Like so many kids of my generation, Walt Disney was my baby-sitter when I was a kid. “Uncle” Walt sometimes showed up on The Mickey Mouse Club. He was the genial host of The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. He was the bestower of Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy, Goofy and all those amazing cartoons.
Alas, I grew up, as kids tend to do. I learned more about Disney, the man and the business. The business was well-known for its penny-pinching, and Walt, personally, was a right-wing, union-busting anti-Semite. These are not the kind of institutions I tend to support.
And yet ….
The reason for these musings is that I just saw Saving Mr. Banks, a lovely movie about the making of Mary Poppins. And it is a lovely movie, even though it is almost surely inaccurate. It stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as P. L. Travers, the writer of the Poppins books, and Uncle Walt. The biggest problem most people seem to have with the movie is that it whitewashes Disney.
The story the movie tells concerns the tensions between Travers and Disney over the kind of movie to make, based on the books. I didn’t read the books as a child, but I did read them aloud to my son when he was a boy, and they are both lovely and quite different from the film. I don’t care, I enjoy them both. Similarly, I like both the Disney Peter Pan and the book, which, again, is quite different. In both cases, one is entertained and uplifted by the various stories in the various media.
My favorite part about the movie (besides B.J. Novak is that it is about a relationship between a man and a woman that is not even slightly romantic nor sexual, but still emotional and involving and affecting. Hanks is not the least bit like the Walt Disney I remember, and I don’t really care. The character works in the story, which is what I want from my cinematic experience.
It made me think about my feelings for Disney. On the one hand, his politics were, reportedly, terrible, and his business policies hurtful to a lot of hardworking creative people. On the other hand, he made some of my favorite films. On the third hand, he was a human being with a family he loved who loved him, and the same kinds of human insecurities and failings as the rest of us. These contradictions are what make each of us interesting, each of us a worthy star of our own life story.
None of this is to say that, Constant Reader, will necessarily like this movie. I’m not even sure I can say it’s great art. It made me think about art and commerce and families and the love and respect we owe each other despite (sometimes because of) our sins.
Together with my senior discount, it was well worth the afternoon.
The trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is out and you’ve no doubt seen it here on ComicMix and elsewhere. It looks pretty spiffy, I think, and I’m ready to shell out my shekels to see it.
I came into the living room the other day as My Mary was watching the end the previous Amazing Spider-Man on the tube. She mentioned how her friend Sherry preferred Toby McGuire’s Spider-Man to Andrew Garfield’s and made an interesting observation: McGuire’s Spider-Man was more Todd MacFarland while Garfield’s was more Steve Ditko. I found that pretty astute.
McGuire was also Sherry’s first Spider-Man and I think that also plays into it. Who your favorite artist (or even writer) on a given character or property may depend on who was on the book when you first read it. For me, my Spider-Man artist was John Romita – and that’s Senior, not Junior (who is a fine artist in his own right). I would only encounter Ditko later, in reprints (this was long before the Internet or even comic book stores with longboxes). I’ll be honest; I was not keen on Ditko at first. My guy was Romita Sr. My Spider-Man was the one he drew.
I don’t know who was drawing Batman when I first read the book; the first one I remember was Neal Adams (and scripted by our own Denny O’Neil). I think my first Doctor Strange artist was Marie Severin, inked by her brother John, a mighty duo.
The idea (I wouldn’t call it a rule) also extends to Doctor Who. The definitive Doctor for an individual is often the one you first saw in the role. For me, it was Jon Pertwee, with the capes and the bouffant hair. The episodes were aired sporadically in my area and one day I came across one with a horse faced actor in a big multi-colored scarf swanning around and being called the Doctor. I was resistant to Tom Baker for a good while; my Doctor was Pertwee. I came around and Baker became one of my faves along with most of the rest of Who fandom.
I found it interesting in a special mini-episode where David Tennant’s Doctor comes in contact with Peter Davidson’s Doctor and said, “You were my Doctor!” I think that was true for Tennant; he would have been the right age.
The concept doesn’t always hold. My definitive Avengers artist would have been John Buscema, definitely not the first artist I saw on the book. OTOH, my definitive Conan artist would have been Barry Windsor Smith and not John Buscema. BWS was the first. Gene Colan was the first artist I saw on both Daredevil and Iron Man and remained the definitive artist for me, over both Wally Wood and Frank Miller on Daredevil and Bob Layton on Iron Man.
These are all artists whose work I have enjoyed on the various books but they don’t hold the special place in my heart that the first artists did. They marked the first time I encountered the characters and fell in love with them and there isn’t anything quite like your first love, is there?
I’m Jewish. Shocking, no? And as such, this time of year always bestows upon me (and my kin) an interesting level of ignorance to the festivities. While I did celebrate Christmas due to a family member (of goyish decent) throwing an annual party, we, the Jewish relatives, simply called it late Hanukkah and enjoyed the time together as I’m sure so many of you non-Jews do.
The interesting ignorance though, came from the obviously odd faux-nicety that spread throughout the land. Because of this, the one day seemingly all stores can close without ill-tidings, suddenly we’re all nice to one another? Not that I’m knocking it, mind you. But it always struck me odd that the celebration of the birth of the messiah (which historians all concluded wasn’t anywhere near December) could bring with it the notion that everyone should suddenly be nice. As I grew up, it became even odder as Christmas continues to lose any spiritual connection and becomes increasingly secular. Plus, it’s pretty easy to see Christians co-opted the Pagan Winter Solstice, just to be mean about it. But I digress.
One of the biggest conundrums that struck my many friends growing up was my definitive lack of love and fondness for holiday movies. Perhaps due to my overly-zealous mother telling me at a very early age that Santa wasn’t real and even if he was, he wouldn’t visit me anyways… I just never saw much reason to get doe-eyed for some Claymation classics. Home Alone? Sure, I loved that flick. But more because of the freedom I could see having myself should my parents just leave me be. As a revelatory cinema de festive though, nay I say.
When I met my wife, it was mid-January. Our first date hovered close to Valentine’s Day. We’d moved in together in the summer. By the time we’d made it to our first December, my love was all a’flutter putting up fake trees, hanging stockings, and gleefully prancing about our junior one-bedroom apartment because A Christmas Story was to be played 24 hours, non-stop, on basic cable. Near a year with my baby, and I’d no idea she swooned over such a throw-away flick. No sooner did she pirouette to the couch did I crush her spirit when I declared simply “… huh. Never saw that one. Looked boring though.”
Well, she’d have nothing of it! My ass was duck-taped to the couch, eyelids pried open with medical equipment (with the whole eye-dropper dealie above it, of course), and I was made to absorb the film whilst she creepily monitored my every reaction.
Oddly… I loved it. Loved every second of it. From the first establishing shots declaring a setting not unfamiliar to myself (a South Suburban Chicagoan knows well of Gary, IN), to the final scenes closing in on a Jewish tradition of Chinese Food (Which, honestly, I didn’t know was a thing)… here was yet another cinematic celebration of materialism, and familial love that I’d only seen dozens of times before. But unlike any other viewings, with this sleeper-of-a-film, I’d actually drawn an honest emotional connection.
Ralpie’s desire for that perfect toy, and how it permeated everything in and around his life was very close to my own greedy little-childhood. And just as he was defeated around every corner, I too, recalled many a Nintendo game left on the shelf, whilst I was dragged away in utter agony. Then, the fateful morning. Gift-wrapping strewn about. Gleeful chortles of a younger brother getting toy after toy. The inevitable gift of not-toys (shudder… clothing!). When all hope was lost, I felt for poor Ralphie now coming to grips with the end of his innocence (You can’t always get what you want… sayeth the philosopher Jagger I believe). It’s only then, when that maturity washes over Ralphie that the old man gets that glimmer in his eye. He steps over to a desk, and out from a hiding spot presents his son with one more gift. The return of hope. The rekindling of the spirit within. The damned toy he wanted… right there for him! And, yeah, he shoots his eye out, yadda yadda yadda.
A Christmas Story was for me the first holiday-centric media I’d consumed that did not ultimately declare itself worthless treacle in my eyes. It was a story rooted in innocence and reality, elevated not with effects or deus ex machina like Krampus and the like. It was a celebration of people taking that extra step to be kind to their kin and fellow man. Not because of spiritual necessity… but because of the desire to be better human beings if only for a short time before it be forgotten.
With that being said, I hope all of you enjoyed your winter celebrations. Be safe this New Years Eve, kiddos.
This past week Phil Robertson, the patriarch on A&E’s Duck Dynasty (a show I will admit I’ve never watched) had an interview published in GQ (which I don’t read) in which he compared homosexuality to bestiality, among other things. And when he was growing up in the “pre-civil rights era,” he never saw an unhappy black person. Not one. “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
All this got him into a spot of trouble. A&E suspended him indefinitely from the show. The Robertson family has said they won’t film more episodes without the pater familias. The show is the most successful “reality” show on television – or so I’m told; remember, I don’t watch it.
There’s pushback now from the show’s supporters and right-wingnuts like Sarah Palin. La Palin said “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”
Predictably all the Fox And Friends folks, never ones to pass up the opportunity to be victims or martyrs, are also pretty darned upset. Jim Pinkerton on Happening Now (which definitely should not be confused with the old black sitcom What’s Happenin’) said we’re seeing “A Purge Of Southern White Christian Patriotic Culture Out Of TV.” Geraldo Rivera said it was political correctness gone malignant. On his radio show, Sean Hannity opined that Robertson was just expressing “old fashioned traditional Christian sentiment and values.” And there are various people saying Robertson was being censored for speaking his mind and whatever happened to “Free Speech” and aren’t liberals a bunch of hypocrites and so on.
Okay, as has been pointed out by others, this isn’t a censorship matter. Censorship involves the government prohibiting speech. This is a TV cable network, not the government. I don’t think it’s a “Free Speech” matter, either. Robertson spoke his mind and there was a consequence. The cable company acted to protect its own perceived interests. That’s their right.
Was it Hate Speech? No, I don’t think so. It was boneheaded. He had other thoughts including saying that up until the time of the Great Flood, everyone was a vegetarian. (The nuns back at St. Jerome’s Elementary School never mentioned that when I was growing up. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention; that’s possible.) It all comes from a very literal reading of the Bible and interpreting it within your own prejudices.
Did Robertson have a right to say what he did? Sure. Just as GLAAD and the NAACP had a right to respond. Just as Palin et al have a right to their responses. “Free Speech” doesn’t protect you from hearing things that you don’t like. I remember when the American Nazi party marched in Skokie, Illinois; it was allowed under Free Speech – as was a counter-demonstration by those who opposed them. Both came under protected speech.
This is mostly a tempest in a duck pond. All the episodes for the new season of Duck Dynasty have been filmed save one. What will happen is that A&E’s “indefinite suspension” will be that episode. If they’re smart, that episode will be the last episode and will cover the “furor,” it will be a “cliffhanger” and then Robertson will be back for the following season and that premiere will score even larger ratings for the show than usual. A&E will claim they made their point, The Fauxes et al will claim victory, Phil Robertson will have had his soapbox and all involved with the show will make a ton of money. That’s America.
To tell the truth, Robertson’s view on gays (or anything else) doesn’t really bother me. They’re not going to have much affect on anyone that doesn’t already agree with him. He’s preaching to the choir. Vladimir Putin’s views on homosexuality do bother me; he’s the head of state over in Russia and his views get made into policy and laws.
Consider this a free lesson in becoming a rich and successful writer, be it in Hollywood, comic books, TV, movies… whatever. Yes kiddos, you too can be a mega-player in the game if you follow my patent-pending advice. And since there’s no use to wasting time, let me get to them write now. Get it?
Copy someone better than you. See, I’m already gonna copy legendary John Ostrander, who in his article this very week gave out five tips to aspiring writers as well. But as you’ll learn, babe, it’s not about who did it first… just who does it next. I recall, fondly, that one of my professors at college had his intro to screenwriting class begin the year by dissecting their favorite romantic comedy for structure, and then literally rewrite it according to the corresponding skeleton etched out. Nifty, eh? So when the chips are down and your screen is blank, just boot up Netflix, and get prepared to appropriate your masterpiece.
Retcon it, reboot it, or make a prequel/sequel! Why waste your time creating an original piece of work when you can start where someone else started? As a natural next-step of copying someone who is better than you, you can get oodles of dollars by simply refraining from even considering originality as an option. DC Comics may have canceled a Batman series recently, but you best believe that someone else will fill in the slot the second they see an uptick in BatSales. It’s their New52 M.O.: when sales spike, it’s time to expand! Justice League look good? Make it dark! Make it American! Make it StormWatch! Err… Simply put, if you want to be a resource to those folks who sign the big checks? Then be prepared to take on the franchise when the original creator is off doing whatever it is “artists” do. Remember, you want to be writer… not an artist.
When the editor says “Jump”, already be in the air. When you’re in the air? Be screaming “Is this high enough?!” You see, in today’s market, the writer is just another tool in the box. One need not be “good” as much as “serviceable.” When he-who-signs-the-paychecks demands you kill a character off, or refrain from being “too gay,” you salute them, thank them for their bold choices, and immediately write exactly what they’re looking for. If they’re vague? See tips #1 and #2 above. You can never go wrong by pitching to them that which they already know. At the end of the day, they want money. The market proves to us day in and day out that one need not break barriers, blow minds, or explore new territory with our creative fiction. What sells today is what sold yesterday… with a shiny new coating.
Kill off as many characters as needed to feel edgy. Look kids: sex and death sell. Nothing in fiction is off limits. Hell, they killed a major character on Family Guy not even a month ago, and boom, he’s back. Captain America? Time bullet. Batman? Time warp. Thor? Ragnorak. The X-Men? Time vortex. Get violent if you need to. Hell, Man of Steel and The Avengers leveled near entire cities to make their point. Better yet, they gave away the secret to how you end things afterwards. Want your audience to leave with a knowing smirk on their face? Have your heroes be a bit witty amidst the wanton destruction, and maybe let them get a sandwich. Need your audience to feel remorse for all the devastation? Have your hero scream in agony, and then end on the witty retort. Boom. Roll the credits, and whatever you do… Do not forget the stinger. Thanks to Mickey, we have to end everything, and then end it again. Or, pull a Jackson: end your piece, and then end it eight more times. Each time make it gayer and more emotionally despondent. People eat that crap up like McRibs.
Remember that the critics, fans, et al don’t matter anymore. In the age of the Internet, everyone is a critic. Thanks to news sites, blogs, somehow-still-alive newspapers, social media, et cetera, every new release is covered by hundreds of would-be pundits. No matter your score, trust me, you’re fine. If you deliver an atrocity? You’ll pop up on everybody’s Worst Of lists, and your sales will spike as rubber-neckers come to guffaw. Get a middle of the road review? Just head to the comment section, and accuse yourself (anonymously) of being gay, racist, or a gay-racist. Then, as yourself, open up an Instagram account, and post angst-riddled notes of how depressing your life is. Soon enough, they’ll forget if your work was any good anyways. Hell, go apeshit and you could end up like Charlie Sheen. He went AWOL, and nabbed a 20/90 backend multi-season pickup for a show so by-the-book, most scripts are handled via an AOL mad-lib generator.
As far as fans go, just know that you’re safe. When you do an acceptable job writing up the expectable (it is a word now.), only elitist Onion readers will get up in arms. Do you really care if a horn-rimmed glasses wearing, curly mustachioed, corduroy and bow-tie bedazzled Arcade Fire fan thinks your work is shallow and pedantic? Do you mind that I just lifted a line straight off TheSimpsons? Of course you don’t! At the end of the day, you want a paycheck and a fluffy credit. I want a yes-man. It’s a win-win situation.
The key to this all is simple. The world is going to end eventually. You’re either going to be frozen is actual carbonite (rich people have the technology – for real) or buried in a pine box right off the highway. It’s your call. Live and eat well by doing what they tell you to do, or have a backbone and visible ribs. The choice is yours. Your foolproof plan is laid out above.
When you’re famous, do me a solid and link back to this article. I’m cold, and extra readers keeps my furnace running.
The actor/writer/comedian/rapper/not-Spider-Man Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, recently released his new album ‘Because the Internet.” On said album, Glover, amongst other tirades about money and how he has it, exclaims in a solemn tone… “I don’t know who I am anymore”. This is precluded by lyrics revolving around what one might assume his life is like these days – facing criticism from random strangers, texts from other strangers, and general haters being hateful– and as such, the line hits home pretty harshly. We’ve all been there, right?
Shortly after hearing that line though, adjoined to others like “No one’s ever been this lost”, “Funny the day you born that’s really your death sentence”, and the gem “Eventually all my followers realize they don’t need a leader” I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Glover’s alter ego is a pessimistic child with too much money, who has the gall to bitch about it. As a person only two years older then he, with a wife and a kid, a day job and a night job, I not only can’t relate to him… I can’t even accept the notion of where he’s coming from. More to the point? I wrote angsty lyrics like this too– in high school, when I couldn’t get laid.
With that being said? I give Glover all the credit in the world. He’s branching out, and attempting to explore the arts as a whole, rather than celebrate singular successes. As an award winning writer on 30 Rock turned lovable ensemble cast-member in Community, Donald could ostensibly ride out the well-wishes of white America for a good long time. Instead, he’s toured the country doing comedy, making movies, and of course rapping. And rather than rap as a happy-go-lucky kid who is just gosh-darned pleased-as-punch to be a success… he instead turned inward (and in an odd turn perhaps as an alter-ego if you will) to produce something new and unexpected. Granted, I don’t know Donald beyond the NBC stuff, so as it were… I was caught off guard. While I may not like the fruits of his labor, I can indeed respect the hustle. But I digress.
Those of us who proclaim the title of artist should all adopt a simple philosophy: never stop learning. An artist in my humble opinion, is someone who not only creates but challenges him or herself to continue to learn, adapt, and reinterpret ourselves and our creations. While I could easily spend paragraphs waxing on about musicians exploring other genres (Billy Joe of Green Day doing an Everly Brothers cover album, anyone?), or writers creating a new nom-de-plum so they could try their hand at something unexpected … I’d prefer to focus solely on those within our coveted realm of comic bookery.
With the continual allure of crowd-funding readily available for those with semi-famous names, great artists like Gene Ha are taking time off (in his case to do some much-needed house work) and considering going creator-owned. Even if it’s for a single project, seeing things like that are very exciting to a guy like me. Creator-owned means creator-controlled. It’s an exploration less of what will immediately be made for a specific market (that is to say… sell well) and perhaps more a leap of faith by an artist seeking to expand beyond what has merely drawn a paycheck. Look perhaps at our patron saint of crankiness, Alan Moore, who high above in his castle, now works when (or if) he chooses, and only when it strikes him to. As an artist, I can’t help but respect the moxie. Of course, if I’d written Watchmen… I might have the means with which to be choosier. Then again, my comic books are made on my own dime, and as such, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing anyways– just not as lucratively.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a step back to commend my arch nemesis, Dan Dougherty, and my friend by-way-of-the-con-circuit Jon Michael Lennon. Both gentlemen as of late have shown considerable leaps of inspiration and as such have been producing some of the best art I’ve seen from either of them. This is devoid of editorial mandate, mind-you. Dougherty’s Touching Evil is a self-published masterpiece in the same vein as Revival. Here the normally jovial Dougherty (a.k.a. Beardo)http://www.gocomics.com/beardo opts to write and draw a serious story with mature themes and an amazing blend of noir-twinged scripting married to a more serious style in his visuals. The result is one of the best comics I’ve read all year. Lennon, normally producer of amazingly-dark anthologies has had an artistic second-coming as of late. With an upcoming gallery show, Lennon’s Crumb-esque work has grown into singular pieces of art. Devoid of context, with a more potent eye for graphic design… the works are a step forward for him such that I can’t help but feel his next foray into “Product of Society” will be leaps and bounds above the previous installments.
Just as Glover drops what could be just a friendly facade to become Childish Gambino, so too, must we within the realm of comic books free ourselves from our self-imposed hells. Just because it sells doesn’t mean it needs to be made. If we are to call ourselves artists then we must act as such. The greats never stop learning, exploring, and challenging themselves. Here at the precipice of a new year, perhaps we creative-types ought to consider losing more that just a bad habit or two as a resolution. Instead, we should take a page from Gambino, and take the opportunity to get lost, and then find ourselves again. Cheers.
For this week’s column I’m going to talk about two books that I’ve read recently, both of which I enjoyed although they are vastly dissimilar. The books are The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith (published by Pantheon) and Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (published by Delacorte Press). Both of them are series books: the former is the fourteenth and latest in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and the latter is the first in a planned Reckoners series.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series takes place in Botswana, which is in southern Africa, and the series follows the agency’s founder, Mma Precious Ramotswe and her friends, family, and co-workers as she solves small mysteries. Nothing is huge in these novels – the main mystery of the new book is about someone who is slandering the owner of the beauty salon in the title – but its very warm. The biggest mystery in the series, to me, is how the author, Alexander McCall Smith, captures the characters, all African, and the setting so wonderfully. McCall, Smith is a white Scot, now living in his homeland, was born in Rhodesia but he also lived in Botswana, helping to create and teach at the University of Botswana, and evidently knows and loves the land and its people.
The books in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series exemplify the pleasures of good serial fiction. The characters become familiar, as does the setting, and we come to both as old friends. Its not that the series is unchanging but often the changes are small, as befitting the tone of the books. Still, in this one, momentous events occur but they may only seem that way if you’ve read the entire series. If you’ve just come into the series and this is your first encounter with Precious and her friends, I don’t know if the events would mean as much.
In any books in a series, you have better ones and lesser ones. This year’s visit is one of the better ones.
Steelheart couldn’t be more different. Part science fiction, part super-hero exploit, it takes place slightly in the future. There’s been an event that gives certain people extrahuman abilities but the catch is it also appears to make them crazy and unleashes the darker side of their personalities. They’re supervillains and there’s no one around to stop them, especially the title character, Steelheart. However, he – like all other “Epics” (as the superhumans are termed) – has a weakness and, if you can find it, you can maybe kill them.
The novel isn’t really Steelheart’s story – it belongs to David, a young man who, years before, saw Steelheart kill David’s father. David has devoted his life to finding out the weaknesses of Epics, especially Steelheart, so they can be killed and the stranglehold they have on normal human society can be broken. To this end, he seeks out and falls in with a shadowy group called Reckoners who are normal humans also looking to kill Epics. David makes a case for going after Steelheart and that’s the bulk of the novel.
The book reads like an epic comic book but also asks some interesting questions along the way. Steelheart has created Newcago out of what was Chicago and rules like a ruthless tyrant but there is also some kind of order. Electricity works (some times) and there is some sense or society working, unlike other places. Remove Steelheart and will that still be true? Will the ordinary people thanks the Reckoners for their “freedom”?
The book is well written, the pace is fast, and the characters are interesting. I guessed one or two of the twists (that goes with the territory; as a writer myself, I can sometimes see the tricks in another writer’s hand) but I didn’t get all of them and did not guess the climax. It’s a fun read and there’s more on the way. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one become a movie.
Both books are currently in hardback but are almost certain to go into paperback some time next year. Both are worth reading.
Happy Saturday, ComicMixers. I hope you all grew a bit too fat because of your gluttonous Thanksgiving feasts, fractured your hips whilst storming the gates of big box retailers on Black Friday (because you really needed that 65” 3D flat screen with cappuccino maker at 80% off), and have since settled back into the doldrums of another bleak and cold winter. Yes, that’s right. I hope for your depression. Your pain. Your sadness. Why you ask? Because, Mr. Bond… everyone loves a villain.
Villains are more fun to write, are they not? Villains can do what we can’t. Say what we won’t. Fight dirty, and then laugh all the way to the loony bin. Villains can cheat. They can lie. And they love to steal. They vex our heroes, and force them to define themselves. In much of the fiction we nerds adore… it’s the villains that truly make our heroes. But what then, makes the villain great?
The keystone to all great villains starts with motivation. Without a driving purpose, a villain (or really almost any character) is a waste of space on the page / screen / what-have-you. At their cores, some nefarious ne’er-do-wells are ultimately about nothing more than pure chaos. Veritable forces of nature – think Doomsday and his ilk – tend to enjoy the decimation of the universe. Other thinkier sinners may have less base-instinct for kabooms, as much as a need to simply horde money, power, women, et al. Arch-nemeses existence ultimately centers around a singular entity through which their evil deeds all align towards. As we’ve seen in several instances, without his Dark Knight to motivate him, the Joker (perhaps the quintessential arch-nemesis if ever there were one) is rendered useless. Scratch that. Minus the bat, Puddin’ is merely banal. At the end of the day, it’s those underlying conjectures that are needed to add the gravity to real villainy.
Motivation aside, the quality villains come well-equipped. Be it with metallic tentacles, an Infinity Gauntlet, or just an amazing intellect, good villains trump their heroes’ arsenal at almost every turn. The ideology of solid story-telling is to create that all-too-important anti-climax, that moment where you truly ask yourself “How in the world can they win?” The best villains though, are more than means to an end. When faced with opposition, the best villains do the unexpected, be it with with sheer force in numbers, an opportune slight-of-hand, or a nasty reveal. Recall Lord Vader pulling the trigger on Alderaan. Or perhaps Ozymandias, what with his “Oops, I already enacted the evil plan… like 30 minutes ago, dudes.”
In pro-wrestling nothing is more beloved by smart-marks than a great heel turn. When Hulk Hogan sprayed that nWo logo onto the freshly beaten chest of the Macho Man Randy Savage, the crowd erupted. Children cried. Old men high-fived. After a decade of flag waving and vitamin eating, Hogan got to blame the fans and give out more than a few nut-shots. Great bookers (thems be the writers behind the scenes, dontcha know) understand that nothing puts their baby-face over harder than finally being able to topple the hated heel. Nothing makes that heel more hated than doing everything possible to be hated. Much could be translated into the rest of the fictional worlds we dilly-dally around in.
I started out this li’l column declaring that everyone loves a villain. I say it because without opposition, there’d be no reason for heroes. In the real world we seek to create villains to justify our actions. Not to be too political here, but let’s be honest: not too long ago, a very powerful man accused another powerful man of having doomsday devices in his secret lair. And like all good heroes, we put on our special capes and super suits, and all but salted the earth where that villain camped out in an effort to keep our loved ones safe. And while many would second guess the call to arms without real evidence… we all just knew that the villain was always up to something. I mean, crap, a while back, the guy had beef with our guy’s father! At the end of the day, these are the stories we need to tell ourselves to go to sleep feeling safe. In this world, real villainy is less a singular physical being as much as a collection of prejudices, ignorance, and abstracts.
Lucky for us, in the end, the villains always lose. Luckier still, the best villains we know will remain forever in fiction. As the poet Linnell said… “I don’t want the world. Just your half.”
Well, it’s the First of December and the Christmas Season is well and truly and legitimately upon us. As I’ve noted before, I really do love this time of year and I love Christmas stories, none more than A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens and turned into umpty-bum versions in the movies, on television, and on the stage.
I appeared in a stage version at Chicago’s Goodman Theater for many years. The Goodman was and I think still is the biggest professional theater in the Chicago area but every year it hit a hole in its schedule around Christmastime. They took note that the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN, performed A Christmas Carol. Starting in 1977, the Goodman decided to also produce a stage version of Dicken’s classic. They asked a veteran of the Guthrie production, Tony Mockus Sr., to direct their show.
I was cast in various absolutely vital roles like Fred’s Friend #3, Mr. Lean (or was it Mr. Round?), Dancing Man, and “Ensemble.” I did it for years and was always grateful for the opportunity if for no other reason than the Goodman paid top dollar to actors; it was great to have that bit of income at the end of the year. My very good friend, William J. Norris, was cast as Ebenezer Scrooge. Bill was and is a great actor but I used to joke that as Scrooge he really only had to “act” during the final scenes of the show, after Scrooge was reformed and loved everyone and loved Christmas. Bill sometimes is the original Humbug and takes pride in it, I believe.
For all the fact that A Christmas Carol has become a tradition at the Goodman (a rather lucrative one, I might add), it was far from a sure bet when it began. There were a lot of actors and even more costumes, sets sliding on and off, special effects and actors flying through the air. During the long technical rehearsals, there were serious questions whether or not it would all ever come together.
Due to the schedule, we had to work on Thanksgiving, doing a full dress rehearsal. Being away from my family was a little tough but the Goodman generously sprang for Thanksgiving dinner catered in the rehearsal room and we were allowed to invite guests. I invited my Mom and my stepfather and it was very cool feeling; I had often eaten Thanksgiving at her place and now she was, more or less, eating at my place – my current theatrical home. After dinner, all the guests were also invited to the dress rehearsal. They were warned we might have to stop if a problem cropped up (it was still a rehearsal, after all) but my memory of the night was it all came off well.
However, we were all still jittery as opening night came. Even if it all came off as we wanted, would the audience like it? The Goodman had a lot invested in the production; the sets and costumes et al would pay off better as they were used again and again in the following years. If this first production flopped, there would not be subsequent productions and the Goodman would have to eat the expense. It was not a cheap show to produce. It wasn’t in the vicinity of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark costs but they were substantial for the time and the place.
Opening night went without a hitch, the audiences gave us a standing ovation, and as they left the theater a gentle snow began falling. We all wondered how the special effects team managed that. They never copped to it but had mysterious smiles that suggested more than they said.
Personally, I credit Tony Mockus, Sr., one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the theater and a very religious guy. I think he put in a word with the Big Guy/Gal.
It was also during this first production of A Christmas Carol that I met Del Close. Del was already a legend in Chicago theater as director/teacher over at Second City and also for who he was. I had heard he was a Satanist, which was untrue. He was a practicing witch by his own admission (he even wore a pentacle under his costume for the show) and he had been cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present – who is a pretty Bacchus like character and thus good casting. I was pretty square in those days and he was a real Bohemian. He was also my roommate in the dressing rooms. To be honest, I was a bit terrified of him and his reputation.
I needn’t have been. Del was affable and cordial and, to tell the truth, a little bit nervous about his part (he needn’t have been; he got glowing reviews, as did the entire production). He was also a big fan of science fiction and of comics. He was just one of the best read persons I’ve ever met. Our working relationship in comics (Munden’s Bar, Wasteland) stemmed from sharing that dressing room.
My different parts in the show often required me to tear off my clothes in the wings on one side, throw on another costume, rush to the other side of the stage behind the back wall, and become part of a crowd scene. One year as I was doing that in one of the last performances of the year, I was crossing the stage, trying to “be in the moment” as we say in acting circles, and my mind was saying, “You know, you could be making a lot more money at the typewriter.” My comics writing career had started not long before and was in the upswing. As I exited offstage, I realized that my theater career was ending. I finished the run and then retired to be a full time writer.
I’ll never forget or regret those days in A Christmas Carol. I made a lot of friends and have nothing but fond memories of that time. Thanksgiving has just passed but I’ll just say that those productions are one of the big things in my life for which I am thankful.
Yeah. I know. I’m last on the bandwagon, yet again. But that’s OK, kiddos. I found Nirvana well after Kurt Cobain passed away. As many of you would also note, I found Star Trek: The Original Series just a little over a year ago. Funny enough, that was one of my most popular columns. For all the nerd-rage that exists when we poke and prod one another about our loves, we’re also the first sub-culture to embrace noobies with the unbridled passion of 1000 angry Daleks. That’s joyful rage though, so it’s all good. A bit over a week ago, I became of a fan of Doctor Who. Whovians, take me into your bosom. Move the celery stalk first.
A bit of backstory to begin. Unshaven cohort Kyle Gnepper has long been an outskirt Who-fan. Unshaven cohort Matt Wright also partook of the good Doctor upon subscribing to Netflix. My own timey-wifey has been a fan for quite some time as well. Heh. As we are all apt to do when everyone we know is in to something, we feel the latent pressure to join in the rapture. So, on occasion, I tried. And tried. And tried again.
Each time, the same feeling would pass over me. I’d glare at a Dalek, or a Cyberman, or whatever the thing-of-the-week was, and I’d scoff. Even ladled with every well-budgeted CGI and modeling trick, the episodes reeked to me of technical limitations. Much as I’d railed against Trek, I couldn’t find the suspension of disbelief due to the constraints of a TV budget. And much like Trek, what was really missing was my understanding and appreciation for characterization.
If you’ll allow me one more deviation off the pathway before I gush over “The Day of the Doctor” special… it’s the aforementioned note of characterization that I need to extrapolate on. Take Firefly. There, Fox supplied Joss Whedon with a budget that made his sci-fi romp visually appealing at the get-go. Without the stigma of eww, this looks like it cost pennies to make, I was quicker to give the show a try (still way late and well after the show was DOA). As much as I wanted to hate the show, like so many before me, I was enchanted by the roguish charms of Captain Mal. I bought into the character, and quickly thereafter, I bought into the show. The same could be said for my finding love in other series like House, Modern Family, and more recently Hannibal (which I can’t wait to return). The common factor here is simple: my adoration is bestowed to shows (and comics, movies, et al) that give us strong characterization.
Now, onto Who. As I’d said briefly above, I’d given myself several chances to fall in love. Each time, I was met with an odd fellow who dazzled my friends, but confounded me. His mannerisms, his oddness, his aloofness irritated me. And when I’d make an attempt to find the hook of The Doctor, I’d be met with either terse explanations (“It’s just how he is, in this incarnation…”) or lengthy diatribes that attempted to cram decades of knowledge into a tight ten-minute lecture. In both events, I simply didn’t get it. Much with Trek, it would take me having to clear my head of preconceived opinions and walk into things blindly.
After dinner with my parents, my wife, son and I retired to the casa del pescador. I’d noted that somewhere around the 8:30 hour the living room TV was still blaring. You see, that is typically night-night time round these parts. But there, wide awake, sat my young scion and my lovely lady partaking of the Doctor. Figuring it would be best for me not to attempt to daddy-lecture my own wife as to the importance of adhering to a strict schedule, I opted instead for what all us white people do when we want to make a point, but fear confrontation: I sat in the same room silent, in hopes that waves of passive-aggression would communicate my feelings.
What? (See what I did there, Michael Davis?)
And so, I sat for the better part of an hour, watching “The Day of the Doctor.” With three Doctors sharing screen space, I was curious. David Tennant with his sand shoes, Matt Smith with his fussy hands, and John Hurt with his John Hurtiness. They occupied the same space, playing iterations of the same character. Different lives, but ultimately the same consciousness. And between them, a history, a future, and a mantra I had not heard until then.
“Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.” And there it was. Just as I’d found my love of Trek via Kirk’s labido and Bones’ testicular fortitude. Just as I’d found my love of House via his unseen pain and self-doubt (and because it’s fun to watch him be a jerk). Here was The Doctor, making the hard choices, living and reliving moments in his lifetime, and decidedly declaring a purpose. This was to me the same as the oath of a Green Lantern, or Truth-Justice-and-the-American-Way.
When I’d posted on Facebook that I’d found a love for the character and now decided to jump in with the new season to come… I was pelted with more comments than I’d seen in the last year. Seems the whole world had become Whovian without me, but were quick to open their Tardi (Tardidisisisisis?) to me with open arms and weee-oooo-weee-oooo’ing sonic screwdrivers. For the record, I liked Tennant just a bit more than Smith (sorry, that Fez ain’t cool, no matter what he says), and Hurt more than either of them (“Why are you pointing those things? What are you going to do, assemble them a bookshelf?”). Doctor Who is about a hero who fights the good fight for all the universe, through all times. That I can certainly get behind. And now? I look forward to the future… the past… and all the timey-wimey in between.