Monday, February 29, 2016

I Want To Believe!

Leap Day seems an apt time to discuss The X-Files. Back in 1993 this show was a blockbuster - a well-crafted suspense-filled show in those halcyon days before cellphones and the internet when conspiracy theories depended upon the quaint transmission systems known back in those days as radio, paperbacks, magazines, and tabloids.

Mulder and Scully tapped a vein, rich and brimming, and brought to life all those delicious modern myths which enrich the daily hubbub.

But that was then and this is now. The X-Files has been revived in recent weeks in a short six-episode tenth season and frankly the appraisal is that the show looks rather long in the old tooth. Mulder and Scully no longer wreak of youth seeking to shatter the walls of secrecy and doubt erected by their elders, but rather like those elders themselves, part of a system which takes but rarely gives, except what it wants you to have.

Here's what I thought of the six episodes.

My Struggle

This one began with a real bang, the actual on-screen crash of an actual UFO. The development of special effects since the advent of this show has been phenomenal and it's great that the development was so slow or we'd not have the wonderful mysteries we now have in the lore of the show, but just a bunch of great pictures. The crash is spectacular, but if that had been in the original run, the core of the story would've been undercut. We meet a committed sensationalist named Tad O'Malley who seeks out the agents to get them onto the case and we encounter a mysterious young woman who suffers mightily and becomes a truly tragic figure. The bend of the story with Mulder now an aging skeptic with Scully having become more open to the mysteries is fun and by the end of the story the X-Files are properly up and running again. These plot elements get picked up again in the season finale. (See below.)

Founders Mutation

This one is a good enough episode with some proper mystery which Mulder is able to decipher eventually. The actual visual spectacle of the altered kids is in keeping with the carnival aspects of the classic series and there are some aha moments, but mostly this one left me a little cold. It does open with an interesting locked room murder of sorts, but then doesn't really do that much with it. Not the most compelling. 

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Loved this one, though I will have to say it was so zany that it almost tore itself apart before the story was done. The lack of youthful energy though from Mulder and Scully is felt here as Mulder in particular seems weary as he plumbs the depths of the mystery. The turnabouts are fun and the shout out to the Night Stalker series which inspired the X-Files was most entertaining. Darren McGavin might be gone but Kolchak will live on forever. The sexual gag with Scully was a real surprise, a nice one at that and very funny. This is an episode filled with laughs.

Home Again

This one was a properly scary story. "The Band-Aid Nose Man" was a truly frightening monster, a brutal killer who despite all of that got your sympathy for his cause if not his methods. The special effects here are held in check and what is shown is raw but what is not shown is even more impressive. Good storytelling is about suggestions to the audience's imagination and this one filled with dark shadows everywhere does that magnificently. This is the most Night Stalker like episode of a show I've seen in many a moon.


Headlines are what make this one striking. A terrorist suicide bomber survives (perhaps) his Texas attack and two agents in charge of the case named Miller and  Einstein consult the X-Files experts Mulder and Scully (for the record the two teams bare a marked and intentional resemblance) for a way perhaps to contact him in his near-death state to forestall new attacks. It's a curious and downright weird trip (literally for Mulder a "magical mystery tour") as the two teams (reassembled for this mission) take different approaches which prove some things and disprove others. God seems to be at the center of this exploration of the nature of mind and how thoughts can move and change lives and the world.

My Struggle II

This final episode of this small season was a real letdown. It follows on the plot elements of the debut and suddenly we find the whole world (it seems though it's hard to really tell) has fallen victim to a wave of infections such as anthrax, influenza, and more. People are getting sick and people are dying and only Scully seems to know why. Tad O'Malley returns to the internet to announce that the world is under attack by nefarious forces which have engineered this wave of disease with something called the Spartan Virus to winnow the population. While Scully and new agent Einstein work in a hospital to find a vaccine Mulder, suffering mightily from an infection finds the smoking man, who has survived and confronts him. For those looking for a satisfactory conclusion to this little mess, you should prepare yourselves. 

Gillian Anderson's "Dana Scully" seems rather weary and her voice thrums as a whisper. David Duchovny as "Fox Mulder" looks downright old (he's a few years younger than me, so what does that say) and seems less filled with the manic desire to discover which motivated the young Fox. Now he's an old Fox, less ripe with curiosity and more inclined to cynicism. And that's the key I think to why this one hits only occasionally. He's still like us, but old and tired and that's not very inspiring.

While the show and the nigh endless quest by two FBI agents rarely resulted in answers, it was a quest taken on with the hope eternal that answers would be out there if one only pressed on and looked with fresh eyes on a world which sought always to hide that which filled. The shadows were rife with secrets, needing only a wily Fox to find them and a wise Scully to decipher them. Now the mysteries still abound evolving into dull enigmas, and the seekers seem less concerned with hope than with stifling regret.

It's a shame.

Because like so many fans of the show I still want to believe.

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dangerous Dames Of Marvel!

Women in comics have always been a mystery of immense proportions. Comic books have almost always been the singular playground for young boys and later young men. Girls were allowed to read romance comics when those got invented and the MLJ line stays alive even today with its Archie line up. But comics are famously about superheroes and superheroes are for boys. We all know that.

So when dames show up in the four-colored pages they are either damsels in distress or dames of great danger. This month has featured the latter, those women who are just as inclined to stand on the throat of any superpowered mope who might imagine she needed saving. Enjoy these exceedingly dangerous dames.

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Fireside Chats #4 - The Superhero Women!

With Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974, Son of Origins in 1975 and Bring on the Bad Guys in 1976, the arrival in 1977 of the next Stan Lee Fireside tome was no surprise really. The Superhero Women speaks for itself as to content and offers up one of John Romita's finest illustrations for its beautiful cover. Weirdly this book is more in the then present of the Bronze Age in many ways than the past  of the Silver Age as had been the case with the previous volumes.

Only a few of the stories here are from the 60's with most being solid 1970's  Bronze Age efforts, books produced after Stan had left his legendary status as editor and entered into his broader and  more arcane role of publisher which seemed mostly to be to hype and advertise Marvel creations and stump for them to be made into Hollywood productions.  Stan opens by discussing the attitude at Marvel towards women and saying essentially that the need had always been recognized that more heroines should be created, but that Marvel never produced stories targeted just at girls. I don't really swallow that, but in the late 70's it was pretty standard stuff,  though in the 60's not so much.

The first heroine we meet is Medusa, a product of the 60's and to his credit Stan gives Jack Kirby co-creator credit for her.

But despite "Madame Medusa" having debuted in the Fantastic Four and even having had her own solo story in Marvel Super-Heroes, the story we get is from a guest-starring role in The Amazing Spider-Man. The volume will begin and end with a Spidey story, likely a ploy to make sure the fans get what they want in the way of popular heroes even in a tome dedicated to the distaff side.

Medusa here as rendered by John Romita and Mike Esposito is beautiful and she gives Spidey a good battle before of course they having a meeting of minds and mend fences. It's a good story, but hardly a great one. Clearly the desire to have Spider-Man trumped other concerns.

With Red Sonja we have a character who was one of Marvel's newest creations, a part of the Conan the Barbarian mythos. For the first time, Stan is writing about a character he had no part in at all. Aside from approving the purchase by Roy Thomas of the rights to Conan, Stan's role in this creation are strictly as observer. But since the Conan books were such an important part of the then-current Marvel, leaving her out was not an option.

As for me, I fell in love with Red Sonja like Conan from the moment I first clapped eyes on her in pages rendered with outstanding skill by the newly minted Barry Windsor-Smith.

She was a knockout and well capable of holding her own against the Cimmerian and in the pages of her own title. It would've been fine by me for them to have included that debut tale, though since she had her own title it was likely though more apt to push that.

That title came in Marvel Preview and we have the story here from issue four of that run. Now nothing in the title of this tome suggests we will be getting origin stories and for the most part we don't. This is a ferocious adventure written by Bruce Jones and drawn with magnificence by Frank Thorne, whose women are as idealized in their own way as John Romita's.

Then comes finally the turn of the Invisible Girl (not yet "woman" alas), though mostly Stan refers to her by her name of Sue Storm Richards, giving a hint of his own close connection to the character who as part of the Fantastic Four really made Stan's rep.

The story we get here is a sequel to the Mole Man story which debuted the team in the very first Fireside volume. Whether this is intentional or not, it's a neat sidebar and shout out to those who had been getting them all as they appeared. Sadly there's nothing much to report here, save that Stan tries to sell the notion that Sue was a different character in that she was a part of the team, and that's true, but anyone who reads these vintage tales will not for a moment imagine that sexism didn't inform these stories in significant ways. It's just how things were done in those "Mad Men" days.

Ms.Marvel, the next entry is in fact an in-your-face reaction to that, the most directly women's lib character yet presented. Stan calls back to the first volume when he evokes the memory of Doc Strange and how his origin had come after his debut. In the case of Ms.Marvel it happens again, the story we get here reveals nothing about how she got her powers and says little about her role in the early days of Captain Marvel.

But it does a dandy job of showcasing her powers in a story which is firmly wedged into the Spider-Man continuity. Carol Danvers gets a job with J. Jonah Jameson, battles The Scorpion, and pals around with Mary Jane Watson. No stop was left unpulled to launch this title, even down to having "Big" John Buscema draw it, which was fairly typical at this moment. He was the big gun in the Bullpen and was tapped to do this more than a few times with titles the company wanted to give a big send off. She-Hulk who came along several years later got this identical send-off.

Hela, the goddess of death from the pages of Thor always struck me as an odd choice, but though we learn little about her origins, we do get arguably the most emotional story of the book when this two-part epic by Stan and John Buscema is presented.

In this one Hela demands the death of Thor and seeks him out on Earth and only the intervention of Odin can forestall the inevitable end.

If you want to know what the hubbub about the writing of Stan Lee is all about, I recommend this story. It's one of his best ever, emotional and compelling and full of thematic depth. Buscema is in his prime here even if I personally don't think Joe Sinnott's inks do him justice. For all his magnificence (and I consider it plenty) Kirby was not as capable as Buscema at portraying emotions, and "Big" John is ideal for this particular Thor story.

And then came The Cat. Stan admits that he knows very little about this character and talks how he had to peruse the issue before writing about this brazen attempt by Marvel to tap into the Women's Lib movement. He does discuss the way the title seemed to come apart even as it was being born, with talent changes coming almost immediately.

But we will always have this delightful debut story by Linda Fite (soon to marry Herb Trimpe) illustrated by Marie Severin and Wally Wood. Back then, if you wanted to launch some comics featuring chicks, then Wally Wood was the ideal choice for artwork. That said, Stan seems to have no idea that poor Greer Carson had long since become Tigra, nor that Patsy Walker had assumed the costume seen above as Hellcat in the pages of The Avengers.

And at long last we get an actual Ant-Man story in the pages of one of these Fireside books. Overlooked in the previous volumes, Ant-Man only got a mention as part of the Avengers and here poor Hank Pym only gets invited to the party because he hangs out with the winsome Wasp.

It's a beautiful story from Tales to Astonish with some Kirby layouts and Don Heck finishes. The script of this really complicated origin story is by a guy named "H.E. Huntley" who it turns out, as revealed by Stan in his introduction is Ernie Hart, a longtime talent who had worked at Marvel on various strips. In fact Stan brings up nom de plumes several times in this book, mentioning not only Hart, but George Roussos who did the FF story seen above as "George Bell" and Mike Esposito who did the Medusa-Spidey yarn as "Mickey Demeo". Stan also takes a heartfelt moment to remember Artie Simek, the letterer of this story who had passed away in 1975.

The Femizons are perhaps the oddest addition to this book. Stan and John Romita created the Femizons to be part of Savage Tales, the black and white magazine Marvel debut to showcase Conan as well as other stories which had a more mature and violent aspect. Other features in the first Savage Tales were Ka-Zar, Man-Thing (debut), and a feature called "Black Brother".

This is the only appearance by the Femizons in a raucous story you can read here for yourself featuring Stan's "Violent Volutpuaries". They did show up again sort of as part of the back story for Thundra who appeared in the Fantastic Four to give Ben Grimm a hard time.

Shanna the She-Devil by artist Ross Andru with a script by Carole Seuling was, like The Cat, part of Marvel's early 70's attempt to latch onto the Women's Lib movement for fun and profit. Over the years Shanna has proven to be perhaps the most successful of these characters, the third being the weird and exceedingly unsuccessful Night Nurse.

Stan for his part doesn't seem really to remember much about how Shanna came to be, but he works mightily to justify her presence in the book by mentioning that Marvel was at the time of publication starting to bring out Tarzan in new adventures. The salesman in Stan never stopped, which is simultaneously part of his charm and a really annoyance. The timelessness of this book is rather undercut by the Tarzan mentions, but I can see why he feels the need to promote, it was his main mission always.

And finally at long last The Black Widow makes her appearance. Introduced as a classic femme fatale in the pages of Tales of Suspense, the Widow was first an Iron Man foe and later an enemy of The Avengers. When I first ran across the character she was the girlfriend of Hawkeye who was hopelessly smitten with her. Her fishnet outfit though was as old-fashioned as it was alluring, and the times called for something sleeker, more in keeping with that other Avengers on the TV starring Mrs.Peel.

To that end in the pages of another Spider-Man story we are introduced to the attitude adjusted Widow. As drawn by John Romita and Jim Mooney here, the Widow goes from just another heroine to an absolute smokin' hottie in a mere four pages. Take a look for yourself.

I'm not gonna' lie -- these pages were a revolution for yours truly. (I just might have gone through puberty during these four little pages.) The sheer unblinking femininity of Natasha radiates in these delightful pages and by the end of them we are truly confronted with a brand new kind of heroine, someone truly dangerous. For this new Black Widow to seek out Spider-Man made a weird kind of sense but it certainly was a neat high-profile to relaunch the character. She went on to have a short series in Amazing Adventures, alongside Medusa as part of the Inhumans ironically enough. By the time Stand was writing this volume she'd already had a breakthrough long-standing romance with Daredevil and had served as leader of The Champions.

And that ends the Fireside run of Origins books. It's clear by this one that Stan has run out stuff to say really, but it doesn't mean that there weren't still great stories that needed to be reprinted. Fans of Marvel might be surprised to see so little about The X-Men, but at this moment in 1977 the Uncanny heroes were far from sales successes and had just relaunched. More surprising is the absence of Spider-Woman who like Ms.Marvel was a brand new Marvel item.  Fireside went on to do that with volumes dedicated to the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Captain America and Doctor Strange as well as others. But somehow these four dedicated to the "origins" of Marvel Comics hold a special place in the annals.

To quote Stan "The Man" Lee..."Excelsior!"

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