Monday, August 05, 2019

On Music

In case you haven't noticed, I haven't put much work into the blog. Real world obligations and a sci-fi writing project have kind of taken up all of my time, and its just been easier to throw off a couple Tweets about say, the artistic masterpiece that is Streets of Fire instead of spending an entire evening writing about it. I don't want to write something longer form without having a topic worth discussing.

Today I do. In the process of writing my mech opera first draft, I've been listening almost exclusively to music from 1979-1987. This is for story reasons, but it generated an interesting side effect: for the last seven months, my mood has been dramatically better and more optimistic. It was quite by accident, but curating my playlist to a mix of New Wave, Classic Rock, Golden Age Power Metal, Prog Rock, Soul, Funk, Country, Pop, and even Disco (there's quite a lot to say about Disco's awkward pulpy tendencies, but that's for another time), got me thinking about an old post over on Jon Del Arroz's blog about how Music is Mindset.  Its absolutely correct.

The self-torpedoing of the music industry in the 90s isn't the point of this post, but look at most of the big, highly promoted rock musicians of the 90s: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, R.E.M., Beck, Alanis Morrisette, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, Korn. They don't sing about cool stuff. They don't sing about wizards and space ships and successful courtship. They sing about the banality of existence and the meaninglessness of trying. Relationships are doomed to failure, and its either the fault of internalized self-loathing, or externalized blame shifting. Its a downer. Its demoralizing. If you listen to it all the time, how do you think its going to affect your mood?

Beneath the outrageously morbid album art of Iron Maiden beats a soul of high adventure. There's nothing of that in the bands I've listed above.

This isn't to say that there weren't great, optimistic bands in the 90s. There absolutely were, but they got relegated to the B-list. I was the weird kid who absolutely hated Nirvana as a kid, but listened to Blues Traveler constantly. Guess who was pushed harder by the recording industry?

The point of this isn't to point out that Duran Duran is a much better band than Radiohead. I mean, they are but the real point is that headspace affects everything about how you approach the world. Its not a 1:1 comparison, but if you listen to All-American Rejects sing about striking out with girls all the time and being a loser nerd, that's going to affect how you interact with people, even if its just remembering a snippet of lyrics at a particular moment. Why would you want to sabotage yourself like that? Who else would want you to sabotage yourself? Why bother with listening to dudes with more money than you sing about failure when you could fill your dreams with Van Halen's swaggering bravado?

I'm not saying don't listen to anything made after 1990. What I am saying is that if your entertainment doesn't reflect your values, your values will end up reflecting your entertainment.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Mobile Suit Gundam

Going with this image because Sayla is best girl of the show.

Hello there, long time no see. Blogging output stalled out for a while, partly because of (positive) changes in work schedules, and also because I've been forging ahead on a pulp novel time permitting. So reading classic SF/F has kind of dropped off for the moment.

But in the name of “research,” I went back and watched Mobile Suit Gundam all the way through.

Mobile Suit Gundam aired on Japanese television in 1979 and birthed a brand new sub-genre of giant robot fiction: the “Real Robot.” Where the 60s and 70s had a thriving “Super Robot” field populated with classics like Tetsujin-28 Go, Mazinger Z, and Getter Robo (worthy in their own ways), Yoshiyuki Tomino's Gundam treated giant robots less as giant superheroes calling out their attacks, and instead as advanced weapons of war against a backdrop of space opera and large scale warfare. More Space Battleship Yamato meets Starship Troopers than Giant Robo/Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot.

In this house we respect Daitarn 3

This isn't a knock on Super Robots. I actually prefer them, to be honest, but Real Robots are damn good too, and Gundam stands at the top of that heap.

Except it wasn't always so. The show was initially a failure, and low ratings led to early cancellation and a mad dash to finish the series at 43 episodes with a dwindling budget. It wasn't until reruns, a compilation trilogy of animated movies in 1981, and perhaps most importantly, the introduction of plastic model “Gunpla” kits in 1980 that transformed Mobile Suit Gundam from a flop to a mega franchise. As far as 40 year old science fiction franchises go, its as important as Star Wars, equally as merchandised, and actually in a much healthier state, currently. (Yes, a holding pattern without much innovation IS healthier than a dumpster fire rapidly bleeding long-time fans).

Back to the show itself: The year is 0079 of the Universal Century. Mankind has set up multiple large space colonies as a unified Earth Federation takes control. One group of Colonies, collectively called Side 3, renames itself to the Principality of Zeon, declares independence from the Federation, and declares war. In rapid succession, nuclear and biological chemicals are heavily used, and Zeon achieves early dominance in space thanks to newly developed mechs called “Mobile Suits.” Oh yeah, and Zeon gassed a neutral colony, killing everyone on it, and then dropped said colony onto Earth, hoping to destroy the Federation's capital. Instead it destroyed a giant chunk of Australia.

This backstory all happened in about 8 months.

The show picks up at the Side 7 colony, where the Federation's top secret Project V mobile suit development is taking place. Amuro Ray, the teenage son of one of the head engineers, is thrust into the cockpit of his dad's mobile suit, the RX-78-2 Gundam, when two Zeon scouts get ahead of themselves and try to destroy the Federation facility.

Stumbling his way through his first couple of fights, Amuro is effectively forced into a combat pilot role alongside the crew and civilians of the carrier White Base, and the makeshift crew:

Bright Noa: A naval ensign forced to take the burden of command when the original captain is fatally wounded.

Mirai Yashima: The daughter of a wealthy family whose father died early in the war, who's glider training makes her the best suited to take the helm.

Fraw Bow: Amuro's childhood friend/sort-of-girlfriend thrust into a Communications/team mom for the orphan kids on the ship role.

Hayato Kobayashi: Amuro's neighbor and friend who's more grounded but less talented. He becomes the pilot of the Guntank, a clunky artillery mobile suit. Think Krillin before Krillin.

Kai Shiden: An abrasive, sarcastic, cowardly loner who gets drafted into a combat role almost against his will. After some significant character development, Kai becomes the second-most dependable pilot on the ship, operating the Guncannon mid-range artillery mobile suit.

Ryu Jose: A stocky pilot cadet and the only combat pilot on the White Base with any actual training to start with. Not a particularly good pilot, but he does his best to keep the crew together. Bounces between a Core Fighter and co-piloting the Guntank.

Sayla Mass: A mysterious blonde girl who's the sister of Zeon ace pilot Char Aznable (oh we'll get to him in a bit) who becomes one of the most well-adjusted members of the crew, first on the bridge, then as a combat pilot in the G-Fighter.

Except these three. These kids are the worst.

The show follows the White Base as it fights its way to Earth, then across the Earth, then back to space as the Federation rallies for an offensive against Zeon's territories. People change, important, likable character die off dramatically, and Amuro grapples with the toll the war is taking on him while he grows as a pilot and eventually awakens as a Newtype (a kind of step in human evolution adapted for living in space that, in practical terms, gives heightened spacial awareness that gives Newtype pilots a significant edge against “Oldtype” pilots, but when ramped up dramatically turns into Acid Trip levels of SPAAAACE MAGIC).

While Zeon's status as the aggressor in the war makes them the default bad guys, the show goes to great lengths to make both sides human. The White Base crew are clearly good guys, but the Federation as a whole is bureaucratic, slow to react, and impersonal, with a few heroic standouts like Matilda, Wakkein, and Sleggar “CHAD OF CHADS” Law. Most of the lower level Zeon troops are decent people fighting for their country and trying to survive. Some, like guerilla warfare/moustache expert Ramba Ral are downright tragic heroes. Even the ruling family of Zeon, the Zabis, isn't all bad. Supreme ruler Degwin Zabi compares his tyrannical son Gihren to Hitler when he tries to scold him for his cruelty. Vice-Admiral Kycillia is a manipulative ice queen. But Admiral Dozle Zabi is a loving father and a soldier's soldier who's only real flaw is his fierce pride, and Garma Zabi is a naive fop at worst.

And then there's Char Aznable.

Building off of a previous Tomino character, Prince Sharkin from Brave Raideen, Char is a dashing masked enemy ace pilot and a viewpoint antagonist who initially comes across as a Red Baron type. But while loyal to Zeon, he's plotting a secret revenge against the Zabi family, for he is Casval Deikun, the missing son of the late Zeon Deikun who founded the Republic of Zeon and who died of sudden and mysterious circumstances allowing Degwin to take over.

Amuro's a good guy trying to do right by the world and his friends, but Char is a deeply compelling antagonist with all kinds of nooks and crannies of character development to dig into. Part heroic war hero, part revenge-driven madman, Char's such an effective character that he's become an archetype. Every subsequent Gundam series has its own variation of a Char Clone: a mysterious, often masked ace pilot who has his own code and agenda that he follows. Char is easily one of the best villains in all of anime.

But here I am talking about the effects of Mobile Suit Gundam and not about the show itself. Its good. Very good, actually. The characters are likable and compelling. The mech designs range from iconic for the Gundam and the Zaku II to the adorably goofy like the Zakrello and the Guntank. The action works well too, considering the late 70s made-for-TV budget, especially the Battle of Jaburo, Battle of Solomon, Duel in Texas Colony (yeah, really), and the Battle of A Bao Qu being major standouts. The animation also nosedives in a lot of places near the end as the show had to wrap things up. Even the pacing is largely solid, with the worst patch being the stretch between the Garma arc and before Ramba Ral shows up. Those episodes have a lot of drawn out filler as Amuro mopes around feeling sorry for himself and going AWOL a couple times.

Beyond just being an Important Show For Anime, Mobile Suit Gundam is genuinely entertaining, and I do recommend it. 43 episodes of a late 70s anime might be asking a bit much, but that's what I hear the compilation movies are for (even if they cut out a ton of stuff like the Texas Duel). Either way, its worth a watch.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

If Your Villain Is More Interesting Than Your Hero, You're Doing It Wrong

Its been a hot minute since I've written anything for the blog, but that's because of two things: new schedule changes with a new job and I've been steadily working on a novel project I want to get out the gate this year. It also means diving head first into the land of giant robots, which is the best kind of research.

As for this post's topic, it hit me as I was commuting today. There's a well established complaint among fandom circles that “villains are always more interesting than heroes.” I've noticed this way back when in cape comic circles, but its everywhere in Fandom, and a quick internet search brings up a bunch of discussions about the subject; some useful, some not. Much of it turns into clickbait because that's the hellish landscape of the modern internet. Here's a Reddit thread from a few years ago that's less cringey than a bunch of other articles I've found:

A lot of the standard arguments for this position tend toward: Heroes are boring because they have to be Good, and Good is Bland. Villains get to be more fun. Villains get to be pro-active and heroes have to be re-active. Villains have more complex motivations than Heroes.

Et Cetera Et Cetera Et Cetera

This leads to a few scattered thoughts:

1) If the Bad Guy is so much more interesting than the Good Guy, why not...simply make that your Protagonist? Evil protagonists work, especially in the context of Tragedy. Just ask Macbeth. Or, if the villain isn't actually all that evil, what's to stop him from being the actual hero of the story in conflict with a much more powerful and morally rigid authoritarian who would otherwise be the designated protagonist.

2) The most interesting character to follow around should be the protagonist. They're the one with the most meat to their story, and have the most potential destinations for their character arcs.

3) There's a reason why this conversation happens a lot in comics circles, because characters like Batman and Spider-Man are Brands now, instead of Characters. Batman is: Bruce Wayne. Rich Guy. Dead Parents. Never Kills. Punches Clowns. Any deviation from that, like when he was occasionally replaced, never lasts, because the status quo has to reassert itself. Not for narrative reasons, but because of Brand Recognition. That's ultimately why Spider-Man's marriage was undone, because everybody knows Peter Parker is a young, down-on-his-luck kid who can't catch a break in his personal life, and why Wally West was ditched as the Flash after a critically and commercially acclaimed run that lasted over two decades because Barry Allen was the version on The Super Friends. Villains, by comparison, have more wiggle room for creative teams to do things with. I suspect this has a connection to the cynicism you find in a lot of long-term comic book fans.

4) “Boring Block Of Wood Protagonist” was not how it used to be. It was the exact opposite in most serial fiction stories. There is no one more interesting in The Shadow than The Shadow. There is no one more interesting in Conan the Barbarian than Conan. There is no one more interesting in Tarzan than Tarzan himself. If a protagonist is upstaged by a cat, there's a very serious storytelling problem going on. 

5) But Muh Joker! Muh Lex Luthor! Stop it. Those are good, sometimes amazing (depending on who's writing) villains, but consider this: Lex Luthor NEEDS Superman to exist as an interesting character. Superman did just fine for himself for two years before ol' Lexie showed up in 1940. You don't have a Great Lex Luthor story without even the faintest shadow of Superman hovering over him, because you don't have ANY Lex Luthor stories without Superman existing first. This is true for just about every other great villain in serial fiction except maybe Fu Manchu.

6) “Villains are more interesting than heroes” feels more like a way to excuse bad writing. Respect yourself as an audience member and a customer of storytelling. Your time is precious, demand better from the storytellers you choose to occupy it with. 

Friday, January 04, 2019

2019: Moving Forward by Looking Back

Look at that smile!

Since everyone in my writing circle seems to be doing a “welcome to 2019” thing, I figured I might as well do the same. And its a way to do some dusting around here.

The blog has lain fallow for a couple months, but for good reason. I'm working on a Mech Space Opera taking influence from a lot that I've learned (and also un-learned from my academic indoctrination) and putting into practice. Its going to be big. Its going to be sweeping. Its going to come in at a reasonable page count instead of a doorstopper. Its going to be contrary to every major Science Fiction franchise in the West that's devolved into meaningless goo over the last twenty years. Its going to be four books, to start. I'm about halfway done with the draft of book one, and the few eyes that have laid upon it, are stoked. Its like “Red Dawn” meets “Buck Rogers,” but that's just a starting point.

I'm hyping this up because a) I should probably do that some more when it comes to my own work, and b) I'm legitimately excited to write this story. In a lot of ways its a throwback love letter to the 80s sci-fi that shaped me like Star Wars was a throwback to the 40s sci-fi that shaped George Lucas. Its going to be nuts, and once I have more details hammered out after the first draft, I'll start doing lore posts for it.

As for the broader world of science fiction and fantasy? I probably won't be talking too much about that, because it would be beating a dead horse. Doom has already befallen every major franchise under the sun owned by a massive corporation. The video game industry is barreling toward a major crash for the big publishers, and it looks like Hollywood and Music are also going that way. Barnes & Noble is on its last legs, and when it goes, Big Publishing is going to have a reckoning too.

In short, Hell has come to Frogtown.

So what do I think is actually going to arise this year?

Horror. I think Horror is going to get more experimental and weirder as talent flees the sinking ships of mainstream SF/F. Probably more throwbacks, too, but not failures like the Mummy reboot reboot reboot.

Fantasy. Probably going to see a decline as everyone cringes away from Harry Potter. The interesting stuff is going to be in the short story market.

Science Fiction. This is going to be a battleground, and I'll be there. Both Pulp SF and Hard SF (represented by Star Wars and Star Trek, respectively) are in extremely dire straits, and the spoils are ripe for new blood to take advantage of audiences that are starving for optimistic space adventures. Nick Cole and Jason Anspach are doing a lot of great work with Galaxy's Edge, and I expect that series to grow by leaps and bounds, but its a wide-open galaxy out there, waiting to be conquered.

Westerns. I've noticed Westerns have been quietly coming back to book shelves over the last two years or so. I think it'll stay mostly underground, but I think Westerns are going to slowly keep building momentum, especially as Middle America ponders things like national identity and what it means to be an American.

Yesterday on Twitter, I ragged hard on the Battlestar Galactica reboot as being boring, subversive trash that was the root of modern (visual) SF being needlessly gritty with unlikable characters and no payoff to anything. It was a good convo, with some insightful back-and-forth. Over the course of the rant, I linked to a 2004 essay written by Dirk Benedict, the original Lieutenant Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica in the late 70s.

I suggest reading it because Benedict is quite eloquent in it, and every single observation that he lays out is 100% relevant to the state of entertainment in 2019. And this was written fifteen years ago

There's a lot to meditate on there moving forward into the new year.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Geek Culture™ Apocalypse: One Year Later

Last year, I took a look at the state of some of the big pop culture franchises and where they stood. Since it was my most successful blog post by a magnitude of hundreds, why not revisit my apocalyptic predictions one year on?

Ready Player One? It came and went. Nobody seems to have any feelings about it one way or the other. It pushed some nostalgia buttons and was promptly disposed of.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe had a strong year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War doing really, really well. Ant Man & The Wasp happened too, which I guess did all right. I don't know, I didn't see it. Kevin Feige's contract is now being reported as being up sometime in 2019 now, so he's at least going to be around until Avengers 4. Beyond that, its looking murkier. They've announced that the Eternals and Shang-Chi are getting movies, which is cool and all, but all the press about it is how the its “The First Asian blahblah” and “The First blahblah of color to direct a blahblah.” This is not how you advertise these projects. You advertise The Eternals as “Jack Kirby Snorts Cosmic Angel Dust And Drew This” and “Shang-Chi Stars In: DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU.”


Meanwhile, Captain Marvel is setting itself up as the wokest superhero movie in town with how the media slavers over how Brie Larson's wooden expression is greatest thing in the world. If/when the MCU begins its death spiral, I'm going to go ahead and predict it'll be a lukewarm reaction to Carol “Can't Keep an Ongoing Series Going” Danvers. And if you don't like it, you're a sexist bigot who hates women and lives in your mother's basement.

Over at Netflix, there is no Marvel presence. The “Marvel Knights” shows (I refuse to call them the Defenders on principal. There's no Namor or Silver Surfer.) came and went with mixed results, but everyone loved Daredevil. Well, now that's canceled, leaving Jessica Jones and Punisher to ride out their season twos. Presumably, this is being done to make way for Disney's own streaming service, but the Daredevil move pissed off a ton of people.

On the print side of Marvel, its still a dumpster fire.

The DC Cinematic Universe crashed and burned with Justice League. Henry Cavill is out as SupermanBen Affleck is out as BatmanJustice League bombed so hard that Warner Brothers reshuffled their movie division.

On the other hand, the Wonder Woman sequel looks solid (but is getting pushed back to a 2020 release), and Aquaman and Shazam! (that's the ORIGINAL Captain Marvel, to you kids) all look promising and are still on track to release next year.

Over at the print division, DC had a good thing going with Rebirth, and they have promptly destroyed that in order to follow Marvel's lead. Following stunt issues that put individual Superman and Batman issues at the top of what sold this year, both series have suffered heavy declines. Marvel big name Brian Michael Bendis jumped to DC this year and was put on Superman, shaking up Clark Kent's family and infuriating fans of the previous Super Sons series. Superman books are down beyond Action Comics 1000. Batman was left at the altar by Catwoman and sales are down in his books as well (though not as much). In the wider DC Universe, “Heroes in Crisis” went with a Shock Event where a bunch of beloved characters like the Wally West Flash (there's a lot I can say about how they've treated Wally over the last decade, but none of it is polite), Roy Harper/Arsenal, and Poison Ivy were all killed. Dick Grayson got shot in the head so bad he don't brain too good anymore and calls himself Rick Grayson.

Star Wars is seeing a massive implosion. The Last Jedi was so bad it created a cottage industry of people talking smack about it. Even now, its sitting at a 45% Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. Solo: A Star Wars Story, released hot on the heels of the reviled Last Jedi, is the first flop in the franchise's history. Star Wars is in big trouble, and Episode IX, due out in 2019, has to deal with the script and audience goodwill mess left behind by Rian Johnson. The only thing left of the Star Wars cash cow is the moo.

Also, this happened. Maybe don't go off on profanity laden rants when you're attached to a family-friendly all audiences franchise.

Let's look at Doctor Who. HAHAHAHAH. Combined with persistent rumors and denials of lead Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall leaving the show soon it doesn't look great.

The Walking Dead lurches toward its finish line without any actual plan. Telltale Games, the developer of the successful adventure game spinoff, abruptly closed down this year, leaving the episodic game in a lurch mid-production. Since then, Skybound Entertainment (the brainchild of Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman) has picked up the slack to finish the series

The action game of the series, Overkill's The Walking Dead is apparently a very bad game and sold so poorly that it effectively killed Starbreeze Studios.

Meanwhile, TV villain Negan is coming to the Tekken franchise. For whatever reason

Back over at Disney, they're still hell-bent on cranking out live-action remakes of better movies because they're creatively bankrupt. Reaction to the Live Action* Lion King trailer has been mostly mockery, and audiences seem to be catching on to Disney's blatant grab for their Nostalgiabix. Sentiment seems to be turning against these remakes, finally. 

Can't wait for the live-action Aristocats remake.

Game of Thrones' final season is supposed to come out some time in 2019, but following GRRM's lead, may be delayed

Speaking of GRRM, he's got plenty of time to talk about New York City pizza. He's a busy man, so stop bothering him about when Winds of Winter is coming out.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewand is making money, but performing less than its predecessor and sitting with poor critic reviews and okay audience reviews. Harry Potter fatigue seems to be setting in for real now, beyond the “READ ANOTHER BOOK” chant.

I hate to say “I told you so” but screw it. I called it last year. The bastions of corporate Geek Culture™ are all collapsing before our very eyes like its the ending of Fight Club.

Its beautiful.

*90% computer animated

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Four-Color Fashion: Batman

Superheroes live and die by their visual designs. A silhouette, a stance, a color combination, a great hero design stands the test of time and evolves into a form best suited for the character. Sometimes the creators knock it out of the park on the first try, other times it takes several iterations to get to something iconic, but regardless, a top tier superhero design is visually distinct and unmistakable.

The whole point of this little exercise is to take a quick walk through comic book history by way of visual design to see what works and what doesn't for characters that I feel are important or that I just plain like for some reason. (So if I do a big post on Firestorm: the Nuclear Man, then you know why). I doubt this will be some regular thing, but I love comics and hate to see the garbage fire that is the modern industry, so this is a fun reminder of the better days. I'm going to limit it to actual comic costumes because it would get extremely bloated with various movie, tv and game suits, and also because the roots go deeper than some actor who thinks he's bigger than the mask.

The best place to start? Bruce Wayne, because there's been surprisingly little deviation from the basic design.

First appearing in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, you know the deal with Batman. Rich kid, murdered parents, devotes his life to philanthropy and also dressing up as a bat to fight crime more directly. Uses detective skills and gadgets to win the day. Initially a ripoff of the Shadow and the Phantom, but evolved into his own thing. The original Bat-Man was put together by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and the first version put to paper was an edgier vigilante who used a gun to fight crime, and his design reflected that. Criminals being a cowardly and superstitious lot, Wayne adopted a bat motif, because they fly stealthily at night and tend to scare the bejeezus out of people when they startle them.

The costume reflects that. Gray bodysuit, black cape that kind of looks like wings, a deeply pointed cowl with narrow eyes. Dark blue/black trunks and boots broke up the grayscale, and a yellow utility belt drew the reader's attention to his gadget usage. The palette is set: Gray, black, blue, gold. And then there's the purple gloves. No idea why.

As the Golden Age wore on, Batman's image softened. He ditched the guns and adopted a no-killing rule, he picked up a sidekick in Robin, and he moved to more of weightlifter body type. The bat ears got shorter, the cowl became less severe, and the lantern jaw made it clear that this was a hero. The cape switched from black to dark blue and the purple gloves were mercifully replaced with the iconic “serrated” gloves. This became the template for Batman, where every following variation would build off of.

Here's where it gets complicated because DC Comics loves retcons and reboots. The Golden Age Batman would later become known as “Earth-Two Batman,” occupying a separate continuity from the “Earth-One Batman” of the Silver Age, where he would retroactively “first appear” in Superman #76 in 1952 (an issue written by pulp novelist Edmund Hamilton, the husband of the mighty Leigh Brackett, Queen of Space Opera). Initially appearing much as the 40s version, and following along with the lighthearted camp of the 50s and 60s, this Batman would get a single major costume change in Batman #164 by penciller Sheldon Moldoff: the gold badge around the bat logo. This was the Batman design of Adam West, and as the 60s moved on, the stories in the comics grew less goofy and touched on more serious themes again.

Probably the biggest influence on the Batman design of this era was Neal Adams, who started as a cover artist on Batman in the late 60s and started doing interior pencils in 1971. Adams brought a kinetic dynamism to Batman (and his cape), and made him leaner, slightly meaner, and gave him new threats to deal with, like Ra's al Ghul. Aside from the lengthening of Bats' ears, the costume remained fundamentally the same, the real change was the increase in dynamic lighting and use of shadows to create mood. Gothic horror, film noir, and martial arts elements permeated the Bronze Age Batman titles of the 70s and 80s, and the design could go from the moody streets of Gotham City to hanging out with the Justice League and the Outsiders.

Technically, “Earth-One Batman” stopped existing after Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, and he was folded into the “New Earth Batman” of the new, unified continuity. This was Batman at his most balanced, the Caped Crusader AND the Dark Knight Detective. A Batman who would take the time to help some kids out, mentor the junior members of the Justice League, and later suffer some of his greatest personal losses like the death of Jason Todd and having his back broken in Knightfall. This was the design adapted for the first couple seasons of Batman: The Animated Series.

In the 90s, the design moved all over the place. Different artists went in different directions; sometimes the cowl and trim are blue, sometimes black. sometimes the ears got shorter, sometimes they got insanely tall with Sam Keith on art duty (but that was a deliberately extreme visual choice).

Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns from 1986 heavily influenced the artists of the 90s, since a grizzled, chunky Batman with dark, muted colors and no cheerful gold badge suited the edgy grit of the 1990s. The thing is, TDKR is an alternate 80s series deliberately stylized to portray an over-the-hill Bruce Wayne operating in a dystopian hellscape where everything's gone wrong. He wasn't meant to be what a “Batman in his prime” looks like. 

That would be more along the lines of Batman: Year One, written by Miller himself and drawn by David Mazzucchelli in 1987.

In 2002, Batman's design seemed to stabilize with Jim Lee's rock-solid design during the Hush storyline: Gray bodysuit, dark blue cowl, fairly short ears, large black bat symbol on the chest, muscular past the point of ordinary people but not a brick wall, and more often than not, a permanent scowl. The Batman of the 00s was serious business. It was all grit and very little of the warmth that balanced out his humanity (and his sanity). Batman's cold “Batgod” personality where he was paranoid to the point of constantly being prepared to take down anybody, be it friend or foe became a cliché. It became a plot point in Infinite Crisis where his paranoid dickishness led to a sentient spy satellite he created to go rogue and create super-powerful killing cyborgs for a government black ops agency. Oops. 

Then he died and came back to life. It happens.

2011 saw yet another massive continuity reboot with the Flashpoint event and the “New 52” ushering in the “Prime Earth” timeline.

Like the new continuity or not (I certainly hated it, but for lots of reasons not worth getting into right now), we got a new, standardized Batman costume. Gray suit, black cowl & trim, black chest emblem with a little bit of gold or white to help it stand out on his chest. Its actually quite good in most ways. Except for two things: The weird little seam lines around the bodysuit feel like needless busywork. I get that its supposed to hint at being armored under there because Bruce is just a guy so he'd need body armor, but this is Batman we're talking about here. Realism stopped applying the moment he looked at a bat and went “That's the ticket!” 

Bat. Batch.

The other problem is the lack of trunks, which you don't realize is a problem until they're gone. Again, I've heard the Realism argument, but he fistfights people dressed like clowns regularly, so no, I reject the validity of that point. They may look silly on a flesh and blood actor, but on the page they go a long way to break up the solid gray of the bodysuit and make it easy to cover up the, uh, Bat Batch. Throw on some black trunks and get rid of the busy lines and it'd be a top ten design.

As it stands, for personal preference I'd have to go with the Silver/Bronze Age design as the best. The gold oval around the logo makes it impossible to confuse with anyone else, and the blue instead of black cape make Batman work in every kind of story, from teamups with goofballs like Ambush Bug to finding Robin's broken body after the readers voted to kill him, because with Batman, the lighting is everything for the type of story being told. 

Simplicity is king with this design. Its the Batman for all seasons, and you can't go wrong cribbing from masters like Neal Adams, Alan Davis, Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Pulp Review: Tarzan of the Apes

A Princess of Mars put Edgar Rice Burroughs on the map, but it was the second story he published in 1912, Tarzan of the Apes, that solidified him has an adventure story writer. Tarzan was also serialized in the All-Story, then later published as a novel in 1914. It was a smash, and Burroughs would go on to write over twenty novels in the series. 1918 would see the first two silent movie adaptations of the character, and Tarzan movies would appear in every single decade since up to now. (It makes sense. For Tarzan all you need is a muscular guy on a jungle set instead of the special effects bonanza that is Barsoom)

The story begins with an Englishman, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, sent to Africa in the 1880s to investigate claims of abuse of black natives by another European colonial power. Accompanied by his wife, Alice, the humanitarian mission never begins, since a mutiny on their ship leads to the couple being marooned on the western coast of Africa. Eking out a living, they give birth to a son, but tragedy takes both parents away. As fate would have it, the baby, also named John, would be adopted by Kala, a she-ape of the tribe who's chief, Kerchak, killed the elder Greystoke. They're not gorillas. The book makes it clear that they're more of a missing link species that has developed its own rudimentary language.

Named Tarzan by his adopted tribe, the boy grows up to become an apex predator. Weaker than the apes, but stronger than any normal man, Tarzan's greatest weapon is his clever mind and the eventual discovery of his parents' beach hut, where he slowly begins to learn using tools and even teaches himself to read English.

A tribe of cannibals, driven deeper into the jungle by colonialist firepower, settle near the area and one of their hunters kills Kala. Tarzan avenges her and begins to raid their village from time to time for supplies and pranks, as they think he's some kind of jungle spirit.

As he grows to maturity, another group of explorers is marooned at the same beach. A professor Archimedes Q. Porter has led an expedition to discover lost gold, succeeded, and the crew turned pirate on him and his family. Among the marooned are Jane Porter, the professor's lovely daughter, and William Cecil Clayton, Tarzan's cousin and heir to the Greystoke estate. Stunned at seeing other people that look like him, Tarzan's attraction to Jane draws him away from his simple jungle life and into the affairs of mankind.

There is a LOT going on under what is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of jungle adventure. The beginning taps into the same vein of classic adventure stories like The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Captains Courageous. As Tarzan grows, Burroughs frequently meditates on nature vs nurture themes, and how even removed from any human contact or experience, Tarzan's human qualities set him apart from everything around him. He is the noble savage; clear of mind and decisive, clever but needlessly cruel, a peak physical specimen, uncorrupted by the needless complications of civilization.

As for the topic of race, Tarzan's antagonism toward the cannibal tribe comes from a personal place: they killed his adopted mother. Esmeralda, Jane's black servant, frequently falls into “Lawdy lawdy” stereotypes, but she's also one of the few who understands the danger of the situation. Professor Porter and his colleague Samuel T. Philander are even worse stereotypes: the bumbling academics who are too stupid and oblivious to function in real danger. The two of them wander off into the jungle one night, get hopelessly lost, and argue about the merits of Moorish civilization while a lion patiently follows them around until Tarzan rescues them. Its played for laughs, but hammers home their uselessness. 

William Clayton isn't a bad man, but he's something of a fop and a soft fellow who wilts when real pressure arises. Civilization has made him weak. The only people, white or black, who aren't treated as weak or villainous are Tarzan, his dead parents, Jane Porter, and Lieutenant D'Arnot, a French officer who shows up later in the book to help Tarzan enter into Western Civilization.

Action sequences remain a highlight of Burroughs' style, with a believable escalation from Tarzan killing a gorilla with a rusty knife at the age of 10 to driving a car and swinging around Wisconsin in the middle of a forest fire. That happens, and the road to how Tarzan gets from point a to point b is a roaring good time, and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger.

If it were just a solid action-adventure story, it would be worth it, but Burroughs works in some deep thinking as well that adds another dimension to the story.

Absolutely recommended.

That glorious Neal Adams cover art from the 70s deserves its own showcase. Wowza.