Monday, June 15, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #52

A small number of hero-crossovers appear in the Italian "muscleman adventure" subgenre of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Until recently I'd considered choosing, as the best representative of these, 1963's HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES. Like most of these mini-epics, the storyline of H,S & U is so conventional as to stifle one's imagination, though there is at least a decent fight-scene between the two strongmen of the title.



Happily, thanks to a contributor to Youtube, I came across a far superior nominee: a broad comedy entitled SAMSON AND THE MIGHTY CHALLENGE. I go into more detail in my review, but suffice to say that Hercules falls in love with a young woman who doesn't want him-- a development that probably never occurred in any other Italian Hercules film.  The lady's parents try to stave Hercules with a challenge-- and from a plot-standpoint, the film really is a challenge given to Hercules, not to Samson. They tell Hercules that the gods will not give permission for the marriage unless Hercules can defeat the Jewish strongman Samson.

In addition to once again bringing together Samson and Hercules-- this time in a humorous context-- two other heroes also jump into the mix. One is "Maciste," who began his career in the 1914 Italian historical epic CABIRIA, and who then starred as the hero of various silent films, as well as a horde of muscleman-adventures of the fifties and sixties, many of which were re-titled as Hercules films for the American market. The other is "Ursus," whose name was taken from the novel/film QUO VADIS for a handful of "Ursus" films. The Ursus of MIGHTY CHALLENGE is more like a comic brute rather than a hero in his own right, so he's not really a continuation of the noble fellow who had his own series. Then again, I must admit that almost none of these muscleman films maintain any consistency from one episode to the next. So the Hercules, Samson and Maciste of MIGHTY CHALLENGE are similarly not in line with any of the previous adventures of those cinema-characters, much less any mythic or literary forbears.

The highest compliment I can pay the film is to say that while most Italian knockabout comedies aren't nearly as funny as their makers think they are, this one actually brings the goods.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #51



It's a slam dunk that Jack Kirby, co-creator of both Thor and the Hulk, should be the one to render the best (thus far) face-off between the two Marvel titans, covered in my previous post.

Nevertheless, the Hulk-Thor battle in DEFENDERS #10, scripted by Steve Englehart and pencilled by Sal Buscema, comes a close second. The scene represented on the cover, in which the two super-strong guys, after lots of pounding and throwing things, presents the argument that the two are fundamentally equals, in that they struggle against each other, arm against arm, for something like a solid hour.

This was the high point-- though not the only good moment-- of the seven-issue crossover  called "The Avengers-Defenders War." This took place in the AVENGERS (issues #115-118) and DEFENDERS (issues #8-10) titles, both at the time being written by Englehart. In later interviews Englehart would assert that other Marvel employees doubted that he and his artists could pull off a crossover that had to be timed so that each segment came out precisely on the heels of the last installment. Later, this sort of multi-issue crossover would become standard practice at both Marvel and DC, often criticized for weak storylines and a transparent attempt to boost sales in an artificial manner. But Englehart's story carries the same innocent thrill of the "heroes-meet-and-fight-cute" trope that Marvel perfected in its Silver Age heyday.

The plot, dealing with a conspiracy by villains Loki and Dormammu to reshape the Earth into one of Dormammu's realms, serves adequately to bring the two teams into a conflict in which each believes the other to be villains. The only downside of this generally enjoyable outing is that although Sal Buscema is perfectly fine in his DEFENDERS segments, penciller Bob Brown, given mediocre inks by Mike Esposito, gives the AVENGERS segments a sloppy and unfocused look. The one exception to this generalization is a chapter devoted to a battle between Captain America and the Sub-Mariner, but only because this section is crisply inked by an uncredited Frank McLaughlin.

Monday, May 11, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #50

FANTASTIC FOUR 25-26, with its Thing-Hulk battle, remains the best example of Jack Kirby cutting loose with his trademark fight-kinetics. However, despite a shorter length, the first major battle between the Hulk and the Mighty Thor-- appearing in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #112-- is nothing to sneeze at.




Rather than coming up with a new reason for the Asgardian hero to confront the Green Goliath, Lee and Kirby choose to tell an "untold story" of a previous meeting.  Thor himself narrates the story to a gaggle of young admirers, revealing that during the Avengers' sortie against the team of the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner in AVENGERS #3, Thor managed to get the Hulk alone in a room and the two of them matched muscles for roughly a minute. This, Thor tells his comics-audience (but not his listeners), is all the time the hero allows himself to defeat the Hulk, swearing not to pick up his dropped hammer until he defeats his monstrous opponent. Since in those days Thor would revert to the human Doc Blake if the hammer was out of his hands for more than 60 seconds, this sounds like a suicide impulse on Thor's part-- though it certainly fits in with his Viking macho rep.

It's a good fight, but the panels above capture a curious dichotomy in the Lee-Kirby corpus: an admiration for the brutal power of the Hulk played off against Thor's embodiment of the virtues of nobility. The THOR feature would sometimes explore these issues, resonant of class conflict, but here it's just a side-note to the Clashing of Titans.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #49



I selected this film for roughly the same reasons I chose CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS here in post #47, less for the work's quality than for its significance as a crossover.

As all fans of luchaodore cinema know, the dominant idea behind the genre was to portray established professional wrestlers as itinerant superheroes, running around fighting everything from crime bosses and spies to aliens and monsters. IMDB cites the date of the first crossover, SANTO AND BLUE DEMON AGAINST THE MONSTERS, as 1970. I haven't screened this flick as yet, but I have seen two other Santo-Blue Demon team-ups from the same period, so I have to pass on these two-wrestler team-ups to stand as the best of the genre.

If 1972's THE MUMMIES OF GUANAJUATO had nothing else going for it, at least it brought together the three wrestlers who had the longest careers as movie superheroes: Santo, the Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras. Fortunately, the film also gave the wrestlers opponents who aren't simply retreads of Hollywood figures. These mummies were based on a group of well- preserved corpses found in Guanajuato, Mexico, which city subsequently became a major Mexican tourist attraction.

These two elements are the best aspects of the film: otherwise MUMMIES is not the equal of the more brain-fried Mex-horror films. For most of the narrative, director Federico Curiel seems content to show the heroes in a series of running battles with their super-strong, almost invulnerable enemies. More than that I can't  say, for I only watched a Spanish language version of the film. However, I honestly don't think I'm missing any great subtleties here.

The mummies are moderately imposing, if not scary, and there's lots of action. I should note, though, that Santo doesn't show up until the last fifteen minutes; it's been strongly suggested that he was a last-minute addition to the film..

Monday, April 13, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #48




PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD...

While a lot of the crossovers I've covered here have elements of hand-to-hand conflict, here's one based in "foot vs. foot."

FLASH #175 was published as a follow-up to a similar set-up in SUPERMAN #199, which had only seen publication about three months earlier. The Superman story is a good read, but it has a somewhat "kiddie-level" feel to it. Superman and the Flash race one another for charity, but have to deal with illegal gamblers trying to sabotage the race for their own benefit.

As the cover above shows, the FLASH version of this conflict hinges more on the hero's pathos in contention with DC's premiere hero. The script by E. Nelson Bridwell shows a little more concern with overall continuity than was typical of DC comics in 1967.

In short, Superman and the Flash are forced to run across the galaxy in a competition managed by two alien gamblers, Rokk and Sorban, who had appeared in an earlier Superman story. The aliens also hold the whole Justice League hostage and threaten to destroy the home city of whichever hero loses the race. Refreshingly, Bridwell does manage to find ways for three of the Justice Leaguers to provide aid to the racing heroes, so that they're not simply confined to sitting around playing cheerleaders.

The story doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Since Flash can't breathe in space, the alien betting on him promises to supply him with a force-field of breathable air throughout the race. However, you learn by story's end that the aliens are actually two of Flash's old foes, Professor Zoom and Abra Kadabra, who have only instigated the race in order to lure the Flash into various death-traps. When one of the villains says that he cancelled the force-field so that Flash should have died in space, Superman advances the absurd explanation that he provided the Flash with enough air to breathe via his "super-breath." Hmm, so Superman can expel pure oxygen from his lungs, rather than carbon dioxide? Still, I didn't really worry about such niceties as a kid reading this comic.

Ross Andru's art puts a lot of verve into the galaxy-spanning race, and the two heroes are seen to be somewhat distrustful of one another, possibly in response to the pervasive influence of Marvel Comics during the period.


A VERNIAN VERTIGO

Though like most fantasy-fans I've been entertained by the films based on the works of Jules Verne, I've been somewhat more ambivalent about the author's fiction. I have sampled more of his oeuvre than many modern readers, largely the "usual suspects" like JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, though I also have sampled some obscurities like OFF ON A COMET and THE CARPATHIAN CASTLE. But I had never come across the two novels that gave rise to his character Robur the Conqueror, entitled ROBUR THE CONQUEROR and MASTER OF THE WORLD. Elements from these novels were used in their most famous cinematic adaptation, 1961's MASTER OF THE WORLD, starring the redoubtable Vincent Price.



Recently I was able to correct that situation, as I came across an Ace combination of both novels, originally issued to take advantage of the then-current movie.  I crossed my fingers before reading them, for although I'd enjoyed some sections of both LEAGUES and EARTH when I recently re-read them, I found that Verne's tended to be over-indulgent with his copious research of places and physical phenomena, often at the expense of his characters.

The first of the two novels, "Robur" (published 1886), was a heady surprise. Verne starts slow, with a lot of detail about the state of manned flight-craft in his era, and introduces a whole society of balloon-specialists. Two members of this society, young hero Evans and his mentor Uncle Prudent, become the novel's heroes as they encounter the arrogant engineer Robur, who predicts that "heavier-than-air" flight will soon eclipse the "lighter-than-air" type. When the balloonists reject his claim, Robur kidnaps both men and their Negro valet (more on whom later). He takes them aboard his fantastic craft, the Albatross, and shows them how easily he can confound the military resources of every nation by simply sailing beyond their reach.

Verne is never great with characterization, so it's not clear what Robur gains from the kidnapping beyond a big "told you so," nor is it clear as to why he wants to keep the three men prisoners once he's accomplished this. Robur is clearly in the mold of Verne's earlier Captain Nemo, but Robur is more arrogant, in contrast to the way Nemo is mostly minding his own business when he's forced to take Professor Arronax and his companions aboard the Nautilus. While Nemo and Arronax enjoy each other's company as men of science, Robur does not socialize with his captives, though Verne may have meant to suggest that down deep, Robur wanted from them some validation of his accomplishment. Yet the fact that Evans and Prudent are unremittingly hostile toward Robur endows the novel with more tension than I found in LEAGUES: I read ROBUR with the same excitement I get from the best adventure-pulp.

Robur is in some ways a more compelling character than moody Captain Nemo, but unfortunately he's also more inconsistent. Sometimes he goes about mocking the authority of the European countries, but he also goes out of his way to prevent an African tribe committing a mass ritual murder of several innocent subjects. Evans and Prudent succeed in escaping the Albatross, and they also damage it with an explosive charge. However, when the two men and their crew are in danger during the test-flight of one of their balloons, Robur brings in the Albatross to rescue his rebellious guests, and then sets them free. He then issues another mocking declaration of the inevitable superiority of "heavier-than-air" flight, and vanishes into the sky. It's as if Robur, like his author, was just keeping Evans and Prudent in his company just to build tension, when his long-range aim was actually to catch the balloonists in an embarrassing situation, the better to prove publicly the superiority of his concept-- and indeed, the last we hear of the novel's protagonists is that the citizens of the U.S. are mocking them for their craft's failure.

MASTER OF THE WORLD (1904) lacks any of the virtues of the previous novel. Wikipedia notes that Verne's health was failing when he wrote MASTER, and indeed he passed in 1905, so one can understand if this was something less than a triumph.

However, this doesn't make MASTER any more fun to read. It's outrageously padded with tourist-like descriptions as the protagonist John Strock investigated strange phenomena in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Strock eventually finds out that Robur has holed up in one of the mountains while perfecting a new device: a triple-threat vehicle, "The Terror," which can convert from an air-craft to a land-vehicle to a submersible. Toward the short novel's end Robur captures Strock but never gives any reason as to why he chose to convert his Albatross into this new "Transformer-style" vehicle. Whereas a character named John Strock is instrumental to Robur's defeat in the 1961 film, here Verne takes the lazy way out and has Robur's craft struck by lightning. Strock survives the debacle but Robur's body is never found in his miracle-craft's wreckage.

I said that I would comment on Verne's character of Uncle Prudent's Negro valet, who goes by the name "Frycollin." I haven't read enough Verne to know of his general attitude toward characters of color, but Frycollin has got to be one of the worst minstrel-show Negroes of all time. In my commentary on the first two Tarzan books, I remarked that although Edgar Rice Burroughs was somewhat ambivalent on African Blacks, he found it expedient to heap cruel humor on a Black African-American character, a maid named Esmerelda. But at least once or twice Esmerelda seems like a human being, while Frycollin is just a concatenation of every minstrel-show trope in existence: he's witless, he eats like a pig, and he's a complete coward-- so much so that even when Prudent and Evans lay plans to escape, they know they can't confide in Frycollin or he'd reveal their plans, either out of stupidity or cowardice.  For that matter, given the unimaginative way Verne uses the tropes, I can't imagine them being even modestly funny to those who like racist humor.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #47

I've finished a lengthier analysis of DC Comics' CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS here. but that essay doesn't discuss the series from the POV of crossover aesthetics.

First, I should note that this type of crossover is the one I defined here as the STATIC CROSSOVER:

In such works, the author assumes an overall cosmos in which all of the myth-characters he invokes are capable of encountering one another at any time.

The first example of the static type that I cited on this blog was FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #3, Marvel Comics' first large-scale assemblage of most of their 20th-century characters in one story. CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS-- "COIE" for short-- has many of the same faults and virtues of this annual. On the one hand, the seasoned fan enjoys the experience of seeing characters mixed together that did not typically meet, be it Mr. Hyde and Hawkeye, or Swamp Thing and the Losers. On the other hand, the meetings are so short that there's often a sense of frustration in such brief encounters.

A lot of COIE consists of characters looking up at the sky in apprehension or laying plans to deal with the Anti-Monitor, and these don't exactly give artist George Perez the chance to excel with his mastery of superhero kinetics.

The best issues to seek out for heroic action in the Mighty Perez Manner are COIE #6, in which the DC heroes contend with characters from other publishers, including Fawcett and Charlton:




And COIE #9, which puts the heroes in conflict with a contingent of DC's best villains, plus a tiny handful of Fawcett villains.