Saturday, November 24, 2012

Treklife: This Is Not The Kirk I Was Promised

I only watched the classic Trek for the first time in its entirety a few years ago. As a TNG-loving teen I'd made a few attempts over the years, most notably dipping into a Trek marathon that aired on Canada's Space Station over...the holidays, I think? Or possibly while I was out of school, sick? I honestly don't remember, though being sick might explain my inability to engage with it. Or maybe that's just because I was, y'know, a teenager. Camp is the bane of teenagers, and TOS was campy even at the time it was made. I was outgrowing the kinds of clunky TV shows I'd uncritically consumed as a kid and embracing a whole new set of supposedly cooler shows, ones that offered more superficial appeal and engaged with my adolescent reptile thrill-seeking brain. You know the drill. You went through it yourself.

This dorky, extremely low-budget series with its hammy acting was too ripe for my newly minted sense of reflexive irony. I've actually always been a little more open towards older movies and TV shows than many, even as a kid, but Trek just didn't click. I think it might have been the fact that it was nominally connected to The Next Generation--instead of being free to be its own thing, I could only view it through the lens of the new show. I ended up sitting there and nitpicking how ridiculous the Klassic Klingons looked and trying to concoct reasons for why the Cardassians or the Ferengi weren't on anyone's radar back then.

As an older, "wiser" specimen, I've actually found my tastes becoming broader and my willingness to engage with art on its own terms expanding, and thus, with J. J. Abrams' reboot was threatening to hit the screens, I borrowed the box sets from a friend and delved in.

(My thoughts on Abrams' remake have cooled quite a bit, but I enjoyed it at the time, and in fact wrote this snotty review of Trek in general that ticked a lot of people off. I did mean it tongue-in-cheek, but yeah, that was kind of dickish of me. You should probably read that before continuing.)

I think one of the things that caused me to write that review--that caused me to fall away from Trek in the first place--was my reading about the backstage travails of how it came to the screen. You see, I really *believed* in the ideals of Trek. I still do. Exploration, rationality, communication and compromise, striving towards a better future. These have become a major part of my moral makeup, and Trek is a big part of why. And I was naive enough to believe that the show's creators shared these ideals.

But of course, it's just a fucking TV show.

It's not even some story of Hollywood backbiting that drove me off (though it became clear later that Rick Berman was quite a tool.) It was the underlying cynicism and laziness that was beginning to seep into the show, the way the writers didn't seem to care much about exploring the issues they raised anymore, the way continuity was shredded and characters treated callously. Basically, all the stuff I wrote about in my last post on the subject. But it was exacerbated by my growing awareness of the way TV shows were made.

Look, I'm aware that art isn't some perfect, pure process in which the muses flit down on wings of saffron and caress the artist's brow to provide inspiration, and even if it were the process of getting it to the screen would require change and compromise. I know that the ethereal, platonic magic that stirs your soul has to go through a mundane process of realization, which can be reduced to charts and graphs and scripts and outlines and formulas. All artists have a physical process. I know that now.

But at the time I felt deeply, deeply betrayed by uncovering Trek's relationship to showbiz, and combined with the way that, in the latter seasons of TNG, no one involved seemed to care all that much, it provoked a hostililty that lingered all the way to 2009, when I wrote that review.

So there's that.

Really, though, what I was still reeling from--and what I now find fascinating--is just to what degree classic Trek isn't the thing everyone seems to think it is.

We all know the litany: a post-scarcity future with prosperity and enlightenment for all. The Vulcan reverence for Logic. The Prime Directive. The emphasis on communication and co-operation. The glimpse of a better future for mankind. These are things that have a powerful appeal.

Which is why it's so astounding that the classic series was so conflicted about all this stuff.

Decades later, Roddenberry and the fans codified the above ideas as the core of Trek, and it's been that way since the movies. But the thing is, Roddenberry wasn't that great a writer, and he left a lot of the work to a talented team that seemed to have different ideas about what Trek would be. This clash of ideologies made it into everyone's Platonic ideal of the show to a degree, but Roddenberry's vision has been the one that prevailed.

Roddenberry clearly was a socialist democrat who believed in military adventurism (I’d argue he was more mainstream in the 60s, some of the more offbeat stuff that crept into his thinking–a slightly creepy collectivism, for instance–having come later) but the show had libertarian and counterculture writers as well. Likewise there are episodes like “The Way to Eden” which is pretty contemptuous of the youth culture of the time, yet a lot of other Trek stories seem to embrace it in more subtle ways, particularly the idea that there’s something ridiculous about authority and that love, peace and harmony can triumph over evil (and “Way of the Gun” sees the crew using passive resistance and an oddly Buddhist mindset to overcome violence.) There are episodes that can be read as both for and against the Vietnam war (which is really what the Prime Directive was about in the first place) and episodes that are both for and against organized religion.

As for Spock, he definitely seems to have been created as a straw man--someone to show the value of humanity and the perils of relying on logic entirely. And yet it doesn’t take too long before the writers seem to start siding with Spock on a lot of things–in fact, he almost seems to be the representative for the counterculture at times, his spirituality being almost as big a point as his logic. In “Space Seed” Spock is appalled to hear everyone else speaking well of Khan, and I can’t imagine we aren’t supposed to, at the very least, sympathize, if not completely agree. (And it’s interesting to me that the supposedly detached, logical character is the one taking the firm moral stance while the more emotional humans can admire the historical monster, if somewhat back-handedly; conventional storytelling would have flipped that to criticize Spock's logic, but here it seems like humanity is the one that’s in danger of falling under the sway of a charismatic figure.) Of course there are plenty of “silly Spock, there’s more to life than logic” episodes as well, but the character was no Agent Scully, there just to voice the “wrong” opinions. (Actually I’d argue even Agent Scully wasn’t an Agent Scully, but I’m drifting from the point here.)

Likewise, there's the idea of a post-scarcity society without money, which looms so large over discussions of Trek, but which barely seems present on the original series. It’s implied by the replicators and so on, but the way everyone’s needs seem to be taken care of could be chalked up just as much to the fact that this is a pseudo-military organization as to anything else. Isn’t there discussion of mercantile arrangements in the early episodes? Isn’t Harry Mudd basically a con artist? What’s he swindling people out of if not their money? And I could have sworn Scotty or someone mentioned getting paid, though of course he could have been speaking figuratively.

Finally, there's the Prime Directive. The fact that Kirk violated the Directive practically every week is, by now, a cliche, but what's even more interesting is that, looking at the original series in isolation I honestly couldn’t tell you if the writers meant for it to be seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It often seems more like a dramatic obstacle than a philosophy, something that was just there so that Kirk could show off what a badass renegade he was--the Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules transposed into the 23rd century. And indeed, Starfleet in general seems to be heavily populated with stiff bureaucrats who exist only to make Kirk's life miserable.

Utopian future? I don't think so.

It's a fascinating series precisely because of these contradictions, and it's ironic that the show's own creator asserting his creative vision arguably produced something less interesting. It's certainly a handy riposte to people who think Trek's vision of a relentlessly positive future is naive or unworkable: that vision never really existed...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #5--"Murder Machine!"

I love that cover. I love that Vundabar wasn’t quite certain enough of the flamethrower and the gun and the A-bomb, so he added a dagger. To kill a guy fully encased in a metal casket.

Proving that shamelessly gratuitous cheesecake pinups are just as much a part of Kirby’s ouevre as any other adventure artist’s, this issue opens with a full-page splash of Barda in her red bikini mode, doing calisthenics. He even provides audience surrogates, in the form of a bunch of deliverymen who have come to deliver a civil war cannon Scott’s ordered, but get an eyeful of Barda and make construction-worker noises at her. She of course puts them in their place by picking up the 20-ton cannon (with one hand!) and carting it off, leading to the traditional “This ‘women’s lib’ thing is getting more serious than I thought!” reaction.

A word, please? If you don’t mind? Thank you. I’m 100% on the side of feminist superhero fans who find the subculture creepy and weird and misogynist at times, but I don’t think stuff like gratuitous shots of a muscular, bikini-clad woman exercising is what bothers them. I think the real sticking point is when female characters are badly or thinly written AND they’re constantly being offered up for oglement by the artist. The female character serves no point and is in no way memorable or interesting except as a sex object—hence “objectification”.

There’s a certain trope comics frequently use to try and spackle over this kind of exploitation, namely, the “Generic Kickass Female” argument. The character is superficially heroic, strong, can fight off an army of ninjas with one hand behind her back, etc. So, argue the writers and artists, she’s a positive female role model! That’s all well and good, but just making her “kickass” doesn’t totally mitigate the sexism. Turning a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot into a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot who punches people a lot is not exactly a great blow for women’s rights; it’s just a knee-jerk bit of ass-covering. And honestly, it’s become such a cliché that it always bothers me when it shows up.

So why don’t I think the brazenly cheescakey Barda sequences in Mister Miracle count against this? Well, the answer is more or less implied by the above. Barda is not only a memorable character, she often comes close to overshadowing the hero of the book by force of her personality alone. Furthermore, she’s not really a traditional image of beauty (maybe less so now than in 1971, but still). If anything, this whole sequence is a pretty solid example of being sexy without being exploitative. Still, I had to admit I was rolling my eyes a bit at the deliverymen’s “Bu-WHA?!?” reaction.

But on to the actual story, which, fortuitously for my purposes, involves one of those villains that only Kirby could have thought up. Okay, maybe he’s not the only one who could have thought him up, but he’s the only one who would have done so and then actually had the guts to build a comic book around him.

His name is Doctor Virman Vundabar.

And yes, he’s basically a cartoonish, 19th century Prussian dictator.

For the record, I’m pretty sure that Kirby was somewhat aware of the camp value of this comic and even saw it as a selling point; witness Big Bear’s comments about their décor in The Forever People #2. And this is a comic book, which at that time still benefited from being cheap, disposable entertainment for kids, and could thus get away with stuff most other media couldn’t.

Still, Vundabar is pushing it. And yet, Kirby manages to add another, interesting level to all this later on, as we’ll see.

At the moment, one of Vundabar’s lackeys, name of Hydrik, is displaying his prototype deathtrap which Vundabar, natch, intends to use on Mr. Miracle. The trap—in which a dummy is shackled to a hydraulic spinner—is a pretty spectacular failure; not only does it self-destruct, but the Mister Miracle dummy is thrown clear! The point being to demonstrate that Miracle would have escaped, but honestly, the fact that a lifeless mannekin was able to escape shows that Hydrik’s competence at building deathtraps is roughly akin to that of a Narwhal’s. To top it all off, Hydrik’s machine “severely impairs” him when it explodes, and a sneering Vundabar puts a bullet in his head as he lies there helplessly. You know, I know it’s standard M.O. for supervillains to cack a henchman or two to prove their evilness, but this one bordered on a mercy killing.

Meanwhile, Scott is setting up his new civil war cannon (where’d he get the money to afford that, again?) while Oberon complains that Scott’s got him dressed up in a Confederate outfit. Or maybe it’s a Union. Whichever one is blue. (Hey, I’m a Canadian. We didn’t learn this stuff in school.) Of course, Oberon’s complaints that Scott is robbing him of his dignity are entirely justified, but he continues to go along with it after Scott gives him an extremely perfunctory “Hey, you’re as important to the act as I am!” speech.

At least Oberon manages to wheedle some more information out of Scott and his backstory while he’s about it. Scott explains about Granny’s Orphanage between his escape from being strapped to the cannon while it’s lit (a pretty perfunctory escape, actually, though Oberon naturally does a lot of squealing about it). We get the basic idea that we’ve pretty much already figured out: that there’s a weird, never-fully-explained code of honour restricting the Apokoliptians from just tromping over and killing Scott…despite the fact that they fight dirty on several occasions.

Perhaps more interesting is that extra layer to the inherent campiness of the comic that I was talking about earlier. Vundabar, like Scott himself, is an alumnus of the orphanage, where, it’s now made clear, the orphans were given silly names in Kirby’s homage to Oliver Twist. But more than that, they were given ridiculous identities, themes, and traits by Granny, and by extension, Darkseid. Vundabar took his to extremes, but all the orphans of Apokalips have had their personalities, basically, assigned to them—which makes their goofiness kind of tragic, when you think about it. It’s a very nice fit with the themes of the comic, and the Fourth World as a whole: the various ridiculous personalities of the Apokaliptians are a cruel joke on the part of Darkseid, and a measure of just how determined he is to control everyone and everything. He’s essentially condemning his soldiers to lifelong humiliation, and getting them to play along with the joke. Scott’s escaped from this humiliation just as he’s escaped from his homeworld, by building his own personality.

(Though there’s a bit of an irony here, in that Granny named him “Scott Free”….so by rebelling and escaping, he’s still fulfilling the destiny Darkseid handed down to him. Which adds yet another level of complexity to Darkseid’s motivations, which I’ll discuss in a later entry.)

Anyway, while Scott and Oberon are rehearsing, Barda’s completing her cheesecake quota for the issue by splashing around in a nearby pond. She reflects on how much pleasant it is here than on Apokalips, though interestingly when she name-drops Darkseid, even negatively, she can’t help but add “great” to the beginning of his name, a nice, subtle way of reinforcing just how much brainwashing she’s undergone. Meanwhile, a bunch of Granny’s pointy-headed troops have snuck up behind her, but of course Barda’s too good to be taken by surprise like that; she activates her armour, which materializes around her, and begins laying waste. So naturally the pointy-heads have a secret weapon up their sleeve to conveniently neutralize her so they can carry her off. Even though she put in a good showing, I still say she went down a little too easily for the kick-assiest warrior babe of the Fourth World, but never mind.

Scott catches sight of the “Magna-lift” as it departs over the treetops, and somehow intuits that Barda’s been kidnapped, which means of course that it’s time to summon his aero-discs and follow after. Scott somehow further intuits that Barda’s been taken to the remote Barclay Canyon, and even more astonishingly, figures out that it’s Virman Vundabar who took her. Man, Scott’s become a psychic. Sure enough, he finds a bright orange complex waiting for him with Vundabar’s image greeting him on an image=screen at one end. “It probably also serves as a door to your trap! Very efficient, Virman!!!” Um, that’s how you prove Virman’s love of efficiency? What about the fact that he went to all the trouble of kidnapping Barda, even though Bedlam was able to sucker him in just by offering a challenge?

Vundabar starts ordering Scott to enter the compound. “What if I tell you to go blow your nose!?!” spits Scott, master of the snappy comeback. (As you’ll recall from the end of issue #2.) But of course, Vundabar’s offering Barda’s life in exchange for Scott’s compliance, so he steps onto the track and is immediately encased in the conveyor belt o’ doom pictured on the cover. On the next page, he’s battered by giant metal hammers and electrocuted by what Vundabar’s new henchman Klepp calls "a controlled atom blast”. Vundabar refuses to gloat until he knows for certain Scott is dead, but lest you gain any respect for him at this point, he then turns his attention away to provoke Barda. There’s an interesting exchange here:

BARDA: That’s why I deserted Apokolips! I can no longer soldier in the company of twisted fiends like yourself-who worship their power--more than Darkseid!
VUNDABAR: Silence! I want no further blasphemy! Great Darkseid rules Apokolips like a colossus!! His is the creed of destruction! --Not fair play! I accommodate my whims--but I also know that my opponent must be destroyed!

OK, that’s pretty confusing. Shouldn’t Vundabar be saying, “Darkseid accommodates my whims”? How do you accommodate your own whims? But the general idea here seems to be that Barda is accusing Vundabar of being disloyal to Darkseid, in a purely intellectual sense at least. What’s more, she seems to be admitting that she still feels loyalty to Darkseid! Or rather, that she’s still committed to the idea of Darkseid. This seems to be a case of being so faithful to the image of someone that you have to rebel against them when they fail to live up to their own standards. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the two of them meet…

Anyway, the Murder Machine passes through flamethrowers and then an acid pit at the end that melts it into nothingness. The toadying Klepp proceeds to ask “If I cannot laugh now, please allow me to applaud!!” To which Vundabar replies, “Laugh away, Klepp! Here -! I’ll join you! AHAHAHAHAHA!!” That’s pretty funny—Vundabar apparently doesn’t allow himself to laugh very often.

And need I point out that Mr. Miracle is standing right behind him in this panel, looking smug?

Yet again, the villains are horrified to find that Scott escaped from a locked cabinet which they couldn’t see inside of. “A mother-box!” Screams Vundabar. “With the aid of a Mother-box, you thinned your atomic structure and transferred yourself out of that coffer!” “Not so!” replies Scott. “Even in the ‘crunch’ I play it fair—and you know it!!! You thought of everything, Vundabar--except the soles of my shoes!! You couldn’t see the laser-jets activate!! The jets burned through my foot clamps but not those that held the coffer fast to the moving track! Then, with a short by powerful laser beam, I blasted downward!!” And crawled out through the hole, digging downwards and coming up behind Vundabar.

So, um. Using the Mother Box is cheating…but using foot-rockets isn’t? This is what keeps bothering me about this comic. Most of the time, Scott escapes simply by using whatever gadgets he happens to have brought with him, even if we’ve never heard of them up ‘til now. Scott rarely uses actual escape skill or even his wits to get away. Sometimes it’s worse than others—the “Paranoid Pill” business was actually pretty clever—but this falls under the discussion of whether Superman is a lousy hero because he can save lives and do what’s right without much exertion on his part.

Anyway, Vundabar immediately proceeds to try and cheat by blasting Scott at point-blank range, whereupon the floor collapses underneath them—Scott had dug it away, after all. He then lifts Barda in the classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” pose and carries her off.

Wow, condescending much, Scott? So much for powerful female role models…

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Praise of Mediocrity

So Star Wars.

Someone tweeted recently (sorry, I can't remember who or I'd attribute it) that there was no better exemplar of the human capacity for optimism than the speed at which "New Star Wars" went from a punchline to a prayer. It's particularly bizarre when you consider that this is inspired by the series creator very deliberately bowing out of being directly creatively involved and handing over control to a massive multinational corporation. Seriously, that sentence I just wrote, divorced from context, makes me want to jump off the nearest balcony.

But blow me if the recent proceedings haven't been filling me with a thrill of hope. In spite of everything, Star Wars is still something I care about--not the merchandising and spinoffs and gubbery per se, but the original three films. I still think they're an incredible feat of filmmaking and resonate with me on a primal level that I'll never be able to put aside entirely, for all the intellectual arguments (many of which I accept) for how lame and culturally reactionary they are, how they damaged film as an artform and turned SF and Fantasy from the genres of imagination and ideas to a bunch of formulaic whizz-bangery. They still work, goddammit. And the chance of getting more that might work on the level that the classic films do is something that can legitimately get me excited.

To be clear here, I'm not the kind of nerd who wants everything they love on endless replay forever. I was honestly kind of "blah" in the lead-up to The Avengers (which may be why I was able to walk in with reasonable expectations and legitimately enjoy it), I thought the Chris Nolan Batman films probably should have ended with The Dark Knight, and I honestly was not feeling any particular excitement about The Hobbit even before they announced that it was going to be split pointlessly into three films. I can get very excited by the upcoming work of a particular filmmaker, but "franchises" do little or nothing for me.

What's more, I 100% agree with what a number of people are saying, that some of the directors that the nerderati* are excitedly suggesting to helm the new movies are inappropriate because they're too interesting and creative and they don't deserve to be shackled to a massive franchise that will limit their creativity. It's true that Sam Raimi and Chris Nolan were able to bring their talents to bear on major comic-book superhero movies and leverage them into other great movies, but other cinematic talents haven't fared nearly as well. I thought Brian Singer was a legitimately promising director who did a great job with his X-Men films, but somehow jumped the shark in a major way starting with Superman Returns. Peter Jackson was a favourite of mine in the 90s, but Lord of the Rings seems to have sucked him dry of his reckless imagination and ballsiness. Jon Favreau's career suffered major diminishing returns after Iron Man. And I'm honestly kinda worried about Joss Whedon now**.

*Is that a new word? Did I just create that? Patent pending!

**Yeah, I still like Joss Whedon. Fuck you.

Favreau's name has been floated as a likely candidate to direct Star Wars episode VII, though, and I actually think he'd be perfect. This is yet another of the bizarrely paradoxical aspects of how interested I am in this whole announcement. I want certain filmmakers to keep away from new Star Wars for their own sakes, but oddly, I kind of want it for the sake of Star Wars, too.

Because what works about Star Wars is something very simple and pure. It's become a cliche, but Star Wars really does tap into some of the primal urge for myth-making that we've felt since we were hairy grunting jerks huddled around a campfire, and it weds it both to the old-Hollywood desire to entertain and the geeky proclivity for world-building. It's not about re-inventing cinema, it's about stripping it down to its essence and then encrusting it with a lot of entertaining bric-a-brac. The elegance with which the OT captures this "mythical modern" feel--something that the Prequels quite spectacularly failed to do, of course, and for all that people tear apart the Prequels, that particular shortcoming is rarely mentioned--requires a certain kind of talent to capture. It's very definitely not the province of visionary artists; it's more like the sphere of extra-competent journeymen who somehow capture lightning in a bottle.

Take, for example, Michael Arndt, who's apparently been hired as head writer for the new trilogy. (Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was recently announced as probably writing Episode VIII, along with Simon Kinberg, but they're likely to be working from Arndt's outline.) Arndt wrote Little Miss Sunshine, which is a movie I really don't care for. The performances slightly elevate it, but the script is an incredibly cynical and rather formulaic attempt to imitate a "quirkie indie comedy". And yet, somehow, it's these qualities that make me think Arndt's going to be just right for new Star Wars movies. You don't need to have authenticity to write Star Wars. If anything, I feel like that would just get in the way. What you need is a rock-solid understanding of the basics of storytelling, and how to get past your audiences' defenses and give them what they want. To pander, if you will.

Arndt's apparently taught screenwriting classes using Star Wars as a model for great story structure. He's not wrong. I don't really want this guy within twelve miles of a movie that has a shot at challenging the audience or subverting the rules of drama, but from what little I know about the guy, handing him the keys to Star Wars feels like destiny.

Which brings me to Favreau. A number of similar journeyman directors have been suggested for this--Joe Johnston, Brad Bird (who's already begged off), Matthew Vaughn. Those are all pretty suitable choices, filmmakers with solid storytelling skills who've mostly been content to stay within the realm of crowd-pleasing spectacle, but who do so very well. Favreau has a couple of extra points in his favour, though: for one thing, he's the first director in a decade to get an actual performance out of Harrison Ford (who I'm really hoping will make one last visit to the Star Wars universe, if only to give Han Solo the send-off he deserves). He also has a great philosophy of special effects, having stated on multiple occasions that it's important not to rely on CGI alone, and that stuff like puppetry and stop-motion can still have a place in modern movies, as demonstrated by his rather charming SF kid's movie Zathura. That sounds like an ideal fit with Star Wars, which showcased some of the wondrous things that can be done with practical effects, before ironically sinking into a quagmire of halfassed CGI with the prequels. Since the visuals and effects are an important part of Star Wars, having Favreau in charge would be genuinely exciting to me. Imagine, this series that set the tone for special effects becoming a celebration of the retro.

Mostly, though, I like Favreau for this because, even at his worst, he's always understood the need to bring humanity to the biggest blockbusters--and humanity is something that Star Wars has lost rather badly over the decades.

So essentially, with the new Star Wars movies, we have a weird situation where a ton of individual elements that I don't like very much seem weirdly likely to come together to produce something great.

Or it could end up sucking really, really badly.

I have to admit that the latter is every bit as likely as the former. But hey. It's been an increasingly depressing decade for nerd culture. If something like this stirs the embers of optimism in me, no matter how inexplicably, I think it deserves credit for that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #143--"The Genocide Spray!"

So to recap: the guy who everyone thought was Dracula is actually a microscopic resident of a horned planet that’s hovering in the basement of a mausoleum, surrounded by fog and camera-like objects. And he’s embiggened (OK, I believe the technical term is ‘re-biggulated’) himself in order to discover the date that his creator had planned for the tiny world’s destruction, which for some reason was coded onto the individual Photostat dots of a photograph in the mad scientist’s lab.

Now, this being Kirby, most aspects of this bizarre situation are not explained in any way, shape or form, but interestingly enough, one of them is. And the explanation is so bizarre that you’ll be sorry you asked.

See, the “cameras” are actually movie projectors…and they’ve been projecting horror movies into the skies of Transilvane for “generations”, causing the sentient inhabitants to mold their entire culture on them. I’m going to assume that time moves faster on Transilvane, since its creator Dabney Donovan (described as “A never-seen, brilliant, wild, wild scientist!”) hasn’t been at this for very long. As for how the Transilvanids actually came to look like vampires and wolfmen, well, we’re told at the very end that “Those people are natural “copiers!” They have a fluid atomic base! After generations of watching sky movies—they became what they saw!!!

MmmmmMMMM, that’s good technobabble.

The only explanation the narration gives us for this demented arrangement is that “Scientists are human beings!! And it’s when they play “God”--that human beings make their worst mistakes!!” So I guess Donovan gave into the weak, all-too-human urge to create a miniaturized planet filled with horror movie monsters. You know you’d do the same, in his shoes.

Anyway, Superman finds a hidden chamber by moving the arm of a nearby statue, and moving “forward into the strange, dark and goose-bumpy caverns”, he and Jimmy come across Count Dragorin and Lupek resting in their coffins. Except, as Superman theorizes, they aren’t coffins at all, but decompression chambers, necessary for restoring the Transilvanids after their molecular expansion from microscopic to human-sized.

My God, I must be reading too many of these comics, because that actually sort of made sense to me.

Of course, apparently decompression isn’t enough to stop Lupek from leaping from his coffin behind Superman and leaping on them. Then, while the two of them are distracted, a third Transilvanid, this one looking like Frankenstein’s monster, goes after Jimmy. “Superman!! It’s a triple feature!!” Superman’s elegantly logical solution is to throw the wolfman at the Frankenstein. It’s just basic math, people.

Unfortunately, not only are a horde of Transilvanids emerging, but Count Dragorin is now up and active, using “the sign of the Mystican” to…explode Superman and Jimmy. No really. It’s a glowing occult type-sigil that appears on the floor, tracks the heroes like a laser sight, and then goes “WAHAAMMMM” and goes up in a gout of pink smoke (and Kirby Crackle, natch). This puts out Jim and Superman (supposedly, at least).

Now it’s back to the Newsboy Legion, who, when last we left them, had found themselves, via a ludicrously unlikely series of coincidences, in the same room with the man who shot their dear friend, the original Manhattan Guardian, just as he was announcing that fact loudly into the telephone. “You heard me! I said that you couldn’t have seen the Guardian! Because, detective Jim Harper was the Guardian—and I shot Harper!! I’ll say it again, see! I shot and killed Jim Harper!” I swear, he’s about two panels away from just painting a big bull’s eye on his back. And again I ask, how did this low-level crook know the Guardian’s secret identity?

Naturally, the Newsboys try to subdue him, and also naturally, they somehow manage to screw it up. Fortunately, the Intergang types on the other line overhear that our nameless thug has been caught, and send a giant, floating bomb—with a TV monitor on it!—to explode him up real nice. (I love the idea of a bomb with a monitor on it. Intergang clearly has money to burn.) The Newsboys, a few pages later, stumble across his body and decide that justice has been served. Yeah, I’ll say. First this guy practically falls in your lap, then he gets blown up for you, keeping your hands blood-free. Luck favours the obnoxious 30s style street urchin, or so they say.

Meanwhile, the Transilvanids have Superman strapped to a torture device: a gigantic crushing press covered in spikes (which is curiously referred to as “the rack”). “Well, I’ve played along with the visiting firemen from Transilvane long enough,” thinks Superman. (Firemen?) He casually frees himself, and the monsters start to freak out that “the hour of the demon dog” is approaching. “The ‘picture-prophecy’ in our skies--cannot be altered!!” moans Dragorin, but Superman implores him to “stay calm and think logically!!” Yes, of course. You’re a microscopic lifeform evolved to look like Dracula, trying to prevent the horror movies that you’ve been watching in the sky for generations from coming true. If you’d only think logically, I’m sure you could find the solution to your problems.

A bell tolls for the Transilvanids—literally—and they pretty much dissolve into helpless wailing. Superman, being a more proactive sort, digs away at the wall and finds a secret passage to Donovan’s hidden lair—just in time to miss the Demon Dog as it zooms past. Predictably, the Demon Dog is a robot, programmed to fly out and sweep Transilvane clean of biological life with a blast of industrial-strength pesticide.

Perhaps this is a good time to note the odd fact that we never meet Dabney Donovan, and thus, we never get any answers as to what the hell was going through his mind when he created this whole bizarre situation. The fact that he’s forever off-screen, and that even his personal secretary never met him face to face, seems to suggest that he was an agent of Apokalips—maybe even Darkseid himself? But then, why go to all the trouble of creating an entire planet full of Universal Horror monsters—which does seem like the kind of thing Darkseid’s minions would do—if you’re just going to wipe them out at around the same time the whole New Genesis/Apokalips war is getting started?!? Alternatively, if there was some other reveal in mind further down the road for Donovan--he was actually Flippa Dippa all along!!!--it’s tragically aborted by the cancellation of the Jimmy Olsen comic in five issues’ time…

Anyway, there’s some extremely mild suspense as we wonder if Superman can possibly catch the Demon Dog before it destroys Transilvane (hint: he can. Because he is Superman. Also, the Demon Dog is a procrastinator.) Jimmy wakes up, having spent the climax of, again, his own comic lying passed out on the floor, just in time to look through a micro-telescope thingie and see a fleet of coffins flying/shrinking back down to Transilvane. Superman pontificates a bit on the Demon Dog—“The symbol of their destruction! – As our own is forecast in the prophecies we’ve inherited!!” I’m sorry, exactly what movie was that, again? If there’s a lost Hammer or International horror movie about a flying demon dog that destroys the world, I’d kind of like to track that down.

The hilarious ending shows Superman and Jimmy sitting down to watch the new movie Superman’s chosen to broadcast to the people of Transilvane, in hopes of changing their culture. A little movie called “Oklahoma!”

Oh man, as wonderfully demented as the whole Transilvane idea is to begin with, that ending just makes it that much more awesome. You just KNOW Kirby was going to do a follow-up storyline further down the line, where Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singin’, dancin’, vampire cowboys. Forget Kirby, someone needs to do a follow up to this story right now. I mean, who wouldn’t pay to see that? “Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singing, dancing, vampire cowboys.” Just throw that description in the next issue of Previews and watch the comic book industry recover instantly. Warner Brothers would adapt it into movie form and beat Titanic’s box office gross. You could build an entire “Final Crisis”-style event around it.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Life In Trek

Hi! Miss me?

It’s been a tumultuous six months or so for me, encompassing a move, a new job and a whackload of freelance projects, and this blog has seemed like something that’s easy enough to shrug off. But I’m finding myself wasting so much time on Twitter and various message boards that I might as well post my thoughts on stuff here instead. Plus, I’m trying to get more serious as a writer and attempting regular blog posts is a good way to discipline myself.

So anyway, let’s talk about Star Trek.


Star Trek: The Next Generation was the pop cultural equivalent of my first adolescent crush. I’d loved TV shows before that, in much the same way that you love people as a small child, largely because they are present and bringing you food. TNG was the first show that was “mine” properly speaking—the first pop cultural artifact that I actively sought out and became properly obsessed over.

And I do mean obsessed. I think my interest in the show coincided with it becoming syndicated for the first time, though I was too young to be sure about that. I think I started out somewhere in the second season, because I specifically remember seeing the first season for the first time and thinking how cheesy it looked and how much the show had evolved. I watched those first three seasons on a freaking loop—I taped them and rewatched them every day, and I absolutely had to be home to watch the syndicated rerun no matter how many times I’d seen the episode before. I bought all the spinoff novels (fortunately there weren’t too many of those to blow my money on) and most of the technical manuals, alien race guides, and eventually the TNG Companion became one of my proudest possessions. I wrote up elaborate encyclopedia-style listings of the various alien races, planets, and technology (thank God the internet wasn’t really a thing back then…though, wait, is the fact that I wrote these for my own amusement more or less sad than creating a Wiki?) It got so I could identify an episode by watching the first couple of seconds and…sigh, yes...hearing Picard recite the Stardate.

So yeah, pretty damn nerdy.

What’s weird about this is that I never really felt compelled to check out the original series. Part of that was that I don’t think it was airing in syndication on any of the channels I received at the time, or at least, nowhere that was convenient for me. My ten-year-old brain was wired kind of weirdly. I’d religiously plunk myself down in front of the TV right after school and watch cartoons, old sitcoms, and TNG, but I rarely felt compelled to watch in the evening.

Until, of course, I twigged to the fact that there were actual NEW EPISODES of TNG airing later in the evening (along with some other shows, like that “Simpsons” thing my VCR-obsessed family friend used to show me whenever I came over). I had discovered…Prime Time.

(Look, I’ve lived a very boring life, OK? Without exaggerated pomposity my autobiography’s going to be basically unreadable.)

Friday nights at 10, the night that TNG aired, became appointment television for me and my family—because I of course sucked them into it too. I’m always a little amazed at how my sisters, especially, picked up my pop cultural obsessions, for all that they acted like I was annoying them at the time; one of them can still remember albums worth of Weird Al lyrics, and the other owns an enormous prestige hardcover collection of Sandman and V For Vendetta. I’m contagious!

As for my parents, my dad likes anything tech-heavy, and my mom (a British ex-pat) likes watching theatrically trained Brit actors go at it. Of course my dad especially couldn’t help making snarky remarks through some of the show’s worst excesses, particularly the often stiff acting, but hey, family bonding is family bonding.

Oddly, it was around the time that Deep Space Nine spun off that I started to sour on Trek. Believe it or not, DS9 is the reason I’m delving into this whole subject, which is going to take up several blog posts—I’ve been working my way through it recently—but at the time, I found myself developing an aversion to it pretty fast, despite the slick production values. Part of it might be that I couldn’t interest the rest of my family in it, so I was watching it alone for season two. But another part of it was that that obsessive childhood brain of mine—man, this is really making me sound like I have OCD or something, isn’t it?—had fixated on what I thought were the “rules” of Trek, and DS9 was starting to break those rules. You can’t really blame me; this obsession with Trek was partly about me discovering how stories were told, visually and textually, and of course there’s no-one who gloms onto formulas like a student adrift in the vast, scary sea of creativity. But at the time it seemed like a betrayal. More on that anon.

Anyway, this was actually pretty small potatoes, if interesting in retrospect; the real issue was that the cracks were starting to show in TNG for me. The laziness of their treatment of aliens was a huge factor, for a start. I’m not just talking about the lameness of those infamous “bumpy forehead” designs (which were partly a budget issue, after all—even as a kid I understood these guys didn’t have George Lucas’s budget). It was the way the word “alien” never seemed to mean anything to the Trek writers. Aside from Klingons, Borg, and a handful of others, every alien species on this show spoke, acted, and emoted like a human being, and that’s just lame writing. It didn’t help that most of them appeared for a single episode and then vanished, never to be heard from again, which didn’t exactly help build a rich and detailed world. Likewise, the show’s continuity started to seem slapdash; I was interested in the “nodular” nature of TV storytelling at the time, but even then I thought it was a bit of a ripoff that so many major ideas could get sidelined and even abandoned. I mean are Trill people with weird foreheads or with dots down their necks I ASK YOU TREK PRODUCERS.

Ahem. I did mention that I was a nerd, right?

My list of problems with the show started to pile up until it was at least as large as the stuff I liked about it—something that’s become part of my makeup as a fan, unfortunately—but I kept watching all the way through to the finale, “All Good Things…” which I remember being really very good. And then that was that.

I think part of me knew it was in my best interests to make a clean break from Trek, and I even recall a vague sense of relief. Take this geeky burden from off me, Lord! Not that I hadn’t found new geek interests—I think The X-Files had grabbed most of my attention at the time, concurrent with Batman: The Animated Series--and those distracted me long enough to keep me from re-visiting TNG.

When I finally decided to start catching up on Trek a few years back, I made a conscious decision NOT to watch TNG, and in fact I don’t plan to ever revisit the show. I’m not the kind to wallow in nostalgia (ask me about Transformers sometime, and how my childhood love for them quickly became bemusement, leading into seething hatred thanks to the likes of Michael Bay) but Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to be the embodiment, for me, of a memory that the real thing will never be able to match.