Monday, January 25, 2016

THE READING RHEUM: KISS ME DEADLY (1952)



This is not a full review of Mickey Spillane's sixth Mike Hammer novel, but rather a companion to a forthcoming review of the far-from-faithful 1955 film adaptation. The novel's a good read, and perhaps displays less of the so-called misogyny for which Spillane's works are routinely criticized-- until the ending, which I'll proceed to reveal, so...

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

For most of the novel, the tough-guy hero has pursued a mysterious package, causing him to come into conflict with sinister Mafiosi. As is standard in such novels, Hammer also protects a gorgeous "helpless femme," this one going by the name of Lily Carver. In contrast to many such novels, Hammer doesn't get any advance romantic rewards from the mysterious young woman, but there's a good reason for this, beyond Hammer simply playing the part of a noble rescuer. Probably no one was much surprised back in the day when it's revealed that Lily is a femme fatale who's also seeking the valuable whatsit. She's not even the real Lily Carver, but an unnamed schemer who has assumed the real woman's identity. But the concluding scene suddenly amps up the misogyny by Warp Factor Five:


"Her hands slipped through the belt of the robe, opened it. Her hands parted it slowly....until I could see what she was really like. I wanted to vomit worse than before. I wanted to let my guts come up and felt my belly retching. She was a horrible caricature of a human! There was no skin, just a disgusting mass of twisted, puckered flesh from her knees to her neck, making a picture of gruesome freakishness that made you want to shut your eyes against it." 

This strange image of a woman who presents an alluring face and form but whose garments conceal a monstrous "freakishness" remains riveting even today, and even though I've only read a handful of the author's works, I'll hypothesize that this may well be Spillane's most misogynistic-- and mythopoeic-- scene in any of his books. Hammer only gets a look at the goods after Lily has shot him once, and is preparing to shoot him again, but she stops only to mess with his mind before she kills him. While pointing her gun directly at Hammer's "belt"-- which is probably as close as a 1950s pop-culture author could come to intimating the groin-- she tries to force him to "kiss me, deadly," knowing that he'll be grossed out by her injuries, briefly explained as having been caused by a fire. Hammer manages a last-minute save, improbably managing to set "Lily" on fire because she's soaked in alcohol from an earlier rubdown.

I for one would not characterize Spillane's use of violence against a woman to be misogynistic in itself, for Hammer is just as wildly violent against his male enemies.Yet, as averse as I am to quick-stop Freudianian readings, I must admit that Spillane's era was uniquely saturated with the ideas of the Viennese "father of psychology." There had been many femme fatales before "False Lily," and they too combined the idea of physical allure coupled with a "masculine" will to turn on the hero and try to kill him. But few of them reproduced an image that was so resonant of the Medusa-myth, in which the female combines aspects of normative beauty and a repulsive hideousness.  A Freudian-influenced reader would probably opine that the ugliness beneath Lily's garments was a displacement for male fears of the vagina; indeed, in SEXUAL PERSONAE Camille Paglia goes so far as to claim that Western culture's enshrinement of feminine beauty is a means of avoiding the unlovely reality of the female sex organ (not that Paglia thinks the male organ is much better). I myself don't subscribe to this reading as being broadly applicable, but it does seem to fit Spillane's particular brand of female-fear.

The 1955 adaptation, while it subverts many of the masculine priorities of Spillane's novel, doesn't make its version of Lily a hideously scarred woman. However, in place of the original's rapacity, the film script makes learned comparisons to the myth of feminine curiosity, directly referencing such figures as Medusa and Lot's wife, and implicitly invoking the idea of the Greeks' Pandora and the Box of Evils. And since Pandora's Box may also be seen as a symbol for the female sex organ, it's arguable that the film-maker may have also demonized femininity every bit as much as Spillane did.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #57




DC Comics's flirtation with pulp crusaders in the 1970s didn't bear profitable fruit: they managed only 13 issues of their title THE SHADOW and four issues of JUSTICE, INC., both based on properties licensed from the publisher Street and Smith. The later book was probably entitled JUSTICE INC. because the actual name of the starring hero, The Avenger, would have invited a "cease and desist" letter from Marvel Comics, home of "The Avengers." However, on the whole JUSTICE INC. was an undistinguished work. In contrast, DC's SHADOW comic, though short-lived, enjoyed a handful of memorable stories crafted by writers Denny O'Neil and Michael Uslan, and drawn by artists Michael Kaluta, Frank Robbins and ER Cruz.

The one good thing about DC's brief licensing of "The Avenger" was that it eventuated in this crossover. Certainly the story was an attempt to boost the visibility of the lesser-known feature, but the raconteurs in charge of having the Shadow and the Avenger-- Uslan and Cruz-- also made it one of the stronger comics-crossovers of the 1970s.

I won't claim that the plot is anything special. Both heroes employed crews of subsidiary agents who helped the main guy fight his battles, so the script took advantage of this by having a nasty evildoer-- the Shadow's most celebrated villain, Shiwan Khan-- kidnap members from both crews. He then hypnotized the assistants and used them as catspaws in a successful attempt to make the two crime-crusaders fight one another.

As a fight, it's not much: ER Cruz is more successful at creating oppressive mood than pulse-pounding action. But Uslan is excellent in the way he gives both the Shadow and the Avenger a waspish wariness of one another, rather than simply having them make nice once they learn how they've been manipulated. I particularly like the succinct way the Avenger explains things to a subordinate when they witness one of the Shadow's quasi-supernatural feats: ""All is not as we see it, Mac! But I DO know what it was I saw!" At a time when many comics-writers over-explained nearly everything in the story, Uslan shows a charming reticence as to divulging the inner secrets of his mysterioso protagonists.

Monday, October 19, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #56



One of the great "guilty pleasures" of 1980s TV was the 1981-89 series DYNASTY. Having seen the first season in reruns a while back, I've the sense that even then the producers hoped to create a spin-off by postulating that the Denver-based oil barons, the Carringtons, had a rival in another super-rich family, the Colbys. The two big families were bound in part by marriages between members, but it didn't seem to make them any more friendly over time.

The 1985 DYNASTY episode "The Titans" served to introduce the cast of the spinoff to the parent show's viewers prior to COLBYS's debut in November of that year. From then on the two shows didn't share many plotlines, and some of DYNASTY's actors , notably Joan Collins, refused to appear on COLBYS for fear of "weakening the brand," as some people call it these days. COLBYS started off with some powerhouse actors, particularly cinematic icons Charlton Heston and Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom certainly were more famous than John Forsythe and Linda Evans. Yet COLBYS never caught on and only lasted two seasons. I've not seen it in many years, but all I remember about it was a running plotline about incestuous desires between a brother and sister.

The crossover episode is okay fun, if one has a great tolerance for over-the-top line-deliveries and a wealth of scenes in which enemies bare their fangs at one another over champagne and studied innuendo. One of my first crossover-listings took a similar form, in that once the series ALL IN THE FAMILY was successful, its producer used not one but two episodes of that show as "back-door pilots" for his second series MAUDE. I'm not a big fan of the latter series, but I must admit that MAUDE by far a better spin-off than COLBYS. If COLBYS has any significance in a societal sense, it's probably just that the American public could only take so much champagne and caviar.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #55



I haven't read more than a handful of Clive Barker's prose works, so I know of his Hellraiser and Nightbreed concepts only through their incarnations in the cinema, where Barker's control of the franchises was, to say the least, compromised. I've read a handful of the Nightbreed comics published by Marvel's Epic line, and none of the Hellraiser comics from the same source. Fortunately, Epic's 1991 Hellraiser-Nightbreed crossover, JIHAD, is not tied into any of other serials, and neither writer D.G. Chichester nor artist Paul Johnson worked on either of the ongoing titles. Unlike some other Epic Comics graphic novels-- notably, the debut issue of VOID INDIGO-- JIHAD can be read without reference to any other serials. Admittedly, though, one is likely to be lost if one hasn't seen both the 1990 NIGHTBREED film and at least the first two Hellraiser films, which I have reviewed here and here. Indeed, I was thinking largely of JIHAD when I wrote in the second review that "HELLBOUND, while far from a perfect film, expanded on the Cenobite mythology originated by Barker, and arguably, it is the Randel-Atkins mythology that has been most fruitful in other adaptations of the franchise." (Note: Peter Atkins, writer of HELLBOUND, gets the honor of having a denizen of the Cenobite Hell named after him in JIHAD.)

Since JIHAD shows a febrile creativity in terms of both script and art, I will speak of it as the joint creation of Johnson and Chichester. The two creators had a formidable challenge before them, for of the two franchises, only Hellraiser had proved popular with horror-fans, while the NIGHTBREED film proved itself a critical and commercial failure when it debuted in American theaters in February 1990. This meant that the Nightbreed characters-- and JIHAD features a quite unwieldly quantity of them-- probably weren't really that familiar to JIHAD's readers, unless they also followed the ongoing NIGHTBREED comic book, which began a couple of months after the film's release in 1990. Still, the society of freaks and monsters who made up the Nightbreed offered more potential for reader-identification than the Cenobites from the Hellraiser franchise. These characters-- almost always represented by their articulate leader "Pinhead"-- existed largely to tempt their victims into entering their hellish domain, where they would then undergo ceaseless tortures in what might best be described as a S-&-M updating of medieval stories of infernal punishments.

So Johnson and Chichester essentially interwove the very loose "Randel-Atkins mythology" of the second Hellraiser film into the equally loose mythos created by Barker for the Nightbreed film. The result is one very heavily layered crossover, in which the Cenobites are discovered to have been the forces that caused the monstrous Nightbreed race to be divorced from their somewhat distant cousins, the human beings. I should note that Barker's concept for the Nightbreed bears a strong resemblance to the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby "Inhumans" franchise, in that both groups are comprised of a motley crew of superhumans who have little if any physical resemblance to one another-- though of course, Barker's concept ratchets up the sex, violence and perversity far beyond the boundaries of any mainstream comic book.

Despite all the transgressive elements in JIHAD, however, Johnson and Chichester bring an artfulness to their franchise-crossover. I for one consider that its theme is at least as deep as that of the Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN, but would concede that JIHAD's space limitations-- consisting of just two 48-page novels, with gorgeously grotesque painted art by Johnson-- might make some overlook it as just another desultory franchise-crossover.  I'll be exploring said theme in more depth elsewhere.

As an odd coda to this overlooked work, both Chichester and Johnson left the medium of comic books for employment in other artistic venues.









Wednesday, September 2, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #54



Though I made up my "best 100 crossovers" list months ago, the gradual nature of the project has allowed for me to occasionally bring in more recent stuff and drop out previous choices.

"Say Uncle," a STEVEN UNIVERSE cartoon lasting less than a quarter-hour, debuted in April 2015 on Cartoon Network. I just saw it, and it's easily one of the most "meta" commentaries on the dynamics of engineering a crossover between franchise-characters. The above scan takes place when visiting guest-star "Uncle Grandpa" assures Steven that the episode in which they're jointly appearing "is not canon"-- and then he proceeds to show him how to use a real cannon, by firing off his own head as a projectile.

In contrast to many non-canonical episodes of serial shows, in which nothing much happens aside from the crossover, "Say Uncle" does relate to a continuing storyline from the UNIVERSE show, in which he struggles to master his latent powers as one of the "Crystal Gems." At the same time, the story is written so that writers dealing with more canonical matters can freely ignore the intrusion of Uncle Grandpa into Steven's universe. Similarly, when the goony Grandpa transports Steven into his own universe, one of Steven's Gem-friends ends up devouring one of the regular characters of Grandpa's show-- an event which I imagine was also cheerfully ignored in any GRANDPA episodes that followed.

I've become only a minor fan of STEVEN UNIVERSE, and have not really followed UNCLE GRANDPA, but this episode does what any good crossover should do. The whole purpose is to encourage audiences to partake of both franchises more regularly-- and after this, I may even watch UNCLE GRANDPA a little more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A BROKEN FOUNDATION



I began reading prose fantasy and science fiction, in addition to comic books, steadily at the age of 15 and have never stopped. In my first ten years of SF-reading, I probably read most of the works that early fans considered "the classics," not least the works of "the Big Three:" Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. None of them wrote the sort of fantastic fiction to which I aspired, as I soon became most enamored with the genre of fantasy, but of the three, Asimov was the one whose works I most consistently enjoyed.

Yet I did not enjoy the two books in the FOUNDATION series that I read in those days, and consequently did not bother to read the first book in the series, entitled simply FOUNDATION. Much more recently, though, my SF-book club voted to read the book. Therefore I finally read the missing chapter in the series once given a 1966 Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series."

Harlan Ellison once gave an interview-- which I'm recalling purely from memory here-- in which he described talking to Asimov about adapting the latter's "Robot" stories into a coherent screenplay-- which was certainly not used for the later Will Smith movie I, ROBOT. Ellison claimed that Asimov cautioned him that these were all "bad stories" and wouldn't make good movie-fodder.

I've no way of knowing whether or not Asimov actually said this. But if he did, it's interesting that he would downgrade the "Robot" stories, since in my eyes the early tales are eminently good reading. They're simple, problem-oriented stories, but they have the sort of humor and lively dialogue that I found characteristic in the best works of the author.

In contrast, I still remember my extreme distaste for the two FOUNDATION novels that I did read. All novels in the series were predicated on the idea that in a far-future galactic empire, founded exclusively by humans from Earth, which was doomed to fall into chaos (Asimov was reading Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE at the time). However, this Empire could be saved, thanks to the genius of one scientist, Hari Seldon. Seldon creates a mathematical science called "psychohistory" that can predict large-scale future developments by analyzing the movements of the societal masses. Although the original Empire does decline and fall, Seldon's system, carried on by his adherents long after his death, manages to circumvent total galactic chaos, making possible the rise of a better form of empire, called the Foundation. 

The original book is not a novel as such, having been composed of eight interrelated stories originally serialized in SF-magazines; to the best of my knowledge, the two sequels followed the same pattern. And all of the story-arcs follow the same basic story-pattern. An adherent of Seldon encounters some obstruction to the grand plan for the Foundation's rise, and takes steps, usually off-camera, to prevent them. Then  he sits down with his opponent, and the two of them go back and forth in endless talking-head scenes, as the "Seldonite" demonstrates his superior cleverness and the inevitability of psychohistorical destiny. 

I remember thinking that the Foundation novels were just like watching chess-moves translated into vapid dialogue from cookie-cutter characters: "You thought you had me with that move, but I countered thusly." "Yes, but I knew you would counter thusly, so I counter-countered you." "Yes, but I knew that you knew that you would counter-counter, so..." Since even watching a real chess-match would probably be more entertaining than this folderol, I'm somewhat of a loss to figure out how such a series became so popular in science-fiction.

A simple answer would be that the appeal of the FOUNDATION novels is basically "Revenge of the Nerds." Characters endlessly chant the favorite maxim of Hari Seldon, that "violence is the last resort of the incompetent," while finding all sorts of ways to trick or hoodwink their opponents into defeat. The Seldonites, then, use indirect rather than direct, violent means to effect compulsion, just as the heroes of the "Nerds" movies use trickery to get around their stronger opponents. However, that by itself seems too simple an answer.

Long before reading FOUNDATION, I'd come across another critic's assertion that psychohistory was just Karl Marx's historical materialism under the veil of pretend-science. And indeed, the book ends with one of its sound-alike narrators predicting the likelihood of future problems:

What business of mine is the future? No doubt Seldon has foreseen it and prepared against it. There will be other crises in the time to come when money power has become as dead a force as religion is now. Let my successors solve those new problems, as I have solved the one of today.

This is probably the principal appeal of the FOUNDATION series: it offers a technocratic solution to all of the inequities against which modern-day man struggles.  Not surprisingly, the main opponents to the rise of the Foundation are "religion" and "money power," the same factors that Marx hoped would be nullified by the rise of the proletariat. Asimov, himself a scientist, envisions a world where 
such factors cannot affect man's destiny, which is controlled entirely by rational scientists.

I could probably tolerate Asimov's simplistic enshrinement of scientific knowledge and methodology, if FOUNDATION had put across his wonky technocracy with any wit or charm. But even though Asimov was a master at creating simple but charming characters, all of his characters in the series are walking ciphers, whether good or bad. The common world of birth, death, and family relations does not exist for them, and I don't even remember any female characters in FOUNDATION itself.  Like Marx's historical materialism, Asimov's psychohistory can only work within a universe where human beings are almost completely predictable. The only exception to this rule appears in the latter two books, as the Foundation is threatened by a psychically-endowed mutant named "the Mule"-- and he's the only character I remember from these books.

I can't fairly review the latter two books, not having read them for over thirty years. But FOUNDATION is an awful "classic" of science fiction, full of stodgy characters and preening self-congratulation.  






Tuesday, August 18, 2015

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #53



One of the most impressive feats of Roy Thomas during his last years as an exclusive employee of Marvel Comics was a multi-issue THOR storyline involving Wagner's Ring operas, the polytheistic pantheons of the Marvelverse, and the reason that Thor's daddy Odin created the Destroyer. However, as explained by Thomas in the comic's letters-column, one of the main purposes of the storyline was to bring Kirby's 1976-78 concept THE ETERNALS into Marvel continuity. Though it's clear that Jack Kirby didn't care anything about melding his creation with the other Marvel books, Thomas clearly intuited that since Marvel owned the whole concept, sooner or later someone would bring Kirby's creations into mainstream Marvel, if only within the context of some dismal team-up issue. Thus the principal purpose of THOR #283-300 was to produce a mammoth crossover that did justice to the scope of Kirby's creation, by having the Lee-Kirby version of Thor investigate this strange new breed of "gods"-- although they were only gods in terms of the names they inherited. In truth, the Eternals were not creative forces, but the creations of brobdinagian aliens called the "Celestials," with whom Thor finds himself in conflict.

Having re-read the continuity, I have to admit that the crossovers with Thor and the Eternals are probably the clunkiest parts of the long sequence, although the Celestials make for great villains. Thomas did not actually complete the entire epic, as exigencies forced him to turn over the writing duties to Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio. Similarly, though John Buscema began the sequence, the majority of the penciling was done by Keith Pollard, and may represent his best work for Marvel Comics.

Despite Thomas' legendary commitment to continuity, he drops the ball in the "Seigfried" sections in that he shows how Odin gave birth to Thor by a non-Asgardian mother-- yet somehow tries to imply that Odin's mortal spawn, the Seigfried of the Wagnerian narrative, is also actually Thor by some unexplained logic, rather than being simply the Thunder God's half-brother. Perhaps Thomas meant to use one concept introduced in issue #294, "the Celestial Axis," as a catch-all explanatory device, but if so, he failed to follow up on it, as did Macchio and Gruenwald.

Nevertheless, it's a great romp through the many worlds of the Marvel cosmos.