Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Requiem for Childs

I recently finished reading the book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: an interpretive history of blacks in American films by Donald Bogle (4th ed, 2002). Bogle held a fascinating approach to the history of African-Americans in Hollywood cinema. As I leafed through the book on the university's shelves, I think the deciding factor in motivating me to check it out was when I noticed how remarkably even-handed Bogle was toward the early black film actors. In fact, he seemed more reasonable in his assessments of the likes of Stepin Fetchit & Mantan Moreland than he was to Sidney Poitier or John Singleton. I suppose it's a case of expecting more from those who held greater opportunities.

Bogle did his best to cover the major African-American stars & directors but with a little more than 400 pages, he simply couldn't comment on every notable performance. While he committed one chapter to each decade of film, one could easily author an entire tome on each decade's African-American actors & directors.

Because not everything could make the cut, it was occasionally surprising to see what did seem worthy of comment to him. There wasn't much made of genre films like sci-fi & horror, for instance. Heck, he breezed past Billy Dee Williams' performances in the Star Wars franchises which - while definitely not Academy Award-level acting - were at least seen more times by more people than any other performer. And yet, he did feel compelled to comment on Ridley Scott's Alien because of (7th-billed) actor Yaphet Kotto. Here's what he wrote:

"As soon as audiences saw his tall, sturdy frame and heard his calmly controlled voice in a film like Ridley Scott's sci-fi thriller Alien (1979), they felt confident of Kotto's powers. As the characters on the doomed space expedition were killed off one by one, audiences had the mad hope that the traditions of horror films would now be completely reversed: both a woman (Sigourney Weaver) and a black would emerge as the only survivors. Maybe the space age would mark a new day for minorities. So strong and commanding a presence was Kotto that one felt he deserved to live. Consequently, it appeared as if Alien's filmmakers almost had a filure of nerve by letting their black hero be killed by the space monster after all."

Four things came to my mind as I wondered what a digression about Alien was doing in this book:

  1. While this might be Kotto's most widely-seen work, as I noted above that didn't win Williams any particular notice for the Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi.
  2. Although he lightly touched on the significance of Sigourney Weaver's character surviving through the film, it really has to be noted just what a big deal her character was for female heroes in genre pictures. Yes, the book's focus is on African-American actors, but Kotto rested down on 8th-billing - this film belonged to Weaver.
  3. The quoted passage above is the only point where he touches on the "black guy dies" horror film cliche. Elsewhere in the book he delves into the "Toms" who sacrifice themselves for Caucasian heroes, but, again, he barely touches the genre films where the "black guy dies" trope became so over-used. Given the amount of research he put into African-Americans in film, I would have enjoyed hearing how the cliche began and how well-established it had become by the time of Alien.
  4. Rather than focus on the negatives about Kotto's place in Alien, he could have been talking about 1982's the Thing and African-American (5th-billed) star Keith David (neither David nor the Thing are mentioned in the book).

And now, for what I really want to talk about: Childs, as portrayed by Keith David in the Thing. If you haven't seen the film... I'm about to ruin everything (except for the funny lines).

This happy-go-lucky picture concerns a dozen men stationed in the Antarctic at a U.S. facility. Upon realizing a hostile, shapeshifting extraterrestrial has infiltrated their ranks and is virtually undetectable, the men succumb to paranoia. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the man most dogged in his efforts to root out the alien, is unfortunately as much a target of paranoia as the others.

The dozen men comprising the cast are not well-defined, deliberately so. If the performers had looked into the cameras and told the audience their personalities Gravity-style, it would have worked against the climate of paranoia. Most of what we learn about the men comes from their actions - and especially their reactions to the tension of the situation.

The station's crew seem to be very isolated from each other, each man living his own head rather than engaging the others in small talk (Palmer is the only one who appears in love with the sound of his own voice). Indeed, MacReady living apart from the others in his cabin is more easily believed to be the Thing because of that distance - but likewise, the lack of strong bonds of friendship between the men heighten the paranoia. If they were able to only tolerate each other before the Thing arrived, its arrival tests their tolerance to the limit.

The most friendly behaviour we see from Childs is in a subtle moment as he and Palmer watch television (VHS tapes, having no broadcast feed). As usual, Palmer runs his mouth off, but Childs seems content with whatever they put on; more significantly, Palmer lights up some pot and silently shares it with Childs. I would be exaggerating if I called them "best of friends," but there's some kind of mutual respect between them.

Childs' involvement in the Thing's first attack (and first gross-out moment) comes when it begins copying the dogs in their kennel. MacReady summons Childs to bring the flamethrower, which, ignorant of the situation, gives Childs momentary pause. In fact, Childs doesn't realize what he's in for until he's finally in front of the kennel and facing the Thing. He freezes for a moment as the Thing begins to ready for attack, but fortunately Childs snaps to attention in time to torch the Thing to death (or temporary submission, as the case may be).

As the horror of the Thing's nature dawns upon the men, Childs is the first to give voice to their fears, asking: "So, how do we know who's human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?" Although MacReady has fairly sound theories about the extraterrestrial, Childs ignores his "voodoo bullshit" and repeatedly looks to the station's scientist Blair for answers. Blair seems to be the only person Childs respects - at least, respects for his abilities of analysis and insight. Unfortunately, Blair cracks up after surmising just how bad the situation is; Childs tries to remain friendly to Blair, right up until the moment Blair draws a gun and shoots at him.

As the movie develops, Childs repeatedly clashes against MacReady's assumption of authority. At one point the station's official leader, Garry, loses his men's trust by being just a little too-quick to draw his gun. Garry stands down and the floor is open for a new leader. Childs nominates himself, but MacReady opines "It should be somebody a little more even-tempered, Childs." Later events will prove both Childs and MacReady are still human, but the distrust between the characters serves to unnerve those of us in the audience. Looking at it from Childs' perspective, he knows he's still human but can't vouch for anyone else; it becomes clear Childs is trying to seize control of the situation to protect himself (and probably as many others as he can manage). Unfortunately, Childs is under the mistaken impression he's the protagonist of this picture (which, he could've been if it had been filmed from his perspective instead of MacReady's). In a way, he foreshadows director John Carpenter's film Big Trouble in Little China where Kurt Russell portrays a sidekick under the mistaken impression he's the hero.

After evidence incriminates MacReady as being the Thing (evidence the real Thing surely planted to pit its enemies against each other), Childs assumes command of the others against MacReady, although MacReady's possession of a flamethrower and dynamite gives him the upper hand. Determined to settle the question of which of the remaining men are human, MacReady has them tied up. Even there, Childs resists; MacReady threatens to kill Childs, to which Childs responds, "Then kill me." In fact, MacReady does wind up killing another of the men - Clark - who had been strongly suspected by the others as being the Thing. when MacReady finally does perform his blood test and it proves the dead Clark to be human, Childs fumes "Which makes you a murderer, don't it?" Not that Childs seems to place any faith in MacReady's blood test as he repeatedly derides the proceedings, until the test works (admittedly, MacReady himself wasn't prepared for what would happen when the test succeeded).

Ultimately, Childs is the second-last to be tested, right before Garry. Just as Garry's quick-trigger temper placed him last in MacReady's queue, Childs' insolence appears to be why MacReady left him to the end. It's worth noting that another of the men who makes it through the blood test (though is ultimately the last man in the picture to die) - Nauls - was also portrayed by an African-American actor (T.K. Carter).

In the picture's climax, Childs and MacReady are the last men alive, but the camp has been destroyed and, having been separated, they aren't 100% sure whether one of them is the Thing. At this point, though, it doesn't matter - Thing or human, neither of them will survive the Antarctic climate. Childs and MacReady share a quiet drink (bringing to mind Childs sharing Palmer's pot earlier) as the film ends.

Here then is an African-American character who survives the entire picture, as Pyrrhic as that may be. In his book, Bogle looked especially to roles where African-American actors had something genuine to say about the African-American experience and there's certainly nothing in the film's text which makes a point of Childs' ethnicity, upbringing or outlook - thus, it's easily overlooked.

Yet, Bogle also liked to observe that the African-American stereotypes from the foundation of U.S. cinema have persisted over the decades in new forms (much like a shapeshifting intruder), hence the book's title. The three male stereotypes he identified were the "Tom," the "Coon" and the "Buck." As a secondary cast member of the Thing, you could argue Childs is a Tom. And yet, Bogle identifies Toms as noble, self-sacrificing souls who usually give up their happiness in favour of a Caucasian protagonist, such as Sidney Poitier in the Defiant Ones. Childs is secondary to MacReady, but chaffes in that role, being very independent-minded and refusing to trust MacReady. No, I think Childs to be too independent to be a Tom.

Then we have the Coon, the buffoon type who is usually lazy, larcenous and/or cowardly. Think, say, of Chris Tucker in the Fifth Element. Childs' brief hesitation to destroy the Thing in his first encounter with it is the nearest he comes to Coonish behaviour; he's not an object of amusement or ridicule.

Last we have the Buck, the aggressive, violent type, the "big scary black guy." It's interesting to note that while Bogle dates Bucks back to the Birth of a Nation, there's precious few of them in films up until the dawn of blaxploitation. Childs' fierce independence could almost identify him as a Buck, yet again his hesitation in using violence with the flamethrower stands against him being identified as a thuggish caricature.

Bogle only identified those three roles, so what am I to do? Claim that Childs is an essay response to a multiple choice question? Yes, I suppose I am. For a first-time viewer of the Thing, Childs is instrumental in heaping up the picture's paranoia. Through him, we see most strongly the case against trusting MacReady, while at the same time we in the audience can't quite trust Childs. If the book on African-American performances of the 1980s is ever written, I hope there's at least a full sentence portioned out for Keith David's Childs.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Three Days of Sequels, Part 3: Rio 2

Oh yes, I'm really going to do this. I'm going to talk about a picture which is unabashedly a family film - a children's film. I saw the 2011 picture Rio on a flight where it was the in-flight entertainment (ie, no channel selection). I was surprised to find the picture wasn't that bad, so three years later I gave Rio 2 a shot. Before I get into it, let's look at some numbers, okay chief?

Rio's Budget: $90 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 72%; Domestic Box Office: $143,619,809

Rio 2's Budget: $103 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 47%; Domestic Box Office: $131,536,019

These are interesting figures; on the one hand, Rio 2 didn't cost much more to make nor earn much less than Rio - but boy, the differences in the critical response suggests something went awry.

The first film concerned Blu, a blue macaw whose species is endangered. Raised in Minnesota by his owner Linda, Blu is thoroughly domesticated and mimics humans. When Brazilian ornithologist Tulio learns of Blu, he brings bird and owner to Rio de Janeiro so Blu can mate with Jewel to help preserve their species. However, Blu and Jewel are pursued by rare bird smugglers and matters are complicated by Blu's inability to fly, his unfamiliarity with Rio and reliance on humanoid thinking. By the end of the film, Blu and Jewel have fallen in love, begun a family and moved into the wild. The story's over then, right?

The makers of the sequel (including returning director Carlos Saldanha) essentially tell the same story again only with less flair. The five writers (FIVE?) can think of nothing more to do with the characters they've created than run them through the most obvious scenarios. Now that Blu & Jewel are together, they introduce a rival for Jewel's affections so Blu can act jealous (though this rivalry exists primarily in Blu's head - Jewel doesn't have agency in this picture). Now that Blu is able to fly, instead his human-like habits are played up so that he ventures into the Amazon with a fanny pack full of human devices. Blu is so human-like and awkward amongst birds that if anyone who hadn't seen the original came to the conclusion Blu must be a human who was turned into a bird, I would understand their confusion.

There is a minor change to the cast as Blu & Jewel now have three children; their respective stock character types are: The Smart One; The Cynical One; and The Token Boy. Blu's friends Rafael, Nico & Pedro are shoehorned into the story primarily to remind viewers they exist but serve little usefulness to the story. The previous film's villain Nigel also returns in a subplot, now flanked by two lackeys: Gabi, a poisonous frog who is in love with Nigel (okay?) and Charlie, a silent anteater. The humans Linda & Tulio also return but in a diminished capacity; although they're the characters who first stumble upon the villains of the picture (an evil logging company) they do little more than cameo in the film.

When I think back on some of the pictures I grew up on (ie, the Dark Crystal or the Black Hole) I get the impression filmmakers of children's pictures had only a rough idea of how to approach younger audiences. The makers of Rio 2, by contrast, are working within a factory-assembled formula. It's not going to hurt kids - it will probably amuse them - but it's lacking in ambition. Do I expect too much from a film whose cast of characters includes "rapping sloth?"

In the film's climactic showdown, our outsider hero has found it difficult to obtain acceptance from his mate's father and their people. However, the outsider proves an adept leader as he guides his fellow blue people in a successful battle against the evil humans whose machines have been decimating their rainforest home and by doing so, the outsider is fully embraced by the others. Wait, that sounds familiar. What film am I thinking of? Shoot.

Unlike the previous two entries on this blog, Rio 2 doesn't indulge in xenophobia, going so far as to include a (very) minute amount of Portuguese (minute enough that I understood it all) and showcasing Brazil in such a way that both films have probably left some kids wishing to visit the country. Compared against Muppets Most Wanted's message of "Europeans are lame," that's not too bad.

Thank you for indulging me as I sift through my thoughts on these - hey, wait a minute, I got it! I know what film I was thinking of! Dances With Wolves, right?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Three Days of Sequels, Part 2: 300: Rise of an Empire

In 2007, director Zack Snyder gave us 300 and caused a minor sensation; earlier this year, Noam Murro ushered in 300: Rise of an Empire and... you probably didn't notice.

300's Budget: $65 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 60%; Domestic Box Office: $210,614,939

300: Rise of an Empire's Budget: $110 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 42%; Domestic Box Office: $106,580,051

I'm not sure if before now I've paused to consider why I like 300. Perhaps it's a guilty pleasure? All I'm certain of is that I quite enjoyed myself in the theater and on subsequent viewings of the film. Yes, I've heard the criticisms about the picture - it's sexist, it's homophobic, it's xenophobic - but as a straight forward action film, I liked it; perhaps there's something in author Frank Miller's worshipping of men of clarity? I'm not particularly interested in Miller's post-80s output with the exception of 300, so I certainly had an interest in another story from that milieu.

Of course, right out of the (hot) gate, 300: Rise of an Empire is problematic as a sequel. It claims to be based on Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes, even though said novel does not exist (Miller released a preview in 2011). Then there's the question of titling the film 300 when - although footage of the 300 Spartans from the previous film is recycled - this is not a story of the 300 Spartans. It's not a story of Xerxes either; he returns and his origins are recounted, but then he takes a backseat to the sequel's villain, Artemisia, almost as though the filmmakers were hoping to save a final confrontation with Xerxes for a third "300" movie. Other characters from 300 recur, including the Persian messenger, which probably excited his fan.

What is this film? It's no longer the story of the 300 Spartans resisting Xerxes' army. It's no longer a showcase for Zack Snyder's style - he's only an executive producer in this picture. It's not an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic book. Some will be glad that this film jettisons the fantasy elements of its predecessor (ie, the giants). The sexism, homophobia & xenophobia isn't as potent either, which might be a reaction to the first film's criticism. But what is this movie?

If you have the patience to sit through it, you'll discover this is a film about Themistocles leading the Athenian forces into naval battles against the Persian fleet commanded by Artemisia. Themistocles' followers are largely indistinguishable, other than a father-son relationship (much as the previous films' Spartans were indistinguishable other than the pair who were father & son). And yet, Themistocles is not the central figure as Leonidas was in the previous film - Xerxes & Artemisia each seize control of the narrative early on until Themistocles finally elbows his way to the forefront.

Considering how long ago 300 came out, you might wonder why, if there were ever going to be a sequel, it took this long to prepare it. I wonder if they originally hoped Miller would finish writing his sequel first - it's a pity they ultimately beat him the punch as I have to imagine Xerxes would do more to promote 300: Rise of an Empire than vice-versa. I mean, this film sequel made me want to spend less time in Miller's version of the Greco-Persian Wars, not more.

Yet, why should that be? What, besides time, the cast and the director were lost between the two pictures? I suppose part of it is 300's sense of finality - that the 300 Spartans die at the end of the picture, but not before achieving some kind of victory against their enemies. 300: Rise of an Empire is a more traditional heroes-beat-the-bad-guys picture. This time the good guys seem even nobler (none of that "master race" stuff the Spartans spouted in the previous film) and the bad guys are possibly even more evil (they use suicide bombers because that's a popular trope when dealing with people from the Middle East).

Heaven help me, I think I enjoyed 300 especially because it was uncouth and politically incorrect. It was also a trailblazer, a picture which looked like nothing I'd seen before. Noam Murro, however, was hamstrung by the need to fashion a "franchise" picture that looked like a different director's style. It ultimately offers little more than a riff on someone else's picture - it has no perspective or message of its own. The picture even lacks a proper conclusion! It exists to perpetuate 300 as a licensed trademark, as though the graphic novel & DVD weren't already doing the job!

For all that, I wouldn't call 300: Rise of an Empire a bad film - it's more a waste of time than anything.

Tomorrow: Rio 2.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Three Days of Sequels, Part 1: Muppets Most Wanted

During my most recent international travels I made use of the in-flight entertainment to watch (amongst others) three films which were sequels to earlier works. The ways in which these films played off their earlier brethren happened to get me thinking; over the next three days, I'll try to sort out my thoughts here on the blog.

First, Muppets Most Wanted, a sequel to director James Bobin's 2011 picture the Muppets.

The Muppets' Budget: $45 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 96%; Domestic Box Office: $88,631,237

Muppets Most Wanted's Budget: $50 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 79%; Domestic Box Office: $51,183,113

Three things all three sequels I'm examining have in common (besides a 2014 release) are:

  1. They reported higher costs than their predecessor
  2. Their reviews were less positive
  3. Their domestic box office totals went down

Considering these facts, one wonders why Hollywood bothers with sequels - they cost more, take in less and are generally less-beloved. I imagine there must be someone who does the math on how much more they can afford to spend versus how much less they think they'll obtain.

I think the Muppets are okay, but it would be a stretch to call me a fan; I tuned into 2011's the Muppets not out of nostalgia, but because the filmmakers had successfully marketed it as a picture which was supposedly "true" to the spirit of earlier Muppet pictures, while at the same time "hip" to modern audiences. It was a family-friendly picture that even a single guy like me could enjoy; it essentially lived up to the hype.

I feel Muppets Most Wanted skews closer to family audiences than singles. While the previous picture's plot (save the Muppet theater) was nothing more than a hook to bring the characters together and hang jokes from, the sequel's plot (the Muppets tour Europe) asserts a lot of control over the film. The humour is fairly juvenile: I'm not sure how I feel about the Muppets making jokes about bodily functions (like, isn't that Dreamworks' turf?) and someone thought Ricky Gervais dressed as a lemur was funny - I hope I never have to sit next to that person on a plane.

Muppets Most Wanted has two great things going for it: one is Tina Fey's campy Russian commandant character who forces a mistakenly-imprisoned Kermit to produce a prison talent show for her; the other is Danny Trejo, playing himself as one of Kermit's fellow prisoners (kids love Danny Trejo!).

I was a little dismayed at a subplot involving Sam the Eagle as a CIA agent working alongside an Interpol agent (played by Ty Burrell) while investigating the crime plot which the Muppets have become embroiled in. Many of the gags in Sam's subplots involve typical stereotypes about Europeans (they drive tiny cars and drink tiny coffees! they go about matters at a relaxed pace, finding time for vacations!) which offer absolutely no twists. The gags feel a little xenophobic and won't do the American kids watching them any favours in how they relate to Europeans.

Although the European gags were written by someone in a coma, elsewhere the film leans heavily on the fourth wall, notably in an opening song where the characters confess sequels aren't as good as their predecessors. There's also a gag about how the character Walter (introduced in the previous film) takes away screen time from other popular Muppets (which only serves to point out how useless Walter is as a recurring character, given that his character arc ended in the previous film and his personality doesn't stand out against the others). The film was made by people who were eager both to entertain and to hold on to the reflected glory from their previous outing. They succeeded in crafting an okay film, however, - unlike the previous picture - failed to fashion something worth talking up to your friends.

Tomorrow: 300: Rise of an Empire.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Unearthed: Justice, Inc.#3

Welcome back to another installment of Unearthed and a last look at Jack Kirby's Justice, Inc., as published by DC Comics in 1975. This time, the issue at hand is #3 and the story "The Monster Bug!"

I have to say, I don't think too much of this cover. Perhaps some of it is a little disappointment - noticing at first glance the car and the prominent words "Monster Bug" I'd hoped this story would involve the Avenger battling a VW Beetle; however, the word "bug" refers to a virus.

Besides the lack of lovebugs, Kirby's cover has only 2/3rds of the page and it feels too constricted. There'a also something very overpowering about Al Milgrom's inks over Kirby's pencils. The monster figures seem almost too heavy - the monsters don't seem to stand apart, but merge into a multi-coloured blob. Ah, but that's only the cover!

The story opens in a pharmacy run by Fergus MacMurdie and his wife. The monocled figure Colonel Sodom (of the New Hampshire Sodomites) has come to obtain chemicals needed to win "the coming war" with germ warfare. Fergus refuses to comply and begins to fight Sodom and his men; to Fergus' luck, our hero the Avenger (and his subordinate Josh) has also arrived on the scene and helpfully informs us Colonel Sodom is an enemy of the Shadow (author Dennis O'Neil wrote both comics for DC).

In the midst of the fight, Sodom's vial of germs are dropped and MacMurdie's wife is infected; she transforms into a monster and one of Sodom's men kills her in self-defense. Sodom himself escapes as Fergus vows revenge; the Avenger and Josh invite Fergus to join the ranks of Justice, Inc., promising together they'll get Sodom; Fergus agrees. They journey to the Justice, Inc. headquarters in Manhattan and soon Fergus is busying himself in the lab. Josh's wife Rosabel reads up on Fergus and discovers he's more than a mere pharmacist, but a chemist who had once been nominated for the Nobel Prize. Between Josh & Fergus in these two issues, there seems to be a pattern in Justice, Inc. stories where the Avenger recruits people who (for some reason) are operating in low-income menial jobs rather than the prestigious roles their backgrounds would suggest.

The Avenger takes the time to introduce Smitty to Fergus (still no explanation of Smitty's speciality; still no assigned role for Rosabel). At this point, one notes Smitty & Fergus are both giant, red-haired men, which is needlessly confusing; to help us, the colourist has outfitted both men in green clothing. The Avenger thinks Sodom's next target will be the chemist Allan Ash, so he intends to bait the villain by impersonating Ash. While Fergus toils on a cure for Sodom's germs, Rosabel places a newspaper notice about Ash visiting an automobile show to draw out Sodom; the disguised Avenger goes to the show, accompanied by Smitty & Josh. The plan works, but when Sodom sees he's been trapped, he drops another vial of his germs, turning innocent bystanders into monsters which attack the Justice, Inc. crew. Although Sodom escapes, one of his men surrenders and reveals Sodom's base is at Tiro's Gun Shop.

While the Avenger heads to the gun shop, Smitty & Josh are sent to protect the real Allan Ash. To do this, Josh masquerades as a simple janitor to surprise Sodom's men; this prompts Smitty to wonder how Josh can "pretend to be so stupid." Josh's justification that his people "have been practicing for two hundred years" might have been a progressive line of dialogue at some stage, but even by 1975 it's an awfully patronizing idea to come from a white guy. Black people might not all be stupid? What a shocker! Colonel Sodom's not the only one to drop his monocle!

The story moves now to the gun shop where Sodom is returning, for some reason having abandoned the men he sent to collect Ash (Sodom didn't see Smitty & Josh stop them). There's a fantastic billboard in the street near the gun shop, depicting a giant face blowing smoke. The billboard is for "King" cigarettes, probably an in-joke on behalf of the series' beloved penciler.

The Avenger and Fergus fight their way into the gun shop; although the Avenger shoots Sodom's men he notes they aren't dead, having only creased their skulls. Strangely, although he does kill frequently (such as last issue's Skywalker), the Avenger does make a point of avoiding bloodshed when he can. Sodom confronts Fergus and the Avenger, threatening them with another vial; when Fergus tries to charge him, Sodom shoots him in the hand. The Avenger pins Sodom's coat sleeve down with a knife so Sodom throws the vial, but the germs do nothing to the Avenger - Fergus succeeded with his antidote and administered it to he and the Avenger in advance. Sodom pulls the Avenger's knife from his coat and tries to kill the Avenger, but stupidly inhales the fumes of the vial he just dropped; Sodom turns into a monster and, confused by the King cigarettes billboard outside the window, the now-simplistic creature leaps out the window and falls to his death.

It's a very sudden end to the comic - you have to read it yourself for the full effect. The last page consists of: 1) Sodom steps into the vapors; 2) Sodom becomes a monster; 3) Sodom sidesteps the Avenger to lunge at the billboard; 4) Sodom bursts through the window; 4) Sodom flies halfway across the street; 6) Sodom falls toward the ground. Although there's not actually anything more to say, it feels as though O'Neil & Kirby ran out of pages

Thoughts: At this point, the series seems to be building its cast issue by issue. The members of Justice, Inc. don't receive much focus, but this is primarily the Avenger's show anyway. I do feel it's an improvement over the previous issue with less emphasis on mystery and sudden leaps in deduction.

The one point where an attempt is made to develop the other cast members is, unfortunately, the business about Josh and "his" people. Josh is a pretty decent African-American hero, it's a pity that these stories were written in such a way that "a black man - with a brain!" is repeated each issue as though it were a novelty. Novel amongst pulp magazine heroes, perhaps, but not exactly a revelation to anyone intelligent enough to read these comics.

Also, although the death of Fergus' wife is his motivation in this story, I wish she'd been given a name; Fergus' repeated references to "Wife" makes it sound as though she were a stranger.

Although the ending is quite abrupt, Kirby seemed to be doing his best on this book - drawing people mutated into monsters definitely plays to Kirby's strengths. Kirby is the reason to seek these issues out - the story is pedestrian, but that keeps the plot from getting in the way of Kirby's visuals.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Unearthed: Justice, Inc.#2

Before I begin the review, let's talk about the Avenger; he's a pulp hero who appeared in Street & Smith magazines from 1939-1942 - a fairly brief tour of duty, yet he's been brought back via the medium of comics several times, courtesy of DC Comics. Most recently, he appeared in 2009's First Wave; he also appeared in DC's Shadow comic books and in his own mini-series around 1989; the series we're looking at began in 1975 and lasted only four issues. Launching as a companion book to DC's Shadow series, it seems as though whenever someone dusts off the Street & Smith back catalog he's given a mandatory revival. His DC books have been called Justice, Inc. after the Avenger's team, rather than himself - probably because of potential difficulties from either Steed & Ms. Peel or the Maria Stark Foundation.

Although I haven't read the Avenger's pulp stories, nor have I read issue #1 of this series, I don't think that's a necessarily a problem. Not being a comic book character by origin, the Avenger comic book incarnations have to seek new audiences by matter of necessity as his original demographic are all either in rest homes or cemetaries. Also, the first issue was written by Dennis O'Neil & Al McWilliams while as of this second issue Jack "King" Kirby is the man on deck. "Kirby is here!" should have been proclaimed on the cover. Let's check out that cover now, yeah?

Kirby's name isn't advertised per se, but you can't miss it - this is during the years where Kirby's signature had become an obtrusive seal. This is a good cover, although I don't think the pose of the "Sky Walker" is quite correct - he seems to be simply hovering mid-air, not walking. Oh, right, I should also mention the Avenger, the series hero - he's the man on the left.

We begin this fast-paced action-packed tale with a title splash page, something Kirby had mastered about 30 years prior (but seldom used in the Marvel super hero books) while the story begins on page 2. Helpfully, the title page informs us this is an adaptation from a story by Kenneth Robeson. We open on a train which derails due to someone sabotaging the track. The Avenger and someone named Smitty happen to pass by in their airplane and land to help the survivors. However, they find a gang of looters pillaging the bodies of the dead train passengers. After being roughed up, the looters admit they weren't responsible for the derailing but simply took advantage of the situation. However, they're all distracted by the presence of a man walking on the sky above them. As the skywalker disappears into the clouds, the Avenger tells Smitty they need to fly their plane to Chicago.

At the Chicago manor of inventor Robert Gant, we meet his African-American butler & maid, Josh and Rosabel. A gang of men in trenchcoats enter the manor and shoot Gant to death; seeing this, Josh tries to fight the killers bare-handed; he's helped by the Avenger & Smitty. Introductions are made and although at first Josh changes his dialect to a "minstrel show" voice, the Avenger recognizes Josh is wearing a Phi Beta Kappa Key on his suit, meaning he's actually quite intelligent; resuming his normal voice, Josh begins to learn about the Avenger and both he and Rosabel are welcomed to join Justice, Incorporated as they hunt the men responsible for Robert Gant's death. In an aside, Smitty tells Rosabel how the Avenger is really Richard Henry Benson and how his face was frozen in grief after his wife and daughter were killed. We're beginning to learn about the Avenger, although we still don't know why the derailed train and skywalking man led him here.

Checking Gant's laboratory, the Avenger learns Abel Darcy had been financing Gant's experiments and Darcy owned the train which was derailed. The foursome head downtown to confront Darcy, but mid-transit they see the Skywalker, just as a skyscraper suddenly collapses into rubble. The Avenger tells Smitty, Rosabel & Josh to help the survivors while he carries on to Darcy. The Avenger bursts into Darcy's office and questions him about Gant. Darcy says Gant had been developing a new type of steel for railroads; this was evidently all the Avenger needed to know and he exits, enters a hotel and uses a makeup kit to disguise himself as Darcy. When Darcy leaves his office, the Avenger takes his place there and searches the office, finding documents which explain everything (unfortunately we're still in the dark), but a gang of hoodlums enter the office, having ascertained "Darcy" is really the Avenger; thus, a fight breaks out.

The Avenger's makeup takes a bad dent during the scuffle, but Josh arrives (disguised as a janitor) to join the fight; however, the gang overcome the two men with a gas grenade. The gang tie the men up and leave, playing a message for them from Darcy (I guess Darcy knew the Avenger would return and recorded this immediately after their encounter?). Darcy informs him the Skywalker will be coming to destroy the building housing Darcy's own office. Darcy intends to extort Chicago for millions by threatening to destroy their skyline. The Avenger & Josh get our of their ropes and leap from the building to its neighbour before the Skywalker destroys it.

At last, the Avenger explains what's been going on: Gant created a sound ray which can cause steel to vibrate into pieces and Darcy tested it on the rail which was destroyed. Darcy also ordered Gant's death to protect the secret (although since the Avenger somehow knew Gant was the inventor of this sound ray without any sleuthing, that was a waste of time). Gant's other great invention is an invisible metal which has been used to create an invisible airplane - that's what the Skywalker has been standing upon (and now Paradise Island will lose their monopoly on invisible jets!). In fact, the Skywalker is Darcy himself.

The Avenger returns to his airplane and pursues the Skywalker, firing armor piercing shells which hit the Skywalker, causing him to accidentally activating the sound ray; the sound ray destroys his plane from the inside and the Skywalker falls to his death.

Following the story, there's a text piece "Justice Inc. in the Movies?" Although author Allan Asherman is confident the Avenger would soon have his own feature film, 40 years later it remains a pipe dream. The article is mostly fan-casting the film because in the primitive days of 1975, there was no Wizard magazine.

Thoughts: Kirby delivers an excellent series of action-filled panels, but there's way too much plot in this book, probably because of its origins as a novel. The trail which led the Avenger from the train crash to Chicago isn't apparent and it takes too long to connect the train crash, death of Gant, Darcy and the Skywalker together. Kirby's fine action-based story is not complimented by O'Neil's dense mystery-based plot.

Additionally, we don't get a very good look at the Skywalker because he barely appears in the story and is always at a distance, seen from the heroes' perspective until the finale, so the revelation he's actually in an airplane is interesting, but unprecedented. We're also never given a proper introduction to Smitty, nor is Rosabel ever seen to possess a talent or knowledge which justifies her membership in Justice, Inc. If the mystery were toned down - perhaps by omitting the train crash & robbery and instead opening at Gant's manor - there might have been more room to better establish the protagonists and antagonists.

So far as the story goes, I most enjoyed Josh's brief turn to "minstrel show" dialogue and his quick reversal when the Avenger found him out as a college man. That was a neat touch of period race relations.

I can't overstate Kirby's contribution to this comic; I fear with a lesser talent - an artist incapable of delivering information in a concise, energetic, highly visual manner - O'Neil's laborious plotting would have rendered this book impenetrable.

Next time: More of Kirby and the Avenger in Justice, Inc.#3!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Unearthed: The Destructor#3!

Welcome back to my examination of Atlas Comics' 1975 series the Destructor! Having covered issue #2 last time, we're on to issue #3!

For the third time in a row, Larry Lieber handles the cover art. Here we have our hero being attacked by the Huntress and her giant kitties while a stadium of businessmen cheer her on. I don't think anyone would seriously think for a minute that the Destructor is going to be defeated, but at least this cover sells this issue's villain - it certainly sells her more effectively than Deathgrip on the previous issue's cover. She actually looks formidable and avoids Deathgrip's awkward posture. As always, simplicity serves this comic best.

Perhaps the most important thing to note are the white fringes which have appeared on the Destructor's boots and gloves, evidently to give his appearance about 5% more pizzazz while still remaining pretty generic. The new design is found within as well.

We open "In the Hands of the Huntress" to note that while writer Archie Goodwin and penciler Steve Ditko are back again, inker Wally Wood is MIA. Sadly, now that the series finally has a significant female character to be drawn, Wood has tapped himself out. The actual inker is uncredited, but the Grand Comics Database attributes the role to Frank Giacoia.

We're back to the Combine, the faceless masters of last issue's villain Deathgrip; they're no longer quite as faceless, as one member - Dr. Shroud - is identified as the one who designed Deathgrip's hand. Shroud is working on something called the Darkriver Project, but believes they should deal with the Destructor at the same time (having evidently forgotten that the entire reason they involved the Destructor last time was to pit him against their rival Big Mike Brand). Noticing from films of his fighting style, Dr. Shroud believes the Destructor possesses enhanced animal-like senses; to that end, he has brought in an expert tracker: the Huntress! She demonstrates how her "laser-lash" weapon generates a crackling energy whip, boasting "there's practically no limit on what it can do!" Truly? Can you use it to fill out your tax return?

We return to the deserts of New Mexico... no wait, the pine forests of New Mexico where Big Mike Brand's ranch is located. From the Destructor's dialogue about his wounded arm, it seems this is indeed soon after last issue - no explanation as to why he changed his costume. To sneak back into Brand's ranch... because he couldn't walk in through the front door as Jay Hunter why, exactly? - the Destructor flings himself over the security fence by using one of the newfound pine trees as a catapult. Wow, after two issues of no particular storytelling issues, suddenly there are a lot of little things turning up.

While the Destructor takes a nap to let his left arm finish healing, Angela confronts her father about his career as a criminal, which she learned about from Deathgrip. Big Mike insists he's been preparing to confess his activities to the authorities, but Angela notes he lied to her about his life for 19 years - it's hard to trust him now. Big Mike's right-hand man Pepe notes he's been looking into Jay's background and learned about his connection to the Destructor (from issue #1), but Big Mike is too distraught by the conversation with Angela to pursue this train of thought.

The Destructor wakes up at night for a little Destructor: After Dark on Cinemax, as evinced by Angela heading to Jay's room in her nightie; Jay switches back to his civilian clothes in time to greet her and his arm is fully healed now. Angela is so clearly distraught that Jay helpfully speaks one of her speech balloons for her (above).

After hearing Angela's story, Jay heads out the next day as the Destructor, revisiting the auto yard Deathgrip used ("yesterday," he claims; I guess the police have already cleared up the crime scene?) to find out if the site owner had been working with Deathgrip. However, the Huntress (somehow) anticipated this and the Destructor sets off a trap which gasses him unconscious. The Huntress collects her quarry alongside Lobo, her Wolverine-before-it-was-cool-to-be-Wolverine sidekick. Returning to the Combine in Las Vegas, Huntress tells them she's caught the Destructor but rather than simply kill him, she intends to let him go free and hunt him, while cameras capture the event for the Combine's pleasure. The Combine point out this is not what they asked for and it makes more sense to kill him while he's helpless, but the Huntress is in love with this Most Dangerous Game homage.

The Destructor wakes up inside of a cage somewhere in the wild and smashes through the bars. The Huntress observes and sets after him with Lobo and her two pet mountain lions Siva and Kali. We now learn Lobo is infatuated with his mistress, but she is adamant that he's merely the "back-up man" and isn't physically attractive (as Wolverine had yet to make hairy comic book trolls sexy). The Huntress tells Lobo he can only hunt the Destructor if she fails, but she won't. Me-ow! I'd say she had him whipped, but if she tried her laser-lash would kill him.

The Destructor finds no way out of the valley the Huntress deposited him in as there's a force field encasing the area. Siva & Kali attack him but he dives into a pool to flush the big kitties away. His costume torn and scratched-up, the Destructor runs right into the Huntress! He manages to get past the laser-lash by throwing a piece of kindling at her, causing her to strike it with the lash and thus leaving her open to a punch, but Lobo intervenes to try and save the Huntress, causing the Destructor to run away. The Huntress throws two of the giant claws from her headband at him and the claws explode. She prepares to resume the hunt but Lobo insists on going ahead to prove he's "man enough" for her. Lobo follows a trail of blood to a cave and blindly opens fire with his gun into the mouth of the cave, but the Destructor's wounds have already healed and he snuck out of the cave, knowing it would bring someone there; with Lobo having wasted his amoo, the Destructor easily trounces the less-than-bright flunky.

The Destructor again tries to get through the force field, but this enables the Huntress to catch up. One of her lash blows strikes the force field as she tries to strangle the Destructor and the backlash hurls the Huntress over a cliff to her death (not that we readers knew they were standing on a cliff). With the force field shorted out due to the lash, the Destructor escapes, leaping himself away from the Combine. The next day the Combine scour Las Vegas to find the Destructor, reasoning his wounds would be severe enough to give him away in his civilian guise; of course, their men go right past Jay Hunter, whose body has again completely healed.

Thoughts: It's not as good as before, and not only because Wally Wood is gone (it doesn't help, anyway). The Combine have gone from being clever schemers who utilize the Destructor as a pawn against their enemies to a typically brain-dead criminal organization whose wealth of resources can't handle a lone man who barely knows they exist. Big Mike has gone from being possibly-good to essentially a reformed mobster, which makes him a lesser threat to the Destructor. And while the Destructor's terrific sensory powers would have been well-served in the Most Dangerous Game pastiche this issue, instead the Destructor seems to get through problems by relying on his healing factor (put he and Lobo together and you've got Wolverine!). Earlier issues were generic, but well-handled. This issue is just plain generic.

Next time on Unearthed: Something completely different; having looked at three obscure 70s Ditko comics, let's visit the King himself: Jack Kirby's Justice, Inc.!