Thursday, June 30, 2016

If I Had A Pound... The UK Edition!

Martinex1:  Here in the States we are headed into a long holiday weekend and capping it off with a celebration of  Independence Day on Monday the 4th with family parties, barbecue, and fireworks.   But today in recognition of our long-standing friendship with our partners across the pond, here is a special edition of If I Had a Buck...focused on the wonderful comics from the United Kingdom.

Honestly I know very little about comics from the UK.   I own a handful of examples of Captain Britain, Knights of Pendragon, and Death's Head, and I've read a few more including the great Night Raven.  But I have always been fascinated by the format, the reprints, the weekly output, the re-envisioned covers, and the toy give-aways.   Unfortunately these are hard to find in my neck of the woods, although ebay has made that a little easier.  

So I am hopeful some international allies and BABsters could fill us in on the best and the worst, the great and the gory, the incredibles and the ignorables.  Point us in the right direction as everybody makes their selections.

Four comics for a Pound Note, and three cheers for Freedom everywhere!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Alternative Factor

Season 1
Episode 20: The Alternative Factor
Filmed: November 1966 
First Air Date: March 30, 1967

Karen: What a convoluted backstory this episode has. "The Alternative Factor" is widely panned by fans, and it definitely has problems. But beneath the muddled plot, uneven performance by Robert Brown, and continuity errors, there feels like a good story struggling to get out. Unfortunately it never does.

Karen: Just so you know I care, I watched this again...twice in the span of two months...and it still makes no damn sense. The Enterprise is in orbit around a planet when everything -the whole universe -seems to "wink" out of existence for a moment. A quick trip down to the planet reveals a terrible, Disneyland-teacup of a spaceship and a ranting weirdo with scraggly facial hair. He turns out to be Lazarus (although there are never any formal introductions). Lazarus is chasing after a being whom he says is responsible for these disruptions of reality. He's clearly nuts. But also somehow involved with the reality winks. But Kirk never puts any security on the guy; he just freely roams the ship! We're introduced to a Lt. Masters, who is in charge of the ship's dilithium crystals, an integral part of engineering. But other than getting knocked out by Lazarus, she has little to do (I'll discuss why later). Kirk and the Starfleet admiral in charge think the reality blinks have something to do with an invasion -why? It's not explained. Eventually, in what is probably the best scene in the show, Kirk and Spock work out what is going on: there is a gateway opening to a parallel universe -an anti-matter universe -and it could cause the destruction of both universes. There are two Lazaruses, one from each universe. Kirk goes after our universe's Lazarus, who has fled to the planet with the dilithium crystals, and confronts him. Kirk gets shunted to the anti-matter universe and meets the anti-Lazarus, who is actually sane and good. They work out a plan to trap the other Lazarus into a "negative magnetic corridor" with anti-Lazarus, where the two of them will be stuck for all time. And that's just what happens. And we close with the famous, "But what of Lazarus" uttered by Kirk.

Karen: This episode plods and repeats certain points, all going nowhere. The Anti-Lazarus even tells Kirk that he and the other Lazarus are time travelers -what? Where is that coming from? What does that have to do with the parallel universes? And Robert Brown's performance -OK, Lazarus is supposed to be insane, but good lord, he really milks it. He's not helped by a bizarre beard that is sometimes very thick, and sometimes just a wisp of hair. 

Karen: The effects really let the episode down too. When the "reality blink" occurs, we get a rather lame superimposition of a nebula over the screen along with thunder sound effects and a spinning plate. When the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) are in the corridor, it looks like a room with smoke on the floor, filmed in negative -because that's what it is. It just seems unimaginative even for 1967. (Please excuse Lazarus yelling "Kill!" again in this clip, it was the best I could find to demonstrate the effects).

Karen: What went wrong? Let's start with the story. We get an excellent peek behind the scenes via Marc Cushman's These Are The Voyages, Volume One. The original story was brought to Trek by a friend of Gene Roddenberry's, also an ex-cop, named Don Ingalls. He had written for shows like Have Gun -Will Travel, The Virginian, Whiplash, and others. The story outline presented Lazarus as a sort of tormented hunter, who the younger Enterprise crewmen admire, and Lt. Masters falls for. But even in the initial story outline, it was difficult to keep the two Lazaruses distinct. And the way Lazarus seduces Masters to help him was very similar to how Khan would seduce Marla McGivers into betraying her duty in "Space Seed," which was already in development. It was felt that the betrayal element was more necessary to "Space Seed," so "The Alternative Factor" was the one to change. The romance was removed from the script; it may have avoided creating two similar episodes but it probably made Lazarus a less interesting character.

Karen: Another problem occurred in casting. The original choice to play Lazarus was John Drew Barrymore, son of John Barrymore, future father of Drew Barrymore, and at the time, a prominent young actor (albeit somewhat troubled). It was a coup that Trek had signed him for a guest role. He came in for a wardrobe fitting on the first day of filming (he didn't have scenes that day). That afternoon, the Trek crew was notified that he wouldn't be coming in for work the next day -he was backing out of the role! There is mixed information as to why -some say he didn't like the script; other sources say he was incapacitated. Whatever the case, another actor had to be found quickly. Hurried calls were made, and at 11 pm that night, Robert Brown was signed, coming in cold the next morning to perform. So perhaps he should be cut some slack if he seems a little off. Unfortunately make-up was no help to him either, with that inconsistent beard. You can see it change from scene to scene. That's just sloppy.

Karen: As for Lieutenant Charlene Masters, they had decided to hire Janet MacLachlan, a young Black actress on the rise. According to Cushman, NBC was uncomfortable with the idea of an interracial romance -or even the suggestion of such -and pressure was on Gene Coon to either replace MacLachlan with a white actress or change the script. Ultimately, the combination of the similarities to the upcoming "Space Seed" and the network discomfort resulted in the romance angle being removed entirely -making Masters seem almost pointless.While I applaud the decision to keep MacLachlan, it is a shame they didn't do more with her. But despite Trek's seemingly progressive ways, women were still seen as primarily playing roles that supported men - as objects of romance, typically. We're lucky that Uhura was never paired up with anyone on the show. In that respect, the new Trek movies are regressive, with Uhura now seen mainly through the lens of being Spock's girlfriend. But I digress.   Indeed, one wonders why Masters is overseeing the dilithium crystals instead of Scotty. But Scotty is not in this episode (neither is Sulu). And why are they in a tiny room labeled "Engineering"? We know the engineering section is much larger than one room! Masters also wears a blue, sciences uniform -this was a holdover from an early version of the script when she was a chemist, not an engineer. And of course, she has no rank braid on her sleeve. I could go on, but what's the point? The flaws are plentiful.

Karen: The concept behind this episode -of alternate universes -was handled much more adeptly (although without the matter and anti-matter angle) in the second season episode, "Mirror, Mirror." As for "The Alternative Factor," pretty much everyone involved knew it had been a mess. John Barrymore certainly threw a monkey wrench into the production, and he would take heat for it. Desilu decided to file a complaint against Barrymore with the Screen Actors Guild. SAG sided with Trek, and Barrymore was given a $1,500 fine and his SAG card was suspended for six months, which effectively put him out of work for that time. But blame for the failings of this one can go all around. As it was, although filmed as the 20th episode, it was pushed back and aired as the 27th original episode. So much for Lazarus!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Guest Review - Buried Treasures: Dynamite 1974

Doug: We have a treat for you today. Over the past few weeks we've been discussing the superhero inserts found in two magazine from the mid-1970s: Smash and Dynamite. Many of us recall those mags, available to us through monthly book orders in our elementary school classrooms. You might recall Mike Wilson's comment last Friday that he actually has the Dynamite from which I pulled the Captain America exhibit. How long do you think it took me to email him after his comment? Not long! So today we're very thankful to have Mike's review of the complete issue -- which we know those of you who lived the magazine will love, and we hope everyone else finds quite interesting. Thank you, Mike!

Dynamite #5 (November 1974)
Scholastic, Inc.

M.S. Wilson: I mentioned in the comments to Doug's post on superheroes in Dynamite magazine that I had the issue featuring Captain America, so Doug asked if I'd do a write-up on the entire issue; not completely comics-related, but BAB is about pop culture in general, and a lot of us seem to remember Dynamite quite fondly... I know I do. So, here's a look at that particular issue, from November 1974 (which was issue #5, so Dynamite was still in its infancy back then). Now, I was only two years old in 1974, so you're probably wondering how I ended up with this issue. When I was in Grade Six (around 1984), I took this issue out of the school library. I guess I took it home and never got around to returning it... so I suppose I actually stole it, but I was pretty absent-minded in those days; of course, I'm much better now.

The first page is the Table of Contents, and then they get straight to the story featured on the cover. My copy is missing the cover (besides being absent-minded, I wasn't all that careful back then), but the cover story was about the TV show Born Free, which starred Gary Collins and Diana Muldaur (later of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame). I don't remember this show (it apparently only ran for 13 episodes in late 1974), but Collins and Muldaur played real-life conservationists George and Joy Adamson, who lived with a variety of animals and tried to protect them. Both the Adamsons were later murdered (Joy in 1980 and George in 1989), so it's a little strange seeing this article about their fictional selves. The article talks a lot about the animals used during filming, including Elsa the lioness. The show was filmed on location in Kenya, which was (and still is) pretty unusual. There are only a couple of quotes from the stars; most of the article talks about the animals and how they're trained -- which sounds a little intense in places, like how they describe feeding two different lions in the same spot to get them in a territorial mood, then bringing them together so they would fight... they say the lions were pulled apart before they could hurt each other, but it still sounds a bit iffy to me. Apparently there was a lion poster included with this issue, but I never had that.
There's a page of Daffy Definitions (my favourite is "Secret:  Something you tell one person at a time"). Dynamite seemed to have a lot of these little one-page things, usually some kind of joke or cartoon. The most famous is probably "Bummers", which is missing from my copy of this issue. Why is it missing? Did I mention how careless I used to be? Anyway, next up there's a 3 page article about Hershey, Pennsylvania (The Sweetest Town in the USA), although it seems to be as much about chocolate in general as it is about Hershey specifically. After that is the three-page Captain America article which Doug already covered in its entirety. I guess it was one of a series, but I don't have any other Dynamites of this early vintage, so I don't know what other superheroes featured in other issues. After Cap, there are two pages of "Dynamite at the Raceway", which is basically just five "trivia" questions about auto-racing.

Next there's a two-page feature called "Sound Off", which shows how to make musical instruments from household objects (shoebox guitar, pot lid cymbals, wine jug tuba, and stuff like that); some of it is pretty ingenious, but I'm not sure how good it would actually sound. In the middle of the mag is a calendar for Nov. 1974; apparently this was a regular feature, though my later (early '80s) issues don't have it, so I'm not sure when they stopped including it. The calendar has little factoids and celebrity birthdays and such for each day, plus some really funky artwork. In fact, the art looks a lot like the art on "Bummers", so maybe the same artist did both. The calendar is followed by another two-page spread about the Hero sandwich ... but instead of an article, there are five recipes for different versions of the Hero (or Sub, Hoagie, Paris Loaf ... whatever you want to call it); some of the recipes sound pretty good, though I've never actually tried any of them.

The following article is two pages (well, one page of text and a big picture) about Olga Korbut, who had made quite a splash at the 1972 Olympics. Of course, Nadia Comaneci was the big story in 1976 and she isn't mentioned here. But there's a quote from an American high school gymnastics coach practically guaranteeing that America would produce their own Olga Korbut. I guess Mary Lou Retton was just waiting in the wings. Next is a feature that I always remember somewhat fondly, "Hot Stuff". It's a couple of pages about products, interesting facts, or ideas for stuff that kids could do. Over the years they had some cool stuff in Hot Stuff. This particular instance talks about the "Ghost Writer and Developer", which was an invisible ink pen you could buy (for 98 cents, which was a lot of money in those... ah, never mind), and it came with the Developer pen which made the invisible writing visible. There's also a recipe for a genuine (I assume) New York Egg Cream, a blurb on how to make your own perfume, and a few paragraphs about how to make some extra money... by setting up your own auction. I bet a lot of kids who followed that advice later regretted auctioning off their comics, baseball cards, and toys.

Next up are a couple of pages on secret codes, my favourite article in this issue of Dynamite; unfortunately, I loved it so much, I tore out the pages years ago and now they're long gone. So that's why there are no scans of those pages (and why there's no Bummers page... it was on the back of one of the secret code pages). I was crazy for secret codes and ciphers as a kid, so I collected everything I could find on them. I think Dynamite did a number of articles on codes over the years. Apparently there was a decoder wheel on the back cover of this issue, but as I mentioned, I don't have a cover so no decoder wheel either. Next is a one-page Dynamite Race Track Game which is played on graph paper with a pen. The rules are a bit convoluted and it looks pretty boring to me. Next comes "Good Vibrations", which was another regular feature. It was kind of a "Dear Abby" (or "Agony Aunt" for you Brits out there) aimed at kids. This time around the letters deal with divorce and are answered by an actual doctor (I'm assuming a psychiatrist), Paulina Kernberg; I'm not sure if she answered the letters in every issue, or just this one. I know this "advice column for kids" was a regular feature for a long time, but it may have had a different name later on.

Next is another light-hearted page called "Name Dropping", giving us the real names of celebrities. I think this is the first place I learned that John Wayne's real name was Marion Morrison. The following two pages are perennial favourites ... that's right, I know you've all been waiting for it... Count Morbida! This featured (as far as I know) through Dynamite's entire run and basically consists of a couple of pages full of (fairly easy) puzzles presented by a cartoon vampire named Count Morbida, who constantly breaks the fourth wall by insulting the kids reading the magazine and getting angrier and angrier as they solve his puzzles. The art is crude, but for some reason I've always loved it. There's lots of detail in the background that makes it fun to examine closely. The last page talks about next issue's content, and urges kids to send ideas in to Hot Stuff... and maybe get one of those cool Hot Stuff t-shirts. So, that's it for this issue. Some articles were interesting, some were kind of blah (at least for me), but I think that was the appeal of Dynamite; they put so much into each issue (and such a variety) that there's almost certainly something that'll appeal to everyone. I know I could always find at least one article that I liked, plus all the regular features like Bummers, Hot Stuff, and Count Morbida. I guess that's why so many of us have such fond memories of this old mag; thanks, Doug and Karen, for letting me relive my (long-) lost youth!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Then I Guess He Had to Crash - Thor 269

Thor #269 (March 1978)
"A Walk on the Wild Side!"
Len Wein-Walt Simonson/Tony DeZuniga

Doug: Marvel should have been embarrassed to put these two on the same cover. Am I seriously supposed to believe that Stilt-Man's rocket pods could vanquish the God of Thunder? The same God of Thunder who Marvelites continue to argue over concerning the victor in a tussle with the Hulk? That guy. If you're stopping by for the first time, back in April we had a fun conversation about mismatches in comics -- and a couple of weeks ago we checked in on one, when Daredevil was pitted against ol' Jade Jaws himself. If you're in a hurry today, I'm going to save you some time and just say this comic was "average". It wasn't horrible, but it certainly in no way distinguished itself in any positive light beyond expectation. I've been reading and have provided the scans from the Gods, Gladiators, and the Guardians of the Galaxy! trade (recommended for the reprints of Thor Annual #s 5 and 6). Here, then, are the details: 

100 Word Review: It’s all cloak and dagger as we find some menacing electronic voice and a shadowy hirsute brute egging on Wilbur Day, also known as the Stilt-Man. Day’s armor has been specially augmented for a job: steal cargo from a messenger helicopter and return it to the electronic voice. For the job, Day’s armor has been adamantium plated and loaded full of gas, concussion blasts, etc. But in the middle of the heist the Stilt-Man is accosted by Thor. In a match that lasts far longer than it should, Thor is victorious. His prize, though? A challenge from Day’s co-conspirator – Blastaar!

The Good: I never think of Walt Simonson's Thor during this period; instead I of course think of his turn as writer/artist a few years hence. I like his work here -- and just to show my heretical side, I'll say that his style here is more pleasing to my eye than his later work. Some may argue that Simonson is aping John Buscema during this run -- and who could go wrong if that was indeed the case? This is a mighty God of Thunder, well-muscled yet regal. He moves smoothly, though, whether on land or in flight. And Tony DeZuniga's inks? DeZuniga's in the same category for me as Pablo Marcos, in that I can pick out his work from a mile away. I don't dislike it at all, but these guys are definitely in the neighborhood of Joe Sinnott's overpowering style. Hear me -- I don't dislike the art. I'm just not sure how much of Walter Simonson I'm seeing. But overall it's pretty tasty.

The scan to the right captures a nice scene that was reminiscent of the airplane catch in Superman Returns, albeit shorter and less dramatic. After Stilt-Man's aerial robbery, the whirlibird went into crisis mode and began to descend wildly over Manhattan. Fortunately, one Dr. Donald Blake happened to be among the masses below. The art team did a nice job of conveying the duress Thor came under.

The story had a one-page vignette with the Warriors Three and the All-Father, Odin. It's not much -- just the boys coming home from a mission accomplished and Odin offering them a boon for their trouble. But Odin does utter a cliffhanger statement about the Realm Eternal being threatened... to be continued. I always dig Fandral and his mates; Balder, too. Thor's supporting cast, melodrama aside, is always a favorite.

Stilt-Man's dorky, but I've always kind of liked him...

The Bad: ...when he's fighting Daredevil. This book is pretty lame. It really is. We've had some arguments around here in the past about street-level stories versus cosmic stories. I've argued in the past and will do so again that my favorite Thor stories are in far off lands, pitted against other gods, or spacefaring. I get that he's not a cosmic hero like Captain Marvel or the Silver Surfer, but if Stilt-Man and Blastaar are all Earth has to offer in the way of adversaries, then editorial needs to make a change.

The plot of the story is basic, and not suspenseful at all. The hidden voice commanding Wilbur Day, the heavy in the background there to keep Day in check (c'mon - who didn't know that it was Blastaar right from the beginning?), the heist, Thor's initial engagement of Stilt-Man, the foregone conclusion that was the outcome, and the "big reveal" splash to end the story. I did not have this particular book when I was 12, but I'd like to think I was a more discerning reader than to be infatuated with this book.


Additionally, are we really to believe that Mjolnir wouldn't put a pretty severe dent in Stilt-Man's armor? Adamantium is not vibranium -- I don't think it repels energy. So while I could accept that the outfit wouldn't crack or split, I do think Mjolnir is more formidable than was implied in the script. That being said, Thor did use the hammer to solve the problem, and that alone makes the plot bad. If Stilt-Man's armor could have been disrupted by lightning, then that could have happened at any time. The battle scene then simply negates itself in my mind.


The Ugly: My frame of mind, for one. I'm sorry to bring a cloud over your Monday. It's not what I usually do -- generally I can get on board with most of what I read for the reviews I write. But outside of the art, I can't toss a single kudo Len Wein's way. Well... OK, I lied about that. There was one specific panel, early in the story, when I segued back to my 12-year old self and did a Beavis and Butthead laugh in the back of my head. So maybe my sense of humor is the "big ugly" here. And a request for forgiveness if my sophomoric humor offends anyone. Thanks in advance.  

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