Monday, July 6, 2015

THE TIME MACHINE


My earliest memory (and it's only a partial, fragmented one at best) of seeing THE TIME MACHINE (1960) was on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES. I don't know the year of the broadcast but I do remember that I was at my grandparents' house that night. The television was on and tuned to the channel showing the movie. The only thing I remember seeing was the atomic attack on London in the year 1966. I don't recall anything else about the film before or after. It's entirely possible we had tuned in late and missed the beginning of the film and it's also possible that with a bedtime looming, the television was turned off before the film was over and I was taken home by my parents.

I do strongly remember seeing stills from the film in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND in the 1960s. Every so often, Forry would run a still of Rod Taylor duking it out with the Moorlocks in their underground cavern. I was totally mesmerized by those images. This film looked so cool and held such great promise. I had to see it.

I also recall checking out a paperback copy of H.G. Wells' THE TIME MACHINE from our elementary school library. This wasn't an abridged, kid friendly version. This was the real McCoy, complete with, if memory serves, a cover painting by Richard Powers. I didn't read the book in the two weeks that I had it. I returned it to the school library and never tried to read it again while in public schools. I did read the novel for a class I took in college and I've since re-read it as an adult.

But the film remained an elusive goal for me. I honestly don't recall where and when I finally saw the film in it's entirety for the first time. Television? Home video? I'm sorry but I just can't recall. I do know that I saw the film at the Paramount Theater several years ago because I wrote the notes for the George Pal/H.G. Wells double feature of WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE. Seeing both of those films on the big screen was a real treat.

I recently acquired a Blu-ray copy of the film and Judy and I sat down and watched it this past Saturday night (an appropriate night, given my history with the film). Judy had never seen it but she really got into it and enjoyed it. I loved it too.

Rod Taylor stars as George (it's never stated that he's H.G. Wells but the nameplate on the time machine is a strong clue to his identity), inventor of a time machine that is capable of traveling forward and backwards in time. His friends, Alan (MISTER ED) Young, Whit (TIME TUNNEL) Bissell, Sebastian (FAMILY AFFAIR)  Cabot and Tom (VERTIGO) Helmore doubt his theory even after he demonstrates his accomplishment by sending a small model of the machine into the fourth dimension. He asks the men to return for dinner in a week and after they've all left, he gets into the full scale machine and begins his voyage into the future.

There are stops along the way in 1917, 1940 and 1966 and in each year he finds the world at war. He finally rockets to the year 802,701 where he finds civilization divided into the passive, cattle like surface dwelling Eloi and the savage, underground cannibals the Morlocks. He saves Weena (Yvette Mimieux) from drowning and she in turn helps him understand the status quo of this strange new society.

When the time machine is stolen and locked away by the Morlocks, George must venture into the underground caverns to reclaim it. He battles Morlocks and the Eloi eventually join in the fight. He finally gets to the machine and returns to the year 1900 where he tells his amazing story to his skeptical friends. After they leave, George gets back in his machine and returns to the future to help Weena and the Eloi rebuild their civilization.

Director George Pal takes his time setting up the narrative with an opening sequence that sets everything up very nicely. There's an earnestness and sincerity at play here in both the screenplay by David Duncan, the performances of the actors and in Pal's direction. Time travel is visualized through a variety of special effects techniques including stop motion animation, time lapse photography, miniatures and matte painting. The film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and one can only wonder how much more sophisticated the effects could have been if Pal had had a larger budget to work with (the film was budgeted at $750,000). Look quickly during the 1966 scene and you'll see a re-cycled uniform from FORBIDDEN PLANET, while another prop from that film, the giant clear star globe/map, appears later in the film in the chamber of the "talking rings."

THE TIME MACHINE is a wonderful film. It's full of the sense of wonder that one finds in the best science fiction material. Taylor makes a great square-jawed hero, Mimieux (who was only 17 at the time and making her film debut) is fetching, and the Morlocks menacing. But the real star of this film is the incredible Time Machine itself. It's one of the most iconic devices/vehicles ever designed in the science fiction cinema. When the full scale device appeared for the first time on screen, Judy remarked "it's steam punk!" Indeed, it is.

Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed watching THE TIME MACHINE, which looks spectacular in the Blu-ray format.  Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES


In 1976, Marvel Comics published the oversized comic book pictured above. It's the MARVEL TREASURY SPECIAL CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES. As the cover blurb proclaims, it's "A Jack Kirby King-Size Spectacular". And indeed it was. Jack Kirby wrote and drew the entire story, an epic in which Captain America is sent throughout time, both past and future by the mysterious Mr. Buda in a journey to discover the real meaning of America.

I remember buying and reading this one when it came out. Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the original, treasury size comic. Those things are extremely difficult to store! But I do have the next best thing, a 2005 trade paperback that reprints the story in its entirety along with some other classic 1970s Captain America comics by Jack Kirby. To celebrate the Fourth of July, I sat down and read the Bicentennial Battles story this morning and loved every page of it.

Regular readers of this blog know that Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. He's in rare form here. Some people think Kirby's mid '70s work at Marvel (to which he returned after a brilliant stint at DC earlier in the decade) is not as strong as his earlier stuff. The fact that Kirby was writing and drawing all of his comics was viewed by some as a detriment. Kirby, they argued, just wasn't a good wordsmith. He was better, in some people's opinion, when someone like Stan Lee was doing the actual writing, leaving Kirby to focus on the drawing and storytelling.

While Kirby's writing isn't the greatest, his voice is sincere, unique and distinctive. It has a ring of honesty to it, a yearning desire to communicate to and connect with the reader. There's some pretty nice turns of phrase in this story including this one:

"That's America! A place of stubborn confidence-where both young and old can hope and dream, and wade through disappointment, despair and the crunch of events-with the chance of making life meaningful."

Preachy? Maybe? Patriotic? You betcha. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

Kirby is aided in his artwork by a trio of ink slingers: Herb Trimpe, John Romita and Barry Windsor Smith. I spotted Romita's work in the sequence set during the great Chicago fire of 1871. But it's Windsor Smith's work that beautifully complements Kirby's pencils in the opening sequence which takes place during WWII. It's short (and the color of Bucky's leggings change from panel to panel from red to blue and back to red), but it's gorgeous work. I would have loved to have seen a full length WWII Cap and Bucky adventure written and drawn by the team of Kirby and Smith.

In short, CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES was a fun trip down memory lane and a great way to celebrate the Fourth. Check it out if you get a chance. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

99 RIVER STREET


I watched 99 RIVER STREET (1953) the other night (recorded from TCM). I'd never seen this minor noir before. It's a good little crime thriller that, in my opinion, is only partially a film noir due to a happy ending. It's still worth seeing if you're a film noir aficionado (like me).

John Payne stars as an ex-boxer who now works as a cab driver. His shrewish wife (Peggie Castle) constantly nags him for bigger and better things. Turns out she's two-timing Payne with a professional thief played by Brad (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) Dexter. Dexter's just pulled a diamond heist but he can't unload the gems due to complications. He decides to murder Castle and frame Payne for her death.

Payne finds himself on the run from both the cops and the crooks. He's aided in his quest by would-be Broadway actress Evelyn Keyes. Together, they win the day, but not before they find themselves in some tense and potentially deadly situations.

99 RIVER STREET was directed by Phil Karlson who also helmed such film noir/crime thriller standouts as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), and THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955). Later in his career he made two of the Dean Martin Matt Helm films, THE SILENCERS (1966) and THE WRECKING CREW (1969) and the original cult classic WALKING TALL (1973).

99 RIVER STREET is a tight little B film. The direction is solid and the screenplay, by Robert Smith, is good. The cast, although comprised of lesser known performers, give it their best. It's no masterpiece but it's certainly worth seeing at least once.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST


I've always been a sucker for Captain America stories that are set in WWII. That's why CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is my favorite of all of the Marvel films produced so far. One of my all time favorite comic books series is Marvel's THE INVADERS from the 1970s which featured Timely Comics Big Three (and a few others) Captain America, the Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner in action against the Axis powers. I dream of the day in which Marvel Studios produces an INVADERS film for theaters. It probably won't happen but hey, who ever thought we'd be seeing movies about The Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man for crying out loud? And I can hope because there's an Easter Egg in FIRST AVENGER of the Human Torch at the World's Fair. I can dream can't I?

Which leads me to this review of the book pictured above. I got this 2010 hardcover book in a recent trade with my comic book buddy Blake Long (hi Blake!) The volume reprints three stand alone Captain America stories, all of which are set in the past (two in WWII, one in the '50s).

The first story, OPERATION: ZERO POINT finds Cap battling Nazi flying saucers (among other threats) in a story written by Daniel & Charles Knauf and illustrated by Mitch Breitweiser. Both art and story are good. 

Next, it's PRISONERS OF DUTY, a tale in which Steve Rogers is captured and imprisoned with other American soldiers in a Nazi held castle from which escape is impossible. Of course, Rogers leads a daring escape in a story written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel and illustrated by Agustin Padilla. The story is a good one but Padilla's artwork is poor and amateurish. Better artwork would have really made this story sing.

The final story is the best of the bunch. AMERICA FIRST!, written and illustrated by the legendary Howard Chaykin (one of my favorite contemporary comic book artists) is set in the 1950s and deals with a replacement Captain America who fights Communists both at home and abroad. The usual Chaykin tropes are here: period dress and cars, slinky femme fatales, radical politics and lots of action.

I can recommend CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST. The stories are all well written and the art is good on two of  the three tales. Thumbs up.

 

Monday, June 29, 2015

WAIT...WHAT?


I'm damn glad I didn't pay for this turkey. If I had, I think I'd have asked for my money back. I acquired the book pictured above in a recent trade with my comic book collector buddy Blake Long (hi Blake!). It's not his fault that this is a bad book. I'll try and sell it on eBay eventually (which I planned to do all along). But I thought I'd at least sit down and read it and see what it was about. There's thirty minutes of my life I'll never get back.

I like the Hulk. I like the Silver Surfer. I like Galactus. All three of those characters appear in this book. But I didn't like this book. Skaar, for those of you who came in late (like me), is the son of the Hulk. He's a barbarian warrior king on the planet Sakaar. Think Conan on steroids with green skin.

The story is really not worth repeating here. That's because there's not much of one. Oh, there's page after page of rock 'em sock 'em fight scenes between the major (and minor) players. There's lots of over-the-top action with wild, exaggerated sound effects (SHAKOOM!) everywhere. It's punch him in the face stupidity with little or no plot or character development. If you like this kind of stuff, fine. I get tired of it very quickly.

But here's where this thing goes completely off of the rails. At one point, the Hulk (wearing battle armor) appears to join the constant fighting on Sakaar. It's never explained where he came from. Was he already on the planet? Did he come from earth? Just how the hell did he get involved in this story? And then, just as quickly as he appears, he's forgotten. In the next chapter of the story, there's no mention of him and he's not shown in any of the panels. Where did he go?

Skaar eventually gets sucked into a wormhole and transported to earth and guess who's waiting for him there? Yep, old Jade Jaws himself. Is this the same Hulk Skaar fought on Sakaar? How did he get back to earth? I'm confused.

It took four people to create this hot mess. Writer Greg Pak and artists Butch Guice, Ron Lim and Dan Panosian. Guice only drew the first chapter and I like his work here. I'd have liked to have seen more of it. Ron Lim is a competent draftsman. His art is okay, nothing great, nothing horrible. Frankly, I didn't care for Dan Panosian's artwork on the chapter he illustrated and Greg Pak doesn't impress me as a writer.

For the record, Mark Paniccia is listed as the editor of record for this book along with assistant editor Jordan D. White. Neither of these gentlemen did a very good job here. A good editor would have addressed that continuity glitch involving the Hulk first on Sakaar and then on earth with a footnote or an explanatory caption of some kind. It wouldn't have hurt the story, it would have clarified a point of confusion for the readers.

But a good editor seems to be something that doesn't exist in today's Marvel and DC comics. Time and time again I've read a comic book in which the hot, flavor-of-the-month writer has been given carte blanche to do whatever the hell he/she wants, good storytelling be damned. Or, it's the other way around. All of the editors collaborate on the general plot line of a given epic cross-over event (that will change everything until the next change everything crossover event comes along) and then they dictate to the writers what must happen in their books for the duration of the crossover event.

Sure, mistakes happened all of the time back when Stan Lee served as both writer and editor for almost danged near every Marvel comic published. But Lee owned up to his errors, acknowledged readers when they spotted a goof and awarded loyal Marvelites with the much treasured No Prize.

That's a pretty good summary of HULK: PLANET SKAAR. It won't get any prizes, certainly not from this reader.

Friday, June 26, 2015

MY EYES GLAZED OVER


The last time I was in a comic book shop was May 2012. I visited Midtown Comics on Broadway in New York City (pictured above). A couple of days before, I had made a stop at Forbidden Planet, also in Manhattan. I didn't buy a single comic book at either of these fine stores. Oh sure, I bought comic book related stuff: an OMAC action figure, t-shirts (Nick Fury and The Silver Surfer), a DC Showcase Presents SEA DEVILS volume, a book about Stan Lee, another book about Lee and Kirby's run on FANTASTIC FOUR, an issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS, a new DOC SAVAGE novel and pulp double reprint volumes of DOC SAVAGE and THE SHADOW. I definitely got my hard-earned money's worth plus some great memories to last a lifetime.

Back before I was married (ten years and counting now I'm happy to report) and bought a house (or two), I was at the comic book shop every Wednesday dropping more money than I should have on that week's new releases. That came to a halt many years ago and the only "new" comics I acquired were gained in trades with other collectors or plucked out of the boxes at Half-Price Books. When both DC's New 52 titles and Marvel's NOW reboot launched in 2011, our store carried a few of those titles on our newsstand. I decided to give them a try. After all, I got a 30% employee discount. I bought and read the first years' worth of several New 52 titles and a handful of Marvel NOW books and I was underwhelmed by nearly everything I read. And so once again, I decided to quit buying new comics completely.

The other day, I had reason to stop in at Rogue's Gallery comic book shop in Round Rock. After taking care of business, I decided to look around the store and see what was new in the world of comics. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles they had on display on their walls. Comics from Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse and other publishers I was unfamiliar with covered the display racks. Where to start even looking? Do I buy a favorite character, work by a favorite writer/artist team or the latest multi-issue cross-over "event" series which will "change forever" the respective comic book universe (DC or Marvel) until the next such event is published a few years down the road?  

Well, I've always liked Thor so I went to where the THOR comic books were. I found several titles (one called THORS which made me wonder, how many Thors are there?) while the main THOR comic featured a female version of the God (Goddess) of Thunder. I don't want to read that version of the character and besides, I know it's yet another superficial, cosmetic change that was done to get an immediate spike in sales and it's destined to not last long.

I like Captain America so I went to where the Cap titles were. The Falcon is now Captain America. Nothing against the character, in fact I like the Falcon and think he's always been a pretty cool character. But I don't want him to be Captain America. I want to read about Captain America and the Falcon. Pass. Oh, and this is another gimmick that won't last long.

The Avengers have always been one of my absolute favorite super hero teams. There are at least half a dozen Avengers titles on the stands now. Which one do you pick? All of them? How about none.

Another factor to consider is the price of an individual monthly comic book these days. $4.99 for something that I can read in about five minutes? No thanks. And it's only one part of a six-part (at minimum) story arc that will eventually be collected into a trade paperback. "Wait for the trade" is something many fans do these days.

On the plus side, I will say that there is a ton of great vintage material (from many different publishers) available these days and this is the material that I'm most interested in. Tons of great Golden, Silver and Bronze age comics are being reprinted and it's a second Golden Age for fans of that material like myself.

I imagined for a moment that I'm Joe Average, a guy who recently went to see AVENGERS: THE AGE OF ULTRON and really enjoyed it. I decide I'd like to read an Avengers comic book. I go into the local comic book shop and I'm dumbfounded. There are multiple Avengers comics, many of which feature characters and line-ups that are not in either of the AVENGERS films. There's a long and convoluted back story, there are books that are in continuity and some that are not. Where to begin?

Well I hope Joe Average finds a knowledgeable, friendly and patient comic book shop sales clerk to help him get started. If so, it's possible that Joe can find something he likes. But if that help is not forthcoming, he's going to turn around and walk out the door without purchasing anything.

That's my point. Comic books today are not reader friendly. I consider myself very knowledgeable about comic books and their history but I have absolutely no idea about what's going on with Marvel and DC these days. And frankly, I have no desire to invest the time and money that's necessary to bring me up to speed. That train has long since left the station for me.

Instead, I take great pleasure in digging through my many long boxes of comics and finding books I haven't read yet or books I want to re-read again and again. I do buy the occasional hardcover or trade paperback reprint of vintage, classic material and I get a kick out of seeing stuff I've either never seen or material I'm familiar with in a nice, more-or-less permanent edition.

I don't want this to sound like I have anything against Rogue's Gallery. The gentleman I spoke to was kind and friendly. They have a clean, well-lit and well-stocked store and they're obviously doing good business. They're in business to make money and they do that by selling comic books (and other things like statues, action figures and RPG material). No beef there and if I was inclined to get back into comics, I'd make some of my first purchases there.

But I have no desire to get back into new comic books now or for the foreseeable future. If you buy and read the new stuff, good for you. I hope you enjoy it. Me? I'll get my kicks from the old stuff.

And there's plenty of that out there.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS-1967


I was in the mood to read something different comic-book-wise yesterday afternoon so I looked through one of my long boxes and found the comic pictured above. It's TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED #103, published by DC Comics. The issue has a cover date of November 1967 but it actually went on sale in August of that year. The book itself is fairly routine with three six-page science fiction stories. But what caught my eye was a two-page spread advertising the upcoming Saturday morning line-up of animated cartoons for the CBS television network. 



 
I know it's a little blurry. I could probably find a sharper image somewhere on the Internet but I wanted to scan it quick while it was still fresh in my mind. Besides, this shows that it came straight from a real comic book.

What a fantastic line-up of cartoons! Moby Dick! Mighty Mightor! Shazzan! The Herculoids! Jonny Quest! The Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure! And more. The exact line-up (shown in the yellow box at bottom right) reads like this (all times Eastern Time Zone):
 
8:00 a.m. Captain Kangaroo
9:00 a.m. Frankenstein Junior and the Impossibles
9:30 a.m. The Herculoids
10:00 a.m. Shazzan!
10:30 a.m. Space Ghost
11:00 a.m. Moby Dick and The Mighty Mightor
11:30 a.m. The Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure
12:30 Jonny Quest
1:00 p.m. The Lone Ranger
1:30 p.m. The Road Runner
 
The small print at the bottom of this book encouraged kids to "Tear this out and carry it with you everywhere so you'll remember all of Saturday's super heroes on CBS. All in color."
 
This was nirvana for me when I was a kid. I was eleven-years old at the time. September of 1967 puts me in the sixth grade. I was still young enough to enjoy Saturday morning cartoons, but that pleasure would only last a couple of more years.
 
I've always thought it was interesting and somewhat odd that Aquaman was chosen to co-star with Superman in their hour-long show. He wasn't exactly an A-lister at the time and his share of the program was later replaced by a more familiar DC super-hero, Batman. Also of note in the Superman-Aquaman hour were the stand-alone cartoons that featured for the first time ever, animated versions of such varied DC characters as The Flash, The Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom, The Justice League and The Teen Titans.
 
All of these cartoons have been released on DVD. I have the complete JONNY QUEST series but I have yet to acquire MOBY DICK/MIGHTOR, HERCULOIDS and SHAZZAN! (all of which were produced by Hanna-Barbera). The Superman, Aquaman and solo DC hero cartoons (all of which were produced by Filmation) have all been released on separate DVD collections and I'm proud to say I own them all.
 
This ad appeared in every DC comic book that was on sale in August 1967. But it didn't appear in any Marvel Comics. Instead, Marvel ran an ad promoting the ABC-TV Saturday morning lineup which featured animated adventures of both Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four.
 
Yep, it was a good time to be a kid.