Sunday, August 17, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #6: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Marvel Super Special #18, June 1981)

My friends and I were so in love with Raiders of the Lost Ark we went to the theater one day in a group, bought tickets for the first showing and stayed through the last.  My memory says we saw Raiders six times that day, but it may have been four.  I don’t remember feeling any viewer fatigue, just anticipation for each exciting sequence.  I knew what was going to happen and I was thrilled to see it again.  And again. 

Why didn’t they kick us out?

When I bought this at the convenience store where I generally bought comics back in those days, my overwhelming impression was disappointment with Marvel Super Special #18:  Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Maybe The Empire Strikes Back spoiled me by equaling or even surpassing its source material in many ways.  Raiders seemed lackluster, kind of a knock-off product more than a celebration.  Reading it again recently, I like it a bit more.

And that like is based largely on Walt Simonson's smart and witty writing.  I'm not sure what form of Raiders he was working from, some earlier version or the shooting script, but Simonson takes us through all the famous set pieces, condensing some to fit in as much of the film's action in swift strokes.  There's no swordsman in the bazaar, and Indy's fight with that bald brawler of a Nazi lacks the original's grisly denouement.  But even with the cuts, Simonson enriches our beloved archaeologist by filling us in on his wry thoughts.  It's fun to see Indy run away from the natives, but Simonson gives us a little mental wisecrack to go along with it.  Adapting isn't simply the cutting and pasting of the movie to fit on comic book pages.  It helps if the writer, like Simonson, also shows a flare for language.  Simonson does this not only with the quips and clever extrapolation of character, but also in the aftermath of the face-melting "wrath of God" sequence, where he drops a line that's reminiscent of Stephen King back when King was hungry, before he became a brand name.  This is the kind of thing I love in a comic book adaptation of a movie, rather than an action-only, surface approach.
Script:  Walt Simonson/Pencils: John Buscema/Inks: Klaus Janson

Unfortunately, the art doesn't provide the same kick.  It was a big letdown when I opened this book outside the convenience store where I bought it despite its extravagant retail price, and I like it only slightly more these days.  Make no mistake-- I'm a huge John Buscema fan, and despite the results here, I'm convinced he was a prime choice for penciling Raiders.  If he'd had the time to do complete pencils or ink himself.

Here, Buscema provides breakdowns for Klaus Janson's finishes.  Right off I'm not loving it, because this is not one of my favorite team-ups.  Janson's inks superbly complement stylists like Simonson, and his work with Frank Miller is the stuff of comic book legend.  I've never cottoned to his work with Buscema, especially loose Buscema.  There's a clash of sensibilities and from that we don't get a charge of energy but simply awkwardness.  Alfredo Alcala or Rudy Nebres would take these same pages and turn them into something akin to classic adventure book or pulp magazine illos.  You'd lose a great deal of the Buscema surface while retaining the basic structure and it would look lush and refined, opulent like some of their crazy collaborations in Savage Sword of Conan.  These are some of the few times one of Marvel's black and white magazines even comes close to competing with the best of Warren's gorgeous books.

Buscema-Janson would work fine in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man or on a Daredevil annual.  Here, the edgy, ultra-modern finishes turn what should be a visual treat into a rather generic 80s superhero comic.  From the opening splash where Indy and company just seem to be standing like mannequins in the jungle despite the best efforts of Simonson's captions, to the rather stark and uninvolving desert setting, there's a distinct lack of detail and texture.
Script:  Walt Simonson/Pencils: John Buscema/Inks: Klaus Janson

Janson’s edgy inks simply lack the retro, Saturday matinee feel a Raiders comic absolutely demands.  And when a scene calls for a little modest gore-- your odd impaled corpse here, your melting Nazi there-- Janson restrains himself and what we get is drab.  Other panels seem strangely empty, even unfinished, with little detailing.  Nazis wear uniforms devoid of badges, Captain Katanga's tramp steamer-- piratical in the film-- looks alarmingly clean.  Blacks indicate light sources but do nothing for mood. 

From what I understand, the people at Lucasfilm were pretty unhappy with this book as well. 

After all, when you watch the movie, you feel the love both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg share for old serials, B-movies and even A-movie adventures with guys like Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  And classics like Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart.  They add a contemporary self-awareness to genre thrills and of course, this approach paid off in gold.  So much so, they ended up sparking a revival of the genre and I ended up watching all kinds of Raiders knock-offs in search of the same all-day thrills my friends and I stole from the Martin Four that summer day.  High Road to China, Romancing the Stone, TV's Tales of the Gold Monkey, Bring 'Em Back Alive, Rubiks the Amazing Cube, Jake and the Fatman, Mama's Family, Pink Lady and Jeff...

Instead of something similar, something recalling adventure strips by the likes of Noel Sickles, Roy Crane and Milt Caniff, we get flourish-free late 70s/early 80s Marvel finishes that evoke nothing of the visual qualities or romance of either Raiders or those old movies.  Where’s Charlton Heston or Cornel Wilde?  There’s barely even any Harrison Ford.  Marvel's Raiders has incident, but lacks atmosphere.
Script:  Walt Simonson/Pencils: John Buscema/Inks: Klaus Janson

I’m left wondering what might have been if someone said, “Let’s do this in the spirit of the film.  There’s no way we can get Milton Caniff himself, but let’s at least see if Alex Toth or Doug Wildey might want to take a crack at it.”  Imagine the opening sequence with Toth's black-spotting and way with draping figures in heavy, moody shadows and evoking time and place.  Toth probably would have turned Marvel down flat because of Indy’s rather ambiguous morality (or for some other reason peculiar to Toth’s outlook), but Wildey could have done something approximating the romanticism of classic adventure strips in his own style.  Gray Morrow also would have gotten it.  Marvel would later waste him on their Sheena adaptation, of all things, but a Raiders by Morrow with this Simonson script have been an instant classic.

And what about Al Williamson?  There was a guy who could draw jungles and deserts.  What about Howard Chaykin, who provides a wonderful painted Bob Peak-style cover?
Script:  Walt Simonson/Pencils: John Buscema/Inks: Klaus Janson

Ultimately, however, I'm going to blame the book's lack of visual flare less on the artists and more on Marvel double-dipping on the artwork.  My best guess is Buscema and Janson drew this based on the idea this would be printed as a regular monthly (check out Gene Day's killer Paul Gulacy-esque cover on Raiders monthly #1 for yet another example of how this comic should have rocked us), and when it came time to run the art larger for the Super Special format, it didn't translate.  And Marvel cheaped out on the color job, too.  These aren't the dreamy modeled or airbrushed tones we'd gotten used to in many of the previous Super Specials, even on movies that were outright stinkers.   Jaws 2, Meteor and even poor Xanadu got lush painterly coloring.  These colors read clean and they provide some nice contrast between foreground and background, but they're obviously meant to grace the garbage paper Marvel's books came printed on.  A little heavy on the purples, pinks and magentas.  A lot of Marvel monthlies around this time looked similar.  

This should have looked different.  Yes, I praised Janson's work with Dave Cockrum on their adaptation of Star Trek the Motion Picture (Marvel Super Special #15), and that had monthly book coloring and ran as regular format comic as well.  But there the art is dense and detailed and provides a lot more of its own depth and atmosphere.  The same is true of the Archie Goodwin/Williamson/Carlos Garzon Empire Strikes Back.  Those books manage to feel deluxe when this feels knocked out in a hurry.

Reading it today, I find Raiders isn't as bad as I remembered.  It's probably even better than I'm making out here, and I'm sure you can find its defenders online without much effort.  It’s just we're talking a comic book based on Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And it's a visual bore when it really cries out for some deluxe treatment or a little pre-production product conceptualizing.  You know, "Hey, this material is pure joy!  Here's our chance to do our own version of Terry and the Pirates!"

Monday, July 28, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #5: Xanadu (Marvel Super Special #17, Summer 1980)

Aren't you supposed to go from the ridiculous to the sublime?  Well, here we are going in the opposite direction.

Xanadu is a would-be romantic magical musical fantasy starring Olivia Newton-John as a muse who leaps to life out of a mural and changes the lives of Michael Beck and Gene Kelly for the better courtesy the blending of old and new forms of pop entertainment.  That is, Big Band swing and Jeff Lyne's ELO and its Beatle-esque power pop and also... because it was sorta popular at the time... roller disco. 

While playing a muse in a musical fantasy might seem the perfect follow-up to her turn in 1978's Grease (where she and John Travolta, then largely known for demanding people stick rubber hoses up their noses on television, generate an amazing amount of electricity together), Olivia Newton-John at the height of her soft balladeering powers could not rescue this movie.  I doubt starring in Xanadu as a lovelorn album cover artist did Michael Beck any favors, either, although it did showcase the guy's musical theater talents in a way playing Swan in The Warriors, Walter Hill's cult gang flick, never could.

Wow! I'm inspired! I truly believe a musical version of The Warriors with a kind of The Wiz feel to it is a movie project that must happen.  Producers, agents of the world-- give me a call.  Let's put a project together.  Starlight Express meets West Side Story with a heapin' helpin' of Battle Royale.  I'd like to thank the Academy.  Film is a collaborative art and I wouldn't be standing here with the hard work of a lot of...

Art by everyone you've ever heard of
Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.  I think I'm in love.  They're dancing as Beck's crotch melts.  Gene Kelly approves from within the comforting wrinkle-free confines of his blue bell-bottomed leisure suit.  Several severed heads gaze wide-eyed yet sightlessly into the unspeakable horrors visited upon them by a serial killer, their mouths forever stretched into the rictus grins of death.  Mick Jagger's lips have torn loose from his face and now hunt for human prey. 

A misfire of a movie becomes a very strange comic with lovely colors but kind of slapdash, neo-psychedelic artwork.  It bears the hallmarks of a rush job, with a number of talented hands giving it a go, but ultimately there’s a futility about Xanadu.  You start with a truly wretched idea—ironically, a movie about inspiration lacking any—and there’s nowhere to go but down.


Let's take a little deeper look.  I mean, we came all this way, so it would be stupid not to.

Art by all the artists

It's bright and colorful, but despite the huge mob of art talent involved, there's not much in the way of storytelling in this book.  Here, Beck's character grabs a pair of rollerskates in one panel, but in the next he's standing in front of a big electronics mixing board explaining to Newton-John how it works with not a skate to be seen.  They're actually in a different location entirely.  Could you tell?  I had to read this dozens of times to understand that.  The page ends with an abrupt cut to the pair couple skating in star-addled sunset framed by indifferently drawn palm trees poking out of a world gone wonky, kind of like a flashback to Richard Corben's reality-twisting artwork "The Slipped Mickey Click-Flip."

Art by many wonderful people who deserve better

Say!  Inspiration strikes again!  A horror version of Xanadu.  Imagine this movie with the Erinyes instead of the muses…

Wait a minute.  I'm having so many grand ideas while thinking about Xanadu.  Maybe I was wrong about the movie and the comic all along.  Marvel Super Special #17:  Xanadu, I brand you a lost classic.  Who knew this would happen when I first saw it in the local Family Mart for months on end as it languished there, ignored by everyone but me and forgotten by the manager who should have sent it back to whatever magical Olympian realm from which it sprang?  I certainly never dreamed I would one day fall in love with a vibrant young woman named Kira and turn upside down and yellow while Elmer's Glue dripped all over my genitals...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #4: The Empire Strikes Back (Marvel Super Special #16, Spring 1980)

This is my pick for the best of Marvel's movie adaptations, and it's as good as mainstream comics get.  First, it's an adaptation of the best of the Star Wars movies and second, it's an adaptation of the best of the Star Wars movies written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by my all-time art dream team, Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon, and with another of those beautiful Bob Larkin cover paintings.  I'd put it up there with any other comic Marvel (or DC, for that matter) has ever published.  This comic should be taught in schools.

I reached the highwater mark of my Star Wars love in 1980.  I turned 12 that first year of the Reagan and Alex P. Keaton decade, which was about the time other things began occupying my mind.  But I was still childish enough to play with the toys and create my own Star Wars fantasy adventures with the Kenner figures and Millenium Falcon playset in the yard.  And I was adult enough to have become interested in the film making process itself, able to enjoy movies not just for their stories, but also for the craft and artistry behind the scenes.  Reading magazines like Starlog and Fantastic Films and learning the names of people like Ralph McQuarrie, John Dykstra and Richard Edlund, plus terms like “go-motion” and “blue screen,” I began to have a growing appreciation for the mechanics of its creation as well. 

This, then, was the perfect time to discover Al Williamson and, to certain extent, Archie Goodwin.  These are two names I've come to associate with all things Star Wars as much as I do George Lucas, Mark Hamill and John Ratzenberger.  It may seem crazy to you reading this now-- at least as crazy as any dumbass thing I've written in this blog-- but I’d never even heard of Williamson or Goodwin before I saw their names in the credits of Marvel Super Special #16.  While Goodwin's script hits all the right story points at the ideal pace for a comic with this page count, with terse narrative captions to help move things along, Williamson's art literally changed my life.  My appreciation of comic book art consists of pre-Williamson and post-Williamson eras. 

All of his EC and most Warren work came before I was even born, and our local newspaper tended more towards Beetle Bailey and Garfield than adventure strips.  Or paper did run Alley Oop, Steve Canyon and Dick Tracy, the three non-gag strips they did choose to run, plus my dad got me into Gasoline Alley (not an adventure strip but still one with a narrative like those others).  So I didn’t know anything about Secret Agent X-9, or, as it came to be called, Secret Agent Corrigan.  Where would I have learned about Al Williamson?  He didn't draw the Hulk or Spider-Man, for crying out loud!

So when this book hit, as far as 12-year-old me could tell, Al Williamson came into our banal world from some magical extra-dimensional wonderland where romantic adventure and heroic action were as part of life as blood itself and made this comic just for me. 

Williamson’s art was more than a revelation.  It was a rebirth.
Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

The man painted with ink.  To create the effect of reflections on metal, Williamson used blobby black strokes of varying pressure.  For atmosphere and depth in the backgrounds of different scenes, he used thin parallel lines for a sfumato-like effect.  He spotted blacks throughout, emulating the film’s cinematography, as many scenes take place inside the frozen rebel base or the industrial back-rooms of Cloud City where light comes from computer screens or from behind machinery.  He expanded on the film’s planetscapes and made them imaginatively otherworldly in a way location shooting on a glacier in Norway just couldn’t match (and Larkin wisely copies him on the cover).  Obviously, Lucas couldn't spirit his cast and crew away to Hoth in another galaxy.  But Williamson could and did.

And best of all, not only did Williamson's star warriors look like the actual actors rather than their stunt doubles or stand-ins (as had the characters in many of Marvel’s previous movie adaptations, Star Trek the Motion Picture aside), but the way he posed them and placed them within all those wild environments exactingly duplicates mood and feel of the movie itself every time you read this comic. 

I’d seen movie comics full of pretty art, some of which I've praised in this blog (and justly so; they're fantastically fun) with dazzling light effects and plenty with storytelling that perfunctorily or even adequately reproduced a movie’s action without that feel, without that authenticity of experience.  Goodwin, Williamson and Garzon put all the genuine excitement of the real The Empire Strikes Back right in our hands, in the medium best suited for George Lucas’ epic.  Star Wars came full circle back to the halcyon days of Flash Gordon in the funny pages, one of its prime inspirations.

The only odd note-- and I find it charming and story-book like-- is Williamson's version of Yoda, who looks his familiar, chubby self in closeups and then becomes a tiny gnome-like creature with spindly legs in wide-angle shots.  Williamson never quite figured out Yoda's scale, but at least he made everyone's favorite sentence-reversing Jedi puppet more ambulatory than even a genius performer like Frank Oz could holding him up from underneath the swamp sets.  And more wizardly.  Merlinesque.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

You can look at the artwork and see Williamson used quite a bit of photo reference.  In lesser hands, this can freeze a comic story, especially when an artist chooses to draw from studio portrait shots rather than action scene stills.  Williamson expertly blends these images onto the page so each is like a fabulous collage when looked at as a whole, but flow naturally when read panel-to-panel.  Williamson gives us carefully crafted moments like the two-panel sequence where medical droid 2-1B pulls the pharmaceutical mask off Luke's wampa-ravaged face.  He could have rendered it as a single panel, with all of 2-1B's dialogue carrying the action, but instead he chose to give it a bit of animation.  

Notice I'm talking only about Williamson, but there's also Carlos Garzon.  To be honest, I can't tell where one ends and the other begins.  I just see this Williamson-esque art job that matches pretty much all the other ones I've seen.  Many of which probably were in collaboration with Garzon.  Anyway, whichever artist did whatever part of the artwork, it's seamless and I like it.  So let's give Garzon his props, even if  I'm too ignorant and unschooled in his contributions to point out any specific examples.  There are probably other blogs for that.  I should be reading them.  So should you.  Probably a better use of our comics-loving time, right?  Let's go!  Go!  Go!  Go!

Okay, he's gone.  I'll join him after I finish gushing about The Empire Strikes Back like a dizzy fool drunk on love.

Oh, and at this point I should also make mention of Glynis Wein's superb coloring job.  Wein used a screen-accurate palette that enhances the comic experience rather than making you smirk at oddball choices like the red lenses in Darth Vader's mask and the strange orange mottling in Chewbacca's fur from the first Marvel Star Wars comic.  Wein would make entire figures two shades of orange to recreate the spacey glow of Rebel Alliance technology when our heroes conferred in control rooms and on spaceships, and apply appropriately chilly blue shadows to the snowy exteriors of Hoth or give the swamps of Dagobah a slimy look in greens and pale oranges.  Wein's pastel planets and moons help give depth to the imagery of mighty space fleets lumbering along, but where her work really shines is during the light sabre duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.  The film bathes their battle largely in oranges and blues, at least when the two fight in the "carbon freezing chamber" where Han Solo gets encased in a block of metal.  Wein follows suit but she also adds some nice greens and yellows to make it work better in two dimensions.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

The very day I read The Empire Strikes Back, I immediately stopped copying every other artist and became simply a Williamson imitator, in as much as my clumsy hands could make me so.  Any one of my comic book art idols represents an impossible standard to which an artist can hold himself or herself, but even more so with Williamson.

I doggedly spent the next three or four years laboriously filling sketchbook after sketchbook with really shitty Star Wars drawings, thinking all the time I was getting somewhere with my art.  While I later found other artists to fail at emulating, whenever I had a sketchbook and a pen or brush, I’d still find myself pulling out some Williamson stuff and doodling away, futilely trying to match his supreme figure construction and posing, and lush, sinuous line quality.  Even in my graphic design program days at the University of Georgia my professors would look at my homework and occasionally come across something that looked as if Al Williamson had drawn it with the brush held in his teeth, or sticking out of one ear.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

Even now, Williamson remains one of those go-to guys whose work I feel compelled to collect.  Williamson, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and Steve Rude.  Whenever their stuff appears in purchasable form, I will be there.  Right now Dark Horse keeps much of Williamson's Star Wars work with Goodwin in print both in paper form and digitally.  With the license reverting to Marvel in the wake of Disney's massive Lucasfilm purchase and upcoming new trilogy, I'm not sure how long this will be the case.  Fortunately, I've got it all.

And you know what?  I’m not even a huge Star Wars nut anymore.  The intense, religious-like fervor of its fans and the oversaturation of all things Star Wars on the Internet and on the shelves in book and toy stores across the world (and also the law of diminishing returns as it applies to the film story’s recent, tragic extension) have all tarnished the brand for me.  And brand is the right word.  McSkywalker, now serving number two billion. 

But it seems all I have to do is pull out the Al Williamson The Empire Strikes Back and I’m 12 years old again and everything is suddenly wonderful in a way it had never been before, although there had certainly been wonderment.  With Al Williamson, there's a purity to the work that ensures there will always be wonderment.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #3: Star Trek: the Motion Picture (December 1979)

I'm going to tell you upfront this was one of my favorite individual comic book stories when I was 11 years old.  I have no idea how many times I read it.  The following year, Marvel's Empire Strikes Back adaptation would knock this one (and just about every other comic I'd ever read and loved prior to encountering Al Williamson) down a spot or two on my personal hit parade, but I still have a deep and abiding love for Marvel Super Special #15.  I'd been a Star Trek TV show fan for as long as I could remember, and this was in the wilderness years of the 1970s.  Back then, you had to find Trek at odd hours on some local station.  Ours came out of Tallahassee on Saturday afternoons, subject to atmospheric interference.  When your station dropped whatever Trek syndication package they'd licensed, you lost touch with the crew until they popped up somewhere else within antenna range.  In the interim, you could read the James Blish short story collections with episode adaptations, and the often silly Gold Key comics.  Or collect and play with the Mego action figures.  That was as Treky as we got before 1979's Star Trek: the Motion Picture came out and relaunched the franchise as a movie series.

It almost didn't.  The movie, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Robert Wise and based on a premise written by series creator Gene Roddenberry, made money, but it was expensive to produce and wasn't as big a hit as Paramount had hoped for.  It certainly looked fantastic, with a sleeker, updated Enterprise and everyone in pajamas for a sweet slumber party atmosphere.  But it suffers from endless shots of the Enterprise slowly drifting along set to repetitive music cues and people staring in awe at light shows.  It's like watching the audience at Laser Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon.  The film allows its characters to ask existential questions, but when it comes to answering them, the result is akin to a 2001: A Space Odyssey where, after boring you for more than two hours, Stanley Kubrick has the astronauts explain to each other (and the audience) exactly what the monolith represents and why it does what it does.  The cheaper, more action-oriented Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan turned out to be the franchise's salvation, not this glacially-paced epic.  But in 1979, for me, it was enough seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (along with Janice Rand, for cripe's sake!) back in action.

And, after watching this movie again on Blu-Ray recently, I've decided I'll take it with all of its flaws and dull stretches over either of the terminally stupid "reboot" flicks any day of the week.  Star Trek The Motion Picture at least has ideas and something to say about the basic human dilemma ("Is this all there is?  Is there nothing more?"), things it takes very seriously.  Can you imagine a major studio nowadays dropping this kind of money on a sci-fi flick starring a lot of middle-aged people and without any meta-humor or product placement?  There's not even a sky-diving sequence!  There's barely any sex!

But let's talk about the comic.

It must have been a daunting challenge to adapt into an entertaining comic a story that consists mostly of long sequences of nothing more than the Enterprise gliding over the giant V’Ger ship and then small groups of characters conversing about it in staff rooms and small corridors.  The comic really benefits from the deft way Marv Wolfman condenses scenes.  Wolfman ruthlessly edited down long scenes into a few panels, quickening the pace and generally tightening things up.  Wolfman uses his narrative captions-- always a strength of his writing-- to clarify character motivation and add descriptions and exposition to guide readers along.  We're engaged throughout.

For the art team, which consists of Dave Cockrum on pencils and Klaus Janson on inks, the problems are finding ways to make all the conversations work visually and reproducing the movie’s many, many special effects shots.  Cockrum, a master of crowded team compositions and action-packed superhero action, comes through with strong "acting" from the principals, downplaying the usual Marvel dynamics but upping the emotional content of various scenes.  His Commander Decker in particular comes alive with various angry faces and hand-chop poses emphasizing his frustration.  The likenesses are consistent throughout, a real plus when dealing with familiar, iconic characters.  The results aren't photographic, but Cockrum never confuses the readers.  Kirk has his poofy hair, McCoy his sharply arched eyebrows and drooping, lived-in face.  Of course Spock is easy to get right, but even more conventionally good-looking people like Uhura, Sulu and Chekov look pretty much the way you expect.  Every so often there's a dead face, but they never become a distraction.

What an ink job Janson provides, too.  While he and Walt Simonson outdid themselves on innovative lighting effects in Close Encounters, here he and colorist Marie Severin use color holds to reproduce Douglas Trumbull's lightning balls and wormholes.  This kind of stuff is easy to do these days with digital inking and coloring.  It's nothing to isolate an element and change the color channels to whatever you want.  But when Janson and Severin tackled Star Trek, they had to rely on acetate or vellum overlays.  It must have been a tedious, time-consuming process because they use one or more on practically every page.  The results are nothing less than astounding.

For all its pacing flaws, the film is effective at making space seem like an infinite frontier full of dangers.  It's not just that there are Klingons and V'Gers out there ready to zap unfortunate astronauts and Starfleet personnel.  Space itself is dark and perilous.  For one thing, the ships have to provide their own exterior lighting.  None of that Star Wars stuff where everything in space is brightly lit no matter how far away it is from an actual light source.  To the human mind, space appears largely empty, dark and vast.  Even the vaunted technology its space explorers count on for survival turns on them.  The transporter goes awry in a shocking incident and, later, the warp drive throws the ship into what the characters call a “wormhole.”  Contending with these, the Enterprise crew truly seems to be going boldly.  This isn't sailing along to some cute world where you find 1920s gangsters or the White Rabbit out of Lewis Carroll.  You could end up a data stream in a godlike machine's memory banks or transformed into a robotic copy of yourself with a lighted jewel embedded in your throat.  Or merge with the overmind into a stream of light.  Wolfman’s script reproduces each of these episodes faithfully and Cockrum, Janson and Severin provide some spectacular visuals to match them, with all the production design details faithfully reproduced.  Ultimately, this is an extremely accurate recreation of the film's look and mood, minus its shambolic tendencies.

The story also appeared in three monthly issues (Star Wars, a much shorter but action-oriented film, ran in four, which is further evidence of how Trek should have been pared down a bit) which led to a short-lived Marvel Star Trek comic.  I never read a single issue of that.  After all this time, I'm not sure why, especially considering how much I enjoyed this one.  Maybe it was enough for me Wolfman, Cockrum, Janson and Severin had already provided fabulous glimpse of what a Star Trek comic could be, one-upping its cinematic source material.  Too bad they didn't get a chance to take on Khan.

Looks like I forgot to talk about the Bob Larkin fully-painted cover.  That's just as well.  I'd have written a paragraph consisting only of superlatives.  I look at it kind of like Kirk, McCoy, Decker, Ilia and the rest gaze at Laser Floyd.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #2: Meteor (August 1979)

Let me start by pointing out the obvious:  Meteor shares its basic idea with Armageddon (and also Deep Impact, but screw Deep Impact for taking this material seriously, right?), but mercifully lacks both Aerosmith and dopey worship of bonehead machismo.  In both films, a giant meteor heads towards earth, and we have to blast it with nuclear weapons before it gets here.  In Armageddon, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi go up in a spaceship to do it themselves while Liv Tyler watches all teary-eyed from NASA headquarters, while in Meteor Sean Connery stands around a lot of blinking computers while we do try to blast the meteor by remote control.  Despite the differing approaches to meteor-smashing, the results of both are exactly the same—a really shitty movie.  But while audiences spent good money to indulge themselves in the Steven Tyler-enhanced stupidity of Armageddon, a generation before they found better things to do back in 1979 than see Meteor.  Which, once again, is a truly shitty movie.  Bad script, inept direction, a floundering cast, financial failure.  Damaged American International Pictures and possibly helped lead to the company’s demise, although they did release a few more films after Meteor bellyflopped.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

But something good did arise out the ashes.  Marvel Comics adapted Meteor for one of their Marvel Super Specials, and its genius editors assigned Gene Colan and Tom Palmer to draw it.  What Colan and Palmer turned in is nothing short of amazing.  Far from rush it even though they must have known the movie they were working on was a major turkey, they seem to have taken extreme care with the artwork, which includes globe-trotting scene changes from a Hong King suburb to New York City to a doomed Swiss ski resort and back again, detailed backgrounds in the computer command center, a double-page spread of a tsunami threatening Hawaii and another engulfing Hong Kong and—most spectacularly—two pages of rocks blasting and gouging Manhattan itself.  The detail, the realism, the scope.  It's also more than a little disturbing when you associate it with real world events from the years since, but I can’t help but think the movie Meteor might have been a Star Wars-sized blockbuster if only it had looked even half as good as what Colan and Palmer pull off in the comic.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

The script is by Ralph Macchio (the comics guy, not the Karate Kid), and it’s serviceable.  He had to work from the dumb-ass movie screenplay and there’s only so much you can do with something like that.  Let’s just say he keeps the rocks rolling and benefits from this being a comic book, where our expectations for plot mechanics, dialogue and characterization are a fair bit lower than they are even for schlocky disaster films.  Occasionally, I can’t help but detect a little tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in the panel based on a scene where the movie obviously went for pathos and found only derisive laughter.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

Also, you have to consider this is the kind of story where the falling rocks manage to obliterate a familiar ski resort and then Hong Kong, a place most of the intended middle American audience had a vague awareness of as important or large, but still far enough away they could glean a kicky thrill from it before having to confront the horror of something bad happening to their own country.  Gasp!  Not here!  Not in America, where everything of any real importance lives!  You know, the same way terrorists or Mayan disasters always scorch picturesque landmarks in Paris or Tokyo before they come after God’s Country.

Which eventually happens here.  New York City is where the bombardment climaxes, although for some reason the story confines its heroes to the same underground lair they've been stuck in throughout most of the running time and subjects them to-- of all things-- a mud bath.  When you consider how the film could have directly involved them in some of the skyscraper smashings or had them out rescuing small children and their pets then you go a long way towards explaining why Meteor flopped so badly.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer
That dramatic misstep and a lack of Darth Vader, I suppose.  By the time AIP started pissing away their fortunes on this dreck and Macchio, Colan and Palmer put their all into elevating it into sequential brilliance, the Allen era had come and gone and people no longer wanted soap opera interrupted by earthquakes, floods and other sundry acts of God.  They wanted space aliens and all kinds of crazy critters zipping about on interplanetary errands complete with laser beams and Vulcan ears.  A year later and we'd all be gaga over Yoda and a year after that, a little guy named E.T.  Meteor and its ilk would be relegated to afternoon showings on HBO, which is probably where I saw it.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

But that isn't the weirdest thing about Meteor or its superior comic adaptation.  The weirdest thing about Meteor is the inside masthead credits Earl Norem for the cover painting, but one look at it and you know it’s not Norem.  A Norem painting would have put this book over the top as one of those lost classics.  Instead, we get something that looks more like a painting a precociously talented high school kid or community college art student would do in gouache or thin acrylics and then a quick pass with the class’ airbrush.  It’s flat and awkward and it’s boldly signed by people other than Earl Norem.  I know who they are, but mercy and niceness prevents me from naming them.  Still, poor Earl Norem.  He must have felt a bit like Enrico Palazzo did in The Naked Gun as he watched a disguised Frank Drebin sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" on TV, credited as Palazzo.  I have no idea how this editorial mistake happened.  Maybe they just lifted a pasted-up masthead from another magazine and forgot to replace Norem’s name.  Norem couldn’t do something this flat and lifeless even if he had a single lunch break to hack it out.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Katana's first foray: Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983)

Katana’s first appearance is in the first DC Sampler giveaway comic, but for our purposes and because I no longer have that (I did all those years ago, though!), we’re going to say it was in Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983).

As we've discussed before, I’ve always considered Katana a pretty cool character.  Well, except for her original ketchup and mustard color-schemed costume.  It’s really a shame what happened to her recent solo series.  Out of all the New 52 redesigns, hers is the most visually arresting and appropriate.  But we're old school hereabouts, so we're going to spend some time with the original Katana, from back in the day.  DC and Comixology just released for sale the first two issues of the 1980s Batman and the Outsiders series and, of course, I jumped at the chance to buy them again. 

The plot mechanics show through.  There's trouble brewing in made-up country Markovia, and that's where Bruce Wayne has sent trusted employee Lucius Fox (the guy played by Morgan Freeman in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy) there.  Rebel troops capture Fox and hold him hostage, but wouldn't you know it, Superman has told the United Nations the Justice League will sit this one out, and if you're a member of that team, his promise is legally binding.  When Batman finds out no one's going to help him rescue Fox, he flips out and quits, thus finding and exploiting the one small loophole in the United Nations charter as it relates to solemn promises made on everyone's behalf by a guy from another planet.  Even with Batman giving everyone yet another snarled recounting of his origin, this is still an all too convenient way to get Batman out of the Justice League and together with the Outsiders-- all of whom just happen to be in Markovia at the same time for their own purposes.

Well, to hell with that.  This was-- and remains-- a cool book.  You really can’t, or shouldn’t, argue with Jim Aparo’s artwork, and writer Mike W. Barr builds a strong team dynamic once he gets past the set-up.  The unique mother-daughter relationship he establishes between stone-cold killer Katana and naïve amnesiac Halo helps set this book apart from its ensemble-cast predecessors Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans and keeps Outsiders from becoming too generic—the DC equivalent of The Defenders.  Geo-Force is a real zero, though.  His brown costume is dull, as is his origin.  Fortunately, there’s Black Lightning and super-freak Metamorpho.  Black Lightning gives us someone badass to root for who isn’t a jerk like Batman, and Metamorpho adds visual interest.

What does Katana add besides maternal love?  Why, dead bodies by the truckload!

The all-murder-all-the-time team member element hearkens back to the early days of Uncanny X-Men and the Wolverine character arc, before he became overexposed and watered down by revealing his many origins and future demises.  I can’t get over Batman sort of standing back and letting Katana murder so many people, but it certainly makes her more interesting than blandly heroic dopes like Geo-Force.  She doesn’t have any powers to speak of, although because she’s Asian and in a comic book, she’s adept at all martial arts, and because she’s Japanese, of course she is a samurai.

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

See?  The very first thing she does is kill that general, just as a disguised Black Lighting (he's not in the JLA, so he's legally allowed to help Batman all he wants) has successfully tricked him into believing he's Fox's brother and wants to trade lovely gold bars for his lovely fake brother.  Black Lightning's thought balloon and clinched fist both show he knows this ruins Batman's scheme.  He quickly strips off his civilian clothes to reveal his super-costume and starts fighting the enemy troops. 

Okay, let's take a break from all the killing to talk about the very thing from which Katana takes her codename.  What?  You thought Katana was her birth name?  No, her parents named her Tatsu Yamashiro, but only her close friends who know her in her civilian identity call her that.  And even they don't call her that.  They call her Yamashiro-san.  Or Ms. Yamashiro. 

And a katana is a type of samurai sword.  I'm far from an expert, but I do know samurai had more than one kind.  There were longer ones and shorter ones, and they all have names which I don't know.  We say "katana" when we mean the basic samurai sword.  Unless we say "samurai sword" sword instead.  This is Katana's main weapon, her version of Green Lantern's ring, Green Arrow's bow and arrows and Green Keyboard's magic computer.  Anyway, Katana uses a katana.  You know Katana talks to her katana, right?  That’s one of her “things.”

Why would anyone do that when there's a perfectly good Batman standing right there?  I'll tell you.

Like Katana herself, Katana's katana has its own special name:  The Soultaker.  It does that.  It takes souls.  If Katana kills you with it, your soul goes into the sword with all the other souls, but Michael Moorcock doesn’t sue you or anything, so don’t worry about it.  I think a cooler codename than Katana would have been the Japanese phrase for Soultaker, which is something like 魂を取る人, or “Tamashi o toru hito,” or を盗 (“to steal the soul”) according to Google Translate.  Hm.  Maybe not.  Kind of clumsy, huh?  Looks as if Barr and Aparo had a good idea all along and I'm wrong, all right?  I'm Wrong Roy.  Toby!  You are close to death!  Come out here!

So her husband's soul is inside Soultaker.  They talk a lot.  In the new series, she sleeps with the sword as well, which is all kinds of kinky especially when you consider most of her pals don't believe her husband's soul (or anyone's) is inside the sword.  But trust me, in the original series, he's in there and she talks to him and he talks back and gives her advice.

 Anyway, she--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

Oh, look!  Katana's second kill.

She's not really in the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders all that much, but with two kills in two pages, she's made quite an impression.  Batman hogs most of the story space, the same way he hogs the front part of the title, as if this were one of those noisy rock combos the kids like nowadays, where the lead person has their name up front and everyone else is kind of smashed into a collective to the rear.  And then the named artist quits and starts producing music that sounds just like the original group’s, only not as inspired or interesting.  As a result of Batman’s outrageous ego, Katana barely gets into the comic, but she has an impact much greater than you’d expect given the few panels in which she appears.

Another interesting aspect of the character is--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

That's our Katana!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movie Adaptations #1: An overview of those colorful Marvel Super Specials!

Before they started putting out their graphic novels and Epic Illustrated magazine, the Super Special series was Marvel’s most visually arresting product.  Their black and white magazines usually featured attractively lurid covers by Bob Larkin, Earl Norem and, occasionally, guys like Neal Adams and Grey Morrow.  But face it—the interiors varied wildly in quality from the knock-out gorgeous or even thrillingly bizarre (John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton) to the serviceable and even the slap-dash (I won’t name names, but I have my suspects). 

The Super Specials, on the other hand, featured fully-painted color jobs, at least on many of the earlier issues.  Regular monthly comics came printed cheaply on grayish newsprint.  But a Super Special came on slick, white paper.  A Super Special was more than a comic.  It was an event unto itself.  It was super.  And special.  There'd be a painted cover, or one featuring photos or artwork from whatever movie the comic was adapted from.  It would have a full-length comic book story and then a few breathlessly informative articles or interviews related to the magazine's subject matter.  All this... and a higher price tag! 

The very first Marvel Super Special, which was officially a Marvel Comics Super Special, stars rock group Kiss and word on the street is the group contributed some of their blood to be mixed in with the ink.  It's hard to get more super or special than actual rock star bodily fluids inside your comic!  But no thanks.  The second issue features tried-and-true fan favorite Conan in adventures too epic for his regular monthly.

Then Marvel adapted Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first of many Marvel Super Special film adaptations.  A Wiki check shows Close Encounters penciller Walt Simonson complaining about working on that book.  Worst experience of his career.  If so, I sympathize, but you can’t tell he was unhappy by looking at the finished product.  He and Klaus Janson turned in a spectacular effort, making the story work in a Marvelized format even though the conflict is largely internal—Roy Neary thinks he’s going crazy for most of the movie before he figures it all out and goes UFO-hunting—and co-stars every lightbulb in California.  They invented so many ways of depicting lighting effects I’m surprised they didn’t go blind from staring at them too long.  This was the first Marvel Super Special I bought, and it came to me via mail order.  It would not be the last, as these magazines quickly became one of my favorite Marvel purchases.

And this is where we come in.  Marvel’s other movie adaptations.  Jaws 2 swam up next, accompanied by a musical motif ripped off from Stravinsky.  This one was the first Super Special drawn by Tomb of Dracula team supreme Gene Colan and Tom Palmer.  They’d do a few more, each time absolutely rocking the results.  Colan had already done underwater horror in black and white for Warren Publications, but here Palmer adds vivid colors that make the book both gorier than you might expect in a comic and, strangely enough, also more attractive.  Jaws 2 is one of those shitty movies that are actually pretty fun, eschewing the Steven Spielberg original’s emphasis on characterization and suspense for schlocky, unintentionally hilarious setpieces (the shark eats a helicopter!) that do nothing to help its ludicrous premise—essentially shark-shaped lightning striking twice.  While not nearly as dire as subsequent films in the series, the movie suffers from diminishing returns.  The comic book holds things together by simply giving the material a more lavish treatment than it deserves.  I would have loved to see the same team go back and re-tell the first film.  That’s a real missed opportunity for a matched set.

While the Super Specials had already given us a bowdlerized Beatles biography, their adaptation of the infamous BeeGees-starring musical flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band never saw print.  This meant Marvel’s next offering was actually of a TV movie that similarly cribbed from a superior source and suffered from comparisons.  We knew it as Battlestar Galactica.  I had the Marvel Treasury Edition because it was huge and therefore caught my notice.  This one has art by Ernie Colon of Richie Rich and Jackie Jokers fame, and while his linework is looser than the Colan/Palmer stuff, and the colors flat rather than richly painted, it’s an energetic retelling.  It differs from the televised movie in some respects.  A villain gets a bloody comeuppance here, which would make his reappearance a bit… er… unlikely.  And yet there he was, on our TV screens every Sunday evening until ABC punched not only his ticket but everyone’s via cancellation.  And broke my heart.

The next film adaptation to see print?  Crappy sci-fi disaster film Meteor, a major flop with Sean Connery as an astronomer fighting an oncoming… well, you know.  A meteor.  What else?  The movie, which co-stars an unhappy Natalie Wood, forces Brian Keith to speak with a fake Russian accent (a few years after playing a small-town cop comedically contending with “invading” commie submariners in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and not long before using this accent again for one of those WWIII TV movies the kids used to love so much back in the 1980s), with Henry Fonda as the President, putting it kindly, is complete dogshit.  On your shoe, after you stepped in it.  The comic, with Colan/Palmer art, is not.  In fact, it’s quite a visual treat.  There’s even a double-page spread of a massive tidal wave destroying Hong Kong.  Palmer not only handpainted the colors, but there’s also what appear to be Craft-Tint tones involved as well.  I’m not sure what their lead-time was for the artwork, but nothing looks rushed, especially towards the end when the meteor unleashes hell on New York.  Once again the Marvel comic proves better than the film on which it’s based.

From here out the Super Specials would consist almost entirely of movie material, with one exception-- Tarzan of the Apes.  Because they generally went for blockbusters and had to prepare the comics in advance of the films’ release dates, Marvel took on hits and misses alike. 
The adaptations of misses are a lot more fun than the ones of hits as far as I’m concerned.  How could you not love mondo-strange-o comics like Xanadu (#17, Summer 1980), Annie (#23, Summer 1982, with Win Mortimer pencils and lots of crossed eyes courtesy the Vinnie Colletta inks, no less), Rock & Rule (#25, 1983 with art consisting of stills from the movie itself)?  And sometimes the results would be miracles both major and minor, like Marvel’s lovely Dragonslayer (#20 , 1981), the storybook-like Santa Claus: The Movie (#39, 1985, richly drawn by Frank Springer and adapting one of the lousiest movies ever made) and the beautiful Labyrinth (#40, October 1986, with breakdowns by John Buscema and finishes by Romeo Tanghal, an unlikely pairing on this fairy tale material and killing on it). 
And then there’s Bill Sienkiewicz’s Dune (#36, 1984), the perfect meshing of artist and subject matter.  Space princesses, screaming magical messiahs, bloated barons with skin diseases and desert warriors dressed in skin-tight black rubber are visuals tailor made for Sienkiewicz’s “Neal Adams drops acid and hangs out with Ralph Steadman too much” artwork with its heavy blacks.  And giant penis monsters.  I mean worms.  Yeah.  Shai-hulud.  Those spice worms look nothing like a bunch of dicks springing up out of the sand.  Sure.  Seinkiewicz brilliantly translates into two dimensions the general weirdness of David Lynch’s fever-dream take on Frank Herbert’s novel.  And you get the added benefit of not suffering through the pacing problems created by trying to chop a huge novel down into a manageable running time, from not being able to tell all the spaceships are obviously teeny-tiny miniatures and not having to endure the repetitive, whispered voiceovers.  And dumb additions like the “weirding modules.”

Occasonally, though, Marvel would adapt a hit and blow it.  Raiders of the Lost Ark (#18, 1981).  What the hell happened there?  John Buscema and Klaus Janson provide curiously unfinished-looing and flat artwork, with none of the film’s retro-romance.  Dull, off-model colors add nothing to the art and the final product is lackluster at best.

That’s not to say the rest of the hits aren’t pretty sweet.  There are three Al Williamson/Carlos Garzon jobs—The Empire Strikes Back (#16, Spring 1980 and my personal choice for best movie adaptation of all time), Blade Runner (#22, September 1982) and Return of the Jedi (#27, 1983).  Much like with Seinkiewicz and Dune, Williamson was the perfect choice to adapt the second and third Star Wars films.  He seems an odd choice for Ridley Scott’s downbeat sci-fi noir, but he, Garzon, Dan Green and Ralph Reese generate all the film-accurate rainy cityscapes you could hope for, even if a number of panels seem a bit too photo reference-heavy and static.  They reproduce the film’s atmosphere to a startling degree, sort of making up for that lack in the Raiders book.  Should have put them on that one, too. 
Buscema pencils and inks himself on the two Conan movie adaptations, too, both for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (#21, 1982) and the lighter, less boob-filled Conan the Destroyer (#35, 1984).  He doesn’t try to make his barbarian look anything like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, which is a good thing.  Although the Destroyer Conan sports Arnold’s headband.  You can never go wrong with Buscema inking himself on a Conan story, whether or not you appreciate Milius’ heavy-handed philosophizing and libertarian politics (I actually kinda dig it, even if I don’t agree with it) or director Richard Fleischer’s duller, less edgy and politicized take.

I’ve skipped around a lot.  What about the rest?  Well, there are two crappy and then crappier Roger Moore-era James Bond flicks (For Your Eyes Only achieves mediocrity by pairing otherwise appropriate Howard Chaykin with a disinterested Vince Colletta and then dumping a dull, standard monthly-comic-type color job on the results, totally wasting the format’s color possibilities); the tragically doomed Dark Crystal; another Indiana Jones flick with improved art but a sillier story; a nicely cartooned version of The Muppets Take Manhattan; desultory passes at clunkers like Krull, The Last Starfighter and 2010; the ahead-of-its-time Buckaroo Banzai (#33, 1984), all hip and tongue-in-cheek, makes a bow and turns immediately into a cult film; and Marvel even attempted both Sheena (#34, 1984, decent artwork by great Gray Morrow wasted on dreck) and Red Sonja (#38, 1985, a worthy effort by Louise Simonson and Mary Wilshire, with surprisingly deft Colletta inks, doomed from the start by its source material but finally sunk by the decision to go the cheap route yet again with a standard color palette).

The best, however, they saved for last.  The final Marvel Super Special, lucky #41 (November 1986) adapts George Lucas’ long-neglected masterwork Howard the Duck.  No knock on writer Danny Fingeroth or artist Kyle Baker, but this comic fairly cried out for some Gene Colan or Val Mayerik artwork.  Only they could have possibly salvaged this one. 
It has an appropriate cover date, though, doesn’t it?  November, towards the end of fall.  An inbetween time, a neither-nor time, a waiting time.  The happy Halloween graveyard ghost-dance past, the joys of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s yet to come.  Despite Thanksgiving, which I really conflate with the Christmas holidays, November is a dull, gray month.  Too bleak to be tedious, too tedious to be fun.  The first cold rains come, and we’re given our initial glimpse of the dying of the year and the bleak winter that comes after our holiday revelry.  That’s all that November means to me.  The promise that, after the gifts and pretty lights, winter will be hard.  Long and hard and dead.  And with this, with the arrival of Howard, our symbol of the death of everything summer-bright in the world, Marvel Super Special was no more.
What I'm hoping to do with this series is take on each of these books, probably in order, and try to find some nice things to say about them.  We've already looked at two of these in detail, so we don't have to worry about them again!  Whew!  Some of the rest will be easy, even if the movies they're based on were complete stinkers.  Some won't be so easy.  But therein lies what I hope will be the fun.