Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Weird Wednesdays: The Dover Demon




Although it’s been over 30 years since I first heard about it, I still hate the Dover Demon. I’m sure most people have no idea what I’m talking about – and good for them. The story is trivial, meaningless, and without any verification whatsoever. But it was a story that struck right at my core, particularly since I had an older brother who took no small joy in scaring me.


The time would have been late spring, perhaps June, since I believe I was out of school already. The year was 1977, and I was 12 years old. I do recall that it was a pleasant night in my central California town, and my brother, Steve, who was 18, myself, and two of his friends had decided to take a walk about half a mile or so to our nearest 7-Eleven, where we might grab a Slurpee or maybe some other treat. It was a clear, warm night and many stars were visible. In other words, it was a pretty nice evening to take a walk. Unless you have a sadistic older brother, that is.


As we wound our way down the streets of our neighborhood, Steve began to discuss a story we’d heard recently on the news. Here I am indebted to Loren Coleman’s wonderful book, Mysterious America, for the particulars of the case, as I was unable to recall them. Four kids in Dover, Massachusetts had reported seeing a strange creature over the course of a 25 hour period on April 21-22, 1977. Witnesses described it as a small, 3-4 foot tall, spindly humanoid, with light, peach-colored skin, and long toes and fingers. The most disturbing detail was its head: it was unusually large, shaped like a watermelon, and had no features except for two large glassy eyes. The kids saw it in different locations in their small town, all at night. One witness, John Baxter (whose drawing is shown above, from Coleman's book) saw it climb over rocks in a gully, with its feet “molded” over the stones.


As we walked along, talking about this weird thing, we approached a large brick wall. There were no street lights in the immediate area and it was fairly dark. My brother said, “What if we saw that thing right now? What if it was climbing up over that wall?” I told him to shut up, which of course only goaded him on. “What if it was crawling along the wall, staring at us with those big, glowing eyes?” That was it – I was completely freaked out. The hairs on the back of my neck were at full attention. But Steve kept it up. I wanted to run back home, but we were too far and I was too scared to do it alone now. I had no choice but to keep going with them, nervously looking over my shoulder.


We finally made it to the 7-Eleven, and I was able to calm down. Nothing like a cherry-cola Slurpee for a case of nerves! The only problem was, we now had to walk back past that wall again!


As we walked towards the wall, things were quiet. Probably the only sound was our footsteps, and me drinking my Slurpee. Suddenly my brother yelled, “What’s that?” I just about choked! I looked around frantically only to see Steve laughing at my reaction. I wanted to kill him, but even more, I wanted to get home!


As far as I know, the Dover Demon has never re-appeared - except in my imagination, whenever I am out for a walk at night. Damn you Steve.


Karen

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Comics Code Authority: Revised to Relax, part 2




Amazing Spider-Man #125, October 1973
“Wolfhunt!”
Gerry Conway/Ross Andru & John Romita/Tony Mor
tellaro

Doug: We’re back with the conclusion of our first foray into Marvel’s post-Comics Code Authority monster mash! In this entry we’re closing out the two-parter that introduced the malevolent Man-Wolf, really John Jameson – son of that perpetual Spidey pain-in-the-butt J. Jonah Jameson!

Doug: Last time I didn’t mention that I had the Power Records Book and Record Set (“It’s Fun to Read as You Hear!”) for this story. I was saving for this go-‘round because I remembered that it contained the origin of the Man-Wolf; however, when I went down to the ol’ Sanctum Sanctorum to pull it off the shelf, lo and behold it sported the cover from ASM 124! What the heck?? Upon reexamination, I remembered how watered down these books were! The comic that comes with the 45 rpm platter is only 20 pages in length – hence, they’ve condensed two issues into one. What’s gone, you ask? Why, only the splash pages with the creator credits, all mention of the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn, any scenes that delved into characterization of the cast, most of the physical violence, and just about anything else that would have rated this tome above what a youngster might have found on The Electric Company! Hey, wait! Since this was advertised as a reader – the back cover has a text box that includes, “It’s been especially designed so that you can read the story and follow the record word for word. This is a real learning aid and creates a desire to read as it entertains… The action comes alive as you read!!” – perhaps tying it in with Spidey Super-Stories or the Electric Company was the goal. Makes sense temporally.

Doug: In the actual comic, the splash page just leaps at the reader. Penciling chores have shifted to one Ross Andru, my Spider-Man artist. Yes, he was the regular when I started buying my own books. I always felt like Andru was the “happy medium” between John Romita and Gil Kane. Andru’s style was somewhat quirky like Kane, elongated, wiry… but without some of the Kane annoyances like the nose up-shots and the rigormortis-like fingers. Following is a link to Ross Andru’s Spider-Man work; you can see that he was the Spidey artist for the better part of five straight years! http://www.spiderfan.org/credits/ross_andru.htmlts/ross_andru.html

Doug: Inks are shared by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro. Romita’s influence is felt even more so than in the previous issue, especially on Mary Jane’s face. I don’t know that anyone draws prettier girls than Romita, Sr. Nick Cardy maybe…

Karen: I have to say, that Romita exerts a strong influence on the art here – if I was shown that splash page without the credits, I would have assumed Romita was the penciller. Later in the book, I can see more of Andru’s work in the way the figures are posed, but Romita’s style is still quite evident.

Doug: The cover of this story recalls (again) the recent death of Gwen as Peter cries out while attempting to save a young lady from the clutches of the Man-Wolf, “No! NO!! I won’t let you die – not like Gwen --! Not like Gwennnn!” However, although Peter’s continued grieving is a major subplot within, he doesn’t utter that particular line in the scene the cover references. Wait a second! Did I just say that the cover referenced a scene within the book?? Wow – must be the Bronze Age!!

Karen: I used to be able to remember just about every comic I owned based on the cover – they were always distinctive and served as a preview to the story within. The last few years, I haven’t been able to recall a single cover – sometimes I go to the comic store and can’t recall if I have bought a particular issue or not – because the covers are all so similar.

Doug: I thought the origin of the Man-Wolf was pretty formulaic, as were the scenes showing his first nights “on the prowl”. Again, as I said last time, any “wolf violence” is for the most part implied. There is no blood at all, although Conway does write when the Man-Wolf attacks a back alley junkie, “But, before the Man-Wolf can complete his attack in the manner of the beast he’s become…” That’s about as bloody as it gets.

Karen: It’s similar to how the Hulk was treated when he went on a rampage: somehow, no one was ever hurt! Stan just didn’t want any real violence in the books. Although in the case of the Hulk, he was clearly viewed as a hero. Man-Wolf here seems more like a helpless victim than anything else.

Karen: Speaking of ‘bloodless’, how about the supposedly terrible cut the Man-Wolf inflicted on Spidey? Peter goes on about it and how he might become “anemic”, but again, there’s no blood shown.

Karen: Considering how modern books have no thought balloons, it’s almost funny to see Spidey thinking about Gwen while he’s fighting the Man-Wolf! Really these two issues were probably more important for the way Peter was dealing with the deaths of Gwen and the Goblin than for his fights with the Man-Wolf. Peter really got no sympathy or support from his buddies. Conway’s portrayal of Mary Jane is probably more in line with the way she had been characterized up to that point – sort of flippant and superficial. Even so, she and Flash Thompson are not nearly as understanding towards Peter and Harry as you would expect such close friends to be.

Doug: JJJ is again portrayed as you’d expect him to be – all bluster, somewhat cold, on Spidey’s tail like no other. He does have a few scenes where he’s somewhat sensitive, but those seemed almost out-of-character. I didn’t feel like Conway convinced me that Jonah was really all that concerned for his son’s well-being. And actually, Spider-Man picks up on that and there is a great dialogue between he and Jonah after the climax of the story.

Karen: The way I read it, Jameson cares, but only to a point. His reputation and his paper will probably always come before anything else, including his son. After reading this issue, it sure feels like Peter’s life was filled with a lot of unpleasant people!

Doug: Overall, I had a very good time returning to this tale. Conway’s scripts were not fantastic, but they were solid. I was in familiar territory with characters I love. Classic characters untainted by all of the junk that’s gone on in the Spider-verse over the past 15 years. In that regard, this was like coming home. And while the Man-Wolf has certainly proven to be a forgettable Spidey villain – John Jameson has appeared in many more comics in human form than he has in wolf form – it was interesting to question just what the big deal had been through all the years when werewolves were not allowed.

Karen: It was a fun story, but I realized that there is no real explanation given for why Jameson was turned into the Man-Wolf. He finds this strange rock on the moon, somehow manages to get it away from NASA, and for some reason it turns him into a werewolf! Now that’s pretty weak no matter how you cut it. It wouldn’t be til many years later that the story behind the moon rock was written, in Creatures on the Loose and Marvel Premiere. But whatever the origin, Marvel had its second wolfman, which is what Stan wanted!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Moments Frozen in Time

A few weeks ago I was discussing the passing of Michael Jackson with the incoming freshmen I was teaching in my summer school world history class. I told them that at the age of 14, it was an event they might later mark their lives by -- where they were and what they were doing when they heard the word of the King of Pop's untimely passing.

Folks a little bit older than me often remark that they can recall exactly where they were on the day they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. While that was a few years before my time, there are several events (some a bit more serious than others) from which I can mark time in my life. I'd like to discuss a few from my childhood, and I'd invite you to leave a comment for those moments in your life that remain vivid in your memory.

As a kid, my sister and I spent a few summers with our aunt and uncle and family in the Chicago suburbs. My aunt was a stay-at-home mom, so she had the time (and resources) to take us and my cousin on excursions. What I also found to be very cool was the 7-11 that was a block down the street from their house -- a store to which I was able to walk by myself at the ripe old age of 9. I recall my aunt giving me money that I used to purchase Amazing Spider-Man #150 at that store in August of 1975, but the next comic she bought me was even cooler! Not too far from their home in St. Charles was an indoor amusement park that had just opened in Bolingbrook. The park was known as Old Chicago -- you can read more about it at http://www.defunctparks.com/parks/IL/oldchicago/oldchicago.htm.


She took the three of us there one day and we just had a blast! I'd been to several carnivals before, but had never been on a rollercoaster. After, we went outside the amusement area to the old-fashioned shopping center to enjoy some ice cream. As there was a store with a comic spinner rack visible through the window, she shelled out another quarter so I could buy Daredevil #127! Funny how I can envision that like it was yesterday!





You may recall the days before there were such things as comic shops and Internet sales -- that's right, chasing all over God's creation for that elusive new release. In April 1977, Avengers #161 was such a book for me. I went to two Osco Drug Stores, a couple of other pharmacies that I knew sold comics -- everywhere I could think of. I got desperate, so I opened up the Yellow Pages to see if there were any hobby shops or other places I might have overlooked. I came across a book store named "Mickey's Books and Novelties". Now as far as my youthful mind knew, a "novelty" was another way of saying "that cheap crap you get in a goodie bag at some other kid's birthday party". So I asked my mom to drive me across town, because when I had called, Mickey told me that he indeed sold comics.


When we got there, mom dropped me off in front and pulled around to the side. I faced down the sign on the front door that said "No one under 18 admitted" and went on in. This was serious business and I was not to be denied. Sure enough, through the thick smoke and incense, I spied the awesome George Perez cover you see above and snatched it from the spinner rack. Took it to the counter and paid for it and left without incident. Now, and the store is still in the same location, were I to re-enter today with a bit more of a "worldly mind/awareness", I'm sure I would have noticed that there was certainly a reason no chubby-cheeked 11-year old with a paunch and bushy hair was supposed to be in that store. But I honestly didn't notice anything other than the new treasure I left with.


The first really significant death I recall happened on August 16, 1977 when the King of Rock 'n' Roll died at his Graceland mansion. I had been certainly aware of Elvis' music and even at the age of 12 I appreciated him as a pop culture icon. I vividly remember being in the side room on the main floor of my aunt's house when the news came across the small black and white television I'd been watching. I was stunned, as I'm sure most were when they got word.


The last several events take me to high school and beyond, and are certainly, like the passing of Elvis Presley, a little more serious than the day I got this-or-that comic book.


As a high school freshman, I'd become very interested in popular music -- all kinds. From the just-fading disco movement to soft rock like the Carpenters to hard rock to what was probably just then becoming known as "classic rock" -- I liked it all. So it was with outright shock that, as I readied myself for bed at approximately 9:45 pm on a Monday night (December 8, 1980), Howard Cosell gave the following news flash just before halftime of a game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins -- you can see and hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gcdz1IRVoM. John Lennon's death was a shock, and a moment I will never forget.

Later that spring of my freshman year, on March 30, 1981 actually, I had just arrived home from morning track practice (it was spring break) when I flipped on the television to see ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds give the following report, available here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5323392634516821396&ei=xnBiSpyYBpiQqQKKpoSxCQ&q=%22Frank+Reynolds%22+%2B+%22Reagan+shooting%22&hl=en. As I said, the Kennedy assassination was before my time. This was very real, and very frightening to me. I wasn't much into politics at this time, so to me Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States of America -- and you don't mess with the United States. I watched the coverage the remainder of the day.

I was a sophomore in college on January 28, 1986 when a friend told me in the student union of Burgess Hall shortly after my 8:00 am class was over that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up after take-off earlier that morning. This was as shocking to me as the Reagan shooting had been those years earlier. The image seems as fresh today as it did 23 years ago. Each time there is discussion of problems with the shuttle, delayed launches, etc., my mind goes back to that day all those years ago.

I think the last event I'll comment on is burned in the minds of almost all Americans who are older than about the age of 12. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was teaching my 1st hour class when I walked over to my computer to enter the attendance. There was an e-mail that had just popped up from a friend of mine who taught science in the room below me. It simply said, "Turn on the tv!!" I walked the few steps and did so. The news of the plane hitting the first tower of the World Trade Center was all over. As we watched, transfixed, we saw the second plane hit live. Words cannot express the feeling I had in my gut. Words also cannot express my reaction when some of my students made light of the situation -- to a few, this was like a video game. I assured them in no uncertain terms that it was not. America was under attack. We were instructed over the PA by our principal to leave the televisions on the rest of the morning so that we could be informed; as we live relatively close to Chicago, there was concern that this plague of violence could spread to our part of the country. Of course it did not, but there was alarm then nonetheless. I will never forget that day.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Get Your Stinking Paws Off Me, You Damned Dirty Ape!!

Words cannot express my wide-eyed wonder when, as a mere waif of seven years, I watched my first Planet of the Apes movie. My family had recently relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and while I was most disappointed to leave behind my beloved Channel 44 out of Chicago that showed Marvel Super-Heroes (the legendary 1966 cartoon show) or Spider-Man (the 1967 classic), I was excited to discover a few channels in my new home that would expand my love of science fiction.

Among reruns of the 1940's serials, such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and a seemingly endless string of Tarzan movies (here my love of Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe began -- it wouldn't be until many years later that I would read the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and gain an even greater appreciation for Christopher Lambert's portrayal of the jungle lord in Greystoke), there came the Apes movies and still later the CBS television show. From that point forward, I was going Ape!

I had several of the Apes Mego action figures and playsets, bubble gum cards, coloring books, etc. Wanting to soak up all things Ape at this point, I came across the original Pierre Boulle novel at the public library. It featured a cover reminiscent of scenes from the film by the same name, so I asked my mom to check it out for me. What a disappointment! Now, this was long before I knew anything about such things as "based on the novel", etc. But what I'd seen on tv was nothing like this book -- Apes driving cars? Nah...

In fact, I'd argue that the film versions of the Planet of the Apes franchise are not traditional science fiction at all. Sure, it deals with time travel, fall-out from a nuclear disaster (which I assume bred the mutations in the apes and the de-evolution of human beings), and then later genetic proselytizing by Caesar (maybe? But then that wouldn't explain how, only one generation later, all of the apes can talk and are running the world in Battle for the Planet of the Apes). But in the first film, originally released theatrically in 1968, there is no science used to solve any of the conflicts/problems in the plot.

Planet of the Apes was a wonder to me. The concept of time travel wasn't so new to me, as I'd gleaned a little information about such things from an issue of Justice League of America I'd owned -- it was a JLA/JSA crossover, so inter-dimensional travel and such didn't seem strange. As Taylor (Charlton Heston) and crew made their way to the forest, I at first thought they'd ended up on a planet of primitive humans -- until the apes burst on the scene. Looking back on the first film today, it's really the score that makes it so impactful -- the weird music while Taylor and company are traversing the desert, the horn upon first view of the gorilla atop steed, the rapid-fire pace when Taylor ran throughout Ape City, ending up in the "natural history museum"...

As a kid, there were many elements of the morality play that went over my head. It wasn't until viewing all five films in the franchise day-after-day on an after-school "Apes Week" movie festival that I picked up on the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" gag during Taylor's trial and of the impact of the nuclear war. The Statue of Liberty scene was of course impactful to anyone who's ever seen it; but the devastation wrought and the time required to bury her waist-deep in earth didn't settle in until many years after. Perhaps Heston's best performance in the film is that last scene.

Strangely, it was many years later that I saw the third film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes. I'm not sure how I missed it, but I do recall looking through magazines in the grocery store (precursors to Starlog or Fangoria or some such things) and seeing lots of still photos. I didn't really grasp the story -- hey, it was the grocery store, not school... you think I was going to read the magazine?? -- but I did think that Cornelius and Zira looked absolutely ridiculous in regular human clothing. The next exposure to this episode was through the Power Records comic/45 rpm that a friend owned. But despite the wait, I was glad to have finally seen the film, and consider it perhaps my second favorite of the original five.

So if I have to rank 'em, I would say my re-viewing at any time would go in this order:
  1. Planet of the Apes
  2. Escape From the Planet of the Apes
  3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  4. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
  5. Battle For the Planet of the Apes

My main dislike for Beneath is the telepathic powers of the cult members. I suppose, though, that if I could accept such a mutation in Jean Grey over in the X-Men, then I should be able to accept it generations after a nuclear disaster. I also disliked the scenes when Brent was forced to attack Nova -- just didn't care for that type of violence. And by the way, Linda Harrison looked much nicer in the second film... And the antithesis to her carnal beauty was the scarred visages of the monks who lived underground -- totally scared the bejeebers out of me as a child!

So to finish (and I could probably ramble on about all of this for quite some time), I still make time for the Apes movies. About a year ago when AMC (was it that channel??) ran an Apes marathon, including the television series, I was along for most of it. I've read a few articles about the black & white Planet of the Apes magazines that Marvel Comics published in the 1970's and have wondered about picking some of them up (could an Essentials volume be in the offing -- please?). I'm just still, all these years later, into the concept and the franchise.

But don't get me going on the Tim Burton re-make...


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Star Trek The Motion Picture: It's Not That Bad!



Star Trek: The Motion Picture is considered by many people, including self-proclaimed Trekkies, as a slow, boring film, certainly one of the least entertaining films in the ST series. It premiered to much hoopla back in 1979. The original cast had been reunited, the sets and ship had a sleek new look, and the special effects were far beyond anything seen on the TV show. However, many viewers had trouble connecting to the story, which included some elements from previous Trek shows, such as The Changeling, and was a slow, visually interesting but action - deprived tale. Fans who had become used to the Star Wars style of science fiction (which is to say, space opera) found this film to be devoid of excitement.

I have to admit, when I first saw the film, back in 1979, the pace nearly killed me. Particularly painful was the seemingly interminable sequence where Scotty takes Kirk for a tour of the refitted Enterprise. Upon my second viewing, I used that time to get up, go to the restroom, get in line at the concession stand, and get a box of Milk Duds - and when I came back, they were still putzing around in that shuttlepod, looking at the new ship!

In general, although I consider myself to be a huge Trek fan, I've avoided watching ST:TMP over the years. But then, the Director's Edition came out on DVD, and I had to get it. There were a number of improvements made - the scenes on Vulcan with Spock are vastly superior to the original film. The effects throughout the film were updated and improved, and it's nicer to look at than ever before.

But upon watching the dvd recently, although all these changes were nice, and I certainly enjoyed them, I came to feel that the film itself, the story behind it, was actually not so bad. The main characters of Kirk and Spock go through some significant changes (particularly Spock). When we see Kirk in this film, he's not the heroic captain we knew from before. Instead, he's a middle aged man desperate to get back his glory days; he uses the Vger threat to force his way back into command of the Enterprise, and to hell with whoever gets in his way. It's not a flattering image but it's so unexpected that it makes Kirk a little more interesting than before.

Spock really goes through some changes in this film. It actually sets the course of the character for all later appearances, from the movies that would follow (including the new Star Trek film) and even his appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Spock begins the film trying to purge himself of all emotions, to be completely Vulcan. Yet at the end, he comes to realize the falseness of this premise he has carried around for years: that he has to choose to be human or vulcan. He realizes that he is both, and from that moment on, he finds a peace that is always evident. He is able to retain his logical, orderly way of thinking, and yet is able to express compassion and friendship without reservation. Nimoy does a fantastic job with Spock.

The story itself probably harkens back to the whole philosophy of Trek more than any of the later films, which were much more action-oriented (probably in response to this film). The Enterprise crew deals with Vger in a calm, intelligent way (not so the Klingons!) and nary a shirt is ripped. The threat of Vger is palpable but everything seems very low-key. In some ways, this film and its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, mirror the situation that occurred with the first two pilots for Trek. Pilot number one, The Cage, was considered too cerebral, too talky. Then pilot number two, Where No Man Has Gone Before was made, this time with Shatner in the lead. The second pilot had action aplenty, and yes, Kirk's shirt was torn off. The network loved it. People also loved Wrath of Khan, and all the films that followed were in that same style.

ST:TMP was a science fiction film closer in style to the classic SF films of the past, such as Day the Earth Stood Still, which was also directed by Robert Wise. It wanted you to think about what was going on, not merely to witness it. However, whatever message it was trying to send (the human adventure is just beginning?), got lost due to the pace, and most audiences were simply bored. But perhaps because I am older now, I was able to sit down and genuinely enjoy this film. There's a certain joy seeing the old crew return, and knowing that this movie was responsible for all the iterations of Trek to come. I even found myself taking a liking to the uniforms, something I know many fans hated. But hey -they had short-sleeved shirts! I mean, these uniforms actually look comfortable, unlike the later maroon jacket ones (how heavy were those things anyway?). The redesign of the Enterprise was beautiful, especially the engine room. That design was incorporated in a variety of ways into the later Treks, and I sure wish they'd used something like it in the newest film, rather than that brewery!

It's not the best film in the Trek series, but it's certainly not the worst. Give it another chance. You might be surprised (but do get the Director's Edition - even the tour of the Enterprise seems better!).

Karen
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