Thursday, December 31, 2015

Audio Book 8: Death Echoes for Bond

You can probably thank Bill Paley for For Your Eyes Only.
During the summer of 1958, CBS commissioned Ian Fleming to write a TV series based on James Bond (partly inspired by the success of the 1954 one-shot CBS television adaptation of Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale).
Fleming wrote outlines for several episodes before CBS dropped the idea. CBS Chairman of the Board Bill Paley’s biographer Lewis J. Paper reported that Paley “…rejected any suggestion that the network make use of Ian Fleming’s stories about James Bond, believing that the American public would have no interest in the escapades of a British spy.” Not Paley’s best moment.
In 1959, working at his home Goldeneye in Jamaica, Fleming adapted four of the TV plots into short stories. Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett noted that “…Ian’s mood of weariness and self-doubt was beginning to affect his writing,” as evidenced in Bond’s internal monologue of thoughts.
The short stories became Fleming’s 1960 Bond book, For Your Eyes Only.
The title story, according to Wiki, was originally called Man’s Work and was “…set in Vermont, where Fleming had spent a number of summers at his friend Ivar Bryce’s Black Hollow Farm, which became the model for von Hammerstein's hideaway, Echo Lake. The name of the villain of the story, von Hammerstein, was taken from General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878–1943), one of Hitler’s opponents. Fleming also considered calling the story Death Leaves an Echo and based the story on Rough Justice, which was to be episode three of the television series.”
The other stories in that collection — Quantum of Solace, Risico and The Hildebrand Rarity — are not included in this BBC adaptation, but two later stories are.
The Property of a Lady was written in 1963 as a commission for Sotheby’s for use in their annual journal. Fleming was disappointed in the tale, a bit of business about a double agent who is to be paid by KGB through the auction of Peter Carl Fabergé’s “Emerald Sphere.” Of more enduring interest was The Living Daylights, published in 1962 as Berlin Escape. Bond gets a surprise, and is inspired to bitter moral musings, when he is assigned sniper duty to help British agent 272 escape from East Berlin by killing a KGB assassin codenamed Trigger. 

Audio Novel 4: James Bond in Sin City

Signet paperback art by Barye Phillips
Bond versus the American vulgarians — that’s Diamonds Are Forever, Ian Fleming’s fourth 007 thriller, published in 1956 and inspired by a Sunday Times article on diamond smuggling.
For this young American reader, the USA wasn’t as exotic a setting as a casino “near the mouth of the Somme” or Jamaica or even England, and loudly dressed American gangsters seemed laughable next to the elegant, imposing menace of Le Chiffre or Mr. Big or Sir Hugo Drax.
That said, it’s a perfectly serviceable Bond adventure, charged with Fleming’s early verve, a couple of chilling gay killers named Wint and Kidd and a likeable, tough, brassy heroine, Tiffany Case. A survivor of gang rape who works as a smuggler for the Spangled Mob, Tiffany becomes the second woman with whom Bond falls in love during the course of the novels. We learn only later that Tiffany, finding Bond too difficult to live with, returned to the U.S. with an American military officer, whom she probably married.
The novel includes a sybaritic setting, Las Vegas, that seems perfect for Bond from the moment when, with some amusement, he steps off an airliner to breathe pure oxygen from one of those American gizmos.
Never out of print, the novel got an early boost in November 1956 when the man from No. 10, Sir Anthony Eden, made a much-advertised visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate to recuperate following the Suez Crisis. It was adapted into a comic strip in 1959-60 and, in 1971, became the basis for Sean Connery’s last “official” film as 007. Jill St. John joined him, making an excellent Tiffany Case.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The First Time I Saw the Marvel Family

The first time I saw Captain Marvel, and the Marvel Family, I was kneeling on the floor of a second-hand shop in Effingham, IL, fairly desperate to urinate but too engrossed in a comic book to go do it.
I was perusing the penultimate issue of Fawcett’s Marvel Family, No. 88, but I didn’t know that. Circa 1963, Captain Marvel and his friends had been out of print for a decade, literally a lifetime to me.
The secondhand shop offered stacks and stacks of used “funny books” for a nickel each, and avidly combing through them all constituted an arduous endurance test of a 9-year-old’s bladder.
A man, a girl and a boy — all caped and dressed suspiciously like Superman — were walking through a door while deflecting various deadly threats with their invulnerable bodies. So they had Superman’s powers too!
Jokes of Jeopardy was the story’s title. “Geo Pardy?” What kind of a word was that?
The issue earned my nickel, and my speculations even after I’d read it. What had happened to these super people? Where had they gone?
I wouldn’t learn until years later that they’d been sent to their graves in part by a lawsuit on behalf of the very Superman they so resembled, and that they had for one brief shining moment in the 1940s they’d been the most popular superheroes of all. Their very popularity, I suppose, finally did them in, guaranteeing DC Comics’ enmity.
That may not have been the actual first time I’d seen Captain Marvel, although I didn’t realize it. Around then, in school, a classmate had brought in a copy of a magazine I’d never seen, Castle of Frankenstein. There, on the cover, was a black and white photograph of a caped flying man who was clearly not Superman. Utterly fascinated, I never got to look inside the issue to discover who he was. Decades later, when I finally got to see Republic Pictures’ The Adventures of Captain Marvel, I found that it lived up to its wonderful reputation among serial buffs. And yet it was somehow never quite as wonderful as all my pleasantly feverish speculations about this mystery man had been.
From the cover of the second issue of Larry Ivie's Castle of Frankenstein magazine (1962)

Monday, December 28, 2015

The First Time I Saw Captain Atom

Charlton Comics' Space Adventures 36, published in October 1960.  They used typewriters in place of letterers.
The first time I saw Captain Atom, I was at my grandparents’ home in bed with one of those diseases that 6 year-olds used to get, and my Aunt Shirley bought me a handful of comics to read, including Space Adventures 36, because the cover featured one of those costumed heroes she knew I loved.
Okay, the McCarthyesque Cold War plots were already hackneyed by 1960. Charlton Comics was clearly a step below DC, even to 6-year-old, except in one respect — that artist I couldn’t yet name but could always recognize. 
Those angular, rather contorted figures, that sparkling radioactive con trail left by the hero in flight, the bizarrely beautiful yellow lamé costume, the curving mask that seemed have been designed, as someone later said, using a protractor. And then there was that long-examined, curiously symbolic cover featuring a bisected someone who was half Air Force officer, half superhero. 
It was an artistic device created by Steve Ditko that he would use again on the second and much more famous superhero he would co-create, over at what would be called Marvel Comics.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Welcome the Watcher Within

“To the degree that we can acknowledge how we really are, we create a part of ourselves that is free from that mental state. We will find that there is nearly always at least a part of us of that can see what is going on in a more objective manner. This does not mean splitting ourselves off from experience; rather, it means trying to create a broader context within which to understand the experience. Mental states are very fluid; they change from moment to moment. Awareness means having a sense of continuity about the ever-changing flow of mental states.
“Take the way we treat the emotional experience of a young child. A parent seeing a child who is upset knows that half an hour later it will probably have forgotten all about whatever upset it and be restored to a happier state. The child has no such perspective on its own experience and is for that moment consumed by its unhappiness.
“As we become older, we should develop a perspective that allows us not to be quite so engulfed by the passing fluctuations of fortune. However, very often we never really do develop such a sense. Instead, many of us learn not to feel. We learn not to pay attention to our emotions; we cut off from them.
“In meditation we are trying to relearn how to feel, and acknowledge our feelings but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them.
“This, in essence, is what compassion in Buddhism is about; it is an ability to feel so deeply that we no longer distinguish between our own feelings and those of others — while at the same time keeping a sense of awareness and clarity.”

— Paramanada, Change Your Mind

Elleston Trevor — Bishop Exposed

The film was retitled for U.S. release
My great friend and mentor Elleston Trevor wrote novels that were made (and remade) into major Hollywood movies — The Flight of the Phoenix and The Quiller Memorandum. But after his stint fixing the Spitfires on World War II airfields and before his move to Phoenix in the 1960s, he wrote novels that were made into movies in England. He never liked to talk about them much, regarding them as inferior to Hollywood’s product.
I ran across this, Elleston’s 1952 novel Queen in Danger made into a 1953 movie called Mantrap and starring, of all people, Paul Henreid (of Casablanca), Hugh Sinclair (one of the Saints) and Lois Maxwell (of the James Bond films). It was directed by Hammer Films’ Terence Fisher. The whole movie’s here. Henreid stars as Hugo Bishop, Elleston’s amateur detective hero who studies humanity under stress. The Bishop novels all had chess references in the titles, and at the time Elleston was still writing under his original name, Trevor Dudley-Smith. After his Quiller novels became famous, the Bishop novels were reissued under his spy novelist pen name, Adam Hall.
Paul Henreid as Hugo Bishop

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Robert Shaw: That Certain Teacher

 “I had one schoolmaster who got me to read all sorts of things — pretty well everything, including all the classic novels. He was just one of those bits of luck in one’s life. His name was Cyril Wilkes, and I still see him from time to time.
Actor Robert Shaw
“He must have been lonely, and that that was his life — teaching boys and helping them. He used to take three or four of us to see plays in London. The first real play I ever saw, in the autumn of 1944, was Hamlet, with John Gielgud, in a repertory production put on at the Haymarket. Mr. Wilkes took some of us to London during a school holiday. We saw Gielgud’s Hamlet at a matinee. That evening, we saw Margaret Leighton and Ralph Richardson in Peer Gynt, and the next day we saw Laurence Olivier in Richard III at a matinee, and Alastair Sim in the James Birdie play It Depends What You Mean that evening. The third day, we saw Laurence Olivier in the film Henry V in the morning, and in the evening we saw John Gielgud again, in Love for Love.
“I was quite dazzled. Gielgud made an extraordinary impression on me. I can see him now as he looked in Hamlet — that long, angular body in the black costume. That first night, I went back to the hotel room, picked up Hamlet, and read it from beginning to end.
“Me. Wilkes taught French and directed all the school plays. He always had time to talk to the boys. We used to sit in his room until two or three in the morning talking about books and politics. Mr. Wilkes was one of those English liberal of the thirties — a member of the Left Book Club, who probably thought about going to fight fascism in Spain but then hadn’t done it. He was that kind of teacher.
“He directed me in the school plays, but told me not to try to become a professional actor. He said that I had the wrong temperament for it — that I was too rebellious and wanted my own way too much. Later on, I found out that it was his policy to say that to everybody, on the theory that if you’re set on doing a thing, you’ll go ahead and do it anyway.” —  Robert Shaw, The Player: Profile of An Art

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

No, Mr. Bond. I Expect You to Read

I realized after 70 years that my first big break was when I was five: I learned to read and write ... so that for me was the break.
— Sean Connery

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Puritan Power in American Pop Culture

Fin de siècle French supermen like Fantomas were all rampaging Id, glorying in their elaborately planned terrorist attacks and, without hesitation, murdering anyone who stood between them and their desires.
But 1930s American pulp supermen like the Shadow and Doc Savage seemingly had no personal desires. They were all Superego, devoted to impersonal crusades for justice and/or helping the helpless — a legacy of both America’s all-business attitudes and Puritan origins that also informed westerns and detective stories, among other genres.
Primitive chaos doesn't daunt the technocratic wonder Doc Savage
“Whether as conscious reflections of ideology or disguised myth, basic cultural assumptions embedded in our national mythology often appear in our popular forms of entertainment,” wrote Columbia University film professor Jim Holte in his essay Pilgrims in Space“Puritan ideology stated that sexuality was an outward and visible sign of a corruption that would destroy any covenanted community beset with such real and immediate external dangers as the wilderness, the Indians and a seemingly endless number of heresies. To confront the terrors of the unknown and continue his mission, the Puritan needed all the discipline and resolve he could muster. No distractions were permitted. It was enough to make anyone grim.”

Monday, December 7, 2015

Broomsticks Over Broadway

One might think that being the most popular playwright in America, with hit after hit on stage and screen, would make one feel secure. And one would, of course, be wrong.
“I’d had an enormous run from 1961 through 1968, and I felt, if not quite on top of the world, at least that I was living on one of the higher floors,” Neil Simon recalled in his memoir Rewrites.
“But the thought was always there that they could take it away as fast as it came, a symptom all too familiar to almost everyone I knew or read about in show business who rose quickly to the top. In my insecurity I wondered when I would be accepted as having ‘arrived.’ And I constantly thought maybe one more play would do it. It never happens, of course. No shadowy figure appears in the middle of the night to deliver a letter that says, ‘You’ve arrived.’ Success is not something you can hold in your hand. Joan was something I could hold. And Ellen and Nancy — I could hold them.
Simon met one source of his insecurities outside Sardi’s one rainy night. “For as many people out there who applaud your work, there’re an equal number who dismiss it out of hand. I once met Pauline Kael, the former film critic for the New Yorker, who was held in very high esteem — except by anyone I ever spoke to. There was no denying she was a brilliant writer who seemed to prefer Polish or Czech films made on a budget of twelve dollars with stories somewhat on the lines of ‘How a Greek sailor wakes up on a beach one morning with a woman’s brown shoe in his pocket. The rest of the picture traces his search.’ Fortunately the picture invariably ends before you ever find out.
“That was Art. I didn’t write Art.
“We met one evening as we were leaving Sardi’s restaurant, where the New York Film Critics Awards were being handed out,” Simon said. “Ms. Kael and I were both standing under a canopy as the rain pelted New York, and I had very little sympathy for the fact that her new shoes were getting wet, since she had stepped on my own feet every time I had something to show the public.
“As we both waited silently for a cab, we glanced at each other, knowing someone had to say something first. She made a halfhearted attempt at a smile, and said, ‘I haven’t been awfully nice to you over the years, have I?’ I made a full-hearted attempt not to smile, and said, ‘No, you haven’t.’ She said, ‘Well, it’s hard not to knock you. You keep coming around too often.’ Then she got in her cab and quite surprisingly flew up into the night sky, as I thought I heard a cackle in the distance.”
Critics and playwrights can be both natural allies and natural enemies.
Maybe the trouble was something as simple as Kael’s nagging awareness that nobody needed her to explain to them that Simon’s films and plays were enjoyable.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that she thought she was paying Simon a compliment. 

Neil Simon: Learning from Lemmon

Neil Simon with his Odd Couple, jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Photo by Timothy White.
Playwright Neil Simon learned something from Jack Lemmon, whose range as an actor impressed him. “He is equally as funny in one of the greatest farces ever made, Some Like It Hot, as he is moving in Days of Wine and Roses, or as touching as he is in Glengarry Glen Ross,” Simon recalled in his memoir Rewrites. “The other important quality Jack has in something an actor can neither learn, be directed to do, nor buy for all the money in the world: you can’t help but like him.
“He is also appreciative and complimentary to the written word, and if he doesn’t like it, he will play it full out anyway and let you pick up that it doesn’t work. He once said in an interview, ‘Neil writes in definite rhythms and as in music, you can’t skip any of the notes. If his prepositions and conjunctions, such as but, if, and, or and it are left out, the music is wrong.’
“When I heard this, I was taken aback for a moment. I was unaware that this was true.”

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wandering Off the Yellow Brick Road

You know, as a child I always rather despised Dorothy Gale, who flopped around through Oz weak and helpless.
I was irritated that she prevailed only by accident. But I just realized that she didn't win by accident. She won because she made friends, an angle that would never have occurred to my superhero-obsessed little mind.
My friend Brian Peterlinz replied, “There is also an age-old theme explored — finding oneself through a shared journey and adventure.”
My friend Betty Layport-Feher pointed out, “And, she made friends because she was truly interested in the well being of others." And my friend Lynne Parker remarked, “Amazing and sad how many American males are still stuck where you were as a child.”

The Hardest Day in Central Park

Playwright Neil Simon in 1969
Neil Simon’s Willy Lohman-like father had no understanding of books, plays or even fatherhood, really. He thought that the actors might have helped Neil write his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn. Irving Simon liked the father played by Lou Jacobi, telling Neil he knew so many men like that. He never recognized the character as himself.
But Irving Simon had his pride, and refused to eat in his sons’ homes, afraid he might somehow impoverish them. One day he asked Neil not to bring his beloved granddaughter Ellen along to their meeting in Central Park.
Lou Jacobi (bottom r.) played a character based on Simon's father in this comedy hit.
“I sat on the bench where we always met, and as I saw him approaching, I could see he walked gingerly, not with the usual sprightly gait I was accustomed to,” Neil recalled in his memoir Rewrites. “He looked pounds thinner and when he reached me, he sat and looked away, tears in his eyes. I sat quietly, waiting for him to gather himself. He asked how Joan and Ellen were and was I feeling well, all questions meant to delay what he really had to say. His lips were trembling as he started to speak, and the stifled sob was even more distressing than if he had just let the tears flow.
“ ‘What is it, Dad? Tell me. Are you all right?’
“Every time he tried to speak; he fumbled, he took out a handkerchief to blow his nose and hide his face when anyone passed within earshot. ‘I don’t know how to say this. I’ve never taken anything from you or Danny. You know that. Am I lying?’
“ ‘No, Dad. You never let us give you anything. What is it? Money? Just tell me. I’ll give you whatever you need.’
“He covered his eyes with his hands and this time the sobs came uncontrollably. He told me what he needed and swore it was only a loan. He would pay me back one day. ‘As God is my judge.’ I told him I would send him a check in the morning.
“I knew he was never a strong man, never a fighter, or even a self-sufficient man, despite the fact that he always worked hard. He depended on the love and sympathy of his sisters, his nieces and his nephews, who I think knew his faults but loved him. I knew and saw both sides.
“We hugged and he got up to leave; he was hardly able to look at me as he went. For a man who wouldn’t even share a Sunday breakfast with me, this had to be the hardest day of his life. I never told my mother what happened but I think somehow she knew. I grew up seeing the torment of broken families, broken lives and broken hearts. I always looked for the pain when I wrote about it. Writing about it in a play or on this page doesn’t lessen the pain, but it allows you to look at it from a distance, objectively instead of subjectively, and you begin to see a common truth that connects us all.” 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Once Upon a Lie: Why Republicans Win

Author and cognitive scientist George Lakoff
How is the American public so easily and completely conned?
By the numbers, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff observes.
“First, stresses like fear (of terrorist attacks), worry (about finances, health care and so on) and overwork tend to activate the norepinephrine system, the system of negative emotions,” wrote Lakoff  in his 2008 book The Political Mind. “The result is a reduced capacity to notice. Second, the right conceptual framework must be in place in order to recognize apparently different events as the same kind of event."
Lakoff pointed to then-current news stories about Blackwater mercenaries mass-murdering Iraqi civilians, President Bush’s veto of the continuation of a government children’s health care program and the federal Food and Drug Administration no longer having enough funds to monitor food and drug safety.
“But they are about the same issue: the radical conservative political and economic agenda is putting public resources and government functions into private hands, while the eliminating the capacity of the government to protect and empower the public,” Lakoff noted.
We might add that the very same issue is still at work in Illinois in 2015, as a state budget crisis is manipulated to deny funding to public universities, and perhaps to eliminate them entirely.
“The public has no conceptual framework to see all these as the same and to comprehend what this means, and with the stress of fear and worry and overwork,  the public has little capacity to notice and to create the substantial neural structures needed to comprehend what is happening in hundreds of areas of life,” Lakoff wrote.
“The Democratic leaders are not, as they say, connecting the dots,” Lakoff noted.  “The facts and figures are given, but they are all about different things — violence in Iraq,, children’s health, drug tests. The old Enlightenment reason approach not only fails, it wastes effort, time and money. It does so not only because the public’s mind is mostly unconscious, metaphorical and physically affected by stress, but because its brain has been neurally shaped by past conservative framing.”
Republicans do not reason with the members of the American public. Instead, they use their overwhelming media power to repeatedly tell them simple bedtime stories — about Rescue, Redemption, strong Daddy figures, weak Mommy figures and so forth. They’re all bullshit, but so what? Familiar Republican fiction soothes the American public while insidious Republican fact gets busy stabbing them in the back.

The Good versus the 'Good'

Some people try to become good, and some people try to call what they do "good." And therein lies all the difference.

— Dan Hagen

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Republicans Raise a Rough Beast

Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for president, has suggested that the U.S. should murder whole families in the “War on Terror.”
When you start advocating the military execution of children, you might want to consider the possibility that you have become pure evil. By the way, that would of course be a war crime, not that any 21st century Republican stints at those.
For 15 years, since the stolen election of 2000, I have endured sneers from people who pooh-poohed my observation that the Republican Party was aimed straight at full-blown, totalitarian fascism, complete with torture and summary execution. Funny. I no longer hear those sneers. Meanwhile, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Washington to be born…

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Fate and the Self-Reliant Playwright

The young playwright Neil Simon
Neil Simon — a boy made pathologically self-reliant by his parents’ shaky-as-a-quake marriage — quoted Heraclitus to describe his journey.
“If character is fate, as the Greeks tell us, then it was my character to become a playwright, not my destiny,” Simon observed in his memoir Rewrites. “Destiny seems to be preordained by the gods. Fate comes to those who continue on the path they started on when all other possible roads were closed to them. Fate is both your liability and your hope.
“For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or ten hours, sharing the time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven. And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell. After ten years of writing with my brother or with other staff writers, together in one room, screaming for my own voice to be heard, or whispering it to another writer with a voice more commanding than my own, the day I typed the title page of that first play in the unlikely environs of Coldwater Canyon I knew I had found not only the one thing I was certain would make me happy but I also knew I was about to enter the only world in which I could possibly exist.”

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cross Captain America with Wonder Woman...

Cross Wonder Woman with Captain America and you get Timely Comics’ Miss America, who was created by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Gabriele for the company that would become Marvel Comics.
In Marvel Mystery Comics 49 (Nov. 1943), when a scientist’s device was struck by lightning, plucky Washington, D.C., heiress Madeline Joyce gained the powers of Miss America. Her super strength faded over time, but she continued to fly.
Quality Comics had previously featured an unrelated character named Miss America in Military Comics in 1941 and 1942. Marvel’s version was part of a wave of female superheroes that included DC’s Black Canary, Quality’s Phantom Lady, EC Comics’ Moon Girl and Timely’s Venus, Sun Girl, Blonde Phantom, Golden Girl and Namora.
Here, in the March 1944 Marvel Mystery Comics 53, she fights the Flaming Hate. The art’s by Charles Nicholas. Miss America teamed up with other 1940s Marvel superheroes (and met her future husband) in the All-Winners Squad over in All Winners Comics, and also starred in her own title. The second issue featured a photo cover of a unknown model dressed in the Miss America superhero costume, and introduced a long-running teen-humor character called Patsy Walker (who remains alive and well on the Netflix TV series Jessica Jones).

William Manchester on Not Breaking in Half

Thirty-five years later, writing his World War II Pacific combat memoir Goodbye, Darkness, historian William Manchester ticked off the Marines he had known well and seen killed.
“Shiloh Davidson II, Williams ’44, a strong candidate for his family’s stock exchange seat, crawled out on a one-man twilight patrol up Sugar Loaf. He had just cleared our wire when a Nambu burst eviscerated him. Thrown back, he was caught on improvised wire. The only natural light came from the palest wash of moon, but the Japs illuminated that side of the hill all night with their green flares. There was no way that any of us could reach Shiloh, so he hung there, screaming for his mother, until about 4:30 in the morning, when he died.
The Battle of Sugar Loaf on Okinawa
“After the war, I visited his mother. She had heard, on a Gabriel Heatter broadcast, that the Twenty-ninth was assaulting Sugar Loaf. She had spent the night on her knees, praying for her son. She said to me, ‘God didn’t answer my prayers.’ I said, ‘He didn’t answer any of mine.’’
Recalling Okinawa, Manchester wrote, “I was in the midst of satanic madness: I knew it. I wanted to return to sanity: I couldn’t. All one could do, it seemed to me, was to stop combat from breaking you in half, to keep going until you reached the other side of your immediate objective, hoping it would be different from this side while knowing all the time, with the weary cynicism of the veteran, that it would be exactly the same. “It was in this mood that we scapegoated all cases of combat fatigue — my father’s generation of infantrymen had called it ‘shell shock’ — because we felt that those so diagnosed were taking the dishonorable way out. We were all psychotic, inmates of the greatest madhouse in history, but staying on the line was a matter of pride. Pride was important to young men then. Today it is derided as machismo. But without that macho spirit, California and Australia would have been invaded long before this final battle.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When Dinosaurs Fly Through a Hole in the Sky

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my heart belonged to the superheroes. But my favorite title outside that genre was probably editor Julius Schwartz’s Strange Adventures, then its heyday at DC.
The menaces were outsized and outré, but the attitude was a sunlit can-do American optimism, brotherhood of man stuff. The clean lines and lyrical stylization of the art by Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Sid Greene and Murphy Anderson reinforced that unshadowed atmosphere. Even a post-nuclear war dystopia like the Atomic Knights series seemed to have its cheery aspects, such as friendly giant riding Dalmatians. And for a small child, that was reassuring.
The title really hit its stride from about 1957 through 1963. Perhaps coincidentally, its optimism seemed to end at about the same time America’s did — on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
My favorite issue, No. 121, had arrived on the newsstand earlier, cover-dated October 1960. The stories by Gardner Fox — The Wand That Could Work Miracles, a “Space Museum” tale called The Billion-Year Old Spaceship and Invasion of the Flying Reptiles — all offered science fictional wish fulfillment.
A hole opens in time and releases invulnerable pteranodans from a hundred million years ago over Washington, DC. Yikes. But luckily, a plucky husband-and-wife team of scuba-diving scientists, Jim and Rhoda Trent, have found a plesiosaur frozen in ice (Schwartz’s titles were always resolutely feminist, their female characters smart, stylish, cool-headed and brave). Befriending the revived dinosaur, whom they nickname Ol’ Pleasure, the Trents — by offering themselves as bait on water skis — are able to use the plesiosaur to defeat the pteranondans. My favorite part was the last panel, with the Trents happily tossing fish to their plesiosaur pal at a seaquarium.
The story was probably popular, because the Trents returned to help giant undersea frog people in Strange Adventures 130. And the cover idea — flying dinosaurs coming through a hole in a sky — was recycled for Green Lantern 30, cover-dated July 1964. 

Fairly Unbalanced: Here's a News Quiz for You

Obama is inviting in “the barbarians at the gate.”
“Everything that the president is doing seems to benefit what ISIS is doing.”
Obama’s “hatred of America” may be “because he’s part black … He does not wish America well.”
Obama’s willing to expose the U.S. military to “the Ebola virus to carry out this redistribution of the privileged’s wealth.” Can you guess what “news channel” aired those “journalistic” remarks? Oddly, I’ll bet you can.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Those Embarrassing Capes and Masks

Dr. Solar tried superheroics without a costume in 1963...
In the comics, particularly those with relatively crude art, the costumes served to easily identify and dramatically focus attention on the protagonists. But that function is served, in movies and television, by the looks, manners and stage presence of the stars, so garish costumes are superfluous.
Superhero costumes were probably not quite as odd-looking in the 1930s as they are today.
After all, American audiences were accustomed to seeing bold colors, capes and tights that emphasized the breathtaking bodies of men and women who could perform astonishing physical feats that even defied gravity. They were circus performers, acrobats and trapeze artists, and their garments must have seemed a natural fit for fast-moving four-color individuals like Flash Gordon and Superman.
But circuses have faded even as superheroes have flourished, and nobody dresses like that anymore. And that makes costumes problematic when popular characters are transferred to the screen.
In the 1930s, the superhero costume wasn’t quite the fetish it became. Superman, for example, would go into action without it when he had to in his early comic book exploits. Oddly, he did wear the costume in his radio adventures, even though he took care that no one could see him acting as Superman for the first few years of his show.
But the costume convention took a firm hold of the popular imagination during the 1940s and 1950s. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to defy it in the fresh approach they took to their 1961 title The Fantastic Four, only to find that the readers demanded costumes. And by the third issue, they got them. Gold Key tried the same thing in 1963 with their Dr. Solar, the Man of the Atom, holding out until the fifth issue before giving their nuclear-powered hero a costume, mask and dual identity.
...But found that he finally had to surrender to comic book convention
In the comics, particularly those with relatively crude art, the costumes served to easily identify and dramatically focus attention on the protagonists. But that function is served, in movies and television, by the looks, manners and stage presence of the stars, so garish costumes are superfluous. And also, talented comic book artists can cast costumes in the light of thrilling, flowing romanticism, but on TV and in movies, real people have to wear the things.
TV, in particular, is a medium comfortable with the mundane, and not so comfortable with the outlandish. TV’s Superman had a costume in the 1950s, but that was clearly a children’s show. The costumes in 1966’s hit Batman TV show only helped to emphasize how campy and absurd the whole idea of superheroes was, and that parody element was echoed in the superhero sitcoms Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific in 1967. The one show that tried to take costumed heroes seriously, 1967’s Green Hornet, only lasted one season.
And it wasn’t that TV audiences of the era didn’t care for superheroes — they proved that by making hits of the non-costumed Six Million Dollar Man in 1974 and its spinoff The Bionic Woman in 1976.
Lynda Carter was successful as the flag-costumed Wonder Woman in 1975 in part because her show initially had a nostalgia angle, pitting her against Nazis in World War II. And The Incredible Hulk was well received in 1978, but didn’t have a costume, just green skin. The companion series Spider-Man featured a costumed hero and failed in 1977, in part because it was so poorly executed.
Producer Stephen Cannell had a hit with a costumed superhero in The Greatest American Hero in 1981, and he managed it by being clever in his approach. Cannell required from the beginning that the hero’s super powers would be contained in his caped alien costume. So he’d have to wear it, and could still play against it.
Then came 1990’s The Flash, a costumed superhero who lasted only a season. Then 1993’s successful Lois & Clark, which deemphasized the costumed hero even in its title. Then 1997’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who needed no costume. Then 2001’s Smallville, which gave us Superman without a costume (and became the longest-running Superman TV series). And then 2014’s Gotham, which gave us Batman’s world without Batman, kind of the ultimate cheeky TV move, I’d say.
The costumed superhero has been successfully revived on TV with Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl. In 2015, Marvel’s Daredevil redeemed the costumed superhero on TV, even though the character’s full costume is seen only at the end of the first season. And now we have Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which astutely uses the costume as a metaphor. The super-powered heroine — alliteratively named as a wink at all the Bruce Banners, Clark Kents, Billy Batsons, Peter Parkers and Sue Storms out there — is presented as once having tried to be a costumed hero, or its equivalent. But Jessica, whom I like to call Supergoth, learned the hard way that her world is too dark and cheerless for fancy dress.