Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Comics – Captain America Epic Collection Volume 1

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America in 1941. Cap #1 debuted in March with that lovely and controversial cover of Cap punching the bejeezus out of Hitler. It was a wee bit controversial at the time because while Hitler was earning a reputation as a dictatorial despot, we had not yet declared war on Germany, nor they us, and diplomatic relations with Germany were a bit ... dicey. Cap was a wildly popular character for a while, then drifted out of the public consciousness some years after the war. Since Cap was one of the first projects young Stan Lee worked on as an assistant at Timely Comics (he was the nephew of Timely owner Martin Goodman’s wife), I think Stan had a soft spot for the old shield-slinger.

Writer Stan first brought Cap back in the Silver Age as a a tryout in Strange Tales #114 in 1963. In the story, reprinted here, an imposter Cap fought the Johnny Storm version of the Human Torch. That story was popular enough to bring back the real Cap in Avengers #4, supposedly having been in suspended animation since the end of WWII. Cap quickly got a co-starring role with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, with each character taking half the book each issue. They shared cover space until issue #69, then alternated covers every issue. This Epic Collection reprints Cap's earliest Silver Age History, from that Strange Tales story to his co-run in Tales of Suspense issues 58-96.  

These stories are sublime, and readers can easily make out the soft spot Stan Lee has for Cap and his WWII sidekick Bucky. After we reintroduce the pseudo-Cap in the aforementioned ST #114, we move right to the modern day Cap’s resurrection in Avengers #4, both by Lee and Kirby. Cap’s story then moves solo to TOS #58. Cap is replaced by another double (a common occurrence in Cap stories for some reason). The familiar doppelganger is Spider-Man villain Chameleon, who picks a fight with Iron Man. This causes a lot of property damage to Stark International until the Avengers unmask him. In Issue #59, Kirby goes nuts with his layouts as Cap battles a group of acrobat mob thugs who invade Avengers mansion (yeah—acrobat mob thugs). Cap shuts them down easily, by leaping, jumping, throwing his shield and engaging in fisticuffs. The energy Kirby brings to depicting Cap battles is like no other artist. In issue #60, Baron Zemo goes after his old WWII nemesis and Cap easily wades through his thugs. Zemo just never tires of failure. How does he eat through that mask? The next few issues are one battle after another as Cap takes on evil Sumo wrestlers and stops a major jailbreak, always being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. There is such a joy to this storytelling. Nothing too deep, just a heroic American sacrificing himself for the greater good.

Tales of Suspense #63 offers a WWII flashback story of Cap and Bucky, which continues for the next few issues. Cap’s origin is retold, as is his training and teaming up with Bucky. In a present day scene, he meets SHIELD’s Agent 13 (Sharon Carter, although he doesn’t find out her name for some time). They hit it off right away. In issue #65, still set in WWII, the ultimate villain is revealed as ... the Red Skull! Big surprise. Cap and Bucky fight the Skull and the Nazi menace, with help of Stan and Jack (and George Tuska, who did the finishes on issues #70-74). Cap defeats the Skull in WWII, but now has to defeat his fail-safe machines in the modern day. Issue #75 is a classic, introducing Batroc zee Leaper, the French savate expert/supervillain. Kirby is still doing layouts, but now Dick Ayers takes over the penciling. In Batroc’s second appearance in issue #76, John Romita takes over the art chores and the result is beautiful, as is everything Romita ever did. Romita continues for a few issues, until Kirby returns, bringing the Red Skull back with him in #79. Kirby continues on layouts/pencils with different artists until Cap finally vanquishes the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube forever (chuckle) in issue #81.

Tales of Suspense #82 is a fantastic read. The android known as the Adaptoid steals Cap’s likeness and powers for a few issues and goes on a rampage. Of course this is when the Tumbler tumbles into Avengers mansion looking for a fight. Thinking the Adaptoid is Cap, they battle it out. The story shows that even though the Adaptoid has Cap’s likeness, abilities and shield, he doesn’t have Cap’s heart and has a hard time overcoming the Tumbler. Defeated and disabled in issue #83, the android quickly returns in #84 as the Super-Adaptoid. The Adaptoid had secretly sucked up the powers of all the Avengers and is now nigh undefeatable. The Super-Adaptoid takes on Cap alone and nearly drowns him before retreating to safety. It’s a rare decisive defeat for Cap, and incredibly well written for what was intended to be throwaway children’s literature.

TOS #85 is another incredibly fun issue, there was real magic to Lee/Kirby in this time period. Hydra hires Batroc to kill Cap, then betrays him in the middle of the fight. This leads to Batroc teaming with Cap to trounce Hydra, and they part as not-quite enemies. In issue #86 Cap works with a sleeper agent to take down a communist dictatorship. This is all Lee/Kirby now and they are firing on all cylinders. #87 is Cap vs. The Planner, another villain masquerading as Cap. Cap should probably consider some type of trademark protection for his costume at this point. The plot is by Lee, but the script is credited to Roy Thomas, as far as I know his first Cap solo work. The art is by Jack Sparling.

In issue #88 and for the next few issues, the wonderful Gil Kane takes over the art chores. He is billed as Gil (Sugar Lips) Kane. I’m sure he loved that. He’s not as manic as Kirby, but already Kane’s characters have that balletic grace that distinguishes him from other artists. Here a mystery villain lures Cap to a desert island and tricks the Swordsman and Power Man (the bad one) into attacking him. Next issue we find out the mystery villain is ... you guessed it! The Red Skull! He’s back and monologuing, complete with a robot Bucky as a hostage. This torment’s Cap, who will always be plagued by guilt for Bucky’s death. To save Bucky, whom he thinks is a real boy, Cap makes a promise to serve the Skull for 24 hours—but Lee puts in a great twist to thwart the Skull’s plans. As expected, he doesn’t take it well.

Issues #92-94 are back to the Lee/Kirby team, and they’re great. Cap teams up with Agent 13, whom he’s now in love with, to take down A.I.M. Issue #94 introduces MODOK, in the form he stays in for the next 50 years. When Jack Kirby creates something, it stays created. In #95, Cap basically proposes to Sharon Carter, who turns the poor guy down because she’s dedicated to her career of being a spy and catching bad guys. He’s crushed, but understands. They agree to keep seeing each other—he is Captain America, after all. The final issue in the collection, #96, has more guys dressing up as Cap, this time to get publicity and impress their girlfriends! This fools the Sniper and his thuggish partner, who almost kill the impostors to fulfill their contract on Cap. Cap and Nick Fury (the real one) make mincemeat out of them.

These stories still hold up as bold adventure tales today, and were a total pleasure to read. I was not bored for one second, and it is clear that Stan loved Cap and his patriotic world with all his heart. So did Kirby! Cap does give some corny (but lovable) speeches about freedom and America, but this is not jingoistic, overtly flag-waving stuff. This is a patriotic veteran loving and defending his country. This leads to some of the challenges the Marvel of today has in telling Captain America stories. If Marvel editors like America, it’s sure hard to tell. Even if they do, it seems they don’t want their friends in the media to think they are in any way thankful or grateful to live in this country. Today, Cap can’t mention America or talk about how great we are. In the last few years, they have wrestled with this problem in many ways—Cap was banished to another dimension, aged to 90, given another identity, and turned the Cap mantle over to Sam Wilson (who uses it to support his partisan liberal causes, something Captain America was never meant to do for either side). It’s sad that Marvel is so caught up in Political Correctness, and that they perceive PC as not being able to recognize that America, with all its faults, is still a great country. Now they’ve even made Steve Rogers a Hydra sleeper agent, working for the enemy since day one! Is that a company who knows how to handle a patriotic character? Because Marvel is incapable of publishing good Cap stories, they should just cancel the book and give the concept a rest, until cooler heads prevail. Until then, we have these older stories to enjoy with no other agenda than to entertain and celebrate freedom and good over evil. Today’s Marvel has little understanding of those concepts.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Books: Savage Lane by Jason Starr

Savage Lane is another triumphant crime novel by thriller master Jason Starr—this time dealing satirically with the rot in American suburbia. At the center of most of the drama is Karen Daily, a teacher and hot divorcee raising her kids and not necessarily looking for a new partner. Her neighbor and close friend is Mark Berman, who’s a little too obsessed with spending time with her and considering their future together. Mark is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Deb, who has a thing on the side with charismatic recent high school grad Chris.

Everyone thinks they know what everyone else wants—is anyone ever right about that? In Mark’s mind, Karen is longing for the day he’ll leave Deb and propose to her. In public, Deb begs Mark to keep their marriage going and fights with him over his time with Karen. In private, she lets Chris abuse her and get a little too attached. When everyone does act on their most intimate feelings, the results are not what anyone imagines, and leads to absolute ruin for more than one of our players. Deb and Karen catfight on the floor of the country club, in plain view of recording cell phones. Chris’s dangerous past is exposed. And Mark has his dreams and comfortable life shattered, one defeat at a time. Even worse, not everyone makes it out alive.

Starr is an expert at putting his characters under inexorable pressure, then letting them simmer to see what happens. It’s almost humorous how ridiculous it all is … what people are sure of in their own minds that has nothing to do with reality. But it’s fun to watch everyone squirm. A wicked, tightly-plotted story with human characters and more than a few surprises. Recommended.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Friday, June 10, 2016

TV Rampage

TV Rampage - Television Reviews

The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)
This British espionage thriller stars Dr. House, Hugh Laurie, and Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, as adversaries in a deep undercover spy game.  Huddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, is a former British soldier working as a night manager at a Cairo hotel. When he meets Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), mistress of the hotel’s Arab owner, they immediately make a connection, physical as well as emotional. Sophie gives Jonathan some secret illegal arms documents she feels guilty about hiding, and quickly pays the ultimate price for her betrayal. Turns out those documents were a blazing trail to Richard “Dickie” Roper (Laurie), a flamboyant English arms dealer whose weapons indiscriminately kill soldiers, bystanders, children and local sheep. He’s a bad, bad man. Pine is perfectly placed for revenge and to infiltrate Roper’s group, so with help from MI6 (the British CIA) and the CIA, (the American CIA), he infiltrates Roper’s gang and attempts to take them down from the inside.

What follows is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about a slick but untrained undercover operative trying to bring down an international arms cartel virtually alone. As Pine gets closer to Roper, he fends off a smart, skeptical member of the group with many correct suspicions, and starts to fall for Roper’s young, hot American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Roper sets up Pine as Andrew Birch, the head of a shell corporation that sells everything from Cobra missiles to Sarin gas. What is so fun to watch is the shell game itself. Roper becomes aware of a mole in his company, but can’t be positive who it is. He knows the authorities are on to him (despite his bribed minions in high British office), and runs circles around their attempts to catch him and expose his operation. Time after time, Pine leaks documents or information, only for Roper to be one-step ahead and closer to having Pine’s extremities removed. The story circles back to the original hotel where Pine and Roper met, as they have their final confrontation.

I can’t write about The Night Manager without mentioning Olivia Coleman, probably the finest currently working British actress. Coleman (Broadchurch) plays Angela Burr, a very pregnant MI6 agent who has been trying to nail Roper for years. As she loses her battles with her bosses, with Roper and finally her entire spy division, she maintains a stoic surety that one day she will get him. Pine is her last hope, and she bets everything on him—her career and even her life. Her speech about first discovering civilian bodies gassed by Roper is chilling and Emmy worthy. I absolutely love this woman’s work. The Night Manager is a first-rate production—more like this please.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Wynonna Earp (Syfy)
This is the first season of a Syfy production based on the Beau Smith comic book. Shows on Syfy can be incredibly cheesy and most times are not worth viewers’ attention—even on a lonely Saturday night. I’m happy to say Wynonna Earp is an exception. Overall, the show is a whimsical breath of fresh air. Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) is of course a direct descendant of Western lawman Wyatt Earp, latest in the line of supernatural fighting Earps. She inherited a magic six-gun that vanquishes demons, and as a child, said demons attacked her house and murdered her father and sister to get it. Wynonna comes back to the town of Purgatory after being away for a few years, and eventually recovers her magic six-shooter. She joins the “Black Badges,” a supernatural U.S. Marshall unit run by her boss Agent Dolls (Shamier Anderson), then proceeds to go after the rogue demons, especially the ones who attacked her home. Her younger sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) assists her from time to time.  

This show is a hoot. It is especially well cast, with Scrofano having a dynamite sense of comic timing and a hilarious talent delivering one-liners. When a demon demands she hand over her magic gun, she looks at him seductively and says, “It’s at home in my panty drawer, why don’t we go get it?” When she needs to empty out a bar quickly, she pulls out her pistol and shouts, “CrazychickwithaGUN!!!!!” and fires into the ceiling. Dominique Provost-Chalkley as Waverly beautifully plays the helpful sister sometimes frustrated with Wynonna’s self-destructive behavior, and Anderson is fun (but a little humorless) as Agent Dolls. Tim Rozon as 150-year old Doc Holiday strikes the perfect balance between slimy, questionable good guy and a bad-choice love interest for Wynonna. The plots have been smart and fun with some big surprises. The only wrong turn taken by the show is when a lesbian sexual predator in authority (a police officer) goes after formerly straight Waverly. And gets her. It’s creepy and unnecessary to the plot. Otherwise, Wynonna Earp is pure supernatural comfort food.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

The Americans (FX) *SLIGHT SPOILERS*
Folks will be talking about The Americans long after the show is off the air. Taking place in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., it’s a phenomenon that gets better every season, every episode. On the surface, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings and their kids are a close, middle class American family. Phillip and Elizabeth own a travel agency, their kids Paige and Henry are typical teenagers. In reality, Phillip and Elizabeth are Soviet sleeper agents, sent to America to raise a family and blend in while they go on covert espionage missions for the USSR. While Phillip recognizes that America isn’t all that bad and actually has a lot to offer, Elizabeth is a true believer who is in no danger of going native. Married as young agents, through the years they actually fall in love and become what they appear to be; a loving family.

Their neighbor Stan is an FBI agent—a coincidence, but one Phillip exploits by becoming friends with Stan. This is a prime example of the show’s brilliance—I think Phillip really likes Stan and would be friends with him anyway—but the extra layer is that he can innocently squeeze Stan for intelligence without arousing suspicion.

The show is in its fourth season and keeps ratcheting up the drama. This season Phillip and Elizabeth, and their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) are working with another spy who specializes in infectious diseases. They keep sneaking more virulent strains of nasty substances out of the lab, but the expert himself doubts they should be giving it to the homeland office. Phillip agrees, but is conflicted by loyalty to his country. Meanwhile, the couple came out to their daughter Paige as to who they really are, with hopes of possibly recruiting her to their crusade. This was a miscalculation, as Paige couldn’t handle the news and told her church Pastor. Now Phillip and Elizabeth have to struggle with what to do … kill the pastor and be hated by their daughter? Or make him a friend and hope he doesn’t tell? It’s riveting drama.

Even though they are perfectly acted, well-rounded characters, I have little sympathy for Phillip and Elizabeth. Their actions have directly or indirectly led to the deaths of many innocent Americans. They have destroyed lives—including the FBI secretary Phillip married under an alias and who fed him classified information. The show should end with Phillip going to the gulag and Elizabeth being hanged. At least he has a conscience. Serialized TV doesn’t get any better than this.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Cleverman (Sundance)
This Australian show, new to American shores, offers a plethora of unique and mad ideas. Apparently a Cleverman, in Australian Aboriginal lore, is sort of a shaman who rules a supernatural dream dimension.

In the show, Neanderthals have survived to the present day, an idea that really appeals to me. Treated as an underclass, they are held in ghettos by the Australian government and called “Hairies” by the local population. They are as intelligent as humans, but twice as hairy and three times as strong. If they leave their ghetto they are subject to beatings, arrest and a possible sentence to a prison camp, where they are separated, abused and even branded.

Hunter Page-Lochard plays Koen West, an Australian bar owner and Aborigine who specializes in getting black market living spaces for the Hairies, then turning them in and collecting the reward money. He’s a double-dipping douchebag, with no empathy for his victims. When the large family he turns in has a young daughter killed by the police during their apprehension, Koen’s older brother Waruu (Rob Collins) steps in to punish him. Waruu is the leader of an underground group of Hairies and Hairy supporters, which has turned into a thriving, if not yet successful, society. Meanwhile, Koen and Waruu’s aged uncle Jimmy is the show’s Cleverman, at least in the pilot. He finds reason to give his magic powers to one of his nephews … but which one will he choose?

Meanwhile Jerrod Slade, the local Network mogul (played by the great Iain Glen from Game of Thrones) sees that the conflict with the Hairies makes good TV and doesn’t miss an opportunity to broadcast their stories. He also has a friendly relationship with the Cleverman. His chief on-air reporter is sleeping with Waruu. All of the characters are related somehow, making the cast very connected, sometimes without even knowing it.

I’ve only seen the pilot, but the show has set up an intriguing world of which I want to see more. There is magic, mythology and many questions to be answered. The two I have are: 1.) If the Neanderthals are so much bigger and stronger than us, how did they get to be an abused, conquered people? and 2.) Why are they hated and treated so badly? Sure, they’re not strictly human and hairier than us, but in 2016 the world would not let any group of sentient bipeds be brutalized and forced to live in work camp/slums, deprived of any sort of civil rights. It just wouldn’t happen, and it is not believable so far on the show. But I love some of the ideas put forth—what if Neanderthals hadn’t become extinct? How would humans react to living side by side with a different species? So far not very well. I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

Rating: ***½ out of 5

Friday, June 3, 2016

Comics Controversy: Steve Rogers: Captain America #1

If you are into comics at all, you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the new volume of the Captain America comic. If not, *SPOILERS*

Cap has been revealed as a sleeper agent for the evil organization Hydra. In the Marvel movies, Hydra is an offshoot of the Third Reich, making it not strictly a Nazi organization, but an organization started and run by former Nazis. This is causing some controversy, as Cap was created by two Jewish men, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and defined for a new generation by another Jewish man, Stan Lee (again, with help from Kirby). In the story, Steve Rogers has been a Hydra agent from the beginning. He’s evil.

My take on the story is this: Of course this Cap is a clone, alternate universe Steve Rogers, etc. It will all turn out okay and be wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end. However. there are two major problems here; 1.) The way Marvel approaches Cap generally, and 2.) The writer.

Marvel can't stand the thought of any character being pro-American. To love your country and show any type of patriotism at Marvel is flag-waving jingoism, by god! In mainstream comics, if you honor America you have to be a beer-guzzling gun nut who lives in a trailer park. If this story were written by Chuck Dixon, or Roger Stern or John Byrne, I would trust the writers to deliver a clever potboiler that pays off in the end and makes Cap into an even bigger hero. Writer Nick Spencer is on record gleefully proclaiming all Republicans are evil. I DON'T trust him. Not that I believe it, but the thought does cross one's mind that to Spencer (and Marvel) Cap is a Hydra (Nazi) spy, has always been one, and loves being one. One expects contempt for conservatives and America from Spencer and his ilk, and he in turn rarely disappoints. Therefore, even if the story is ultimately harmless, the messenger is not. Would it be so bad to have an issue where Captain America actually fights a bad guy and loves America? To Marvel, you betcha. Oh, for a pro-American sentiment anywhere in mainstream comics ...