Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Faker #1: Dr. K's Academic Analysis

After reading the first issue of Mike Carey and Jock's Vertigo miniseries, Faker, I thought I'd steal a page from Dr. Scott's blog over at Polite Dissent. Just as Dr. Scott raises issues of medical veracity in comics, I thought I'd use my experience as a college professor to make some comments about the accuracy of the representation of academia in Faker, as there were some issues that stood out to me while I was reading it. I also thought I'd bring in another area of my expertise, as I got my undergrad degree at a college in Minnesota, and I'm familiar with the St. Cloud, MN, school represented in the comic.

However, as far as the accuracy of St. Cloud is concerned, the comic gets it dead on--St. Cloud is fucking cold in January. That's really all you need to know.

I also want to say up front that I enjoyed the issue for the most part. While some critics have panned the book for a lack of likeable characters, that element doesn't bother me so much, and I'm intrigued by the mysteries involved, especially the issue of identity loss.

Pages 1 and 2: Sexual Harassment

The single most tired plot in any story taking place in a university setting--whether it be on television, in prose fiction, or in comics--is the faculty member who has an affair with the student. Though I understand that we need it here to establish Jessie's character, I wish Carey had found a less cliched way to do so. Carey does score points, however, for having Professor Gelb follow protocol and advise Jessie to see a counselor first. However, Gelb doesn't stick to protocol for long. At the very least, this comic is a good cautionary tale about the dangers of sexual harassment.

I haven't been following The All-New Atom for a while (which is another comic in an academic setting that could also be a part of this feature), but I sure hope that this plot hasn't surfaced there as well.

Also, in Jock's panels, Gelb's office looks huge, and it appears to have empty book shelves. Though I don't doubt that such an office could exist, it does make me jealous in comparison to my office. I do suffer tremendously from office envy.

Page 3: The Setting
The narration establishes here that the story is taking place at a school called "Minnesota University at St. Cloud." The real school is called "St. Cloud State University," but I'll give Carey artistic license here. It seems, however, from information given later in the story, that Carey is presenting this school as a large research university, whereas SCSU is a small liberal arts college, and the community of St. Cloud is not big enough to support a research university. Again, all this is a matter of artistic license.

A couple of other issues stood out to me on this page, though. First, the spring semester is starting on January 4. This seems very early to me. January 11 or 18 would be more realistic dates. A semester that starts on January 4 would have to end in early April, I would think.

Also, in this story, students are signing up for classes the day before classes start. That seems highly unlikely. For one, some students like to use their breaks to get ahead for the next semester, so they would need to know what classes they were taking by the end of fall. Also, universities have bottom limits for enrollment where, if a class doesn't attract enough students, it doesn't "make." In the system presented here, faculty would not know if their classes "made" until the first day of class, which wouldn't give them enough time to be reassigned to new classes. And, perhaps most significant, this would mean students have to buy books that same day, which would then mean that the university bookstore would be a madhouse that day. Again, Carey probably needed the registration scene later in the issue to establish Nick's loss of identity, but I think this particular plot element stretches credibility a bit.

Page 14: The Cybernetics Lab
During the group's party in the cybernetics lab, Jessie points out some "brain structure diagrams" on the monitor, and Marky responds, "Angel's Kiss. Some corporate research deal that the grad students are in on. It's liquid crystal info-storage." There's nothing necessarily wrong with this scene, but it does establish that Carey is presenting this school as a large research university, with a cybernetics lab, grad students, and huge corporate research grants. This is also one of those details that will probably become important in later issues.

Page 15: Lecturers
The group starts "playing some game where you have to invent sexually explicit nicknames for lecturers we all know." I think Mike Carey may be using the term "lecturers" more in the British sense here. The term is used in some American universities to refer to non-tenure track faculty, often part-time but also full-time, and usually only one step up the academic hierarchy from graduate students. However, it's more commonly used and broadly applied to academics in British universities. I'm not sure in this game that these students would be so selective about which group of faculty they were discussing.

Page 24: Paul Fucking Saknussen
Nothing wrong here--I just wanted to mention that I think "Paul Saknussen" is a great Scandinavian-sounding name, which fits perfectly in the Minnesota mileau of the story.

So, most of these comments only highlight that Mike Carey has taken some liberties with the academic setting in order to serve the needs of the plot and characters. And, I have to say, I was excited to get this comic when I read the solicitations that mentioned it takes place in a Minnesota university. Nonetheless, based on my experience as an academic, I was occasionally pulled out of the story when something came up that didn't quite fit that experience.

However, I do want 50 copies of this issue to hand out during the next sexual harassment seminar I have to go to--it beats the crap out of the boring pamphlets we normally get.

Monday, July 30, 2007

White Lightning/Gator

When I was 7 years old, in the fall of 1976, my parents took my brother and me to see our first non-Disney movies in the theater. The occasion was to go see the movie that everyone was talking about that fall: Rocky. So, when people ask me the question, "What was the first movie you saw in theaters?" I usually respond with Rocky, though with the qualification that I had seen many Disney movies in previous years.

However, that answer still needs further qualification. For, if I were to be completely accurate (and honest), the first non-Disney movie I saw in the theater was technically the Burt Reynolds film Gator. You see, Gator was the first movie in a double-bill with Rocky at the local movie theater, back in the day when movie theaters still had double-features.

And, to be even more honest, 7-year-old Dr. K liked Gator a whole lot better than Rocky, and it's because of this preference that I decided recently to revisit Gator to determine what about it entranced my 7-year-old self so much. I also took the opportunity to watch Gator's ostensible prequel from 1973, White Lightning.

As I remember, one of the reasons I preferred Gator over Rocky was that I couldn't understand Rocky that well--the combination of a bad sound system in the theater and Stallone's mumbly performance made the film difficult for me to follow. However, after revisiting Gator 30+ years later, I have to question the veracity of that memory. If the theater's sound system was that bad, I definitely shouldn't have been able to understand Jerry Reed's thick Cajun accent in Gator. Perhaps even then, 7-year-old Dr. K was trying to rationalize his preference for what history would prove to be a vastly inferior movie. My early enjoyment of Gator, I have found, is indicative of larger trends in my development as a film-goer that still have an impact on my preferences.

Both White Lightning and Gator star Burt Reynolds as "Gator" McKlusky, an Arkansas bootlegger who, in each film, ends up working for the law. In the first movie, Gator discovers that a crooked sheriff, J. C. Conners (Ned Beatty), killed his brother, and Gator collaborates with federal agents in order to commute his prison sentence and get revenge. In the latter film, Gator is coerced into working with the law by a federal agent (Jack Weston), who threatens Gator's father and daughter. These films together present a world where corruption is the norm in all levels of the social hierarchy, especially the law, and the bootlegger is therefore positioned as an outlaw hero whose only crime is a refusal to pay taxes to an already corrupt system. While the corruption is localized in Beatty's small-town Southern sheriff in White Lightning, Gator extends that corruption to the small-town Southern mayor, the governor (in an odd cameo by talk show host Mike Douglas), and the federal agents who come down South from New York City.

White Lightning opens with a scene where Ned Beatty and a couple of deputies take a bound and gagged young couple on a canoe trip through the swamp. It's to Beatty's credit as an actor that he got into a canoe again so soon after Deliverance (let alone appear in another movie with Burt Reynolds). Beatty uses a shotgun to blow a hole the second canoe containing the prisoners, and they sink into the swamp. We find out later that Sheriff Conners killed this couple (including Gator's younger brother) for organizing a war protest in this small Arkansas town and to present a warning to any other hippies who might make the trip down South.

(The White Lightning poster, by the way, features every single thing I want to see in a movie.)

Gator, imprisoned in what appears to be a low-security work farm for bootlegging, makes a failed escape attempt when he finds out about his brother's death. He then decides to work with federal agents to bring down Sheriff Conners and get his revenge. In order to get close to Conners, Gator then infiltrates a group of bootleggers, becoming the "blocker" for Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins, playing a role that he pretty much perfected in the 70s).

As a blocker, Gator engages in some seriously exciting car chases with the police, all of which take advantage of the film's small town, Southern setting. In his 71 Ford Galaxy, Gator delays his pursuers at one point through the strategic use of a train that runs straight down Main Street, and later takes them through a lumber yard, on gravel roads, and through fields. He finally evades the police with a spectacular jump onto a floating barge.

Late in the movie, the crooked sheriff catches up to Gator, who gets the crap beaten out of him by the sheriff's men. Before they can kill him the same way his brother died, Gator escapes, but not without getting shot. In the most amazing, non-car-chase scene in the movie, Gator wakes up recovering from his injuries in "Sister Linda Fay's Home for Unwed Mothers," with his bed surrounded by pregnant teenagers and Sister Linda Fay herself trying to cut off Gator's handcuffs with a hacksaw. Before Gator can take advantage of his new surroundings, the sheriff arrives looking for him. Faced with limited choices, Gator decides to take the fight to the sheriff, and this begins the film's final car chase. This final chase is fantastically entertaining, and it concludes with a particularly effective and inventive method for disposing of the sheriff.

In a discussion of "neo-noir" films of the 70s that appeared in the backmatter of issue 5 of Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips's comic series Criminal, writer Charlie Huston recommends White Lightning as an alternative example of the kind of revenge thriller exemplified by the original Get Carter. Huston writes, "This is the Burt we should have gotten to grow up with, the one that never tried on that first hairpiece, who never married Loni Anderson. ... [A]ll you can do is hang your jaw and ask what the fuck happened to that incredibly cool motherfucker." However, in looking back at this film, I recognize the seeds of the Burt Reynolds persona--of Bandit Darville, J. J. McClure, and Stroker Ace. Here, we have the fast cars, the Southern rebel, and even the high-pitched laugh. Missing are the goofy humor and juvenile antics, but those would start to take their places in the sequel, which would also mark Reynolds's debut as a director.

Despite some similarities in theme and setting, and the recurrence of the main character, Gator is only ostensibly a sequel to White Lightning. In terms of continuity, the one does not follow the other well. In Gator, McKlusky's home is moved from an Arkansas farm to an unidentified swamp, and he's given a 9-year-old daughter who is not mentioned in the first film. The sole purpose of the daughter, who only appears at the very beginning of the film, is to give Gator some impetus for working with federal agents.

Early in the film, federal agents and local police approach Gator's swamp home in order to enlist his help in bringing down a small town crime boss named Bama McCall (Jerry Reed). Spotting a police helicopter, Gator immediately takes off in his boat, thus beginning an extensive boat chase that is really the highlight of this film. In fact, this scene is the primary memory I have from my original viewing of this film, and I was amazed at exactly how much of this scene I remembered after more than 30 years. Still, you could draw a line between then and now and see no inconsistency in my tastes and preferences for movies.

The Burt Reynolds we see in Gator is the solidification of the persona that will become most familiar throughout the 70s and early 80s. He has a mustache now, which he didn't have in the ealier film, and his hair is starting to thin. Gator presents a transitional moment in Reynolds career--not only did he now have the clout to direct his own vehicles, but we also see how his screen persona changed from the serious roles in Deliverance, Shamus, and White Lightning to the lighter, good-old-boy characters in Smokey and the Bandit and any other movie where Reynolds's primary co-star was a car. Gator is, in fact, tonally all over the map, which may indicate the awkwardness of this transition. The humor in the movie is out of place next to the seriousness of Bama's crimes, especially child prostitution. The movie also marks Reynolds's early work with future collaborators, such as co-star Jerry Reed. (Reed also does the theme song for Gator, and it's even more awesome than "East Bound and Down.") Most notably, Hal Needham is credited as as Second Unit Director, and he is clearly responsible for the incredible boat chase that opens the movie. Needham would be the one most responsible for guiding Reynolds's screen success in the 70s and early 80s as director of the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies, Hooper, and the Cannonball Runs.

Despite my childhood enjoyment of this film, I found little to appreciate this time around. What strikes me the most about Gator now, though, is how little of it I could have truly understood at 7 years old. I remember finding incredibly funny a scene where Bones, Bama's 7-foot-plus henchman, slips a "yellow" into Gator's drink, but I can't believe that I actually understood what that meant. There is also a lot of homophobic and anti-Semitic humor in the film (federal agent Irving Greenfield is described as "as out of place as a bagel in a bucket of grits") that probably went by me, thankfully. And I know I probably passed over the romantic relationship between Lauren Hutton and Reynolds and the overt references to Bama's child prostitution racket. My enjoyment of the movie must have been limited to the boat chase at the beginning of the film, the other action scenes (which are surprisingly few and far between), and the broad comic moments, like Bones driving with his head sticking out the sun roof. When I was a kid, I loved Burt Reynolds's movies, especially the Smokey and the Bandits and the Cannonball Runs (and Stroker Ace, for that matter). In looking back on Gator, I see the seeds of that enjoyment, and also I realize that these movies may have been pitched exactly at the pre-adolescent mentality through which I viewed them.

Picture credits: Internet Movie Poster Awards site

Saturday, July 28, 2007

San Diego Comic-Con: DC Vertigo Panel

A lot of news is coming out of San Diego this weekend, but I wanted to comment for a moment about the announcements that came from the DC/Vertigo panel yesterday. (Newsarama's coverage can be found here.)

Now, I've been a Vertigo fan from the beginning of the imprint. In fact, I was reading all the regular DC series that transitioned into Vertigo when the imprint was created: Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Sandman, and Hellblazer. And for the first year of its existence, I was reading every Vertigo title. I also credit those four series in particular with transitioning me from an adolescent comic reader into a more mature one--in essence, I kept reading comics because I felt they were growing up with me.

Vertigo, however, seems to go through some awkward transitional phases where its brand identity comes into question, usually around the time when one of its best-selling series comes to its natural end: Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and now Y: The Last Man (with 100 Bullets ending in a little over a year). The Sandman franchise seems to have run its course with Lucifer, and Vertigo seems to be slow-playing its currently successful franchise, Fables, with only one spin-off so far. In recent years, Vertigo has started several new creator-driven series in an apparent effort to fill the gaps left by these ending series, but with mixed success. Most Vertigo series sell fewer than 10,000 copies per month (though book store sales of the trades are supposedly brisk). These recent series also run the gamut of genres: Western, satire, war, science fiction, fantasy, crime, and social commentary. Though there are some excellent, creative series among those low sellers (Crossing Midnight in particular, in my opinion), none have caught on terribly well with regular monthly readers. So far, we have only heard word of Testament's cancellation.

The announcements made in San Diego of new ongoing series from Vertigo appear to be a reaction to the lack of success in these recent creator-owned launches. Other than series that have been previously announced and in the development pipeline for a while--Northlanders and Vinyl Underground, for example--every new Vertigo series is an existing DC property: Madame Xanadu, House of Mystery, The Un-Men, Unknown Soldier. This presents an interesting shift in the editorial direction of Vertigo and a return to the imprint's original brand identity, as a place for properties and concepts that could easily move outside of the superhero genre. I'm curious to see if this marks a larger change in Vertigo, perhaps a return to basics in order to rebuild the brand. I hope, though, that this doesn't mean Vertigo is abandoning creator-owned series (I don't think it is).

I'll be curious to see what the future holds here, though. I've always admired Vertigo for publishing often challenging works by innovative creators that don't fit the conventions of DC's mainstream superhero books. That can happen with creator-owned works and with DC-owned properties.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Night Fights: Brother vs. Brother Aparo Style!

"Friday Night Fights: Jim Aparo Style" continues as Aquaman fights his half-brother, Ocean Master (from Adventure Comics 444--story by Paul Levitz and Gerry Conway, art by Jim Aparo). And it looks like Ocean Master has the upper hand!

Now that's some grip!
Ooh! Ocean Master takes him down by the throat!

"Orm, I believe you had mussels in garlic sauce for lunch. And those mussels were my friends!"

And Aquaman gets free to land one right on the jaw! But is Ocean Master down for the count?

No! Aquaman takes one right in the shrimp basket!

Bahlactus has spoken!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Danger: Dinosaurs!

From the people who brought you "Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas," "War Against the Giants," "Super-Heroes' War Against the Monsters," and "Earth Shattering Disasters," the 100-Page Super Spectacular is proud to present tonight's featured comic, DC Special 27 (May 1977):
Starring Captain Comet! Tommy Tomorrow! Chronos! And Whatever Other Characters DC Wasn't Using at the Time!

Man, I just have to say it: I could watch Captain Comet punch a T-Rex in the tongue all day. I appreciate the simple pleasures in life that way.

And I also appreciate the irony of the cover: Captain Comet--"a mutant born 100,000 years ahead of his time" (as he never fails to tell everyone in this story)--lays out the most dominant creature of 100,000,000 BC (At least that's the year cited in the comic. And since comics have never lied to me before, I'm prepared to defer to their greater knowledge of such things.).

I think the appeal of this comic can be summed up in one question, provided by editor Paul Levitz and writer Bob Rozakis:
The answer: Hell, yes!

In this story, a comet or meteroid or something buzzes the Justice League satellite in 1977, while Captain Comet is paying a visit to Hawkman. The comet, however, happens to be traveling through time, and when it reaches the year 2056, it pulls with it Tommy Tomorrow's spaceship, which happens to be on a rescue mission to Vega-IV, where a "space-fever" epidemic has broken out.

True fact: by the year 2056, humankind will have run out of names for diseases. The solution: just put the prefix "space-" before the names of already existing diseases, like "space-fever," "space-cancer," "space-herpes," "space-burning-sensation-when-I-urinate."

Anyway, Tommy Tomorrow and his crew are dragged all the way back to 100,000,000 BC, where the comet/meteor finally crashes to Earth. Immediately upon arrival in this prehistoric era, their ship comes under attack by pterodactyls. This is a bad idea for the pterodactyls:

That's right: when the pterodactyl tried to attack the spaceship, its head disintegrated! No wonder they're extinct.

Though Tommy makes a good faith effort to avoid killing dinosaurs, this doesn't work out, and he eventually just starts wasting them left and right: Clearly, Tommy Tomorrow never read that one Ray Bradbury story where the time traveler goes hunting dinosaurs and accidentally steps on an insect, causing cataclysmic changes to human history. I had to read that story in 8th grade, so I guess that the decline we're currently seeing in the American educational system continues to slide in 2056.

Also, Tommy obviously didn't receive the same advice that Homor Simpson received from his father on his wedding night: "If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything, because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine."

Meanwhile, a t-rex comes across the meteor, with hilarious results:Man, am I glad that the meteor evolved that t-rex a nice blue unitard and some yellow boots--it saves me from seeing "tyrano erectus," if you know what I mean.

Upon gaining sentience, "Tyrano Rex" begins to worship as a god the meteor that caused his evolution, which makes sense--I'd worship a meteor if it gave me a six-pack and abs like that.

At this point in the story, writer Bob Rozakis has done something quite brilliant: he has solved the evolution vs. religion debate that, thirty years later, is still tearing this country apart. Evolution and religion, he is saying, can and should co-exist, and we should really be worshipping the space-meteor that caused evolution to occur in the first place.

So, Tyrano Rex immediately begins to build a shrine and establish a ritualistic dance ceremony in honor of his deity.

As the story progresses, Tommy Tomorrow kills a few dozen more dinosaurs before stealing the comet and returning to the 21st century. However, Tyrano Rex manages to stow away on Tommy's ship, causing Tommy to make a detour to 1977, where Captain Comet is currently fighting Chronos. There is really not much more to say here: the comet is destroyed, Tyrano Rex returns to his pre-evolved state before Captain Comet launches him into Chronos's time portal, and Superman comes in to help Tommy Tomorrow return to the future.

If you're like me, I know you have one lingering question, though: how did such a masterpiece come about?

For this, thankfully, we do have an answer, in the form of a text-page by Rozakis:

I love these text pages that ran in 70s DC comics, especially the ones written by Bob Rozakis. As a comic fan who got his start in comics from "letter-hacking," or writing frequent fan letters to DC comics, he inherently understands exactly what comic readers want in these pages. Here, he reveals some insights into how top-level editorial decisions were made at DC in 1977:

And I firmly believe decisions are being made this way at DC to this day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Get Wired!

Any bloggers out there, especially new bloggers like myself, might want to take a look at the latest issue of Wired, which features a very useful "How to ..." section. There is also some general useful advice in this piece.

Among the highlights:

  • How to Popularize a Meme: included in the six-part instructions, "Come up with a catchy name ... like crowdsourcing or folksonomy or affluenza or Jazzercise or metrosexual." Here's mine: heteroreflexive.
  • How to Arrange Your Action Figures (in your workspace): written by the head writers of Robot Chicken. Being a highly respected, well-published academic, I have my reputation to consider, so I don't have any action figures on my desk. Instead, they are in a drawer, ready to come out any time The Spectre and Dr. Fate need to go on an adventurous search for Hourman on the shelf of James Joyce scholarship (yes, I only keep JSA action figures in my office, and, yes, I do have enough James Joyce scholarship to fill an entire shelf in my office). In my home office atop a bookshelf, however, I have three vintage GI Joes in a jeep pulling Donny Osmond in a trailer. I'll let you fill in the narrative that fits this tableau.
  • How to Dress Like a Professional: advice from Project Runway's Tim Gunn, a man whose opinion I highly respect. However, I don't really need this advice. Since I have tenure, I barely need to show up for work in pants. I am happy to note, though, that the Dr. K ensemble follows this piece of advice: "Khakis and a white oxford-cloth shirt should be in everyone's inventory."
  • How to Get More Out of Flickr: I need to sign up for a Flickr account first.
  • How to Launch an MP3 Blog: this piece focuses on skirting the legal issues of posting music to your blog, and not at all about the technical side of posting MP3s to a blog. But that part isn't too difficult.
  • How to Get a Boost in the Blogosphere: these may be the most useful instructions for bloggers, especially new ones like myself, though I haven't done anything with Digg or Slashdot yet. The keys to getting your blog noticed, according to Wired: get into conversations early, add useful or significant information to discussions, and be funny. As Slashdot founder Rob Malda says, "Being a smart-ass will get you further than being smart" (this is especially true of a certain person I know, in a certain British Literature class I could mention, who happened to make a smart-ass comment in that class about a certain professor's quoting of a certain Rush song). Also, make jokes that can be "confined to a single sentence." There seem to be some bloggers who are better at this than others. My own personal advice on increasing traffic, after blogging for less than two weeks: 1) Participate in Bahlactus's "Friday Night Fights"; 2) Get your friends with more popular blogs to provide unidentified links to your blog.

The issue also contains an article where Warren Ellis interviews William Gibson about Gibson's new novel, Spook Country. That alone is worth the price of the magazine right there.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jimmy Olsen Makes It Easy

It is common, in the comics blogosphere, to make fun of Jimmy Olsen, especially in his Silver and Bronze Age appeareances. Bloggers such as Chris Sims and Jake Bell have turned such ridicule into an artform. So, I hope I'm not stepping on any proprietary fingers by jumping in on this as well, but I do have a lot of material for this in my comic collection.

The reason for the popularity of Jimmy Olsen in the blogosphere is simple: Jimmy Olsen makes it so easy.

Uh, Jimmy, I think that phrase has different, ummm, connotations. And, I might add, Superman has provided a perfectly suitable euphemism for diving down to the floor in "Hit the deck," so there is no need to go where you went.

Then, on the next page, one can't help but think that Jimmy knows exactly what he's saying:

Like I said: easy.

These images are from Action Comics 550 (December 1982), in a story titled "The Day the Earth Exploded."

This is clearly a fill-in issue, as the story features a never-seen-since villain named "The Exploder," who flies around throwing bombs at things, like airplanes, Superman, and Australia:

Naming a villain "The Exploder" is the essence of "phoning it in." That's a name you come up with in the early stages of the brainstorming process to get the ball rolling--it's not the name you settle on.

It turns out that the villain is part of an alien race who visited earth before the continents separated into their current positions, and he is looking for a piece to a puzzle that was planted on Pangaea at the time. So, the subcontinental explosions that the Exploder sets off are intended to put the continents back together, like a giant puzzle.

Who is responsible for this fill-in?

The writing credits are ambiguous here, as I'm not exactly sure what it means to be responsible for the "actions." However, I can imagine the origin of this issue came about something like this: Julius Schwartz looks out his door to see who is around; spotting E. Nelson Bridwell and Bob Rozakis, Julie sends them out to get lunch, with a command to come back with a plot for Superman and a turkey on rye.

Monday, July 23, 2007

More on DC Countdown

This may be the last I comment on Countdown for a while, mainly because Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco and author of the best column on comic retailing, "Tilting at Windmills," has written a column that reflects my feelings on the series, and he has the evidence to back up his claims.

One thing I didn't comment on in my earlier posts is Countdown's returnability in the first three months and how that might affect the sales outlook. Here's what Hibbs has to say on that:

"Now, this is semi-anecdotal – by the June sales chart, Countdown in its second month is still (just barely) a Top 25 book – but I know that I, at least, have been taking advantage of the returnability offer on the first 12 issues. Basically, the deal was 'order what you did of 52, and you can send back unsold copies at a later date'.
"That deal worked really well for 52 – I brought in more copies than my fiscally conservative instincts would have suggested, and that paid off, not just for those first three months, but for the entire year that followed. We returned under 15% of our orders, orders that were largely based off of Infinite Crisis’ huge sales. 52 was, for the entire year, very nearly the best-selling DC comic for us – only a few issues of Justice League of America beat it – a remarkably consistent and strong sales pattern for the year.
"Countdown? Well, we’re only at the 10th week, as of this writing, but no, not nearly as strong and profitable. At this point in time, I expect to be returning more than a third of my initial orders on the first three months to DC. Owie."

Those are some pretty startling numbers.

And over here, Phil has started a contest to predict Countdown's final numbers. Winner gets an Amazon gift card. Go enter!

The Shatner Show

If you happen to live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, you are lucky enough to be able to go to the UPPERCASE Gallery for "The Shatner Show": a group of artists' renditions and interpretations of Shatner's fabulous and varied career. And if you can't get to Calgary, you can view the show online here.

The works vary in quality, and most zero in on the two areas of Shatner's career that you might expect: Kirk's wild, intergalactic sex with multicolored aliens (one depicts Kirk making out with a Gorn, which I'm not sure ever happened in Star Trek) and his lounge singer, Rocket Man phase. None, however, focus on his role in the first Esperanto film, Incubus, or the fabulous dual roles he played as half-breed twins Johnny Moon and Notah in White Commanche (the climactic scene where Shatner fights himself could easily serve as a metaphor for his career).

My favorite piece, which also turns out to be Shatner's favorite as well, is the somber, contemplative, backstage Shatner by Zina Saunders. She effectively captures the mood of a star looking back on his better days while also wondering what the future holds. I can imagine this to be Shatner backstage before doing his famous "Rocket Man" performance.

The most amazing piece, however, is the Shatner Lego bust by Sean Kenney. I also liked the pieces by Karen and Patrick Andrews, Joy Ang, Nick Dewar, and Jesse Lefkowitz.

Shatner may appear as the butt of many jokes, but few celebrities have as good of an attitude or fix on the source of their popularity as Shatner does. Outside of the Denny Crain role on Boston Legal (which is a performance that plays directly to his excesses as an actor and for which Shatner just received another Emmy nomination), I read most of Shatner's recent work as a part of a larger work--a kind of public performance art piece where he has created a persona as "William Shatner" to comment on the nature of celebrity. The album with Ben Folds, the Priceline commercials, movies like Free Enterprise, the ShatnerVision webisodes, the reality show appearances, the books, and other public appearances all fall into this overarching work.

And the final word about Shatner: Shatner never phones it in.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Things I Love 3: Monkeys and Robots (but mostly monkeys)

Like many comic bloggers, I have an inexplicable love of monkeys in comics. Part of it may be from growing up in the 1970s--a time when DC Comics still had an editorial policy carried over from the 60s to feature monkeys on their comics' covers frequently, because comics with monkeys on the cover experienced a sales spike. Blogger Chad Bowers has named his blog after his appreciation of monkeys, and Chris Sims had one of his greatest hits with a post about a gorilla fighting Nazis (from a comic that I loaned him).
Here is my favorite gorilla-related cover, which also explains the value of taking my English classes and adorns my office door:

It's hard to argue with a gun-wielding gorilla. Although I do have to say that I've read these three books, and I am no closer to conquering the world.

Also, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang hit the trifecta with the Nazi vampire gorillas in the fantastic Dr. Thirteen story from the recent Tales of the Unexpected series, now collected in Dr. Thirteen: Architecture and Morality (a book that I cannot recommend enough, beyond the mere awesomeness of a Nazi vampire gorilla).

This picture also adorns my office wall, as a nice framed, signed print.

However, I never knew how pleasurable the combination of monkeys and robots would be until I saw this image, from Agents of Atlas 1 by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk:

In this picture, M-11: the Human Robot is carrying Gorilla Man so that Gorilla Man can fire four guns simultaneously (and for the kids out there, Gorilla Man is firing rubber bullets, so no one is getting killed).

When I talked to Jeff Parker and inker Kris Justice at HeroesCon in Charlotte this year, I told them that very little in the world has made me as happy as that picture. It is as if someone took the contents of my brain, downloaded them into a computer, and then asked the computer, "What does he want most in the world?" The answer: a robot, carrying a gorilla while the gorilla fires four guns.

The reason for my love of monkeys and robots may be best described by James Kochalka, from his fantastic multimedia work in Monkey vs. Robot: "Why can't we all love each other, monkey and the robot brother?" Though I'm okay with it if monkeys fight robots, too.

Friday, July 20, 2007

DC Countdown continued

I wanted to point out that The Beat has posted DC's sales for June, and the numbers bear out some of my predictions about Countdown. And analyst Marc-Oliver Frisch's commentary also reflect my own comments.

For the sake of discussion, here are the numbers:

17/19/21/22 - COUNTDOWN
05/2007: Countdown #51 — 91,083
05/2007: Countdown #50 — 83,752 (-8.1%) [85,564]
05/2007: Countdown #49 — 81,484 (-2.7%) [83,188]
05/2007: Countdown #48 — 79,810 (-2.1%) [81,828]
06/2007: Countdown #47 — 77,504 (-2.9%)
06/2007: Countdown #46 — 76,362 (-1.5%)
06/2007: Countdown #45 — 74,918 (-1.9%)
06/2007: Countdown #44 — 73,971 (-1.3%)

(The numbers in brackets include late reorders on those issues.)

Though the sales are dropping on Countdown from week to week, the drops don't seem signficant, unless you make a month-to-month comparison. Disregarding the sales boost that the first issue received, the comparison of issue 50 to issue 44 shows a drop of 11,593 after reorders. That's a 13.5% drop. Now, issues 47-44 may receive some late reorders next month, but this still looks like a big drop. And I think the month-to-month comparisons here are relevant because most readers probably preorder the series in monthly chunks, and many are reluctant to leave their local comic shops holding the bag on comics that they personally ordered. And then there are readers like me, who buy their monthly comics through a mail order service. There, the orders are made 2-3 months in advance, and often the mail order companies don't allow for order cancellations or returns. Therefore, those customers usually end up buying 2-3 months of a title that they want to quit. So, I expect to see a more significant drop from 44 to 43.

Marc-Oliver Frisch also makes some interesting observations about the two announced Countdown crossovers for June: Catwoman 68 and Blue Beetle 16. Neither of these books saw much of a sales boost from their crossover status. Now, I've read both of those issues, and their connection to Countdown seems relatively tangential: both deal with characters (Holly and Eclipso, respectively) who are or will be a part of Countdown, but the stories don't seem particularly important to that series.

I'll be looking at next month's numbers with great interest. Will there be a signficant third-month drop? Will the announcement of so many spinoffs have a negative effect? And what will be see for numbers on those series?

And Phil has already chimed in on these numbers, with a link to a Countdown supporter who is tired of the hating.

Friday Night Fights: Aparo Style!

Now that I started my own blog, one of the things I've been looking forward to is participating in Bahlactus's "Friday Night Fights" meme. So, I thought I'd kick things off Jim Aparo Style!

The first rule of Aparo Style: when fighting two or more guys, use one of them to beat on the others:

Aquaman obliterates the heads of two Atlantean guards in Adventure Comics 444

Batman makes one guy hit another in the junk in Brave and the Bold 132

Batman contributes to the early retirement of several of Gotham's Finest in Detective Comics 444

Hold on a second! I'm going to need a call from referee Chris Sims--do we have a combo here?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

DC Countdown

I was preparing a long entry for this weekend on DC Comics's weekly Countdown series, but since Heidi at The Beat reported "that [Andrew Hickey] the guy who was going to blog about it every week has quit" reading the series, I thought it would be worthwhile to chime in now. Phil Looney also makes some good points on his blog, explaining why he dropped the series after the fifth week, and I've had interesting online discussions on the subject with Jim Shelley and Chris Sims that have formed the basis for this entry.

I'm sorry to see Andrew Hickey drop Countdown, though I don't blame him for doing so. I was, however, enjoying his blog on the series, especially as he became increasingly disenchanted with the series, and his criticism was precise, articulate, and often funny. I hope he continues to use his blog to comment on and analyze this particular phenomenon, even if he isn't buying the series anymore.

Personally, I stopped buying Countdown after six issues (though I have kept reading it), and I want to use this entry to detail my feelings about the series in particular and about the direction DC is heading in general. In particular, I'm concerned about what the Countdown brand says about DC's attitude toward its readers and what it may mean for the future of the company.

To be honest, I wasn't real enthusiastic about Countdown from the beginning. The reason for my disenchantment came about at the end of the previous weekly series, 52. I ended up enjoying 52 more than I didn't, and its strengths have been detailed in many places, including Phil's blog: the series had a clear plot, it was self-contained, Keith Giffin provided a unified visual style, etc. However, the "World War III" story pointed to a serious flaw in that series that put me off to DC's plan for another weekly comic. When 52 was originally introduced, DC made claims that it would not only tell the story of the year without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but that it would also fill in the gaps from the "One Year Later" jump in the regular DC books. When it became apparent by week 50 that the latter goal would not be achieved in any immediate way, the World War III spin-off books were used to ham-fistedly force some last minute explanations for some of the changes that occurred (and Dan DiDio did own up to the fact that plans changed for the series during its composition). This soured me on the whole project--though I bought the 4 spin-offs in order to complete the story that I had already invested 50 issues into, I wasn't going to make the same mistake and commitment to another weekly series. So, while reading 52 did have its rewards, I had the nagging feeling that a "bait and switch" had taken place.

I would also combine that feeling with a kind of "weekly comic ennui"--I was growing bored with the idea of another year-long commitment to a series, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to free up $10.00 of my monthly comic budget at the end of 52. Therefore, Countdown's higher price tag made it less appealing, as well. Then, as the multiple spin-offs were announced over the past two months, the price tag for the series has grown to the point that it would almost cost my entire monthly comic budget to follow this one story. Based on the main series and the 9 spin-offs that have been announced, including the two 52 spin-offs (52 The Aftermath and Crime Bible), a reader following all the Countdown related comics would be buying 106 comics at a cost of $334, and more spin-offs are on the way. This number also doesn't include the regular series issues that are tied in to Countdown, or the other major events going on in the DC Universe, such as Amazons Attacks, The Sinestro Corps War, The Outsiders, and the Black Canary/Green Arrow Wedding. Once you add those in, as a means of keeping up with the increasingly complicated and intertwined DC Universe, the cost becomes astronomical. I'd be willing to follow any one of these stories at a time, but definitely not all at once.

This economic issue may prove to be the most significant cause of Countdown's failure, if the series does indeed fail (and it's already performing below 52's numbers), but the economics of Countdown seem consistent with the business model DC has been following since Infinite Crisis. Though the company pays lip-service to the idea of drawing in new readers, little evidence of that appeal can be found in the continuity-heavy (what some call "continuity porn") events the company has put out over the last three years. Instead, the primary goal at DC seems to be maximizing the amount of money that they can draw from their existing reader base--a base familiar with decades worth of stories and the minutiae of shared-universe continuity. It sounds better to say that a company is trying to bring in new customers than it is to say they are trying to milk their existing customers as much as possible, so their public statements would, out of necessity, need to emphasize the former. And I believe with Countdown we will see the limits of that strategy. To this end, it will be important to pay attention to the sales figures for Countdown and the spin-offs. In the first month, Countdown already lost 30% of 52's readership, and while 52 maintained amazingly consistent numbers around 100,000 for the entire year, I would expect Countdown's numbers to continue dropping. But the real revelation will be in the performance of the spin-offs, because here we'll see the power of the Countdown brand in action. I would guess that The Search for Ray Palmer one-shots and The Death of the New Gods will perform close to the regular Countdown series. But what about Lord Havok and the Extremists, for example--a series with no past history in the DC universe? Other than fans of Frank Tieri's writing, I can only imagine this series will appeal to the hardcore DC loyalists and Countdown completists. I think we can extract from the sales numbers of that series just how many of those readers there are.

There are, of course, weaknesses to Countdown as a story, and many of the company's public statements on the series do not match with reality (Andrew Hickey has already detailed these well). I would also add a personal disappointment with all the errors that have creeped into the series, such as the reference to "The Tomorrow People" instead of "The Forever People" in the New Gods recap from issue 45. Such sloppiness indicates a lazy approach to editing a series that needs to be accurate in its relation to continuity. And I don't doubt that the series would be doing better, and the blogosphere would be less agitated, if Countdown had truly kicked ass out of the gate. But I think, for all those weaknesses, that readers would have had more patience with the series either if 52 had not happened, or if DC had taken a year or so break from weekly comics to allow readers to get enthusiastic for the concept again. As one commentor noted on The Beat, many of the story complaints we are hearing now were also levied at the beginning of 52. But then, there was a greater willingness to be patient.

While Andrew Hickey lasted 10 weeks, most other commentors on the subject that I've read say that they bailed around week 5 or 6. If making comparisons to a weekly fictional TV series is valid, as has been done by both DC and outside commentators, then 5 or 6 weeks is a couple of weeks longer than most viewers will retain their patience before moving on, let alone 10 weeks. With the anti-Countdown backlash, I believe we are seeing what amounts to an erosion of loyal readers who, in good faith, wanted the series to be good, but when faced with diminishing returns and the promise of an even bigger financial commitment down the road, they jumped off early. At best, the remaining readers who ride the series out to the end should provide a snapshot for DC of their hardcore, loyal readership.

Sonny Chiba Announces Retirement

In sad news for people who love extreme violence and debilitating blows to the face, Sonny Chiba, star of the Street Fighter movies, has announced he is retiring. The article makes the details of his retirement a little sketchy, as he says he is still going to act in movies under his real name, Sadaho Maeda, and his stage name.

But this is not all sad news. Chiba also announced that he is opening an acting school. If he teaches students to punch someone in the head so hard that you see an x-ray of the fist going into the skull, then sign me up for the class. X-Ray Head Punching 101.

In the article, Sonny also gives this amazing news: "I'd like to train many young people and pass on the name 'Shinichi Chiba' to one of them." Screw "Valedictorian"! Forget my Ph.D.! That's my new educational goal. But what's the final exam like to earn that honor? Or is there a thesis requirement?

This also reminds me that I need an upgrade on my Street Fighter movies--I just wrecked my VHS copy of Street Fighter's Last Revenge the other day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Things I Love 2: The SHOOT 'EM UP Trailer

This trailer has everything I want in a movie: namely, Paul Giamatti, Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci, and lots of guns. Then, just when you think this trailer can't get any more awesome, at the 1:35 mark it becomes brain-damagingly awesome.

When I was 19, the year the song that closes out the trailer first came out, I remember mentally choreographing chase scenes to it. And they looked just like the ones in the trailer.

Edit: Since I'm getting a lot of Google hits from people looking for information on the song in the trailer, I thought I should provide that information. It's "Kickstart My Heart" by Motley Crue (sorry, can't do the umlauts for some reason).

Cycle Savages

After seeing Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse, I've tried to expand my knowledge of grindhouse films in general. And having grown up near a drive-in theater, I already had a strong familiarity with low-budget horror, motorcycle, and car-chase movies. My most recent foray into this genre is the film Cycle Savages (1969).

Now, on the surface, Cycle Savages should be the greatest movie every made. After all, the plot involves Bruce Dern as Keeg, the leader of a motorcyle gang/white slavery racket, who becomes obsessed with crushing the hands of an artist (Chris Robinson) who has been sketching the gang. There is no reason why this movies shouldn't be great!

And to make it even greater, the movie features Casey Kasem as a pimp. That's right: the voice of Shaggy, Robin, and Alexander Cabot III plays a P.I.M.P. When I first read about that brilliant bit of casting, my hopes for this film skyrocketed. Let's take a look at Pimp-Shaggy himself:

Casey, you are definitely not making pimping any easier in that shirt. What kind of melon would best describe that color? Cantaloupe?

Unfortunately, this is the first of many signs that the movie will ultimately fail to live up to its potential: Kasem only appears in it for about 30 seconds. And while we do get to hear the voice of Shaggy order up "a girl with a little class" from Keeg, we don't get to see Kasem pimp-slap someone for making him talk about a fucking dog dying after coming out of an up tempo goddamn record. At least, that's what I was hoping to see.

The rest of the movie involves Bruce Dern going ape-shit crazy (which is what he tended to do best while playing this same character in movie after movie during this period) about crushing the artist's hands, while the artist falls in love with a girl (Melody Patterson, best known as Wrangler Jane on F-Troop) who poses nude for him, but secretly works for Keeg's gang.

Bruce Dern always scared the crap out of my when I was a kid, and this movie helps demonstrate why that was. His performances--with his cracking, high-pitched voice--are wild and unpredictable, with violence always pushing at the surface and occasionally exploding. When he pulls a straight razor on Chris Robinson, you know he will use it, but you don't know how bad the damage will be, and the scene becomes unbearably tense. In the great reference book, Cult Movie Stars, Danny Peary describes Dern's early performances: "Often his characters are overly serious and sensitive about something trivial. Their worlds are limited and they are obsessed with one thing." In that sense, this is the quintessential Dern performance, as he becomes so obsessed with the artist's hands that he proceeds to neglect both his business and his women.

Cycle Savages ultimately degenerates to a point that makes it difficult to recommend. The film uses a truly tasteless gang rape scene to contrast the more pure "love-making" engaged in by the artist and the girl. What you see at work here is the intense misogyny of such exploitation films that Tarantino is playing with in Death Proof--in Cycle Savages, we are essentially asked to care more about the artist's hands than the girl who is drugged and raped by Keeg's gang. The film is also marred by sloppy editing, inexpressive acting by everyone but Dern, and nonsensical plot developments, including a ridiculously cheap and unsatisfying conclusion (though the artist's hands remain intact). So, once you get past Pimp-Shaggy, the movie devolves into total crap.

Perhaps it can be saved by a little Lolcats:

No, that doesn't help, either.

(All pictures from DVD Drive-In.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Things I Love 1: Flight of the Conchords

This is going to be a regular feature here at the 100-Page Super Spectacular (or "The Spec," as one reader suggested I abbreviate the title): brief posts about things that make me happy to live in this world.

First up, I've been digging HBO's Flight of the Conchords, and here's why:

1) Hip-Hopopotamus vs. Rhymenocerous

There ain't no party like my nana's tea party!

2)Business Time
This song was used in Sunday's episode, but here's the live version:

Two minutes in heaven is better than one minute in heaven.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ich bin Batman

My fabulous wife, known hereabouts as "the other Dr. K," just returned from a work trip to Germany, from which she brought me back a load of German comics, mostly German translations of American comics. Among the stuff was a complete run of Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All-Star Batman, which, for German readers, constitute issues 1-4 of the US series.

(Panini, the European distributor of many American comics, reprints two issues of the series in a given square-bound volume. So, Germans won't see number 5 until after issue 6 comes out here.)

As I have a decent working knowledge of German, I was curious to see how Miller's dialogue translated into German. In particular, I was wondering how faithful this panel would be:

Here's the version in German:

One thing I noticed in my limited experience with German translations of superhero comics is that even the mildest swearing seems to be left out, so you wouldn't see Dick Grayson saying "hell" or Batman saying "goddamn." But the German translation here makes some interesting changes from the original. (This is my own re-translation, so if anyone can suggest a better one, let me know.)

Here, Dick says, "Who the devil do you think you are?"

To which, Batman responds, "Are you serious about that idea? Are you stupid or something? Who do you think I am? Man, I am Batman."

So, unless my translation is off, Dick's question is a bit different, and Batman doesn't ask Dick if he is "retarded." But the difference I really like is in Batman's response: "Man, I am Batman." I just like saying it out loud (I also like the way "Ich bin Batman" sounds, too).

The Black Canary issue is a-whole-nother story, though--I'm learning some German there that they never taught me in school.

Chris Sims Rocks!

Thanks go out to Chris Sims for rocking the awesome logo for the blog!

Introducing the Fabulous Blog-Find of 2007

Welcome! This first post functions as the mission statement for "Dr. K's 100-Page Super Spectacular." The title is an homage to the giant-sized comics DC put out in during my childhood, and I will be taking a look at these comics as a regular feature on the blog. Other regular features will include reviews of old and new comics, graphic novels, books, and movies.

Because I am an English and Film professor who occasionally teaches graphic novels, I will also be using this blog to spin out some ideas that come from that classroom experience.

(A note on my teaching experience: One of my claims to fame is that I once taught Chris Sims of "Chris's Invincible Super-Blog." I will unapologetically milk that connection for all it's worth.)

In fact, here's a picture of Chris and me at HeroesCon in Charlotte:

Actually, it is largely because of Chris's encouragement (and by encouragement, I mean verbal abuse and public emasculation) that I decided to blog in the first place, late to the game though I am.

In general, this blog will feature my musings about pop culture that otherwise don't fit into my normal academic writing. Most often, it will involve going deep into my comic collection for some Silver and Bronze Age goodness.

My current plan is to post new content at least three times a week, with several regular features evolving over the next month or so.

So, I hope you enjoy the blog, and feel free to leave comments.