Monday, May 15, 2017

7 Days in May | Attack the Block and Man-Thing

Attack the Block (2011)

Attack the Block has been on the rewatch pile for a while now. I love the movie, but David had never seen it and I knew he'd dig it, 'cause John Boyega and aliens. What's so remarkable about it to me is the way that it introduces Boyega and his friends as completely unsympathetic thugs, but gradually redeems them so that they're heroes at the end. That's a really hard job and the movie does it masterfully.

And that alien design is the best.

Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947)

I've checked out some old Dick Tracy before and didn't especially enjoy it, but Dilemma is a treat. There's no real mystery to it, because the crime is presented onscreen and the movie's just about watching Tracy and Friends try to piece things together, but Jack Lambert is terrifying as The Claw, a low level thug who's just a little more crazy and ruthless than everyone else. There are some terrific, suspenseful moments throughout, so the movie's worth tracking down.

Zorro (1957-61)

Zorro is still in Monterey for some reason, but my interest is renewed by the introduction of Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man) as a recurring foil for Don Diego. The two characters are old rivals and things get complicated when Señorita Verdugo (from earlier in the season) returns and both men like her.

I'm not usually crazy about these kinds of romance triangles where two people both like the third and the object of their affection refuses to make a choice. But it works in this case, because I feel like Verdugo actually has made a choice, but one of the men isn't paying attention. We'll see though. This storyline is still in progress and I don't know how it's going to turn out.

Whatever the case, Anderson adds a lot of fun to the cast. He'll eventually wear out his welcome, I suspect, because this plot can't go too much longer, but for now I'm enjoying him.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

Watched a couple of episodes packaged together as The Phantom Train of Doom. Indy and his pal Remy have been transferred to Africa to fight Germans there, but have trouble joining their regiment and instead get pulled into a mission with some elderly, but feisty soldiers who are trying to track down a mysterious train with a giant cannon that's been troubling the Allies.

The story is light on education; it doesn't even go into why the war has spilled into Africa. But that may be why it's more exciting than most of the Young Indy series. It's not full-on pulp, but it gets closer than the series has so far.

Underground (2016-present)

We finished Season Two just in time to watch the finale live. It's not as strong an ending as the first season, which leaned more towards satisfying conclusions than teases for next year. This one is mostly teases. But they're good teases and I'm still very much hooked. Looking forward to watching live next season.

Zorro: The Complete Pulp Adventures, Vol. 1 by Johnston McCulley

Most of this collection is made up of The Curse of Capistrano, the original Zorro novel that I've already talked about. But there are two other Zorro stories by Johnston McCulley in it, so I read those, too. And I'm probably done with McCulley's Zorro stories. At least for a while.

The problem is that they're influenced by the Douglas Fairbanks movie. I love the movie, but it bugs me to see original versions of things I love transform themselves to be more like film versions. Like when Ian Fleming retroactively made James Bond a Scot so that he'd be closer to Sean Connery. Or changes in the looks of Marvel superheroes. It destroys the illusion that the story I'm reading is about real characters in a real place and I'm reminded that they're just "properties" (a term that - along with "franchise" - I try to avoid as much as possible when talking about characters and series).

The biggest change from Capistrano to the short stories that followed it is about Zorro's secret identity. Capistrano ends with the threat defeated and Don Diego's revealing that he was Zorro all along. We can't have that in continuing adventures, so "Zorro Saves a Friend" hits the reset button. I tried to make that story work as a prequel to Capistrano and was somewhat successful, but the other story in the collection, "Zorro Hunts a Jackal," makes it impossible. "Jackal" continues using characters from "Friend," but there's no way that it can take place before Capistrano.

McCulley also plays loose with Zorro's support system. In Capistrano, Zorro's servant Bernardo was deaf as well as mute, but that was changed in the Fairbanks movie so that Bernardo was mute only. McCulley copied that in the subsequent short stories, but I'm not sure what his reason is. Bernardo barely appears in Capistrano and - unlike the movie version - doesn't help Zorro at all. And even though he's able to hear in "Friend" and "Jackal," Bernardo still doesn't provide any assistance. For that, McCulley has created a whole new character, José of the Cocopahs, who's able to hear and speak. And frankly, he speaks too much, because he blabs Zorro's identity to several people. They're all trustworthy, it turns out, but it feels like half of LA knows who Zorro is in the short stories.

There are also a couple of essays in the collection and they're worth mentioning: Sandra R Curtis opens the book with a comparison of Zorro's California to the historical one; then Ed Hulse wraps things up with the story of how Curse of Capistrano was adapted for the cinema.

The Man-Thing by Steve Gerber: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

"Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch!" The specificity of that strange super power has intrigued me for years, so when it came up again when I was reading Master of Kung Fu, I decided I needed to finally read some Man-Thing and figure out what that's all about.

I've been thinking a lot about fear as a motivation lately, especially during the last election, in which both major candidates used it as the basis of their campaigns. I wondered if Man-Thing had anything interesting to add. Why is this mindless swamp creature so opposed to fear? Is Man-Thing symbolic of something else that battles fear? If so, what? And what does burning have to do with it?

Sadly, if there's deeper meaning in these comics, I'm missing it. Like most serialized adventures that are passed from writer to writer (and that's the case here, even though Steve Gerber's name is in the title and he wrote most of the stories in the collection), ideas get introduced then dropped or changed as the story evolves.

Man-Thing started in a standalone story in Marvel's black-and-white anthology magazine, Strange Tales, where writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas gave the monster the ability to burn people with his touch. It's not explicitly connected to fear, though. Thomas kept the story going in a two-part adventure in Astonishing Tales, where Ka-Zar connects the Man-Thing's burning power with the emotion of fear, but it's still not explained why.

When the character got his own, ongoing feature in Adventure into Fear, Conway was back writing and added to the fear/burning connection the explanation that fear is an emotion that Man-Thing hates. When Gerber took over in the next issue, he just continued what Conway and Thomas had started, eventually adding the famous catch-phrase.

So I was disappointed in the lack of any deeper meaning to the connection between fear, burning, and this awesome-looking swamp creature. As far as I can tell, it wasn't the result of a creator's philosophy, but just random connections that developed over time.

And I was also disappointed at the willy-nilly plots that Gerber ended up laying over the character. It reads like Gerber was never sure what to do with Man-Thing. There are stories with social commentary about race and environmentalism and capitalism, but they're interspersed with goofy high fantasy and Tales from the Crypt-style horror. Some of these work really well, but some - especially the fantasy stuff - really don't.

The art is pretty great throughout the collection, though. Gray Morrow, John Buscema, and Mike Ploog are special favorites of mine, but there's also good stuff by Rich Buckler, Val Mayerik, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, and Vicente Alcazar.

Jam of the Week: "Woman in Chains" by Tears for Fears, featuring Oleta Adams 

We saw Tears for Fears live last week, so that's still what I've been listening to. It's amazing to me how relevant "Shout" still is, with its call for people to speak out loudly about the things that upset them. And it's equally amazing - and heart-breaking - how relevant "Woman in Chains" still is as well.

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