Monday, July 28, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #5: Xanadu (Marvel Super Special #17, Summer 1980)

Aren't you supposed to go from the ridiculous to the sublime?  Well, here we are going in the opposite direction.

Xanadu is a would-be romantic magical musical fantasy starring Olivia Newton-John as a muse who leaps to life out of a mural and changes the lives of Michael Beck and Gene Kelly for the better courtesy the blending of old and new forms of pop entertainment.  That is, Big Band swing and Jeff Lyne's ELO and its Beatle-esque power pop and also... because it was sorta popular at the time... roller disco. 

While playing a muse in a musical fantasy might seem the perfect follow-up to her turn in 1978's Grease (where she and John Travolta, then largely known for demanding people stick rubber hoses up their noses on television, generate an amazing amount of electricity together), Olivia Newton-John at the height of her soft balladeering powers could not rescue this movie.  I doubt starring in Xanadu as a lovelorn album cover artist did Michael Beck any favors, either, although it did showcase the guy's musical theater talents in a way playing Swan in The Warriors, Walter Hill's cult gang flick, never could.

Wow! I'm inspired! I truly believe a musical version of The Warriors with a kind of The Wiz feel to it is a movie project that must happen.  Producers, agents of the world-- give me a call.  Let's put a project together.  Starlight Express meets West Side Story with a heapin' helpin' of Battle Royale.  I'd like to thank the Academy.  Film is a collaborative art and I wouldn't be standing here with the hard work of a lot of...

Art by everyone you've ever heard of
Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.  I think I'm in love.  They're dancing as Beck's crotch melts.  Gene Kelly approves from within the comforting wrinkle-free confines of his blue bell-bottomed leisure suit.  Several severed heads gaze wide-eyed yet sightlessly into the unspeakable horrors visited upon them by a serial killer, their mouths forever stretched into the rictus grins of death.  Mick Jagger's lips have torn loose from his face and now hunt for human prey. 

A misfire of a movie becomes a very strange comic with lovely colors but kind of slapdash, neo-psychedelic artwork.  It bears the hallmarks of a rush job, with a number of talented hands giving it a go, but ultimately there’s a futility about Xanadu.  You start with a truly wretched idea—ironically, a movie about inspiration lacking any—and there’s nowhere to go but down.


Let's take a little deeper look.  I mean, we came all this way, so it would be stupid not to.

Art by all the artists

It's bright and colorful, but despite the huge mob of art talent involved, there's not much in the way of storytelling in this book.  Here, Beck's character grabs a pair of rollerskates in one panel, but in the next he's standing in front of a big electronics mixing board explaining to Newton-John how it works with not a skate to be seen.  They're actually in a different location entirely.  Could you tell?  I had to read this dozens of times to understand that.  The page ends with an abrupt cut to the pair couple skating in star-addled sunset framed by indifferently drawn palm trees poking out of a world gone wonky, kind of like a flashback to Richard Corben's reality-twisting artwork "The Slipped Mickey Click-Flip."

Art by many wonderful people who deserve better

Say!  Inspiration strikes again!  A horror version of Xanadu.  Imagine this movie with the Erinyes instead of the muses…

Wait a minute.  I'm having so many grand ideas while thinking about Xanadu.  Maybe I was wrong about the movie and the comic all along.  Marvel Super Special #17:  Xanadu, I brand you a lost classic.  Who knew this would happen when I first saw it in the local Family Mart for months on end as it languished there, ignored by everyone but me and forgotten by the manager who should have sent it back to whatever magical Olympian realm from which it sprang?  I certainly never dreamed I would one day fall in love with a vibrant young woman named Kira and turn upside down and yellow while Elmer's Glue dripped all over my genitals...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #4: The Empire Strikes Back (Marvel Super Special #16, Spring 1980)

This is my pick for the best of Marvel's movie adaptations, and it's as good as mainstream comics get.  First, it's an adaptation of the best of the Star Wars movies and second, it's an adaptation of the best of the Star Wars movies written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by my all-time art dream team, Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon, and with another of those beautiful Bob Larkin cover paintings.  I'd put it up there with any other comic Marvel (or DC, for that matter) has ever published.  This comic should be taught in schools.

I reached the highwater mark of my Star Wars love in 1980.  I turned 12 that first year of the Reagan and Alex P. Keaton decade, which was about the time other things began occupying my mind.  But I was still childish enough to play with the toys and create my own Star Wars fantasy adventures with the Kenner figures and Millenium Falcon playset in the yard.  And I was adult enough to have become interested in the film making process itself, able to enjoy movies not just for their stories, but also for the craft and artistry behind the scenes.  Reading magazines like Starlog and Fantastic Films and learning the names of people like Ralph McQuarrie, John Dykstra and Richard Edlund, plus terms like “go-motion” and “blue screen,” I began to have a growing appreciation for the mechanics of its creation as well. 

This, then, was the perfect time to discover Al Williamson and, to certain extent, Archie Goodwin.  These are two names I've come to associate with all things Star Wars as much as I do George Lucas, Mark Hamill and John Ratzenberger.  It may seem crazy to you reading this now-- at least as crazy as any dumbass thing I've written in this blog-- but I’d never even heard of Williamson or Goodwin before I saw their names in the credits of Marvel Super Special #16.  While Goodwin's script hits all the right story points at the ideal pace for a comic with this page count, with terse narrative captions to help move things along, Williamson's art literally changed my life.  My appreciation of comic book art consists of pre-Williamson and post-Williamson eras. 

All of his EC and most Warren work came before I was even born, and our local newspaper tended more towards Beetle Bailey and Garfield than adventure strips.  Or paper did run Alley Oop, Steve Canyon and Dick Tracy, the three non-gag strips they did choose to run, plus my dad got me into Gasoline Alley (not an adventure strip but still one with a narrative like those others).  So I didn’t know anything about Secret Agent X-9, or, as it came to be called, Secret Agent Corrigan.  Where would I have learned about Al Williamson?  He didn't draw the Hulk or Spider-Man, for crying out loud!

So when this book hit, as far as 12-year-old me could tell, Al Williamson came into our banal world from some magical extra-dimensional wonderland where romantic adventure and heroic action were as part of life as blood itself and made this comic just for me. 

Williamson’s art was more than a revelation.  It was a rebirth.
Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

The man painted with ink.  To create the effect of reflections on metal, Williamson used blobby black strokes of varying pressure.  For atmosphere and depth in the backgrounds of different scenes, he used thin parallel lines for a sfumato-like effect.  He spotted blacks throughout, emulating the film’s cinematography, as many scenes take place inside the frozen rebel base or the industrial back-rooms of Cloud City where light comes from computer screens or from behind machinery.  He expanded on the film’s planetscapes and made them imaginatively otherworldly in a way location shooting on a glacier in Norway just couldn’t match (and Larkin wisely copies him on the cover).  Obviously, Lucas couldn't spirit his cast and crew away to Hoth in another galaxy.  But Williamson could and did.

And best of all, not only did Williamson's star warriors look like the actual actors rather than their stunt doubles or stand-ins (as had the characters in many of Marvel’s previous movie adaptations, Star Trek the Motion Picture aside), but the way he posed them and placed them within all those wild environments exactingly duplicates mood and feel of the movie itself every time you read this comic. 

I’d seen movie comics full of pretty art, some of which I've praised in this blog (and justly so; they're fantastically fun) with dazzling light effects and plenty with storytelling that perfunctorily or even adequately reproduced a movie’s action without that feel, without that authenticity of experience.  Goodwin, Williamson and Garzon put all the genuine excitement of the real The Empire Strikes Back right in our hands, in the medium best suited for George Lucas’ epic.  Star Wars came full circle back to the halcyon days of Flash Gordon in the funny pages, one of its prime inspirations.

The only odd note-- and I find it charming and story-book like-- is Williamson's version of Yoda, who looks his familiar, chubby self in closeups and then becomes a tiny gnome-like creature with spindly legs in wide-angle shots.  Williamson never quite figured out Yoda's scale, but at least he made everyone's favorite sentence-reversing Jedi puppet more ambulatory than even a genius performer like Frank Oz could holding him up from underneath the swamp sets.  And more wizardly.  Merlinesque.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

You can look at the artwork and see Williamson used quite a bit of photo reference.  In lesser hands, this can freeze a comic story, especially when an artist chooses to draw from studio portrait shots rather than action scene stills.  Williamson expertly blends these images onto the page so each is like a fabulous collage when looked at as a whole, but flow naturally when read panel-to-panel.  Williamson gives us carefully crafted moments like the two-panel sequence where medical droid 2-1B pulls the pharmaceutical mask off Luke's wampa-ravaged face.  He could have rendered it as a single panel, with all of 2-1B's dialogue carrying the action, but instead he chose to give it a bit of animation.  

Notice I'm talking only about Williamson, but there's also Carlos Garzon.  To be honest, I can't tell where one ends and the other begins.  I just see this Williamson-esque art job that matches pretty much all the other ones I've seen.  Many of which probably were in collaboration with Garzon.  Anyway, whichever artist did whatever part of the artwork, it's seamless and I like it.  So let's give Garzon his props, even if  I'm too ignorant and unschooled in his contributions to point out any specific examples.  There are probably other blogs for that.  I should be reading them.  So should you.  Probably a better use of our comics-loving time, right?  Let's go!  Go!  Go!  Go!

Okay, he's gone.  I'll join him after I finish gushing about The Empire Strikes Back like a dizzy fool drunk on love.

Oh, and at this point I should also make mention of Glynis Wein's superb coloring job.  Wein used a screen-accurate palette that enhances the comic experience rather than making you smirk at oddball choices like the red lenses in Darth Vader's mask and the strange orange mottling in Chewbacca's fur from the first Marvel Star Wars comic.  Wein would make entire figures two shades of orange to recreate the spacey glow of Rebel Alliance technology when our heroes conferred in control rooms and on spaceships, and apply appropriately chilly blue shadows to the snowy exteriors of Hoth or give the swamps of Dagobah a slimy look in greens and pale oranges.  Wein's pastel planets and moons help give depth to the imagery of mighty space fleets lumbering along, but where her work really shines is during the light sabre duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.  The film bathes their battle largely in oranges and blues, at least when the two fight in the "carbon freezing chamber" where Han Solo gets encased in a block of metal.  Wein follows suit but she also adds some nice greens and yellows to make it work better in two dimensions.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

The very day I read The Empire Strikes Back, I immediately stopped copying every other artist and became simply a Williamson imitator, in as much as my clumsy hands could make me so.  Any one of my comic book art idols represents an impossible standard to which an artist can hold himself or herself, but even more so with Williamson.

I doggedly spent the next three or four years laboriously filling sketchbook after sketchbook with really shitty Star Wars drawings, thinking all the time I was getting somewhere with my art.  While I later found other artists to fail at emulating, whenever I had a sketchbook and a pen or brush, I’d still find myself pulling out some Williamson stuff and doodling away, futilely trying to match his supreme figure construction and posing, and lush, sinuous line quality.  Even in my graphic design program days at the University of Georgia my professors would look at my homework and occasionally come across something that looked as if Al Williamson had drawn it with the brush held in his teeth, or sticking out of one ear.

Script:  Archie Goodwin/Art:  Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

Even now, Williamson remains one of those go-to guys whose work I feel compelled to collect.  Williamson, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and Steve Rude.  Whenever their stuff appears in purchasable form, I will be there.  Right now Dark Horse keeps much of Williamson's Star Wars work with Goodwin in print both in paper form and digitally.  With the license reverting to Marvel in the wake of Disney's massive Lucasfilm purchase and upcoming new trilogy, I'm not sure how long this will be the case.  Fortunately, I've got it all.

And you know what?  I’m not even a huge Star Wars nut anymore.  The intense, religious-like fervor of its fans and the oversaturation of all things Star Wars on the Internet and on the shelves in book and toy stores across the world (and also the law of diminishing returns as it applies to the film story’s recent, tragic extension) have all tarnished the brand for me.  And brand is the right word.  McSkywalker, now serving number two billion. 

But it seems all I have to do is pull out the Al Williamson The Empire Strikes Back and I’m 12 years old again and everything is suddenly wonderful in a way it had never been before, although there had certainly been wonderment.  With Al Williamson, there's a purity to the work that ensures there will always be wonderment.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #3: Star Trek: the Motion Picture (December 1979)

I'm going to tell you upfront this was one of my favorite individual comic book stories when I was 11 years old.  I have no idea how many times I read it.  The following year, Marvel's Empire Strikes Back adaptation would knock this one (and just about every other comic I'd ever read and loved prior to encountering Al Williamson) down a spot or two on my personal hit parade, but I still have a deep and abiding love for Marvel Super Special #15.  I'd been a Star Trek TV show fan for as long as I could remember, and this was in the wilderness years of the 1970s.  Back then, you had to find Trek at odd hours on some local station.  Ours came out of Tallahassee on Saturday afternoons, subject to atmospheric interference.  When your station dropped whatever Trek syndication package they'd licensed, you lost touch with the crew until they popped up somewhere else within antenna range.  In the interim, you could read the James Blish short story collections with episode adaptations, and the often silly Gold Key comics.  Or collect and play with the Mego action figures.  That was as Treky as we got before 1979's Star Trek: the Motion Picture came out and relaunched the franchise as a movie series.

It almost didn't.  The movie, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Robert Wise and based on a premise written by series creator Gene Roddenberry, made money, but it was expensive to produce and wasn't as big a hit as Paramount had hoped for.  It certainly looked fantastic, with a sleeker, updated Enterprise and everyone in pajamas for a sweet slumber party atmosphere.  But it suffers from endless shots of the Enterprise slowly drifting along set to repetitive music cues and people staring in awe at light shows.  It's like watching the audience at Laser Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon.  The film allows its characters to ask existential questions, but when it comes to answering them, the result is akin to a 2001: A Space Odyssey where, after boring you for more than two hours, Stanley Kubrick has the astronauts explain to each other (and the audience) exactly what the monolith represents and why it does what it does.  The cheaper, more action-oriented Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan turned out to be the franchise's salvation, not this glacially-paced epic.  But in 1979, for me, it was enough seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (along with Janice Rand, for cripe's sake!) back in action.

And, after watching this movie again on Blu-Ray recently, I've decided I'll take it with all of its flaws and dull stretches over either of the terminally stupid "reboot" flicks any day of the week.  Star Trek The Motion Picture at least has ideas and something to say about the basic human dilemma ("Is this all there is?  Is there nothing more?"), things it takes very seriously.  Can you imagine a major studio nowadays dropping this kind of money on a sci-fi flick starring a lot of middle-aged people and without any meta-humor or product placement?  There's not even a sky-diving sequence!  There's barely any sex!

But let's talk about the comic.

It must have been a daunting challenge to adapt into an entertaining comic a story that consists mostly of long sequences of nothing more than the Enterprise gliding over the giant V’Ger ship and then small groups of characters conversing about it in staff rooms and small corridors.  The comic really benefits from the deft way Marv Wolfman condenses scenes.  Wolfman ruthlessly edited down long scenes into a few panels, quickening the pace and generally tightening things up.  Wolfman uses his narrative captions-- always a strength of his writing-- to clarify character motivation and add descriptions and exposition to guide readers along.  We're engaged throughout.

For the art team, which consists of Dave Cockrum on pencils and Klaus Janson on inks, the problems are finding ways to make all the conversations work visually and reproducing the movie’s many, many special effects shots.  Cockrum, a master of crowded team compositions and action-packed superhero action, comes through with strong "acting" from the principals, downplaying the usual Marvel dynamics but upping the emotional content of various scenes.  His Commander Decker in particular comes alive with various angry faces and hand-chop poses emphasizing his frustration.  The likenesses are consistent throughout, a real plus when dealing with familiar, iconic characters.  The results aren't photographic, but Cockrum never confuses the readers.  Kirk has his poofy hair, McCoy his sharply arched eyebrows and drooping, lived-in face.  Of course Spock is easy to get right, but even more conventionally good-looking people like Uhura, Sulu and Chekov look pretty much the way you expect.  Every so often there's a dead face, but they never become a distraction.

What an ink job Janson provides, too.  While he and Walt Simonson outdid themselves on innovative lighting effects in Close Encounters, here he and colorist Marie Severin use color holds to reproduce Douglas Trumbull's lightning balls and wormholes.  This kind of stuff is easy to do these days with digital inking and coloring.  It's nothing to isolate an element and change the color channels to whatever you want.  But when Janson and Severin tackled Star Trek, they had to rely on acetate or vellum overlays.  It must have been a tedious, time-consuming process because they use one or more on practically every page.  The results are nothing less than astounding.

For all its pacing flaws, the film is effective at making space seem like an infinite frontier full of dangers.  It's not just that there are Klingons and V'Gers out there ready to zap unfortunate astronauts and Starfleet personnel.  Space itself is dark and perilous.  For one thing, the ships have to provide their own exterior lighting.  None of that Star Wars stuff where everything in space is brightly lit no matter how far away it is from an actual light source.  To the human mind, space appears largely empty, dark and vast.  Even the vaunted technology its space explorers count on for survival turns on them.  The transporter goes awry in a shocking incident and, later, the warp drive throws the ship into what the characters call a “wormhole.”  Contending with these, the Enterprise crew truly seems to be going boldly.  This isn't sailing along to some cute world where you find 1920s gangsters or the White Rabbit out of Lewis Carroll.  You could end up a data stream in a godlike machine's memory banks or transformed into a robotic copy of yourself with a lighted jewel embedded in your throat.  Or merge with the overmind into a stream of light.  Wolfman’s script reproduces each of these episodes faithfully and Cockrum, Janson and Severin provide some spectacular visuals to match them, with all the production design details faithfully reproduced.  Ultimately, this is an extremely accurate recreation of the film's look and mood, minus its shambolic tendencies.

The story also appeared in three monthly issues (Star Wars, a much shorter but action-oriented film, ran in four, which is further evidence of how Trek should have been pared down a bit) which led to a short-lived Marvel Star Trek comic.  I never read a single issue of that.  After all this time, I'm not sure why, especially considering how much I enjoyed this one.  Maybe it was enough for me Wolfman, Cockrum, Janson and Severin had already provided fabulous glimpse of what a Star Trek comic could be, one-upping its cinematic source material.  Too bad they didn't get a chance to take on Khan.

Looks like I forgot to talk about the Bob Larkin fully-painted cover.  That's just as well.  I'd have written a paragraph consisting only of superlatives.  I look at it kind of like Kirk, McCoy, Decker, Ilia and the rest gaze at Laser Floyd.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #2: Meteor (August 1979)

Let me start by pointing out the obvious:  Meteor shares its basic idea with Armageddon (and also Deep Impact, but screw Deep Impact for taking this material seriously, right?), but mercifully lacks both Aerosmith and dopey worship of bonehead machismo.  In both films, a giant meteor heads towards earth, and we have to blast it with nuclear weapons before it gets here.  In Armageddon, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi go up in a spaceship to do it themselves while Liv Tyler watches all teary-eyed from NASA headquarters, while in Meteor Sean Connery stands around a lot of blinking computers while we do try to blast the meteor by remote control.  Despite the differing approaches to meteor-smashing, the results of both are exactly the same—a really shitty movie.  But while audiences spent good money to indulge themselves in the Steven Tyler-enhanced stupidity of Armageddon, a generation before they found better things to do back in 1979 than see Meteor.  Which, once again, is a truly shitty movie.  Bad script, inept direction, a floundering cast, financial failure.  Damaged American International Pictures and possibly helped lead to the company’s demise, although they did release a few more films after Meteor bellyflopped.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

But something good did arise out the ashes.  Marvel Comics adapted Meteor for one of their Marvel Super Specials, and its genius editors assigned Gene Colan and Tom Palmer to draw it.  What Colan and Palmer turned in is nothing short of amazing.  Far from rush it even though they must have known the movie they were working on was a major turkey, they seem to have taken extreme care with the artwork, which includes globe-trotting scene changes from a Hong King suburb to New York City to a doomed Swiss ski resort and back again, detailed backgrounds in the computer command center, a double-page spread of a tsunami threatening Hawaii and another engulfing Hong Kong and—most spectacularly—two pages of rocks blasting and gouging Manhattan itself.  The detail, the realism, the scope.  It's also more than a little disturbing when you associate it with real world events from the years since, but I can’t help but think the movie Meteor might have been a Star Wars-sized blockbuster if only it had looked even half as good as what Colan and Palmer pull off in the comic.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

The script is by Ralph Macchio (the comics guy, not the Karate Kid), and it’s serviceable.  He had to work from the dumb-ass movie screenplay and there’s only so much you can do with something like that.  Let’s just say he keeps the rocks rolling and benefits from this being a comic book, where our expectations for plot mechanics, dialogue and characterization are a fair bit lower than they are even for schlocky disaster films.  Occasionally, I can’t help but detect a little tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in the panel based on a scene where the movie obviously went for pathos and found only derisive laughter.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

Also, you have to consider this is the kind of story where the falling rocks manage to obliterate a familiar ski resort and then Hong Kong, a place most of the intended middle American audience had a vague awareness of as important or large, but still far enough away they could glean a kicky thrill from it before having to confront the horror of something bad happening to their own country.  Gasp!  Not here!  Not in America, where everything of any real importance lives!  You know, the same way terrorists or Mayan disasters always scorch picturesque landmarks in Paris or Tokyo before they come after God’s Country.

Which eventually happens here.  New York City is where the bombardment climaxes, although for some reason the story confines its heroes to the same underground lair they've been stuck in throughout most of the running time and subjects them to-- of all things-- a mud bath.  When you consider how the film could have directly involved them in some of the skyscraper smashings or had them out rescuing small children and their pets then you go a long way towards explaining why Meteor flopped so badly.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer
That dramatic misstep and a lack of Darth Vader, I suppose.  By the time AIP started pissing away their fortunes on this dreck and Macchio, Colan and Palmer put their all into elevating it into sequential brilliance, the Allen era had come and gone and people no longer wanted soap opera interrupted by earthquakes, floods and other sundry acts of God.  They wanted space aliens and all kinds of crazy critters zipping about on interplanetary errands complete with laser beams and Vulcan ears.  A year later and we'd all be gaga over Yoda and a year after that, a little guy named E.T.  Meteor and its ilk would be relegated to afternoon showings on HBO, which is probably where I saw it.

Script:  Ralph Macchio/Pencils:  Gene Colan/Inks and colors:  Tom Palmer

But that isn't the weirdest thing about Meteor or its superior comic adaptation.  The weirdest thing about Meteor is the inside masthead credits Earl Norem for the cover painting, but one look at it and you know it’s not Norem.  A Norem painting would have put this book over the top as one of those lost classics.  Instead, we get something that looks more like a painting a precociously talented high school kid or community college art student would do in gouache or thin acrylics and then a quick pass with the class’ airbrush.  It’s flat and awkward and it’s boldly signed by people other than Earl Norem.  I know who they are, but mercy and niceness prevents me from naming them.  Still, poor Earl Norem.  He must have felt a bit like Enrico Palazzo did in The Naked Gun as he watched a disguised Frank Drebin sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" on TV, credited as Palazzo.  I have no idea how this editorial mistake happened.  Maybe they just lifted a pasted-up masthead from another magazine and forgot to replace Norem’s name.  Norem couldn’t do something this flat and lifeless even if he had a single lunch break to hack it out.