Saturday, May 24, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 3 - What Went Wrong

At the end of 1972 the Fourth World was canceled. Kirby was off of Jimmy Olsen who went back to his usual wacky escapades, New Gods and The Forever People were just gone, and Mister Miracle limped along for another year as a more straight superhero book complete with kid sidekick. It wasn't the end of Kirby at DC, he created a few more series there including The Demon, OMAC, a revised Sandman, and his biggest success for DC Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. With the exception of Kamandi which continued running even after Kirby's contract with DC ran out and he returned to Marvel no book that Kirby worked on at DC lasted very long. So what happened?

DC's official position was that the sales were simply too low and while some of Kirby's fans have argued against that I see no reason to doubt it. While they weren't DC's lowest selling books they would be vulnerable titles when it came time to cull the publishing line back a bit since Kirby was his own editor and distant from the business end of things in New York. It is necessary to remember that DC comics is a publishing house; they can only publish so many books a month and if someone has pitched a new series that sounds like it could be a new hit then something has to come off the schedule. If no one speaks up for you then only the sales figures can speak.

So then why wasn't Kirby's work selling enough to be a success on its own? An obvious reason is that the times were changing. In the years that Kirby had been at Marvel comics thing went from this:

That's Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man #4; cover date September 1963.

To this:The most famous page of Amazing Spider-Man #121 by Gil Kane; cover dated June 1973.

Jack Kirby was a big part of the shift in comic book art (not to minimize Ditko; I wanted two non-Kirby examples) but by 1970 things were shifting to a post-Kirby period. The expansion of the panel layout and use of more textural pencils were things that Kirby just didn't do. He reminds me a lot of an early Renaissance illustrator in the face of new movements; while Kirby developed techniques he reincorporated the older style into his works while other arts were abandoning it. The youth buying superhero comics tend to equate "realism" and "more lines" with "better" which lead to an outright rejection of his art style.

Kirby's Mister Miracle #14; cover date June/July 1973.

Also as noted Kirby has an ear for dialog that went beyond tin. While comics were shifting to a more mature style he remained locked in the standards. This wasn't inexcusable, DC comics were still catering to a younger crowd at that point, but the fans who followed Kirby from Marvel were disappointed and walked away quickly. There was a sales spike on Kirby's first few issues before dropping off sharply after a few months.

Eventually Kirby's contract with DC ran out and he found himself returning to Marvel comics. That's where we'll pick things up on Monday...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Review - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
1990 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

How's that for some serendipity? The day of release for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the same day that the previous film comes up in my list for review. I wasn't trying for that but I'll take my coincidences where I find them.

(And for those looking for more Kirby in the 1970's I'm going to continue tomorrow and plan on wrapping things up on Monday.)

It had been over fifteen years since I had last watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade before I put it on for this review. When it was originally released I completely bought into the hype. It was a new Indiana Jones movie which was enough to get excited about but it would be more like the first movie and not like that travesty Temple of Doom. It would require new, special theaters to see it properly (really on this one; Last Crusade was released with a huge push by Lucasfilm for THX certified theaters). I loved it when I saw it opening night in a brand new movie theater.

I've been around quite a bit more since then. I've seen a lot more movies and refined my tastes in storytelling. The hype is gone and I turned a much more harsh critical eye on the film. And I still enjoyed it.

In Last Crusade supposed archaeologist Indiana Jones is in pursuit of the Holy Grail. His father had clues to its location but he's been kidnapped by Nazis who want find the Grail to use for holding Hitler's toothbrushes. He proceeds on a globe trotting adventure, doing as much damage to major historical finds as he can on the way.

The action set pieces, which is the major reason someone would watch an Indiana Jones movie, are just as skillfully done as they were in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I swear that the film's director Stephen Spielberg was trying to squeeze in as many action scenes on as many different types of transportation as possible. He missed bicycles but manages boats, cars, motorcycles, blimps, biplanes, tanks, and horses (camels are involved as well but since they don't get ridden it's a bit iffy on whether to include them). Spielberg retained the eye for making the action something that could be followed rather than a random assortment of three second long unconnected shots that most modern action film directors use. They're cleverly set up, well staged, perfectly shot, and edited smoothly; a model that is so rare in action films I'm shocked when its done competently and this is much more than competent.

The problems come in with the material between them: it just isn't as interesting or well done. There's a lot of stuff that's done for "humor" that isn't particularly funny. The movie drags when there isn't action on screen but fortunately things move back to an exciting set piece after a few minutes.

Harrison Ford, as before, comes across naturally as Indiana Jones but that's to be expected at this point. Sean Connery does a respectable job as his father and the two really shine when they're together on screen. Most of the rest of the cast unfortunately ranges from weak to out right abysmal. In particular Alison Doody was painfully bad as love interest Elsa Schneider. If her performance was any more flat she could have folded it up, put it in an envelope, and mailed it in.

In the hierarchy of Indiana Jones movies this is a distant second to Raiders of the Lost Ark but I still found it entertaining to watch. Unlike Temple of Doom it lacked the painfully annoying sidekicks which is a vast improvement. I haven't seen Crystal Skull yet but it would have to be much better than the previews indicate to come close to this movie.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 2 - The Fourth World

So Jack Kirby had left Marvel comics for DC and began an epic story told in fragments across four books: Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. Kirby's imagination was on display in all four as they featured strange alien vistas, some visually spectacular characters, and mind blowing science fiction concepts. Unfortunately without a collaborator on the writing or an editor to keep things in check they also featured horrifically bad dialog, some spectacularly ugly designs, and an odd fascination with hippies that seems very awkward forty years later.

While I had read bits and pieces of these books before (particularly New Gods) but I did not have the opportunity to read most of these until DC recently collected them in The Fourth World Omnibus. Since they're heavy bound volumes it makes scanning pages difficult without ruining the binding (that's how you know a book nerd; by how concerned they are for a book's binding). If you hold any interest in Kirby's art in this period the books are well worth getting since they reproduce the finest examples of his design and layout in high quality.

A regular pattern in the Fourth World books is that they started out strongly but as time went by Kirby seemed to get lost, the quality dropped off until the books were finally canceled. In addition Kirby had a horrible ear for dialog that got even worse when he was dealing with young characters.

As for the individual titles:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen

This might be the book with the biggest quality swings of Kirby's efforts. Before Kirby worked on it Jimmy Olsen was a weak artifact of a dying age. Kirby gave it a whole new cast centering on one of his creations from the 1940's the Newsboy Legion, Jimmy's new boss became a reoccurring villain, and stories focused on a government genetic engineering program called.

Oddly enough no one seems to have a problem with that program producing super powered clones of Jimmy Olsen without Jimmy being aware that it or cannon fodder versions of the Newsboy Legion. It's a very odd attitude especially given that a major theme reoccurring in these books is free will. The idea that it's okay for the government to make a copy of you without your permission to use for military applications is disturbing.

Still those first half dozen issues where Kirby presents the project the book zings from concept to concept. Then it falls into an odd story about scientific based vampires and the Loch Ness Monster. It takes a swing back to quality for one issue in #147 when Superman tours the home of the New Gods before it finally ends on a straight Superman story. The other highlight is a two issue block that features the comedian Don Rickles; he and Jimmy get poisoned and spend an issue racing for a cure before they explode.

The Forever People

If I had to pick a low point for the Fourth World this would be it. The premise of this book is a group of six teenage gods decide to leave home and see the Earth. The constantly run into the plans of the evil god Darkseid, Kirby's most enduring creation at DC who first turns up in this book.

The Forever People really felt like a rudderless title. While it featured the "youth movement" in the war between gods they didn't really do anything along the lines of those contemporary protesters. They showed up, Darkseid was doing something in his persuit of the mind control method called "the anti-life equation", and they stop it before moving on.

Despite the large cast the villains were the only characters of real interest. Everyone else might as well have been a cypher; they do little more than work through the plot. The only active characters in these stories are Darkseid and his minions.

Particularly embarrassing is the use of Deadman toward the end of the run where Kirby takes what is a supernatural character and shoves his misfit of science hero mold. It completely misses the point of the character. Fortunately this revamp was quickly abandoned.

The best single issue of The Forever People is #4 which introduces the torturer Desaad who imprisoning them in an amusement park where they are tormented in view of an apparently uncaring populous that sometimes even participates.

New Gods

By far the best of the Fourth World books New Gods featured the Orion, the son of one of the rulers of the gods, making his own personal war against evil. This book was to be the centerpiece of the Fourth World saga and the effort that Kirby put into it shows. It's the only book with a strong theme which helps make it more readable.

Kirby quickly introduced a set of human characters to get caught up in the war but they stay off stage for the majority of the series. Instead the story focuses on the history and battles between the gods and that is one area where Kirby's art excels.

The biggest misstep of the series was the introduction of one of the most ridiculous comic characters ever presented as serious: the Black Racer. He was a spirit of death in day-glo medieval armor that flew on modern skis. It's so incongruous that it passes bizarre comic book acceptable weirdness and heads straight into madness.

I can't point to a single story as the greatest but issue #7's "The Pact" acts as a coda for the series and is the key moment in the Fourth World story.

Mister Miracle

The impression I have of Mister Miracle is that Kirby felt constrained to a superhero format which did not suit the book. The idea of a "super escape artist" is unique and could have been entertaining but the book falls into a formula where the villain shoves Mister Miracle into a death trap and then he escapes thanks to tricks that the reader couldn't have been aware of before hand. It removes any trace of interest in the conflict of the story.

It would turn the book into an unpalatable mess except for the fact that Kirby populated this book with his best characters. The supporting cast and character interaction that makes up the bulk of Mister Miracle is very well done and I think that if Kirby had been willing to abandon the hero/villain format it would have been a revolutionary title. As it stands it is just a curiosity.

The best issue of the series is #6 in which Kirby introduced Funky Flashman, a con man intended as a parody of Kirby's former partner Stan Lee. Kirby channeled his resentment into that issue and the result is something special.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 1

Where is my review of Timescape? Well, I ordered a copy of the book roughly three weeks ago but thanks to some screw ups involving Amazon retaining my old mailing address after I removed it I still haven't received it. Presumably it's stuck in mail limbo to be delivered along with my copy of The Book of the New Sun series until the mailman shows up at my door asking for a few bucks for forwarding it but it does put me behind in my Nebula reviews. Don't expect them to resume for at least another week since I'll need to read a bit to get ahead of things again.

Fortunately I had a back up plan that had been brewing for a while:

I consider the story of Jack Kirby's work in the 1970's to be one of the great tragedies of the comic book industry. While I obviously like Kirby's work I do not have rose-colored glasses about it; there is plenty of blame to go around for the problems of that period. In the seventies Kirby was at his artistic peak but his work was rejected by audiences. His imagination was exploding as he finally had total control over his projects but he was crippled by his lack of a collaborator.

When I was young and had reached that point where I knew comic book creators Jack Kirby was the guy who I couldn't figure out why he was so popular. His art was blocky with some thick, sparse lines. The stories and characters were goofy. And somehow this man received quite a bit of promotion. Jack Kirby was supposed to be a big deal but I couldn't see why.

Advance a decade or so and I know exactly why. Those sparse lines were part of a dynamic layout; they carried more meaning than a hundred pencil scratches by some artists. He defined what comic books were supposed to look like for a generation.

In the early 1960's Jack Kirby was directly involved with the creation of most of the new Marvel comics. Starting at the beginning of the new wave of superheroes with Fantastic Four he was key to the "Marvel style" where an artist put together a full book from a rough outline before handing it back to the writer to add dialog. Because of this he was often an equal partner on the comic books.

By 1970 things were turning sour. Kirby justifiably felt he wasn't getting his share of the credit in his creations. Marvel comics were promoted on the "Stan Lee" name when he had equal input in them. In addition he wanted to keep his original artwork which Marvel at the time had a policy of retaining. So in 1970 he ended his decade at Marvel:

From Fantastic Four #100; July 1970 cover date. Not my favorite page but it features all of Kirby's usual visual tricks.

Marvel's competitors DC Comics offered Kirby a sweetheart deal. Kirby would get to do what he wanted, three books of anything he liked and one ongoing title of his choice. He'd work almost without supervision as editor of his own books. He could work from a new home in California rather than staying in New York. He'd get to keep all of his original art. And finally he'd be the first comic book creator promoted by DC comics; while Marvel had been promoting creators for years DC comics typically didn't even run credits on stories.

As he grew more unhappy at Marvel Kirby had been saving his ideas for when he would have a free hand. So for his books at DC he unleashed these ideas in a torrent. He envisioned an epic saga of gods warring for the Earth. Collectively referred to as "the Fourth World", Kirby dedicated all four of his books to telling this intertwined story. That heavy emphasis on cross continuity he brought to DC might have been his greatest contribution to the decade, helping to start DC comics down the road to more mature titles.

For the ongoing title Kirby offered to take something without a regular artist since he didn't want to take work from someone else. DC handed him Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen which had become a pariah that no one knew what to do with. Kirby's Fourth World saga was launched with:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133; cover date October 1970

It took Jimmy Olsen from a book which had fallen into formulaic set ups for 8-page stories to one where there was a new supporting cast, an ongoing storyline involving super science conspiracies, and techno-hippies.

Almost from the beginning, though, there were cracks in Kirby's relationship with DC. DC comics had someone redraw Superman's face to their house style and Kirby was unhappy with their selection of inker Vince Colletta. While Kirby would be able to soon change out the inker the changes to Superman stayed.

As 1971 dawned Kirby launched his three new bimonthly books: The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. Each of these tied directly into the epic Kirby wanted to tell.

But that must wait until tomorrow as I go into the rise and fall of the Fourth World. Be here as I run through sixty issues of history.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

If You Thought Downloading that MP3 Was Harmless

Think again.

If you think what the RIAA does is bad, Dr. Doom was actually scarred while downloading movies. He just uses that "Contacting the netherworld" line to make it sound more impressive.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Review - Man Plus

Man Plus
by Frederik Pohl
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Pop quiz for you. You're the administrator of a manned mission to Mars which is supposed to help pull the world back from the brink of World War III. Part of this involved converting a human being to a cyborg capable of surviving unaided on the surface of Mars. The previous test subject for this project developed a mental instability, had a stroke and died. You are now performing the same conversion on a man whose wife is having an affair with the engineer who designed most of the cybernetic body. Do you:

A. Lay out a specific plan and schedule in advance keeping the astronaut being changed apprised of every variation and step so that nothing can come as a shock to him.

B. Don't tell him anything and use meaningless euphemisms when talking about the procedures in front of him; when he wakes up castrated he'll figure out what that last "minor cosmetic modification" was.

Question two: As stated this mission is vital to the survival of the earth. As such you:

A. Plan and train in multiple waves of back ups for years in advance; you can always use the people training as back ups for later flights after all.

B. Work in someone for a complete body replacement two months before launch and substitute a trained astronaut for someone with no training nine days before launch.

Question three: the appropriate time for astronauts to be apprised of mission details for their trip to Mars is:

A. Several years in advance so they can take advantage of every valuable second that they're there.

B. Once they're on Mars.

If you've answered B to these three questions then you too can be an administrator for NASA in Man Plus!

Now I'm not an astronaut. I'm not even an astronaut buff. Yet somehow I came away from this book certain that I could manage the space program better. The decisions and choices made in Man Plus revolve around generating drama and as such feel completely artificial and forced. While having the man who's cuckolding him castrate the astronaut might make a good parallel it also makes an incredibly stupid plot twist.

But I've only begun to scratch the surface of how bad Man Plus is. For example, it's fifty pages in before we are informed that in the future monogamous marriage relationships are not normal and both the protagonist astronaut and his wife have had affairs before. This vital piece of information radically changes the nature of the central story but it's not a surprise twist or a shocking reveal; it's just a fact that's dropped and it left me feeling annoyed.

It's worse than that with the withheld information, though; after nearly one hundred and thirty pages of being repeatedly hold how vital getting a man on Mars is it's mentioned in passing that this isn't the first manned Mars mission. If putting a man on Mars is so vital to the psychology of the world then why weren't any of the other trips (at least five other missions; probably more) important?

And finally the majority of the book is written in an omniscient third person voice. Then occasionally for a paragraph or two it slips to a first person. This is supposed to be a mysterious party for the big twist ending but it just feels sloppy and the reveal when it comes isn't even that interesting. It doesn't even have an impact on the book; it would have been exactly the same story without the twist only there wouldn't have been some of the clumsy writing.

So characters presented as cliches and idiots for the sake of the story, a story that doesn't make any sense, and is poorly told. Man Plus is a loser all the way around. I strongly suspect the book of being one of the early examples of personal politics running the Nebula awards, especially since Pohl was the president of the SFWA which hands out the awards at the time Man Plus was published and when he received the award.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review - "Press Enter", "Bloodchild", and "The Crystal Spheres"

Michael Whelan
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Press Enter g"
by John Varley

1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Another Varley story? Okay, sure of the four stories I've read by him four have had pedophilia as a positive experience, some of them having it as the central theme, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's see... a story about the mysterious death of a computer hacker (hence the block in the title; it's an old style computer cursor the kind of which I haven't seen on a new machine in twenty years). That doesn't sound so bad. Hmm... a large breasted (Varley goes into extensive detail on that feature), Asian computer goddess who throws herself at middle aged men. That makes my eyes roll but it's new ground for him. Oh, and she escaped poverty in Viet Nam thanks to a pedophile who saved her while screwing her twelve year old body and she has fond memories of him.

Sigh. So five for five. Reading his stories that have won the Hugos has made me certain that I never want to read anything by him ever again. If I see his stories in other collections (where I read the first two stories I encountered by him) I'm going to skip over them.

So aside from the pedophilia this is not a good story. I'm sure you all remember how when Intel's 386 processor was released they combined together to form one murderous super-AI. No? Hmm... this story hinges on the fact that 16-bit processors are so powerful that an AI arising out of them would occur naturally. I wonder how we dodged that bullet.

It's the story of the boogey-man of the 1980's: the evil PC. Saying that it hasn't aged well is putting things mildly. To anyone with a little bit of technical knowledge in 1985 this story would be laughable; in 2008 it's pretty much a joke. The best part of the story is all the references to tech culture in the early 80's most of which I have nostalgia for but it's not enough to say it was worth reading.

by Octavia Butler
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Apparently the trick to winning a Hugo and Nebula those years were to have "blood" as the first word in the title. After the previous year's "Blood Music" comes "Bloodchild". Fortunately the voters stopped this otherwise all of the winners would sound like heavy metal bands.

Butler plays her cards close to her chest with setting details in this story and that can be a risky thing. One of the Nebula winners I recently read did the same thing but did it so poorly that the story was reduced to confusing nonsense. Butler does it right. My perceptions were being constantly rewritten by the story and where I ended up would not be where I thought the story was going at the start or even later on. She does this by building emotional connections rather than simply revealing facts.

I can't even begin to describe the story since it has a complex structure around those revelations but I can say that it's about the interaction of a human family with alien authorities. To go beyond that would be spoiling a wonderful story that you owe it to yourself to read.

"The Crystal Spheres"
by David Brin
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Before Kepler and Copernicus defined the motions of the planets it was assumed that the movement of heavenly bodies was due to them being embedded in vast crystal spheres that spun. Brin not only manages to revive the concept with "The Crystal Spheres", he manages to do it in a context that fits with modern science and give it a reason that makes it more intriguing.

It turns out that all life supporting stars are surrounded by vast crystal spheres. Earth's first interstellar space craft crashes into ours shattering it and sending quadrillions of comets down into the solar system. As it turns out the spheres are indestructible from the outside but soap bubble weak from within and those interstellar explorers find that they are constantly looking in at worlds that they can never touch. Eventually humanity retreats back to earth but centuries later a probe finds another broken sphere.

It's big concept science fiction played straight in the same style that Brin used in his Uplift books. The story is heavy on ideas but light on actual action but Brin manages to tell the story of the history of the spheres so well that I didn't mind. Humanity itself is the character that develops over the course of the story and I enjoyed it quite a bit.