spidey. Spider-Man has barely defeated Doc Ock, Sandman, the Vulture, Mysterio, Electro and Kraven one on one, but the vicious villains combine to create a plan to take him down together. On top of fighting his six most dangerous foes, Spider-Man’s powers intermittently stop working, finding him powerless at the worst possible times. The bad guys end up making a fatal mistake in their plans, but come close to ending Spidey. 

Ditko Self-Portrait
The art, storytelling and dialog of this Annual all come together perfectly. Lee & Ditko are at the absolute height of their powers. Spider-Man’s confidence is shot because of his power loss, his greatest enemies are teaming up to kill him, and he still has girl trouble. Wrap that around some of the finest Spider-Man art ever created by Mr. Ditko and it ends up as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told. The extras of the book are stunning. There are Who’s Who-type entries of all the villains who have appeared in the series so far, several “Secrets of Spider-Man!” pages featuring Spider-Man’s powers and equipment, and features devoted to Spidey’s supporting cast, house in the suburbs and superhero guest stars. The icing on the cake is a hilarious three-page behind-the-scenes story titled “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create Spider-Man.” 

These stories brought back in full force how much I love Spider-Man and his world as created by Ditko and Lee. Peter Parker was as realistic a character as had ever been portrayed in comics up until that time. A real, relatable teenager who was a good person but by no means perfect. He was bullied. He could be sullen, petulant and quick-tempered. Through the years he grew into the man we all hoped he would be. The stories and art still hold up as incredibly entertaining and one of the greatest collaborations in comics history. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars. Comics don’t get any better than this. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Obama vs. Zombies

A hypothetical question: Since the president won’t specifically name our enemies or anything controversial as what those things really are, and instead uses Newspeak for everything—what might the current administration call zombies during a zombie apocalypse? We wouldn't want to offend zombies by actually calling them "zombies" after all. My suggestions:

- Deceased ambulatory Americans
- Life challenged
- Flesh-eating capable
- The six-feet overs
- Walking Freds. Wait—too sexist. “Ambling departed persons with no specific gender orientation?”
- Zuvumbies

Just a thought ... 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Books – What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

What If? is a delightful book of amusing, crazy and sometimes scary questions folks have sent to the website of Internet cartoonist and former NASA scientist Randall Munroe. In the book’s introduction, Munroe confesses that he serves basically as a “Dear Abby to mad scientists.” Although the questions vary from wildly interesting to truly absurd, Munroe answers each one with scientific calculations, educated speculation, and an attempt to really determine what would happen if someone threw a baseball at the speed of light. Some of my favorite questions include: 
Q: What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant? 
Answer, pretty much nothing. The Earth’s crust is thick enough to take the impact with no damage. The surprise was in finding out that the entire Earth’s population, closely packed, could fit into the state of Rhode Island. The trouble would be in getting everyone home from Rhode Island—there would be a collapse of infrastructure and billions of deaths involved in the logistics of trying to get the entire population home from one central area. 
Q. If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out? 
A: An amazingly long time. The last culprits could be solar powered lights in remote areas or some of our worst nuclear waste encased in water. Both would last centuries. 
Q. Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns? 
Short Answer: Yes. 
Q: How much Force power can Yoda output? 
A: Turns out, Yoda demonstrated the most Force power of any character during all six Star Wars movies. Can you guess when it was? 
Q: How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? 
A: Munroe does the actual calculations and tells how such a bridge would work, but basically, a lot.
There are many more hypothetical questions and scientific answers. Other subjects covered are lightning, speed bumps, draining the oceans, the sun going out, and guessing vs. knowing the answers on the SAT. What If? is an incredibly fun way to stretch your reality and look at everyday questions and practical science in a new, slightly skewed way.
Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Monday, February 9, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Star Trek/Planet of the Apes #2
Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive #2: Captain Kirk and crew continue their investigation of the Ape planet and end up meeting Charlton Heston’s Taylor! The Enterprise team realizes this planet is an alternate Earth as they meet the legendary George Taylor. Taylor, relieved to see other advanced humans, assumes they have arrived to help him overthrow the ape government. Kirk resists, but is introduced to Chimpanzee Doctors Cornelius and Zira and given a crash course in the stratifications of Ape society. Of course Kirk refuses military assistance because of the Prime Directive not to interfere in other cultures, leading Taylor to take matters into his own hands. 

This series is a total blast, successfully combining two sci-fi franchises and two hammy lead actors. Highly recommended! 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Alex + Ada #12
Alex + Ada #12: Alex’s friend Jacob arrives unexpectedly at the house, convinced robot Ada has achieved sentience. She has. But proving it is another thing. Baiting and pushing her, Jacob provokes action—violent action—from Ada. Can she control herself before she kills him, as she easily could? And she now has to consider that if someone hostile to her knows of her self-awareness—both she and Alex could be in immense danger. Meanwhile, Alex is dealing with his ailing grandmother, who is sicker than he thought. How much loss can he deal with at one time? It gets worse when he returns home and surveys the damage ....  

Full of mad ideas and intense thrills, Alex + Ada is one of the best books on the stands today. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Winterworld #7
Winterworld #7: Tough guy Scully and his fourteen year-old ward Wynn continue their trek through the frozen wastes of the north. Only now they have a passenger, the thief Trina. Wynn takes an immediate dislike to her, jealous of her “adult” relationship with Scully. The three are being followed by a group of rapscallions Scully ticked off years ago, and the bad guys finally catch up. In this world, that’s really holding a grudge. It will take trust and teamwork for Scully, Wynn and Trina to work together to resist this group of armed strangers. In the end, Wynn and Trina may not actually like each other, but they certainly get along better. I guess barely escaping certain death will do that to you. 

Ace adventure writer Chuck Dixon turns in another action-packed script that moves the story forward. The art is by Tomas Giorello and he’s terrific. A worthy successor to Jackson Guice’s outstanding work. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Star Wars #1
Star Wars #1&2: After decades of fine Star Wars stories, the license for Star Wars comics is reverting from Dark Horse Comics back to Marvel. On the face of it this is cause for regret—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But life moves on. Judging from this first issue, Marvel Star Wars comics may actually be ... good? 

I’ve enjoyed writer Jason Aaron’s work in the past, and artist John Cassaday is one of the best comics has to offer. Unfortunately, putting Cassaday on the book guarantees we won’t see another issue for at least six months, and then he’ll leave the book. 

The stories in this “main” SW title take place shortly after the first SW movie and long before The Empire Strikes Back. Princess Leia leads a covert team (including Luke, Han and Chewy) to a planet that contains the Empire’s largest weapons factory. They slide in smoothly undercover, but are soon discovered by a recently arrived Darth Vader and his Stormtrooper goons.
Star Wars #2
Then things start to explode. There is a lot to like in these first two issues; the banter between Han and Leia (and Chewy), C-3PO’s defense of the empty Millennium Falcon, and Luke’s novice use of the force. In Issue 2, Luke has his first face-to-face confrontation with Vader, who makes short work of him and confiscates his lightsaber. Fortunately, Vader is interrupted before he can kill him. Many explosions later, Luke has his saber back and Vader is left with a familiar and disturbing feeling about this young Jedi. 

These issues are delightful and give me hope Marvel may be interested in quality Star Wars comics and not just hacking out refuse to Marvel Zombies with full wallets. I look forward to their Darth Vader and Princess Leia books—I’ll definitely give them a try. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Justice Inc. #6
Justice Inc. #6: I’m a sucker for pulp heroes, and to me anything featuring a crossover between Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Avenger is like catnip to Simba the lion. That said, the execution of this story leaves a lot to be desired. Writer Michael Uslan may be a great Hollywood lawyer and producer, but no one will mistake him for a writer. His handling of Doc Savage as a petulant whiner is a bit out of character. He fails to make the Avenger an interesting or sympathetic character, even with the story of his creation and the tragic death of his wife and child. Uslan has a good sense of history and a decent grasp on the Shadow, he just has more enthusiasm than talent as a writer. The art is terrible. I stuck with all six issues because I love the characters (and those Alex Ross covers), but never again. This is not worth the money. 

Rating: **½ out of 5 stars 

Lady Killer #2
Lady Killer #2: Equal parts style and cheek, Lady Killer navigates readers through the world of a 1960s killer for hire—who just happens to be a suburban housewife and mother of two adorable tykes. Issue two takes us into the Playboy Club, as Josie goes undercover as a harried lunch lady. Kidding! Of course she’s a hot bunny, complete with ears and a tail. She lures her target into the cloak room and plays a bit of cat-and-mouse until she fulfills her contract. Pressured by her boss to take another job quickly, even she is shocked when she discovers the new target. 

Lady Killer is audacious and violent with a solid helping of ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor. The only negative is the similarity with another “suburban mom as killer” book, Jennifer Blood (although the protagonist in that book killed for revenge, not cash). Hopefully the story will distance itself as the series progresses. The art by Joelle Jones is breathtaking and alone worth the cover charge. 

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5 

Birthright #5
Birthright: #5: I love love LOVE Birthright and it just keeps getting better. Mikey is a hero kidnapped as a child and taken to a fantasy world to fight evil. Grown up, he’s back on Earth now, trying to reconnect with his family. It seems that Mikey wasn’t necessarily with the winning side in that world—and not necessarily one of the good guys either. 

Mike has dragged his father and brother into the woods to fight who he tells them is an evil sorcerer. Trouble is, while Mikey may be able to hold his own, evil sorcerers are a bit out of the league of a sixteen year-old and a soccer dad. No matter, Mikey has the matter—and his broadsword—well in hand. The question is, is this sorcerer the evil despot Mikey says? Or will his untimely death start Earth down the path to being overrun with monsters and demons?  

The flashback scenes follow a young Mikey as he first arrives on the fantasy world, meets his allies and learns to battle malevolent monsters. He seems like a nice enough kid, and even at this age shows grit. What went wrong? The ending is a huge cliffhanger that takes the story in a different direction and definitely leaves the reader wanting answers. Great stuff.  

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

The United States of Murder Inc. #6
The United States of Murder, Inc. #6: Oh Brian Michael Bendis, what are we going to do with you? The story in this issue is perfectly serviceable and contains a major decision from one of the main characters. The theme of the book is that the mob controls most of the east coast of the U.S., Congress runs the rest of the country and they have an uneasy alliance between them. Overall it’s a decent read. But Bendis, Bendis, your lazy habits are excruciating! First of all, a typical word balloon in a comic contains around 18-24 words. A typical word balloon in this comic contains the “F” word about 40 times. Bendis, even if characters talk like that, don’t you think it comes off as lazy and repetitive to your readers? How does this enhance the story experience of this comic? Your characters cuss a lot. We get it. Secondly, the stutters. Bendis must have grown up in a house, neighborhood, school, county and city where everyone started every sentence with a stutter. Every Bendis character in every Bendis book stutters! It’s lazy writing, Brian! Pick one stuttering character and Mel Tillis away, but does everyone have to stutter on every sentence? Here are just a few from this issue: “Just—just why?” “Of—of course I want them back.” It—it would be my honor.” “This—this isn’t the end of this.” Which leads me to another annoying habit. Brian Michael Bendis should not be allowed to ever use the word “this” in his writing. Ever. Take that last sentence (“This—this isn’t the end of this”). He manages a stutter and to use the word “this” three times in one sentence! Other egregious examples from this issue: “... if this happens and no one stops it ... “ “This is something that needs to be done.” “I’m not doing this with you.” “I can’t believe this.” “I can’t believe this (again).” “I can tell you this.” “This is not a drill!” “You brought this in my house!” “Everybody stop and look at this.” “All this s***.” “You have proof of this?” “You have proof of this? (again)” “This is something special.” “Not for them this f***** plan ... “ “You have made insane sacrifices to put this world back together ...” And of course, the above mentioned “This—this isn’t the end of this,” Bendis’s crowning “this” achievement. Yes, “this” can be used as an adjective, pronoun, adverb or definite article. But not all at once in the same sentence! FIND ANOTHER WORD. None of these habits are limited to this comic. This is all of Bendis’s work. Yes, I said “this.” 

Unfortunately, there are other problems with the book. The printing is murky and the coloring and palette are downright ugly. In the first few pages, humans are colored green and the backgrounds are pink and red. Why? The art is crowded and the storytelling is confusing. I’m not a huge fan of artist Michael Avon Oeming’s work anyway, but this particular issue was not drawn well. During one action sequence where the bad guys were trying to extract information from someone, I just couldn’t tell what was happening. This one was not good, guys. I hope next month’s (or year’s) issue is better.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sci-Fi Controversy

Larry Correia, Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author
Here's an interesting article over at Breitbart News's Big Hollywood about genre author Larry Correia's battle to make the Sci-fi/Fantasy Hugo Awards more tolerant. The article's title is:

The Hugo Wars: How Sci-fi’s Most Prestigious Awards Became a Political Battleground

Correia has described his struggle for years at his excellent website, and it looks like he and his fellow authors are finally making a dent. This is something folks on all sides of the political spectrum can support--free speech and a free exchange of ideas. Check out the comprehensive article here