Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Happy 91st Birthday, Jack Kirby!

As tomorrow is Jack Kirby's 91st birthday, I wanted to post a couple of thing here in celebration. I recently added to my collection a bunch of 70s Kirby stuff, mostly his work for DC that came out after the Fourth World books ended, such as Sandman and the Dingbats of Danger Street issue of First Issue Special (which, in and of itself, may be the pinnacle of human creativity). But I was struck by some stuff that appeared in some late issues of Challengers of the Unknown just before Kirby's arrival at DC in 1970.

When the Challengers series was coming to a close at this time, DC had resorted to reprinting the early Kirby stories from the beginning of the series rather than creating new material (the series did return with new material, in fits and starts but without being renumbered, in 1973 and again in 1977, just before the DC Implosion). DC was heavily promoting Kirby's return throughout its line, as in teasers like this one from the same issue of Challengers:

But these final issues of Challengers also seemed to be especially suited to promote Kirby's return, as they could serve as a kind of warm up for readers who weren't familiar with some of his earlier Silver Age DC work.

On the letter page for Challengers 76, we get some commentary that makes for a nice little piece of textual history regarding this important time in comics, which is often cited as a key transitional moment from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age:
While this may have seemed like hyperbole at the time coming from editor Murray Boltinoff (or one of his assistants), but comic history truly was about to get made.

Also, if the dates in this text are accurate, we recently saw the 38th anniversary of Jack Kirby's Fourth World that debuted with his first issue of Jimmy Olsen.

And just for the sake of showing some great Kirby art, here's the introductory page for the Challengers of the Unknown that was originally printed in Showcase 7, but here is reprinted in Challengers 75.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dr. K's Guide to British Literature: The Greatest Novel of the 20th Century!

As I may or may not have mentioned here, my Ph.D. is in Twentieth-Century British Literature, which means I've read enough of the last century's great and not-so-great British novels to have a fair judgment on the best work of that period.

And though I'm not quite finished with it yet, I have to say, without a doubt, that the greatest British novel of the twentieth century has to be:

The first Bulldog Drummond novel by Herman Cyril "Sapper" McNeile!

Sure, the Drummond novels by Sapper are plagued with jingoistic patriotism, racism, and, in particular, Sapper's considerable anti-Semitism, though none of that is particularly obvious or evident through most of this first novel, which was originally published in 1920 and appears to be out of print in the US (UK editions of the Bulldog Drummond novels still seem to be in print).

As I've mentioned before, Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond is a World War I vet who finds civilian life "incredibly tedious," so he takes out an ad offering his services for some dangerous work: "Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential."

While in the trenches of the Great War, Drummond trained with a variety of experts in order to make himself an efficient killer. His training includes work with a Dutch hunter, who teaches him the skills of stealthy stalking, and a Japanese man named Olaki, who shows Drummond how to "kill a man with his bare hands in a second." Drummond would often sneak through No Man's Land undetected, silently kill a bunch of Germans in their trenches, return to the British trench, and then fix his men breakfast without hinting at his nocturnal adventures. So, Bulldog Drummond was basically a ninja before ninjas were cool.

Drummond's first adventure causes him to run afowl of master criminal Carl Peterson, who is bent on destroying England. The novel is the definition of a "ripping yarn," moving at an incredibly fast clip from one action scene to the next.

However, what sealed the deal for my assessment of this novel as the greatest of its century was a single scene, about halfway through the novel:

Shadowy, indistinct, in the darkness, he saw something glide between two bushes. Then it came out into the open and he knew it had seen him, though as yet he could not make out what it was. Grotesque and horrible it crouched on the ground, and he could hear its heavy breathing, as it waited for him to move.

Cautiously he lowered the millionaire to the ground, and took a step forward. It was enough; with a snarl of fury the crouching form rose and shambled towards him. Two hairy arms shot towards his throat, he smelt the brute's fetid breath, hot and loathsome, and he realised what he was up against. It was a partially grown gorilla.

For a full minute they fought in silence, save for the hoarse grunts of the animal as it tried to tear away the man's hand from its throat, and then encircle him with its powerful arms. And with his brain cold as ice Hugh saw his danger and kept his head. It couldn't go on: no human being could last that pace, whatever his strength. And there was only one chance of finishing it quickly, the possibility that the grip taught him by Olaki would serve with a monkey as it did with a man. ...

Back went its head; something was snapping in its neck. With a scream of fear and rage it wrapped its legs round Drummond, squeezing and writhing. And then suddenly there was a tearing snap, and the great limbs relaxed and grew limp.

Holy crap! Suck on that, James Joyce!

My criteria for evaluation are pretty straightforward. Despite their many qualities, the novels of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Ford Madox Ford do not feature any scenes of a character fighting and choking a monkey with his or her bare hands. However, in the early draft of Mrs. Dalloway, titled The Hours, Clarissa does fend off a orangutan attack with a bouquet of flowers and a parasol, but since that scene was mysteriously excised by Woolf before the final draft, it doesn't count. And despite the fact that Lawrence's Women in Love has some exciting male wrestling, and Joyce's Ulysses has tons of masturbation, all that is trumped by some good old man vs. monkey action.

I should also mention that the monkey, a pet of the evil Carl Peterson, is named "Sambo." That might be problematic.

Nonetheless, I can't wait to teach this novel in November, in a class of British spy and adventure novels.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tossing Softballs to Get Back in Shape

It's been a few weeks since I posted much here, so I figured I need to take a few practice swings at some softballs in order to get back into shape. So, to ease back into comic blogging, nothing works better than an issue of Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane.

Especially one where Lois is being tied down, Gulliver-style, by a miniature version of the Justice League.

And, especially one that contains a panel like this:
In a story by Bob Kanigher, with art by Werner Roth and Vince Colletta: "The Dark Side of the Justice League!"

The issue begins with Lois Lane taking a vacation on "Sexual Harassment Island," or, as some might call it, "the 1970s" (still others might refer to it as San Diego ComicCon, or they might not even consider it harassment at all):

Lois manages to find a nice, secluded spot away from the wolf-whistles in order to enjoy some dreams about Superman, but little does she know that she's being oggled nearby:
Man, talk about a set up. In the time it takes to turn the first page, the imagination runs wild with the possibilities of what tiny Black Canary could mean by "a lot to do!" And, this being Bob Kanigher, we are not disappointed.

In a double-page spread, the mini-JLA ties Lois up with "anesthetic twine" (available at some of America's finer fraternities), while tiny Black Canary administers some kind of liquid to Lois's mouth:

The mini-JLA turns out to be miniature clones of the Justice League created by Darkseid from DNA samples his minions stole from a group called "The Project," which was featured in Jack Kirby's run on Jimmy Olsen.

When Lois returns to work at the Daily Planet, both Lois and Clark Kent are demonstrating just how they became top-calibre journalists:

What makes Lois the loneliest woman in the world isn't so much Superman's romantic hesitancy, but more like the 78 other times she's been either romantically connected or even married to someone who ends up dead by the end of the story. That shit happens enough and word gets around.

And then we get even more signs of journalistic excellence:

Of course, I may be a bit hyper-critical of Lois here, considering my most recent scholarly work:

Later, Lois is out on the street for one of her fluff "People, U.S.A." features, and she is suddenly and inexplicably able to warn Superman of danger that he is unable to see. Superman takes this as a sign that Lois has developed ESP and therfore would not need his protection if she could see danger coming, which is a bit of wishful thinking (or, as we might refer to it, "Kanigher thinking").
In this issue, Superman's interior monologue will be provided by Harlequin Romances.

Unfortunately for Lois, Superman pulls away at the last second before kissing her, and Lois can do nothing but go cry about it.

After a second instance where Lois warns Superman of danger--this time, from a herd of mechanical animals--Superman decides to give in and unleash his decades of repressed passion:

The result, however, is not quite what Lois was hoping for:

This was also Superman's reaction when Lois told him that, while every season of Two-and-a-Half Men was available on DVD, he couldn't get a single season of the 1960s Batman TV series.

Superman then goes on a rampage, and Lois calls up The Project for some help. In unraveling the mystery of Superman's behavior, the head of The Project also engages in some Kanigher thinking:

As Lois waits in her office, she's attacked again by the mini-JLA, who seem to be a bunch of jerks:

So, The Project determines that the best solution to Lois's problem is not to fight the evil miniature clone JLA with a good miniature clone JLA, but one that only Bob Kanigher could have come up with:
An army of miniature Lois Lane clones! (Actually, I think Cary Bates could have come up with this solution as well.)

The Project also provides Lois with a special lipstick made out of Superman's DNA (!?!), which restores Superman's sanity after Lois kisses him a second time. And, thus, Lois is left back at the romantic status quo, having to start over again in her quest to marry Superman.

Audience Participation:

To what do you think Superman is reacting?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Thanks to everyone for the overwhelmingly supportive comments and emails. They've all been greatly appreciated.

Things will get back to normal here shortly, but before they do, I just wanted to share something cool I found in my dad's wallet, which made me laugh at a time that I really needed it:

This is now in my wallet.

Monday, August 11, 2008


I just wanted to let readers out there know that I'm going to have to put the blog on hiatus for a week or more.

The reason is pretty sad--my father died today.

Here we are at the beach a couple of Christmases ago:

I was lucky to have a great dad. For one, he was the funniest person I ever knew. He had impeccable timing and could tell a joke like no one else. He had a particular affinity for Mel Brooks--he took my brother and I to see Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety at least a couple of times each, and we watched those movies whenever they came on network TV. When History of the World Part I came out, he went to see it on his own, and, having determined that it was not suitable for us, he came home and recited some of the best lines. I think we were the better for it.

He also loved The Graduate. When my brother and I were kids, he would frequently say to us, "Son, I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? ... Plastics," and we wouldn't understand what he was talking about, but it clearly entertained him. When I graduated from college, he and I went to a screening of the film on campus, and it was one of the great bonding moments we had.

He was a cool dad, too. He rode a motorcycle, for one. Also, when I was really little, he had posters of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars up in our house. These iconic images made an indelible impression on me at the age of three or four in a way that he could never have anticipated. There were so many things he was enthusiastic about--James Bond movies, Diana Rigg in The Avengers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Pirsig, Hunter S. Thompson, Catcher in the Rye, The Beach Boys (though he didn't really like Pet Sounds because there weren't enough songs about cars, girls, and surfing)--and I became fascinated with these things because they clearly gave him so much pleasure. It was clear from all of these examples that my tastes were set at a very early age, and I have him to thank for that.

All this also illustrates another important lesson that he taught me: to pay attention to the culture around me, especially those things that give me pleasure, and to use my memory to return to those pleasures again and again. He taught me this by reciting lines from movies and lyrics to songs, and by quizzing me on song lyrics when they'd come up on the radio: "I'll give you a dollar if you can name this song." There was never a real dollar involved, but I took the challenge nonetheless. Even in recent years, we would recite lines from The Simpsons to each other on the phone as if that were the most important thing we had to talk about.

My father was also an artist. Until I was seven, he was a gym teacher (which is a pretty cool job for a dad to have), and then, due to a variety of circumstances that included a move to a new state, he decided to become self-employed as a cabinet maker. He worked alone, without assistants, and also without a boss, which was probably the ideal situation for him, because he could decide what he wanted to make and for whom. This may not have been the most practical path to take always, but there was an uncompromising authenticity to it that I admired tremendously. For many years, his specialty was kitchens, but in more recent years, he limited himself to smaller cabinets and single pieces. I'm lucky to have one of the first pieces he ever made.

So, I'm putting this out there, despite the fact that I was only planning on posting a couple of lines about the blog being on hiatus. But in thinking about this blog, and about how its primary purpose is to allow me to express my feelings about those things--movies, comics, books, TV shows, music--that give me pleasure, I realize that you can draw a direct line from my dad's influence on me to what I do here. And for that influence, I will always be thankful.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Naked Prey

If you like Die Hard, but find it doesn’t quite satisfy your colonialist ideology, then Cornel Wilde’s 1966 masterpiece The Naked Prey --which recently came out in a new DVD edition from Criterion--may be the movie for you. The Naked Prey is basically “Die Hard in southern Africa, “though it would be more accurate to say, “Die Hard is The Naked Prey in a skyscraper.” Die Hard, as well as other subsequent action films of the type, borrows from Wilde’s 1966 film in specific terms (both heroes have to concern themselves with foot trauma) and general ones (both films follow similar episodic structures as each hero has to overcome various smaller obstacles on the way to the larger goal, often picking up weapons and supplies along the way that will help in later scenes). If Die Hard is the ideal of contemporary action films (and it is), then viewers and contemporary action filmmakers should pay careful attention to The Naked Prey as a perfect model for a pure action film.

The Naked Prey is a lean movie set in mid-19th century southern Africa. All characters are unnamed: Wilde (who directed and starred in the film) is only referred to in the credits as "Man," and we get absolutely zero backstory on his character, other than the fact that he is a white safari guide. Events are set in motion quickly when an arrogant white hunter (Gert Van Der Berg) insults local tribesmen looking for tribute. Soon after the hunters are through with their elephant hunt, the tribesmen attack and take the hunters prisoner.

The tribesmen proceed to torture the hunters in a scene that remains shocking some 40+ years later (the film is surprisingly violent, with many brutal scenes barely obscured. It may be, in fact, the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature arterial spray.). One is tied and dressed like a chicken and then forced to hop around in order to diminish his dignity before he's beaten to death by the women of the tribe. Another, the hunter guilty of the insult, is tied, spread-eagle and face down, as a cobra bites him in the face. A third, in one of the more horrifying scenes in film history, is covered in red clay and then baked on a spit.

Wilde's character, because he initially objected to the white hunter's insult of the tribesmen, is shown respect and given special treatment that the others don't warrant: the tribesmen strip him of his clothes and give him a few hundred yards' head start before they begin chasing him one at a time.

From here on, the movie focuses on the chase, with Wilde having to find more and more ingenious ways to escape his pursuers. And for most of the film, this is done entirely without dialogue. According to the commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, the continuity script for The Naked Prey contained only 9 pages of dialogue, and much of that is the untranslated dialect of the pursuing tribesmen. Otherwise, the 96-minute running time of the film consists almost entirely of action, with Wilde's character under constant threat from both the pursuers and his environment. Even when he sits to rest, he's beset upon by insects, and the film often takes these moments to cut to stock footage of animals hunting and killing each other. And when he wakes up from sleeping on the ground, Wilde's physical performance shows just how painful that is.

Much of the film's efficiency depends upon Cornel Wilde's physical performance, which is pretty amazing, especially considering that the actor was in his mid-50s when he made the film (alternately, I am in my late 30s, and I need to rest for several hours after mowing the lawn). Wilde undergoes some brutal scenes, none of which seem faked, like sliding down a rocky slope in nothing but a loincloth. During the making of the film, Wilde even became sick and injured after breaking up a fight between a python and an iguana and getting bitten by the ungrateful iguana, but he used the health problems to add some realism to his performance.

The Naked Prey is a pure action film that should stand as the primary model for how to make a lean, efficient, effective, and exciting film. In fact, it shows what little you need to do so, and watching this film will reveal just how much unnecessary baggage most action films have. The movie begins with the hunt and ends when the chase is over, leaving out both exposition and denouement. We care about Wilde's fate because the film shows us that he is a good man, even though we don't know a thing about his life, or even his name. The tribesmen are also humanized in brief scenes where they mourn the deaths of their companions, so the film does not depict them as caricatured villains. But Wilde, as director, conveys most of the information visually, through action and expression. This is clearly an actor's film, and it's easy to see why Wilde was attracted to the challenge the movie presents him as both an actor and a director. Yet the direction doesn't seem ego-driven: Wilde effectively uses widescreen Cinemascope cinematography to provide expansive shots of the action in particular and the African location in general in a way that minimizes the human characters within the natural landscape.

The Naked Prey is not lacking in complexity despite its efficiency. As Prince points out in the commentary, the film problematizes both colonialist and Darwinian interpretations, and thus separates itself from the more troubling African adventures of the period. While we often see animals playing out the hunter/prey dynamic which should stand as a metaphor for the film's plot, the human characters often belie that reductive binary. In one of the film's most effective scenes, Wilde comes across a village being attacked by slave traders. He manages to protect and save a young girl while also putting himself at extreme risk, and this shows that humans can make choices outside the narrow Darwinism that the nature scenes often depict. Though the film still has some problems in its depictions of race and the privileging of the white perspective--it was made in 1966, after all--it also subtly undermines a straightforward racist, colonialist interpretation.

By the way, the Dell Movie Classics adaptation, which I happen to have in my collection, of the film is surprisingly faithful, probably because the film's efficiency required little condensing from screen to page. However, the comic does have to rely more on dialogue and thought balloons to convey information that the film conveys through the actors' physical performance, as these two examples demonstrate:

The art here is by Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta (the latter's inking is pretty easy to spot).

Check out the trailer for The Naked Prey here, and you can buy the Criterion edition here.

I'm also curious to see what kind of Google hits I get with a post that repeats the word "naked" so often.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How Many Five-Year-Olds Could Dr. K Take in a Fight?


Created by OnePlusYou

Twenty-five seems like a lot to me. I was wiped out after 45 minutes of lawnmowing today, and I think fighting 25 five-year-olds would be a lot more work. That is, unless I just picked up one kid and swung him around to knock out the other kids. Or if I rolled one up in a ball and used him to bowl down the others.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My love for Cary Bates knows no bounds...

When I read in Previews several months ago that Cary Bates was returning to comics with a miniseries from Marvel called True Believers, I was filled with a strong sense of nervous anticipation. I've expressed my love for Cary Bates's 1970s DC work several times in this blog, notably his Superman and Lois Lane stories. And I haven't even begun to cover his Justice League of America and Flash stories (which includes one of my personal favorites, Flash vs. Future Abe Lincoln).

But I hadn't read a new Cary Bates comic story in at least 20 years, the last one probably being an early issue of the Captain Atom revival he wrote for DC in the late 80s.

I needn't have worried, however. After reading just a few panels, my expectations were far, far exceeded.

On the opening page, a prostitute appears who had been recently thrown out of a john's car because she wouldn't perform a particular sex act:

Despite the prostitute's denial a few pages later, there is, indeed, such a thing as a "crusty bunker." And this reference made me laugh out loud.

Then, as if the "crusty bunker" weren't enough, we get this bit of snappy narration:

The prostitute in these opening pages turns out to be "Payback," an undercover member of the "True Believers," which is a group of superpowered hackers and underground journalists who expose the seedier side of the Marvel universe through their popular news blog. Payback breaks up the "Bikini Fight Club" that has been kidnapping prostitutes, drugging them with mutant growth hormone and LSD, and then forcing them to fight in a Roman-style arena. The news coverage this story receives catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D., and we then get more information about the public face of this secret group.

The premise is catchy, and the art, by 70s veteran Paul Gulacy, is his best work in years. And while both creators certainly have long careers, this book feels fresh. Marvel is not promoting this series very much, so it may fall under the radar of some fans, especially since it's very clear that the series is not tied into current Secret Invasion continuity (at least one character who died in Secret Invasion appears in the first issue). But I was genuinely surprise how purely entertaining True Believers is, and it's well worth seeking out.