Wednesday, March 21

Insightful post regarding John Carter and Disney

I don't often just post links to other blogs, but the John Carter Files post here gives a lot of what I think is very insightful analysis of the whole debacle.  Hidden therein is a point I tried to make as well in my comments, the opinion that this movie will age well and ultimately be recognized as undeserving of the shameful treatment it was given.

It's by no means a perfect movie.  But a lot of worse movies have been commercial -- even cultural -- phenomena.  (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Avatar.  Hey, just my opinion.)

Scroll down the John Carter Files post for a couple of examples of what I think would have been far superior marketing strategies.


Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916)

1972 SFBC edition
Art by Frank Frazetta
(and see below)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs  (The Barsoom Series #4, All-Story Weekly serial 8-22 Apr 1916, book 1920)

This fourth in the “John Carter of Mars” series actually focusses on his and Dejah Thoris's son, Carthoris, and the red Martian princess and “banth-whisperer” introduced in The Gods of Mars, Thuvia of Ptarth By the end of Warlord of Mars it was, I think, pretty apparent they were smitten with each other (or perhaps I read that into the text with foreknowledge of this book). But when we begin here, their undeclared love seems fated not to be consummated, because Thuvia's father, Thuvan Dinh, has promised her to his and John Carter's ally, Kulan Tith of Kaol. But there is another suitor, Astok, son of the Jeddak of Dusar, who is not willing to take “no” for an answer – and has a grudge against Carthoris. Thus is executed a plot whereby Astok means to steal Thuvia away and place the blame on Carthoris.

Art by Frank Frazetta
And so the adventures begin, which take Carthoris and Thuvia to a remote region of Barsoom, where they first encounter the Lotharians, a strange remnant of the old Barsoomian auburn-haired race that had once ruled much of the planet, now reduced to a few hundred who espouse a strange philosophy regarding the very nature of reality – or actually competing philosophies which share in common the ability to manifest images of and even ultimately to materialize objects and even persons from their minds. The competition is between the “Etherealists” who believe that there is no such thing as matter, only mind, and the “Realists,” who accept the existence of matter as a creation of mind. (I wonder how much this has to do with the strange doctrines of Theosophy that seem to inform certain aspects of Burroughs' fiction, especially his Barsoom series, first noticed, I believe, by Fritz Lieber way back in 1959 and discussed here). Such a distinction matters little to their enemies, local green Martian barbarians who periodically attack their city and are turned back by legions of Lotharian archers who rain on them very lethal hailstorms of arrows because they have no reason to believe they are not real. In the course of their escape, Thuvia is stolen away from Carthoris by Dusarians while the warrior ends up meeting the fulfillment of the Lotharians' mental development in Kar Komak, a memory of the greatest archer of ancient Lothar, who has indeed taken on independent material existence. Carthoris and Kar Komak become allies and by the end of the book have rescued Thuvia from death at the hands of Astok – or rather at the hands of one of the Dusarian nobles because Astok is not man enough to do his own evil deed to hide the infamy of his actions that have set the great city-states of Barsoom at war with one another.

Art by Frank Frazetta
In the climax of the story, as they escape Dusar toward Ptarth in Astok's own racing airship, they come to the aid of a downed Kaolian airship besieged by green Martians, saving Kulan Tith himself. Overwhelming numbers of Lotharian bowmen pour from the small airship – many times over more than it could possibly hold – and rout the attacking green men in an unforgettable sequence that is followed by Kulan Tith's realization that Thuvia's heart truly belongs to Carthoris.

'Take back your liberty, Thuvia of Ptarth,' he cried, 'and bestow it where your heart already lies encchained, and when the golden collars are clasped about your necks you will see that Kulan Tith's is the first sword to be raised in declaration of eternal friendship for the new Princess of Helium and her royal mate!'” (1972 SFBC ed., p. 124)

Such is the nobility of the best of the red Martian warriors.

1973 Ballantine Books ed.
Art by Gino d'Achille
Like the entire series, this is at least the third time I've read this novel. The first was in the early 1970s in the Ballantine Books paperback editions with the beautiful covers by Gino d'Achille. In my memory, this was indeed one of my favorite of those covers. The second was a few years later when I acquired the series as a six-volume hardcover set from the Science Fiction Book Club – which I still prize for the powerful covers and interior art by Frank Frazetta (well, except for the sixth volume, by Richard Corben, I believe – and although I know he's considered a great artist that volume must not be representative). The basic production quality of SFBC books of that era may have been inferior, but I would not trade the vision of Barsoom presented by Frazetta for anything. Between the two of them, d'Achille and Frazetta formed the mental image of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars that I will likely carry to my grave. Nevertheless, my current reading has been predominantly in ebook form, the free Kindle format available from Project Gutenberg. I find the convenience of carrying a library with my on my iPod Touch mostly overwhelms even the sensation of holding a real book in my hands and turning real pages. I don't think that ebooks will ever completely replace physical books, but in just a couple of years I have gone from a conviction that ebooks would never be for me to doing a large part of my reading on my iPod Touch – as in this case, even if I have the physical book I will often grab a free or inexpensive ebook format simply for the convenience of always having it handy. (It's great for doing quick word searches as well.)

Full Painting by Frank Frazetta
As to the story told here, although some of the later tales in the series I remember less fondly, as far as I'm concerned Thuvia is right up there with the opening trilogy as a rousing tale of adventure and romance. I am struck by how the real age difference obviously meant little or nothing to Burroughs' Martians who hatched from their eggs presumably somewhere near fully grown and aged little over their typical life-span of a thousand years. It's unclear how much time has passed since Warlord of Mars; Carthoris would seem to me to have still been somewhere shy of twenty Earth years in age. Thuvia had, for an unspecified reason, taken the pilgrimage down the River Iss fifteen years before John Carter first appeared on Barsoom, therefore if I'm counting it right somewhere on the order of thirty-five years prior to Gods of Mars where she is introduced, having spent all that time in slavery to the Therns. Presumably she was not newly hatched when she took that ill-fated pilgrimage. It's impossible from Burroughs' own writings to know how old she really is, but the Dynamite comic series Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris introduces her as a youthful princess in Ptarth four hundred years in the past. Admittedly that's not canon, but in Dynamite's main series, Warlord of Mars, Thuvia has now made her appearance in their adaptation of Gods of Mars, so in that version of the stories there is a considerable age difference. But what does that matter when the “older woman” is all-but-eternally young and beautiful?

Kaor! – and thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 18

John Carter (2012)

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Let me begin by saying that I really enjoyed this movie as a movie, although I had problems with some aspects of the plot (not even related to the derivations from the original book, A Princess of Mars). But what movie these days – especially big budget special effects blockbusters – doesn't have plotholes? I think this movie could have done as well as any other sci-fi epic … were it not fighting such a headwind of negative pre-release publicity. Sometimes such negativity never gives an otherwise good movie a chance. Last year, the movie that became cool to hate even before it appeared was Green Lantern, which I didn't think was bad, just nothing special. I think John Carter was better than Green Lantern … at least I enjoyed it more. And there are some signs that word of mouth may be ameliorating to some degree the disastrous opening weekend box office take. Time will tell. But, regardless whatever happens during the next few weeks, it is my opinion that John Carter will ultimately stand the test of time and become the movie from spring 2012 that will be remembered ten years from now. 21 Jump Street? – Give me a break! Its only real competition, as I see it, might be The Hunger Games, but that remains to be seen. As I said, time will tell.

Anyway, what follows here are some random comments/assessments of John Carter, based on not one but two viewings of the movie. When I first saw it, opening day, I enjoyed it as a movie although I lamented that it took considerable liberties with the story originally published a century ago. A week later I saw it again, after a few days of thought and with more of a critical eye, taking notes, and in light of a good bit of email exchange with my good efriend, Barry Ottey. His insights were quite helpful in properly assessing it. I also had the advantage of going into it with no forlorn hope that it might be a totally faithful adaptation and was therefore better able to take it in on its own terms.   To make a long story short, I enjoyed John Carter even more the second go'round. But this is not really a review, and will be even more rambly than my usual efforts.

Because my main complaints upon initial viewing surrounded deviations from the original story, that will be a major theme here. There are also implications the wider world of Barsoom and sequels – should such be made – that I will consider.

One change I'll never truly understand as many times as I read Stanton's explanation is why they changed the title from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter. The stated reason, that “Mars” as part of a title has not boded well for films in the past just seems dumb to me. The only good thing that came of it was the very nice and long overdue addition of “of Mars” to the title card at the very end of the movie, after John Carter has undergone considerable character transformation and in fact has just laid down in his New York mausoleum to make the journey back to his adopted world. That was nicely done. It complemented very well his dialogue a few minutes earlier, “John Carter of Earth … John Carter of Mars sounds better.” Yes it does. But a simple title of John Carter gives no hint of what this movie is about. The uninitiated coming across the early trailers for the movie could only come away mystified and confused rather than intrigued. I could go on and on about the marketing mismanagement that John Carter labored under. Suffice it to say they should have led with their strengths – the connection to Tarzan, Pixar, the fact that this story is the source for a century of epic space romance from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to (yech!) Avatar. As Dr. McCoy said one time (in what context I don't remember), “A blind man could see it with a cane!”

The look was magnificent. This movie looked awesome. In my opinion, you could easily see the money on the screen. The green Martians were magnificent, both as playful hatchlings and fierce giants. I rarely found myself remembering that they were CGI. Same with the great white apes (although if I recall correctly they were not nearly so big, and were indeed hairless except for on the crown of their head). Of course, the dog-like calot Woola stole the show.

There was one aspect of the “look” that I was a bit disappointed in. I long held out hope that some kind of post production magic would add to the alien-ness of the Martian landscape, make it more truly the red planet. Yes, to the surprise of many a generation ago, space probes' images back from the Martian surface hae shown a landscape that looks much like the deserts of the American Southwest, but all the pictures I've seen have a reddish cast, with either a lighter grey-blue or pinkish sky, not the sandy (colored) surface with deep blue skies that dominate the movie. See e.g. the images from NASA about three-quarters of the way down this page: . I would think that given Mars' distance from the sun, half again as far as the Earth, an impression of a noticeably dimmer daylight could have been used to foster the viewers' awareness that this is meant to be an alien planet. Occasional reliance on John Carter's exaggerated (in the books as well as the movie – I don't think he'd be able to jump quite that high or far in one-third gravity) ability to Sak! (as Tars Tarkas put it) just weren't enough – in fact, without those other visible reminders almost seemed out of place. My epal Barry points out ways in which what we saw can match up with Burroughs' description, particularly the ochre-colored moss that covers much of the Martian landscape in the books and was visible at times in the movie, but I think this is one area where playing to popular conception could have been called for. My favorite of the various posters that appeared for the movie - which I show above - captures what I'm saying best even though it's clearly a sunset image.  On the other hand, I was grateful that the red Martians were pretty much all noticeably darker in complexion than John Carter himself, suitably “bronzed” as Burroughs described them. And I didn't find the tattooing too distracting. Some of the previews had me worried on both counts.

One of the expected changes was, of course, “Dejah Thoris, Warrior Princess.” Modern sensibilities will not accept the damsel in distress who basically goes from captivity to captivity providing motivation for the hero to do heroic deeds. Remember how Arwen's role was ramped up, at least in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. And here it worked, maybe because I'd been somewhat prepared for this characterization of Dejah Thoris. I found her much like that portrayed in the Dynamite comic book series bearing her name. And I guess giving her the role of a scientist discovering the “Ninth Ray” was a necessary plot device to give her a central role in the story, help explain the Therns' focussing on her. I must say I found the references to her as “Director of the Royal Science Academy of Helium” a bit jarring, but I did like how they set up John Carter's discovery of her true status and his reaction, bemusedly saying, “A Princess of Mars. How 'bout that.” Whereupon I chuckled.

There was quite a bit of streamlining to the story, at least as characters go. Dejah Thoris in the book is the granddaughter of Tardos Mors, not his daughter. His son, her father is a character who does not exist in the movie, Mors Kajak. I actually had no real problem with that change – if I recall correctly, Mors Kajak never really takes a major role in the original stories anyway. A similar change among the green Martians does have a bit more of a story impact. When Tars Tarkas is introduced in the movie, he is already Jeddak of the Tharks, with Tal Hajus one of his warriors who later deposes him, only to be unseated by John Carter who therefore becomes Jeddak. In the novel, of course, Tal Hajus is Jeddak to begin with, and Tars Tarkas ultimately challenges and kills him to become Jeddak. I really didn't have any problem with this either. The change actually worked quite well dramatically.

On balance, although I really could have done without the “war-weary warrior” cliché of John Carter running from the tragic deaths of his family while he was away at war, it was a perhaps inevitable bow to modern sensibilities that worked pretty well in the movie, providing us with that all-important and necessary character growth we've got to see now. It was not at all Burroughs' John Carter – but okay. Realistically, I couldn't have expected such a warrior for the sake of warfare to have played well to a modern audience and it's best they didn't try. It did provide us with what I thought was one of the most moving sequences in the film, the juxtaposition of his memories of burying his family – for whom he'd come back too late – with his fight against impossible odds to allow Sola to get Dejah Thoris away from the Warhoons. And the way it was played into the plot, with John Carter resisting getting involved in “Dejah Thoris's war” until he understood that it was his own war on a couple of different levels, did make for some compelling character drama.

Several times in the movie we are shown that the “Therns” (not really Therns – “The Therns are a myth,” proclaims Matai Shang [see below]) have been active on Earth. That's the more science-fictiony way of getting John Carter from the Arizona cave to the red planet than the book's mysterious form of astral projection or whatnot which is purely fantasy and would doubtless have come off quite silly to modern audiences. Matai Shang knows a great deal about 19th-century American culture, enough to nail down John Carter's origin in the South, specifically Virginia. He proclaims to John Carter that they have been on Mars for ages, not destroying the planet but “presiding over its destruction,” fomenting wars and the like, apparently feeding off its resources while its people exterminate themselves and nothing is left. The implication is that they then move on to another world. Pretty obviously Earth is next on the menu, and the further implication is that they've already been active there for thousands of years. It's indicated pretty subtly. Our one good look at Martian writing, in the temple or whatever up on top of the mushroom-looking “Gates of Issus,” looks just like Mesopotamian cuneiforms.

“The Therns are a myth.” Which means that the aliens are co-opting a pre-existing myth rather than serving as the source of that myth – at least that's the way I take it. Which brings up the question of the goddess Issus, hopefully to be dealt with in a subsequent move (if we're lucky).

But adding such an “interplanetary threat” to the story does, I think, have unfortunate consequences for those subsequent stories. And that's not all. While I was pleasantly surprised that, overall, the plot ended up following that of A Princess of Mars fairly well, I'm not so sure they did very well setting up subsequent movies that could track the other books nearly as closely. For several reasons, I would not expect this Dejah Thoris to give up in despair and take the River Iss to “Heaven.” She doesn't believe in the Therns in the first place, and why now would she want to head south? She's really barely John Carter's wife before he's swept back to Earth. Maybe their son Carthoris has been conceived by then, but John Carter did not have years of expectant waiting by the incubating egg to then torment him during his years back on Earth, separated not just from his wife of several years but from the child that was due to be hatched.

About that: This is just a feeling I get from the movie, but I think they ditched the idea that the red Martians were oviparous like the green Martians explicitly were. There's something else indicating this as well. 
One thing that has puzzled me quite a bit, expecially with the … um … ample bosoms sported by the red Martian women as depicted in the Dynamite series, is why Martian women have breasts in the first place. They wouldn't be for lactation, right? So, to further ridicule the “pasties” that adorn them in all but the “risque” variant covers of the Dynamite series, would they have nipples? 
Hilariously, the Dynamite series depicts green women with just as ample breasts as the reds … but no nipples or pasties.  
But if you look closely at the green women in this movie (purely out of scholarly interest, of course), they don't even have breasts at all.  This would, in my opinion, track with their egg-laying reproductive physiology. 
Although (this being a PG movie – from Disney) there are no nipples to be seen, Dejah Thoris is most definitely not “flat.” Implicitly she therefore is not egg-laying. I figure that, like the extended life-spans of all Martians, basically ageless until they reach about a thousand years, then voluntarily taking the River Iss, and the ageless nature of John Carter in the book, this aspect of the red Martian humans was deemed too fanciful for a broad audience.

Anyway, I think that any sequels are going to diverge increasingly from the books as Burroughs wrote them. It will be necessary to develop quite a bit further the whole parasitic alien aspect of the Therns that is not in any way part of the original story, at the necessary expense of what Burroughs actually wrote. Which I think will be unfortunate.

I have a few more thoughts. Again, I did like this movie. It was at least as good as most sci-fi swords-in-space stories, and looked better than most. It incorporated enough of Burroughs' own imaginative world-building to result in a “believable” alien world. The major misstep I saw in that area was intruding into the story out of left field a ridiculous walking city – Words just escape me at this point. I have no idea what that was all about!

It had rousing adventure, grand vistas, and a good bit of humor. There were laugh-out-loud moments such as when John Carter has gained leadership of the Tharks and rallied them into attacking what turns out to be a virtually abandoned Zodanga the Walking City ( 8-0 [an attempted emoticon for slack-jawed astonishment), only to find out that they really needed to be in Helium, whereupon one of Tars Tarkas' four hands cuffs John Carter behind the head as if to say, “You dolt!” Speaking of four hands, there was John Carter's earlier comment to Tars Tarkas in the arena, “Tars, give me a hand! You've got four of 'em; give me one!” That got a definite laugh. There were of course, moments where I groaned out loud. Besides the Walking City, I'm thinking of when Matai Shang resorted to the old cliché of transforming himself into the form of Dejah Thoris when he was fighting her. Argh. What deception was he perpetrating at that point? – sure, a couple of seconds later, when John Carter is there, maybe, although from the two Dejah Thoris's respective demeanors it was clear which was which at that point), and there is a clear purpose moments later when he impersonates John Carter himself moments later to fool Tars Tarkas (who seems suspicious nonetheless – maybe because “John Carter” called him “My Jeddak” – I guess Matai Shang didn't get the memo that John Carter was himself Jeddak at that point!) But taking Dejah Thoris's form when he did seemed more in line with a B-movie trope than to make any sense within this story at that point.

By the way, among the additions to the Therns was their teleportation ability as well as an ill-defined ability to physically transform themselves or cast a sensory illusion. The latter seemed to be treated both ways, or either way in different contexts, as if the filmmakers themselves hadn't really thought it through.

Another thing I did like was how in the early part of John Carter's sojourn on Mars he faced the obvious language barrier and a Barsoomian language much more fully developed than anything Burroughs ever devised was in evidence. Of course, then he mysteriously learned the language overnight – “Voice of Barsoom”? – at least he seemed as mystified as the audience did! Of course, nobody wanted the whole film to be in subtitles. They did very well in using what little Barsoomian Burroughs did provide – “Kaor” for “Hello,” “Sak” for “Jump,” and the like. The names of the worlds – “Rasoom,” “Jasoom,” “Barsoom” – and the moons “Cluros” and “Thuria.” … Barry pointed out a problematic usage of “karad” as a measure of distance rather than “haad.” We exchanged several emails discussing that. He says its wrong, I say it's “problematic.” The only books of the eleven that make up the John Carter of Mars series that I've subjected to any kind of word-search analysis are #1-5, since only they are in public domain and hence available in free ebook format. In those, the only hits I get for “karad” are: (1) In #4, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, in the footnote to chapter 6 (near the beginning), a table of linear measurement defining a karad as 100 haads or one-360th of the circumference of Mars at the equator; (2) In the glossary of the same book, where it's defined as “a Martian degree”; and (3) In the first chapter of #5, Chessmen of Mars, where the usage is clearly synonymous with degree. Burroughs apparently never used it explicitly as a linear measurement … and yet it appears in a table of linear measurement. Hence, “problematic.” (I finally proposed maybe it was a conscious choice based on uncertainty how to pronounce “haad” – “hahd”? – “hadd”? – “HAY-add”? – which Barry maybe jokingly agreed with....) (Note: I find it interesting that the Martians use the same definition of a degree as we do, i.e., 360 in a circle, even though their other measurements are generally-speaking decimal. I think that's a slight failure of imagination on ERB's part. There's nothing really magical about 360 degrees.)

One aspect of the language I did find annoying is one I've already complained about with regard to the Dynamite series of comics: In only one instance did Burroughs ever have Dejah Thoris referred to by her “first name” only – one of the chapters of A Princess of Mars is entitled, “I Find Dejah.” Otherwise, her name is always “Dejah Thoris.” Neither element stands alone. Likewise, she never refers to him as “John” or “Carter” but always as “John Carter.” The Barsoomians appear not to have had surnames properly speaking, hence Tardos Mors' son was Mors Kajak, whose daughter was Dejah Thoris. Yes, Burroughs does refer to surnames in the case oof the greens, whence John Carter gets his Thark/Barsoomian name (not “Veer-ZHIN-yah”! Although that did make a fine running joke), “Dotar Sojat,” not “Right Hand” as it's strongly implied but rather the “surnames” of the first two warriors he kills. What Burroughs means by “surname” is not clear, because the green Martians have no concept of parentage and hence familial lineage; I would say he used it synonymously with “second name.” My overall point is that the names should have always been given in full, odd though it may sound to our Jassoomian audiences....

(Engaging in a little speculation here, maybe there was a pattern in naming eldest sons among the red Martians whereby the second name of the father becomes the first name of the son while the second name of the mother becomes the second name of the son. Tardos Mors' wife may have been ???? Kajak. That could be made to gee-haw (sort of) with Gods of Mars chapter 14, where John Carter's companion has just been revealed as his son, and tells him, “The people of Helium asked that I be named with my father's name [maybe as an unusual honor to the man who had opened the Atmosphere Plant and saved Barsoom], but my mother said no, that you and she had chosen a name for me together [more in line with tradition] … so the name that she called me is the one that you desired, a combination of hers and yours – Carthoris [which could be a pet-name, familiar conflation of “Carter Thoris”].” [I said made to gee-haw. I'm sure this could be quickly shot down with a little study.])

I could write much more, I'm sure, but won't. As you can see from the time stamp, it's well after midnight.  And as you can see from the last paragraph, I've descended into all but gibberish.  I apologise for the scattered nature of this post, even more so than usual.  I did love this movie, however.  Go see it.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

Later addition:  I can't believe I said nothing about the music.  It's wonderful.  Suitably epic, majestic, whimsical in the right places.  I know nothing of the composer Michael Giacchino, but he's a name I'll now notice, I'm sure.

Another later addition:  Something else I overlooked -- the implications of the nature of the "Ninth Ray" in this movie.  Briefly, in the books, the Barsoomians have discovered two more "colors" than Jassoomian science is aware of.  The first "Seven Rays" are the colors of our spectrum; the "Eighth Ray" is the motive force that propels light through the ether -- harnessed by them as an antigravitational force that serves as the basis for their airships; the "Ninth Ray" can be processed to interact with the ether to create breathable atmosphere, and is in fact the reason Barsoom is not now a long dead, airless rock.  Eons ago, as the atmosphere was thinning and the seas evaporating, Barsoomian science discovered the "Ninth Ray" in time to build the great Atmosphere Plant that has supported life ever since.  In the book, A Princess of Mars, it is the failure of the Atmosphere Plant after the murder of its Caretaker that ultimately results in John Carter being swept back to his homeworld; earlier he had acquired the secret of access to the Plant, and after a desperate flight there and giving access to an engineer, John Carter succumbs to asphyxiation -- and awakens back in the Arizona cave.  My first thought was that the way the "Ninth Ray" is portrayed in this movie negates any of that. I'm not sure it does, although it takes a bit of twisting of what we are presented with to make it work.  My latest thoughts are that, the "Ninth Ray" being a creative force could also be tapped -- perverted -- into a destructive force as seen here.  The discovery of that destructive potential could be what drives this plot in some ways, although I'd have to pay closer attention in yet another viewing (which won't come until the DVD is released) to see if that interpretation works in the scene where Dejah Thoris presents her discovery to the Jeddak and nobles of Helium.  This would, however, leave open the possibility of a "Ninth-Ray"-based Atmosphere Plant to fail in a subsequent story as Stanton has hinted in an interview.

Here's a good review from another fan of the books who liked the movie:  "John Carter no Citizen Kane, but...."  The writer nails what's good about this movie much better than I could. 

Unfortunately, John Carter's second weekend box office numbers turned out to be right in line with other recent genre films deemed commercial failures.  Note the very similar percentage drop from first to second weekend.  Although I have joined the Facebook page calling for a sequel, I expect I'll be disappointed.

Saturday, March 10

Sweets: A New Orleans Crime Story (Image, 2011)

By Kody Chamberlain

I picked this up from Chamberlain's table at New Orleans Comic Con a couple months ago and just read it last week. I really enjoyed it, both on its own terms as a gritty murder mystery, and as an atmospheric snapshot of New Orleans in the antediluvian days when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the city. Chamberlain is an independent comic creator who I think has a lot of potential and a bright future ahead of him. I would love to see him on one of the more down-to-earth, street-level Batman titles. Maybe this story being awarded the 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Mystery/Crime Comic or Graphic Novel will make the powers-that-be sit up and take notice of him.


The Spider #19: Slaves of the Crime Master (Apr 1935)

By Grant Stockbridge (= Norvell Page), most recently (2012) reissued as part of the series, Will Murray's Pulp Classics: A eBook, available here.

You know, of the three main 1930s pulp heroes whose adventures I've read – Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Spider – I have to say truthfully that I've decided I like the Spider best. It's not because this series is any better written than the others. I'd have to say that it's not. I'd be hard pressed to say whether I thought Lester Dent's Doc Savage or Walter Gibson's Shadow, either of which generally have better developed, better thought out overall plots than Norvell Page's Spider, would be the best written of the three. As I often proclaim, “I'm not a lit-critter” (my old drunken mentor's term for literary critics). But I find that for my own admittedly peculiar sensibilities – well, mainly for me as a life-long comic-book fan who, despite dabbling mainly in Doc Savage back during the 1970s, has only recently jumped onto the pulp bandwagon – the adventures of Richard Wentworth, the Spider, the “Master of Men” (where does that appellation come from, anyway, other than the covers of the pulps?) provide the most satisfying, comic-bookish reading experience. Perhaps more than either of the others, the Spider is pure comic-book goodness, albeit in prose.

Coincidentally, I've just been able to plug the Spider in just such a context in a Facebook comment responding to host Blake Petit's call on the 2-in-1 Showcase Fighting Fitness Fraternity group page for suggestions as he prepares a podcast episode devoted to superheroes who originated outside the medium of comics. As part of his post of Tuesday last, Petit defines a “superhero”:

[A] superhero shall be categorized as a character who fights evil and injustice AND meets at least two of the following three criteria:
1. Has superhuman powers or enhancements ("enhancements" being armor, weapons, or other doodads that allow him to simulate super powers).
2. Has a distinct costume, uniform, or permanently modified appearance (such as the Thing) by which he is identified.
3. Has a second identity by which he is known. (This second identity does NOT have to be secret. Everyone knows the Human Torch is Johnny Storm, but he's still got a second name.)

Most definitely the Spider fits that model! (By the way, the heroes of Person of Interest do not, but I still think the overall feel of that show has a lot in common with comic book heroes.) Fights evil and injustice? - check! Has a distinct costume? – check!, especially after about a year into the series when a simple silk domino mask is supplemented with makeup and a wig to create a more frightening visage that was never accurately portrayed on the pulp magazine covers. Has a second identity? – check! The only thing the Spider lacks is superhuman powers or enhancements, but in that he's no different from Batman. Furthermore, like the Caped Crusader, the Spider has a side-kick or aide of sorts – actually several: Ram Singh, Nita van Sloan, and so forth. He even has his own Ace the Bat-Hound! And finally, there's his relationship with New York City Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick. Well, that relationship is different from Batman and Jim Gordon's in that Kirk is bound by a sense of duty to bring the Spider down for the crimes he perpetrates in his violent dispensation of justice, but he bends over backwards not to admit the obvious, that his good friend and ally, the wealthy “amateur” detective Dick Wentworth, is indeed the masked vigilante.

Furthermore, the Spider's adventures are so outrageous. I have to pity poor old Norvell Page and his driving need to top himself month after month, but he came through with gusto and the results are spectacular – melting buildings, giant robots, horrific plagues, threats not just to New York City but to the United States or even the world, the Spider's confronted them all in just the dozen or so adventures I've read to date. Not that the stories all (or even mostly) make a whole lot of sense if they're examined too closely, but it's hard to see that in the middle of reading them as the reader is driven from crisis to cliffhanger to daring escape over and over again in a single novel. It makes the novels well nigh impossible to summarize – but as a reading experience it is breathtaking.

I think any comic book fan would have a ball reading these stories! Will Murray and the fine folks at are doing everyone a great service with their recent initiative to issue the Spider in new eBook editions, at very affordable prices. For a price at the low end of modern comic books ($3), you can have several hours of thrilling adventure. My main disappointment is that once again, like the Girasol Pulp Doubles reprint series that RadioArchives also carries (two adventures for $15, a new volume appearing about every quarter I think), they are bringing them out in random order rather than starting from the beginning and issuing them in sequence. Not that there is much of an overall story going on, but there is inevitably slow development in the characters and situations through the series that is lost when reading them at random. I know that more from reading about the series than reading the stories themselves. The only way to read the stories from the beginning in their proper order would be to pick up the rather expensive Pulp Replicas (also published by Girasol Collectibes and available through RadioArchives at $35 a pop). I don't have that kind of disposable income, so Will Murray's Pulp Classics are a godsend. (The three different formats for the Spider are all grouped together on RadioArchives' website.) I do trust  RadioArchives have the sense to at least keep certain essential groups of stories – “story arcs” – in the proper sequence and together, most notably the three novels from 1938 that make up the “Black Police Trilogy.” Sure I've already read these in the fine, almost scholarly, paperback edition from Age of Aces, The Spider vs. the Empire State, but there are many who have not. It portends well that for the Operator #5 series, and apparently Secret Agent X as well, they do seem to be starting from the beginning and in order with these eBook editions. I understand that for the former at least story order is quite critical. But why not give the Spider the same treatment?

One feature of this new eBook series that deserves mention is that Will Murray, mainly known as the world's foremost expert on Doc Savage but really an expert on all things pulp, supplies handy introductions for each series, telling how it came to be and, in general terms, what the reader has in store. Unfortunately, it appears he has written just one of these for each series, and the same one is repeated with each eBook in that series. (For a different, more personal – and hilarious – rumination by Murray on what I call the “outrageousness” of the Spider, see another of his articles, entitled “Stop Me Before I Read Another Spider!”)

This blog entry has, in typical fashion, rambled randomly into a long discourse on the Spider in general. What about the most recent adventure I've read? Again, it's typically hard to summarize, but here's the gist: The Spider faces the “crime master” otherwise known as the Tempter, a Pied Piper-like character whose seductive rhetoric broadcast by radio corrupts the nation's youth, basically turning them feral. It's all to further a blackmail plot involving a poison to the food supply that causes fatal infantile paralysis. The Tempter is in league with the Doctor, a horribly disfigured “faceless” monstrosity who delights in sadistic tortures applied to his minions and captives to coerce, punish, or simply to kill. Wentworth's technical mentor Professor Brownlee is captured and forced to work for them. Nita goes undercover and is captured, forced to witness the horrific death-by-torture of another female captive. (That's another characteristic of the Spider's foes – Norvell Page imagined some of the most luridly inventive, sickest villains I've ever encountered in any medium!) In the course of the story, Kirkpatrick's problematic relationship with the Spider is sorely tested when, for the sake of his unadmitted knowledge that it's his friend Dick Wentworth, the commissioner has the vigilante in his sights and hesitates, letting him escape – whereupon Wentworth deliberately and with a heavy heart creates a new hostility between the two of them. In the course of the tale we see the formation of a Spider Club for Boys – sort of a Baker Street Irregulars that I wonder if ever played a part in later stories although I don't recall any such in the random later stories I've read (admittedly not many – see what I mean by a disadvantage to random rather than sequential publication?) – and the Spider's apparent suicide after he seemingly causes first one then a second death of a mind-controlled child, all leading to a thrilling climax at Yankee Stadium itself. But of course, as usual, all is well in the end, with the pieces all reset on the board in their proper places for the next adventure to begin....

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 9

As Iron Sharpens Iron (2010)

By Mark Evan Eidemiller (available here)

This is the first of several “quickies” to get me caught up. Last week was mid term with grades due at midnight Sunday. Since one of my courses is online and I give the students until midnight Saturday to finish up the first half of the semester's work, I spent all day and evening Sunday reading exams and processing grades. Saturday had been eaten up by our annual regional Social Studies Fair. Then, “A Term” grades – half-semester courses – were due on Tuesday evening; I taught one of those online for the first half of this spring as well, so that was Monday and Tuesday's task. Grading must be hard work!, because by Tuesday evening my shoulder was hurting and Wednesday my rotator cuff was killing me. Seriously, I wish I knew what I did to inflame it – I think it was an old karate injury just flaring up – because I sure wouldn't do it again. Anyway, I know that's all of less interest to you than what I've been reading and watching … at least I think that's the case.

As Iron Sharpens Iron is Eidemiller's first commercially published novel. I put off reading it until I had completed his fan-fiction Bronze Saga as far as he's written it so far. I initially learned about Iron the same way I learned about the Bronze Saga, through his appearance last spring on the Book Cave podcast, and if you want to get some background on this story, meant to open another series entitled The Irons Alliance, that would be your best bet.

Going directly into it only a short time after reading Bronze Saga #9, Bronze Golem, was not the best reading strategy, I now realize. I had a real sense of déjà vu because Eidemiller uses a lot of the same tropes in the framing sequence of Iron as had been developed over nine stories in the Bronze Saga. The effect of feeling that it's just retread was only heightened by Eidemiller's use of the same name for his viewpoint character, Perry Liston. As my old drunken mentor used to say in very different contexts, “they are not the same, but the similarities far outweigh the differences.” Luckily, it turns out that the beginning of Iron is just a framing sequence, and the heart of the story takes place sixty years in the past. That story – the origin of the Irons Alliance – I found to be far more engaging than what I felt to be a sideways reflection of Doc Savage's latter-day band of high-tech paramilitary adventurers without the Man of Bronze himself.

Briefly, the heart of this book tells of how a group of Christians from very different walks of life – along with a character who is not a Christian but rather an old-style pulp hero, a bloody avenger who has a lot in common with Marvel Comics' Punisher – are drawn together by a dream they have in common into an expedition to the Arctic, where they discover a golden meteor that imbues them with longevity and heightened abilities. Along the way “Punisher” is saved, of course. All this happens just in time for a monstrous mutated lizard creature – the archetype of Godzilla – to emerge from nuked Japan and attack the United States. Using their various talents and abilities, the group saves the day, the experience forging them into a team who will obviously stay together through the coming decades and adventures what are only alluded to in the framing sequence, adventures which should provide Eidemiller with plenty of subject matter for subsequent stories.

The Irons Alliance came together about 1950. By that time their world was already somewhat different from our own. Just a couple of the most apparent divergences were that Tokyo was one of the Japanese cities nuked by the United States at the end of World War II and that Amelia Earhart shows up late in the book as an integral character. It's also pretty apparent from the framing sequence and the hints that are dropped there that subsequent history ends up being quite different from our own world. Exploring those differences along with Eidemiller will be part of the fun of continuing this series.

Once I got past the stumbling block of the opening as described above, I enjoyed this story much as I've enjoyed the “Christian Adventures of Doc Savage.” It has most of the same strengths as well as the same weaknesses. The latter would be the somewhat overbearing evangelical tone that pervades the story, which I can see being quite off-putting to a reader coming upon it unawares. I was “awares” so it didn't bother me, in fact as I've said before I'm very much in agreement with the basic Christian world view expressed herein, and I don't want to dwell on that any more than I do when blogging about the Bronze Saga, but a bit more subtlety may serve Eidemiller well in seeking a wider readership. That would be my little bit of unsolicited advice. Otherwise, as always, I find Eidemiller a very compelling writer, and I do look forward to reading more about these characters.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

N.B.: I just went to Eidemiller's web page and see that Bronze Saga #10: Bronze Shaped as Clay, is now listed with a tentative release date of this month … and is indeed billed as “The final chapter in the Bronze Saga.” That will be hard to read and write about....